Showing posts with label Federal Reserve. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Federal Reserve. Show all posts

Friday, January 4, 2013

Getting Back to Reality

The extraordinary increase (as a percentage move) in the 10 Year T Note yield shows the artificiality and the fragility of market values, everything being propped up by the Federal Reserve in the absence of any sound fiscal policy.  The recent Fed minutes merely hinted at the possibility of reducing asset purchases before the end of this year, and bond investors were left without their bungee cord:

Bill Gross, the "bond king," persuasively writes about the problem in his January letter, a long discourse on why "helicopter money" rained down by the Fed to save the financial system has to end badly in some way.

The artificiality of it all hasn't escaped the notice of corporations, many of which have loaded up their balance sheets with cheap debt, while holding mounds of cash, even to the point of paying massive dividends to their shareholders with borrowed funds.  The poster child for this is Costco which paid its shareholders $3 billion and borrowing the funds to do it.  Of course that was before the laughable fiscal cliff deal, which raised taxes on dividends to 20% from its present 15% but only for high income taxpayers.  They were talking about taxing dividends as regular income which must have freaked out the five largest shareholders who are corporate officers or directors, their take on the special dividend with borrowed funds being almost $12 million.  What a country! Borrow the money to pay your top people a huge bonus that is taxed at only 15%.  It truly is the microcosm for the contrived and completely unpredictable financial landscape of today.

A few days ago Barry Ritholz suggested a positive way of using today's manipulated market -- that is to upgrade and repair our aging infrastructure. Many of our roads are atrociously maintained and bridges are crumbling, not to mention aging water systems, power plants, and a railroad transportation system which is truly 3rd world quality.  As Ritholz says: At some point in the future, your kids are going to ask — “Wait, you could have upgraded _______ and it only would have cost you 2.5% in borrowing costs?!?”
Isn't that where we should be putting borrowed money to work, creating jobs?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blather into Matter

Or, as a friend of mine from my academic publishing days called it, feces into thesis.

The political circus is almost on full parade now but when it comes to the economy I can neither give Obama credit nor condemnation. The news media, the Republican candidates, and the administration are obsessed by citing statistics to justify their positions, and if you think you've heard it all, it is just the beginning of stream of consciousness blather. But the fact of the matter is the economy was in a swoon, a serious one, before Obama took office and continued on that route for a while before stabilizing and, even, growing.

Capitalism is a story of inherent cycles. The Federal Reserve was devised in part to mitigate the extremes of the cycles. Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve failed in that mission with the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to the hubris of Greenspan. At the bottom of the crisis in 2008 he confessed to Congress: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms. Free markets did break down, and I think that, as I said, that shocked me. I still don't fully understand how it happened or why it happened.”

It is amusing to hear all the political rhetoric now that, for the time being, we seem to have been able to drag ourselves off the cliff of a depression. Harking back to those dark days of 2008/9 the CNBC cheerleaders looked stunned most of the time as the Dow was flushing like a broken toilet. Now the market is up about ninety percent from its low and jobs are slowly coming back (agreed, way too slowly, but this is a different kind of recession and a different kind of recovery) and everything is cheery at CNBC except for their opinion of Obama.

The Federal Reserve policy is just one component of the crisis and one can add to the mix the expense of overseas wars, the housing crisis, deregulation (yes, see what Greenspan admitted to above), private profit at public risk, governmental gridlock, all of this exacerbated by normal economic cycles. Oh, also add the multi-generational lack of an energy policy to this colossal conundrum.

The Republicans say that by now Obama "owns" the economy, as if a switch was thrown when he was inaugurated and a dial was set for about three years, the onset of the next Presidential election cycle. Unfortunately for him, he too misunderstood the magnitude of this unprecedented economic cycle, saying the following in an interview only days after he took office: "A year from now, I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress, but there's still going to be some pain out there.... If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition." Romney et al have eagerly seized on this gaffe. Expect to hear it over and over again in the next ten months. Likewise, expect to hear Romney's (the presumptive Republican nominee) recent comment that he "likes being able to fire people" over and over again. Sound bite vs. sound bite reverberating on the airwaves thanks to the endless resources of Super PACs.

When it comes to job creation (or erosion) there are limits as to what a mere president can do in a relatively short period of time given economic cycles and the severity of the present crisis. That Romney created or uncreated jobs in the private equity arena is of no particular advantage unless he has the cooperation of Congress with smart policies. Likewise, Obama has little control over jobs without cooperation and policy agreement. It is preposterous to assume that Romney is any more qualified that Obama simply because he worked in private equity. I ran a publishing company for thirty years; that ought to make me more qualified to deal with the economy!

And those policies have to consider the vice grip closing in on this unique moment in US economic history: baby boomers are reaching retirement age at the rate of about seven each minute of each day for the next two decades, expecting the promises of Social Security and Medicare. We all know both sides of the equation have to change, how entitlements are doled out, and how revenue must be raised. This is not something that can be achieved by a Presidential Executive Order (although at times I think our dysfunctional Congress needs to be replaced by a benign dictatorship).

The Republicans do not talk about areas where Obama successfully functioned without having to negotiate with Congress, such as his role in planning Osama bin Laden's death. Remember when John McCain promised voters (in 2008) that he "knows how to capture and bring to justice Osama bin Laden"(although at the time that was a secret he was not going to share with anyone unless elected)? They didn't have the economy to blame on Obama then, so it was his foreign policy "inexperience." Bin Laden sharing the bottom of the North Arabian Sea with the fishes came with no help from Congress, thank you. In spite of his inexperience Obama had the wisdom to send in Navy Seals rather than taking out bin Laden with a drone strike to have proof it was indeed him.

So let the games begin. Blather into matter. Feces into thesis.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Market Melt-Up

Buy, buy, buy, -- be it at Target, Walmart or the NYSE. Everything is coming up roses. Does this mean one can "blame" Obama? Surely, FOX will have an interesting take on this. "GOP comes to the rescue of the payroll tax extension!" Or, "GOP forces China to cut bank reserve requirements to spur world growth!" Or, "GOP threat of not raising taxes on the wealthy leads to the better than expected ADP employment report as job creators plan trickle-down hiring." Or, "GOP considering not abolishing the Federal Reserve as the Fed says it is ready to act if USA hurt by any European banking crisis."

Whatever the reason, stock markets are surging, for this moment at least (DJIA up over 400 points as I write this). But in this see-saw, roulette investment world, one cannot imagine what the future will bring, not to mention even 4.00 pm.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fed Speaks

The Federal Reserve’s press release covering its recent meeting begins “Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that economic growth so far this year has been considerably slower than the Committee had expected. Indicators suggest a deterioration in overall labor market conditions in recent months, and the unemployment rate has moved up.” Later, it continues, “the Committee now expects a somewhat slower pace of recovery over coming quarters than it did at the time of the previous meeting and anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only gradually toward levels that the Committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate. Moreover, downside risks to the economic outlook have increased.”

Its main action point is that the nation’s economy is “likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2013.” Talk about telegraphing what it probably already knows: the economy seems to be slipping into recession once again and the Fed is helpless, meaning continued high unemployment, no remedies for the real estate market and homeowners with mortgages under water, and continued low returns on any savings. And these conditions are not temporary: they are expected to last two years (and unless Congress ever learns to function again, they will last much longer). Imagine, three year Treasury notes (no longer AAA which is another farce from S&P, the folks who brought us triple A-rated collateralized debt obligations) now yield less than a half a percent!

Where this is all likely to end is anyone’s guess, including the learned economists at the Fed. The volatile markets are reflecting that uncertainty. Buying dividend paying stocks may the best option for income, but any severe recession could leave those stocks vulnerable, jeopardizing the return of capital. That seems where the Fed is leading the individual investor.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

“A Glide Path to Zero Debt Post 2011”

This “glide path” was forecast in George W. Bush’s Feb. 28th, 2001 budget, A Blueprint for New Beginnings; A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities.

The centerpiece of the legislation was a $1.35 trillion tax cut over 10 years which was signed into law on June 7, 2001. This cut was supposed to spur growth and thus increase federal revenues in spite of the tax cut (sound familiar?)

The exact wording from Blueprint for New Beginnings:

Over the next 10 years, the Federal Government is projected to collect $28 trillion in revenues from American taxpayers. The President’s Budget devotes roughly $22.4 trillion to extend the Government we have today, including the President’s new initiatives. This leaves a $5.6 trillion surplus. The President’s Budget takes a cautious approach to allocating this staggering sum, starting by saving the entire Social Security surplus—nearly 50 percent of the total surplus—for Social Security and debt retirement. None of the Social Security surplus will be used to fund other spending initiatives or tax relief.

By devoting these revenues to debt retirement, the Nation will be able to pay off all the debt that can be redeemed—an historic $2 trillion reduction in debt over the next 10 years. The only remaining debt will be those securities with maturity dates beyond 2011. In all likelihood, American taxpayers would have to spend an additional $50 to $150 billion in bonus payments to bondholders to accelerate the repayment of those notes, a wasteful and senseless transaction. It makes more sense to allow the securities to mature naturally, leaving the Nation on a glide path to zero debt post 2011.

By 2011, Federal debt will have fallen to only seven percent of GDP—its lowest level in more than 80 years. Net interest payments on this debt will be less than 0.5 percent of GDP, less than one quarter of today’s share and only three percent of the budget. This represents a great national achievement

Meanwhile, the threat of recession intervened, and the Federal Reserve ratcheted down interest rates. America went on a borrowing and speculation binge, focused on real estate and the building industry. Government, Wall Street and Main Street were all complicit, greedy investors buying up “investment property,” Wall Street packaging them as “risk-free” CMO’s, and homeowners indulging in the practice of using their homes as a piggy bank, with exotic no money down, no initial interest payment loans, the repayment of which was dependent on future appreciated real estate values. At the same time we continued to outsource our manufacturing capabilities to China and other emerging economies. Why work when Utopia could be achieved by merely borrowing?

So returning to the halcyon Blueprint for New Beginnings, another lesson to be learned from China: "Forecasting is difficult, especially about the future.” This is why the brinksmanship of raising the debt limit is such political grandstanding. Where was the outcry about the buildup of the national debt during the Bush years or holding Congress accountable for the failure of Blueprint for New Beginnings? While the stock market was climbing to new highs by 2007 and real estate prices were soaring, making homeowners and investors feel (not be) wealthy, not one peep about the national debt. We were borrowing against the future.

Depending on how one defines accountability to an administration (which takes control in late January every four years, but really does not have much impact until at least the end of the following Sept. 30 fiscal year), one could argue that Bush administrations were responsible for about a $6 trillion increase in National Debt (9/30/2001 - 9/30/2009) and the Obama administration for about $2.5 trillion thus far. (See this link for historical figures.)

Of course, debt growth has been more dramatic over the last few years (including the final year of the Bush administration) as Keynesian spending of “saving the world” from a depression soared. In spite of that spending, economic growth has been slow, unemployment persistently high, and real estate and associated industries remain in the doldrums.

These are the serious issues, as well as the national debt, which must be addressed. While I am the first to argue for fiscal responsibility, a balanced budget cannot be achieved overnight and cannot be achieved without some revenue increases via taxes. The best argument against pinning hopes that spending cuts, alone, will achieve a balanced budget is simply to reread Blueprint for New Beginnings. Allowing the US to default on its debt is a hopelessly reckless option.

PS: An interesting follow up to the above published by Bloomberg news two days later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

American Dream Diminished

Owning a home was once a cornerstone of the American Dream. Go to school, work hard, get married, buy a home with a mortgage, have children, try to give them better opportunities than you had, work hard some more to pay off the mortgage, retire and do the things you couldn't do while you were working. It all sounds prosaic now, even old fashioned, but I suppose if I had to describe my life in a few words, that description would be a rough outline. Lucky for me, I loved my work so I never thought a moment about following just about the same blueprint as did my parents.

They were children of the Great Depression and after the war, the urge to own a home was overwhelming, a symbol of financial security and success. Levittown became the poster child for postwar suburbs throughout the country, and upon my father's return from WWII, they immediately bought their first house, around the corner from my grandparents' home, and blocks from my other grandparents, in Richmond Hill (borough of Queens in NYC). I think they paid less than $5,000 (this is 1946 mind you) and we lived there until I was 13 when we moved to a larger home, in a "better section" of the same community. Both homes still stand today, remarkably unchanged as these photos from Google Street Views attest. Those were the only homes they owned during their entire lifetimes.

By comparison, our home-owning has been more prolific (and equally remarkable, our past homes have been renovated to such a degree they are now nearly unrecognizable). After renting apartments in Brooklyn and the upper West Side of Manhattan, we finally ultimately moved to Connecticut where I was then working, first renting a small house in Westport, and then finally buying our first home which was almost across the street from where we were renting. It was 1971, the beginning of a steady increase in real estate prices and by 1974 we sold that first home and moved into a larger one in neighboring Weston where we lived for the next 22 years and raised our family.

The 1990s saw a moderation of real estate prices -- even a decline in some areas. It was the time of the savings and loan crisis, but with our children out on their own or off to college, our two acre home in Weston seemed unnecessary and we wanted a home in a "neighborhood" and by the water, so we sold and bought a 100 year old cape on the Norwalk River in East Norwalk. We thought that might be our home for the rest of our lives but, unexpectedly, my working life was at its end four years later and that is when we decided to move to Florida, the fourth home we've owned and, who knows, perhaps our last.

But, someplace along the way, the American Dream of home owning has become an American Nightmare. Foreclosures and the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just ongoing symptoms of the developing crisis that has stemmed from the housing bubble of 2000-2007, mortgages being eagerly issued by banks with zero down to less than credit-worthy buyers, or to those in the "business" of flipping homes for profit, these loans condoned or even mandated by government. This activity and Wall Street's eagerness to cash in by taking inappropriate subprime loans and rolling them into exotic collateralized mortgage obligations, "rated" AAA by another accomplice in this crime against the American Dream, the rating agencies, conning investors into thinking they were getting a "guaranteed" return on a "riskless" investment, fueled the fire.

Also complicit is the Federal Reserve. By addressing the crisis with "Quantitative Easing" the Federal Reserve has postponed the day of reckoning. By Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's own admission in a November 2010 Washington Post opinion piece, it is the "wealth effect" of past QE's that has contributed to the stock market's recovery, saying "higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending." This Fed induced bubble simply accelerates the "boom bust cycle," one that may end ugly when 'the can' can no longer be kicked down the road.

We all see the macro effects of QE, the rise in speculative investments, animal spirits being drawn out by low interest rates, a surge in commodity prices (of which there are relatively fixed amounts in relation to monetary creation out of thin air) but the gorilla in the room is our state and local governments. There has been a sudden flood of articles about their failing finances; a Google search will unleash an avalanche of them and I've written about this before as well.

In a nutshell, our state and local governments have promised too much in their pension obligations and now that the revenue tide is running against them with lower property tax revenues from falling real estate prices and foreclosures, not to mention their poor fiscal habit of financing certain projects with the assumption there will always be the opportunity to roll over debt with more debt in the future, the homeowner finds himself in the crosshairs. The cavalry of the Federal Reserve which rode to the rescue of banks and AIG has decided to leave municipalities and homeowners to their own devices, Bernanke saying "we have no expectation or intention to get involved in state and local finance. [States] should not expect loans from the Fed."

Consequently, it is now a vicious cycle, lower property values begetting a smaller pie for municipalities, which results in millage increases being levied by local taxing authorities, which in turn results in still lower property values. Being a homeowner today leaves one obligated to share in the past profligacy and poor planning of one's local government. Many would have difficulty selling their homes at any price to escape this obligation, turning the American dream of home owning into a nightmare.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cheery Tidings from the Social Security Administration

For the second year in a row, this happy news from the SSA, received in the mail yesterday: "Your Social Security benefits are protected against inflation. By law, they increase when there is a rise in the cost of living. The government measure changes in the cost of living through the Department of Labor's Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI has not risen since the last cost-of-living adjustment was determined in 2008. As a result, your benefits will not increase in 2011."

What a country, retirees are protected from the ravages of inflation, and, better news, yet, there is no inflation! Hooray! There is certainly no inflation in interest rates from CDs, that's well documented. Thank you, The Federal Reserve!

Of course the SSA's Cola adjustments are made through the most bizarre calculation. Sounds like a lot of sleight of hand, but here is an explanation.

It is interesting to review how the CPI gets measured and how such measurements might distort what inflation seniors really face. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index the prices of certain items have actually declined over the last year, specifically Window Drapes (8.00%), Peanut Butter (5.10%), Bedroom Furniture (5.00%), Dishes (4.40%), and Sports Equipment (4.00%). But, with the notable exception of Peanut Butter which many seniors may have resorted to consuming, these items are probably not frequently among their purchases. On the other hand, let's look at some of the offsetting increases: Funerals +2.20%, Dental Services +2.80%, Nursing Homes +3.50%, Physicians Services +3.50%, Prescription Drugs +3.90% and Hospital Services +9.30%

No inflation for seniors? Ha. Also, for a quick peek into the future, let's review the past: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the purchasing power of a 1984 dollar is now $.458 while a 1967 dollar is only $ .153.

No doubt entitlement programs need to be looked at along with taxes to get our fiscal house under control, but inflating away the dollar and playing shell games with Social Security is what happens when Congress cannot agree on anything and political posturing is all our representatives seem to be able to do. We've become a sound bite democracy.

Meanwhile, on another, but related topic, the essay du jour is Bill Gross' latest, with his conclusion saying it all: "The United States in short, needs to make things not paper, but that is not likely unless we see a policy revolution in Washington DC. In the meantime, our unemployed will continue to fill out forms and stand in line. We’re living here in Allentown."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Taxing Question

How rich is too rich? Actually, I published a book by that title almost twenty years ago and some of its ideas are as relevant today as it was then (How Rich Is Too Rich; Income and Wealth in America by Herbert Inhaber and Sidney Carroll: Praeger, 1992). Two points from that book stuck with me. First, there is the very descriptive opening chapter of looking at income distribution as an imaginary "sixty minute grand parade," tax payers being the marchers, grouped by their height which would be representative of their incomes, the first marchers having the lowest income and the last the highest, with "height" determined by the "average" taxable income being equal to the "average" height of an individual American. The "parade" in effect is an X/Y graph, the Y axis being the income (height), and the X axis being the minutes of the "parade." The first few minutes one sees no marchers even though we can hear some noise. These are people with negative height, those who report the loss of money in that taxable year. It isn't until about ten minutes into the parade that we see marchers between 10 and 24 inches in height and it isn't until 36 minutes we see the so called "average height" taxpayer march by. With about only 20 minutes left, heights begin to rise dramatically. With the last five minutes giants appear, people whose heads are so high we can hardly make out their faces without binoculars. The marchers in the very last minute of the parade are so tall we can only see their feet. These are people of accumulated, sometimes inherited, wealth and in the last few seconds the marchers are the size of sky scrapers. In effect, the parade shows a slowly rising gradient until the far right of the curve when it begins a parabolic rise and then shoots straight up off the graph.

While the numbers might have changed over the last twenty years, the concept has not. Probably, if anything, the "parade" has become even more dramatic, more parabolic, with a steeper rise at the end. And, those at the end of the parade pay now less as a percentage of their income to the government than at any time before.

To listen to the Tea Partiers, a roll back of taxes of the very wealthiest to pre-Bush rates, is an evil, evil thing. Just think of the trickle-down effect that would be lost to the little folk who stand in line for the crumbs falling from the tables of the fabulously wealthy. It is ironic that these dire warnings of the effects of a tax increase on the wealthy are carried into battle on banners hoisted by "Joe the Plumbers" -- it shows the power of the conservative media and the most virulent impact of the Internet. It just makes no sense that the people near the middle of the parade should become pawns for the people at the very end.

Actually, I think the converse is true: it is an evil thing for people who have benefitted from being able to accumulate wealth in the greatest of all capitalist democracies, not to give back more for that opportunity. The argument goes that asking these people to pay more will remove the incentive for them to work, and maybe if we're talking about 70 percent of one's income that might be true. But in 2000, people reporting AGIs of more than $1 million paid 28% of their income as taxes vs. 23% five years later. In 2005 there were 304,000 households reporting income of more than $1 million, more than a trillion dollars of income or $3.375 million per household. And mind you of those, there are a few at the very end of the "parade" with incomes that have so many zeros they would be hard to read. The latter are sports stars, entertainers, and, of course, very, very successful entrepreneurs. Are they going to work "less hard" by paying an additional five percent overall? That five percent would mean another $50 billion going to the US Treasury, at least a beginning to address the ongoing deficit. And, of course, if you look at the $250,00 level as the cut off as suggested by President Obama, there is much more to be gleaned, but given the midterm elections, that level is probably going to be raised if it is not eliminated altogether.

The alternatives that are occasionally pushed by the Tea crowd, such as a flat tax, is, in effect, a regressive tax, with the lower income people having to pay the same taxes on necessities as the wealthy, which just further splits the great economic divide in this country. A national sales tax does the same thing and as we are now so dependent on consumer spending, that could be the death knell for the economy. No, a progressive tax structure has been this country's basis for supporting it's national programs and we have been able to grow in spite of these supposed "disincentives" of higher taxes at a higher bracket.

No doubt the current tax structure is hopelessly and needlessly complicated and THAT is where the discussion should also be focused. There are so many loopholes, that a revised graduated tax structure would not have much teeth without addressing those as well. And then there is the issue of capital gains and dividends. We certainly want to encourage taxpayers to reinvest in our equity markets.

The other point I never forgot from that book was its commentary on the estate tax, arguing against the estate tax altogether, provided there was an alternative system of "estate dispersion." Rather than taxing one's estate at death, it suggested a tax-free dispersement up to a certain level per recipient (rather than per estate). For argument's sake, call that $1 million per recipient. Amounts exceeding that would begin to be taxed on some kind of graduated basis. Those would be life time totals, so if an individual receives money from different inheritances, they would be accumulated and taxed on that scale. "No longer would the estate tax system generate an American royalty -- those freed from the need ever to be economically productive. This alternative system would generate for all the incentive that most of us have in the outcome of our own economic lives. No longer would a large part of our national wealth be beyond responsive use."

Now, the incredibly wealthy could give a million dollars each to a thousand different people, all tax free (if those recipients also received no other inheritances in their lifetimes). The point is that those thousand people would put that capital to work, rather than vesting a billion dollars in one's immediate family who might decide to simply live off the income and pass it on to the next generation, and the next. Or he/she could still leave more to the immediate family, but it would be subject to taxation, perhaps substantial taxation on a graduated basis.

"Wealth great enough to entitle one to membership in the elite comes from two sources -- enormous earnings or inheritance. Prudent public policy should allow those, who, through individual ingenuity, talent, or luck, gain a fortune to use and enjoy it for life...but if these individuals have the power to transmit immense wealth to others after death...they can write the rules controlling this wealth, possibly many generations into the future. This breaks the chain of personal effort that is tightly bound, for most of us, to personal reward. Economic resources, controlled by rules set up by the dead, are denied to those who might well be more productive."

If the Republicans and Tea Partiers interpret their gains to mean they now have carte blanche to keep the Bush tax cuts for the highest wealth tier -- people who would not be hurt by some roll back to pre-Bush tax levels -- the result will only increase the deficit further. There would seem to be no upside to such an action; in effect it is a spending initiative something they claim to condemn. Failure to make tax reforms that lead to a more graduated income tax and closing loopholes, and not having a sensible inheritance tax also just further drives a stake between the haves and the have-nots.

On a related subject, the so called "wealth effect" the Federal Reserve is trying to engineer with its QE2, is still another factor favoring the haves. This is convincingly analyzed by my fellow blogger over at Fund My Mutual Fund in his posting Who Will Any Form of Intermediate Term Wealth Effect Really Help? Not the Masses. It is well worth reading.

A tranquil reprive from QE2 and the upcoming taxation battle in Congress

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Take Tea and See

The electorate has spoken and so has the Federal Reserve. The Party of No will now be in a position to speak words of more than that one syllable.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bernanke's monetary gift to the markets of quantitative easing is propelling them to new highs, especially assets benefitting from a weak dollar. Like sheep investors are being herded into a pen of commodities, export-focused stocks, and corporate bonds, anything but prosaic government bonds and CDs. QE2 is to stem deflationary forces and to stimulate the economy but the Fed is entering uncharted waters with its actions and will it create jobs? Beware of Federal Reserve economists bearing gifts to stimulate inflation and then be careful of getting more than what we wish for. The markets might party while Bernanke plays out QE2, and maybe even QE3, but what is the end game and don't markets ultimately discount what IT perceives as the end? I refer again to John Hussman's important observations on the subject

As to the election, the results were no surprise. I remember being "amused" by the rhetoric heard immediately after Obama's victory into his first few months in office, the Dow dropping almost two thousand points in that short period of time as being "evidence" of his "dangerous" economic agenda. It was immaterial that the markets had already been in a swoon for a year before by even a greater percentage. As the Dow recovered, up more than four thousand points since the "Obama low" not a peep about his policies being responsible.

Of course, neither the decline shortly after his taking power, or the Dow turnaround have much to do with his policies. The Federal Reserve can take responsibility for markets on steroids. A year ago I said "I still think the President could have devoted more of his first year to policies addressing what I called a 'new economic morality.' But Main Street seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of Wall Street and we are angry. Who truly believes the economic crisis is solved rather than being merely postponed?" That anger has spilled over into the midterm elections and, now, we will have the help of the Party of No -- and, who knows, perhaps they will have something positive to say and do. Time to take some tea and see?


Monday, October 18, 2010

Tale of Two Economists

In an ironic twist, an economist turned entrepreneur writes a rigidly academic critique, The Recklessness of Quantitative Easing, and an academic pens an anecdotal piece of writing on a different but related subject, I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less.

Recklessness by John Hussman, whom I’ve quoted before in this blog as I consider him to be one of the clearer thinkers about the uncharted territory we call today’s economy, argues that the Federal Reserve’s announced intention to pursue a second round of QE is to drive “interest rates to negative levels in hopes of stimulating loan demand and discouraging saving” and to “increase the supply of lendable reserves in the banking system.” But will this increase output and employment?

Hussman thinks not as “interest rates are already low enough that variations in their level are not the primary drivers of loan demand.” There is simply a lack of confidence – both for the consumer and businesses -- that they will have the income in the future to pay off loans. So low or even negative interest rates is not a barrier and “removing a barrier allows you to move forward only if that particular barrier is the one that is holding you back (the economic term being "constrained optimization" as he explains.)

“Instead, businesses and consumers now see their debt burdens as too high in relation to their prospective income. The result is a continuing effort to deleverage, in order to improve their long-term financial stability. This is rational behavior. Does the Fed actually believe that the act of reducing interest rates from already low levels, or driving real interest rates to negative levels, will provoke consumers and businesses from acting in their best interests to improve their balance sheets?”

The effect of all the talk about QE2 has been to propel gold to new highs and to further erode the value of the US dollar as the Fed dramatically expands its balance sheet. “But once the Fed has quadrupled or quintupled the U.S. monetary base from its level of three years ago, how will it reverse its position?” Hussman’s answer is that many years down the road it will be forced to sell off the instruments it is buying, driving interest rates much higher as foreign buyers might be absent from such auctions, and undermining whatever recovery might have begun of its own accord, just further accentuating the boom bust cycle.

He has constructive suggestions, fiscal responses that might include “extending unemployment benefits, ensuring multi-year predictability of tax policy, expanding productive forms of spending such as public infrastructure, supporting public research activity through mechanisms such as the National Institute of Health, increasing administrative efforts to restructure debt through writedowns and debt-equity swaps, abandoning policies that protect reckless lenders from taking losses, and expanding incentives and tax credits for private capital investment, research and development.” Of course many of these require the cooperation of Congress and watching the mud slinging of the mid term elections, one has to wonder.

But Hussman’s article is must reading it its entirety, especially if you are an individual investor and wondering how to position a portfolio in this strange new economic world. The net effect of the Fed’s actions, besides the obvious nearly zero return on any CD you might buy, is to “force” the investor to move into riskier assets commodities in particular and equities as well. One could also “play” the decline of the dollar by investing overseas or in US multinational companies, which derive a majority of their income abroad. But to what extent QE2 is already baked into the prices of these riskier assets is anyone’s guess. There is also the possibility of a more protracted deflationary period than anyone can imagine right now, with the ongoing real estate crisis and high unemployment having a continuing impact. There seems to be a heavy reliance on the Fed’s future actions leading to an idyllic outcome. I think Hussman would disagree.

One of his suggestions as noted is “ensuring multi-year predictability of tax policy” which leads me to the other economist, Professor Mankiw who is professor of economics at Harvard and was an adviser to President George W. Bush, whose administration has to share some if not a majority of the responsibility of our present economic morass.

Professor Mankiw op-ed piece in the October 9th New York Times, through a convoluted and highly subjective mathematical exercise, argues the proposed tax increase on the 2% wealthiest Americans – some attempt at least to close the budget abyss -- will lead to such people not working much, including, alas, movie and rock stars and even novelists! Outraged, and disappointed that I might not see another Harrison Ford movie, or see my first Lady Gaga “concert” or that Jonathan Franzen will put down his pen, denying us his next novel in protest, I immediately shot off a letter to the editor of the NY Times business section, in which Mankiw’s article appeared. Some very good letters were published in response, but not mine. The nice thing about a blog is I can publish my own rejections! So here is what I wrote:

While it is hard to argue with Professor Mankiw’s math (“I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less”) of what his incremental income might become thirty years in the future in a halcyon tax-free world, his conclusion that movie stars, novelists, rock stars, and surgeons might work less if taxes are increased is based more on his own anecdotal view of working. By his own admission: “I don’t aspire for much more than a typical upper-middle-class lifestyle,” and that’s fine, but don’t blame the tax code for declining his next free lance opportunity. If he should climb down from his Ivy tower and look at the real world with real unemployment around 15%, people trying to work to simply support their families and hold onto their homes rather than handing down wealth to succeeding generations, he might have a little more empathy for a progressive tax code that did not seem to destroy incentives during the Clinton years, the last years in which our country actually had a surplus. And even Warren Buffett and Bill Gates see the fairness in having some sort of an inheritance tax.

Maybe the Times found it too preachy or politically oriented. Perhaps I should have concentrated on the nature of work itself. Remember Hussman’s comment about constrained optimization, that removing a particular barrier only has a beneficial impact if indeed it was that particular barrier holding you back? If Mankiw is entitled to personalize his argument, so can I. I worked as hard when in a higher incremental tax bracket as I did when they were lowered. Why? I loved work, simple as that. And, that is what is missing not only from Mankiw’s formula but how our society looks at work and values workers.

I remember my first visit on business to Japan in the 1970’s, the taxi cab drivers waiting at the hotel for a fare, their cabs gleaming as between fares they would polish and clean their cars. The refuse collector doing his job well was as highly valued by society as a company executive. Japan today, of course, suffers some of the same maladies as ours, with a twenty-year head start on the phenomenon of deflation, so perhaps that has taken its toll on their workers. Somehow, as a society, we need to value all workers and restore work as something to be embraced.

Of course we don’t always have an idyllic choice of the work we do in our lifetimes, but we do have a choice of doing it well or not and by choosing the former, we open a path to finding it meaningful. I’m sorry Prof. Mankiw chooses whether he will write an article or accept an invitation for a speech merely based on what his incremental income bracket might be, although I think most people would envy that he actually has a choice.

I like what the great short story writer, Raymond Carver, wrote thinking about a friend who admitted he wrote something just to make a deadline and make a buck, knowing he could have written something better if he took the time. “If writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain."


Monday, January 25, 2010

Volcker, Stiglitz, Hussman….

Here’s some positive news from or about people who can help point us in the right direction. First there was the big news that Paul Volcker will finally take a key role in addressing economic reform, particularly with the reinstatement of some of the key features from the Glass-Steagall Act. Joseph Stiglitz touches upon that need as well as other issues in an extract from his new book, Freefall; Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy in a piece entitled “Why we have to change capitalism”

We now know the true source of recent bank bonuses: “free money” profits: According to Stiglitz, “the alacrity with which all the major investment banks decided to become ‘commercial banks’ in the fall of 2008 was alarming – they saw the gifts coming from the federal government, and evidently, they believed that their risk-taking behaviour would not be much circumscribed. They now had access to the Fed window, so they could borrow at almost a zero interest rate; they knew that they were protected by a new safety net; but they could continue their high-stakes trading unabated. This should be viewed as totally unacceptable.” Also, Stiglitz puts the bailouts in the context of the bigger picture: “the failures in our financial system are emblematic of broader failures in our economic system, and the failures of our economic system reflect deeper problems in our society. We began the bailouts without a clear sense of what kind of financial system we wanted at the end, and the result has been shaped by the same political forces that got us into the mess. And yet, there was hope that change was possible. Not only possible, but necessary.” As a consequence he argues for “a new financial system that will do what human beings need a financial system to do.”

Meanwhile, the Financial Times carried an excellent piece on Paul Volcker now that he is again front-and-center, Man in the News: Paul Volcker. For too long now Volcker inexplicably had been pushed off the center stage. Last March, as the market was in complete free fall, my tongue-in-cheek piece about “the new era of the 177K” asked, “Where is Paul Volcker to lead the way back to the 401K?”. Per the Financial Times: “this week the towering former Fed chief stood by Barack Obama’s side as the president embraced what he dubbed the “Volcker rule” banning proprietary trading – over the reservations of some of his most senior economic advisers.”
Then, John Hussman, the economist who runs his own mutual funds, and each Monday blogs about his views, published, today, a lengthy, carefully reasoned Blueprint for Financial Reform.
This is an extraordinarily detailed eight point plan/proposal and rather than giving the bullet points here, go to the link. It deserves careful consideration by our elected officials. Needless to say, he sides with Volcker. Hussman for Chairman of the Federal Reserve or bring back Volcker?
I've argued that in addition to financial reform, the main economic focus must be job creation: “a true recovery requires jobs, jobs, jobs – and how are they going to be created – by banks trading energy futures? What happened to the commitment to the infrastructure? Our roads, utilities, and public transportation are falling apart. Alternative energy seems DOA. Aren’t these the areas our financial recourses should be focused on, ones that will create jobs, in construction, technology, and finance, and can lead a true economic recovery we can pass on with pride to future generations?”

Green shoots first, then…..


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Well Worth Noting…

Two interesting articles, one an interview with Richard Koo, a former economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now chief economist of Nomura Research Institute, which appeared in this week’s Barron’s Magazine, A Japanese Rx for the West: Keep Spending and the weekly commentary of the economist and mutual fund manager John Hussman, Timothy Geithner Meets Vladimir Lenin

Koo’s views might seem to be counterintuitive – government needs to increase deficit spending on a three to five year plan while the private sector is repairing its balance sheet. Japan failed to recognize the dangers of “a balance sheet recession” and the USA could make the same mistake. I would agree, provided spending is focused on our infrastructure or alternative energy, or on myriad other public projects that resonate in our economy, creating jobs while fixing our roads and public transportation, encouraging energy independence, reducing greenhouse gases, and improving our educational system. Such investments are aimed at Main Street, not Wall Street. I would imagine Koo would be the first to note that bailouts of irresponsible investment bankers do not constitute the kind of government borrowing he means.

Koo contends that while the private sector repairs its balance sheet, writing down debt on devalued assets, it is imperative for the Federal government to borrow because even if interest rates are zero, the public sector cannot be induced to borrow: “The only way the government can turn this economy around is to do the opposite of the private sector -- borrow the money the private sector saved and spend it, which means fiscal stimulus. That's what saved Japan from entering a Great Depression.”

In effect we can’t make businesses borrow by giving capital to the banking system which only encourages more reckless economic behavior – it has to be spent elsewhere, and what better place than our infrastructure and energy independence?

John Hussman, meanwhile, writes about the very kind of borrowing we must eschew, especially as it is being done without our elected constituency’s input: the Treasury’s recent announcement that it would provide Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac UNLIMITED financial support for the next three years, reminding us that it was Vladimir Lenin who said: “The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency.”

As Hussman notes, “in a single, coordinated stroke, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have encroached on spending powers that are enumerated for the Congress alone.” And perhaps worse, “…homeowners who have been diligently making their payments will keep their homes, and homeowners who took out mortgages they couldn't afford will keep their homes as well with no adverse consequence to the lenders – since the underlying loans are now owned largely by the Fed, and the Treasury has pledged its unlimited support. Why pay one's debts if it becomes optional, and the Treasury stands to absorb unlimited losses at public expense?”


Thursday, December 24, 2009

And to All a Good-Night!

How many times does one have to see a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to say “enough?” Never, I say, as every generation can find it’s own version, just as Hollywood always seems to find another way to rework the story. Today, the tale could be a morality play about our financial times, Scrooge being played by a Wall Street Banker du jour, Tiny Tim by a child lacking health insurance, Bob Cratchit by someone in foreclosure, while the unemployed gather beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Past or present Chairmen of the Federal Reserve could play the ghosts. I pick Paul Volcker for the Ghost of Christmas Present, as he seems to see things the clearest. Naturally, Bernie Madoff must play the part of Jacob Marley wearing his chains forged of Ponzi links.

For me, the classic tale still elicits an emotional response, especially the versions that come closest to Dickens’ original text. So in that spirit, I offer a couple of photos of our Xmas past, in our home in Connecticut where the holiday really felt like Christmas:

And this one from Florida Christmas Present, where it will be 80 degrees and one of the high points is the annual Christmas Boat Parade. It’s a Humbug, I say!


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Awash in Liquidity

Again (see last post) I defer to another insightful analysis about the economy and why we might be at an investment inflection point, this time turning to the world’s leading bond manager, Bill Gross at PIMCO. His monthly investment outlook, Midnight Candles, details why the investment “bubble” is a long standing one, that as a nation which once relied on the production of real things, we became focused on “paper asset” appreciation by the 1980’s. Governments have artificially influenced those prices since then. Gross distills this in an interesting observation: “How many TV shots have you seen of people on the Times Square Jumbotron applauding the announcement of the latest GDP growth numbers or job creation? None, of course, but we see daily opening and closing market crescendos of jubilant capitalists on the NYSE and NASDAQ cheering the movement of markets – either up or down.”

That sets the macro economic scene, which has been compound with the crisis of the last couple years. More recently investors have flocked to riskier assets as the Fed has flooded the markets with liquidity and driven interest rates to nothing. Unless the real economy grows substantially, this has to end badly when the Fed reverses course. For this reason, Gross believes asset prices might be peaking.

Gross is certainly one of the more literate, philosophical money managers around, and his prefatory remarks set the stage in that venue. As one who is about Gross’ age, I identify with his feelings about being “Everyman.” I suspect he has read Philip Roth’s novel of the same title, but that’s another matter.

On a lighter side from my photo archives….


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Swimming against the deflationary tide

There was a small, unobtrusive article in today’s Wall Street Journal: “A Deflated Fed Battles to Keep Prices Up”

Here are the bullet points:

* “In March the consumer-price index slipped 0.4% below its year-earlier level, the first decline in over 50 years”

* “It is hard to imagine [consumers] returning to their spendthrift ways anytime soon”

* “Falling prices would make it tougher for borrowers to pay off debt, leading to even more defaults and even tougher lending standards”

* To fight back… “the Fed could buy the Treasuries issued to finance such moves. In practice, that is like printing money and handing it out to households, and it is pretty much what is happening now.”

* “When the fight is between falling prices and the Fed, it is hard to predict which will prevail.”

Add to this mix, 30-day T-Bills now yield nearly zero (0.02%). Soon, one may have to pay the Treasury to hold short-term deposits, but nonetheless if deflation persists or worsens, equities and bonds will not be able to compete with cash. Everyone is expecting inflation as a consequence of government spending, but prolonged deflation would be a Black Swan with potentially serious consequences. Gold fell more than $13 an ounce today, below a technical support level, another indication that inflation may not be the main worry.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It’s All a Mystery

We were away the last few days, visiting Ann’s friend in Tampa, Arlene, to celebrate her 70th birthday, and then my cousin Joan and family in Sarasota the next day and my dear friend, Martin (my former English professor) the following day in his new Sarasota “digs.” Meanwhile, the economic scene continued to go from mildly inexplicable to downright unfathomable during the same short period of time.

The Federal Reserve is now buying up to $300 billion in Treasury securities, and $750 billion of mortgage-backed securities using the “Supplementary Financing Program” which in effect gives it the ability to raise its own debt: “The Treasury has in place a special financing mechanism called the Supplementary Financing Program, which helps the Federal Reserve manage its balance sheet. In addition, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve are seeking legislative action to provide additional tools the Federal Reserve can use to sterilize the effects of its lending or securities purchases on the supply of bank reserves.”

Then, the Congressional Budget Office claims the national debt under the president’s budget could be $2.3 trillion worse than the White House estimates. This could result in a $9.3 trillion dollar deficit over the next ten years, which would nearly double the present deficit. All this depends on so many variables that it really is impossible to forecast what they (the deficits) will be. (It is rumored that in the 1960’s Senator Everett Dirksen once said “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money,” something he later said he was misquoted on. Still this quote has persisted until recently when trillion has become the “new” billion. How long will it be before “quadrillion” becomes the new “trillion?”)

On Monday, while driving back from Sarasota, the Dow surged by almost 500 points, a Pavlovian response to the long-awaited Geithner “plan” of creating an auction mechanism for removing the toxic assets from banks’ balance sheet “Essentially the Geithner plans creates a vehicle in which private equity accounts for 3%, public equity for 12%, and the rest is provided as debt by the public sector (through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FDIC).” The latter is from Eurointelligence, which also has a number of good links with views on this development as well as an explanation of the proposed auction formula. It seems like another excellent opportunity to privatize gains and socialize losses.

As a respite from this financial turmoil, I include a few photographs of our visit, first from Arlene’s 70th birthday party (the lady standing), her childhood friend, Arleen, on the left and Ann on the right.

Then we visited my favorite cousin, Joan, in her Sarasota home. As the unofficial family historian she gave me two photos, which I promptly scanned once I returned home. The first was taken in 1944 while my Dad was in Europe as a Signal Corps photographer. My mother is at the upper left, Joan is in the middle and my Aunt Lillian is on the right, while Joan’s mother, Marion, is seated on the left and our (Joan and my) grandmother is at the right.

The second photograph was probably taken on Long Beach, LI, in the mid 1920’s, with my Aunt Lillian on the left, then my father, my Uncle Phil, my Aunt Ruth, and then my grandmother and grandfather. I look at my grandfather and see a resemblance while my father has the same endearing smile he had as an adult. Joan and I speculate that her mother, my Aunt Marion, was not there as she was probably dating my Uncle Walter.

Enough for family history, but we concluded out Sarasota visit the next morning with my dear friend, Martin, my former English professor who is still actively writing poems and plays. Here we are in his new home in Sarasota.

Upon our return I checked some of my favorite blogs and was touched by my friend Emily’s mention of me in her “Your Blog is Fabulous” entry. Her words are humbling, particularly as I have a high regard for her writing abilities and the passion she brings to her love of literature. I worked with Emily and her husband, Bob, who is now a minister in Amish country. They were the kind of co-workers I admired the most, completely committed to excellence.

Her words made me think about why I do this and I responded in her comments section as follows: Oh, Emily, I am honored and humbled by your acknowledgement and more than slightly embarrassed by any notoriety, as my blog is such an unfocused botch of stuff. As I think I once said to you, I’ve always thought of myself as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I wish I could have lived many different lives, and among the ones I would like to have pursued, besides publishing which is the one I did out of economic necessity (but, loved nonetheless), is music (specifically jazz piano), writing, economics and investing (have always been fascinated by markets ever since I read Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind in college – a pioneering work in social psychology -- which has applicability to “the market”), photography (I think of Diane Arbus or Alfred Stieglitz as role models). In fact, at one time I almost left the publishing business as I had developed a VisiCalc (the precursor of Lotus 1-2-3 which was the precursor of Excel) template to evaluate Convertible Bonds (best if you Wiki the term so I don’t have to explain here). Sometimes I feel like Mozart’s Salieri, having merely attained a measure of mediocrity. My on-and-off-again blog reflects my incongruous interests and of course, over the last year the historical presidential election encroached as well. So, I’m afraid your readers may be disappointed by the content. You have a central passion and your blog reflects that focus so well. Your blog IS fabulous.

Finally, my friend Bruce emailed me, “Did you read the Updike poems in the March 16th New Yorker? He writes these strange unrhymed sonnets. They are at times prose but become poetry on the strength of their emotions and concision.” I had not seen these but Updike mentioned his excitement about publishing again in the New Yorker in his last interview. I had heard that these new poems would be included in the collection Random House is about to publish, Endpoint and Other Poems, and some are about his final illness. I wonder whether this collection will include his 1990 masterpiece or others will match it in its stunning clarity about the mystery of life and death:

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market -
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That's it; no one;
imitators and descendants aren't the same

Thursday, March 19, 2009

So we beat on…

If the present financial crisis is the moral equivalent of war, it is appropriate that we have a “New-New Gettysburg Address” written by Jeff Mathews. It begins with “Four or five years ago our Investment Bankers helped bring forth on this continent, and around the world, a new banking system, conceived in Leverage, and dedicated to the proposition that all persons working for Investment Banks can create enormous Wealth for themselves with almost no Risk except to Taxpayers.”

From Naked Capitalism an interesting, but rather technical explanation of the Federal Reserve’s attempt to prop up housing prices through its "shock and awe" announcement yesterday of buying long term debt (created by the Treasury!). One has to wonder whether China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is now more than “a little worried” about their $1 trillion holdings of US debt and about being attached at the hip to US currency.

Finally, here is an insider’s view of the day-to-day workings of AIG. As an outsider, it’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Unfortunately, we’re all in this collision. A summary is at the Zerohedge blog, but within is a link for detail.

Unless we have job creation, the Fed can drive mortgage rates to zero without much benefit. People borrow because of confidence, not merely because rates are low. Since the recent Fed move is acknowledged to be their weapon of last resort, one has to wonder what the Fed knows that we don’t. But the last time we had artificially low rates and relatively strong employment we began the very leverage bubble that is now in the process of deflating. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald from The Great Gatsby).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On the Mark

Here are two must read entries recently posted by a fellow blogger, someone I’ve mentioned before. As Mark states in his mission statement: “Raise $7M from readers to launch a real mutual fund. By providing a transparent platform for a virtual growth mutual fund, I'll create a mechanism by which readers can view my thought process & results in creating a 3-year return. I'll invest in 30-50 positions with secular growth trends with economic commentary thrown in.” He’s been doing this for more than a year now but the recent economic turmoil has delayed the launch. In the meantime, his readers have benefited from his interesting commentary and frequently prescient predictions.

The posts below were written before yesterday’s Federal Reserve announcement of historic interest cuts to near zero and its pledge to buy stressed securities and perhaps even long-term treasuries. The question is whether this will indeed lead to borrowing and spending, especially if unemployment rates continue to ramp up and if business confidence does not improve. If successful, we then have to deal with the inflationary implications of money creation and a deficit in the untold $ trillions. (Is borrowing good? Isn’t that one of the reasons we got into this mess in the first place?)

In spite of FDR’s attempt to work our way out of the Depression with the New Deal, it finally took the enormous deficit spending of WWII and of course the employment of millions by the military and by the industries needed to support the war effort, thereby ending the worst economic downturn in our history. It also required people to rally, sacrificing, working towards a common goal.

In other words, it takes more than spending. Perhaps that is another distinction between today’s economic crisis and what we faced during the Depression. Can President-elect Obama successfully make our decaying infrastructure and need for energy independence our “war?” Will we pull together or pull apart?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It’s Different This Time

Those are the famous words that have been used to explain any stock market anomaly. They were used in the era as the NASDAQ approached 5,000 to justify the heady prices at the time, or when oil was leaping towards $150 per barrel. But any parabolic rise or fall must regress to the mean. Or so it’s been in my lifetime

I need not go into detail here concerning all the dominant economic undercurrents of today, the toxic assets the TARP program was thought to be resolving, the government’s support of the Bear Stearns takeover, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailouts of AIG, Freddie and Fannie, the discussions of bailing out Detroit’s automakers, the reverberations in the financial markets throughout the globe. However, as a child of depression era parents, I guess subliminally I’ve always feared the unspeakable: a deflationary spiral with no bottom in sight. And somehow if does FEEL different this time.

Having lived through several economic cycles and piloting a business through them, the implosion of equity values in the 70’s, the subsequent threat of hyperinflation, the high interest rates of the early 80’s, the collapse of real estate in the 90’s, the run-up on the heals of dire Y2K warnings, and finally the easy money that led to this decade’s real estate run up and the interconnected toxic financial instruments engineered by financial institutions and hedge funds to make them rich, leaving someone else (us) to hold the proverbial bag. But as a society we were willing participants, eagerly spending what we didn’t have; let future generations do the worrying! Our entire culture cried out buy, why postpone what you can have today, so we bought McMansions, Hummers, luxury goods, vacations, whatever our consumptive libidos desired, using our homes and credit cards as piggy banks.

And that is why this economic era does feel different than prior ones, at least to me, someone who has lived through these various cycles but only in the shadow of the Great Depression. We are just beginning to embark on the convulsive purging of these excesses. How it will end is anyone’s guess. Even Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, looks like a deer in the headlights, changing his mind about using the $700 billion to buy bad mortgage debt securities (the very $$ Congress had to immediately authorize as financial Armageddon was imminent), probably because he knows it’s not enough. And humbled Alan Greenspan, looking completely bewildered in his testimony to Congress in late October: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms. Free markets did break down, and I think that, as I said, that shocked me. I still don't fully understand how it happened or why it happened.”

We had long placed Mr. Greenspan on a pedestal, trying to decipher “Greenspeak,” looking for little nuggets of wisdom to reassure ourselves that this time it was different as he ratcheted down interest rates for our borrowing pleasure. Now he is clearly admitting he has no clue why the present economic catastrophe has devolved. At least he can afford to admit his misjudgments, as he is no longer the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. But we now listen to Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Paulson, desperately clinging to the hope THEY know what they’re talking about. The only certainty now is nothing is predictable. It’s different this time.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Political Cynicism

Here is one way to define the concept. Lead our country to the brink of economic disaster. Have the very administration which brought us there propose an emergency $700 billion “fix” to provide liquidity so our economic circulatory system does not seize up, the plan proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, with our President finally making a speech to the nation in which he warns of the dire consequences of congress not acting immediately. Congressional hearings immediately ensue, with the Democratic majority buying into the need for action. Both sides of the isle agree to the basic principles, including oversight protection, and we are told a deal is imminent. But wait, the Republican presidential candidate returns to Washington, on his white horse, his pearl handle pistol at his side and suddenly there is no agreement. A dangerous game of chicken unfolds: “If the Democrats and the President want the plan, let them pass it” the Republican choir sings. Heads we win, tails you lose. America or politics first?

PS Washington Mutual was just closed by the US Government, the largest failure of a US bank.