Banking privacy is dead. Completely, totally dead. Murdered, really. The US government is the assailant, and FATCA is the murder weapon. We’ve talked about this a few times before– FATCA is the heinously insidiously piece of legislation that the Honorable Barrack Hussein Obama passed into law in 2010 as part of the “Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act”. There were no hiring incentives, and there was no restoration of employment. But any vestiges of banking privacy were destroyed. In brief, FATCA has two key concepts. First, it requires an additional (and completely unnecessary) layer of reporting from all US taxpayers who have ‘foreign financial accounts’ at ‘foreign financial institutions.’ Though as we have discussed before, both of these critical terms are ridiculously and flagrantly ambiguous, putting the onus entirely on the taxpayer. The second key issue is that FATCA puts a burden on ALL foreign financial institutions worldwide to enter into an information-sharing agreement with the IRS; this essentially obliges every bank on the planet to submit reports and customers’ private data to the IRS. Such provisions are absolutely, 100% impossible. And it’s becoming clear that FATCA was passed with no intention of being enforceable. It’s inconceivable that every institution on the planet could enter into an agreement. And it’s inconceivable that every institution on the planet could possibly know whether every other institution has entered into the agreement. The only thing FATCA has accomplished is scaring the living daylights out of non-US banks. So much so that foreign banks have approached their governments to ask for help.
In the U.S. we now have the perfection of cloaked crony capitalism: corporate cartels use their vast concentrations of capital and revenue to buy the political leverage needed to write regulations specifically designed to eliminate competition. Recall that the most profitable business model is a monopoly or cartel protected from competition by the coercive Central State. Imposing complex regulations on small business competitors effectively cripples an entire class competitors, but does so in "stealth mode"--after all, more regulations are a "good thing" (especially to credulous Liberals) which "protect the public" (and every politico loves claiming his/her new raft of regulations will "protect the public.") This masks the key dynamic of crony capitalism: gaming the government is the most profitable business model. Where else can you "invest" a few hundred thousand dollars (to buy political "access" and lobbying) and "earn" a return in the millions of dollars, and eliminate potential competitors, too? No other "investment" even comes close.
With an economy of just $3.2Tn versus the United States $14.3Tn Germany is trying to prop up a Eurozone that is more than one trillion dollars bigger than America. They just do not have the resources for the task they are undertaking and I predict serious consequences, eventually, from their efforts. Germany is “best of class” and will be the last to go but they cannot evade the European recession in the end and I think it is only a matter of time and unfortunate decisions before the austerity demands made on so many will wind their way back home to those who made the demands. They used a timeline that was much too short for the job at hand and payment will eventually be forced upon them. They obviously get the joke where Eurobonds and other ploys of this nature average the economies of Europe and the standards of living over some period of time so that Germany, in the end, will suffer most as they have the furthest to fall. They have approached the G-20, China, the emerging market countries and all polite responses to the side; the results have been about zip. The Germans are running out of both time and money and Franz is squirming in the beer hall.
The real world revolves around cash flow. Families across the land understand this basic concept. Cash flows in from wages, investments and these days from the government. Cash flows out for food, gasoline, utilities, cable, cell phones, real estate taxes, income taxes, payroll taxes, clothing, mortgage payments, car payments, insurance payments, medical bills, auto repairs, home repairs, appliances, electronic gadgets, education, alcohol (necessary in this economy) and a countless other everyday expenses. If the outflow exceeds the inflow a family may be able to fund the deficit with credit cards for awhile, but ultimately running a cash flow deficit will result in debt default and loss of your home and assets. Ask the millions of Americans that have experienced this exact outcome since 2008 if you believe this is only a theoretical exercise. The Federal government, Federal Reserve, Wall Street banks, regulatory agencies and commercial real estate debtors have colluded since 2008 to pretend cash flow doesn’t matter. Their plan has been to “extend and pretend”, praying for an economic recovery that would save them from their greedy and foolish risk taking during the 2003 – 2007 Caligula-like debauchery.
Debt default means huge losses for the Wall Street criminal banks. Of course the banksters will just demand another taxpayer bailout from the puppet politicians. This repeat scenario gives new meaning to the term shop until you drop. Extending and pretending can work for awhile as accounting obfuscation, rolling over bad debts, and praying for a revival of the glory days can put off the day of reckoning for a couple years. Ultimately it comes down to cash flow, whether you’re a household, retailer, developer, bank or government. America is running on empty and extending and pretending is coming to an end.
At bottom, centralization is the foundation for the collectivist fallacy; that there is a “greater good” that must be maintained by the establishment. This process makes the establishment indispensable in the minds of the public. The elites in power today have chosen environmental dogma as their version of the “greater good”, because the “end of the world as we know” can be used to rationalize almost any brand of despotic behavior, from food and water rationing as a method for social conditioning, to population control or even depletion in the name of “saving the planet”. Always beware the true motivations of any governing institution that seeks to assert itself as the purveyor of all that is “best” for the people. Such groups are rarely if ever what they seem…
You hear a lot about Kafkaesque stifling bureaucracy in Greece and other struggling European nations, but America's Status Quo is trying its best to destroy small enterprise with taxes and crushing bureaucracy. I am self-employed, and have been for most of my life. When I did take a paid position, it was in other small enterprises or local non-profit organizations. I mention this because there is an unbridgeable divide in any discussion of small business between those who have no experience in entrepreneural enterprise (i.e. they've worked for the government, NGOs/non-profits or Corporate America their entire careers) and those who have. There are all sorts of similar chasms that cannot be crossed and which quickly reveal a surreal disconnect from actual lived reality: for example, the difference between actually playing football--yes, with pads, a muddy field and guys trying to slam you to the ground--and being an armchair quarterback who's never been hit even once, never caught a pass or ever struggled to bring down a faster, bigger player. (And yes, I did play football in high school as a poor dumb skinny kid who mostly warmed the bench for good reason, but I lettered.) At the extreme of this disconnect, we have armchair generals screaming for war who have no experience of combat or war as it is actually experienced. You get the point: it's very easy for well-paid pundits who have never started a single real enterprise or met a single payroll to pontificate about "opportunity" and small business as the engine of growth, blah blah blah. It's also easy for those with no actual experience to reach all sorts of absurd conclusions about how easy it is to turn a small business into great wealth. (No, Bain Capital or other Wall Street outposts of financialization are not "small business.")
The authors identify two "externalities" to the triggers for default cascades: 1) variability of financial robustness of all of the interconnected financial entities; and 2) the average financial robustness of the interconnected entities. If all parties have similar financial robustness (variability is low), then increasing connectivity makes the system more robust. Stability is even likely through diversification if the individual parties are not very robust. It was only when the initial robustness was highly variable across agents (i.e., some agents are weak and others strong) that increasing interconnectedness tended to stimulate systemic defaults.... The lesson here is diversification is not always a good idea. If you diversify across financial entities with wide risk profiles (i.e., some are weak and some are strong) you actually increase the likelihood of a financial calamity. We don't have to confine ourselves to financial institutions. If we consider our agents to be sovereign, we expect the same problem. Creating a financial superpower out of a group of Germanys would be perfect--even a group of Greeces might be okay. But creating one out of Germanys and Greeces tends to encourage a financial catastrophe. Who could have predicted that? The authors suggest that the "fix" for this situation is to concentrate risk rather than diversify it. I wonder--in whose hands will the risk be concentrated? Perhaps if you hold gold, the risk won't find its way into yours.
There have been numerous media stories out over the last couple of weeks about the recovery in housing at long last. Of course, this is the same housing bottom call that we heard in 2009, 2010 and 2011 - so why not drag it out again for 2012. Eventually, the call will be right and they will be anointed with oils and proclaimed to be the gurus that called the bottom. In the financial world you only have to be right once. However, back on earth, where things really matter, housing is a major contributing component to long term economic recovery. Each dollar sunk into new housing construction has a large multiplier effect back on the overall economy. No economic recovery in history has started without housing leading the way. So, yes, housing is really just that important and we should all want it to recover and soon. The calls for a bottom in housing now, however, may be a bit premature as I will explain.
As the banks in Europe report out earnings; or the lack thereof in most cases, it becomes clear that the LTRO is helping with liquidity but not with solvency past some very short term point. This is always the case of course but it is beginning to hit home. The balance sheets for many European banks have now swelled on the liability side with more and more debt piling up courtesy of the ECB while their assets decrease due to the Basel III mandates so that the financials of these banks begin to deteriorate. It is not just the losses from their Greek debt holdings that are coming into play but also their potential future losses from sovereign debt write downs markedly for Portugal soon I think but also perhaps for Spain and Italy in the near term as the recession in Europe brings new problems to the fore which will further reduce the value of sovereign and bank credits in Europe.
Greece has been the most pillaged country in Europe this Depression, among other reasons, because no one in any leadership position seems to have learned lessons from the 1930s. Plus, banks have more power now than they did then to call the shots. Despite no signs of the first bailout working – certainly not in growing the Greek economy or helping its population - but not even in being sufficient to cover speculative losses, Euro elites finalized another 130 billion Euro, ($170 billion) bailout today. This is ostensibly to avoid banks’ and credit default swap players’ wrath over the possibility of Greece defaulting on 14.5 billion Euros in bonds. Bailout promoters seem to believe (or pretend) that: bank bailout debt + more bank bailout debt + selling national assets at discount prices + oppressive unemployment = economic health. They fail to grasp that severe austerity hasn’t, and won’t, turn Greece (or any country) around. Banks, of course, just want to protect their bets and not wait around for Greece to really stabilize for repayment.
Americans participating in a recent Gallup poll showed the highest level of confidence in an economic recovery in a year. Sounds great, but you can’t ignore the nearly 13 million unemployed, the 46 million people on food stamps and the roughly 29% of the country’s homeowners whose mortgages are under water. They would find it hard to subscribe to the poll’s sunny conclusion. On the other hand, there’s no getting away from a bevy of seemingly increasingly favorable economic data, which, more recently, includes falling weekly jobless claims, four consecutive monthly gains in the leading economic indicators, somewhat perkier retail sales and a pickup in housing starts and business permits. Pounding home this cheerful view is the media’s growing drumbeat of increased economic vigor....Confused? How can you not be?
Back in December I penned an article about the potential for gasoline prices to rise quickly to catch up with surging oil prices. We said then "If we look at just the nominal price data going back to 1990 we can see that there is indeed a very high correlation between oil prices and gasoline prices. While divergences from each other do occur on occassion those divergences tend not to last for very long with gasoline usually correcting towards the price of oil." That is precisely what has happened since the near $3 per gallon of gasoline this summer, which was an effective $60 billion tax break for consumers during the much anticipated retail shopping season, to near $3.50 a gallon today. That 16% rise in gasoline has now effectively wiped out the entire payroll tax cut being extended into 2012. There has been a lot of media commentary as of late about the recovery in the economy. The dangerous assumption being made here is that the recent upticks in the economic data have come primarily at the expense of inventory restocking and end of year buying of capital goods by businesses to lock in tax credits. Extrapolating those bounces in the data well into the future can prove to be disappointing. Yet this is exactly what the the President's current budget, which has been presented to Congress, has done. That budget plans for 3% or stronger economic growth over the next 6 years. This is a pretty lofty goal which considering last years growth was a paltry 1.7%. However, in order to acheive a 3% plus growth rate the consumer is going to have to should 2.1% of that load through consumption.
It seems that the mainstream investment community only takes a break from ignoring gold to berate it: one of gold’s most outspoken critics, uber-investor Warren Buffett, did so recently in his latest shareholder letter. The indictments were familiar; gold is an inanimate object “incapable of producing anything,” so any investor holding it instead of stocks is acting out of irrational fear. How can it be that Buffett, perhaps the most successful (and definitely the most well-known) investor of our time, believes that gold has no place in an intelligently allocated investment portfolio? Perhaps it has something to do with his mentor, Benjamin Graham....for most of Graham's adult life and the most important years of his career, ownership of more than a small amount of gold was outlawed. Banned for private ownership by FDR in 1933, it wasn't re-legalized until late 1974. Graham passed away in 1976; he thus never lived through a period in which gold was unmistakably a better investment than either stocks or bonds. All of which makes us wonder: if Graham had lived to witness the two great bull markets in precious metals during the last 40 years, would he have updated his allocation models to include gold?
Since the system itself has disconnected risk from consequence with backstops, guarantees and illusory claims of financial security, then it is has lost the essential feedback required to adapt to changing circumstances. As the risk being transferred to the system rises geometrically, the system is incapable of recognizing, measuring or assessing the risk being transferred until it is so large it overwhelms the system in a massive collapse/default. The consortium has only two ways to create the illusion of solvency when the punter's $100 million bet goes bad: borrow $100 million from credulous possessors of capital or counterfeit it on a printing press. These are precisely the strategies being pursued by central banks and states around the globe. BUt since risk remains disconnected from gain/loss, then capital and risk both remain completely mispriced. Risk is being transferred to the entire global financial system at a fantastic rate, because counterfeiting money or borrowing it on this scale to cover losses creates new self-reinforcing feedbacks of risk....At some unpredictable stick/slip point, the accumulated risk will cause the system to implode like a supernova star.
There is a very clear relationship between economic growth and sufficient quantities of high quality energy. A crude measure of energy quality is its price. The lower the price for a unit of energy, the higher its quality (or net energy), but this is a very crude measure that can and often is heavily distorted by subsidies, market pressures, and other factors. As we squint at the world price for oil and note that Brent today is trading at $120 per barrel, it is clear that this high price is signaling that energy is now more expensive than it used to be. By adopting the belief that Peak Oil has been debunked, one runs the risk of missing the larger story that our current economic model is unsustainable. And that stocks and bonds and other traditional investments that derive a large portion of their current value from expectations of future growth simply may not perform anything like they have in the past. And worse, that recent and continuing efforts to revive the old economy by printing money risk the destruction of the money system itself. Given this all-too-human tendency to attempt to preserve the status quo, in this case by printing money, I must reiterate my advice to be sure that gold forms a significant portion of your core portfolio.