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Wow what a fantastic rant



October 28, 2009 – Comments (5)

Wow, what a fantastic rant.  I haven't had the time to read all of this yet, but I'm definitely going to.  I particularly agree with Grantham's thoughts on Greespan, Bernanke, Summers, and Geithner.

Just Deserts and Markets Being Silly Again

"Isn’t that the point these days: that rewards do not at all reflect our just deserts? Let’s review some of the more obvious examples.

1. For Missing the Unmissable

Bernanke, the most passionate cheerleader of Greenspan’s follies, is picked as his replacement, partly, it seems, for his belief that U.S. house prices would never decline and that at their peak in late 2005 they largely just refl ected the unusual strength of the U.S. economy. As well as missing on his very own this 3-sigma (100-year) event in housing, he was completely clueless as to the potential disastrous interactions among lower house prices, new opaque financial instruments, heroically increased mortgages, lower lending standards, and internationally networked distribution. For these accumulated benefi ts to society, he was reappointed! So, yes, after the fashion of his mentor, he was lavish with help as the bubble burst. And how can we so quickly forget the very painful consequences of the previous lavishing after the 2000 bubble? Rewarding Bernanke is like reappointing the Titanic’s captain for facilitating an orderly disembarkation of the sinking ship (let’s pretend that happened) while ignoring the fact that he had charged recklessly through dark and dangerous waters.

2. The Other Teflon Men

Larry Summers, with a Financial Times bully pulpit, had done little bullying and blown no warning whistles of impending doom back in 2006 and 2007. And, famously, in earlier years as Treasury Secretary he had encouraged (I hope inadvertently) wild and reckless fi nancial behavior by helping to beat back attempts to regulate some of the new and most dangerous instruments. Timothy Geithner, in turn, sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks. And there are several others (discussed in the 4Q 2008 Letter). You know who you are. All promoted!

3. Misguided, Sometimes Idiotic Mortgage Borrowers

The more misguided or reckless the borrowers, the more determined the efforts to help them out, it appears, although it must be admitted these efforts had limited effect. In comparison, those who showed restraint and either underhoused themselves or rented received not even a hint of help. Quite the reverse: the money the more prudent potential buyers held back from housing received an artifi cially low rate. In effect, the prudent are subsidizing the very same banks that insisted on dancing off the cliff into Uncle Sam’s arms or, rather, the arms of the taxpayers – many of whom rent.

4. Reckless Homebuilders

Having magnifi cently overbuilt for several years by any normal relationship to the population, we have decided to encourage even more homebuilding by giving new house buyers $8,000 each. This cash comes partly from the pockets of prudent renters once again. This gift is soon, perhaps, to be extended beyond first-time buyers (for whom everyone with a heart has a slight sympathy) to any buyers, which would be blatant vote-buying by Congress. So what else is new?

5. Over-spenders and Under-savers

To celebrate the overwhelming consensus among economists that U.S. individuals have been dangerously overconsuming for the last 15 years, we have decided to encourage consumption and penalize savers by maintaining the aforementioned artificially low rates, which beg everyone and sundry to borrow even more. The total debt to GDP ratio, which under our heroes Greenspan and Bernanke rose from 1.25x GDP to 3.25x (without even counting our Social Security and Medicare commitments), has continued to climb as growing government debt more than offsets falling consumer debt. Where, one wonders, does this end, and with how much grief?

6. Banks Too Big to Fail

Here we have adopted a particularly simple and comprehensible policy: make them bigger! Indeed, force them to be bigger. And whatever you do, don’t have any serious Congressional conversation about breaking them up. (Leave that to a few journalists and commentators. Only pinkos read pink newspapers anyway!) This is not the fi rst time that a cliché has triumphed. This one is: “You can’t roll back the clock.”

7. Over-bonused Financial Types

Just look at Goldman’s recent huge “profi ts,” two-thirds of which went for bonuses. It is now estimated that this year’s bonus pool will be plus or minus $23 billion, the largest ever. Less than a year ago, these same guys were on the edge of a run on the bank. They were saved only by “government” – the taxpayers’ supposed agents – who decided to interfere with the formerly infallible workings of capitalism. Just as remarkably, it is now reported that remuneration for the entire banking industry may be approaching a new peak. “Well, we got rid of some of those pesky competitors, so now we can really make hay,” you can almost hear Goldman and the others say. And as for the industry’s concern about the widespread public dismay, even disgust, about excessive remuneration (and, I would add, plundering of the shareholders’ rightful profi ts)? Fuhgeddaboudit! In the thin book of “lessons learned,” this one, like most of our other examples, will not appear.

8. Overpaid Large Company CEOs

Even outside the fi nancial system, there are many painfully obvious unjust deserts in the form of top management rewards. And most of the excessive rewards come out of the pockets of our clients and other stockholders, which is particularly galling. When I arrived in the States in 1964, the ratio of CEO pay to the average worker was variously reported to be between 20/1 and 40/1. This seemed perfectly respectable and had held for the previous 30 years. By 2006, this ratio had exploded to between 400/1 and 600/1, which can only be described as obscene. The results certainly don’t suggest such high rewards: a) 10-year stock market returns are close to zero in real terms; and b) U.S. GDP growth has fi nally slipped below its 100-year trend of 3.5%. After deducting the effect of the rampant increase in the fi nancial system, the growth in GDP ex-fi nance has fallen to 3.1% since 1982 and well below 3% since 2000, all measured to the end of 2007 to avoid the recent crisis. The corporate system, to be frank, seemed to run faster and more efficiently back in the 1960s before CEOs and financial types began to gobble up other people’s lunches. I suppose I have done my share of gobbling. But, it still ain’t right!

9. Holders of the Stocks of Ridiculously Overleveraged and Wounded Corporations

Yes, I admit this is part envy and part hindsight investment regret. But, really, our financial leaders so overstimulated the risk-taking environment that junky, weak, marginal companies and zombie banks produced a record outperformance (the best since 1933) of junk over the great blue chips. (Ouch!) In a world with less moral hazard, which would be a world of just, although painful deserts, scores of these should-be-dead companies would be. As it is, they live to compete against the companies that actually deserve to be survivors. Excessive bailouts are just not healthy for the long-term well-being of the economy.

10. The Well-managed U.S. Auto Industry

While firms in other industries fail and their workers look for new jobs, the auto industry is rewarded by direct subsidized loans, governmental arm-twisting of creditors forced to settle far below their legal rights, and direct subsidies for their products. All of this for their well-deserved ranking as the most short-sighted industry of the last 20 (40?) years, and one of the worst managed...

12. Stock Options

This, of course, is the crème de la crème of unjust deserts. Recent practices have basically been a legalized way to abscond with the stockholders’ equity. So if the stock price crashes, perhaps with considerable help from management, that’s all right – just rewrite the options at the new low prices. There has been no serious attempt to match stock option rewards (or total financial rewards for that matter) to the building of long-term franchise value. Instead, the motto is: grab it now and run! You can fi ll in your own favorite anecdotes here – there are so many of them!

13. Finally, Just in Case You’ve Forgotten, We Have My Old Nemesis, Greenspan

Alan Greenspan receives the title of Maestro in the U.S. and is knighted by the Queen for thoroughly demolishing the integrity of the U.S. financial system. He overtly ignored the great threat of bubbles in asset classes and, in fact, encouraged them. He Ayn Rand-ishly facilitated the progressive dismantling of governmental restrictions on fi nancial behavior, he deliberately kept real interest rates at zero for years, etc., etc., etc. You have heard it before. Now, remarkably, in his very old age he has become imbued with the spirit of Hyman Minsky: “Unless somebody can find a way to change human nature, we will have more crises.” Now he finally gets it. Too late! In his merely old age, he ignored or abhorred Minsky, and consistently behaved as though markets were efficient and the players were honest and sensible at all times. But for all of the egg on his face, the Maestro continues to consult with the rich and famous, considerably to his financial advantage. In the good old days, he would have been set in the village stocks, and not the kind you buy and sell. And I would have been right there, Alan, with very ripe tomatoes."


5 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On October 28, 2009 at 5:24 PM, outoffocus (24.13) wrote:

He forgot about healthcare.  Its kinda along the same lines.

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#2) On October 28, 2009 at 6:25 PM, lucas1985 (< 20) wrote:

How mistaken ideas helped to bring the economy down

"In his latest book – a successor to Valuing Wall Street, which appeared in time to help alert readers avoid the 2000 meltdown – Andrew Smithers of London-based Smithers & Co, provides an invaluable guide to past errors of analysis and policy.* He is a rare guide – a man with a deep understanding of economics and a lifetime’s experience of financial markets. His work helps to explain the stock-market bubble of the 1990s, the fiscal errors of Gordon Brown and the recent credit excess.

The big points of the book are four: first, asset markets are only “imperfectly efficient”; second, it is possible to value markets; third, huge positive deviations from fair value – bubbles – are economically devastating, particularly if associated with credit surges and underpricing of liquidity; and, finally, central banks should try to prick such bubbles. “We must be prepared to consider the possibility that periodic mild recessions are a necessary price for avoiding major ones.” I have been unwilling to accept this view. That is no longer true.

The efficient market hypothesis, which has had a dominant role in financial economics, proposes that all relevant information is in the price. Prices will then move only in response to news. The movement of the market will be a “random walk”. Mr Smithers shows that this conclusion is empirically false: stock markets exhibit “negative serial correlation”. More simply, real returns from stock markets are likely to be lower, if they have recently been high, and vice versa. The right time to buy is not when markets have done well, but when they have done badly. “Markets rotate around fair value.” There is, Mr Smithers also shows, reason to believe this is true of other markets in real assets – including housing."

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#3) On October 28, 2009 at 11:56 PM, nuf2bdangrus (< 20) wrote:

They will blame capitalism when it all comes tumbling down.  Truth be told, free money from the Fed to bail out every overindulgence is the furtherst thing from capitalism.

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#4) On October 29, 2009 at 4:29 AM, JakilaTheHun (99.91) wrote:

Great rant.  I agree with about 90% of it. 

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#5) On October 29, 2009 at 9:11 AM, SkepticalOx (98.91) wrote:

They will blame capitalism when it all comes tumbling down.  Truth be told, free money from the Fed to bail out every overindulgence is the furtherst thing from capitalism.

I don't think most logical people are blaming capitalism (despite what the headlines say). It's more along the lines of whether moving towards laissez-faire capitalism  is better, or moving to a system where we have more checks and regulations.

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