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© 2008 – 2014 John T. Burke, Jr.

Tales From The Dark Side

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Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently discuss my skepticism about the true state of America’s economy.  It gets painful listening to the “usual cheerleaders” constantly tell us about the robust state of our economy.  The most recent Federal Reserve Beige Book serves as the Bible for these true believers.  One need only check in on a few of the websites listed on my blogroll (at the right side of this page) to find plenty of opinions which run contrary to the current dogma that America is on its way to a full economic recovery.

One of my favorite websites from this blogroll is Edward Harrison’s Credit Writedowns.  When I visited that site this evening, I was amazed at the number of contrarian commentaries posted there.  One piece, “The economy is nowhere near as robust as stocks would have you believe” dealt with one of my favorite subjects:  the Federal Reserve’s inflation of the stock market indices by way of quantitative easing.  Here is an interesting passage from Harrison’s essay:

My view is that the stock market has gotten way ahead of itself.  Easy money has caused people to pile into risk assets as risk seeks return in a zero-rate environment.  The real economy is nowhere near as robust as the increase in shares would have you believe. Moreover, even the falling earnings growth is telling you this.

Bottom line: The US economy is getting a sugar high from easy money, economic stimulus, and the typical cyclical aides to GDP that have promoted some modest releveraging.  But the underlying issues of excess household indebtedness, particularly as related to housing and increasingly student debt, will keep this recovery from being robust until more of the debts are written down or paid off.  That means the cyclical boost that comes from hiring to meet anticipated demand, construction spending, and increased capital spending isn’t going to happen at a good clip.  Meanwhile, people are really struggling.

The hope is we can keep this going for long enough so that the cyclical hiring trends to pick up before overindebted consumers get fatigued again.  Underneath things are very fragile. Any setback in the economy will be met with populist outrage – that you can bet on.

Another posting at Credit Writedowns was based on this remark by financier George Soros:  ”People don’t realize that the system has actually collapsed.”

Bloomberg News has been running a multi-installment series of articles by financial analyst Gary Shilling, which are focused on the question of whether the United States will avoid a recession in 2012.  In the third installment of the series, Shilling said this:

In the first two installments, I laid out the reasons why the U.S. economy, despite current strong consumer spending and the recent euphoria of investors over stocks, will weaken into a recession as the year progresses, led by renewed consumer retrenchment.

If my forecast pans out, the Federal Reserve and Congress may be compelled to take further action to bolster the economy.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, a number of economic indicators are pointing in the direction of a faltering economy.  The Economic Cycle Research Institute index remains in recession territory.  The ratio of coincident to lagging economic indicators, often a better leading indicator than the leading indicator index itself, is declining.  Electricity generation, though influenced by the warm winter, is falling rapidly.

One of the most popular blogs among those of us who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid being served by the “rose-colored glasses crowd” is Michael Panzner’s Financial Armageddon.  In a recent posting, Mr. Panzner underscored the fact that those of us who refuse to believe the “happy talk” are no longer in the minority:

In “Americans Agree: There Is No Recovery,” I highlighted a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, noting that

no matter how you break it down — whether by party/ideology, household income, age, or any other category — the majority of Americans agree on one thing: there is no recovery.

But the fact that things haven’t returned to normal isn’t just a matter of (public) opinion. As the Globe and Mail’s Market Blog reveals in “These Are Bad Days for Garbage,” the volume of waste being created nowadays essentially means that, despite persistent talk (from Wall Street, among others) of a renaissance in consumer spending, people are continuing to consume less and recycle more than they used to.

Many people (especially commentators employed by the mainstream media) prefer to avoid “dwelling on negativity”, so they ignore unpleasant economic forecasts.  Others appear trapped in a new-age belief system, centered around such notions as the idea that you can actually cause the economy to go bad by simply perceiving it as bad.  Nevertheless, the rest of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that effective use of one’s peripheral vision can be of great value in avoiding a “sucker punch”.  Keep your eyes open!


 

Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

*   *   *

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

*   *   *

Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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.


 

Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama 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.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

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.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

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.  Back in November of 2010, 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.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


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.


Psychopaths Caused The Financial Crisis

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Two months ago, Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post in rebuttal to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s parroting of 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.”

Ritholtz then proceeded to list and discuss the true causes of the financial crisis.  Among those causes were Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve monetary policy – wherein interest rates were reduced to 1 percent; the deregulation of derivatives trading by way of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act; the Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Bear Stearns exemption” – allowing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns to boost their leverage as high as 40-to-1; as well as the “bundling” of sub-prime mortgages with higher-quality mortgages into sleazy “investment” products known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

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“.

Purveyors of The Big Lie are also big on advancing the claim that the “too big to fail” beneficiaries of the TARP bailout repaid the money they were loaned, at a profit to the taxpayers.  Immediately after her arrival at CNN, former Goldman Sachs employee, Erin Burnett made a point of interviewing a young, Occupy Wall Street protester, asking him if he was aware that the government actually made a profit on the TARP.  Unfortunately, the fiancée of Citigroup executive David Rubulotta didn’t direct her question to Steve Randy Waldman – who debunked that propaganda at his Interfluidity website:

Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants.  Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses.  So there really was no bailout, right?  The banks took loans and paid them back.

Bullshit.

*   *   *

During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest.  Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran).  The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion).  The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps.  Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars.  We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers.  Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.

The banks were bailed out.  Big time.

Another overlooked cause of the financial crisis was the fact that there were too many psychopaths managing the most privileged Wall Street institutions.  Not only had the lunatics taken over the asylum – they had taken control of the world’s largest, government-backed casino, as well.  William D. Cohan of Bloomberg News gave us a peek at the recent work of Clive R. Boddy:

It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along:  The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

Professor Boddy wrote a book on the subject – entitled, Corporate Psychopaths.  The book’s publisher, Macmillan, provided this description of the $90 opus:

Psychopaths are little understood outside of the criminal image.  However, as the recent global financial crisis highlighted, the behavior of a small group of managers can potentially bring down the entire western system of business.  This book investigates who they are, why they do what they do and what the consequences of their presence are.

Matt Taibbi provided a less-expensive explanation of this mindset in a recent article for Rolling Stone:

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors.  It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here.  Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India.  They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets.  They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest.  Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Do you think that Mayor Bloomberg learned his lesson  .  .  .  that spreading pro-bankster propaganda can provoke the infusion of an overwhelming dose of truth into the mainstream news?   Nawwww  .  .  .


 

2011 Jackass Of The Year

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There were so many contenders for TheCenterLane.com’s 2011 Jackass Of The Year award, I was ready to give up on making a decision.  Former Congressman Anthony Weiner (who never even “got lucky” with any of the women who received his “Peter Tweets”) was certainly a contender.  Another runner-up was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose to have an affair with his unattractive housekeeper – apparently just because she was there.

This year’s winner is Jon S. Corzine, the former Senator and Governor of New Jersey – in addition to having been the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Most infamously, Corzine was named chairman and CEO of MF Global in March of 2010.  It took Corzine only 20 months to drive the firm into bankruptcy.  As Stephen Foley of The Independent reported, Corzine gambled $6 billion of the firm’s money on his belief that Italy would not default on its government bonds.  When that wager was exposed, MF Global’s clients and trading partners stopped doing business with the firm.  Within a few days, MF Global went belly-up, in what became one of the ten biggest bankruptcies in American history.

On Halloween, the Deal Book blog at The New York Times discussed what happened after a discovery by federal regulators that hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps 950) in MF Global customers’ money had gone missing:

The recognition that money was missing scuttled at the 11th hour an agreement to sell a major part of MF Global to a rival brokerage firm.  MF Global had staked its survival on completing the deal. Instead, the New York-based firm filed for bankruptcy on Monday.

Regulators are examining whether MF Global diverted some customer funds to support its own trades as the firm teetered on the brink of collapse.

One of those customers was a gentleman named Gerald Celente.  On December 17, Mr. Celente appeared on Max Keiser’s television program, On the Edge to describe what happened with his contract (placed through MF Global in April) to purchase an undisclosed quantity of December gold for an amount slightly in excess of $1,400 per ounce.  Celente skewered more individuals than Jon Corzine while describing a travesty which exposed even more of the ways by which the Commodity Futures Modernization Act has been destroying America.  Be sure to watch the interview.

On the same day as the Celente interview, The Washington Post published a piece by Barry Ritholtz, which focused on six astonishing elements of the MF Global story.  Let’s take a look at a few of those elements:

3.  As a result of MF Global’s lobbying, key rules were deregulated.  This allowed the firm to use client money to buy risky sovereign debt.

4.  In 2010, someone from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission recognized these prior deregulations had dramatically ramped clients’ exposure to risk and proposed changing those rules. Jon Corzine, MF Global’s chief executive, successfully prevented the tightening of these regulations.  Had the regulations been tightened, it would have prevented the kind of bets that lost MF Global’s segregated client monies.

5.  None of MF Global’s Canadian clients lost any money thanks to tighter regulations there.

One would think that someone in Jon Corzine’s position would have learned something from the mistakes (such as excessive leveraging and risky bets) which contributed to the financial crisis.  He didn’t.  That’s why Jon S. Corzine is the winner of TheCenterLane.com’s 2011 Jackass Of The Year award.  Congratulations, Jackass!


 

Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

Tsunami Of Disgust

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You can count me among those who believe that the non-stop Republican Presidential debates are working to President Obama’s advantage.  How many times have you heard some television news commentator remark that “the big winner of last night’s Republican debate was Barack Obama”?  As Julianna Goldman reported for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, two recent polls have revealed that Obama is no longer looking quite as bad as he did a few months ago:

Forty-nine percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling his job, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll and another conducted for CNN.  The rate was the highest in both surveys since a short-lived bump the president got following the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May.

Nevertheless, there is an unstoppable wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.   In my last posting, I discussed Bill Black’s rebuttal to President Obama’s most recent attempt to claim that no laws were broken by the banksters who caused the 2008 financial crisis.

The wave of disgust at Obama’s exoneration of the financial fraudsters has gained quite a bit of momentum since that outrageous remark appeared on the December 11 broadcast of 60 Minutes.  Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone focused on the consequences of this level of dishonesty:

What makes Obama’s statements so dangerous is that they suggest an ongoing strategy of covering up the Wall Street crimewave. There is ample evidence out there that the Obama administration has eased up on prosecutions of Wall Street as part of a conscious strategy to prevent a collapse of confidence in our financial system, with the expected 50-state foreclosure settlement being the landmark effort in the cover-up, intended mainly to bury a generation of fraud.

*   *   *

In other words, Geithner and Obama are behaving like Lehman executives before the crash of Lehman, not disclosing the full extent of the internal problem in order to keep investors from fleeing and creditors from calling in their chits.  It’s worth noting that this kind of behavior – knowingly hiding the derogatory truth from the outside world in order to prevent a run on the bank – is, itself, fraud!

*   *   *

The problem with companies like Lehman and Enron is that their executives always think they can paper over illegalities by committing more crimes, when in fact all they’re usually doing is snowballing the problem so completely out of control that there’s no longer any chance of fixing things, thereby killing the only chance for survival they ever had.

This is exactly what Obama and Geithner are doing now.  By continually lying about the extent of the country’s corruption problems, they’re adding fraud to fraud and raising such a great bonfire of lies that they probably won’t ever be able to fix the underlying mess.

John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, caused quite a stir on December 14, when an essay he wrote – entitled, “President Obama Richly Deserves to Be Dumped” – was published by the The Providence Journal (Rhode Island).  For some reason, this article does not appear at the newspaper’s website.  However, you can read it in its entirety here.  MacArthur began the piece by highlighting criticism of Obama by his fellow Democrats:

Most prominent among these critics is veteran journalist Bill Moyers, whose October address to a Public Citizen gathering puts the lie to our barely Democratic president’s populist pantomime, acted out last week in a Kansas speech decrying the plight of “innocent, hardworking Americans.”  In his talk, Moyers quoted an authentic Kansas populist, Mary Eizabeth Lease, who in 1890 declared, “Wall Street owns the country.. . .Money rules.. . .The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us.”

A former aide to Lyndon Johnson who knows politics from the inside, Moyers then delivered the coup de grace:  “[Lease] should see us now.  John Boehner calls on the bankers, holds out his cup, and offers them total obeisance from the House majority if only they fill it.  Barack Obama criticizes bankers as fat cats, then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person.”

*   *   *

What’s truly breathtaking is the president’s gall, his stunning contempt for political history and contemporary reality.  Besides neglecting to mention Democratic complicity in the debacle of 2008, he failed to point out that derivatives trading remains largely unregulated while the Securities and Exchange Commission awaits “public comment on a detailed implementation plan” for future regulation.  In other words, until the banking and brokerage lobbies have had their say with John Boehner, Max Baucus, and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner.  Meanwhile, the administration steadfastly opposes a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal law that reduced outlandish speculation by separating commercial and investment banks.  In 1999, it was Summers and Geithner, led by Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (much admired by Obama), who persuaded Congress to repeal this crucial impediment to Wall Street recklessness.

I have frequently discussed the criticism directed at Obama from the political Center as well as the Left (see this and this).  I have also expressed my desire to see Democratic challengers to Obama for the 2012 nomination (see this and this).  In the December 20 edition of The Chicago Tribune, William Pfaff commented on John R. MacArthur’s above-quoted article, while focusing on the realistic consequences of a Democratic Primary challenge to Obama’s nomination:

John MacArthur’s and Bill Moyers’ call for the replacement of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate next year is very likely to fail, and any Democratic replacement candidate is likely to lose the presidency.  As a veteran Democratic Party activist recently commented, this is the sure way to elect “one of those idiots” running for the Republican nomination.  Very likely he is right.

However, the two may have started something with interesting consequences.  Nobody thought Sen. McCarthy’s challenge was anything more than a futile gesture.  Nobody foresaw the assassinations and military defeat to come, or the ruin of Richard Nixon.  Nobody knows today what disasters may lie ahead in American-supervised Iraq, or in the dual war the Pentagon is waging in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The present foreign policy of the Obama government is fraught with risk.

As for the president himself, the objection to him is that his Democratic Party has become a representative of the same interests as the Republican Party.  The nation cannot bear two parties representing plutocratic power.

The current battle over the payroll tax cut extension reminded me of a piece I wrote last August, in which I included Nate Silver’s observation that it was President Obama’s decision to leave the issue of a payroll tax cut extension “on the table” during the negotiations on the debt ceiling bill.  My thoughts at that time were similar to William Pfaff’s above-quoted lament about the nation’s “two political parties representing plutocratic power”:

As many observers have noted, the plutocracy has been able to accomplish much more with Obama in the White House, than what would have been achievable with a Republican President.  This latest example of a bipartisan effort to trample “the little people” has reinforced my belief that the fake “two-party system” is a sideshow – designed to obfuscate the insidious activities of the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party.

It’s nice to see that the tsunami of disgust continues to flow across the country.


Looking Beyond Rhetoric

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As a result of the increasing popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement (which now gets so much coverage, it’s referred to as “OWS”) President Obama has found it necessary to crank up the populist rhetoric.  He must walk a fine line because his injecting too much enthusiasm into any populist-themed discussion of the economic crisis will alienate those deep-pocketed campaign donors from the financial sector.  Don’t forget:  Goldman Sachs was Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions, providing more than one million dollars for the cause.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has now placed Obama and his fellow Democrats in a double-bind situation.  Many commentators – while pondering that predicament – have found it necessary to take a good, hard look at the favorable treatment given to Wall Street by the current administration.  A recent essay by Robert Reich approached this subject by noting that Obama is as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic President in modern history:

To the contrary, Obama has been extraordinarily solicitous of Wall Street and big business – making Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary and de facto ambassador from the Street; seeing to it that Bush’s Fed appointee, Ben Bernanke, got another term; and appointing GE Chair Jeffrey Immelt to head his jobs council.

Most tellingly, it was President Obama’s unwillingness to place conditions on the bailout of Wall Street – not demanding, for example, that the banks reorganize the mortgages of distressed homeowners, and that they accept the resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act, as conditions for getting hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars – that contributed to the new populist insurrection.

*   *   *

But the modern Democratic Party is not likely to embrace left-wing populism the way the GOP has embraced – or, more accurately, been forced to embrace – right-wing populism. Just follow the money, and remember history.

Another commentator, who has usually been positive in his analysis of the current administration’s policies – Tom Friedman of The New York Times – couldn’t help but criticize Obama’s performance while lamenting the loss a great American leader, Steve Jobs:

Obama supporters complain that the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn.  That is true. But why have they gotten away with it? It’s because Obama never persuaded people that he had a Grand Bargain tied to a vision worth fighting for.

*    *    *

The paucity of Obama’s audacity is striking.

As I recently pointed out, any discussion of our nation’s economic problems ultimately focuses on President Obama’s failure to seize the opportunity – during the first year of his Presidency – to turn the economy around and reduce unemployment.  Despite the administration’s repeated claims that it has reduced unemployment, Pro Publica offered an honest look of that claim:

Overall, job creation has been relatively meager during the Obama administration, particularly compared to the massive job losses brought on by the recession.  According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, even if job creation were happening at pre-recession levels, it would take us 11 years to get back to an unemployment rate of 5 percent.

Ron Suskind’s new book, Confidence Men provided a shocking revelation about Obama’s decision allow unemployment to remain above 9 percent by ignoring the advice of Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers).  I discussed that issue and the outrage expressed in reaction to Obama’s attitude on September 22.

At The Washington Post, Ezra Klein wrote an engaging piece, which provided us with a close look at how the Obama administration was fighting the economic crisis.  Klein interviewed several people from inside the administration and provided a sympathetic perspective on Obama’s decisions.  Nevertheless, Klein’s ultimate conclusion – although nuanced – didn’t do much for the President:

From the outset, the policies were too small for the recession the administration and economists thought we faced.  They were much too small for the recession we actually faced.  More and better stimulus, more aggressive interventions in the housing market, more aggressive policy from the Fed, and more attention to preventing layoffs and hiring the unemployed could have led to millions more jobs.  At least in theory.

Of course, ideas always sound better than policies.  Policies must be implemented, and they have unintended consequences and unforeseen flaws.  In the best of circumstances, the policymaking process is imperfect.  But January 2009 had the worst of circumstances – a once-in-a-lifetime economic emergency during a presidential transition.

*   *   *

These sorts of economic crises are, in other words, inherently politically destabilizing, and that makes a sufficient response, at least in a democracy, nearly impossible.

Klein’s apologia simply underscored the necessity for a President to exhibit good leadership qualities.  Despite a “Presidential transition”, the Democratic Party held the majority of seats in both the Senate and the House.  In July of 2009, when it was obvious that the stimulus had been inadequate, Obama was too preoccupied with his healthcare bill to refocus on economic recovery.  As I said back then:

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

Weak leadership is hardly a justifiable excuse for an inadequate, half-done, economic stimulus program.  Beyond that, President Obama’s sell-out to Wall Street by way of a sham financial “reform” bill has drawn widespread criticism.  In his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP) criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

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

*   *   *

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

Running as an incumbent President presents a unique challenge to Mr. Obama.  He must now reconcile his populist rhetoric with his record as President.  The contrast is too sharp to ignore.