Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Does Benshalom Bernanke Look Like a Man Who is Confident About the State of the Economy and the Prospects for Recovery?



There is a lot to say about Ben Shalom Bernanke's comments on 60 Minutes today.

Bernanke's statement that unemployment is the biggest impediment to economic recovery is ironic, given that Bernanke's policies have increased unemployment. See this and this.

Harry Blodget notes that Bernanke implied that inequality is destroying America. Tyler Durden hones in on Bernanke's statements that the economic recovery may not be self-sustaining, and that the Fed may buy even more bonds. Daily Bail picks on Bernanke's claim that the Fed is not printing money.....http://endoftheamericandream.com/archives/24-signs-that-all-of-america-is-becoming-just-like-detroit-a-rotting-post-industrial-post-apocalyptic-wasteland

There are certainly a lot of interesting things to say about Bernanke's words....


But I think the real story is how nervous Bernanke appears.

Listen to his voice, and watch his lips quaver:

Ignore his words ... does this look like a man who is confident about the state of the economy and the prospects for recovery?

Does this sound like a man who is sure that history will judge his actions kindly?

However, as Barry Ritholtz notes:

Pro Publica has been maintaining a list of bailout recipients, updating the amount lent versus what was repaid.

So far, 938 Recipients have had $607,822,512,238 dollars committed to them, with $553,918,968,267 disbursed. Of that $554b disbursed, less than half — $220,782,546,084 — has been returned.

Whenever you hear pronunciations of how much money the TARP is making, check back and look at this list. It shows the TARP is deeply underwater....

Mendacious Bernanke
By Michael Pento

This past Sunday on the CBS program 60 Minutes, Americans received a massive dose of mendacity from Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

Bernanke's shaky delivery, and even shakier logic, may cause faith in America's economic leadership to evaporate faster than the value of our dollar. In particular, Bernanke delivered two massive distortions:

Lie #1 - The Fed isn't printing money.

Bernanke stated: "The amount of currency in circulation is not changing ... the money supply is not changing in any significant way. What we're doing is lowering interest rates by buying Treasury securities."

Given that it is the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, not the Fed, that actually prints paper money, his statement is technically correct while substantively false. However, Bernanke is buying bank assets with Fed credit. With such an arrangement, printing becomes unnecessary.

According to gentle Ben, credit created to buy something should not be considered money and has no affect on asset prices? But if that's true, why is he concentrating his buying in the middle of the Treasury yield curve. His stated purpose is to boost bond prices and lower yields in order to stimulate borrowing and aggregate demand. So pushing up bond prices is an act of inflation. Bernanke similarly contradicts himself by saying that he isn't creating inflation, while at the same time claiming that his easing campaign is designed to boost asset prices to combat the phantom of deflation.

And by the way, the Fed is causing money supply to increase significantly. The compounded annual growth rate of M2 is over 7% in the last quarter. Apparently in the eyes of the Fed chairman, a 7% annualized increase in the broad money supply isn't considered significant.

Lie #2 - Bernanke is "100 % confident" that, when necessary, the Fed can control inflation and reverse its accommodative monetary policy.

He stated, "We've been very, very clear that we will not allow inflation to rise above 2%. We could raise interest rates in 15 minutes if we have to. So, there really is no problem with raising rates, tightening monetary policy, slowing the economy, reducing inflation, at the appropriate time."

He failed to mention that the Fed doesn't have the will to drain money from the system, without which all tools are useless. The Fed has consistently demonstrated its unwillingness to take the appropriate actions when necessary. In claiming he is 100% confident in his ability to control inflation, Bernanke ignores the record that during his tenure he has misdiagnosed the economy.

In June 2006, Bernanke culminated his inflation fighting efforts by raising the Fed Funds target rate to 5.25%, after CPI inflation reached 4.2%. But that interest rate was enough to help burst the housing bubble and to spark an international credit crisis. Bernanke was completely unaware that the Fed's actions had created an economy that had become completely addicted to artificially produced low interest rates and inflation.

Shortly after the collapse of the real estate market and the ensuing truncated deflationary-depression, Bernanke took interest rates to near zero percent. But if the Fed was ever really serious about unwinding excessive leverage, the time had clearly arrived. Instead, the US economy has become more addicted to free money than at any other time in our history.

Commodity prices are soaring once again and the real estate market, banking sector, and the overall economy cling precariously on the arm of government induced bailouts and low interest rates.

Even worse, our government has massively increased its level of debt, which now stands at just below US$14 trillion. Once the rate of inflation eclipses the Fed's 2% target rate, which appears likely, how then will the Fed raise rates to contain it? Could the economy then withstand an increase in the cost of home ownership? Most importantly, when will Bernanke find it politically tenable to dramatically increase debt service payments for the Federal government? In truth, there is never a convenient time to have a severe recession or a depression. Unfortunately, reality can be extremely inconvenient.

Bernanke was accurate in saying that the economy is not expanding at a sustainable pace. Of course, his prescription was the same as it always is; print more money in the misguided belief that inflation will lead to growth. As such, he indicated that it's possible that the Fed may actually expand bond purchases beyond the $600 billion announced last month. (Remember that the $600 billion comes after the $1.7 trillion that has already been printed, which failed to produce anything much beyond a weaker dollar). Therefore, the country can look forward to yet more inflation, continued anemic economic growth, a poorer citizenry, and a vastly lower standard of living.

On the bright side, the next segment on 60 Minutes outlined some of the new social networking capabilities being created by Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. In other words, although our economic misery will likely increase, it should become much easier to share the bad news with friends .....

A lot of people still haven't heard that the economy cannot recover until the big banks are broken up.

But as everyone from Paul Krugman to Simon Johnson has noted, the banks are so big and politically powerful that they have bought the politicians and captured the regulators.

In addition, as Fortune pointed out last February that the only reason that smaller banks haven't been able to expand and thrive is that the too-big-to-fails have decreased competition:

Growth for the nation's smaller banks represents a reversal of trends from the last twenty years, when the biggest banks got much bigger and many of the smallest players were gobbled up or driven under...

As big banks struggle to find a way forward and rising loan losses threaten to punish poorly run banks of all sizes, smaller but well capitalized institutions have a long-awaited chance to expand.

So the very size of the giants squashes competition.

Small banks have been lending much more than the big boys. And the giant banks which received taxpayer bailouts actually slashed lending more, gave higher bonuses, and reduced costs less than banks which didn't get bailed out.

JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley together hold 80% of the country's derivatives risk, and 96% of the exposure to credit derivatives. Experts say that derivatives will never be reined in until the mega-banks are broken up.

As I pointed out in December 2008:

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is often called the "central banks' central bank", as it coordinates transactions between central banks.

BIS points out in a new report that the bank rescue packages have transferred significant risks onto government balance sheets, which is reflected in the corresponding widening of sovereign credit default swaps:

The scope and magnitude of the bank rescue packages also meant that significant risks had been transferred onto government balance sheets. This was particularly apparent in the market for CDS referencing sovereigns involved either in large individual bank rescues or in broad-based support packages for the financial sector, including the United States. While such CDS were thinly traded prior to the announced rescue packages, spreads widened suddenly on increased demand for credit protection, while corresponding financial sector spreads tightened.
In other words, by assuming huge portions of the risk from banks trading in toxic derivatives, and by spending trillions that they don't have, central banks have put their countries at risk from default.
Now, Greece, Portugal, Spain and many other European countries - as well as the U.S. and Japan - are facing serious debt crises. See We are no longer wealthy enough to keep bailing out the bloated banks. We have serious debt problems. See this, this, this, this, this and this. By failing to break up the giant banks, the government is guaranteeing that they will take crazily risky bets again and again and again, and the government will wrack up more debt bailing them out again. (Anyone who thinks that Congress will use Dodd-Frank to break up banks in the middle of an even bigger crisis is dreaming. If the giant banks aren't broken up now - when they are threatening to take down the world economy - they won't be broken up next time they become insolvent, either. And see this).

Moreover, Richard Alford - former New York Fed economist, trading floor economist and strategist - recently showed that banks that get too big benefit from "information asymmetry" which disrupts the free market.

Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted in September that giants like Goldman are using their size to manipulate the market:

"The main problem that Goldman raises is a question of size: 'too big to fail.' In some markets, they have a significant fraction of trades. Why is that important? They trade both on their proprietary desk and on behalf of customers. When you do that and you have a significant fraction of all trades, you have a lot of information."

Further, he says, "That raises the potential of conflicts of interest, problems of front-running, using that inside information for your proprietary desk. And that's why the Volcker report came out and said that we need to restrict the kinds of activity that these large institutions have. If you're going to trade on behalf of others, if you're going to be a commercial bank, you can't engage in certain kinds of risk-taking behavior."

The giants (especially Goldman Sachs) have also used high-frequency program trading which not only distorted the markets - making up more than 70% of stock trades - but which also let the program trading giants take a sneak peak at what the real (aka “human”) traders are buying and selling, and then trade on the insider information. See this, this, this, this and this. (This is frontrunning, which is illegal; but it is a lot bigger than garden variety frontrunning, because the program traders are not only trading based on inside knowledge of what their own clients are doing, they are also trading based on knowledge of what all other traders are doing).

Goldman also admitted that its proprietary trading program can "manipulate the markets in unfair ways". The giant banks have also allegedly used their Counterparty Risk Management Policy Group (CRMPG) to exchange secret information and formulate coordinated mutually beneficial actions, all with the government's blessings.

Again, size matters. If a bunch of small banks did this, manipulation by numerous small players would tend to cancel each other out. But with a handful of giants doing it, it can manipulate the entire economy in ways which are not good for the American citizen.

No wonder so many independent economists and financial experts are calling for the big banks to be broken up, including:

  • Dean and professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, R. Glenn Hubbard
  • The leading monetary economist and co-author with Milton Friedman of the leading treatise on the Great Depression, Anna Schwartz
  • Economics professor and senior regulator during the S & L crisis, William K. Black
  • Professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Chicago Booth School of Business, Luigi Zingales

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