Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hillary's Obama Gambit

Hillary Clinton has embraced Barack Obama's policies and legacy, and has promised to continue them if she is elected President.  This has helped her draw the support of African-American voters, who she desperately needs to counteract Bernie Sanders' appeal to the young and the independent.  It's helping her now, in South Carolina and other Southern states.  But she will pay a price if she becomes the Democratic nominee.

The key to the general election will be the ability to attract the support of independents.  The Republican and Democratic nominees, whoever they may be this year, will have the support of the conservative right and liberal left, respectively.  The winning candidate will be the one to whom independents flock.  Independents, to be sure, aren't always the same as moderates or middle of the road voters.  They are often beyond classification, very conservative on some issues while simultaneously very liberal on others.  But if you try to paint them as libertarians, they will turn out to be staunch supporters of big government safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.  These are the disaffected drawn to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  They often don't like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.  And they are likely to dislike Clinton even more for embracing Obama's legacy.  By positioning herself as Barack Obama's ideological successor, Clinton makes herself less attractive as a candidate to a large group of voters who are likely to be crucial to victory. 

Barack Obama had an almost unique ability to draw the support of traditional Democratic constituencies and independents.  Hillary Clinton doesn't have that ability.  By promising to take up Obama's mantle, she has made herself into a target which, in the general election, the vast right wing conspiracy will bombard with Super PAC funded ads highlighting her sworn fealty Obama.  Many of the Obama haters will turn against her, and vote for the other candidate.  Traditional Democratic constituencies may not be enough to elect her.  She's gained a short term advantage, but a long term problem.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Afraid of Another Financial Crisis? Watch the Banks

Financial crises like we had in 2008 before the Great Recession, and earlier in the 1930's before the Great Depression, are the triggers for big, long lasting economic downturns that require painfully long times from which to recover.  They differ from ordinary economic recessions (i.e., two quarters of negative economic growth), which generally don't last more than a couple of years and are usually followed by good levels of growth.  Financial crises are caused by liquidity shortages in the financial system.  When major banks and other financial institutions cannot obtain ready access to loans, especially short term loans, the financial system can teeter, and in worst case scenarios, collapse. 

Recent news articles report that European banks are under stress because of the decline in oil prices (, and because of low interest rates and legal costs, as well as oil prices (  Things got so shaky today that Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest, felt compelled to put out a statement reassuring shareholders about its financial condition.  If Europe's major banks begin to encounter liquidity shortfalls, we could have a problem.  If not addressed properly, it could be a big problem.

Europe's big banks are in general not as well capitalized as America's big banks, so it's not surprising that the Europeans might encounter turbulence sooner.  But if Europe's big banks teeter, America's big banks will, because of the interconnections between all major banks worldwide, at least feel pretty nauseated.  Of course, in such a scenario, the European Central Bank and U.S. Federal Reserve will mount up and ride to the rescue.  But not even the Brobdingnagian bailouts of 2008 prevented the Great Recession.

If the financial system stays sound, the slowdown in China and the other BRICS may cause a recession, but probably not a catastrophe.  But if the financial system dives into the septic tank, as it did in 2008, then we can expect a stinky mess.  So watch the banks.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How to Manipulate the Stock Market

The recent unusually close correlation between the price of oil and the prices of stocks offers an opportunity to manipulate the stock market.  A trader could purchase a large holding of stock index futures that would increase in value if the stock market rises, and then purchase oil futures contracts in rapid sequence in order to push up the price of oil.  The price jump in oil would, presumably, pump up stocks.  The stock index futures would rise in value and the trader could sell them for a quick profit.  An individual person couldn't do this, except one who is exceptionally wealthy.  But large hedge funds and other financial entities might have enough funding to pull this off.  It could be done in the U.S. markets, and some foreign markets (since the oil-stocks correlation isn't limited just to the U.S. markets).

Doing something like this could be seriously illegal.  Kids, don't try this at home, not unless you want to be a long term guest of the U.S. government at a facility not of your choosing.  But, as hardly needs to be said, not all participants in the financial markets observe the highest degree of fidelity to legal requirements.  Mega bucks could be made this way, and for some, money talks even if getting it involves stepping off the curb.  Hopefully, financial regulators worldwide are tuned into this possibility.  The recent exceptional volatility in the oil markets, and consequential sympathetic gyrations in stock prices, could raise the specter of shenanigans.  Some financial markets players are big thinkers, and will do very aggressive things to make big money.  Regulators need to think as big in order to keep up with them.