Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An Elegant Solution

The heads of the global banking cartel are currently gathered for their annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. They have received enormous subsidies and bailouts at the expense of taxpayers in many nations all around the world. Those nations that possess representative governments are now beginning to respond to the outrage of their citizens at this gross injustice. In Britain, this has taken the form of a proposal to tax financial transactions. In the US, President Obama recently proposed regulations to limit the risk-taking activities of banks and to force the "too big to fail" institutions to shrink. The bankers' response is a proposal to take regulatory power away from national governments according to a British Press outlet.

This of course would be precisely the WRONG action. National governments in representative systems are forced to respond to the concerns of their citizens. The bankers' proposal would push the power even further away from the people and vest it in unaccountable supra-national bureaucracies. Our response should be precisely the opposite - devolve regulatory power over the banks back from the Federal government back to the state level. This should be particularly true for commercial banking. First, power should be as close to the citizens as reasonably practical so that the exercise of government power will be as responsive as possible to the average citizen. Second, power should be decentralized so as to reduce the incentive to abuse it and to minimize the damage when such abuse does occur.

One very positive effect would be to create a framework that automatically penalizes large organizations. Giant banks constantly lobbied to reduce the role of the states in banking regulation in the name of "efficiency" starting in the 1970s. One of the chief claims advanced during that period was that US banks would be unable to compete with foreign (especially Japanese) banks without consolidation. That turned out to be correct as the US banks produced a bubble very comparable to the one that has led to a 20 year depression in Japan.

The collapse of the states' role led directly to the creation of corrupt TBTF mega-banks by reducing the cost of geographic consolidation, just as the weakening and then repeal of Glass-Steagall enabled the growth of financial conglomerates via acquisition across business lines. President Obama has called for limiting the ability of banks to take risk and also breaking up the TBTF banks. We agree and call upon the president to immediately re-implement Glass-Steagall in order to confirm the seriousness of his words via corresponding action. In addition, we call upon him to remove all federal roadblocks to state banking regulation.

The mega-banks object to state regulations because it would increase their cost of compliance. We agree that it would increase such costs and further state that such an outcome would be a GOOD thing. It would create an automatic systemic incentive not to expand. It would be far better for the banks to decide to break themselves up rather than to mandate such an outcome. The legal and regulatory environment can provide the proper incentives and then leave the implementation to the individual players when they find such actions to be in their self-interest. The explicit repudiation of the "too big to fail" doctrine should be sufficient as the only reason to create such behemoths was to become large enough to hold the US economy and financial system hostage. But it never hurts to create the right incentives - all that Washington DC needs to do is stop interfering with the states' ability to regulate.

This seems to be an elegant solution.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Trembling Pillars of Fraud

Over the last two weeks we have seen a series of indications that some of the key elements supporting manipulation of market pricing mechanisms are beginning to tremble. We have seen equity prices rise despite the lack of any significant increase in profits. We have seen commodity prices spike without much increase in real demand. In our opinion the key institutions behind this mess are the major Wall Street (TARP) banks, government agencies and the Fed. They have all played a major role in creating credit inflation, with subsequent asset bubbles and debasement of our currency. But understand this: if you 'look through' each of those institutions you will find the US government backstopping each and every one of them. Each of those has come under increasing attack and as the supports have begun to shake, the fraudulent pricing they have promoted has also begun to unwind. As politics has supported bubble dynamics, so it can destroy them - live by the sword, die by the sword.

Fear and Loathing
First, Yahoo Finance reports that Wall Street's bonuses being paid out now will total $145 billion. That is greater than 1% of US annual GDP. In a normal year that number would be insane. After the disaster those same players inflicted on the US and global economy, that number is downright obscene. Bailouts were indefensible to start with and now you can add infuriating arrogance to the list of offenses. Public anger may be getting through to Congress and without siphoning off taxpayer money via the legislature, the rest of the Wall Street con game doesn't work. It has now gotten so bad that according to Dow Jones Newswire the TARP still exists only courtesy of a Senate filibuster by its supporters.

Fear of angry constituents has taken on a new urgency for our elected officials in the wake of a shocking Republican victory in the Massachusetts election for Senate. With citizens realizing that the Fed's actions have been a pure handout to Wall Street, the reconfirmation of Ben Bernanke as chairman is now very much in danger. Today, the NY Times reports that two additional senators abandoned him. With Geithner at Treasury already under serious scrutiny by Congress for his role in the bailout of Goldman via AIG and the subsequent attempt to hide the details, the two most prominent faces of bailout nation are both in danger of being forced out.

Friendly Fire
The biggest blow psychologically may be the rhetorical broadside from President Obama against the big banks that are a key leg of the credit inflation machine. His speech yesterday called for them to be cut down to size and shackled. This was a frontal attack on the concept of Too Big To Fail, with its implicit taxpayer guarantee for the stupid risks taken by big banks. The Obama Administration has given Wall Street nearly everything it wanted so the Street must now feel shocked that their tame politician has turned on them viciously. We have long felt that once the anger of the populace rose to sufficient levels, the political class would throw the financial elites under the bus in the interest of self-preservation.

Our government has betrayed our nation's citizens in many ways - from the TARP to the uncapping of taxpayer losses on Fannie and Freddie on Christmas Eve. The failure of those policies to make things better or even to stop them from getting worse is now obvious. The failure has become political kryptonite - so much so that Rep. Barney Frank is calling for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack to be abolished. Frank has been one of their main defenders and cheerleaders for years if not decades. For him to even contemplate such a call tell us that taxpayer bailouts have become the political equivalent of Ebola.

Political support lies at the very foundation of attempts to revive the bubble by inflating credit and eroding the dollar. It is clear that this political support is evaporating before our very eyes and the state of the markets is beginning to reflect that. Suddenly the political foundation of Bailout Nation isn't looking too stable and the pillars resting on it are beginning to tremble violently.