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Archive for the ‘inflation’ Category

It has been abundantly obvious from day one that Ben Bernanke has no understanding of “liquidity” — whatsoever.

Only 2 months (?) after Bernanke helicoptered $122 billion to AIG, AIG has come cap in hand to Uncle Sam with a down face and a confession: “The money’s all gone.” AIG supposedly wants $200 billion in new money.

AIG in talks with Fed over new bail-out

By Francesco Guerrera in New York

Published: November 8 2008 02:00 | Last updated: November 8 2008 02:00

AIG is asking the US government for a new bail-out less than two months after the Federal Reserve came to the rescue of the stricken insurer with an $85bn loan, according to people close to the situation.

AIG’s executives were last night locked in negotiations with the authorities over a plan that could involve a debt-for-equity swap and the government’s purchase of troubled mortgage-backed securities from the insurer.

People close to the talks said the discussions were on-going and might still collapse, but added that AIG was pressing for a decision before it reports third-quarter results on Monday.

AIG’s board is due to meet on Sunday to approve the results and discuss any new government plan, they added.

The moves come amid growing fears AIG might soon use up the $85bn cash infusion it received from the Fed in September, as well as an additional $37.5bn loan aimed at stemming a cash drain from the insurer’s securities lending unit.

AIG has drawn down more than $81bn of the combined $122.5bn facility. The company’s efforts to begin repaying it before the 2010 deadline have been hampered by its difficulties in selling assets amid the global financial turmoil.

AIG executives have complained to government officials that the interest rate on the initial loan – 8.5 per cent over the London Interbank Borrowing Rate – is crippling the company.

They compared the loan’s terms with the 5 per cent interest rate paid by the banks that recently sold preferred shares to the government.

One of AIG’s proposals to the Fed is to swap the loan, which gave the authorities an 80 per cent stake in the company, for preferred shares or a mixture of debt and equity.

Such a structure would reduce the interest rate to be paid by AIG and possibly the overall amount it has to repay. An extension in the term of the loan from the current two years to five years is also possible, according to people close to the situation.

The renegotiation of the loan could be accompanied by the government’s purchase of billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities whose steep fall in value has been draining AIG cash reserves.

AIG is also proposing the government buy the bonds underlying its troubled portfolio of credit default swaps in exchange for the roughly $30bn in collateral the company holds against the assets.

Losses on the mortgage-backed assets, which were acquired by AIG with the proceeds of its securities lending programme, and the CDSs caused the company’s collapse.

Since the government rescue, they have continued to haunt AIG, which is required to put up extra capital every time the value of these assets falls. AIG and the Fed declined to comment.

Red staters get a lot of sh*t from their coastal cousins for being stupid. I will say one thing in red staters’ defense, though: it truly takes a blue coast, blue-blood stupidity to concoct such dangerous national policy as Bernanke’s.

It’s the kind of stupidity that only an Ivy League education can buy.

What is Bernanke going to do when he issues $2 trillion in Treasuries next year, and nobody buys?

All the people who thought they got a great deal when Pepsi priced its last bond at 7.5% are going to feel pretty damn stupid 12 months from now. Either that, or AAA corporates will have lower yields than Treasuries.

At the primary dealer desks, there is no net Asian sovereign demand for US sovereigns anymore.

Right now, Uncle Sam is printing the money and planning to float Treasuries “soon.” I am not exaggerating. It is the dirty secret that every FX macro desk at every major institution knows: the Treasury is printing now and issuing later.

In the ivory towers at Treasury and the Fed, “printed” money will be converted to Treasuries soon, because the Fed and Treasury (okay, just the Fed) think that there is an “irrational” “liquidity crisis”, which will abate any day now.

It won’t abate. It will get worse: all bond yields are based on Treasury yields. Treasury yields are definitely going up in the next year. All other yields (corporates … munis … ) will go up too.

That will be the real “credit crisis.” We are just mostly through the second act.

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Limits Put on Some Oil Contracts On ICE Amid Outcry Over Prices
By IAN TALLEY
June 17, 2008

WASHINGTON — The U.S. commodity futures regulator Tuesday said ICE
Futures Europe has agreed to make permanent position and
accountability limits for some of its U.S.-traded crude contracts,
subjecting itself to the same regulatory oversight as its New York
based counterpart.

Following intense scrutiny and censure by Congress over skyrocketing
oil prices, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission also said it
would require daily large trader reports, and similar position and
accountability limits from other foreign exchanges.

Many in Congress have criticized the agency for not doing enough to
rein in what they believe is rampant speculation contributing to
record energy prices and have pointed the finger in particular at
trading on IntercontinentalExchange’s ICE Futures Europe.

ICE and other foreign exchanges have been exempt from the many of the
rules that govern the New York Mercantile Exchange, which critics
charge has attracted a host of financial investors intent on pushing
prices higher. The new agreement, made in consultation with the U.K.’s
Financial Services Authority, will subject ICE to the same oversight
as Nymex.

“This combination of enhanced information data and additional market
controls will help the CFTC in its surveillance of its regulated
domestic exchanges,” while preserving the integrity of its
cross-border cooperation with other regulators, acting CFTC Chairman
Walter Lukken said in prepared testimony.

“We have not found a smoking gun… [but] we’re definitely taking
constructive steps to make sure the markets are working correctly, to
make sure there is not excessive speculation driving the markets,” Mr.
Lukken said.

Specifically, the agreement will require trader reports on positions
in the benchmark U.S. crude contract — the West Texas Intermediate
contract — traded on the ICE Futures exchange. The contract is linked
to the WTI contract on the regulated New York Mercantile Exchange.

ICE has 120 days to implement the new reporting requirements.

On the Nymex, where the majority of oil futures are traded, most
traders face accountability levels and position limits on their
positions in crude oil and other commodities. Accountability levels
are guidelines for trading in all futures contracts, while position
limits are hard-and-fast caps on the number of front-month contracts a
trader may hold in the last three days before the contract expires.

Traditionally, the U.K.’s FSA has had informal accountability levels
of 10,000 contracts in West Texas Intermediate crude, but no position
limits, an ICE spokeswoman said. The new CFTC rules will make ICE oil
trading consistent with practices on Nymex: a 3,000 contract position
limit in the last three days of trading, and a 20,000-contract
accountability level.

Lukken said the same oversight requirements would apply to the Dubai
Mercantile Exchange if it were to also offer the WTI contract.

The Nymex and DME have been mulling offering such a contract and will
decide in the next few months, said Nymex chief executive James
Newsome.

ICE Warns Oversight Won’t Lower Prices

The CFTC will incorporate the ICE data into its commitment of traders
report, a weekly report categorizing positions held by speculators and
companies that use futures contract to hedge against operations in the
physical energy market.

ICE said it would comply with the new regulations but warned tighter
oversight won’t lower oil prices.

“With a mere 15% market share of global WTI, on a futures equivalent
basis, we feel it is highly unlikely that the ICE Futures Europe’s WTI
market is the primary driver of WTI prices,” Charles Vice, ICE
president, told a special Senate committee exploring exploring
oversight and resources for the CFTC.

“Therefore, any expectation that WTI crude oil prices will fall as a
result of increased restrictions on this relatively small portion of
that market are likely to go unmet,” he said.

Jennifer Gordon, an analyst at Deutsche Bank in New York said the
greater regulatory oversight was driving volatility and leading to
less liquidity in the oil markets. “So whatever the CFTC is doing, it
is certainly scaring away the marginal player,” she said. Ms. Gordon
noted that the CFTC move was “adding to the bearish tone on crude,” in
Tuesday trading.

Oil prices climbed within shouting distance of $140 a barrel on Monday
before slipping towards $134.03 on Tuesday, down 58 cents. Prices are
still up about 40% so far this year.

The CFTC action follows rebuke by Congress, which has ratcheted up its
efforts to regulate oil-markets trading. Several of the most powerful
U.S. senators and representatives have introduced proposals that would
give more money and power to the agency.

In the past several weeks, the CFTC has announced a raft of
investigations and new initiatives targeting speculation, the role of
financial participants in current prices and the potential for market
manipulation. Mr. Lukken said the agency couldn’t rule out that market
manipulation was going on in the commodity markets.

The agency disclosed in late May that it is conducting a broad
investigation into practices surrounding the purchase, transportation,
storage and trading of crude oil and related derivative contracts.

Mr. Lukken said the agency was studying the impact of swaps deals and
index trading in the commodity markets and would report back to
Congress by Sept. 15.

The agency said the massive increase in commodity trading, the growing
complexity of the market and an aging CFTC workforce meant that it was
just about able to maintain a business status quo.

“This agency’s lack of funding over the course of many years has had a
negative impact on our staffing situation, rendering it unsustainable
for the long run,” Mr. Lukken said.

“Given our staffing numbers, the agency is working beyond its steady
state capacity and is unable to sustain the current situation for much
longer without being forced to make…choices about which critical
projects should be completed and which ones will be delayed,” the
acting chairman said in his testimony.

The agency is now requesting a 20% rise in its funding for the next
fiscal year to $157 million, from $130 million previously requested.

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======================================================================
country; nominal interest rate; date; official CPI; last update; real interest rate
======================================================================
China 7.47% 06/13/08 7.70% 05/31/08 -0.23%
Hong Kong 3.50% 06/13/08 5.40% 04/30/08 -1.90%
India 8.00% 06/11/08 8.75% 05/31/08 -0.75%
Indonesia 8.50% 06/13/08 10.38% 05/31/08 -1.88%
Japan 0.50% 06/13/08 0.80% 04/30/08 -0.30%
Malaysia 3.50% 06/12/08 3.00% 04/30/08 0.50%
Pakistan 12.00% 05/23/08 19.27% 05/31/08 -7.27%
Philippines 5.25% 06/05/08 9.60% 05/31/08 -4.35%
South Korea 5.00% 06/30/08 4.88% 05/31/08 0.12%

Sri Lanka 10.50% 06/06/08 26.20% 05/31/08 -15.70%
Taiwan 3.50% 03/28/08 3.71% 05/31/08 -0.21%
Thailand 3.25% 05/21/08 7.60% 05/31/08 -4.35%
Vietnam 14.00% 06/11/08 25.20% 05/31/08 -11.20%
==============================

========================================

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on today’s seismic Treasury selloff:

“The point is that the world was long Treasury, and we can see how they’ve been suckered.”

In other news, more insanity from the federales, who think they can permanently reduce commodities prices by shoving out leveraged players.

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Didn’t get this memo. No sir.

Fetch your tin helmets once again. The European Central Bank is opting for a monetary purge. So too is the US Federal Reserve, now ruled from Dallas.

Über-hawks and Cromwellians have gained the upper hand at the great fortress banks. Whether or not they admit it, both are embarked on policies that must lead to retrenchment across the Atlantic world.

The City mood turned wicked as the full import of this policy switch sank in last week. On Wall Street, the Dow’s 396-point dive on high volume late Friday had an ugly feel.

“There is now the distinct possibility of a simultaneous sell-off in global bonds, equities and commodities,” said Jonathan Wilmot from Credit Suisse.

I dunno. I saw Lehman almost die again, and we all knew that the Fed was ready to fire a paper fusillade in the hole.

Trichet’s hawkishness is not in doubt. Bernanke’s is. Spain and Ireland do not a dovish majority make.

Bernanke’s hawkishness is in doubt.

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Thomas Palley, Open Society Institute pontificator emeritus cum DC-cocktail laude, mocks himself best when he’s most honest. As do most political people.

Defending the Bernanke Fed

Filed under: U.S. Policy, Uncategorized — Administrator @ 6:37 am

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has recently been on the receiving end of significant criticism for recent monetary policy. One critique can be labeled the American conservative critique, and is associated with the Wall Street Journal. The other can be termed the European critique, and is associated with prominent European Economist and Financial Times contributor, Willem Buiter.

Brought up on the intellectual ideas of Milton Friedman, American conservatives view inflation as the greatest economic threat and believe control of inflation should be the Fed’s primary job. In their eyes the Bernanke Fed has dangerously ignored emerging inflation dangers, and that policy failure risks a return to the disruptive stagflation of the 1970s.

Both argue the Fed has engaged in excessive monetary easing, cutting interest rates too much and ignoring the perils of inflation. Their criticisms raise core questions about the conduct of policy that warrant a response.

At least he didn’t call us “liquidationists.” Generous.

Rather than cutting interest rates as steeply as the Fed has, American conservatives maintain the proper way to address the financial crisis triggered by the deflating house price bubble is to re-capitalize the financial system.

Correct.

This explains the efforts of Treasury Secretary Paulson to reach out to foreign investors in places like Abu Dhabi. The logic is that foreign investors are sitting on mountains of liquidity, and they can therefore re-capitalize the system without recourse to lower interest rates that supposedly risk a return of ‘70’s style inflation.

“Supposedly.

The European critique of the Fed is slightly different, and is that the Fed has gone about responding to the financial crisis in the wrong way. The European view is that the crisis constitutes a massive liquidity crisis, and as such the Fed should have responded by making liquidity available without lowering rates. That is the course European Central Bank has taken, holding the line on its policy interest rate but making massive quantities of liquidity available to Euro zone banks.

In other words, the Buiter critique advocates one set of interest rates for banks, and a very different one for individuals, without regard to respective credit risk. Presumably, there would be no arbitrage between these two bifurcated markets. Presumably, liquidity provisions to other banks–“inflation by other means”–would both 1) save the banks, and 2) not institutionalize higher prices on the tabs of the people who didn’t take the stupid risks.

Never made much sense to me either. [I used to like Buiter because he was the only person who trashed Bernanke way back in the day. Unfortunately his “lender of last resort” bailout loophole was an unforgivable leap of illogic, and while formally very different from the Bank of Japan’s disastrous early-1990’s bailout, was functionally indistinguishable.]

According to the European critique the Fed should have done the same. Thus, the Fed’s new Term Securities Lending Facility that makes liquidity available to investment banks was the right move. However, there was no need for the accompanying sharp interest rate reductions given the inflation outlook. By lowering rates, the European view asserts the Fed has raised the risks of a return of significantly higher persistent inflation. Additionally, lowering rates in the current setting has damaged the Fed’s anti-inflation credibility and aggravated moral hazard in investing practices.

The problem with the American conservative critique is that inflation today is not what it used to be.

It’s different this time.

1970s inflation was rooted in a price – wage spiral in which price increases were matched by nominal wage increases. However, that spiral mechanism no longer exists because workers lack the power to protect themselves. The combination of globalization, the erosion of job security, and the evisceration of unions means that workers are unable to force matching wage increases.

DC establishment liberal: “Inflation is okay now, because workers have to eat all costs themselves.” As if workers will just sit back and take this? As if they can’t read these internet posts, which presume weakness, ignorance and stupidity on the part of American workers?

The problem with the European critique is it over-looks the scale of the demand shock the U.S. economy has received. Moreover, that demand shock is on-going. Falling house prices and the souring of hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgages has caused the financial crisis. However, in addition, falling house prices have wiped out hundreds of billions of household wealth. That in turn is weakening demand as consumer spending slows in response to lower household wealth.

Different. This. Time.

Countering this negative demand shock is the principal rationale for the Fed’s decision to lower interest rates. Whereas Europe has been impacted by the financial crisis, it has not experienced an equivalent demand shock. That explains the difference in policy responses between the Fed and the European Central Bank, and it explains why the European critique is off mark.

The bottom line is that current criticism of the Bernanke Fed is unjustified. Whereas the Fed was slow to respond to the crisis as it began unfolding in the summer of 2007, it has now caught up and the stance of policy seems right. Liquidity has been made available to the financial system. Low interest rates are countering the demand shock. And the Fed has signaled its awareness of inflationary dangers by speaking to the problem of exchange rates and indicating it may hold off from further rate cuts. The only failing is that is that the Fed has not been imaginative or daring enough in its engagement with financial regulatory reform.

Copyright Thomas I. Palley

The bottom line is, DC policy emerati are profoundly ignorant, sycophantic, and irresponsible people.

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There were about five pieces of news on Friday that delivered such a massive upside kick to oil.

1) Chinese oil consumption numbers came in much higher than expected.

Wall Street is still being blindsided by the impact of the Sichuan earthquake, and apparently most of it is ignorant that ~30 percent of Chinese oil/ natgas/ heating oil comes from Sichuan and Gansu (which was also thrown into chaos by the quake).

2) Shaul Mofaz rattled Kadima’s flimsy sabre at Iran, again. Anyone who took that seriously is ill-informed.

3) The dollar continued hemorrhaging. Brokers are cutting back trading with Lehman Brothers, and Bernanke will probably be called out on his fateful March 17 nationalization of banks’ default risk. He will have to throw hundreds of billions of dollars in Treasuries at Lehman’s crippled balance sheet, further debasing Treasuries specifically and US financial credibility generally.

4) Morgan Stanley said oil would go to $150.

5) The USD and EUR are both heavily overvalued. As long as China keeps its currency peg alive, the dollar and euro will both be overvalued. The only other large currency alternative is commodities, so that’s where money is going.

As I have said many times, government witch hunts against “speculators” never signal the top of a bull market.

Israel’s saber-rattling might have been good for 1 percent of oil’s gain. Obama’s triumph in the US presidential primaries multiplied that, for a total of maybe 3 percent.

In the meantime, Asia’s cracking currency regimes are effectively increasing their subsidies of fuel.

HONG KONG: Buckling under the weight of record oil prices, several Asian countries have cut or are thinking of cutting their fuel subsidies, which raises a pressing question for Beijing: Can China afford its own oil subsidies at a time when it is spending billions on post-earthquake reconstruction?

The short answer is yes, because China is blessed with both large trade account and fiscal surpluses. The reconstruction cost is projected to amount to about 1 percent of China’s gross domestic product, while the fuel subsidies account for another 1 percent, JPMorgan estimates.

Remember that China had a fiscal surplus of 0.7 percent of gross domestic product last year, or $174 billion. So even if spending on post-earthquake rebuilding and fuel subsidies were to cause a 1 percent fiscal deficit, that would still be very manageable.

But here is a more important question: Why should China keep domestic fuel prices at about half of the global average?

The usual answers are to keep inflation in check and stave off social instability that could result if prices were to rise too quickly.

But by distorting fuel prices, China is encouraging fuel consumption and discouraging the use of new energy. Since the Chinese still live in an $80-a-barrel oil environment, demand for anything from cars to chemical products will spiral higher and raise the risks of economic overheating.

Increasing subsidies on fuel will crowd out more investment in other areas, such as education or health care, to name two possibilities.

What’s more, a worsening fiscal situation might put downward pressure on the yuan. Fuel subsidies have exaggerated inflation in the developed world, while understating inflation in the developing world. China’s inflation could well hit 15 percent if Beijing were to free up caps on energy prices, Morgan Stanley estimates.

“If China is not able to take away the subsidy and cut down its demand, it will have huge implications for the world,” said Shikha Jha, a senior economist at Asian Development Bank.

Countries like China and India, along with Gulf nations whose retail oil prices are kept below global prices, contributed 61 percent of the increase in global consumption of crude oil from 2000 to 2006, according to JPMorgan.

Other than Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, most Asian nations subsidize domestic fuel prices. The more countries subsidize them, the less likely high oil prices will have any affect in reducing overall demand, forcing governments in weaker financial situations to surrender first and stop their subsidies.

That is what happened over the past two weeks. Indonesia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia have either raised regulated fuel prices or pledged that they will.

Actions taken by those countries will not be able to tame a rally in prices though unless China, the second-largest oil user in the world, changes its policy. While the West is critical of China’s energy policy, there is little outcry for change within the country, except for complaints from two loss-making refineries.

By contrast, Indonesia has convinced its people that fuel subsidies benefit the rich more than the poor, because rich people drive more and consume more electricity. Jakarta rolled out a $1.5 billion cash subsidy program to help low-income Indonesians cope with higher prices. Although no country wants to build a system on subsidies, the cash subsidy at least makes fuel subsidy cuts politically feasible.

“The people need to wonder, who pays for the subsidies?” said Louis Vincent Gave, chief executive of GaveKal, a research and asset management company. “Most Asian countries are printing money to pay for them.”

Fuel subsidies compromise countries’ ability to control their own budget spending. If China and India can cut their subsidies, they would be able to spend more on infrastructure and education.

While Asian governments dole out cheap food and cheap energy, Asian currencies settle the bill. Morgan Stanley expects some emerging market currencies to face downward pressure, probably for the first time in a decade, as those countries unwind their fuel subsidies and domestic inflation shoots up.

China’s domestic fuel prices are among the lowest in the world, equal to about 61 percent of prices in the United States, 41 percent of Japan and 28 percent of England. The longer it waits, the more painful it will be when it tries to remove the subsidy.

China actually doesn’t have much freedom to splash dollars for fuel. Its entire macroeconomic policy can be summarized as “long USD, short RMB.” Not a good trade.

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Setser on the PBOC:

What cann’t go on still hasn’t slowed, let alone stopped (Chinese reserve growth)

… Back in 2004, it was considered rather stunning when China added close to $100 billion to its reserves ($95 billion) in a single quarter, bring its total reserves up to around $600 billion.. The dollar’s fall against the euro (and associated rise in the dollar value of China’s euros) explains around $15 billion of the rise. But at the time, $80 billion was considered a very large sum for China to have added to its reserves.

Now China has $1756 billion in reserves, after a $74.5 billion April increase. The dollar rose against the euro in April, so the underlying pace of increase – after adjusting for valuation changes – was more like $82 billion.

In a month.

And not just any month – in a month when oil topped $100 a barrel.

$82 billion a month, sustained over a year, is close to a trillion dollars. A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money. If a large share of China’s reserves is going into dollars, as seems likely, this year’s increase in China’s dollar holdings could be almost as large as the US current account deficit.

The fact that one country’s government – and in effect two institutions (SAFE and the CIC) – are providing such a large share of the financing the US needs to sustain large deficits (particularly in a world where Americans want to invest abroad as well as import far more than they export) is unprecedented.

The real surprise in some sense is that the increase in China’s April preserves isn’t that much of a surprise. At least not to those who have been watching China closely.

Wang Tao – now of UBS – estimated that China added $600 billion to its foreign assets in 2007, far more than the reported increase in China’s reserves. Logan Wright (as reported by Michael Pettis) and I concluded that Chinese foreign asset growth – counting funds shifted to the CIC – could have topped $200 billion in the first quarter.

China hasn’t disclosed how much it shifted to the CIC, let alone when it shifted funds over to the CIC. But it seems likely that the surprisingly low increase in China’s reserves in March stems from a large purchase of foreign exchange by the CIC. Indeed, the CIC’s March purchase may have used up all of the RMB 1.55 trillion the CIC initially raised.

As a result, all of the increase in the foreign assets of China’s government seems to have showed up at the PBoC in April. Or almost all. China raised its reserves requirement in April, and the banks may have been encouraged to meet that reserve requirement by holding foreign exchange.

China’s current account surplus – adding estimated interest income to its trade surplus – was no more than $25 billion in April. FDI inflows were around $7.5 billion. Sum it up and it is a lot closer to $30 billion than $40 billion. Non-FDI capital inflows – hot money – explain the majority of the increase.

No wonder Chinese policy makers were so focused on hot money this spring. Hot money flows seem to have contributed to their decision to stop the RMB’s appreciation in April. But interest rate differentials still favor China – so it isn’t clear that a slower pace of appreciation will stem the inflows.

It certainly though helps to sustain the underlying imbalance that has given rise to massive bets on China’s currency.

The scale of China’s reserve growth suggests that China’s government is no longer just lending the US what it needs to buy Chinese goods. And it is now lending the US – and indeed the world – far more than the world needs to buy Chinese goods. Vendor financing is a fair description for China’s reserve growth in 2003 or 2004, but not now.

China’s government is increasingly acting as an international as well as a domestic financial intermediary. It has long borrowed — whether through the sale of PBoC bills of Finance Ministry bonds to fund the CIC – rmb to buy dollars, effectively taking the foreign currency domestic Chinese savers do not want to take. Now though it is borrowing from the rest of the world to lend to the rest of the world.

Most intermediaries though make money. Or at least try to. By contrast, China’s government is almost sure to lose money on its external financial intermediation. Selling RMB cheap to buy expensive dollars and euros is not a good business model.

China cannot be entirely comfortable with all the money that is pouring into China. But it isn’t at all clear that Chinese policy makers are willing to take the steps needed to shift decisively toward a new set of policies. It is clear that the costs of China’s current policies are rising.

Remember, China looses [sic] money on its reserves. More isn’t better.

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“With Bold Steps, Fed Chief Quiets Some Criticism”:

[…]

“It has been a really head-spinning range of unprecedented and bold actions,” said Charles W. Calomiris, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, referring to the Fed’s lending activities. “That is exactly as it should be. But I’m not saying that it’s without some cost and without some risk.”

[As yours truly noted back in November, Charles Calomiris wrote a verbose and obtuse article for VoxEU which proclaimed that there was no credit crisis — a restatement of his August claim that there was no credit crisis. I guess that makes him almost as good a forecaster as Bernanke is. ]

Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and a close Bernanke ally, defines the Fed chief’s “doctrine” as the overpowering use of monetary policies and lending to avert an economic collapse. “Ben has, in very consequential ways, altered the framework for how central banks operate in crises,” he said. “Some will criticize it and some will praise it, and it will certainly be examined for decades.”

Mr. Bernanke’s actions have transformed his image as a self-effacing former economics professor.

“I am tempted to think of him as somewhat Buddha-like,” said Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. “He’s developed a serenity based on a growing understanding of the hardball ways the system actually works. You can see that it’s no longer an academic or theoretical exercise for him.”

Did he just say “Buddha-like”?

Within the Bush administration, Mr. Bernanke’s willingness to work with Democrats in Congress on measures to prevent mortgage foreclosures has stirred unease. “The fact that he, an appointee of George Bush, has come very close to advocating — though he hasn’t quite advocated it — a piece of legislation that George Bush threatened to veto is an illustration of his willingness to put his head on the chopping block,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton and friend of the Fed chief.

One reason Mr. Bernanke is sticking his neck out is that he believes the broader economy’s recovery depends on the housing sector, which remains in a serious slump. Plenty of new evidence surfaced on Tuesday that this year’s spring home-buying season will be dismal, with one report showing that prices fell 14.1 percent in March from a year earlier and another that new-home sales are down 42 percent over the last year.

Among Democrats, Mr. Bernanke, a Republican, had previously been criticized by such party luminaries as the two former Clinton administration Treasury secretaries, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence E. Summers, who worried that he was downplaying the dangers of a recession. But that view has changed.

“I think in the last few months they’ve handled themselves very sure-footedly,” Mr. Rubin said of the Fed. Many Democrats in Congress agree.

“They say that crisis makes the man,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “He’s made believers out of people who were just not sure about him before.”

To lessen the chances of a financial collapse, Mr. Bernanke engineered the takeover of one investment bank, Bear Stearns, and tossed credit lifelines to others with exotic new lending facilities — the Fed now has seven such lending windows, some of them for investment banks as well as commercial banks.

He also allowed the Fed to accept assets of debatable value — mortgage-backed securities, car loans and credit card debt — as collateral for some Fed loans. For the first time ever, he installed Fed regulators inside investment banks to inspect their books.

Much to the dismay of conservative economists, Mr. Bernanke has also presided over an extraordinarily aggressive series of interest rate cuts, lowering the fed funds rate seven times, to 2 percent from 5.75 percent, since last September, though it has signaled a pause in further rate-cutting barring a further crisis. …

Bernanke and Paulson are the worst thing that’s happened to capitalism since Arthur Burns and Richard Nixon. Carter would have been awful, but conditions were so bad by 1979 that he had to authorize significant deregulation and capital gains tax cuts (from 35% to 28%, from memory) kicking and screaming.

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MZM (NSA) v USD value v commercial lending

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via

Using figures compile [sic] by independent research house GFMS Ltd., the council says the consumption of 31.5 tons in the first quarter shows a steep increase of 110% year-on-year and accounting for 43% of the world’s net retail investment demand of 72.2 tons in the period.

Vietnam’s arrival into pole position in the retail investment sector ousts India from the top slot with 31 tons, a decline by half from the first quarter in 2007 as Indian purchasers withdrew from the market and waited for lower and more stable prices.

The report says the surge in Vietnam’s demand was partly a response to soaring inflation, which hit 11.6% in 2007 and prompted a rush to buy gold, reflecting its perceived qualities as a hedge against inflation.

Demand was also spurred by the performance of gold relative to other investments such as equities and real estate, which have declined in value over recent months while gold has strengthened.

Furthermore, gold investments have been increasingly marketed by Vietnamese banks. High interest rates enable local banks to offer an interest rate on gold deposits since they can profitably sell the gold for dong, lend the dong out at high interest rates and hedge their gold position by entering into a forward buying agreement with an international bank.

Many Vietnamese prefer to hold gold rather than dong and the fact that this gold can earn interest from commercial banks makes it still more appealing as for investment option, says the report.

Vietnam’s gold demand for jewellery in the first quarter was 5.3 tons, that is stable from the previous quarter but down by 18.9% on a year-on-year comparison and the high price of gold was the primary reason for the decline.

Gold demand is divided into three purposes, jewellery demand, industrial and dental demand, and identifiable investment, comprising net retail investment (primarily bars and coins) and investment in Exchange Traded Funds and similar products (ETFs), the latter not yet available in Vietnam.

The world’s total gold demand in the first quarter fell 16% from a year earlier to 701.3 tons. Of which, jewellery demand was 445.4 tons, down 21%, industrial and dental demand fell 5% to 110.3 tons, while investment in ETFs was double to 72.9 tons and net retail investment dropped 35% to 72.2 tons.

(Source: SGT)

In some parts of the world, gold consumption and CPI are apparently correlated. Who knew?!

Let’s hope the rest of Asia picks up on the trend.

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Soros must be fuming that he dumped commodities and called a bottom in equities when he did.

Soros’s public pronouncements are consistently somewhat at odds with how he actually invests. (He couldn’t have made money any other way; the track record of his public pronouncements is awful.) This instance, presumably, is no exception.

Not that he has any other viable choice.

George Soros: rocketing oil price is a bubble

By Edmund Conway, Economics Editor

Last Updated: 12:53am BST 27/05/2008

Speculators are largely responsible for driving crude prices to their peaks in recent weeks and the record oil price now looks like a bubble, George Soros has warned.

The billionaire investor’s comments came only days after the oil price soared to a record high of $135 a barrel amid speculation that crude could soon be catapulted towards the $200 mark.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Soros said that although the weak dollar, ebbing Middle Eastern supply and record Chinese demand could explain some of the increase in energy prices, the crude oil market had been significantly affected by speculation.

“Speculation… is increasingly affecting the price,” he said. “The price has this parabolic shape which is characteristic of bubbles,” he said.

  • ‘We face the most serious recession of our lifetime’
  • The comments are significant, not only because Mr Soros is the world’s most prominent hedge fund investor but also because many experts have claimed speculation is only a minor factor affecting crude prices.

    Oil prices stalled on Friday after their biggest one-day jump since the first Gulf War earlier in the week.

    At just over $130 a barrel, the price has doubled in around a year, causing misery for motorists and businesses.

    However, Mr Soros warned that the oil bubble would not burst until both the US and Britain were in recession, after which prices could fall dramatically.

    “You can also anticipate that [the bubble] will eventually correct but that is unlikely to happen before the recession actually reduces the demand.

    “The rise in the price of oil and food is going to weigh and aggravate the recession.”

    The Bank of England recently warned that soaring energy and food costs would push inflation above its target range for most of the next 18 months, making it more unlikely that it will cut borrowing costs soon.

    Mr Soros warns Britain is facing its worst economic storm in living memory, dwarfing those of the 1970s and early 1990s, with a housing slump and serious recession.

    He said: “The dislocations will be greater [than in the 1970s] because you also have the implications of the house price decline, which you didn’t have in the 1970s.”

    The warning undermines predictions that Britain will suffer only a brief and relatively painless recession, unlike the precipitous dives of previous years.

    Mr Soros also warned that the Bank’s inflation report represents a “Faustian pact”, obliging it to keep interest rates high to control inflation, even as the economy is starting to slump.

    “You had the nice decade,” he said. “Now that is over and you are in a straitjacket.”

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    … underwritten by PIMCO’s Bill Gross.

    Just in time for the huge TIPS burp a couple of nights ago, when massive buying pushed the 5-year TIPS yield down to -.77.

    I’ve been a huge fan of the SS hypothesis for a long time, so it’s good to see the world’s biggest fixed income guru practically copy-paste from the Shadow Stats website for his latest letter.

    Without further ado:

    What this country needs is either a good 5¢ cigar or the reincarnation of an Illinois “rail-splitter” willing to tell the American people “what up” – “what really up.” We have for so long now been willing to be entertained rather than informed, that we more or less accept majority opinion, perpetually shaped by ratings obsessed media, at face value. After 12 months of an endless primary campaign barrage, for instance, most of us believe that a candidate’s preacher – Democrat or Republican – should be a significant factor in how we vote. We care more about who’s going to be eliminated from this week’s American Idol than the deteriorating quality of our healthcare system. Alternative energy discussion takes a bleacher’s seat to the latest foibles of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears and then we wonder why gas is four bucks a gallon. We care as much as we always have – we just care about the wrong things: entertainment, as opposed to informed choices; trivia vs. hardcore ideological debate.

    It’s Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum folks, and all good fun, but the hordes are crossing the Alps and headed for modern day Rome – better educated, harder working, and willing to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. Can it be any wonder that an estimated 1% of America’s wealth migrates into foreign hands every year? We, as a people, are overweight, poorly educated, overindulged, and imbued with such a sense of self importance on a geopolitical scale, that our allies are dropping like flies. “Yes we can?” Well, if so, then the “we” is the critical element, not the leader that will be chosen in November. Let’s get off the couch and shape up – physically, intellectually, and institutionally – and begin to make some informed choices about our future. Lincoln didn’t say it, but might have agreed, that the worst part about being fooled is fooling yourself, and as a nation, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that for a long time now.

    I’ll tell you another area where we’ve been foolin’ ourselves and that’s the belief that inflation is under control. I laid out the case three years ago in an Investment Outlook titled, “Haute Con Job.” I wasn’t an inflationary Paul Revere or anything, but I joined others in arguing that our CPI numbers were not reflecting reality at the checkout counter. In the ensuing four years, the debate has been joined by the press and astute authors such as Kevin Phillips whose recent Bad Money is as good a summer read detailing the state of the economy and how we got here as an “informed” American could make.

    Let me reacquaint you with the debate about the authenticity of U.S. inflation calculations by presenting two ten-year graphs – one showing the ups and downs of year-over-year price changes for 24 representative foreign countries, and the other, the same time period for the U.S. An observer’s immediate take is that there are glaring differences, first in terms of trend and second in the actual mean or average of the 2 calculations. These representative countries, chosen and graphed by Ed Hyman and ISI, have averaged nearly 7% inflation for the past decade, while the U.S. has measured 2.6%. The most recent 12 months produces that same 7% number for the world but a closer 4% in the U.S.

    This, dear reader, looks a mite suspicious. Sure, inflation was legitimately much higher in selected hot spots such as Brazil and Vietnam in the late 90s and the U.S. productivity “miracle” may have helped reduce ours a touch compared to some of the rest, but the U.S. dollar over the same period has declined by 30% against a currency basket of its major competitors which should have had an opposite effect, everything else being equal. I ask you: does it make sense that we have a 3% – 4% lower rate of inflation than the rest of the world? Can economists really explain this with their contorted Phillips curve, output gap, multifactor productivity theorizing in an increasingly globalized “one price fits all” commodity driven global economy? I suspect not. Somebody’s been foolin’, perhaps foolin’ themselves – I don’t know. This isn’t a conspiracy blog and there are too many statisticians and analysts at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Treasury with rapid turnover to even think of it. I’m just concerned that some of the people are being fooled all of the time and that as an investor, an accurate measure of inflation makes a huge difference.

    The U.S. seems to differ from the rest of the world in how it computes its inflation rate in three primary ways: 1) hedonic quality adjustments, 2) calculations of housing costs via owners’ equivalent rent, and 3) geometric weighting/product substitution. The changes in all three areas have favored lower U.S. inflation and have taken place over the past 25 years, the first occurring in 1983 with the BLS decision to modify the cost of housing. It was claimed that a measure based on what an owner might get for renting his house would more accurately reflect the real world – a dubious assumption belied by the experience of the past 10 years during which the average cost of homes has appreciated at 3x the annual pace of the substituted owners’ equivalent rent (OER), and which would have raised the total CPI by approximately 1% annually if the switch had not been made.

    In the 1990s the U.S. CPI was subjected to three additional changes that have not been adopted to the same degree (or at all) by other countries, each of which resulted in downward adjustments to our annual inflation rate. Product substitution and geometric weighting both presumed that more expensive goods and services would be used less and substituted with their less costly alternatives: more hamburger/less filet mignon when beef prices were rising, for example. In turn, hedonic quality adjustments accelerated in the late 1990s paving the way for huge price declines in the cost of computers and other durables. As your new model MAC or PC was going up in price by a hundred bucks or so, it was actually going down according to CPI calculations because it was twice as powerful. Hmmmmm? Bet your wallet didn’t really feel as good as the BLS did.

    In 2004, I claimed that these revised methodologies were understating CPI by perhaps 1% annually and therefore overstating real GDP growth by close to the same amount. Others have actually tracked the CPI that “would have been” based on the good old fashioned way of calculation. The results are not pretty, but are undisclosed here because I cannot verify them. Still, the differences in my 10-year history of global CPI charts are startling, aren’t they? This in spite of a decade of financed-based, securitized, reflationary policies in the U.S. led by the public and private sector and a declining dollar. Hmmmmm?

    In addition, Fed policy has for years focused on “core” as opposed to “headline” inflation, a concept actually initiated during the Nixon Administration to offset the sudden impact of OPEC and $12 a barrel oil prices! For a few decades the logic of inflation’s mean reversion drew a fairly tight fit between the two measures, but now in a chart shared frequently with PIMCO’s Investment Committee by Mohamed El-Erian, the divergence is beginning to raise questions as to whether “headline” will ever drop below “core” for a sufficiently long period of time to rebalance the two. Global commodity depletion and a tightening of excess labor as argued in El-Erian’s recent Secular Outlook summary suggest otherwise.

    The correct measure of inflation matters in a number of areas, not the least of which are social security payments and wage bargaining adjustments. There is no doubt that an artificially low number favors government and corporations as opposed to ordinary citizens. But the number is also critical in any estimation of bond yields, stock prices, and commercial real estate cap rates. If core inflation were really 3% instead of 2%, then nominal bond yields might logically be 1% higher than they are today, because bond investors would require more compensation. And although the Gordon model for the valuation of stocks and real estate would stress “real” as opposed to nominal inflation additive yields, today’s acceptance of an artificially low CPI in the calculation of nominal bond yields in effect means that real yields – including TIPS – are 1% lower than believed. If real yields move higher to compensate, with a constant equity risk premium, then U.S. P/E ratios would move lower. A readjustment of investor mentality in the valuation of all three of these investment categories – bonds, stocks, and real estate – would mean a downward adjustment of price of maybe 5% in bonds and perhaps 10% or more in U.S. stocks and commercial real estate.

    A skeptic would wonder whether the U.S. asset-based economy can afford an appropriate repricing or the BLS was ever willing to entertain serious argument on the validity of CPI changes that differed from the rest of the world during the heyday of market-based capitalism beginning in the early 1980s. It perhaps was better to be “entertained” with the notion of artificially low inflation than to be seriously “informed.” But just as many in the global economy are refusing to mimic the American-style fixation with superficialities in favor of hard work and legitimate disclosure, investors might suddenly awake to the notion that U.S. inflation should be and in fact is closer to worldwide levels than previously thought. Foreign holders of trillions of dollars of U.S. assets are increasingly becoming price makers not price takers and in this case the price may not be right. Hmmmmm?

    What are the investment ramifications? With global headline inflation now at 7% there is a need for new global investment solutions, a role that PIMCO is more than willing (and able) to provide. In this role we would suggest: 1) Treasury bonds are obviously not to be favored because of their negative (unreal) real yields. 2) U.S. TIPS, while affording headline CPI protection, risk the delusion of an artificially low inflation number as well. 3) On the other hand, commodity-based assets as well as foreign equities whose P/Es are better grounded with local CPI and nominal bond yield comparisons should be excellent candidates. 4) These assets should in turn be denominated in currencies that demonstrate authentic real growth and inflation rates, that while high, at least are credible. 5) Developing, BRIC-like economies are obvious choices for investment dollars.

    Investment success depends on an ability to anticipate the herd, ride with it for a substantial period of time, and then begin to reorient portfolios for a changing world. Today’s world, including its inflation rate, is changing. Being fooled some of the time is no sin, but being fooled all of the time is intolerable. Join me in lobbying for change in U.S. leadership, the attitude of its citizenry, and (to the point of this Outlook) the market’s assumption of low relative U.S. inflation in comparison to our global competitors.

    William H. Gross
    Managing Director

    The SS hypothesis extends to unemployment statistics, as well. In most European economies, anyone unemployed between 19 and 55 years of age is apparently counted as unemployed. The massive graduate education and “nonprofit” apparatus in the United States (Peace Corps, Teach for America, etc) means that many Americans who are effectively unemployed — and who often use such institutions to say that they “have something to do” — are not counted as such.

    When you add up all the American distortions, the US economy expressed in European metrics comes to approximately 7 percent inflation, 8 percent unemployment, and very low growth.

    Which begs the question of what European governments do to cook their own books, which is something I can’t know. Gold-buggery seems to be an overwhelmingly American phenomenon, and virtually all research into effective gold price support has come from Americans, which means that the CPI-skeptic worldview is very familiar with the nuances of American book-cooking, but not at all familiar with European equivalents.

    However, European bonds are not nearly the economic anchor that American fixed income and equities prices are.

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    Apparently luck had it that every single Chinese ADR, and more than a few others, trooped to the United States to make their pitches to US investors. I got to listen to more than a few of them over the past four days (one reason why the post count has run low).

    American institutional investors are quite concerned about the post-Olympic dampening effect, and are also concerned about inflation. The CFOs I talked to informed me that their internal inflation forecasts are running in the 12 to 15 percent range, basically dependent upon whether they think China’s price blowout (recently concentrated in food) is permanent or transitory.

    While the meteoric increase in food prices has abated somewhat, oil and metals have gotten worse. Chinese manufacturers, refiners, and banks are eating fierce losses. The distribution of said losses among the three groups is unclear, but the existence of enormous losses is a matter of fact.

    The CFOs I talked to generally represented IT companies, which are heavily insulated from raw materials inflation, if not wage inflation. I would imagine the outlook at more BTU-intensive companies is significantly worse.

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    The credit crisis has separated true libertarians from phony libertarians, and separated true liberals from phony liberals.

    The phony liberals have inadvertently mocked themselves throughout the entire credit crisis, manning the barricades to defend the greatest act of socialism for the rich in US history. Ditto for supposed “libertarians,” eg Robert Rubin, Bruce Kovner, and the vast majority of institutional Wall Street which found itself drowning in its own quagmire, and changed their tune faster than you can say “WTF.”

    Anyway, here’s the link.

    The editorial in question is by Robert J. Shiller, who is a professor of economics and finance and famous analyst of speculative bubbles. A specialist in behavioral economics, in the application of psychology to understanding financial markets. A co-founder of Case Shiller Weiss, that house price index we talk about a lot. His editorial, “The Scars of Losing a Home,” speaks not of lofty academic economic concepts but of human sympathy, of things that are “really important.” With references from famous academic psychologists. I haven’t taken this kind of a tiger by the tail since I went after Austan Goolsbee last year.

    Yes, it was only a year ago that the distinguished Dr. Goolsbee wrote this on the same editorial page:

    And do not forget that the vast majority of even subprime borrowers have been making their payments. Indeed, fewer than 15 percent of borrowers in this most risky group have even been delinquent on a payment, much less defaulted.

    When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.

    For be it ever so humble, there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.

    I actually think Goolsbee’s piece was the high-water-mark of the “subprime helps the poor” talking point. You certainly don’t hear much about that these days. Less than two months after Dr. Goolsbee’s earnest op-ed, we got an interview in the very same NYT with one Bill Dallas, CEO of the famously defunct Ownit Mortgage, effusively testifying to his own burning desire to help out the unfortunate in a way that finally put paid to the respectability of that line (“‘I am passionate about the normal person owning a home,’ said Mr. Dallas, who is also chairman of the Fox Sports Grill restaurant chain and manages the business interests of the Olsen twins. ‘I think owning a home solves all their problems.'”) Plus by now we’ve got some numbers on the 2007 mortgage vintage, the one that Dr. Goolsbee was afraid wasn’t going to ever materialize if we tightened up lending standards too much. A year ago we were looking at a 13% subprime ARM delinquency rate. Per Moody’s (no link) the Q4 07 subprime ARM delinquencies were running 20.02%. And that is not, you know, “just” another 7%. By now, those delinquent borrowers in Goolsbee’s 13% have probably mostly been foreclosed upon and are off the books. The 20% or so who are now delinquent were either part of the 87% that Goolsbee thought were “successful homeowners” last year, or else they’re those lucky duckies who bought homes after the publication date of Goolsbee’s plea that we not tighten standards too much.

    Of course Shiller wasn’t exactly spending his time a year ago defending the subprime mortgage industry on the grounds that it put poor and minority people into ever-so-humble homes with balloons attached. I seem to recall him mostly arguing that homebuyers were engaged in a speculative mania. In a June 2007 interview:

    Well, human thinking is built around stories, and the story that has sustained the housing boom is that homes are like stocks. Buy one anywhere and it’ll go up. It’s the easiest way to get rich.

    At the time, that kind of statement struck some of us, at least, as not possibly the entire story either, but in any event a useful corrective to the saccharine silliness of the “Ownership Society” and Bill Dallas solving everyone’s problems by letting them put Roots in a Community (for only five points in YSP).

    So I hope I can be just a tad startled by the New Shiller:

    Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.

    MAYBE that’s why President Bush’s “Ownership Society” theme had such resonance in his 2004 re-election campaign. People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it.

    So it’s no longer irrational exuberance or plain old speculating; it’s now an instinctive affirmation of some eternal verity of the human psyche? The ultimate patriotism: the definition of self so tied up in ownership of a slice of the motherland that to rent becomes not only psychologically dangerous–these people without selves can’t be up to anything good–but politically dangerous as well? Is it possible that Shiller can mean what he is writing here?

    If you just scanned the first few paragraphs of Shiller’s op-ed you might come away with the impression of a sincere but somewhat hackneyed plea for us all to have a bit of sympathy for the foreclosed among us, foreclosure not in anyone’s experience being a walk in the park. Fair enough. It being Sunday in America, I suspect millions of us are being treated to exhortations to take a kinder view of the unfortunate than we often do; we need those exhortations; we are often lacking in sympathy. Hands up all who disagree.

    But you keep reading and you find Shiller trying to explain the “trauma” of foreclosure. And that’s where this really gets weird:

    Now, let’s take the other perspective — and examine some arguments against the stern view. They have to do with the psychological effects of strict enforcement of a mortgage contract, and economists and people in business may need to be reminded of them. After all, too much attention to abstract economic statistics just might make us overlook what is really important.

    First, we have to consider that we cannot squarely place the blame for the current mortgage mess on the homeowner. It seems to be shared among mortgage brokers, mortgage originators, appraisers, regulatory agencies, securities ratings agencies, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the United States (who did not issue any warnings, but instead has consistently extolled the virtues of homeownership).

    Because homeowners facing foreclosure must bear the brunt of the pain, they naturally feel indignation when all of these other parties continue to lead comfortable, even affluent lives. Trying to enforce mortgage contracts may thus have a perverse effect: instead of teaching homeowners that they should respect the contracts they sign, it may incline them to take a cynical view of the whole mess.

    We need to modify mortgage contracts to keep homeowners from becoming cynical? That’s somehow more respectable an idea than the one saying we should throw them out on the street to “teach them a lesson”? If Shiller is serious that all those other parties are “to blame,” then why isn’t the obvious solution to throw them out on the street? There seems to be an assumption here that nothing can be done to punish those who are “really” to blame, so we’re left managing the psyches of those who can be punished. And that’s not cynical?

    This the point at which Shiller dredges up the most stunningly unfortunate quote from William effing James (1890) to define the “fundamental” psychology of homeownership:

    Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country. The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    Now, that’s breath-taking. Horses. Yachts. His wife and his children. Ancestors. The whole late-Victorian wealthy male WASP defining the “Self” (with a capital!) as the wealthy male WASP surveying his extensive possessions, an oddly-assorted list that ranks the family and friends somewhere after the clothes and the house. (Yes, James did that on purpose.) The kind of sentiment that was a caricature of the late-Victorian male even in 1890. And Shiller drags this out in aid of generating sympathy for homeowners? Really? You couldn’t find some psychological insight about the emotional relationship of people to their homes that doesn’t speak the language of the male ego surveying his domain, sizing himself up against all the other males to see where he ranks?

    (James on the psychological effect of losing one’s property: ” . . . although it is true that a part of our depression at the loss of possessions is due to our feeling that we must now go without certain goods that we expected the possessions to bring in their train, yet in every case there remains, over and above this, a sense of the shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness, which is a psychological phenomenon by itself. We are all at once assimilated to the tramps and poor devils whom we so despise, and at the same time removed farther than ever away from the happy sons of earth who lord it over land and sea and men in the full-blown lustihood that wealth and power can give, and before whom, stiffen ourselves as we will by appealing to anti-snobbish first principles, we cannot escape an emotion, open or sneaking, of respect and dread.”)

    I’m actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.

    It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin’ spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class “homeowner.” But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.

    It’s worse than odd–it’s downright reactionary–to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as “feel[ing] at one with [the] country.” This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller’s earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don’t get too “cynical.”

    I see that Yves at naked capitalism was just as disgusted by Shiller as I am:

    Now admittedly, this is not a validated instrument, but a widely used stress scoring test puts loss of spouse as 100 and divorce at 73. Foreclosure is 30, below sex difficulties (39), pregnancy (40), or personal injury (53). Change in residence is 20.

    Note that if we as a society were worried about psychological damage, being fired (47) is far worse than foreclosure (30), and if it leads to a change in financial status (38) and/or change to a different line of work (36) those are separate, additive stress factors. Yet policy-makers have no qualms about advocating more open trade even though it produces industry restructurings that produce unemployment that does more psychological damage than foreclosures. As a society, we’ll pursue efficiency that first cost blue collar jobs, and now that we’ve gotten inured to that, white collar ones as well (although Alan Blinder draws the line there).

    But efficiency arguments don’t apply to housing since we are sentimental about it. And it’s that sentimentality that bears examination, since it engendered policies that helped produce this mess.

    I would only add that we are about five years too far into a war that has not made a majority of us “feel at one with that country.” I think of another really important policy change we could be pursuing right now to shore up everyone’s psychological estrangement from their patriotic self-satisfaction. But “efficiency arguments” don’t apply to wars, either.

    My fellow bleeding heart liberals like Goolsbee found themselves defending the subprime industry in the name of increasing minority homeownership. Now we’re treated to the spectacle of Shiller arguing for homeowner bailout legislation in the same terms that Bush used to defend the “Ownership Society.” Housing policy, I gather, makes strange bedfellows. It certainly makes strange editorials.

    Shiller’s unwitting self-parody embodies the principle at the heart of the TAF and every other tentacle of the Wall Street bailout. Far more than “economist statistics which can cause us to lose sight of what’s really important,” what’s REALLY important is protection of those Selves which include “lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    You can *not* make this stuff up.

    Pardon my French, but our economy is being run by f*cking idiots.

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    The entire economy of Iceland has come under massive speculative assault in the past several months, as the most ludicrous example of an overextended, overleveraged, underfunded European economy.

    As of December 2006, its rolling annual trade deficit was 26 percent of GDP. That has come down to “only” 15 percent as of January 2008.

    However, Iceland’s currency has bled 26 percent in the interim. Because Iceland is a tiny economy, adverse shifts in foreign exchange are telegraphed extremely rapidly to every corner of the economy.

    The central banks in Denmark, Norway and Sweden have offered a $2.3 billion loan to Iceland to bolster its faltering currency, the krona, which has lost some 26 percent of its value since January amid concerns that Iceland’s banks carry too much foreign debt, Bloomberg reported May 16. The currency rose 3.7 percent versus the euro on the news. Inflation in Iceland hit 11.8 percent in April, the highest level in nearly two decades, despite a key interest rate set at 15.5 percent.

    This is small-scale proof that currency implosion today equals consumption implosion tomorrow. The only variables are the relative size of the country’s economy (smaller economy = faster price realignment in line with forex fluctuations), the size of the country’s trade deficit as a percentage of GDP (larger deficit = sharper adjustment), and the absolute size of the country’s trade deficit relative to all other national trade deficits.

    Turning points in the global economic cycle usually hit the smaller, more vulnerable economies first. The big boys get hit last, but hardest.

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    Bernanke wingman Frederic Mishkin today, parroting Barney Frank:

    I would like to emphasize the importance of regulatory policy. Monetary policy–that is, the setting of overnight interest rates–is already challenged by the task of managing both price stability and maximum sustainable employment. As a result, it falls to regulatory policies and supervisory practices to help strengthen the financial system and reduce its vulnerability to both booms and busts in asset prices.

    Of course, some aspects of such policies are simply the usual elements of a well-functioning prudential regulatory and supervisory system. These elements include adequate disclosure and capital requirements, prompt corrective action, careful monitoring of an institution’s risk-management procedures, close supervision of financial institutions to enforce compliance with regulations, and sufficient resources and accountability for supervisors.

    More generally, our approach to regulation should favor policies that will help prevent future feedback loops between asset price bubbles and credit supply. A few broad principles are helpful in thinking about what such policies should look like. First, regulations should be designed with an eye toward fixing market failures. Second, regulations should be designed so as not to exacerbate the interaction between asset price bubbles and credit provision. For example, research has shown that the rise in asset values that accompanies a boom results in higher capital buffers at financial institutions, supporting further lending in the context of an unchanging benchmark for capital adequacy; in the bust, the value of this capital can drop precipitously, possibly even necessitating a cut in lending.

    =============

    Choking tomorrow’s legitimate commerce — or rather, driving it to less profligate nations — to pay for yesterday’s illusory and Fed-stoked boom.

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    IFR:

    [13:57 US GOVTS: Fallout From Credit Crisis Seen in TIC Data]

    Boston, May 15. Though foreigners continued to buy treasuries (a record $55 bln) and agency ($18 bln) paper hand over fist in the latest March TIC data the net flow for the month was actually a negative $48 bln. While far from an expert in these numbers it appears that the shortfall was made in the private flow category and specifically bank liabilities which fell $115 bln.

    The thinking is that the latter number ($115 bln) represents a falloff in US bank lending to their European counterparts over the heighten counterpart concern engendered by the subprime/credit crisis. If so, this may be yet another reason why the Fed is contemplating expanded both the size and term maturity of the TAF program.

    Either way, the data is causing quite a stir on the Street and is seeing a knee-jerk buying and curve steepening reaction in the treasury market as traders try to sort out what it all means.

    Interesting.

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    􀁘 Removing gasoline sales, which have been strongly influenced by the sharp rise in
    prices in recent months, allows a better measure of real or inflation-adjusted sales
    to be examined. Alternative measures of the so-called ‘control group,’ included in
    real consumer spending as measured by the BEA, rose about 0.5% in April,
    following a revised increase of about 0.3% in March (revised from 0.1%).
    Moreover, January ‘control group’ sales are now estimated up 0.3%, about double
    their previously estimated rise.
    􀁘 Categories showing improvement in April included electronics and appliance store
    sales which rose 1.4%, food service and drinking place sales up 0.9%, clothing and
    accessories store sales up 0.7% for a second consecutive month, general
    merchandise stores up 0.5% and health and personal care stores up 0.4%.
    􀁘 While consumers remain under strain from weak employment conditions, falling
    home values, high energy costs, and tight credit conditions, today’s retail sales
    results point to stronger spending emerging this quarter, especially as the ongoing
    tax rebates are more fully distributed this month and next. Moreover, some modest
    upward revision to 1Q consumption is also likely.

    In other words, non-inflating retail is doing well. Large discrete expenses (cars) and rapidly inflating sectors (gas) aren’t.

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    12:03  US Senate OKs amendment to halt strategic petroleum reserve fill;
    amendment passes by veto-proof margin – DJ [Dow Jones]

    This is part of larger choreography. … If the Democrats are attempting to freelance, the CIA could easily bust an attempted Senate veto override given how ‘dirty’ so many senators are.

    The end result of this will be either a busted congressional override attempt, which would be a very hawkish signal, or the direct onset of a Mideastern war (i.e. the SPR has been filled up to the extent planned in preparation).

    Note that oil has strengthened significantly today, concomitant with dollar strengthening. The oil market is not interpreting this implied reduction in demand very bearishly.

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