Opinion

The Great Debate

Stress and the Citi

Markets are still absorbing the Federal Reserve’s surprising smack-down of Citigroup. Under its chief executive officer, Michael Corbat, Citi had greatly strengthened its capital base — indeed, it had one of the best capital ratios of all the big banks — and had proposed modest dividend increases and stock buybacks.  Instead, City was the only big American bank that failed its review.

The Fed announcement, perhaps harking back to the Alan Greenspan tradition, was gnomic, to say the least. The Citi bombshell was buried in a few lines in both the press release and the much longer official statement.

While acknowledging Citi’s stronger capital position, the Fed stated that the rejection was based on “qualitative” weaknesses, including the bank’s “[in]ability to develop scenarios … that adequately reflect and stress its full range of business activities and exposures.” The bank will eventually be handed a detailed bill of particulars, perhaps in a week or so.

Corbat, a former Harvard football all-American, is a Citi lifer, with hands-on experience at most of the company’s hot spots. He was elevated specifically in 2012 to rebuild its balance sheet and strengthen internal controls.  Both he and his board seem to have been badly wrong-footed by the Fed turndown — Corbat had planned to dial into the Fed phone call from South Korea, but had to rush home to deal with the crisis.

The stress test failure came on top of a cascade of adverse events.

In late February, Citi had announced that its Mexican subsidiary, known as Banamex — the jewel of its international network — was out $400 million because of a garden-variety fraud operation. One Banamex client, a local oil servicing company, had regularly borrowed against its contracts with Pemex, the Mexican state oil company.  Banamex discovered, by accident it appears, that Pemex had previously suspended this client, but the client had continued to borrow against forged contract documents. Investigations are underway, and reports are that at least one Banamex employee was complicit in the fraud, possibly in collusion with some U.S.-based employees.

‘Rentiers’ are at root of 1 percent

The American public is catching on that almost all the benefits from the still-fragile U.S. recovery have gone to the top 1 percent of earners. One sign is that “inequality” has suddenly become a fighting word. Legendary venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently denounced the “demonization” of the rich — and was quickly forced to apologize for comparing it to Kristallnacht.

Perkins is too sensitive. He is one of the creators of the U.S. venture capital industry, and played a big role in nurturing the hardware and software revolutions that made the United States so dominant in high technology. Americans admire people like Perkins, who earned their wealth — whether they are financiers like Warren Buffett or George Soros, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or superstars like Michael Jordan.

But Americans abhor “rentiers” — unproductive citizens who make good incomes by collecting tolls on other people’s production. In the early days of economics, rentiers were the owners of stagnating estates who partied in London on the earnings of their peasants and tenant farmers.

Yellen vs. the Fed critics

The confirmation hearing of Federal Reserve Chairwoman nominee Janet Yellen on Thursday will be an opportune moment for Fed critics to air their grievances.  There is plenty of fodder for disagreement and debate — ranging from the Fed’s supervisory track record, to the rules for tapering large-scale asset purchases, to the criteria for ending its zero-interest rate stance.

Yet, one sure criticism is sharply at odds with the facts: That the Fed’s crisis response was an insider affair, run by and for a handful of too-big-to-fail banks.

While the Fed’s actions in response to the 2008 financial crisis are certainly open to criticism, the creation and expansion of various credit and lending programs were aimed at calming the financial markets and maintaining the liquidity of specific financial instruments. It was not about befriending winners and giving the cold shoulder to losers.

Ending the debt limit crisis: Dear Ben Bernanke

Warren Buffett calls the debt ceiling a “nuclear weapon, too horrible to use.” Obama administration official Jason Furman says the consequence of a default on U.S. government debt is “too terrible to think about.” When asked about a default, Wells Fargo strategist James Kochan simply commented, “Holy cripes.”

With this crisis, America is risking financial Armageddon. The default of Lehman Brothers on its $613 billion of debt ignited a chain reaction in the financial system, nearly destroying the U.S. economy. A default by the U.S. government on $17 trillion of debt — debt that has been considered the safest in the world — could be far worse.

But at heart, this is not a debt problem. It is an accounting problem. The Treasury Department issues U.S. debt, and lots of it. So you would think that America is deeply indebted to its bondholders. Yet increasingly, it is the U.S. monetary authority, the Federal Reserve, and not private investors, who buys this debt.

from The Great Debate UK:

How central bankers have got it wrong

If you asked someone to list the chief qualities needed to be a good central banker I assume that the list may include: good communicator, wise, attention to detail, clear thinking, credibility, and good with numbers.  However, in recent months these qualities have been sadly lacking, most notably last week when the Federal Reserve wrong-footed the markets and failed to start tapering its enormous QE programme.

The market had expected asset purchases to be tapered because: 1, Ben Bernanke had dropped fairly big hints at his June press conference that tapering was likely to take place sooner rather than later and 2, because the unemployment rate has consistently declined all year and if it continues moving in this direction then it could hit the Fed’s 6.5% target rate in the coming months.

In the aftermath of the September Fed decision the markets, analysts and Fed commentators were lambasted for being too hasty and for trying to second guess the Fed. While I agree that the markets can get too hung up on the movements of the US central bank, I think that the criticism is unfair this time.

Why conservatives spin fairytales about the gold standard

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

The Federal Reserve is celebrating its 100th birthday trapped in a political bunker.

At few points since the Fed’s founding in 1913 has it taken such sustained fire. It’s taking fire from the left, because its policies favor Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and the other financial corporations that are most responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession. But it is also taking fire from the right.

Conservative or Tea Party Republicans have a different kind of criticism. They reject the notion that the Fed should even have the power to regulate the money supply and “debase” the dollar. They believe in hard money and a return to the gold standard.

It’s too soon to taper

The chatter has it this week that the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank will allow its $85 billion a month bond buying program to wane, with the eventual death of quantitative easing and a return to economic normalcy. Not only is it too soon for the Fed to back off, it’s too soon to even be discussing it. The global economy is extraordinarily fragile. We need solutions that are more radical than QE, not a retreat into orthodoxy.

The global economy is threatened by conditions in both developed and emerging markets. In the U.S. and Europe, debt has been transferred from the private to the public sectors and debt levels have climbed faster than economic growth has been able to keep pace. The G7 nations borrowed $18 trillion since the financial crisis and have only $1 trillion in economic growth to show for it.

Meanwhile, both private and public borrowers in the emerging markets have larded up on cheap debt, much of it denominated in dollars and euros. They are borrowing in other currencies and paying with their own, leaving corporate and government treasuries vulnerable to currency shocks, just like we saw during the Asia Crisis of the 1990s.

‘Democratic wing’ of Democratic Party takes on Wall Street

The chattering classes are fascinated by the Republicans’ internecine battle to redefine the party in the wake of the George W. Bush calamity and the Mitt Romney defeat — from Senator Rand Paul’s revolt against the neoconservative foreign policy, to intellectuals flirting with “libertarian populism.” Less attention has been paid, however, to the stirrings of what Senator Paul Wellstone dubbed “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — now beginning to challenge the Wall Street wing of the party.

Perhaps the strongest demonstration of this was the barrage of “friendly fire” that greeted the White House’s trial balloon on nominating Lawrence Summers to head the Federal Reserve Bank. More than one-third of Democrats in the Senate signed a letter supporting Janet Yellen, now vice chairwoman of the Fed. More than half of the elected Democratic women in the House of Representatives signed a similar letter. Many were appalled at the notion of passing over the superbly qualified Yellen for Summers, with his notorious record of denigrating and dismissing women.

But, as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation wrote in the Washington Post, Summers also drew opposition because he was the “poster boy for the Wall Street wing of the party — literally.” (Summers joined then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on the now risible 1999 Time magazine cover celebrating the “Committee to Save the World” — before the global financial collapse exposed the folly of their policies).

GOP and the blue state budget time bomb

Many economists and analysts are concerned that the next candidate for a federal bailout is not still-too-big-to-fail banks but financially irresponsible states. We have written about the threat that failed states such as California, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and New York pose to the fiscal health of the nation.

But the problem is bigger. In coming years, University of Chicago economics professor Brian Barry predicts, “Both parties are likely to clash over state-budget issues at the national level, no matter what happens to federal taxes or healthcare spending.”

Skyrocketing unfunded state pension liabilities, up to $4 trillion according to some estimates, are driving already financially troubled states down the path to insolvency,  and there appears to be no political will to address the problem. States in the most dire fiscal situations are high-tax, left-leaning and Democratic-controlled, and according to Barry pose a “long-term threat to the permanent national majority that many Democrats believe they see emerging from the past two presidential elections.”

Why public debt is not like credit card debt

One big part of the well-financed campaign for economic austerity is the contention that the public debt is like a national credit card. If we keep charging on it, the argument goes, we’ll get overwhelmed with interest costs, suffer a reduced standard of living and, pretty soon, go bankrupt.

As David Walker, a prominent budget hawk and the former head of the billion-dollar Peter G. Peterson Foundation, has contended, “Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have charged everything to the nation’s credit card, including tax cuts and spending increases, without paying for them.”

The Peterson Foundation is the leading sponsor of this brand of bogus economics. It is a spurious metaphor on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

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