Archive for the ‘financial metldown’ Category

Austerity or Stimulus?

February 25, 2017

Well this is an improvement.

When I was still a gleam in my daddy’s eye, Germany fought a world-sized war against France. But now, in 2017, all the obsolete ideology that then fueled both fanaticisms–fascist v. communist–has withered down into a battle of ideas.

Fiscal ideas, like whether budgets should be balanced, or put on hold until things get better.

From a Peace vs. War standpoint, I’d say that delicate balancing act is an improvement, wouldn’t you? Budgets and Economic Plans are, theoretically, much more manageable than tanked-up military campaigns.

Now Germany and France– those two nation-state heavyweights whose fiscal priorities set the course for the rest of Europe–they are getting along just fine now. They expend financial energies trying to keep the whole of Europe humming along on all cylinders. Budget deficits that drag down Euro economies are generated mostly in the lackadaisical southern  economies–Greece, Italy and Spain.

But those two mid-continent economic heavyweights–France and Germany, function as fiscal opposites, polarizing European values and budget priorities in opposite directions. They are two very different countries; and yet Germany and France are not as opposite as they used to be. A lot has changed since they finally made peace back in 1945.

At the time of that last Great War, early 1940’s, Germany was suffering through the death-throes of a dying monarchy. What was left of the Kaiser’s authoritative legacy had been lethally manipulated into a world-class death regime by a demonic tyrant who wore an odd, obnoxious little mustache on his flat German face.

France up to that time was still stumbling through a sort of awkwardly adolescent stage, having booted their kings and queens out back in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and then replacing, in stages, the ancient monarchy with a struggling new Republic.

What the French did as the 18th-century came to a close was similar to what we Americans did, but different. We had ditched King George III in 1776. The French cut off Louis XVI in 1792. On the other side of the Rhine, the Germans kept their Wilhelm top dog hanging on a thread until the Allies ran him down in 1918.

We Americans did a whole new thing after we rejected the old wineskins of monarchic government back in 1776; we had a lot going for us–a vast, nearly-virgin continent that stretched out for 3000+ miles, with plenty of room to grow,  and to expand our new-found explorations for Life, Liberty and Pursuits of Happiness.

The Europeans–neither the French nor the Germans–did not have all that fruited-plains expansion space like we had. They were cramped up over there in the Old World.

Having wielded a fierce guillotine ruthlessness upon their king and queen, the French tried to spread the wealth all around, ensuring that everybody got a chunk of it. They had wrung a blood-stained liberte from the palaces of privilege in 1789. Over the course of the next century and a half, they generally moved leftward the whole time, toward an egalitarian idea of solidarity.

The Germans have always tended toward authoritarian leadership, which is one reason why Hitler was able to pull off the abominations that he did. But we Allies put that to an end in 1945.

Thank God.

Now in the post-WWII Europe, the Germans have turned out to be pretty good kids on the block, considering all that had happened back in the day. The last 3/4 of a century has seen a remarkable recovery. They went through some serious changes, rebuilding after  losing two wars, and then being divide into two different countries.

Since 1990, when Germany became united again into one country, those krauts have established a pretty impressive record. They now have the strongest, most stable economy in Europe.  One reason it turned out this way is: the Germans have historically been, by necessity, very disciplined, rational people and they know how to get things done.

The French are different from that. You gotta love the French. As the Germans have made the world a better place with their great music (Bach and Beethoven), the French have brightened and lightened our worldly life with their very lively, expressive and impressionistic art, coupled with their unbridled Joie de vivre. And let’s not forget the original architectural piece-de-resistance of the Western World. It was French creativity married to inventive 19th-century industrialism that brought us the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

ParisGargoyl

The French do progress with style and artistry; the Germans get it done with impressive efficiency and precision.

As an American who has geneologic roots in both cultures, this fascinates me.

Their two different attitudes about generating prosperity also encompass, respectively, their approaches to solving money problems.

Or more specifically. . . solving “lack of money” problems.

A new book, Europe and the Battle of Ideas, explains how these two nations, as the two polarizing States of modern Europe, each lead in their own way to set policy, together,  for solving Europe’s financial problems. Their tandem leadership is enhanced by their two very different strategies.

The simplest way to describe their treatments of European deficits is this:

The Germans are into Austerity; the French are into Stimulus.

Or to put it into a classic perspective:

The Germans want to balance the books,  thereby squeezing all governments and banks into economic stability. The French want the assets to get spread around so everybody can have a chunk of it.

How do I know anything about this?

This morning I saw Markus Brunnermeir being interviewed; he is one of the authors of the new book, Europe and the Battle of Ideas.

  https://www.socialeurope.eu/2017/02/europes-future-will-settled-battle-ideas/

In this fascinating, very informative interview, the questions are being posed by Rob Johnson, President of Institute for New Thinking, whatever that is.

Together, these two guys explore the two basic problem-solving approaches to working out Europe’s economic deficiencies. And it just so happens that the two main strategies are related to those two old nationalized culture, described above, between Germany and France.

Sounds simplistic perhaps, but this comparative analysis makes a lot of sense when you hear these two knowledgable men talk about the present condition of economic Europe.

So, rather than try to explain it to you, I’ll simply leave you with this list of characteristics, as identified by. Mr Markus Brunnermeier. The list identifies how each country’s budgetary priorities contributes to a strategy for solving Europe’s fiscal woes.  My oversimplified version of it  looks like this:

France

Germany

1.Stimulus

1.Austerity

2.Liquidity

2.Solvency

3.Solidarity

3.Liability

4.Discretion

4.Rules

5.Bail-out

5.Bail-In

Consider these two lists of national characteristics as two different strategies for solving large-scale economic problems.

Here are a few notes I made while watching Mr. Johnson interview Mr. Brunnermeier:

For French, the problem is always liquidity. Stimulus will flush money out of markets again.

Germans see problems as solvency difficulty. Fix the fundamentals. Don’t throw good money after bad.

French: If you see it as a liquidity problem, just bail them out.

German. If you see it as solvency problem,  Bail in, to avoid future hazards. Bail-in means: Bond holders who essentially gambled with a country or bank and  then reap the gains on upside– they should take losses on downside.

There was a radical shift in attitudes in Europe over the Cyprus bank crisis in spring 2013. Who pays? Who covers the losses?

. . . Bail-in or bail-out?

French fear systemic risk so they tend toward governmental bail-outs.

The Germans, on the other hand, see crisis as an opportunity to address and solve the systemic deficiencies. So penalize  the depositors/ investors; others will learn from that, and you will have bank-runs in other places. Such circumstances provide incentives for institutions and individuals to take responsibility for their own actions and investments.

Just how the Europeans get all this worked out, we shall see in the days ahead. And the working-out may provide some lessons for all of us.

Smoke

Advertisements

Hilary, Liz and Dodd-Frank

February 21, 2017

Violin

Oh, there was a time, when I was a young man, when I would fiddle around, and that was nice enough for a while.

Then life came and went.

Nowadays, I find myself content to merely listen while life slips by.

In ages past, a maestro such as Felix Mendelssohn could  imagine something incredible; he could then summon up in his own mind and hands– an exquisite composition, an intricate stream of vibrations–as sublime as any that could ever be coaxed from a mere box constructed of wood and wire. He could then write the composition. Then, 170 years later Hilary could set bow to instrument and, with help from the orchestra, make it all happen so perfectly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1dBg__wsuo

There’s a reason why my fiddle has been set aside all these years. Why bother? There’s somebody who can do it better. There’s somebody out there who can, in fact, do it perfectly.

Just listen. But I get to thinking. . .

Years go by. We pay attention, try to figure things out. There’s always somebody out there who can do things better than we can. Leave the complicated stuff to experts. And listen. Listen and learn. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.

Just daydreaming now; I think of Sally Field in Forrest Gump when she was playing his mother and she said life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.

Think about 2008. Everybody just lollygaggin’ along. . .then whoosh! well, you remember what happened. Everybody’s shell-shocked. Uncle Hank stammering on the Tube. They had to twist Congress’ arm two or three times before they’d come up with the money to fix the mess, at least temporarily.

Then the experts get trotted out to analyze, to testify, to figure what the hell happened in stock markets that made the thing come crashin’ down–something about market manipulations of MBS’s, unforeseen incredibilities of CDO’s, the incredulous defaulting of credit default swaps blah blah blah

As the thing unwinds, along come the explanations, the excuses, the wagging fingers, the committees, the commissions, the oversight agencies get rolled out, cranked up. Republicans in shock because Obama’s in. Democrats trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Democrats got to fix everything, so what do they do. . .

Let’s fix everything up, they say.

Ok. Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

Years go by. Big shock when Trump comes blasting’ into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave after those 8 years of Mr. Smooth.

Now this morning we hear Amy and Juan on the radio, and here’s Senator Liz whining about how the new Republican whirlwind wants to wind down Dodd-Frank, which was supposed to be the big fix, the big Democratic fix.  I mean, she’s a little bit crazy, like all Democrats, but there’s one thing about Liz, she can play the rhetoric like Hilary plays the violin. It’s no wonder Mitch had to cut her off last week. Anyway,  Liz is saying:

“Commercial and consumer lending is robust. Bank profits are at record levels. And our banks are blowing away their global competitors. So, why go after banking regulations? The president and the team of Goldman Sachs bankers that he has put in charge of the economy want to scrap the rules so they can go back to the good old days, when bankers could take huge risks and get huge bonuses if they got lucky, knowing that they could get taxpayer bailouts if their bets didn’t pay off. We did this kind of regulation before, and it resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We cannot afford to go down this road again.”

I mean, Liz might have a point there. If things are so ROBUST, why do we still get this feeling about the 20,000+ Dow? Is it deja vu, or deja due, or prescience, maybe too much twitter or not enough facebook, or a rerun of common sense or what? Maybe it’s all just a bunch of hot air blowin’ around and we keep wonderin’ about the whole house of cards but we can’t really put our finger on what’s wrong cuz you know the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind and life is like a box of chocolates anyway, a mere lala land where we think we got it figured out but really we don’t.

Although I do have to remind you, Liz, since I am a registered Republican: we can’t fix everything. If we could, and if we did, why, how boring would that be?

So my advice to you is we’d best leave the fiddlin’ to the experts. Sooner or later we’ll all have to face the music anyway.

Glass half-Full

A New Bretton Woods?

August 1, 2016

We were in Rome about a year and a half ago, as part of a traveling celebration of our 35th wedding anniversary.

One evening as we were lollygagging through the busy rain-slicked streets and sidewalks, we passed in front of a very special building. It was the Rome headquarters of the European Union, or “EU”.

I wanted to take a picture of the building’s entry, because that is what tourists do–take pictures of important places. Seeking a broader view, I crossed the street. While positioning myself and the phone to snap a pic, the guard across the street noticed my activity. He started waving at me frantically, indicating that what I was doing was not permitted.

Excuse me. I was taking a picture of a public building.

In America, we take pictures of .gov buildings, because we have, you know, a government of the people, by the people and for the people, which means, among other things that the people can take pictures of their headquarterses (as Golem might say.)

Is this not the way you do it in Europe? No pictures of the RomeEU headquarters?

Nevertheless, here is my smuggled pic:

EURomeHdq

If you squint at my little jpeg here, you may discern the guard’s upraised right alarm, a gesture of command intended to communicate a stop order on my touristic activity. It vaguely resembles another raised-arm signal that was in use in Europe 75 years ago, during the regime of Mussolini and that German guy who considered the Italian dictator to be his own puppet.

Or maybe I’m being too cynical about this incident. Maybe the guard was saluting me in some way, acknowledging my importance as an American tourist in the city of Rome.

Now, a year and a half later, this morning, seated comfortably in my own humble domicile, back in the USSA . . . I was pondering the idea of government–whether it is truly “of. . .by the people”, or is it something else? Is it, as many citizens insist during these times of tumultuous societal change, actually an institution through which the “1%” (or as they said back in the old days, the “rich and powerful”) project their oligarchical manipulations upon the rest of us?

I was thinking about this after reading online an article about how the worldwide financial system that has evolved.

  http://seekingalpha.com/article/3993559-back-square-one-financial-system-needs-reset?ifp=0

In this Seeking Alpha blogpost, Valentin Schmid, as “Epoch Times” examines our international monetary system. His analysis appears to be generated from  a well-informed position in the world of money, assets and power.

Mr. Schmid raises the question of whether  the current (worldwide) debt load can ever be repaid, because there isn’t enough “real money” to go around.

This got my attention, because I have been thinking for a while that there isn’t enough “real money” to go around.

Haha, as if I knew about such things. I don’t know much about money; if I did, I would have more of it.

Anyway, Mr. Schmid’s question is answered by his guest interviewee, Paul Brodsky, in this way:

   . . . “I would argue central banks lost the ability to control the credit cycle. Some relatively minor event could trigger a series of events that creates the need for a sit-down among global monetary policy makers who finally have to acknowledge publicly that their policies are no longer able to control the system, the global economy, which is based on ever increasing demand through ever increasing credit.

And what might occur is a natural drop in output. So you’ll see GDP growth begin to fall. Real GDP growth across the world maybe even be going into contraction and that would spell doom for these balance sheets. And this is not something I’m predicting or trying to time at all, but the natural outcome of that would be a sit-down like a Bretton Woods where arrangements are reconsidered.”

   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bretton_Woods_Conference

So what is coming is, perhaps, this:

To compensate for a stalling of global productivity, the movers/shakers of the world may  construct a new,  top-down rearrangement of the world financial system. The purpose of this revision will be to fix the problem of not enough money to go around. Such an extensive reconstruction as this would be has not been done since the Bretton Woods agreement that was promulgated by delegates from 44 Allied nations in 1944.

In a 21st-century world inhabited by billions of inhabitants, our  accessibility to natural resources has heretofore been determined by how many holes we could drill in the ground to extract natural resources; and how many acres of crops we could plant to produce food; how many factories we could build, and so on. . . building an economy to work toward  spreading the bounty around.

In the future, however, we will be moving to a “knowledge” economy. Wealth creation will not be about how much you can dig in a day’s time, nor how much you can plant, nor what you can cobble together in your back yard or over on Main Street.

Wealth generation in the future will be determined by what you know, so start learning now.

The first three essential  things to know are these:

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic.

Well gollee, maybe it won’t be such a brave new world after all.

However this thing plays out, if enough of us can master these three skills, .gov of the people, by the people and for the people will not perish from the earth, we hope.

Glass half-Full

The American Deal

July 13, 2016

Way back in time, hundred year ago, we was movin’ out across the broad prairie of mid-America, slappin’ them horse teams so’ they would pull them wagon out across the grasslands and the badlands, and then blastin’ our way ‘cross the Rockies and Sierras all the way to Pacific and the promised land of California.

GoGate35

And it was a helluva time gettin’ through all that but we managed to do it, with more than a few tragedies and atrocities along the way, but what can you say, history is full of ’em: travesties.

Troubles, wherever men go– travesties, trials and tribulations. That’s just the way it is in this world. If there’s a way around it, we haven’t found it yet.

  But there has been progress too, if you wanna call it that. Mankind on the upswing, everybody get’n more of whatever there is to get in this life, collectin’ more stuff, more goods, services, and sure ’nuff more money.

Movin’ along toward the greatest flea market in history, is kinda what we were doing.

Taming the land, transforming the planet into our own usages, improving, or so we thought, on God’s original versions.

After that great westward expansion transference/transgression, had been goin’ on for a good while, and a bad while now that you mention it, we Americans found ourselves high up on a bluff overlooking history itself. At Just about that time, them Europeans had a heap of trouble that they’d been brewin’ over there and they dragged us into it on account of we had become by that time quite vigorous, grasping the reins of manifest destiny and ridin’ along, as so it seemed, on the cusp of history, seein’ as how we had been raised up on our daddy’s Britannic colonizing, mercantiling knee.

Then long about 1914, them Europeans dragged us into their big fatally entreched mess over there and we went and fought the first Big War, fought them high and mighty Germans that first time and when we got done with it and got back over here the world was a different place.

I mean the world was a different place, no doubt about it.

For one thing, everybody in the civilized world was so glad to have a little peace in 1920, we just went hog wild.

Everybody got out there a-workin’, roarin’ ’20s zeitgeist, scrapin’ crops out o’ the ground, building great machines, skyscrapers. Edison had electrified us; Bell had sounded the bells of modern communication; Ford had tinkered us into a vast new world of mass production with a horseless carriage in every garage and a chicken in every pot and and we were skippin’ right along like a cricket in the embers.

NewkDev

‘Til ’29, when the big crash came along.

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39RKRelTMWk

Some folks said that Mr. Hoover, great man that he was, was nevertheless clueless, and so the nation turned to Mr. Roosevelt for new answers. FDR, young cousin of Teddy Roosevelt who had been the father, so to speak, of American progressivism– cousin Franklin D., Governor of New York, took the bull by the horns and somehow managed to breed it into a donkey.

So from Teddy’s bullmoose progressivism there arose, through 1930’s-style unemployed populist cluelessness, Americanized Democratic Socialism;  with a little help from FDR’s genteel patriarchal largesse, the New Deal saved Capitalism, or so it is said among the theoreticians and the ivory tower legions who followed, and are still following, in Roosevelt’s wake.

Well, by ‘n by, between Lyndon Johnson’s grand Texas-size vision for a Great Society, Clinton’s good-ole-boy nod to residual crony capitalism, and then the 21st-century-metamorphosing, rose-colored proletarian worldview as seen through Obama’s rainbow glasses, and now the upswell of Bernie’s refurbished wealth redistribution wizardry– we’ve turned this corner into a rising tide of  flat-out Democratic Socialism.

It will be, quite likely, soon inundating the tidal basin inside the beltway as in 2017 we slog  into the mucky backwaters of full-blown Americanized Socialism, dammed up on the other side of the slough by that other guy whose oversimplified version of the nation and the world seems to want to land us in a brave new world of American National Socialism.

And who knows which way this thing will go; only time and the slowly softening sedentary, dependent American electorate can tell.

Looking back on it all, today, my 65th birthday, having lived through Nov22’63, April4’68, 9/11, yesterday’s disruptions wherever they may be, and everything in between, I find myself identifying with all the old folks whose weary outmoded facial expressions bespoke disdain,  while I traipsed errantly along life’s way. Here’s to all them ole folks who I thought were a little out of it, one brick shy of a load, peculiar, decrepit and clueless. Now, I can relate.

How I wish America could be back at real work again, like we were back in the day.

We’ve pushed through vastly extracted frontiers that yielded to massive infrastructure networks punctuated with skyscraping towers of steel and concrete. Now we’re lapsing into solid-state, navel-gazing nano-fantasies, living vicariously through celebrities in our pharma cubicles.

Maybe there’s a new frontier in there somewhere but I’m having a hard time seeing it.

But hey! let me conclude this rant with a hat-tip to the man–he happens to be a Canadian–who best eulogized the essence of that once-and-future great North American work zeitgeist, which seems to be disappearing into the dustbowl of history, because it looks like  there’s nowhere left to go.

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjoU1Qkeizs

Well, maybe there is somewhere.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38bHXC8drHc

Glass half-Full

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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_hand 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,

http://www.amazon.com/The-Courage-Act-Memoir-Aftermath-ebook/dp/B00TIZFP0I

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

From Black Friday to Derivatives Saturday

November 28, 2015

Back in the crash of ’08, clueless underlings such as myself suddenly were made aware of a mysterious component of our financial system called “derivatives.”

What is a derivative? you may ask. Funny you should ask. I didn’t know either, and I still don’t. Although I have been trying to figure it out for seven years now, every time I think I know what a derivative is, I encounter acronymic terminology such as MBS, CDO, or SEC.

These slimmed-down nomenclatures should simplify things, but they do, in fact simplify nothing. Although everybody knows SEC stands for Southeastern Conference, which is the football conference where the best American football is played, and where my alma mater LSU exercises its right to excel in athletics, except when teams like Alabama or Florida are on the field.

Tyger

But I digress. I was explaining to you what a derivative is and I mentioned some of the simplifying terminology.

For instance, as alluded to above: MBS.

Well some well-positioned bloggists of the worldwideweb identify an MBS as a Masters of Bullsh*t, which is attained through much blood sweat and tears and dedicated gamesmanship acquired at a venerable institution, such as Barnwell University or Cayman College. The MBS is attained through years and years of shoveling potentially useful data into HFT, which produces a yield from which its index is derived,  and lucrative assets which are then deposited into accounts on behalf of the bullish denizens of WallStreet. These rich deposits build up the notional value of our economy as a hole, thus enriching all of us, not only those who are forever horsing around on Wall Street, but also  you and me and all the folks on Main Street, Easy Street and Ventnor Avenue.

Somebody has to do it. I don’t mind doing my part, working with a shovel. Keeps me in shape.

Anyway, that’s not the MBS of which I spake. I’m talking about Mortgage Backed Securities. I think Uncle Freddie Mac and Aunt Fannie Mae gave these instruments as gifts back during the holidays of 2007, when life was oh simple then, before time had rewritten every line.

My understanding of a Mortgage Backed Security is that they’re something like an Arkansas RazorBack, which is probably why they didn’t work out so well for investors, although Arkansas is ranked third in the SEC west, behind Florida and–excuse my language–Ole Miss.

After that is my LSU Tigers, presently in fourth place of SEC west, but as always and forever will be, bound for greatness.

It’s quite complex to describe just how LSU could be in fourth place, because its position in the rankings is derived from the ratio of victories to losses, divided by the number of footballs passed beneath the legs of a center when he hikes the ball to the quarterback during any given play of the game.

Nevertheless, as I was saying before, a derivative is derived from the outcome, that is to say the, rear-end of a complex financial instrument.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, as any serious investor is wondering, about the real question here, which is: how much is it worth?

One thing that my research has revealed, and one thing I can tell you with surety is this: The value of any particular derivative is derived from fluctuations in the value of the underlying asset.

Here’s an example: how much is my ticket to this season’s Sugar Bowl worth? Well, at this point it’s an open question, but let’s just say this: I’ll give you my ticket to the Sugar Bowl for your two tickets to the Orange Bowl.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Texas Aggies be forewarned), the guys who are shoveling out in the barn are asking what’s the real value of these derivatives. And as I explained before, you remember that the value of any particular derivative is derived from fluctuations in the value of the underlying ass-set. That should come out plain enough.

As for the collective value of all the derivatives, this figure is derived from its notional value, which is calculated based on the notion, as defined by the US Treasury, the Fed, the NYSE, and the AP sportswriters, that whatever goes around comes around, so therefore if the value of the aforesaid derivatives passes through enough piles of assets then when it comes out the other end nobody really knows what its worth, so that it can be revalued at the going rate.

This is unpredictable, of course, as the LTCM affair had indicated  back in the Glass-Steagall days, but it is bound to be worth, somehow somewhere when you least expect it, more than it was in January of 2009. So that’s progress, although the Progressives may not agree with me. I don’t pay much attention to all those freaks on the fringe anyway.

And you understand, of course, that all this has taken place after Cronkite passed from the scene.  Before that, it was pretty much everybody working together in America toward the same values and goals. But that was then and this is now. Derivatives happens.

I’m glad I could clear this up for you. As for the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl,  may the best team win, as it frequently does, but sometimes not.

 

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:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Courage-Act-Memoir-Aftermath-ebook/dp/B00TIZFP0I

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.

TheFed

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.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Courage-Act-Memoir-Aftermath-ebook/dp/B00TIZFP0I

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.

http://www.peakprosperity.com/podcast/95125/bill-black-why-banksters-winning

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEbyBINYBfo

Glass half-Full