Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How the Greedheads and the Internet Destroyed Thought

On this last day of 2008, I mourn the loss of the thinking writer. What is this shit with Twitter (164 characters worth of discussion at one time? Rachel said last night that Israel "tweaked[?]" its current bombing and possibly ground troop campaign against Hamas in the Gaza through Twitter. "Isrl bomb only mil instal; civ dths sad but nec."

Meanwhile, just read in the
New York Times that Nat Hentoff and Lynn Yaeger were laid off. According to Tom Robbins, who is still a staff writer there, half the staff of the VV has been laid off since the New Times Media (a Phoenix-based publisher of alternative weeklies that later changed its name to Village Voice Media) bought it in 2005.

Nat Hentoff has been there for 50 years, since 1958. I disagreed with him on many issues, particularly abortion, but he was always a worthy adversary. He could think in print. He discussed detailed constitutional issues, like the urgency of protecting first amendment rights. How can you discuss this shit in 164 characters without being extremely reductive, if not totally stupid? Is this what everyone is evolving towards (whether they want to or not), public discourse based on Valley Girl text messaging?

I am guilty of the same short-term responses myself. If my homepage hesitates for a milisecond, I get impatient. The thought of pulling down the Encyclopedia Britannica to research something seems anachronistic and a waste of time. Why look it up in a deliberate fashion: selecting the proper book, leafing through the pages, and reading all those goddamned words when all you have to do is type "key" words into a search box to get answers? But what the fuck kind of answers are they?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Banks, Automakers and (T)he (A)ct to (R)eward (P)lutocrats

This is a horrible economy (that is the understatement of the year). Some estimate that the official unemployment rate will rise to 10% from around 6.7% now. 1 in 7 homes will be in foreclosure. And the TARP bailout is causing more problems, not less.

“Banks Need More Than Just A Tuneup” 12/1/08 from “Heard on the Street” column

The banks’ business model has failed. That’s the truth. They lent poorly, gave out credit to anyone with a pulse and were sorely undercapitalized. They used off-balance-sheet vehicles (like SIVs) to sock away their bad debt. And the incentives were set up to make a killing and walk away. You got paid on the basis of your deals, not how the deals unraveled.

Congress is closely monitoring the auto bailout (if there even will be one) with the sticky fingers promise of maybe $25 billion, a mere drop in the bucket for the failed banks. In order to get the money, Detroit will have to genuflect, including cutting down the union. By contrast, banks get money with few strings attached. There is no demand to lend, no requirement to reveal collateral, no requirement to cut salaries or dividends, fucking nothing.

The banks blame everything but themselves. It’s the volatile, unpredictable market. It’s predatory hedge funds; short sellers; a “perfect storm” of events coming together at the same time (I mean, who could predict that housing prices would actually go down?). If the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in ourselves, then why change?

This is the exact opposite of the argument being made against the Big Three. They’re dinosaurs; their business model failed; the market should let them die. But the business model for banks has also failed, as stated in above article:

The reality is the crisis is due to bad lending, and investment decisions. And those, after all, form the core of the banking business. In auto terms, it’s as if banks designed cares that suffer from catastopic mechanical failures, or can’t be driven during snow storms.

Banks need to adjust incentive structures so bad lending decisions aren’t as likely, slim costs to reflect reduced future profitability and rethink capital.

If the Fed and the Treasury keep rewarding bad players, if they reward reckless decisions with more money while requiring nothing in return, this catastrophe (if it ever ends) will continue.

I know that Bloomberg News service filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to force the Fed to reveal what it is accepting in return for all the taxpayer money it is printing and doling out. The Fed refuses. It is laughable to believe that we will make anything back from all the shitty debt they’re shoveling onto us. What collateral is the Fed accepting?

From 11/25/08 :

The U.S. government is prepared to lend more than $7.4 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers, or half the U.S. GDP, to rescue the financial system since the credit markets seized up 15 months ago. Bernarke’s Fed is responsible for $4.4 trillion of pledges, or 60% of the total commitment of $7.4 trillion. The unprecedented pledge of funds includes $2.8 trillion already tapped by financial institutions. The commitment dwarfs the only plan approved by lawmakers, the Treasury Department’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (aka The Act Rewarding Plutocrats). Regulators refuse to disclose who is receiving how much while Congress starts pushing for transparency and give authority over taxpayer money back to elected officials.

In today’s NYT, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about how Paulson, Bernarke, et al lent money to a Lehman subsidiary AFTER they let Lehman go bankrupt, ostensibly because (as Paulson claimed) they didn’t have the legal authority to lend to Lehman based on Lehman’s collateral. So why did they lend to its subsidiary after Lehman crashed? Didn’t Lehman still have the same collateral?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Alan Greenspan Destroyed the World, Darth Vader-Style

The Sky Is Falling, Really, Says Alan Greenspan

BLOOMBERG 10/23/08: Alan Greenspan, Fed Chairman from 1987-2006, conceded to Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that he may have been a wee bit wrong about the idea that self-interest and an invisible hand would regulate the markets.

Firms that bundle loans into securities for sale should be required to keep part of those securities, Greenspan said in prepared testimony. Other rules should address fraud and settlement of trades, he said.

The admission that free markets have their faults was a shift for the former Fed chairman who declared in a May 2005 speech that ``private regulation generally has proved far better at constraining excessive risk-taking than has government regulation.''

Today Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said Greenspan had ``the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis.''

Greenspan opposed increasing financial supervision as Fed chairman from August 1987 to January 2006. Policy makers are now struggling to contain a financial crisis marked by record foreclosures, falling asset prices and almost $660 billion in writedowns and losses tied to U.S. subprime mortgages.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox and former Treasury Secretary John Snow also appeared at the House committee hearing.

Addressing the trio that oversaw the U.S. financial markets as the housing bubble developed, Representative John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky, characterized them as ``three Bill Buckners,'' referring to the Boston Red Sox first baseman whose fielding error some fans blame for the team's loss in the 1986 World Series.

These fucking Congressmen, they do the same damn thing everytime: they ignore or actively oppose regulation at the time when it would actually do some good. Then after disaster strikes (and this is disaster: countries are defaulting at a breathtaking rate—Hungary, Argentina, etc.—emerging markets are fragile because investors are pulling out and putting their money into wealthier nations that can afford to back up debt with guarantees.

Corporations can’t sell 3-month commercial paper. In a week or so the Fed will begin buying it, presumably to ease the market. Is this the trickle-down theory?

Greenspan actively fought regulation, especially during the run-up to the housing boom and throughout the bubble. When Brooksley Born, head of the Commodities Futures Whatsis, tried to get derivatives regulated, she was not only rebuffed, Greenspan and Robert Rubin, Clinton's Treasury Secretary, derided her concerns in front of Congress and managed to remove all of her enforcement powers. She resigned shortly afterward.

AmeriDream President Asks for Congress to Pass Downpayment Assistance

Ann Ashburn, President of AmeriDream, Inc., today released the following statement in response to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's testimony before Congress regarding the current U.S. financial crisis. Dr. Greenspan identified the stabilization of the U.S. housing market as a key condition for economic improvement.

"We agree with Dr. Greenspan that housing prices must stabilize for our economy to recover," said Ashburn. "Homebuyers currently have little incentive to enter the housing market. Fortunately, we can fix this problem: Congress must reauthorize downpayment assistance funded in part by sellers, commonly known as DPA, which was eliminated October 1st of this year. A bipartisan coalition in Congress has introduced H.R. 6694 to achieve this goal. H.R. 6694 will bring creditworthy "main street" homebuyers - each of whom qualifies for an FHA loan - back to a housing market that desperately needs them. Without DPA, more than 300,000 homebuyers will remain on the sidelines annually. I urge aspiring homeowners and housing industry professionals to contact their members of Congress and tell them to support H.R. 6694. Our housing market depends on it."

Dr. Greenspan testified today that, "a necessary condition for this crisis to end is a stabilization of home prices in the U.S. They will stabilize and clarify the level of equity in U.S. homes, the ultimate collateral support for the value of much of the world's mortgage-backed securities. At a minimum, stabilization of home prices is still many months in the future. But when it arrives, the market freeze should begin to measurably thaw and frightened investors will take tentative steps towards reengagement with risk." His entire testimony can be read here:

BACKGROUND: AmeriDream, a 501(c)(3) charity, was established in 1999 to provide housing-related programs to low and moderate income individuals and families. Many recipients are first-time homebuyers, minorities, legal immigrants, women headed households, and single-parents, achieve homeownership. AmeriDream provides a wide range of programs, including homebuyer education, loss mitigation counseling, community development, and privately-funded down payment assistance. These programs are provided at no cost to the taxpayer. AmeriDream not only seeks to help families purchase homes, but also provide them with the education and other resources needed to be responsible homeowners.

SOURCE: American Dream, Inc.

Copyright (C) 2008 PR Newswire. All rights reserved

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where is Roger? Stone, that is...

Andrew Cuomo, our current New York attorney general, is hot on the trail of dastardly financial institutions and their evil spawn. He got major companies to cough up the value of auction rate securities when the market froze because the companies sold them as the equivalent of cash but refused to make good. He had his attack dog Eric Dinallo, the insurance commissioner, reclassify credit default swaps as insurance, so they have to be regulated and carry cash reserves to cover claims against them. He pursued the executives at AIG who are still pocketing lots of cash even though now it's the taxpayers' cash courtesy of Hanky Panky.

He's Tony the Tiger chomping on the asses of these overpaid criminals. So my question is, where is Roger Stone to wiretap and stalk him? That's how the Republicans (and probably a few Democrats, like Shelly Silver) got rid of Eliot Spitzer, our last New York pit bull. It's the same way Richard Johnson gets the tip that Michelle Obama ordered lobster thermador and caviar at the Waldorf last night when the Al Smith dinner was held. The Emperor Club? VIP Lounge?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Medicare Part D or how to impoverish the elderly

The trumpeting cry behind the Medicare Part D program was that it would finally provide prescription drug coverage for the elderly and disabled. AARP, the powerful advocacy organization, rallied behind it, giving cover to that bastard.

But as it turned out, Bush created Medicare Part D as an insured pay flow for private vendors, middlemen between drug companies and hapless recipients. It is widely known that the government will not negotiate for lower drug prices for its vast constituency, unlike the Veterans Administration.

When I examine one case, that of a close relative who receives prescription drug benefits through a Medicare-preferred private insurer, it is obvious that the concern is not for the person who needs medicine but for the bottom line of the insurer.

She pays premiums of $100 per month (an increase of 80% from a year ago) for the opportunity to have $2400 worth of drug costs covered. The calculation of that $2400 includes the entire cost of the drug, not merely the co-pay. So if you buy a drug with a co-pay of $40 but the total cost of the drug is $350 (not uncommon), the $350 counts towards the $2400 initial coverage. Once you hit that $2400 mark, you fall into what is known as the "doughnut hole". (Meaningful name) Then confusion and dismay follow in short order.

In the "doughnut hole" you have to pay 100% out of pocket for your prescription drug costs until you have spent $3600. The calculation of that $3600 out-of-pocket figure includes your co-pays over the year. It's very confusing for her, and she can read without moving her lips.

The way it breaks down is: She pays about $100 monthly premiums, about $1200 per year, plus $3600 out of pocket for $2,400 worth of benefits. Unless somehow she gets through that $3600 doughnut hole intact in order to qualify for catastrophic coverage, wherein she only has to pay 5% of total drug costs.

So she pays $4800 for $2400 worth of benefits. But she has to keep paying the premiums in case she god forbid is diagnosed with something unexpected that may entail runaway drug costs (i.e. cancer, diabetes, et al). This is not insurance for her. This is insurance for them.

When I contacted this magnanimous "preferred" vendor, I didn't get the impression that the customer service reps were prepped and ready to serve. My vision was that of a desk, a chair and a telephone under a bare light bulb in an anonymous rent-by-the-month room-for-an-office. I have nothing against a bare bones operation. I just wonder where the profits are going. Maybe the CEO can send my aunt a postcard during his vacation in Tuscany, or the blueprints of his new McMansion. Then she'll feel better about skipping her insulin.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Oops! Russia Just took over BP

What a jolly theoretical world. British Petroleum (or BP, or Beyond Petroleum, as its tagline goes) is having a little trouble with its Russian partners in a venture known as TNK-BP Ltd. In fact, the head of the BP venture, Robert Dudley, has just fled Moscow, officially because the Russians wouldn't renew his work visa. Unofficially, he's been barraged by threats and intimidation from the Russian consortium, AAR, which owns 50% of the venture.

The Russian government denies that it backs the effort to force out BP in order to nationalize the company. It won't get involved, it says. It's merely a matter between Dudley and the consortium's dissatisfied board and shareholders. But Dudley says he's been subject to investigations, intimidation and inquiries. The three Is.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Update: Sammmy's Time Machine

Although it's hard to believe anything that The Post's Page Six publishes (their writers do have a habit of blackmailing people), the story has a ring of true wishful thinking. An anonymous trader who worked with Samuel Israel the Third in the mid-90s tipped off one of Richard Johnson's henchmen that the fugitive (now Armed and Dangerous) boasted to him that he built a time machine, and even brought acquaintances to see the contraption:

"This guy Sam was crazy and told people he was actually working on a time machine for the government," said our source. "He brought two of my friends from Wall Street into his basement and showed them some contraption. Now that's a nutcase."--NY Post, Page Six, 6/18/08, "Fled to the Past"

As I recall in the movie, Rod Taylor went back to the past and far into the future with his machine courtesy of the mind of H.G. Wells. In the future man was mute, enslaved by slavering overlords who fattened them up for food. Think progress.

Maybe he brought it with him in the RV. I'm sure his investors would love to step into it and set it backwards to the '90s. In fact, if it were possible according to the law of physics, all Wall Street financial institutions would leap into it and dial it back to the 1990s.

What Makes Sammy Run?

According to today's NY Times, the girlfriend of Samuel Israel III, Debra Ryan, was just indicted for aiding and abetting Sam's flight from justice on June 9.

Sam pleaded guilty in 2005 to defrauding investors of more than $400 million through his Bayou hedge fund. He was supposed to report to prison for a 20-year sentence on June 9. Instead, authorities found his abandoned GMC Enterprise SUV on the shoulder of the Bear Mountain Bridge overhanging the Hudson River with the phrase, "Suicide is Painless" scrawled in dust on its hood. No trace of Sammy. Although the bridge has had its share of suicide dives, the bodies were usually recovered within hours.

The investors in Bayou were furious. Not only was he sentenced to prison, he also agreed to pay back millions of pilfered dollars. They were not amused nor fooled by his middle finger homage to a cheeky anti-war movie. They knew who it was directed at.

As to the details coughed up by Ms. Ryan: Two days before his date with the slammer, the two of them packed up his white 2007 Coach Freelander Recreational Vehicle, NY license number EEN-5973. They attached a blue 2005 Yamaha motor scooter to it. Early in the morning of June 9 she drove her car alongside him driving the RV to a rest stop near Interstate 684, where he left the RV. Then she drove him back to their home in Armonk, NY, where presumably he got into his GMC Enterprise SUV and drove to the Bear Mountain Bridge to stage his poorly executed suicide attempt.

I'll be glad to work on the Sammy case for a 10% finders fee. It shouldn't be too difficult. I'll just keep my eye out for a portly, baldish white collar criminal with a bad back on a motor scooter or the same driving a barge-like RV with a nationally broadcast license number.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Keith & Richard (cont'd)

Someone in the audience asked how we could survive the Bataan Death March (also known as the Democratic primary battle). Richard, who, after all, is a comedian, said he was ill-equipped to answer that question. But he directed the audience to Bruce Springsteen's website and said quietly (for Richard) that if you support Obama and don't speak out, there is a special place in hell reserved for you.

After the talk, Jeff and I were milling about with members of the audience who were patiently waiting in queues at the signing table. As we were walking out of the Y, I suddenly grabbed him by the arm and took him back to that area. There were innovative graphic novel-like strips on the wall obviously done by young people, some in the manner of Japanese anime. Very imaginative. I vaguely remember that the plot of one concerned a female student/spy scheming with ominous characters about high school milk money. Lots of slanted lines, shadow and light.

We never got close to the wall. Keith Olbermann in the flesh was walking towards us. He was very tall. And big. (Speaking as someone who knows one, he has a big head too.) I was very excited and pushed Jeffrey up to him. Keith was surrounded by a tight group of affluent, older, well-dressed women. Jeff was very happy. He approached Keith like a close talker and said, "You've been one of my true heroes. Thanks for all you've done." He answered in a clear, deep, broadcaster's voice, "Thanks very much. Jeff: "I'm a sports fan." And: "I wish Channel 2, 4 and 7 could report news like you do." He leaned forward and loudly whispered, "Don't hold your breath."

Keith Olbermann & Richard Lewis @ 92Y

Last evening Jeff and I went to see a "talk" between 2 old friends at the 92nd St. Y auditorium. It always seems awkward to the two acquaintances involved (particularly when they are not professional interviewers or persons used to be questioned, as it was with Paul Krugman and Leonard Lopate). So I waited for Keith and Richard to warm up to the situation. And they did.

Richard rambled willingly, often out of focus. It was fun for a while but I couldn't follow him towards the end. Maybe I got distracted by the difference between a stream-of-consciousness stand-up and a tightly disciplined news anchor. But Richard was disciplined in his own right. He started by riffing on his dysfunctional family, where he didn't get any attention or any positive attention, anyway. His mother used to show him her Caesarean scar. "I couldn't get an erection for a week." He alternated between standup banter and serious matters, like addiction, almost dying and throwing his life away. Losing everything he worked for. And he admitted freely, if he didn't think it would all happen again, he might plunge back into drinking.

He dispelled the myth of drugs giving artists "creativity." As he said, (I paraphrase: I didn't tape it unlike him), he admired Jimi Hendrix very much. Some of the riffs Jimi created in the studio were just out of this world like a UFO. But to be honest and he spoke to a lot of guys who were there in the 60s, his shows were sloppy and he'd hit the wrong notes as often as the right ones, or more often. He, Richard, felt more clear-headed, controlled and that he was doing the best work of his life now that he was sober (for 14 years). He talked about Jonathan Winters, the comic he admired the most, who was still active at the age of 82. Who was sober for 30+ years, and who had survived 2 nervous breakdowns during the time when it wasn't fashionable to go in and out of rehab.

He told a funny joke about Oscar Levant, to whom he compared his own twitching, "When Jack Paar asked Oscar what he did for exercise, Oscar replied, 'I trip, stumble and fall into a coma.'"

Richard was overwhelmed by the Commander-in-Chief, who he called "someone who should be crayoning." He talked about the lack of rebellion in the country, and reminisced about the 60s (which, of course, is an aspect of the boomers that annoys people the most). But he remembers storming the barricades, taking over the administration's office (hey, I remember that too and for me it wasn't in the 60s--I was in college in 1972) and how there was a rebellious spirit in the land. He wondered about the lack of passion now. Keith replied that it was because at that time the young were subject to the military draft. And there was no draft now. Then he corrected himself. "Pardon, there is a back-door draft," where men and women who enlisted for regular duty kept being shipped back to Iraq for two, three, four deployments without any time in between to catch their breaths.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Yes! It worked in La Biblioteca! Onward...

and upward!

Just a few notes...Jeff told me that Italy outlawed extreme skinniness...there are food shortage riots erupting globally...American farmers (or industrial agribusiness) are growing corn for biofuel (ethanol), although I have not seen one fueling station pumping ethanol or any ethanol-powered fact, many farmers are growing corn instead of soybeans which means there is also a cooking oil shortage globally...

Let's get down to brass tacks. It seems like the economy is declining rapidly. In fact, you might say that if the economy were a person, the entire body is in septic shock. I just read that retailers, especially stolid, popular ones (like Linens 'n Things, which I never heard of but read about yesterday also, which had been a major acquisition of some fuckhead private equity person who bought it by accessing debt then piling it onto the retail store which was second in revenue only to Bed Bath & Beyond. Now this fuckhead can't pay the debt costs so it's teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.) Too many parentheses. Whatever.

The problem with problems in retail for instance is that they're like the center of an umbrella with many spokes attached to them for dear life. Vendors, like fabric suppliers and manufacturers of chairs, blenders, aluminum siding (no, wait, that's not right), 600-thread Egyptian cotton sheets and many others are very worried they won't get paid so they stop shipping product. Bankers and other financiers see the piled up debt on top of Linens 'N Things straining like a flimsy rooftop covered with snow and they pull out their support. The decline escalates until the store careens into bankruptcy.

In the meantime, inflation pressures are piling up. Consumers are pulling back on their spending because unemployment is growing. That is just common sense. I don't need to see the jimmied figures because I see the headlines: Bear Stearns goes under, blah blah files for bankruptcy. Of course the bodies lie on the sidewalk. Everyone at Bear is sitting around waiting for the axe to fall. They might as well pack up and leave. The first thing that usually occurs when there are declining revenues is that people are laid off. Labor is the highest cost of a business (for the most part) so to fire people is the fastest way to stem the bleeding.

Of course what has captured the headlines for the past few months is the deflation in the housing sector, or (to be as euphemism-free as possible), falling housing prices. Economic news is more dire daily and what passed for optimism is also declining (like saying, it's sure that we'll be peering at a bottom any time now).

So now you can try to stack up the problems according to which is more appalling or cataclysmic (I love using Declining wealth due to falling housing prices; negative equity (loans worth more than the collateral they're built on); no savings (part of our economy, a big part, was generated by rampant consumer spending); lots of debt everywhere, individual and corporate; rising unemployment; hideously high food prices globally leading to unrest and the toppling of a government (Haiti); the gated communities of hedge funds and auction-rate securities (gated in the sense that no investor can get their money out); horrifying price increases in prescription drugs, $5-a-gallon gasoline, $10-a-gallon milk; $4 a dozen is it that everything collapsed at the same time?

can i publish on blogger with a wi-fi connection?


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Capitalism is immoral...

is it worse to mug someone? Let's look at some snapshots of life as it is today:

The NY Post reports that there is a 2nd gold rush going on because gold is over $1000 an ounce. People who used to relocate freely to where the jobs and opportunities are cannot because they can't sell their homes. There are signs of decline in commercial real estate; again, oversupply and prices are too high. That's the reason for all the "For Rent" signs splattered across storefronts in Manhattan.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bernarke Sees the Light

In today's The Wall Street Journal, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve called for lenders to reduce the principal on mortgages reflecting negative equity, which is when the cost of the mortgage outstrips the value of the home, leading to default and abandonment. Negative equity is not caused just by profligate borrowers getting in over their heads; the fall of housing prices is affecting everyone. In a neighborhood where there are a lot of foreclosures the surrounding homes, even if occupied by a homeowner with good credit dutifully paying off his/her mortgage, the price of his/her home will still dive.

In a situation of negative equity (how these business euphemisms sparkle like the morning dew!) a homeowner's equity is worth less. He can't borrow against it to pay off his mortgage. He walks.

In this administration of high rollers and laissez faire oolala, this suggestion of Bernarke's is practically socialist and smacks of the New Deal. Paulson, our lovely Treasury Secretary, turned his nose up at the suggestion. He's been "nudging" lenders to reduce interest rates. Unfortunately, that ain't gonna do anything. Besides, since these initiatives, about 250,000 loans have been renegotiated, and probably these efforts will only put off foreclosure rather than prevent it. [spiraling down]

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Rich: The Last Employers (Emperors)

A pet theory of mine has been lurking in the back of my mind. As middle class jobs erode and are replaced by jobs that pay a great deal less, the middle class is evaporating into a disgruntled mass of out of work auto workers and other blue collar employees. Let's not forget the white collar workers whose jobs have also been outsourced because of the ease provided by e-commerce. Why pay for an engineer here when you can get someone for one-tenth the price in another country where they speak pidgin English?

I figure it takes 3 days for people to get used to the most horrendous things, including auto accidents and automated telephone trees. Aren't you surprised to speak to an actual human being? It gives you the impression that corporations don't really want to hear from you. Private health insurance plans will do anything to keep from paying out a claim.

Ah! I just read a story in the WSJ that confirmed my belief that someday, soon, we will all be working for the very rich. This article about the UK Royal Navy indicates that the Navy is being trained to care for, not the schooners and the pride of the Armada, but for oil-rich Russian billionaires and their ilk. The Navy will supply butlers, servants, limeys et al. When asked why the proud Brits were doing this, a spokesman shrugged his shoulders and said, "We need the money."

Henry Paulson refuses to admit there is a housing crisis that must be tackled right away in a more vigorous fashion than suggesting that banks get together to discuss mortgage modification. Anything else would be bailing out the financial institutions and speculators. Meanwhile, some 2.3 million people are already in foreclosure at the end of 2007 and more are in delinquency. Housing prices are going down but Paulson says bah humbug, the prices are self-correcting. Vultures are circling.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Capitalism Is Immoral, Not Amoral

If you believe the hype, profligate, lying homeowners are the ones to blame for the mortgage crisis, especially minority homeowners. People lied to get mortgages for homes that were unaffordable. They were greedy, taking advantage of loose credit requirements to buy houses that their incomes couldn't justify. Housing prices were exorbitantly inflated (a "bubble") premised on the idea that prices would never go down. People justified their borrowing by thinking (or saying, whatever) that they could constantly refinance for a larger mortgage to pay off the previous one. Then prices collapsed and their mortgages were more costly than any money they could borrow by refinancing. the party line spewing from Wall Street is that minority homeowners lied to steal money to buy homes they couldn't afford. Of course, conservatives parrot that line.

But according to The Wall Street article Speculators May Have Accelerated Housing Downturn, it was really speculators in the bubble defaulting on their homes who caused the problem:

Roughly 20% of mortgage fraud involved "occupancy fraud", or borrowers falsely claiming they intended to live in a property, according to an analysis by BasePoint Analytics, a provider of fraud-detection solutions in Carlsbad, California. Another study, by Fitch ratings, looked at 45 subprime loans that defaulted within the first 12 months even though the borrowers had good credit scores. In two-thirds of the cases, borrowers said they intended to live in the property but never moved in.

Some home builders have come to similar conclusions: They now believe that as many as one in four home buyers in some markets were investors during the boom, up from their earlier estimates of one in 10 buyers.

Investors tend to be more likely than borrowers who live in the homes to walk away from their purchases when home prices fall.

Lenders didn't do simple things such as check to see if a borrower listed different addresses than the locations of their homes:

Lenders typically allowed investors to finance no more than 90% of the home's value, but if borrowers said they planned to live in the property, they could buy a home with no money down, even if they had scuffed credit and didn't document their income, said Pete Ogilvie, a mortgage broker in Santa Cruz, CA, and president of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers.

While it is true that occupancy fraud can sometimes be difficult to detect, fraud experts said lenders and builders could have vetted their borrowers more closely. Pulling a borrower's credit report, for instance, may reveal multiple mortgages.

The exalted "free market" theory underlies the hands-off attitude of any regulatory agency toward the housing bubble that is now undermining some $2 trillion dollars in housing value. Defaults on mortgages have led to skittish investors avoiding debt instruments involving a mortgage-backed securities. This has led to a burgeoning credit crisis where investors are leery of many previously rock solid investments including municipal bonds, which has caused the price of borrowed money to rise significantly. The bundled (or structured) debt is going down, down, down in value. In some cases corporate bonds (what are they called, corporate leveraged obligations--man, what fucking euphemisms the "free market" uses to cover their fraud) have to marked down to 80 cents on the dollar, which is usually the sign of imminent default.

The brilliant Alan Greenspan, acolyte of Ayn Rand, who made credit easy and cheap by lowering the fed fund rate to negative cost during 2003-04 and derided fixed-rate mortgages in favor of adjustable rate mortgages, is a criminal. If you ask me, they are all criminals. But being a criminal never stopped anyone, including Michael Milken, Henry Blodget, or that guy who pretended to be a Rockefeller to make a lot of money on the lecture circuit. Jerome Kerviel, who is turning out to be a person who deliberately sought to rip off SoGen with accomplices as opposed to being a meek cog in the machinery, will probably also be sought out as a public speaker after he serves minimal time. Serving time in prison is merely the cost of doing business for these guys.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Branding is Witchcraft

I just ate some Bumble Bee salmon (premium-priced) and Madam crabmeat (gushily priced at a very stinky Asian grocery store on Broadway in Elmhurst). In this world of uncertainty, how can one be sure that one is not getting poisoned? It's great, the Bush Dystopia. It used to be that food poisoning was an aberration, something untoward that of course the government was set up to protect us from (the FDA). Now it's a great big casino out there, where you pays your money and you takes your chances. The Bumble Bee salmon is actually from Thailand, although the cute big-eyed sweeping lashed cartoon bee is smiling at me as American as apple pie. The Madam crab meat is from Vietnam (didn't we lose to them?). All the other brands were from China and I am versed in Chinese quality control. But what about Thailand? Or Vietnam? We suck at keeping our food safe but excel in marketing. Why not extend brands all the way? I know this isn't a new idea but maybe it can provide some reassurance while we gorge on toxins.

The old brands are still juicy (Mr. Clean, Uncle Bens, Aunt Jemima). Let's squeeze them like cow's milk (or soy milk).

It's The Economy, Pendejo!

Overseas stock market indices fell precipitously on Monday. Hong Kong went down 7.2% India went down. Germany went down. It was as though gravity was pulling the strings. The United States stock market was off on its dutiful Martin Luther King murder day. American stock traders et al watched in horror. Ben Bernarke convened a teleconference with the other 17 Fed governors and they decided collectively to cut the fed funds rate 75 basis points, the largest cut ever. Did this panicked move (after all, there was a scheduled Fed meeting next week) calm the markets? God knows. The market fell on Tuesday, then swung wildly on Wednesday descending 300 points only to close up 300 points (approximately).

Some in the global economic discourse decry Bernarke's actions. Perhaps lower interest rates are not the answer. After all, didn't they cause the housing bubble by throwing money at everyone with a pulse? Also, doesn't this kind of move make it look like Bernarke is responding only to equity investors, in a sense, rewarding risk-taking? Moral hazard, anyone?

In Davos, Switzerland where the great minds are meeting (wedged in between Alpish skiing) Bill Gates works on his speech about how capitalism doesn't seem to solve the problems of the very, very many more poor people there are in the world other than billionaires. He of course is the very pillar of the modern lethal capitalist. Now that he has all the money, he wants the moral high water mark as well. He even quotes from the crazy Adam Smith's book written prior to "The Wealth of Nations" (something like the Moral Sentiment of the Sentient?) where not only naked self-interest drives altruism(?) but where it's self-enriching to help others! What about that invisible hand? Is that only for pornographic web sites or counting the spoils as one exits as ex-CEO from a demolished financial institution, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Bahrain?

Gack the brain dead walk among us like the stunned wounded middle class, darkly drinking in the ineptitude of our so-called elected representatives. Representatives? What the fuck does that mean? Who do they represent, anyway? The NY Times briefly sketches the horrendous band aid stimulus package cooked up by Congress with Bush's eager pen floating above it--give a few hundred dollars to the great unwashed (Republicans--none to those who pay no taxes because they don't make enough to pay taxes); extend the length of unemployment compensation (Republicans--let's have unemployment drop to Depression-era levels before we do that) and other pittances, bones to throw at the barely rabid rabble.

People are gloomy. They see their children inheriting a world where they will do worse than the generation before them. They feel America's stock has fallen in the world. A landlord has to work an hourly job at Home Depot to help pay the mortgage on his building. At least he gets some health insurance. My insurance premium jumped from $55.50 to $98.50. Jesus Christ that's $43.00, a leap of almost 80%. What the fuck! At least the economic powers-that-be don't talk about core inflation so much anymore. Inflation is everywhere I look for "regular" folks. Gas prices will not recede. My Con Ed bill is sky high. Oil may have declined on the market, retreating from a brief flirtation with $100-a-barrel to about $86 but we will not feel it in our wallets. I shop out of my way to get less expensive eggs. Milk is high. In Davos they deride the U.S. as an "emerging market" economy:

[A]n American economist, Nouriel Roubini, said bluntly, "The United States looks like an emerging market," with large deficits and a weak currency. Brazil, an actual emerging market, had done a better job overhauling its economy, he said.

In the gloomy article the Times ran today about how the average person sees their prospects, one man says when he travels he doesn't tell anyone he's an American. "I tell them I'm a Canadian. I get a much better response that way."