Archive for the 'Lance's Page' Category

Animated Unemployment

A very cool animated Graphic showing the change in unemployment over the last two years.

Click Image for Animation

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Taking a Closer Look at Unemployment

Employment as measured by the “establishment survey,” was down by 190,000; and Many feel it is an improvement that we are not falling as fast.

Well, let us take a moment to look under the hood of these numbers. First, while the establishment survey was down 190k,  the number of unemployed soared by 558,000, to 15.7 million, as measured by the household survey. The establishment survey is taken from large businesses while the household survey calls individual households. It is the household survey that sets the unemployment rate. The establishment survey of companies doesn’t count the self-employed and undercounts employees of small businesses. So the economic picture is probably worse than the headlines when it comes to jobs.


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“So how is that working out for you, Mr President?”

Good Friend Bruce McQuain picks up on a story I noticed yesterday. Rather than rehash it, I’ll let him lay it out:

Greg Mankiw reminds us of this bit of fantasy:

What we are not doing — what I have no interest in doing — is running GM. GM will be run by a private board of directors and management team with a track record in American manufacturing that reflects a commitment to innovation and quality. They — and not the government — will call the shots and make the decisions about how to turn this company around. – President Barack Obama

And this bit of reality:

Federal support for companies such as GM, Chrysler Group LLC and Bank of America Corp. has come with baggage: Companies in hock to Washington now have the equivalent of 535 new board members — 100 U.S. senators and 435 House members.

Since the financial crisis broke, Congress has been acting like the board of USA Inc., invoking the infusion of taxpayer money to get banks to modify loans to constituents and to give more help to those in danger of foreclosure. Members have berated CEOs for their business practices and pushed for caps on executive pay. They have also pushed GM and Chrysler to reverse core decisions designed to cut costs, such as closing facilities and shuttering dealerships.


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The New F***ing Citibank

The New F***ing Citibank – watch more funny videos
NSFW due to strong language.
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Step Right Up! It’s Your Bailout Too!

I hear repeatedly from our fellow citizens “where is my bailout?” For those who have been wondering the fine journalists at Vanity Fair have found the paperwork so you can begin applying now for, as the application says, “free government cash.” (Click image for Large Version.)

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Our Government’s Economic Policy Explained

By Fred Thompson. With only the most minor quibbles I not only laughed, but cried. Pretty much dead on:

The sad thing is that it isn’t only “liberal” economists, it is the meat of the profession and plenty of so called “conservative” politicians.

Hat Tip: McQ

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Calculating the cost of bailing out the economy

Now that the NBER has decided to endorse my view that we went into recession last December which I first first claimed last January, I think my points about the efficacy of fiscal stimulus still apply.

As for spending already pledged to save us, the figures are growing at a rate that has even astounded someone as bearish and cynical as myself. Barry Ritholtz has given us a breakdown and a spreadsheet to track it:

I suspect given the continuing issues and a President intent on expanding the government balance sheet even more than our present one that that spreadsheet will get quite a bit larger. All that money to save a $13 trillion economy. What a mess.

Meanwhile the housing market continues to collapse, as the lights repeatedly seen at the end of a tunnel seem to really just be a series of oncoming trains. Lots of charts and analysis here and here.

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Bits and Pieces: 11-18-08

Russ Roberts:”Oh Please-President Bush has lost the right to say this.”

Also, he has a great Mea Culpa on why he missed this, and a discussion that fits right into my theme about how many missed this meltdown, and advice for those of us who did and might think too much of ourselves:

I should mention first that the few people who did see it coming were not necessarily any wiser than anyone else. Some of them had predicted nine of the last five recessions. A stopped clock is right twice a day. Even those who claim to have foreseen this mess couldn’t make the case well enough to alarm very many other people. And if you want to know if they were really wise or just selling a different story because the market was less crowded on the pessimistic side, you’d have to look at their bank accounts. Did they put their money where their mouth was?

Wall Street and economics are littered with the figurative corpses of those who got a big call right and got lots of attention and then became a joke as their prescience proved to be just luck.

By the way, in answer to the last question, yes I did, on behalf of myself and our clients.

Oh heck, two other gems from Cafe Hayek’s Don Boudreaux:

As Milton Friedman wisely pointed out, “If you cut taxes and revenues go up, you haven’t cut taxes enough.”

Revenues have gone up.  So tax cuts have been inadequate.


Popular sentiment has it backward: the bigger the unproductive firm, the more vital it is to let it fail.

Megan McCardle gives a touching and heartfelt explanation of why opportunity cost has to be considered in regards to GM in “Save the Rustbelt.”

Speaking of Megan, she has inspired a true decining institution to ask for a bailout:

But Megan McArdle at The Atlantic came up with a compelling argument:

“The news business is special. Without us, you wouldn’t know anything. Besides, it provides millions of low-paying, insecure jobs to overeducated yuppies who are going to move back home, into your basement, if you don’t do something, quick.

“And the news business is the other industry that can, all by itself, send the real economy into a tailspin. You think you’re worried about a depression now? We could make you really depressed. I’m not threatening, or anything; I’m just saying, it’s a nice country you’ve got here. It would be a real shame if someone convinced consumers to stop buying Blu-Ray players and shift their savings into canned guns and ammunition.”

Her colleague Ross Douthat added this:

“And remember — as a wise man once said, what’s good for The Atlantic is good for America.”

If it’s good for The Atlantic, it’s even better for Playboy. At least, that’s what we think.

Heck, I can get behind that!

Of course Glenn Reynolds has a similar theme with political partisanship:

FINALLY, A THIRD PARTY that I could get behind.

Meanwhile Hormel is betting that the present economic situation is a bullish sign for Spam! Fascinating stuff really, as Spam has a number of devotee’s. My wife spent time in Hawaii this summer studying Pearl Harbor, and came back and marveled at the many uses Spam is put to there, including in faux Sushi.

Unfortunately some of the latest data is really disturbing for everything else.

For those who commented on my two previous posts at QandO, thanks. I think the comments had more information than my posts, and gave me a good chance to flesh out a number of ideas.

Worried about what is in store for banks in Europe? You should be, and past history says it could be pretty ugly.

Finally, are stocks cheap? Is now a good time to be buying US stocks? Maybe so. Here are some things to think about.

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Peter Schiff’s Payback

The insufferable Peter Schiff has a video going around, which frankly, is just brilliant. He may be unpleasant at times, but he nailed this thing, and took mounds of abuse while doing so. More importantly, I KNOW HOW HE FEELS!

The resentment, irritation, condescension and, at times, outright hostility to my Cassandra act makes me wish I had a video of my own. Sigh…

Oh well, it pays to remember that Cassandra was right. I was never as sure of myself as Peter, but risk management isn’t about knowing you are right, but knowing what could go wrong and whether it is likely enough to act upon.

As an aside, Peter is no big government type, and he goes to prove that despite the media focusing on Roubini and others (who do deserve a lot of credit) that people across the ideological perspective warned of this. Thus having seen this coming is not the same as being correct about what to do about it, since those who saw the oncoming train differ markedly on that score.

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Given the topic of tonight’s podcast I thought a little visual data might help. First, the explosion in US debt:

Henry Blodget explains:

From the early 1920s through 1985, the average level of debt-to-GDP in this country was 155%. The highest peak in history (until the recent debt boom) was in the early 1930s, when debt-to-GDP soared to 260% of GDP. In the 1930s, the ratio then cratered to 130%, and it remained close to that level for another half century. (See chart below).

In 1985, we started to borrow, and last year, when we got finished borrowing, we had borrowed 350% of GDP. To get back to that 155%, we need to get rid of more than $25 trillion of debt.

Do we have to get back to 155% debt-to-GDP? No, we don’t have to. But given what happened after the 1920s, and given what people will probably think about debt when they get through getting hammered this time around, we wouldn’t be surprised if we got back there. It seems to be sort of a natural level.

The banks have written off $650 billion so far. So we suppose that’s a start.

That would mean reducing (de-leveraging) our economy’s debt load by 25 trillion. I have no idea how you cut even 10 trillion in debt without massive economic dislocation.

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Whoopee, its bailout time!

From the comments at Financial Times:

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — In a surprise move today, Whoopee Cushions Inc was approved bank holding company status by the Fed to enable the company access to the recently revised TURD scheme.

Imported far-eastern whoopee cushions have decimated the domestic industry over the past two decades, leaving former giants of the industry controlling a mere 0.1% of the domestic market. Some observers point to the poor reliability and high labor costs of domestic products as a defining factor in the industry’s demise, but it appears the government are prepared to spend now and ask questions later.

Chairman and CEO, Chuck Chuckles said “It is vital that the government recognises the role we play in the modern US economy. Whoopee Cushions Inc has been the backbone of US manufacturing for over 400 years and if we were to go under it would mean 100,000 people needing to learn new skills and find work in more productive industries. I think you will agree, that is something nobody wants to see happen”.

Finance Director Mr Magoo, 12, added “Whoopee! I’m off to structure some whoopee cushion backed securities to sell to the government at inflated prices”. At time of going to press it is not known whether the pun was intended.

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Playmates during crisis

Does the object of our desire tend to change during tough times?

Yes, according to this paper on men’s preferences when it comes to Playboy’s models:

Consistent with Environmental Security Hypothesis predictions, when social and economic conditions were difficult, older, heavier, taller Playboy Playmates of the Year with larger waists, smaller eyes, larger waist-to-hip ratios, smaller bust-to-waist ratios, and smaller body mass index values were selected. These results suggest that environmental security may influence perceptions and preferences for women with certain body and facial features.

For those wishing to do their own analysis you can download the data here. Tyler Cowen notes that the hypothesis is not fully supported by 2008’s selection.

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Laid Off By Lehman: One Broker’s Story

Heh, heh, heh.

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The View From Here

I wonder if the juxtaposition of that headline and that photo was intentional?

Anyway, over at Risk and Return I follow up Dale, McQ and my discussion of the markets and the economy during the last couple of podcasts with some thoughts, observations and suggested readings on the investment climate we are in now. Lots of links, some enlightening graphics and views from those who saw this coming, including, ahem, me.

There are hopeful signs, but large risks. How cheap are stocks? What are the risks that remain? Will recent government moves help?

My own view is that some of it will, though it is not ideal, but possibly close enough for government work.

Let me know what you think in the comments here or via e-mail.

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Are We Maiking Things Worse?

Yves Smith hits a theme I have been harping on, the Federal Reserve, and central banks in general, are making things worse in may ways by destroying the incentive for banks to lend or borrow from one another. She quotes James Bianco of Arbor Research:

The Fed’s massive and numerous liquidity facilities are making things worse. The problem is more than banks unwilling to lend to each other, they are also unwilling to borrow from each other. Banks can get all the funding they need (and then some) from their central bank so they do not need to seek a loan from another bank. I believe it has gotten so bad that they don’t even bother to make a decent market for inter-bank loans anymore. No reason to, they don’t need them anymore as central banks have replaced them.

I would suggest more subtle factors should also be emphasized besides how this distorts rates on loans. If banks do not need each other then they don’t communicate. Thus the hard work of investigating what counterparties real credit risk is goes undone. The market is shunting that off to governments. Furthermore, banks have no incentive to arrive at a believable accounting of their assets, they can wait and hope for a bailout rather than find a way or terms that other banks will accept.

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Stock and Awe in Baghdad

The Markets have spoken, the best place to invest in the world is…Iraq!

Now it’s stock and awe in Baghdad!

As the Dow plummeted nearly 700 points yesterday to fall well below the 9,000 mark, the Iraqi stock exchange – where this broker was merrily keeping up with her booming business – was flourishing, buoyed by four-year lows in violence and hopes of a reconstruction windfall.

Last month, Iraq’s general index went up nearly 40 percent, about the same percentage the Dow dropped over the past year. The jovial trading-floor mood is reminiscent of Wall Street’s bygone ‘greed is good’ era of the 1980s.

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Another Reason To Not Like The Plan

I have argued in the past that the Federal Reserve’s policies may be helping in some ways, but hurting in others. Way too much borrowing and lending is running through the Fed which is drying up lending between banks. It also reduces the need for banks to find reasons to communicate and trust each other, keeping the atmosphere of mistrust alive.

On a similar note one of Yves Smiths commenters left this comment, which is well worth pondering when thinking of the bailout plan being considered:

One of the most critical functions of the banking system is converting short-term deposits into longer-term loans for businesses. Much of the working capital market, for decades has come via money market funds (MM). Joe public or Joe CFO deposits money into a MM. That MM loans it to a bank (usually by buying paper, and usually at a medium duration) and then that bank loans it out to business for inventory, payroll or whatever. The MM has converted Joe’s demand deposit into a fixed-duration loan.

The problem we’re having is that people are fleeing commercial MM for treasury MM. Those are buying treasuries and thus converting the money to the desirable medium duration BUT that money is loaned to the Fed, and the Fed doesn’t make working capital loans. So the deposited money that had been made into working capital has been diverted into the Fed and lost to working capital.

The Fed is kind of trying to address this by loaning out money via various auction/discount windows. BUT, those loans have been overwhelmingly overnight – a particularly nasty demand deposit because it goes back so fast. For a bank to convert that to a 90-day loan it’s got to win 90 auctions in a row – a very risky deal with a crunch on. So the Fed undoes the duration conversion, and then some, converting the liquidity into a form that the banks can’t make into useful-duration loans.

Right now we have both commercial and treasury MMs. Deposits have shifted from commercial MMs to treasury MMs, and consequently we have less working capital (a commercial MM product) and better credit for the Fed (a treasury MM product). But, treasury MM rates are now very low and the gap between treasury and commercial fairly high, which creates an incentive for depositors to put money into commercial funds, producing some working capital.

When Paulson dumps out his 700 billion in treasuries it’s going to be at the short end. That will drive up rates for short-term treasuries. This will obviously draw even *more* deposits into the treasury MMs. That means even less in the commercial MMs and thus less working credit, the eventual commercial MM product. Hence Paulson’s billions remove working capital by competing for the deposits that could get used to make working capital loans. That 700 billion is going to go to fairly long-term mortgage securities. So Paulson’s billions divert credit from working capital to long-term mortgages – from where it’s most needed to where it’s most wasted.

Even if the giveaway adequately props up the banks, which I doubt, they still can’t make working capital loans, because the raw material they used (commercial MM deposits) will be desperately short.

I think it’s very telling that in two days of hearings and two weeks of discussion we have yet to see *any* detailed mechanism for how Paulson’s plan will increase the supply of, say, inventory loans. It’s not that every economist in the world is an idiot, it’s just not going to help. I think people have fallen into the fallacy that if it costs a lot it must be valuable. Paulson’s plan falls into the category of very expensive way to hurt ourselves.

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In Summary

Tyler Cowen states his basic views on the crisis. My response in italics:

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Strategery Capital Management LLC

A new distressed debt leveraged hedge fund has been launched:

Go visit the website for all their competitive advantages!

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When are we being Chicken Littles?

Let us look at one of the ways that we are being panicked unnecessarily, and why incidentally we can help many of these financial institutions in the fashion I discussed in my post on a potential alternative plan. In my next post we will discuss ways in which we are not being misled, and why we in my mind should do something about this.

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My favorite proposal for helping financial institutions

I do believe we should be doing something as a nation, through our government, to avoid the not insignificant chance of a total financial meltdown. I have seen several things proposed that I find interesting, and I will get into them and other longer term issues in coming days. I had hoped to address this all comprehensively, but time just isn’t allowing that, so let us do so piecemeal.

Today I would like to endorse one proposal that aligns exactly with my thoughts on this, which is we need to recapitalize banks in a more effective, less arbitrary manner while protecting taxpayers and homeowners as well.

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Hooray for Mental Health!

If you support the Paulson bailout plan that is. The New York Times has coverage.

The Senate proposal would cost more than $100 billion and extend and expand many individual and business tax breaks, including tax credits for the production and use of renewable energy sources, like solar energy and wind power.

The bill would also extend the business tax credit for research and development, expand the child tax credit, protect millions of families from the alternative minimum tax and provide tax relief to victims of recent floods, tornadoes and severe storms.

In a delicious bit of soon to be civics geek trivia, the Senate worked around the Constitutional restrictions against voting on tax legislation not already considered by the House by attaching the bailout plan along with a tax extender bill to the Mental Health & Addiction Act (which passed the House several months ago).

You gotta love our government.

In addition to the Paulson plan details, various tax cuts and dealing with the AMT it includes a very helpful proposal, increasing government insurance on bank deposits from 100k to 250k.

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The Monetary Base Finally Moves

The Federal Reserve has for a long time eschewed increasing the money supply directly, and instead has manipulated credit to affect the economy and control inflation. This has led to three important things which are in my opinion at the root of this crisis.

  • Asset price inflation (at least initially) as opposed to broader price inflation.
  • A massive increase in leverage (debt to magnify returns) throughout the financial system and our economy.
  • A massive increase in the size of the financial sector relative to the rest of the economy. Since it is built on leverage, financial sector compensation has soared and led to concentration of wealth in financial hands.

The last fascinates me, as a sector which should be a relatively small part of the economy functioning as intermediaries has through leverage achieved profits (a redistribution of wealth from the rest of our citizenry) far from the size their intermediary function can possibly justify. These intermediaries for example accounted for about a third of the market capitalization of the S&P 500 before they crashed and burned. How do the intermediaries deserve a market cap that amounts to around half of those for whom they intermediate?

The answer is increased leverage. I’ll address this in more detail later, but the Federal Reserve has finally decided to expand the monetary base, which has consistently grown at a very slow, or non existent rate. From David Merkel:

Check out the very far left side of the graph and look at the vertical takeoff.

David fills us in on the details:

Look at the H.4.1 report.  We may have finally hit the panic phase of monetary policy, where the Fed increases the monetary base dramatically.  They are pumping the “high-powered” money into loans:

  • $20 billion for Primary credit
  • $80 billion for Primary dealer and other broker-dealer credit
  • $70 billion for Asset-backed commercial paper money market mutual fund liquidity facility
  • $40 billion for Other credit extensions
  • $80 billion for Other Federal Reserve assets
  • -$20 billion netting out other entries

Making it an increase of roughly $270 billion from last week’s average to Wednesday’s daily balance.  Astounding.

In general, the increases are not being pumped into the banks, but into specialized programs to add liquidity to the lending markets.  Now, I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.  What happens if the Fed takes losses on lending programs.  It reduces the seniorage profits that they pay to the Treasury, which means the Treasury has to tax or borrow that much more.  The Fed isn’t magic; it’s a quasi-extension of the US Government in a fiat currency environment.  It’s balance sheet is tied to the US Treasury.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism is correct.  The US is no longer a AAA credit, particularly if you measure in terms of future purchasing power of US dollars.  I’ve felt that for years, though, with all of the unfunded future promises that the US Government has made with Medicare, Social Security, etc.  The credit of the US Government hinges on foreign creditors (like OPEC and China) to keep it going.  What will they offer them? The national parks? :(

True, all true, but possibly if they are going to provide monetary stimulus this might be a better way than cutting rates, now and in the future.

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We are led by little men and women

I was not in favor of the Paulson plan if you haven’t caught that yet. Still, the pitiful display from our congress today set a recent low.

First, faced with an unpopular and contentious bill which she feels for the good of the nation must be passed, we get a partisan and divisive speech from Nancy Pelosi:

Pelosi had said that the $700 billion price tag of the measure “is a number that is staggering, but tells us only the costs of the Bush Administration’s failed economic policies — policies built on budgetary recklessness, on an anything goes mentality, with no regulation, no supervision, and no discipline in the system.”

Pure horse hockey. More importantly, if Pelosi believes her rhetoric about the importance of this bill the poor judgment, lack of leadership and inability to understand the importance of statesmanship in a crisis should be grounds for immediate dismissal from her post.

Then, we get this pathetic response from the Republican leadership:

“I do believe that we could have gotten there today had it not been for this partisan speech that the speaker gave on the floor of the House,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, adding that Pelosi “poisoned” the GOP conference.

Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) held up a copy of Pelosi’s floor speech at a press conference and said she had “failed to listen and to lead” on the issue.

The Speaker had blasted the Bush administration in her speech and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asserted that some GOP lawmakers, who had reluctantly agreed to support the bill, might have changed their minds following Pelosi’s remarks.

“Might” have effected them? What whining. If it is false it shows the same tin ear that Pelosi demonstrated. If it is true it is even worse. Either way, did it not occur to them how petty it would look in a moment of crisis?

If these congressman or women really didn’t support the bill and were going to vote for it anyway, the idea that they would change their votes because Pelosi was her normal clueless self is enough to deprive them of my vote forever.  It is even more damning if they thought the bill was necessary and voted against it due to her behavior.

This is a disgrace.

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The SEC doesn’t get the short end of the stick

If they did, then they wouldn’t have banned short selling. People may have noticed that the ban hasn’t helped, and today we see one of the real costs.

See, when markets collapse like today, short sellers dive into the market to cover their short positions, in these times they are often the only ones buying. They aren’t there today, and the market has lost one of its stabilizers.

Frankly, this whole affair has been drenched in idiocy.

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…and I want a pony!

Larry Summers and Mark Thoma argue that if done right the bailout will mean we can solve this crisis and still have everything we want, tax cuts, health care spending and all kinds of other goodies. Larry argues:

Just as a family that goes on a $500,000 vacation is $500,000 poorer but a family that buys a $500,000 home is only poorer if it overpays, the impact of the $700bn programme on the fiscal position depends on how it is deployed and how the economy performs. The American experience with financial support programmes is somewhat encouraging. The Chrysler bail-out, President Bill Clinton’s emergency loans to Mexico, and the Depression-era support programmes for housing and financial sectors all ultimately made profits for taxpayers…

Maybe, but Alex Tabarrok finds this optimism a bit ironic:

Does this sound familiar? I can hear it now. A vacation sir is consumption but a home, ah a home, that’s investment. Investments pay off. Just look at the American experience. Rising home prices! Never a downturn. Isn’t that encouraging? Hell, at prices like these you can hardly afford not to buy. Yes sir, a home that’s a wise investment. And that makes you sir, a wise investor. And a wise investor, well a wise investor can certainly afford a nice vacation.

How the economy performs isn’t really the issue as much as the housing market. Chrysler was bailed out at a cyclical low, we are not at a cyclical low in housing, we aren’t even at a cyclical average. We aren’t even close.

Nor was Chrysler such a rousing success anyway. The bailout of Detroit only postponed the pain for the American auto industry and kept them from either going out of business or becoming better, if probably somewhat smaller organizations, and the costs to us all will eventually be pretty damn high. That isn’t even factoring in cementing the idea of “too big to fail” in corporate America. That encourages larger organizations rather than more profitable ones to be created.

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Remember The Last Dire Warning?

Courtesy of Alex Taborrak

Courtesy of Alex Taborrak

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Glass-Steagall : RIP

Continuing the discussion on tonight’s podcast, one of the recurring themes of much of the commentary on our current financial crisis is that the cause is too much deregulation. Possibly there is some truth to this, though the evidence is rather vague. The most disturbing figure in all this is Barney Frank.

“We need stricter standards on loans.”

Except, the problem here wasn’t lack of regulation, but that the regulations were not enforced, or fraud, by lenders, brokers and their clients. More laws doesn’t help. This was also a failure of long standing, not new. I would suggest simplifying and increased enforcement would be a better option.

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Short of Wisdom, Common Sense and a Grasp of Reality

The hedge fund industry is feeling gloomy, and so is Mayfair.

Meanwhile our government is considering following London’s lead and making their lives even more difficult, by banning short selling for a while. Yep, Fannie would have been just fine with mismatched liabilities, toxic assets and corrupt accounting mixed in with 40-1 leverage if nobody had been selling their stock, which is really all a short sale is.

This is crazy, and likely to lead to a much worse environment for both investing and the smooth functioning of capital markets, which are supposed to over time allocate capital. They are not supposed to lead to higher returns regardless of the worth of a company.

Wealth is not created out of thin air, it is supposed to be connected to the actual income stream a company can produce over time.

Market corrections are what keep wealth from being a product of a mere price we would like for assets, which is awfully disappointing to those who want wealth to be a casino where the house always loses, the drinks are free and the girls (or young men) always accommodating. (more…)

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Uprecedented Financial Turmoil

Today the Fed went to the Treasury and asked for a line of credit. You know, the lender of last resort has had to turn to our Treasury to protect their balance sheet.

Want to see something weird. and look at the treasury market. In the bond world, a 1% move is huge. So check out what has happened in the US Treasury market. Especially the 13 week Treasury bill. It’s yield collapsed by over 97.67% today.

Astounding, truly astounding.

My father who invested (and very successfully) through the late sixties/early seventies nifty fifty era, the bear market of 72-74, the market low in 1981 and Black Monday in 1987 says this is the most incredible market in all of his experience. It certainly eclipses anything I have seen from 1980 forward.

Update: Courtesy of Eddie Elfenbein:

At one point today, the yield on the three-month Treasury bill (^IRX) hit 0.01%!!

One Freakin Bip!!

This means that the risk-free rate is now in direct competition with the underside of your mattress.

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New Era Mergers

From Craigs List, though it has since been removed:

H/T- Alphaville

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Lone accountant takes on IRS and wins

And .

The dispute arose when more than 30 mutual life insurance companies became publicly traded corporations in the late 1990s and earlier this decade, in a process known as “demutualization.”

Mutual companies are owned by their policyholders, so the companies provided stock and cash to compensate them for the loss of their ownership interests when they went public.

All told, roughly 30 million policyholders received distributions, Ulrich estimates. MetLife Inc. provided over $7 billion of stock to about 11 million policyholders when it went public in 2000, while Prudential distributed $12.5 billion in stock to another 11 million.

The IRS held that the recipients hadn’t paid anything for the shares and owed taxes on the full amount when the shares were sold. Cash distributions also were fully taxable, the IRS said.

That didn’t sound right to Ulrich, 72, an accountant for 49 years. He began researching the issue in 2001, when he received shares from two companies, Prudential and Indianapolis Life.

Ulrich concluded that policyholders had paid for their ownership rights through their premiums so the distributions should have been tax-free.

Funny, a family member gave me some shares he inherited from Met Life’s demutualization just last night to help him with. The man is a hero in my book. The IRS’s position was illogical, but they often make calling them on such matters too burdensome for most to fight. Good for him.

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All Tomorrows Parties

A treat for Velvet Underground fans, Bud Benderbe reinterprets the seminal alternative band:

More over at Airforce Amazon.

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Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater!

That is the Obama campaigns response to McCains surprisingly (in their mind) strong performance in last nights Saddleback Civil Forum on Presidency

McQ finds the charge another in a long line of examples of misunderestimation by Democrats. I like this line from McQ:

First, you have to love the reemergence of “nuance”. Barack Obama was too nuanced for you rubes to understand.

Here is the key quote from Andrea Mitchell’s enabling of this childish display of arrogance:

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Defeat it. Couple of points. One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that and I know how to do it. I will get that done.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Andrea Mitchell, that’s a pretty clear contrast.

MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, there was the crisp, immediate, forceful response by John McCain, clearly in a comfort zone because he was with his base. And Barack Obama, taking a risk in going there but seeing an opportunity. And a much more nuanced approach. The Obama people must feel that he didn’t do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because that – what they’re putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama.


MS. MITCHELL: He seemed so well prepared.

I thought that was kind of the point of the event, to see how prepared the candidates were. Does that mean Obama wasn’t?

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Bernanke has a solution

FROM: Dr Ben Bernanke
Central Bank of United States of America

Lagos, Nigeria

Dear Friend:

I have been requested by the regional members Federal Reserve of the USA to contact you for assistance in resolving a matter. The Federal Reserve of the USA has recently concluded a large number of contracts for credit derivative investment vehicles “CDIV” in the Wall Street region of the USA. The contracts have immediately produced moneys equaling US$40,000,000. The Federal Reserve of the USA is desirous of CDIV in other parts of the world, however, because of certain regulations of the USA Government, it is unable to move these funds to another region.

Your assistance is requested as a non-USA citizen to assist the Federal Reserve of the USA, and also the investment bank community of Wall Street USA, in moving these funds out of USA. If the funds can be transferred to your name, in your Nigerian account, then you can forward the funds as directed by the Federal Reserve of USA. In exchange for your accommodating services, the Federal Reserve of USA would agree to allow you to retain 10%, or Nigerian $4 million of this amount.

However, to be a legitimate transferee of these moneys according to USA law, you must presently be a depositor of at least $100,000 in a USA bank which is regulated by the Central Bank of USA.

If it will be possible for you to assist us, we would be most grateful. We suggest that you meet with us in person in New York, NY USA, and that during your visit I introduce you to the representatives of the Wall Street USA, as well as with certain officials of the Central Bank of USA.

Please call me at your earliest convenience at 18-555-1234. Time is of the essence in this matter; very quickly the USA Government will realize that the Central Bank is maintaining this amount on deposit, and attempt to levy certain depository taxes on it.

Yours truly,

The Esteemed Arch-Chairman

Credit: Barry Ritholtz

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Found Him

Joshua hasn’t disappeared, he just isn’t gracing us with his opinions on the conflict in the Caucasus, but you can find them at, here and here.

Heh, Insty links to him, but describes it as peevish (Josh? Peevish? Also, by linking to him kind of undercuts Josh’s complaint.) Great surprise, but Joshua makes a few good points about Russia having pushed the action using mischief in Ossetia to set off Georgia.

Outside of being unfairly peevish about people searching for information, and providing some links of use (as has Lee) I would caution Josh on this:

the plain old wrong (Russia wants to annex Georgia)

Maybe not, but I am not so sure given the behavior of Russia since Josh wrote his last post on this.

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Georgia vs Finland

Zbigniew Brzezinski strikes a note from our discussion on tonights podcast and compares the invasion of Georgia with Stalin’s assault on Finland. If Georgia can hold up the military end of that analogy it would be quite impressive. I am not holding my breath.

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QandO Podcast

McQ, Dale and I discuss the Russian campaign against Georgia over South Ossetia.

Generally I feel that our support should belong to Georgia. However, Georgia has severely miscalculated in this matter, and frankly our options are limited. At best, we get a negotiated settlement with Russia that retains Georgian sovereignty with the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The US and NATO allowed to save face with some show of protecting Georgian airspace after the fact, with Russia suffering a black eye in international opinion. Maybe.

I am not sure I agree with Lee that we may get Nato peacekeepers in South Ossetia and this turns out negatively in the short term for Russia, but we can hope.

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Free Riding?

Alex Taborrak has a story:

How an Economist Thinks

Over the weekend a crew came round my neighborhood offering to paint house numbers on the curb. Large bold curb numbers, they pointed out, make it easier for emergency service workers to find houses in the dark. Good argument. The price was good too. Then I noticed my neighbors were having their numbers painted. So of course, I declined.

The comments explode with wonderful econ geek goodness.

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Fail Early or Don’t Fail at All

From Slate

From Slate

On tonights podcast at QandO, I called in at McQ’s request to discuss the economy. One of the things we discussed was the likelihood of our government continuing to bail out our financial institutions. For a number of reasons that will be problematic.

Of interest is how many institutions are likely to fail?

One way to look at that is to see what the market is implying. Weighted by assets, right now the market is pricing in about a 4% failure rate for just the next six months. That would be far above the S&L crisis’ peak, and over its full term it amounted to failures of 17% of total assets. The assets which would need to be absorbed….575 billion. How much capital would that require to absorb them….50 to 80 billion. There is only about half that available from other institutions to take them over. Of that, nearly half is in small institutions which will be of little help. As loans continue to go bad that capital is likely insufficient to cover their own losses.  This implies much more raising of capital, and who is going to give it to them? Most people who were willing have already ponied up. JP Morgan and the Fed already took on Bear Stearns. Whose balance sheet is available?

The losers in this? Taxpayers and bondholders. Having just taken on Fannie and Freddie, and guaranteed their bondholders, I assume bondholders will have to start taking hits. The lesson might be for bondholders, if you are going to fail, fail early and fail spectacularly!

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn R.I.P.

The impact of this man on the world is not part of the memory of many today. I’ll be breaking out a few of his books this week in his memory. A true Giant has passed away.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose stubborn, lonely and combative literary struggles gained the force of prophecy as he revealed the heavy afflictions of Soviet Communism in some of the most powerful works of fiction and history written in the 20th century, died late Sunday in Russia, his son Yermolai said early Monday in Moscow. He said the cause was a heart condition. He was 89.

He outlived by nearly 17 years the state and system he had battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage in 1962 with “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The book, a mold-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly, he was being compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Chekov.

Over the next four decades, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s fame spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like “The First Circle” and “The Cancer Ward” and historical works like “The Gulag Archipelago.”

“Gulag” was a monumental account and analysis of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land. George F. Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.”

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Jupiter Unveiled

A simply stunning series of pictures of Jupiter and its moons. Lots more at the link.

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A Paranoid on Paranoia-Last updated 1:06 CST

After 9/11 itself, the anthrax attacks were probably the most consequential event of the Bush presidency. One could make a persuasive case that they were actually more consequential.

You could?

The 9/11 attacks were obviously traumatic for the country, but in the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event. It was really the anthrax letters — with the first one sent on September 18, just one week after 9/11 — that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years after. It was anthrax — sent directly into the heart of the country’s elite political and media institutions, to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt), NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and other leading media outlets — that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.

So that is what made everybody concerned? The twisted reasoning that could assert that after 9/11 we in any way could think something like that couldn’t happen again, sans those letters, is pretty breathtaking.  Once those letters were delivered however, it suddenly occurred to the American people that it might happen again? What kind of parallel universe is he living in? Oh, and if you couldn’t tell, this is the Sock Puppet talking. (more…)

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Creative Capitalism

I think this is a fascinating blog, Creative Capitalism. Of Course, I am a geek.

Creative Capitalism: A Conversation is a web experiment designed to produce a book — a collection of essays and commentary on capitalism, philanthropy and global development — to be edited by us and published by Simon and Schuster in the fall of 2008. The book takes as its starting point a speech Bill Gates delivered this January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In it, he said that many of the world’s problems are too big for philanthropy–even on the scale of the Gates Foundation. And he said that the free-market capitalist system itself would have to solve them.

This is the public blog of a private website where a group of invited economists have spent the past couple of weeks criticizing and debating those claims. Over the next couple of months we’ll be posting much of that material here, in the hopes of eliciting public commentary. Some of the public commentary — the comments posted on this blog — will also be used in the book. (Comments to the effect of “capitalism is evil and Bill Gates is a fool” probably won’t be used. But we’re genuinely open to opinions of all stripes, and all of the contributors who do end up in the finished product will be paid on a per-word basis, which should work out to between one and two dollars per word.)

The same goes for economics bloggers who write about the stuff here on their own sites: If we can get permission, we’d like to use that material too.

This is the kind of fertile collaboration that the internet has made possible.

I am especially enjoying the discussion between William Easterly, Paul Ormerod and Elizabeth Stuart. Start here and follow the conversation. Lots of discussion of Hayek and the institutions compatible with capitalism.

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Environmental Incoherence

Pelosi says, “I’m trying to save the planet; I’m trying to save the planet.”

Charles Krauthammer points out the incoherence of this:

Does Pelosi imagine that with so much of America declared off-limits, the planet is less injured as drilling shifts to Kazakhstan and Venezuela and Equatorial Guinea? That Russia will be more environmentally scrupulous than we in drilling in its Arctic?

The net environmental effect of Pelosi’s no-drilling willfulness is negative. Outsourcing U.S. oil production does nothing to lessen worldwide environmental despoliation. It simply exports it to more corrupt, less efficient, more unstable parts of the world — thereby increasing net planetary damage.

Democrats want no oil from the American OCS or ANWR. But of course they do want more oil. From OPEC. From where Americans don’t vote. From places Democratic legislators can’t see. On May 13 Sen. Chuck Schumer — deeply committed to saving just those pieces of the planet that might have huge reserves of American oil — demanded that the Saudis increase production by a million barrels a day. It doesn’t occur to him that by eschewing the slightest disturbance of the mating habits of the Arctic caribou, he is calling for the further exploitation of the pristine deserts of Arabia. In the name of the planet, mind you.

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Happy Birthday Milton: Video Link Fixed

It is Milton Friedman’s birthday! For all kinds of coverage, go to my Milton Friedman Memorial page. Scroll to the bottom and there is a huge collection of thoughts on his passing. Here is one of my favorite bits:

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Reality Based Analysis?

EJ Dionne thinks McCain is blowing it:

By running an attack campaign that is almost a parody of George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 exertions, McCain is chucking away his greatest opportunity, which is to show that he could reform Republicanism and offer voters an alternative way of breaking with a past they have come to loathe.

One would think that if voters loathed McCain’s campaign he wouldn’t be running neck and neck at a time when Democrats are almost always well ahead, with the economy struggling and a war that has gone on too long in the electorates eye. I keep hearing Democrats and liberals talk as if Obama were way ahead. Reality based indeed. Still, McCain is more than capable of blowing it.

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Let us give them even more power

I don’t do much union bashing, but Retief has inspired me. In Montgomery, the Police Union is standing in the way:

FOR MORE than a decade, state, county and municipal police departments across the country have been shifting to the use of audio-video recording devices in their patrol cars as a means of enhancing accountability. The move, begun in recognition of the fact that police should be as answerable for their actions as other public employees are, has also provided valuable protection for officers when they have been wrongly accused of abuse. But in Montgomery County, where public employee unions exercise inordinate, overweening power in virtually every government agency, the police union has thrown up roadblocks.

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The Civil McCain Myth

I don’t think McCain is being particularly nasty to Obama (nor Obama particularly nice) but I think Daniel Larson hits the nail on the head here:

Indeed, to the extent that his agreement with the administration on many major policies is acknowledged, it is usually framed as part of a story of how the “real” McCain lost his way in trying to satisfy his party, but these accounts often hold out the hope that the “real” McCain might still make a comeback before the end.  People will talk about McCain’s poor relations with conservatives and the party leadership as if he had nothing to do with causing them, and as if he had never launched an unfair or disreputable attack on an opponent or another person in his life, when the creation of his “maverick” image has been founded on portraying members of his party and the conservative movement according to the worst stereotypes and exploiting his opposition to these strawman positions as proof of his political courage.  That he now approves of taking the so-called “low road” against Obama is nothing new.  Indeed, by comparison with the treatment of some of McCain’s other opponents in policy debates, Obama is still being treated pretty easily.

Daniel points out that journalists never identified McCain’s attacks as the nasty pieces of work they were because they suited their prejudices. I have always felt that was true of Democrats and liberals as well, who could make the most scurrilous of attacks and have them unquestioned. McCain has always been pretty vicious. What is funny, is that Daniel doesn’t recognize that Obama is benefitting from the same prejudices now as McCain did then.

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