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October 03, 2008

Time for the US Department of the Portfolio

Department of the Portfolio

"This sucker could go down", quoth the President,

Quoth the Secretary of the Treasury, "Nevermore". 

The Vice Presidential candidate peers through her trademark glasses and exclaims: "Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace" while grown Congressmen change their votes because of the tone of a speech by the Democratic leader. Hold you Nose! Everybody kinda sorta agrees that maybe throwing a trillion unfunded dollar sponge to soak up the (toxic) waste will somehow unplug the overflowing toilet. We've got "cow patties with marshmallow centers", car wrecks galore and the greatest inflation of unfortunate metaphors in the country's history.  This truly is a national nadir commensurate with the waning days of the eight-year Bush reign. 

Heartland Wisdom

$85 billion, that's your money. I mean, it's all of our money. I don't know where they get it. It's really interesting. They just print it or something.

Mayor Richard Daley Jr.

Too Big to Fail, or Uncreative Capitalism

The Fed and the Treasury move blindfolded across the countryside followed by a gaggle of lobbyists shouting out the path from behind the trees. In their wisdom they have quickly created three large supernational banks, surely too large to fail.  So much for the creative destruction of capitalism that the fundys love to invoke. "Take a sharp left to that $25 billion carmaker bail-out then....."

This is truly a test of the power of the US Treasury's virtual printing presses. The immediate crisis will be averted if only enough money can be beamed at it fast enough.

The taxpayer response should be simple enough: Equity, interest, fees, whatever, we want our money back with interest. Give us a new agency: The Department of the Portfolio, with requirements to report back to us every three months. All profits go the Social Security Trust Fund

Bail-outs Are US

We're used to seeing the media lunging at the meme du jour like a flock of pigeons on a telephone pole. Their target line being the trail of talking points sprinkled like a string of directional clues through the semi-dark labyrinth they forage in. Each nibble, of course, leaves them more clueless as to the real way out.  But there's solace, there will always be new bread crumbs.  Lunch is assured.

Candidate in a Telephone Booth

We've been having a like spectacle among the political leaders with one party's candidate suspending all campaigning as he emerges from telephone booth and leaps into a situation he knows virtually nothing about. His hope, it seems, is that by some odd chance he will manage to get the politics right, thereby winning the favor and respect of the citizenry readying to cast their votes. It's hard for us to tell if this is a strategy or a tactic but in any case it is meant to appear decisive.... at least, up to the point he has to make a decision. Unfortunately for this gray-haired chap, whose left eye may just be sagging under the strain, he found himself, with no legs, unblinkingly leaping into the mother of all political and economic quagmires.

Sorry but folks out there have little clue how this whole mess came about but they sure don't trust what their leaders are telling them, particularly those leaders who were spoon-feeding them up to just a week ago a taste of  "the fundamentals are sound".

Beam Me Up A Virtual Depression, Hank

We know, of course, that the fundamentals are NOT sound and moreover that they have not been sound for a very long time, so long, in fact, that the most dynamic underpinning of the private sector house of cards has all but collapsed. We've reached a point in the evolution from molecules to bits, where only outliers dare dispute that what's good for Wall Street is good for America. We are a country that has gone into the Transporter Booth only to be fleeced as our money is beamed around the world in bits and bytes. The transporter is located in the south end of Manhattan Island and must be saved.  If not, of course, the whole sucker just might go down. Thus, in typical eloquence, are we rallied on by our leader.

Real Time Central Planning

By beaming those dollars to all round edges of the globe, Wall Street genius has managed, in Greenspan's words to "spread the risk" so thoroughly that there is no one left willing to take any of it, ergo the urgent plea to the Congress to crank up the printing presses. It is the ephemeral soundness, the vibrating beams of money we know is in the ether, that still makes this a virtual depression rather than the kind that sends folks into public bread lines. The next phase, the one that is being passed in Congress today is to further spread the risk out to every single taxpayer in perpetuity as an ever larger chunk of the ever more virtual budget goes not to arms or wellbeing but to debt service, the province of which is controlled by, well, Wall Street, of course. In a virtual depression; we are much more likely to see the citizenry on their way to the grocers with real time credit limits being reevaluated on their plastic between the time they enter the store and leave.  We'll be kept abreast on our iPhones.

The Wal*Marts of Treasury Bonds

Another way to look at it is to view the US economy as it manufactures fewer hard goods replacing that lost productive activity with the production of Treasury Bonds.  Quite simply, we can assume that as the world economy falters there will be a rush to US Treasury bonds. And the good news is that business is jumping, so this week, even as the US economy dangled on the breach, the smiling yellow face went up and US T Bills flew off the shelves. The oil bubbling Russian stock market, for one, simply collapsed, Asians saw German and French road-kill, sold off Euros and the Yen, setting off a rush for dollars! Rates dropped to 1/20th of 1% on short term T-Bills.

For those customers with too many dollars around the world, and derivatives they couldn't move limit-free on E-bay, there is a happy outcome to all this.  The Treasury Secretary, tired of merely spawning M&A deals in a down market, has moved to Washington where money need only be printed. He now rolls out the greatest deal of all time, an $800 billion whopper. Doors open bright and early next Monday morning, the line forms in front of the White House, forget the lead boxes, just bring the toxic waste.

We call this a virtual depression because its fundamentals are hidden in plain site: there is now a seemingly endless all too real war being fought on borrowed money, one that has coincidentally cost up to now approximately $800 billion. Another major factor, is the supply of imported petroleum costing hundreds of billions. This money is sent East to gadget maker and oil producers alike who must re-circulate it, into something other than the now proven toxic collateralized debt objects  and the Agencies issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

We have turned the country's principal market into one vast junk money market with headquarters in Washington: Employees around the country, throw off your assembly line gear and don the uniform of the big banks.  In virtual America you'll be flipping  T-bills for minimum wages until someone here can figure out how to gin up the next bubble.

A vast moat of debt is being built around the capital for the next Administration to grapple with.  In it, Paulson is creating an ever deeper pool of US T-Bills and one can imagine, as the mechanics of the bail-out get put in place, new classes of Agency bonds backed, once again, by the full faith of the US government. Conceivably, with a little help from Congress, Paulson will have kicked the ball down the field until that ever looming day, the virtual dollar, itself, faces collapse. What has been beamed away will reappear.

Bernanke et al. know that the dollar manufacturing monopoly provides an enormous cushion,  years, at least. Monopolies don't break easily. Unfortunately, the endless War will not go away, that's the clear logic of Iraq and Afghanistan where costly troop deployments, will have to be augmented by even more costly (aid) giveaway programs. After all, spreading dollars like manure worked in Anbar Province. Obama's hands are tied before he even gets there. This is Bush's parting gift, he thinks, while all he has really done is pull the cloak off the virtual dollar machine, the great transponder.

The (Private) Debt Party is Over?

Meanwhile, back in that part of the USA outside the Beltway, where molecules still make sense, the party is temporarily suspended. The bad news folks is that, like in 1932, the bottles empty, we've bubbled out. We have, after all, been tripping the light fantastic from bubble to bubble since the 70's and given the costs piling up for real world War and the onset of shockwaves from Peak Oil,, the end of this one has had a fate, perforce, no better than Steve Fossett's.

It will take years to dig out from under a borrowing blizzard that has been going on for decades.  This is not just bad residential and commercial mortgages but leveraged buy-outs, credit card debt, auto loan debt multiplied thousandfold by layer upon layer of big bets in the shadow banking system. While the Administration was keeping the cost of the War off the books and running up steeper and steeper official budget deficits in synch, the public was doing its bit on the helium of borrowed money and spiked smoke in the stock and housing casinos. Such is leverage in every day spiked Bubble World.

Human Nature, or Leveraging Leverage

Had the borrowing frenzy been restricted to the above confines, we'd be in the process of winding down from a serious binge but there'd be only the usual casualties, the hogs, the foolhardy, and the suckers.  Over time we'd work our way out of it. But this is a different story that has been brought on by the accelerating logarithms of what's come to be called the shadow banking system. Ultimately. what goosed the lending frenzy was a financial industry where the hogs had gobbled up the pigs. These porcine magos took all manner of loans, good, bad and otherwise, and bundled them and sold them as CDO's or MBS's or Swaps or whatever device they could use to pile leverage on top of leverage. To be quaint, they labeled them "toxic waste" and like their smokes from another generation they consumed them with even more gusto.

Importantly, in a souped up low interest environment, they found they could move these "securities" that paid very little better than T-Bills at enormous margins. In a creative flurry, equal they imagined to the one that brought us the Internet, they took to bundling the bundles themselves into various classes of so-called derivatives, quantifying so-called tranches of loans into various levels of risk for anyone who wanted to make believe he understood them.  And as this market grew, they created a class of insurance policies they called credit default swaps, designed to back up the derivatives. We wrote a few months ago that the CDS market totaled  the astounding sum of $57 trillion, though lately we've heard it calculated at 62 trillion (no one really knows) or, 4 years of the total US economy! We concluded that it was little more than a Vegas kind of side bet industry since there was no open market for the swaps nor were there any requirements for set aside reserves.  It was, every hog for himself.  We also predicted it would end up in the taxpayer's lap!

Meanwhile the regulators in Washington were no where to be found.  Greenspan's Fed did not raise its rates to slow things down nor did it urge Congress to institute new rules that might curb the activities of the security issuers by requiring transparency, marketability or reserves to back up their promises.

In order to keep this market going, long after every not so eligible borrower had exceeded their ability to ever pay back their loans, the banks began eating more and more of their own toxic waste, trading more and more of the stuff among themselves to the point, today, that they no longer trust the books of any of their counterparties or peers.  Today's bailout sponge is meant to take all of this massive mess off their hands 

The reason we have seized up is that there are no markets to trade these derivatives and swaps and no way to know what they are worth given that no one knows what the underlying loans look like or how they are actually backed up. For this, and a host of other suspicions, the banks have stopped lending to each other making it hard to satisfy their legitimate customers. 

Washington Truce and Consequences

Back in the 1980's the Reagan Administration introduced what has turned out to be one of the two basic seeds of destruction for the modern Republican Party. For Reagan, who promised to "get government off the backs of the American people", the Administration would embrace a theory called supply side economics (the other seed, of course, is the creation of a Christian fundamentalist base that can get ecstatic with having the likes of a Sarah Palin as President) as a substitute for the prevalent Keynesian approach that both parties had adopted, as Richard Nixon famously said. Hitherto, conservative orthodoxy had been closely associated with a cloth coat, business-like fiscal conservatism intent on balancing the budget.

Put, perhaps too simply: for Keynes, the government had a roll in stimulating the economy in a crisis through the creation of infrastructure: money put into highways, bridges, parks, etc. directly generating jobs and economic activity while contributing to the common wealth. For supply-siders, the individual taxpayer becomes the net beneficiary since the government, in essence, finances its projects through debt rather than taxes, something that Reagan's Republican primary opponent, George HW Bush, dubbed "voodoo economics". Supply-siders argued then and still try to make the case that by leaving the taxpayer off the hook to spend and invest as he/she wishes, economic activity is stimulated and over time limited level tax revenues actually increase. This was a wondrous no-pain solution for the wealthy that better fit the mood of Americans moving from the Rustbelt to the South and West. For high bracket Americans, it was "the shining light on the hill". Unfortunately, for future generations it was debt service.

It was a novel idea that also had its roots nourished by an emerging rightward libertarian tilt of the party whose proponents also advocated truly risible nihilistic thoughts of "starving" government of its lifeblood, through choking the tax stream. Reagan would abolish government social programs --for instance, it was at one time committed to abolishing the Department of Education-- while greatly increasing the Defense Department budget. In the end, Reagan left office with the largest non-wartime deficit in history; nonetheless, his presidency was seen, particularly among his co-conservatives, as a success, and the basis of a winning coalition. Since then Republicans have never looked back on this smorgasbord  of voodoo economics and politics that would have horrified many of their Eisenhower era colleagues.

For a bookend, the hapless Bush II who never ran a profitable business, of course, does the same thing, only with no-blink attitude.  He greatly expands the Defense budget through his new endless War and Homeland Security, he puts little or no restraints on government growth or on the mega-pork-barrel spending of a Republican Congress and he cuts taxes on high earners well below the levels Reagan wrangled out of the Democrats. There is no longer any doubt he will leave office having run up more debt than all the previous presidents combined, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, who merely had to dig the country out of the Great Depression and finance the Second World War. Ironically, he will, as a result of the Wall Street Bail-out Bill,  also be associated with the largest government takeover of private assets in the country's history.

The End of the Bretton Woods Era?

What Reagan had inadvertently tapped into --and what makes the theory of starving the government so risible-- was the built-in advantage the US had over its trading partners, the almighty reserve currency, the now virtual dollar. Since Richard Nixon had delinked the dollar from silver, the dollar had become strictly a piece of  paper backed up only by the credit and faith of the US government. It was in old parlance a "fiat currency" that also happened to be, by international agreement, acceptable as a reserve currency for central banks around the world, with the same status as gold. The US printing press would become the engine churning out decades of debt absorbed by a willing South Asia Middle East. 

Back in 1999, as the Wikipedia puts it: "shortly after George W. Bush was elected president, Congress and President Clinton were trying to pass a $384 billion omnibus spending bill, and while the debates swirled around the passage of this bill, Senator Phil Gramm clandestinely slipped a 262-page amendment into the omnibus appropriations bill titled: Commodity Futures Modernization Act."

What Gramm and the banking lobby behind him accomplished with this Act combined with a preceding Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act removing the bounds between thrifts, investment houses and insurance companies that governed the financial industry since the 1930's, provides the stage for the present meltdown on Wall Street. The Act quite specifically opened the door to a whole new classes of completely unregulated investment vehicles we're calling the shadow banking system. Gramm, of course, is the same unfettered market fundamentalist who had been John McCain's campaign head and chief economic guru until he had the misfortune to speak his mind on TV a few weeks ago.  As we all remember, he got in trouble for saying that the American economic problems were psychological and that Americans who saw it differently were whiners. Another enormous irony: should McCain be elected, Gramm may by his Secretary of Treasury and therefore in charge of spending the money that Congress has just allocated.

Revolutionizing the Debt Republic

It's pretty easy to guess why all these financial wizards could play make believe with trillions of dollars: quarterly profits on Wall Street boost investment house stock prices, enriching option holders and annual profits feed into enormous bonuses for those fortunate enough to be in the game.  So, for several years this decade, as the housing market pushed upward investment house stocks soared and paydays on Wall Street were the envy of the world. It would not be uncommon for a middle level executive to take home an 8 figure bonus.  These were heady times and the Bush tax cuts meant that less would go back to the government coffers and the more to penthouses, second and third homes and breakfasts at Tiffany's and the pockets of armies of lobbyists and political donations to the pliant. Are we whining yet, Evita?

Billions of "excess" dollars flowed into the shadow banking system as exemplified by the plethora of hedge funds that sprang up like mushrooms around the big Investment Banks. For hedge funds there were no limits on leverage, they could borrow as much as the Merrill's etc. would lend them and the Gramm Act had removed reserve restrictions on these guys as well. Mighty Bear Stearns fell partially on the weight of its lending to its own in-house hedge funds. Where restrictions did apply, the created entities called special investment vehicles, or SIVs to skirt the laxly enforced rules on public companies. After all, the SEC was now being run by industry lobbyists weaned on Enron accounting.

Off With Their Heads!

For those yearning for the public stripping of wealth, the symbolic guillotine, the place to start might be with the hedge fund managers who not only pulled billions off the top of their funds as they gamed the derivatives game but also found a highly questionable loophole that allowed them to declare their managerial fees as capital gains, rather than wages, thereby paying a lower tax rate than the guy who emptied their wastepaper basket, as Warren Buffet famously pointed out. A simple IRS ruling under the next administration might be made to apply to this billion dollar loophole  So far, we've heard no one call for this one.


Of Bubbles and Bail-outs:  The Saga Continues

$85 billion here and $400 billion there and $800 billion there and before long you are talking about real money: and so, alas, this story only gets worse. Yes, Lehman Brothers was allowed to crash on its own but even there in the background the Fed was making moves to goose up its lending capital and is now accepting not only bad paper but the collapsing stocks of the other investment houses as collateral for its back window short term loan facility that not too long ago was restricted to the thrifts it oversees and which must maintain verifiable reserves. Paulson's transparently phony line in the sand on socializing loss at Lehman didn't stay visible even for the 24 hours it took to blow off AIG.

Enron Accounting Goes to Washington

For 6 years Bush has been able to keep the annual $130 billion cost off the books as he fights his "temporary" war.  No surprise, then, when Paulson let it slip that he wasn't going to put the $29 billion he laid aside for Bear Stearns on the books, either. Our point, as this virtual depression started to unwind last year has been that when this story of unbridled lending fueled by insane greed got to the end, the taxpayer would pay and pay big.  We have no doubt that eventually the government will find it necessary to directly intervene in the national housing market to stabilize prices there too as well, after all it is at the very root. 

A real bail-out of the housing market will indeed cost real money, much more than the $1 trillion already pumped in, and on the books, or off, depending on how transparent or eventually profitable the results are --are we getting laughable?--  taxpayers will be paying for it for years to come. There are also reasons, given the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to believe we may have actually already doubled the national debt by the time this crisis finally blows over.

The Deficit is not the Deficit is not the Deficit 

What we are seeing this month of September is the meltdown of the entire Wall Street elite of independent investment banks either through merger with big old style banks or through collapse as in the case of Lehman Bros, that waited too late to make a deal.

Not every one of the regulated thrifts is going to make it through this meltdown (117 were already on the regulator's watch list even before the collapse of Lehman, Wamu, Wachovia and AIG). It was also very likely, as the unwind plays through, that the FDIC, the agency that insures depositors' money, would run out of cash.  It didn't take too many IndyMacs to get to that stage.  The Senate, in its version added on this facility for the Treasury as well, in exchange for the "temporary" raising of insurance limits to $250,000 per depositor. FDIC is funded by the banks in normal times. The $250K limit will no doubt be made permanent despite the objections of the banking lobby.

It's the Mortgages, Stupid!

Well, maybe not just the mortgages and the national housing market. But continuing lower prices for houses is at the core of much that's gone on so far. But the profits brought on by the issuing of a pyramid of paper based on these loans also extended to all manner of commercial and consumer loans. Mortgages and house prices are particularly insidious because they amount to the plus and minus side of Americans' largest class of assets. If your house is worth less than you owe on it then you are probably underwater all the way around.  After all, on the minus side, most Americans have carried credit card debt, and auto loans, not savings accounts. Where mortgages look particularly bad in the coming year is not so much in the sub-primes that were so flimsy that many collapsed at the first downdraft and are being cleared off the books.  But many ordinary Americans with better that bottom of the barrel credit and looking to move up, or simply to refinance their credit card debt-- took out something called Alt-A mortgages that didn't require strict income documentation and that were characterized by very easy terms during the first couple of years. These Alt-A's or "liar loans" were more than the majority of  loans issued in 2006 and many will require refinancing in the coming months. That's bad news in a declining market because borrowers will  face significantly higher monthly payments on houses they cannot sell for anything near what they owe. How many just walk away depends very much on just how low prices on these houses go. House prices during the Great Depression fell over 30%,  Depending on how you  measure it, we may have reached about half or two thirds of that grim statistic but no one can guarantee that 30% is a magic number. The ratio of debt to savings that Americans customarily carry today was nowhere to be seen back in those more innocent days; home ownership was more limited and job mobility hardly existed.

These increased loan payments are coming due just as the job market begins to crumble. In the past decade wages had remained below growth levels but there were jobs.  Now, those jobs are starting to disappear.  This is bad news for already shaky families who may no longer have a choice about staying in homes that are underwater.  They may have to move to where the jobs seem to be, despite school and community ties.

After all, in the days of easy credit, homeowners were  bombarded with offers to refinance, in other words, use their houses as ATM ;machines every time they maxed out their credit cards or wanted that bigger SUV flashing across their TV screens  Ah for the life of off the road, clean family fun, or sex drugs and rock n' roll or great adventure.  In that world, you could, with no money down, drive all the way to the top of the most pristine mountain peak and gaze out at a pollution free world with nary another SUV in sight or drive up the swankiest night club in town in your V-8 Ram tough.

Such is the magic of the American dream, as easy as flipping your keys to the parking valet!

Or Maybe, It's the Taxpayer, Stupid!

It's hard to mark just when we morphed into our present system of jobless, bail-out capitalism, was it the Saving and Loan bubble when everybody and his brother opened a bank with a lending window marked: No Developing Country Will Be Turned Away? Since then the series of bubble and busts have followed one another like Atlantic hurricanes in September.

Like those single-eyed monsters, the intensities and trajectories can be different but damage is left in the wake for the clean-up. FEMA gets called in and taxpayers foot the bill. Hurricanes, of course, are acts of nature, while economic bubbles are acts of human nature. Still, in the end, it's the taxpayer, stupid! --we'll resist the temptation to reverse the word order, or shedding a tear for that matter.

Many people marvel at the breadth, scope, flexibility and velocity of the world economic system as it shifts trillions of dollars from Hong Kong to London to Tokyo to New York in a 24 hour cycle. And it truly is a marvel but like any very large and constantly changing system it is open to ever more sophisticated forms of manipulation.

For some it's a necessary mechanism of doing business, a streamlined way to finance and pay for their every day business transactions.  But for many more, it is an opportunity, a way to game a few basis points more out of their capital investments. And it is this very greed that is at the bottom of every bubble.  It's easy to say that if losers don't get to pay for their greedy mistakes, another bubble will be on the way even before this one is wound down. But bubbles are much easier to stimulate than hard work, productivity and inventiveness, the stuff of real growth.

Alas, Say it Ain't So!

In the end, the ultimate target is always the ordinary gamer who gets sucked into the pyramid scheme just as it begins to hit its height and who is destined to get burned as the scheme begins to collapse. But often, perhaps to prove their existence, the Gods of Fear and Greed see to it that the very perpetrators of the scam get caught up in their own webs and end up taking the biggest falls of all.  And so, welcome to Bail-out World, where they get to use the leverage of their power and wealth to drag in those who stayed completely clear of the whole process and never dreamed that it would be their money that would be used to get the big guys off the hook.

The mantra of course is "too big to fail".  It explains why those who profess the religion of maximum gain for those who invent, work hard and risk, find it necessary to "suppress"  their own core belief in moral hazard for the "good" of society. During the brief time-out, everyman will now be allowed, for the greater good, to step in and once more mop up the blood on the floor.

Last month, as the Treasury Department stepped in to bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we may have just witnessed the largest one-day Federal takeover in US history but certainly only the prelude to this tragicomedy. 

The Tragedy of Fannie and Freddie

Like all Atlas-like epic fiascos there is a long and complex story with many more sinners than saints for main characters across the generations. In the end there is a complete failure of the system as a cynical move was made by Greenspan's Fed to shift the bubble away from the stock market after the tech bubble blew up.

In 2002, the extensive lowering of interest rates in the wake of the tech bust and 9/11 actually priced money at a negative interest rate. Banks and investment houses were encouraged by the Fed to get into the game, mortgage rates fell to historic lows and homeowners were encouraged to refinance, take cash, trade up,  take on second homes and to take a plunge into real estate speculation. The flourish in activity had the effect of driving up housing prices the same way the stock market soared during previous bubbles. As housing prices rose much faster than people's salaries, encouragement in moving up hinged on the proposition that house prices would continue to move up for the foreseeable future. Greenspan assured Congress in public testimony that there was nothing to fear from rising home assets, no irrational exuberance, this time around in this Fed induced and abetted bubble.

Wall Street, on an unfettered lending and borrowing binge of its own, roared into the game by greatly widening the market for sub-prime and Alt-A mortgages through the issuance of all manner of derivatives based those mortgages.  But as we noted, it was just too profitable a game to voluntarily put the brakes on.  If ever there was a need for adult supervision, it was here. It is, of course, just another gambling at Ricks, moment when politicians exclaim they were caught unawares.

 Meanwhile in Washington, the GSE's, that is, those hybrid privately owned Government Sponsored Agencies, commonly known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who were the backers of most ordinary mortgages issued in the country, were basically frozen out of this new market for bundling sub-prime mortgages into securities, by their own regulators. Undaunted, they found a climate in Washington ready to open the ways for them to get around their own regulations by getting leave to buy up the Wall Street derivatives to hold as their required reserves. And they borrowed heavily, leveraging 60 to 1, to get at the "profits" in this burgeoning market. Needless to say, as hybrids that made them public or private when it suited, they had grown accustomed to paying their own executives massive bonuses as well, based on the same short-term criteria as Wall Street. As a Washington creation with roots back to the New Deal, they had become masters in the game of lobbying and thus in getting their way no matter the Administration.

The Bell Tolls for Fannie and Freddie

Of course, sooner or later, someone would have a reality moment and sell off some of the growing mountain of toxic waste.  That finally occurred with a couple of hedge funds run by one of Wall Streets most savvy and ruthless bond trading houses, Bear Stearns. When people began to pull money out of the funds back in summer 2007, the managers were forced to offer up their securities to the market and when Bear, itself, wouldn't fully step in, there were no other takers. Then, Bear Stearns, themselves were forced quite publicly to only sorta back up their own funds,  letting the more highly leveraged one slosh noisily into oblivion.. The emperor's clothes had now to be hung out to dry. With the sweep of a wand, less than 7 months  later, venerable, savvy, Bear, itself was toast and banks all around the world were nervously digging into their balance sheets to determine just how much waste product they were holding. True they had hedged up by buying things called credit default swaps to insure against losses but they now were forced to take a hard look at who it was that had issued these totally unregulated insurance policies and just how much in reserves there were to back them up. Bear's hasty demise, greased by Paulson's Treasury, told the sad story.

Credit ratings, based on the possible toxic reserves, were suddenly being reevaluated.  Reserves were based on the face value of securities with no market and the regulations required they be marked to market, or priced at what they might actually bring in a sale. Many swap and derivative agreement also had clauses in them that required issuers to firm up reserves as their credit ratings were downgraded.  This set off a spiral, as the entire financial world began to grock that there was no real market for the derivatives of the swaps. Mark to market, or give a real value to a security, had no meaning and too much meaning at the same time.  SEC regulations required this accounting.  The commercial banks would be forced to begin making real write-downs of billions in losses to meet their requirements. The operative word was "write downs' but these were losses that had to be put on the balance sheets. It was a signal to the other banks that their best customers might just be insolvent.

A Hosing in Housing

Meanwhile back at the subdivisions of California, Nevada, Florida, etc., as those houses in real America went into foreclosure, it drove the price of surrounding houses down as well. People who had been convinced that they could borrow beyond their means for houses they couldn't afford now found themselves owing more than their houses were worth.  Many of them had no choice but to pack up, leave the keys under the mat and take off. Home builders found themselves with developments full of unsellable houses worrying about the cost of plugging roof leaks and cutting down weedy front lawns. Their stocks tumbled as did the stocks of the big banks as it became clear they were holding mountains of debt based on an inflated value of the same sinking home market. For a while, there was denial then a belated effort by some of the big regulated banks to unwind their worst losses. Along the way IndyMac bank suffered the first public run since the 1930's as it shut its doors. The spectacle was taking an ugly turn.

Government Bail-Out Phase 1, a mere $29 billion

The problem was becoming national and then international.  Each quarter major banks around the world would announce the write-off of billions of dollars, $10 billion for USB, one quarter, $8 billion for Merrill Lynch, another. Foreign buyers were invited in to take big pieces of these International financial trophies. And then one winter weekend Bear Stearns fell off the cliff. The losses were mounting into the hundreds of billions and the Asian and Arab nouveau riche bowed out.

Here then was Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a Wall Street poobah, himself, announcing a deal in which the old, hard knuckled investment house that had assured every one that it was fully capitalized, would be sold off over a single weekend before markets in Asia opened on their Monday morning.  It was highly unseemly, not only wasn't there adequate capital, the entire $multibillion firm was actually less than worthless, an estimated $29 billion less than worthless! Paulson took $29 billion out of the Treasury, and gave it to JP Morgan to make the problem disappear.  And for a while, the markets quieted down.  The crisis was averted! But now there was the potentially politically damaging spectacle of a Republican Administration using public's money to shore up Wall Street, the paradigm of excess, while millions of Americans were facing foreclosure on their rapidly devaluing homes and collection agency calls on their lump sided plastic debt.

Are We Whining Yet?

For years the Wall Street wing  of the Republican establishment has wanted nothing more than to stick a stake in the heart of the two largest (when combined) financial institutions in the United States, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And then  when the housing bill passed Congress before the summer recess, Treasury Secretary Paulson, a Wall Streeter himself, was given the green light to do the deed as part of a what then appeared probable bail-out of the two hybrid giants. Still, he hesitated, there was too much at risk to the broader economy.

And yet, it had become clear to knowledgeable folks who looked over their holdings that a collapse at Freddie and Fannie was inevitable.  There was a tactical question as to whether they could hold out until after the election, which seemed to be  why Paulson and the Administration kept holding back from doing the deed. A financial crisis as large as a Fannie and Freddie collapse, would certainly turn the public's attention back to the economy and probably spark the big run on the banks.

It's Not Just Housing, Stupid!

But in a tightrope act, the Treasury under Paulson was active in other pre-election areas as well. Towards the middle of July, the dollar suddenly jerked upward and the price of oil moved in the opposite direction. Until then, for months, the dollar had been trading in a range between 1.55 and 1.60 Euros.  As we write this, it has gone down well below 1.40.  Meanwhile, oil, which peaked near $140/barrel has fallen back to less than $95. It was as if, somewhere way behind the damask, the Administration had decided they had to bring the price of oil down before the election and had set in motion the gears that force the dollar up. By doing this, they would with the benefit of a little lag time, sacrifice gains made in exports, for what would be an immediate stop to the oil price bubble that had powered the speculation market in the early summer.

At first the strengthening of the dollar and the even bigger drop in oil prices appeared to provide a boost for the US stock market already reeling from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, but which had reached a bottom in the middle of July just as the price of oil peaked. Then the sucker started to go down!

AIG and then what?

For mortgage lenders and a number of banks and investment houses of all sizes, the subprime debacle has been an ongoing disaster. Two of the largest lenders in the market, had already gone belly up, and many observers believe that the nation's largest bank, Washington Mutual would soon follow suit. Morgan Stanley, one of the last of the 4 independents seemed likely to go the way of Merrill Lynch, in some shotgun deal and that might even have dragged down the last, Goldman Sachs, Paulson's own alma mater.

Credit, Credit, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

This --the latest chapter-- in what has come to be our first virtual Depression-- was breathtaking in the number of ironies that got rolled up into what is still unfolding as the greatest rescue package of all time..

In retrospect, it might appear to more sanguine viewers that the consolidated goal of the Bush Administration, its Fed and the bankers became to strip Americans of their one asset, their house, and turn it into spending money. With a little luck, they might also have succeeded in diverting social security into Wall Street's maws.

There was a rather lengthy list of major players in the scheme all with their own, sometimes coinciding, sometimes antagonistic agendas:  There was the Administration that was intent upon replicating and outdoing the Reagan years by running up the national debt; there was Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve that was equally intent upon experimenting with substantial deregulation of the financial markets and stimulating growth through low interest rates, there was Wall Street, with its bonus system of big insider payoffs, ready to pick up the Greenspan's challenge of "innovating" and new types of unregulated investment entities we'll lump under the rubric of hedge funds; there were the commercial banks that were being rolled up into giant national financial entities as banking laws were repealed; there were the building and building supply industries, obvious beneficiaries of a residence construction boom; there were foreign governments running enormous trade surpluses with the US looking for creative ways to park their dollars,  there were millions of Hispanics ready to risk all to cross illegally into the country for low wage building jobs, there were the mortgage brokers who sold the loans; there were, of course, the homeowners who could tap their equity and, sometimes, move up and eventually lots of new homeowners who were offered deals on homes that might never have dreamed to get into, the flippers, or the speculators who jumped in to fire the upward pressures on the market as house prices spiraled higher, and now, of course, the guy who thought he was staying clear of the shenanigans, who's just getting the mop up bill.

Pigs Get Fat While Hogs Get Slaughtered (Tom Delay quoting Texas wisdom)

The trouble with virtual depressions is that they always leak over into the real world. Recent government moves have proved once again that while the gains may be private, the risk must be socialized; on that both political parties are in agreement as are all the governments in the G8. All that bad paper sloshing around the world financial system will eventually be absorbed by the governments and the great international banks themselves, when it suits them, as the price they pay to soak up pesky competitors. The next couple of years will be full of sound and fury as the politicians realize they will have no choice but to pull out all the stops to stabilize the housing market as a first step. This will not be a pretty tug of war nor a shining day for moral hazard. But in financial crises as in war, the truth is always the first casualty.

The taxpayer, alas, will not get his Department of the Portfolio.




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Posted by dymaxion at 04:30 PM

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