Archive for the ‘Federal Reserve’ Category

The Unseen Hand of Capitalism, 21st-century version

January 6, 2016

I’m a regular guy who is trying to learn a thing or two about how things work and what makes the world go around and so forth and so on.

Back in the day, early 1970s, I was a clueless college student trying to figure things out. My draft # was 349, so I didn’t have to go to Nam. I know some who did have to go, and I appreciate their service to our nation.

So there I was at LSU in 1970, an English major, clueless about the world and everything in it. (I thank the Lord that my children have made better decisions than I did in their early life choices.) One good thing about being an English major is that you do learn how to read and write well, and that helps a lot as we go through life. To this day, I do not regret learning to read and write copiously.

Well, the years rolled by and I got along all right, with much help from God and my wife, and some dear friends with whom we raised our young’uns. I did sales for awhile, then drifted into construction and stayed on that path for most of the working life. We managed to get the three youn’uns through college and out on their own and that was a great blessing.

Fortunately, I never had to lean heavily on that classic phrase of underemployed English majors, Would you like fries with that?

Long about 2004 or so I decided to ease out of construction work; my wife was doing well in her nursing career. The kids were pretty much on their own. I took a few education classes at the nearby hometown university, and was moving toward some new destiny which we knew not what it would be.

By ‘n by, along came the fall of 2008, and the Crash of 2008 on wall street and so forth and so on. You know the story.

And since I had been, back in the good ole carefree college days, an English major, I was still in the habit of reading and writing. Therefore and henceforth  I started reading copiously about the financial developments that were so profoundly altering everybody’s life, even still yet today, as we speak.

And it seemed to me that the whole economy had kind of gone crazy there for a while, for a few weeks or a few months, as we’re seeing in the Big Short.  But then things sort of evened out a bit, but they never got back to what they were before and furthermore they still haven’t, even though the unemployment rate has dropped down from ~10% in 2009 to the ~5% it is today, according to the BLS or the BS, or some such number-crunchin agency in Washington maybe next to the Brookings or over on K Street or some important think-tank place like that.

Long about that time, early ’09 or somewhere in there, all the doomsayers showed up online and everybody and their brother was saying the whole dam world would come apart at the seams again and u better buy gold and it seemed to me like this Crash might do a replay but it never did. Instead, things just kind of got on a long, slightly upward slope to what we have today, whatever it is, somewhere between recession and high cotton, with  chronic destagulation and perpetual consternation but no real catastrophe like those fringy preppers (not preppies) had said back in ’09 or ’10 or whenever that was.

In my clueless English major kind of way, I was keeping an eye on the stock market, just for fun of course because I didn’t know much about it, but I must say I was amazed that we never really had another big crash like we had had in ’08.

Every time the numbers would take a big turn down, and you’d hear about the market being down a hundred or two hundred, especially in September or October, you’ d think this could be the Big one again.

But it never was the big one again. It’s been pretty much steady-state destagulation with a few ups and downs here and there– no inverted hockey-stick graphs.

By ‘n by, as the weeks rolled by and as I was wondering about all this, I began to wondering if there wasn’t some force or entity that was acting in a big, manipulative and perhaps surreptitious way on behalf of ?whoever ?whatever, the good of mankind, to make the market stay steady instead of taking another dive. It kind of seemed like it. Whoever or whatever it was or is must be pretty daggone powerful or influential. Maybe some Julius Pierpoint Morgan (the original WallStreet bailout artist financier) who was just intervening, out of some sacred duty that had been laid upon him as a knight of the financial garter, on behalf of the whole Western world to keep everything on a relatively even keel so we wouldn’t have another Panic of ’07 or ’29 or 2008.

T’was then I thought about that famous phrase: the Invisible Hand, as applied to economics. There’s got to be an Invisible Hand in there somewhere stopping that WallStreet slide every time one starts.

Wikipedia explained to me that Adam Smith had introduced the concept in economics in the year 1759. The Invisible Hand the idea that the  multiple economic actions of individuals who are acting independently of each other manage to, by luck or Providence or some unseen beneficent force of the Universe, produce a composite outcome that is beneficial to the whole Market, and maybe the whole world.

So as I became more and more astute in these financial matters, I began to feel, somewhat intuitively or through keen powers of in cumulatively clueless observation that this invisible hand was not some ethereal beneficent presence, but rather, a definite entity in the real world. Something very real. Somebody’s doing this! Come on now, who is it?

And now, thanks to Ben Bernanke and his memoir, Courage to Act,

I have been duly informed. My days of financial naiveté are over, and I see the world for what it really is.

It was the Fed all along!

If you read the epilogue of Ben’s book, you’ll see what I mean. Here are just a  few favorable developments during that period, the last seven years, that he mentions:

~ Unemployment rate, from Aug 2012 at 8.15 down to 5.7 in Oct 2014, during QE3

~ 3 million jobs added in 2014, the largest annual increase since 1999

~ 10.7 million jobs added from 2010-2014

~ “The Fed’s securities purchases and lending programs turned a large profit for the government. . .sent almost $100 billion to the Treasury in 2014”

~ “Households had reduced their debt, their interest payments were low, and the value of their homes was higher, as was the value of most retirement accounts.”

~ “Consumer confidence, as measured by surveys, had rebounded.”

~ “At the end of 2014, U.S. output was more than 8 percent higher than at the end of 2007, the pre-crisis peak.”

So it’s plain to see that the Invisible Hand has been absolutely vigilant and effective. But this previously mysterious entity is no longer simply the composite whole enchilada of Capitalism. It is . . .

The Federal Reserve!

Thank you, Uncle Ben and Aunt Janet.

Times have changed, and so. . . has Capitalism. The old days are gone forever. We are now living in a bored new world of managed economy.

Glass Chimera

Through the kindling glass: Uncle Ben in ’08

November 22, 2015

History is fascinating when you get into it.

Today I’m remembering the fall of 2008–that perilous time when the financial crash was pummeling down all around us. The reason I’m remembering this is: I’m reading on kindle Ben Bernanke’s book Courage to Act:

So I’m remembering.

My day job during that time was working with students at a local elementary school. The workday began every morning at 8 a.m. I have vivid memories of sitting in my old Subaru wagon in the school parking lot each morning, catching the latest financial news before going inside to punch in. I’d be sitting in the car during the last ten minutes of the 7 o’clock hour while listening to Marketplace Morning on NPR.

Not that I had any real money or assets to work with, mind you, just a little nest-egg house that wife and I had just about paid for, and a little spare change we had after the three young’uns had finished college, etc. just like most folks our age.

But here’s why the memory of those news reports clings to my unfettered mind so tenaciously. Those fateful September days of seven years ago released megalithic destructive financial forces of mayhem and immense complexity that changed forever the economic world as we kno(e)w it.  Perilous WallStreet cluster-fuds suddenly opened a flood of financial and fiscal confusion unprecedented in the history of the world. The only thing that compares to it would be the crash of ’29, but of course that was then and this was now.

In Uncle Ben’s book, Courage to Act, through which he strives to shine a light of transparency into the workings of the Fed and its relationship to the financial powers that be, he explains, in chapter 12, the demise of one particular entity (the AIG insurance conglomerate) that fell during that month’s frantic rearrangement of dominoes. He describes the problem this way:

 “AIG FP’s risk was compounded by the difficulty in valuing its highly complex position, in part because the securities that the company was insuring were so complex and hard to value.”

This universal fragility about value (or sudden loss of value) of toxic assets would be something akin to a global computer-virus, but in the financial world. Nobody knew how, when, or where, the infection of overnight falling  asinine asset prices could obliterate the richness of previously fat portfolios. It was like Ebola on WallStreet.

During that third week of September of 2008, the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Bros, and then the unraveling of worldwide cluster-fudded AIG, damn near brought the whole house of WallStreet et al etc cards of down.

I guess US Treasurer Hank Paulson and a few other arm-twisting high-flyers later put the fear of dog into Congress and into whomever else was in charge of this country at the time, so that the gov-softened crash landing of worldwide money tranches wasn’t nearly as bad as when something like that happened in ’29 and the whole dam American economy fell apart.

As I told you before, I was just a detached observer at the time, September 15 2008, a regular guy with no skin in the game trying to figure out what the hell was going as I heard about events on the car radio.

Now reading Uncle Ben’s memoir, I see a little more clearly what was going on behind the scenes. I guess his transparency mission is being realized; at least it is on me.

I see the light. I think I understand. Fear, as Joni Mitchell once sang, is like a wilderland.

Fear is a big part of this whole things fall apart deal that we see in life sometimes.

In the case of the investment banks and Wall Street and all that derivative-induced shenanigans that came unwounded in fall of ’08, it was fear of losing value on a massive scale, fear of diminishing assets on a global scale, and hence fear of metastasizing money-loss on a megadential scale.

But hey, there are worse fears in life. . .fear of dying?

Speaking of death, we could say that old folks are generally closer to it than young ones. But the fear of death can be, I feel, softened somewhat by the sense that one has lived a fulfilling life, or maybe an adventurous life, or perhaps a prosperous life, whatever attribute of the good life floats your boat.

Here’s something Uncle Ben wrote in his memoir about the old-timers on Wall Street during that fateful fall of ’08:

“For Wall Street old-timers, the events of the (Lehman weekend) weekend would evoke some nostalgia. Two iconic Wall Street firms that had survived world wars and depressions, Lehman (Bros.) and Merrill (Lynch), had disappeared in a weekend. I felt no nostalgia at all. I knew that the risks the two firms had taken had endangered not only the companies but the global economy with unknowable consequences.”

Unknowable consequences. That’s what you get when a bunch of old (or young) wise guys play fast and loose with a world-class pile of other people’s money.

But hey, that was then and this is now; it could never happen again.

At least not the same way.


Glass Chimera

Bankers, Banksters, Bernanke, Black and Beethoven

November 8, 2015

How’s a fellow to make sense of it all? Who you gonna call? Who you gonna believe? What’s the world coming to? What’s it to ya? and Who’s in charge here?

I’ve been trying to figure out a few things about our financial system.


About a week ago I loaded Ben Bernanke’s book, Courage to Act, and have been reading what the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve has to say about those events of 2007-8 that brought this country to its money-grubbing knees.

Now about a quarter of the way through Bernanke’s explanation of things, I must say I like the guy. He has a personal mission to bring more transparency to that enigmatic institution known to us as the Federal Reserve. I think he really wants regular folks to understand our financial system and the function of the central bank which, having been founded by Congress in 1913, tries to keep a rein on the nation’s banking system so it doesn’t become a runaway horse.

Nevertheless, the System did morph into a kind of bucking bronco back in the fall of 2008. The crash and crisis of that time may have seemed quite sudden to many of us, but in fact the collapse of Wall Street et al during September-October of that year was the culmination of a bunch of misadventures and misdeeds that had begun a year or two or more before it all came crashing down.

I vividly remember, during that time seven years ago, sitting in my car in a parking lot, a few minutes before 8 am when I would enter my day-job, and hearing on the car-radio with dread or fascination about the demise of such formerly venerable institutions as Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Bank of America, Wachovia, Countrywide, Golden West,  AIG, Fannie, Freddie, even General Motors, and then about how Hank Paulson and Wall Street and the Fed, Bernanke and the President and Congress would deal with the degenerating situation by instituting TARP which was rejected by our Representatives and Senators before it was passed and implemented a week later after Hank and Larry and Tim put the fear of god in the legislators’ minds or whatever it was they told them to convince them that they should loan the distressed banks $767 billion so the whole dam bailiwick wouldn’t fall apart and drag us into another Depression, or so they said.

The world was changing. Have you ever watched the world changing? It is an awesome thing, to see history being made.

What a time a time oh what a time it was. . . a time of innocence (lost), a time of confidences (lost forever), as Paul Simon once sang. Oh what a time it was. Eventually the dust settled and the country lapsed back into normalcy or something like it but not really.

Things were different after that. You know what I’m talking about. . . the Great Recession, everybody and their brother deleveraging, budgets tightening, layoffs and downsizing, fading into perpetual “jobless recovery” with wage deflation, rising unemployment, then descending unemployment but with more part-timing and less money. . . stock-crunchers and media fixated on monthly numbers from the Fed, the gov, BLS, etc, a languid economy generating fewer jobs, then a few more jobs, then leveling out and stabilizing and lapsing into destagulation and blah blah blah. . .

And it was about that time, or actually a year of three later by n’ by, that the Occupy Wall Street crowd came along.

My wife and I visited our son in Seattle during fall or early winter of 2011. I woke up one morning and strolled down Pike Street. I stopped at the Westlake Center and entered a Starbucks where I settled in for a while. I was observing through the large glass storefront, the Occupiers who had gathered across the street in Westlake Park.

After a while I noticed among all those protesters, many of whom were carrying signs (mostly say hooray for our side) . .here comes an especially noticeable fellow with a sign. He was tall, scruffy, with a long beard. He looked like the classic cartoon image of the street-corner doomsday prophet, and his sign said:

“Jail for Banksters”

Well that’s interesting.

Now, yesterday, November 7 2015, I recalled having seen that fellow and his sign, and I was thinking about what his sign said.

I had been reading Uncle Ben’s very informative book–his plainly-written, quite “transparent” explanation of what had happened back in ’08, when the low quality of vast numbers of subprime mortgage loans catapulted those same home-loans into default, and subsequently cast a ubiquitous monkey wrench into the vastly complex financial machinery of sliced/diced tranches of mortgage-backed-securities and collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, etc etc  and then wall street came crashing down and all the Fed’s horses and all the Treasury’s men couldn’t put humpty dumpty together again (not for a while anyway) and the world changed forever, or so it seemed at the time and for quite a long time after that, even until now.

Yesterday, I had made note of this sentence from Ben Bernanke’s book:

“As the chain from borrower to broker to originator to securitizer to investor grew longer , accountability for the quality of the underlying mortgages became more and more diffused.”

And I was wondering, if the accountability had become more and more diffused, then who was responsible for this mess?

My own personal answer to that question is: Human nature, collectively. Shit happens.

Not everyone sees it that way, though. Some folks feel the need to investigate, litigate, prosecute, execute, and. . . as the protester’s sign said, send the “banksters” to jail.

So here I was yesterday, having taken a break from reading Uncle Ben’s book, and I was fiddling around online when I landed upon an interview that Chris Martenson did with Bill Black.

Now Bill is well-informed fellow; he’s an academic like Ben Bernanke, but from a totally different perspective than Ben’s. Bill is a regulator, investigator, earth-shaker, litigator who is crowing that Eric Holder,  former Attorney General and head of the U.S. Department of Justice, should have prosecuted the banksters for their corruptive abuse of the system. In his interview with Chris that I listened to yesterday, Bill Black said:

“Every dollar by which you inflate an asset inflates capital by a dollar and creates an additional dollar you can steal. . . they lied and they lied to the extent of trillions of dollars. They lied and made stuff that was really in the trade, right. So the bankers are actually calling these things toxic in their internal memorandum. And they are simultaneously rated Triple A, which is supposed to mean that they are equivalent to United States Treasury and are “risk free” by which they mean credit risk.”

Furthermore, whistle-blowing Bill Black says that culpability for the crash also includes the Fed’s complicity, when Bill says:

“You say Bank of America has got 50 billion of these things. They sell them to Fannie/Freddie.

Next thing we know, Black Rock is in there with the Federal Reserve helping the Federal Reserve decide which tranches of MBS to go out and buy. And the Federal Reserve vacuums up 1.25 trillion or thereabouts of these mortgage backed security pieces of paper. Here is the question. What is the chance that the Fed preferentially or accidentally (but I am going to think preferentially) went out and vacuumed up some of the worst of these things so that they could die quietly on its balance sheet rather than do damage to bank balance sheets?

So Black is implying that Bernanke shares some of the blame for the Crash of ’08.

But in my reading of Uncle Ben’s version, I see a very smart man, an honest man, who was trying to do his job–that job to which he had been appointed by the President and approved by the Congress of the United States. He was striving, as best he could, trying to stop the nation’s calamitous slide into financial oblivion. Ben writes:

 “Just as the bank runs of the panic of 1907 amplified losses suffered by a handful of stock speculators into a national credit crisis and recession, the panic in the short-term funding markets that began in August 2007 would ultimately transform a ‘correction’ in the sublime mortgage market into a much greater crisis in the global financial system and global economy.”

From Chairman Ben Bernanke’s perspective, he was doing his job– using every tool in his Reserve tool-chest  to arrest to the “panic” that would eventually impose a “much greater crisis” in the global financial system and global economy.

You can’t blame a fellow for trying to do his job. And that’s how I make sense of it all. I try to do my job, while I see everyone else doing theirs, and that’s what makes the productive world go around.

Although, every now and then shit does happen. Then, as Schumpeter said. . . it is creative destruction, and somebody’s got to clean up the mess. Jobs for everybody, cleaning up the mess from places high and low. And then reconstructing it all, a vicious (or inevitable) cycle. It’s been going on for 10,000 years. But now with hi-tech, everything goes faster and faster, until it grinds again to a screeching halt and. . . can you hear it? The music of the ages.

Glass half-Full

The Fed: Will they or won’t they?

September 13, 2015

Some say the Fed will raise the rate;

some say the Fed will wait.

From what I’ve seen of our economic state,

I think that either way is great.

But if the Fed wants to make a move

that everybody will approve,

then let them raise it up a point or two.

Or. . . just a quarter point will do.


Glass half-Full