Why the Volcker Rule won’t solve the problem of Too Big To Fail

The Volcker Rule was originally proposed to end the problem of banks needing taxpayer bailouts. Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, proposed that commercial banks using customer deposits to trade — a practice known as proprietary trading — played a key role in the financial crisis that began in 2007.

Five former Secretaries of the Treasury — W. Michael Blumenthal, Nicholas Brady, Paul O’Neill, George Shultz, and John Snow — endorsed the Volcker Rule in an open letter to the Wall Street Journal, writing that banks “should not engage in essentially speculative activity unrelated to essential bank services.”

The Volcker Rule was signed into law as part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in July of 2010, but its implementation has been delayed until yesterday when it finally received approval from the five (!) regulatory agencies that will enforce it — the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

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We’re All Nixonians Now

People have got to know whether their President is a crook

Richard M. Nixon

I often wonder who is worse: George W. Bush — the man who turned a projected trillion dollar surplus into the greatest deficits in world history, who bailed out the profligate Wall Street algos and arbitrageurs, who proceeded with two needless, pointless and absurdly costly military occupations (even though he had initially campaigned on the promise of a humble foreign policy), who ignored Michael Scheuer’s warnings about al-Qaeda previous to 9/11, who signed the Constitution-trashing PATRIOT Act  (etc etc ad infinitum) or his successor Barack Obama, the man who retained and expanded the PATRIOT Act powers under the NDAA (2011), who claimed the right to extrajudicially kill American citizens using predator drones, who expanded Bush’s expensive and pointless occupations (all the while having run on a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and reverse Bush’s civil liberties incursions), who proceeded with Paulson’s Wall Street bailouts, authorised the NSA to record all phone calls and internet activity, and continued the destructive War on Drugs (even though he had in the past been a drug user).

The answer, by the way, is Richard Nixon. For almost forty years after that man’s resignation, it is arguable that almost every single administration (with the possible exception of  Carter as well as Reagan’s first year in office) — but especially that of Bush and Obama — has been cut from his cloth. It was Richard Nixon who inaugurated the War on Drugs — that despicable policy that has empowered the drug gangs and obliterated much of Latin America. It was Richard Nixon who so brazenly corrupted the White House and tarnished the office of the Presidency through the Watergate wiretapping scandal.  It was Nixon’s administration that created the culture of government surveillance that led directly to the PATRIOT Act. It was Nixon who internationalised the fiat dollar, so trampling George Washington’s warnings about not entangling alliances, and of course setting the stage for the gradual destruction of American industry that continued apace under NAFTA and into the present day, where America runs the greatest trade deficits in human history. It was Richard Nixon who set the precedent of pointless, stupid, blowback-inducing militarism, by continuing and expanding the Vietnam war. It was Richard Nixon whose administration authorised the use of chemical weapons (or as George W. Bush might have put it, “weapons of mass destruction”) against the Vietcong.

Presidents since have followed — to a greater or lesser extent — in his mould. This is particularly acute this election cycle; you vote for Obama and you get Richard Nixon, or you vote for Romney and you get Richard Nixon. Nixon’s words: “we’re all Keynesians now” have a powerful resonance; not only has every administration since Nixon retained the petrodollar standard and spent like a drunken sailor in pursuit of Keynesian multipliers, but every President since has followed in the Nixonian tradition on civil liberties, on trade, on foreign policy. Henry Kissinger — the true architect of many Nixonian policies, and Obama’s only real competition for most bizarre Nobel Peace Prize recipient — has to some degree counselled each and every President since.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of Nixon’s actions. The demonetisation of  gold ended a 5,000 year long tradition. It was a moment of conjuring, a moment of trickery; that instead of producing the goods, and giving up her gold hoard to pay for her consumption habits (specifically, her consumption of foreign energy), America would give the finger to the world, and print money to pay her debts, while retaining her (substantial) gold hoard. The obvious result of this policy has been that America now prints more and more money, and produces less and less of her consumption. She has printed so much that $5 trillion floats around Asia, while the American industrial belt rusts. Industrial production in America is where it was ten years ago, yet America’s debt exposure has ballooned.

America has had not one but two Vietnams in the past ten years.

First, Afghanistan, in the pursuit of the elusive Osama bin Laden (or, “in the name of liberating women”, presumably via blowing their legs off in drone strikes), where young Western soldiers continue to die (for what?), even after bin Laden’s supposed death in a Pakistani compound last year.

Then, Iraq, presumably in the interests of preventing Saddam Hussein from using non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, or liberating more women by blowing their legs off (or as Tom Friedman  put it: “SUCK! ON! THIS!”).

Like Nixon’s Presidency, the Nixonian political system is highly fragile. Debt is fragility, because it enforces the inflexibility of repayment, and the Nixonian political system has created staggering debt, much of it now offshore. The Nixonian economic policy has gutted American industry, leaving America uncompetitive and dependent on foreign productivity and resources. The Nixonian foreign policy has created a world that is deeply antipathetic to America and American interests, which has meant that America has become less and less capable of achieving imperatives via diplomacy.

Future historians may finger George W. Bush as the worst President in history, and the one who broke the American empire. But smarter scholars will pinpoint Nixon. True, the seeds of destruction were sown much earlier with the institution of permanent limited liability corporations. This allowed for the evolution of a permanent corporate aristocracy which eventually bought out the political echelon, and turned the Federal government into an instrument of crony capitalism, military Keynesianism and corporate welfare. Nixonianism has been the corporate aristocracy’s crowning achievement. And to some extent, this period of free lunch economics was a banquet, even for middle class Americans. The masses were kept fat and happy. But now the game is up — like Nixon’s Presidency — its days are numbered.

The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes

As I’ve covered in pretty excruciating depth these past few weeks, the Euro in its current form is sliding unrelentingly into the grave.

Some traders seem pretty excited about that eventuality.

Why? There’s plenty of money to be made killing the Euro, (just like there was plenty of money to be made in naked-shorting Lehman brothers to death):

Markets are ruled right now by fear. Investors: the big money, the smart money, the big funds, the hedge funds, the institutions, they don’t buy this rescue plan. They know the market is toast. They know the stock market is finished, the euro, as far as the Euro is concerned they don’t really care. They’re moving their money away to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.

I would say this to everybody who’s watching this. This economic crisis is like a cancer. If you just wait and wait thinking this is going to go away, just like a cancer it’s going to grow and it’s going to be too late.

This is not a time to wishfully think the governments are going to sort this out. The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.

A few points:

“They’re moving their money to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.”

Safer assets like the US dollar? Sure, that’s what the textbooks tell you has been the safest asset in the post-war era. But are they really safe assets? On dollars, interest rates are next to zero. This means that any inflation results in negative real rates, killing purchasing power. Let’s have a look at the yields on those “super-safe” 30-year bonds:

At 2.87%, and with inflation sitting above 3.5% these are experiencing a net loss in purchasing power, too. Yes, it’s better than losing (at least) half your purchasing power on Greek sovereign debt, or watching as equities tank. But with the virtual guarantee that stagnant stock markets will usher in a new tsunami of QE cash (or better still, excess reserves) expect inflation, further crushing purchasing power.” 

“The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.” 

Well Goldman Sachs are the ones who convinced half the market to price in QE3. And they’re also making big noise demanding action in the Eurozone. I’m not denying Goldman don’t have massive power — or that they are ready and willing to book massive profits on Eurozone collapse. But — like everything in this crooked and corrupt system — they are vulnerable to liquidity crises triggered by the cascade of defaults that both myself and Tim Geithner (of all people) have talked about over the past week.

Of course, we all know that as soon as that tidal wave of defaults start, global “financial stabilisation” packages will flood the market to save Goldman and J.P. Morgan, and anything else deemed to be “infrastructurally important”, and survivors will take their pick of M&A from the collateral damage.

And kicking the can down the road using the same policy tools that Bernanke has been using for the past three years (i.e., forcing rates lower and-or forcing inflation higher) will result in harsher negative real rates — making treasuries into an even worse investment. Eventually (i.e., soon) the institutional investors — and more importantly (because their holdings are larger) the sovereign investors — will realise that their capital is rotting and panic. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that China in particular is quietly panicking now. The only weapon Bernanke has is devaluation (in its many forms) — which is why he has been so vocal in asking for stimulus from the fiscal side.  

And — in spite of the last week’s gold liquidation, as China realised long ago — the last haven standing will be gold. Why? Because unlike treasuries and cash it maintains its purchasing power in the long run.

The Emperor is wearing no clothes.