Free Markets, Free People

Economy

More “South Park” Truth – The Underpants Gnomes

If you’ve not kept up or been unable to keep up (that’s why we’re here), you’ve probably wondered about the references to the “underpants gnomes” when discussing the banking and auto industry situations.  

Naturally we have precisely the information you need to be in the know.  Just remember, as our own underpants gnomes are discovering, the tricky part is “Phase II”.

You’re Doing A Heck Of A Job, Timmy …

You remember TARP. The “Troubled Asset Rescue Plan”? The plan which the Obama administration and the Treasury Department said they were monitoring closely? In fact, they even put a “watchdog” in charge of its oversight.

Transparency. Oversight. Hope and Change.

And any other buzzword promise that was thrown out there to describe how this administration would be so different from the last.

But apparently all the oversight promised depends heavily on cooperation, not stonewalling, by the Department administering TARP. That would be Treasury:

Looks like the same old stuff to me

Looks like the same old stuff to me

“We do not seem to be a priority for the Treasury Department,” the Congressional Oversight Panel’s Elizabeth Warren told a Senate Finance Committee hearing today.

“We have sent letters. We have requested that there be someone named so that we can get technical information. And so far, we have not been a first priority,” Warren said. “We use what you give us, and we will exercise the leverage given to us by Congress. In part, that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to talk to you about what’s happened so far, what we have discovered so far, the inquiries that we have in mid-stream and for which we continue to await responses.”

Warren, visibly frustrated with a lack of cooperation from the administration, emphasized, “This problem starts with Treasury.”

Now part of the problem, obviously, is that several key positions in Treasury have yet to be filled, over 60 days into the new administration and in the midst of a financial crisis. Apparently that’s not a priority either.

Oh, and you’ll love this:

Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, voiced similar concerns.

He noted that his office just conducted a survey of all 364 TARP recipients on their use of government funds, something they had requested Treasury do, only for the Department to decline to do so except in the cases of Citigroup and Bank of America.

“One thing is clear: complaints that it was impractical, impossible, or a waste of time to require banks to detail how they used TARP funds were unfounded,” Barofsky said.

I continue to be unimpressed with Tim Geithner and his management and leadership style. What you’re reading here is totally unacceptable. For once, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said the right thing:

“Unfortunately, despite saying all the right things about open government, the new administration has not made any major changes aimed at making TARP more transparent,” he said. “Moreover, I have heard about potential problems with access to information from all three of the oversight bodies testifying.”

Hope and Change.

~McQ

“Green Jobs” Likely To Destroy More Jobs Than Are Created

A study just completed in Spain finds that the creation of so-called “green jobs” doesn’t at all seem to be the employment panacea promised by their advocates. As you recall, President Obama pointed to Spain as the reference point for the establishment of government aid to renewable energy. As the study points out, “No other country has given such broad support to the construction and production of electricity through renewable sources.” But the results are not at all what you might expect given the hype. In fact, they’ve been quite the opposite:

Optimistically treating European Commission partially funded data, we find that for every renewable energy job that the State manages to finance, Spain’s experience cited by President Obama as a model reveals with high confidence, by two different methods, that the U.S. should expect a loss of at least 2.2 jobs on average, or about 9 jobs lost for every 4 created, to which we have to add those jobs that non-subsidized investments with the same resources would have created.

Be sure you read that last part of the sentence carefully as well – those jobs would have been created by “non-subsidizsed investments” with the “same resources” – or said another way, they’d have been created in the private sector without government picking winners and losers and spending billions in taxpayer money.

Between 2000 and 2008, Spain was very aggressive in pursuing alternative energy and green jobs. But its results were less than stellar:

Despite its hyper-aggressive (expensive and extensive) “green jobs” policies it appears that Spain likely has created a surprisingly low number of jobs, two-thirds of which came in construction, fabrication and installation, one quarter in administrative positions, marketing and projects engineering, and just one out of ten jobs has been created at the more permanent level of actual operation and maintenance of the renewable sources of electricity.

So 9 out of 10 were temporary jobs, while only 1 in 10 became permanent. And the cost?

The cost to create a “green job”:

The study calculates that since 2000 Spain spent €571,138 to create each “green job”, including subsidies of more than €1 million per wind industry job.

The cost in jobs lost:

Each “green” megawatt installed destroys 5.28 jobs on average elsewhere in the economy: 8.99 by photovoltaics, 4.27 by wind energy, 5.05 by mini-hydro.

And the eventual cost to consumers:

The price of a comprehensive energy rate (paid by the end consumer) in Spain would have to be increased 31% to being to repay the historic debt generated by this rate deficit mainly produced by the subsidies to renewables, according to Spain’s energy regulator.

Spanish citizens must therefore cope with either an increase of electricity rates or increased taxes (and public deficit), as will the U.S. if it follows Spain’s model

Previous studies have concluded that such increases would impact the poorest quintile the most:

• Reducing emissions, a major rationale for “green jobs” or renewables regimes, hits the poorest hardest. According to the recent report by the Congressional Budget Office, a cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by just 15% will cost the poorest quintile 3% of their annual household income, while benefiting the richest quintile (“Trade-Offs in Allocating Allowances for CO2 Emissions”, U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Economic and Budget Issue Brief, April 25, 2007).

• Raising energy costs loses jobs. According to a Penn State University study, replacing two-thirds of U.S. coal-based energy with higher-priced energy such as renewables, if possible, would cost almost 3 million jobs, and perhaps more than 4 million (Rose, A.Z., and Wei, D., “The Economic Impact of Coal Utilization and Displacement in the Continental United States, 2015,” Pennsylvania State University, July 2006)

So to recap, we have a scheme which would see a net reduction in jobs by its implementation, create jobs of which only 10% were permanent, Cost anywhere from a half a million to a million dollars per job, increase energy costs tremendously and hit the poor the hardest.

Sounds like a winner, doesn’t it?

Will anyone pay attention to the actual experiment conducted by Spain and its results? Or are the blinders firmly in place?

While this scheme would be important to contest at any time, it is critically important to do so now, given the economic situation. One thing that must be avoided is government killing jobs as fast as the private sector creates them. This is truly a time when government should do all it can to enable the private sector to create jobs (tax cuts, etc.) and step back and allow that process to work. What it shouldn’t be doing is picking winners and losers and enacting a scheme which, in Spain at least, has proven to do all the things necessary to kill or at least cripple any economic recovery.

~McQ

I’d Like To Hear The Left’s Comments About The Expansion Of “Executive Power” Now …

I‘m still in rather stunned disbelief about the White House ousting GM’s CEO.  

It’s not about how good a CEO he was or whether I agreed with his plan, his leadership style or his results.  It’s about the White House going so far as to ask him to step aside.  And, according to Obama’s own statement today, his “team” will “working closely with GM to produce a better business plan”.

Why, that sounds like something we’ve seen pass this way before and firmly rejected:

Italian Fascism often involved corporatism, a political system in which economy is collectively managed by employers, workers and state officials by formal mechanisms at national level.

Now I’m sure there are those out there who will argue that this is hardly a “formal mechanism”. But of course that’s simply not true. It is formal enough that a CEO is gone. Someone believes it is a mechanism of some formality for that to happen. And, if you think about it, it is just one more mechanism among many that have been put forward lately. Timothy Geithner’s plan to have the government take over financial institutions and hedge funds if the government deems them a threat to the economy’s well-being, for instance.

After all the caterwauling by the left about “unprecedented executive branch power expansion” during the Bush years, they’re rather quiet about these. The market, however, has cast it’s vote. Down about 300 at 4pm.

And this is all based in a false premise – something I’ve noticed that Obama uses quite effectively:

“We cannot, we must not, and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish,” President Obama said at the White House.

Anyone – who would expect the domestic auto industry to ‘simply vanish’ if the companies were left to go the traditional route of bankruptcy?

Since when does bankruptcy equal “vanish”? Delta airlines seems to have survived it quite well, thank you very much. Their bankruptcy or the bankruptcy of other domestic airlines hasn’t seen the domestic airline industry “vanish”. Why would anyone believe it would happen if GM or Chrysler went bankrupt?

And that said, what did he suggest in his speech today?

The administration says a “surgical” structured bankruptcy may be the only way forward for GM and Chrysler, and President Obama held out that prospect Monday.

“I know that when people even hear the word ‘bankruptcy,’ it can be a bit unsettling, so let me explain what I mean,” he said. “What I am talking about is using our existing legal structure as a tool that, with the backing of the U.S. government, can make it easier for General Motors and Chrysler to quickly clear away old debts that are weighing them down so they can get back on their feet and onto a path to success; a tool that we can use, even as workers are staying on the job building cars that are being sold.”

Seems like that is precisely what all of us were telling them to do before they started throwing bucketfuls of imaginary dollars at the two companies, wasn’t it? And you can call it “surgical”, “structured” or whatever you want in an attempt to spin this as something other than fairly ordinary bankruptcy procedures, but that’s what they’re talking about.

One of the primary reasons they’ve attempted to keep these companies out of bankruptcy court can be described in three letters: UAW.

Their problem isn’t just “old debts” which need to be cleared away. Instead it is what is euphemistically called “legacy costs” which would go as well. And those “legacy costs” include the gold plated benefits the UAW now enjoys and doesn’t want to give up.

Administration officials on Sunday made it clear that an expedited and heavily supervised bankruptcy reorganization was still very much a possibility for both companies. One official, speaking of GM, compared such a proceeding with a “quick rinse” that could rid the company of much of its debt and contractual obligations.

The thing to watch out for is whether or not this “quick rinse” in a “heavily supervised bankruptcy reorganization” included “contractual obligations” to unions. If not, it will be a “quick rinse” of taxpayer’s wallets.

Among challenges the administration faced leading up to this weekend’s decision, foremost were the efforts to draw steep concessions from the United Auto Workers union and from the bondholders.

Attempts to solidify deals with the UAW and bondholders were slowed by disagreements by both parties over how exactly the other party needed to budge. The UAW, for instance, insists it already made health-care concessions in 2005 and 2007, and argues that the bondholders have never been asked to concede anything.

“I don’t see how the UAW will do anything until they see what the bondholders will give up,” one person involved in the negotiations on behalf of the UAW said Sunday.

Progress? Apparently both GM and Chrysler have been negotiating with both the bondholders and the UAW. But there’s not much to report there:

Both GM and Chrysler are negotiating with the UAW to accept a range of cost-cutting measures, including greatly reduced work forces, lower wages and a revamped health-care fund for retirees.

[...]

GM and representatives for its bondholders remained in talks over the weekend about a deal that would force these investors to turn in at least two-thirds of the value of the debt they hold in exchange for equity and new debt.

This arrangement would force GM to issue significantly more stock than what is currently being traded in the market. In addition, the government is being asked to guarantee the new debt with federal default insurance in order to entice bondholders who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in participating in the swap.

If GM can’t eventually forge a deal with the ad hoc committee representing the bondholders, the company may be forced to issue a debt-for-equity swap without the blessing of some of its biggest and most influential unsecured investors. This would heighten the possibility of the company eventually needing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Or said another way, they’ll end up doing what we said they should have done in December, less umpteen billions of taxpayer money poured down a rathole. Of course, had they reorganized under Chapter 11 as we all said they should, the Obama administration wouldn’t have been able to make this unprecedented power grab, would it?

~McQ

The Newest Emerging Market

Desmond Lachman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was previously chief emerging market strategist at Salomon Smith Barney and deputy director of the International Monetary Fund’s Policy and Review Department.  So, he’s spent a lot of time watching emerging markets from the IMF’s point of view, and pointing out where the leaders of developing countries ran the economy off the rails.

Just like he’s watching our political leaders doing the same thing to us.  In essence, he writes that the US is repeating the same mistakes that led to Japan’s “Lost Decade”, and Russia’s default on it’s debt.

A singular characteristic of an emerging market heading for deep trouble is a seemingly suicidal tendency to become overly indebted to foreign creditors. That tendency underlay the spectacular collapse of the Thai, Indonesian and Korean currencies in 1997. It also led Russia to default on its debt in 1998 and plunged Argentina into its economic depression in 2001. Yet we too seem to have little difficulty becoming increasingly indebted to the tune of a few hundred billion dollars a year. To make matters worse, we do so to countries like China, Russia and an assortment of Middle Eastern oil producers — none of which is particularly well disposed to us.

Like Argentina in its worst moments, we never seem to question whether it is reasonable to expect foreigners to keep financing our extravagance, and we forget the bad things that happen to the Argentinas or Hungarys of the world when foreigners stop financing their excesses. So instead of laying out a realistic plan for increasing our national savings, we choose not to face up to the Social Security and Medicare crises that lie ahead, embarking instead on massive spending programs that — whatever their long-run merits might be — we simply cannot afford.

After experiencing a few emerging-market crises, I get the sense of watching the same movie over and over. All too often, a tragic part of that movie is the failure of the countries’ policymakers to hear the loud cries of canaries in the coal mine. Before running up further outsized budget deficits, should we not heed the markets that now see a 10 percent probability that the U.S. government will default on its sovereign debt in the next five years? And should we not be paying close attention to the Chinese central bank governor’s musings that he does not feel comfortable with the $1 trillion of U.S. government debt that the Chinese central bank already owns, let alone adding to those holdings?

Speaking of canaries in the coal mines, I note with interest that there have been two failed bond auctions in Germany this year, followed by a failed bond auction of 5-year gilts this week in London.

I just keep watching the kangaroo.

The Geithner Plan And Why It Isn’t What It Is Reported To Be

That is, why it isn’t the solution it is touted to be. Jeffrey Sachs of the Financial Times:

The Geithner-Summers plan, officially called the public/private investment programme, is a thinly veiled attempt to transfer up to hundreds of billions of dollars of US taxpayer funds to the commercial banks, by buying toxic assets from the banks at far above their market value. It is dressed up as a market transaction but that is a fig-leaf, since the government will put in 90 per cent or more of the funds and the “price discovery” process is not genuine. It is no surprise that stock market capitalisation of the banks has risen about 50 per cent from the lows of two weeks ago. Taxpayers are the losers, even as they stand on the sidelines cheering the rise of the stock market. It is their money fuelling the rally, yet the banks are the beneficiaries.

If you’ve been wondering why the stock market had a short rally upon its announcement, there’s your explanation. You need to read the whole thing as Sachs uses a simple example to explain his point. He concludes with:

Tim Geithner, Treasury secretary, and Lawrence Summers, director of the White House national economic council, suspect that they cannot go back to Congress to fund their plan and so are raiding the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the remaining Tarp funds, hoping that there will be little public understanding and little or no congressional scrutiny. This is an inappropriate institutional use of the Fed, the FDIC and the Tarp. Mr Geithner and Mr Summers should at the very least explain the true risks of large losses by the government under their plan. Then, a properly informed Congress and public could decide whether to adopt this plan or some better alternative.

But, of course, we’re just in too big of a hurry and the situation is too dire to actually discuss and debate the situation or do it properly through Congressional action. Instead we’ve been sold a bill of goods which, disguised as a way out, is simply a rip off of the taxpayer – again. As Jennifer Rubin notes:

So to avoid the overwhelming popular objection to perpetual bailouts and expenditures, the Obama administration will do this all “off budget” and with no hearings, Congressional debates, or votes. Not very transparent and quite imperious, when you get right down to it.

Yeah, not very “hopey changey” is it?

I’m warming more and more to my suggestion that government officials be compensated the same way they think CEOs should be compensated. If this ends up being a big loss to the taxpayer, Geithner and Summers should receive zero compensation for the outcome. And that would also go for anyone else in the administration or Congress who had a hand in implementing this plan.

~McQ

“Bernanke Bucks” And The Danger Of Hyper-Inflation

I saw the following two quotes in a Patrick J. Buchanan piece. Now I’m not much of a Buchanan person by any stretch, but the quotes resonated with me and I found myself agreeing with much of what Buchanan said.

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.” -Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway wasn’t an economist, but there are plenty out there consider John Maynard Keynes a fairly good one, even now. And he said much the same thing about the economic side of the Hemingway quote:

“The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

Right now, in lieu of dollars, our Federal Reserve is in the midst of printing trillions of “Bernanke Bucks”. I hesitate to call them dollars, even though they’re similar in their look and feel. But in essence they are worth little more than the paper they’re printed on. And although you can’t tell them from the dollars circulating out there, their presence makes the those dollars worth less. The more BB’s there are out there, the less the remaining dollars are worth.

It is called “monetizing the debt”.

Or to pick up on Keyne’s point, we’re right in the middle of debauching our currency.

Now, there are several reasons for doing what is being done, and you may or may not agree with them. But it really doesn’t matter. Whether you agree or disagree, printing money for the right reasons or the wrong reasons still has the same effect.

If you think taxation is theft, inflation is no less than that. And in this case it is a calculated theft. Those printing the “Bernanke Bucks” know precisely what the effect on your net worth will be.

Buchanan concludes his piece pointing out what we’ve talked about here for months – this is all about the belief we can avoid the pain:

Yet one senses that we are doing again exactly what we have done before in this generation. Rather than endure the pain and accept the sacrifices to cure us of our addiction, we are going back to the heroin. And this time, with Dr. Bernanke handling the needle, we may just overdose.

The road to hyper-inflation is paved with good, but seriously misguided intentions.

~McQ

Crisis For The Dollar? Is This The Calm Before The Storm?

A week or so ago, I mentioned the fact that Russia was lobbying for a new international currency to replace the dollar and opined that it most likely wouldn’t have any legs.  By itself, Russia just didn’t have enough clout to bring about such a change.   But apparently Russia was only the beginning.  Later that same week, the UN came out in favor of a new currency option:

A U.N. panel will next week recommend that the world ditch the dollar as its reserve currency in favor of a shared basket of currencies, a member of the panel said on Wednesday, adding to pressure on the dollar.

Currency specialist Avinash Persaud, a member of the panel of experts, told a Reuters Funds Summit in Luxembourg that the proposal was to create something like the old Ecu, or European currency unit, that was a hard-traded, weighted basket.

Persaud, chairman of consultants Intelligence Capital and a former currency chief at JPMorgan, said the recommendation would be one of a number delivered to the United Nations on March 25 by the U.N. Commission of Experts on International Financial Reform.

“It is a good moment to move to a shared reserve currency,” he said.

But does the UN have enough leverage to push something like this through? Probably not without some fairly powerful backers of the idea.  And speaking strictly of the UN, any such proposal would have to pass through the Security Council, and it’s unlikely the US would sanction such a change.

Today, though, China came out in favor of doing exactly what Russia and the UN recommend:

China’s central bank on Monday proposed replacing the US dollar as the international reserve currency with a new global system controlled by the International Monetary Fund.

In an essay posted on the People’s Bank of China’s website, Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank’s governor, said the goal would be to create a reserve currency “that is disconnected from individual nations and is able to remain stable in the long run, thus removing the inherent deficiencies caused by using credit-based national currencies”.

As was noted last week, China has some concerns about the US economy:

“This is a clear sign that China, as the largest holder of US dollar financial assets, is concerned about the potential inflationary risk of the US Federal Reserve printing money,” said Qu Hongbin, chief China economist for HSBC.

And that’s a valid concern. With the Fed pumping out trillions of freshly printed dollars, inflation is almost assured.

In case you haven’t noticed, Russia and China are two of the four countries known as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China). These emerging economies feel they deserve more clout than they now enjoy. And they’re meeting in advance of the upcoming G20 meeting in April of this year:

Finance ministers and central bankers from Brazil, Russia, India and China will convene ahead of the Group of 20 finance chiefs’ meeting in London on Friday, a Russian delegation source told Reuters on Thursday.

The source said the four will discuss the reform of international financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the Financial Stability Forum, anti-crisis policies and preparations for the G20 summit in April.

Take a look again at China’s proposal for basing the international reserve currency in the IMF and the topic of their upcoming meeting in advance of the G20. Suddenly Russia’s proposal has some legs.

What clout does BRIC bring to the proposal? Well they are the holders of vast portions of the currency reserves around the world:

China runs the world’s biggest reserves, Russia comes 3rd, India 4th and Brazil 7th, as of last autumn.

Keep an eye out for Brazil and India weighing in on this. Should they come out in favor of such a change, as has China, it could portend some fireworks at the G20.

In the meantime, read this by Mikkel Fishman. It will explain some of the deeper and less evident problems we face.  Then take a moment to look around and reflect.  In my estimation, this truly is the calm before the storm.

~McQ

EPA Set To Kill The Economy

Here’s an item which, in the midst of the financial crisis, will probably be overlooked and underreported. However, it has the potential to destroy any economic recovery should we ever get one rolling.

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a proposal to the White House on Friday finding that global warming is endangering the public’s health and welfare, according to several sources, a move that could have far-reaching implications for the nation’s economy and environment.

The proposal — which comes in response to a 2007 Supreme Court decision ordering EPA to consider whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act — could lay the groundwork for nationwide measures to limit such emissions. It reverses one of the Bush administration’s landmark environmental decisions: In July 2008 then-EPA administrator Stephen Johnson rejected his scientific and technical staff’s recommendation and announced the agency would seek months of further public comment on the threat posed by global warming pollution.

“This is historic news,” said Frank O’Donnell, who heads the public watchdog group Clean Air Watch. “It will set the stage for the first-ever national limits on global warming pollution. And it is likely to help light a fire under Congress to get moving.”

Actually I prefer to think of it as the excuse the Democratic Congress has been looking for to implement cap-and-trade. “The Court has required the EPA to consider whether CO2 is a pollutant and the EPA has so declared – our hands are tied!” And in such a convenient way.  Al Gore thanks you.

Naturally business interests are not at all happy with the development.  

 In December 2007 EPA submitted a written recommendation to the White House urging the Bush administration to allow EPA to state officially that global warming is a threat to human welfare. But senior White House officials refused to open the document and urged Johnson to reconsider, saying such a finding would trigger sweeping regulatory requirements under the 45-year-old Clean Air Act. An EPA analysis had found the move would cost utilities, automakers and others billions of dollars while also bringing benefits to other economic sectors.

Any guess as to which “economic sectors” EPA’s analysis says will “benefit” from sweeping regulatory requirements costing the utilities and automakers billions? My guess is they really don’t exist in any major form at this moment, and what does exist is chasing vaporware. But those millions of “green collar jobs” have to be funded somehow, don’t they?

But can you guess what else is lurking out there?  

Our old friend, the “Law of Unintended Consequences”.  Not only would every business in our land be effected, so would every “stimulus” project aimed at improving the infrastructure:

“This will mean that all infrastructure projects, including those under the president’s stimulus initiative, will be subject to environmental review for greenhouse gases. Since not one of the projects has been subjected to that review, it is possible that the projects under the stimulus initiative will cease. This will be devastating to the economy.”

Some of the defenders of all of this will try to wave it away by claiming the administration will make exceptions for various industries and it will certainly do so for the infrastructure projects.

But Bill Kovacs, vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce knows how this process will end up working, having witnessed similar scenarios over the years:

“Specifically, once the finding is made, no matter how limited, some environmental groups will sue to make sure it is applied to all aspects of the Clean Air Act.

That’s not a threat – that’s a promise. It is precisely how environmental groups have leveraged every environmental ruling and finding in the past. Of course, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And here we go …

~McQ