28 November 2007

Citizen Kohn

US equity markets just had the largest two day rally in the last four years. The trigger for this rally, besides the happy coincidence of a surfeit of hot money, lots of short sellers, and end of month motivation was an interesting speech by the Federal Reserve vice-chairman Don Kohn to the Council on Foreign Relations this morning.

As you may recall, Mr. Kohn is the second most powerful member of the board, and only he and the chairman, Mr. Bernanke, are allowed to make speeches that may signal changes in Fed policy. What you may not know is that he is also the consummate Fed long term insider:

Dr. Kohn is a veteran of the Federal Reserve System. Before becoming a member of the Board, he served on its staff as Adviser to the Board for Monetary Policy (2001-02), Secretary of the Federal Open Market Committee (1987-2002), Director of the Division of Monetary Affairs (1987-2001), and Deputy Staff Director for Monetary and Financial Policy (1983-87). He also held several positions in the Board's Division of Research and Statistics: Associate Director (1981-83), Chief of Capital Markets (1978-81), and Economist (1975-78). Dr. Kohn began his career as a Financial Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (1970-75).
There is a consensus among informed observers that Vice Chair Kohn signaled, contrary to the pronouncements of several lesser Fed lights in recent days, a fresh persuasion of the Fed to cut the Fed Funds rate this December 11, because of a deterioration in the capital markets and the real economy.

Is that all there is? A likely 25 basis point cut in the target Fed funds rate in December triggers one of the most powerful rallies in US equities this decade? Is a simple 25 basis point cut good for all that?

Well, we don't think as naively and simply as all that. Its the end of month, there was about a solid two days of float on short side at daily volumes, and the Fed and Treasury have been spooning out liquidity like K Street lobbyists handing out donations during election season.

Still, this is an exceptionally powerful rally. There has been no real 'good news' excepting a tsunami of excess dollars may be coming back at us from overseas, as witnessed by Abu Dhabi doing something more useful with their dollar reserves than letting them depreciate.

No. Its got to be more than that. So we did the unlikely thing among most investors and financial pundits these days, and in addition to sound bytes and commentary from the Babel-Babes of Bubblevision, we looked for a copy of the text of Mr. Kohn's speech, and actually read it.

Here to us seems to be a somewhat overlooked portion of his speech, in terms of what commentary we have seen so far. From the text of his speech:

Moral Hazard

Central banks seek to promote financial stability while avoiding the creation of moral hazard. People should bear the consequences of their decisions about lending, borrowing, and managing their portfolios, both when those decisions turn out to be wise and when they turn out to be ill advised. At the same time, however, in my view, when the decisions do go poorly, innocent bystanders should not have to bear the cost.

In general, I think those dual objectives--promoting financial stability and avoiding the creation of moral hazard--are best reconciled by central banks' focusing on the macroeconomic objectives of price stability and maximum employment. Asset prices will eventually find levels consistent with the economy producing at its potential, consumer prices remaining stable, and interest rates reflecting productivity and thrift.

Such a strategy would not forestall the correction of asset prices that are out of line with fundamentals or prevent investors from sustaining significant losses. Losses were evident early in this decade in the case of many high-tech stocks, and they are in store for houses purchased at unsustainable prices and for mortgages made on the assumption that house prices would rise indefinitely.

To be sure, lowering interest rates to keep the economy on an even keel when adverse financial market developments occur will reduce the penalty incurred by some people who exercised poor judgment. But these people are still bearing the costs of their decisions and we should not hold the economy hostage to teach a small segment of the population a lesson."

THAT was the heart of the signal, the change in policy that Mr. Kohn was embracing on behalf of the Fed. Moral hazard is not an issue when bailing out the banks of Wall Street, for the simple reason that innocent bystanders might be harmed in the process. A noble sentiment indeed. The banks, however repugnant, depraved, and venal they might become, are just too big to fail.
"But these people are still bearing the costs of their decisions..."
What costs? We won't go into a lengthy diatribe on the huge numbers of insiders who are most assuredly NOT being hurt one little bit in this wild West sideshow of a financial market, light on regulation and long on collusion. In fact we are absolutely appalled at what Wall Street has become. And we are sure that, given a little input from some of the innocent public on the chat boards we frequent, suitable punishments for that small segment of the population which harms us can easily be devised without holding the entire economy hostage.

What Mr. Kohn seems to be proposing is that, once again, as Mr. Greenspan before him so often concluded, the risk and penalties to be sustained by malinvestment and corruption are best handled by spreading them out from the few to the many, from the insiders to the public, from those who produce nothing to the broader public, which struggles to just keep going forward as best they can, in one of the great transfers of wealth in modern history.

Won't work you say? Well, of course it won't work!

The punch line, and what so few realize, is that the bankers are not trying to fix anything. The fixes were put in place after the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Fixes, such as the Glass-Steagall Act. They are just trying to prolong the games as it is, which the Wall Street banking community paid good money to get, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying money to create over the period of almost twenty years.

Frontline: The Wall Street Fix - The Long Demise of Glass-Steagall

A relatively small percentage of the population can twist and corrupt the financial system, destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, because its profitable, and because they simply do not care about the damage they do to others. The dirty little secret is that capitalism, like any other form of social structure, requires policing, regulation, laws, and enforcement to prevent the predations of sociopaths and con men, no matter what weapons they may choose to employ.

Text of Vice-chairman Kohn's Address to the Council on Foreign Relations Nov. 28, 2007