May 24, 2012

Too Big to Fail: Four Years Later, Things Are Riskier Than Ever

Posted in Banking, Ben Bernanke, Big Banks, Europe, Federal Reserve, Finance, greece, investment banking, investments tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:58 PM by Robert Barone

The turmoil in Europe, trading losses at JPMorgan (JPM), and recent revelations about naked short-selling by Goldman Sachs (GS) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC) should be giving every American and every policy maker heartburn because each and every one of these issues has potential to cause systemic financial shocks. It all ultimately comes down to the continuing saga of “Too Big to Fail,” or TBTF. TBTF nearly brought the financial system down in ’08 and ’09. It was supposed to be fixed by the Dodd-Frank legislation. But today, the TBTF institutions are even bigger than they were in ’08.

European Worries

On a daily basis, reports indicate that instability is growing in the European Monetary Union’s (or EMU) banking system. There have been outright runs on Greek institutions and rumored runs on Spanish banks. In Greece, it’s been reported that some businesses will not accept euro notes (i.e., the paper currency) issued by the Greek central bank for fear that if Greece leaves the EMU, those notes will be turned into new drachmas, which will be worth only a fraction of what real euros are worth.

In the US, the paper currency is issued by a Federal Reserve Bank. There is a number on each bill (1 to 12) that shows which Federal Reserve Bank was the issuer. Like the US, each participating central bank in the EMU can issue currency; the first letter of the serial number is coded to indicate which bank issued it. Currency issued by the Greek central bank is coded with a “Y.” Some Greeks are demanding currency coded with an “X” ( i.e., Germany).

There are growing worries about European bank solvency, and Moody’s recently downgraded a significant number of the larger Spanish and Italian banks. If Greece leaves the EMU, contagion could result. If funding markets for European banks freeze (causing one or several institutions to be unable to meet their daily liquidity requirements), there is a high probability that any contagion would spread to US financial institutions.

At the very least, the interrelationships between large US and European institutions will cause significant issues if a fat tail event occurs on the continent.

In fact, on March 21, Fed Chairman Bernanke warned Congress that the risks of impacts from such events on US banks and money market funds appeared to be significant.

Lack of Internal Controls at TBTF Institutions

On May 11, Jamie Dimon announced that JPMorgan had lost $2 billion or more in a failed “hedge” trade. Since then, the estimates of the loss have escalated; some think it could be as much as $5 billion – $7 billion. This shows that even the best-of-breed bankers, like Mr. Dimon, are unable to place sufficient internal controls over the riskiest of operations.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen such trading blow-ups at several of the TBTF institutions. The so-called “Volcker Rule,” a portion of the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposedly effective this fall, should prevent “proprietary trading” at the TBTF institutions. But many think that such rules will be easy to get around; Mr. Dimon has indicated that this huge loss was due to a failed “hedge,” and not proprietary trading. JPMorgan had $182 billion in capital according to their March 31 filings, so the loss of a few billion isn’t going to put this institution in any danger or require any taxpayer assistance.

However, on the Monday after the JPMorgan announcement (May 14), President Obama appeared on ABC’s The View and commented that it was a good thing that JPMorgan had plenty of capital, noting that had this happened at a weaker bank, “[W]e could have had to step in.”

Think about this statement. The first reaction to stress in the financial system is for the government to step in! Compare that to the first Chrysler bailout in 1979. At that time, Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s Chairman and CEO, had to beg Congress for nearly four months for a loan guarantee (not a direct loan) of $1.5 billion.

In fact, the day before Mr. Dimon announced JPMorgan’s large loss problem, the FDIC’s acting Chairman, Martin Gruenberg, announced plans and procedures for the FDIC to seize large financial institutions “when the next crisis brings a major financial firm to its knees.” Instead of getting rid of TBTF, it is now institutionalized. The FDIC’s announced plans are simply in accordance with Dodd-Frank.

During the week of May 14, the lawyers representing Goldman Sachs and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in a lawsuit filed by Overstock.com filed an unredacted set of documents with the court (i.e., the whole document was submitted instead of only certain parts), thus putting them into the public domain.

Those documents revealed that these TBTF institutions knowingly ignored the laws and regulations against “naked” short-selling. When one sells “short,” one must first borrow the stock, or else there is nothing to prevent someone shorting (i.e., selling) so many shares as to significantly and negatively impact the market price for the stock (which is what a short-seller hopes for). “Naked” short-selling occurs when the stock is sold without borrowing it from another owner, and three business days later, the seller “fails” to deliver the stock.

Because of their size and power, the TBTF banks could depress the stock price of any company they choose. If one of their units puts a “sell” recommendation out and the trading department “naked” short-sells, then the “sell” recommendation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, in fact, is what Overstock.com’s lawsuit has been about.

So let’s review:

1. Bernanke worries that European bank insolvencies or liquidity issues may have significant systemic impacts on US financial institutions – if anyone knows, he should know.2. JPMorgan’s losses elicited a response from the US president about the immediate active role of government with regard to issues at the TBTF banks.3. The FDIC announced its policies, plans, and procedures to seize TBTF institutions when the next financial crisis occurs.

4. It has come to light that some TBTF institutions have skirted laws and regulations.

If there were no TBTF institutions in the US, then little of the above would be of concern. Instead:

1. While the European contagion would still be a worry, it wouldn’t be as much of a worry regarding its risk to our entire financial system because no one institution alone would be a systemic risk.2. The government shouldn’t ever have to “step in” if a bank failed. Sure, there would be market reaction and shareholders and bondholders would have consequences, but as long as the failed institution couldn’t cause systemic issues, there would be no need for government (taxpayer) involvement.3. The expensive and extensive policies and processes now being set up at FDIC would be unnecessary.

4. Without the power that comes with being TBTF, the “naked” short-selling and other abuses would be much less effective or profitable.

5. The TBTF institutions are so complex that even the likes of a Jamie Dimon can’t provide effective internal controls and risk management. Smaller institutions that have such issues won’t cause systemic risk.

The lessons of the ’08-’09 near systemic meltdown were clear: TBTF is a huge policy issue. Unfortunately, after Dodd-Frank, not only are TBTF institutions bigger and systemically more risky, but we now have a government all too willing, and maybe even eager, to “step in.”

 

Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.  Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.
 
Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the
Investment Committee.

Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.
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May 21, 2012

Rebellion Against Austerity From Greece To Washington

Posted in Economy, Europe, government, greece, investment banking, investments, QE3, recession, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:38 PM by Robert Barone

Since the initial euro crisis erupted in Greece two years ago, I have speculated that the necessary move toward austerity would be sidetracked by a political response from the impacted populations, which would elect leaders who promised a move away from such austerity. I didn’t realize how rapid and rabid the response would be.
 
The table below shows a list of headline anti-austerity movements, and, yes, I’ve included such movements in the U.S.
 
Country
Anti-Austerity Development
France The May 6th election of Hollande, a leader who promised more government spending, higher taxes and a reduction in the retirement age, at a time when budget deficits and austerity are key issues.
Greece Greek voters flocked to anti-austerity parties during the May 6th elections, stoking concern in Europe that austerity may be derailed.
Ireland Sentiment has turned sour on austerity with elections scheduled this spring.
Argentina Nationalization of Spanish owner Repsol’s (REP) 51% stake in YPF (YPF), a major oil producer.
Bolivia Seizure of Spanish power grid operator Red Electrica’s (REE.MC) 57% ownership of a Bolivian power line company which controlled 85% of the power lines in the country.
Spain Inability (or lack of determination) to meet promised austerity targets.
U.S. Political attack on the so-called wealthy and on cash rich corporations for not paying their “fair share” of taxes, in order to keep from having to cut spending.
 
Much of the backlash is occurring because governments can no longer fulfill the promises made, whether they be in transfer payments, services, or salaries and benefits, etc., due to shortfall of revenue and a remarkable growth in public debt burdens. As is clear now, it is one thing for politicians to talk about austerity, and another to live with the immediate consequences, often resulting in higher unemployment and recession.
 
Europe
 
Naturally, the hotbed of anti-austerity is Europe where they have long lived the entitlement life. Europe is clearly in recession, and it appears that it will be a long and deep one. The latest data from Europe shows that the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for March was 43.8 (where 50 is the line of demarcation between contraction and expansion). In Spain, now officially in recession, the PMI was 43.5, and in depression wracked Greece, it is 40.7. The manufacturing indexes in Europe are also contracting. The manufacturing PMI in France in March was 46.9, and even in mighty Germany, the manufacturing index was 46.2.
 
Spain’s unemployment rate is over 24%; Greece’s more than 21%. In Europe, the number of unemployed stands at 17.4 million, an increase of more than 1.7 million in the past year. The official unemployment rate in the European Union will soon surpass 11%. So, it isn’t any wonder that those politicians that have adopted the Robin Hood approach have gained populist support. After all, politics are politics – and populations used to entitlements naturally vote for candidates that promise to give them something, usually by taking it away from someone else.
 
When the European Central Bank (ECB) embarked upon its Long Term Refunding Operations (LTRO1 and LTRO2), which gave all European banks access to 1% money for 3 years in order to stave off a rapidly approaching financial crisis in those banks, there was an unwritten quid pro quo. The bargain was the liquidity to stave off the financial crisis, and, in return, the member countries would have to embark upon a path of fiscal reform–austerity–that is now being unwound.
 
The question is, will the ECB continue along this money printing path to stave off the next phase of the financial crisis if the member countries have shunned their part of the bargain? Or, will the new and emerging concept of a European “growth pact” give the ECB the political cover it needs to continue printing. I suspect the latter.
 
The concept of a “growth pact” is nothing new to Europe. Austerity in the ’90s morphed into the “Stability and Growth Pact” (SGP), and it appears to be doing so again. The idea is to have the economy “grow” so that tax collections rise and deficits are reduced. Who can oppose that idea? Unfortunately, there is little that the European governments can do pro-actively to spur such growth.
 
The best thing would be to get out of the way of the private sector, but such ideas are anathema. Nevertheless, the Keynesian hope is that more deficit stimulus and more money printing with less austerity will prove to be the cure. I doubt this approach will be anything more than further can kicking. Furthermore, it is a dangerous game, especially in the hands of politicians, because even the “growth pact” still demands discipline in the budget and spending process.
 
In Greece, no government has been formed from the May 6th election results which pits polar opposite political views among the highest vote getters. The leader of the party with the second most votes ran on a platform to renege on the austerity agreements already in place with the external financing partners, to raise public pension payments and salaries, etc. And that leader seems to have gained even more popularity for the upcoming June elections. At current spending rates, Greece will run out of funds to pay its obligations by the end of June. And, it will be up to the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) to determine if Greece will get its next tranche of external financing (i.e., loans).
 
It appears that Europe is moving perilously closer to financial chaos. A Greek default on its external debt could easily result in a disorderly withdrawal from the EMU (European Monetary Union), which could trigger worldwide financial instability. Imagine if you were a Greek citizen and you woke up one morning to find that the euros in your local bank had been converted to new drachmas on a 1:1 basis. Later that day you discover that your new drachmas are worth substantially less than the euros you had yesterday. People aren’t dumb. Over the past few months, we have observed, through the borrowings at the ECB, a growing silent run on European banks in the at-risk countries (Spain, Italy). Italy even limited the amount of cash a bank can give its clients. And now, there is an outright run on Greek Banks.A Greek dismissal or withdrawal from the EMU along with its default on external debt is likely to trigger massive outright runs on Spanish, Italian and other weak European banks. The domino effects of this are unknown – all the way from other weak EMU partners electing the Greek path to a complete implosion of the EMU. The impacts will be worldwide. Expect volatility in markets and significant U.S. dollar strength.

 
The Americas
 
The U.S. isn’t too far behind Europe in the entitlement game as it has caught up rapidly over the past decade. But, in the U.S., the anti-austerity movement has taken a slightly different track. The ploy here is to avoid the basic issue of federal government overspending, over indebtedness and over promises. So, the greedy and evil corporations, which “evade” just and fair taxes, are blamed for the deficit because they refuse to pay their “fair share.” And those same corporations that “hoard” cash are responsible for lack of job growth because they won’t spend and invest those cash hoards.
 
The simple truth is that Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Wal-Mart (WMT), and all of the others are simply playing the tax game that was written and is orchestrated by none other than the politicians themselves. In what remains of our capitalist system, corporate managers are supposed to maximize profits, and one doesn’t do that without uncovering every dollar-saving loophole written into the tax code.
 
As for the cash, much of it remains offshore because it would be taxed if brought back. But it remains unused because of the ongoing uncertainties today’s politicians have imposed. No tax law is now permanent or at least has a long enough life for corporate managers to make prudent investment decisions. Most have a one or two year life (Bush tax cut extensions, payroll tax reduction, depreciation laws, etc.). Without some certainty about the tax code, about deficits, or about the cost of energy, those cash hoards simply won’t be invested – at least not in the U.S or other slow growth industrial countries.
 
This rhetoric is really a diversion from the real issue of too much debt, unsustainable deficits, and living beyond our means. The size of government is being addressed at most state and local levels (even by Jerry Brown in California, but definitely not at the federal level.
 
Unfortunately, the movement away from austerity either prolongs the crisis, or makes it ultimately worse. In Bolivia, the series of nationalizations that began in ’06 (natural gas fields) are now causing capital formation issues. The gas wells are producing less, as is the normal course for such wells, but there is no internal capital for new exploration (all the capital that could, fled long ago), and foreign capital simply won’t go there based upon the last six years of political behavior and private sector confiscation (besides Bolivia, the other Latin American countries with extreme left wing governments are Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua).
 
As is evident in places like Bolivia and Venezuela, the move away from austerity via class warfare, confiscation, and nationalizations only prolongs the economic problems, usually making them far worse than the original austerity would have imposed.
 
Conclusion
 
The point is, “taxing the rich,” attacking successful corporations, nationalizing industries, or simply allowing government to pick the winners and the losers does nothing to create economic growth or jobs. It does just the opposite. Austerity, in some form, is necessary to pay back the over borrowing and over consuming of the past. There is no way around it.
 
Printing more money, running high deficits and taxing the productive members of society will not fix the growth and jobs issues. Rejecting the necessary austerity will just exacerbate the problem(s) or shift the burdens to other unsuspecting citizens, like seniors, retirees, or onto future generations through high or hyper inflation.
 
Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, co-chair of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and co-author of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal plan said this to the Council on Foreign Relations on April 24th:
 
Without serious debt reduction, it won’t take much of an increase in interest rates to create a fiscal crisis for the country the likes of which only those who lived through the Great Depression can recall. Once interest rates reach a level that reflects the genuine risk inherent in our ongoing fiscal mismanagement, and debt service eats up more and more of a shrinking pie, the financial crisis we just lived through (and are still living through) will seem like a sideshow… Deficits are truly like a cancer and over time they are going to destroy our country from within.
 
Most industrial countries with large fiscal deficits have a choice between something bad (austerity now) and something awful (high inflation, hyperinflation, social upheaval, or worse). While no one likes austerity, the consequences of choosing to kick the can further down the road are much worse. Yet, that is clearly what is happening with likely dire financial consequences, perhaps as soon as Greece formally defaults. Nonetheless, at this particular moment, “austerity” has become just another dirty word.
 
Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.  Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.
 
Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.

Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.

May 8, 2012

Chained-CPI is not an accurate deflation gauge

Posted in Ben Bernanke, Economy, Federal Reserve, Finance, government, Housing Market, IRS, medicare/medicaid, social security tagged , , , , , , , , , at 5:09 PM by Robert Barone

Circulating around the Beltway is a concept called Chained-Consumer Price Index (Chained-CPI). It is being billed as a new and “more accurate” way to measure the rate of inflation.In an April 25th article, the editors of Bloomberg View stated that the Chained-CPI “is a more accurate gauge of U.S. inflation that would yield immediate savings … The fix to this has already been endorsed by lawmakers in both parties, the Obama administration, many economists, and a series of bipartisan deficit-reduction panels.”According to Bloomberg View, the Chained-CPI is “a more exact measure that accounts for the substitutions consumers make when a product’s price goes up.” Remember this substitution concept, for, as you will see, it is the problem not the solution.
 
Currently, the most popular measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces several CPI measures monthly, but the one that makes the headlines is called CPI-U. In theory, CPI-U represents the buying patterns of all urban consumers.

This CPI measure is the “benchmark” that determines cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for a wide range of government programs, including Social Security, Medicare and government pensions. It is also widely used by the IRS in the tax code, in union contracts and in most long-term rental agreements.

The reality is that, like much of what comes out of Washington, the “Chained-CPI” concept is neither new nor more accurate. This chain-weighted concept is just another step in a series of steps that began in 1980 aimed at changing the CPI concept from one that measures the cost of maintaining “a constant standard of living” to measuring, really, not much at all, as I will explain later. The real purpose of altering the methodology is twofold: 1. To reduce the reported increase in inflation for political reasons; and 2. To lower future federal budget costs of Social Security, Medicare and government pensions by lowering the COLA adjustments without having to haveCongress vote for those or the administration sign it into law. Just note, however, what class bears the biggest burden of this – seniors and retirees.

The CPI rate of inflation reported for the year 2011 was approximately 3 percent. That was higher than what appears to be “tolerable” for America’s political class. But, we have a fairly recent concept called “core” CPI, which is the CPI-U excluding food and energy.

Both Fed chief Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Geithner believe that this is a better measure of “underlying” inflation. Apparently, they don’t believe that Americans are much impacted by the cost of petroleum products or food. I promise, however, that when the “core” CPI is higher than the CPI itself, “core” will be ignored!

If the methodology for computing the CPI-U were the same formula that was used in 1980, then the 3 percent rate of inflation reported for 2011 would have been closer to 11 percent, according to John Williams of Shadowstats.com, who follows this indicator in detail.  In 1980, the CPI measured a “standard of living,” with the price index telling us how many dollars more it would take to buy the exact same basket of items we bought in a prior period, say, last year. Below is a simple example using two goods: T-bone steaks and hamburger.

 

Weight (W)

Price (P)

W x P

T-Bone

50%

$10.00

$5.00

Hamburger

50%

$3.00

$1.50

   Index

 

 

$6.50

The table shows that the consumer has chosen, at current prices, to spend 50 percent of his/her budget on each item. The weighted index is $6.50. Now, assume that the price of T-bone steak rises to $12 while hamburger rises to $3.25. The table below shows that the weighted index would be $7.625.

 

Weight (W)

Price (P)

W x P

T-Bone

50%

$12.00

$6.000

Hamburger

50%

$3.25

$1.625

   Index

 

 

$7.625

That is, it now takes $7.625 to purchase what $6.50 used to purchase. What that says is that to maintain the “standard of living” that $6.50 used to buy now takes $7.625. So, prices have risen (i.e. inflation) by 17.3 percent [(7.625-6.5)/6.5].

We all know that when prices change, and especially if incomes are not rising as fast as prices, consumers substitute lower cost goods that usually are of lower quality. When that happens, the “standard of living” is clearly falling. The following is an example of how the Chained-CPI would significantly lower the reported inflation rate.

The table shows the same two goods, but because incomes have not risen, consumers have cut back T-bone steak to 40 percent of their budget and increased hamburger to 60 percent. As shown in the following table, the weighted index is $6.75 and the resulting reported rate of inflation is 3.8 percent [(6.75-6.50)/6.50)] rather than the 17.3 percent rate associated with maintaining a defined “standard of living” (i.e. 50 percent T-bone and 50 percent hamburger).

 

Weight (W)

Price (P)

W x P

T-Bone

40%

$12.00

$4.80

Hamburger

60%

$3.25

$1.95

   Index

 

 

$6.75

U.S. consumers already know that their living standard is being eroded, and that the reported rate of inflation understates reality. This has been the explanation of why. And, clearly, the “Chained-CPI” is not a “more accurate” gauge of inflation.

If you think about it, the two weighted average costs using different weights are not really comparable at all. What would you say if consumers had to substitute canned dog food for hamburger? Would you think the measure of inflation meant anything? The 3.8 percent is a math result, the product of numbers in a formula. But the numbers being used in the calculation measure different things and are not comparable. The result is that the Chained-CPI doesn’t really measure anything.

Nevertheless, the coming use of the Chained-CPI will allow reporting of much lower rates of inflation than is the reality, reducing Social Security, Medicare and government pension COLAs, all without any action on the part of Congress or the administration.

It also will distort to the upside the reporting of other economic activity where nominal” (i.e. current dollar) indicators, such as GDP, are translated into “real” terms by deflating them with an artificially low measure of inflation.

As I’ve said in many past blogs, much of the recession is being carried on the backs of those living on fixed incomes, savers, those living off of accumulated assets and retirees. Not only do they now get near 0 percent on their savings, but now they will be further cheated out of part of the COLA adjustments that would keep them at their current living standard via their Social Security, Medicare and, if a government retiree, pension. Isn’t it wonderful how government works?