Archive for April, 2009

Lessons From FDR’s First Ten Days?

30 April 2009

Somewhat lost in this week’s media-created milestone of the first hundred days of the Obama Administration, and the inevitable comparisons to Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s momentous First Hundred Days (so momentous that they became a proper noun) is FDR’s even more extraordinary accomplishment in his first ten days:  the resurrection of the U.S. banking system.  Such resurrection, as you may have heard, has so far eluded Pres. Obama and his predecessor.  Are there lessons from how FDR and his guys did it?

First, a quick timeline:  FDR took office on March 4, 1933 (after that, the 20th Amendment moved the inauguration date up to January).  On March 5, he declared the famous “bank holiday.”  On March 9, he got Congress to pass the Emergency Banking Act, to give his administration unprecedented powers over the banks.  On March 12, he gave his first “fireside chat,” assuring people that the banks were about to reopen and would be healthy when they did.  On March 13 (day 10), banks reopened in 12 cities.  By March 16, the administration’s massive audit and purge operation, more than 70 percent of U.S. banks had reopened, while others were closed.

Economic historians are in less-than-complete agreement about the New Deal’s overall macroeconomic impact, with a substantial minority in a recent survey agreeing with a proposition that the New Deal harmed the economy.  But there does seem to be consensus that the bank overhaul was a great success.  Even FDR advisor-turned-harsh-critic Raymond Moley described it in glowing terms.  With the president’s signing of the Emergency Banking Act, he wrote in After Seven Years (a classic among Roosevelt bashers), without sarcasm, “The sequence of bold, heart-warming action had begun.”

The personnel involved in the great bank triage operation, which involved some 15,000 banks (i.e., twice as many as we have now) were various Treasury and Federal Reserve officials, with Secretary of the Treasury William Woodin at the helm.  In Moley’s words:

‘ . . . as I look back at those frenzied days, it seems to me that the country has never quite realized the extent to which Woodin, [Hoover’s Undersecretary of the Treasury Arthur] Ballantine, and, last but no means least, [Hoover’s Acting Comptroller of the Currency F.G.] Awalt helped to restore the confidence of the country by a rapid and unprejudiced approximation of the equities — social as well as financial — involved in each case. . . .’

‘Capitalism was saved in eight days, and no other single factor in its salvation was half so important as the imagination and sturdiness and common sense of Will Woodin.’

Mister, we could use a man like William Woodin again.

(to be continued)

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Sin Citi

29 April 2009

A telling pair of headlines on MSNBC.com this a.m.:

‘Report: Citigroup wants to pay bonuses’

‘Bank of America, Citi may need more capital’

An excuse to watch some vintage Flying Burrito Brothers footage at least:

Trophies for everyone!

26 April 2009

“Too big to fail” evidently means “too big to fail a stress test,” too.  Although the results of the recently conducted stress tests on the nineteen largest U.S. banks won’t be made public until May 4, the advance word on Friday, April 24 was a Whole Lotta RosieFrom the NYT:

‘On Friday, the Federal Reserve reported that the banks whose books it had analyzed recently had enough capital to offset a raft of new losses, . . .’

So everybody’s solvent!  And those toxic assets are both nutritious and delicious!  I bet my students would love it if I could get Tim Geithner or the Fed to write my final exams — nobody would be allowed to fail.

‘. . . reinforcing the belief that the government would support the largest banks even if their financial health eroded, and buoying the stock market.’

Um, didn’t the government already do that, to the tune of $700 billion, not counting the Fed’s waves of loan/subsidies?  But of course those subsidies came with some conditions, from the understandable ($500,000 pay cap) to the asinine (don’t hire no foreigners), so the big banks are naturally eager to pay back those loans and return to looting.  As long as they can still count on a fresh round of bailouts when their losses become too gaping to hide, they’re in a perfect position.  The old mantra of “privatize the profits, socialize the losses” doesn’t quite convey the apparent duplicity at work here.  It leaves out the “fabricate the profits” and “hide the losses” steps.

(more…)

Lies, damned lies, and bank profits

21 April 2009

Remember the good old days when “creative accounting” was an oxymoron?

Ever since Citigroup last month projected a profit for the first couple months of the year, big banks have been startling the Street with better-than-expected quarterly earnings reports.  And for a while, the Street was overjoyed and stock prices shot up for banks and overall.  But um, shouldn’t we have been taking these profit figures with a big grain of salt?

  • Advance manipulation (read: lowering) of expectations so that you can miraculously beat those expectations is an old, old game.
  • Accounting chicanery played no small part in getting us into the current mess.   Covering up losses to impress the market, just like covering up profits to thwart the taxman, is legal and commonplace, under generally accepted accounting practices.
  • An excessive focus on short-term profits also played a big part in getting us into this mess.  Shouldn’t we be looking at other factors, too?  In particular: Bank share prices were way down because of the widespread belief that the banks were either insolvent or headed that way.  Positive short-term profits (cash flow) and solvency (assets greater than liabilities) are two different things, and can coexist at least for a little while.
  • The federal government has subsidized the big banks to the tune of tens of billions of TARP money apiece.   Shouldn’t that make it easier for them to be profitable?  (The whole point was that the banks would loan that money out profitably.  Granted, that hasn’t happened to the desired extent — I just heard on the radio that total lending is lower now than before the TARP legislation — but banks are surely using their TARP money for something that generates income, like T-bonds, no?)

(more…)

CPI: Energy fools the magician

15 April 2009

Today’s release of the March CPI figures brings the news that we had our first 12-month deflation, of 0.4%, since 1955.  Yikes, right?

Not really.  The deflation came mostly from lower energy prices.  The “core” inflation rate, which excludes food and energy prices, was 1.8%.

Likewise, the modest price dip of the past month (0.1% each month) was also driven by falling energy costs.   Non-energy prices rose slightly.

What is the source of these falling energy prices?  Some of it seems to be a function of the sagging economy (poorer people drive less), but I expect there’s favorable supply shock in there somewhere.  And I have to think it nets out to a favorable supply shock for consumers as a whole.

Soros gets it right

9 April 2009

Yahoo Finance’s Tech Ticker has a nine-minute interview with George Soros, and a quick summary, here.

Nothing too shocking here, but on target and well stated.

Simon Johnson’s latest analysis of the situation is even better, though his assessment of the circle-the-wagons politics of it all is mighty bleak.  Don’t miss Johnson’s link to a January 2009 WSJ piece about financial economist Raghuram Rajan, one of the high-profile Cassandras who predicted the current implosion and who met a hostile “Jane, you ignorant Luddite” response from a star-studded 2005 gala of economists including Larry Summers.

(The money quote from Summers: “[I find] “the basic, slightly lead-eyed premise of [Mr. Rajan’s] paper to be misguided.”  Lead-eyed?  Not in the dictionary; seems to be a fishing term.  Maybe he said “Luddite” and was misquoted?)

Stats of the day

7 April 2009

64%

= percent of U.S. bank assets controlled by the four largest commercial banks (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo; source: Martin Wolf in the FT).  That four-firm concentration ratio is up sharply from 39% in Feb. 2003 (source: Frederic Mishkin’s money and banking textbook, ~2004 edition).

$2.7 million

= money received by Obama chief economist Larry Summers for 40 speaking appearances before bailout-receiving Wall Street financial institutions in 2008.   Now, Summers is a brilliant man with lots of policy experience to share, but how likely is it that these cash-strapped firms were paying just for his insights and not even trying to buy access to Obama’s top economic adviser?  The White House would have us believe that access had nothing to do with it:

‘A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said the compensation was not a conflict for Mr. Summers, adding it was not surprising because he was “widely recognized as one of the country’s most distinguished economists.”’

Some have already called for breaking up the biggest financial institutions, to the point where none of the ones remaining are “too big to fail,” and then letting market discipline or effective regulation keep them in line.  All well and good, but these stats, especially the last two, recall the original 19th century rationale for antitrust action:  The biggest firms just have too much political power.  Small is not only beautiful, but small firms are less likely to be writing the laws of the land.

Unemployment in the streets

3 April 2009

Unemployment up to 8.5%, highest since 1983, and U-6 unemployment (including discouraged job-seekers and involuntary part-timers) up to 15.6%.

As usual, it’s even worse than it looks.  Those numbers are seasonally adjusted for the fact that unemployment is usually worse in winter months like March.  Cold comfort, so to speak, for the unemployed themselves.  The non-seasonally-adjusted (NSA) numbers are worse:  9.0% for regular (U-3) unemployment, 16.2% for U-6 unemployment.

Today’s title courtesy of that awesome Boston band of the mid-’80s, The Dogmatics:

Rearranging the icebergs on the Titanic

3 April 2009

OK, the Geithner 2.0 plan officially looks wretched.  When I’m agreeing with the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, you know there’s a problem.  And the problem is not merely that the plan is a lousy deal for the taxpayers because it throws lavish subsidies at institutional buyers of toxic assets and grossly overpays the banks who would sell those assets; that’s all been said before.  The new problem is that it wouldn’t even remove toxic assets from the banking system! As the Financial Times reports:

‘US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals under the Treasury’s $1,000bn (£680bn) plan to revive the financial system.’

Can you say “playing with the house money”?  Unfortunately, that would be your house and my house.

It’s not completely clear that Geithner’s Treasury will allow this to go forward, as a Treasury official says that a bank’s supervisors will weigh in on whether the bank is healthy enough to buy assets.  But Geithner and Obama have implied that all of our big banks are fundamentally sound (shades of Herbert Hoover, John McCain, and Lake Wobegon), so I suspect that the ink is already wet on those supervisors’ rubber stamps.

Seems like we’ve made literally zero progress since Halloween 2008:  captured regulators attempt to prop up insolvent banks with hundreds of billions of dollar bills and won’t even consider that some of them might need to be closed.  Cue Mark Fiore’s “Zombie Bank” cartoon.