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Obama Fatigue

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Since President Obama first assumed office, it hasn’t been too difficult to find harsh criticism of the new administration.  One need only tune in to the Fox News, where an awkward Presidential sneeze could be interpreted as a “secret message” to Bill Ayers or George Soros.  Nevertheless, with the passing of time, voices from across the political spectrum have joined a chorus of frustration with the Obama agenda.

On February 26, 2009 – only one month into the Obama Presidency – I voiced my suspicion about the new administration’s unwillingness to address the problem of systemic risk, inherent in allowing a privileged few banks to enjoy their “too big to fail” status:

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” –  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

By September of 2009, I became convinced that Mr. Obama was suffering from a degree of hubris, which could seal his fate as a single-term President:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history – not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.

Although the TARP bank bailout program was initiated during the final months of the Bush Presidency, the Obama administration’s stewardship of that program recently drew sharp criticism from Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP).  Beyond that, in his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Mr. Barofsky 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.

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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.

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In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP – which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers – into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals – whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in – may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

Another unlikely critic of President Obama is the retired law school professor who blogs using the pseudonym, “George Washington”.  A recent posting at Washington’s Blog draws from a number of sources to ponder the question of whether President Obama (despite his Nobel Peace Prize) has become more brutal than President Bush.  The essay concludes with a review of Obama’s overall performance in The White House:

Whether or not Obama is worse than Bush, he’s just as bad.

While we had Bush’s “heck of a job” response to Katrina, we had Obama’s equally inept response and false assurances in connection with the Gulf oil spill, and Obama’s false assurances in connection with the Japanese nuclear crisis.

And Bush and Obama’s response to the financial crisis are virtually identical:  bail out the giant banks, let Wall Street do whatever it wants, and forget the little guy.

The American voters asked for change.  Instead, we got a different branch of the exact same Wall Street/military-industrial complex/Big Energy (BP, GE)/Big Pharma party.

Another commentator who has become increasingly critical of President Obama is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.  Mr. Obama’s failure to push back against the corporatist politicians, who serve as “reverse Robin Hoods” enriching CEOs at the expense of American workers, resulted in this rebuke from Professor Reich:

President Obama and Democratic leaders should be standing up for the wages and benefits of ordinary Americans, standing up for unions, and decrying the lie that wage and benefit concessions are necessary to create jobs.  The President should be traveling to the Midwest – taking aim at Republican governors in the heartland who are hell bent on destroying the purchasing power of American workers.  But he’s doing nothing of the sort.

As attention begins to focus on the question of who will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama Fatigue is causing many people to appraise the President’s chances of defeat.  The excitement of bringing the promised “change” of 2008 has morphed into cynicism.  Many of the voters who elected Obama in 2008 might be too disgusted to bother with voting in 2012.  As a result, the idea of a Democratic or Independent challenger to Obama is receiving more consideration.  Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi recently provided this response to a letter inquiring about the possibility that Elizabeth Warren could make a run for the White House in 2012:

A few months ago I heard a vague rumor from someone who theoretically would know that such a thing was being contemplated, but I don’t know anything beyond that.  I wish she would run.  I’m not sure if it would ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for Barack Obama – she could fatally wound his general-election chances by exposing his ties to Wall Street – but I think she’s exactly what this country needs. She’s totally literate on the finance issues and is completely on the side of human beings, as opposed to banks and oil companies and the like.  One thing I will say:  if she did run, she would have a lot more support from the press than she probably imagines, as there are a lot of reporters out there who are reaching the terminal-disappointment level with Obama ready to hop on the bandwagon of someone like Warren.

If Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to make a run for The White House, Mr. Obama should do the right thing:  Stop selling the sky to people and step aside.


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The New Welfare Queens

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February 26, 2009

In 1999, UCLA Professor Franklin D. Gilliam wrote a report for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.  That paper concerned a study he had done regarding public perception of the “welfare queen” stereotype and how that perception had been shaped by the media.  He discussed how the term had been introduced by Ronald Reagan during the 1976 Presidential campaign.  Reagan told the story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side, who had been arrested for welfare fraud.  The term became widely used in reference to a racist (and sexist) stereotype of an iconic African-American woman, enjoying a lavish lifestyle and driving a Cadillac while cheating the welfare system.

Ten years after the publication of Gilliam’s paper, we have a new group of “welfare queens”:  the banks.  The banks have already soaked over a trillion dollars from the federal government to remedy their self-inflicted wounds.  Shortly after receiving their first $350,000,000,000 in payments under the TARP program (which had no mechanism of documenting where the money went) their collective reputation as “welfare queens” was firmly established.  In the most widely-reported example of “corporate welfare” abuse by a bank, public outcry resulted in Citigroup’s refusal of delivery on its lavishly-appointed, French-made, Falcon 50 private jet.  Had the sale gone through, Citi would have purchased the jet with fifty million dollars of TARP funds.  Now, as they seek even more money from us, the banks chafe at the idea that American taxpayers, economists and political leaders are suggesting that insolvent (or “zombie”) banks should be placed into temporary receivership until their “toxic assets” are sold off and their balance sheets are cleaned up.  This has been referred to as “nationalization” of those banks.

Despite all the bad publicity and public outrage, banks still persist in their welfare abuse.  After all, they have habits to support.  Their “drug” of choice seems to be the lavish golf outing at a posh resort.  The most recent example of this resulted in Maureen Dowd’s amusing article in The New York Times, about a public relations misstep by Sheryl Crow.

The New Welfare Queens have their defenders.  CNBC’s wildly-animated Jim Cramer has all but pulled out his remaining strands of hair during his numerous rants about how nationalization of banks “would crush America”.  A number of investment advisors, such as Bill Gross, co-chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management Company, have also voiced objections to the idea of bank nationalization.

Another defender of these welfare queens appears to be Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.   In his latest explanation of Turbo Tim Geithner’s “stress test” agenda, Bernanke attempted to assure investors that the Obama administration does not consider the nationalization of banks as a viable option for improving their financial health.  As Craig Torres and Bradley Keoun reported for Bloomberg News on February 25, the latest word from Bernanke suggests that nationalization is not on the table:

. . .  while the U.S. government may take “substantial” stakes in Citigroup Inc. and other banks, it doesn’t plan a full- scale nationalization that wipes out stockholders.

Nationalization is when the government “seizes” a company, “zeroes out the shareholders and begins to manage and run the bank, and we don’t plan anything like that,” Bernanke told lawmakers in Washington today.

The only way to deal with The New Welfare Queens is to replace their directors and managers.  The Obama administration appears unwilling to do that.  During his February 25 appearance on MSNBC’s Countdown, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) expressed his dread about the Administration’s plan to rehabilitate the banks:

I’ve got a bad feeling about this, as do a number of people.  I was just reading testimony from Adam Posen, who is our leading expert on Japan.  He says we are moving right on the track of the Japanese during the 1990s:  propping up zombie banks — just not doing resolution.

. . .  The actual implementation of policy looks like a kind of failure of nerve.

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On the banks — I really can’t see  — there really seems to be — we’re going to put in some money, as we’re going to say some stern things to the bankers about how they should behave better.  But if there is a strategy there, it’s continuing to be a mystery to me and to everybody I’ve talked to.

You can read Adam Posen’s paper:  “Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System” here.  Another Economics professor, Matthew Richardson, wrote an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of bank nationalization for the RGE Monitor.  After discussing both sides of this case, he reached the following conclusion:

We are definitely caught between a rock and a hard place.  But the question is what can we do if a major bank is insolvent?  Sometimes the best way to repair a severely dilapidated house is to knock it down and rebuild it.  Ironically, the best hope of maintaining a private banking system may be to nationalize some of its banks.  Yes, it is risky.  It could go wrong. But it is the surest path to avoid a “lost decade” like Japan.

As the experts report on their scrutiny of the “stress testing” methodology, I get the impression that it’s all a big farce.  Eric Falkenstein received a PhD in Economics from Northwestern University.  His analysis of Geithner’s testing regimen (posted on the Seeking Alpha website) revealed it to be nothing more than what is often referred to as “junk science”:

Geithner noted he will wrap this up by April.  Given the absurdity of this exercise, they should shoot for Friday and save everyone a lot of time.  It won’t be any more accurate by taking two months.

On a similar note, Ari Levy wrote an illuminating piece for Bloomberg News, wherein he discussed the stress testing with Nancy Bush, bank analyst and founder of Annandale, New Jersey-based NAB Research LLC and Richard Bove of Rochdale Securities.  Here’s what Mr. Levy learned:

Rather than checking the ability of banks to withstand losses, the tests outlined yesterday are designed to convince investors that the firms don’t need to be nationalized, said analysts including (Nancy) Bush and Richard Bove from Rochdale Securities.

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“I’ve always thought that this stress-testing was a politically motivated approach to try to defuse the argument that the banks didn’t have enough capital,” said Bove, in an interview from Lutz, Florida.  “They’re trying to prove that the banks are well-funded.”

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” —  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.