Archive for October 2008

My Head is Spinning

I am on vacation this week, so blogging will be light.  Just as well, as I have absolutely no idea where to begin with the Federal plan to semi-nationalize the banking industry.  I fear that the Bush administration has done it to us again.  Economists will be poking through this situation years from now, and may well find the bunkers empty of WMD's.  Another trillion dollar commitment and unprecedented expansion of executive power ramrodded on the back of fear mongering and chicken-little crisis declaration.  Henry Paulson screams to the world that the sky is falling, and then wonders why he can't stop the panicked stampede.  The Fed breaks the discount window wide open and promises to lend and recieve near infinite amounts of bank funds, and then wonders why banks have stopped lending to each other and only will do business with the Fed.

The Panic Imperative

Eric Posner writes:

Many legal academics claimed that courts should serve as fire walls
against the conflagration of fear. When the government locks someone
up, the courts should realize that in many cases either government
officials have panicked or are violating someone's civil liberties
merely to assure frightened citizens that something is being done. For
that reason, courts should treat the government's justifications with
skepticism, and never ever trust the executive branch.

These arguments have not yet surfaced in the current crisis. The
specter of fear is everywhere, not just on Wall Street. And the scale
of the government's reaction is no less than what it was after
9/11"”that is what probably scares ordinary people the most. Yet no one
who believes that the government exploited fears after 9/11 to
strengthen its security powers is now saying that the government is
exploiting financial crisis fears in order to justify taking control of
credit markets. No one who thinks that government would use fear to
curtail civil liberties seems to think that government would use fear
to curtail economic liberties. Why not?

No one, except me of course.  From my October 1 discourse with a Democratic friend:

I find it surprising that you take this administration
on faith in its declaration of emergency in the financial sector.
You've lamented for years about the "rush to war" and GWB's scare
tactics that pushed, you felt, the nation into a war it should not be
fighting, all over threats of WMD's that we could never find.  You
lamented Democrats like Hillary Clinton "falling for this" in Congress

But now the mantra is the same - rush, rush, hurry, hurry, fear,
fear, emergency, emergency. Another GWB declared crisis in which the
country needs to give the administration unlimited power without
accountability and, of course, stacks of taxpayer dollars to spend.  A
decision that has to be made fast, without time for deliberation.
Another $700 billion commitment.     And here the Democrats go again.
Jeez, these guys may have the majority in Congress but it is sure easy
for GWB to push their buttons when he wants to.  Heck, Pelosi is acting
practically as the Republican Whip to get GWB's party in line.

This is Iraq without the body bags, and without the personal honor
of brave soldiers in the trenches to give the crisis some kind of
dignity.

Good News, Really

Believe it or not, I think this picture is actually good news:

Dowtrend

This is a little flawed, since we would expect a constant trend to be a constant percent increase each year, which would be upward curving on this chart, not a straight line trend  (it would be straight on a log scale).  Never-the-less, it makes a point  (by the way, it is interesting the 1980's are considered the decade of greed on Wall Street rather than the 1990s, from this chart).

Here is a better way to make my point.  We get a similar chart if we look at PE ratios for the S&P500  (the chart below is on trailing 10 year average earnings).

Sandp_pe

Why is this anything but depressing?  Because I get the sense that many people, without any other general indicator of how bad things are in the financial markets, are using the steep drops in the stock market as a proxy measure.  The stock market looks like a disaster, so everything else must be a disaster.

But in a large sense, at least so far, all the stock market has done in the last 2 weeks is return to historical norms.  This tells me that there is nothing about the current level of the stock market that is screaming disaster signals.  In fact, the current level of the stock market is screaming normalcy. 

Of course, this does not mean the drop will stop here.  PE's in the worst of times have headed on down to 5 (which would be about DOW 3000, yuk).  And corrections seldom stop at the mean - they usually over-correct on below the mean.  But seen on these charts, this recent move looks more like the completion of the correction to the late 1990's bubble rather than necessarily an indicator of current financial disaster.

Don't Panic

The best way to mobilize people is to make them panic.  That is why so many institutions have incentives to may you panic over the environment, or global warming, or the threat of terrorism, or the economy.  In most cases (Naomi Klein's hypothesis not-withstanding) these folks want you to get so worried you will give up something, either money or freedom or both.

Some kind of recession at this point is unavoidable, I guess.  But in fact, we really haven't seen what I would call a real recession since the early 1980's.  We've had a really long run, and now its time to cut back on that spending and board up the financial windows for a little while.  The economy has to de-leverage itself some, and that is going to slow things down for a while.  People keep talking about the Great Depression, and I don't see it.  I don't even think its going to be the 1970's.

The most visible symbol of financial problems seems to be the falling stock market.  But all those companies in those indexes are the same ones that were there a month ago, and are still healthy and making money.  The fall in the markets does not represent and change in the current health of industrial America.  The lower prices reflect a changing expectation about those company's future prospects, but the folks driving the market are just guessing, and really, their guesses aren't really any better than yours or mine.  Similar expectations drove oil up to $145 and now back down under $80.  Wall Streeters work really hard to portray themselves as smarter than you or I, but they are not.  I went to school with them.  I know these guys.  They aren't smarter, and they aren't any less susceptible to panic.  In fact, because they are often highly leveraged and are worried about making payments on that new Jaguar they just bought for their mistress, they tend to be more easily stampeded.

In October of 1987, the stock market fell 22.6% in one day.  If you date the current financial issues to about September 22, when the market closed around 11,000, then the market has fallen over these tumultuous weeks by 22.0% at last night's close -- dramatic, but still not as bad as the one day drop in '87. 

Proof Positive Legislators Don't Understand Even the Basics of Economics

OK, actually, this could also just be proof positive that legislators know exactly what they are doing and want legislation that panders to powerful interest groups without actually doing anything.  Democrats in Congress have proposed a new nationwide CO2 emissions / permitting system.  The point is to allocate permits for something less than current emissions, forcing Americans to either cut back to their permit level or trade permits around. 

So I thought this provision was hilarious:

The bill tries to address the economic concerns by excluding small
businesses and increasing the number of permits when prices spike.

So when permit prices go up, they will increase the number of permits.  But permit prices will necessarily go up if they are doing their job of limiting emissions below current levels.  So, in effect, they are saying that if the permit process really does start limiting emissions, new permits will be issued to to allow more emissions. 

Why Politicians Favor Cap and Trade over a Carbon Tax

There are a lot of incredibly good reasons to favor a carbon tax over cap-and-trade if we simply most reduce CO2 emissions.  Even a minor inspection of the inner workings of the California Air Resources Board under their AB32 cap-and-trade style program provides lists of examples of abuses, rent-seeking, inefficiency, etc. under cap-and-trade.  But Joe Nation, one of the California legislators who authored AB32, told me that he could not get even a 5-cent gasoline tax through a legislature that enthusiastically embraced the 100x (or more) expensive AB32.  Why?  Silly rabbit, because public costs of cap-and-trade can be fudged, hidden, ignored, and, when they absolutely have to be recognized, blamed on private companies.

Via a reader, here is our Arizona governor discussing the costs of cap-and-trade in Arizona:

Napolitano brushed aside questions of what effect the plan will have on utility rates.

"First of all, that it may increase electric bills doesn't mean it will increase them now," Napolitano said.

Brave, isn't she?  They are already preparing the story line to blame private industry for future price increases:

Napolitano said there is "lots of data" to suggest that utilities
eventually will be able to save money "by moving to a system of 'green'
energy."...

Fox said that, on a long-term basis, there may be cost savings.

You get that?  We smart government guys conducted a lot of really high-power circle jerks among graduate students and the consensus was that forcing the electrical industry to obsolete much of its current capacity and rebuild with some other uproven but more expensive technology would save them money in the long term.  If utilities raise prices, it's because they were not smart enough to figure out what we already know and they are just greedy capitalist pigs so blame them for the price increases, not use faithful public servants.  You see?  Cap-and-trade is like money laundering for taxes.  The tax is there, but its hidden well enough that a lazy media will not bother to trace it back to its owner.

But I wouldn't want you to take my assertion on faith (as Obama does with his 5 million green jobs promise), so lets look at what will have to happen.

The exact goals are hazy, but it appears our governor has committed the state to cutting CO2 emissions by 15% over the next 10 years.  One of the main ways that calling CO2 "pollution" is misleading is to imply it is some kind of combustion by-product, like soot or SO2, that could be scrubbed out.  But it is not.  It is fundamental to combustion.  So a 15% cut in CO2 emissions is 10-15% cut in power generation  (we likely get numbers lower than 15% by assuming cuts in production are preferentially from higher carbon sources like coal plants). 

So, basically this law requires the state's electrical utilities to obsolete 10% of its installed capacity, and either a) have tons of rolling blackouts; b) raise prices enough to force a large cut in demand  (remember, demand must be cut 10% AND all future growth must be halted); or c) the industry must spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build a ton of capacity in some other technology.  Option a will never fly politically.  Option c is almost sure to fail as well.  The permitting and construction processes can take decades.  From a cold start, I don't think its possible to rebuild 10+% of the states generation capacity in 10 years, either in nuclear or some other not-yet-ready technology.  The numbers simply don't work.  The only possible way I can imagine is maybe to install a zillion natural gas turbines, but to make the CO2 balance work out, you probably would have to rebuild 15% or more of the capacity, not just 10%, because there would still be some carbon emissions. 

Really, realistically, one is left with option b.  Prices are going to go up (just they would have to in option c to pay for replacement production capacity).  The price increases would be about as much as the carbon tax would have had to be to get the same effect, but price increases are corporation's fault while taxes are politicians' fault.  See?  The only good news is that the price increase will go to private players rather than the government.  That is until someone thinks to put in a windfall profits tax on utilities that are making lots of money on the government-enforced shortage.

It's a Feature, not a Bug

Laws that require the goodwill and ethical functioning of its participants, without oversight, always worry me.  The companion argument to this is when someone says (and this is popular among Democrats nowadays) all this infrastructure in the government that does not work will be fine when we get our own smart people running it.

It never, never works.  Here is yet another example:  All that extra post-9/11 investigatory power?  Trust us, we only use it on the bad guys.

The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as
terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state
and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police
chief acknowledged yesterday.

Police Superintendent Terrence B.
Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance
operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq
war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was
disclosed in July....

Said the unrepentant leader of this efort:

"I don't believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government," he said.

Reading my history, disrupting the government was not the last thing they were trying to protect, it was the first thing. 

Fake but Accurate -- Now Coming to the Hard Sciences

Most of us remember the famous "fake but accurate" defense of Dan Rather's story on GWB using forged National Guard documents.  If the post-modernism movement were to have an insignia, their tag line  (their "E. Pluribus Unum') could well be "fake but accurate." 

I have written for a while that post-modernism seems to be coming to the hard sciences (I differentiate the hard sciences, because the soft sciences like sociology or women's studies are already dominated by post-modernist thinking).  For example, I quoted this:

For
those of you who cling to scientific method, this is pretty bizarre
stuff. But she, and many others, are dead serious about it. If a
research finding could harm a class of persons, the theory is that
scientists should change the way they talk about that finding. Since scientific method is a way of building a body of knowledge based on skeptical testing, replication, and publication, this is a problem.The tight framework of scientific method mandates figuring out what would disprove the theory being tested and then looking for the disproof.
The thought process that spawned the scientific revolution was
inherently skeptical, which is why disciples of scientific method say
that no theory can be definitively and absolutely proved, but only
disproved (falsified). Hypotheses are elevated to the status of
theories largely as a result of continued failures to disprove the
theory and continued conformity of experimentation and observation with
the theory, and such efforts should be conducted by diverse parties.Needless to say postmodernist schools of thought and scientific method are almost polar opposites.

So here is today's example of fake but accurate in the sciences, not surprisingly also from climate science:

While the critic's advice - to use trained statisticians in studies
reliant on statistics - may seem too obvious to need stating, the
"science is settled" camp resists it. Mann's hockey-stick graph may be
wrong, many experts now acknowledge, but they assert that he
nevertheless came to the right conclusion.

To which the critics,
and doubtless others who want more rigourous science, shake their heads
in disbelief. They are baffled by the claim that the incorrect method
doesn't matter because the answer is correct anyway. With bad science, only true believers can assert that they nevertheless obtained the right answer.

A huge number of physicists and geologists who actually take the time to look into the details of climate science come away being shocked at the scholarship.  Take a world class physicist, drop him into a discussion of the details of the Mann hockey stick analysis, and in an hour you will have a skeptic.

Crazy?  Remember the words of from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) climate researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider:

We
have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements,
and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide
what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

Government and Regulation

One argument about regulation that seems to be gaining traction through the recent financial crisis is "See, private action and enterprise is not infallible.  They can make mistakes that have costs for everyone.  Therefore they need to be regulated." 

I don't have time for the full refutation of this, but a few thoughts:

  • No one ever said that private actors in the economy are infallible or even universally honest.  However, no one has ever been able to make the case that government employees are any more infallible or honest. 
  • There are a couple of reasons government regulators are going to be demonstrably worse than the marketplace in making decisions.  The first is information -- a few actors in Washington can never have the same access to information as thousands of actors across the country or around the world.  The second is incentives -- while regulatory hawks cite private greed as a bad incentive in the marketplace, bureaucratic incentives can be at least as problematic.
  • Governments are subject to all sorts of rent-seeking initiatives, not to mention regulatory capture, that undermine regulatory effectiveness.  Just look at the bailout bill. Wooden arrows?

For some reason, the argument "private actors screwed up" seems sufficient justification for regulation.  The burden of proof should instead be "the government could have done better."

Here is a nice example of how regulation really works, from an interview with Warren Buffett:

QUICK: If you imagine where things will go with Fannie and Freddie, and
you think about the regulators, where were the regulators for what was
happening, and can something like this be prevented from happening
again?

Mr. BUFFETT: Well, it's really an incredible case study in regulationbecause
something called OFHEO was set up in 1992 by Congress, and the sole job
of OFHEO was to watch over Fannie and Freddie, someone to watch over
them. And they were there to evaluate the soundness and the accounting
and all of that. Two companies were all they had to regulate. OFHEO has
over 200 employees now. They have a budget now that's $65 million a
year, and all they have to do is look at two companies. I mean, you
know, I look at more than two companies.

QUICK: Mm-hmm.

Mr.
BUFFETT: And they sat there, made reports to the Congress, you can get
them on the Internet, every year. And, in fact, they reported to
Sarbanes and Oxley every year. And they went--wrote 100 page reports,
and they said, 'We've looked at these people and their standards are
fine and their directors are fine and everything was fine.' And then
all of a sudden you had two of the greatest accounting misstatements in
history. You had all kinds of management malfeasance, and it all came
out. And, of course, the classic thing was that after it all came out,
OFHEO wrote a 350--340 page report examining what went wrong, and they
blamed the management, they blamed the directors, they blamed the audit
committee. They didn't have a word in there about themselves, and
they're the ones that 200 people were going to work every day with just
two companies to think about. It just shows the problems of regulation.

The problem, of course, is that Fannie and Freddie were doing exactly what Congress wanted them to do -- systematically lowering mortgage underwriting standards.  They won't put it that way now, but that is  what spreading home ownership to lower income families really amounted to.

A Simple Alternative to Mark to Market Accounting?

I haven't posted at all on the brouhaha about mark-to-market accounting of derivatives and whether it was a contributor to the recent financial mess.  If I had to summarize the issue, I would describe it thus:  Investors want something more trustworthy than just management estimates of the value of complex securities -- so they would like an outside market-based reference point -- but the very complexity that makes these contracts hard to value as an outsider also tends to make their markets illiquid and volatile, making it difficult to get a good market value. 

Tom Selling addresses the problem of accounting for the value of credit default swaps here.  He makes what seems to me to be a common sense suggestion:

Requiring the asset and liability sides of derivatives to be separately
measured and reported seems like an amazingly simple fix that could
simplify regulation of the financial and insurance industries, reduce
the need for the disclosures in financial statements written so as to
discourage one from reading them, and help investors more easily assess
risk.

This certainly seems reasonable to me.  When one buys a revenue producing asset with debt financing, the two are listed separately as an asset and a liability, rather than as one "net" asset, even though they may be inextricably linked (say if the asset is collateral for the loan and the loan has high pre-payment penalties).  Any thoughts?  Does this make sense, or is it naive?

Obama and Ethanol

I think a lot of economists are of two minds about Obama.  When they look at his economics team, they are impressed with the talent and depth.  America could do worse than have economic policy guided by this team.  But when Obama opens his mouth to express his own opinions on trade or economics or finance, I get really nervous.  I keep wondering who will guide economic and energy policy -- his smart staff, or the Obama his smart staff keeps trying to hide. 

Ethanol is just one more example:

Robert Bryce, the author of Gusher of Lies, one of the best books on
global energy issues you will ever read, is also a co-editor of Energy
Tribune, a leading monthly. In the October edition, he takes aim at
ethanol calling it a scam and "pure, unadulterated lunacy."

Bryce
writes, "Barack Obama doesn't want to talk about corn ethanol. And it's
no wonder. In early August, his campaign Web site purged several
sections of his energy plan that talked about corn ethanol.

"Before
the purge, Obama was touting corn ethanol as a pivotal element in his
push for "˜energy independence.' His site declared that Obama "˜will
require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be included in the
fuel supply by 2022 and will increase that to at least 60 billion
gallons of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol by 2030."

By
August, however, Obama had come up with a new set of talking points on
energy and "All mentions of corn ethanol were removed," wrote Bryce.
"The word "˜ethanol' only appears once."

Do not be fooled. Obama
is a major proponent of ethanol. Bryce reports that, "In January 2007,
Obama and two other senators, Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa and
Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, introduced legislation called the
"˜American Fuels Act of 2007.' It aimed at promoting the use of ethanol
and provided mandates for the use of more biodiesel."

Obama's
national campaign co-chair is Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority
leader and longtime ethanol booster. Daschle serves on the boards of
three key ethanol companies. Obama represents Illinois, a state that
trails only Iowa and Nebraska in ethanol production capacity.

Ethanol is one of those political IQ tests.  It makes such bad energy and environmental policy, but such good pork, that support for it is a great bellweather for what is driving a politician.

Fed To Start Buying Commercial Paper

Paul Kedrosky reports:

The Federal Reserve Board on Tuesday announced the creation of the
Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), a facility that will
complement the Federal Reserve's existing credit facilities to help
provide liquidity to term funding markets. The CPFF will provide a
liquidity backstop to U.S. issuers of commercial paper through a
special purpose vehicle (SPV) that will purchase three-month unsecured
and asset-backed commercial paper directly from eligible issuers.

Kedrosky has a lot of interesting coverage of the current financial crisis.  He observes:

As Buffett has said, everyone in the world is trying to deleverage at
once -- which is unworkable -- leaving the U.S. as the only institution
in the world that can lever up at all -- and levering up it is. I just
wish it was more obvious to me how you exit the other side of programs
like this. Would we not be better off to quickly recapitalize and
backstop some banks?

I share his concerns, but I actually kind of like the idea of bringing liquidity to main street business directly, rather than indirectly by bailing out failing financial institutions.  The problem of unwinding the program is a big one.  Right now, I get the sense that the financial markets are operating almost entirely on expectations of government action -  will the Feds buy back mortgages, will the Feds keep the overnight borrowing window wide open, will the feds gaurantee commercial paper, how much commercial paper will they buy.  This latter actually seem the least bad of a lot of other options.  At least the Feds are buying good assets from good companies.

Grass Roots Efforts to Impose Socialism

At first, I thought this was an interesting article in the battle of urban planners against suburban "sprawl."  Here is the voice of the often silent majority, who like suburbs and don't want a bunch of high-density mini-Manhattans :

Jones and his neighbors moved to Laveen's low-scale subdivisions in
hopes of finding a suburban life near the heart of the Valley, where
they could enjoy large, affordable homes a few miles southwest of
downtown Phoenix.

"We had the opportunity to buy a brand-new home we could afford, and
we had a view of downtown," Pacey says. "The potential to make this as
wonderful as other areas of Phoenix is huge."

The story has the typical highly-connected former politician turned developer (is there another kind?) using his unique access to his old zoning cronies to manipulate regulation for personal profit:

Then Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor, proposed taking a mostly
vacant 27-acre parcel a few blocks east of Jones' home and building 517
apartments and townhouses on it.

The property was zoned for one house to the acre. It abuts a
two-lane road where the speed limit, when two nearby schools are in
session, is 15 mph. And the nearby intersection of 27th and Southern
avenues, which provides access to downtown Phoenix, is still controlled
by stop signs.

Schools in the neighborhood already were overcrowded, and residents
were concerned about the police's ability to keep up with calls for
service. Where were all these new people going to go?

"They've done so much building in Laveen that the infrastructure has
not kept up," says Jones, an auditor who had no previous involvement in
civic affairs.

Despite a resident outcry and opposition from Michael Nowakowski,
the councilman who had just been elected to represent the district, the
council approved the rezoning 7-1 on Dec. 19.

Johnson gets extra bonus points as the urban-chic villain, expressing the superiority of sitting in cafes to, say, having a back yard.

As a former mayor, Paul Johnson is familiar with residents' arguments against high-density developments.

"They feel that any time you have additional density, that it means
a lower quality," he says one morning over coffee at Biltmore Fashion
Park. "The counter to that is this."

Johnson gestures across Camelback Road to the high-rise apartments and townhomes near 24th Street.

"I look out across the street, and there's a lot of density there,"
he says. "But I'm also sitting in a pretty nice cafe. I have a nice
place to sit. And there's a lot of other people here who think it's a
nice place."

But it turns out that there are no good guys in this story, as is often the case for your poor libertarian correspondent.  Because, the opponents of such development are turning to the ballot box, converting property decisions from individual ones made by the property owner to group decisions made on election day.  What can be built on this particular property may well be decided at the ballot box, just as I discussed another parcel of land whose fate will be decided not by its owner, but at town elections in November.

Sometimes, the reaction to government control is a bid for de-regulation.  But more often, it merely results in a scrap for power, as parties ignore the question of whether the government power should exist at all, and instead fight over who gets to wield it.

For the most part, it has been up to city councils to decide how
much density one neighborhood can tolerate. If Jones is successful,
they could lose some of that power.

"It speaks to the age-old dilemma of representative democracy versus
direct democracy," said Paul Lewis, an assistant professor of political
science at ASU. "There's always an issue with land use because what
might be in the overall interest of the city might still be seen as a
detriment to its immediate neighborhood."

This is all very depressing.  No mention of any age-old question between individual rights and government power.  For these guys, the "city" and the "neighborhood" are somehow real entities with more rights than actual people. 

For centuries we have had a perfectly serviceable approach for determining who gets to decide what gets built on a piece of land:  ownership.  If one wanted to control a property, she/he bought it.  But the desire to control property without really owning it is a strong one, and a driving force for much of government regulation.

Regulation and Civil Liberties

One of the things I have always found frustrating and confusing is the number of folks who call themselves "civil libertarians" who simultaneously have not problem with economic and nanny-state hyper-regulation.  In fact, ACLU types are often at the leading edge of calls for more regulation on safety or prices or property or whatever.

I have never been able to understand how the two are not inextricably linked.  How can bright-line protections of freedoms of choice and action be essential in one sphere of our lives but unimportant in others?  Here is just one example of how they work together, from none other than our egregious Sheriff, Joe Arpaio:

Arrest records from crime sweeps conducted by the Maricopa County
Sheriff's Office add substantial weight to claims that deputies used
racial profiling to pull Latino motorists over to search for illegal
immigrants....

even when the patrols were held in mostly White areas such as
Fountain Hills and Cave Creek, deputies arrested more Latinos than
non-Latinos, the records show. In fact, deputies arrested among the
highest percentage of Latinos when patrols were conducted in mostly
White areas.

On the arrest records, deputies frequently cited minor traffic
violations such as cracked windshields and non-working taillights as
the reason to stop drivers.

"These are penny-ante offenses that (police) almost always ignore. This
is telling you this is being used to get at something else, and I think
that something else is immigration enforcement against Hispanic
people," Harris said....

Brian Withrow, an associate professor of criminal justice at Wichita
State University, said racial profiling is very difficult to prove.

States have thousands of traffic laws on the books, so police can
almost always find a reason to stop someone.
The U.S. Supreme Court has
ruled that police can legally use minor traffic violations as a
"pretext" to stop someone they suspect of other crimes. Withrow said
the only way to prove racial profiling is by looking at large numbers
of traffic stops to see if "patterns and practices" of selective
enforcement exist. Otherwise, it's difficult to tell whether police are
stopping motorists for legitimate reasons or merely based on race or
ethnicity.

Withrow agreed that the arrest records alone are inconclusive. But
he found it troubling that they show that Latinos were arrested more
frequently than non-Latinos even when the patrols took place in mostly
White areas such as Fountain Hills.

"That tells me that that is who is being targeted," Withrow said.

So Is The World Bailing Out of US Investments?

No, at least not yet, with the dollar at a 13-month high.

Hey, Lets Look at More Financial Sector Charts!

OK, I know burn-out is setting in.  I certainly think that explains, in part, why the House voted for a demonstrably worse bill than they voted against the week before.  But John Moore has a number links to an interesting set of charts from the Milken Institute on the financial meltdown.

They hit on many of the things I discussed earlier, but put a greater emphasis on 1) securitization, and the effect it had on good underwriting standards and 2) on interest rates as a driver of the housing bubble.

Update:  And an interesting post on the link between credit default swaps and short-selling.  My personal view is that credit default swaps will someday be looked at like earthquake insurance -- nice premiums today, but too much systematic risk, too much certainty that in 10 or 20 years there will be an event that forces nearly every policy to pay simultaneously, wiping out the insurer.  You can't get earthquake insurance, and you nearly can't get hurricane insurance, and I think the default insurance market may go the same way.  Or, as a minimum, the price is going so high few people will buy it.  This is not a market failure, it is a market lesson learned and adjustment to reality.

Update #2:  Even more from economists on the rush to bailout.

It Took Two Ingredients to Make this Financial Crisis

After having time to think more about the current crisis, I think the reason it is confusing is that it is the result of two parallel but largely independent causes that worked together to create this mess.  I told my mother-in-law in an email last week that the financial crisis would likely be a Rorschach test where everyone sees the crisis caused by all the things they opposed before the crisis.  Conservatives will see government intervention, liberals will see greed and deregulation.

What makes this situation particularly confusing is that of the two causes I believe led to the crisis, each has been embraced by one of the two parties as the only cause.  It's a case where everyone is half right, but the other half is important too.  It's a two part recipe, with neither active ingredient causing much of an explosion until mixed with the other. (special thanks to the folks at Q&O who have had a lot of good posts on these issues).

Cause 1:  Creating the Asset Bubble

The first thing that had to happen for the crisis was the creation of an asset bubble.  We need some type of over-valued asset whose prices crash to earth to spark the crisis.  So we begin with housing.

Home prices have gone through boom-bust cycles for years, just as have many commodities.  There is a whole body of literature on such cycles, so we will leave that aside and accept their existence as a feature of markets and human behavior. 

But this housing bubble had a strong accelerant, in the form of the Federal government.  For years, this nation has made increasing home ownership a national goal and many laws and tax policies have been aimed at this goal.  The mortgage interest deduction on personal income taxes is just one example.

Starting in 1992, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were strange quasi-public / quasi-private entities, came under pressure from the Congress (e.g. Barney Frank) and the Clinton administration to add increasing home ownership to poorer people part of their missions.

Fannie Mae, the
nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under
increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage
loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock
holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.

In
addition, banks, thrift institutions and mortgage companies have been
pressing Fannie Mae to help them make more loans to so-called subprime
borrowers. These borrowers whose incomes, credit ratings and savings
are not good enough to qualify for conventional loans, can only get
loans from finance companies that charge much higher interest rates --
anywhere from three to four percentage points higher than conventional
loans.

''Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of
families in the 1990's by reducing down payment requirements,'' said
Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae's chairman and chief executive officer.
''Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch
below what our underwriting has

The results were astonishing:

Beginning in 1992, Congress pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to
increase their purchases of mortgages going to low and moderate income
borrowers. For 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave Fannie and Freddie an explicit target "” 42% of their mortgage financing had to go to borrowers with income below the median in their area. The target increased to 50% in 2000 and 52% in 2005.

For 1996, HUD required that 12% of all mortgage purchases by Fannie and Freddie be "special affordable" loans, typically to borrowers with income less than 60% of their area's median income. That number was increased to 20% in 2000 and 22% in 2005. The 2008 goal was to be 28%. Between 2000 and 2005,
Fannie and Freddie met those goals every year, funding hundreds of
billions of dollars worth of loans, many of them subprime and
adjustable-rate loans, and made to borrowers who bought houses with
less than 10% down.

Fannie and Freddie also purchased hundreds
of billions of subprime securities for their own portfolios to make
money and to help satisfy HUD affordable housing goals. Fannie and
Freddie were important contributors to the demand for subprime
securities.

Simultaneously, the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act was pushing private banks to make more loans to less qualified borrowers:

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) did the same thing with
traditional banks. It encouraged banks to serve two masters "” their
bottom line and the so-called common good. First passed in 1977, the
CRA was "strengthened" in 1995, causing an increase of 80% in the
number of bank loans going to low- and moderate-income families.

These actions had a double whammy on the current crisis.  First, by pushing up housing demand, they inflated the housing pricing bubble.  Second, it meant that these inflated-price homes were being bought with lower and lower down payments.  In effect, individuals were taking on much more leverage  (leverage is a term that I will use to mean the percentage of debt used to finance a set of assets -- more leverage means more debt and less equity.  The term comes from the physics of a mechanical lever, in that more debt, like a lever, can magnify force.  Profits from assets are multiplied by leverage, but, alas, so are losses.) 

When the economy softened and the housing bubble started to burst, these new mortgage customers the government went out of its way to bring into the system did not have any resources to handle the changes -- they did not have the down payment to cushion them (or the banks) against falls in asset value and did not have the cash flow to cushion them against falling income in the recession and/or rising interest rates. 

The result:  Huge portfolios of failing loans with rapidly falling collateral values.

Cause 2:  Over-leverage of Risky Assets and Related De-regulation of Capital Requirements

I think the word "greed" was used about a zillion times last night in the Vice-Presidential debate.  But what does it mean in this context?  After all, we are all greedy in one way or another, if one equates greed with looking after one's self-interest.

So I will translate "greed" for you:  When you hear "greed on Wall Street", think leverage.  Remember, we said above that as long as the underlying asset values are going up, leverage (ie more debt) multiplies profitability.  [Quick example:  Assume a stock that goes from $100 to $110 in a year.  Assume you pay 5% interest on money.  No leverage, you make $10 on a $100 investment.  With 95% leverage -- ie buying $2000 worth of the stock with $100 equity and $1900 debt -- you would make $105 on the same $100 equity investment.  Leverage multiplied your returns by more than a factor of 10]

Remember that around the year 2000 we had the Internet bubble burst in a big way.  A lot of companies not only dropped, but went to $0 in value.  This was painful, but we did not have a cascading problem.  Why?  In part because most of the folks who invested in Internet companies did not do so in a highly leveraged way.  The loss was the loss, time to move on.  Similarly in this case, if these mortgage packages had been held as a piece of a un-leveraged portfolio, like a pension fund our an annuity, the loss would not have been fun to write off but it would not have cascaded as it has.  The government would have had to bail out Fannie and Freddie, a few banks would have failed, but the disaster would have been limited.

One reason this problem has cascaded (leaving aside blame for Henry Paulson's almost criminal chicken-little proclamations of doom to the world) is that many of these mortgage packages or securities got stuck in to highly leveraged portfolios.  The insurance contracts that brought down AIG were structured differently but in the end were also highly leveraged bets on the values of mortgage securities in that small changes in values could result in huge losses or gains for the contracts.   (Some folks have pointed to actual securitization of the loans as a problem.  I don't see that.  Securitization is a fabulous tool.  Without it, we would be seeing a ton more main street bank failures, as they would have had to keep many more of these on their books.) 

If this all sounds a bit like cause #1 above, ie buying inflated assets with more and more debt, then you are right.  There is an interesting parallel that no one wants to delve into between the incentives of home buyers trying to jump into hot housing markets with interest-only loans and Wall Street bankers putting risky securities into highly leveraged portfolios.  Leverage is really the key theme here.  In a sense, houses were double-leveraged, bought the first time around with smaller and smaller down payments, and then leveraged again as these mortgages were tossed into highly-leveraged portfolios.  Sometimes they were leveraged even further via oddball derivatives and insurance contracts whose exact operation are still opaque to many.

Those who have read me for a while know that I am in the "let them die" camp.  These Wall Street guys have been living high on the extra profits from this leverage in the good times.  They knew perfectly well that leverage is a two-edged sword, and that it would magnify their losses in a bad time.  But their hubris pushed them into doing crazy things for more profit, and I am all for a Greek-tragedy-like downfall for their hubris.  The sub-prime, first-time home buyer can claim ignorance or unsophistication, but not these guys.

During the Bush Administration, these bankers came to the SEC trumpeting their own brilliance, and begged to be allowed to leverage themselves even more via a relaxation of capital requirement rules.  And, in 2004, without too much discussion or scrutiny, the SEC gave them what they wanted:

Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis
since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28,
2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control. The agency's
failure to follow through on those decisions also explains why
Washington regulators did not see what was coming.

On that
bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and
Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an
urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an
exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited
the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle
billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on
their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent
company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of
mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for
bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

In part they traded capital requirements for computer models, a very dubious decision in the first place, made worse by the fact that most of the banks were gaming the models to reduce the apparent risk.  The crazy thing is that, in gaming the models, they really weren't trying to fool regulators, who pretty much were not watching anyway, but they were fooling themselves!  Certainly I would not expect government regulators to do a better job of risk assessment in this environment, which argues for a return to the old bright-line capital requirements that are fairly simple to monitor.  Investment banks played a game of Russian Roulette, and eventually blew their own brains out.  Which begs the question of whether the government's job is to protect consumers at large or to protect financial institutions from themselves.

"We foolishly believed that the firms had a strong culture of
self-preservation and responsibility and would have the discipline not
to be excessively borrowing," said Professor James D. Cox, an expert on
securities law and accounting at Duke School of Law (and no
relationship to Christopher Cox).

The Dog that Didn't Bark:  Ratings Agencies

Clearly, ratings agencies have really failed in their mission during this fiasco.  Right up to the last minute, they were giving top ratings to highly risky securities.  But I think folks who want to lay primary blame on the rating agencies go to far.   Ratings agencies are for individuals and state pension funds and the like -- I have a hard time imagining Goldman or Lehman depending on them for risk assessment.  Its a nice excuse, and we may well have very different companies rating securities five years form now, but its just a small contributor.

The Fix

So you see what is going on.  Republicans are running around saying "the government caused it with the CRA" and Democrats are saying "it was greed and deregulation."  Incredibly, both parties seem to come to the conclusion that sickly mortgage securities need to be pulled out of the hands of the folks who created and bought them and put in ... my hands.  I had smugly thought that I had avoided buying a home with zero-down at the peak of the market, but I was wrong.  Via the federal government, I have bought a lot of them!

I personally would let the whole thing sort itself out, and live with the consequences.  My hypothesis is that much of the current credit squeeze in the money markets is due to Henry Paulson's clumsy public statements and the Fed's busting open the door to overnight borrowing.  Everyone is frozen not by the crisis, but by the prospect of some sort of government action.  Short term borrowers and lenders are doing their business with the Fed, as the government crowds out the private short term markets and causes the very problem it is trying to prevent. 

Without the government bending over backwards to take in short term money from lenders, private firms would be forced to find private options.  Lenders have to lend to stay alive financially, just as much as borrowers have to borrow.  Money may go into the mattresses for a week or two or three, but it can't stay there forever.

I do know that the fix is NOT

Fixing these financial problems listed above does not include:

Sec. 101. Renewable energy credit.
Sec. 102. Production credit for electricity produced from marine renewables.
Sec. 103. Energy credit.
Sec. 104. Energy credit for small wind property.
Sec. 105. Energy credit for geothermal heat pump systems.
Sec. 106. Credit for residential energy efficient property.
Sec. 107. New clean renewable energy bonds.
Sec. 108. Credit for steel industry fuel.
Sec. 109. Special rule to implement FERC and State electric restructuring policy.
Sec. 111. Expansion and modification of advanced coal project investment credit.
Sec. 112. Expansion and modification of coal gasification investment credit.
Sec. 113. Temporary increase in coal excise tax; funding of Black Lung Disability
Trust Fund.
Sec. 114. Special rules for refund of the coal excise tax to certain coal producers
and exporters.
Sec. 115. Tax credit for carbon dioxide sequestration.
Sec. 116. Certain income and gains relating to industrial source carbon
dioxide treated as qualifying income for publicly traded partnerships.
Sec. 117. Carbon audit of the tax code. Sec. 111. Expansion and modification of advanced coal project investment credit. Sec. 113. Temporary increase in coal excise tax; funding of Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Sec. 115. Tax credit for carbon dioxide sequestration. Sec. 205. Credit for new qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicles. Sec. 405. Increase and extension of Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund tax.Sec. 306. Accelerated recovery period for depreciation of smart meters and
smart grid systems. Sec. 309. Extension of economic development credit for American Samoa. Sec. 317. Seven-year cost recovery period for motorsports racing track facility. Sec. 501. $8,500 income threshold used to calculate refundable portion of child tax credit.

And, of course, the big one:

Sec. 503 Exemption from excise tax for certain wooden arrows designed for use by children.

All of these, however, are part of the bailout bill approved by the Senate.  Sources here and here.

Currency Hot Potato

Apparently Zimbabwe had an inflation rate of 14,000% last month, for a total of 531 billion percent inflation this year.  If we assume for simplicity that inflation occurs only during working hours, if we spread if over 22 days a week, this means that ones pay at the end of the day is worth only 1/3 its value by lunch the next day, and 1/6 its value by the end of the next day.  My understanding is that Zimbabwe companies pay their employees several times a day and let them go out at lunch and buy something, anything, tangible with the cash before it is worthless a few hours later. 

By the way, I have my Zimbabwe 50 and 100 billion dollar notes on the wall of my office.  I am hoping for a trillion dollar note to go with it.  Meeses and Gippers coming soon.

Um, I Think It is Time To Introduce You to the Term "Incremental"

The US Conference of Mayors has introduced a "study" extending on Obama's idea of millions of new green jobs:

A major shift to renewable energy and efficiency
is expected to produce 4.2 million new environmentally friendly "green"
jobs over the next three decades, according to a study commissioned by
the nation's mayors.

The study to be released Thursday by the U.S. Conference of Mayors,
says that about 750,000 people work today in what can be considered
green jobs from scientists and engineers researching alternative fuels
to makers of wind turbines and more energy-efficient products.

But that's less than one half of 1 percent of total employment. By
2038, another 4.2 million green jobs are expected to be added,
accounting for 10 percent of new job growth over the next 30 years,
according to the report by Global Insight, Inc.

Well, lets leave aside the measurement issue of making forecasts and establishing targets for metrics like "green jobs" that can be defined however the hell someone wants.  For example, if they really were to define "green jobs" as they say above "makers of ... more energy-efficient products," then nearly everyone in industrial America already has a green job.  Every car made today is more fuel-efficient than the equivalent car made 20 years ago, every motor more efficient, every machine more productive.

But lets discuss that word "incremental."  Politicians NEVER, EVER cite job growth projections that are truly incremental.  For example, tariff program X might be billed as saving 100 jobs in the steel industry, but what about the jobs lost in the steel-consuming industries due to higher costs?  The same is most certainly true in this whole "green jobs" fiasco.  It is the perfect political promise - impossible to define, impossible to measure, and therefore impossible to establish any accountability.  Everyone who makes the promise knows in his/her heart the jobs are not truly incremental, while everyone who hears the promise wants to believe they are incremental.  Politics thrives on this type of asymmetry.

I looked before at the impossibility of these numbers being incremental, but here is a second bite of the apple.  The article says specifically:

The report, being presented at a mayor's conference in Miami, predicts
the biggest job gain will be from the increased use of alternative
transportation fuels, with 1.5 million additional jobs, followed by the
renewable power generating sector with 1.2 million new jobs.

Let's take the second number first.  Here are the current US employment numbers for the US power generation field:

Construction of power generation facilities:           137,000
Power generation and supply:           399,000
Production of power gen. equipment           105,000

That yields a total of 641,000.  So is it really reasonable to think that these green plans will triple power generation employment?  If so, then I hate to see what my electricity bill is going to look like.

The fuel sector is similar.  There are about 338,000 people employed in petroleum extraction, refining, transportation and wholesale -- a number that includes many people related to other oil products that are not fuels.  Add in about 100,000 for industry supplies and you get perhaps 450,000 jobs current tied to fuel production plus 840,000 jobs in fuel retailing (ie gas stations).  How are we going to add 1.5 million net new jobs to a fuel production sector with 450,000** currently?  And if we do, what is going to happen to prices and taxes?  And if the investments push us away from liquid fuels to electricity, don't we have to count as a loss 840,000 retail sector jobs selling a product no longer needed?

** Your reaction may be that these job numbers look low.  They are all from the BLS here.  Here is a quick way to convince yourself there really are not that many people working in the US oil and gas industry:  Despite years of mismanagement and government subsidies, politicians continue to fawn over auto companies.  Despite years of excellence at what they do, politicians demonize oil companies.  The reason has nothing to do with their relative performance, ethics, importance to the country, greed, etc.  The difference is that the auto companies and their suppliers employ millions of voters.  Oil companies employ but a few.

This is such ridiculous garbage as to be unbelieveable, but every paper in the country will print this credulously.  Because if journalists were good with numbers, they wouldn't be journalists, they'd be doing something that pays better.

Provisions That Made the Bailout "Better"

Here are some of the provisions in the bailout that converted "no" votes to "yes." Unbelievable.

Andrew Leonard goes digging in the Senate's bailout package and finds a bunch of "sweeteners" added to lure in votes.  Among them:

* Sec. 105. Energy credit for geothermal heat pump systems. * Sec. 111. Expansion and modification of advanced coal project investment credit. * Sec. 113. Temporary increase in coal excise tax; funding of Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. * Sec. 115. Tax credit for carbon dioxide sequestration. * Sec. 205. Credit for new qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicles. * Sec. 405. Increase and extension of Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund tax. * Sec. 309. Extension of economic development credit for American Samoa. * Sec. 317. Seven-year cost recovery period for motorsports racing track facility. * Sec. 501. $8,500 income threshold used to calculate refundable portion of child tax credit. * Sec. 503 Exemption from excise tax for certain wooden arrows designed for use by children.

There
are also tax credits for solar and wind power, and a very expensive
requirement that health insurance companies cover mental health the
same way they cover physical health.

My New Favorites

I went to see Santana with my son last Saturday night, and I can tell you that 67-year-old Carlos Santana is still the man on the guitar.  2-3/4 hours of straight guitar and percussion goodness.

But my new guitar fav's are probably Rodrigo y Gabriela, Mexican guitarists who went from street musicians to stars in Ireland.  Here is Diablo Rojo

And while we are on guitarists, I can't help but give a shout out to fellow Princetonian Stanley Jordan, still the most amazing thing, technically, I have ever seen on guitar.  If it looks like he is playing piano rather than the guitar, that's because his original training was on the piano.  When playing piano, all one is doing is causing strings to get hit.  He wondered why he couldn't just do it directly.  Skip to about a minute in if you are impatient:

Or watch him playing two guitars at the same time in Stairway to Heaven around the 4:00 mark (Jimmy Page had his two-neck guitar but never played them at the same time!)

Small Business Credit

Reader Tim Allen writes:

I wanted you to consider that in a recent previous post you had
mentioned that people are filling up their gas tanks before they
previously would, and they are filling up all their other cars, and
spare gas tanks because of the fear of not having enough necessary gas.
This is a market reality and is completely rational considering the way
the game's rules are set up (no gouging, as per the govt).

I would like you to consider that I, as a small business man,
maxed out all my lines of credit and deposited the money in my bank
accounts. If fear is driving this market, and if it causes banks to dry
up credit, I want to be the first to be tanked up on money,
so-to-speak. The negotiated rate of interest is not high enough for me
to be disinclined to borrow, at least until this credit storm blows
over. I know I am not the first person to have this idea and I won't be
the last, and we (together) will create the situation that you think
can't happen. The tighter credit gets, the more people will borrow, if
just to have the cash on hand, to not need to borrow in the future.

I have done the same thing.  I am maxed on my line of credit, because the interest rate is low and I would rather have the money in hand and pay the interest rather than find out later my line is somehow revoked or frozen.  The money is not needed for near term expenses, but I want to have resources in hand if the recession creates a business opportunity that requires funding.  Does this worsen the near term crunch, the same way panic buying of gas worsens local gas shortages?  Probably.  And again, price is the key.  Like with gas, I would rather rationing by price rather than shortage.  In other words, I would rather my line of credit go up to a 15% interest rate, if that what it takes to put things in balance, than to be revoked entirely so a few businesses can still have 6% money.

I have never said that letting banks fail was without cost.  I just think the cost is going to be there, one way or another, and the cheapest and quickest solution is to let the whole mess sort itself out.

By the way, the notion that small business lives on short term credit is a hoot.  ExxonMobil may have access to the commercial paper market on short notice, but borrowing for our company, even in good times, generally takes a panzer division and a long war of attrition.  Even layup deals have taken me 6 months or more to finance.  Stephen Fairfax, via Mises, makes this point:

None of the small business owners I know depend upon easy credit to
make their payroll. When things get to the point where you need to
borrow to pay your employees, the end is near. Most small businesses
fail in the first few years, in large part because business is not
easy, it is hard. Not everyone is good at it. But it is an essential
part of free trade and the market economy that businesses fail, so that
new, better ones can arise in their place.

Few small businesses depend upon easy credit. Banks are generally
reluctant to lend to small businesses, with good reason. Most small
businesses are funded by owner's savings. Sometimes start-up money
comes from loans by parents or friends. While I can understand that
small businesses involved in building houses might profit from easy
credit, the market is sending unmistakable signals that there are too
many houses that are too expensive. Flooding the system with still more
easy credit can't be the cure, it is the problem.

The Bailout is Back

So what does it take to overcome the opposition of Congressmen who said they opposed the bailout bill as too expensive, too big of a giveaway, and too much of a moral hazard?  Why, more moral hazard (in the form of higher FDIC insured balances), increased spending, and, incredibly, money for alternative energy.  Are these guys a joke or what?  (HT Hit and Run)

By the way, I had a conversation yesterday with a very anti-Bush, anti-Iraq-War Democrat -- the sort that can't get through a five minute conversation without making a Dick Cheney crack.  She was lamenting the failure of the bailout package in the House and excoriating Republicans for being so ignorant and narrow-minded.  My response was:

I find it surprising that you take this administration on faith in its declaration of emergency in the financial sector.   You've lamented for years about the "rush to war" and GWB's scare tactics that pushed, you felt, the nation into a war it should not be fighting, all over threats of WMD's that we could never find.  You lamented Democrats like Hillary Clinton "falling for this" in Congress

But now the mantra is the same - rush, rush, hurry, hurry, fear, fear, emergency, emergency. Another GWB declared crisis in which the country needs to give the administration unlimited power without accountability and, of course, stacks of taxpayer dollars to spend.  A decision that has to be made fast, without time for deliberation.  Another $700 billion commitment.     And here the Democrats go again.  Jeez, these guys may have the majority in Congress but it is sure easy for GWB to push their buttons when he wants to.  Heck, Pelosi is acting practically as the Republican Whip to get GWB's party in line.

This is Iraq without the body bags, and without the personal honor of brave soldiers in the trenches to give the crisis some kind of dignity.