- Thinking About Capitalism
- Election Year
- Broken Markets
- Precious Metals
- Resources and Energy
- The Baptists
- The Bankers
- The Federal Reserve
- The Bootleggers
- Personal Debt
- Mortgage Debt
- Student Debt
- Municipal and State Debt
- Corporate Debt
- Sovereign Debt
- Pension Crisis
- Roth IRAs: A Bad Idea
- Government Corruption
- Civil Liberties and the Constitution
- Limits of Government
I spent all my money on women and wine, and the rest I wasted.
~ George Best, Irish soccer player
Debt permeates all levels of the global economy. In the U.S., debt is growing much faster than the GDP (Figure 12). A montage of over 50 charts showing all facets of debt is well worth a peek.164 Authorities are convinced that more spending and more debt will be our salvation. Daniel Bell, a Marxist from the turn of the 20th century, took the other side of this bet, suggesting that the consumer would eventually consume themselves. Apparently, I’m a Marxist. In this section I would like to briefly discuss personal debt. (Special aspects of student and mortgage debt are cordoned off into their own sections.)
Figure 12. Accrued debt with annotations showing dollars of debt required per dollar of GDP (source link lost).
The so-called resilient consumer is getting squeezed from every direction. The income of the average family has dropped from $53,000 to $47,000 in only 5 years.165 Deleveraging is evidenced by a dropping debt-to-income ratio in Figure 12, yet two thirds stem from defaulted mortgages.166 The national savings rate has once dropped to zero from historical norms of 10%. Credit card debt is said to be the leading cause of suicide among adult males.167 Trimtabs reports a 40% drop in net median family worth since 2007.168
Should the average family of four earning $47,000 happen to rashly buy everybody iPhones, they just committed 4-5% of their gross income to phone service. I’m not sure even families earning $150,000 should spend that much on phone service. Television and children’s activities used to be largely free; now we pay. Internet, as amazing as it may be, is a necessary expense. Don’t think so? See how your kids do in school without it. Figure 13 shows the ratio of personal consumption versus compensation. That rise stems from a combination of decreased savings and increased debt.
Figure 13. Personal consumption versus compensation.169
In 2010 I discussed an insidious and overlooked contribution to inflation—accelerated depreciation. It is still overlooked by the mainstream so I am going to take one more abbreviated whack at it. For example, in 2009 I broke a 40-year-old blender. The Boskin Commission14 would argue that its replacement is even cheaper than the price tag would indicate because it has more buttons. Government statisticians actually “hedonically” adjust the price down for improved quality. Alas, that really cheap blender died after only two years of dedicated service. Chintzy goods at affordable prices have trapped consumers in a vicious replacement cycle. If Boskin et al. had looked at the per year cost of the blender, they would have corrected for depreciation with a 20-fold price multiplier before comparing the relative prices of old and new. The net domestic product—the gross domestic product with depreciation included—is an antiquated concept that needs resurrection.170 Meanwhile, the consumers are choking on their vomit trying to keep up with depreciation.
There is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures.
~ Warren G. Harding, former President of the United States
Harding was considered to be one of the least competent presidents. Could have fooled me. Mortgage debt presents its own unique issues. We are slowly winding down the mortgage bubble that burst in 2007 through a combination of defaults and debt restructurings. To say, however, that a modest uptick in housing activity means that the problem is solved is ridiculous (Figure 14). Is housing recovering? Not really. Maybe sentiment has begun to change but only with the unprecedented force of a central bank behind it.
Figure 14. Home building employment (red) compared with home builder sentiment (blue).
There are still an estimated 11 million homeowners underwater on their mortgages, including more than a million people who have just bought in the past two years.171 Ill-advised efforts to bail them out—foreclosures clear the market—seem to have faltered. Special Inspector General of the TARP Neil Barofsky discovered Geithner never intended to aid homeowners, only to delay foreclosures for a year or two so that they could occur orderly. Writedowns are taxable income,172 which prevents homeowners from accepting them. Distressed real estate purchased by speculators appears to decrease the housing glut. Unfortunately, this shadow inventory still exists if the speculators intend to flip the houses for a quick capital gain. The market won’t clear until demographics and income growth clear it, both of which are going backwards.
There seems to be some resolution of the catastrophe caused by the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) in which the ownership of millions of houses are being thrown into legal purgatory by foreclosure. Bank of America supposedly offered to take a deed in lieu of foreclosure, presumably to get the deed legally.173 Legally dubious foreclosures are clearing through the legal expedient of turning a blind eye. Efforts in California to use eminent domain to clear out problematic underwater mortgages are so egregious that I have deferred them to the section on Civil Liberties and the Constitution.
Bart: don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.
~ Marge Simpson
~ Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, to Class of 2012
Student loans have soared from $200 billion in 2000 to over $1 trillion today (Figure 15),174 surpassing credit card debt. Some say there is a student loan bubble, but the Bush-era legislation ensuring that student debt cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy suggests there is no bursting mechanism. Nevertheless, something will give, because loan delinquencies are going parabolic.175 The paradoxical effect of the full-recourse loans is that banks are happy to provide almost unlimited funding to a slice of society rich in ill-conceived ideas. This debt is also localized in the most financially vulnerable demographic slice during a severe economic downturn. It ain’t just the kids. An estimated $38 billion in student loans are owed by seniors 60 and older, probably stemming from desperate efforts to retool their careers as well as co-signed loans for children and grandchildren.176
As if the debt burden was not enough, potential employers are checking credit reports. High student debt can render you unemployable.177 Seems unfair. The average medical school graduate has $161,000 in student loans.178 The ultimate irony is that those young doctors on the cusp of achieving the American Dream cannot afford a starter house. Ben Bernanke’s son is said to be $400,000 in the hole.179 Bernanke is indeed the father of a gigantic credit bubble. Financial independence for twenty-somethings—a rite of passage only a few years back—has become increasingly out of reach.
Figure 15. Comparison of student loan growth and other consumer debt growth.180
An entire generation has been set up for debt servitude. We are eating our young. The source of the problem is a complex and nuanced confluence of factors. The chronically profligate boomers, stressed by inflationary pressures and dazed by the equity and real estate downturn, are in no position to help their kids pay for college. The cost of a four-year college education has also soared, while earnings after college have stagnated (Figure 16).181 The number of 26-year-olds living with their parents has jumped almost 46 percent since 2007.182
Figure 16. Plot comparing college costs and earnings in early adulthood.183
What is causing the rapidly escalating college costs? As a professor of 33 years, I can offer a few thoughts and opinions.
(1) College tuition—the cost of running a small city—may be the single best measure of inflation. The tuition growth squares well with the inflation numbers posted by John Williams of Shadowstats.com.
(2) Rapidly growing federal and state mandates to universities escalate bureaucratic costs. You know all those extra positions you see in secondary schools that didn’t exist when we were kids? Universities have them too.
(3) Universities are much more complex, interconnected organizations than they were 30-40 years ago.
(4) The quest to attract the best possible students and faculty has produced something akin to an arms race among the schools, forcing up the costs of chasing the competition.
(5) Universities are financial enterprises that can approach $1 billion annual operating costs and are managed largely by academics often lacking the requisite training. The Dean of Arts and Sciences at Cornell is a physicist—a smart guy by any measure. What prepared him to run a $100+ million enterprise?
(6) Guaranteed payers—banks offering unlimited student loans in this instance—are always inflationary.
I have an aversion to debt jubilees, but I suspect we are heading for a federally sponsored bailout of borrowers and those who traffic in student loans. How do we prevent a repeat of this debt problem? First, a warning: Don’t buy into the increasingly common claims that college is a waste of money. Such blanket statements are counterfactual. One rich dude bribed 100 kids not to go to college.184 Some will be fine but others are going to get hit by the cluster truck. There are, however, many circumstances in which a kid should not go to college.
Students must be good consumers. It’s not just a degree; it’s an education. This means choosing paths wisely and working hard. Not all majors or institutions are created equal; enough said. Debt is a bad idea if it is not self-extinguishing—paid off with the net gain in proceeds from the education. If the kids lack direction or need a break, parents need to let them take time off. You read that right— it's the parents, not the kids, who oppose the change. Save your money until it will be used wisely. For their part, schools need to focus on strengths and, in many cases, specialize. Paul Smith's College, a small college in the Adirondack Mountains, is a great example. They educated my older son. His profound success after an inauspicious secondary education stems from the school’s focus—only four, highly pragmatic, majors. What a great model!
How do we fund college educations going forward? I understand the origin of full-recourse loans but find non-dischargeable debt to be anathema to the American system. We’ve got to curb predatory lending; full recourse loans with interest rates and penalties akin to subprime debt is loan sharking. The libertarian in me says caveat emptor, yet this is a vulnerable demographic lacking fully developed frontal cortexes. The best idea may involve creditors purchasing a percentage of the students’ earnings after graduation for a fixed period (10% for ten years, by example). It’s a form of venture capitalism. I would gladly invest in a tranche of loans to MIT students promising a slice of their earnings—at the right price, of course. For those schools in which the bet is a bad one—the loans are too big, attrition is TOO high, or incomes after graduation are on average too low—the resulting market-determined high interest rates would force change or the institution would fail.
The idea of “no child left behind” would take a beating, but I don’t buy the notion that we need more college-educated adults. We need better-educated adults. Whether this means education in a four-year college or a trade school is highly student dependent. Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five Minute University” has an appeal.185 Another very entertaining parody makes a case for Princeton.186 I would also say beware of law schools. They can be great opportunities but can also be exceedingly expensive holding tanks for college graduates still lacking direction.187
By the way, would somebody—anybody—start teaching courses in personal finance at the high school and collegiate levels? That void is what got us into this mess in the first place.
This is not a boating accident.
~ Richard Dreyfus in Jaws
The balance sheets of municipalities and states are a total mess. Forbes recently noted 11 states flagged for dangerous finances.188 It’s not just the sand states that are in trouble. Syracuse, NY is considering a debt restructuring due to excessive expenditures and pension promises.194 Reuters reported that outstanding bonds, unfunded pension commitments, and budget gaps exceed $4 trillion for the 50 states.195 That’s approximately $40,000 per taxpayer in the country. Illinois is now $150 billion in the hole, yet the voters defeated legislation designed to stem rising pension costs.189
California’s estimated annual deficit rose from $9 billion to a considerably larger $15 billion in a matter of months. California alone owes over $600 billion, with New York coming in a distant second at $300.1 billion.190 These are self-inflicted wounds. Orange County paid lifeguards annualized salaries of $200K.191 Hermosa Beach meter maids racked up an astonishing $300K annual salaries.192 Stockton, San Bernardino, and Mammoth Lakes all filed for bankruptcy protection this summer.193 San Bernardino City officials sped up the filing to preempt legal action by creditors. Under Chapter 9, all court cases and other legal actions are halted until the bankruptcy case is over.
Rock star banking analyst Meredith Whitney predicted serious financial stresses for municipalities, yet she made the fateful mistake of predicting what and when.196 The Mayans taught us that you never predict both. At year end, the criticisms have been mounting. With that said, Moody’s is looking to downgrade some California municipal bonds. Buffett picked up a pile of municipal bonds at deep discount during the crisis, presumably using inside knowledge of the Fed backstop that he helped design, only to dump a bunch of these bonds this year.197 The muni bond story is just getting started.
In aggregate, US balance sheets are in very poor shape.
~ Andrew Smithers, CEO of Smithers and Co.
You may have heard recently that…U.S. companies…are sitting on growing piles of cash they are ready to invest in the economy. There's just one problem: It's a crock.
~ Brett Arends, MarketWatch
Andrew Smithers and Brett Arends are the only two guys I know who claim that corporate balance sheets are not in good shape.198,199 Everybody else raves about the robust corporate balance sheets while focusing on only one side. Corporations are flush with cash and chock full of debt (Figure 17).200 They are hoarding cash, presumably in anticipation of more credit constraints. The DOW 30 has a net debt (debt minus cash) of $500 billion despite fortress balance sheets by a minority including Microsoft, Cisco, and, if you believe them, JPM. Only 7 of the DOW 30 have net positive cash positions. Pensions of large-cap companies are also significantly underfunded (vide infra). It is estimated that major corporations globally will be refinancing $45 trillion of debt over the next couple of years.201 None of this suggests strong balance sheets, only generous credit lines.
Figure 17. Non-financial US corporate debt market (billions of dollars) (source: SIFMA).
There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword…the other is by debt.
~ John Adams, former President of the United States
There’s always the Federal Government to bail us out, right? Maybe, but we’re in serious trouble. The U.S. debt doubled in only four years (19% annualized). A recent Treasury report indicates that in less than a year we added $2.1 trillion to the national debt. Although it is tempting to point fingers, a screw-up of this magnitude requires a bipartisan effort. The Federal debt and deficit inspired Egan-Jones to downgrade U.S. debt,202 which then inspired the SEC to investigate them (Egan-Jones, that is).203 The spendthrifts declare that we had a financial malaise to deal with. I wonder if history will look favorably on a Keynesian experiment in which we injected $1 million of government stimulus for each newly created job.204
It is estimated that we are collecting only 60 cents of every dollar spent by the Federal government. This is not the beginning of the end of some debt frenzy. It is the end of the end. Who is buying all this debt? Funny you should ask. The Fed is buying 60-80% of it. How do we afford it? Oddly enough, the Fed controls the interest rate on federal debt. Uncle Sam has an unbelievably cushy line of credit thanks to Fed largesse. The whole Fiscal Cliff debate illustrates that austerity is too inconvenient to deal with right now. We can worry about tightening the belt later. But this secular bond bull market is very long in the tooth. At some point rates will rise just like night follows day. Each 1% rise in rates on $16 trillion dollar debt adds an additional $160 billion to our interest rate payments.
What if we just really suck it up? Seriously. What if we go to the extreme by dropping all discretionary spending? No more military, highways, education, parks, etc. and pay only the interest on the debt and other payments mandated by statute. We still fall short of a balanced budget.205
For those confused about the Clinton-era balanced budget, it was a hoax—we had gobs of off-balance-sheet expenses putting us in the red. The reported deficit is the innocuous part. If one looks at unfunded liabilities—promises made to the populace for which we haven’t a clue where the money will come from even after projected tax revenues are included—we are in huge trouble. Years ago, Kotlikoff, Burns, and Smetters estimated $44 trillion of unfunded liabilities. Kotlikoff is now estimating over $200 trillion—40 Krugmans! (1 Krugman = $5 trillion)206 That comes to an IOU of $2 million dollars per viable taxpayer. So let’s not trivialize this issue by suggesting that this will hurt our grandchildren. As far as I am concerned, they are on their own. This is gonna crush you and me.
Demography is like a glacier: It doesn't move fast, but it is very predictable…it's inexorable.
~ Neil Howe, author of The Fourth Turning
We have a massive, multi-dimensional pension problem. Let’s begin with a look at the personal pension plans most commonly associated with 401K plans and related IRAs. Optimistic retirement planners at Fidelity recommend socking away 8x annual income by retirement.207 That’s not enough. More conservative estimates reach as high as 20x or even 25x your annual salary in savings.208 Further problems stem from the bond market, which approximates 40% of all retirement portfolios.209 In the downturn, huge gains in principal mitigated the pain of the equity losses. The best-case scenario going forward is that rates stay low forever, resulting in miniscule cash flows and no loss in principal. The more likely scenario is that interest rates rise and prices drop causing significant losses in principal. There is no slack left. Reaching for yield buying sketchy forms of fixed income is likely to be a road to ruin. Bold assumptions of 7-8% annual returns on pension portfolios will require double digit equity gains. Buffett and anybody else actually paying attention, however, will tell you that dropping rates, not low rates, helps equities.210 Only the legalize-marijuana crowd on CNBC believes rising rates will not hurt equity returns.
Let us look at what is nearly a best-case scenario, a family in the top 5th percentile—the 5 percenter. This family is defined as earning $154,000 and a net worth of $1.2 million,211 which, by coincidence, is about an 8-fold ratio of savings to annual earnings. A couple at the demographic heart of this 5 percenter also is likely to be a late stage boomer on the doorstep of retirement. Way to go, Fidelity! Using assumptions based on standard portfolio theory and grounded in legally mandated IRA withdrawal rates, the 5 percenter should withdraw only 4% to ensure the money lasts—$48,000 per year. This is a problem. I’ve got to imagine that a 5 percenter is going to find a 50th percentile cash flow in retirement austere. The average boomer with a net worth of $180,000 spinning off only $7,000 per year is within an error bar of living on Social Security. 40% of the boomers literally will have only Social Security.
What about all those folks with defined benefit plans? First, defined benefit plans are becoming anachronistic, having been abandoned years ago by companies unwilling to shoulder the risk. Nonetheless, 341 of the 500 large caps in the S&P have retained some semblance of a defined benefit plan.212 It is also estimated, however, that the pension plans in 97% of these companies are underfunded.213 A paper by William R. White out of the Dallas Fed estimated that the 1,500 leading companies in the U.S. have a 30% pension deficit of $689 billion.162 Despite the Pension Protection Act passed in 2006 aimed at protecting workers against companies using pension pools as cookie jars to boost earnings, the crisis in 2007 and affiliated lobbying campaigns convinced law makers that such protections were too inconvenient.
The municipal and state pension problems are acute. The Illinois State Pension Fund is currently 40% underfunded; there is no obvious way out of their hole short of a Federal bailout. Some states are topping off their pension plans by borrowing money from…wait for it…their state pension plans! Read that last sentence again.214 Fully funding the state pensions would cost >$30,000 per taxpayer.
There is no guarantee that the defined benefits plans will survive. Chapter 11 corporate debt restructurings and Chapter 7 liquidations will continue to chip away at this liability. The Chapter 7 liquidation of Hostess and ensuing Twinkie riots—at least I rioted—leaves some wondering what kind of union-management stalemate could drive a company into bankruptcy. The 2,500 workers lost it all. Chapter 9 bankruptcies for restructuring municipal debts and negating pension commitments, unheard of only several years ago, are likely to become well known.
Unimaginable ink has been spilled discussing and analyzing the coming Social Security crisis. It’s an off-balance-sheet Ponzi scheme. Social Security also will be increasingly important as the other support mechanisms fail. With cooked inflation numbers and affiliated inadequate inflation adjusted payouts, it’s easy to imagine seniors getting stiffed.
Cost of living now outweighs benefits.
~ Headline from The Onion
Before leaving the world of pensions I’m gonna pick a fight with Roth IRAs. When the Roth IRA was first announced I had a unique—as in only-guy-on-the-planet unique—visceral response. The original IRA was very farsighted: Savers were allowed to compound wealth unfettered by taxes while the government deferred tax revenues to future generations. By contrast, the Roth IRA pulled tax revenues forward, leaving future generations to take a hike. Imagine the truly awesome demographic problems we would have if the Roth had been introduced in the 60s and the entire baby boom generation became entirely tax exempt. Was this an oversight? I don’t think so. The introduction of the Roth and the substantial revenues from regular-to-Roth rollovers coincided with the Clinton administration’s efforts to balance the on-balance-sheet Federal budget for the first time in decades.
That is my minor gripe. To set up my really big gripe we must first dispel a widely held misconception and a common oversight.
(1) In a regular IRA, the money is taxed at the end, whereas in a Roth IRA taxes are levied up front. If the two are taxed at the same rate—this is a critical provision—the outcome is identical. They are not just similar, it’s an identity. Break out your calculator if you must. There is no differential advantage offered by compounding in the Roth over the regular IRA. Simply put:
Any advantage of the Roth IRA relative to a regular IRA necessarily stems from a lower tax rate while working than in retirement. Period/full stop.
(2) The tax rates of the Roth and regular IRAs are fundamentally different:
Roth IRA: Front-end loaded taxes paid at the marginal tax rate (highest tax bracket).
Regular IRA: Back-end loaded taxes paid at the effective tax rate (integrated over all tax brackets).
The distinction of marginal versus effective tax rate is critical and seems to be lacking from most analyses. One can calculate marginal and effective rates for any income online.215 Let’s return to the top-5-percentile family—the 5 percenter. If they had used a regular IRA, they would be paying a 7% effective tax rate incurred on their $48,000 per year withdrawal in retirement. They paid an approximate 32% marginal tax rate—the tax rate at the top bracket—to shelter a few thousand per year in a Roth IRA. The numbers simply do not work.
It is worse than that. Let us consider the lucky soul family—the extraordinarily rare couple—who actually accrued 25 annual salaries in their retirement account. For this family a 4% annual withdrawal will be equal to an annual salary while working, placing them in the same tax bracket (ignoring unknowable tax law changes). Even so, they paid 32% marginal tax on the Roth to avoid a 22% effective tax rate incurred by the regular IRA. The numbers still don’t work. I do not understand why the Roth is being sold so enthusiastically to the public.
Now ponder all those folks who rolled over a lump sum from a regular to a Roth IRA. They not only paid the marginal tax rate on the rollover but caused the marginal rate to spike to a higher level! It’s hard to imagine that will prove to be a smart move. Congress is considering moving all pension funds to what is effectively Roth IRA rules as part of their Fiscal Cliff negotiations.216 You young guys are about to get hosed.
The ECB is going to buy bonds of bankrupt banks just so the banks can buy more bonds from bankrupt governments. Meanwhile, just to prop this up the ESM will borrow money from bankrupt governments to buy the very bonds of those bankrupt governments.
~ Kyle Bass, CEO of Hayman Capital
Watching Europe is like reading Waiting for Godot—it is unintelligible. This is unfortunate because these folks may determine my fate. The problems begin with the PIIGS—Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain—suffering from insolvency. We were assured that the Maastricht Treaty and Haagen Dazs Accord that spawned the Euro explicitly forbade deficits and bailouts.217 Well that was then and this is now. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, held a press conference literally flashing a big, black purse suggesting that it needs some serious money, and—Shazam!—a €700 billion bailout was in place before the weekend was over. Soon there were trillion-euro bailouts with fuzzy names such as Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO), European Stabilization Mechanism (ESM), European Financial Stability Facility (EFSM), and Monetary Injection Liquidity Fund (MILF). Spiking interest rates of the PIIGS were driven down to levels that look like AAA-rated debt of Pfizer and General Electric. The European Commission (EC), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and European Central Bank (ECB)—the so-called Troika—are the enforcers. The banks get what the banks want.
A Greek exit—shortened to Grexit by Willem Buiter—would have created a fiscal crisis as well as an acronym crisis—PIIS. We endured an insane discussion about whether or not Greece should suffer austerity.218 Versus what? Rich, prosperous, and productive? The only legitimate employment was hawking gyros to rioters. A photograph of the Greek Ministry of Finance showing total chaos went viral, becoming a metaphor for the nation.219 Nobody got the memo: Austerity is not a choice; it’s a result. Any banker who lends to Greece will be the author of his own (and our) misfortunes. Iran stopped shipping oil to Greece. Just when Greece appeared to be plumbing the bottom, they suffered a locust attack—a real one.220 Greece is the smallest pawn on the chessboard and with little bargaining power. They were asked to sign a bailout agreement with deep-seated sovereignty issues, yet the document was written in a different language with an incomplete translation.221 However, the Greek default could cost the banks trillions, and the Greeks know this.222
The bailouts are coming from Germany because everyone else is on the receiving end. Yet, with an economy 20% the size of the U.S. economy, the Germans are trying to prop up a gaggle of countries that are collectively bigger than the U.S. economy. Europe has $30 trillion unfunded pension liabilities. It’s not going to work. Discussions of why the Americans should bail out Europe—even more than the hundreds of billions of QE II that ended up in European banks—led to a classic Santelli-Liesman love-fest on CNBC.223 The banks get what the banks want.
Soon Spain began to slip into the abyss,224 something I had been waiting for since 2009.  Shockingly, Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain, declared, “We support a rescue mechanism, the bigger the better."225 It was all part of a shakedown of the EU, and it seemed to work. Money began flowing into Spanish banks. (Bankia actually got a bailout before the bailouts officially began because they couldn’t wait.)226 Spain put a €2500 cap on cash transactions,227 which is emblematic of an end game. Meanwhile, Spain is bidding for the 2020 Olympics. They will be sponsored by Lowenbrau.228
Then came the Italians. Bill Gross noted that "Italian banks are now issuing state guaranteed paper to obtain funds from the European Central Bank (ECB) and then reinvesting the proceeds into Italian bonds, which is QE by any definition and near Ponzi by another." The oldest bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena founded in 1472, got bailed out. I wonder how many times that has happened in the last 540 years.229 The wheels of justice in Italy were moving forward; they convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake.230 The guys who cause earthquakes are still on the lam.
What happened to the assurances of the Maastricht Treaty that no sovereigns would be bailed out? It seems simple enough to me. Politically disconnected sovereign states are strongly shackled together by a common currency and borderless multinational banks. Why would the politicians in the sovereign states agree to self-destructive austerity deals rather than giving them the Icelandic Salute—a default and the finger? That’s easy, too; the banks own the politicians, probably via Cayman Island subsidiaries. (In the olden days, it would have been the Swiss, but their money-laundering ways are at risk.231) One of the many subplots is a mountain of credit default swaps that would break the banks if they were triggered.232 No problem: The banks refuse to declare the credit event. The banks get what the banks want.
The LTRO is particularly insidious because it subordinates existing debt, inducing a bad case of transurphobia (fear of haircuts). The more LTRO money, the less capital remains backing the existing debt.233 Which legal body gets to make this decision? That’s what the Troika is for—democracy not included. These guys are undermining the debt markets in fundamental ways.
The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union,234 rumored to be for “keeping their shit together” and for “displaying an unprecedented willingness to not start another world war.” The great part about this wave of absurd Nobel Peace Prizes is that, in theory, I could get one—a dollar and a dream.
A World Economic Forum (WEF) report says we must double global debt by 2020 (to $210 trillion) to keep the global economy growing.235 If that’s the price, shrinkage is sounding pretty rational. The killer phrase was that “most of the growth will come from the government segment.” That ain’t economic growth.
Let us not forget the troubles in the UK. Goldman announced that they were installing one of their boys (Mark Carney) as head of the Bank of England, prompting David Stockman to ask, “Is there any monetary post in the world not run by Goldman Sachs?”236 UK family debts are up by almost 50% in a year. That is serious slippage. The Bank of England cranked $140 billion into the system in one day—equivalent to 177% of the annual global gold production.237
The Brits et al. are eating a lot of "toast sandwiches," otherwise known as the "austerity sandwich"—two slices of bread wrapping a piece of toast (butter/salt optional).238 Irish taxpayers withheld property taxes in protest to the Troika. This smacks of a “peasant rebellion” claiming taxation without representation. With this history ringing in his ears, Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, noted, “I have deep sympathy with those who are totally unconnected with the origins of the financial crisis who suddenly find that the returns on their savings have reached negligible levels. These are consequences of the painful adjustment prompted by the financial crisis and the need to rebalance our economy.”239 We feel your pain too, Sir Mervyn. Can I offer you a toast sandwich?
The whole mess has been summarized and bulleted by countless bloggers. A few are worth reading.240,241,242 Credit Swiss noted that “Portugal cannot rescue Greece, Spain cannot rescue Portugal, Italy cannot rescue Spain, France cannot rescue Italy, but Germany can rescue France.”243 Of course, in February Baghdad Ben Bernanke noted that "the ECB is well capitalized."
Asia is, by comparison, a relatively serene place. There was a seemingly ominous event when the Bank of Japan was said to be selling its bonds (JGBs) for the first time in years.244 This smelled like the beginning of a large deleveraging. Recent reports suggest that they are back to monetizing debt in a big way.245 Some bears such as Greg Weldon, Simon Johnson, and Kyle Bass view Japan as ground zero for financial carnage.246,247,248 Japan has spent 20 years losing 80% on the Nikkei—the so-called “lost decade” to those who can’t count—and now the carnage begins in earnest? Losing all of their nuclear reactors also seems ominous; I am guessing they were not using them as backup sources.249 Demographically, their population will continue to age for decades. This is not a pretty picture.
There are others who think China will be the source of fireworks. On the bearish side, you have Jim Chanos placing some serious shorts in position.250 You must take this as a serious omen. The average bloke does not understand the thoroughness of analyses by guys like Chanos and Einhorn. (Chanos, for example, was way ahead of all of Hewlett Packard’s auditors in detecting an $8 billion screwup in their purchase of Autonomy.251) Besides a bloated real estate market and terrible bank balance sheets, China is said to have a huge buildup of finished goods—channel stuffing—which will cause trouble at some point.252 This is consistent with often-cited suggestions that the authorities are terrified of unemployment and accompanying social unrest. On the other side, Stephen Roach and Jim Rogers, both highly respected market watchers, are rather enthusiastic about China. Years ago Rogers predicted strife in China would come to a head, and that would be the time to buy. I am quite confident, however, that I have no prayer of understanding China either now or in retrospect.
The Baltic Dry Index253 is a widely followed indicator of global economic activity (Figure 18). As you can see, the global economy is looking a little green around the gills.254
Figure 18. Baltic Dry Index as an indicator of global economic well being.254
I leave this section with an aside that is too curious to ignore. We were told this year that Japan had unwisely dumped $138 billion into Lehman before the company’s collapse and were promptly reimbursed by the Fed.255 Makes you wonder about those two Japanese businessmen caught crossing the Italian border with $134 billion of Treasury bonds.256 The Treasury denounced them as fake, but the Italians thought they were real. Who could launder them? (Silly question: HSBC would gladly do so for a cut.)
Geithner heard this information and looked the other way. Geithner and other regulators should be held accountable, they should be fired across the board. If they knew about an ongoing fraud, and they didn't do anything about it, they don't deserve to have their jobs. I hope we see people in handcuffs.
~ Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General of TARP
What we’re showing here is that cronyism is now permeating our justice system.
~ Peter Schweizer, author of Throw Them All Out
2012 witnessed plenty of government corruption. It is my thesis that corruption within government is getting worse for three reasons: (1) government is a larger percentage of our peacetime GDP than in any other time in history, (2) thanks to the Supreme Court, unlimited funds flooding into election cycles drown out all other interests, and (3) profound financialization of the economy—movement of money for the sake of money—due to unprecedented Fed interventions and deficit Federal spending aggregates criminal elements and elicits criminal behavior. To put it simply, the crime syndicates all had IPOs. Almost without fail the punishments for white-collar crime—really substantial graft—are a small percentage of the booty obtained from the crime. Failures to investigate and prosecute men of wealth and power are emblematic of a kakistocracy—government by the most unprincipled.
Attorney General Eric Holder was up to his ears in dirt. Holder’s law firm defended Corzine against prosecution by Holder’s Department of Justice.257 The law firm won that battle. This was the same Eric Holder who was charged with contempt of Congress for not forking up information about the “Fast and Furious” Mexican arms deals.258 This was the putative sting in which Federal agents sold arms to Mexicans to track the arms but somehow forgot to include tracking devices. Congress also appears to have forgotten to follow up on the contempt charge. I asked Peter Dale Scott, a UC Berkeley octogenarian and multi-decade scholar on the politics of drug cartels, if he knew what the real story was behind Fast and Furious. He assured me that “there is something very wrong with the picture and the official explanation for it.” Oddly, the investigation into the arms deals was terminated by…you guessed it, the Obama Department of Justice.259 That would be Eric Holder.
The authorities continue to cauterize the wounds from the mortgage fiasco by out-of-court settlements with banks, allowing no admission of guilt, no criminal prosecutions, and cash settlements representing small fractions of the profits. (I get in more trouble for leaving the seat up.) We thought the authorities finally levied a severe fine on the banks and brokerages with a sizeable $25 billion settlement for fraudulent foreclosures, only to find that most of the money—all but a few billion dollars—came from the bailout money and even their own write-downs of losses on defaulted mortgages.260 Dean Baker notes that Obama gave bankers immunity from prosecution, and in return, bankers agree to accept government money to cut mortgage principle.261 Everything but the reduction in mortgage principal came to pass.
Although this is not easily prosecuted corruption, the racketeering (RICO) laws seem appropriate. To clarify, I am recommending RICO laws be used on the government officials who participated. Even the document that represented the attorneys generals’ settlements with the banks was shown to be fraudulent.262 The New York Times reported that money intended for homeowners in the fraud settlement, as little as it was, got diverted by the states into general operating funds.263
Walmart got caught bribing Mexican politicians to foster their business interests South of the Border.264 Somebody bribed the Mexicans? Shocking indeed. This does not happen in the U.S. because we have registered lobbyists. Those same lobbyists will ensure that Walmart’s transition to redemption is seamless.
The SEC, to evade a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit, expunged data pertaining to Citigroup as part of their catch-and-release program.265 Citigroup is protected by the Rubin mafia. This is politics Geithner Style. It will be interesting to see where the starting lineup for Team Obama ends up after they finish their first term. The FOIA by Bloomberg showed how the revolving door totally commandeered the Dodd-Frank act to make sure it was banking-friendly.266 The average salary boost on passing through the government-Wall Street revolving door is estimated at 1400%.267 I’m sure that top dogs like Geithner will do considerably better. Don’t let the revolving door hit you guys in the butts.
Another proud moment for the Obama administration’s push for alternative
funding energy: Electric car battery maker Ener1, which received more than $100 million in government handouts, has filed for bankruptcy protection.268 I’m beginning to suspect cronyism here! Peter Schweizer’s book Throw Them All Out (vide infra) documented in repulsive detail the shovel-ready cronyism that occurred during the financial crisis.
There were old-school politics going on when Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour left office. On his way out the door he pardoned a number of seedy characters, including eight men convicted of killing their wives or girlfriends.269 The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the decision. In Mississippi, the Rule of Law is a bad joke, and True Blood is a documentary. We have, however, not plumbed the level of the Thai politicians. A Thai senator shot his secretary with a machine gun in a restaurant and got a $625 fine for it.270 Very Cheney-esque.
If you want some fun, find the Clinton pardons. The original list I saw had over 1,100 and was easily located. The list was laced with drug busts and bank frauds. I can only find partial lists now. Even so, the number who were in prison for drugs or some form of bank fraud is striking.271 This would partially explain how Clinton left office burdened by onerous legal fees and now has an estimated net worth of $80 million.272 That’s a lot of honoraria for rubber chicken dinners. Tony Blair also seems to have laundered serious money into shell companies.273
State Supreme Court judges run for office in 38 states. Jeffrey Toobin warns us that the lobbyists discovered them in the mid-90s and are diverting some of their resources.274 In 1990 candidates for state supreme courts only raised around $3 million…in the races to the high courts, candidates now raise more than $50 million.
The government sold $5 billion worth of AIG stock acquired during the bailouts. AIG bought $2 billion of it, presumably using money from government bailouts. AIG was shockingly profitable owing to $17 billion of tax credits (gifts by the taxpayer).275
Harvard had a publicly embarrassing cheating scandal in which over a hundred kids in one course were accused of plagiarizing. What course would warrant such bad behavior? Introduction to Congress.276 I’m sure the kids will do better in their Introduction to Ethics in their MBA programs.
Recall the must-see Miami Vice episode entitled, “Prodigal Son?”277 Tubbs and Crocket trace the drug money straight to a wrinkly old banker who explains that the drug money ensures payment of South American bank debt. I remember at the it time that made sense, and it seems haunting now. It is rumored that Mr. Burns in the Simpsons was modeled after the Miami Vice banker.
There is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning.
~ John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States
There may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless may pose a threat to the security of the United States.
~ Barack Obama, President of the United States
One of my favorite bloggers, Charles Hugh Smith, cogently summarized instances in which incarceration was used to protect democracy and civil liberties.278 How ironic. Doug Casey provided a haunting account of creeping fascism in Germany in the ‘30s and how it occurs incrementally.279 It is an easy case to make that we are in a battle to preserve civil liberties simply because every year is a battle to preserve civil liberties. Civil liberties are forfeited one at a time. The battle lines are being drawn. You should fight every fight, no matter how big or small.
There is an ongoing battle for ultimate control of the Internet. Legislation includes the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).280,281 Superficially they are designed to achieve the named goals. The notion is that pirating sites can be blocked if they are interfering with trade. Their reach, however, is far greater. An accusation alone is sufficient to block a web site prior to any clear evidence of guilt.282 Authorities could shut down search engines Yahoo, Google, or Bing suspected of enabling these hooligans. SOPA got shelved after there was, ironically, a massive Internet-derived protest. The digital world has taken our lives by storm. The Internet is as profoundly democratic as Gutenberg’s printing press. Keep it wide-open at all costs. Efforts to control information flow will keep appearing like the proverbial camel nose under the tent. And here comes the next one on cue in 3…2…1…enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)!283
The implications of armed drones are staggering. We are not the only country with drones; they are proliferating around the globe. We managed to survive thermonuclear risk for half a century, and yet we find ourselves racing toward a Skynet-like drone war of staggering magnitude. The skies will be littered with drones like aerial minefields. It is terrorism to those on the receiving end, causing blowback to be almost a certainty. Congress passed a law opening U.S. skies to unmanned drones.284 Companies are lining up to launch them—an estimated 30,000 drones within a few years285—forming a nouveau industrial-military complex. As a guy who finds automated speed-monitoring devices irritating and automated ticketing profoundly disturbing, the drones make me crazy. Even if unarmed, is this not Constitutionally prohibited unlawful search? What event will elicit armed variants to protect us from the bad guys? And if all that isn’t spooky enough, the drones are being engineered for autonomous (human-free) response.286
Digital monitoring of “crimes against traffic” frees up police for more hands-on police work. Petty arrests now justify strip searches. The Economist describes increasing predilections toward stop-and-frisk policies within the cities.287 Legal scholar Jonathan Turley estimates that over 700,000 unwarranted stop-and-frisk searches occur each year in NYC alone.288
Jonathan Turley also notes that the Administration claims the right to assassinate a U.S. citizen either here or abroad, and it would seem that we did such a thing.289 Of course, the target deserved it because he undermined America! The FBI has described extremists as those who “may refuse to pay taxes, defy government environmental regulations, and believe the United States went bankrupt by going off the gold standard."290 Y’all should be careful because you never know what is flying 50,000 feet right above your heads. Obama is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill list. God save the poor soul spotted by drones entering Manhattan with a Big Gulp. Mayor Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda could turn violent.
Sergey Aleynikov was arrested in 2009 for the most egregious of crimes—stealing software from Goldman Sachs. The Goldman Stasi are good at their jobs, getting him into custody within hours. In 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in jail for this profitless crime despite the probation office’s recommendation of 2 years.291 The system seemed to correct itself when the United States Court of Appeals threw the case out in 2012, ruling the source code was not a "stolen good.”292 It was a pyrrhic victory for Aleynikov. They arrested him again using a different jurisdiction to avoid double jeopardy.
Joshua Dressler, a criminal law professor at Ohio State University said that “it was highly unlikely that the separate Federal and state prosecutions in the Aleynikov case would violate the Constitution.” I think they just did. At least now Sergey doesn’t have to start his car in fear.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was enacted to protect us against terrorists.294 Of course it was. It provided government authority to incarcerate an American citizen indefinitely without access to legal defense or the courts. Protestors challenging the unlawful incarceration were (you got it) arrested.295 In September, a Federal judge ruled it was not even in the same zip code as the Constitution and put a permanent injunction to protect us.296 Here’s the really troubling part: It had been passed by a large majority in Congress and a 91:9 vote in the Senate, and signed by President Obama. When the outcry began in earnest, Obama assured us that his administration would never act recklessly. I beg to differ: Signing the bill was reckless. I’ll take it a step further: Signing the bill was treason. Read your job description, Mr. President. Watch for that part about upholding the Constitution. And by the way, Team Obama is fighting the injunction.297
There is little doubt that municipalities in the sand states would do almost anything to dig themselves out of the mortgage crisis. The brain trust in San Bernardino, with the legal help of one of my colleagues (Professor Robert Hockett) got the idea to use eminent domain to commandeer underwater mortgages—mortgages that exceed the value of the house.298 The idea is to pay “fair value” (red flag!), bundle them up (red flag!), and sell them to private investors (red flags!). There would be no shortage of cronies willing to buy up these bundles. The subplot might be that this is a veiled attempt to clean up the MERS boondoggle that is causing foreclosures to throw the title of houses into a legal vortex. As preposterous as this sounds, it’s probably Constitutional given the eminent domain case in Connecticut that some believe drove Sandra Day O’Conner to retire from the court.299 It may, however, be illegal in California.300
The Citizens United suit gave Super PACS their unlimited political power by allowing them to spend unlimited money on political campaigns provided they follow a few guidelines.301 Journalist and civil servant Jim Hightower referred to the majority justices as "five traitors to the democratic ideal.” It is indeed odd that support for freedom of speech may have profoundly oppressed free speech. A banking Super PAC overtly promoted by American Banker is blood curdling in its goal to defeat any candidate that is not friendly to banks.302 A suit to ban excessive donations in Montana got nuked.303 According to the Supreme Court, money is speech. As a corollary, if you don’t have money, you will lack a voice.
Corporate civil rights seem to be in the news. An Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestor carried a sign, "We will know corporations are people when Texas executes one." It seems clear that corporate civil liberties without civil responsibilities is a problem. It is not true, however, that this was a recent or rapid change. Organizations began to accrue Constitutional protections beginning with a case of Dartmouth College versus the State of New Hampshire in 1819. Ted Nace’s Gangs of America tracks through the Supreme Court decisions that incrementally granted civil liberties to corporations. Despite the hyperbolic title, it is a balanced, scholarly analysis.
Why are civil liberties eroding? One notion is that tension between the central planners and free market crowd led to a societal compromise in the 1930s. Capitalism was allowed to flourish, but with safeguards to keep communistic ideals in check. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Block, the proletariat (in the U.S., that is) had no alternative system to keep powerful individuals mindful of their needs. Glass Steagall fell in the late 90s, the banking cartels grew, and wealth disparity—financial apartheid—emerged.
A sinking economy requires stimulus from two agents, the Federal Reserve and the government.
~ Rich Yamarone, Director of Argus Research
During the time of the Soviet Union the role of the state in economy was made absolute, which eventually led to the total non-competitiveness of the economy…I am sure no one would want history to repeat itself.
~ Vladimir Putin, communist
We have witnessed a seemingly endless battle for the Grand Compromise between those supporting central planning versus market forces. 18th century economist Edmund Burke warned of the role of intellectuals trafficking in snark and trumpeted the Law of Unintended Consequences. Burke also recognized the wealth disparity in 18th-century France and accurately predicted the murderous end result. 19th-century economist Alexi de Tocqueville described the genius of America as not the equality of outcome but rather equality in the eyes of the law. 20th-century economist Joseph Schumpeter also viewed intellectuals with disdain and capitalism not as flawed but fragile. Friedrich Hayek, famous for his opposition to John Maynard Keynes, supported the notion of social safety nets, just not so many and not so invasive. I think Hayek’s stroke of insight was recognizing significant analogies with Darwinian evolution to understand that complex systems arise and persist more by trial and error than by explicit human engineering. Hayek’s Fatal Conceit describes the folly of intellectuals thinking they are smart enough to mess with free markets, hoping to obtain only intended consequences. My reading of Keynes is that he was a profound interventionist—a knob twirler—and was also a radical socialist.
The Yamarone quote illustrates that we have degenerated to a society in which even the big money guys—supposedly the bright bulbs—think that government will solve our problems. While watching a Yale panel discussion on the economy, I was struck by the explicit endorsement of government solutions by the panelists.304 Apparently, we are all Keynesians now. I could buy into a variant of the Keynesian model in which government acts as a financially interested party, buying goods and services when they are cheap and pulling back when they are expensive. It would naturally be counter-cyclical. Unfortunately, there is no chance it will ever work that way. Paraphrasing my dad who was paraphrasing Milton Friedman, government does everything inefficiently, so don’t ask them to do more than you must. It’s not about the morality of what government does; it’s about the low quality and horrendous inefficiency.
Hernando De Soto warns that the U.S. is forfeiting a critical feature that distinguishes it from Third World countries—well-defined property rights. The MERS catastrophe that threw the title of millions of properties into question was an 80-car pile-up on a foggy freeway that will be corrected by legal fiat. By contrast, mutation of the banking system into a cartel, while by no means unprecedented, is a serious problem. Now that this gargantuan organism has control, there is no means to wrestle it back. When you can purchase a politician for $100,000, how can we expect real change? The Citizens United case that opened the political process to unlimited capital is profound because attempts to unring that bell are opposed by unlimited capital. The power of the banking trusts has gone beyond the failsafe point. The Fed—the One Ring that controls them all—is the key. It will be a long trek to the Crack of Doom.
Challenges to our civil liberties, overreach of eminent domain, domestic drone surveillance, and attempts by elected officials to knowingly subvert Constitutional rights all attest to the insidious Orwellian creep of government into our lives. It is not obvious to me that we can negotiate our way out of this one. Some problems do not have solutions if you define a solution as a fix with tolerable pain. I suspect that resolution will occur, but it will be something historic. We are in a barrel speeding down the Niagara River toward the Falls. This is not an episode of Batman or McGyver: all palatable solutions have passed. We will experience the Falls up front and personal. Those in power will claim they did their best when, in fact, they were the root cause. Bernanke, one of the reputed world’s experts on the Great Depression, never mentions loose monetary policy in the 1920s as the cause. It is a lie by omission; a profound one at that.
I close with a simple directive: Watch Ron Paul’s farewell speech to Congress.305 You owe it to yourself. He’s the one that got away. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, “He coulda been a contender.” If you’ve had enough of darkness, try this John Cleese seminar on creativity306—it’s brilliant—or this photo montage of history’s most epic photos.307 Soon I will be off like a prom dress, but first I wish to share the books that I read this year, and the all-important acknowledgements.
Every year I summarize books that I read. I am a slow reader so I try to chose them carefully. I’ve overdosed on crisis books for over a decade (beginning with crisis foreshadowing books) but succumbed to the temptation a few more times. I also slipped back into pop psychology mode.
White describes the debates that took place throughout the 20th century, pitting the free market advocates against the central planners. Although White shows his colors as a free marketeer, he does a beautiful job of letting the reader ponder the debate rather than force-feeding the conclusion. The book might not be wonky enough for the pros, but I found it to be very scholarly—a great book for a wide swath of macroeconomic enthusiasts. This is the stuff economists-in-training seem to miss in modern curricula. I took the plunge prompted by an Econtalk interview of the author.308
Broken Markets: How High Frequency Trading and Predatory Practices on Wall Street are Destroying Investor Confidence and Your Portfolio by Sal L. Arnuk and Joseph C. Saluzzi
I don’t really know Sal Arnuk but am a big fan of Joe Saluzzi, occasionally swapping barbs about the horrendous price discovery process in modern markets. Joe and Sal describe in detail how high frequency traders are eroding the foundations of the markets—not just equity markets—through their relentless game of high-frequency Whac-A-Mole. Although Sal’s and Joe’s knowledge of the markets and passion for change is uncontestable, their frustration at times overwhelms the prose. I recommend the book, but some enthusiasm for trading may be required to nudge this book into the five-star group.
I wasn’t going to touch this book if it were not for a personal endorsement from Chris Whalen. Bair, Chair of the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), describes the incredible turf wars and petty battles below the surface of the bailouts. I previously had sensed Sheila was one of the good guys; the book reinforced it. She describes Bernanke as generally well-meaning, Geithner as a relentlessly pro-Citigroup promoter and Rubin pawn (to the point of racketeering), and a host of others who clearly need severe beatings. It is an antidote to the highly lopsided Sorkin treatise, Too Big to Fail. Here is a Bair interview.309
Neil entered the crisis plotline as the young, feisty special investigator general to oversee the TARP bailout (SIG-TARP). From his presentation, he was green and naïve, unready for the thugs he would be dealing with. By example, he figured out relatively late in the game that the gaping holes in the bailouts used by the banks to siphon trillions from the Fed were left there by design, not by mistake. The big loser is Geithner, who comes across yet again as a despicable human being. I was disappointed not to get more insight into Elizabeth Warren’s role as Chair of the TARP oversight committee. Barofsky has done many interviews; an Econtalk variant is particularly thorough.310
Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner
This is an excellent and detailed analysis of the financial crisis, deeply probing the mortgage industry’s role (more than simply explaining the basics found in all of the crisis books.) Some may find this old news that they would like to put behind them. My only caveat is that one should read this book or Nocera and McLean’s All the Devils Are Here, but not both.
Benn is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) with what I would call an Austrian economic slant. The book will be released in March. In it, Steil describes a fascinating battle between Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes before, at, and after the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference in which the future world currency regime was hammered out. We get deeply insider views of the events in a prose and presentation that I found gripping. Keynes’s role as a diplomat, unknown to many, may have been his most important single contribution. Heads up: Steve Hanke of the Cato Institute and Johns Hopkins University also has a book on the Bretton Woods Conference coming.
Many may know Schweizer from a 60 Minutes episode that revealed broadly based, scandalous insider trading by Congress that is legal for them. This is the book upon which the 60 Minutes episode was based. Schweizer tells horror story after horror story of graft that would get normal citizens sent to prison. What is appalling is how often they sell the taxpayer out by billions of dollars so that they can make a few hundred thousand dollars. Obama comes out looking particularly bad as the author describes how shovel-ready projects were really about massive kickbacks for campaign donors. It was not, however, a partisan hatchet job.
These two trimester-length audio books from The Teaching Company focus on basic principles of economics from a decidedly descriptive slant (as mandated by audio).311 It’s easy listening stuff that is appropriate for those trying to become comfortable with foundational principles. I liked them because they provide these principles in particularly clear and cogent prose. Never pay retail; they go on sale at 80% discount many times during the year.
The Clash of Generations: Saving Ourselves, Our Kids, and Our Economy by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns
This is a follow up to Kotlikoff’s The Coming Generational Storm describing the impending problems from off-balance sheet obligations. The authors, in conjunction with Kent Smetters, did the seminal studies on unfunded liabilities—promises that are unfunded even when projected tax revenues are subtracted. The authors now estimate them at over $200 trillion. I found the The Coming Generational Storm more appropriate for my needs. The clash of generations is part warning and part investment book for those who are not familiar with this issue. I think the authors manifest ‘doomsayer’s fatigue’—the need to be optimistic after years of seeing a dismal future. I am, nonetheless, a huge Kotlikoff fan.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
Kahnemann is probably the most prominent contributor to behavioral economics, garnering him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He works with Nassim Taleb and appears to be Taleb’s mentor. Thinking Fast and Slow presents the constant battle between the instinctive thoughts and more decidedly cognitive reasoning, explaining how we make decisions and how they can go astray. It is more thoughtful than Gladwell’s Blink, sometimes demanding deeper thought.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
Lehrer’s book came recommended via an Econtalk interview.312 It is yet another Blink-genre book looking into how humans make decisions. I love these books but this treatise is presented at a much lower level than Kahnemann’s and is remarkably similar to a book entitled Sway by Ori and Rom Brafman. Consumers of pop psychology should probably check out Ed Yong’s interview on Econtalk discussing the underlying flaws in this type of social science.313
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
Surowiecki discusses how collections of people with limited individual insights, if acting truly independently, display collective "wisdom" and how that wisdom is lost when they start acting in a correlated fashion. There are many cute snippets describing the results that, at times, become a little too loosely connected. Aficionados of this genre will find it both fun but partially redundant to other works (Taleb; Kahnemann; Gladwell).
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor
Jill, a Harvard neurophysiologist, wakes up one morning and finds herself having a stroke in the highly rational left brain. Her deductive reasoning goes on- and off-line, throttling her back and forth between euphoria and panic. The story describes the stroke and the long recovery in hysterically funny prose from an especially insightful perspective of a neurophysiologist. I found the audio book to be an excellent medium.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
In case you’ve been living under a rock, this fully sanctioned biography that was in no way edited by Steve or his family is simply the best biography I’ve ever read. You get a bird’s-eye view of the computer revolution from soup to nuts through the detailed stories and words of all of the key players. Steve was a unique personality with a unique ability to translate unimaginable compulsive behavior into profound success rather than total failure. My conclusion: Sell any shares of Apple Computer because it ain’t the same company without Steve.
Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg
Ellsberg describes the events leading up to, during, and following the release of the Pentagon Papers, the media-driven exposé of nefarious activities by a string of administrations. It is not really about the content of the papers. Presidents who lie to the American populace seem rather pedestrian in this era. It was interesting but only in the four-star category.
Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations by Professor Brian M. Fagan
I have listened to dozens of trimester-length courses provided by The Teaching Company as audio books.314 With only one exception, they have been great. In this course, Fagan does a great job of following the lineage from the origins of humans starting about 8 million years ago through to the ancient (pre-historic) civilizations across all continents. It’s both informative and very easy listening. Reminder: Never pay retail for these books: they go on 80% sale routinely, bringing the price down to about $70.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
Bonhoeffer was a cleric and a spy in Nazi Germany who eventually gets executed for his role in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. (That is not a plot spoiler; the author tells you he died right up front.) The biography describes the church-state battle, which was very new to me. In my opinion, however, there was way too much church and not enough state. Despite over 500 bonkers reviews at Amazon I found it to be boring.
OK. This ain’t a book; it’s just a friggin’ blog. I’ve got to take this opportunity, however, to thank some folks who have generously shared their time and insights so as to make thinking about capitalism a special experience. You guys have made a difference. Chris Martenson brings gravitas to the debate on resource depletion and, in conjunction with Adam Taggart, graciously publishes my Reviews and invited me for my favorite interview.315 Rick Sherlund of Goldman Sachs/Nomura and friend of 40 years inadvertently and unknowingly triggered a discontinuity in my perception of markets with the most innocuous of statements. Bloomberg reporters are especially accessible. I have exchanged hundreds of emails with Mark Gilbert, head of Bloomberg’s London Office, Caroline Baum, and many other colleagues. Dave Lewis, a former Louis Bacon protégé and scholar of a higher order I call a friend although we meet up only sporadically. I have had dozens of exchanges with an eclectic mix of characters ranging from Elizabeth Warren on the left and Lew Rockwell on the way right. Within that enormous chasm includes multiple and meaningful exchanges with Stephen Roach (Morgan Stanley), James Howard Kunstler, Art Cutten (Jesse’s Café Americain), Byron King (Agora), John Rubino, Bill Fleckenstein, Benn Steil (CFR), Gerard Minack (Morgan Stanley), Doug Noland (Federated Investors), Richard Daughty, Jack Crooks, Grant Williams, and Jim Rickards. I thank Richard Uhlig, former CEO of Morgan Stanley’s banking subsidiary, for giving a two-hour guest lecture on mortgage-backed securities in my honors chemistry class. (The kids loved it!) Meetings and conversations with economists Larry Kotlikoff and Steve Hanke are enormously appreciated. I have especially cherished numerous exchanges with David Einhorn, a truly unique individual and intellect, culminating in a meeting with David and subsequent breakfast with his parents. (Mom is quite the bear.) I was profoundly honored when David Weidner included me in a WSJ article on the flash crash and Demetri Kofinas and Lauren Lyster invited me to do an amazing interview on Capital Account.7 These experiences are special and wholly orthogonal to my exposure in chemistry. Lastly, Bruce Ganem rekindled my interest in markets, politics, and economics. Our colleagues will never forgive you.
David B. Collum
Betty R. Miller Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Year in Review in PDF format: https://s3.amazonaws.com/cm-us-standard/documents/2012-Year-in-Review.pdf
The superscripted links are found here.