Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Lecturing Bernanke The Fed chairmans old teacher worries that Washington isn't fixing the too-big-to-fail issue

Reading-Lecturing BernankeThe Fed chairmans old teacher worries that Washington isn't fixing the too-big-to-fail issue - http://bit.ly/RhUdd

Economist Stanley Fischer was Ben Bernanke's thesis advisor at MIT; he knew better than most that his former student had the right stuff to avert a depression. Bernanke was an "expert" at injecting liquidity into a sinking economy, Fischer said last year before the markets took their frightening plunge. Fischer had no doubt that Ben would do what it took (Ben did, earning himself a second term as Fed chairman this week). But serious questions remain in the minds of Fischer and other critics whether the most serious problem of the financial crisis—the too-big-to-fail issue—is proving too big for Bernanke and Washington's power elites to handle.

Fischer was not only Bernanke's teacher; he was also one of the preeminent economic officials of the '90s, the era of the "Washington consensus" bias in favor of deregulation. After leaving the IMF he became vice chairman of Citigroup—the corporate embodiment of the too-big-to-fail problem. So it was all the more remarkable to hear Fischer apparently jumping to the other side of the issue and chiding his former student at the annual Jackson Hole, Wyo., conference for central bankers last week. Fischer also seemed to take aim at his former allies from the deregulatory '90s, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. "We seem to be taking it for granted that we should go back to the structure of the financial system as it was on the eve of the crisis," said Fischer, who is now the governor of the Bank of Israel.

This is still the central pathology of our economic era. We have a free-market system dominated by institutions so huge and "systemically important" that they don't have to play by free-market rules. Excessive risk-taking is built into the system because bailouts are; the promise of the latter begets the former. And as The Washington Post reported Friday, the problem is getting worse rather than better: nurtured by government bailouts and a hands-off approach to their size, the biggest banks are getting even bigger and, therefore, harder to control. Both Bernanke and the Obama administration are acutely aware of this "moral hazard" problem and have sought to address it. But the biggest undercurrent of worry at Jackson Hole was that reform efforts were getting bogged down in political bickering, and nothing would happen this year. With each passing month—it's nearly the first anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse—the memory of how close we came to the abyss recedes and the impetus for radical change loses force. "I think the concern was that the administration was focusing on too many different things at once and [regulatory reform] was getting pushed to the bottom," says Mark Gertler of New York University, Bernanke's longtime academic collaborator.

A Treasury Department spokesman, asked to comment, says the administration still believes financial-reform legislation will pass by the end of the year. But many at Jackson Hole talked about resistance on Capitol Hill, which is particularly susceptible to Wall Street lobbying. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has also been embroiled in an angry dispute with regulators, especially FDIC chair Sheila Bair, over whether the Fed should play the role of systemic risk regulator or that more of that task should fall to a council of regulators. Geithner wants the Fed to do it, but Bernanke has pushed back against taking on the whole job. He sometimes seems to side more with Bair and SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro, along with Gary Gensler, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who all want a piece of the regulatory action.

It's a major mess, in other words, and Fischer has reason to worry. He's hardly alone. It is no accident, perhaps, that Fischer has been a member of the Group of Thirty, the financial advisory panel chaired by Paul Volcker. And Volcker, the former Fed chairman, has also been trying to push the Obamaites and Bernanke in the direction of more fundamental reform. Among other things, Volcker wants to bar federally insured commercial banks from proprietary trading so that the Citigroups and Bank of Americas of the future cannot again become the systemic risks they have been. But he, too, has been ignored, even though he gets to talk to Barack Obama on occasion as head of the president's largely cosmetic financial-recovery advisory board.

Oddly enough, the too-big-to-fail problem is one of the very few in Washington that seems to unite the left and right sides of the political spectrum. Renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz, who has been the left's most prominent voice since the '90s, has criticized the administration's proposals as too meek. Rather than breaking up the big banks that failed, "the Obama administration has actually expanded the notion of 'too big to fail,' " Stiglitz told me in June. Now giant institutions like Citigroup, he says, are considered "too big to be financially restructured." On the other side of the aisle, Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute recently complained that the administration's June financial-regulatory proposal actually "formalizes" the too-big-to-fail pathology by providing loans, purchasing assets, guaranteeing liabilities, and making equity investments in faltering giant firms. She says the proposal does nothing about making sure that bondholders and other uninsured lenders take losses.

Bernanke believes that an expanded "resolution authority," of the kind the FDIC now has to take over and break up troublesome firms, will be effective in restraining them. Perhaps he's right. But Congress still has to say yes to such new powers—whoever it is that eventually wields them. Bernanke himself has undergone something of a battlefield conversion. Once an devotee of Milton Friedman's free-market economics who was expected to follow in Alan Greenspan's footsteps, he was praised by Obama on Monday for his "bold, persistent experimentation"—the quote is from FDR in 1933—in saving the economy from a depression. The president also said the Fed would help to lay the "foundation" for the future, and that "part of that foundation has to be a financial regulatory system that ensures we never face a crisis like this again." But with the administration now bogged down in so many different issues—health care being only the latest—is that foundation really getting put in place?

China Deploys Rare Earth Metals For Strategic Leverage

Reading - China Deploys Rare Earth Metals For Strategic Leverage http://bit.ly/esh6K

As I've previously noted, China has cornered well over 90% of the market for rare earth metals, which are essential in various high-tech products.

The Telegraph ran an article on August 24th pointing out that China is now deploying these resources to gain strategic advantage:

Beijing is drawing up plans to prohibit or restrict exports of rare earth metals that are produced only in China and play a vital role in cutting edge technology, from hybrid cars and catalytic converters, to superconductors, and precision-guided weapons.

A draft report by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. Other metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum will be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year, far below global needs.

China mines over 95pc of the world’s rare earth minerals, mostly in Inner Mongolia [My note: Mongolia is not part of China, but is an independent nation]. The move to hoard reserves is the clearest sign to date that the global struggle for diminishing resources is shifting into a new phase. Countries may find it hard to obtain key materials at any price...

No replacement has been found for neodymium that enhances the power of magnets at high heat and is crucial for hard-disk drives, wind turbines, and the electric motors of hybrid cars. Each Toyota Prius uses 25 pounds of rare earth elements. Cerium and lanthanum are used in catalytic converters for diesel engines. Europium is used in lasers.

Blackberries, iPods, mobile phones, plasma TVs, navigation systems, and air defence missiles all use a sprinkling of rare earth metals. They are used to filter viruses and bacteria from water, and cleaning up Sarin gas and VX nerve agents...

New uses are emerging all the time, and some promise quantum leaps in efficiency. The Tokyo Institute of Technology has made a breakthrough in superconductivity using rare earth metals that lower the friction on power lines and could slash electricity leakage.

The Telegraph points out that Japan is also taking steps to secure a supply of rare earths, but the West has not:
The Japanese government has drawn up a “Strategy for Ensuring Stable Supplies of Rare Metals”. It calls for 'stockpiling' and plans for “securing overseas resources’. The West has yet to stir.

The Telegraph also notes that China is not necessarily using its near-monopoly of rare earths to dominate the world, and that other countries may be able to extract more rare earths after slowly ramping up production:

Alistair Stephens, from Australia’s rare metals group Arafura, said ... “This isn’t about the China holding the world to ransom. They are saying we need these resources to develop our own economy and achieve energy efficiency, so go find your own supplies”...

It will take years for fresh supply to come on stream from deposits in Australia, North America, and South Africa.

The bottom line is that the West has been asleep while China has amassed tremendous control over scarce resources which are vital for both technological innovation and security. China's deployment of its dollar reserve holdings (which may lose value) to purchase these key strategic assets is very clever, indeed.

Rep. Frank eyes Fed audit, emergency lending curbs

Reading - Rep. Frank eyes Fed audit, emergency lending curbs http://bit.ly/8XAat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rep. Barney Frank, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, said he plans legislation to restrict the Federal Reserve's emergency lending powers and subject the central bank to a "complete audit."

At a recent town hall meeting, Frank said the House would pass a bill to use an audit to crack open the central bank's books more widely, but in a way that will not encroach on the central bank's monetary policy independence.

In addition, he said the House would move to rein in the authority that allows the Fed to lend to a wide range of non-bank firms in "unusual and exigent circumstances."

A bill sponsored by Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul that would allow the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, to audit Fed interest-rate decisions has won the co-sponsorship of more than half of the House.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that the bill would compromise the U.S. central bank's policy-making independence and could undermine financial markets and the economy.

Frank said he has been working with Paul on compromise language. "He agrees that we don't want to have the audit appear as if it is influencing monetary policy because that would be inflationary," Frank told constituents. A video of his remarks was posted on the popular video file-sharing website YouTube athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2DX9Iu4wNo

Steven Adamske, a spokesman for Frank, told Reuters compromise language had not yet been written. He provided no further details. A spokesman for Paul could not be reached.


Frank said the audit and emergency lending provisions would be incorporated in broader legislation to revamp U.S. financial regulation that would likely pass the House in October. By seeking a compromise with Paul, Frank could strengthen the broader legislation's chance at passage.

As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank is a key player in the effort to overhaul U.S. financial regulation.

The Obama administration has proposed giving the Fed responsibility for overseeing firms whose collapse could endanger the entire financial system. At the same time, it wants to strip the central bank of its consumer protection function, and invest that authority in a new agency.

Frank expressed unease at what he called the Fed's power to "lend money to anybody they want" in emergency circumstances. "We are going to curtail that lending power. We are going to put some restraints on it," he said.

Since the financial crisis struck two years, the Fed has used this emergency authority to prop up a number of non-bank financial firms with billions of dollars in loans, including insurer American International Group.

The Fed's actions have angered many lawmakers who are concerned the central bank has put taxpayer money at risk. Fed officials have defended their actions as necessary to prevent a deeper credit crisis and widespread damage to the economy.

Bernanke, who President Barack Obama nominated this week to serve a second four-year term at the helm of the central bank, told lawmakers in July that the Fed understands the need to be accountable to taxpayers but that monetary policy decisions needed to be shielded from political interference.

In congressional testimony on July 22, he signaled a willingness to work toward a middle ground. "We are quite willing to work with Congress to try to figure out exactly where the line should be," he said.

Frank said the House legislation would pave the way for an audit to look into what the central bank "buys and sells," but he said the data would be released after a period of several months to avoid impacting financial markets.

Bernanke is widely expected to win needed Senate backing for a new term as Fed chairman, but the central bank's aggressive efforts to stem the financial crisis have stirred controversy that is likely to color his re-nomination hearing.

His current term expires on January 31, 2010.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Gold Is Pale Because It Has So Many Thieves Plotting Against It

Reading - Gold Is Pale Because It Has So Many Thieves Plotting Against It http://bit.ly/qyYdO

The title is a quotation from Diogenes Laertius (fl. 2nd century A.D.) This was the favorite quotation of the late Chicago economist and gold expert Melchior Palyi.

25 years ago I visited Comex at the World Trade Center, watching the feverish activity in the gold pit from behind the glass wall in the gallery. A gentleman standing next, unknown to me, remarked: "One day this make-believe charade will come to a bad end. All that these guys are doing down there is creating ever more claims to the same lump of gold -- just as governments have been doing before they met their ignominious fate."

Later that day I went to see the Director of Research of Comex. During our chat that lasted about an hour he intimated that he was greatly disturbed by the mystery that the gold basis has been steadily declining year in and year out. Perhaps it was the fact that he could not solve the puzzle that bothered him so much that he quit his job a few months later.

I must confess that I could not solve that puzzle myself until the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came tumbling down many years later. For me it was a symbolic event, conjuring up the unknown gentleman and bringing back his cryptic remark. We are watching a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, paper claims to gold will be dishonored, and the gold futures markets will tumble down just like the Twin Towers.

In my earlier article The Dress Rehearsal for the Last Contango I observed that "a very strange phenomenon has been manifesting itself during the past thirty-five years, since the inception of gold futures trading. The basis as a percentage of the rate of interest, rather than remaining constant, has been vanishing and, by now, it has dropped to zero." In the rest of that article I drew

attention to the apocalyptic consequences of the prospect of permanent backwardation in gold threatening the world, which is completely ignored by the makers of monetary policy, as I had opportunity to convince myself during my recent encounter with Paul Volcker, the Chairman of President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. As I see it, the Debt Tower will topple, just as the Twin Towers of the World Trade center have, when hit by permanent gold backwardation. The reason is that the availability of gold is absolutely indispensable for maintaining our system of irredeemable debt. Only then will bondholders, like the participants of the game of musical chairs, be satisfied that there is a goodly number of vacant chairs available, so let's get on with bond trading, gold futures trading, and let the music roar on.

But once permanent backwardation in gold establishes itself, gold is no longer available at any price. Bondholders will scramble to sell their irredeemable bonds before they lose all their remaining value. There is no other way to pacify bondholders than letting the game of musical chairs go on, that is, continue the charade of gold futures trading putting ever more claims on the same lump of gold.

The response to my article was overwhelming. I have never realized how many people out there are following my writings on the internet so closely. I want to thank every one of you and assure you that I take this responsibility most seriously. Even if I cannot answer every message I get from you individually, I will continue to do my best to explain the results of my research in simple, understandable terms.

Let me spell out for my readers what the vanishing of the gold basis means from the point of view of the puppet-masters of the gold futures markets. It means that they are fighting a losing battle. They are desperately trying to coax gold out of hiding by offering ever higher bribes -- not in terms of the price but in terms of the basis. A low basis means that they offer to take your cash gold and let you have gold futures in exchange at a discount price. (The discount is contango minus the basis, so that the two are inversely related: as the basis falls, the discount increases.) This will allow you to invest an amount equal to the price of gold (less five percent, the margin on the gold future) in any way you want and, having paid the reduced contango, you can keep the profits. The point is that you will still benefit from any advance in the gold price, same as you would if you owned cash gold. You can have your cake and eat it.Remember, in a full carrying charge market, such as the gold futures markets were at inception, no such bribe money was offered.

But, lo and behold, people who are willing to take the bribe are few and far in between. So the pot is sweetened. The basis is lowered. Maybe at one point gold will be coaxed out of hiding, once the bribe is high enough.

No such luck. When the basis gets as low as zero, it means that the discount on gold futures has gone so high that it is equal to the opportunity cost of holding gold. Therefore, again, if you give up your cash gold in exchange for gold futures, you can invest an amount equal to the price of gold (less five percent) in any way you wish, but now they let you keep your profit in its entirety. Andyou can still benefit from any advance in the gold price, same as you would if you had the cash gold in your hands.

This is where we are now. Indications are that the game fish still does not bite. What now? Where do the futures markets in gold go from here? Well, the pot can be further sweetened. The basis can be pushed down into negative territory. Gold could be forced into backwardation. Let's see what that means. It means that you can sell cash gold andbuy it back for future delivery at an outright discount. Somebody wants your gold so badly that he is willing to pay you for the privilege of holding it for a few days, few weeks, few months paying your storage and insurance fees. You get your gold back at a cheaper price. You make a risk-free profit on this deal. If the gold price goes up in the meantime, you benefit fully, just as if you have held on to the cash gold.

Now risk-free profits are a promise of unlimited profits because, if you are nimble enough, then you can make any number of round trips. However, opportunities to earn risk-free profits from arbitrage do not last. Other nimble speculators would jump in and their unlimited action would close the spread that gave rise to the risk-free profit in the first place. Yet I predict that, after a period of initial vacillation between backwardation and contango (due to action by misinformed traders) gold will settle in permanent backwardation.

Wouldn't that be loverly? Risk-free profits galore. No need to bother with storage charges and insurance premiums. Just sit back and enjoy the ride to riches.

But hey, wait a minute! Is the arbitrage really risk-free? You give up your cash gold, but what if your gold futures contract expires and they refuse to return your gold? Commodity markets can change the rules of the game mid-stream. They just declare 'cash settlement only' for outstanding contracts. Unsaid and unstated, not even mentioned in small print, is the fact that the trap door may be slammed shut. The investor who has taken the bribe is neatly separated from his gold when the hairy godfather waves his magic wand. "Gold is pale because it has so many thieves plotting against it." There are all too many trap doors, sprung wide open, ready to devour gold belonging to the unweary.

That's it. That's why more people do not fall for the bribe even when tickled with promises of risk-free profits. The promise is mendacious. There is a risk: the risk that you lose your gold and you may never be able to buy it back at any price. There is no other explanation for the fact that the promise of risk free profits does not eliminate the discount on the futures price of gold. This is the true explanation for the coming permanent backwardation in gold.

Gold futures trading is clearly a con-game, but it is in a symbiotic relation with the regime of irredeemable currency and irredeemable debt, on which our 'democracy' is based. So we have a double con-game. We have a smaller con-game of gold future trading inflicted upon gullible people who want to have their cake and eat it and, then, we have the much bigger, all-embracing con-game of irredeemable currency, inflicted upon the rest of us, innocent bystanders. It is inflicted by the United States government that stoops so low as to trample on the Constitution mandating a metallic monetary system for this country precisely in order to outlaw all Ponzi-schemes. The government could never muster the moral courage to propose an Amendment that would make the Constitution conform to its monetary system -- as it would open Pandora's box. Rather, it would live with the onus of being in contempt of the Constitution. The government of the United States had looted gold from its own subjects in 1933. It looted even more gold from people not under its jurisdiction in 1971. It continues to operate in the same tradition.

The larger con-game of the irredeemable dollar could not have gone on so long, but for the smaller con-game of gold futures trading from which it takes its strength. Historically, every regime of irredeemable currency has met its Nemesis in no more than 18 years. The present experiment with irredeemable currency has been going on for twice that long. Of course, gold futures trading is a relatively new invention that was not available to the managers of the assignats, mandats, or the Reichsmarks. Nor was it available to the managers of the most recent experiment with the Zimbabwe dollar. But, as the relentless fall in the gold basis clearly shows, people cannot be conned forever. The clock is ticking. Sand in the hourglass keeps dropping. When it runs out, the present experiment with fiat dollar will also meet its Nemesis, as all the earlier experiments have. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the government of the United States persists in continuing the double con-game and Ponzi-scheme through thick and thin. It is callous to the economic damage it is causing world-wide, and it disregards the danger of permanent gold backwardation that would inflict utter economic pain on the innocent people of this country, to say nothing of the people of the rest of the world. As explained above, it would make the runaway debt-tower of Babel topple, burying people under the rubble as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center buried people working inside.

When that happens, the government of the United States will not have the excuse that it has not been warned. I have delivered the message in person to the Chairman of President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, Paul Volcker, when we met at the Santa Colomba Conference last July. I also consider it my moral duty to warn all the people who are willing to listen of the danger lying ahead. It is incredibly naïve to believe that gold can be removed from the international monetary system with impunity at the stroke of a pen, as they pretended to do it in 1973. The gold corpse still stirs. When it rises from its prostrate position it will, like Gulliver, dust off the Lilliputians who like ants have been scurrying all over his body. The day of reckoning will have dawned.

Keynesian and Friedmanite economists bear a special responsibility for the disaster. They dug in and monopolized their positions at universities and research institutes. They never allowed a free discussion on the gold standard. They did everything to aggrandize and perpetuate their own power as the sole advisors on government policy. They will not be able to live down this shame in a thousand years.

Masters Gold Fund

In my previous article More Dress Rehearsal of the Last Contango (see References below) I mentioned the unique Masters Gold Fund, soon to come on stream, structured to take advantage of the permanent backwardation in gold when it comes, which would ground all other gold funds. I have acted as advisor from inception and during the incubation period. In that article I listed seven exclusive features spelling out how the Masters Gold Fund would operate in these perilous times. It would take its clues, not from the gold price that is open to manipulation, but from the gold basis which is a pristine indicator telling you about the willingness of gold holders to carry on in playing the game of musical chairs and putting their gold at stake.

Racketeering 101: Bailed Out Banks Threaten Systemic Collapse If Fed Discloses Information

Reading - Racketeering 101: Bailed Out Banks Threaten Systemic Collapse If Fed Discloses Information - http://bit.ly/4j7kAL

And so the guns come out blazing. The Clearing House Association, another name for all the banks that were bailed out over the past year with the generous contributions from all of you, dear taxpayers, are now threatening with anotherinstance of complete systemic collapse if Bloomberg's lawsuit is allowed to proceed unchallenged, let alone if any of the "Audit The Fed" measures are actually implemented.

As a reminder, The Clearing House Association consists of ABN Amro, Bank Of America, The Bank Of New York, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, US Bank and Wells Fargo.

In a declaration filed in the Bloomberg Case (08-CV-9595, Southern District of New York), the banks demonstrate no shame in attempting to perpetuate the status quo with regard to the Federal Reserve and demand that the wool over the eyes of the general population remain firmly planted in perpetuity.

The Clearing House submits this declaration because the Court's Order threatens to impair the ability of our members to access emergency funds through the New York Fed's Discount Window without suffering the severe competitive harmthat public disclosure of their identity will cause.

Our members have accessed the New York Fed's Discount Window with the understanding that the Fed will not publicly disclose information about their borrowing, especially their identity. Industry experience, including very recent and searing experience, has shown that negative rumors about a bank's financial condition - even completely unfounded rumors - have caused competitive harm, including bank runs and failures.

Surely transparency would facilitate rumor-mongering to an unprecedented degree. After all rumors spread much easier when everyone knows the true financial condition of banks.

And here, in plain written Times New Roman, you see what racketeering by a major bank consortium looks like:

If the names of our member banks who borrow emergency funds are publicly disclosed, the likelihood that a borrowing bank's customers, counterparties and other market participants will draw a negative inference is great. Public speculation that a financial institution is experiencing liquidity shortfalls - which would be a natural inference from having tapped emergency funds - has caused bank customers to withdraw deposits, counterparties to make collateral calls and lenders to accelerate loan repayment or refuse to make new loans. When an institution's customers flee and its credit dries up the institution may suffer severe capital and liquidity strains leaving it in a weakened competitive position.

Pardon me if I am a broken record here, but would rumors not spread much less if there was more transparency, if investors and other financial intermediaries were fully aware of the conditions of their counterparties, if banks did not have to cover their billions in reserve losses by pretending they are viable and essentially being constant wards of the state?

The Banks' racketeering has gone on for far too long.

And yet, it does not stop: the conclusion from the banks' letter:

In sum, our experience differs from the factual conclusions the Court appears to have reached about the nature of competition in the banking industry:

  • The competitive harm to institutions that are publicized as needing emergency funding is not "speculative," but demonstrated by the recent multiple failures of financial institutions whenever information about their funding difficulty has been disclosed.
  • The disclosure does not involve mere "embarassing publicity" but information that could result in the immediate demise of an institution.
  • The disclosure would not merely "stigmatize [ ]"the institution or make it "look [ ] weak," but goes to its very viability.
  • The disclosure of accessing emergency funding is not an "inherent risk" of market participation, but an extraordinary risk in extraordinary circumstances.
  • Competitors can use the disclosure to advertise or publicize that they are financial stronger because they don't need emergency funding.

In a nutshell - the banks want their complete opacity cake and eat it too, or else, the racket goes, the transparency that will somehow promote massive rumor mongering will again destroy capitalism. In the meantime, the Ken Lewises of the world can continue touting how stable their businesses are based on optimistic future projections, while implicitly, they continue to survive merely thanks to the cash granted them by you, taxpayers.

Full filing here:

Clearinghouse_Decl -

Clearinghouse_Decl.pdf183.3 KB

Friday, 28 August 2009

Rep. Frank: House will pass Ron Paul’s ‘audit the Fed’ bill this year

Watching - VIDEO - c - http://bit.ly/ztw4P

Powerful House Financial Services Committee chairman says central bank’s lending powers to be ‘curtailed’

Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), one of the most unabashed liberals in the U.S. House of Representatives, told a Massachusetts town hall recently that Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve bank will clear his chamber by October.

Over half of the House members, most of them Republican, have signed on to the bill, H.R. 1207.

Though Frank disagrees — as many proponents of the bill contend — that the Fed is the cause of the U.S. dollar’s shrinking value, he told a Massachusetts audience that he’s been a proponent of greater transparency at the nation’s central bank for some time.

“Here’s what we plan to do: I want to restrict the powers of the Federal Reserve in a number of ways,” he said. “First of all, they will be the major losers of power if we’re successful, as I believe we will be, setting up that, uh, financial product protection committee.”

The committee Frank mentioned was proposed by President Barack Obama during the campaign, as a way of protecting consumers. It was formally presented to Congress in the President’s financial regulatory reform white papers in July, noted law firm Wiley Rein LLP.

“The Federal Reserve is now charged with protecting consumers,” continued Frank. “They were supposed to do sub-prime mortgage restricted … Congress in 1994 gave the Federal Reserve the power to adopt rules to ban bad sub-prime mortgages. … They have the power to ban credit card abuses. They have the power to do most of it. They, under Greenspan, did nothing.

“Under Bernanke, they started to do things, but only after Congress started, when I became chairman of the [House Financial Services Committee], we began to act on these things: Sub-prime mortgages, credit cards, overdraft … And after we started, the Fed did. So, that’s why one of the reasons why in the new consumer protection agency we will take away from the Federal Reserve the power to do consumer protection.”

Frank added that Congress will reverse an action by the Democratic Congress of 1932 that gives the Fed authority to lend money at will.

“Under section 13.3 of the Federal Reserve Act, they can lend money to whoever they want,” he said. “We are going to curtail that lending power. We are going to put some constraints on it.”

He concluded: “Finally, we are going to subject them to a complete audit. I’ve been working with Ron Paul, the main sponsor of that bill …” Several in the audience applauded. “He believes that we don’t want to have the audit appear as if it is influencing monetary policy because that would be inflationary … One of the things that will show you is what the Federal Reserve buys and sells. That will be made public, but not instantly. If it were instant, you would have a lot of people trading off that and it would have too much impact on the market. Again, Ron agrees with that. So, we will probably have that data released after a time period of several months — enough time so it won’t be market sensitive.”

Danger in transparency?

The pervasive argument against transparency at the nation’s central banking institution was repeated by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner during a recent dialog with popular social bookmarking Web site Digg.com.

Geithner said that he’s sure “people understand that you want to keep politics out of monetary policy,” adding that auditing the Fed is “a line that we do not want to cross” because of the possible danger to the U.S. economy.

The argument is strikingly similar to one posed by the Federal Reserve’s legal counsel ina Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Bloomberg News in an attempt to force disclosure of the institutions that received billions in bailout money.

Loretta Preska, chief judge of the Manhattan U.S. District Court, ruled Monday that the Fed had “improperly withheld agency records” in response to the FOIA request, adding that the argument of danger to the economy was based merely on “conjecture” and not evidence.

“[The] risk of looking weak to competitors and shareholders is an inherent risk of market participation; information tending to increase that risk does not make the information privileged or confidential,” she wrote.

Opposition to Fed powers growing

Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former Governor and Attorney General of New York — at one time known as the “sheriff” of Wall Street — has assaulted the bank bailouts as “America’s greatest theft and cover-up ever” and called the Federal Reserve bank a “Ponzi scheme” that must be held accountable for its actions.

Additionally, the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee plans to probe how the Troubled Asset Relief Program’s (TARP) funds were dispersed by the Fed. Expressing his frustration before the Government and Oversight Committee, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) suggested that the Federal Reserve may be paying banks to hoard money and avoid making loans, instead of using the TARP funds to keep people in their homes.

To support his assertion, Kucinich cited a Bloomberg report which noted that “banks’ excess reserves at the Fed rose to a record $877.1 billion daily average in the two weeks ended May 20, from $2 billion a year earlier.

“Excess reserves — money available for lending that banks choose to leave with the Fed instead — averaged $743.9 billion in the first two weeks of this month,” the report continued.

“First, Congress was told that TARP was for the purchase of toxic assets, to help keep people in their homes,” the Congressman said. “Then the Bush Administration switched the program. Next, Congress was told that the TARP funds were instead needed to bail out the banks, in the form of a direct capital infusion, to keep credit markets alive.”

In a media advisory, Kucinich added: “If TARP isn’t about keeping people in their homes or providing credit to businesses, what is it for? I think the vast majority of Americans would be outraged to learn their tax dollars were facilitating hoarding at the Fed and increased profit making for banks.”

Kucinich’s Domestic Policy Subcommittee has also undertaken an investigation on the Fed’s bailout of the Bank of American-Merrill Lynch merger. “Specific documents subpoenaed include emails, notes of conversations and other documents,” his office noted.

“You look at the governing structure of the New York [Federal Reserve], it was run by the very banks that got the money,” said Eliot Spitzer told MSNBC’s Morning Meeting host Dylan Ratigan in late July. “This is a Ponzi scheme, an inside job. It is outrageous, it is time for Congress to say enough of this. And to give them more power now is crazy. The Fed needs to be examined carefully.”

Concluding his answer to the question of auditing the Federal Reserve, Rep. Frank told the Massachusetts audience: “The House will pass [H.R. 1207] probably in October.”

This video was uploaded to YouTube by user VegasBD on August 28, 2009.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Next Shoe to Drop in Banking: An Options Strategy

Reading - The Next Shoe to Drop in Banking: An Options Strategy http://tinyurl.com/ldr9u7

The financial sector of the U.S. economy has had nearly a year to address the problems that exacerbated the crisis last fall. But many observers think that the banks haven’t done enough, and that another round of trouble may be developing for the sector. I will outline some of those concerns and then suggest some ways to use options to profit if there is indeed another shoe to drop in banking.

The Thesis

The primary obstacle facing large banks is that they still carry most of the “toxic assets” that caused them so much trouble last year. As Elizabeth Warren explained recently, changes to accounting rules allowed banks to appear solvent only by allowing them to continue to obscure the market value of their troubled assets. By allowing banks to continue operating without any transparency or accountability, the federal government bought the banking industry some time, but did not address the fundamental problem. While some banks have begun quietly unloading some of their non-performing mortgages at steep discounts, they cannot do so in any real size without risking large write-downs that would spook equity holders.

A robust economic recovery – especially one in which new high-paying jobs are created and consumers regain their confidence – would lift the real estate market and boost the values of troubled assets. But while the administration and the banks have further leveraged themselves on the hope that such a recovery is forthcoming, there is little reason to expect a sustained rebound. Even if we do see improvements beyond the round of cost-cutting that enabled still-paltry, if positive second quarter earnings reports, such a recovery is likely to be a “jobless” one that will be insufficient to improve the fortunes of the major banks.

Two other catalysts to watch for include the commercial real estate (CRE) market and increased predatory activity on the part of banks themselves. The CRE story has been covered in great detail and has attracted widespread attention, mostly, I think, because it would amount to a new problem scenario in addition to all the familiar problems. The federal TALF program was extended by three to six months on August 17th and is intended to facilitate purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities, but it is unclear whether government support will be sufficient to inspire continuing weak demand.

More alarming are the new products launched by major banks like Morgan Stanley (MS), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C), and Wells Fargo (WFC). According to a recent story in BusinessWeek, these institutions are now getting into the sleazy payday loan business, are offering commercial loans linked to credit-default swaps (essentially increasing the financing burden on businesses precisely when they are least able to afford it), and are now approaching retail customers with structured notes – derivative instruments with complicated terms and opaque risks. Some or all of these might boost revenues at the banks over the short-term, while also entangling consumers and banks alike in a new round of ill-advised risk-taking.

In short, the fundamental picture for the major U.S. banks doesn’t look very different now than it did several months ago, especially once we discount the temporary effects of accounting changes and short-term stimulus packages. Bank stocks seem priced for a major economic recovery, but a quarter or two of continued weakness or negative surprises from the two other catalysts we mentioned could spark a substantial selloff in bank stocks.

The Trade

Options are a valuable tool for expressing views that can’t be stated in any other way. For simple buy/sell theses, buying or shorting a stock or ETF is sufficient. But in this case, we want to take a more nuanced position. It’s entirely possible, even if unlikely, that the U.S. economy will rebound strongly and bank stocks will rise amidst a new bull market. It’s also possible that no major surprises will emerge and the banks will be range-bound for months to come. So a straightforward put purchase isn’t the most desirable way to make this play.

We want a position that is long vega – meaning that it will profit from an increase in implied volatility – since a decline in the financial sector is more likely than not to be a relatively sudden affair. We also want a position with some positive theta: since it may take some time for this pessimistic thesis to play out, we want to profit from time decay rather than let the value of our position trickle away. Finally, we want a position with some negative delta: we are bearish on the sector, after all.

click to enlarge

The XLF January 2010 10 puts could recently be bought for about $0.32; with -0.13 delta and 0.2 vega, these puts satisfy the first and third requirements. The XLF September 12 puts could recently be sold for about $0.20, and the September 15 calls could recently be sold for about $0.18. By selling this front-month strangle, we can bring in some income to help defray the cost of those back-month puts. The resulting three-legged position can be opened for a net credit of about $0.07; it will be profitable at September expiration if XLF is anywhere between roughly $11 and $15, with a maximum profit point near $12. At current levels of implied volatility, there is about a 70% chance that this position will be profitable at September expiration.

No trade is complete without a serious consideration of the risks involved. Because the front-month strangle we’re selling is only partially hedged (the long January put covers our short September put), it faces unlimited risk on the call side. As a result, it is advisable to hedge any upside breakout above $15 with either stock or long calls. We follow a version of this approach in our newsletter, and Condor Options' members have witnessed how helpful even a weekly rebalancing hedge can be.

Managing the trade after September expiry is relatively straightforward: as long as the underlying thesis of the trade is intact, we can sell short-term options against our core long position to generate income and reduce our cost basis. If the financial sector does begin to weaken, it will make sense to look further out of the money in order to allow more room for price declines.