29 April 2010

The Economic Policy Error Behind the Stock Market Rally and the Next Phase of the Financial Crisis

"The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

Alex Carey

The strategy of the Bernanke Federal Reserve and of the Obama Administration's economic team is fairly clear: prevent the bank failures of the 1930's by propping up the biggest banks with huge infusions of publicly subsidized capital, and hope that they start lending again as the economy recovers. It is a variation of the 'trickle down' theory of economics adjusted by the perceived Fed policy errors of the first Great Depression, with little from the New Deal programs.

Bernanke is famously a student of the first Great Depression, even as General Joffre, the architect of the Ligne Maginot, was a student of the first World War. And Larry Summers is remarkably similar to Marshal Pétain. Tim, on the other hand, seems to be a student of very little, not even apparently of the tax code which he administers, except perhaps the art of being a manservant, a valet to the powerful.

Failure number one of course is that the banks that they chose to support are not responsible commercial banks engaged primarily in lending to small business and localized activity. Those banks are the local and regional banks that are failing in record numbers. The banks they chose to save are those who have heavily contributed to the campaign coffers and job prospects of Washington politicians. Goldman Sachs, for example, is a glorified hedge fund dedicated to speculation and enormous amounts of leverage. One only has to look at the source of their profits to understand what it is that they do with their capital and energy. And it is largely from 'trading.'

Bernanke has (so he thinks) cleverly tied up much of the liquidity with which he has infused the banks as secure reserves which are paying riskless returns thanks to his innovation in sustaining a floor under the ZIRP by paying interest directly. But if you look at what he is doing, and all Bernanke has done, even in his buying a trillion dollars of bad mortgage debt, he is merely rescuing well-heeled creditors and the banks and hedge funds who engaged in reckless speculation during a housing mania that the Greenspan Federal Reserve had fostered, using the very funds from the people who were most greatly harmed. It is an almost perfect betrayal.

If the Administration and the Congress then succeed in paying for this subsidy to the wealthy by redirecting the Social Security funds which the people have already paid to the government trust fund, by making the case that they already have been expropriated, the betrayal would be complete.

The lack of productive investment and genuine stimulus for the real economy seen so far in the enormous subsidies put forward is appalling. Bernanke and his colleagues Larry Summers and Tim Geithner would have us believe that they had no choice. But informed and experienced commentators such as William K. Black have told us how they have misrepresented their choices.

Their current policies seem to lead the US into a 'zombie economy' at best, in which the Banks are doing well, but almost everyone else suffers from stagflation, particularly the lower and middle classes who obtain their income from productive labor. At worst, the bubble bursts again, and there is another, more furious, leg down, with greater and more lasting damage done to the ordinary people.

So what would have worked? The Fed and Treasury could have backstopped the public instead of the Wall Street banks. They could have temporarily increased and extended the FDIC coverage to much higher levels to guard against further bank runs and depositor losses, and then started dismantling the Wall Street banks through orderly liquidations. What message would this have sent to both savers and speculators? What message has been sent instead?

They could have provided liquidity more directly to the commercial paper markets, rather than trying to shove it through the failing Wall Street banks with much heavier costs and asset support. They needed no new laws or tools to do this. And financial reform and higher taxes on those who obtain outsized wealth without productive work would have curtailed a recurrence.

For example, the Treasury program to forestall mortgage foreclosures has helped in total, since its inception, a total of approximately 167,000 families. This is in a period in which about 200,000 families PER MONTH were losing their homes. And during which time the too big to fail banks were paying out enormous bonuses as though nothing had ever happened to 'retain talent and reward performance,' even while receiving subsidized funds. Its tough love for everyone, from homeowners to wager earners to local banks, except for the ringleaders in Wall Street. And they continue to resist and lobby against even modest reforms, spending millions per day on Washington to buy influence, with your money. This is a banana republic, nothing but crony capitalism.

So why did they do what they did? Are they in league with the banks? Was this some sort of conspiracy? No, I doubt this, although there are far too many secretive aspects to completely dismiss it. And most recently the threat of criminal charges for the NY Fed in their coverup of the AIG bailout by the lone independent investigator, Neil Barofsky, who was appointed by the outgoing presidential administration.

It is important to recall that none of these men have ever held a productive job in the real economy in their entire lives. Even young Tim is no spring chicken at age 48.

They were always the pampered products of the academy, Wall Street, and the government. Even though Mr. Obama has served the community at the street level, he shows none of the tempering of judgement and skills that one perceives in someone who has had to stand their time in the arena of leadership. He is best described as an influencer, an organizer of a timid degree compared to the giants that preceded him in this field. It seems to have been more of a stepping stone to a power base than a calling.

So they took care of their own, the biggest institutions, because that is their weltanschauung, their bias, or view of the world. It has been said that the Federal Reserve is the worst place to locate certain aspects of banking regulation, because they have a complete aversion to ever allowing a bank to fail, as it is a virtual admission of personal failure. It runs against their nature. That is why the FDIC is much more effective in this, as they do not own, or are not owned by, the banks. That is also why placing Consumer Protection Against Banking Abuse is a cruel farce. Couple this with a career experience in which the world is viewed through the lens of cost plus monopoly business management, and privileged power, and their inability to make the tough but effective decisions seems more understandable.

And the promise of future positions, and large amounts of lobbying money to their friends and mentors and sponsors, and the policy error that is ruining the country seems more understandable.

So now we have another asset bubble in the making, a new Ponzi scheme in the US equity market fomented by the Wall Street Banks packed with public funds, seeking to drive prices higher, for the apparent reason of obtaining confidence from the public, but with the effect of selling assets at inflated prices to public institutions yet again, with the inevitable collapse to follow when the reality of their value is discovered. And so the credit crisis will morph into a currency and sovereign debt crisis.

What a shame. What a disappointing performance for a reform government that promised change that the people could believe in.

"...surveys show that the usual investors in major rallies – pension funds, hedge funds and retail investors – have not been net buyers of equities. And he says the most likely explanation for this anomaly in the biggest stock market rally since the 1930s is that major investment banks are the anxious buyers.

“Their buying would appear to be for one of two reasons. Firstly because they think the authorities will prevail in their (so far unsuccessful) efforts to inflate their way out of debt liquidation; or secondly because they are too big to fail and so can afford to take a huge gamble that enough buying will convince others to rush in and buy their inventory of risk assets at even higher prices."

Financial Times, Equity Rally Not Driven by the Usual Investors, Financial Times, April 28

And it should be noted that the Wall Street demimonde, the financial media, the financial commentators regulators and legislators, are widely supportive of this, because they draw they pay and employment prospects from an enlarged financial sector. So they are natural enthusiasts. Similem habent labra lactucam.

And of course there is the mainstream media, which is generally silent, or simply pleads confusion and ignorance, when things financial are discussed out of deference to their corporate owners, and the difficulties of actually engaging in investigative journalism, rather than acting as a guest host to a competitive debate among lobbyists and ideologues. It is the path of least resistance, and greatest returns. And it leads to an economy that consists of little else besides usury, propaganda, and fraud.
"I promise you a new Rome. I promise you a new Empire." Marcus Licinius Crassus, who defeated Spartacus, and helped give rise to the first of the Caesars
Why be negative? Better to be playing safe while Rome burns and the Republic falls.