Posts Tagged 'bailout'

The dagbuzz for 3/2/09: (Abuse, Co-Dependency and Fear of Change)

Today, I discuss codependent, abusive relationships, and our general resistance to change. Deadman understands the deal. He, too, just wants to relive the good old days and focus on things that will always stay the same, like the Middle East conflict.

Image: Chris Brown And Rihanna: Back Together For No Good Reason

Chris Brown And Rihanna: Back Together For No Good Reason

Image: Obama will sign spending bill despite earmarks      (AP)

Obama will sign spending bill despite earmarks (AP)

Image: US takes another crack at AIG rescue

US takes another crack at AIG rescue

Image: Clinton Pledges Gaza Aid

Clinton Pledges Gaza Aid

Predictions for ’09 (and a review of my ’08 calls) …

In my most recent question column earlier this week, I asked for readers’ predictions for the upcoming year … aside from Genghis bravely predicting that Obama would become POTUS, I didn’t get too many responses.

So I’m going to ask for your predictions again, while repeating some of the predictions I made and adding a couple of more, before I revisit some calls I made this year.

First, the predictions for 2009. I’m sticking mostly to economics, with a few foolish forays into other areas (I was going to make a call that Prophet would finish his Top 10 2008 Albums list next February, but I see now he’s picked up the pace):

Economy

  • Unemployment, now at 6.7%, surges past 9 percent and falls just short of double digits
  • Gold now at about $845-$850, revisits all-time highs at $1000 an ounce, probably later in the year
  • Obama puts alternative energy initiatives on back burner at first, but then gets more involved as light crude oil, now at about $36 a barrel, rebounds first to $55-60 in short-term and then approaches $90 sometime next year. Gas prices again become a political issue.
  • ‘Class’ replaces ‘race’ and ‘immigration’ as the next big battleground in America. We see several examples like the factory sit-in we saw a couple of weeks ago. At least one of these protests turn violent and leads to a fatality. Unemployment benefits get extended again, and numerous other populist measures, including foreclosure relief, get passed by Washington.
  • The market has another down year, probably more than 10%, but stages a pretty decent rally early in the year, with the Dow hitting 10,000 again. IPOs remain few and far between, but Facebook does end up pulling off one of the few big new public stock offerings of the year next fall. The stock does well in the short-term, leading to another mini-rally.

Politics

  • The Obama inauguration attracts more than 3 million visitors, and the combined TV audience for his speech exceeds that for the Super Bowl, drawing more than 100 million viewers. There is at least one announced assassination attempt that is thwarted.
  • Biden was right after all and some terrorist organization or rogue state tests Obama’s resolve by the summer. We have the first attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 and it’s possibly a multi-city attempt that mimics the chaotic action in Mumbai. (Please god I hope I’m wrong on this one).

Sports

  • The Panthers meet either the Patriots or the Colts in the Super Bowl and win it all.
  • The Red Wings win the Cup. The Celtics repeat. (These are huge guesses).
  • The Yankees win the division, but flame out in the first round of the playoffs. Girardi is fired by the end of October. The Angels get to the World Series and play the Dodgers in an all-SoCal World Series. Angels win. My beloved Cards come in 3rd place in the NL Central division, which the Brewers win.

So should anyone listen to me? Probably not. My track record this year for predicting events was so-so. I was generally dead-on with economic trends, as I have been very negative for over a year now. On February 11, before I started blogging, I wrote an email to Jim Cramer, stating that we are heading into a ‘severe economic downturn that will last longer than most people are predicting,’ adding:

We are still in the early throes of this current crisis. We still haven’t seen any bankruptcies. Foreclosures and defaults have been at a minimum. The job market has only just begun to show signs of strain. The pain will of course spread to the rest of the world, which is wallowing in our debt and weak dollar, causing a global slowdown. Much more damage will be done, many more shoes will drop.

In a July post on pessimism, I predicted 50% odds for a multiyear recession, and 10% chance for a depression, fairly bold but probably not high enough odds for either. When the Lehman bankruptcy occurred on Sept. 14, I warned this wouldn’t be the end of the story and a systemic collapse was possible. When the Treasury first presented its bailout plan, I said there would be bumps along the way and that other industries would quickly be lining up for money, including the car manufacturers.

When it came to the financial markets, the record was much more mixed. I probably made my best call of the year on July 4, calling oil a bubble about to pop on the exact day it hit its high price for the year ($140+). Despite talk of new rules against speculation and for offshore drilling, I also correctly pointed out that the main reason for oil’s fall would be a rapidly weakening global economy. However, in that same piece, I said there’d likely be one more big run higher and that oil was not going to be heading to $50 anytime soon (It’s now in the $30s. Oops).

My calls for short-term bottoms and tops in the stock market were generally correct, but often early by a matter of days or even weeks, which makes a huge difference if you actually wanted to trade on the information (which I would NEVER recommend, as you have probably realized by now I like to talk out my ass a lot).

For instance, on Oct. 8, I called for a short-term bottom in the market, but it didn’t start happening until the next week. In a follow-up post on the 13th, I thought the rally could have some legs (somewhat true) with the Dow possibly hitting 11,000 (way untrue), but that we would revisit our earlier lows ‘in the next few months, if not sooner’ (true) and that we’d hover around the Dow 8K-9K for a year or more (to be determined).

I didn’t make many political calls, but wasn’t so impressive here either. In July, I predicted an Obama victory and said ageism would prove to have a bigger impact than racism (hard to judge the latter call, but I think it was a pretty good one).

On Sept. 3rd, I said McCain’s Palin could backfire but was the only thing he could to generate even a trace of the excitement of the Obama campaign.

On Sept. 24th, I called McCain’s announcement that he was postponing his campaign to focus on the economy as ‘just silly’ and ‘annoyingly hyperbolic.’

When the bailout was being debated and strongly questioned in Congress, I said it would surely pass; It was vetoed. To be fair, after the bill was vetoed, I did correctly predict a new bailout proposal ‘very similar’ to the rejected one would pass.

And in sports, the only prediction I made was a hopeful and ultimately correct one that St. Louis Rams Head Coach Scott Linehan would be fired after the bye week. Unfortunately, Linehan’s firing didn’t lead to ‘watchable football’ as I had hoped.

OK, now it’s YOUR turn. Go out on a limb. Make some calls. Trust me, if you’re right, you’ll look like a genius, a seer, a visionary. And if you’re wrong, no one will remember (at least not ’til I revisit these predictions next year)

What goes up, must go down …

I believe in balance. In yin and yang. I believe in cycles. In symmetry. I believe big wild parties end with big, nasty hangovers. I believe that what goes up, must come down.

Unfortunately, our government does not agree.

I have railed time and time again on this blog about the scattershot and shortsighted nature of our economic response so far to the current financial crisis. In short, and with few exceptions, said strategy has consisted of spending as much money as possible to bailout and stimulate every sick, depressed segment of our economy, with a particular focus on those segments that cater to the rich and connected.

The policies of the incoming Obama team will only accelerate this process, albeit with a more tilted and welcomed focus on some of the not-as-rich-or-connected folks. There is talk of a new $1 trillion stimulus package being created early in the Obama presidency.

The Fed is fully aboard the stimulus party as well, yesterday slashing the fed funds target rate to basically zero and committing to buying mortgage assets to ensure long-term borrowing rates move lower in an attempt to stabilize and boost the housing market. There is even talk that the government will FIX interest rates at a certain level to ensure they accomplish that goal, though for now it appears the mortgage market is responding to the unprecedented stimuli.

Look, no one likes to see suffering. People out of work, going bankrupt. Home prices falling. Factories closing. Cities failing. It’s nasty, nasty stuff. For politicians, it tends to lead their own unemployment. And for economists, it’s a scary scenario as well, because it almost always results in deflation, a pernicious problem that tends to have long, strong roots once it sets in.

But did the Fed or government do anything when times were so good, when the price of housing was soaring to the moon and consumers were levering up to the hilt and taking on dangerous levels of debt???? Aside from nominal increases in interest rates, I don’t remember any concerted effort, and certainly nothing approaching the desperation we’ve seen recently, to try and tame the animal spirits and gently guide the economy into a soft landing.

In my opinion, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have bubbles without crash landings. We have stemmed the worst of the credit crunch and liquidity crisis – interest rates have fallen, banks are lending a bit again (at least to each other). It is now time to let the market work its way through this mess and find its equilibrium level. Yes, it will likely overshoot on the downside, just like it did on the way up. Yes, it may take longer to find that equilibrium level than we’d like. But you gotta take the yin with the yang.

I’m not saying we should sit on our hands and watch helplessly as the economy craters. By all means, spend money to reinvest in our roads and infrastructure; on new technologies, including alternative energy; on education, including the retraining of displaced workers; on strengthening the country’s safety net to ensure that those hit hardest from the economic collateral damage don’t suffer unduly.

But realize that all this profligacy will have consequences down the road. We are already staring down the barrel of the worst demographic situation in decades – as the baby boomer generation is getting ready to retire en masse, placing a huge burden on this country’s resources as they move from being net producers to net consumers.

When times were better and tax revenues were flush, our government did nothing to reduce our budget deficit in any meaningful way or address long-term systemic issues threatening the economic health of our nation, like Social Security and Medicare. Yet it now has no problem dramatically increasing our country’s burdens and obligations in order to try and avoid the bad end of the business cycle.

The only thing all this spending will do is take away the oomph from any subsequent recovery. We’ll see a weaker dollar, higher inflation, bigger deficits, and higher taxes down the road. At least some, and maybe a lot of this money will be misplaced, leading to bubbles and wasted investments in other unforeseen areas.

But frankly, the prospect that most of this stimulus will be wasted, a misguided attempt to set an artificial floor on the economy, is actually not the worst-case scenario (though it is the most likely). My biggest concern is that the stimulus works too well and our animal spirits are revived before they’ve had a sufficient chance to reset. If that happens, we’d only be setting ourselves up for a bigger, more painful crash down the road.

ENOUGH!!! …

I’ve had it.

This country has been on engorging on a cheap credit binge for the last decade, stuffing itself on the sugar highs and empty calories provided by ultra-low interest rates and fancy derivatives and zero-down mortgages. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, and everyone is looking for a way to get their butt saved.

It’s bad enough that Congress already spent $150 billion earlier this year on a fiscal stimulus plan that did nothing but allow us to buy IPhones and XBoxes for a few more months. The American people now want more, and it looks like Congress is going to give it to us with another huge stimulus package. It’s money we can’t afford right now and which won’t do anything but provide another very temporary boost to an economy and consumer that needs to retrench for an extended period of time before they can begin to reflate.

But spending money one doesn’t have is the American way. Just ask the country’s beleaguered homeowners now drowning under onerous interest payments, the folks who were too busy picking out Ikea furniture to read the fine print of those adjustable-rate, no-doc mortgages they were signing.  They, too, are soon going to get plenty of help from our friends in Washington.

You see, everyone says we need housing to rebound in order for the economy to recover, so by god, we are going to make the housing market rebound, even if it means the government has to buy up all those nasty little mortgages and restructure them, as Senator John McCain has so magnanimously offered to do (and to hell with the free market and the natural laws of supply and demand).

But really, who could possibly blame the American people for wanting to be spared the pain of an economic downturn?? They’re just following the lead of our most esteemed industry and financial leaders and watching with green eyes as the government tosses around hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars like so much loose change.

How fitting that the first ones at the government trough were the Wall Street pigs who cooked up this unhealthy smorgasbord slop and fed it to the ravenous, greedy (but mostly unsuspecting) crowd of American consumers.

Oh, it may seem unseemly that the ones largely responsible for creating this mess would be the first to come begging for help, but The Powers That Be knew the financial system that Wall Street had so cleverly manufactured was so fragile that many of these banks couldn’t fail. They knew that the pyramid scheme would have to be unraveled slowly or the entire economy would shut down.

So in order to prevent exposing the rot in the system to the public, regulators forced Bear Stearns into the hands of the relatively well-capitalized JP Morgan Chase, guaranteed the losses with a $29 billion loan and then lowered interest rates in an emergency session.

But that was just the start. You know the rest of the story. The scope of the problems became obvious, and it was clear the cancer had metastasized to every corner of our financial system. Housing in particular was a disaster, so we nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which should never have been privatized in the first place, as one of the only things scarier than capitalism gone mad, is capitalism with implicit government backing gone mad ).

AIG, too, needed help since it had gotten caught insuring a lot of these failing institutions, so we rescued that firm with $85 billion (and then watched as some of that promised money was immediately spent on a lovely sales retreat, replete with a $23,000 spa bill).

And yet all that government assistance still wasn’t enough, so the Treasury and the Fed went to Congress and pleaded for another $700 billion, and only after getting that pork-laden package passed have they begun figuring out exactly how they are going to use that money to save our banking system and economy.

It is all just so very frightening, but the last straw for me was reading an article about some of those poor, poor folks in the hedge fund industry who are now hoping they’ll also see some of that bailout money. Treasury Secretary Paulson insists the money is just for banks and thrifts, but that ‘plans could change’.

You’ve got to be kidding me!!

I mean, for crying out loud, it was only a decade ago when the government and a bunch of banks bailed out a hedge fund company named (ironically enough) Long-Term Capital Management.

Long-Term Capital, with its use of insane leverage (at least 25x) in highly illiquid, poorly regulated financial instruments, including some of the very same derivatives and mortgage-backed securities that are now causing us grief, was in many ways Version 1. 0 of the current Wall Street mess. And yet we ultimately learned very few lessons from that clear early warning sign (This Working Group document has some great background on the LTCM debacle as well as a number of generally ignored conclusions and recommendations).

Frankly, we missed a golden opportunity to increase supervision and disclosure requirements to help rein in some of the industry’s excesses.

Even worse, the LTCM bailout (and the subsequent lowering of interest rates by then-Fed Chairman Easy Al Greenspan) helped fan the flames and foster the environment that we now find ourselves in by encouraging more ill-advised risk taking while institutionalizing the idea that the government will always be there to cover up for our mistakes.

But there is a price to be paid for that largess. Eventually, we’re going to have to pay for this misguided philosophy. I’m just worried that it’s too late, that we’ve dug ourselves into a hole so deep it will take a generation or more to climb out of.

So it’s time to stop the capital injections and bailout plans, the incessant pumping of liquidity into the markets and the careless printing of money, the debt issuance and the interest rate cuts. We’ve done enough to unfreeze the markets and prevent a systemic collapse. It’s time to let the brutally effective corrective mechanisms of capitalism take care of the rest.

As Obama said during the most stirring moment in his Denver keynote convention speech:

‘Enough!’

You’re kidding, right?? ….

So yesterday I wrote about how the Senate was making the bailout plan bigger but not better in order to get reluctant legislators aboard.

Oh man, you have no idea. It makes me want to cry.

According to the WSJ, A bill that was originally 3 pages is now more than 400 pages. Among the useless ‘sweeteners’ tacked onto the plan:

  • Economic development credit to American Samoan businesses
  • 50% tax credit for some expenditures on maintaining railroad tracks
  • 7-year recovery period for motorsports racetrack property
  • Special expensing rules for film and TV productions
  • Income averaging for Exxon Valdez litigants for tax purposes
  • $10,000 tax credit for training of mine rescue team members
  • Deduction for income from domestic production in Puerto Rico
  • Increasing cover of rum excise tax revenues to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

AND MY FAVORITE …

  • Exempting children’s wooden arrows from excise tax

YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!!

McCain says all the time that if he becomes President, we will know the names of the politicans who try to push their own pet earmarks. It’s one of the things he says that resonates with me.

I know people say this is the way Washington works. It’s how laws get passed. Give and take. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Gotta please the constituents … That’s bullshit.

It takes a lot for me to get outraged at something our government does. I’m as cynical as they come. But how dare these politicians use this moment, this time, with the economy on the edge of collapse and the financial fate of millions of Americans on the line, to muddy up an already outrageously expensive plan with such useless additions.

Let’s get something straight: These changes do not make the plan better. And they weren’t needed to get this deal passed. Politicians who voted against the bill were already worried that their ‘No’ vote pushed a teetering economy over the edge, and many of them were looking for a second chance to make amends. A couple of small, but relevant, changes to the plan would have provided all the cover they needed.

All this additional pork is a travesty of the legislative process. And if the candidates really mean it when they spout the word Change like it’s some kind of magical Buddhist mantra, it’s the kind of crap they’ll try to put a stop to when they get elected.

Is this a better bailout … or just a bigger, badder one?

So now the Senate is going to try its hand at passing a bailout plan. I’d make a prediction that the bill will almost certainly be passed by both chambers of Congress, but I apparently am a lot better at sports and market predictions than political ones.

The Senate bill seems extremely similar to the one rejected by the House earlier this week, save for a few sweeteners thrown in to try and mollify the politicians who thought the the original plan either did too much to blow up the deficit and prevent the market from self-cleansing (Republicans) or not enough to help lower- or middle-class Americans (Democrats).

Unfortunately, most of these ‘sweeteners’ really aren’t so sweet. Instead of exemplifying the wonderful compromises that can be created when a messy political system works its gridlocked magic, many of these proposed changes are just more sour examples of a broken Washington that encourages myopic legislation.

For instance, let’s take a look at perhaps the most controversial addition to the bill: Modification of the current mark-to-market accounting policies now in place that force banks to price their assets at current market levels.

This is a complicated issue, but mark-to-market basically forced banks to take huge writedowns on the mortgage-backed securities that are at the core of the current crisis and still mostly rotting away on balance sheets throughout the system.

Critics say the mark-to-market rule has a couple of main problems: 1) Banks which are forced to take writedowns must raise more capital and curb lending to satisfy reserve requirements or face insolvency, which only helps contribute to the spiraling meltdown 2) Mark-to-market leads to inaccurate or unnecessarily overstated writedowns, since in many cases the market for these mortgage securities is non-existent or in a state of unusual distress.

These critics say that if mark-to-market stands while the bailout plan is implemented, banks will be less likely to sell their bad assets to the government at low prices because that will mean they will have to book huge losses on the rest of their balance sheets. These critics instead want these assets to be valued by bank regulators … the same regulators who had little to no idea of the problems being created by the housing bubble.

In my opinion, getting rid of mark-to-market would be a big mistake. Marking to market ensures that banks take their lumps and move expeditiously to shore up their balance sheets. Japan’s decade-long retrenchment has lasted as long as it has partly because banks refused to face up to current realities. A report from a Credit Suisse analyst put it best: “Which information is more relevant, what you paid for an asset in the past or what it’s worth right now?”

This may be one of the worst changes, but almost all of the other ‘sweeteners’ in the Senate version of the bill will raise the total cost of the plan while producing, at best, unclear benefits. I fear that the cost of this bailout package will soar past initial estimates, and younger generations will be paying for this mess for decades to come.

Among the other changes being discussed in the Senate bill:

  • Temporarily raising FDIC insurance to $250,000 per account. This is a mostly cosmetic move designed to bolster people’s confidence in banks and keep them from moving funds out of the system, esp. with regards to smaller institutions. Alas, if a lot of banks go under, the FDIC won’t be able to afford the increased coverage and will have to borrow more from the Treasury. Ugh.
  • Relief from the alternative minimum tax, or the AMT. Call me biased, but this is a good idea. The AMT has gone far beyond what it was originally intended to do, which was to make sure that very rich folks do not use deductions to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Because it hasn’t been indexed to inflation, the AMT now affects millions of middle-class Americans, including yours truly. But whether AMT reform makes sense or not, relief won’t come without a price (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before): An even bigger deficit.
  • The creation or extension of a slew of tax breaks, including an R&D credit for businesses, and local and state tax deductions for individuals. Some of these deductions do encourage desirable behavior, such as the purchase of solar panels, but I’m sure some of them will end up being as stupid as our ethanol subsidies, and all of them will come with a cost.
  • A mental healthy parity law, which requires certain health insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental illness and addiction as they do for physical illness. OK, this may be a fine and worthwhile legislative initiative, but it has absolutely no place being added to a bailout plan.

Holy *%$# … Bailout defeated, Market collapses

OK, I was wrong. Really wrong. I was sure politicians would approve this bailout bill, no matter how publicly unpopular it was. The short-term risks of not doing something seemed too enormous – a complete freeze of the credit markets and the subsequent collapse of the economic system that relies so heavily on that free flow of credit.

But apparently, there’s one other short-term risk I didn’t consider strongly enough: The fact that every last one of those 435 members of the House of Representatives are facing elections in a month and could be tossed out on their rear ends if they piss off their constituencies.

To put it mildly, the financial markets didn’t take too kindly to news of the plan’s defeat. Even with a pretty widespread short-selling ban in place, the Dow Jones average fell more than 700 points, while the Nasdaq plummeted more than 9 PERCENT!!!!!

So now what should you do? Well, here are my thoughts.

  • I obviously would never give specific investment advice here, but if you have money set aside and a long-term time horizon, putting some of that money to work doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I put an order in for a small amount of an S&P index mutual fund. But that’s been my strategy every year – put a little more money into the market during the bleakest time of the year. In general, you want to be buying when everyone is selling. As I’ve said in other posts, this situation could definitely end up being Armageddon and/or the next Great Depression (at some point, the American empire will collapse just like every other one in history), but that bleak forecast is probably not the most likely scenario. And even if it is, having a shoebox full of cash stashed under your bed won’t do you that much good. Eventually, at some point, I’d begin to look at the riskiest, hardest-hit sectors as possible places to invest – Homebuilders and real estate, financial institutions, etc. – but I’d wait awhile to see how things shake out.
  • While dipping a toe in these scary investment waters, I’d also hedge my bets a bit just in case things get appreciably worse. Personally, I’d spread out my money to separate institutions if I had to make sure my bank accounts were within the $100,000 FDIC insured level. Obviously, there are stronger banks and weaker banks, but in a crisis, it’s tough to be certain of the difference so there’s no harm in being prudent. Also, the government last week guaranteed against losses in money market funds for one year, but to be extra-safe, I’ve pulled money out of those accounts and into plain-Jane savings accounts.

It’s odd: I don’t agree with the free-market, deficit-hawk politicians who have opposed this bill and blocked its passage (I believe that we have no choice but to act), but on some level I actually admire them for sticking to their principles. The lessons of The Great Depression and subsequent crises suggest otherwise, but they could be right that we need to suffer the consequences of our actions and take the full extent of our medicine if we are truly going to cleanse the system. A bailout plan poorly executed will only make it worse down the road.

However, I still think the risk of inaction is too high, and that these politicians will look at the market and economic fallout of their No vote over the next couple of days and then pass a bailout plan that is very similar to the one they rejected.

After all, this decision wasn’t just about principles, but about politics. And the politics could change very quickly if the electorate realizes that The Powers That Be weren’t bullshitting when they warned that Wall Street blood would pour onto Main Street.


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