Why Goldman Sachs Cannot Be Wrong

When it comes to equities, they play both sides of the argument.

From Business Insider:

You’ve got to be kidding us, Goldman Sachs.

In recent weeks, at least four different strategists from Goldman Sachs (honestly we’ve lost count) have offered different opinions on the direction of the stock markets.  They range from extremely bullish to uber bearish:

David Kostin, Chief Equity US Strategist: BEARISH

Back in December, Kostin said he thought the S&P 500 would end 2012 at 1,250.  This officially made him one of the most bearish strategists on all of Wall Street.  And despite the monster rally in stocks since then, Kostin hasn’t budged.

Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management: BULLISH

When O’Neill published his 11 predictions for 2012, his position was that the S&P 500 was more likely to head to 1,400 than 1,000.  His call came two weeks after Kostin’s 1,250 call.

Abby Joseph Cohen, President of the Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute and Senior Investment Strategist: BULLISH

It’s hard to think of a time when Cohen wasn’t bullish.  She made a name for herself in the late 1990’s by being bullish as the stock markets soared during the dotcom bubble.

Peter Oppenheimer, Co-Head of Economics, Commodities and Strategy Research in Europe: BULLISH

Everyone’s still buzzing about Oppenheimer’s note titled The Long Good Buy; the Case for Equities where he argued that the equity risk premium made stocks look incredibly cheap.

“The prospects for future returns in equities relative to bonds are as good as they have been in a generation,” he concluded.

The embarrassing thing for Goldman is that their uncertainty and disagreement over where markets are going reflects that the masters of the universe — no matter how well connected — are just as clueless as the rest of us.

The problem for muppets (i.e. Goldman clients) is that it is impossible to be both short and long. Muppets will have to decide whose arguments to listen to for themselves, and will have be responsible for gains or losses. The difference between the masters and the muppets is that Goldman don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. If Goldman screws up — say, by purchasing CDS from a counter-party that goes bust, like they did in 2008 — they can easily get a bailout, and  a boatload of loose QE money to turn their balance sheet around.

Underwater equities? Balance sheet full of junk? No problem for Goldman — merely “hunt elephants” (as Greg Smith put it): encourage your clients to put their money into whatever Goldman wants to sell.

Problem with regulation? No problem: just call up any of their friends in government. The friendship starts at the top.

From Firedoglake:

Certainly, Obama sucked at the teats of Goldman Sachs more than any other politician in recent times. It began for him as little-known Senator from Illinois with a razor- thin resume whose ambitions outshone his accomplishments. Obama’s eloquent, heavily prepped address to the Democratic National Convention caught not only the eyes of the Democratic top brass, but that of the big bankers. As early as the Spring of 2006, Senator Barack Obama was intimately involved with Bob Rubin and Goldman Sachs through his involvement with the Hamilton Project.

Fittingly, Senator Obama was chosen by Rubin and the Hamilton Project to give the inaugural address of the Hamilton Project in April, 2006. An excellent, seminal discussion of the Hamilton Project by Dr. Kirk James Murphy, M.D., can be found here. A video clip of then Senator Barack Obama speaking at the inauguration of the Hamilton Project in April, 2006 can be found here and here (with an excellent discussion) and here.

Obama not helpful? Is he having one of those days where he needs to pretend to be a populist to keep his muppets (i.e. voters) on board? That’s fine — Goldman can try Geithner, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Hillary Clinton, Peter Orszag, William Dudley, or any of the other Goldmanites in positions of power.

Muppets may not be so well-connected. Muppets don’t get bailouts, or QE slush money.

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We’re All Doomers Now

How bad are things getting in the Eurozone?

Paul Krugman is getting apocalyptic:

The big story: German bonds are now being priced as a risky asset — what the FT calls the “apocalypse trade“. The interest rate on bunds, at 2.21% as I write this, is still very low by historical standards. But it’s above the rate on UK bonds (2.17%) and way above the rate on US bonds (1.88%).

The way to see this is that the market is in effect pricing in a real possibility of eurozone collapse.

In particular, market expectations seem to assume that the ECB will remain utterly indifferent to its responsibilities. The German breakeven rate, an implicit forecast of inflation over the next 5 years, is just 1 percent. That’s a disaster level, implying severe deflation in the debtor nations — or, more likely, a euro breakup.

There is a cruel and almost Shakespearean irony to all of this: the Teutonic monetarists at the ECB, with their sole mandate of price stability, and deep hostility to inflation have had the horrors of the hyperinflation of the 1920s imprinted on their memories. Really, they should have been worried about the credit contraction and austerity of the Brüning years in the early 1930s. Unemplyment shot up, industrial production slouched, hunger was rife, and Germans were willing to vote for a charismatic Austrian anti-semite bent on consolidating Europe into one.

While I do not agree with much from Keynes, he did understand that monetary contractions in a system of fractional banking can totally destroy the productive economy. His response to that was that the answer was government-driven stabilisation. My response to that is interventionism and preservation eventually turns to zombification, and that the true answer to the problem of credit contractions is noticing that fractional banking is a fundamentally unstable and dangerous system, and abolishing or significantly reforming it. But that’s an argument for another day.

From Zero Hedge:

The only quote worth noting from the just delivered speech by ECB executive board member José Manuel González-Páramo is the following: “We cannot completely delegate governance to financial markets. The euro area is the world’s second largest monetary area. It cannot depend solely on the opinions of ratings agencies and markets. It needs economic governance arrangements that are preventive and linear. This underscores my central point that a much more comprehensive approach to economic governance is now the priority for the euro area. And this means more economic and financial integration for the euro area, with a significant transfer of sovereignty to the EMU level over fiscal, structural and financial policies.”

So the ECB has lost faith in markets and now believes that a form of central planning is a better economic model.

It’s a shame they haven’t lost faith in austerity — because it is those disastrous, divisive, technocratic and wrong-headed policies that will drive Europe to the stage of bank runs and systemic collapse far quicker than anything else.

Anyway, despite the technocratic coups d’état in Italy and Greece, a federalised Europe still seems politically and socially impossible. Bureaucrats will be punished for this folly. History always sees to that.

Populism & the Fed

A bizarre piece from Gregory Morris writing for Bloomberg:

Today, as its 100th anniversary approaches, many followers of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are calling to “End the Fed.” The rich irony here isn’t that reactionaries and radicals are in agreement on something; after all, they are both passionately populist. The irony is that it was populist outrage and calls for reform that created the Fed in the first place.

The three decades from the demise of the second central bank to the point where the Lincoln administration began printing greenbacks to finance the Civil War were known as the years in the wilderness for American finance. Banks printed their own notes — and let the buyer beware. Bank runs and panics were a common fact of life.

Even with the terrible economic conditions we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s difficult today to comprehend the precarious state of business and personal finance in those days. Not only was there no central bank to restrain economic swings, there was no deposit insurance and no social safety nets. Banks were chronically undercapitalized and went bust with alarming frequency. There was no recourse for depositors. Farms and shops were foreclosed, families put on the street.

Really? Populist outrage led to the creation of the Fed?

I thought it was a cabal of bankers and financiers meeting in secret.

From Wikipedia:

At the end of November 1910, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury DepartmentA. Piatt Andrew, and 5 more of the country’s leading financiers, who together represented about one-fourth of the world’s wealth, arrived at the Jekyll Island Club to discuss monetary policy and the banking system, an event led to the creation of the current Federal Reserve. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the 1910 Jekyll Island meeting resulted in draft legislation for the creation of a U.S. central bank.

Now I know that depositors want their deposits insured. I know that a world of bank runs and panics is not a very reassuring atmosphere for businesses. But let’s be honest — things weren’t that bad. Here’s real GDP-per-capita from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I:

Does that look like stagnation or weakness to you? No — it looks to me like a consistently rising standard of living powered by significant wealth creation. Sure — bank runs and panics, and bank failures and foreclosures were common. That’s the nature of creative destruction — good ideas can much more easily succeed if bad ideas are free to fail. That meant that society, and the economy, were much more experimental. And that’s the cost of innovation, and endeavour and experimentalism — an atmosphere of volatility.

The real issue is that the Fed’s defenders don’t really like creative destruction, because it is too risky. They cling to the comfort blankets of mild-to-moderate yearly inflation via money printing, significant government intervention to save failed businesses like GM, AIG and Bear Stearns, and an economy and political system swung (if not controlled) by too-big-to-fail megabanks, and their CEOs. Most fiercelythey cling to the risk-free 6% dividend they receive year-in-year out — a risk-free 6% of which most private citizens and investors can only dream.

The reality is that modern economic planning is the art of papering over the cracks. The social safety net, and depositors insurance are there not to create wealth (for they do no such thing) but to keep the febrile masses from rioting. The Fed’s defenders are puzzled that after all those monetary helicopter drops (stimulus, QE, QE2, etc, etc) the masses (Tea Party, Occupy) are still demanding more. The “great moderations”, and free lunches have (as I have explained in detail here and here and here) created a hyper-fragile monolith of delayed crises — America’s huge debt load, youth unemployment, biflation, etc — ready to crash down on society.

Loose monetary policy has created tsunamis of malinvestment, and bubbles (housing, NASDAQ, etc) that ultimately drag the economy back down to earth, resulting in crises that — as Paul Krugman so memorably put it back in 2001 — are reinflated, and reinflated, and reinflated by more and more and more interventionism, and new bubbles to replace the old.

That isn’t sustainable economics, or sustainable growth. Sustainable growth is driven by investment in the things that society wants and needs. It’s driven by people working, saving, and investing in products, services and businesses that they deem to be valuable. That is the nature of a free market, not the government or central bank firing off trillions of dollars to whoever they designate as “systemically important”. Sustainable growth is driven by experimentalism. If an experiment fails, it falls to pieces and a gap in the market is opened for the next experiment. Sustainable growth is not driven by bailouts and moral hazard — ever. That means that investors and financiers will think long and hard before committing capital, instead of throwing it into ponzi schemes and derivatives-black-holes.

There is a sensible middle ground between creative destruction and modernity. If anyone is to be bailed out, it should be the poorest, not billionaire bankers and Wall Street megabanks. Let the government insure the deposits of the masses. Let the government provide a safety net to prevent homelessness and starvation, and sickness — so long as it is funded sustainably from tax revenues, and not borrowing.

But let failed businesses fail. Let bad experiments end. Let bad debtors default on their debts. If the financial system is fundamentally weak then let it crumble — let a new system take its place.