Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Fed is just an Extension of the Banking Establishment; The Bear bailout proves it

The Fed is just an Extension of the Banking Establishment; The Bear bailout proves it

By Mike Whitney

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One picture tells the whole story. It's a photo of five grim looking men in gray suits staring ahead blankly like they were in the dock with Saddam awaiting sentencing. Every one of them looks downcast and dejected; shoulders rounded and jaws set. This is what desperation looks like, which is why the photo was kept off the front pages of our leading newspapers.

The group took no questions and, as far as the media was concerned, the meeting never happened. But it did happen; and it happened on Monday at the White House at 2PM. That's when President Bush convened the Working Group on Financial Markets, also known as the Plunge Protection Team, to explain their strategy for dealing with deteriorating conditions in the financial markets. The details of the meeting remain unknown, but judging by the sudden (and irrational) recovery in the stock market yesterday; their plan must have succeeded.

The Plunge Protection Team is a panel that includes Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, and acting Commodity Futures Trading Commission head Walter Lukken. According to John Crudele of the New York Post, the Plunge Protection Team’s (PPT) objective is to redirect the stock market by “buying market averages in the futures market, thus stabilizing the market as a whole.” In the event of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, the group's activities could play an extremely positive role in saving the market from an unnecessary meltdown. However, direct intervention into supposedly “free markets” is less defensible when it is merely a matter of saving an over-leveraged banking system from its inevitable Day of Reckoning. And, yet, that appears to be the reason for the White House confab.

The psychology behind the PPT's activities are explained in greater detail by Robert McHugh Ph.D. who provides a description of how it works in his essay “The Plunge Protection Team Indicator”:

“The PPT decides markets need intervention, a decline needs to be stopped, or the risks associated with political events that could be perceived by markets as highly negative and cause a decline, need to be prevented by a rally already in flight. To get that rally, the PPT’s key component -- the Fed -- lends money to surrogates who will take that fresh electronically printed cash and buy markets through some large unknown buyer’s account. That buying comes out of the blue at a time when short interest is high. The unexpected rally strikes blood, and fear overcomes those who were betting the market would drop. These shorts need to cover, need to buy the very stocks they had agreed to sell (without owning them) at today’s prices in anticipation they could buy them in the future at much lower prices and pocket the difference. Seeing those stocks rally above their committed selling price, the shorts are forced to buy -- and buy they do. Thus, those most pessimistic about the equity market end up buying equities like mad, fueling the rally that the PPT started. Bingo, a huge turnaround rally is well underway, and sidelines money from Hedge Funds, Mutual funds and individuals’ rushes in to join in the buying madness for several days and weeks as the rally gathers a life of its own. (Robert McHugh Ph.D., “The Plunge Protection Team Indicator”)

The powers of the PPT are greatly exaggerated; eventually the liquidity they provide has to be drained from the system. The popular myth that the Fed simply creates as much money as it chooses and spreads it around wherever it likes; is pure rubbish. The Fed has very defined balance constraints. The system is not quite as rigged as many people imagine. According to Bloomberg News, the Fed has already depleted most of its arsenal:

“The Fed has committed as much as 60 percent of the $709 billion in Treasury securities on its balance sheet to providing liquidity and opened the door to more with yesterday's decision to become a lender of last resort for the biggest Wall Street dealers.” (“Bernanke May Run Low on Ammunition for Loans, Rates”, Bloomberg)

The troubles in the credit markets and real estate are bigger than the Fed or the PPT; and they know it. The next step is massive government intervention; rate freezes, bailouts and fiscal stimulus. Big government is back; Reaganism has gone full-circle. That doesn't mean that the PPT cannot have an important psychological affect in soothing jittery markets and stalling a system-wide collapse. It just means, that markets will eventually correct regardless of what anyone does. The sharp downturn in the financial markets is the result of unsustainable credit expansion that can't be fixed by the parlor tricks of the PPT. The rate at which financial institutions are deleveraging and destroying capital will inevitably trigger an economic crisis equal to the Great Depression. What is needed is strong leadership and a re-commitment to transparency, rather than the “business as usual” deception of the public that keeps the balls in the air for another day or two.

“Sucker rallies”, like yesterday's 400 point surge on Wall Street just obfuscate the systemic problems that need to be addressed before investor confidence is restored. Blogger Rick Ackerman summed it up succinctly in last night's entry:

“These psychotic, 400-point rallies in the Dow do not augur renewed confidence. They are being driven almost entirely by short-covering, and even the otherwise clueless news anchors are starting to dismiss them as meaningless. One of these days, moments after the last surviving bear’s short position has been liquidated, stocks are going to fall so steeply that even the Plunge Protection Team will call for back-up. Then, the financial collapse that so many have been expecting will unfold in just a few days, with enough power to leave the global economy in ruins for a generation.” (Rik's Piks Rick Ackerman)

Whether Ackerman's dire predictions materialize or not, there's no denying that the situation is getting worse by the day. In just the last week, two major financial institutions, Carlyle Capital and Bear Stearns, have either gone under or been bailed out wiping out tens of billions in market capitalization. These flameouts increase the rate of the deflation adding to the already-prodigious losses from housing foreclosures, delinquent credit card debt, defaulting car loans, and the accelerating deleveraging in the hedge fund industry. Fortress America has sprung a leak, and capital is escaping in a torrent.

"One thing is for certain, we're in challenging times," Mr. Bush opined on Monday after meeting with his top economic aides. “But we are on top of the situation”.

That's comforting. Bush is all over it.

Yesterday's 75 basis point rate cut by the Fed is a further sign of desperation. The Fed Funds rate is now 2 percentage points below the rate of inflation; a obvious attempt on Bernanke to reflate the equity bubble at the expense of the dollar. Is that why Wall Street was so happy; another savage blow to the currency?

The Fed's statement was as bleak as any they have ever released sounding more like passages from the Book of the Dead than minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee:

"Recent information indicates that the outlook for economic activity has weakened further. Growth in consumer spending has slowed and labor markets have softened. Financial markets remain under considerable stress, and the tightening of credit conditions and the deepening of the housing contraction are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters.

Inflation has been elevated, and some indicators of inflation expectations have risen...... uncertainty about the inflation outlook has increased. It will be necessary to continue to monitor inflation developments carefully.

Today’s policy action..should help to promote moderate growth over time and to mitigate the risks to economic activity. However, downside risks to growth remain.”

Wall Street rallied on the cheery news.

Also, on Tuesday, the battered investment banks began posting first quarter earnings which were better than expected. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. beat estimates which added to the giddiness at the NYSE. Unfortunately, a careful reading of the reports, shows that things are not as they seem. The jubilation is unwarranted; it's just more smoke and mirrors.

“Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. reported a 57% drop in fiscal first-quarter net income amid weakness in its fixed-income business, though results topped analysts' expectations.” (Wall Street Journal)

The same was true of financial giant Goldman Sachs:

“Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s fiscal first-quarter net income dropped 53% on $2 billion in losses on residential mortgages, credit products and investments ...The biggest Wall Street investment bank by market value reported net income of $1.51 billion, or $3.23 a share, for the quarter ended Feb. 29, compared to $3.2 billion, or $6.67 a share, a year earlier....Results included $1 billion in losses on residential mortgage loans and securities, and nearly $1 billion in losses on credit products and investment losses ...” (Wall Street Journal)

The bottom line is that both companies first quarter earnings dropped by more than a half in just one year alone while, at the same time, they booked heavy losses. Hardly a reason for celebration. The major investment banks remain on the critical list because of the billions of dollars of toxic debt they still carry on their balance sheets. Consider industry titan Goldman Sachs for example, which is sitting on a backlog of bad paper from the subprime/securitization debacle as well as an unknown amount of LBOs (Leveraged buyouts) and commercial real estate deals (CREs) that are heading south fast. Economic's analyst, Mark Gongloff, has compiled some interesting figures in his article “Crunch Proves A Test of Faith For Street Strong”:

“All of the brokerage houses are highly leveraged, with a high ratio of assets to shareholders' equity, a sign they have used debt heavily to build up positions in hope of greater returns. Morgan Stanley, which will report Wednesday, had a leverage ratio of 32.6-to-1 at the end of last year, nearly as high as Bear's 32.8-to-1. Lehman was leveraged 30.7-to-1, and Merrill Lynch 27.8-to-1. And the would-be rock, Goldman? It was leveraged 26.2-to-1.”

Remember, Carlyle Capital was leveraged 32 to 1 ($22 billion equity) and went “poof” in a matter of days when it couldn't scrape together a measly $400 million for a margin call. How vulnerable are these other maxed-out players now that the credit bubble has popped and the whole system is quickly unwinding?

Not very safe, at all. As Gongloff points out:

“Based in part on numbers reported at the end of Bear's fourth quarter, estimated that Bear Stearns had $35 billion in liquid assets and borrowing capacity, enough to operate for 20 months. Turns out it had enough for three days.”

That's right; three days and it was over. Why would anyone think it will be different with these other equally-exposed banks? These institutions are basically insolvent now. The Federal Reserve is making a big mistake by protecting them from the consequences of their speculative excesses. As hyper-inflated assets continue to lose altitude, and structured investments and arcane hedges against default begin to disintegrate; these wastrel institutions will be crushed by a stampede of panicking investors running for the exits. The flight to safety has already begun. Cash is king.

Look what has transpired just since Monday.

“Crude oil, copper and coffee led a decline in commodities that may be the biggest ever recorded on speculation that a U.S. recession will stall demand for raw materials.” (Bloomberg) Yes, all asset classes fall in a deflationary spiral even commodities which many people believe are a safe bet. Not so. In fact, even gold has begun to retreat as hedge funds and other market participants are forced to relinquish their positions.

In other news, Reuters reports:

“The yield on U.S. 3-month Treasury bills fell below 1 percent on Monday to levels not seen in 50 years prompted by intense safety bids for cash spurred by the ongoing global credit crunch...Investors were pulling money out of stocks and even the booming commodity market even after the Federal Reserve conducted a fresh round of measures over the weekend to alleviate the credit crisis.”

Again, the “flight to safety” as investors recognize the warning signs of deflation. This trend will further intensify even though the Fed will continue to cut rates and real earnings on Treasuries will go negative. In another report from Reuters:

“The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index or VIX on Monday surged to its highest level in nearly two months as a fire sale of Bear Stearns and an emergency Federal Reserve cut in the discount rate reignited credit fears.

"Fear is higher now than it has been in a long time. Option traders are loading up on index puts in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.” The “Fear Gage, as it is called, is soaring to new heights as credit problems continue to mount and business begins to slow to a crawl.

And, perhaps most important of all: “The cost of borrowing in dollars overnight rose by the most in at least seven years after the Federal Reserve's emergency cut in the discount interest rate stoked concern that credit losses are deepening....The London interbank offered rate, or Libor climbed 81 basis points to 3.86 percent, the British Bankers' Association said today. It was the biggest increase since at least January 2001. The comparable pound rate rose 28 basis points to 5.59 percent, the largest gain since Dec. 31, 2007.” (Bloomberg)

This may sound like technical gibberish geared for market junkies, but it is critical to understanding the gravity of what is really going on. The Fed's rate cuts are not affecting the lending between banks which is actually deteriorating quite rapidly. And, when banks don't lend to each other (because they are worried about getting their money back) the wheels of capitalism grind to a halt. The banks are the essential conduit for providing credit to the broader economy, so there must be traffic between the major lending institutions. The banks are hoarding cash to cover losses on their steadily downgraded mortgage-backed assets and to shore up their skimpy capital reserves. As a result, consumer spending will slow, housing will continue to falter, business will contract and GDP will shrink.

“We know we're in a sharp (decline), and there's no doubt that the American people know that the economy has turned down sharply,” said Henry Paulson on NBC television on Sunday. “There's turbulence in our capital markets and it's been going on since August. We're looking for ways to work our way through it.”

But Paulson is clearly out of his depth. He's just not the man to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. His only interest is bailing out his friends in the banking industry. The interests of workers and consumers are just brushed aside. Has anyone from the Dept of the Treasury (or the Fed) suggested a bailout for the 14,000 Bear Stearns employees who lost not only their jobs but the entire retirement when the company was purchased by JP Morgan?

Of course, not. Because both Paulson and Bernanke take a class oriented approach to the problem that narrows their range of vision and limits their ability to pose viable remedies. They are unable to see the whole playing field. For example, Bernanke assumes that if he keeps cutting rates, he can reflate the equity bubble by reenergizing consumer spending. But that won't happen. First of all, the banks are not passing on the savings to customers. And, second, the banks are only lending to applicants with a flawless credit history. In other words, the Fed's cuts may be good for Bernanke and Paulson's buddies, but they do nothing for either the consumer or the broader economy. Also, as Michael Hudson notes in his latest article “Save the Economy, Dismantle the Empire” (counterpunch.org) the banks are making no attempt to stimulate the economy, but simply turn a profit with capital borrowed from the Fed:

“This week the Fed tried to reverse the plunge in asset prices by flooding the banking system with $200 billion of credit. Banks were allowed to turn their bad mortgage loans and other loans over to the Federal Reserve at par value (rather at just 20% "mark to market" prices). The Fed's cover story is that this infusion will enable the banks to resume lending to "get the economy moving again." But the banks are using the money to bet against the dollar. They are borrowing from the Fed at a low interest rate, and buying foreign euro-denominated bonds yielding a higher interest rate--and in the process, making a currency gain as the euro rises against dollar-denominated assets. The Fed thus is subsidizing capital flight, exacerbating inflation by making the price of imports (headed by oil and other raw materials) more expensive. These commodities are not more expensive to European buyers, but only to buyers paying in depreciated dollars.”

The Fed's strategy has even failed to lower mortgage rates which are pinned to the 30 year Treasury and which has actually gone up since Bernanke began slashing rates. This inability to pass on the Fed's rate cuts to potential mortgage applicants ensures that the housing meltdown will continue unabated well into 2009 and, perhaps, 2010.

In the last few days, the Fed has provided $30 billion to buy up the least liquid speculative debts of a privately-owned business, Bear Stearns, which was leveraged at 32 to 1 and which will remain unsupervised by federal regulators. How does that address the underlying issues of the credit crunch? Are Bernanke and Paulson really trying to put the financial markets back on solid footing again or are they merely expressing their bank-centered cultural bias?

That question was answered in an article on Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal which offered this explanation of the real reasons behind the Bear bailout:

“That illusion was shattered Saturday morning, when Mr. Paulson was deluged by calls to his home from bank chief executives. They told him they worried the run on Bear would spread to other financial institutions. After several such calls, Mr. Paulson realized the Fed and Treasury had to get the J.P. Morgan deal done before the markets in Asia opened on late Sunday, New York time.

"It was just clear that this franchise was going to unravel if the deal wasn't done by the end of the weekend," Mr. Paulson said in an interview yesterday.'” (“The Week that Shook Wall Street”, Wall Street Journal)

Ah-ha! So all it took was a little nudge from his banking buddies to put Paulson over the top.

The Bear bailout was engineered to serve the needs of the banking establishment; nothing more. The Federal Reserve and the US Treasury are merely an extension of the financial industry. The Bear bailout proves it.

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