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Financial Skeptic Bulletin, August 2012

Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

This one year old selection of news. It's really funny to read forecasts that are just one year old.

Note: Despite doom and gloom stock market went from 1260 to 1460 in one year. This new stock and bonds bubble was supported by Fed.

NEWS CONTENTS

Old News ;-)

[Aug 28, 2012] Chris Hedges on 'Empire of Illusion' and a Vignette of The Fall of Berlin 1945

This is an almost perfect illustration of the credibility trap. One cannot allow the illusion to falter, even a little, to the bitter end. And as the fraud fades, the force intensifies, becoming almost rabid in its deflection. Because that illusion has become the center of a hollowed people's being, their raison d'être, a mythological justification for their existence.
Aug 25, 2012 | Jesse's Café Américain

I came across a nice, compact interview with Chris Hedges which illuminates his thesis of the decline of the American Empire and the illusions and the end of rational thinking that accompanies it. Empires seem to give off quite a bit of flash in their latter stages, rather like the last gasp of a dying star.

The interviewer, Allan Gregg, does a particularly nice job of drawing Hedges out.

I would like to add an observation I came to in thinking further about the Sophie Scholl piece which I put up earlier today. Perhaps there is something about gardening that focuses the mind.

The almost frenetic preoccupation and adherence to the Nazi ideology in the latter stages of the war, when it was obvious to any rational observer that they could not win, is remarkable. I had been particularly struck in my reading some time ago with the 'wolf packs' of Nazis who had raged through Berlin, rounding up old men and even boys who had not joined the Volkssturm, and hanging them, even while the Russians were shelling the Reichstag. It never made sense to me until today.

"The radio announced that Hitler had come out of his safe bomb-proof bunker to talk with the fourteen to sixteen year old boys who had 'volunteered' for the 'honor' to be accepted into the SS and to die for their Fuhrer in the defense of Berlin. What a cruel lie! These boys did not volunteer, but had no choice, because boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, 'he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.'

When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics. It appeared that the Nazis did not want the people to survive because a lost war, by their rationale, was obviously the fault of all of us. We had not sacrificed enough and therefore, we had forfeited our right to live, as only the government was without guilt."

Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel, Eyewitness account, Fall of Berlin 1945

I was reminded of this phenomenon by the trial of Sophie Scholl, and her words to the judge Roland Freisler, as he ranted his virulent condemnations at them. 'Soon you will be in our place,' she said to him. He did escape the hangman's noose at Nuremburg, but only by virtue of an Allied bomb in 1945. When his body was brought to hospital an orderly remarked, 'It was God's verdict.' He was buried in an unmarked grave, without ceremony and unmourned. Much like his beloved Fuhrer.

This is an almost perfect illustration of the credibility trap. One cannot allow the illusion to falter, even a little, to the bitter end. And as the fraud fades, the force intensifies, becoming almost rabid in its deflection. Because that illusion has become the center of a hollowed people's being, their raison d'être, a mythological justification for their existence.

If the ideology had been a lie, then they are not heroes and gods on earth, but monsters and criminals, and their life has been self-serving and meaningless, without significance and honor. And that is the credibility trap.

And this is the US financial system today.

[Aug 25, 2012] Unfounded Fear of Inflation

...people on the right have been forecasting runaway inflation for years now.
As a follow up to this post on Inflation Lessons from Paul Krugman:

Demand-siders like me saw this as very much a slump caused by inadequate spending: thanks largely to the overhang of debt from the bubble years, aggregate demand fell, pushing us into a classic liquidity trap.

But many people — some of them credentialed economists — insisted that it was actually some kind of supply shock instead. Either they had an Austrian story in which the economy’s productive capacity was undermined by bad investments in the boom, or they claimed that Obama’s high taxes and regulation had undermined the incentive to work (of course, Obama didn’t actually impose high taxes or onerous regulations, but leave that aside for now).

How could you tell which story was right? One answer was to look at the behavior of ... inflation. For if you believed a demand-side story, you would also believe that even a large monetary expansion would have little inflationary effect; if you believed a supply-side story, you would expect lots of inflation from too much money chasing a reduced supply of goods. And indeed, people on the right have been forecasting runaway inflation for years now.

Yet the predicted inflation keeps not coming. ... So what we’ve had is as good a test of rival views as one ever gets in macroeconomics — which makes it remarkable that the GOP is now firmly committed to the view that failed.

[Aug 25, 2012] Matt Taibbi and Eliot Spitzer Discuss Eric Holder's (and Obama's) Failure: Credibility Trap

A credibility trap is a situation in which the regulatory, political and/or the informational functions of a society have been thoroughly taken in by a corrupting influence and a fraud, so that one cannot address the situation without implicating, at least incidentally, a broad swath of the power structure and the status quo who at least tolerated it, if not profited directly from it, and most likely continue to do so.

Jesse's Café Américain

The failure of Obama's Justice Department to engage in any systemic investigations and indictments of a thoroughly rotten and corrupt financial system that has laid waste to the real economy is an almost perfect example of the credibility trap.

A credibility trap is a situation in which the regulatory, political and/or the informational functions of a society have been thoroughly taken in by a corrupting influence and a fraud, so that one cannot address the situation without implicating, at least incidentally, a broad swath of the power structure and the status quo who at least tolerated it, if not profited directly from it, and most likely continue to do so. They become susceptible to various forms of blackmail. And so a failed policy can become almost self-sustaining long after it is seen to have failed, and even become counterproductive, because admitting failure is not an option for those holding power.

Another example is the blatant fraud, and principles not of productivity but of prey, that prevail on the financial asset exchanges and the monetary system, the stealing of customer funds, and the manipulation of commodity markets such as silver. And it expresses itself in the frivilous coarseness of spectacle, and careless brutality of decline.

"Happy Hunger Games. And may the odds be ever in your favor."
Normally a two party system or a balance of powers would correct such a situation, but if the fraud is pervasive and enduring enough, those remedies can lose their effectiveness since the fraud binds even seemingly diverse elements in its grasp. And therein lies the trap.

There is a general loss of honor, a disparagement of moral principles, the common welfare, and a sense of 'service.' People in power are creatures of the system, 'getting their ticket punched' in Washington, as resume builder on their way to an even more lucrative position back in the corrupt system where they can leverage their connections and knowledge of the system to further undermine the rule of law. Their guiding principles are self-referential greed and power.

After one of the most outrageous periods of widespread fraud in a major developed country, prosecutions for fraud are at twenty year lows. Who expected this outcome from an election in which the theme was change and reform?

Here is a recent article, Why Can't Obama Bring Wall St to Justice, asking the broader question inferred by this video interview. Why? And the answer is not to be found in making excuses and allowing him to hide behind the incompetency or disengagement defense so popular in American management circles.

And if you think that voting for the other guy in this case, the emotinally engaging but fatally flawed red v. blue paradigm, is going to provide a cure you are sadly mistaken. The other guy in this case is the poster child for most of the problems that face a nation under siege by a financial elite engaged in an economic, ideological, and political coup d'etat.

As Glenn Greenwald recently put it:

"You can often, and I would say more often than not, in leading opinion-making elite circles, find an expressed renouncement or repudiation of that principle [of the rule of law]...All of these acts entail very aggressive and explicit arguments that the most powerful political and financial elites in our society should not be, and are not, subject to the rule of law because it is too disruptive, it is too divisive, it is more important that we should look forward, that we find ways to avoid repeating the problem...the rule of law is not that important of a value any longer...

The law is no respecter of persons, but the law is also a respecter of reality, meaning if it is too disruptive or divisive that it is actually in our common good, not the elite criminals, but in our common good, to exempt the most powerful from the consequences of their criminal acts, and that has become the template used in each of these instances."

And thanks to the apathy of the people and the gullibility of the badly used, self-proclaimed 'patriots' they are winning.
“The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

Adam Smith

Such unsustainable social arrangements are backed by force and fraud. And as the fraud loses its power over time, force must increase, until there is an end in genuine reform, or evenutal self-destruction.

[Aug 24, 2012] John Ralston Saul The Collapse of Globalism

19 August 2012 | Jesse's Café Américain
"The transnational corporations and the money markets have declared the era of human-designed regulations over. Now the market must reign. Because few people in the business community are paid to think about phrases such as 'western civilization,' they don't seem to realize that they are proposing the arbitrary denial of 2,500 years of human experience...

Ever since the democratic systems permitted their various courts to give corporations the status of persons, the individual as citizen has been on the defensive. How could it be otherwise? If you are a person before the law and Exxon or Ford is also a person, it is clear that the concept of democratic legitimacy lying with the individual has been mortally wounded...

If allowed to run free of the social system, capitalism will attempt to corrupt and undermine democracy, which is, after all, not a natural state...Capitalism was reasonably content under Hitler, happy under Mussolini, very happy under Franco and delirious under General Pinochet."

John Ralston Saul

“The powers of financial capitalism had a far-reaching aim, nothing less than to create a world system of financial control in private hands able to dominate the political system of each country and the economy of the world as a whole. This system was to be controlled in a feudalist fashion by the central banks of the world acting in concert, by secret agreements arrived at in frequent meetings and conferences."

Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope

Globalism, or globalization, is the theory that the world marketplace should be free of local, nation, and regional limits. It is founded on the belief that unregulated markets are the epitome and center of rational decision making, described as the most profit maximizing in the aggregate and therefore the most 'efficient.'

Globalism elevates economic measures as the arbiters of policy, and subordinates society and individuals to economic outcomes. Its value system is dominated by money and corporations, which are monetary organizations, in contrast to nations which are organizations of people.

[Aug 22, 2012] Jesse's Café Américain Bill Black On Wall Street Control Frauds and Moral Hazard

Lack of Justice Department and regulatory prosecutions for Wall Street fraud creates incentives for more control frauds and climate of lawlessness.

[Aug 22, 2012] SP 500 - Telling Action

Unnaturally tight upward ranges like this are generally the sign of a 'market operation' to take equities higher.

The question of course is by whom and for what reason.

It could just be the tendency of the wiseguys to take it higher in the absence of real activity, just because they can, until it becomes priced for fantasy.

Or it could be some of the better connected banks and trading desks front running the Fed.

It certainly is not justified by the economic fundamentals. But that may be an artifact from the old days in which the market reflected the real economy, and allocated capital according to its needs to enable efficient use of productive resources.

In these days of fading empire when the major activity of the US is making money from money, the market is the economy, and its primary function is to redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top.

Interviews with 'The New Economists' From Mindful Money

Mindful Money has published an eclectic collection of short interviews with those whom they describe as 'the new economists.'

These include Steve Keen, Unlearning Economics, Positive Money, Modern Monetary Mechanics, Pragmatic Capitalism, and a little known Café which they describe as:

An anonymous blogging site with a pleasant relaxed feel ("an oasis of civility in an increasingly uncivil world", the site includes images from the Café's signature dishes in the left margin), wry humour and a global readership. Jesse has a strong interest in reining in the banks and reforming economics and incorporates some stunning graphs into his blog posts.

However in a a recent, somewhat resigned post, he wrote: "I do not think the US is ready to insist on serious reform. It will take another crisis. The anti-regulatory slogans are too effectively ingrained in the public psyche. And self-deception is a powerfully addictive state of mind. Especially for those whose expansive lifestyles depend on it."

I don't feel as resigned as exasperated at times. But that is the nature of a sea change which happens slowly and quietly over a long interval until one suddenly notices it and, voilà.

Do not expect profundity and lengthy expositions of economic thought from yours truly, because after all it was a Q&A and I was able to give what I thought were plain answers that struck to the heart of the questions right 'off the cuff' as they say. We become lost in a fog of words, at a time when action is becoming ever more important on the individual level.

The menu of answers should surprise no regular patron of Le Café. But I see in reading it now that I did manage a quip or two to quicken the sauce of the dismal science.

Q. If you could travel back in time and change something in the financial world that would benefit society, what would it be?

A. I would help Alan Greenspan achieve a wonderfully rewarding career as a professional clarinetist.

And then I would skip forward ten years or so and stop the Bankers' campaign to repeal Glass Steagall.

Enjoy.

You can read the entire interview here and the entire piece with links to the entire collection of interviews here.

[Aug 20, 2012] Beyond Outrage What Has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and Our Democracy, and How to Fix Them (Audible Audio Edition)

Amazon.com

Gomez

TOP 500 REVIEWER

Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase

Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it by Robert B. Reich

"Beyond Outrage" is a plea for action for those who care about the Future of America. Accomplished author of twelve books and current Professor of Public Policy, Robert Reich provides insight to what happened to our economy and how to fix it. In a lucid and persuasive manner, Reich provides compelling arguments in support of his main thesis: that our economy and democracy has been manipulated against average working people and what can be done about it. This Kindle Single is an intellectual appetizer. This 1744 KB book is broken out into three parts:

  • Part One. The Rigged Game,
  • Part Two. The Rise of the Regressive Right, and
  • Part Three. Beyond Outrage: What You Need to Do.

Positives:

  1. Well written, accessible book that gets to the points.
  2. Robert Reich is an excellent author with a mastery of the subject.
  3. Establishes upfront the main thesis of this Kindle Single and what the reader should expect from the main body of the book.
  4. Provides seven dots that when connected show why our economic system is out of whack.
  5. Thought-provoking comments, "Republicans want us to believe that the central issue is the size of government, but the real issue is whom government is for."
  6. The gist of the problem; the super-rich have rigged our economy in their favor and at the expense of the average American. Reich provides an overwhelming amount of data in support of his argument. Outrage indeed.
  7. The issue of revolving doors with regards to regulators and the corporations they were supposed to regulate.
  8. The relation between the super-rich and their political influence. The political influence that money can buy.
  9. The best definition for regulation..."regulations make sense where the benefits to the public exceed the costs, and regulations should be designed to maximize those benefits and minimize those costs." Will Dodd-Frank legislation be effective?
  10. What economic history has taught us. A look at presidential policies from the past.
  11. The conservative agenda. The rise of the Regressive Right and their strategy.
  12. A look at the Tea Partiers, their political views.
  13. The ten biggest economic lies. Interesting.
  14. How to make a movement.
  15. An agenda with specific points. Sound policies.
  16. Links to further information.

Negatives:

  1. If you have read some of the author's previous books this Kindle Single may come across as déjà vu.
  2. No formal bibliography or links to notes.
  3. I'm never happy when a term like "Social Darwinism" is used. It's a bastardized term. Oh well...
  4. Tax Reform , that is, tax simplification is needed.

In summary, if you have read previous books or have followed Professor Reich's videos this book will feel like déjà vu but if you haven't or just like the idea of having this specific thesis as a refresher or aren't familiar at all, by all means get it. Reich writes in a lucid and direct manner, and always provides thought-provoking insight into the economy. His arguments are sound and it will take you a short time to go through it. I recommend it.

Further recommendations: "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future (Vintage)" by Robert B. Reich, "Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present" by Jeff Madrick, "Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich--and Cheat Everybody Else" by David Cay Johnston, "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class" by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, "The Benefit and The Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take" by Bruce Bartlett, "The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street" by Robert Scheer, "The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy: And Everything Else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs, and Corporate America" by Joshua Holland, "That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back", by Thomas L. Friedman, "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class - And What We Can Do about It (BK Currents (Paperback))" by Thom Hartmann, and "War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back" by Lou Dobbs.

[Aug 19, 2012] Why Goldman Refuses To Raise Its S&P 1250 Year End Forecast by Tyler Durden

... the market is supposed to be far more efficient than elected politicians. At least on paper. This line of thinking is also the reason why Goldman's head of equity strategy David Kostin ... refuses to raise his year end forecast for the S&P, which has remained firmly at 1250 for the entire year. More muppetry, more dodecatuple reverse psychology, or is Goldman telling the truth? You decide.
Aug 18, 2012 | ZeroHedge

The S&P 500 is at its 2012 highs, and rapidly approaching all time highs, even as nothing has changed over the biggest near-term challenge facing America: the fiscal cliff. Ironically, with every tick higher in the market, the probability that Congress will come to a consensus over what would be a haircut of up to 4% to next year's GDP as soon as January 1 2013 gets smaller. Why - the same reason that Spain is unlikely to demand a bailout now that its 10 Year bond is back to the mid 6% range (ironically on expectations it will demand a bailout!): complacency - both by investors, and by politicians.

After all, it's is all a matter of perception, and the market is seen to be "perceiving" an all clear signal. It means that the impetus to do something constructive simply does not exist, as we explained recently in the case of Spain (and Italy). It also means that Congress has no reason to be proactive about the biggest threat facing the economy: just look at the S&P - it sure isn't worried, and the market is supposed to be far more efficient than elected politicians. At least on paper.

This line of thinking is also the reason why Goldman's head of equity strategy David Kostin (not to be confused with the person he replaced: permabull A Joseph Cohen, who off the record sees the S&P rising to 1600 or more) refuses to raise his year end forecast for the S&P, which has remained firmly at 1250 for the entire year. More muppetry, more dodecatuple reverse psychology, or is Goldman telling the truth? You decide.

Will Bernanke Save The Equity Markets?

Aug 18, 2012 | ZeroHedge

How far is the Fed from reaching the bottom of its ammunition box? Well, both Mario Draghi and Ben Bernanke said no to yet more monetary stimulus recently. Wall Street unsurprisingly was disappointed. Wall Street expected more stimulus, as institutional investors are analyzing monetary policy from their own perspective rather than the central bank's viewpoint – understandable, but a big mistake.

Wall Street's Conundrum: with the S&P 500 up less than 7% in 2012, the year is almost over, and the investment firms have little to show for it.

[Aug 18, 2012] Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion and the Cult of Spectacle and the Self

A lot of anger at the "inverted totalitarianism" as new social system that dominates the political landscape not only in the USA but in the large part of industrialized world. Little analysis of real problems that are facing the USA. Chris assumes that "Cult of the self" that Jackson embodies ethics promoted by corporations is "cult of the psychopath". The ethics of Wall Street is ethics of celebrity not then different from Jackson ethics. Inverted totalitarianism is the system that makes that possible. "Brand Obama" is the type of political leadership that comes to the top under such a system. The major shift when democratic party shed any union roots and became just a recipient of big business as Republican Party. He essentially folded Democratic party into a faction of Republicans.
Jesse's Café Américain

Here is a recent talk by Chris Hedges at the Cambridge Forum.

The video starts after two introductions and a brief expository by Hedges about the tragic life of Michael Jackson, which he sees as emblematic of the cult of celebrity and the exploitative tendencies of the reality show TV culture.

[Aug 02, 2012] We're too tolerant of corruption at home

Chatham House Independent thinking on international affairs

Mark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs, New York University’s SCPS Centre for Global Affairs, August 2012 The World Today, Volume 68, Number 7

There is still a comforting us-and-them attitude when Westerners look East. The moral superiority of the West is taken as read. Russia has corruption, embezzlement and capital flight, we just have remnant old boys’ networks, a few rogue traders and tax avoidance.

... ... ...

All this has been played out against the backdrop of a global economic slowdown prompted by practices within the Western financial sector ranging from the morally questionable to the outright criminal.

In part the responsibility lies with financial institutions putting the bottom line above all else. In doing so, they fulfil that Muscovite’s expectations and – even if doing nothing illegal at home – facilitate crime, corruption and embezzlement abroad. They also open themselves up to moral hazard. Only luck divides the high-flier from the rogue trader. The consequent risk-taking culture has led to such cases as JP Morgan Chase’s recent loss of almost $6 billion through under-supervised trades.

Questionable practices are often lucrative and the risks eminently bearable, with fines essentially transmitted to customers. After all, the gamble usually pays off and everyone lives to trade another day. Likewise, many Western companies that are models of rectitude at home willingly pay bribes abroad, albeit tactfully channelled through local partners or entered in the books as ‘consultancy fees’.

The real problem is not immoral businesspeople, nor sloppy laws, but a lack of accountability. That, in turn, can be laid at the feet of legislators and the electorate. It is the job of government and society to reconfigure the cost-benefit analyses that encourage these corrupt practices.



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