Showing posts with label Financial Crisis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Financial Crisis. Show all posts

Monday, March 19, 2012


An attention-grabbing article is in the March 26th The New Yorker: "Replay; As he faced an ailing economy, what could Obama have done differently?" by John Cassidy. Actually it is an book review of "The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery" by Noam Scheiber, a review that somewhat undermines the subtitle of the book, as Cassidy's opening sentence sets the stage for the entire article: "In Presidential politics, timing is everything" -- reminding me of an entry I wrote a couple of months ago.

I've cobbled together a couple of quotes from that entry, and strung them together, making a similar point about timing: "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.....[But] when it comes to the economy I can neither give Obama credit nor condemnation.....Capitalism is a story of inherent cycles."

One thing is for sure: we averted economic catastrophe during the Obama administration, but could have things have been handled more perfectly, perhaps so. He certainly could have managed expectations better and favored housing issues over health care at the onset of his Presidency. But he had no direct control over some of the issues that are the consequence of economic cycles, just as he has no direct control over the price of gas where geopolitical issues dominate. But we've heard Republican cries of "vote for me for $2.50 gas" Why not $1.99 or for that matter $0.99?....

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Two stories today. This first one is from the New York Times Timeless Lincoln Memento Is Revealed describes the very careful opening of the back of Lincoln’s first watch -- by the National Museum of American History -- as it was thought a secret message was inscribed therein. Indeed, there was “a message secretly engraved by a watchmaker who repaired it in 1861” which read as follows: Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.

Here was an immigrant watchmaker who grasped the significance of the moment and felt compelled to inscribe his observations for some future generation, inside the watch of the President of the United States, which, as fate would have it, he happened to be repairing.

I juxtapose this story to this magnificent NASA photograph of the Shuttle that was taken last night with the full moon. It is scheduled to blast off tonight. We visited the Kennedy Space Center a couple of years ago with our friends Beny and Maria who live in Sicily. Another Shuttle was on the launching pad at the time, almost an incomprehensible sight because of the scale of the Shuttle and its supporting structure.

From the near dissolution of the United States to the technology that can achieve such a scientific feat, in less than 150 years. Any country that can accomplish that should be able to find the resolve and the means to end the present financial crisis. We would all like to say: thank God we have a government.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Music For Our Times

Maybe it is merely a coincidence that directly or indirectly through professional musicians I recently received emails with the text of Karl Paulnack’s welcome address that was given to entering freshmen at the Boston Conservatory. Although this was made last September it is just making the rounds via email.

The timing of this address, at least the timing of it becoming well known at this particular moment in our economic malaise, is noteworthy. For the past decade we have “mortgaged” the country’s future for fast, easy gains, and government, corporate America, and consumers alike have been complicit in this unprecedented moral breakdown, perhaps similar to the roaring 20's, resulting in the depressed 30's which only WW II could rescind. Today we are left with the consequences of failing financial institutions, declining residential and commercial property, and other gathering storms, bad consumer loans and ultimately failing municipalities as their taxing power is dependent on a strong labor market and real estate values, and finally inflation. And the global nature of the crisis just makes it more frightening. This collapse is building a crescendo of anxiety.

It is easy to think of the arts being irrelevant in such an atmosphere. This is the very idea that Paulnack’s address contradicts. In fact, music is not only relevant but also essential to our survival. This address by the director of the Boston Conservatory music division who is also an accomplished pianist should be required reading during these tumultuous times.

Paulnack reminds as that even in WWII’s concentration camps there was music. “Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, ‘I am alive, and my life has meaning.’”

Or after 9/11 the author remembers, “people sang around fire houses, people sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event…was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.”

The essence of his message is “music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.” He therefore charges the incoming freshman: “I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

The full address can be read here.

Perhaps this is one of those times when music “is needed to make sense of our lives.” Music is among the oldest of human activity (certainly predating economics!) and as Daniel Levitin states in his innovative work This is Your Brain on Music, an argument “in favor of music’s primacy in human (and proto-human) evolution is that music evolved because it promoted cognitive development. Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”

One of my favorite melodies is from a similar era, the depression years, the plaintive, ironical song, Smile, written by Charlie Chaplin, for the 1936 film Modern Times, in which he starred. In the film, Chaplin’s Little Tramp struggles to survive the Great Depression and the indifference of the modern industrialized world. The song’s melody captures the sadness of the times while the lyrics remind us to “smile and maybe tomorrow, you'll see the sun come shining through.” This is my own brief piano rendition of Smile in Windows Media format.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The 177K

“I looked at my 401K and it’s now a 201K ba-dum-bum-CHING!" So, the joke goes today, but, don’t look now, it’s a 177K based on the S&P 500 as shown below. If you were able to buy the inverse of the change in the National Debt during the same period, your 401K would be a 485K. Interestingly, invested in gold it would be about the same, 498K, and with the 30 year Treasury bond you’d have a 544K for the same period. So much for hindsight, but much to be said about asset allocation.

The water torture nature of the decline in equity values, without the capitulation everyone has been waiting for, as well the disappearance of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and the implosion of AIG, Bank of America, Citi, GM and, now, even GE, speaks worlds about the gravity of the situation. AIG has become a bottomless pit into which we have dumped $170 billion in taxpayer’s money and now have 79.9% ownership of an asset that seems destined to become a black hole of unknown proportions. While President Obama’s sincerity in following through on promises for health care reform and other social issues is applauded – and highly trumpeted on the government’s new web site -- if our financial institutions entirely fail, everything else becomes meaningless.

Paul Volcker gave one of the clearest explanations as to how we got to this point in a speech he gave in Canada a couple of weeks ago, saying “this phenomenon can be traced back at least five or six years. We had, at that time, a major underlying imbalance in the world economy. The American proclivity to consume was in full force. Our consumption rate was about 5% higher, relative to our GNP or what our production normally is. Our spending – consumption, investment, government — was running about 5% or more above our production, even though we were more or less at full employment. You had the opposite in China and Asia, generally, where the Chinese were consuming maybe 40% of their GNP – we consumed 70% of our GNP.”
Full text:

He argued, “in the future, we are going to need a financial system which is not going to be so prone to crisis and certainly will not be prone to the severity of a crisis of this sort.” In effect the Glass-Steagall Act that had been enacted during Depression 1.0 separating commercial and investment banks -- and had been repealed in 1999 thanks to Phil Gramm and other deregulation zealots– needs to be reinstated during this Depression 2.0. Where is Paul Volcker to lead the way back to the 401K?

October-07 401K
November-07 383K
December-07 380K
January-08 357K
February-08 344K
March-08 342K
April-08 359K
May-08 362K
June-08 331K
July-08 328K
August-08 332K
September-08 301K
October-08 251K
November-08 232K
December-08 234K
January-09 214K
February-09 190K
March-09 177K

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Financial Crucible

I was watching some of the House Financial Services Committee’s hearings yesterday with the chief executives of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, State Street Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, and Bank of New York sitting there like a bunch of guilty school boys, being berated by their elders. These firms were the lucky recipients of the $700 billion banking bailout.

A number questions were posed to score points for our lawmakers, questions that were expected to be answered by a show of the hands so we all can see the scarlet letter of guilt. Questions along the lines of “how many of you have received government money but have changed your credit card terms?” The perplexed guilty parties sort of looked at each other (obviously wondering what is meant by the question), and as one would timidly raise his hand, the others would slowly follow. These questions went on and on, an embarrassment to those who posed them, those who were forced to answer, and those of us who are relying on this “system” to fix the problem. (Although they did manage to get John Mack of Morgan Stanley to say, “We are sorry.”)

Most of these lawmakers are the very ones who once pressured financial institutions to make loans available to everyone no matter what their creditworthiness so they could boast their beneficence to their constituency. And the bankers are the same financial wizards who created leveraged products that passed off tremendous risk to investors, and, now, to us. We also had a Federal Reserve that fed the fire with practically free money, leaving Alan Greenspan recently wondering, “I still don't fully understand how it happened or why it happened.”

One can empathize with the feelings of outrage, especially now that we learn that some seven hundred Merrill Lynch employees “earned” bonuses of more than one million dollars in 2008 as the firm lost $27 billion. Yesterday the apologists on CNBC generally defended Wall Street bonuses because even when a financial firm overall loses money there are individual “producers” who make pockets of money. The CNBC cheerleaders went on to say that these “producers” need to be “incentified” – otherwise they will be left only with their base salaries. Most people might be content with the latter and isn’t this the kind of “incentive” which motivated “producers” to take excessive risk in the first place?

The questions posed at the witch-hunt hearings centered on why banks are not lending out all the money they received. What planet do our representatives live on? You can’t force banks to lend money if people do not have jobs or are worried about losing jobs, and that is the central element in the crucible of today’s financial times. Just a cursory look at the chart Job losses in Recent Recessions prepared by Barry Ritholtz dramatically goes to the heart of the matter:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


It’s been called “draconian” by compensation “experts,” the same ones that are employed by the financial services industry – a proposed cap of $500,000 for the “top executives” of companies receiving the TARP funds. Pass the collection hat for the CEOs of Bank of America, Citigroup, and General Motors who pocketed more than $37 million in total compensation in 2007, probably the peak year of the chimerical financial derivative.

But what about the rouges gallery of financial wizards who misrepresented risks to investors and yet cumulatively pulled down hundreds of $millions from an unsuspecting public and fled the scene, such as John Thain, Stan O’Neal, Robert Rubin, Chuck Prince, Dick Fuld, et al.?

To the rescue, a grass roots “claw-back” movement is underway, orchestrated by Nouriel Roubini, the NYU economist who warned about the current crisis years ago and Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

Unless Rubin and others like him are made to mandatorily return their bonuses or are given some other punishment, the system that regrettably emerges is one "in which it’s the worst of capitalism and socialism, a situation in which profits were privatized and losses were socialized. We taxpayers have the worst."


Monday, January 12, 2009

Bailout Math and Implications

In an effort to try to understand the more than $8 trillion guarantee our government has made to bailout our financial mess, I tried to assemble a spreadsheet and before long I was drowning in acronyms and conflicting information that was beginning to remind me of an elaborate shell game a Bernie Madoff might have constructed. How can we manage to make transparency so confusing?

To the rescue, though, is a magnificent, clear summary published by Bianco Research which came to my attention through the From Behind the Headlines blog by Michael Kahn While the details can be seen from what was published in SFO Magazine here is a summary of Bianco's work (figures are in billions):

Measuring the Size of the Bailouts

THE FEDERAL RESERVE (Net Portfolio Commercial Paper Funding,
Term Auction Facility, Other Assets, Money Market Investor Funding Facility, MBS/FHLB Agency in Reverse Auctions, Term Securities Lending Facility, AIG Loan, Primary Credit Discount, Asset Backed Commercial Paper Liquidity, Primary Dealers and Others, Bear Stearns Assets, Securities Lending Overnight, Secondary Credit)
FEDERAL RESERVE TOTAL $5,065.0 Maximum / $1,839.5 Current

THE FDIC (FDIC Liquidity Guarantees, Loan Guarantee to GE)
FDIC TOTAL $1,539.0 Maximum / $139.0 Current

TREASURY DEPARTMENT (Fannie/Freddie Bailout, Spring 08 Stimulus Package, Treasury Exchange Stabilization Fund, Tax Break for Banks, Citibank Asset Backstop, Tem Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility)
TREASURY DEPT TOTAL $1,803.0 Maximum / $597.0 Current

FHA (Hope for Homeowners) $300 Maximum / $300 Current

DEPT ENERGY (Auto Loans) $25 Maximum / $25 Current

GRAND TOTAL $8,707.0 Maximum / $2,875.5 Current

Here is a translation of how this looks in “real dollars:”

These staggering figures are before the Obama infrastructure / jobs programs get into full swing, so we can be talking about more than $9 trillion. To put this in perspective, according to the Congressional Budget Office GDP in 2009 will be $14.2 trillion, while outlays will be $3.5 trillion and total revenues $2.3, a deficit of some $1.2 trillion.

This assumes we can have confidence in government projections. Looking at the real world in a rear view mirror, this is how the budget deficits have been ramping up the National Debt since the Bush administration took office:

9/30/2000 $5,674,178,209,887
9/30/2001 $5,807,463,412,200
9/30/2002 $6,228,235,965,597
9/30/2003 $6,783,231,062,744
9/30/2004 $7,379,052,696,330
9/30/2005 $7,932,709,661,724
9/30/2006 $8,506,973,899,215
9/30/2007 $9,007,653,372,262
9/30/2008 $10,024,724,896,912
1/8/2009 $10,608,325,323,173

I include the latest figure (more than a $½ trillion increase in only 100 days) from the following handy calculator as it shows a parabolic trend. The extent to which the bailouts work is going to enormously impact the budget projections, both on the revenue and outlay sides of the ledger. Tweaking the former down because of the severity of the recession and the latter upwards because of more bailouts puts us on an irreversible course. It was not long ago that the main discussion concerning the long-term budget centered on the ticking time bombs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These threats have not disappeared, but they become even more formable as our precious resources have to be spent on surviving today to wage that war tomorrow.

The foregoing figures come from the Congressional Budget Office. Their published outlook is remarkably pointed:

The Budget Outlook for 2009
The federal fiscal situation in 2009 will be dramatically worse than it was in 2008. Under the assumption that current laws and policies remain in place (that is, not accounting for any new legislation), CBO estimates that the deficit this year will total $1.2 trillion, more than two and a half times the size of last year’s. As a percentage of GDP, the deficit this year will total 8.3 percent (as compared with 3.2 percent in 2008)––the largest since 1945.

The deterioration in the fiscal picture results from both increased outlays and decreased revenues. Relative to what they were last year, outlays will rise dramatically— by 19 percent according to CBO’s estimates. Much of that increase is a result of policy responses to the turmoil in the housing and financial markets—particularly spending for the TARP and the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In addition, economic developments have reduced tax receipts (particularly from individual and corporate income taxes) and boosted spending on programs such as those providing unemployment compensation and nutrition assistance as well as those with cost-of-living adjustments.

Without changes in current laws and policies, CBO estimates, outlays will rise from $3.0 trillion in 2008 to $3.5 trillion in 2009 (see Table 5). Mandatory spending is projected to grow by almost $570 billion, or by 36 percent; nearly three-quarters of that growth results from the activities of the TARP and CBO’s treatment of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as federal entities. Discretionary spending is projected to grow by $52 billion, or by 4.6 percent. In contrast, net interest is anticipated to decline by 22 percent as a result of lower interest rates and lower inflation. In total, outlays will be equal to 24.9 percent of GDP, a level exceeded only during the later years of World War II.

Spending for certain other mandatory programs is expected to rise sharply this year. The faltering economy has increased outlays for unemployment compensation and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Unemployment compensation is projected to nearly double— from $43 billion last year to $79 billion this year— as a result of increased unemployment and legislation to date extending such benefits. Outlays for the nutrition assistance program are expected to grow by 27 percent— from $39 billion to $50 billion—primarily because of increases in caseloads and benefits (resulting from higher food prices).

The three largest mandatory programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—are all anticipated to record growth of at least 8 percent this year. Some of that growth stems from the relatively high rate of inflation recorded early in 2008, which boosted cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and the cost of health care. In addition, rising unemployment will add to Medicaid spending by increasing the number of beneficiaries.

Discretionary spending under current laws and policies is projected to grow by 4.6 percent in 2009. In CBO’s baseline, defense outlays rise by 5.0 percent and nondefense outlays by 4.1 percent. However, most programs are currently operating under a continuing resolution, which holds funding for 2009 at the level provided for 2008. Final appropriations and additional funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may increase outlays for 2009 and beyond, and any stimulus package may raisediscretionary spending further.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another Ponzi Scheme

Tom Friedman made this observation but here’s some more documentation from the New York Times:

While Bernie Madoff was “making off” with his illegal Ponzi scheme, ignored by the SEC in spite of sufficient smoking guns everywhere, Wall Street, the banking industry, and mortgage brokers, went blithely along with it’s own “legal” Ponzi scheme:
* Borrowing cheap money courtesy of the Fed
* Lending it out with exotic mortgage deals, including nothing down zero interest rate loans, the interest being added to the principal, to borrowers of little ability to pay back the loans, except if real estate values pyramid to infinity
* Packaging these subprime mortgages into CMOs to be sold to gullible investors throughout the world – emphasizing their safety because of “diversification” and AAA debt ratings conferred by rating agencies, based on chimerical insurance contracts issued by under capitalized firms.

Everyone in the Wall Street food chain got rich. As the Times article pointed out, in 2008 “Merrill handed out $5 billion to $6 billion in bonuses that year. A 20-something analyst with a base salary of $130,000 collected a bonus of $250,000. And a 30-something trader with a $180,000 salary got $5 million.” The head mortgage trader for Merrill, Dow Kim, had a salary of $350,000 but with his bonus he “earned” $35 million.

But these riches were based on income that really did not exist, the profits that we, as taxpayers are now trying to restore to our financial system via the bonanza bailout program. Meanwhile, Bernie Madoff is allowed to stay out of jail, putting up “his” Manhattan townhouse as bail, bought with funds of his clients, and Wall Street wiz kids walk around with what is really taxpayer money.

“As a result of the extraordinary growth at Merrill during my tenure as C.E.O., the board saw fit to increase my compensation each year.” — E. Stanley O’Neal, the former chief executive of Merrill Lynch, March 2008

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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We are the Enemy

On that unspeakable day of September 11, 2001 we were in Connecticut, packing for an overseas trip. While the horror unfolded we could see the smoke from the Twin Towers more than fifty miles away across the Long Island Sound against the clear blue sky. I had thought we were confronting the worst of all possible enemies, one that cared not at all about its own life – in fact reveled in martyrdom – one that shared none of our moral values and would be content to wage war guerrilla style with no time constraints.

But, since then, we seem to be waging the battle for them. They no longer have to hijack planes to fly into our buildings as we have hijacked our own economy and can now be held hostage by any dictatorship du jour.

Here’s what we’ve done since that horrific day:
■ Wage an unnecessary war in Iraq that has cost more than one half trillion dollars to date, or $341 million each day.
■ Consume more than 20 million barrels of oil each day of which we produce only about a quarter, meaning we have to send about $2 billion abroad each day a majority of which finds its way to the Middle East, Russia, and South America.
■ Increase our unfunded Social Security and Medicare programs by $33 trillion (yes, trillion) since 2000 to a total of $53 trillion at the end of last year – a liability of about $455,000 for every American household

There is a litany of others that could be added to this list, but suffice it to say, our national debt is increasing at $1.59 billion per day. No wonder the dollar continues to sink which just increases the cost of our imported oil and leaves us even a greater debtor to other countries.

In other postings I’ve cited the work of Bill Gross, the talented bond manager at PIMCO, and John Hussman an economist who runs his own mutual fund. Their two most recent articles touch upon our inability to fess up to the reality, how we continue to report chimerical inflation statistics and focus on monetary policy when our fiscal policy is rotten to the core

If we cannot even acknowledge these economic truths, there can be no national plan to deal with the dire consequences. Then we will not only lose the war, but also be the architect of our own defeat.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Perfect Financial Storm?

The downgrade of AMBAC’s financial-strength rating, and the possibility of downgrades of other bond insurers, including MBIA, could be the beginning of a perfect financial storm. These companies jumped onto the sub-prime lending train, along with major Wall Street financial institutions, to profit from the practice of providing credit to less than creditworthy customers, and with the encouragement of Washington to bring the American dream of homeownership to everyone. While the latter is a nice politically correct thought, greedy investors went along for the ride too, buying up “investment property” and homeowners indulged in the practice of using their homes as a piggy bank to buy luxury items. They used cheap money (thanks to the Federal Reserve) and exotic no money down, no interest payment loans, the repayment of which was dependent on future appreciated real estate values. This pot was mixed by mortgage brokers who could now sell off these loans in neat packages through Wall Street firms, with guarantees from the likes of AMBAC and MBIA. Which brings us to the point of this post.

The bond insurers strayed from their main businesses in their greedy pursuit of a piece of the action, and that is their role insuring new municipal bonds. Cities and counties are dependent on reasonably priced debt to make investments in education and infrastructure. The bond insurers made it possible for many municipal bonds to attain AAA ratings, keeping their borrowing costs relatively low. Whether the bond insurers could actually cover a financial Armageddon, even without the CDO mess, is another issue, but so much of finance and investment is really about confidence, and this is what AMBAC and MBIA insurance conveyed.

Now, we are on the edge of a recession or we are already in one, and how deep it will be and how long, no one can tell, even by our Federal Reserve Chairman, Mr. Bernanke (who has not yet acknowledged we are in a recession). Municipal revenues are already under pressure due to falling property values. Add to that mix a severe recession, uncontrolled energy costs ( and their inability to raise capital, or at least at a reasonable cost without the bond insurers, and one has the perfect financial storm for dramatically decreased spending, loss of jobs, and lack of confidence in the financial system all of which just feeds upon itself in a deepening crisis.

Our chicken little representatives on both sides of the isle are clucking an economic stimulus package such as throwing a few hundred dollars at everyone to spend immediately. Maybe we’ll borrow the money from China or one of the other BRIC countries. Why not, we seem to be content to mortgage our future for immediate gratification.

It seems that a better thought out plan is needed to fix the present structural deficiencies of the financial system. It also wouldn’t hurt to find sounder ways to fund this beginning with reducing the financial hemorrhaging of the Iraq war, not to mention getting our troops home. The “guns and butter” approach has failed us before.