2008 Again?

The so-called recovery is built on sand, and as stock markets climb and climb, and more traders and investors turn bullish, we come ever-closer to a new 2008-style collapse.

Markets have already gone far, far higher than many expected on a drift of reinflationary central bank liquidity. Yesterday the DJIA hit a new post-2007 high:

fredgraph (14)

The same day, it was revealed that the big Wall Street banks are gambling again with billions and billions of dollars of clients’ funds. Goldman Sachs are back to pre-crisis-style profits. Again and again — from the LIBOR scandal, to MF Global, to the London Whale, to Kweku Adoboli — the financial sector has illustrated that it has learned very little from 2008, and is still practising many of the same hyper-fragile ponzi finance practices that led to the subprime bubble and the 2008 collapse.

Soaring markets, and soaring speculation. Big finance using loopholes to speculate bigger and harder. Mainstream financial journalists becoming more and more complacent about the “recovery”.

We’ve been here before. Isn’t repeating the same behaviour and hoping for different results the very definition of insanity? 

I don’t know exactly how the next crash will occur — although there are many potential ignition spots including a severe trade or energy shock, or a Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown, or a natural disaster, or a new Western financial crisis.  I don’t know when the next crash will occur, or how high the markets will climb before it does (DJIA 36,000 maybe? That would be hilarious).

But I know that if markets and regulators continue to repeat the mistakes that led to 2008, we will be back in a similar or worse hole soon.

Advertisements

Debt & Obesity

The waistline bubble began to expand at just about the same time as the debt bubble:

First, it’s important emphasise that correlation is not causation — more than 99% of murderers have consumed water in the twenty four hour period preceding a murder. But it is clear that the effects of globalisation are at play in both cases (simply because globalisation has transformed the American economy) – far fewer Americans have to do physically demanding manufacturing work, and thanks to the mechanisation of agriculture and food production there are far more calories-per-American available to consume.

The interesting difference between debt and obesity is that while it is possible from historical evidence to construct a fairly coherent model linking excess outgrowth in debt with recession and depression — for example, I conjecture that a depression becomes inevitable when debt service cost growth consistently outpaces income growth  — there is no such historical evidence available for obesity, because there has never in known world history been an obesity epidemic of such proportion, so there is no way to know how the obesity bubble may burst.

To what extent do the healthcare overheads of an obesity epidemic act as a drag on economic growth? According to an estimate by the CDC, $147 billion.

How much of a drag on the real economy is supporting those who have dropped out of the labour force due to obesity-related illness like diabetes, fatigue, depression and cardiovascular illness?

Well, we know that in the years that obesity has been exploding, that the disabled proportion of the workforce has almost tripled:

That’s almost 9 million individuals receiving Federal disability — almost six million more than we would have if the number of those receiving Federal disability was proportionate to the numbers at the beginning of the Ford administration. And if each disabled worker was contributing the per-capita average of $46,546 to GDP, the US would be producing roughly $279 billion more output. Even if only half of the increase is associated with obesity (a very, very, very conservative estimate) that equates to around $140 billion of  lost output. That — especially when considered next to the healthcare costs — is a pretty big gap, and that does not even begin to consider that the obese workers not on disability tend to be associated with lowered productivity.

So to what extent has the debt acquisition been an attempt to paper over the cracks of an economy increasingly losing productivity due to obesity and obesity-related illness, and to what extent is obesity linked to the current American employment and growth weakness?

Well, we know that it is possible to blow up a huge debt bubble without a high level of obesity, because Japan has been mired in a debt-fuelled depression for the last twenty years without any associated obesity epidemic, and because the Great Depression was preceded by a huge outgrowth in debt, but no such outgrowth in obesity. And certainly, the United States lives with far greater burdens than the effects of obesity — for example, the quantifiable burden of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan has been greater in the past decade than the quantifiable burden of growing national obesity. This is not to mention the effects of job migration, maintaining a global empire with bases in over 150 countries, and bailing out Wall Street banks. Debt has been a means to paper over the cracks of lost productivity and an American empire living far beyond the means of its productivity — but there is far more to that than just the outgrowth in obesity.

But obesity is causing a significant output loss, which by definition contributes to the wider problems.

The Unstimulus

If your predictions are wildly out-of-whack with reality, you need to change your approach.

Here’s a 2009 Obama administration graph authored by Jared Bernstein and Christy Romer showing their calculations for future unemployment levels with and without the Obama stimulus, updated by James Pethikoukis to show the actual figures:

These predictions have been an unmitigated disaster. Not only did the real figures not match up to the advertised ones, but they are also much worse than the baseline expectations. Romer and Bernstein appear to have both severely under-estimated the depth of the crisis, and over-estimated the effectiveness of the stimulus package.

The stimulus is a large and complex piece of legislation, and it sent lots of money to lots of different places. Money went both to projects like building roads and bridges, as well as to projects like Solyndra, and to many other kinds of projects. Here’s a rough breakdown (a deeper breakdown is available here):

To get the full picture, we need to look at the broad outcomes. So, who benefited in the wake of the stimulus?

Wages and salaries as a percentage-of-GDP in blue, corporate profits after tax as a percentage-of-GDP in red:

Obama might talk about spreading the wealth around, but the aggregate effect of the policies pursued during his administration have squarely benefited large corporations and the financial sector, and not the middle class or small business. Is reinflating financial bubbles and pumping up corporate profits Obama’s idea of recovery? The money isn’t trickling down, and small businesses and the middle class are more in debt than they were before the crisis started. Income inequality is soaring. The financial sector is richer than ever. American infrastructure is still crumbling. Housing starts are still deeply depressed, even as homelessness rises. And of course, employment is still deeply, deeply depressed. The stimulus didn’t get America working again. With a monstrous and broken financial sector still totally failing to provide adequate capital to Main Street, totally broken algorithm-driven markets that have alienated retail investors, and budget deficits that remain persistently high, this should surprise precisely nobody.

Spending Problem? Paul Ryan is the Spending Problem

Paul Ryan talks like a small government conservative:

Too much government inevitably leads to bad government. When government grows too much and extends beyond its limits, it usually does things poorly.

And the WSJ is pumping up Ryan as an antidote to the growth of government:

Ryan represents the GOP’s new generation of reformers. More than any other politician, the House Budget Chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline.

But Ryan himself has been responsible for a lot of that government growth. He loyally voted for all the big government programs George W. Bush ensconced into law — Medicare Part D, often described as the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the PATRIOT Act and the NDAA; the TARP bailout of Wall Street; the bailout of General Motors. So long as it was debt-fuelled spending authorised by a Republican (and during the Bush years, there was an awful lot of debt-fuelled spending authorised by Republicans) Ryan was out voting for it. 

Ryan’s voting record establishes firmly that Ryan is as much for bailouts and the expansion of government as Obama. He talks like a small government conservative on the deficit, too, but dig into the details and he promises to balance the budget on the back of closing loopholes in the tax code that he refuses to specify, while completely ignoring the severe problem of excessive total debt that is keeping the economy depressed today.

Does Ryan have an explanation for his voting record? Why did he put party loyalty above loyalty to the principles he now claims to espouse? Or did he forget his small government principles during the Bush years? Did he only discover Ayn Rand in 2008?

Ryan was forced to try and explain. Here’s the exchange between Ryan and ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour.

AMANPOUR: Congressman Ryan, you actually voted for the Wall Street bailout, and indeed the auto bailout as well.RYAN: Right. The auto bailout in order to prevent TARP from going to the auto companies, because we already put $25 billion aside in an energy bill, which I disapproved of, to go to auto companies.

What? Ryan later tried to clarify his remarks in an interview with the Daily Caller:

The president’s chief of staff made it extremely clear to me before the vote, which is either the auto companies get the money that was put in the Energy Department for them already — a bill that I voted against because I didn’t want to give them that money, which was only within the $25 billion, money that was already expended but not obligated — or the president was going to give them TARP, with no limit. That’s what they told me. That’s what the president’s chief of staff explained to me. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them to get TARP. We want to keep TARP on a leash. We don’t want to expand it. So give them that Energy Department money that at least puts them out of TARP, and is limited.’ Well, where are we now? What I feared would happen did happen. The bill failed, and now they’ve got $87 billion from TARP, money we’re not going to get back. And now TARP, as a precedent established by the Bush administration, whereby the Obama administration now has turned this thing into its latest slush fund. And so I voted for that to prevent precisely what has happened, which I feared would happen.

Ryan should take a leaf out of Mr T.’s book and quit his jibber-jabber. He voted for TARP, as well as the auto bailout, and he has no reasonable explanation beyond fierce loyalty.

Republicans had two choices — Ron Paul and Gary Johnson — who are both consistent fiscal conservatives with no record of supporting bailouts or expansions of government, and no record of supporting costly pre-emptive wars. The Republican Party rejected both candidates, and instead went with two defenders of bailouts, two expanders of government, two believers in pre-emptive war and a large, powerful security state. That decision says an awful lot about the Republican Party.

People who want to see government play a smaller role in the economy and society should look elsewhere; outside of rhetoric both of the two major tickets have a track record of increasing the size and scope of government, increasing debt levels and bailing out favoured corporations.

The Face of Corporatist Hypocrisy

From Bloomberg:

“Retirement ages will have to move to 70, 80 years old,” former AIG CEO Robert Benmosche, who turned 68 last week, said during a weekend interview at his seaside villa in Dubrovnik, Croatia. “That would make pensions, medical services more affordable. They will keep people working longer and will take that burden off of the youth.”

Now, as a guy who is living in a taxpayer-funded villa after his bank-insurance-derivatives-hedge fund-ponzi company blew up, we know Benmosche is a hypocrite. In my view, management should be held personally liable a long time before taxpayers. That’s right, I believe in personal responsibility and that means no hiding behind limited liability and bailouts, no matter how “systemically important” you claim to be.

But let’s set aside disgust at government for first setting up this scenario via Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and then in 2008 throwing money at hypocritical grifters like Benmosche.

Is he wrong about social security and medical services?

Spending costs money. You can spend as much as you like so long as you have the revenues to do so. But the US government is failing to fund its current spending, let alone the $61.6 trillion (that’s a low-end estimate — the high end estimate is $127.5 trillion or 737% of GDP) of future welfare liabilities that the US government is mandated by law to spend.

So can America get the money to match future commitments without significantly raising the retirement age?

In theory.

In theory the Federal government can squeeze taxpayers. Perhaps Occupy will get their wish of raising taxes on the 1% to whatever figure they have in mind (though the way corporations and lobbyists have successfully colonised Washington, that seems exceedingly unlikely). But this is a globalised world, and the higher they tax the more activity will leave to lower-rate jurisdictions, and the less activity will be taxable. Tax evasion and avoidance will soar.

In theory America could have an organic recovery and start generating significant amounts of organic GDP growth. But right now, that’s a fantasy. Pinning your hopes to potential future economic miracles like 3D-printing, nanoengineering, widespread solar energy and synthetic petroleum is hardly good accounting practice, even if they are realistically the best hope of a rosy future.

In theory taxpayers could agree to accept less spending, as Benmosche suggests. But Americans overwhelmingly support social security and medicare, and politicians hawking cuts make themselves into political pariahs. Promises are promises, and politicians have suckered the electorate by promising so much for so little. If Greeks rioting over the retirement age seems raucous, wait ’til a politician tries to slash SNAP, medicare or social security.

Much more likely is the current trend of escalating deficits and printing money to pay the bills — and bail out washed-up corporatists like Benmosche (and his “systemically important” equivalents in Europe). Policy-makers can balance the budget and raise aggregate demand and GDP to whatever level they like (the “highest” level presumably being toilet paper) by throwing newly-printed money out of helicopters.

Trouble is, with the US dollar no longer functioning as the globe’s reserve currency it’s going to get harder and harder to hide the inflation overseas or on primary dealer balance sheets. Welfare recipients will keep getting welfare, but in the long run it may not buy much.

No, nations chose their paths long ago. America chose the path of big spending, big warfare, big bailouts and big welfare, and bailout-recipients like Benmosche who plead “systemic importance” are heavily responsible for that slide into fiscal irresponsibility. It won’t be the politicians, bankers and corporatists who created the mess who will have to deal with the fallout; they have foreign villas, foreign ranches, foreign bank accounts, and barbed-wire-shrouded EMP-proof survival retreats. It will be the average American who has done nothing wrong other than believing the words of politicians.

The Fabled Greek Mega-Bailout

In a truly eyebrow-raising CNBC interview, Matthew Lynn alleges that Europe shall be saved! (As if by the grace of God!).

With Europe on the brink yet again Germany will act.

The Greeks can’t carry on with the austerity being imposed on them. No country can be expected to endure annualized falls in GDP  of 7 percent or more,” he said, “and 50 percent youth unemployment for years on end.

On Tuesday we learned that the Greek economy shrank by another 6.2 percent in the latest quarter. It simply isn’t acceptable” Lynn said.

But Germany and the rest of the EU could come up with a Marshall Aid-style package for Greece. Very little of the bail-out money so far has gone to the Greeks. It has all gone to the bankers.

Forget talk of a ‘Grexit’. There will be a mega-bail-out—a ‘Grashall Plan’—instead.

And when it happens, the markets will rally on the news.

At various stages in the last two years everyone from China, to Germany, to the Fed to the IMF, to Martians, to the Imperial Death Star has been fingered as the latest saviour of the status quo. And so far — in spite of a few multi-billion-dollar half-hearted efforts like the €440 billion EFSF —  nobody has really shown up.

Perhaps that’s because nobody thus far fancies funnelling the money down a black hole. After Greece comes Portugal, and Spain and Ireland and Italy, all of whom together have on the face of things at least €780 billion outstanding (which of course has been securitised and hypothecated up throughout the European financial system into a far larger amount of shadow liabilities, for a critical figure of at least €3 trillion) and no real viable route (other than perhaps fire sales of state property? Sell the Parthenon to Goldman Sachs?) to paying this back (austerity has just led to falling tax revenues, meaning even more money has had to be borrowed), not to mention the trillions owed by the now-jobless citizens of these countries, which is now also imperilled. What’s the incentive in throwing more time, effort, energy and resources into a solution that will likely ultimately prove as futile as the EFSF?

The trouble is that this is playing chicken with an eighteen-wheeler. While Draghi might be making noises about “continuing to comply with the mandate of keeping price stability over the medium term in line with treaty provisions and preserving the integrity of our balance sheet” (in other words, not proceeding with the fabled “mega-bailout” even if it fractures the Euro), we may well see a full-blown financial meltdown (and of course, the ramifications of that on anyone who is exposed to the European banking system) unless someone — whether it is the ECB, or the Fed, or the IMF — prints the money to keep the system liquid.

There are really two layers to bailing out the insolvent nations: the real bailout is of the banks who bought the debt, and the insolvent nations are just an intermediary. Should the insolvent nations become highly uncooperative, it seems more likely that the insolvent nations will just be cut out of the loop (throwing their citizens into experiencing a forced currency redenomination, bank runs, and even more chaos) while policymakers continue to channel money into “stabilising” the totally broken global financial system — because we know for sure that a big disorderly default will likely cause some kind of default cascade, and that is something I am sure that (based on past form) policymakers will seek to avoid.

How close to the collapse we will come before the money gets printed is another matter.

Given that it is predominantly Germans who are in charge of Europe for the moment — with their unusual post-Weimar distaste for monetary expansion —  it seems to me like just as we have seen so far, the money will come at the last minute, and will just keep things ticking over rather than actually solving anything.

And ultimately, I think it is the social conditions — particularly unemployment levels — that matter more than whether or not the financial system survives. If the attendant cost of ad hoc bailouts (in the name of pretending to stick to the ECB mandate) is a continued depression, and continued massive unemployment and youth unemployment then politicians are focusing on the wrong thing.

The problem is that as conditions continue to fester and as solutions seem distant and improbable that Europe’s problems may become increasingly political. As the established (dis)order in Europe continues to leave huge swathes of people jobless and angry, their rage and discomfort will be channelled toward dislodging the establishment. As we have seen in Greece and France, that has already produced big lifts for both the Far Left and Far Right.

We already know, I think, that in Greece’s upcoming election the outsider parties will crush the establishment, with SYRIZA most likely emerging on top. A key metric for me in the next few weeks will be Golden Dawn‘s proportion of the vote.

Let’s not forget history:

Can I Have a Bailout?

Am I about to get regulated?

From Zero Hedge:

SocGen’s Todd Martin, who is the bank’s Asia equity strategist, appeared on Bloomberg earlier today to discuss the Volcker Rule and prop trading, against which the anonymous blogosphere had some very “strong views” back in 2009. Sure enough, prop trading ended a few months later with the adoption of the Volcker Rule. Somehow, the topic of the Volcker rule shifted to the topic of whether or not Morgan Stanley is exposed to France, and its insolvent banks, and who is to blame: “For example one blog just a week ago, had a very, very strong view against Morgan Stanley. They quoted Sanford Bernstein who actually was telling people to buy the stock. And then they were quoting Gross Exposures not Net, and then concluding that Morgan Stanley had to go down and be dismembered [sic]. Now I have a serious problem with this. If I get regulated why isn’t this place regulated. It’s also very dangerous because they are using psudonames [sic] and we don’t know who they are. They could be the guy on the street. They could be a hedge fund dangling out information. It could be the head of a prop desk. Thing is it is supposed to be regulated. And they get their revenues from trading platforms on US soil. And I don’t think it’s fair. And I think the US should go and take a look and regulate the blogosphere. I think it’s really, really out of control.” In other words: it is all the blogosphere’s fault.

Of course, it is a simple fact that while the promise of bailout money hangs over markets, some traders and executives will take huge risks with other people’s money (shareholders, taxpayers, anyone with a loose chequebook). This agency problem creates huge fragility — especially in a system like modern international finance which is prone to the default cascade, where one bank failure can potentially bring the system down. And it is also true that Dexia — a bank that only recently passed the regulators’ stress tests with flying colours — just failed (ouch) and had to be bailed out.

The reality is that the only way to create a system based on responsible behaviour is to enforce the idea in capitalism that actions have consequences —  no bailouts for screw-ups, no free lunch, remove the money from politics, etc.

The real issue here, though, is just how “regulated” I might end up being.

From Wikipedia (surely this needs to be regulated, too?):

Censorship in Nazi Germany was implemented by the Minister of PropagandaJoseph Goebbels. All media — literaturemusicnewspapers, and public events — were censored. Attempts were also made to censor private communications, such as mail and even private conversation, with mixed results.

The aim of censorship under the Nazi regime was simple: to reinforce Nazi power and to suppress opposing viewpoints and information. Punishments ranged from banning of presentation and publishing of works to deportation, imprisonment, or even execution in a concentration camp.

Hitler outlined his theory of propaganda and censorship in Mein Kampf:

The chief function of propaganda is to convince the masses, whose slowness of understanding needs to be given time so they may absorb information; and only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on their mind.

Right — citizens need to have the right ideas imprinted on their minds.

Repeat after me:

The Euro is not failing.
The Euro is not failing.
The Euro is not failing.
The Euro is not failing.

Let’s try another one:

Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.
Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.
Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.
Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

More importantly, now that I am doing God’s work (by proxy), can I get a no-haircut bailout if I leverage myself 100:1 selling out of the money S&P calls and lose all my capital?