Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Left/Right No More

If you see the world in terms of Left & Right, you really aren’t seeing the world at all . . .

Every generation or so, a major secular shift takes place that shakes up the existing paradigm. It happens in industry, finance, literature, sports, manufacturing, technology, entertainment, travel, communication, etc.

I would like to discuss the paradigm shift that is occurring in politics.

For a long time, American politics has been defined by a Left/Right dynamic. It was Liberals versus Conservatives on a variety of issues. Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice, Tax Cuts vs. More Spending, Pro-War vs Peaceniks, Environmental Protections vs. Economic Growth, Pro-Union vs. Union-Free, Gay Marriage vs. Family Values, School Choice vs. Public Schools, Regulation vs. Free Markets.

The new dynamic, however, has moved past the old Left Right paradigm. We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual. These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts. Where there is massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power. The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

This may not be a brilliant insight, but it is surely an overlooked one. It is now an Individual vs. Corporate debate – and the Humans are losing.


• Many of the regulations that govern energy and banking sector were written by Corporations;

• The biggest influence on legislative votes is often Corporate Lobbying;

• Corporate ability to extend copyright far beyond what original protections amounts to a taking of public works for private corporate usage;

• PAC and campaign finance by Corporations has supplanted individual donations to elections;

• The individuals’ right to seek redress in court has been under attack for decades, limiting their options.

• DRM and content protection undercuts the individual’s ability to use purchased content as they see fit;

• Patent protections are continually weakened. Deep pocketed corporations can usurp inventions almost at will;

• The Supreme Court has ruled that Corporations have Free Speech rights equivalent to people; (So much for original intent!)

None of these are Democrat/Republican conflicts, but rather, are corporate vs. individual issues.

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture. Consider this about the Bailouts: It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make? Almost none whatsoever.

How about government spending? The past two presidents are regarded as representative of the Left Right paradigm – yet they each spent excessively, sponsored unfunded tax cuts, plowed money into military adventures and ran enormous deficits. Does Left Right really make a difference when it comes to deficits and fiscal responsibility? (Apparently not).

What does it mean when we can no longer distinguish between the actions of the left and the right? If that dynamic no longer accurately distinguishes what occurs, why are so many of our policy debates framed in Left/Right terms?

In many ways, American society is increasingly less married to this dynamic: Party Affiliation continues to fall, approval of Congress is at record lows, and voter participation hovers at very low rates.

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power: Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users). Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn. I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek? Friedman vs Krugman? Those are the wrong intellectual debates. Its you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO, You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO. And you are losing . . .

By Barry Rithholtz

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bye Bye Summers

Good Riddance

The good news: Summers is gone Jan 1 (no word yet on Geithner).

The bad news? I am not sure what (if any) impact this will have on the administration’s economic policies.

To review: Summers is the former Clinton Treasury Secretary, mentored by Robert Rubin. As such, he was one of (many) architects of the financial crisis. In addition to believing all of the usual foolishness about efficient markets, he bought into the radical deregulation arguments pushed by the free market absolutists.

Summers was the Treasury Secretary when Glass Steagall was repealed. Instead of speaking out against the irresponsible Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999) that allowed the Financialization of America to progress, he actively supported it. Instead of explaining to the public how Glass Steagall had prevented every Wall Street crisis since the Great Depression from spilling over onto Main Street, he rolled over for Citibank.

Understand that the repeal of Glass Steagall was not a cause of the crisis. But, it allowed the net damage to be far greater and extend far wider than it would have otherwise been. From a libertarian perspective, it was emblematic of the corporate takeover of the legislative process. For a hefty fee (aka campaign donation) you could pretty much write the regulations that covered your own industry. How could that ever go wrong?

Summers oversaw the passage of the even more ruinous Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. The CFMA exempted all financial derivatives from any and all regulatory oversight. The CFMA not made the AIG collapse possible, it made it highly likely. It helped to set up both the Lehman and Bear Stearns’ collapses. The CFMA allowed AIG FP to write over $3 trillion in derivatives, reserving precisely zero dollars in case these insurance policy-like obligations had to be paid out.

Failing upwards: When Obama appointment the Rubin duo of Summers and Geithner, it a perverse reward for a job done poorly. The two were creatures of the banking system, and were unlikely to do anything that threatened the existing order. Even worse, it created a dynamic where the new administration was committed to defending the policies that helped to contribute to the crisis in the first place. Instead of To Hell with the Banks, Save the Banking System, we got the exact reverse. This was Rubin’s lasting gift to the Obama White House: A third term for George W. Bush’s economic policies. When Obama becomes a one-termer, it will be his own fault for following this horrific economic advice.

Summers was incapable of saying, let’s repeal the Glass Steagall Repeal; lets overturn CFMA. Rather than fix what was broken, he stayed committed to the same bad ideas that led to crisis and collapse. Most humans have a hard time saying: “My bad, let’s just reverse the error and start over.” By putting into senior positions the people who helped create the mess, we ended up with a defense of the decision making that proceeded, instead of a fresh approach. Summers was a defender of the status quo. This was not change we could believe in — it was simply more of the same.

The Bush administration gave us the bailouts of Bear Stearns, Fannie & Frediie, AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Goldmasn Sachs, et. al. The hope that a new White House would change the course was quickly dashed by the new old Economic team. Obama lacked the will or the understanding or the nerve to break with those Bush policies. That was his ultimate error. Instead of imprinting the failures of the prior administration on his predecessor, instead of making Bush own what he in fact did, Obama wrongly adopted them. Thus, he made the bailouts in large part his own. Huge mistake — and one that was inevitable with Summers large and in charge of White House Economic policy.

The Obama White House correctly forced the insolvent automakers into bankruptcy reorganization. They should have done the same with the insolvent banks and investment firms. That was impossible with the banker’s boys running the White House economic policy: The Rubin/Summers/Geithner team made sure that did not happen.

As Allan Meltzer stated, “Capitalism without failure is like religion without sin—it just doesn’t work.” The change people voted for never appeared, and the Summers led economic team gave us two more years of Bush bailout policies. For that humongous error, his departure is a welcome change.

By Barry Ritholtz - September 22nd, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010


By Barry Rithholtz

Each year, I try to avoid writing anything about 9/11. But I had some issues to work through this year, and I find jotting a few notes down helps me.

My personal experience on 9/11 was secondhand. I was in the LI office of the firm where I was Market Strategist. Our HQ and trading desk was in 2 WTC. As events unfolded, I got my head trader on the phone, and he gave me a full play by play of what occurred in real time for about 2 hours. I put all that down on paper, and with his approval, published it the next day: A Personal Recollection From a Day of Horror (September 12th, 2001).

Its actually Bill’s story, I was merely the scribe. I know the day left its mark on him, and he has struggled with what I can’t even imagine.
Even today, nearly a decade later, I find the entire retrospective “event” that occurs each year to be maudlin: The roll call of lost colleagues and friends; the tragedy porn that the media rolls out; I especially detest terror tourism down at the WTC site. The whole thing makes me more angry than sad.
But as a life long New Yorker, I am still frustrated over how the 9/11 event was mishandled — the ignored warnings, the invasion of the wrong country after, the bastardization of what the USA stands for, the lack of accountability for all these major errors of incalculable incompetency. The response was so far beneath what this nation is truly capable of that is still greatly saddens me, even today.
To release those demons, I wrote this on Election Eve 2004:

On September 11th, George W. Bush was presented one of those rare and horrible historical moments. The terrorist attacks united the country and the world around the President: His approval rating skyrocketed to 90%. Even the French Prime Minister announced, “Tonight, we are all Americans.”

The historical opportunity was laid at the feet of the President. With a unified country behind him and a sympathetic world willing to cooperate with him in just about every imaginable way, he could have achieved monumental greatness: He could have asked for great sacrifices from the populace, and they would have willingly made them. At that moment, any reach across the aisle would have been fruitful on a number of vexing issues. A bipartisan approach to any political problem at home – cutting pork out of domestic policies, reforming Social Security, renovating the tax code – could have been accomplished in a bipartisan spirit of strengthening the economy and defending the country. He might have even done something about our education system so, in truth, no child would be left behind.

One would imagine that a man elected under what can be charitably described as “inauspicious circumstances” – with nary a mandate in sight – might have taken the 9/11 tragedy as an opportunity to move to the center, putting aside partisan political differences, and governing “all the people.” To be, in fact, truly a “uniter,” not a “divider.”

Alas, it was not to be.

When people ask why I dislike the presidency of George W. Bush, it was that colossal failure to rise to greatness on that occasion, and indeed, to engage in a series of decisions that — not in retrospect, but at the time — reflected terribly poor judgment.

Unlike many others, I only blame W in small part for ignoring the warning pre-9/11. there were lots of false positive warnings, so claiming he should have recognized how serious that one was is much easier to do in hindsight.

But for the catastrophic series of decisions that he made following 9/11, I hold him 100% accountable.

This is not about partisanship — its about recognizing a terrible tragedy that was compounded through bad judgment and even worse governing.

Indeed, my feelings about 9/11 have morphed from sadness over the tragic loss of loved ones into frustration and beyond. Even now, the anger rises over the unwillingness to hold the past administration accountable for their many sins.