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Uncle Sam, You Sly Devil!
Is the US Facing a Cash Crunch?
Gaming the US Tax Payer
Manufacturing a Minsky Melt-Up
Hitting the Maturity Wall
An Accounting Driven
Market Recovery

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POSTS: Friday, 01-21-2011
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TIPPING POINTS

Research Process

Process of Abstraction

1- Sovereign Debt Crisis
2-EU Banking Crisis
3 - Bond Bubble
4 - State & Local Government
5 - Risk Reversal
 
6 - Residential Real Estate -
Phase II
7 - Commercial Real Estate
8 - Central & Eastern Europe
9 - Chronic Unemployment
10 - US Banking Crisis II
11 - Pension - Entitlement Crisis
12 - North & South Korea
 
13 - Public Policy MIscues
14 - Rising Interest Pressures
15 - Food Price Pressures
16 - US Stock Market Valuations
17- Finance & Insurance Balance Sheet Write-Offs
18 - Japan Debt Deflation Spiral
19 -Cedit Contraction II
 
20 - US Reserve Currency
21 - US Fiscal, Trade and Account ImBalances
22 - China Bubble
23- Government Backstop Insurance
24 - Corporate Bankruptcies
25 - Slowing Retail & Consumer Sales
26 - Public Sentiment & Confidence
27 - Shrinking Revenue Growth Rate
28 - US Dollar Weakness
29 -Global Output Gap
30 - Oil Price Pressures
31 -Natural Disaster
32 - Pandemic
33 - Iran Nuclear Threat
34 - Crisis Programs Expiration
35 - Terrorist Event

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TIPPING POINTS

"The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point"

The tipping point is the critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. The term is said to have originated in the field of epidemiology when an infectious disease reaches a point beyond any local ability to control it from spreading more widely. A tipping point is often considered to be a turning point. The term is now used in many fields. Journalists apply it to social phenomena, demographic data, and almost any change that is likely to lead to additional consequences. Marketers see it as a threshold that, once reached, will result in additional sales. In some usage, a tipping point is simply an addition or increment that in itself might not seem extraordinary but that unexpectedly is just the amount of additional change that will lead to a big effect. In the butterfly effect of chaos theory , for example, the small flap of the butterfly's wings that in time leads to unexpected and unpredictable results could be considered a tipping point. However, more often, the effects of reaching a tipping point are more immediately evident. A tipping point may simply occur because a critical mass has been reached.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a book by Malcolm Gladwell, first published by Little Brown in 2000. Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." The book seeks to explain and describe the "mysterious" sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do."

The three rules of epidemics

Gladwell describes the "three rules of epidemics" (or the three "agents of change") in the tipping points of epidemics.

  • Connectors are the people who "link us up with the world ... people with a special gift for bringing the world together." They are "a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [... for] making friends and acquaintances". He characterizes these individuals as having social networks of over one hundred people. To illustrate, Gladwell cites the following examples: the midnight ride of Paul Revere, Milgram's experiments in the small world problem, the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" trivia game, Dallas businessman Roger Horchow, and Chicagoan Lois Weisberg, a person who understands the concept of the weak tie. Gladwell attributes the social success of Connectors to "their ability to span many different worlds [... as] a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy."
  • Mavens are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information." They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell cites Mark Alpert as a prototypical Maven who is "almost pathologically helpful", further adding, "he can't help himself". In this vein, Alpert himself concedes, "A Maven is someone who wants to solve other people's problems, generally by solving his own". According to Gladwell, Mavens start "word-of-mouth epidemics" due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate. As Gladwell states, "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know".
  • Salesmen are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them. Gladwell's examples include California businessman Tom Gau and news anchor Peter Jennings, and he cites several studies about the persuasive implications of non-verbal cues, including a headphone nod study (conducted by Gary Wells of the University of Alberta and Richard Petty of the University of Missouri) and William Condon's cultural microrhythms study.

 

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

 

PROCESS OF ABSTRACTION

 

 

SOVEREIGN DEBT & CREDIT CRISIS

 

FOOD PRICE PRESSURES

RICE: Abdolreza Abbassian, at the FAO in Rome, says the price of rice, one of the two most critical staples for global food security, remains below the peaks of 2007-08, providing breathing space for 3bn people in poor countries. Rice prices hit $1,050 a tonne in May 2008, but now trade at about $550 a tonne.

WHEAT: The cost of wheat, the other staple critical for global food security, is rising, but has not yet surpassed the highs of 2007-08. US wheat prices peaked at about $450 a tonne in early 2008. They are now trading just under $300 a tonne.

The surge in the FAO food index is principally on the back of rising costs for corn, sugar, vegetable oil and meat, which are less important than rice and wheat for food-insecure countries such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Haiti. At the same time, local prices in poor countries have been subdued by good harvests in Africa and Asia.

US STOCK MARKET VALUATIONS

SHRINKING REVENUE GROWTH RATES

PIMCO'S NEW NORMAL: According to PIMCO, the coiners of the term, the new normal is also explained as an environment wherein “the snapshot for ‘consensus expectations’ has shifted: from traditional bell-shaped curves – with a high likelihood mean and thin tails (indicating most economists have similar expectations) – to a much flatter distribution of outcomes with fatter tails (where opinion is divided and expectations vary considerably).” That is to say, the distribution of forecasts has become more uniform (as per Exhibit 1).

 

January 19's S&P 500 decline of just over 1% was the first of its kind since before Thanksgiving. The index held out just long enough to eclipse the 36-trading day period without a 1% decline back in March and April of last year. The 37-day streak that just came to an end was the longest since May 2007. But 37 trading days without a 1% decline is nothing compared to the 94 trading days seen back in 2006. While volatility has dropped quite a bit over the past few months, it's still nothing compared to the quiet trading seen for multiple years in the middle of the last decade.

The "Dirty Dozen"

  1. Executive compensation is so profoundly perverse that it is intensely criminogenic, but the administration has opposed the FDIC's modest efforts to reduce the problem. (Both Treasury officials on the FDIC Board voted against the FDIC proposed rule to limit the perverse incentives of modern executive compensation.
  2. Professional compensation is equally perverse. Bank CEOs created the perverse incentives that produced "echo" epidemics of fraud by appraisers, loan brokers, and mortgage bankers. Bank CEOs deliberately create a "Gresham's" dynamic in order to create the perverse incentives that have routinely allowed them to suborn successfully "independent" professionals and turn them into fraud allies. As long as the CEO can hire and fire the independent professional he can succeed in suborning some of the professionals -- and "some" is ample. Then Attorney General Cuomo's investigation, for example, found that Washington Mutual kept a black list of appraisers -- but appraisers were black listed if they refused to inflate the appraisals. (It is critical that the reader understand the significance of this finding. Only the lender and its agents can extort the appraiser in order to secure an inflated value. No honest lender would inflate, or permit the inflation of, appraised values. Appraisal fraud is a superb "marker" of accounting control fraud.) Dodd-Frank has some provisions seeking to improve appraisals and credit rating agencies, but the essential "gap" that must be closed now is the ability of the CEO to pick the independent professionals.
  3. Honest accounting is the prerequisite effective financial regulation. The administration stood by while Bernanke, the Chamber of Commerce, and the specialized bank lobbyists used Congress to extort the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to pervert the accounting rules so that banks would not have to recognize their losses. The administration knows that perverting the accounting rules in this manner harms the public in many ways. Not recognizing losses creates fictional bank income and capital. Banks that are deeply insolvent and unprofitable are able to claim to be solvent and profitable. This allows the banks to evade the Prompt Corrective Action law and makes it more difficult for regulators to prevent expensive bank failures. It also allows the controlling officers to pay the officers tens of billions of dollars in bonuses that the officers have not earned. The same accounting scam makes the administration's (self) vaunted "stress tests" a sham. Obama can end the banks' accounting scams and end these anti-regulatory disasters at any time because banking regulators have the power to impose regulatory accounting principles that would restore honest accounting and restore effective bank regulation. I shouldn't have to keep emphasizing this, but honesty in accounting is also essential to integrity - and integrity is essential to everything.
  4. The accounting scams combined with the Fed's secret bailouts of insolvent U.S. and foreign banks also allowed the administration to enter into a cynical gambit on TARP. The continuing Fed's subsidies are far larger than TARP. Bank CEOs were eager to get out of the TARP restrictions on executive compensation. The administration was eager to claim (A) that it had resolved the banking crisis, and (B) that it did so for a pittance. The accounting cover up of bank losses combined with the Fed subsidies were the perfect (political) answer that met the banks' and the administration's greatest desires. The combination allowed the banks to repay TARP. The banks got to hide their losses, receive large subsidies and cheap liquidity from the Fed, and report fictional profits that allowed them to repay the TARP funds and pay large bonuses to their officers. The administration got to make the absurd claim that it had resolved the largest banking crisis in U.S. (measured in absolute dollars) for a pittance (roughly20 billion). (The real economy and real estate losses in the many trillions of dollars produced20 billion in bank losses. "Too good to be true" hardly does justice to the absurdity of Geithner's claims that he "resolved" the failures virtually without cost.) The combination of covering up and secretly subsidizing the SDI's losses also explains the SDIs' unwillingness to lend to the real economy. It's safer to borrow funds from the Fed at next to nothing, buy bonds, and clip coupons. This perverse dynamic is one of the important factors, along with fraud, that has made the economic recovery so weak. We are following the failed Japanese strategy.
  5. The Fed is an "obvious gap" in regulation. The Fed has consistently sought to prevent the Congress and the public from learning the disgraceful facts of its bailouts and subsidies of the most undeserving rich in modern history. TARP did not resolve failures. The failures have been covered up and subsidized by the Fed. There is an urgent need to regulate the Fed. The Fed has a consistent record of regulatory failure and is actively hostile to transparency. During Obama's term in office, Bernanke appointed as the head of all Fed examination and supervision an economist with no experience as an examiner or regulator. The economist is a strong proponent of the anti-regulatory economic philosophy that completely failed. Greenspan used him as the agency spokesman before Congress supporting the passage of the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 - the Act that created the multiple regulatory black holes that allowed the frauds that caused the California energy crisis of 2001 and contributed to the frauds that drove the ongoing financial crisis.
  6. The Fed's regional banks have private directors with untenable conflicts of interest. The U.S. has already reached the policy decision in 1989 that such conflicts pose an unacceptable danger of producing ineffective regulation when it enacted FIRREA, which removed any conceivable authority of the private directors over the regulatory process.
  7. The administration could end the obvious gap in regulation known as the "too big to fail" doctrine at any time by adopting regulations that would stop the systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) from growing and shrink them to the scale they would no longer pose a systemic risk within five years. (These regulatory gaps interact - many of the SDIs are insolvent yet are paying extraordinary bonuses to the officers that caused their massive, unrecognized, losses.) Instead, of shrinking the SDIs, the administration encouraged the SDIs to grow even larger and pose greater systemic risk. The administration opposed efforts to amend the Dodd-Frank bill to require the end of the SDIs. Remember, it is the administration that is telling us that there are 20 U.S. banks so large that as soon as the next one fails it is likely to trigger a systemic crisis. It is insane to roll the dice twenty times a day waiting for the next world crisis. The SDIs are one of those "obvious gaps" that the administration doesn't find it politically correct to "address." Effectively regulating the SDIs would be the antithesis of the administration's campaign to ingratiate themselves with the SDIs.
  8. The administration could end the scandal of the lack of prosecution of the accounting control frauds that created the epidemic of mortgage fraud that hyper-inflated the largest bubble in history and drove the financial crisis and the Great Recession. Effective prosecutions against elite bank frauds are possible only with effective regulation and supervision. We know that the banking regulatory agencies - which made well over 10,000 criminal referrals in response to the far smaller S&L debacle (producing over 1000 felony convictions in "major" cases against elites - made no, or a handful of criminal referrals in response to this crisis. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) made zero criminal referrals during the crisis. The FDIC apparently made a very small number of criminal referrals, probably not against elites. It is unknown whether the Fed made any criminal referrals. There is no evidence it made any significant criminal referrals. The banking regulators' dereliction of their duties to make criminal referrals is so complete that the FBI formed a "partnership" with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) - the trade association of the perps - rather than with the banking regulators. Unsurprisingly, the MBA claimed that the banks were the victims of borrowers and junior officers rather than the CEOs who knowingly created the perverse incentives that drove the epidemic of mortgage fraud.
  9. Only 25 banks - during an "epidemic" of mortgage fraud - made any significant number of criminal referrals, and none of those referrals appear to have been made against the senior bank officers that caused those frauds. Federal rules mandate that the banks file criminal referrals against suspected mortgage fraud, so the data demonstrate endemic regulatory violations by banks. The data also demonstrate that the banks overwhelmingly did not want the FBI to prosecute the mortgage frauds. There is one obvious reason why the banks' CEOs would be willing to violate a legal mandate to file criminal referrals. I have not found any evidence that the banking regulatory actions have brought enforcement actions against the banks committing these obvious, endemic violations of the law. The mortgage bankers and brokers were not federally insured and therefore were not subject to the rules mandating that they file criminal referrals when they found suspicious activities likely indicating mortgage fraud. The mortgage bankers and brokers, however, were permitted to file criminal referrals. Their nearly universal failure to do so was irrational for honest lenders and brokers - but optimal for control frauds. The administration has allowed the collapse of the criminal referral system within the regulatory agencies, and almost all lenders to continue on its watch. It could fix the scandal of elite bankers being able to loot with impunity without adopting any rules. Each collapse constitutes an "obvious gap" that urgently requires Obama's attention.
  10. The Mortgage Electronic Registration Service (MERS) is unregulated. MERS, at best, was a system designed to evade county recorder fees. No one - and that includes MERS' controlling officials - knows the true condition of the mortgage instruments that MERS is supposed to be registering. At best, it is a scandal that threatens the stability of homeowners and holders of instruments that are supposed to be secured by mortgages. MERS is an "obvious gap" in regulatory protections that demonstrates once more the wealth and job destroying consequences of the "completely failed" anti-regulatory philosophy that Obama promised to root out.
  11. The foreclosure scandal revealed an "obvious gap" in regulatory protections - no one regulates the foreclosure process. (The underlying epidemic of accounting control fraud by the nonprime mortgage lenders generated the "echo" epidemic of foreclosure fraud.) Bank of America, the second largest financial institution in America, acquired Countrywide in order to secure its personnel and its mortgage servicing portfolio. Countrywide was notorious for its fraudulent and predatory mortgage lending practices. Placing its employees in charge of servicing - the banking operation that controls the foreclosure process - guaranteed epic abuses. (Bank of America also managed to generate pervasive foreclosure abuses out of the staff it had prior to acquiring Countrywide.) Bank of America personnel, and personnel of other major servicers, eventually confessed that their foreclosure actions relied on massive, universal perjury (a felony). These "robo signing" crimes occurred at a frequency of roughly 10,000 monthly at more than one large servicer. Our most elite banks have confessed to committing hundreds of thousands of felonies.
  12. Fannie and Freddie. These entities are twisting slowly in the wind. Private and regulatory leadership have been ineffective and have lacked courage. I'll mention only two areas. Fannie and Freddie used some of the most abusive foreclosure law firms in existence. Citicorp's key mortgage credit guy testified many months ago before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) that 80% of Citi's mortgages sold to Fannie and Freddie were sold under false "reps and warranties." The Citicorp official's warnings to his superiors about this extreme incidence of fraud did not lead to corrective action, so the official cc'd Rubin on key correspondence. Naturally, Citi responded by firing the whistleblower rather than the frauds. If Fannie and Freddie put the bad paper back to Citi, then Citi would be insolvent and Rubin would face serious risks. Fannie and Freddie have put only relatively small amounts of Citi's paper back to Citi. (Note that the extreme incidence of fraud, and a similar incidence has been shown in Countrwide mortgage paper, again demonstrates how completely failed the anti-regulatory model is.) I have explained previously why Fannie and Freddie, because of their large holdings of nonprime paper from many originators and their dealings with credit rating agencies, offer unique data bases and opportunities for research to document exactly what wrong and how the fraud epidemic, bubble, and financial crisis grew and spread. This is a more subtle, but enormously important and dangerous regulatory gap.

 

Volatility has spiked:

And the market is touching its 10-day moving average for the first time in ages.

 

 

The state budget crisis will continue next year, and it could be worse than ever. That's part of what's freaking out muni investors, who last week dumped them like they haven't in ages.

States face a $112.3 billion gap for next year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If the shortfall grows during the year -- as it does in most years -- FY2012 will approach the record $191 billion gap of 2010. Remember, with each successive shortfall state budgets have become more bare.

Things could be especially bad if House Republicans push through a plan to cut off non-security discretionary funding for states, opening an additional $32 billion gap. 

MUNI BOND OUTFLOWS

NYT: State Bankruptcy Option Is Sought, Quietly.

Basically at the behest of Newt Gingrich, Senators and Congressmen in DC are looking for a new law that would allow states to declare bankruptcy and restructure their debts including to (actually especially to) unionized public workers.

Inverted chart of 30-year Treasury yields courtesy of Doug Short and Chris Kimble. As you can see, yields are at a "support" area that's held for 17 years.

If it breaks down (i.e., yields break out) watch out!