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Obama, NAFTA, Mexico, China, Trade and Tariffs

Our congratulations go out to the Obama administration on their latest foreign policy and trade triumph. Last week, apparently without consultation, they did away with a NAFTA pilot program which allowed Mexican trucks to deliver goods to certain areas of the US. Mexico has responded:

Mexico has released the list of U.S. products that will see tariffs of 10 percent to 45 percent. The move is in retaliation for the U.S. scrapping a test program allowing Mexican trucks to deliver goods beyond a U.S. border zone.

Among affected goods are certain fruits and vegetables, wine, juices, sunglasses, toothpaste and coffee, according to a government statement. Most tariffs are 10 percent to 20 percent, with unspecified fresh products subject to a 45 percent charge. The tariffs will apply to $2.4 billion of goods and take effect today.

Just what you need in a down economy – punitive tariffs for political stupidity. And there won’t be a solution anytime soon:

Talks to diffuse the first [self-inflicted -ed.] trade dispute of President Barack Obama’s administration can’t begin until the U.S. has a Commerce Secretary, Economy Minister Gerardo Ruiz Mateos said.

So far I’m really not at all impressed with the status of the “better relations” throughout the world promised by the Obama administration.

Oh, and for an encore, how about this little goodie:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Tuesday advocated adjusting trade duties as a “weapon” to protect U.S. manufacturing, just a day after one of China’s top climate envoys warned of a trade war if developed countries impose tariffs on carbon-intensive imports.

Mr. Chu, speaking before a House science panel, said establishing a carbon tariff would help “level the playing field” if other countries haven’t imposed greenhouse-gas-reduction mandates similar to the one President Barack Obama plans to implement over the next couple of years. It is the first time the Obama administration has made public its view on the issue.

“If other countries don’t impose a cost on carbon, then we will be at a disadvantage…[and] we would look at considering perhaps duties that would offset that cost,” Mr. Chu said.

Brilliant.

~McQ

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“Inflation is Our Friend”

So, the Fed, for the first time since the 1960s, is buying back long-term bonds as part of it’s new policy, announced today, of buying back $1.2 trillion in securities to pump out cash into the economy.

With the country sinking deeper into recession, the Federal Reserve launched a bold $1.2 trillion effort Wednesday to lower rates on mortgages and other consumer debt, spur spending and revive the economy. To do so, the Fed will spend up to $300 billion to buy long-term government bonds and an additional $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

On top of this, short-term interest rates are already at 0%.  The fed has one monetary policy tool left–massive increases in the money supply–and they’re using it with a vengeance.  This purchase of $300B in treasury  bonds will be a signifigant increase in demand, pushing treasury prices up, and yields down.  The 10-year note’s yield dropped to 2.5% in the aftermath of this announcement.

Our fundamental problem is still that the banking sector has their balance sheets all out of whack, and the Obama Adminsitration still has no apparent plan for clearing up bank balance sheets via recapitalization, or…well…anything else. Now, theoretically, that much new money being created would lower mortgage rates signifigantly.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see 20-year fixed rates at 5% or less.

This action, however, opens the door for massive inflation.  The inflationary implications of this move are so huge, that there’s simply no way the loans could be anything but a money-loser for the banks, because a 5% mortage rate may well be far below the rate of inflation.  That will kill banks already weakened by their bad loan portfolios.

This is an extraordinary gamble of the Fed’s part.  If this new money doesn’t stimulate a signifigant increase in demand for money, then we are going to have a huge pool of money chasing a very small pool of goods.  The market knows it, too, and understands the inflationary implications.  The dollar cratered in the FOREX market today, and analysts aren’t excited about the long-term implications:

Bernanke’s view that currency devaluation may be beneficial to economic growth speaks for itself,” writes Mr. Merk. “But even if there are no active efforts to debase the currency, we are cautious about the U.S. dollar. That’s because we simply do not see a viable exit strategy to all the money that is being thrown at the system.”

“[W]e simply do not see a viable exit strategy to all the money that is being thrown at the system” because there is no viable exit strategy.  We are either going to have serious inflation, or the Fed will have to tighten up so severely at some point in the near future that it will kill economic growth anyway.

In “Texas Hold ‘Em” terms, this is the equivalent of the Fed going “all in”.  We’ve essentially reached the limits of our monetary policy tools with this action.

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AIG Bonuses: Dodd Cracks, Geithner Knew

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary magazine’s blog rounds up the latest info on who knew what about the AIG bonuses.  It’s not pretty, but, of course, we knew it wouldn’t be.

The bottom line: Dodd, after denying it, now admits he and the administration cooked up the language which afforded AIG some protection ( until the firestorm hit) to grant the bonuses.

Time magazine also reports:

Although Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told congressional leaders on Tuesday that he learned of AIG’s impending $160 million bonus payments to members of its troubled financial-products unit on March 10, sources tell TIME that the New York Federal Reserve informed Treasury staff that the payments were imminent on Feb. 28. That is 10 days before Treasury staffers say they first learned “full details” of the bonus plan, and three days before the Administration launched a new $30 billion infusion of cash for AIG. [Emphasis mine.–EDF]

It’s such a relief to have the “best and brightest” running the show, isn’t it?

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Some Bonuses Less Outrageous Than Others

If you are inclined to accept without question that the bonuses paid to AIG employees deserve unmitigated moral indignation, as Pres. Obama and the Democrats seem to, then shouldn’t that opprobrium cut across the board? Well, I guess some animals are more equal than others:

At least four Fannie Mae executives are slated to receive more than $400,000 in bonuses each this year as a result of the company’s government-approved retention program, The Post’s Zach Goldfarb reports.

The executives include chief operating officer Michael Williams ($611,000), deputy chief financial officer David Hisey ($517,000), and executive vice presidents Thomas Lund ($470,000) and Kenneth Bacon ($470,000).

Each of these executives earned about $200,000 in retention payments last year and salaries ranging from $385,000 to $676,000.

According to the report, such bonuses are doled out depending on how integral the employee is to the companies, as approved by the FHFA:

Fannie Mae, which suffered $59 billion in losses last year, has requested $15 billion in taxpayer assistance, and has said it expects to need plenty more.

All major compensation decisions are authorized by Fannie Mae’s federal regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which created a retention program when the company was seized last September to hold on to key employees.

Under the program, employees are eligible to receive up to 150 percent of their salary in bonuses this year, but many will receive far less than that, and some might receive zero, depending on how central they are deemed to the company’s task.

pigs-in-the-house

Congressman Barney Frank, one of Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s biggest supporters, and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee which oversees the institutions, was reached for comment and had this to say about whether paying retention bonuses was really necessary:

That’s nonsensical. It’s clear they made a lot of mistakes and we need to undo what they did. If they really understood what they did in the first place, seriously, they probably wouldn’t have done much of it. Secondly, when you are trying to undo something, it is often not the case that the people who did it are the ones to put in place. People are sometimes committed to not admitting mistakes. … So that argument I think is in fact almost counter, because the argument that you take the people who made the mistake and put them in charge of undoing the mistake goes against the human impulse not to admit a mistake.

Oops! Sorry, about that. The foregoing statement was from Barney Frank, but he was referring to AIG bonuses.

This morning, ThinkProgress sat down with Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee and has called for the firing of AIG executives. When asked to respond to Sorkin’s claim that only AIG employees can navigate the economy out of the mess they created, Frank dismissed it as “nonsensical”

Pigs in the House indeed.

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AIG: A Mess Of The Democrats Making

I know this will come as a complete surprise, but some Democrats have been lying to you. But before we get to that, let’s review.

AIG was deemed dangerously insolvent a few months ago, so insolvent that it required the government to step in and save it. It was one of the “too big to fail” companies. It got TARP funds. Then, as a part of the “stimulus” bill, signed into law under the Obama administration, an attempt was made to add a provision to strictly limit such payments as those now causing the faux outrage:

Around the same time, Congress and Obama’s team were passing up an opportunity to put in place strict laws to revoke bonuses from recipients of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. In February, the Senate voted to add such a proposal to the economic recovery bill that cleared Congress, but in final closed-door talks on the measure, that provision was dropped in favor of limits that affect only future payments.

There was a lot of lobbying against it and it died,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who proposed the measure with Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. He said Obama’s team is sending mixed messages on what will and won’t be tolerated on bonuses, with the president coming out strongly against excessive Wall Street rewards but top officials not following through.

“The president goes out and says this is not acceptable, and then some backroom deal gets cut to let these things get paid out anyway,” Wyden said. “They need to put this to bed once and for all.”

They also need to “put to bed once and for all” this nonsense that they “didn’t know” until a couple of days ago. And, of course, had anyone actually read the bill that they claimed was too important to delay, they’d have actually caught this, one assumes. But it appears, at least initially, that reading legislation before it is signed is just not a priority for this administration or Congress.

And surprise, surprise, we’re finding what they did pass sucks.

While administration officials insisted Tuesday that neither Obama nor Geithner learned of the impending bonus payments until last week, the problem wasn’t new. AIG’s plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars were publicized last fall, when Congress started asking questions about expensive junkets the company had sponsored.

A November SEC filing by the company details more than $469 million in “retention payments” to keep prized employees.

Back then, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., began pumping Liddy for information on the bonuses and pressing him to scale them back.

“There was outrage brewing already,” Cummings said. “I’m saying (to Liddy), ‘Be a good citizen. … Do something about this.’ ”

Around the same time, outside lawyers hired by the Federal Reserve started reviewing the bonuses as part of a broader look at retention and compensation plans, according to government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The outside attorneys examined the possibility of making changes to the company plans — scaling them back, delaying them or rescinding them. They ultimately concluded that even if AIG’s bonuses were withheld, the company would probably be sued successfully by its employees and be forced to pay them, the officials said.

In January, Reps. Joseph E. Crowley of New York and Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania wrote to the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department pressing the administration to scrutinize AIG’s bonus plans and take steps against excessive payments.

“I at that point realized that we were going to have a backlash with regard to these bonuses,” Kanjorski said in an AP interview. In a meeting with Liddy later that month, he said he told the AIG chief that “all hell would break loose if we didn’t find a way to inform the public … and that we should take every step to put that information out there so we wouldn’t have the shock.”

And of course, Kanjorski is right. This is a “distraction”, as Rahm Emanuel is labeling it, that the administration could have avoided had the Treasury Secretary been on top of it and the President had exerted even a bit of leadership. Instead, both are in extreme cover-up mode. And as more and more info comes out, the time-line of events they issued has less and less credibility.

This wasn’t something that just emerged as a problem last Tuesday as Geithner is attempting to claim. This has been known and waved off for months. And that includes the provision that was going to be inserted in the “stimulus” package but died due to apparent Democratic lobbying.

~McQ

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Newspeak: Pelosi Style

Up is down. In is out. Billions in earmarks are no big deal, but millions in “bonuses” merit extreme outrage. And now, per Speaker Nancy Pelosi, illegal aliens represent the height of patriotism, but enforcing American laws is “un-American”:

No I can't!

No I can't!

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently told a group of both legal and illegal immigrants and their families that enforcement of existing immigration laws, as currently practiced, is “un-American.”

The speaker, condemning raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, referred to the immigrants she was addressing as “very, very patriotic.”

“Who in this country would not want to change a policy of kicking in doors in the middle of the night and sending a parent away from their families?” Pelosi told a mostly Hispanic gathering at St. Anthony’s Church in San Francisco.

As some might say, that’s muy estúpido. But the Speaker wasn’t done:

Referring to work site enforcement actions by ICE agents, Pelosi said, “We have to have a change in policy and practice and again … I can’t say enough, the raids must end. The raids must end.

“You are special people. You’re here on a Saturday night to take responsibility for our country’s future. That makes you very, very patriotic.”

Our country? Perhaps Pelosi is unclear on the concept of illegal immigrants? Do you think she realizes that they are not part of our country?

And the idea that enforcing our immigration laws is somehow “un-American” is beyond ludicrous. Although, when you consider this is coming from the party that seems to think paying taxes is a only a patriotic duty if you aren’t working for the Democrats, then I suppose it makes sense.

In the spirit of Pelosi’s newspeak, may I just say that the Madam Speaker is clearly a thoughtful and intelligent lawmaker who is doing a fine job at her post.

[HT: HotAir HL]

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AIG: What Did They Know And When Did They Know It?

Edward Liddy, CEO of AIG, has a piece in the Washington Post today.  It is useful for a couple of reasons, one of which is to try to nail down the timeline in this dustup.

But first, this from another Washington Post article:

Senior White House officials said last night that President Obama did not learn that bonuses worth $165 million were to be paid to executives of American International Group until Thursday, one day before they were issued and two days after his Treasury secretary was informed that the payments were going forward.

A point or two to remember. One – $55 million had already been paid out under the very same plan in December of last year with little or no coverage. This wasn’t something new nor should it have been a surprise. This was a plan that was already in place and one has to assume, unless they weren’t doing their jobs, known to the appropriate people in the administration (not necessarily Obama, but at least Geithner).

That brings us back to the Liddy piece. Liddy joined AIG in September of 2008 to begin the difficult task of saving the insurance giant and structuring it so it was again profitable and able to pay the taxpayer funded bailout money back as quickly as possible. There’s a very telling paragraph in Liddy’s piece which makes the point that the plan which is such a huge surprise to the Treasury Secretary and President shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone:

To prevent undue risk exposure in the meantime, AIG has made a set of retention payments to employees based on a compensation system that prior management put in place. As has been reported, payments were made to employees in the Financial Products unit. Make no mistake, had I been chief executive at the time, I would never have approved the retention contracts that were put in place more than a year ago. It was distasteful to have to make these payments. But we concluded that the risks to the company, and therefore the financial system and the economy, were unacceptably high.

In the meantime, AIG has restructured its 2009 compensation system (note the use of the word “compensation” by Liddy and not “bonuses”) and made all the cuts and changes I noted yesterday.

The fact that this is just another part of the same plan that paid out $55 million last year without a peep, was in place, per Liddy prior to his assuming the Chairmanship and has been in place for at least a year strongly argues one of two things – A) someone is not telling the truth about when they “knew” this latest payment was going to take place or B) someone was not doing their job and is now trying to cover that up like a cat covering crap.

Obama aides defended Timothy F. Geithner’s handling of the situation yesterday, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs saying the president has “complete confidence” in the Treasury chief.

Sounds like a “heck of a job, Brownie” moment to me.

~McQ

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Iran, Hezbollah and the Americas

Iran isn’t just fomenting unrest in its home region, it has found a new area to spread the revolution and fund it:

Iran is increasing its activity in Latin America and the Caribbean, including actions aimed at supporting the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a top U.S. military commander said on Tuesday.

Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who oversees U.S. military interests in the region as head of U.S. Southern Command, also said Hezbollah was linked to drug-trafficking in Colombia.

“We have seen… an increase in a wide level of activity by the Iranian government in this region,” Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“That is a concern principally because of the connections between the government of Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah,” he said.

The U.S. State Department lists the Lebanese-based political and military movement as a terrorist organization.

Stavridis said Hezbollah activities in South America have been concentrated particularly in the border region between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, but also in Colombia.

“We have been seeing in Colombia a direct connection between Hezbollah activity and narco-trafficking activity,” the commander added, without providing specifics.

Of course, one of Iran’s NBFs in the area is Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. And he’s not the only one as reported by Todd Bensman:

But with the exception of my own coverage, there’s been hardly a peep about the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planted the Iranian flag so far north in Nicaragua as soon as the time-tested American nemesis Daniel Ortega took office in January 2007. In fact, Ahmadinejad considered Ortega’s ascension so important that he was in Nicaragua to attend the inauguration. Within months, Iran was promising hundreds of millions in economic projects — and quickly set up a diplomatic mission in a tony Managua neighborhood where it could all supposedly be coordinated. Now Iran is extending its reach even further north, right into Mexico City with equally under-covered proposals to vastly expand tenuous ties to America’s immediate southern neighbor.

Hey, we mess around in Iraq and Afghanistan, they mess around in Mexico. Of course all we have to do talk to them and we can straighten this all out, right?

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Government Health Care, Please

Another anecdote that makes you want government run health care so badly you can just taste it:

The full extent of the horrific conditions at an NHS hospital where hundreds may have died because of ‘appalling’ care was laid bare yesterday.

Dehydrated patients were forced to drink out of flower vases, while others were left in soiled linen on filthy wards.

Relatives of patients who died at Staffordshire General Hospital told how they were so worried by the standard of care they slept in chairs on the wards.

The ‘shocking’ catalogue of failures was released yesterday after an independent investigation by the Healthcare Commission.

It found Government waiting time targets and a bid to win foundation status were pursued at the expense of patient safety over a three-year period at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust.

The commission’s report – revealed in yesterday’s Daily Mail – said at least 400 deaths could not be explained, although it is feared up to 1,200 patients may have died needlessly.

Nice. And I’m sure, somewhere, some politician or bureaucrat will claim that the problem, naturally, is “lack of regulation”.

And by the way, if you’re wondering how much the American version will cost, here’s the first estimate.  Remember, when looking at it, how often these sorts of estimates are so low they’re not worth the paper they are written on – figure anywhere from 2 to 4 times the figure once the government gets done being “efficient”:

Guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans may cost about $1.5 trillion over the next decade, health experts say. That’s more than double the $634 billion ’down payment’ President Barack Obama set aside for health reform in his budget, raising the prospect of sticker shock at a time of record federal spending.

Thus the nice “downpayment” with money we don’t have. 

~McQ

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Russia: The New Military and The New Currency

Russia is our friend. Don’t believe it? Well let’s look at a couple of things.

Just as the US starts talking about cutting defense spending and axing weapons systems and programs, what are our friends in Russia doing?

President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday announced a “large-scale” rearmament and renewal of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, accusing NATO of pushing ahead with expansion near Russian borders.

Meeting defence chiefs in Moscow, Medvedev said he was determined to implement reforms to streamline Russia’s bloated military and stressed Moscow continued to face several security threats needing robust defense capacity.

“From 2011, a large-scale rearmament of the army and navy will begin,” Medvedev said.

He called for a renewal of Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal and added that NATO was pursuing a drive to expand the alliance’s physical presence near Russia’s borders.

“Analysis of the military-political situation in the world shows that a serious conflict potential remains in some regions,” Medvedev said.

So, new nukes and large-scale rearmament in the face of US defense cuts. As the article asks “reset” or new Cold War?

And then, just to really upset the apple cart, how about a new currency?

The Kremlin published its priorities Monday for an upcoming meeting of the G20, calling for the creation of a supranational reserve currency to be issued by international institutions as part of a reform of the global financial system.

The International Monetary Fund should investigate the possible creation of a new reserve currency, widening the list of reserve currencies or using its already existing Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs, as a “superreserve currency accepted by the whole of the international community,” the Kremlin said in a statement issued on its web site.

The SDR is an international reserve asset, created by the IMF in 1969 to supplement the existing official reserves of member countries.

The Kremlin has persistently criticized the dollar’s status as the dominant global reserve currency and has lowered its own dollar holdings in the last few years. Both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have repeatedly called for the ruble to be used as a regional reserve currency, although the idea has received little support outside of Russia.

Now there’s not much “there” there as it pertains to this initiative, but it another indicator, among many, that the “Joe Biden Challenge” is alive and well and Russia is in the running to bring it to fruition.

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