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Heroes & Whores

HEROES & WHORES

“Certainly one of the most important things I learned is that numbers can be deceiving. There is a logic to mathematics, but there is also the underlying human element that must be considered. Numbers can’t lie, but the people who create those numbers can and do. As so many people have learned, forgetting to include human nature in an equation can be devastating.”Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen

Image result for harry markopolos

The quote I used from Harry Markopolos’ No One Would Listen book about the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme in my last article triggered a bittersweet recollection. For me, the experience captured the true nature of our warped financial markets, a culture  glorifying wealthy arrogant criminal assholes, while ignoring or ridiculing honest, hard working, highly intelligent truth tellers.

The picture of Markopolos above shows an average looking middle aged guy, with a five o’clock shadow, bad haircut, and wearing a modestly priced suit and tie. Since reading about his fruitless effort to expose Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme and his fifteen minutes of fame in 2009, I have felt an affinity towards him. We both have a brother and sister. We were both brought up in Catholic households and went to Catholic schools. We both have degrees in finance. We have both had financial careers. We are both married with three sons. And we both believe facts and an accurate assessment of the numbers always reveals the truth.

Through his job as a portfolio manager with a small investment firm Bernie Madoff’s investing record was brought to his attention. As a numbers guy, he immediately began assessing the returns.  Markopolos said he knew within five minutes Madoff’s numbers didn’t add up. It took him another four hours to mathematically prove that they could have only been obtained by fraud.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessa

The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary

Photo Source Xavier | CC BY 2.0

This week marked 10 years since the harrowing descent into the financial crisis — when the huge investment bank Lehman Bros. went into bankruptcy, with the country’s largest insurer, AIG, about to follow. No one was sure which financial institution might be next to fall.

The banking system started to freeze up. Banks typically extend short-term credit to one another for a few hundredths of a percentage point more than the cost of borrowing from the federal government. This gap exploded to 4 or 5 percentage points after Lehman collapsed. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke — along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner — rushed to Congress to get $700 billion to bail out the banks. “If we don’t do this today we won’t have an economy on Monday,” is the line famously attributed to Bernanke.

The trio argued to lawmakers that without the bailout, the United States faced a catastrophic collapse of the financial system and a second Great Depression.

Neither part of that story was true.

Still, news reports on the crisis raised the prospect of empty ATMs and checks uncashed. There were stories in major media outlets about the bank runs of 1929.

No such scenario was in the cards in 2008. Unlike 1929, we have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC was created precisely to prevent the sort of bank runs that were common during the Great Depression and earlier financial panics. The FDIC is very good at taking over a failed bank to ensure that checks are honored and ATMs keep working. In fact, the FDIC took over several major banks and many minor ones during the Great Recession. Business carried on as normal and most customers — unless they were following the news closely — remained unaware.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Bailouts for the Rich Are Why America Is So Screwed Right Now

The Bailouts for the Rich Are Why America Is So Screwed Right Now

Did they prevent a full-scale collapse? Yes. Was it necessary to do it the way we did? Not at all.

These guys got off pretty easy. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

In 1948, the architect of the post-war American suburb, William Levitt, explained the point of the housing finance system. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist,” he said. “He has too much to do.”

It’s worth reflecting on this quote on the ten-year anniversary of the financial crisis, because it speaks to how the architects of the bailouts shaped our culture. Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, and Hank Paulson, the three key men in charge, basically argue that the bailouts they executed between 2007 and 2009 were unfair, but necessary to preserve stability. It’s time to ask, though: just what stability did they preserve?



These three men paint the financial crisis largely as a technical one. But let’s not get lost in the fancy terms they use, like “normalization of credit flows,” in discussing what happened and why. The excessively wonky tone is intentional—it’s intended to hide the politics of what happened. So let’s look at what the bailouts actually were, in normal human language.

The official response to the financial crisis ended a 75-year-old American policy of pursuing broad homeownership as a social goal. Since at least Franklin Delano Roosevelt, American leaders had deliberately organized the financial system to put more people in their own homes. In 2011, the Obama administration changed this policy, pushing renting over owning. The CEO of Bank of America, Brian Moynihan, echoed this view shortly thereafter. There are many reasons for the change, and not all of them were bad. But what’s important to understand is that the financial crisis was a full-scale assault on the longstanding social contract linking Americans with the financial system through their house.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Albert Edwards: Why We Are Destined To Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past

With everyone and their grandmother opining on the 10 year anniversary of the start of the global financial crisis, it was inevitable that the strategist who predicted the great crash (and according to some has been doing the same for the past decade) – SocGen’s Albert Edwards – would share his thoughts on what he has dubbed the “10th anniversary of chaos.”

In it, the SocGen skeptic slams the trio of Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson who have been not only penning op-eds in recent days, but making the media rounds in a valiant attempt to redirect the spotlight from the culprits behind the crisis, writing that “they just never recognized beforehand that the economy was a massive credit bubble, just like it is now” and points to central bank arrogance as the “main reason why we should still be scared.”

Of course, just like 10 years ago, as long as the market keeps going up, nobody is actually “scared” and instead everyone is enjoying the ride (just as the legion of crypto fans who are no longer HODLing). The “fear” only comes when the selling begins, and by then it’s always too late to do anything about the final outcome as yet another bubble bursts.

Below we excerpt some of the observations from Edwards’ “A thought on the 10th anniversary of chaos”

Central Bank arrogance is one of the main reasons why we should still be scared. As a former official at the NY Fed, Peter Fisher, recently noted, “The Fed has acknowledged no failures. All the experiments have been successful, every one: no failures, no negative side-effects, no perverse consequences, only diminishing returns.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson Still Don’t Have a Clue About the Financial Crisis

Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson Still Don’t Have a Clue About the Financial Crisis

NYT readers were no doubt disturbed to see a column in  which former Fed Reserve Board chair Ben Bernanke, Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson patted themselves on the back for their performance in the financial crisis. First, as they acknowledge in the piece, all three completely failed to see the crisis coming.

During the years when house prices were getting way out of line with both their long-term trend and rents, Bernanke was a Fed governor, then head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and then Fed chair. He openly dismissed the idea that the run-up in house prices could pose any threat to the economy. Henry Paulson was at Goldman Sachs until he became Treasury Secretary in the middle of 2006. As the bank’s CEO he was personally profiting from the bubble as the bank played a central role in securitizing mortgage backed securities. Timothy Geithner was president of the New York Fed, where he was paid over $400,000 a year to make sure that the Wall Street banks were not taking on excessive risk.

It is bad enough that these three didn’t see the crisis coming, but they still seem utterly clueless. They tell readers:

“Productivity growth was slowing, wages were stagnating, and the share of Americans who were working was shrinking. That put pressure on family incomes even as inequality rose and upward social mobility declined. The desire to maintain relative living standards no doubt contributed to a surge in household borrowing before the crisis.”

Actually productivty growth didn’t begin to slow until 2006, as the bubble was hitting its peak. Growth was quite strong from 2000 to 2005, which means the cause of wage stagnation in those years must lie elsewhere.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

James Grant Responds To The Bernanke-Paulson-Geithner Op-Ed

Wealth defect

Over the weekend, Global Financial Crisis-era policymakers Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson brought the band back together to pen a New York Times opinion piece. After sharing their self-exonerating analysis of the events of 2007-2009 and subsequent response (which one of the three did the fact checking?), Bernanke et al. argue for greater regulatory powers, or as they put it, “adequate firefighting tools,” to resolve future financial crises.

Blanket guarantees of bank debt by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Fed’s emergency lending capabilities and the Treasury department’s guarantee of money market funds are among the mechanisms cited by the authors as necessary for crisis prevention and mitigation.

The trio write:

We need to make sure that future generations of financial firefighters have the emergency powers they need to prevent the next fire from becoming a conflagration. We must also resist calls to eliminate safeguards as the memory of the crisis fades.  For those working to keep our financial system resilient, the enemy is forgetting.

Alternatively, the monetary mandarins could take a cue from Peter Fisher, former executive vice-president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and senior fellow at the Tuck School of Business. Speaking on policy normalization at the Grant’s spring conference on March 15, 2017, Fisher offered a commanding critique of the crisis-era response led by the authors of this weekend’s Times piece. Written 18 months ago, the below passage could serve as a direct rebuttal to the authors, particularly former Fed chair Bernanke:

Curiously, the Fed has acknowledged no failures. All the experiments have been successful, every one: no failures, no negative side effects, no perverse consequences, only diminishing returns.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Bernanke, Geithner & Paulson Warn: “We’ve Forgotten The Lessons Of The Financial Crisis”

Late last month, the Fed declared that six of the country’s biggest banks needed to scale back their plans for returning cash to shareholders to strengthen their capital buffers, a striking reminder that banks shouldn’t be overeager to put the legacy of the financial crisis behind them. Perhaps this is why, during a private round table discussion last week that Timothy Geithner, Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke, three officials who helped combat (and many would argue also helped cause) the financial crisis warned that the lessons of the financial crisis are already being forgotten, according to the Associated Press,

Paulson, who was Treasury Secretary when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, said that as banks scramble to return money to their investors, “it’s important that people focus on the lessons” of the crisis. “We are not sure people remember everything they need to remember.”

GEithner

The roundtable took place ahead of a meeting in September at the Brookings Institution (former Fed Chair Bernanke’s current employer) where officials from the Fed, Treasury and other federal agencies will discuss how the US can prepare for the next crisis. The meeting appears to be a counterbalance to the Trump administration’s “deregulatory zeal” as lawmakers and leaders of federal agencies work to undo or sideline some aspects of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. Though all three men agreed that the reversal implemented so far by the Trump administration had been “sensible.”

Still, while the safeguards implemented by the law will help the banking system fend off smaller crises, an extreme crisis could pose an existential threat.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Ben Bernanke: The US Economy Is Going To Go Off The Cliff In 2020

It looks like Ben Bernanke is a Bridgewater client.

Recall that earlier this week we reported that in the May 31 “Daily Observations” letter to select clients, authored by Bridgewater co-CIO Greg Jensen, the world’s biggest hedge had an ominous, if not dire appraisal of the current economic and financial situation facing the US, and concluded that “We Are Bearish On Almost All Financial Assets

While Ray Dalio’s co-Chief Investment Officer listed several specific reasons for his unprecedented bearishness, noting that “markets are already vulnerable as the Fed is pulling back liquidity and raising rates, making cash scarcer and more attractive”, pointing out that “options pricing reflects little investor demand for protection against the potential for the economy to bubble over and also shows virtually no chance of deflation, which is a high likelihood in the next downturn”, what really spooked Bridgewater is what happens in 2020 when the impact from the Trump stimulus peaks, and goes into reverse. This is what Jensen wrote:

while such strong conditions would call for further Fed tightening, there’s almost no further tightening priced in beyond the end of 2019. Bond yields are not priced in to rise much, implying that the yield curve will continue to flatten. This seems to imply an unsustainable set of conditions, given that government deficits will continue growing even after the peak of fiscal stimulation and the Fed is scheduled to continue unwinding is balance sheet, it is difficult to imagine attracting sufficient bond buyers with the yield curve continuing to flatten.”

The result was the hedge fund’s now infamous conclusion:

We are bearish on financial assets as the US economy progresses toward the late cycle, liquidity has been removed, and the markets are pricing in a continuation of recent conditions despite the changing backdrop.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

An Inflation Indicator to Watch, Part 3

An Inflation Indicator to Watch, Part 3

“During the 1980s and 1990s, most industrial-country central banks were able to cage, if not entirely tame, the inflation dragon.”
—Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke began his oft-cited “helicopter speech” in 2002 with a few kind words about his peers, including the excerpt above. Speaking for central bankers, he took a large share of the credit for the low inflation of the 1980s and 1990s. Central bankers had gained a “heightened understanding” of inflation, he said, and he expected the future to bring even more inflation-taming success.

Of course, Bernanke’s cohorts took a few knocks in the boom–bust cycle that followed his speech, but their reputations as masters of inflation (and deflation) only grew. Today, the picture he painted seems even more firmly planted in the public mind than it was in 2002, notwithstanding recent data showing inflation creeping higher.

Public perceptions aren’t always accurate, though, and public figures aren’t the most reliable arbiters of credit and blame. In this 3-part article, I’m proposing a theory that challenges Bernanke’s narrative, and I’ll back the theory with data in Part 3. I’ll show that it leads to an inflation indicator with an excellent historical record.

But first, let’s recap a few points I’ve already discussed.

The Endless Tug-of-War

In Part 2, I said inflation depends on a tug-of-war between purchasing power (on the demand side) and capacity (on the supply side), and the war takes place within the circular flow, in which spending flows into income and income flows back to spending. Two circular-flow patterns and their causes demand particular attention:

  1. When banks inject money into the circular flow in the process of making loans, they can boost spending above the prior period’s income, thereby fattening the flow (or the opposite in the case of a deleveraging).

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Inflation Scare of 2012

THE INFLATION SCARE OF 2012

I would like to take you back to 2012. Just a few short years after the soul-searching-scary Great Financial Crisis of 2008-9, market participants had finally given up their worry of the next great depression enveloping the globe, but had replaced it with an equally fervent fear that inflation would uncontrollably explode. The Federal Reserve had recently completed their second round of quantitative easing, much to the chagrin of a large group of distinguished economic thinkers who had gone as far as writing an open letter to the Fed Chairman pleading he reconsider the program.

You remember that old A&E show Intervention? Well, this was like an academic peer episode – more neck beards and sophisticated language, but sadly, the same amount of crying.

So when the Fed’s favourite inflation gauge, the Core PCE index, spiked up to 2% in 2012, it was especially hard on Chairmen Bernanke. After all, his colleagues had just warned him that this was about to happen.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

An Inflation Indicator to Watch, Part 1

An Inflation Indicator to Watch, Part 1

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”
—Milton Friedman

Have you ever questioned Milton Friedman’s famous claim about inflation?

Ever heard anyone else question it?

Unless you read obscure stuff written for the academic community, you’re probably not used to Friedman’s quote being challenged. And that’s despite a lousy forecasting record by economists who bought into his Monetarist methods.

Consider the following:

  • When Friedman’s strict Monetarism fizzled in the 1980s, it was doomed partly by his own forecasts. Instead of the disinflation the decade delivered, he expected inflation to reach 1970s levels, publicizingthat prediction in 1983 and then again in 1984, 1985 and 1986. Of course, years earlier he foresaw the 1970s jump in inflation, but the errant forecasts that came later left him wide open to a “clock twice a day” dismissal.
  • Monetarists suffered an even harsher blow in 2012, when the Conference Board finally threw in the towel on Friedman’s favorite indicator, removing M2 from its Leading Economic Index (LEI). Generally speaking, forecasters who put M2 in their models are like bachelors who put “live with mom” in their dating profiles—they haven’t been successful.
  • The many economists who expected quantitative easing (QE) to wreak havoc on inflation are, of course, on the defensive. Nine years after QE began, core inflation remains below the Fed’s 2% target, defying their Monetarist beliefs.

When it comes to explaining inflation, Monetarism hasn’t exactly nailed it. Then again, neither has Keynesianism, whose Phillips Curve confounds those who rely on it. You can toss inflation onto the bonfire of major events that mainstream theories fail to explain.

But I’ll argue there might be a better way.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Danielle DiMartino Booth: Don’t Count On The Powell Fed To Rescue The Markets

Danielle DiMartino Booth: Don’t Count On The Powell Fed To Rescue The Markets

The new Fed Chair may break from his predecessors

The recent gut-wrenching drop in asset prices began on the first day of the job for new Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.

How is Mr. Powell likely to react to a suddenly sick-looking market? Will he step in forcefully to reassure investors that there’s a “Powell put” in place as a backstop?

To address these questions, former analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Danielle DiMartino Booth, returns to the podcast this week. In her opinion, having studied Powell’s previous statements, she thinks those expecting him to continue the market support his predecessors provided will likely be quite disappointed.

Powell appears to be no large fan of continued quantitative easing, and has long been on the record as concerned about the eventual pain its unwind will cause. He very well may resist riding to the market’s rescue at this time, allowing natural market forces to finally have their way:

Look, this is a message that market participants do not want to hear: It is not the Federal Reserves job to put a floor under risky asset prices.

Compare and contrast Jerome Powell’s silence in the wake of the flash crash on his first day at work to Alan Greenspan — who got on an airplane the day after the Black Monday crash of 1987, canceling an appearance he was to have made, and reassuring the markets with a statement on Tuesday morning that the Federal Reserve was standing by and ready and willing and available to satisfy any kind of disruption in the banking and financial systems. That was the day — October 20, 1987 — that the Greenspan put was born.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

It’s Looking A Lot Like 2008 Now…

It’s Looking A Lot Like 2008 Now…

Did today’s market plunge mark the start of the next crash?

Economic and market conditions are eerily like they were in late 2007/early 2008.

Remember back then? Everything was going great.

Home prices were soaring. Jobs were plentiful.

The great cultural marketing machine was busy proclaiming that a new era of permanent prosperity had dawned, thanks to the steady leadership of Alan Greenspan and later Ben Bernanke.

And only a small cadre of cranks, like me, was singing a different tune; warning instead that a painful reckoning in our financial system was approaching fast.

It’s fitting that I’m writing this on Groundhog Day, as to these veteran eyes, it sure has been looking a lot like late 2007/early 2008 lately…

The Fed’s ‘Reign Of Error’

Of course, the Great Financial Crisis arrived in late 2008, proving that the public’s faith in central bankers had been badly misplaced.

In reality, all Ben Bernanke did was to drop interest rates to 1%. This provided an unprecedented incentive for investors and institutions to borrow, igniting a massive housing bubble as well as outsized equity and bond gains.

It’s worth taking a moment to understand the mechanism the Federal Reserve used back then to lower interest rates (it’s different today). It did so by flooding the banking system with enough “liquidity” (i.e. electronically printed digital currency units) until all the banks felt comfortable lending or borrowing from each other at an average rate of 1%.

The knock-on effect of flooding the US banking system (and, really, the entire world) in this way created an echo bubble to replace the one created earlier during Alan Greenspan’s tenure (known as the Dot-Com Bubble, though ‘Sweep Account’ Bubble is more accurate in my opinion):

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

QE…The Gift That Just Kept Giving…Is Now Taking 

QE…The Gift That Just Kept Giving…Is Now Taking 

I know the Federal Reserve doesn’t effectively create money or directly monetize.  I know this because then Fed chief, Ben Bernanke, told us so (HERE).  But still, something has me wondering about that exchange, now almost a decade ago.  The simplest of math.

The plan to utilize quantitative easing and avoid direct monetization went like this.  The Fed would digitally conjure “money” to buy the US Treasury bonds and Mortgage Backed Securities (remove assets from the market) from the big banks.  However, the Fed would force those banks to deposit the newly conjured “money” at the Federal Reserve.  This would avoid the trillions of newly created dollars from going in search of the remaining assets (particularly levered from somewhere between 5x’s to 10x’s…turning a trillion into five to 10 trillion…or more).

The chart below shows the Federal Reserve balance sheet (red line) and the quantity of those newly created dollars that the recipients of those dollars, the banks, deposited at the Federal Reserve (blue line).  But the green line is the quantity of newly created dollars that have “leaked” out…also known as “monetized”.

The interplay of QE and excess reserves resulted in the peak QE impact taking effect long after QE was tapered and had ceased (chart below).  The trillions in assets remaining with the Fed, but the new cash no longer under lock and key at the Fed.

The impact of $800+ billion of pure monetization from late 2014 through year end 2016 was spectacular.  In the hands of the largest banks (multiplied by “conservative” leverage somewhere between 5 to 10x’s) easily amounting to trillions in new cash looking for assets.  A “bull market” beyond belief should not have been surprising.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Greatest Bubble Ever: Why You Better Believe It, Part 1

The Greatest Bubble Ever: Why You Better Believe It, Part 1

During the 40 months after Alan Greenspan’s infamous “irrational exuberance” speech in December 1996, the NASDAQ 100 index rose from 830 to 4585 or by 450%. But the perma-bulls said not to worry: This time is different—-it’s a new age of technology miracles that will change the laws of finance forever.

It wasn’t. The market cracked in April 2000 and did not stop plunging until the NASDAQ 100 index hit 815 in early October 2002. During those heart-stopping 30 months of free-fall, all the gains of the tech boom were wiped out in an 84% collapse of the index. Overall, the market value of household equities sank from $10.0 trillion to $4.8 trillion—-a wipeout from which millions of baby boom households have never recovered.

Likewise, the second Greenspan housing and credit boom generated a similar round trip of bubble inflation and collapse. During the 57 months after the October 2002 bottom, the Russell 2000 (RUT) climbed the proverbial wall-of-worry—-rising from 340 to 850 or by 2.5X.

And this time was also held to be different because, purportedly, the art of central banking had been perfected in what Bernanke was pleased to call the “Great Moderation”. Taking the cue, Wall Street dubbed it the Goldilocks Economy—-meaning a macroeconomic environment so stable, productive and balanced that it would never again be vulnerable to a recessionary contraction and the resulting plunge in corporate profits and stock prices.

Wrong again!

During the 20 months from the July 2007 peak to the March 2009 bottom, the RUT gave it all back. And we mean every bit of it—-as the index bottomed 60% lower at 340. This time the value of household equities plunged by $6 trillion, and still millions more baby-boomers were carried out of the casino on their shields never to return.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

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