Waffles And Clotted Cream – An Epilogue

Editor’s note: Four months ago, I wrote an article about inflation couched in terms I thought anyone could understand. My good friend Jim E. has written an epilogue to the story, a story without a particularly happy ending unless you happen to work for the federal government. I never knew Jim was such an eloquent writer. This isn’t the first time there’s been a guest writer at the Experiment but certainly one of the best. — Brett

Currency Wars Part … redux. Or how I stopped worrying and learned to love deflation.

In the Land of People with Below Average Dental Hygiene, Hermione has worked her whole life and managed to save a waffle for her retirement. The waffle was important to Hermione because Hermione planned on buying-and eating-organic butter and clotted cream to make up for all the years of working and doing with less so that she could save. It is not quite time to retire, so Hermione is looking for a “risk free” place to keep her waffle.

A government official, who will by tradition remain faceless and nameless, decided that the government could do more … well, governing … if only the government had more waffles. So, this faceless and nameless government official determined that the government could borrow waffles. That way, the government could have more waffles and, consequently, govern more, without the pesky problem of waiting to accumulate waffles.

Only one problem. How to repay the waffles? Borrowing can be expensive. Then, Bob — you remember Bob who makes the excellent organic grass fed butter — shows up in Carl’s office. And, our faceless and nameless government official see’s Carl’s plan of doubling the number of waffles and our faceless and nameless official has an epiphany. Wait for it. It is coming.

So, with his epiphany, our faceless and nameless official decides that he can borrow waffles by selling government backed bonds. And, he decides to call these bonds a “risk free” investment because, well, it is the government. Who can you trust if you cannot trust your own government? (Don’t answer that. That would be skipping ahead). With his plan in hand, our faceless and nameless official prints up government bonds and offers them for sale: one bond for one waffle. Like a match made in … the other place. Hermione buys a “risk free” bond from the faceless and nameless official with full expectation of being repaid her waffle next year. And, Hermione will receive a very small amount of Bob’s organic butter to compensate her for lending the government her waffle.

If you remember in the original story, Carl then doubles the number of waffles. And, at that point, our faceless and nameless official’s epiphany is almost reality. The following year, after the number of waffles had doubled, Hermione redeems her bond and receives her one waffle. A freshly baked waffle. Unfortunately, her waffle will now only buy half the organic butter and clotted cream that the same waffle would have bought a year ago. Hermione’s dream of living on organic butter and clotted cream is shattered. She is dismayed.

But our faceless and nameless official has managed to keep one waffle after repaying one to Hermione. Our faceless and nameless official is elated (that would be the big word for happy). Someone is happy, so this must be the happy ending? Not exactly.

When the number of waffles is doubled, the government became the big winner and the hard working, hard saving Hermione … well not so much. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away from waffles and crumpets, this was called stealing. Here. Now. It is called Fed policy.

And, the above is not some fanciful story. If you bought a US 1984 30 year bond in 1984 (and that would be with 1984 dollars), that bond would be worth about 40 cents on the 1984 dollar in 2014 — last year — when it was repaid. Not some far off future date. Last year. For someone who retired in 1984 on a “fixed income”, they face Hermione’s problem and have 40 cents of buying power compared to the day that they retired.

And, that 40 cents on the dollar? That is found using the US government’s own official inflation numbers. For some reason, I am not so trusting that the government correctly calculates inflation. It is not in the government’s best interest to correctly calculate inflation. I suspect that the 40 cents on the dollar is much worse: maybe even 10 or 20 cents on the dollar. But, maybe that is just me.

The above is a simple story without much of the detail. But, it illustrates the effects of inflation even when using the official government inflation numbers.
All governments use taxes to collect revenue. As illustrated, inflation has the same effect on the government finances as raising taxes. Causing inflation — an official policy of the US government — taxes the old and the poor. It is a hidden tax. Hidden in plain sight. But, you never hear it called a tax for some reason. All the unnumbered faceless and nameless government officials as well as the elected with actual faces and names simply keep quiet about it.
As an excercise, re-read the above and instead of doubling the number of waffles, cut the number of waffles in half. That would be called deflation. And, with deflation, our faceless and nameless official would have a real problem repaying Hermione. And, that would be exceptionally painful for this faceless and nameless official.

The Fed and the rest of the government recognizes that deflation might be so bad that the faceless and nameless would have to find something else to do and maybe actually get a face and a name. And, that is never going to happen if they can help it.

On Exporting Deflation

Returning to our characters of a few weeks ago, we remember that Bob and his country had increased the supply of waffles thus making the export of Bob’s organic grass-fed butter cheaper. This happens because other countries like Nigel’s can now get more waffles on the pastry currency market and can buy more of Bob’s butter. There is a slight (or not so slight in our example of doubling the waffle supply just so Bob could sell more butter) inflationary pressure in The Land of Guns and Large Border Fences. Another effect of this decision is a slight deflationary pressure in Nigel’s Land of People With Below Average Dental Hygiene (LOPWBADH).. The reason this is so is because of the connectedness of the two countries via the pastry exchange market. The Nigel’s clotted cream now costs more to export it to Bob’s country. On the surface this looks inflationary because the prices went up. But when thinking about inflation or deflation, it’s important to consider both prices and demand. Because Nigel will now sell less clotted cream, he may have to lay off Colin, his dairy manager. Colin may then have to get a lower paying job which means he has fewer crumpets to spend. This lack of demand on a broader scale leads to deflationary pressures.

This lack in aggregate demand is a side of the inflation-deflation discuss that you’ll rarely see in financial press because it’s the part of the equation central banks have almost no control over. We’re currently seeing this in Euroland where the economies of the monetary union have been under significant downward pressure for months as unemployment remains stubbornly high in many countries. When you don’t have a job, you don’t buy either clotted cream or expensive imported grass fed butter. The continued deflationary pressure can quickly spiral downwards. Once upon a time, deflation was a normal part of the economic cycle and when every major currency in the world was tied to a hard asset, typically gold, there was a general deflationary pressure because you can’t increase the money supply without increasing the production of the hard asset. These days, with no country tied to a hard asset, deflation is supposedly a thing of the past (though the time may be returning as the Chinese government has been buying gold in large quantities, another fact you won’t see mentioned in the financial press). And in fact, deflation is a terrifying prospect for governments and citizens that are heavily indebted. During deflation, the cost of debt rises as the currency appreciates.

Imagine a scenario where 50% of your income goes to servicing your credit card debt. What happens if you suddenly make less money or if the interest rates rise? Big trouble, that’s what happens. Now your debt to income ratio goes up and you either have to do without things or begin to think about defaulting on the debt. Our reliance on debt as a society both consumer and government means deflation is extraordinarily dangerous. For example, it takes half the tax revenue of the country of Japan to service their public debt. What happens if interest rates rise in Japan? Suddenly, they struggle to pay their obligations. That’s why they (and many other countries) can’t afford to let interest rates rise. Their answer is to adopt a policy of zero interest rates by manipulating the market with made up money.

Europe is currently on the precipice of deflation. To fight it, the European Central Bank has announced a $1.3 trillion (give or take a euro or two) stimulus program aimed at increasing the inflation rate and stabilizing the fall in prices. Leaving aside whether this will even work, what effect does this have on other countries? This intentional devaluing of the Euro will lead to stronger currencies in the trading partners of Europe. Those stronger currencies now have to contend with the deflationary aspects which is exactly what is hoped for by the Eurozone. This beggar thy neighbour approach eventually causes other countries to retaliate leading to a currency war which many people think we are currently in. This is the meaning of exporting deflation.

So how is the problem actually solved? A decreasing reliance on debt is the first start. In normal times (like the 1800s) deflation was part of the business cycle. As deflation would occur, people, businesses and countries would deleverage, reducing their debt. Eventually, the economies would cycle back to inflation. In today’s world, deflation can’t even be allowed to occur because of the debt levels of countries. The goal is permanent growth because without it, we can’t pay our debts. But permanent growth funded by increasing debts is a fantasy world that doesn’t have a happy ending. A country like Japan has no choice but to try and print money (the Bank of Japan currently buys almost all of the country’s public debt) to service their debt and increase inflation. This is a grand experiment of our central banks unseen before in history. In the short term, it means the Japanese yen will continue to lose value to the dollar and the European stock markets are likely to increase just like the US stock market went up over the past several years during our own quantitative easing. In the long term, it’s anyone’s guess. What happens if Japan defaults? What happens if the ECB’s trillion euro package doesn’t work? At some point, the levels of debt have to be reduced either by the difficult process of deleveraging or by default. Neither will be pleasing and the farther down the road we kick the can, the harder it will get. Eventually, the road will end on a cliff and we may all just tumble over it.

What I’ve Been Reading

Part of my morning commute usually involves catching up on Twitter and most recently the financial information coming out of Zero Hedge along with a couple of other sources from Maudlin Economics. Many of these articles probably don’t warrant a full blog post but I thought I might start aggregating them on Sunday mornings with any thoughts I had. This has the potential to happen only this Sunday but it’s good to have goals.

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Mara has apparently been reading every article on the Atlantic lately based on my inbox but this one caught my eye. A certain faction of conservatives, namely goody goody two shoes in Nebraska and Oklahoma are fighting Colorado’s marijuana legalization saying that the states have no right to preempt federal drug laws, the irony being that it’s almost always the conservatives who yell the loudest about federal encroachment on their rights when it comes down to health care, welfare or anything else that might help people who actually need it. In this instance, the issue is being fought brought by law and order type conservatives who don’t like that citizens of those two fine states are going to Colorado to buy their pot. The issue here that the article highlights is that the states are under no obligation to enforce federal laws passed by Congress that are too sweeping for the feds to enforce on their own.

Federal drug law has always relied on the states for enforcement because the feds don’t have the manpower to enforce it. States go after little dealers in the system (which is why our incarceration rate has quintupled since Reagan’s misguided and disastrous drug war went into effect. States throw people in jail for non-violent possession crimes while the Feds can go after the traffickers. However, the states are under no obligation to actually do this and in the case of states like Colorado, can actually pass laws that are inconsistent with that. Thinking of it another way, if Congress passes laws that are too broad in scope, the states are in no way obligated to fill in the gaps. This is actually a good thing for democracy as it keeps an important check on federal power. It will be interesting to see how the suit of Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado proceeds. If the conservative side wins, we will have set a precedent for removing one of the last checks on Federal power and take a big step farther down the path of centralized government.

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This week, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) decided to end its 3 year old cap on the franc to the euro and let the market move freely in relation to the franc’s value. In response, the franc soared in value related to most major currencies, the euro being the biggest move where it appreciated 17% or so. The cap was originally put in place back during the last financial crisis when the SNB decided to limit the volatility of its currency. And so for years, the franc has been exceptionally stable against the euro. The mechanism for how this was done is beyond the scope of this post but the short version is that the Swiss would print francs and buy Euros to support the cap. By doing this they acquire lots of Euros in their foreign asset fund which seemed like a good idea at the time because the Euro was one of the strongest currencies around.

Fast forward to 2015 and suddenly the Euro is a mess. We’re talking more and more about a Greek exit from the euro which is a total unknown. Deflation is sweeping Europe which is a BAD THING in the grand scheme of things for an increasingly indebted world. On Thursday, the European Central Bank (ECB) will almost assuredly begin its own qualitative easing where it floods the market with Euros to fight the deflation. All signs are pointing to a weakening Euro and there is no end in sight. Imagine you are the SNB holding a bucketful of Euros and you might see why they want to bail out on dragging their own currency down with the Euro. Of course, this move has lots of implications. On a immediate level, allowing the franc to appreciate is bad for Swiss exports. In the ongoing currency wars, countries try to improve their economies by weakening their currency which typically increases exports. So why would the Swiss do something to actively hurt their own exporters? For one, they may have decided they don’t export that much stuff to the EU anymore and in fact they don’t. With the exception of Germany, the only country in the EU doing well (also a topic for an entirely different post), Euro dominated countries don’t account for a big chunk of Swiss exports. Instead, economies like Japan, the US and China are the ones buying expensive Swiss watches and fancy cheese.

Because Switzerland never joined the EU, they now have the flexibility to pivot their economy and make it less dependent on the disaster that is unfolding across Europe. That is what they are probably doing. One of the interesting side effects of this move is how it can roil markets. That’s because in our over leveraged, low interest rate financial system, investors are always reaching for yield. One strategy is to trade in a currency that has low volatility like the franc. Firms were happy to loan francs to day traders at highly leveraged rates (loaning 50 francs with only 1 franc as collateral is leverage). They could do this because over the last two years, the franc had an average volatility of .1 percent. It seemed totally safe. Until it wasn’t when the franc got really volatile this week. Everest Capital, a hedge fund in Miami, shut down a $830 million fund that hemorrhaged cash. Other hedge funds are in the same boat.

The takeaway from all this is that times, they are a changin’ in 2015. The dollar looks to get stronger as the EU begins fighting deflation. Even in the US, prices are falling and retail sales aren’t too great. In looking at retail sales, if you remove auto sales, this Christmas season was the third worst this century meaning only the Christmases of 2001 and 2008 were worse. Mmm, that doesn’t sound like a recovery to me. That sounds more like the US consumer is continuing to deleverage in an attempt to get their financial house in order. And when the US consumer doesn’t buy cheap Chinese crap, China’s economy gets sluggish. And when that happens, well, who knows what the end result is.

If you have a perverse affinity to monetary policy and its effects on our global financial system, it should be a fun year.

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Apparently the people who lived in our house for the last 50 years didn’t ever want a back yard and had no fence. With a road behind us that cuts through from one major street to the other, it felt like we lived next to a freeway at times. This week, we had a fence put in which has also allowed the garage to be cleaned out since it was holding all the lawn furniture. It’s starting to feel more and more like we don’t live in a homeless shelter.

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Buffett On Gold – And Why He’s Wrong

Warren Buffett recently released the annual report for his company, Berkshire Hathaway. You can read that report in its entirety here. In it, Buffett gives us his insight into investing in the modern times. Buffett has a long history of being extremely successful in the investing world, a reputation that we would be crazy to ignore. However, like any human being, Buffett has biases, biases that might negatively affect his ability to accurately examine the world and accurately deploy capital in an attempt to gain a significant return on investment. Any time you read the opinion of someone on anything (including the one you’re about to slog through), it’s important to understand the motivations and biases that said person might be trapped by.

I don’t make it a habit of reading Berkshire’s annual report though I may start. However, I ran across it this year when Kent Beck linked to this excerpt and cited it as an example of persuasive writing. Since I’m both a writer and an investor in gold, I was naturally intrigued to see what Mr. Buffett had to say about the topic. Sadly, I fail to concur on both points. The writing is clearly done by someone with a somewhat outdated understanding of the current economic system and someone who has clear biases against investing in commodities, particularly the supposedly non-productive metal gold. The excerpt linked above is only a part of Buffett’s delineation of three categories of investments. While it’s nice to excerpt only the part you find mentally comforting, it’s far more important to read the entire section to get an idea of what Buffett is saying.

Starting on page 17 of the report, Buffett details the three main categories of investments he defines: currency based assets, non-productive based assets and productive based assets. Examples of these classes are (1) money market funds and bonds, (2) gold (and poorly, tulips according to Buffett) and (3) most everything else including farms, real estate and stocks. The excerpt linked above deals only with the section on gold but let’s take a look at the classes and Buffett’s writing in their entirety.

Investments that are denominated in a given currency include money-market funds, bonds, mortgages, bank deposits, and other instruments. Most of these currency-based investments are thought of as “safe.” In truth they are among the most dangerous of assets. Their beta may be zero, but their risk is huge.

Over the past century these instruments have destroyed the purchasing power of investors in many countries, even as the holders continued to receive timely payments of interest and principal. This ugly result, moreover, will forever recur. Governments determine the ultimate value of money, and systemic forces will sometimes cause them to gravitate to policies that produce inflation. From time to time such policies spin out of control

Buffett opens up with this description of the first class of assets, namely currency denominated assets. There are several key ideas here to glean from Buffett’s writing. The first is that contrary to popular wisdom he feels that currency assets are actually quite dangerous and from the standpoint of a long term view point with the greatest return on investment, they are very dangerous. The ugly spectre of inflation, insidious and often silent, will destroy any perceived value of these investment vehicles because as Buffett so aptly points out “governments determine the ultimate value of money.” So we can assume that Buffett is keenly aware of the negative influence on inflation and manages Berkshire in a way to exceed the negative inflation tax. The second interesting thing to note is Buffett’s choice of time frame. “Over the past century” is certainly a long time frame, one that is undoubtedly picked because it fits the narrative Buffett is trying to create. This is the first example we see of a specific period of time and it’s worth a small discussion.

As always, the discussion and interpretation of time is fundamentally dependent on the context of the parties being discussed. Six months might be long term for a terminal cancer patient while sixty years might be long term for an entity like Berkshire Hathaway. More importantly, time frames on the individual level are qualitatively different that time frames from an organizational or societal level. An individual investor has a long term time frame of 30-40 years to acquire enough wealth to satisfy any financial goals he might set for retirement. Unfortunately, at the macro level where the statistics are often quoted, 30-40 years is a tiny fraction of a time slice as evidence by the Dow over the past 12 years being essentially flat with a annual negative return once inflation is considered. A full 25% of a long term investor’s time frame has returned nothing if said investor had the misfortune of being born in a period where the Dow just didn’t appreciate. The usage of a century as the time frame for examining the performance of this first class of assets is convenient for Buffett’s argument but meaningless for anyone who is interested in investing at the individual level. One hundred year time frames tell you and I almost nothing.

Continuing with his discussion of the first class:

Even in the U.S., where the wish for a stable currency is strong, the dollar has fallen a staggering 86% in value since 1965, when I took over management of Berkshire. It takes no less than $7 today to buy what $1 did at that time. Consequently, a tax-free institution would have needed 4.3% interest annually from bond investments over that period to simply maintain its purchasing power. Its managers would have been kidding themselves if they thought of any portion of that interest as “income.”

For tax-paying investors like you and me, the picture has been far worse. During the same 47-year period, continuous rolling of U.S. Treasury bills produced 5.7% annually. That sounds satisfactory. But if an individual investor paid personal income taxes at a rate averaging 25%, this 5.7% return would have yielded nothing in the way of real income. This investor’s visible income tax would have stripped him of 1.4 points of the stated yield, and the invisible inflation tax would have devoured the remaining 4.3 points. It’s noteworthy that the implicit inflation “tax” was more than triple the explicit income tax that our investor probably thought of as his main burden. “In God We Trust” may be imprinted on our currency, but the hand that activates our government’s printing press has been all too human

Again, there is a wealth of information here. First, we notice that Buffett has now narrowed his time frame to the 47 years he’s been investing. This is much more useful as it’s a time frame we can understand and profit from as individual investors. Explicitly showing how inflation destroys the value of savers wealth, we begin to get a fuller picture of Buffett’s ideas. It’s clear he does not trust any government, much less the United States, to preserve the value of its currency and because he cannot trust them, he views the instruments they control as poorly suited for his hard earned investments.

This is a critical point because it directly contradicts what he goes on to discuss in the following section on so-called non-productive assets. We now know that Buffett distrusts governments and their currencies as investment vehicles because throughout history, both at the individual and macro level, governments have never shown an interest in preserving the value of their currency. Exactly the opposite, all fiat currencies throughout time immemorial have lost value. Some times quickly, sometimes slowly, almost never orderly, the value of any given governmental currency has disappeared over time.

However, it is interesting to note that while Buffett is disdainful of this class of asset, he states that at times in the past, Berkshire has discovered mispriced markets and profited in this class based on that mispricing. While largely focused on the long term, Buffett works on a daily basis on the short term, especially as it relates to the economic outlook of a given time. This points out yet another contradiction in the coming discussion of gold. While over the long term, investing in currency based assets has been detrimental and destructive to an individual’s capital, in the short term there have been opportunities to capitalize on market irrationality and profit in this class. This is also true for gold and it seems inconceivable to Mr. Buffett that we might currently be in a time when we can profit from exposure to metals in our portfolios.

Let’s turn to the second class of assets Buffett discusses.

The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.

This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the futur

This is only a partial representation of this class and unfortunately, it is poorly represented by the example given by Buffett of tulips. I would argue that there are two subclasses of this class. The first subclass represents those items that have a shelf life. Examples are food commodities, cattle and of course, tulips. These items have value because somewhere at the end of the buying chain lives a person who is willing to pay retail price for the item. No one invests in tulips with the express intent of storing wealth over time.

The second subclass is represented by things without a shelf life at least in human terms and includes things like metals and oil. This class can be thought of not only as investments but as stores of wealth. A store of wealth is an alternative to currency and actually encompasses most things we buy. For example, I have a set of noise canceling headphones on my desk. At some level, they are a store of wealth in that at no point in the future will they have a value of zero. We can assume that if they continue to work, I can always sell them to someone even though the sale price may be a tiny fraction of the price I paid. A tulip clearly does not fit into this category. The problem with the headphones is that once I took them off the proverbial lot, they have depreciated in value at every single moment since and will continue to depreciate unless some strange confluence of events emerges that misprices the market for old headphones.

Hard commodities like oil and the metals on the other hand have throughout time, both long and short term, experienced periods where economic factors have created an increase in value of their wealth. We are experiencing one currently. This happens for a variety of reasons but it is often related to that very fear Buffett outlines in his section on the first class of assets, namely that governments cannot be trusted to preserve the value of their particular currency. Gold, as a store of wealth, has no overseer other than the market and the price that market is willing to support. It is fundamentally different in type from tulips and shouldn’t be discussed in the same way at all.

Further on, Buffett details what he believes motivates the buyers of gold:

What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while

First off it’s important to note the pejorative distinction of bandwagon investors. The scare quotes alone are enough to tell us what Buffett thinks of those people currently buying gold in today’s market. There are two fundamental things wrong with this usage. First, at some level, all investors are bandwagon investors unless they are exceptionally lucky or exceptionally foresighted. Markets by definition in any growth industry are about the accumulation of more investors over time who believe the price of the market will go up. And secondly, a large part of Buffett’s strategy for acquiring wealth over the long term stands on his ability to identify markets where bandwagon investors will drive the market higher. While he clearly denigrates people who jump on the bandwagon of some market, his success is fundamentally dependent on that continuing to happen at some level. Also interesting to note is the usage of “for a while”. Again, time comes into play and just as Buffett has in the past made money on currency assets when the price was right, one would think that he would be open to making money on hard commodities when the time was right. All markets are right “for a while”. The key is knowing when that time is. And that brings us to what Buffett most likely thinks about gold and that is that the time is not right. He most likely believes that gold has reached the end of its run and will thus at some point in the not so distant future begin to lose value perhaps dramatically. The question is, is he right? We’ll look at that more in a bit.

Buffett then goes on to talk about two recent bubbles, Internet stocks and housing. The issue there is of course that those bubbles were driven largely by a Federal Reserve policy that eased the money supply in exactly the way Buffett outlines in his first section. Those bubbles were driven by cash chasing return. I believe the current gold boom is being driven by a completely different impetus and that is the collapse of the dollar as the world reserve currency though certainly the gold market is aided by the fact that the Federal Reserve, with the implicit and explicit support of the Treasury and an inept Congress, is greatly increasing the money supply forcing people to find alternative stores of wealth for their cash because the US Government is actively destroying it in an attempt to prop up a broken financial system.

If we look at the next ten years as it relates to the financial picture of the US Government, we see that the Federal Reserve has expanded its balance sheet in a manner unheard of in history. US Debt to GDP may reach 159% or more by 2020 which in and of itself may not be the death knell but is certainly the symptom of a very sick patient. Because the US Government will likely never default on its debts, the only other reasonable solution is to inflate our way out of the mess. When we do this, the dollar will be worth much, much less and gold will be worth much, much more. The important key here is see that the market for hard commodities including gold has a time frame. Buffett believes that the time frame is near the end of the bull run and thus he is not interested in investing in it. I, and many other people far smarter than me, believe that we are nowhere near the end of the bull run because I see no way out of the mess we are currently in short of inflating our way out of it. Our government could wake up tomorrow realizing the error of its ways and move onto a path of fiscal responsibility that included drastic cuts in spending. However, that would cause immense short term pain in the economy and I think we all know how likely our politicians are to implement something that directly affects their ability to get reelected.

When it’s all said and done (and I promise, I’ve about said everything I can), the outlook for hard commodities including gold is promising over the next 8-10 years in my opinion. I do not see the world economies stabilizing substantially until we either rein in run away spending or a collapse happens. Either way, gold will serve as a store of wealth in the interim, not as a fifty year investment but instead as a way to protect our wealth from the vagaries and shortsightedness of our political leaders. Until a balance can be returned to the financial markets, gold (and possibly far more profitably, silver) will be attractive to investors throughout the world including large governmental buyers like China who most certainly can see the writing on the wall for their investment in US debt and who are even now moving to acquire large reserves of other currencies including gold.

I largely admire Buffett and his success. Fundamentally, his outlook on the US economy is similar to my own in that I think the US is the best place for investing in the future and will continue to be so. However, our time frames are fundamentally different and that leads to a divergence on our views of the yellow metal, among other things. While Buffett has no interest in putting Berkshire’s money into the metals, I believe the bull market will run for at least another 8 years and at that point, depending on the economic factors of the time, perhaps a reevaluation of owning gold will be in order. Until then, I plan to acquire not sell gold until I’m proven otherwise wrong in the market.

With These Kinds of Friends, Who Needs Enemies?

I recently started receiving Kiplinger’s magazine, a Christmas gift from my dad. I was working through the first issue I received when on page 9, I ran into an article of such glaringly bad advice that I almost thought it was parody. Thankfully, though Kiplinger’s is fomenting stale financial advice on their readers, they have joined the 21st century and put their content online so here’s the article for your perusal as we go along. The article argues that people who choose 15 year mortgages over 30 year mortgages or who prepay their principal down throughout the mortgage are making a big financial mistake.

Right off the bat, an astute reader can see where this is going:

When it comes to home loans, we’re a nation of debt-a-phobes.

This is in fact not true. Homeownership rates are actually higher than they were 40 years ago but the equity in the homes have steadily fallen since World War II. That actually means we, the citizens of the US, are the opposite of debt-a-phobes. While it’s true that the last few years have seen a huge deleveraging in the consumer sector, it’s akin to coming down to base camp on Mt. Everest from the summit. While the height has changed dramatically, we’re still badly in debt. The average consumer is deleveraging because of poor economic outlooks after years of being told that consumption was the path to the holy land of happiness. This is completely rational behavior and yet, Kiplinger’s, in all their infinite wisdom, is now arguing that not only should you own a home, you should buy it with a 30 year mortgage instead of a 15 year mortgage and that you should never pay down the principal.

They argue that the 30 year loan confers tax advantages on the owner (true) and that by leveraging that advantage, your effective mortgage rate is 2.9%. They then make the amazing leap of conclusion that there is a good chance you can make more than that in the stock and bond market over the long term, conveniently leaving off the necessary qualifier for what “long-term” means in this scenario. Based on the last 10-15 years of the stock market performance, it seems safe to think “long-term” might be much much longer than what the average Kiplinger’s reader might feel comfortable with.

The next whopper is this:

You can save a lot of interest by choosing a 15-year loan over a 30-year — about $63,000 after taxes on a $200,000 loan for someone in the 28% tax bracket. But ask yourself whether you can really afford the higher monthly payment — in this case, $1,420 versus $955. Have you maxed out your 401(k) and built up an emergency fund? Paid off credit cards? Funded insurance policies and, if you desire, college savings? If you haven’t, choose the 30-year loan. And if you have, choose the 30-year loan anyway and put the difference between the two payments in a savings or investment account.

There are so many problems with this paragraph it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, this is akin to arguing that you should buy a TV with a credit card instead of cash if you can’t afford the TV. Here’s a bit of advice: if you can’t afford the 15 year payment, you’re buying too much damn house. The author just handwaves away that $63,000 in interest as if it’s meaningless in terms of your financial freedom when in fact it’s a HUGE issue for why people stay in debt. Then after trying to dismiss the interest, she says to do it even if you can afford the 15 year and use the difference to fund other savings, ignoring the fact that if buyers don’t have the discipline to pay for a 15 year mortgage, they probably don’t have the discipline to pay for a 30 year and use the difference to fund other savings. Again, if you haven’t funded your savings and if you have substantial credit card debt, you shouldn’t be buying a house to begin with, much less a house with a 30 year mortgage that will cost you $63,000 over the course of the loan. This is fundamental financial advice that we the American consumer have ignored for 30 years to our own peril.

The logic gets even more twisted:

There are few better hedges against inflation than a mortgage. If inflation rises, so will interest rates. But you’ll have borrowed at a low, fixed rate while savings rates climb and you’ll pay the loan back with increasingly cheaper dollars.

If this is true (which it is in a way), it’s even more true with a 15 year mortgage since the rates on 15 year mortgages are EVEN LOWER than 30 year mortgages. So this little gem actually proves the counterpoint.

Overall, the entire advice is based on the now horrifyingly broken assumption that home prices will rise over time. While this was true for the first part of the rush to own a home in America, there is little evidence that it is now, or will become, true. The housing boom was driven by a cycle of extremely easy money provided by a lax Federal Reserve who refused to believe that a bubble was blowing up right in front of their eyes. The glut of homes in foreclosure will continue to surpress prices and the exceptionally gloomy economic outlook will keep the housing market from any kind of rebound for the foreseeable future. Telling people to lock themselves into a 30 year debt that may very well be worth less money when they sell it is like telling people they should buy a car with a 6 year loan.

Debt is not a bad thing, in and of itself if you are disciplined and if you have a way to leverage that debt to your advantage. However, the days are long gone of buying a house and watching the price go up, essentially becoming a built in savings account. Debt has to be used intelligently and infrequently by consumers and there is no evidence most consumers are capable of the discipline required. Seeing this kind of advice in a major financial outlet just shows we have an exceptionally long time yet to go before the economic picture becomes anything resembling rosy.

Some People Are Just Baby Tossers

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand portrayed a society where the best and the brightest people essentially picked up their proverbial basketball and went home, leaving the rest of us struggling, mediocre morons to fend for ourselves as said society broke down (she also seemed to favor situations where women got raped, possibly a window into her extremism). It was an exceptionally popular book when it was written and to this day holds a certain appeal among young adolescent males (I know, I thought for sure I was an Objectivist for most of my 20s). It details an appealing view, a utopia where only the best and the brightest can live and survive, always making rational decisions that further the utopia in its quest for rational perfection. It’s attractive because who amongst us haven’t looked at some situation, whether it’s the political process, the financial industry or the screaming three year old who refuses to take a poop anywhere but in his pants and thought “Screw it, I’m throwing in the towel, consequences be damned, and starting over. It’s just not worth it to fix it.”

The desire to start over is strong. It’s the appeal of the blank slate, the chance to make all the right decisions this time, to explore new boundaries without the constraints of previous mistakes and silly ideas like the law. It’s the dirty little hope we have when we wish for people to get what they deserve because doing what’s required to fix the system is harder work than we’d like to bother with. It’s the preparation of the survivalists who assuming the shit ever hits the fan hard enough all think they are going to blend off into the woods, leaving the rest of us to suffer as civilization breaks down.

It’s nice to fantasize about people getting what they deserve for being bumbling, ill-advised inactive blobs of protoplasm and uselessness. However, here in the real world, not only is that not feasible, it is typically counter productive, more likely to lead to chaos than it is to improvement. When you hope SOPA passes “because that’s exactly what we need to wake up from this slumbering, do-nothing, “occupy everything,” stagnant, non-action slump we Americans are in”, you’re essentially saying “you people deserve to be punished because you can’t find the time to stand up and fix things, I hope you rot in hell” (you’re also saying you fundamentally misunderstand the Occupy movements but maybe we’ll discuss that at a later point).

Does the author really think SOPA passing is going to be the eye opener when the financial crisis of 2008 wasn’t? Does he think internet censorship will make things completely different when the President assassinating US citizens didn’t? Does he think utopia will be established after SOPA passes and we see the light when Fed expanding its balance sheet by trillions of dollars enabling banking executives to continue to reap lavish bonuses while the rest of us slogged along in 1% interest land didn’t?

It’s fun to get your panties in a wad about SOPA (if you don’t know what SOPA is, it’s Congress’ latest heavy handed tactic to fellate the movie and recording industry by trying to shut down piracy. Read more about it here) and go off on a tangent about the lazy, complacent Americans who can’t bother to stand up and change things. But the reality of the situation is that lots and lots of Americans have been standing up over the past several years and actually implementing change. And that change is happening, albeit at likely too slow a pace to please the folks like the author linked above who would prefer some sort of punctuated equilibrium to occur in the political process. The Tea Party rose out of the financial crisis and lots of those folks are working hard behind the scenes to get people elected in an attempt to change the politics of the nation. Occupy Wall Street rose out a desire in a large group of people to protest what they saw as an unfair playing field, one that enabled the cheaters and manipulators to succeed while normal people continued to suffer. The protests of SOPA actually convinced several Congresscritters to remove their support for the bill including one who actually co-sponsored it.

The complaint comes up that these things will happen again, that Congress will try to shill for the recording lobby again and that defeating SOPA is just treating the symptom instead of the cause of the disease.

My problem with this huge online protest against SOPA, and the reason I rarely take part in such protests, is because it doesn’t address any problems, only the symptom. The problem isn’t this shitty bill, it’s the people who sponsored it. So we protest this bill today, bang enough pots and pans to shame a few backers into not letting this bill pass, then what? Those same dipshits who wrote this legislation still have jobs. They’re going to try again, and again, and again until some mutation of this legislation passes. They’ll sneak it into an appropriation bill while nobody’s looking during recess, because there’s too much lobbyist money at stake for them not to. We defeat SOPA today, only to face it again tomorrow. It’s like trying to stop a cold by blowing your nose. It’s time we go after the virus.

The problem with that analogy is that once you have a virus, you’ve just got the virus. There’s no going after it, not in the sense he means. You can only do things to mitigate the effects of the virus. Of course, you can develop a vaccine for a virus that prevents people from getting it but let’s face it, the virus of politics probably doesn’t lend itself to vaccination. People don’t go into politics to fix the world, they go into politics because they are power hungry individuals who love to listen to themselves talk (except Ron Paul. Well, maybe even Ron Paul but the jury is still out). Instead, you treat a virus by always being vigilant and aware, watching for outbreaks and squashing them at the fastest rate you can.

That’s the better analogy for what’s going on in American politics today. We have become infected by a political virus that thrived for decades on ignorance, continued prosperity of the middle class and the growing complexity in regulation of the US Government. But over the past few years, the people of America (in admittedly slow and sometimes odd ways) have decided that enough is enough. We aren’t to a boiling point yet, where we have millions of people marching on Washington or civil unrest (none of which is out of the question or even that unlikely I’m afraid) but things ARE changing. The blowback on SOPA shows that.

Life will never be rational and clean like so many of the “blow it all up and start over” folks want it to be. Fixing the system from within is hard, long, tedious work, work that may not ever be finished. But throwing up our hands and saying “I hope SOPA passes because that’s what we deserve” is like saying telling a lung cancer patient “I hope the radiation and chemo fail because that’s what you deserve”. Regardless of how we got here, regardless of what ignorance we accepted and encouraged, regardless of the criticality of the disease (and trust me, I think this patient is insanely sick, possibly terminally), we have to treat the patient in the best way we know how until he’s better or dies. Throwing up our hands and declaring premature defeat is a sure way to a disastrous end that serves no one but the parasites best interests. The very fact that practically the entire internet rose up Wednesday and said “enough is enough” in response to SOPA should be not a cause for despair, but a slight ray of hope in a long, arduous treatment of chemotherapy that our political process must go through to make the patient whole again.

Why the MF Global Bankruptcy Is Important To You

The privileged have regularly invited their own destruction with their greed. — John Kenneth Galbraith

If you follow the financial news on a semi-regular basis, you know that MF Global, a futures fund run by Jon Corzine, former governor of New Jersey, went bankrupt last week. If you don’t read the financial news, well God bless you. As far as things go, the fact that MF Global went bankrupt isn’t particularly important, in and of itself. In the current financial ecosystem we live in, companies go bankrupt. What makes the MF Global bankruptcy so different is that it was quickly discovered that customer assets to the tune of $600 million went missing when regulators showed up to figure out what the hell happened. Right off the bat, you should be a little nervous. Sure, this is a hedge fund probably catering to high end clientele but there were also plenty of normal people who traded with MF Global. And their money is gone. Missing. Permanent vacation. This is the very scary story of how the oligarchy is looting the proletariat and it has wide ranging implications for the financial system we all operate in and trust in.

Some MF Global history is in order. Even though they were a derivatives broker, they weren’t particularly profitable and somewhere along the way, Mr. Corzine made the decision to start trading with the firm’s own money. Now typically, in more normal times, brokers and trading firms made money by clearing customers’ trades. For example, when you sell or buy a security at Fidelity, they make money on the commission they charge you for handling that transaction. Once upon a time, when the world was flush with cash and the Nasdaq was screaming towards the stratosphere, clearing trades could be pretty profitable without much risk. Then 2008 came and suddenly, people didn’t think trading in the stock market made that much sense any more. The easy money dried up. For the larger firms, they could handle that but firms like MF Global immediately started losing money.

At the time Corzine come on board, two thirds of MF Global’s revenue was based on clearing trades and that wasn’t working out too well. Corzine decided to take the firms’ own money and make leveraged bets on a variety of gambles in an effort to shore up the falling revenues. One of his biggest bets, to the tune of $6.3 billion, was on European sovereign debt with an emphasis on Italy, Portugal and Spain. That sovereign debt was due to mature in 2012.

So what happened? Well, as with so many of the horror stories over the past three years in the financial world, this story begins with the word “leverage”. If you look at the holdings of MF Global as compared to its assets, what you find is that MF Global was using leverage of about 40 to 1 to make these bets. That means for every $40 in securities that MF Global held, it only had $1 backing it. At those levels, the proverbial shit can hit the fan faster than you can imagine. For comparison’s sake, Lehman Brothers was leveraged at about 35 to 1 back in 2008 when it nearly took down the world’s financial system.

How this all went down is slightly complicated, especially if you’re unfamiliar with how the bond market works. And frankly, I’m pretty unfamiliar with it all and thus, the discussion below may be riddled with errors. It’s my understanding based on reading a variety of sources on the MF Global debacle.

Much of the financial media is commenting that this all happened because the proprietary bets that MF Global was making with their own money went south in a hurry two weeks ago when interest rates on Italian debt started going north. But that’s not quite what happened with MF Global. Their bets weren’t based on the expected performance of the bonds. They were essentially a liquidity trade where they used the bonds in a repurchase agreement or repo. What that means is that they bought the bonds then sold them to a counterparty in exchange for cash. The catch is that in a repurchase agreement, the seller–in this case MF Global– had to agree to buy the bonds back at maturity from the counterpart whereupon they could return the bond and collect their coupon value plus the interest. A very simplified example would help.

Let’s say you would like to upgrade your kitchen. It’s going to cost $1000. You don’t have $1000. So you come to me and say that you’d like me to buy a bond from you. If I buy a $1000 12 month bond from you, you will use the $1000 I give you to upgrade your kitchen. The agreement you make with me is that in 12 months, you’ll give me my $1000 back plus an agreed upon interest payment, let’s say 10% or $100 in this case. So I get $100 out of the deal in return for loaning you $1000, you get a new kitchen and everyone is happy. This is a basic bond transaction. Happens all the time. In our MF Global example, you would be a European country in need of cash, say Italy, and I would be MF Global.

But MF Global wasn’t that interested in 10% in 12 months. They needed cash. So they did a repo with counterparties. In our simplified example, let’s say I can’t wait 12 months for the cash but that I don’t turn you down. What I might do is go to our friend Lloyd and say “I have this bond. I’d like to do a repo with you where you give me $1000 in exchange for the bond and pay you $1050 in 12 months.” What I’ve done is cut my $100 profit in half by agreeing to give half of it to Lloyd in exchange for having my $1000 back. But if the going rate for borrowing money is 1%, I’m making a killing with that 5%. And because all this is “financed to maturity”, i.e. nothing really happens until the bond matures, it’s considered to be extremely low risk. On top of that, if I’m a business, I can book the $50 in profit immediately, which if I happen to be reporting to shareholders, is a good thing. And because the original coupon rate of the bond, in our example $1000, is going to get repaid regardless of fluctuations in the bond market, it’s considered a safe way to provide liquidity.

In theory, this is all straightforward, practically risk free. When you’re dealing with sovereign debt, even with a country like Italy, the chance of them defaulting is almost negligible (ignore for the moment the fact that Italy does not have a lender of last resort and thus shouldn’t be considered in the same way a country like the US would be–that’s the subject of another exceptionally long blog post). The only way this situation can get ugly is if the counterparty (our friend Lloyd) decides that maybe I’m not going to have the money to repurchase the bond from him. If for example I get in deep with my bookie who happens to also be Lloyd’s bookie, rumor might get out that I don’t have the money to repay the bookie much less Lloyd. Well Lloyd might come back to me and increase my margin by asking for half the payment of the bond. For $500, maybe I scrape that up by working at WalMart for a month. When we’re talking about the $6.3 billion MF Global had leveraged, that calls for rather desperate measures.

This is essentially what happened with MF Global. The counterparties that had entered the repo agreements with them decided that maybe they weren’t going to have the cash to pay them back, especially given the rather disappointing conference call October 25th reporting a $191 million loss, the largest in the firm’s history, a history that includes annual losses the last three years. You can imagine if you’re Lloyd and the losses are really starting to mount, you might want to protect yourself. So he did. As that news spread, clients of MF Global, the people who are really screwed in this situation, started trying to get their money out. Some probably did. Others seem to have been given checks that bounced. Imagine if you tried to take the money you have in Fidelity out and not only would they not wire you the money as is normal but they sent you a check that bounced. That might just cause a run on Fidelity.

That’s exactly what happened at MF Global. Combine the counterparties with the MF Global clients trying to bail out along with a 40 to 1 leverage problem and suddenly, bankruptcy is the only way out. However, they made one last desperate move before the bankruptcy filing. And it’s sickening. Someone at MF Global decided that there was a chance they could manage the crisis if they could just get through the weekend. Specifically, they were trying to unwind the bets in Europe with Blackrock’s help among others. So what they did either late Wednesday October 26th or very early in the morning October 27th was take a mixed bag of assets and securities out of their clients accounts and moved them into a house account to the tune of about $700 million. These assets were Treasuries, securities and commodities, all things that wouldn’t be noticed very quickly. They then made an agreement with someone as yet unnamed (but who was undoubtedly complicit) to loan them money based on those assets. That party probably refused to loan anymore than about half the amount of the assets values knowing full well the likelihood of a pending MF Global bankruptcy. So MF Global probably got around $400 million for this little agreement. The plan was probably to make it through the weekend, unwind the bond assets, find another lender, repay the lender of last resort and then put the “borrowed” assets back in clients accounts, no one the wiser. Unfortunately, the gambit failed and they had to declare bankruptcy Monday morning.

When MF Global declared bankruptcy, whoever that unnamed last resort lender was took ownership of all those assets. What they probably did was immediately liquidate them to cover their loss. That means the MF Global clients money is GONE. It may never return. This is the part that’s so important to all of us. Someone in power at MF Global essentially looted their clients accounts in attempt to save their own skin. And if you think anyone at MF Global is going to be prosecuted for this travesty, you have a great deal more unfounded faith in the system than I do. The implication here is that no money in the system is safe. This rapidly can become a credibility trap, one in which no one feels that the money they have in the financial market is safe. If that happens, bad shit is going to go down. As Jesse notes above, this is a major test for the Obama Justice Department. If you don’t see perps prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and all the money returned one way or the other, you can know that this behavior is largely condoned in a very explicit manner.

Our financial system is teetering on the brink. We pushed it to the edge in 2008 and instead of pulling back and reforming the destructive behavior of those who took us there, we built a small glass platform on the edge and told everyone in the world to jump on. That glass platform is growing increasingly unsteady. It will only take one small increase in the load to send us all right over the precipice. And it’s the elite, the oligarchy at the highest levels who are pushing us all out there with little regard for any of the possible destruction. These are extremely dark days and not many of us know it. I’m beginning to think it’s not a matter of “if” we see another collapse but just “when”. Our politicians have shown no interest in accepting the necessary pain required now to avert us from that future disaster. No one is explaining this to the people in a clear and concise manner. We are all just drifting along in a rudderless boat in extremely rocky waters. It’s only a matter of time before we end up with a huge hole in the side of the boat that can’t be patched.

A Bedtime Story To Haunt Your Sleep

Imagine if you will a friend–perhaps imaginary, perhaps not–who spends money as if it grew on trees. He buys things constantly, upgrading to the latest and greatest, always drives a new car. None of this is a problem if he’s independently wealthy but let’s say he’s not. Let’s say he makes $40,000 a year but has outstanding debt $66,400. At first, this isn’t a problem. Nik makes the minimum payments, creditors are happy and Nik goes on his merry way. One month though, Nik misses a payment. Suddenly, one of the credit cards he has jumps from 9.9% to 18.9%. Not a deal breaker for his lifestyle but a sign that maybe things aren’t going too well. Then something bad happens. Nik loses his job. Lucky for him, he finds another one but it only pays him $35,000 a year and in the meantime, he’s missed a payment on another credit card, jumping that rate up to 18.9% too.

Suddenly, Nik is in a bit of a spot. He’s making less money, still has the same debt but has to pay more on that debt just to service it because his overall interest rate has gone up. In the real world, Nik has a few options. He can try to get a better job and make more money. He can drastically cut back on his spending, lowering his quality of life and make larger payments towards the debt. He can try to approach his creditors and negotiate his debt down, either by lowering the interest rate or the amount or both. Or he can default, declare bankruptcy and try to get a fresh start. What he chooses depends on his particular situation but as his friend, you are in impartial observer for the most part.

However, let’s change the story a little. Let’s say that late in the game, Nik decided to go to the local loan shark, Heinrich. He wants to borrow some money from Heinrich to keep the lifestyle going. Heinrich, normally the lender of last resort, takes one look at Nik’s balance sheet and says, “yeah, not so much. There’s no way you’re going to be able to pay me back so I’m not loaning you any money.” Nik tells you this sob story over coffee one day and you get a brilliant idea to make some money off Nik. You’ll go to Heinrich and tell him that you’ll sell him an insurance policy that essentially says, if Nik declares bankruptcy, you’ll pay Heinrich for Nik. You’re a model upstanding citizen with a large bank account so Heinrich agrees. He gives Nik the money and then every so often at agreed upon intervals, Heinrich gives you a small insurance payment. Everybody is happy.

Unless Nik declares bankruptcy. Then, you’re not so happy because you have to pay Heinrich back. Suddenly, you have some skin in the game. Now in normal circumstances, you’d probably never agree to sell Heinrich that insurance policy no matter how much money you had or how good a friend Nik was. It’s just not very smart. But what if you had a pretty good idea that the insurance policy was guaranteed, e.g. there was no way Nik would default? Nik would never default, Heinrich would keep paying you insurance and you were guaranteed never to have to pay off the policy. Well then, it’s free money! Yay for free money! Even if it wasn’t guaranteed that Nik wouldn’t default, you’d have a strong self-interest in making sure he didn’t. You might even act in ways that were contrary to Nik’s long term success just to keep him from defaulting, if you could. Man, you’re a shitty friend.

While this is a highly simplified little story, it’s somewhat analogous to what’s going on on the world’s economic stage right now, as best as we can tell. Imagine if you will that Nik is Greece, Heinrich is Germany and you are the hedge funds and money markets of America. Most countries look at Greece’s finances and say, “no way in hell are we loaning them any more money, they can’t pay back what they already owe.” But somewhere along the way, American hedge funds and money markets thought to themselves, “There’s no way that Greece is defaulting, the EU won’t allow it. It would cause huge catastrophe. On top of that, our own government has shown in the past that they will step in and backstop companies like AIG and Lehman Brothers if need be. We could sell insurance on Greek debt that would essentially be guaranteed not to be collected on and make a mint.”

This is the very definition of moral hazard. And while we have no explicit proof of the above scenario to my knowledge, we have some pretty good circumstantial evidence that it’s going on:

And the Europeans are very angry that a few weeks ago Tim Geithner, the bank lobbyist, came over and insisted that Europe not forgive Greece’s bank loans, not let Greece write down the loans, and indeed that it not even claim that Greece should do what Argentina is and write down the loans as a premise. Mr. Geithner explained to the Europeans that the largest insurers of the Greek debt are American money market funds and hedge funds. And he said American hedge funds and banks would lose money and actually would crash the U.S. economy, if Europe made a concession to Greece to bring debts down to the ability to pay. So, instead of a debt write-down or a haircut, the banks said, “OK, we will agree with what the Americans are insisting on, and we will ask for a voluntary write-down by the banks on the Greek debt they hold.” Obviously, European banks who are not part of the credit default swaps have disagreed with this. So the Americans are putting immense pressure on Europe, saying, “We will wreck your economy, if you don’t wreck Greece’s economy.”

Last week, when a deal for a supposed bailout for Greece was announced, the market celebrated. Monday, when the Greek Prime Minister said he was going to put it to a vote of the Greek people, the market tanked. Today, when the referendum was yanked back off the table, the market celebrated. Why do we think that is so? Because the market knows that bailouts for Greece are good for the market whether they are good for the Greek people or not. The Greek people are starting to see that bailouts when they come with the conditions of severe austerity programs are not actually good for them. It is fun for certain people to say this is what they deserved all along, that they should have lived within their means. But this continued insistence that the only people at fault in these situations are the debtors is ludicrous. In every agreement between a creditor and debtor, blame lies equally with both. Without one, you cannot have the other. The countries that continually loaned money to Greece well beyond the amount they could possibly pay are equally to blame for this crisis as are the Greeks. But the major players on the stage do not care one whit about the Greek people. They only want to keep making money. They knew–or thought they knew–that loaning money to an EU partner that that partner could not possibly repay would be guaranteed by someone. Moral hazard has created a situation where the financial elite and the oligarchy make decisions based on what they expect from some governmental entity in the future.

Satyajit Das has pointed out that the European debt crisis can end in one of three ways:

The European debt endgame remains the same: fiscal union (greater integration of finances where Germany and the stronger economies subsidise the weaker economies); debt monetisation (the ECB prints money); or sovereign defaults.

Of the three, the first is almost completely out the window. Even if the German populace would agree to it, they don’t have as much wiggle room as would be necessary to fix the debt problem of all the weaker EU countries. The European Central Bank (ECB) has a set policy against expanding its balance sheet which makes number 2 difficult as well. That leaves us with sovereign defaults which means all the bailouts in the world only kick the can slightly farther down the road until the market forces the politicians’ hands.

So what happens if we get a sovereign default or two? Well, contrary to the many people in America who think they are largely insulated from such an occurrence, if the above scenario is true and the hedge funds and money markets of America have engaged in selling insurance (credit default swaps) on Greek, Italian and other European debt, we have a situation where economic collapse could easily happen in America. If those CDS are cashed in, people may discover that they can’t pull any money out of their money market funds. That could cause a run on banks and we all know how that ends up.

We had a chance to handle instances of moral hazard back in 2008. Our politicians completely let us down at the time and only reinforced the idea for the banks and the oligarchy that the government will always backstop them. By doing so and refusing to significantly reform the financial system, they opened up a scenario where a small country in Europe could possibly bring down the financial system around the world. They kicked the can a little farther down the road but we’re all going to be paying for it for a very long time.

An Exogenous Event

Last week, it appeared that something of a plan, however roughly sketched out, had been drawn up in the great European debt crisis. Markets around the world rejoiced with something bordering on abandon even though astute observers questioned the lack of details in the plan. The plan revolved around bondholders taking an approximate 50% haircut on their holdings in return for another large bailout for the stricken economies, specifically Greece. Much backslapping and handshaking commenced and the wool was pulled over everyone’s eyes.

That is, until yesterday when the wool was yanked off by the temerity of the Greek Prime Minister when he dared to take the proposed changes to a referendum for the Greek people to decide upon. Imagine the boldness of a leader who thought maybe his people should vote on the proposed austerity changes necessary to get the bailout. While there is no doubt Prime Minister George Papandreou has his own reasons for doing this (and we can promise they have little to do with the democracy of the Greek people), the very fact he’s doing it at all tells us a great deal about the likelihood of a successful resolution to the European debt crisis. You can imagine the shock of the financial and political elite upon finding out that Mssr. Papandreou was putting the bailout to a vote.

The announcement came “out of the blue, it’s surprising, very risky,” Norbert Barthle, the ranking member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party on parliament’s budget committee, said in a telephone interview. “There’s an enormous amount at stake. Do we know how the Greek people will treat their government in this referendum? No. We have a new unknown.”

“If the Greek people don’t see the necessity of backing Papandreou we have a whole different ballgame,” Otto Fricke, the budget spokesman in parliament for Merkel’s Free Democratic Party coalition partner, said by phone. “If he doesn’t get a majority, then there’s no second aid package, no voluntary haircut. We’d have a potentially explosive situation, one that leaves us today baffled as to what we could possibly do next.”

Le chef de l’Etat est consterné par l’annonce de ce référendum, selon Arnaud Leparmentier, journaliste du Monde, qui suit l’Elysée. “Le geste des Grecs est irrationnel et de leur point de vue dangereux”, selon un proche du président. (Which roughly translates to “What the hell does that idiot Papandreou think he’s doing asking the people for support? That’s not the way we do it in France”) Source

Understand, the Greeks are being asked to take on austerity measures that are draconian in nature. Their standard of living and wages will be negatively affected for decades. The people of Greece have seen little of the boom years while their politicians and financial elite have made a fine living. You can imagine the people of Greece might be hesitant to accept such a bargain. Obviously, the German and French elite are shocked with the possibility that their bailout may hinge on the whims of the people of Greece. Here they had a plan all figured out whereupon they could get at least some of their money back from those profligate Greeks and it may all go south in a hurry.

This little debacle aside, on a larger scale, this could be the exogenous event that takes down the European Union and with it, the tenuous uptick in the global economy. The European politicians have been slow to respond throughout this crisis and the plan they came up with seems to have no Plan B should it fail. Should the Union fail, there is absolutely no telling what reverberations it might have on the global economy. Initially, finance would flow into the US as a perceived safe haven. But past the initial shock and short term catastrophe, the future is exceptionally murky. The US fortunes are largely tied to the European Union having loaned billions of dollars to French and German banks. Should one or more of those banks fail, we’ll have an event that makes 2008 look practically kitten like in its severity. You can count on those loans being insured somehow much the same way that the mortgage bets were insured in 2008 and that nearly took down AIG. A large bank failure in Europe will ripple across the Atlantic in ways no one can predict at this point.

Solving the European crisis has been practically doomed from the start as it is next to impossible to get the necessary participants to agree on any solution that is mutually beneficial. All politicians are only concerned with the short term and their own skin. Asking them to look into the future and solve a problem with a lot of pain short term was asking too much. There seems to have been no consideration that countries within the EU might need to default or be backstopped in such a way. Instead of an orderly solution, we’re likely to see an extremely disorderly solution when the market tries to figure out what the politicians could not. The market has largely been suppressed in its discovery which will only serve to make things worse. As we find out who owes who what, entire economies may collapse. It would all make for such interesting theatre if we weren’t all players on the stage.

What Occupy Wall Street Is Really About

The Republican response to the Occupy Wall Street movement is one of shallowness and misunderstanding. It’s hypocritical in nature. Instead of seizing on the anger that is clearly driving OWS as well as the Tea Party, conservatives are maligning the motives of individuals and missing the entire point which is that people are sick and tired of having to play on an unlevel field. The middle class of America is beginning to see the effects of corruption and crony capitalism on their ability to live a normal life. The level of anger is rising in this country as it seems more and more like one’s ability to get ahead is cut down by the politicians and crony capitalists who line their pockets with money.

It is easy to mock the individuals of any movement as there are always the fringe who latch on to a movement in hopes of championing their favorite pet causes. The Tea Party has no shortage of bigots and racists, elements that see the idea of less government implemented as a reversal of Civil Rights or maybe a huge fence around the American border. OWS has people who want to forgive all debt or make sure everyone gets a free college education. All of these people are equally loony and should be ignored as it relates to the particular movement. Instead, movement enemies on both sides of the aisle seize on these individuals as representative of the movement as a whole. Liberals paint the Tea Party as racist movement. Conservatives paint OWS as typical liberal big government handing out free lunches. Both miss the point that these movements are not about individual desires but about a growing anger in the country as people begin to realize America has become an oligarchy controlled by the financial elite and the politicians they have bought. It is this feeling of having the chips stacked against them that drives the movements and both parties fail to see the endgame in a large angry population within their midst.

The American people are beginning to understand how badly they have been betrayed over the past 10-15 years. Income inequality is growing continually and mobility between classes is being reduced. The strong interplay between the financial elite and their ability to use their money and influence to control financial reform legislation is hampering the ability of this country to rebound from a lost decade of economic failure. The fact that not a single banking official has been prosecuted for what is widely seen as widespread fraud especially in the mortgage industry is telling. Until the darkness that is at the heart of the financial collapse of 2008 is brought out to light and investigated, nothing can be done that will improve the system. We are only kicking the can farther down the road until it ends up in the middle of a highway where we will be crushed by some random event.

When Republicans look at OWS and see a tattooed, lazy youth movement too blase to effect change, they miss the underlying frustration in a large swath of the middle class with their inability to affect change in their own lives. They have been told all along to get a college education, work hard, save for old age, and everything will be fine. But none of that is true if you can’t get a job and you can’t save any money because interest rates are effectively zero. All the while, they watch the rich financial elites who seem to have been completely unharmed in the last 3 years and who continue to make exorbitant amounts of money. This anger isn’t class envy. It’s not class warfare. It’s the feeling that the rules are constantly being broken by certain segments of the population with no repercussions. Americans have long worshipped success and wealth. But they hate cheaters and as Taibbi points out in the link above, that cheating is what is driving OWS, the feeling that people are cheating at the highest levels and not only not being punished but that they are in fact being largely rewarded.

Republicans and conservatives should be able to seize on that anger. Conservatives claim to want nothing more than to go about their lives without interference. But when the financial economy and the political world are controlled by people who seem to have no understanding of how to drive the system, all our lives are negatively affected. When banks can borrow billions from the government at zero percent interest and loan it right back to the government at three percent while the average citizen tries to pay down a 25% credit card, anger will grow. When the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Dimons of the world receive huge bonuses for taking that government money and loaning it back while the average middle class homeowner loses his house because of a robosigned mortgage document, the anger will grow. Eventually, that anger will escalate into something most likely violent and uncontrolled.

Of course, the real problem is that both parties at the highest levels are corrupted and controlled by the financial elite. One’s ability to get elected to public office in this country has ceased to be about ability or leadership. It is tied directly to how much money you can raise. That money largely comes from the financial elite who have a strong vested interest in the status quo. Without substantial political and campaign finance reform, the oligarchy will continue to control the power. Anger in this country will continue to grow. We had the opportunity in 2008 to reshape how the financial world interacts with everything else and instead, we gave them a free pass for almost singlehandedly destroying the world’s economy. It will be even harder now to create that change but putting it off by ignoring the anger that is driving OWS and the Tea Party will only create a situation more explosive and difficult to control later on.