Opinion

The Great Debate

Banks’ exposure to the Obama Plan

President Barack Obama’s proposals to ban banks from proprietary trading unrelated to serving their customers will have a very uneven impact on the sector.

There is no easy way to identify how much money the major banks make from proprietary trading rather than market-making, brokerage and hedging services on behalf of their customers. The banks do not break out their activities in this way, and the regulators do not collect standardised data.

But it is possible to identify which banks depend most heavily on trading rather than investment or commercial banking activities, and which are therefore potentially most exposed to a tightening of the regulations to prevent proprietary trading unrelated to serving their customers.

The attached charts (see here and here) show the 20 largest banks in the United States by average assets and the share of their adjusted operating income derived from trading activities in the first nine months of 2009. The numbers are taken from the Form Y-9C Consolidated Financial Statements which banks themselves file, published by the Federal Reserve in the form of Bank Holding Company Performance Reports (BHCPR), and used by federal bank supervisors:

Of the biggest banks, Goldman Sachs (55 percent) and Morgan Stanley (36 percent) depend far more than the others upon trading for the lion’s share of their adjusted operating income.

Easier jawboning banks than leery borrowers

(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Jawbone all you like, but we are in a private sector de-leveraging, and bank lending and demand will remain weak, making interest rates unlikely to rise any time soon.

Monday’s two big economic news events dovetailed neatly, if not entirely happily; Citigroup  announced plans to repay $20 billion to the government and President Obama called banks together to inform them of their obligation to support the recovery.

“My main message in today’s meeting was very simple: America’s banks received extraordinary assistance from American taxpayers to rebuild their industry,” Obama said after the meeting. “Now that they’re back on their feet, we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy.”

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

India and Pakistan: the missing piece in the Afghan jigsaw

One year ago, I asked whether then President-elect Barack Obama's plans for Afghanistan still made sense after the Mumbai attacks torpedoed hopes of a regional settlement involving Pakistan and India. The argument, much touted during Obama's election campaign, was that a peace deal with India would convince Pakistan to turn decisively on Islamist militants, thereby bolstering the United States flagging campaign in Afghanistan.

As I wrote at the time, it had always been an ambitious plan to convince India and Pakistan to put behind them 60 years of bitter struggle over Kashmir as part of a regional solution to many complex problems in Afghanistan.  Had the Mumbai attacks pushed it out of reach? And if so, what was the fall-back plan?

One year on, there is as yet still no sign of a fall-back plan for Afghanistan and the tense relationship between India and Pakistan remains the elusive piece of the jigsaw.

from Afghan Journal:

Keeping India out of Afghanistan

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in the United States for the first official state visit by any foreign leader since President Barack Obama took office this year. While the atmospherics are right, and the two leaders probably won't be looking as stilted as Obama and China's President Hu Jintao appeared to be during Obama's trip last week (for the Indians are rarely short on conversation), there is a sense of unease.

And much of it has to do with AFPAK - the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan which is very nearly at the top of Obama's foreign policy agenda and one that some fear may eventually consume the rest of his presidency. America's ally Pakistan worries about India's expanding assistance and links to Afghanistan, seeing it as part of a strategy to encircle it from the rear.  Ordinarily, Pakistani noises wouldn't bother India as much, but for signs that the Obama administration has begun to adopt those concerns as its own in its desperate search for a solution, as Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek.

And that is producing a "perverse view" of the region, he says adding it was a bit strange that India was being criticised for its influence in Afghanistan. India is the hegemon in South Asia, with a GDP 100 times that of Afghanistan and it was only natural that as Afghanistan opened itself up following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, its cuisine, movies and money would flow into the country. The whole criticism about India,  Zakaria says, is a little bit like saying the United States has had growing influence  in Mexico over the last few decades and should be penalised for it.USA/

How to finance the war in Afghanistan?

obama-china

global_post_logo– This opinion piece was written by C.M. Sennot for GlobalPost. The views expressed are his own. It was originally published here on GlobalPost. –

The last time America had to borrow money to finance a war was during the Revolution and a cash-strapped Continental Congress took loans from France to fund a surge against the British.

That worked out pretty well.

But it’s hard to feel the spirit of 1776 in President Obama’s journey to China. He went as a representative of a borrowing nation to its primary lender amid a call for yet another costly military surge in the Long War that is escalating in Afghanistan even if it is hopefully winding down in Iraq.

from Commentaries:

Why Russia needs America

In the wake of President Obama's decision to scrap the U.S. missile defence shield in eastern Europe, many are pondering Russia's response. The relationship will remain in the spotlight this week, when President Medvedev heads to the U.S. for the G20 summit. Although the precise nature of Russia's reaction remains to be seen, it has a big incentive to improve relations. It badly needs American investment and co-operation to help solve serious economic problems at home.

Critics of Obama's decision worry that it will "embolden" Russia, causing more aggressive behaviour abroad. Yet they forget that the Bush administration's antagonistic policies failed to provide security to Russia's neighbours. These policies didn't prevent Russia's war with Georgia, the repeated gas disputes with Ukraine, and a serious cooling of relations with countries such as Poland. Far from being restrained, Russia's confrontational attitude had a lot to do with its perception that the U.S. was busy encircling the country with missile bases and alliances.

The critics also imply that Russia is preoccupied with external expansion, but that hardly seems appropriate today. Russia's GDP is set to plummet by 8 percent this year. Russian analysts estimate that the country needs up to $2 trillion to renovate its dangerously clapped-out infrastructure. In major industrial cities, Russia's dilapidated factories are mulling huge job losses. For the foreseeable future, Russia's leaders are likely to be preoccupied with thorny domestic problems.

Faced with such daunting challenges, it's entirely logical that both Medvedev and Putin say they are keen to kick-start American trade and investment. Responding to Obama's decision -- which he described as "brave and correct" -- Putin immediately linked it to economic issues. He called for the U.S. to back Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and scrap Soviet-era trade restrictions against Russian companies, especially those that regulate technology transfer to Russia.

from Rolfe Winkler:

A healthcare failure could save Obama

The rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid threaten to destroy the nation's fiscal future, but President Obama is pushing for healthcare reform that would increase costs. Instead, he should refocus his presidency on paying down debt.true-national-debt-updated1

America's obligations over the next 75 years now surpass $62 trillion, up 8 percent since last year. And a new report released today by the Peterson Foundation suggests that total will go even higher if the House's health care legislation is passed.

(Click table to enlarge in new window)

With today's pliant bond market, it's easy to pretend we can have things that can't be paid for. But that's the kind of attitude that led California into the fiscal abyss. We have to get serious about bringing our expenses in line with our income. Now.

from Commentaries:

Why the U.S. needs a Value Added Tax

Swelling deficits and an aging population leave few palatable options when it comes to taxes.

The best choice by far would be the creation of a new value added tax -- a "money machine" that can bring in huge sums with relatively little effort. America is alone among rich nations in not charging a VAT, and its continued unwillingness to do so will make it harder to cope with the fiscal challenges ahead.

Giving birth to a new tax will certainly not be an easy sell. The stunning 1980 reelection defeat of Al Ullman, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who had advocated a VAT, is still a warning to American politicians.

from Commentaries:

Debt on autopilot

At first glance this week's budget projections paint President Obama as a spendthrift. The White House itself offered a grim glimpse of a future in which U.S. debt more than doubles to $17.5 trillion in a decade -- an increase of nearly $10 trillion.

Merely servicing the U.S. debt will cost more than America currently spends on either defense or social security.

But the yawning deficit can't be blamed on Obama -- or for that matter, on Bush or on the financial crisis. Instead the government's finances are locked on autopilot, with entitlement programs driving the country towards a fiscal crisis.

from Commentaries:

The mirage of U.S. healthcare

On healthcare, the White House is struggling with a political riptide that threatens to drag it into deep water.

Americans, as they contemplate change, have suffered a weakness of nerve. The main reason is that nearly two thirds of Americans are apparently happy with their healthcare coverage, for all its deficiencies. Repeated reassurances from President Obama that those who like the existing set-up will not be forced to change, have had little effect.

A change of tactics may be in order. The administration must do a better job of underlining the glaring defects of the existing system. The genius of the U.S. healthcare is in providing the illusion of value and security. For their own sake, Americans must be encouraged to set aside jingoistic claims about having the best care system in the world and look more honestly at its short-comings.

Let's start with value. Most Americans are blissfully unaware that their healthcare system provides appallingly little value for their money. This is because when it comes to costs, they see only the tip of the iceberg. While companies typically pay about three-quarters of an employee's family premium -- on average $12,680 a year -- individuals ultimately bear the burden. In a free market, companies do not hand over to their workers more than they absolutely have to. Money spent on healthcare is carved out of take-home pay or other benefits.

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