Monday, April 30, 2012

Waiting for the next crisis

Hope and Change in the Banking System seems to be “hope” that the system can get through this economic cycle while “change” is non-existent. “Too big to fail” creates incentives for risk-taking that would not occur in a true free market. Taxpayers underwriting risk and backstopping failure ensure that firms will take on more, rather than less, risk.
Legislated rules need to be imposed to contain excessive risk-taking based upon taxpayer guarantees. While a truly free market could handle this better than legislation, there appears to be zero hope for that occurring. Thus, a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall or its equivalent is necessary. Without some type of legislation, we are merely waiting for the next crisis to occur. With it, crises will still occur, but they should be more manageable.
The return to risky behavior is already underway. An analysis of JP Morgan’s recent financial results  concludes:
You might as well label JP Morgan the new Lehman Brothers because they are operating like an investment bank.  So much for those bailouts helping the average American.  The media really needs to scrutinize how these companies make their earnings.  They are simply using hot and easy money to double down in the Wall Street casino on the taxpayer dime.  No reform has happened since the collapse of Wall Street because these banks own our politicians.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Intervening into the housing market

Interventionism is economic intervention by the government into the free market. It typically involves subsidies or penalties to particular groups. Interventions never improve the economy. Indeed, many interventions lead to additional interventions to attempt to correct the harm done by the first action. Interventions may improve the lot of a targeted group, but does so at the expense of society. While a particular group may be said to benefit, the total economy is always made worse off. As stated by Henry Hazlitt:
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
Others like Bastiat expressed a similar views about a hundred years before. Based on Bastiat, this

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A slack employment environment

Death of Muddle Through
The US government is on an unsustainable path. Deficits are soaring and the Obama administration is planning massive tax hikes.
Moreover, businesses have little reason to hire already because of massive overcapacity. Add increasing health care costs to the list of reasons for businesses not to hire.
Given that government spending crowds out private investment, these policies all but assures that unemployment is going to remain high for a long time as noted in Structurally High Unemployment For A Decade.
Killing The Goose
Last week in Thoughts on the Economy: Problems and Solutions I listed the problems and some of the solutions facing the economy. It was a discussion between John Mauldin and I about his weekly E-Letter Killing The Goose.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The world needs more food

Not much to disagree with here, at least in the intermediate to long-term. If we have a market correction in the US, which seems almost inevitable, then the whole world will be affected including, if not especially China. There is much not to like short-term in China — the banking systems, centrally-directed economy (when they make mistakes they tend to be doozies), dependence on US for exports, coming currency adjustments, etc. Despite these near-term concerns, I am in agreement with the article. Just don’t “double-down” right now.
Jim Rogers on the Next 10 Years
I’m moving to China … possibly to live in a bunker. At least that was my inclination after listening to a presentation by Jim Rogers Thursday.
Now don’t get me wrong―Mr. Commodities wasn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, his talk was both informative and highly entertaining. But Rogers doesn’t sugarcoat things―he’s very matter-of-fact about his concerns and projections for the future. And most of them don’t bode well for the U.S.
I’ll be posting an interview with Jim Rogers on the site in the coming week, but for now, I just

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Monetary system

This is a piece that I wrote in response to a request for a guest post over at ZeroHedge. It ran there yesterday garnering some nice attention and a diverse range of comments beneath.
Based on some of those comments, this article represents nothing more than my attempt to find an explanation that matches the data.
My central thesis to this crisis, developed a few years before it even hit, is that the economic troubles are the symptoms, while the money system itself is the cause.
My views on this are expressed in the opening of an article that I initially penned in 2006 but updated in 2008:
 Within the next twenty years, the most profound changes in all of economic history will sweep the globe. The economic chaos and turbulence we are now experiencing are merely the opening salvos in what will prove to be a long, disruptive period of adjustment. Our choices now are to either evolve a new economic model that is compatible with limited physical resources, or to risk a catastrophic failure of our monetary system, and with it the basis for civilization as we know it today.

The necessity of government spending

A depression was borne out of high levels of private sector debt made apparent by a financial crisis.
The effects of this depression have been lessened by economic stimulus and government support.
Government intervention led to a reduction in asset price declines, which led to stock market increases, which led to asset price stabilization and more asset price increases. This has led to a false sense that green shoots are leading to a sustainable recovery.
In reality, the problems of high debt levels in the private sector and an undercapitalized financial system are still lurking, waiting for the government to withdraw its economic support to become realized
Because large scale government deficit spending is politically impossible, expect a second economic dip within three to four years at the latest.
While I might quibble with his time frame and the necessity of government spending (a bit too Keynesian), it is a valuable piece that provides background for those attempting to understand better what has happened and what the future may hold.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Another trillion dollars

Tim Geithner hadn’t slept well on Friday night, having again decided to stay in one of the grim rooms on the 12th floor of the Federal Reserve. By six a.m., he had returned upstairs to his office dressed in an oxford dress shirt and sweatpants.
In his mind, he was already making battle plans. He had made it safely to the weekend but was worried about what would happen on Monday.
“John’s holding on to a slim reed,” Paulson had told Geithner about John Mack’s perilous position on a phone call the night before. Paulson was also still anxious about Goldman Sachs, his former employer. “We’ve got to find a lifeline for these guys,” said Paulson, and they reviewed the possible options.
On note cards that morning, Geithner started writing out various merger permutations: Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase. Morgan Stanley and Mitsubishi. Morgan Stanley and C.I.C. Morgan Stanley and Outside Investor. Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Goldman Sachs and Wachovia. Goldman Sachs and Outside Investor. Fortress Goldman. Fortress Morgan Stanley.
It was the ultimate Wall Street chessboard.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Move investments out of the dollar

History is replete with situations where the middle class of a country has been wiped out as a result of the profligacy of its government. If one believes the risks of such an outcome are high, steps should be explored that will protect one’s savings and wealth. If you believe the dollar is going to collapse, you move investments out of the dollar. One way for US investors is to invest in non dollar-denominated instruments like foreign stocks, foreign bonds, foreign currencies and CDs in foreign banks. Unfortunately, history is also replete with government reactions in such situations. In virtually all, the government prevents its citizens from protecting themselves by imposing capital controls. Rather than government enabling or encouraging its citizens to protect their savings and wealth, they preclude them from doing so via “emergency” legislation. While such a step is not inevitable, it becomes highly probable as less capital enters this country and more leaves. Capital controls are never discussed in advance; they appear as a “surprise,” effectively precluding any protective actions. If you might be affected by such legislation or merely want to learn more about it, read this post at Naked Capital.

If a bank takes that approach

Here is an idea so absolutely idiotic that it is hard to believe our government didn’t implement it first. It is from the Japanese, perhaps reflecting the creative thinking responsible for their outstanding economic results of the past two decades. Apparently, if a bank customer is a deadbeat, the bank will not have to classify the loan as non-performing or set up loss reserves against it. Now that is a strategy that should produce stronger banks.
Japanese banks’ bad loans won’t be driven higher by a proposed moratorium on debt payments by struggling small companies, said Financial Services Minister Shizuka Kamei.
Lenders won’t have to classify loans encompassed by the plan as non-performing, Kamei, 72, said in an interview yesterday at his office in Tokyo. That means they won’t be forced to boost provisions when borrowers postpone repayments of interest or principal, he said. At the same time, Kamei vowed to push banks to extend more credit to small businesses after bankruptcies hit a six-year high in Japan.
“We’re going to get financial institutions to provide these firms with more loans,” said Kamei. “Banks won’t have to treat debt on which they provide a moratorium as bad.”
The moratorium, postponing repayment of principal and interest, will be extended to individuals as well as firms Kamei said. It will aim at giving relief to companies with about 100 million yen ($1.1 million) or less in capital.
“As long as I’m financial services minister, I’m not going to leave small companies in the lurch unable to get loans,” Kamei said. “If a bank takes that approach, I’ll hit them with a business improvement order.”
The full article by Mish can be read by clicking on his name.
This may be one of the most asinine economic policies ever implemented, very high praise indeed given all the competition. A third-grader should be able to spot the fallacies in such policy. Weak banks will be made even weaker. Strong banks presumably would be able to stop pouring good money after bad and recognize the loss (although I have no idea how much being hit with “a business improvement order” hurts). Even more damaging will be the unintended consequences. The law effectively coerces banks to overturn contracts at the whim of the State. That has frightening implications for all business, not only banks. For banks, it dramatically raises the risks of lending money, ensuring that future loans will be more restrictive than they otherwise would have been.
The idea is so bad that we should expect to see it surface here. Oh yes, we have already heard it discussed in different variants — forced moratoriums and/or cramdowns on mortgages. Thus, our government has not lost its creativity, but appears to be a bit tardy on applying such ideas. Whether this tardiness reflects ineptness or the acquisition of a conscience should not be too difficult for the reader to figure out. On the other hand, perhaps our creativity is slipping. After all, cash for clunkers was not our idea. We copied others.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Quantity of credit with positive systemic results

oug Noland of Prudent Bear tackles the flaws in credit and interventionism practiced by our government and concludes: “… it is my view that a flawed Credit apparatus, ill-advised government intervention, and dysfunctional market dynamics ensure economic maladjustment gets worse before it gets better.” His commentary on the current state of economic thinking and what it will produce appears below.The Governator and the Market Operator

I’ll begin with an excerpt from Bill Gross’s latest Investment Outlook:
“But California’s problems, while somewhat unique and self-inflicted, are really America’s problems, and not just because the California economy is 15% of national GDP. While California’s $26 billion deficit is not directly comparable to the federal gap of $1 trillion-plus, they both reflect a lack of discipline and indeed vision to perceive that the strong growth in revenues was driven by the same excess leverage and same delusionary asset appreciation that was bound to approach cliff’s

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The personal income tax

Congress has done a phenomenal job in taxing, spending and borrowing. Nobody does it better. They should get a Congressional gold medal for taxing, spending and borrowing. Up until 1913, the government was limited in their ability to spend because there was no personal income tax and the currency of the United States was backed by hard assets. Woodrow Wilson and Congressmen, under the control of the banking cartel, created the Federal Reserve and the personal income tax in 1913. The unleashing of politicians from any constraints on their spending has led to a predictable result. The US dollar has lost 97% of its value versus gold since 1913. The U.S. National Debt was $2.9 billion in 1913. Today, it is $11.9 TRILLION, a mere 400,000% increase in 96 years. That is the good news. President Obama plans to add at least another $9 TRILLION to our debt in the next 10 years. That is the actual plan. Can you picture George Washington spinning in his grave?
Rather than conclude that the gig is up and that running up huge deficits in order to police the world and provide welfare benefits to the 50% of the population that does not pay income taxes, Obama and Bernanke have decided to double down. Their solution is to double the National Debt, greatly expand the welfare state, and continue to police the world. Does anyone really think it is going to work? Bankruptcy is a certainty.

Raise the cost of building for everybody

A recovery in the economy can only occur via recovery in the private sector. Much of what has been hailed as “green shoots” results from government stimulus. It is not clear what is being stimulated other than reported GDP, because there are few signs of private sector recovery. One area that has received enormous stimulus is the housing market, even though its reported numbers are still dismal.
In the mortgage issuance area, the private sector has disappeared (see previous post by Chris Martenson). Is this because banks are unwilling to lend? Is it because there are no creditworthy borrowers? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding No! Then why is this happening? The government has driven down interest rates so low in a (foolish) attempt to support housing prices that they have made it unattractive for banks to risk money at these rates. In that sense, the government is subsidizing low interest rates with taxpayer money/risk. Private firms make mortgage loans at interest rates commensurate with risk. When interest rates are held artificially low, there are few loans that meet this requirement. Another way to state this is that the government is taking on risks with your money that prudent investors would not take on with their own money. It is precisely that strategy that gave us the Fannie and Freddie debacle. This is not rocket science. The results are predictable and inevitable as evidenced by the following quote:

Government-guaranteed home mortgages, especially when a negligible down payment or no down payment whatever is required, inevitably mean more bad loans than otherwise. They force the general taxpayer to subsidize the bad risks and to defray the losses. They encourage people to “buy” houses that they cannot really afford. They tend eventually to bring about an oversupply of houses as compared with other things. They temporarily overstimulate building, raise the cost of building for everybody (including the buyers of the homes with the guaranteed mortgages), and may mislead the building industry into an eventually costly overexpansion. In brief in the long run they do not increase overall national production but encourage malinvestment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Economic activity should subside

Investors worrying about a significant pullback in economic growth this quarter are sorely mistaken, Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a note published earlier this week.
As we pointed out yesterday, analysts thinking equities markets are just repeating the same bearish Q2 pattern we saw in 2011 and 2012 have a point:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

There is no safe store of value

America has produced its share of radicals, both left and right.  Although the definitions of “radical” have shifted over time (our Founding Fathers would be considered extremists today), those that are on the wrong side of  prevailing definitions are usually precluded from public roles. Exceptions can be found, usually accompanied by a perceived “road to Damascus” conversion. Senator Robert Byrd of WV, an alleged former member of the Klan, is one example. Another astonishing example is provided below. This man stated the following:
The financial policy of the welfare state requires that there be no way for the owners of wealth to protect themselves.
Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation of wealth.
… the welfare state is nothing more than a mechanism by which governments confiscate the wealth of the productive members of a society to support a wide variety of welfare schemes. A substantial part of the confiscation is effected by taxation. But the welfare statists were quick to recognize that if they wished to retain political power, the amount of taxation had to be limited and they had to resort to programs of massive deficit spending, i.e., they had to borrow money, by issuing government bonds, to finance welfare expenditures on a large scale.
In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold.
Based on the above, one would assume this man would have no desire to serve a government whose primary role, as perceived by him, was plunder of the wealth of its citizens. Furthermore, one might also assume that such a man would be judged unfit to serve, because his philosophical framework would be a threat to the myth of government and the bulk of its programs. Yet such a man did go on to serve and serve admirably in the eyes of many. Indeed, in terms of the thinking reflected in the statements above, he became the Chief Officer of Plunder. In more polite terms, the office is known as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. His name, of course, is Alan Greenspan otherwise dubbed  “The Maestro” by admirers in the media. Lately, his admirers have lessened as his policies are seen to have been at the root of our current economic problems. Perhaps he should have stuck to his original principles rather than become an instrument of the State and a part of the problem.

Massive tax increases

We are told that massive tax increases will be needed to cover the large projected deficits. History, however, shows that this strategy will not work. Regardless of the tax rate or the tax structure, tax revenues remain relatively constant as a percentage of GDP. Whether the “Laffer curve” or disincentives are responsible is moot. The fact is that since the mid 1940s there has been a ceiling on tax revenues related to GDP. The ceiling is unaffected by low or high top marginal tax rates that have ranged from 28 to 90%.  Government is too large and needs to be cut back. The common man understands this; pompous politicians do not or will not. We now have a government that has become the biggest bubble of all. Like all other bubbles, it too will burst. The deficits are unsustainable. Tax increases will not change that reality.
Federal Income Tax Rates and Total Revenues

Manufacturing events increased

Employers took 2,690 mass layoff actions in August that resulted in the separation of 259,307 workers,
 seasonally adjusted, as measured by new filings for unemployment insurance benefits during the month,
 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Each action involved at least 50 persons from a
 single employer. The number of mass layoff events in August increased by 533 from the prior month,
 and the number of associated initial claims increased by 52,516. Over the year, the number of mass
 layoff events increased by 803, and associated initial claims increased by 70,356. Year-to-date mass
 layoff events (21,184) and initial claims (2,162,202) both recorded program highs through August. In
 August, 900 mass layoff events were reported in the manufacturing sector, seasonally adjusted, resulting
 in 93,892 initial claims. Over the month, the number of manufacturing events increased by 279, and
 associated initial claims increased by 21,626.

Our creditors know this better than we do

Despite all the hoopla regarding an economic recovery, there can be no recovery until the economy sheds the excess debt.  The consumer is tapped out and is adjusting his balance sheet to reduce leverage. That is good, despite what the government wants (another credit bubble).
The so-called stimulus programs can mask economic performance for a limited time only. They may produce increased GDP reports in the third and fourth quarters, not unusual in the middle of recessions. The media and Bernanke have already proclaimed that recovery is underway. Supporters will only become louder if positive GDP stats show up soon. Do not fall for this hype.
The statistics will be hailed as confirmation of a recovery. However, they are merely statistics produced by government that have more to do with GDP methodology and reporting bias than real growth or real recovery. They cannot go on forever, and they do not produce real growth or balanced economic activity. David Rosenberg, in his daily eletter, exposes the effects of stopping such programs:
POST-CLUNKER ECONOMY LOOKING CLUNKY just reported that U.S. motor vehicle sales so far in September are running at an 8.8 million annual rate — a 28-year low and a 38% plunge from the incentive-induced 14.1 million tally in August. If this is what autos do, imagine what housing does once the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit expires (if it does) at the end of November (not to mention what the Fed does in terms of extending its mortgage purchase program beyond the December expiry too — it has had a hand in financing 80% of all new mortgage issuance. But look at the good news — at least we will be able to see what the economy can do without the walker.
What is coming will not be pretty! If the government renews these programs or implements new ones targeted at other sectors of the economy, it may be able to produce a short-term effect. However, this “benefit” is only created by pulling demand forward. That is, it pumps up current results at the expense of future results as Rosenberg discussed above. Even if one were to (erroneously) argue that these programs did some good, we are fast approaching the limits of what can be done. Each involves government subsidies of one sort or another. As such, each involves widening the deficit and increasing Federal debt, whether it be via tax rebates or increased spending. There is a limit to Federal debt. We have already passed the tipping point of being able to service government debt and promised social benefits. Our creditors know this better than we do and periodically scold us for our fiscal irresponsibility. We have become the Blanche du Bois of the world

Competing government insurance company

We are embroiled in a great debate over health care reform. There are two aspects of the debate that are often not identified. The first is whether healthcare is a “right.” The second is the best way to deliver healthcare. When one does not separate the two issues, one biases the solution.
While I do not agree that healthcare is a right (you cannot morally produce a “right” for some by violating the rights of others), let us assume for the moment that it is so deemed. Then the issue becomes how is this “right” best delivered. It seems that the US has answered the first question and now struggles with the answer to the second.
It is the natural tendency of government to want to run things, hence we have the preoccupation with the single payer system or a competing government insurance company. The latter, using the concept of competition and government, is oxymoronic. Is there anyone outside of Washington DC that believes the government at the Federal or local level can run anything efficiently? The empirics regarding this issue are devastating — social security, Amtrak, medicare, medicaid, financial system regulation, the school system, potholes in the streets, the post office, infrastructure maintenance, the court system, garbage collection, department of motor vehicles, etc. etc. ad nauseum. One might reasonably argue that everything government touches deteriorates.
Back in the days of the Cold War, a joke that was popular in Europe went something like this: QUESTION — What would happen if the Soviet Union took control of the Sahara Desert? ANSWER — Initially no changes would be apparent; eventually there would be a shortage of sand.

Contraction must take place

Economic conditions will be sub-par perhaps for a decade or more as a result of the great credit unwind. For the past 20 plus years consumers spent most or more than their income by taking on extraordinary levels of debt. As Karl Denninger writes today:
We have blown several trillion dollars in a futile attempt to stave off the contraction in debt outstanding and GDP that must come. The contraction is still coming, but the several trillion we wasted in an ill-advised attempt to prevent the inevitable is all gone.
Make sure you thank Bernanke, Geithner, Obama, and of course Paulson and Bush.
Attempts to avoid the necessary adjustments are futile. They only ensure that the US ends up with a lost decade or two like Japan. That is if we are lucky, and the bottom does not drop out. At this point, debt levels exceed the levels where they can be comfortably serviced and contraction must take place.
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