Monday, March 25, 2013

What's Wrong With The Cyprus Bailout

The draft proposal on the table to bail out Cyprus consists primarily of closing one bank--Popular Bank of Cyprus, also called Laiki Bank--transferring deposits of 100,000 Euros or less to another large bank called Bank of Cyprus, and freezing deposits exceeding 100,000 Euros.  The frozen assets, which evidently amount to somewhat over 30 billion Euros, will be used to fund Cyprus' share of the cost of the bailout (5.8 billion Euros).  How much frozen account holders will ultimately receive is unclear, since the funds for paying them out would have to come from bad assets of Laiki Bank--defaulted loans and the like.  The hit they will sustain apparently could be large.

At first glance, this revised bailout appears not unlike bank liquidations as seen in the U.S.  Account holders with insured deposits (i.e., at or below the $250,000 threshhold) are fully protected, and those holding excess balances are at risk, taking losses if the assets of the bank don't fully cover the nominal value of their accounts.  But the Cyprus bailout is different.

The process by which Cyprus and the EU got to where they are today was one of political fits, false starts, near collapses and last minute expediency.  The first proposed bailout included a levy on all deposits, a proposal which the Cypriot legislature roundly rejected.  After scrambling futilely for assistance from Russia, the Cypriot government bowed to the stern diktat of the European Union that depositors be tapped.  But both the EU and the Cypriot government wanted to protect insured deposits (those of 100,000 Euros or less), so the burden had to fall on deposits in excess of the insured amount.  And because Laiki Bank is suspected to be the bank of choice for a supposed den of money launderers, tax evaders and other scoundrels, the blade fell on its large depositors.  Large depositors at other banks were spared the guillotine.

 What's missing is the due process of law.  There isn't even a flimsy facade of legal due process.  This isn't an ordinary liquidation of a troubled bank.  Cyprus got into financial trouble, asked for a bailout, was told by the EU that a Cypriot contribution would be a prerequisite, and only then did Cyprus figure out who would pay the piper.  The ultimate resolution is politically driven, not the result of the application of established legal procedures. 

If the large depositors of Laiki Bank are iniquitous Russian oligarchs as some EU officials have hinted, one can't feel terribly sympathetic about their plight.  Legality doesn't seem to have played much of a role in the way many wealthy Russians acquired their riches.  But, ordinarily, modern nations seize property only in accordance with the rule of law.  If a bank depositor isn't proven to be liable, for one lawful reason or another, then he or she shouldn't be deprived of property. 

It wasn't Robin Hood, or even Jesse James, who absconded with the assets of large depositors of Laiki Bank.  It was the sovereign governments of the European Union.  When governments depart from the rule of law, capital will start exiting stage right.  Large depositors in any EU nation that's financially shaky will likely behoove themselves to move their capital to safer places.  The shaky countries may get shakier.  The EU tries to present the Cyprus situation as a unique, one-time problem.  But how many well-to-do depositors want to leave their money at risk, in case that's not true? 

The EU will enjoy a near-term rebound from the Cyprus bailout.  But longer term, it encounter trouble attracting the capital it badly needs to rebound from recession and fuel future growth.  And it may well find that dealings with one of its major energy suppliers--Russia-- will take sharper tone.  When the due process of law isn't applied, some people start thinking that might makes right.  And that would be unfortunate for Europe, given the history of the last century.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why Republicans Are Trapped by Gerrymandering

Much of the Republican Party's power today is the result of legislative gerrymandering, the drawing of electoral districts in Rorschach test-like patterns to include majorities of reliably Republican voters.  (See  Thus, the Republicans now control the House of Representatives.  But their gerrymandering has also trapped them in a time warp, and they are paying the price.

After last fall's loss of the Presidential election, Republicans are trying to figure out what went wrong in a contest they could have won.  One of the key conclusions seems to be that a party of, by and for old white guys doesn't have much curb appeal for America's demographically changing populace.  Many leading Republican voices now call for diversification.  But that won't be easy, with their feet caught in the bear trap of their own gerrymandering.

Many Republicans politicians, particularly those inclined toward tea parties, are sworn to uphold and defend, even with their cold, dead hands if necessary, values that resonate primarily with old, white guys.  If they start humming Kumbaya with anyone who doesn't party with tea, they'll be run out of office by people wielding old, white pitchforks.  Let's be clear:  if you represent a gerrymandered Republican district, you had damn well better look, sound and act like a Republican gerrymanderer.  If you start to go wobbly, expect your constituents' footprints all over your caboose the next time you run for re-election.

The fact that many Republican politicians are beholden to a very narrow constituency now limits their options.  It's a major reason why compromise in Washington is so difficult.  Republican leaders in Congress have very little negotiating latitude, and can't engage in the swaps and accommodations that comprise political compromises.  The upcoming deadlines--expiration of the federal government's funding on March 27 and the expiration of the debt ceiling on May 19--will probably be "resolved" with short term kicks of the can down the road.  The Republicans appear to be taking more of the blame for federal dysfunction than the Democrats, and they may have limited their own ability to do anything about it.

Although Democrats have some problems with gerrymandered limits, they are much more tolerant of a diversity of views within their party.  As the American populace diversifies, the flexibility of the Democratic Party could become perhaps its greatest asset, even while Republicans trash talk from their gerrymandered districts.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Central Banks' Failure to Eliminate Risk

Now, it's Cyprus--tiny Cyprus, with 0.2% of the EU's GDP--that's shaking up the financial world.  The Asian stock markets are falling on Monday, March 18, 2013, and stock futures indicate that the European and U.S. stock markets are also headed downward.  Runs have already started at Cyprus' banks, and a bank holiday was declared for Monday, in order to stop the outflow of rats from the ship. 

The proximate cause of the panic is a proposed EU bailout for Cyprus that includes taking from depositors at its banks 6.7% of deposits under 100,000 Euros, and 9.9% of deposits exceeding 100,000 Euros.  Surprisingly, this tax (which is to help pay for the bailout) would hit small depositors that were supposed to be fully insured up to 100,000 Euros.  The bailout violates a sacrosanct principle of bank regulation--that deposit insurance cannot be impaired.  Deposit insurance is the key to depositor confidence, and the foundation of commercial banking.  America's banking system recovered from the Great Depression (which saw thousands--yes, thousands--of bank failures) only when deposit insurance was instituted.  If you scare depositors, an entire banking system can go belly up in less time than it takes to scramble a couple of eggs.

The powers that be which fashioned the Cyprus bailout--the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF--imposed the depositor tax because of the somewhat shady doings of Cypriot banks.  They extended the scope of their businesses way beyond their home island, accumulating assets amounting to twice the size of Cyprus' GDP.  Reportedly, around half of their deposits are from Russians, and suspicions of money laundering, tax evasion, and other alleged shenanigans lurk.  The stolid burghers of northern Europe have been wrinkling their noses over the unsavory aromas rising from Cyprus' banks, and they evidently view a tax on depositors as fair compensation for the trouble the EU is now being put to.

Whether or not the deposit tax is fair is, from a commercial standpoint, pretty much irrelevant.  The financial markets thrive on confidence.  The EU's financial crisis eased last summer when the head of the European Central Bank said, in substance if not words, that he would authorize the printing of money to prop up failing EU member nations.  The bond vigilantes backed down.  But the Cyprus bailout's tax on deposits is the opposite of money printing, and implies that losses are possible for holders of deposits in banks at other weak EU nations.  There's nothing that shakes confidence like the prospect of losses, especially if one was supposed to be insured against them. 

The financial markets have been coasting on a mellow buzz from toking up on central bank monetary accommodation.  Ultra low interest rates and quantitative easing have taken the edge off volatility, and the markets seem to know no fear.  But there is no way to eliminate financial risk.  You can only transfer it somewhere.  The Cypriots apparently wanted to transfer the risks and costs of their bankruptcy as far north as they could.  But the folks up north didn't seem to cotton to that notion.  So the risks and costs blew back, and as we now see, blowback can be nasty. 

Who knows how this will all end.  No doubt high ranking officials on both sides of the Atlantic are engaged, even as we write, in frantic discussions to figure out how to prevent the spread of financial contagion.  The baseline problem is that the EU as a whole hasn't decided how to allocate the costs of resolving its financial crisis.  This is probably a harder problem than the resolution of the U.S. government's current dysfunction, since, in Europe, people from disparate countries and cultures must somehow find common ground.  Since these are the same people who fought two horrendous World Wars against each other in the 20th Century, it remains unclear if they will succeed.

In the meantime, remember that central bank monetary policy can provide a methadone high, at best.  It won't last forever, and the aftermath may be a real downer.  It's fine to feel good about the financial markets right now.  But keep in mind that the central banks cannot eliminate financial risk, and if you relax your vigilance, risk could bite your left ankle in a flash.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Federal Reserve's Obligation to Support Stock Prices

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is setting a new record almost every day.  Stocks are up 10% in 2013, and the year isn't even three months old.  Since the recent closing low on Nov. 15, 2012 of 12,542.38, the Dow has risen over 15%.  Stocks are on a tear and fresh money is coming into a market that's going up at an annualized rate of 50% or more.

A principal reason for the hyperventilation in the markets is the Federal Reserve's ultra lax monetary policy.  Even though unemployment has fallen from over 10% in 2009 to 7.7% now, and the economy has resumed moderate growth, the Fed has spent the last four years swinging its scythe far and wide to cut down any positive interest rates that might sprout up.  At the same time, it has printed shiploads of money through its quantitative easing policies.  An abundance of cash, having few other alternatives, has flowed into stocks.  At this point, the market depends on the Fed to maintain and increase its accommodation.  Moral hazard abounds.  Investors have put their precious savings in stocks relying on the Fed's promise to practically give away money for a really long time.  If the market falters now, the Fed will have to step up and accommodate some more, enough to prop up stocks.  It can't allow investors to suffer a third evisceration of their portfolios in less than 15 years.  If the market stages another major downturn, investor and consumer confidence will surely collapse, sending the U.S. into another recession and putting the U.S. financial system under enormous stress. The stock market has become Too Biggest To Fail.

Of course, the Fed would deny that it has any obligation to support stock prices.  Legally speaking, that's true.  But the U.S. Treasury had no legal obligation to support Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, yet it nationalized them in order to prevent a collapse of the financial system.  The Treasury Department had no choice, given that the market had implicitly assumed that Fannie and Freddie were federally guaranteed.  By relentlessly inflating stock prices, the Fed has put itself in a comparable position.  It has implicitly guaranteed that stocks will not suffer a major collapse. 

The Fed is already honoring its implicit guarantee.  It's stated that the most recent round of QE (call it "QE Unlimited") will go on until unemployment falls to 6.5%.  The market has risen about 10% since the Fed announced this target.  A gnawing risk of the Fed's current policy mix is inflation, and the Fed has said it will step back if inflation flares.  But the question is whether it actually will.  Having drawn investors back into stocks after the market crash of 2007-08, the Fed may hesitate to take away the punch bowl if doing so will precipitate another bear market and recession. 

 Of course, it can't leave the punch bowl at the party forever.  But, given the pickle it's currently in, it may let the party go on too long.  We are at a crossroads in the history of central banking.  If the Fed pulls off its current maneuvers and nurses the economy back to health while keeping inflation in the 2% range, it will have established the paradigm for monetary management of the economy for decades and perhaps centuries to come.  If it fails, however, central banking as we now know it will likely become a thing of the past.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Political Risks of Social Insecurity

The financial press has reported that the United States ranks 19th worldwide in the retirement security, lagging behind Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, among other nations.  We're one step ahead of Britain, but well behind France and Germany.  The Scandinavian countries rank at the top, along with Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and tiny Luxembourg.  Even Japan, after more than two decades of economic malaise, ranks 15th, four steps higher than America.

This probably doesn't surprise many Americans, particularly those who are approaching or in retirement.  They have probably already viscerally sensed their comparative insecurity.  Herein lies great risk for politicians who would reduce America's social safety net.  Our net is modest compared to the protections offered by most of the industrialized world.  If it's cut, the pain--particularly for moderate and lower income Americans--could be pronounced.  It's one thing if your retirement benefits may not cover as many restaurant meals as you would like.  It's another if your cost of living increase is so paltry that you can't afford needed prescription medications.

That we have a fiscal imbalance is because our taxes are even lower on a comparative basis.  (See  America could without enormous pain pay for its current social safety net without having to borrow.  We just don't want the taxes it would take to get there. 

Many politicians in Washington sound off about cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.  This isn't just Republicans.  President Obama has been quick to offer reductions in Social Security.  One is to change the Social Security inflation adjustment from the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) to the Personal Consumption Price Expenditures Index (PCE).  The effect of this change would to gradually erode the relative value of Social Security benefits, with the most elderly being the hardest hit over time.  Is is really a good thing to whack the most vulnerable, who may have exhausted their savings and be unable to work? 

Consciously or subconsciously, Americans know that their retirement benefits aren't great.  And many of them won't be happy with politicians who make their retirements bleaker.  If the President and the Republicans somehow reach a Grand Bargain to stabilize or even balance the budget, the political impact may surprise them.  As Republicans clumsily attempt to embrace diversity, their core of older, white Americans may abandon them if they lead the charge to cut retirement benefits.  President Obama, instead of being viewed as a latter day FDR, may end up appearing to fall into the mold of Herbert Hoover.  And the liberal left, annoyingly shrill as they can sometimes be, may end up inheriting the White House in 2016. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Idolatry in the Financial Markets

A lot of investors, it would appear, are throwing money at increasingly esoteric investments in order to prevent inflation from eroding their capital.  Junk bonds, asset-backed securities and real estate investment trusts have become fashionable.  With the Fed waging a 24/7 scorched earth campaign against positive interest rates, risk is being embraced.  One can only hope that the end result isn't like embracing a cobra--"risk on" investing strategies aren't risk-free.

A false premise widely circulated by financial sales people and cable TV pundits is that you have to preserve your savings from the ravages of inflation.  And, certainly, over long periods of time, inflation can significantly diminish your capital.  But you can't overlook the costs and risks of trying to protect yourself from inflation.  If those risks smack down your net worth, you haven't accomplished anything except lose money and then suffer inflation's death of a thousand cuts.  There's nothing wrong with losing a little ground now and then to inflation, while saving and investing with a view to long term financial equanimity.  If you lose ground to inflation for one, two or even a few years, don't panic.  Try to position your portfolio so that you can make up the "losses" later on.  Also spend less and save more.  This will increase your net worth without requiring you to dial up the risk.

The same is true of keeping pace with market averages.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, or whatever benchmark you might follow may be convenient ways to assess the performance of money managers who want to take your savings.  But market indices don't need to be your financial goals.  If your portfolio is conservatively deployed and doesn't keep pace with the S&P 500, you haven't "lost" unless you decide you're a loser.  As long as you are saving enough for retirement, your kids' college costs, and whatever other goals you might have, it doesn't matter a rat's left ear whether or not your investment returns match one market index or another.  If your portfolio is more cautiously invested than the stocks found in an index, you won't suffer the volatility of the index.  Maybe the Dow just reached a record level (although this really isn't a record once you factor in inflation).  But looking back at what happened in 2000 and 2007 after the Dow previously reached record levels will tell you that keeping up with market indices can be a losing proposition. 

Keeping pace with inflation and with market averages are, for individual investors, false idols that they need not worship.  Building your net worth isn't a contest.  It's a process.  There are lots of ways to make your retirement years golden.  Do whatever helps you sleep at night.