October 7th, 2012
It will, or should, come as no surprise that as a result of the Great Financial Crisis, just as in real life, so in D.C., the wealthiest politicians have gotten wealthier: in fact at least 72 politicos have doubled their wealth in the past 5 years. It will, or should, also come as no surprise, that as a result of the GFC, the average wealth of Republicans (which declined) and Democrats (which rose) has converged, confirming that at least when it comes to the economic disparity between America's two big parties, there is no longer any difference. At least these are the findings of a recent WaPo study looking at how America's lawmakers have benefited from the laws they themselves institute. In other words, while America's laws may be designed for its people, those who actually benefit from this country's fiscal (and of course monetary) policy is just one group: those who continue to transfer wealth from what little is left of the middle class and into their own, mostly offshore, bank accounts. From the WaPo: "You would find that, contrary to many popular perceptions, lawmakers don’t get rich by merely being in Congress. Rich people who go to Congress, though, keep getting richer while they’re there." We are fairly confident that there were no "popular perceptions" that anyone goes to Congress to get wealthy. Congress, and certainly the Senate, are merely vehicles to allow those with power and money to simply perpetuate a status quo that benefits the 1% and takes, what little is left, from everyone else. And sadly, this theft transcends political lines and ideological colors. In short: everyone is doing it, even as America continues to delude itself there is an option. There is none.
The Syrian-Turkish artillery exchanges are becoming a nearly daily tradition: first on Wednesday, when NATO member countries had to be woken up late at night at the request of Turkey to opine on whether Syria had breached Article 4 (leading to a lot fo harsh language by Hillary Clinton), then again on Friday, and now on Sunday, when Syria, (or at least various Al Qaeda factions inside of it, presumably not those endorsed by Turkey) is once again provoking Turkey by firing into the same location as on the previous two occasions, leading to the inevitable Turkish retaliation. All this of course is happening as Turkey deploys ever more military at its Syria border. One of these days, after the latest Syrian 'provocation', Turkey will just snap and invade, taking advantage of the Bill recently passed in Parliament which gives the country permission to invade Syria if it so chooses in retaliation, and of course of NATO's unconditional backstop. And just to add spice to the situation, an unidentified drone will quietly fall out of the skies just because.
To grasp what is really occurring here we must look at how authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes (or, indeed, authoritarian regimes in general) function. Authoritarian regimes must maintain a cloak of authority. Tyrants do not attempt to look or sound weak; they try to project an aura of invincibility and indefatigability. We saw this during the last Gulf War, where Iraq’s information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf — nicknamed Baghdad Bob in the American media — shot off hundreds of absurd statements during the war about how Iraqi troops were crushing the Americans, quite in contrast to the facts on the ground and right up until American tanks were rolling through the streets of Baghdad. Baghdad Bob was not deluded. He was merely playing his role, and trying to project an aura of regime invincibility — providing propaganda for domestic consumption to keep the Iraqi population loyal to Saddam Hussein. It was a dog and pony show.
Sick of the official and very serious theater that passes for America'a presidential election? Then enjoy the following less than serious theater courtesy of the comic duo of Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart, whose "Rumble 2012" was the best 90 minute lampoon of America's hypnotic fascination with whose (skewed?) ratings did what first thing in the morning, whose non-sex tape was released over the weekend, who misspoke in the past 12 hours, but most importantly how no matter who is in charge on November 7, nothing will actually change. Finally, what better way to start your Sunday than with a laugh at some politicians' expense?
Standing in Legoland in Carlsbad, California in 2011, fulfilling a promise to my then eight-year-old son William, it hit me. I was strolling around a Blackstone-owned property. We'd woken up in a Homewood Suites, owned by Blackstone-backed Hilton. We'd driven to the park in a rental car from Hertz, owned by private-equity firms Carlyle and Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. Practically every time I'd opened my wallet that day, it had been to a company owned by private equity. Even on vacation, I couldn't escape. A few months later, I had dinner with Greg Brenneman, who'd held top positions at Continental, Burger King, and Quizno's, all private-equity-owned at the time he was involved. Brenneman is now the chairman of CCMP Capital, whose investments have included 1-800-Flowers.com and Vitamin Shoppe. We talked at length about the ubiquity of PE ownership -- my J. Crew sweater, the Dollar General store in my wife's hometown in the Catskills. I started a running list on my BlackBerry that quickly grew to dozens of examples. Brand names piled up, from Toys "R" Us to Petco. The more I looked, the more I found it. The numbers are staggering. Private-equity firms globally and collectively had almost $3 trillion in assets at the end of 2011. The companies they own account for about 8 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product by one estimate.
Even if both the Bush tax cuts and emergency unemployment insurance are extended, the 'sequester' is mostly postponed, and the fresh fiscal drag is confined to the expiration of the payroll tax cut and the new taxes to pay for Obamacare, Goldman estimates suggest that fiscal policy would shave nearly 1.5% from real GDP growth in early 2013. While it seems the 'market' believes that some compromise will be enough to lift the market to new stratospheric heights; we believe, as does Goldman, that the risks are almost exclusively on the downside of this 'not so good' fiscal scenario.
Certainly the White House would never interfere in unemployment data critical to their re-election hopes
Individually, it seems, most Fed officials accept the chief recommendation of monetary theorists, such as Michael Woodford of Columbia University, about how to conduct policy when the nominal federal funds rate is stuck at its zero lower bound. The problem they face rather explicitly, as Morgan Stanley's Vince Reinhart points out, is how to translate the advice from economic textbooks to the application of policy by the diverse group of people on the FOMC. Reinhart goes on to ask, rhetorically, if a conditional policy rule works so well in theory, why has it not been put into practice? Congress instructs the Fed to foster maximum employment and price stability but gives no guidance on weighing deviations from those goals in the short run. If the FOMC cannot agree on the weights, then they cannot agree on a rule. As a result, the Fed is living out a collective action problem, in that officials individually support a rule but collectively cannot agree to a single rule. This leaves Fed officials are now in the improvisation phase of their monetary policy experiment. That does not seem to us like a 'good' thing for the most powerful entity in the world.
While everyone and their pet rabbit 'Dave' in the media seems to 'believe', there’s plenty of debate about—and money riding on—the question of whether we are in the midst of a sustainable recovery in the housing market. Nobody knows for sure, of course, but there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. While it is easy to focus on the traditional indicators of supply and demand and start believing that the long-awaited recovery in the property market has arrived at last, the fact is that much has changed in the wake of the events of the past decade, a development that is likely to weigh on prices for many years to come.
We have extensively discussed the size (here - must read!) and growth (here) of the Fed's largesse in soaking up massive amounts of the primary and second Treasury (and now MBS) markets with the ongoing theme of 'what about the exit strategy?' among other things. The onset of QEternity likely means the Fed's balance sheet will grow to over $4 trillion within the next year and, as UBS notes, although the Fed has suggested that it will not begin an exit strategy until 2015, the magnitude of the excess balance sheet argues for considering whether the Fed has the ability to unwind their balance sheet. We, like UBS, believe that the Fed will find it far more difficult to exit than they have found it to enter given the limitations of the exit tools frequently cited. There are three main tools for reducing the Fed’s balance sheet: asset sales/maturation (bad signaling), reverse repurchase agreements (size constraints), and interest on reserves (inflationary).
It will come as no surprise to any ZeroHedge readers but High Frequency Trading (HFT) deeply concerns Erik Hunsader, founder of Nanex. He worries that today's investors, our regulators, -- heck, even the HFT algorithms themselves -- don't fully understand the risks market prices face in the brave new era of bot-dominated trading. For instance, Hunsader estimates that HFT algorithms are responsible for 70%(!) of all completed transactions on our exchanges, and for 99.9%(!!!) of all exchange quotes. The pictures of trading floors you see on TV, where the people in bright jackets appear frantically busy in making their trades, have no bearing -- claims Hunsader -- on the actual trading action. The real action happens across fiber-optic cables, on racks of servers in cooled rooms; where an arms race defined by cable length and switching speeds is being waged. The reality is that the machines have taken over.
Europe, and its apparent Union, is rapidly fragmenting as tensions mount on large and small scales across all of its regions and nations. From Scotland's independence referendum to Flanders' autonomy and now Catalonian separatism on the rise once more, this is no longer a north-south divide, but a rich/poor, debt/no-debt divide. As the NY Times notes, this seems to emerge from the ebbing of the concept of shared sovereignty (richer - or less debt-saturated - nations increasing anger at having to bail out their poorer neighbors), or as Stratfor describes it - the paradox of integration - as 'more Europe' means vastly different things depending on which side of the fence you sit on. Now, as Russia Today reports, Venice is pushing for independence from Rome and there is increasing independence movements in Sicily and Sardinia. As old battles and historical grievance come back to the fore, "when it comes to the crunch, while money may be the catalyst (who commits what to central budgets); it is, as the NY Times puts it, "the meta-narrative and emotions of 'do we feel oppressed?... as the ghosts of history return." From Bannockburn to WWII, "Europe seems shakier; some of the taboo questions are coming out again!"
In lieu of a missing Friday humor piece, here is the Saturday edition, which is merely a non-fiction based compilation of this week's Top 10 Bloomberg headlines as they crossed the tape. The conclusion here is that The Onion has now permanently missed its IPO window, as reality is now in no need of embellishment.
Polticians lie. Obama and Romney are politicians. They talk. Therefore they lie. They lied big time during the debate. Are our choices between evil and lesser evil?