Showing posts from November, 2009

Obama's Two Biggest Blunders: What do They Have in Common?

I'll go out on a limb -- actually, I don't think I have to go very far out -- and wager that wise historians of the future will chronicle two big blunders of President Obama's first year in office. They will be:

1. His kid-glove handling of the banks that caused the financial crisis. There was too much "please" and "if you don't mind" and mucho foot-dragging on reforming a broken system and rooting out wrongdoers. The president expressed a little outrage, maybe once or twice, then drew back into his shell. Meanwhile the government has handed over billions to the banking industry, very few strings attached, as unemployment soars. The perception on Main Street: the Obama administration is beholden to a plutocracy that really runs the U.S. of A.

There is much anger about the bailouts that's on a steady simmer right below the surface, I think. It will cripple Obama's future ability to be effective. Paul Krugman really nailed it with his recent op-…

A Daisy Chain of Crises

What should you conclude upon hearing of the financial crisis in Dubai?

Perhaps the question is too vague. So let me give a hint:
after the collapse of the financial system in the U.S.; after the collapse of the financial system in the U.K.; after the collapse of the financial system in much of the Western Europe; after the collapse of the financial system in the Eastern Europe; after the collapse of the financial system in the emerging countries; after the collapse of the Russian economy in 1998; after the collapse of the Mexican economy in 1994; after the collapse of the financial system in Argentina in 2001; after the collapse of the “Asian” economies in 1998 – that would be Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, The Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan; after the economic and financial crisis in 1998 in Latin America – that would be Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia, Uruguay; after the collapse of the Japanese economy that has been going on for almost tw…

PPIP Deathwatch, November Edition

The Geithner plan (PPIP), for public-private partnerships to buy up toxic assets saddling banks in the U.S. financial system, has been roundly attacked from the start. For my part, early on, I predicted PPIP would fail for a simple reason: the banks wouldn't offer up any toxic assets for sale (for fear of revealing themselves insolvent) and the U.S. government wouldn't have the stomach (or balls) to compel them to.

So I offer up this article in US Banker (a little late, but it's been a hectic month): PPIP Finally Ready, But Who's Selling?

For me, the impact paragraph comes at the very end (bold mine):
Ron Glancz, a partner at Venable LLP who has clients with toxic assets, agreed. "It's not created a lot of stir," he says. "We have banks that have a lot of toxic assets, and they are not selling to PPIP. It doesn't deal with the fundamental problem that banks can't book these losses, because that's a depletion of capital."The official sto…

Phew! Just Flew Back from China and Boy My Arms Are Tired

Or however that joke goes. Right now I'm de-jetlagging after a seemingly endless flight from Hong Kong and trying to catch up on what I missed. I spent a week in China. For today, just a short odds-and-ends entry...

(1) When did passengers turn into "customers"? I noticed this on the Continental flights I took. Had it been only one flight, I would have just written off the incident as someone on the flight crew remembering some half-digested bit of marketing political correctness. But this practice was apparently part of some memo because the "customers" references came up on different legs of my journey. "Customers, please be seated." "We thank our customers for flying with us." That sort of thing.

One thing you gotta understand about me: I love the English language. I love it on a number of levels, right down to the sound of words knocking together. Further, I believe in simple, direct, effective communication. I grit my teeth when corporate…

A Question of Perspective

Last Friday, William Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York delivered a long speech on “Lessons From the Crisis” in the Center of Economic Policy Studies Symposium at Princeton University. I don’t suppose you could get any more serious than that in terms of authority and setting, even though the speaker felt compelled to issue a disclaimer: “As always, my remarks reflect my own views and opinions and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve System.” It is astounding how no one dares to speak freely, even when the subject is a non-political, technical one and the speaker is the president of the New York Fed.

My aim is not to offer a blow-by-blow critique of the speech. What I want to focus on, rather, is Dudley’s perspective, the way he sees things. I wrote about this seeing-things-through-the-eye-of-finance-capital in here and here. So the focus is not on Dudley. He is merely a Rumian part that adequately reflects the whole.

The technical description of market…

Tin Ear of the Year Nominee: AIG's CEO

Man, this guy is -- how to put this gently? -- aw, the hell with it -- the very embodiment of chutzpah. Early in this financial crisis, I noted the curious lack of contrition on the part of Wall Street bankers. There was nothing in the way of an apology, just a lot of hustling out the back door with the bags of TARP money. There wasn't even that mumbled, eyes downcast, insincere "I'm sorry" that you get from your four-year-old who was caught smearing peanut butter on his sister's ponytail. At the time I wondered about the deafening silence of Wall Street's public relations machines.

Lately, Wall Street's head honchos have opened up a bit more, even going on "charm" offensives. And now, you understand why they were silent before. Because these guys radiate arrogance, even when they think they're striking a humble pose. You have Lord Blankfein over at Goldman Sachs, telling us the firm is doing God's work (shades of noblesse oblige) and tha…

Blankfein Makes the Argument for Heavily Regulating Banks

Imagine a world in which the air that we breathe -- that's right, that air all around you -- wasn't freely available. Let's say it's held in "air reservoirs" and pumped into our airtight houses. Whenever we go outside, we have to take compressed air in tanks because the normal atmosphere can't support life. And we all get used to living this way -- okay, it's a bit inconvenient, but everyone gradually adjusts and life goes on.

How do you think, in such a world, air would be "regulated"? With the same light hand we would use for regulating the sale of frivolous items, such as lawn gnomes and chia pets? Ah, dumb question. Of course not. Air would be the most regulated commodity mankind has ever known. There would be frequent quality checks for air contamination, strict rules about pipes that carried the critical air supply, regulations about every aspect of the portable air tanks that we depended on.

Why? Simple. Without air, we die. This is a l…

Must Read of the Day: Kill Credit Default Swaps

At first, my leading "must read" candidate was Roger Ehrenberg's Barking up the Wrong Tree. Roger identifies an ongoing problem with Washington's attempt to knuckle down on the financial industry: legislators get distracted by pander-ready sideshows. Example: dark pools and high-frequency trading in the stock market (note: I'm not saying either is necessarily harmless, but I agree that they're not doing the harm of the big elephants in the room -- unregulated derivatives trading and corrupted credit-rating agencies). Why is this? As Ehrenberg observes, plenty of little investors are in the stock market, so Congress takes on related issues with a lusty sense of outrage. But derivatives and credit raters are willfully ignored because the subjects aren't as sexy and grandma doesn't spend any time checking out, say, how Moody's grades "SocGen CMBS Non-Conforming Pool XII."

Still, that blog entry dropped to second place on my "must read&q…

How Much Crappy Collateral is the Fed Warehousing?

The possibly scary answer to this question periodically gets my stomach churning. When the definitive works are written on this financial crisis, in another decade or so, I think the authors will pass judgment not so much on the overt bailout -- TARP is small potatoes, folks -- but on the "invisible bailout" that no one ever voted on, but that the Fed orchestrated behind the scenes. We can't write these definitive books yet, because the outcome of the invisible bailout isn't clear.

What put me in mind of this subject: this paper over at Zero Hedge, allegedly by a "Nathan Jerome Burchfield," that claims the Fed may have accepted crappy CMBS (commercial mortgage-backed security) collateral against loans it made. This occurred through the TALF, or the Term Asset-Backed Securities Facility. And then, after the Fed accepted this stuff as top notch collateral (AAA rated, creme de la creme), the ratings agencies -- interestingly enough -- turned around and downgrad…

On “Industrial Policy”

What type of stories would I cover if I were a financial journalist?

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times had an interview with William Clay Ford Jr., “perhaps the most seasoned auto executive in Detroit.” He has more than 30 years on the job at Ford Motor Company which was founded by his great grandfather. He is presently the executive chairman of the board. A Q&A and the follow-up went as follows:
Q: Is the financial support given by taxpayers to G.M. and Chrysler a positive development for the American economy?

A: The biggest concern that we had all through this was the collapse of the supply base. I believe that if G.M. and Chrysler had gone into free-fall bankruptcies, it could have devastated the entire industrial base of this country.

Q: Does the average American value the domestic auto industry?

A: They should. One cannot find a healthy economy anywhere in the world that does not have a strong industrial base, period. We seem to be the only country in the world that doesn…

Settling the "Was it Lehman?" Dust-up

Was the U.S. government's decision to let Lehman Brothers tumble into bankruptcy last fall a fatal miscalculation? By letting Lehman go, did we precipitate the brutal freeze-up in the credit markets?

Answering that question has become a hot niche topic for debate. The latest contribution by William Sterling is here: Looking Back at Lehman. It's a rather tedious read, so I'll just cut to the chase:
In contrast to the analysis of Lehman skeptics such as John Taylor (2008, 2009) and John Cochrane and Luigi Zingales (2009), the evidence we present supports the view of many practitioners that the decision not to rescue Lehman represented an immediate and massive shock to the financial system that was larger by an order of magnitude than anything seen over nearly two decades.First, if you examine the day-by-day, blow-by-blow data, I think it's obvious that the Lehman bankruptcy did matter hugely. But if you look at the larger picture, I don't think Lehman mattered much at …