Author Archive

Charlie Rose: Paul Volker On Bear Stearns Bailout

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker appeared on the Charlie Rose show last evening to discuss the recent actions to bailout Bear Stearns. Volker points out that the actions were unprecedented and he cautions that doing so may be an argument for greater regulation of investment houses like Stearns.

Volker’s remarks were focused on his concern that we are witnessing a transformation in the financial market. As such, he argues that it is time to review the mechanisms we have in place to insure that the economy is being protected from the bad decisions of these newly emerging financial players.

Volker doesn’t believe that the Federal Reserve should play a larger part in the regulatory process; rather he contends that they were forced to step into the void with regards to Bear Stearns. Volker suggests that the regulatory process should originate with our elected representatives.

The problem with that equation (even though I agree with Volker) is that the influence of the players in the financial market is daunting…and nothing provides better evidence of this influence than the recent rewriting of bankruptcy laws making it far more difficult for individuals to walk away from debt. Unfortunately, it appears that our government is on the precipice of bailing out the same financial institutions that sought to limit the options for relief by financially strapped citizens.

Yes, the GOP likes to be seen as opposing handouts and welfare…except when it is directed to those corporations that ante up each election cycle. The welfare reform enacted under the Clinton administration was one of the first steps in this shift towards escalating corporate welfare. If this trend continues, be prepared for further financial calamities of greater proportion…with astronomically more acute consequences.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

GWB: The Cash In The Cradle & The Silver Spoon - I’m Gonna Be Like Him

Friday, March 14th, 2008

I try to avoid making unequivocal assertions…but if my instincts are correct, I’m not taking much of a risk in predicting that the calamity that will define this Bush presidency will not be the Iraq war. As with his father’s presidency, it will be the economy. Yes, the Iraq war will be factored into the equation that facilitated one of the worst recessions in modern times, but numerous other missteps will receive far more attention.

With the Savings and Loan scandal of the late 80’s as my point of comparison, I expect the magnitude of this recession to be much deeper and far more complex. Frankly, the fact that we survived events like the S & L scandal and the tech bubble have only contributed to the lackadaisical policies that have fostered an air of invincibility. This false confidence has resulted in a deadly conflation of economic poisons that will place a strain on our financial fortitude that hasn’t been witnessed since the Great Depression.

For months, the Bush administration has sought to convince the American public that the economy is sound. Unfortunately, the hollowness of those assurances expands exponentially with each new report. Today’s news is awash with further warnings of economic uncertainty. The President’s remarks, in response to the growing storm clouds, simply highlight the mindset that has typified his inclination to ignore information that doesn’t comport with his rose colored rhetoric.

Unfortunately, I fear this president suffers the misconception that he can tackle this systemic economic malaise in the same manner he addressed the many miscalculations that have plagued the prosecution of the Iraq war. Sadly, brute force has little relevance when it comes to the economy. As with the troop surge, the attempts by the Federal Reserve to pump more money into the economy in order to prop up flailing financial institutions fails to address the dire dynamics that underly the debacle.

Let’s pause to review the observations of others.

From The Wall Street Journal:

It is a very logical progression. Peloton, Carlyle, Focus — hedge funds and other non-deposit-taking financial institutions (NDFIs) are now being hit by the credit crunch, which had so far been mainly confined to mortgage lenders and the banks.

The Federal Reserve has reacted. Its Term Securities Lending Facility aims to encourage investment banks and prime brokers to lend to NDFIs and so relieve those parts of the credit market it cannot reach with its rate cuts and loans to banks.

So far its liquidity injections have got no further than the banks. Now it hopes to reach higher. Unfortunately, it won’t work.

The Fed is like King Canute with a difference — it is trying to halt an ebbing tide rather than a rising one. Its liquidity injection seems huge at $200 billion (with perhaps more to follow), but it is still only equivalent to one-third of the expected losses in the NDFI sector.

Moreover, the Fed’s readiness to accept almost any asset at just below face value as collateral will prevent price discovery. That means the U.S. financial system will remain burdened with uncleansed balance sheets that penalize future lending and economic growth.

Creating a lot of liquidity does not resolve an issue of solvency, which is now the driver of credit contraction. All the Fed will achieve is a dollar that will be further debased and inflation that will be higher. It cannot stop the process of deleveraging and asset price decline.

The credit crisis is unfolding as we expected, but more slowly than anticipated, because of the actions taken by central banks (mainly the Fed) and the U.S. government to allay its effects. The wholesale socialization of credit has meant that government and central bank measures account for 70% of new credit since last summer.

But these policy measures will not prevent asset-price deflation or credit contraction, which are functions of risk appetite and general readiness to maintain current levels of gearing throughout the economy. The non-bank sector has the potential to inflict more damage on the system than banks, because it has a much smaller capital cushion for a much more volatile and risky balance sheet.

Credit contraction translates through the financial system into a reduction in available credit for the non-financial corporate sector, and thus into reduced investment and growth in the real economy. The size of that contraction can be estimated from the leverage ratios of the financial sector and their impact on real GDP growth.

We estimate that nonfinancial corporate debt ultimately will have to shrink by 11%-12%. This will generate a decline of five percentage points of real U.S. GDP growth and push the U.S. into recession. Europe’s real GDP growth will contract by two percentage points.

Essentially, the point being made by the author is that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to lower interest rates is inadequate to address the fundamental problem - the value of the assets that underly much of the existing debt is in a period of contraction…largely as a result of the collapsing housing industry.

As such, the ability of lenders to lend is limited. They lack the capital needed to make loans; let alone the capital required to support declining equity positions and the increasing default risks that are associated with these loans. Hence, the Fed’s efforts to infuse the economy with the capital needed to spur growth isn’t going to be sufficient. Even worse, should this contraction lead to lender insolvency, the likelihood of the need for a huge government bail out advances. If this happens, I believe it will be far larger than the one witnessed during the S & L scandal.

From The New York Times:

The Fed’s economic power rests on the fact that it’s the only institution with the right to add to the “monetary base”: pieces of green paper bearing portraits of dead presidents, plus deposits that private banks hold at the Fed and can convert into green paper at will.

When the Fed is worried about the state of the economy, it basically responds by printing more of that green paper, and using it to buy bonds from banks. The banks then use the green paper to make more loans, which causes businesses and households to spend more, and the economy expands.

This process can be almost magical in its effects: a committee in Washington gives some technical instructions to a trading desk in New York, and just like that, the economy creates millions of jobs.

But sometimes the magic doesn’t work. And this is one of those times.

Instead of following its usual practice of buying only safe U.S. government debt, the Fed announced this week that it would put $400 billion — almost half its available funds — into other stuff, including bonds backed by, yes, home mortgages. The hope is that this will stabilize markets and end the panic.

Officially, the Fed won’t be buying mortgage-backed securities outright: it’s only accepting them as collateral in return for loans. But it’s definitely taking on some mortgage risk. Is this, to some extent, a bailout for banks? Yes.

Still, that’s not what has me worried. I’m more concerned that despite the extraordinary scale of Mr. Bernanke’s action — to my knowledge, no advanced-country’s central bank has ever exposed itself to this much market risk — the Fed still won’t manage to get a grip on the economy. You see, $400 billion sounds like a lot, but it’s still small compared with the problem.

Krugman offers a look into the risks being taken by the Federal Reserve to avert the looming collapse of financial institutions. The fact that the government is taking unprecedented risk signals the seriousness of the situation. The fact that the government has committed half of its available funds to this risk intensive effort suggests that the ultimate solution will require the government to appropriate additional funds…hence the bailout begins. The price tag of the S & L scandal would likely pale in comparison.

The impact to the overall economy could be mind-boggling since it would be apt to affect consumer spending. Falling home values would strip millions of Americans of the bulk of their accumulated wealth which would no doubt restrict their ability and willingness to spend money. The direct correlation of this intertwined cause and effect spiral could have disastrous consequences.

We haven’t even factored in the disproportionate numbers of baby boomers moving towards retirement. A worst case scenario could place the financial stability of many of these individuals in jeopardy at a time when the safety net of Social Security is also approaching insolvency.

From CNBC:

The United States has entered a recession that could be “substantially more severe” than recent ones, former National Bureau of Economic Research President Martin Feldstein said Friday.

“The situation is very bad, the situation is getting worse, and the risks are that it could get very bad,” Feldstein said in a speech at the Futures Industry Association meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.

“There isn’t much traction in monetary policy these days, I’m afraid, because of a lack of liquidity in the credit markets,” he said.

The Fed’s new credit facility, announced on Tuesday, “can help in a rather small way … but the underlying risks will remain with the institutions that borrow from the Fed, and this does nothing to change their capital,” Feldstein noted.

I simply don’t see the mechanism by which this strained liquidity can be alleviated in the near term. Pumping more cash into the system could have short term benefits but the risk to the already tenuous value of the dollar would likely outweigh them. Relying upon the standard bearers…the consumer…to spend us out of this mess seems unlikely. Rarely have prior recessionary periods been accompanied by such significant declines in home values.

Were we to see the emergence of sustained inflation, the picture becomes even more disconcerting. Many of the measures designed to address the liquidity crunch have the potential to do just that. Toss in our trade imbalance, the amount of debt held by the Chinese, and an international shift away from the dollar as the preferred reserve currency and one begins to see the growing alignment of negatives.

The fact that the American image has been tarnished during the current administration makes it difficult to imagine the kind of international cooperation we might have otherwise received during such a slowdown. In fact, don’t be surprised if a number of nations stand idly by as the perceived bully endures its comeuppance.

Returning to the Bush legacy, I recall the deteriorating situation faced by his father prior to the 1992 election. When the senior Bush expressed his amazement with the scanning technology found in grocery stores, his appeal and his connection to the average American is thought to have suffered. When the Clinton campaign added, “It’s the economy, stupid”, the stain became permanent.

The fact that the current president expressed surprise when a member of the press mentioned the prospects of $4.00 per gallon gas seems eerily similar to the last days of his father’s presidency…and it may also assist in cementing the economy as his legacy’s leading albatross.

George W. Bush’s seeming shortage of empathy for the plight of the average American shone through in his mishandling of Katrina, his passage of tax cuts for the wealthiest, his inept energy policy, and his willingness to sink trillions of dollars into the execution of a virtual vendetta in Iraq. These events will forever be tethered to his tenure and his successors are apt to spend years trying to repair the damage done.

They say the writing of one’s legacy is rarely finished since the past undoubtedly shapes the future. In the case of George Bush, I suspect he’d be best to hope that his influence on the future be less indelible than his unabashed attempts to color the present.

Gertrude Stein stated that a “rose is a rose is a rose”. Ernest Hemmingway responded with “a rose is a rose is an onion”. In thinking of the Bush legacy, I’m inclined to argue that a silver spoon may beget rose colored rhetoric…but a silver spoon full of rose petals rarely helps us swallow the thorns. When the bow breaks, the Bush legacy will fall.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

Eliot Spitzer & WR 104: Lessons In The Life & Death Of Stars

Monday, March 10th, 2008

They say it’s written in the stars…and today’s news seems to have been all about the rise and fall of stars…those that occupy a distant point in space that we can barely fathom…and one that occupies a pivotal political office in the state of New York.

Whether it’s a quirky cosmic alignment or a karmic calamity, the death of a star can be menacing…or it can simply be messy. Either way, it is bound to draw some attention. The time it takes a star to explode or implode varies. In the case of the cosmos, it’s apt to be millions of year; in the case of Governor Spitzer, it appears to be a matter of days.

Let’s have a look at the trajectory of both.

From USA Today:

A beautiful pinwheel in space might one day blast Earth with death rays, scientists now report.

The pinwheel, named WR 104, was discovered eight years ago in the constellation Sagittarius. It rotates in a circle “every eight months, keeping precise time like a jewel in a cosmic clock,” Tuthill said.

Both the massive stars in WR 104 will one day explode as supernovae. However, one of the pair is a highly unstable star known as a Wolf-Rayet, the last known stable phase in the life of these massive stars right before a supernova.

“Wolf-Rayet stars are regarded by astronomers as ticking bombs,” Tuthill explained. The ‘fuse’ for this star “is now very short — to an astronomer — and it may explode any time within the next few hundred thousand years.”

When the Wolf-Rayet goes supernova, “it could emit an intense beam of gamma rays coming our way,” Tuthill said. “If such a ‘gamma ray burst’ happens, we really do not want Earth to be in the way.”

Unfortunately for us, gamma ray bursts seem to be shot right along the axis of systems. In essence, if this pinwheel ever releases a gamma ray burst, our planet might be in the firing line.

From The New York Times:

It was after 9 p.m. the night before Valentine’s Day when she arrived, a young brunette named Kristen. She was 5-foot-5, 105 pounds. Pretty and petite.

This was at the Mayflower, one of Washington’s finer hotels. Her client for the evening had booked Room 871. He was a return customer. The hundreds of dollars he had promised to pay would cover all expenses: the room, the minibar, room service should they order it, the train ticket that had brought her from New York and, naturally, Kristen’s time.

A 47-page federal affidavit from an F.B.I. agent investigating a prostitution ring lists the man at the hotel as “Client 9,” and includes considerable details about him, the prostitutes and his methods of paying for them. A law enforcement official and another person briefed on the prostitution case have identified Client 9 as Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York.

So as this day comes to an end, one star has been fully exposed and is almost certain to crash. The other star lurks beyond our view…but it too will one day crash. The former is a spectacle we watch with unflinching amusement; the latter is a hypothetical we’ve barely begun to consider. The former will end the political life of one politician; the latter may bring an end to us all.

Regardless, the world goes round and round. How’s that for an illuminating astrological forecast?

Eliot Spitzer: Hittin’ The Sheets Of New York:

elliottspitzer.jpg

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

All About The Onion: 63,000 Jobs & An Economy Without A Core

Friday, March 7th, 2008

It’s difficult to find anything to smile about in the latest jobs report. Despite the assurances from the Bush administration that the economy remains strong, each new report brings evidence that we’re in a recession. It looks like the administration is either in denial or simply employing the same “head in the sand” mindset that spent the last five years telling Americans that the situation in Iraq is improving. Despite the president’s rosy rhetoric, I choose to believe that the data doesn’t lie.

The current economic uncertainty reminds me of a metaphor shared by a friend many years ago. While discussing borderline personality disorder, a psychological condition prone to sociopathic behaviors, she described it as being akin to comparing an apple to an onion. The normal personality is like an apple, in that it has a core; whereas with the onion, you peel away layer after layer to find that no core exists.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it underscores my belief that this latest period of economic expansion has lacked the essential fundamentals to insure economic stability. When one strips away the facade of inflated home values…driven by artificially low interest rates…all that remains is a tenuous economy in the throes of adjusting to the instability and uncertainty of globalization.

The economy shed 63,000 jobs in February, the government said on Friday, the fastest falloff in five years and the strongest evidence yet that the nation is headed toward — or may already be in — a recession.

“I haven’t seen a job report this recessionary since the last recession,” said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “This is a picture of a labor market becoming clearly infected by the contagion from the rest of the economy.”

The loss in February was the second consecutive monthly decline in the labor market; economists had predicted a slight increase. The government also revised down its estimate for January to a loss of 22,000 jobs — the first decline in four years — and cut in half its estimate for job growth in December.

Wages stayed stagnant in February, further depressing the outlook for consumer spending over the next few months. Among rank-and-file workers — more than 80 percent of the work force — average pay grew just 0.3 percent to $17.20 an hour. Wages are effectively running flat when adjusted for inflation.

These job losses are only one segment of the current economic downturn. Truth be told, the housing crisis and its impact on financial markets looks to be an unprecedented debacle that has yet to fully unfold. The efforts of the Federal Reserve to reduce interest rates and make huge amounts of capital available to struggling financial institutions is a testament to the severity and complexity of this crisis.

I suspect the powers that be are hesitant to offer a candid assessment for fear it will trigger even more caution on the part of consumers. To a degree, that is prudent. Unfortunately, this snowball is already rolling and I see little reason to offer false assurances that it won’t continue to expand. I look for the government to make added admissions in much the same manner found in a criminal investigation…as more evidence is unearthed, the administration will find itself unable to continue with the denials.

Look no further than a comparison to the Saving & Loan scandal of the late 80’s to understand how the government will attempt to downplay the gravity of the situation. Sadly, I’m concerned this fiasco may be far more pervasive. While the S&L scandal was primarily isolated to commercial real estate, the current crisis involves residential real estate and millions of homeowners. That alone suggests a greater magnitude; one that will strike a blow to a core source of economic growth…consumer confidence and spending.

I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I see a unique and troubling confluence of conditions that have the potential to challenge our existing economic constructs. The growth of multi-national corporations with GDP’s that rival those of many nations serves to undermine the assumption that all Americans share similar economic objectives with consistent measures of success. It simply isn’t true in this day and age of global investments and the outsourcing it facilitates in order to increase the bottom line. When the goals of a huge corporation no longer comport with the goals of their nation of origin, the established economic models have become outdated and virtually irrelevant.

I realize I’m painting a gloomy picture. At the same time, I’m convinced that the American public must demand an honest assessment and an open dialogue with regard to these dramatic developments. If we allow our politicians to plot the course…in conjunction with their corporate benefactors…we may find ourselves in a conflict with the United Empire of ExxonMobil…a conflict that we can neither overcome or endure.

On that dark note, I think the following video from The Onion captures much of the essence of this shifting economic construct. It made me laugh…but as with all comedy…it also underscores an undeniable truth that requires our consideration.

The Onion: Outsourcing Child Care Overseas

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

Pearls Of Wisdom: The World Is No Longer Our Economic Oyster

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Economists attempt to measure the health of the economy in a variety of ways. I’m of the opinion that two news reports (here and here) shed some ominous light on its status and may well signal the need to sound the alarm bells. For many years real estate, and in particular home ownership, has been the single greatest source of wealth accumulation for the average American. As such, it has served as the foundation for much of our confidence to spend money.

Having the safety and security of growing home equity has given consumers confidence to make purchases they might otherwise forego. It has also been the source of the capital needed to make large ticket purchases that wages may not always enable. The buying, selling, and refinancing of homes has pumped countless dollars into our economy and in recent years it has helped to offset the shifting dynamics of growth.

Following the recessionary period at the beginning of this decade, much of the growth we’ve experienced hasn’t translated to better jobs or higher wages. In fact, for a large majority of Americans, the latest period of economic growth has been accompanied by a decline in the standard of living…except for those in the top tier of incomes.

Here’s where the housing bubble comes into play. In this same period of time, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in home values and therefore some means for consumers to offset the lack of measurable benefits from this latest period of economic expansion. Unfortunately, that offset appears headed towards a screeching stop…and likely a virtual reversal of fortune.

Let’s first look at the foreclosure picture since the bubble has already burst for these individuals.

WASHINGTON - Home foreclosures soared to an all-time high in the final quarter of last year and are likely to keep on rising, underscoring the suffering of distressed homeowners and the growing danger the housing meltdown poses for the economy.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, in a quarterly snapshot of the mortgage market released Thursday, said the proportion of all mortgages nationwide that fell into foreclosure shot up to a record high of 0.83 percent in the October-to-December quarter. That surpassed the previous high of 0.78 percent set in the prior quarter.

More homeowners — at the same time — fell behind on their monthly payments.

The delinquency rate for all mortgages climbed to 5.82 percent in the fourth quarter. That was up from the 5.59 percent in the third quarter and was the highest since 1985. Payments are considered delinquent if they are 30 or more days past due.

The percentage of subprime adjustable-rate mortgages that entered the foreclosure process soared to a record of 5.29 percent in the fourth quarter. That was up from 4.72 percent in the prior quarter, which had marked the previous high. Late payments skyrocketed to a record high of 20.02 percent in the fourth quarter, up from 18.81 percent — the previous high — in the third quarter.

Take note of four key numbers. One, we’re approaching the point at which one percent of all mortgages are in foreclosure. Two, over five percent of ALL mortgages were considered delinquent. Three, over five percent of all subprime adjustable rate mortgages are in foreclosure. Four, over twenty percent of the remaining subprime loans are delinquent.

It doesn’t take a math wizard to realize that we’re on the front end of this crisis and it’s clearly going to get worse before it gets better. Why? Two reasons. First, the interest rates on more loans are going to adjust upward. Second, home values are going to continue to decline which will mean more borrowers will be unable to refinance. So what does this mean? It means there is currently nothing on the horizon that will blunt the increase in foreclosures…or the increase in borrowers who won’t be able to refinance out of unfavorable loans.

Now let’s look another key piece of the problem…the decline in homeowner equity.

NEW YORK - Americans’ percentage of equity in their homes fell below 50 percent for the first time on record since 1945, the Federal Reserve said Thursday.

Homeowners’ portion of equity slipped to downwardly revised 49.6 percent in the second quarter of 2007, the central bank reported in its quarterly U.S. Flow of Funds Accounts, and declined further to 47.9 percent in the fourth quarter — the third straight quarter it was under 50 percent.

That marks the first time homeowners’ debt on their houses exceeds their equity since the Fed started tracking the data in 1945.

The total value of equity also fell for the third straight quarter to $9.65 trillion from a downwardly revised $9.93 trillion in the third quarter.

Home equity, which is equal to the percentage of a home’s market value minus mortgage-related debt, has steadily decreased even as home prices jumped earlier this decade due to a surge in cash-out refinances, home equity loans and lines of credit and an increase in 100 percent or more home financing.

Economists expect this figure to drop even further as declining home prices eat into the value of most Americans’ single largest asset.

Moody’s Economy.com estimates that 8.8 million homeowners, or about 10.3 percent of homes, will have zero or negative equity by the end of the month. Even more disturbing, about 13.8 million households, or 15.9 percent, will be “upside down” if prices fall 20 percent from their peak.

The latest Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index showed U.S. home prices plunging 8.9 percent in the final quarter of 2007 compared with a year ago, the steepest decline in the 20-year history of the index.

I would argue that this data may be even more troubling than the rising foreclosure and delinquency rates because it undoubtedly predicts more declines in consumer confidence and spending and thus growing recessionary pressure.

Take particular note of the connection between the housing bubble and the latest economic expansion. When home values soared at the beginning of this decade, homeowners borrowed more money. They did so because the economic growth didn’t translate into better jobs and higher wages. Hence, more Americans dipped into rising home equity to keep apace with rising costs….and we haven’t even touched on rising credit card debt.

What this tells us is that the latest expansionary period was primarily manufactured through the implementation of artificially low interest rates which enabled homeowners to bolster spending through debt. Lower interest rates meant people could afford more expensive homes. Once this rollover process began, it set in motion rising home prices that were unsustainable. Even worse, it gave homeowners and borrowers a false sense of security. People began to believe their home values would continue to rise and they became less averse to pulling out and spending a higher percentage of their paper equity.

While one can fault these individuals for taking greater risk, one must also consider the incompetence of those who enabled this housing bubble…complete with shoddy monetary policy, suspect lending practices, and inadequate oversight. Not since the Savings & Loan scandal of the late 80’s have we seen such shortsighted and lax practices…complete with the now infamous non-qualifying assumption loans.

Well, just over twenty years later, we’ve done it again. I have two favorite examples of the current debacle. First, the 125% loan…a loan that simply allowed homeowners to borrow 25% more than a home was worth. Second, what the industry initially called “stated income” loans (NINA’s - no income, no asset verifications), which are now being called “liar loans”. Essentially, the borrower was allowed to state an annual income and place a value on assets held without the requirement of any substantiation.

What remains to be seen is how long it will take our government to fully embrace the magnitude of the current crisis. Sadly, the hope that reducing interest rates or rolling out programs like “Project Lifeline” will solve this problem is more of the same. A quick look at the value of the dollar informs us of the consequences that accompany these efforts to avoid the inevitable.

Harsh as this may sound, I find myself in general agreement with the following thoughts of Robert Samuelson from a recent Washington Post column.

Gloom. Doom. Calamity. Home prices are tumbling. We’re bombarded by somber reports. But wait. This is actually good news, because lower home prices are the only real solution to the housing collapse. The sooner prices fall, the better. The longer the adjustment takes, the longer the housing slump (weak sales, low construction, high numbers of unsold homes) will last.

Samuelson isn’t keen on aggressive measures to assist those who are in foreclosure or upside down; arguing that it only postpones the necessary adjustment. While this may sound heartless, the point he’s making is that we must cease our efforts to bolster a weakened and changing economic structure by creating artificial housing prices. The sooner we strip away this facade, the sooner we can begin to address the deficiencies of our underlying economy.

The longer we tinker with the primary means of accumulating wealth (homeownership), the more likely it won’t be available to more and more Americans. In this time of job loss to globalization, we can ill-afford to damage one of the last bastions of the American Dream…especially for an increasingly challenged middle class.

We must demand that our politicians implement the measures necessary to insure a sound and sustainable economy without resorting to politically expedient manipulations meant to mask the manifestations of a world economy. While the world used to be our oyster, I suspect our share of the pearls is destined to decline. Knowing this, I would suggest our leaders start by setting a better example with regards to fiscal responsibility. Lest we be buried by the shifting tides, it’s time for a sea-change.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

More On That Alleged Best Health Care In The World - Part III

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

There is an ongoing battle over health care in the United States. Those opposed to universal health care argue that the implementation of such a plan will result in a decline in the quality of care. Time and again, they cite the reported delays in accessing needed procedures in those countries that provide such care as evidence. They also make anecdotal assertions about the growing number of foreigners who seek medical care in the United States…while ignoring the same indications that more Americans are seeking medical care in other countries.

While there may be legitimate concerns about the implementation of a universal health care system, I’ve previously written about the fallacies contained in many of these arguments. I’ve also directed readers to studies that offer a less than stellar assessment of the health care we’re currently receiving.

The recent report from Nevada on the mishandling of syringes and vials, which may have resulted in potentially exposing 40,000 patients to Hepatitis C, is further evidence that our system has its share of deficiencies.

WASHINGTON (AP) — An outbreak of hepatitis C at a Nevada clinic may represent “the tip of an iceberg” of safety problems at clinics around the country, according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city of Las Vegas shut down the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada last Friday after state health officials determined that six patients had contracted hepatitis C because of unsafe practices including clinic staff reusing syringes and vials. Nevada health officials are trying to contact about 40,000 patients who received anesthesia by injection at the clinic between March 2004 and Jan. 11 to urge them to get tested for hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., met Monday with CDC head Dr. Julie Gerberding, and on a media conference call after their meeting both strongly condemned practices at the clinic.

Health care accreditors “would consider this a patient safety error that falls into the category of a ‘never event,’ meaning this should never happen in contemporary health care organizations,” said Gerberding.

“Our concern is that this could represent the tip of an iceberg and we need to be much more aggressive about alerting clinicians about how improper this practice is,” she said, “but also continuing to invest in our ability to detect these needles in a haystack at the state level so we recognize when there has been a bad practice and patients can be alerted and tested.”

Let me attempt to explain exactly what appears to have happened at these clinics. In performing procedures on patients with Hepatitis C, clinicians may have been reusing the syringes used in sedating these infected individuals on other patients…or they were reusing the same syringe a second time on an individual infected with the disease when drawing a sedating medication from a multi-dose vial…which was then used to draw medication to sedate other patients. The bottom line is that the disease could have contaminated either the syringe or the vial containing the sedating medication.

Look, I’m not a doctor or a scientist…but it isn’t that difficult to understand that if you put something (a needle connected to a syringe containing a fluid) into a contaminated substance (blood in the tissue of an infected individual in this case), there is a risk that the infected substance can travel into any connected portion of that device (think backwash from a straw or the basic concept of osmotic transfer) or into any container that device may subsequently come into contact with.

So what does this tell us about our health care? Well, according to the representative from the CDC, these clinicians were conducting practices that are NEVER EVER acceptable. In doing so, they were violating a very basic guideline; not some complex concept beyond those capable of rudimentary rational thought. Frankly, if one can’t be sedated for a colonoscopy without the risk of contracting Hepatitis C, what hope should we have that a life saving surgical procedure will follow proper protocol?

To be fair, that isn’t an argument that affirms the quality of services one might expect under a universal health care system. However, it is a valid criticism of our existing system as well as a rebuttal to those who sing its praises. Truth be told, health care is only as good as the commitment of those who provide it. The argument that universal health care will make the practice of medicine less lucrative may…and I repeat may…have some merit. At the same time, are we to believe that the hippocratic oath is subject to suspension should the bottom line be diminished?

Given the incidence of malpractice and the other previously referenced negative reports on our health care system, it appears that ever increasing profits are no more a predictor of high quality health care than decreased profits would be of lesser quality care. Further, if those in the field of medicine predicate their performance upon profitability, we’re all one bad bottom line away from a botched procedure.

Unless and until we restore the word “care” to our health system, it won’t actually matter whether it is administered as a result of an open market construct (think 47 million uninsured) or as a function of some degree of universally mandated insurance. The provision of care ought to be a given; not an endless negotiation. It’s time we choose to do the right thing. It’s a matter of life and death.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

Stimulus Checks: Building A Bridge To Nowhere?

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

If you want to understand the degree to which politicians make shortsighted decisions intended to win favor with the voters at home, look no further than the passage of the $168 billion dollar economic stimulus package.

If you want to see how ill-advised such decisions may be, take a moment to look at a new report by Pew Research. The report grades each of the states on the management and maintenance of their infrastructure…and the results aren’t encouraging.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Almost half of the states in the United States are falling behind in their infrastructure maintenance and fiscal systems, according to a report released Monday by the Pew Center on the States and Governing Magazine.

The groups gave 23 states grades for infrastructure that were below the national average in their study called “Grading the States.” Using a scale similar to those found in U.S. schools, where an A is excellent and an F failure, they decided 23 states had grades below C+.

In the money category, which encompassed budget balancing, contracting, and other fiscal categories, 20 states received C+ and below, while 19 states garnered grades of B and above. The average among 50 states was B-.

It’s clear that our infrastructure has been in need of a capital infusion for a number of years. It’s also clear that our economy has been kept afloat by a housing bubble driven by artificially low interest rates rather than by sustainable economic growth that creates a stable increase in jobs and the kind of expansion that is cumulative in nature.

Politicians and voters have become accustomed to stop gap measures designed to dispel consumer doubt and forestall recessionary pressures. Unfortunately, while such measures may provide a temporary economic boost, they also promote a boom and bust mindset and the hills and valleys that accompany it.

In truth, it’s a form of bait and switch. Politicians choose to offer voters a few hundred dollars, and thus the ability to buy a new television set, rather than making the difficult decisions to enact measures that would provide long term stability. In our consumption is king construct, we’ve adopted the pathology that comes with the need for instant gratification.

The political calculations that flow from our short election cycles simply promote more of the same. We’re not only raiding the cookie jar; our elected officials are handing out cookies without considering the need to manage and maintain the bakery.

Prior to the millennium, numerous politicians mouthed the metaphor of building a bridge to the 21st century. As it turns out, we not only refuse to fund the bridges needed to take us there, we’ve taken a shine to building bridges to nowhere.

I struggle to find the silver lining in rolling out billions of dollars in refund checks while the wheels are falling off the wagon. Then again, perhaps our politicians want to be sure we can watch the news coverage of the next bridge collapse…on our shiny new high definition televisions.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

The Price Of Economic Inequality?

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

A report on the rising number of incarcerated Americans provides a disturbing look at the unspoken impact of economic inequality and the high cost we pay for perpetuating it. At the same time, during each election cycle, politicians from both parties accuse each other of practicing suspect fiscal discipline.

For this discussion, I want to look at the costs of incarceration in relation to providing universal health care as well as the Bush tax cuts. Time and again, the GOP points out the exorbitant costs that might be associated with providing universal health care. From what I’ve read, the plans being pushed by Senators Clinton and Obama are reported to cost 10 to 15 billion dollars annually. That’s a big expense…but before one concludes we can’t afford it, one must consider the burgeoning costs of incarceration and the distribution and impact of the Bush tax cuts.

From The Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

NEW YORK — For the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100 adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report documenting America’s rank as the world’s No. 1 incarcerator. It urges states to curtail corrections spending by placing fewer low-risk offenders behind bars.

Using state-by-state data, the report says 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008 - one out of every 99.1 adults. Whether per capita or in raw numbers, it’s more than any other nation.

The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

So in the course of 20 years, we have increased our annual corrections spending by a whopping $38 billion dollars. That is roughly three times the projected annual cost to provide universal health care…health care that would help elevate the very people who are disproportionately represented in the prison population. Factor in the following data on the Bush tax cuts and one will begin to see the larger picture.

From MSNBC.com:

WASHINGTON - Since 2001, President Bush’s tax cuts have shifted federal tax payments from the richest Americans to a wide swath of middle-class families, the Congressional Budget Office has found, a conclusion likely to roil the presidential election campaign.

The conclusions are stark. The effective federal tax rate of the top 1 percent of taxpayers has fallen from 33.4 percent to 26.7 percent, a 20 percent drop. In contrast, the middle 20 percent of taxpayers — whose incomes averaged $51,500 in 2001 — saw their tax rates drop 9.3 percent. The poorest taxpayers saw their taxes fall 16 percent.

Unfortunately, these percentages are deceptive. Let’s look at a practical explanation of what these tax cuts meant to the working poor.

From BusinessWeek.com:

Imagine you are a waitress, married, with two children and a family income of $26,000 per year. Should you be enthusiastic about the tax cuts proposed by President Bush? He certainly wants you to think so. He uses an example of a family like yours to illustrate the benefits of his plan for working Americans. He boasts that struggling low-income families will enjoy the largest percentage reduction in their taxes. The income taxes paid by a family like yours will fall by 100% or more in some cases. This is true–but highly misleading.

President Bush fails to mention that your family pays only about $20 a year in income taxes, so even a 100% reduction does not amount to much. Like three-quarters of working Americans, you pay much more in payroll taxes–about $3,000 a year–than in income taxes. Yet not a penny of the $1.6 trillion package of Bush tax cuts (in reality, closer to $2 trillion over 10 years) is used to reduce payroll taxes. Moreover, should your income from waitressing fall below $26,000 as the economy slows, your family could be among the 75% of families in the lowest 20% of the income distribution that stand to get absolutely zero from the Bush plan.

The President claims that the “typical American family of four” will be able to keep $1,600 more of their money each year under his plan. Since you won’t be getting anything like that, you might be tempted to conclude that your family must be an exception. Not really. The reality is that the President’s claim is disingenuous. Eighty-nine percent of all tax filers, including 95% of those in the bottom 80% of the income distribution, will receive far less than $1,600.

In other words, when a 100% tax cut is the equivalent of $20.00, a family of four might be able to translate that twenty dollars into a meal at McDonalds…one time in 365 days. On the other hand, if one is lucky enough to be in the top one percent (those with $915,000 in pretax income…and first class health care) of earners and receive a 20% tax reduction, I suspect the savings would buy more than one fast food dinner over the course of a year. The skewed advantages…and disadvantages…suddenly become obvious.

If that isn’t bad enough, let’s return to the costs of incarceration and look at future cost projections.

From The New York Times:

By 2011, the report said, states are on track to spend an additional $25 billion.

The cost of medical care is growing by 10 percent annually, the report said, and will accelerate as the prison population ages.

In less than four years, we will spend another $25 billion annually (more than enough to pay for universal health care) to incarcerate more and more Americans…the bulk of which come from the economically underprivileged.

More From The New York Times:

Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are.

Let me be clear…crime is wrong…and it should be punished. However, we cannot ignore the factors that facilitate crime. Failing to provide opportunities to those most lacking in resources is also wrong…and it often leads to a lack of education and therefore a susceptibility to participating in crimes that are driven by poverty.

We have likely exceeded the point at which it will cost us more to punish and incarcerate those who commit these crimes of poverty than it would have cost us to insure their education, to raise the minimum wage above the poverty level, and to grant them the dignity and peace of mind that comes with knowing one’s family members can receive health care when it is warranted; not just when it is necessary to prevent death.

Instead, under the guidance of the GOP, we have elected to ignore the fact that 47 million Americans lack health care and to focus upon further enriching the wealthiest…all the while being forced to endure asinine arguments that doing so will create jobs and thus facilitate a rising tide to float the boats of all Americans. It simply isn’t true.

At a savings of $20 a year, millions of Americans can’t even buy a seat in the boat…let alone stay afloat by treading water in the midst of the steady deluge of ever more ominous waves. If the number and availability of life preservers continues to dwindle, we are fast approaching the point at which our society will collapse under the weight of the inequity we chose to ignore.

If that happens, it will be as my grandfather argued many years ago, “They can eat you, but they can’t shit you”. The cannibalism has begun. What follows will not be pleasant.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

How Many Revised Economic Forecasts Before The Fed Says The “R” Word?

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

stimuluspackage.jpg

Just how many revised economic forecasts does it take to finally conclude that the U.S. is in a recession? Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan likes to up his odds we’re heading into a recession by approximately 20 percentage points every quarter. Current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke seems to prefer a different approach. His modus operandi is to lower GDP a few tenths of a percent with each revised outlook.

As an outside observer, this measured slide towards using the “R” word feels like being in my car at a red stoplight with my favorite backseat driver seated beside me. As we wait for the lights to change (because we know they will), my trusted traffic manager sits there predicting the seconds until the opposing green light will turn yellow…never getting it quite right…but jubilant each time he announces…after the fact…that “The light just turned yellow”. This process continues until our red light turns green and we can proceed to the next intersection…to start all over again.

While I realize my analogy isn’t an actual equivalent, the frustrations are much the same. Yes, predicting the twists and turns of the economy isn’t an exact science…but I do find our willingness to grant these prognosticators a free pass each time they err to be a rather absurd practice. The fact that the nation holds its breath each time a new report is scheduled for release merely supports my contention.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lowered its projection for economic growth this year, citing damage from the double blows of a housing slump and credit crunch. It said it also expects higher unemployment and inflation.

Under its new economic forecast, the Fed said that it now believes the gross domestic product will grow between 1.3 percent and 2 percent this year. That’s lower than a previous Fed forecast for growth, which at that time was estimated to be between 1.8 percent and 2.5 percent.

With economic growth slowing, the Fed projected that the national jobless rate will rise to between 5.2 percent to 5.3 percent this year. That is higher than the central bank’s old forecast for the rate to climb to as high as 4.9 percent. Last year, the unemployment rate averaged 4.6 percent.

And, with energy prices marching upward, the Fed also raised its projection for inflation. The Fed now expects inflation to be between 2.1 percent and 2.4 percent this year. That’s higher than its old forecast for inflation, which was estimated to come in at around 1.8 percent to 2.1 percent.

The Fed said its revised forecasts reflected a number of factors including “a further intensification of the housing market correction, tighter credit conditions …. ongoing turmoil in financial markets and higher oil prices.”

In truth, I suspect that the average American has just as good a sense of where the economy is headed as those who get paid to inform us. If the last number in our checkbook is negative, we conclude we have a problem. Why wouldn’t the same math hold true for our national economy?

No, we allow our political leaders to sell us on the notion that a tax rebate of $300.00 to $1,200.00 is all that matters and all that is needed to jump start the economy…even as they continue to predict further economic contraction. Excuse me, but isn’t that on par with each of us taking a cash advance on an already debt heavy credit card and thinking we’re suddenly in the black?

Look, I understand the notion of spending an economy out of a downturn. However, the rest of that equation posits that the increased spending will result in new jobs, greater investment and productivity, and increasing revenues for the individual, the corporation, and the government.

Unfortunately, this equation may no longer be valid…especially since the jobs are often created in other nations, the investments are frequently targeted for countries with cheap labor such that productivity is less relevant, and the only increased revenues find their way into the pockets of formerly impoverished third world individuals and the corporations and their CEO’s that benefit from the enhanced bottom line that ensues.

So what does the average American get? A stimulus package that provides a single check that won’t overcome the unfavorable wage-inflation ratios, the higher costs of fuel, the expanding credit card debt, the skyrocketing health care costs, and the ever shrinking job opportunities.

At the same time, some of our political leaders clamor for making the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans permanent and lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent. I don’t know about anyone else, but these refund checks remind me of the dynamics underlying “the world’s oldest profession”…the one where one party gets poked for a few bucks by the fat cat who realizes that money can buy him anything he wants.

In the end, getting the powers that be to speak the “R” word is an exercise in relabeling. After all, once the deed has been done and the hush money has been paid, does it really matter what we call an old fashioned screwing? I think not.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

Housing Crisis: “Project Lifeline” Dead On Arrival

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

For homeowners facing rising interest rates, higher payments, and dwindling or nonexistent equity, the roll out of “Project Lifeline” seems little more than a “dying by inches” strategy. The plan’s 30-day freeze on foreclosures seems to be the equivalent of offering a band-aid to a patient in need of an organ transplant.

Project Lifeline is premised on the notion that granting homeowners a 30 day reprieve will lead them to contact their lender and provide some new financial information that will magically alter their grave situation such that the lender will forego the completion of foreclosure proceedings.

Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) — Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and four other U.S. lenders agreed with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to take new steps to help borrowers in danger of foreclosure stay in their homes.

Paulson and the banks offered a 30-day freeze on some foreclosures while loan modifications are considered. The Treasury chief, with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, said today at a news conference in Washington that “Project Lifeline” would help stabilize communities disrupted by mortgage defaults.

“If someone is willing to make a call, to reach out, there’s a chance they can save their home,” Paulson said. “As our economy works through this difficult period, we will look for additional opportunities to try to avoid preventable foreclosures.”

In a statement, the banks said the program would start with a letter to homeowners more than 90 days delinquent on payments that lays out procedures for them to “pause” the foreclosure process. The homeowner has 10 days to respond to the notice and give additional financial information so the lender is able to weigh new payment options.

Having worked in commercial real estate through the Savings & Loan scandal of the late 80’s, my cynicism was piqued by the announcement of this plan. In truth, I suspect most delinquent homeowners with some mathematical potential to save their homes have already contacted their lender in the hopes of renegotiating. Those homeowners who haven’t spoken to their lender are apt to already know they lack the financial means to forestall foreclosure or to withstand the terms of a restructure that may provide some minimal relief. Further, most lenders already know what I’ve just stated.

So the unasked question remains, “What is this plan really intended to achieve?” I’ll posit two answers. First, the lenders participating in this plan are themselves in dire straits and the Bush administration, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development know as much. Given the desire to avoid expanding recessionary pressures, it behooves the government and these lenders to slow the flow of home foreclosures. More bad news on the precipice of a recession simply accelerates the speed with which the economy falls further into recession. Thus, the plan hopes to blunt the bad news.

Secondarily, banking disclosure provisions require lenders to account for bad loans and to maintain acceptable loss ratios to remain viable. Should these huge institutions fall short on these formulas, an injection of additional capital is frequently required. Absent the ability to meet these capital calls, these lenders face insolvency and regulatory intervention…the very events that preceded the S&L fiasco and the subsequent creation of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC)…the entity charged with the management and administration of failed S&L’s, the bad loans they held, and the liquidation of the properties associated with those loans.

Given the huge amount of capital that has already been injected to stabilize the industry, I suspect the powers that be fear the impact of announcing even more stopgap capital infusions. If my hypothesis is correct, then my characterization of the situation as “death by inches” is certainly appropriate.

There’s no doubt the governments’ hands-off approach to regulatory oversight clearly enabled the industry’s careless and shortsighted practices. Truth be told, the government and the lending industry subsequently underestimated (or chose to bury their heads in the sand) the magnitude of the crisis. Too little has been done too late to solve the problems or to quell the growing consumer fears that hasten the trajectory of the recessionary spiral. Further half-measures to right the ship will only prolong the inevitable and heighten consumer mistrust.

A look into the pipeline simply indicates more bad news is on the way.

Federal Reserve officials project about 2 million homeowners face higher mortgage rates over the next two years as their loans reset higher. Economists at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. estimate foreclosures this year will be about 1 million more than average, a level that FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair has said “is just too high.” They average about 600,000 in a typical year.

“This [Project Lifeline] is good, but we’ve seen this over and over again,” said Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsible Lending in Washington. “The fact that they keep having to roll out subsequent rescue plans every few weeks underscores that each plan is inadequate.”

I’ll close with an observation relative to the 2008 election. George Bush’s pattern of ignoring the economic warnings and the opinions of his underlings…coupled with his new focus upon bolstering his “fiscal conservative” legacy…may serve to enhance the Democrats’ argument that voters can ill-afford the continuance of a Republican in the White House.

Each time the President asserts that the economy is sound and will soon weather the storm…and then has to backpedal…he risks placing his fellow Republicans in the unenviable position of asking voters to send them back to Washington smack-dab in the middle of an economic shitstorm.

Not only is Project Lifeline apt to be dead on arrival, the intransigent leader of the GOP may be unknowingly orchestrating his party’s death march…one stubborn George W. Bush inch at a time.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater


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