Category: Economy


A surprising number of my fellow citizens appear to be unaware of my service these past 18 months as a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Thus it may come as news that I have declined to sign the report issued by the majority, or the dissent by the three- member minority, or even the dissent from their dissent, written by the now-immortal Peter J. Wallison. I hereby dissent from the dissent from the dissent. My dissent is different from all those other dissents, which is why I am dissenting.

I do this, of course, not to call attention to myself. Still less do I seek to enhance the status of my application for employment with JPMorgan Chase. I seek merely to inform the general public of the true causes of our so-called financial crisis.

The task is not a simple one. In limiting me to a mere two pages at the end of their 633-page book, the majority and the other dissenters have suppressed not only several apt metaphors, but deep truths.

Here, in a far-too-brief executive summary, they are:

Financial Crisis Cause No. 1: Wall Street’s shifting demographics.

In the commission’s report Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke describes recent events as “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” The event, in other words, was unprecedented. To understand an event that has never before occurred, we must logically begin with those factors that have never before been present. On Wall Street, the most obvious such factor is women.

Distorted Judgment

Of course, the women who flooded into Wall Street firms before the crisis weren’t typically permitted to take big financial risks. As a rule they remained in the background, as “helpmates.” But their presence clearly distorted the judgment of male bond traders — though the mechanics of their influence remains unexplored by the commission (on which several women sat).

They may have compelled the male risk takers to “show off for the ladies,” for instance, or perhaps they merely asked annoying questions and undermined the risk takers’ confidence.

At any rate, one sure sign of the importance of women in the financial crisis is the market’s subsequent response: to purge women from senior Wall Street roles. Wall Street’s gender problem is, for the moment, of merely academic interest. Less academic is…

Moral Collapse

Financial Crisis Cause No. 2: The moral collapse of the American working class.

AIG head Robert Benmosche has recently pointed out that the reason his firm has enjoyed such great success is precisely because it has avoided selling insurance to the large number of Americans who believe, as Benmosche put it, “that the government is responsible for what happens to me.” (As we know, the government is responsible only for what happens to AIG).

The CEO of JPMorgan, Jamie Dimon, has often called our attention to the outrageous amount of banker bashing by Americans outside the financial sector, who seek to blame their troubles on others.

Wall Street leaders now understand that they made a mistake, one born of their innocent and trusting nature. They trusted ordinary Americans to behave more responsibly than they themselves ever would, and these ordinary Americans betrayed their trust.

Amazingly, these ordinary Americans don’t even appear to feel guilty for their actions. Like wild animals that have lost their fear of humans, they continue to wander down from the hills to rummage through our garbage cans for sustenance.

Best Subprime

Frankly, the commission’s report does nothing to improve public morals. In discussing the role of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, for instance, the report notes that the loans made by big banks to meet the act’s requirements — that is, loans to poor people in crap neighborhoods — outperformed, dramatically, the general run of subprime loans.

Such nitpicking merely obscures the critical point. For at least two centuries the U.S. government has encouraged people who didn’t work on Wall Street to think of themselves as “equal.” Government policies have emboldened ordinary Americans to borrow money they never intended to repay, just like rich people do, and cowed the financial elite into lending it to them. You can’t forget to bear-proof the garbage cans, and expect the bears won’t notice.

Along these same lines I cannot help but point out…

Blame China

Financial Crisis Cause No. 3: The Chinese.

The willingness of this remote and curious people to sell us goods at ridiculously low prices is disruptive. It encourages our poor to believe they can afford many items which they should not be able to, for instance. And the vast number of dollars these same Chinese people willingly lend to us at absurdly low rates of interest places an unfair burden on our financiers, who must find someplace to put them.

This is a far more difficult job than is commonly understood; it often leaves Wall Street people feeling overworked and underappreciated. If we want our financiers to perform even better than they do, we must cease to expect more from them than they can give.

Which brings me to…

Financial Crisis Cause No. 4: Upon our trusting, hard- working and underappreciated financiers we thrust the impossible task of overcoming impersonal historical forces.

The most distressing aspect of the commission’s report is its attempt to blame actual human beings for the financial crisis: fraudulent CDO managers, greedy ratings companies, Wall Street bond traders and, especially, Wall Street CEOs. Think about this: If everyone on Wall Street is guilty, how can anyone be? If no one on Wall Street saw it coming, how can anyone be expected to have seen it?

Details for Dummies

Anyway, as several Wall Street CEOs tried patiently to explain to the commission, the details were never their responsibility. Martin Sullivan, the CEO of AIG in the three years leading up to its near collapse, even went so far as to prove that he had no idea how much he’d been paid ($107 million).

The commission proved incapable of grasping the point: the rare man capable of running a big Wall Street firm remains focused on the big picture. And in the big picture, from the point of view of their firms and their earnings potential, the so-called financial crisis was a blip. They’ve already forgotten about it.

And they assume that, eventually, you will, too.

Source: Bloomberg

(Michael Lewis, most recently author of the best-selling “The Big Short,” is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

 

Global stocks plunged, extending a rout that wiped $5.3 trillion off market value this month, on concern Europe will struggle to contain its debt crisis and the U.S. economic recovery is faltering. Commodities slumped and bond risk surged.

The MSCI Asia Pacific Index declined 1.9 percent to 111.33 as of 11:04 a.m. in Tokyo, the lowest level since Aug. 21. Crude oil for July delivery dropped as much as 2.1 percent, to $69.31 a barrel. The cost of insuring Asia-Pacific bonds against non- payment soared to the highest in at least six months. The euro rallied from a four-year low, climbing 0.3 percent to $1.2517, on speculation governments will act to halt the currency’s slide.

Global equities are set for the biggest monthly decline in market value since October 2008 as confidence was rocked by Germany’s crackdown on speculation and plans to tighten U.S. finance industry regulation. Jobless claims in the world’s largest economy unexpectedly increased to 471,000 last week and the Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators posted a surprise drop of 0.1 percent. Continue reading

Investor Marc Faber said China’s economy will slow and possibly “crash” within a year as declines in stock and commodity prices signal the nation’s property bubble is set to burst.

The Shanghai Composite Index has failed to regain its 2009 high while industrial commodities and shares of Australian resource exporters are acting “heavy,” Faber said. The opening of the World Expo in Shanghai last week is “not a particularly good omen,” he said, citing a property bust and depression that followed the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna.

“The market is telling you that something is not quite right,” Faber, the publisher of the Gloom, Boom & Doom report, said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Hong Kong today. “The Chinese economy is going to slow down regardless. It is more likely that we will even have a crash sometime in the next nine to 12 months.”

An index tracking Chinese stocks traded in Hong Kong dropped 1.8 percent today, the most in two weeks, after the central bank raised reserve requirements for the third time this year. The Shanghai Composite has slumped 12 percent this year, Asia’s worst performer, as policy makers seek to rein in a lending boom that’s spurred record gains in property prices. China’s markets are shut for a holiday today.

Copper touched a seven-week low and BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s biggest mining company, fell the most since February on concern spending in the world’s third-largest economy will slow and after Australia boosted taxes on commodities producers. Rio Tinto Ltd., the third-largest, slid as much as 6 percent.

Chanos, Rogoff

Faber joins hedge fund manager Jim Chanos and Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff in warning of a crash in China.

China is “on a treadmill to hell” because it’s hooked on property development for driving growth, Chanos said in an interview last month. As much as 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product relies on construction, he said. Rogoff said in February a debt-fueled bubble in China may trigger a regional recession within a decade.

The government has banned loans for third homes and raised mortgage rates and down-payment requirements for second-home purchases. Prices rose 11.7 percent across 70 cities in March from a year earlier, the most since data began in 2005.

The government has stopped short of raising interest rates to contain property prices. Within an hour of the central bank announcement on reserve ratios, Finance Minister Xie Xurensaid that officials remained committed to expansionary policies to cement the nation’s recovery.

Stocks ‘Fully Priced’

The nation’s economy grew 11.9 percent in the first quarter, the fastest pace in almost three years. The government projects gross domestic product growth for the year of about 8 percent.

The clampdown on property speculation may prompt investors to turn to the nation’s stock market, Faber said. Still, shares are “fully priced” and Chinese investors may instead become “big buyers” of gold, he said.

BlackRock Inc. is among money managers reducing their holdings on Chinese stocks on expectations that economic growth has peaked. The BlackRock Emerging Markets Fund has widened its “underweight” position for China versus the MSCI Emerging Markets Index to about 7.5 percent from 4.6 percent at the end of March, the fund’s London-based co-manager Dan Tubbs said.

Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., China Construction Bank Corp. and Bank of China Ltd, the nation’s three largest banks, are trading near their lowest valuations on record as rising profits are eclipsed by concern bad loans will increase.

Local Governments

Citigroup Inc. warned in March that in a “worst case scenario,” the non-performing loans of local-government investment vehicles, used to channel money to stimulus projects, could swell to 2.4 trillion yuan by 2011.

Housing prices nationwide may fall as much as 20 percent in the second half of the year on government measures to curb speculation, BNP Paribas said April 23. Under a stress test conducted by the Shanghai branch of the China Banking Regulatory Commission in February, local banks’ ratio of delinquent mortgages would triple should home prices in the country’s commercial center decline 10 percent.

Shanghai is projecting as many as 70 million visitors to the $44 billion World Expo, more than 10 times the number who traveled to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. More than 433,000 people visited the 5.3 square-kilometer (3.3 square-mile) park on its first weekend.

Source: Bloomberg

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rebuffed calls for the yuan to appreciate and said his nation opposed “finger-pointing” on currencies.

“I don’t think the yuan is undervalued,” Wen said at a press conference in Beijing marking the end of China’s annual parliamentary meetings. “A stable renminbi exchange rate in the midst of the global financial crisis has played an important role in the global economic recovery.”

U.S. President Barack Obama is pressing for a stronger Chinese currency as part of efforts to rebalance the global economy. Central bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said March 6 that while crisis policies, including the yuan’s peg to the dollar, will end “sooner or later,” China must be cautious on the timing.

“We oppose countries’ pointing fingers at each other and even forcing a country to appreciate its currency, because that won’t help renminbi exchange-rate reform,” Wen said, using another word for the yuan.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said global economic growth would be about 1.5 percentage points higher if China stopped restraining the value of its currency and running trade surpluses.

Twelve-month non-deliverable yuan forwards climbed 0.3 percent to 6.6290 per dollar last week, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gain was the most in two months.

Yuan Appreciation

The yuan’s spot rate rose 21 percent between July 2005 and July 2008, when the government halted its advance to protect exports. The central bank may allow the currency to strengthen 3.4 percent to 6.6 yuan per dollar by the end of this year, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 analysts.

Krugman said China’s currency policy has a “depressing effect” on economic growth in the U.S., Europe and Japan, as measured by gross domestic product. If China’s currency, the yuan, were not undervalued, it would have a “significant” impact on the global recovery, he said in a March 12 speech in Washington.

“If we could get some change in China’s currency policy, it would help the world,” Krugman said.

Source: Bloomberg

Federal Reserve officials said record-low interest ratesmight fuel “excessive” speculation in financial markets and possibly dislodge expectations for low inflation, according to minutes of their meeting released today.

“Members noted the possibility that some negative side effects might result from the maintenance of very low short-term interest rates for an extended period,” minutes of the Nov. 3-4 meeting said, “including the possibility that such a policy stance could lead to excessive risk-taking in financial markets or an unanchoring of inflation expectations.”

While policy makers agreed that the chances of such effects were “relatively low, they would remain alert to these risks,” the minutes showed. Fed officials at their meeting indicated the benchmark lending rate would remain near zero “for an extended period” as long as inflation expectations are stable and unemploymentfails to decline.

Gold prices touched an all-time high of $1,174 an ounce in New York yesterday as a slumping dollar boosted the appeal of alternative assets. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index has jumped 63 percent since its 2009 low on March 9, and the U.S. auctioned $44 billion of two-year debt yesterday at a yield of 0.802 percent, the lowest ever.

“They are walking the fine line,” said Alan Levenson, chief economist at T. Rowe Price Group Inc., in a Bloomberg Television interview. “They like the asset inflation now for what it does for consumers’ pocket books and ability to spend.” They need to prevent higher spending from fueling a rise in prices, he said. Continue reading