Sunday, January 31, 2010

Leftovers - Radio Show 1/30/2010

During the show we briefly commented that the Fed is considering a new benchmark rate as the current Fed funds rate policy has not been adequate in providing the Fed with control and flexibility.  When the Fed lowered the interest rate as fast and as low as they did, they left themselves with no room to maneuver and control and they had to respond with quantitative easing.  One possible move would be to raise the deposit rate and have the Fed funds rate trade with a spread to that.  The deposit rate could set a floor under the Fed funds rate and give the Fed direct control over a policy rate rather than just targeting a market rate.  Theoretically, this could give the Fed more control to draw excess reserves from banks and control lending as the Fed begins its exit strategies.  There are, however, those who have reservations that the Fed has not been encouraging lending and that quantitative easing as practiced by the US and the UK  may not be able to control inflation effectively and may have the outcome of encouraging the development of a global currency and central planning.

It should be noted that of the developed countries which have weathered the financial crisis relatively well, Canada has a system of more effective financial regulation, Australia has a higher core inflation target rate and a higher interest rate policy, and France did not engage in significant deficit spending to deal with the current financial crisis.  All of these allowed those countries more control over leverage.


We talked about Greece and its recent well received bond issuance and subsequent on-going attack by speculators who are driving up the cost of Greek credit default swaps and increasing the spread between Greek bonds and German bonds.  Greece has a newly elected government which is trying to cut its deficit budget.  It has a significant deficit to GDP, the past government was not supplying accurate economic information to the EU, bonds outstanding are over 200 billion US dollars, a poor private savings rate, and its economy needs stimulus and job creation.  The Eu has said it does not bailout EU countries but the statements have been contradictory even with respect to EU legal authority to provide a bailout.

Part of the problem is that Portugal has similar problems, including a poor private savings rate, and Spain has a significant deficit and is in the process of cutting public sector wages during high unemployment in Spain.  These countries could well be in line after Greece, particularly Spain.  These countries combined with Italy and Ireland have begun to be referred to as the PIIGS.  One of the problems is the EU rule that member countries deficit to GDP be no more than 3%.  During a global financial crisis, this prevents a country like Spain from the fiscal policy spending it needs to spur economic growth and job creation.  It is almost as if the EU is trying to act as if the Euro is a gold standard currency rather than the fiat money it is.  If the EU wants to control spending in member countries, it needs to be prepared to provide targeted lending from wealthier EU countries to assist in spurring economic growth and job creation in countries which are trying to control spending deficits.


Interestingly enough, the EU member states and the ECB combined are the single largest holder of gold reserves in the world.


We also commented on the need for the UK an Dutch to compromise with Iceland over payments under Icesave to the UK and Dutch governments for payments those countries made to their citizens who sought greedy interest rates in Iceland banks and lost their money.  While not required under international law, Ieland has agreed to make a payment of $5.5 billion, but the legislation was vetoed and must now face a national referendum which will likely fail.  The Nordic countries which have backed the IMF loan to Iceland are demanding Iceland make the payments to continue to receive $2.5 billion in loans.  The Icesave payments would be approximately 2% of Iceland's GDP and carry a high 5.55% interest rate, neither of which Iceland can afford.  Iceland has sought mediation and the UK and Dutch should agree to mediation.  A reasonable, compromise interest rate consistent with the lower treasury rates in the UK and the Netherlands would be more appropriate.

Iceland should not be forced by intransigent forces in the UK to default in self protection.  The global consequences of any national default of any developed European nation would ripple through highly leveraged nations.

Last week I mentioned that the recent NBER dating committee statement implied a double dip possibility.   Now, Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns, on the basis of an email exchange he had, is offering a re-interpretation of the NBER statement to suggest depression based on similarities between now and 1929-33 role of the gold standard in inducing debt deflation..  Harrison is arguing that more financial assets must be manufactured or the dynamics of debt deflation will kick in.  He sees only two exit strategies: either manufacture more US denominated financial assets or maintain existing money stock despite the credit claims.  Neither of these are desirable as stand alone policies in my opinion.  Targeted spending  to create jobs and stimulate economic growth through small businesses could diminish and possibly negate a deflationary spiral.  My post below, "It's All About Leverage", addresses this issue.

Mark Thoma of Economist's View had a post referencing the research paper at an IMF conference on the influence of lobbyists in defeating financial regulations, which I have previously discussed.  Thoma also provides a link to an article which discusses the failure to provide financial regulatory reform as the result of this current global financial crisis.  The exceptional influence of lobbyists to neuter and defeat financial regulation and the absolute need to provide significant financial regulatory reform is an issue which I find at the core of our current political inability to act in the public interest.  I have commented on this many times and it appears it will be a long continuing subject.  My post, "Corporate Socialism vs Regulatory Reform", is just the obvious possible conclusions of our present political process.  It is important that the public heat on politicians be amped up and maintained if the dollars of the financial industry lobbyists are to become dead weight in the desert of a long period of slow growth and high unemployment.

President Obama has announced a partial three year budget freeze on discretionary spending beginning with fiscal year 2011 in what appears to be a political bone for the deficit hawks.  This political ploy could have disastrous economic consequences with high unemployment sticking for years.  Even those who have concerns about deficits understand the difference between uncontrolled spending  and targeted spending.  This brings up the question of has President Obama's economic advisors (i.e., Larry Summers) forgotten the mistake of 1937 when Roosevelt tried to negate conservative criticism of government spending  and a perception of growing inflation cut government spending significantly and the recession flared back up with a vengeance.  Krugman and other economists as well as i have long maintained the stimulus was too small (only 5% of what was given the banks and AIG in the bailout) and that a second stimulus which more efficiently targets job creation now and small businesses is necessary to avoid the possibility of a double dip.

At the same time Tyler Durden of zero hedge has put forward a detailed argument that it will be more and more difficult to find indiscriminate treasury buyers and sees a $700 billion US funding hole.  His post is very detailed and you should read it completely.  Again, this goes straight to the issue of how leverage should be used in the current financial crisis in this country.  Inefficient deficit spending is destructive while targeted spending which stimulates economic growth and creates jobs now is constructive.

Spain will cut $70.2 billion in public sector wages and take other steps to reduce its budget deficit which is presently at 11.4% of GDP.

Ireland is facing mounting mortgage defaults.

Fed Governor Kohn said banks face interest rate risks if the Fed raises interest rates.

The 16 member EU inflation rate rose less than 1% in Q4.

UK GDP Q4 rose one-tenth of one percent.

Ford posted 2009 profits of $2.7 billion, which was its first full year profit since 2005.

Verizon had a $653 million Q4 loss with EPS falling 11.5% to 54 cents per share and revenue up 10% but below views.  Verizon will layoff approximately 13,000 enployees or 6% of workforce.

Dow Chemical Q4 profit was 44 cents per share beating estimates by 3 cents with sales up 12%.  It raised its 2010 EPS estimate to $2.15 - 2.45.

Whitacre assumed permanent CEO job at GM rather than find an outside successor.  While this may have short term positive results, it will not create the long term changes needed at this company.

Treasury auctions:

2yr Treasury, $44 billion, yield .88%, bid-to-cover 3.15, foreign interest 43.11%.

5yr Treasury, $42 billion, yield 2.37%, bid-to-cover 2.81, foreign interest 52.97%.

7yr Treasury, $32 billion, yield 3.127%, bid-to-cover 2.856, foreign interest 51.06% but foreign interest is usually about 56%.






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Friday, January 29, 2010

It's All About Leverage

Last week, both Rajiv Sethi and then Mark Thoma, who republished Sethi's post with an additional interview and links, had posts on John Geanakoples and his general equilibrium model of asset pricing.  In this model leverage along with collateral and default play a key roles.  This is a concept he has been developing since a paper first published in 1997.  The catalyst for these posts is a paper entitled "The Leverage Cycle" which is to be published early this year in the NBER Macroeconomics Annual, which means it will be available for purchase only to non-members.  However, he has published a version dated January 2010 as a discussion paper at the Cowles Foundation.  Of the series of papers preceding this, there is one on leverage cycles which contains a considerable amount of the mathematical logic involved in the model.

The attention arises, because this leverage model provides a theoretical model for understanding how we arrived at the current financial crisis, how we can recognize asset bubbles, and implies the use of leverage once an economy is in a financial crisis.  In good times, in the absence of intervention, asset prices and leverage are too high and, in bad times, asset prices and leverage are too low.  His conclusion that the Fed should actively "manage system wide leverage, curtailing leverage in normal or ebullient times, and propping up leverage in anxious times", to me, offers an opportunity to formulate a Leverage Rule, despite not being responsive to only inflation and output gap.

The Leverage Cycle model includes distribution of wealth across individuals (level of inequality), heterogeneous agents, , incomplete markets, asymmetric  information, and endogenous leverage cycles..  The looser the collateral requirements, the higher asset prices will be.  With leverage as endogenous rather than fixed, as in prior equilibrium models, then the extent of leverage should be determined jointly with the interest rate for loans in the market, which means one must recognize that loan contracts can differ along both dimensions of leverage and interest rates.  As Sethi surmises, this means "Conceptually, we must replace the notion of of contracts as ordered pairs of promises and collateral."

Bernanke has been very adamant that the Fed cannot recognize asset bubbles prior to bursting, although he has recently, although reluctantly, indicated that it would be appropriate if the Fed could recognize asset bubbles, while still equivocating that he does not see how it could be done practically.  The Leverage Cycle shows that in crisis leverage becomes too low.  In the current crisis we continue to see deleveraging in housing and credit default swaps.  I have been very adamant that the unregulated growth of derivatives privately trade rather than public traded on a transparent market multiplied the leverage in the economy, not just housing but also in any other area of credit.

When I read The Leverage Cycle and its use of endogenous leverage, Steve Keen and his modeling of endogenous money supply and how similar the two models are immediately leapt into my mind.  There are those who have claimed that Steve Keen predicted the current financial crisis.  Keen's recent post on why Bernanke should not be reappointed Fed chairman (which he was yesterday and I have been ambivalent on his reappointment for a variety of reasons too long for here) is a good example of Keen and Geanakoples have both used Irving Fisher, as he corrected himself post 1929 Crash.  Keen argues that Bernanker, despite being a scholar of the Great Depression does not understand the Great Depression, because Bernanke, by his published work and his public actions, has apparently never considered Fisher's argument that over-indebtedness and low inflation in the 1920's created a chain reaction which caused the Great Depression.  Fisher also delineated a dynamic process in which falling asset and commodity prices create pressure on nominal debtors, forcing distress sales, which in turn lead to further price declines and financial difficulties.  In other words, a financial crisis is a debt driven disequilibrium in which current equilibrium models of inflation and output gaps do not work and The Great Moderation, with its false belief in the end of economic volatility with greater economic predictability which encouraged increased debt levels and insufficient acknowledgment of risk, has been revealed as The Great Enabler.  Keen shows that an analysis of debt, aggregate demand, and nominal GDP could be used by the Fed to identify potential problems and the possibility that one or more asset bubbles exist.  Consequently, Bernanke's actions once the crisis erupted did reduce the immediate impact, but Keen is adamant that Bernanke and the Fed could have seen it coming if Bernanke and other economists had not ignored the debt-driven cause of The Great Depression.

To me, John Geanakoples and Steve Keen are working towards the same concept from divergent perspectives but common ground.  To me, it also brings into question how liquidity has been used and distributed during the crisis and its impact on the distribution of wealth and aggravation of income equality.  It also reinforces my long held belief that the fiscal stimulus was too little, too slow in spending, and not efficiently targeted towards correcting unemployment quickly.  By not utilizing fiscal policy to significantly improve unemployment by the end of Q2 2010, which I have maintained was necessary for almost year or more, the government and the Fed have insured this recession will linger for an intolerable period with preferential liquidity practices (bailouts) and the inefficient increase in national debt.




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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Corporate Socialism vs Regulatory Reform

The failure of Congress to pass any meaningful financial regulatory reform, establish transparent derivatives markets, or even attempt to establish usury laws with respect to credit cards as well as the power of banking and financial industry lobbyist to gut, neuter, and transform proposed regulations into money cascades has illuminated that we no longer live in a free capitalist society in which there is access to opportunity and an even playing field on which talent and ability prevail as opposed to activity/results rewards of the closed, exclusive social structure of criminal enterprises.

Joseph Stiglitz has again re-emphasized that today's corporate world tramples shareholders as if they were serf's who have no need to own property or money and in which the managers (employees of the shareholders as owners of the corporation) get to keep excessive profits personally and, when the managers incur losses as the result of excessive risk taking, they dump the losses on the shareholders and society.  In doing so, the managers have privatized the gains and socialized the losses.  They have been allowed through deregulation and lax regulation to develop financial products that create risk rather than manage risks.

IN his new book, Freefall, Stiglitz specifically addresses this direct assault on capitalism by the reckless greed of financial product peddlers which has significantly aggravated income inequality and the diminishment of the middle class without which a republican democracy cannot survive much less flourish.  When the risk taking fails, society is left paying the tab while the corporate managers keep the profits.  In this recession the inadequate stimulus, which spent too little too slowly without properly targeting unemployment, amounted to only 5% of the money the banks and other financial companies got.  The trust has been broken.  Those who caused the problem should bear the brunt of paying for the problem, but we allow them, instead, to continue business as usual and tell the common man to suck it up.  Enough is enough.  "We have altered not only our institutions --- encouraging ever increasing concentration in finance --- but the very rules of capitalism.  We have created an ersatz capitalism with unclear rules -- but with a predictable outcome: future crisis, undue risk taking at the public expense, no matter what the promise of a new regulatory regime, and greater inefficiency."

Stiglitz, in the above excerpt from his book, also emphasized how the current financial crisis has exposed the division within our society: "This crisis has exposed fissures in our society, between Wall Street and Main Street, between America's rich and the rest of our society.  While the top has been doing very well over the last three decades, incomes of most Americans have stagnated or fallen."  But the United States has chosen to go in a completely different direction by lessening competition and strengthening the grip of a corrupt financial oligarchy as it seeks to achieve objectives of a world market.

Even within the sheltered world of the Risky Rich, an awareness is showing its rebellious head within the very bastions of finance.  Albert Edwards, a chief strategist for Societe Generale, has written "Theft!  Were the US and UK central banks complicit in robbing the middle classes?"  He asserts that the central banks were actively complicit in an aggressive re-distribution policy benefiting the very rich by the creation of housing bubbles through increased leverage with derivatives and a mollifying increased leverage availability for the consumer, which in actuality extracted equity from the middle class.  He lays the problems not at the feet of the banks but with the monetary and regulatory authorities.  Edwards goes into detail on central bank policies in facilitating the process and how it has also aggravated income inequality which has contributed to an under-consumption problem, because the rich have a relatively low marginal propensity to consume.  Citing the work of Emmanuel Saez, the peaks of income skewness "... tell us there is something fundamentally unsustainable about excessively uneven income distribution."  He concludes the ordinary working people would not have gone along with these redistributive policies if they had not trusted the central banks.

Dan Geldon, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has written "How Supposed Free-Market Theorists Destroyed Free-Market Theory" in which he cites the deregulatory push within American society since World War II and how the analysis of the current crisis, with its information asymmetry, moral hazard, and agency costs, reveals glaring holes in free-market theory as it has been distorted by the supposed heirs of Hayek and Friedman.  Geldon particularly concentrates on the proliferation and growth of fine print, complex products with hidden costs and dangers. Complexity was touted as innovation while government interference was pilloried.  Yet, consumer contracts became so complex not even lawyers could interpret or understand them.  This has amounted to a corporate assault on contract law which is the bedrock of capitalism.  These complex contracts not only harmed consumers but municipalities, who were lured into buying derivatives, and institutional investors.

Geldon continues his argument to deride the current success of financial lobbyists in preserving the implicit government guarantee created by the bailout which allows large banks to access capital more cheaply than smaller banks and to leverage power.  These market distortions have allowed the financial industry to reduce real competition with massive consolidation and excessive leverage in dictating terms and conditions within the economy under the well-worn guise of freedom to contract and freedom to choose while actually doing just the opposite with complex contracts purposefully designed to deceive and plunder.   In doing so, they have betrayed Hayek and Friedman, while asserting "industry interests" over "free-market interests", and turned free-market theory and capitalism upside down into nothing less than corporate socialism.

We need meaningful financial reform, transparent markets, and corporations who are responsible to and answerable to their shareholders.  The bailouts have exposed precisely what is wrong with corporate management, regulators who look the other way, central banks complicit ignorance of asset bubbles, governments which support the rich rather than exercise fiscal policy which benefits society as a whole, and the insidious corruption of lobbyists and Congress which excludes the people as worthless rabble without influence.



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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Leftovers - Radio Show 1/23/2010

In yet another example of the facade over substance of the proposed "Volcker" Rule announced by President Obama, Austan Goolsbee, an economist on the Council of Economic Advisors, said the bank reform will not do a "full" Glass-Steagall.  It is aimed at limiting banks from investing their own capital in hedge funds, private equity funds, and engaging in proprietary trading.  Already there is rampant speculation as to how to define "proprietary trading" when everyone knew what it was two days ago.  We have previously disclosed other "limiting details" from the background briefing to the media, but here is more from the actual briefing which further confirms the Administration is not moving against the banks as is but against some nebulous, undefined future.  This not reform.

It is apparent that all the market indexes are at a low resistance line, which means Monday will be very interesting, and that investors looking for safety are going to be very challenged.  Yields on money markets, Cds, and short term Treasuries are too low and long term Treasuries and bonds may have interest rate risk going forward.  John Hussman has written in his weekly commentary that he expects inflation to be a problem in the latter part of the next decade.  I think it will be a problem when the Fed tries to exit quantitative easing and then again when it attempts to sell the MBS it has bought.  The Fed has already shown an ineptitude in recognizing the strangulation of the recovery by its failure to address unemployment, preferring instead to encourage banks to not lend while unemployment keeps inflation down during this continuing deleveraging process.  Hussman also questions China's ability to sustain economic growth.  He thinks there will be a second wave of credit losses.  His commentary then proceeds to provide an explanation of inflation, the misconceptons of inflation, and how it arises.

The European Union said it is going to investigate high frequency trading, which already constitutes 42% of the U.S. market, as well as dark pools.

The FDIC's Bair urged banks to recognize losses related commercial real estate loans on their books.  Fitch has indicated that loan delinquencies on commercial real estate securities will not peak until 2012, although they have already risen 5 times what they were one year ago.  At the end of 2009 the rate was 4.71% and is expected to peak at 12%.  In 2009, commercial real estate surpassed residential real estate as the worst performing property class.  There is $3.5 trillion in CRE debt outstanding with little equity buffer.

Australia may carefully withdraw stimulus measures as private demands recovers, but signaled there would be no overnight withdrawal which would hurt confidance, small business, and job creation.  Here is a Central Bank which is concerned about unemployment.  It is also a central bank who core target inflation rate is 3% and which did not lower its interest rate as fast or as far as the Fed and has raised it at least twice since to protect its currency from the weak U. S. dollar.  Because its interest rate policies were not unduly low prior to the financial crisis, it had a more shallow housing bubble.

ECB Giverning Council member, Nowotny, does not see EU falling back into recession, no double dip.  He said they may have to copy the Fed's plans to squeeze excess cash out of the banking system.  This is contrary to the current ECB policy of charging banks for depositing excess reserves with the ECB rather than lending it.  Nowotny heads the Austrian Cental bank and he warned that the EU will not bailout Greece or any other country.

The head of the International Monetary Fund warned countries may suffer a double dip if they begin exit strategies too soon without adequate recovery in private demand and employment.

New York Fed President Dudley said persistently tight credit and high unemployment are putting a damper on the economic recovery and circumstances are far from where the Fed wants them to be.  He also defended the Fed's extraordinary response to the financial crisis, including the controversial bailouts of financial institutions.

The World Bank said there is a modest recovery under way but it could quickly lose steam as central banks and governments begin to pull extra liquidity.  It indicated this may place an economic burden on developing countries in managing debt and sustaining economic growth.

Paul Krugman has written that the Obama Administration has not been able to move health care, a more targeted stimulus, and any meaningful financial regulatory reform because the Obama Administration has been guided by poor policy and political misjudgments. He compares the Obama Administration with that of Reagan.  While Krugman thinks there is little Obama can do about job creation right now, I think he must fiscally target job creation which creates jobs now not two years down the road in green energy jobs which will soon be outsourced to cheaper foreign work places.

What keeps the AIG bailout controversial is that it is at the center of what was wrong with the bank bailouts.  The New York Fed told AIG to stand down on any discussions about unwinding its CDO portfolio at less than full value.  Emails have been released which detail the New York Fed helping AIG build a case to keep the CDO payments secret.  It is obvious Geithner will testify next week that he had no knowledge.  Yves Smith of naked capitalist has detailed that the efforts to keep the Maiden Lane III details secret are an attempt to keep public information confidential.  She indicates it appears that the Fed does not want to disclose it has the AIG assets on its books at full value rather than whatever their real illiquid value may be.  In a later post she provided a more detailed analysis of the CDOs.  Then she followed up with another post on how the details are actually publicly available.  This is the best succinct and practical analysis I have read of the AIG CDO bailout controversy.

Meanwhile AIG is asking its employees who receive retention bonuses to take a 15% cut and get their bonuses earlier than the March payment in order for the savings to be used to pay the federal government the $165 million dollars that the employees did not repay as promised in 2009.  To make it even worse, 40% of the absolutely essential people who are receiving these retention bonuses are no longer AIG employees,

This week saw more monetary policy tightening from China as China asked some banks to curb lending and turned their attention to controlling inflation while its Q4 GDP grew at 10.7% and 8.7% for 2009.  This will continue to be a direct pressure on the recovery, the stock market, and international mutual funds.

The EU remained strident in its calls for Greece to get tough on budget cuts.  This concentration on a country's debt level to GDP rather than on the country's use of properly targeted spending to stimulate the country's economy is baffling as it is reminiscent of economic policy under a gold standard rather than the current fiat currency and modern monetary theory.  It is directly harming not only Greece, which badly needs to redraw its budget and become more efficient in its spending and appears to be making a very serious attempt to do so, but it is also preventing Spain from doing what it needs to stimulate its economy.  At some point in time the EU is going to have to come to grips with the destructive nature of this monetary policy trumping individual country's need for fiscal stimulus as tension also continues to build in Portugal, Italy, and Ireland.  If Greece or these other countries are forced to fiscally tighten, a deep recession will result in these countries.  Despite EU repeated statements it will not bailout any country, many economic commentators do not believe the EU could accept the consequences of a member country's default.

The continued UK and Dutch insistence Iceland to repay UK and Dutch payments to investors within their countries who deposited money at high rates in Iceland banks which were then taken over by the Iceland government is nothing short of international extortion.  It threatens the continued IMF loan to Iceland which the country badly needs.  Although the IMF says it is not dependent on Iceland's actions in submitting the UK and Dutch payment plan to national referendum, the Nordic "common view" of the Nordic countries which are actually making the IMF loan payments to Iceland is that Iceland adhere to a depositor guarantee requirement which is actually not required under EU law.  If the UK, Dutch, and the Nordic countries want Iceland to default, do they want to be named as the culprits who accelerated this global recession?

UK retail sales in December were up 3/10ths of a percent (expected 1.1%) and up 2.1% vs year ago.
German manufacturers orders were up 2.8% in November; capital goods orders were up 6.2% (prior report has a 6.7% drop).  This will likely boost Q4 GDP.
Eurozone industrial new orders were up 1.6% in November, which was 3 times expectations.




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Friday, January 22, 2010

This Recession is Not Over

The Big Picture commented on a recent National Bureau  of Economic Research statement by their Business Cycle Dating Committee in which they said, " In both recessions and expansions, brief reversals in economic activity may occur --- a recession may include a short period of expansion followed by further decline; an expansion may include a short period of contraction followed by further growth."  The Big Picture than looked at the St. Louis Fed tracking the recession indicators page and found the indicators clearly in conflict with each other.

Credit Writedowns cited the above article and then carried it further by going through a series of NBER member comments and statistical indicators throughout last year which were used to argue the recession is over.  Ed Harrison also continues his criticism of economic multipliers.  Despite when the recession may have technically ended or whether it is a real or fake recovery, Credit Writedowns still continues to point to a depression with a small "d" and a coming double dip.

Many commentators and economists have been warning about the possibility of a double dip just as we have for many months.  At the very least, given the over valuation of the stock market, we have yet to see a healthy 10% correction from this March 2009 rally which would shake out some of the over valuation.  A double dip is a 30%-50% correction. 

As we have reported on the Radio Show, there has been speculation the Fed or U.S. Treasury may be buying S&P futures each month and selling them each month which would inject a large multiple amount into stock market equity.  This began with a Trim Tabs report that could not account for all the sources of money invested in the stock market beginning with the March rally.  If the Fed or Treasury were buying equities or futures contracts to boost the market, this is not illegal.  At the same time, it has also been noted that there has been an informal 1989 agreement the Fed, banks, and stock exchanges to buy stock if there appears to be a problem.  We have commented that the March 2009 rally has moved forward without apparent reason on large volume increases towards the end of the trading day which do not appear normal.  We have also commented that this rally has been used by the banks to raise capital through debt and stock issuance.

It is now being speculated that the Fed is timing MBS purchases with options expiration week each month.  This actually appears to be a reasonable market timing method and not a manipulation.  Its primary impact will be when The Fed begins to sell MBS and how that will affect the market.

Of more concern, one Treasury trader has observed that there is a very well organized buying surge of U.S.Treasury denominations, driving the price up,  2 weeks to 1 week prior to the Fed making an announcement it would be buying that denomination at the inflated price.  The question is this front running and, if it is, who is doing it?  Is it a Fed tool to increase the price of Treasury denominations or is someone trading on illegal information?

As we have been reporting, there are a variety of unusual and repetitious market activities beginning with the March 2009 rally that have market analysts scratching their heads and trying to find rational explanations.  It makes this "bullet proof" rally all the more weak in a rational market context.


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Banking Reform & Geithner

As we wrote yesterday, the new proposal to limit the scope and size of systemically dangerous banks appears to be very limited and vague.  We used the specific information of the background briefing after the announcement which indicated the size of banks would be limited "as is".  This is in line with the soft bank tax previously announced of 15 basis points on banks with $50 billion only to discover, despite the cries of anguish from bankers, that the bank tax is deductible on their corporate tax returns.

Much of the concern from the scope and limit proposals yesterday is circling around proprietary trading and how will proprietary trading be defined.  If everyone knew what comprised proprietary trading before yesterday, why is the definition so obscure today?  It is not just a matter of asking all the attorneys to leave the room, the smoky confusion is also emanating from the aft decks of the retreating banking fleet.  The banking analyst Meredith Whitney has questioned the meaning of scope and size with emphasis on proprietary trading.  In actuality, proprietary trading in easily defined by its operational  impact and purpose.

The absolute vagueness of yesterday's proposals have engendered a response that it is a political play and not designed to be a substantial reality.  Given the need for financial reform and the failure of Congress and the President to push any effective financial reform with real teeth to fruition, this new emphasis needs to be very real or the public will seek change elsewhere.

Of more concern is comments by Treasury Secretary Geithner would appear to further confirm that either the Administration is not serious or he is not on board with limiting the scope and size of banks, because he has voiced concern that the proposals, which he supposedly helped draft with Larry Summers and Paul Volcker, would sacrifice good economic policy.  Did anyone see Larry Summers at President Obama's announcement yesterday?  Of even more concern is Geithner's PBS interview in which he answered "No, this does not propose that" to a question is this meant the break up of big banks.

Any attempt at financial regulatory reform must include a definition of "systemically dangerous".  The term "Too Big To Fail" is bogus and misleading as we have discussed many times and as Joseph Stiglitz has enumerated on more than one occasion.  Systemically dangerous should not just be banks but any financial institution whether it is a hedge fund, insurance company, or some other company engaged in shadow banking.

This Administration has put forward too many proposals without specific details, which has allowed the lobbyists to mangle, neuter, and fulgaratively defenestrate originally content empty legislation.  It is time to be purposeful and definitive.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

To Systemically Dangerous Banks: No More Hostages

In my last post I talked about FDR's 1936 speech in which he threw down the gauntlet and challenged the bankers with a clear, defining word picture: "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob."

In our last post we talked about the need for President Obama to step up to his vision of change and stop avoiding the consequences of real financial regulatory reform.  We have repeatedly, through the Radio Show and this blog, conveyed the calls by economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Volcker, for the regulation of systemically dangerous financial institutions (banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, as well as any other member of the shadow banking system), the need for a modern Glass-Steagall bill (Senators Cantwell and McCain have introduced a bill) to remove business activities which are in obvious conflict of interest, the need to transparently monitor and record the transactions of derivatives trading, the need to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, and the need to require fiduciary responsibility since sales people cannot exercise fiduciary duty (which is conflict free).  

We have documented how financial reform has been gutted by banking lobbyists, the CFPA neutered if not aborted, and otherwise filled with so many holes and exemptions as to constitute a coup d'etat by the financial industry.  Derivatives are still not traded on an open market and the only consideration is what derivatives, if any, should be defined as requiring transparent market trading in which the trades are recorded and we have an idea of the extent of synthetic exposure exists globally (it still appears to be over $600 trillion but no one really knows for sure).

Paul Volcker was isolated by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and he defied them and went on a European speaking tour which got wide coverage outside of the United States but was often portrayed within the United States by main stream media as a pathetic "who is listening?".  Today, Paul Volcker stood with President Obama and President Obama said, after the official statement, "Never again will the American taxpayer be held hostage by a bank that is too big to fail."

His proposal would limit scope by preventing a bank from engaging in trading and investment for their own profit and limit size to an unspecified market share of liabilities and deposits.  Just as we disclosed in our last post that his bank tax of 15 basis points was tax deductible to the corporations, the background briefing today after the official statement, indicated the bank size would be limited "as is".

There needs to be a very specific definition of "systemically dangerous", because it is not all about size.  While the big banks are obvious, the shadow banking community which directly participated in the weaving of this financial crisis are dangerous by their very hidden anonymity and business in the unregulated shadows of global finance.

President Obama has tried to placate and please the financial industry on the advice of others and now the American people are speaking out that they have had enough and they want the systemically dangerous regulated, they want target government programs creating jobs now, and they want the politicians who find lobbyists more important than constituents to have the opportunity to find a new career path which is less parasitic.

Given the failure of other current financial reforms, we need well defined specifics and the public leadership to push those specifics in defiance of organized financial money mobs.  





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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Leftovers - Radio Show 1/16/2010

The Baseline Scenario had a post in which Kevin Drum is asking why President Obama has not, with respect to financial regulatory reform, let us know what side he is on.  James Kwak notes there is no powerful lobbyist support for financial regulatory reform, unless you count Elizabeth Warren who is the Chairperson of the TARP Congressional Oversight panel.  Drum cites FDR's 1936 gauntlet to the bankers and Kwak says it is not too late for Obama to pick up the mantle.

President Obama has three problems in seeking financial regulatory reform and a sustainable economic recovery in which there is job creation: Tim Geithner, Larry Summer, and the people who recommended them.  The economist, Randall Wray, is calling for Geithner to be replaced and a new economic team installed which recognizes: 1) banks are not facing a liquidity crisis, but are insolvent, 2) saving financial systems does not save the economy, 3) all bailouts and guarantees to financial institutions need to be unwound, and 4) a need to understand government finance.

Bill Black, who is a professor of economics and law at the same University as Wray and who has regulatory experience with the unwinding of the Savings and Loan bubble of the 90's, has an article delineating the history of the Federal Reserve's opposition to regulation despite Bernanke's recent statements.  He particularly concentrates on the Greenspan and Bernanke periods, including Bernanke's appointing an economist, Patrick Parkinson,  with no regulatory experience and who has publicly stated derivatives do not need regulation as the Fed's top regulator.

Prior to President Obama announcing a 15 basis points tax on banks liabilities if they have assets of $50 billion or more and accepted TARP money, The Baseline Scenario put forward the argument for a supertax on bank bonuses.  It is expected to raise $90 billion dollars over 10 years, but TARP losses are approximately $117 billion.  While banks call it unconstitutional, others say it does not go far enough.  Some Congressmen have proposed a 50% tax on bank bonuses.  The UK and France already have a tax on bank bonuses but they assessed it wrong by making the banks pay the tax rather than the bankers.

What has not been disclosed in the vast majority of stories about the proposed bank tax is that the tax is deductible on corporate tax returns, consequently reducing the economic impact to the banks by approximately 35%.

Bernanke has been arguing that the housing bubble was not caused by low interest rates but a lack of regulation.  To that end Bernanke has engaged in a direct argument with John Taylor over the effectiveness of the Taylor Rule, which is designed to indicate the appropriate Fed target interest rate. Tyler Cowan has written on the Taylor-Bernanke argument and the failure of the Fed to critique its monetary policy. Taylor has an op-ed piece which is direct reply to Bernanke in which he criticizes the Fed's inflation forecasts and failure to develop a vigilant program for detecting bubbles.  Taylor also has his own blog.

Richard Alford, who is a former NY Fed economist, wrote an article, "Why Bernanke's Defense of Super Low Interest Rates Does Not Hold Up", argues Bernanke's definition of deflation does not hold with Bernanke's favorite  favorite inflation indicator, the PCE.  Alford believes that between 1996 and 2006, there was a fundamental mismatch between the causes of disinflation, unemployment, and the policy steps taken in response with undesirable domestic side effects.  He holds that the Fed should have listened to the many voices after 2002 warning about trade imbalances and decline in private savings.

Tom Duy in his Fed Watch says "It's Not About Interest Rates Yet" and the Fed will hold interest rates at low, rock bottom levels.  Consumers have failed to resume spending,, retail activity remains well below the trend expected in 2007, and there has been no offsetting improvements in trade balances.  The underlying rate of growth is doubtful, industrial production is improving, the reversal of unemployment is elusive, households are hobbled, and the trade imbalance is not turning around.  There is little likelihood interest rates will be raised and the possibility of future asset purchases may be resumed is not unlikely.  I have been saying for some time that, historically, the Fed does not raise interest rates until 12-18 months after the end of a recession.

Hussman still remains concerned about the over valuation of the stock market and the weak recovery.  Consequently, he still expects an abrupt market decline within the next few months.

John Prestbo has written that it appears the stock market inflation adjusted return for 12/31/1999 to 12/31/2009 was actually negative.

John Mauldin still believes in the V-shaped recovery and cites a variety of minor improvements, but still sees 2010 as a year of uncertainty and believes that a tax cut is necessary.  However, I would disagree, because tax cuts have seen growth in unemployment, while tax increases have seen growth in employment.  Government spending spurs employment more than private spending.  I think we need to target creating jobs now with government programs and creating more credit availability for small businesses if we are to see job creation in the foreseeable future.

Nouriel Roubini is saying that the second half of 2010 may bring downside surprises with the possibility of a double dip recession.  The stimulus has not spurred top line revenue growth fast enough and thinks US GDP will be anemic at 2%-3%, which is not enough to drive GDP growth or job creation.

The CFTC has announced proposals to limit big energy traders, but they would apply to only the ten biggest position holders.

ECB Governing Council member, Nowotny, warned that US banks need to curb risk taking.

US banks are lifting executive salaries as they but bonuses just as many have predicted.  They want their cake whatever frosting it has on it.

China's $1.2 trillion 2009 exports edged out Germany's $1.17 trillion to become the world's top exporter.

Central banks in South Korea, Indonesia, India, and Singapore bought US dollars to curb the gains in their currencies.  There was also speculation China would let its yuan rise.

Bullard, St. Louis Fed President, said global growth, particularly in Asia, is driving the US recovery.  I have been saying and publishing in my blog and in nationally published articles that China has a spending bubble, real estate bubble, and increasing use of leverage.  As China tightens its monetary policy, how will that braking effect the global recovery.  I think the stock market showed us an advertisement for what might happen on 1/12.

UK trade deficit decreased November from $11.4 to 11.0 billion; the Canadian trade deficit was $331 million in November, but it was the 4th monthly deficit in five months.

The German economy was down 5% in 2009 as exports fell 14.7% in Q4 and is estimated to grow 1.2%-1.5% in 2010.

China renewed vows to curb real estate speculation amid concerns over a possible asset bubble and said it will keep an eye on excessive lending.

California's credit rating was reduced another level by S&P, which said the state will run out of cash in April.

Foxwoods Casino (owned by The Pequots tribe) is in financial difficulty.  Since the casino is owned by a sovereign tribe, only they can own the casino.  Where does this leave lenders who have no legal right to foreclose?  Why did the lenders provide credit without addressing this issue in the loan contract?

Heineken is to acquire FEMSA in a $7.7 billion deal.

Treasury auctions:
10 yr TIPS, $10 billion, yield 1.43%, bid-to-cover 2.69, foreign 40.7%.
3yr Treasury, $40 billion, yield 1.49%, bid-to-cover 2.98, foreign 38.0%.
10yr Treasury, $21 billion, yield 3.754% (lower than expected), bid-to-cover 3.01 (strong), foreign 29.02% (Primary Dealers took over 50%).
30yr Treasury, $13 billion, yield 4.640%, bid-to-cover 2.69, foreign 40.7%.


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Monday, January 18, 2010

Yield Curve & Bank Profits

Rolfe Winkler published a post in which he showed the banks are not profiting from the steep yield curve.  One reason is the banks are not lending; they are plowing their cash into more liquid securities.  He argues banks need to lend at higher rates, because the curve is steep at low rates and they cannot capture the whole spread based on what they actually have to pay for more deposits.  The banks also carry floating assets in the form of credit card and corporate loans and ARMs that key off indices.  Higher rates would would in turn mean lower real estate prices and higher default rates.

Tyler Durden had a post in which he demonstrated that foreign investors (indirect bidders) were fleeing the short bond.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, foreign investors are buying the longer bonds with steeper yields.  Yet, each auction is seeing high Primary Dealer (US banks and bond broker-dealers) purchases.  With the expectation of inflation around the corner, how are investors going to be persuaded to leave the short-term bills and buy the "riskier" long-term bills?

Karl Denninger observed that the Primary Dealers (banks) are heavy buyers (crowding out?) of the 13 week and 26 week bills with near zero yield.  This means they are not only not lending, but, in my opinion, they are hoarding cash.  The question becomes what do they know?  What makes them afraid to lend and make money?  Who does the steep yield curve benefit?

Econbrowser has published a post breaking down the Fed's recent profit of $46.1 billion given to the Treasury,  Besides finding the number is coincidentally the same as the revenue from US Treasuries and MBS, James Hamilton found the profits were from a strategy of borrowing short and lending long.  The Fed may be funding the purchase of MBS with near zero interest Treasuries.  This means the Fed must be able to continue to rollover the short term debt (continue to convince banks to keep holding excess reserves) or liquidate the long position (sell the MBS) without a loss or uncontrolled impact on interest rates.

We have been commenting for many months that the Fed appears to be encouraging banks to deposit excess reserves rather than lend.  Meanwhile, unemployment will stay high for years, consumer credit and spending will remain low, and small business credit availability will remain unusually low.  For whose benefit is this "recovery"?

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Leftovers - Radio Show 1/9/2010

Paul Krugman had two articles during this week.  His "That 1937 Feeling" warns us of blips, which are statistical illusions, that appear to convey good news and are often caused by inventory bumps, which is when inventory levels have been reduced to the point that they must be at least minimally replenished in order to continue to do business.  He indicates the housing and employment problems are not coming back yet in this recovery, which is something I have been saying for some time.  He indicates a boom in business investment would be very helpful right now, but I have been observing that business lending is down and the Fed appears to be discouraging bank lending by accepting excess reserve deposits without penalty to the depositors.  Krugaman indicates that the current stimulus will have played itself out economically by the middle of 2010 and any attempts by the Fed to exit by ceasing to purchase long-term debt and mortgaged backed securities will amount to monetary tightening without raising interest rates.

Krugman.s "Bubble and the Banks" asserts that the bursting of the housing bubble brought the financial system to a grinding halt with the significant reduction of liquidity in the financial system.  However, the banks got themselves in this plight by raising their leverage ratios in order to maximize short-term profits which directly affected the size of their bonuses.  While their is every need for transparency and regulatory reform, there is every incentive for bankers to engage in a repeat performance as they are now doing.  There needs to be a limit on bank leverage and a tax on excessive risk taking activities.

Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker had a post entitled, "Here It Comes (You Were Just warned Folks)" in which he argues that the only direction for interest rates to go is up, that P/E ratios are at record highs, and investors are piling in to the financial sector which needs regulation from the tech sector which has been on a tear.  He references the BIS warnings on Central Banks low interest rate policies and the China real estate bubble.  He indicates that we are presently worse off than in early 2007.  He ends with regulators warning of liquidity and interest rate risk at the same time it is preparing an exit from the liquidity programs put in place to seal the dam.

Marshall Auerbach published an article entitled, "Spain and the EU: Deficit Terrorism in Action" in which he criticizes the EU arbitrary fiscal rules with respect to the 3% of GDP limitation of deficit spending, because it is significantly deterring the ability of some EU member nations to adequately respond to their economic conditions during this period of global financial crisis.  The need for targeted government spending to increase employment and spur GDP growth is in direct conflict with the EU fiscal rules.  This is posing a a particular problem for Spain which adheres to the EU rules and is also a looming problem for Portugal and Ireland.  This conflict can also be seen in the friction between Greece and the EU over Greece's attempts to reduce its budget deficit.  There have been polite but harsh words on both sides as we have seen in several stories this week.

The Chicago Board Options Exchange intends to wait until the second half of this year to start a new platform for high-speed, high  frequency traders.  The SEC has not yet announced any decision yet on its proposals on regulating flash orders.  The CBOE is just going to keep muddling on as usual until it gets firm directions.  The process of regulatory reform is very slow when there is no one making it happen.

China raised the rate on its 3 month bills at the most recent auction and this is seen a a tightening of monetary policy.

FDIC is considering a plan to tie banks payment for deposit insurance  to risks involved in their pay structures.  Also, after a receiver of failed bank distressed CRE loans, the FDIC set up a LLC to hold these distressed loans with unpaid principal of $1.02 billion and sold 40% of the LLC to Colony Capital for $90.5 million net of working capital.

Bill Gross of PIMCO said that when the Fed stops buying MBA's the Fed will be unable to sell them and it will put pressure on interest rates.  PIMCO is also cutting it exposure  to US and UK debt.

Meredith Whitney, the banking analyst, lowered Goldman Sachs earnings estimates for 2010 through 2012 for the second time in less than a month.

The Illinois pension fund, Central laborer's Pension Fund, is suing  Goldman Sachs over bonuses citing the compensation system as a complete breakdown of corporate oversight.  $17 billion has been set aside for bonuses through Q3 and may approach $22 billion for year on what the Pension Fund calls government  bailout inflated revenues.

The ISM Manufacturing Index is up to 55.9 in December from 53.6; new orders up to 656.5 from 60.3; production  up to 61.8 from 59.9; employment up to 52.0 from 50.8; supplies deliveries up to 56.6 from 55.7; inventories up to 43.4 from 41.3; prices up to 61.5 from 55.0; exports down and imports up; customer inventory still contracting.

Construction spending down .6% in November.

ISM Service Sector up to 50.1 in December from 48.7 with 12 of 18 industries reporting a decrease and 2 reporting no change.

US durable goods factory orders up 1.1% in December; shipment up 1.0%; unfilled orders down .7%; inventory up .2%.

Mortgage demand at a 6 month low.

Pending home sales down 16% November but up year on year.

HAMP 2nd lien modification program is on hold with no listed servicers.

US apartment vacancy rate hits 3 year high; office vacancy rates hit  15 year high; and strip mall vacancy rate at 10.6%.

Small and medium size business loans, leases, and lines of credit more than 180 days behind are up to .91 from .87 for a 22nd monthly increase.

2009 personal bankruptcy at 1.41 million which is up 32% from 2008.

The Euro 16 nation unemployment at 11 year high of 10% and it is estimated it will continue to rise into Q3 2010.  Eurozone factory activity rose to 51.6 from 51.2 at the fastest rate in 21 months of 4/10ths of a percent.

German exports are up 1.6% in November.

Canadian unemployment is 8%.





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Friday, January 15, 2010

Leftovers - Radio Show 1/2/2010

Goldman Sachs was deceptive in its marketing of synthetic CDO products according to Yves Smith of naked capitalism. Any company should bear responsibility for their products, but the sellers of synthetic CDO's have access to hidden information, which even the most sophisticated buyers using modeling software cannot reasonably access for evaluation. Other banks such as Morgan Stanley also profited with the assistance of the rating agencies which would assign high investment credit ratings to these synthetic CDO's.  Even more ominous is that banks, such as Goldman Sachs, were on both sides of the transaction by shorting the very products it was packaging and selling.  It has become very hard to get information on the AIG bailout, because the Treasury and the Fed does not want to release information relative to that bailout and the 100 cents on the dollar payments made to Goldman Sachs and other banks to cover CDS positions.  Yves Smith also points to senior advisors to Secretary of the Treasury Geithner who came from firms directly involved in CDO marketing.

The Chinese premier pledged to cool property prices and keep inflation reasonable, while also saying China should anticipate inflation.  He indicated the government will maintain a moderately loose monetary policy and a proactive fiscal position.  Bllomberg.com also had another article indicating China's manufacturing production is cementing recovery.  This substantially begs china's spending bubble, real estate bubble, leverage growth, export tax incentives, peg of the yuan to the US dollar, internal consumption, and the growing rift between the coastal elite and the internal population as I have detailed in the my China's Spending Bubble and Double Dip Probability posts below.

Yves Smith also had a post on ten reasons to kill the Senate Health care bill. I have mixed thought on this issue.  I firmly believe that the United States as the only developed democracy in the world which does not have universal health care needs to provide universal health care to every citizen.  I do not understand why Congress and the the health insurance industry lobbyists are so intent on recreating the wheel and recreating it inefficiently and incompetently.  The present health care bills will not cover everyone, but the are being pushed to establish a program that can be perfected in the future.  If the Administration had had a real plan, the process would not have been so corrupt and incompetent.  The Swiss, Netherlands, and France all have universal health care with private insurance.  France has one of the lowest individual health care costs with the highest rated quality of service in the world while the United States has one of the most expensive health care systems with one of the poorer levels of  quality of care in the world.  Without universal participation, the age bands for insurance, as used in Switzerland, with no discrimination would not be economically sustainable.  If universal health care met or exceeded Medicare services, there be no need for Medicare, Medicaid, or veteran's hospitals.  The three countries I mentioned have accomplished this with private insurance in slightly different ways.  The only real wrinkle in the United States is that the States have the legal right to regulate insurance companies within their borders.  The United States does not need to usurp that State responsibility, but it can require any insurance company which wants to participate in universal health care to be licensed to do business in all fifty states and territories and to meet the Federal minimum requirements or higher State requirements.  Insurance companies want to continue denying health care procedures, denying insurance availability, and practicing medicine while cherry picking which states they want to do business in.

In France, you choose your doctor, the primary care doctor must to go to your home if you cannot see them, the doctor and patient decide what medical procedures and methods are appropriate (no medical procedure or therapy can be denied if recommended by the doctor and agreed to by the patient), there are no waiting lists like Canada, and the government has an active anti-fraud program.  All of this for 1/3 the cost of health care in the United States and with the #1 rating for quality of health care in the world.

The fastest growing part of the municipal debt market is Build America bonds, but the yields demanded by investors are higher than corporate debt with similar ratings. You have to be in the highest tax brackets to gain the most from these tax exempt securities.  They are expected to increase 46.6% in 2010 to $85 billion from an estimated $58 billion in 2009.

Tax free municipal debt issuance  is expected to rise 7.9% to $450.5 billion in 2010 from $418 billion in 2009.

sales taxes nationally are down 9% in Q3.

Credit card write-offs rose to 10.56% in November and is likely to go to 12-13% according to Moody's in 2010.  30 day delinquencies are up to 6.2%

The Chicago Fed Midwest Factory Index is up 1.2% to 84.2 which is the highest since 12/2008; the Automobile component  is up 1.1% within that.

Treasury auctions:
2yr $44 billion  yield 1.089%, bid-to-cover 2,91, foreign 34.8%; large Primary Dealer purchases.
5yr $42 billion yield 2.665, bid-to-cover 2.59, foreign 44.0%.
7yr $32 billion yield 3.345%, bid-to-cover 2.72; foreign 44.7%.






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Big Banks Short Sell Fraud

Diana Olick, in her blog Realty Check today , disclosed how big banks are coercing real estate agents to pay them money on the side off the official settlement statement to get the banks, as second lien holders, to agree to a short sell (below the value of the mortgage). This is not just a questionable pattern of conduct, it is specifically illegal.  You should read her complete post in the link above.

Interestingly, although we have been very vocal for many months on the exceedingly inaccurate balance sheets banks are now allowed to publicly present, today's reaction to J. P. Morgan's earnings show a closer inspection of the information being provided.  While J. P. Morgan had $3.3 billion in "profits" this last Quarter, analysts were disturbed by credit costs. Its mortgage and credit card business has seen rising costs.  It set aside $4.2 billion in Q4 to cover mortgage losses which are up from $653 million vs a year ago.  It increased its commercial loan loss reserve to $494 million from $190 million.  Prime mortgage net charge-offs (what it expects to never be paid) increased to $568 million from $195 million a year ago.  It wrote off loans at an annualized rate of 9.33%.

Continuing his critique, Joseph Stiglitz, has written a new book, "Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World", and just published an article entitled, "Moral Bankruptcy", in which he argues that the current financial system has created a moral hazard which is a direct threat, not just to a free market but to society.  As long as the systemically dangerous financial institutions are allowed to privately profit and disgorge their losses onto the public, they have no fear of failure and no reason to fear the law as long as they are considered "too big to fail".


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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Leftovers - 12/26/2009

We are still trying to catch up from the  Google Blogger hiccup with three Leftovers we need to post as well as several other posts we have been planning.

The Leftovers from 12/26 are:

The Chicago Fed President, Evans, said the economy will continue to grow  over the next five years, but unemployment will remain high and inflation tame.  Consequently, there will be no need for the Fed to change its low interest rate policy.  He said, "I think the focus is going to be on how the economy is playing out, how unemployment is coming down and whether or not inflationary pressures remain as as they currently are."

Federal estate tax changes remain pending in Congress with a bill in the Senate and a bill in the House with different provisions. Both maintain a $3.5 million exemption but one indexes for inflation (Senate) and the other does not. Both maintain a 45% top tax rate.  The Senate bill unifies the gift tax and estate tax exemption and offers portability of federal estate tax exemption between spouses.  The House bill prevents the switch from step-up basis to carryover basis.

Financial reform with respect to  fiduciary responsibility continues to be watered down by lobbyists who have been able to have broker dealer representatives not held responsible for their firms limited product line (does this also excuse the firms preference for products?) and this is consistent with the position of the CFP Board, which has been actively recruiting financial salespeople.  They are attempting to also have fiduciary responsibility limited to each transaction and not a an entire client relationship.  The CFP Board has wanted to be named the regulatory body, despite no one financial planning association being a dominant designation and the CFP requiring the least course work, experience, or education.  It appears FINRA may be the default regulator.  It needs to be the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, but the lobbyists may be successful in getting it killed.

Small business bankruptcies in California are up 81%.

Geithner says banks need to lend to business for the economy to grow and strengthen.  Treasury wants TARP rules relaxed to allow small business lending -- wants to commit $30-40 billion -- but he wants it to go to large banks when it should go to local banks.  Geithner also said a double dip (he refused to use the actual phrase) is not going to happen, that it is completely within the capacity of the government  to revent, and the the government will do what is necessary to prevent it from happening..

Greece budget cuts will reduce their deficit in 2010 to 9.1% of GDP from 12.7%.

Russia's economy is estimated to grow 2.5-5.0% in 2010, but it is estimated to shrink 8.7% in 2009.

Latvia warned Sweden to resume lending to Latvia or risk choking off recovery in Latvia.

Japan's exports are up 4.9% November - the most is 7 years -- but down 6.2% vs year ago.  The jobless rate is up to 5.2% from 5.1%; consumer prices down 1.7% vs year ago (9th month down); household spending up 2.2% (4th month).

GMAC is reported to be in talks with Buffet to sell its residential mortgage company, Residential capital, which needs $250 million net worth to maintain loan compliance.

The 3rd largest radio company with 224 stations, Citadel Broadcasting, filed bankruptcy to restructure its hefty debt load.

Food prices in India rose 19% through mid-December.  It could boost inflation as overall growth accelerates.  A Central Bank interest rate hike is expected in April.

Lloyd's (45% UK owned) agreed to pay 3.6 billion over 15 years to raise 2 billion in capital by selling hybrid Tier 1 securities on December 15th.

AIG's CEO stopped the public offering of its worldwide casualty unit, Chartis, calling it a central holding for future growth of AIG.  Goldman Sach's selling of mortgage backed CDO's while shorting the same securities over a two year period is becoming more documented as investigators pry into the AIG bailout.

Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his story depends upon his not understanding it."


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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

German Bonds vs. U. S Treasuries & Inflation

A recent Bloomberg.com article entitled, "Bernanke Bond Spread Most Since 2007 Shows Decoupling", exemplifies the constant need to apply critical analysis when reading any article, book, or information from any source.  The article begins, "The correlation between Treasuries and German bunds that has prevailed since credit markets started freezing in 2007 is breaking down as U.S. economic growth leaves Europe behind." It immediately continues with "Yields on U.S. 10-year Treasury notes rose twice as fast as German debt with a similar maturity since the start of December ...".

Reading that one would think the US is tromping Germany, but why would Pimco be selling US Treasuries and buying German bonds (Bunds)?  The decoupling is actually the investor view that the German Bund is a safer investment and they are willing to pay for it while investors apparently believe U. S. Treasuries are a riskier investment demanding a lower purchase price to face value.  While investors generally seek higher yields, the perception appears to be that the ECB has been setting its interest rate policy not only to provide liquidity but with a constant eye on inflation (a dual focus).  Consequently, the Fed, which lowered interest faster and to near zero (zero to 25 basis points while the ECB is at 1%), will have a more difficult time shifting its focus from liquidity to inflation with inflation expectations already stoked and heating up.

As we said last month on the radio show, CPI going forward from this past January will show increasing inflation, because it will be comparing year to year with a past period of declining inflation.  With oil prices continuing to go up despite 26 miles of full oil tankers sitting offshore in the oceans around the world, because there is not enough storage on shore given the lower demand, it will be even more aggravated.  If there are food shortages as the result of growing conditions, as some have predicted (rice, soybeans, sugar), the price of food will be going up.  We are already starting to see a variety of commodity prices going up.

The recovery is fragile.  What is going to happen when China starts tightening its economic, monetary, and fiscal policies to fight its real estate/housing bubble, spending bubble, increased use of leverage, and the threat of inflation?



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SEC Seals AIG Bailout Information

Last year AIG filed an exhibit with its SEC financial filings detailing information about its bailout.  In May of last year, the SEC sealed the information and will not release it to the public until November 25, 2018.  The agreement by the SEC to treat this information as confidential when public funds were used is unconscionable and an absolute breach of fiduciary duty to the American people.

Unfortunately, the pattern is consistent with other efforts of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to deny public access to bailout information.  The Fed is asking a U.S. Appeals Court to block a ruling that would force the Fed to disclose the names of financial institutions which received loans under the unprecedented $2 trillion U. S. loan program in 2008.

On a related note, AIG found several billions of dollars in bonds in filing cabinets in a locked storage room in 2008 when they needed to come up with collateral for a New York Fed loan.  As I remember it, it was $20 billion but I cannot find the reference in my radio show notes.  I have not made mention of this in my posts, but I know I have talked about it on my radio show.  I found this amazing when I ran across it, but Yves Smith has brought it back into the light of public discussion with this very excellent post.

The time for bailout secrecy passed some time ago.  It is about time government and the Federal Reserve caught up with their public duties and legal responsibilities to the people of the United States.

As an update, the U.S. House Oversight and Government reform Committee has indicated today that they will issue a subpeona to the New York Fed, because it has refused requests for documents on the AIG bailout which the New York Fed considers "confidential".  The New York Fed also instructed Neil Barofsky, the TARP Inspector General, to not release any "confidential" documents in his hands as the result of his November audit.  The Stonewall grows higher and thicker.


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Friday, January 8, 2010

CVS

I have a lot of catching up to do on two leftover posts from the last two radio shows plus other blogs I have wanted to compose on issues.  A question about CVS requires more immediate attention.

On the last radio show, 1/2/2010, a caller asked about CVS and said the PE was 13.  We do not screen calls and this means there is no way to have data on my personal computer screen already up to answer specific questions.  On this day, the station's wireless network was not strong enough to load any website much less the two services I normally have up in case anyone asks a specific question.  I pulled up a public website on the station's computer with an old square monitor which could not display a full page and I had to move the screen display right-left to read data.  Unfortunately, this public site also had a typo for PE at 1.3 when it should have read 13.1 (13.9 today).

Be that as it may, I was right in my quick review of the financial information and key ratios and description of the company and the advice which I gave, which was that I would not buy this stock.  As I explained to the caller, I never recommend a buy for a stock or fund on air, because should a statement could be construed by any one listening, without regard to individual suitability, as applying to them.  I might say that a stock or fund might be worthy or research or being placed on a watch list.

I have a "Disciplined Rules for Buying and Selling Stocks" that I give clients, which has 39 disciplined investing rules.  It could have more, but the 39 are enough to overwhelm most common investors.

CVS has a return on equity (ROE) of 10.9%, it should have at least 15% to be considered.  It appears that its history of increasing annual earnings will disappoint in 2009 with earnings close to 2008.  You want to see quarterly earnings up 25% or more and three such successive quarters are even better.  You want to see quarterly sales up 25% or more (last quarter for CVS was 18% and next quarter is estimated at 11%).  Free cash flow is only .55%.

I told the caller that CVS has been making acquisitions and it may be having difficulty in integrating these acquisitions and that it has a benefits management program that may be having earnings problems with respect to competition and Medicare Part D.

I told the caller that there was a very sharp price drop in November and institutional investors were selling more than buying (this week has seen an increase in institutional buying).  These are very bad signs as there must be a reason.  In fact, the price dropped below it 200 day line, which is a huge negative, on November 5th, which is the same day CVS held an analysts cal conference.  We discussed that the Long's acquisition was still being integrated into CVS.  The announced that the director of the benefits management program was retiring and the marketing director was being replaced.  The benefits management program has lost several contracts as the result of competition and the economy and it has had problems, as many benefits management programs have had, with properly underwriting its Medicare Part D program, which has resulted in smaller margins and less revenue and lower profits.

This stock belongs ranks 4th in its market group, although second in EPS.  There are 188 industry groups performing better in the market.  Its profit margin is 6.8%.  It debt to equity is 23%.  75% of the stocks in the market are performing better than CVS.  It is going to take a considerable effort to reach a proper buy point.

I was right in my advice despite technical difficulties.  This might be a stock one would place on a watch list, but nothing more.


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AIG & Geithner

Yesterday, I read blog after blog and article after article discussing how Geithner as President of the New York Fed told AIG to not disclose the favorable swap payments to Goldman Sachs and other large banks.  We were disconcerted, because this is not a new story.  We have discussed this on our radio show and in this blog on several occasions over many months. Other blogs have discussed this issue in the past.  The story has hit mainstream media through this New York Times blogBloomberg had a piece also. 

Has it now become "acceptable" for the main stream media to discuss the actual facts?

And let us not forget Geithner's involvement as New York Fed President in the the stock owner's fraud over disclosure of losses in the Merrill Lynch acquisition by Bank of America.

As I have been saying for months, Geithner and Larry Summers need to go.  They will have no trouble finding work with one of the large banks, which have become even larger under the Paulson/Geithner restoration of the financial pre-crisis status quo.


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Monday, January 4, 2010

Resurrection

As we have informed our radio show listeners, this blog has been down since 3:08 AM CST on 12/24/2009.  On 12/23/2009, Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, published a link to our Monetary Policy post at 11:02 PM PST on his blog the Economist's View.  Approximately, thirty minutes later he posted a del.icio.us link to the Monetary post on Twitter blog feed.  Within two hours, Google's Blogger shut this blog down, we are assuming, because we had many views from two links coming into one post with links within the post that triggered automated software.  When we received the notification, we immediately asked for the blog to be restored at approximately 10 AM on12/24.  There is no means of direct communication with Google's Blogger.  The form provides a button -- and only a button -- to send a request.  Then you wait.

Over a year ago, Yves Smith, a financial consultant, of naked capitalism had a similar experience.  She got her blog back up, after every reasonable business method for contacting anyone at Google was not successful, when an individual she knew who had a brother working at Google talked to his brother.  The experience caused her to set up her blog on a website totally under her control.

As we have indicated on the radio show, we have started the process to establish our own website for this blog.  As a business management and financial consultant who specializes in problem solving, I do not wait and get nothing done.

 In the meantime, we were able to submit the Monetary Policy post as an article and it was accepted at a national financial internet publication and published in the same issue as an article by the economist Nouriel Roubini.on 12/30/2009.  Two other posts were also accepted a published: "China's Spending Bubble" and "Double Dip Probability - Leverage, the US and China"

The blog is back up, because Felix Salmon, who is an economics blogger at Reuters, personally intervened and contacted an individual at Google's Blogger.  Amazingly, this blog was live within six (6) minutes of his communication.  I owe Felix Salmon a debt of gratitude I will probably never be able to repay.

While we have an independent website for this blog created, we will continue to post here.




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