Archive for the ‘risk’ Category
David Rosenberg And A Few Good Economic Observations: "Can You Handle The Truth?" His 2010 "Outlook"
Courtesy of David Rosenberg of Gluskin-Sheff
It’s that time of the year when ‘sell-side’ research departments publish their Year-Ahead Reports (as I once did in the not-too-distant past); as do all the financial magazines.
I realized after countless emails and phone conversations (in that order) that there is a very high expectation that I publish one too. I honestly have no intention of publishing a specific set of forecasts in my current role as the Chief Economist and Strategist for Gluskin Sheff for public consumption — the granularity of my recommendations is reserved for our Investment team and our client base. Be that as it may, I am more than happy to comment on what I see as an emerging consensus and my general view on the direction of the economy and the markets in the coming year without getting into too much detail or numerical forecasts, which are the domain of the ‘sell-side’ macro teams globally.
At the outset, let it be known that when I read everyone else’s year-ahead prognostications, all I can think of is, “where do I store this stuff for a year so I can look back and say ‘That was so wrong!’.” It’s not that the reports are always bullish every year; it is that they seem so contrived. And, as I mentioned in the December 10th edition of Breakfast with Dave, this year, probably like most years, there seems to be a remarkable level of agreement. Based on my reading, here is what I conclude the consensus views are as we head into 2010:
- Muted recovery, but positive growth, for sure! No risk of a ‘double dip’.
- Equity markets up!
- A barbell strategy of domestic multinational blue chips and emerging market equities.
The U.S. dollar is…neutral, but we did locate more bulls than bears (so much for the ‘carry trade’ thesis).
- Positive on commodities for the most part.
- Concerned about government balance sheets, and therefore…
- …Bearish on long term government bonds because they are the ‘competition’ and, after all, who would tie their money up for 10 years at 3.5% when you can lose 22% in stocks? And, therefore…
- …Bullish on spread product (as long as it’s not long-term). And, therefore…
- …Really comfortable with high yield (just for the coupon and the view that default rates will come down).
- Certain that volatility will not be an impediment.
- The Fed will begin to raise rates in the second half of the year, but that this will have no impact since they will still be low.
So here we are with a glorious opportunity to reintroduce Bob Farrell’s Rule 8: “When all forecasts and experts agree, something else is going to happen.”
That being said, these economists and strategists, many of whom I know, are smart guys (and gals) and they are human. To ‘talk your book’ is human; to have the courage to ‘buck the consensus’ is divine. I too am human; I also like to feel that I have courage of my convictions; and I too have a “book” (of sorts — it’s called reputation). But I have decided to take the opportunity of the “Year-Ahead Moment” to transition from sell-side to buy-side and more importantly, to reflect on the past year and really try to prognosticate from the gut. You would be surprised how a blend of intuition and experience can make a difference in a cycle like the one we are in that has absolutely nothing in common with the other recessions of the post-WWII era.
Forecasting is a humbling profession even in the best of times and I have learned a lot in the past year, especially from my partners here at Gluskin Sheff who realizes all too well that:
1. It is what is embedded in asset prices benchmarked against the forecast that is of utmost importance for investors;
2. The focus of any forecast must take into account the reality that minimizing portfolio risks is at least as critical as maximizing the returns, and;
3. Every forecast has an error term and the range around any projection in a post-bubble credit collapse can be extremely wide.
I do not view the economic events of the last two years as a classic recession/recovery phase. They only exist in the context of a secular credit expansions and contractions. We are in a post-credit bubble credit collapse that is ongoing, à la Bob Farrell’s Rule 4: “Exponential rapidly rising or falling markets usually go further than you think, but they do not correct by going sideways.”
Mainstream economists called this downturn “The Great Recession”. This is truly a gentle way of saying “Depression”. When we can have the courage to come to grips with the fact that we did in fact experience a depression of sorts, which is by definition a credit event, then and only then can we draw a conclusion that a sustainable recovery will not get underway until the ratio of household credit to personal disposable income reverts to the mean (and goes to an excess in the opposite direction). I know it sounds harsh, but we shall endure — believe it. Transition is rarely without pain.
The ratio of household debt to disposable income is up from a 30% ratio back in the 1950s to 125% today (though down from 139% at the peak in 2007). Mean reverting to a ratio closer to 60% means that the deleveraging process will be a multi-year event and by the time it is over, more than $7 trillion in additional household credit will have to be extinguished. For more on this see the unbelievably grotesque article on the front page of last Thursday’s (December 10) Wall Street Journal — The New American Dream.
Perhaps inflation is a consensus forecast but deflation is the present day reality and often lingers for years following a busted asset and credit bubble of the magnitude we have endured over the past two years. The fact that China’s voracious appetite for basic materials will continue to exert upward pressure on commodity prices does not detract from this view, especially given the widespread excess capacity in the manufacturing sector and the new frugality that has gripped, and in many cases, been embraced by the retail sector. Higher raw material prices, owing to developments in Asia as opposed to demand pressures here at home, will prove to be a sustained source of profit margin compression for many sectors and companies linked to finished consumer goods and services.
So, much of what I have read in various Year-Ahead Reports predict corporate earnings, GDP growth here and abroad, interest rates and relative values of currencies. As I mentioned earlier, the error term is bound to be very wide in this new paradigm (since WWII) of a secular credit collapse. GDP growth in 1934 was 10%, but the Depression wasn’t over until 1940.
Since 1989, the Japanese stock market has had no fewer than four 50%-plus rallies and there still has been no period of growth that can be called a sustained expansion. Today, we have our own special set of conditions and it is bound to be tricky as is typical during a post-bubble credit collapse, no matter how intense the government reaction. Prematurely committing to the ‘risk’ trade is probably going to be the most lamentable action over the next few years.
Suffice it to say, we believe that the dominant focus will be on capital preservation and income orientation, whether that be in bonds, hybrids, hedge fund strategies, and a consistent focus on reliable dividend growth and dividend yield would seem to be in order. To reiterate, I see the range of outcomes in the financial markets and the economy to be extremely wide at the current time. But one conclusion I think we can agree on is the need to maintain defensive strategies and minimize volatility and downside risks as well as to focus on where the secular fundamentals are positive such, as in fixed-income and in equity sectors that lever off the commodity sector.
This, in turn, underscores my primary focus of favouring Canadian dollar based investments over the U.S. because at no time in my professional life have the downside risks — economic, fiscal, financial and political — been so low on a relative basis and the upside potential so high as is the case today. The near-2,000 basis point gap this year between the TSX and the S&P 500 — the former leading — should be taken in the context of being just past the halfway point of a secular (ie, 16-18 year) period of outperformance. Northern exposure never felt this hot.
Woman Who Invented Credit Default Swaps is One of the Key Architects of Carbon Derivatives, Which Would Be at the Very CENTER of Cap and Trade
I have written hundreds of articles documenting that unregulated, speculative derivatives (especially credit default swaps) are a primary cause of the economic crisis.
And I have pointed out that (1) the giant banks will make a killing on carbon trading, (2) while the leading scientist
crusading against global warming says it won’t work, and (3) there is a
very high probability of massive fraud and insider trading in the
carbon trading markets.
Now, Bloomberg notes that the carbon trading scheme will be centered around derivatives:
banks are preparing to do with carbon what they’ve done before: design
and market derivatives contracts that will help client companies hedge
their price risk over the long term. They’re also ready to sell
carbon-related financial products to outside investors.
Masters says banks must be allowed to lead the way if a mandatory
carbon-trading system is going to help save the planet at the lowest
possible cost. And derivatives related to carbon must be part of the
mix, she says. Derivatives are securities whose value is derived from
the value of an underlying commodity — in this case, CO2 and other
Who is Blythe Masters?
She is the JP Morgan employee who invented credit
default swaps, and is now heading JPM’s carbon trading efforts. As
Bloomberg notes (this and all remaining quotes are from the
above-linked Bloomberg article):
Masters, 40, oversees the New York bank’s environmental businesses as the firm’s global head of commodities…
a young London banker in the early 1990s, Masters was part of
JPMorgan’s team developing ideas for transferring risk to third
parties. She went on to manage credit risk for JPMorgan’s investment
Among the credit derivatives that grew from the bank’s early efforts was the credit-default swap.
Some in congress are fighting against carbon derivatives:
are going to be cutting up carbon futures, and we’ll be in trouble,”
says Maria Cantwell, a Democratic senator from Washington state. “You
can’t stay ahead of the next tool they’re going to create.”
51, proposed in November that U.S. state governments be given the right
to ban unregulated financial products. “The derivatives market has done
so much damage to our economy and is nothing more than a
very-high-stakes casino — except that casinos have to abide by
regulations,” she wrote in a press release…
However, Congress may cave in to industry pressure to let carbon derivatives trade over-the-counter:
House cap-and-trade bill bans OTC derivatives, requiring that all
carbon trading be done on exchanges…The bankers say such a ban would
be a mistake…The banks and companies may get their way on carbon
derivatives in separate legislation now being worked out in Congress…
Financial experts are also opposed to cap and trade:
George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund operator, says money managers
would find ways to manipulate cap-and-trade markets. “The system can be
gamed,” Soros, 79, remarked at a London School of Economics seminar in
July. “That’s why financial types like me like it — because there are
Hedge fund manager Michael Masters,
founder of Masters Capital Management LLC, based in St. Croix, U.S.
Virgin Islands [and unrelated to Blythe Masters] says speculators will
end up controlling U.S. carbon prices, and their participation could
trigger the same type of boom-and-bust cycles that have buffeted other
The hedge fund manager says that banks will
attempt to inflate the carbon market by recruiting investors from hedge
funds and pension funds.
“Wall Street is going to
sell it as an investment product to people that have nothing to do with
carbon,” he says. “Then suddenly investment managers are dominating the
asset class, and nothing is related to actual supply and demand. We
have seen this movie before.”
Indeed, as I have previously pointed out, many environmentalists are opposed to cap and trade as well. For example:
Michelle Chan, a senior policy analyst in San Francisco for Friends of the Earth, isn’t convinced.
we really create a new $2 trillion market when we haven’t yet finished
the job of revamping and testing new financial regulation?” she asks.
Chan says that, given their recent history, the banks’ ability to turn
climate change into a new commodities market should be curbed…
we have just been woken up to in the credit crisis — to a jarring and
shocking degree — is what happens in the real world,” she says…
of the Earth’s Chan is working hard to prevent the banks from adding
carbon to their repertoire. She titled a March FOE report “Subprime
Carbon?” In testimony on Capitol Hill, she warned, “Wall Street won’t
just be brokering in plain carbon derivatives — they’ll get creative.”
they’ll get creative, and we have seen this movie before …an
inadequately-regulated carbon derivatives boom will destabilize the
economy and lead to another crash.
In what is the start of the biggest uphill battle in D.C., arguably even bigger than deposing the printing press leprechaun, five democrats are proposing an amendment to reinstate Glass-Steagal, whose repeal, through the Larry Summers orchestrated Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, in 1999 set the economy on the collision course that culminated with the implosion of every single Goldman Sachs FICC competitor in 2008. The five Democrats who have undertaken the sisyphean task of taking on both Wall Street and their direct boss, are Maurice Hinchey of New York, John
Conyers of Michigan, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Jay Inslee of Washington,
and John Tierney of Massachusetts.
If adopted, the measure would give banks one year to choose between
being commercial banks or investment banks. The nation’s biggest –
those now commonly referred to as “too big to fail” — would be broken
up. The Obama administration opposes the measure.
Obama, presumably a Democrat, continues to persist in endorsing each and every Republican legacy when it comes to Wall Street’s landed interests (and risk “management” practices). Of course, the last thing the administration needs is for the populace to comprehend the chameleonic nature of the administration’s action.
The act was repealed in 1999 at the urging of, among others, Larry
Summers, now President Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser.
The five congressman all voted against the repeal then — and now they want it back.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker is one of a number of
financial luminaries calling for at least a partial return to
Glass-Steagall. The Wall Street Journal’s
editorial page also endorsed the concept in a recent editorial as a way
to “reduce moral hazard” and “limit certain kinds of risk-taking by
institutions that hold taxpayer-insured deposits.”
The law’s repeal ushered in an era marked by big banks getting even
bigger. The country’s four largest — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase,
Citigroup and Wells Fargo – now control more than half of the nation’s
mortgages, two-thirds of credit cards and two-fifths of all bank
And because their deposits are taxpayer-insured, there’s a growing
concern that they will feel overly confident about making risky bets
through their investment arms because they know that should they suffer
huge losses, taxpayers will ultimately be there to bail them out.
The five Democrats face big obstacles, including their own leadership and the Obama administration.
At this point the whole systemic regulation debate is getting glaringly amusing. At the core of every conflict are proposed reforms that are so obvious from a risk mitigation debate: audited Fed, split up banks which are now bigger than ever before, propping a bankrupt FDIC, which in turn is backing up bankrupt institutions, and a bankrupt country which is trying to fool the world into a game of M.A.D. knowing full well if the US taxpayer goes down directly or indirectly, the world, and the proverbial flood, follow after. And the only sensible reforms are those getting the biggest push back from Obama, and of course, Wall Street. How these two seemingly traditional opponents have ended up on the same side of the page is testament enough to the cataclysmic legacy of Bernanke and Summers. Of course, nothing will be done about anything, in tried and true American fashion, until it is too late, and Main Street is left sorting through the rubble of Goldman’s new glass-plated headquarters, even as all inhabitants have long-ago departed the country and left the U.S. with a few quadrillion in I.O.U.’s. At this juncture the best option before politicians is to simply delay for one year until mid-term elections provoke some vestige of sensibility in the ruling class.
From The Daily Capitalist
December 3, 2009
Since the biggest financial collapse in world history was built on credit related to housing, it is pretty obvious that we should be paying very close attention to that market. The reasons are complex, but a recovery must be based on the liquidation of bad debt. The sooner that happens the quicker a recovery will happen.
When we mean “liquidation of debt” we are talking about a mountain of credit built on the housing bubble. This phony bubble wealth permeated the entire economy. When home owners saw the price of their home rising, they saw it as a source of capital to use for a variety of things, but let’s face it, most people spent it.
New stores opened, malls were built, financial institutions grew, cars and boats, second homes, vacations, and restaurants all flourished. Credit card debt mushroomed. Home mortgages were increased to pull cash out for spending. Yes, some of it went to good things, like our children’s education, helping our aged parents, and paying off bills. But the reality was that our debt kept growing.
The clever lads created even more phony wealth under the guise of insurance, but as we found out, companies like AIG really had no idea how large their obligations were for credit default swaps written against almost any financial risk. And these instruments were further leveraged without understanding the magnitude of these triple-counted obligations or their relationship to housing.
It all comes back to housing as the fuel for the 70% of our economy that was consumer spending. The thought was that housing has always gone up, and if it went down, it really never went down if you averaged growth since the post-WWII-period. A drop of 10%? Never has happened. 20%? Not even a 6th deviation possibility.
My thesis has been that this was all fueled by the Fed through monetary policies that created and supported the bubble. Aided and abetted by governmental policies and financing schemes that favored housing and risky loans. This was not a “free market” phenomenon. Far, far from it.
My thesis has also been that we can’t recover until all this bad debt is liquidated, and capital generated by savings is created and ultimately invested in profitable enterprises. It would be a mistake to rekindle the bubble. But, as we know, that’s what our government is trying to do. The government creates uncertainty as it flails around with programs, spending, and debt schemes to revive the economy. As a result mark-to-market accounting is thing of the past and banks are guarding their balance sheets, corporations are sitting on a lot of cash, cutting costs, and becoming leaner, and Mr. and Mrs. America still favor savings and debt instruments over equities and spending.
The big question: is the housing market bottoming out? Because once it does, debtors and debt holders will then have a handle on how great their losses are. When the bottom is falling out, it is difficult to get lenders to lend if they are afraid their remaining cash reserves will be needed to shore up the bank because of loan losses. The holders of subprime debt find it difficult to value their assets while housing values are still dropping.
Lenders have been shepherding their cash, reducing debt obligations, and cutting back lending and new investments because they do not know how deep their hole will be until housing bottoms out. Keynes called this a “liquidity trap.” More reasonable people, especially the Austrian school economists, call this a reasonable and necessary response to uncertainty.
The Fed and the federal government have been flogging this liquidity trap issue without let up and basically credit is still drying up. A 0.25% Fed Funds rate is basically a negative rate and they still can’t get banks to lend. The Fed’s balance sheet is at a record high. They have bought $850 million of mortgage backed securities. They are injecting cash into lenders. They have basically suspended mark-to-market accounting.
In Q3, the FDIC reported that bank lending still contracted by 3%:
Loans and leases held by U.S. commercial banks have declined for 10 straight months, falling to $6.7 trillion as of Oct. 28 from $7.2 trillion at the end of 2008, according to a separate statistical release from the Fed.
Commercial and industrial loans have dropped to $1.37 trillion from $1.6 trillion, commercial real-estate loans have declined to $1.66 trillion from $1.72 trillion, and consumer loans have fallen to $847 billion from $857 billion at the end of last year.
What do banks do? They have decided they would rather hold Treasury paper instead of make loans. This chart shows what’s been happening. No wonder T-rates have stayed so low despite massive deficit financing.
This is what makes Bernanke, Geithner, and Summers lose sleep at night. “It’s supposed to work, dammit!” Maybe this is why Summers is always falling asleep. No matter what they’ve tried, they can’t get banks to lend. I think they are very worried about this and while they say the economy is recovering nicely, they are crossing their fingers at the same time.
Back to housing.
I have been saying that I think the housing market is finding a bottom. I thought that low prices and rising affordability was the main driver of the housing market. If this were so, then housing prices would reflect real market valuations and this would finally bring about the liquidation of assets and debt wastefully invested during the prior artificial credit cycle. Lenders would know where they stood financially and would liquidate bad assets and rebuild their balance sheets. No more waiting around wondering what the Fed or the government would do to save housing.
I was wrong.
The housing market I now believe is being sustained almost entirely by the Fed and the federal government. This rekindling of the housing bubble is counterproductive and will hinder a real recovery of the economy because an artificially backed market will delay the necessary liquidation of the prior cycle’s malinvestment of capital.
Here is why I changed my mind:
First, 59% of new home buyers are relying on government-backed FHA, the Veterans Administration, and the Department of Agriculture loans. Most of these sales are driven by the first-time home buyers tax credit. The tax credit program has been extended through April, 2010.
Second, existing home sales are being driven by the tax credit and by foreclosure and short sales. Existing home sales are up 10.1%. Distressed sales — mainly foreclosures and short sales — accounted for 30% of transactions in the third quarter. And. according to the NAR, home sales are being driven by first time home buyers trying to make the previous November deadline.
This will have a negative impact on future sales. Like Cash for Clunkers, these government-driven sales may just be eating into sales that would have occurred in 2010. Many economists are referring to this phenomenon as “payback.”
Third, mortgage rates are now at 30 year lows. Another Fed related gift to home buyers. The average 30-year mortgage rate was 4.95% in October, down from 5.06% in September, according to Freddie Mac. Today, Freddie said the rate was down to 4.7%.
But … home prices are still falling. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of prices fell 8.9% for the July-through-September period from a year earlier. That was an improvement from the 14.7% drop in the second quarter and the 19% decline in the first three months of 2009. Median prices of existing homes fell in 123 of 153 metropolitan areas during the third quarter compared with a year earlier. The national median price was $177,900, down 11.2% from the third quarter of 2008. [Don't ask me to explain the disparity. Case-Shiller and NAR measure this differently.] Last month the median price for an existing home was $173,100, down 7.1% from $186,400 in October 2008.
Thus, despite record interference in the housing market by the government, home prices are still falling. There are several reasons why it is likely that home prices will continue to fall.
Almost 25% of home owners are upside down with their mortgages. Nearly 10.7 million households had negative equity in their homes in the third quarter, according to First American CoreLogic. This shadow market is huge:
Home prices have fallen so far that 5.3 million U.S. households are tied to mortgages that are at least 20% higher than their home’s value, the First American report said. More than 520,000 of these borrowers have received a notice of default, according to First American. …
But negative equity “is an outstanding risk hanging over the mortgage market,” said Mark Fleming, chief economist of First American Core Logic. “It lowers homeowners’ mobility because they can’t sell, even if they want to move to get a new job.” Borrowers who owe more than 120% of their home’s value, he said, were more likely to default.
Mortgage troubles are not limited to the unemployed. About 588,000 borrowers defaulted on mortgages last year even though they could afford to pay — more than double the number in 2007, according to a study by Experian and consulting firm Oliver Wyman. “The American consumer has had a long-held taboo against walking away from the home, and this crisis seems to be eroding that,” the study said.
This overhang will continue to drive prices down. There is no way the Feds can force lenders to modify enough loans to make a serious dent in this overhang. It’s imply too big. Eventually the losses from forced modifications will mount and the FHA or any other agency will not be able to pay off their guarantees to lender. Nor should they try.
Mark Zandi, who correctly predicted a crisis in the housing market, but not the Crash, said on Wednesday, “The housing crash is not over.” He said the lull in foreclosure sales for the past few months, due to the government’s pressure on lenders to modify loans, has resulting in higher prices. He expects Case-Shiller to bottom by Q3 2010 with an overall price decline of 38% (now at 32%).
“Foreclosure sales will increase, and home prices will resume their decline by early 2010 as mortgage servicers figure out who will not qualify for a modification,” he said.
Zandi said 7.5 million foreclosure sales will have taken place between 2006 and 2011. The majority of these sales, however, have not emerged yet, with 4.8 million foreclosure sales expected between 2009 and 2011.
What this means is that the housing supply, now down to a 7+ months supply, will rise again, and prices will continue to decline. We haven’t seen the bottom yet.
Supporters of an escalation of the Afghanistan war often ask that we give military options a chance. They also respond to criticism of the surge by asking “okay smart guy, what would YOU do to fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?” Several pro-war posters also asked that pro-military arguments be given a chance.
Well, initially, the U.S. admits there are only a small handful of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As ABC notes:
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded there are only about 100 al Qaeda fighters in the entire country.
100,000 troops in Afghanistan at an estimated yearly cost of $30
billion, it means that for every one al Qaeda fighter, the U.S. will
commit 1,000 troops and $300 million a year.
probably more than 100 homicidal maniacs in any large American city.
But we wouldn’t send soldiers into the city to get those bad guys.
Indeed, a leading advisor to the U.S. military – the very hawkish Rand Corporation – released a study
in 2008 called “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al
Qa’ida”. The report confirms what experts have been saying for years:
the war on terror is actually weakening national security.
As a press release about the study states:
should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and
our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to
There are additional reasons why prolonging the Afghan war may reduce our national security, such as weakening our economy.
But if you want a military solution anyway, Andrew J. Bacevich has an answer.
is no dove. Graduating from West Point in 1969, he served in the United
States Army during the Vietnam War. He then held posts in Germany,
including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the
Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of
Colonel in the early 1990s. Bacevich holds a Ph.D. in American
Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point
and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston
University in 1998. Bacevich’s is a military family. On May 13, 2007,
Bacevich’s son, was killed in action while serving in Iraq.
Last year, Bacevich wrote in an article in Newsweek:
the chief effect of allied military operations there so far has been
not to defeat the radical Islamists but to push them across the
Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are
contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially
devastating implications. September’s bombing of the Marriott hotel in
Islamabad suggests that the extremists are growing emboldened. Today
and for the foreseeable future, no country poses a greater potential
threat to U.S. national security than does Pakistan. To risk the
stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging
Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.
All this means that the
proper U.S. priority for Afghanistan should be not to try harder but to
change course. The war in Afghanistan (like the Iraq War) won’t be won
militarily. It can be settled—however imperfectly—only through politics.
new U.S. president needs to realize that America’s real political
objective in Afghanistan is actually quite modest: to ensure that
terrorist groups like Al Qaeda can’t use it as a safe haven for
launching attacks against the West. Accomplishing that won’t require
creating a modern, cohesive nation-state. U.S. officials tend to assume
that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the
real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal
leaders and warlords. Rather than challenge that tradition, Washington
should work with it. Offered the right incentives, warlords can
accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and more cheaply than
Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan
should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash
and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with the
United States in excluding terrorists from their territory.
doesn’t mean Washington should blindly trust that warlords will become
America’s loyal partners. U.S. intelligence agencies should continue to
watch Afghanistan closely, and the Pentagon should crush any jihadist
activities that local powers fail to stop themselves. As with the
Israelis in Gaza, periodic airstrikes may well be required to pre-empt
brewing plots before they mature.
Were U.S. resources unlimited
and U.S. interests in Afghanistan more important, upping the ante with
additional combat forces might make sense. But U.S. power — especially
military power — is quite limited these days, and U.S. priorities lie
Rather than committing more troops, therefore, the
new president should withdraw them while devising a more realistic —
and more affordable — strategy for Afghanistan
words, America’s war strategy is increasing instability in Pakistan.
Pakistan has nuclear weapons. So the surge could very well decrease not
only American national security but the security of the entire world.
I think that diplomatic rather than military means should be used to
kill or contain the 100 bad guys in Afghanistan. But if we are going to
remain engaged militarily, Bacevich’s approach is a lot smarter than a
surge of boots on the ground.
Moreover, it would save hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars…
War hawks also ask “what would YOU have done after 9/11?” Gee, I don’t know . . . maybe gotten the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden?
BONUS UPDATE 2-FOR-1 AFTER THANKSGIVING PACKAGE DEAL SPECIAL: If you don’t hear about alternative plans such as Bacevich’s from the corporate media, here is why …
There are five reasons that the mainstream media is worthless.
1. Self-Censorship by Journalists
Initially, there is tremendous self-censorship by journalists.
For example, several months after 9/11, famed news anchor Dan Rather told the BBC that American reporters were practicing “a form of self-censorship”:
was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tires around
peoples’ necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you
will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of
patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps
journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions…. And
again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism.
What we are talking about here – whether one wants to recognise it
or not, or call it by its proper name or not – is a form of
Keith Olbermann agreed that there is self-censorship in the American media, and that:
can rock the boat, but you can never say that the entire ocean is in
trouble …. You cannot say: By the way, there’s something wrong with
our …. system.
As former Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin wrote in 2006:
political journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant,
but not because of the Internet, or even Comedy Central. The threat
comes from inside. It comes from journalists being afraid to do what
journalists were put on this green earth to do. . . .
the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as
those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive.
There’s the fear of being labeled partisan if one’s bullshit-calling
isn’t meted out in precisely equal increments along the political
If mainstream-media political journalists don’t start
calling bullshit more often, then we do risk losing our primacy — if
not to the comedians then to the bloggers.
I still believe that
no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling
than a well-informed beat reporter – whatever their beat. We just need
to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship –
or whatever it is – out of the way.
2. Censorship by Higher-Ups
journalists do want to speak out about an issue, they also are subject
to tremendous pressure by their editors or producers to kill the story.
Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who uncovered the Iraq prison torture
scandal and the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, Seymour Hersh, said:
of the institutions we thought would protect us — particularly the
press, but also the military, the bureaucracy, the Congress — they
have failed. The courts . . . the jury’s not in yet on the courts. So
all the things that we expect would normally carry us through didn’t.
The biggest failure, I would argue, is the press, because that’s the
Q: What can be done to fix the (media) situation?
pause] You’d have to fire or execute ninety percent of the editors and
executives. You’d actually have to start promoting people from the
newsrooms to be editors who you didn’t think you could control. And
they’re not going to do that.”
And a series of interviews with award-winning journalists also documents censorship of certain stories by media editors and owners (and see these samples).
There are many reasons for censorship by media higher-ups.
One is money.
The media has a strong monetary interest to avoid controversial topics in general. It has always been true that advertisers discourage stories which challenge corporate power.
Indeed, a 2003 survey reveals that 35% of reporters and news executives
themselves admitted that journalists avoid newsworthy stories if “the story would be embarrassing or damaging to the financial interests of a news organization’s owners or parent company.”
In addition, the government has allowed tremendous consolidation in ownership of the airwaves during the past decade.
Dan Rather has slammed media consolidation:
media consolidation to that of the banking industry, Rather claimed
that “roughly 80 percent” of the media is controlled by no more than
six, and possibly as few as four, corporations.
This is documented by the following must-see charts prepared by:
And check out this list of interlocking directorates of big media companies from Fairness and Accuracy in Media, and this resource from the Columbia Journalism Review to research a particular company.
This image gives a sense of the decline in diversity in media ownership over the last couple of decades:
large media players stand to gain billions of dollars in profits if the
Obama administration continues to allow monopoly ownership of the
airwaves by a handful of players. The media giants know who butters
their bread. So there is a spoken or tacit agreement: if the media
cover the administration in a favorable light, the MSM will continue to
be the receiver of the government’s goodies.
3. Drumming Up Support for War
In addition, the owners of American media companies have long actively played a part in drumming up support for war.
is painfully obvious that the large news outlets studiously avoided any
real criticism of the government’s claims in the run up to the Iraq
war. It is painfully obvious that the large American media companies
acted as lapdogs and stenographers for the government’s war agenda.
Veteran reporter Bill Moyers criticized
the corporate media for parroting the obviously false link between 9/11
and Iraq (and the false claims that Iraq possessed WMDs) which the
administration made in the run up to the Iraq war, and concluded that
the false information was not challenged because:
[mainstream] media had been cheerleaders for the White House from the
beginning and were simply continuing to rally the public behind the
President — no questions asked.”
And as NBC News’ David Gregory (later promoted to host Meet the Press) said:
think there are a lot of critics who think that . . . . if we did not
stand up [in the run-up to the war] and say ‘this is bogus, and you’re
a liar, and why are you doing this,’ that we didn’t do our job. I
respectfully disagree. It’s not our role”
But this is nothing new. In fact, the large media companies have drummed up support for all previous wars.
And an official summary of America’s overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Iran in the 1950′s states, “In
cooperation with the Department of State, CIA had several articles
planted in major American newspapers and magazines which, when
reproduced in Iran, had the desired psychological effect in Iran and
contributed to the war of nerves against Mossadeq.” (page x)
The mainstream media also may have played footsie with the U.S. government right before Pearl Harbor. Specifically, a highly-praised historian (Bob Stineet) argues
that the Army’s Chief of Staff informed the Washington bureau chiefs of
the major newspapers and magazines of the impending Pearl Harbor attack
BEFORE IT OCCURRED, and swore them to an oath of secrecy, which the
media honored (page 361) .
And the military-media alliance has continued without a break (as a highly-respected journalist says,
“viewers may be taken aback to see the grotesque extent to which US
presidents and American news media have jointly shouldered key
propaganda chores for war launches during the last five decades.”)
As the mainstream British paper, the Independent, writes:
is a concerted strategy to manipulate global perception. And the mass
media are operating as its compliant assistants, failing both to resist
it and to expose it. The sheer ease with which this machinery has been
able to do its work reflects a creeping structural weakness which now
afflicts the production of our news.
The article in the
Independent discusses the use of “black propaganda” by the U.S.
government, which is then parroted by the media without analysis; for
example, the government forged
a letter from al Zarqawi to the “inner circle” of al-Qa’ida’s
leadership, urging them to accept that the best way to beat US forces
in Iraq was effectively to start a civil war, which was then publicized
without question by the media..
So why has the American press has consistenly served the elites in disseminating their false justifications for war?
One of of the reasons is because the large media companies are owned by those who support the militarist agenda or even directly profit from war and terror (for example, NBC – which is being sold to Comcast – was owned by General Electric, one of the largest defense contractors in the world — which directly profits from war, terrorism and chaos).
Another seems to be an unspoken rule that the media will not criticize the government’s imperial war agenda.
the media support isn’t just for war: it is also for various other
shenanigans by the powerful. For example, a BBC documentary proves:
was “a planned coup in the USA in 1933 by a group of right-wing
American businessmen . . . . The coup was aimed at toppling President
Franklin D Roosevelt with the help of half-a-million war veterans. The
plotters, who were alleged to involve some of the most famous families
in America, (owners of Heinz, Birds Eye, Goodtea, Maxwell Hse &
George Bush’s Grandfather, Prescott) believed that their country should
adopt the policies of Hitler and Mussolini to beat the great
See also this book.
Have you ever heard of this scheme before? It was certainly a very large one. And if the conspirators controlled the newspapers then, how much worse is it today with media consolidation?
$25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post has offered lobbyists and
association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to
“those powerful few”: Obama administration officials, members of
Congress, and — at first — even the paper’s own reporters and editors…
offer — which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator
for private lobbyist-official encounters — was a new sign of the
lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time
when most newspapers are struggling for survival.
be one reason that the mainstream news commentators hate bloggers so
much. The more people who get their news from blogs instead of
mainstream news sources, the smaller their audience, and the less the
MSM can charge for the kind of “nonconfrontational access” which leads
to puff pieces for the big boys.
5. Censorship by the Government
as if the media’s own interest in promoting war is not strong enough,
the government has exerted tremendous pressure on the media to report
things a certain way. Indeed, at times the government has thrown media owners and reporters in jail
if they’ve been too critical. The media companies have felt great
pressure from the government to kill any real questioning of the
For example, Dan Rather said, regarding American media, “What you have is a miniature version of what you have in totalitarian states”.
Tom Brokaw said “all wars are based on propaganda.
And the head of CNN said:
was ‘almost a patriotism police’ after 9/11 and when the network showed
[things critical of the administration's policies] it would get phone
calls from advertisers and the administration and “big people in
corporations were calling up and saying, ‘You’re being anti-American
Indeed, former military analyst and famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said that the government has ordered the media not to cover 9/11:
Ellsberg seemed hardly surprised
that today’s American mainstream broadcast media has so far failed to
take [former FBI translator and 9/11 whistleblower Sibel] Edmonds up on
her offer, despite the blockbuster nature of her allegations [which
Ellsberg calls "far more explosive than the Pentagon Papers"].
Edmonds has also alluded, Ellsberg pointed to the New York Times, who
“sat on the NSA spying story for over a year” when they “could have put
it out before the 2004 election, which might have changed the outcome.”
will be phone calls going out to the media saying ‘don’t even think of
touching it, you will be prosecuted for violating national security,’” he told us.
* * *
“I am confident that there is conversation inside the Government as to ‘How do we deal with Sibel?’” contends Ellsberg. “The
first line of defense is to ensure that she doesn’t get into the media.
I think any outlet that thought of using her materials would go to to
the government and they would be told ‘don’t touch this . . . .‘”
Of course, if the stick approach doesn’t work, the government can always just pay off reporters to spread disinformation.
Famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein says the CIA has already bought and paid for many successful journalists. See also this New York Times piece, this essay by the Independent, this speech by one of the premier writers on journalism, and this and this roundup.
in the final analysis, the main reason today that the media giants will
not cover the real stories or question the government’s actions or
policies in any meaningful way is that the American government and
mainstream media been somewhat blended together.
Can We Win the Battle Against Censorship?
cannot just leave governance to our “leaders”, as “The price of freedom
is eternal vigilance” (Jefferson). Similarly, we cannot leave news to
the corporate media. We need to “be the media” ourselves.
“To stand in silence when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men.”
- Abraham Lincoln
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
and silence go together. We…should use our privileged positions not
as a shelter from the world’s reality, but as a platform from which to
speak. A voice is a gift. It should be cherished and used.”
– Margaret Atwood
is no act too small, no act too bold. The history of social change is
the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at
points in history and creating a power that [nothing] cannot suppress.”
- Howard Zinn (historian)
“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent”
- Thomas Jefferson
Buried in the depths of page 26 of the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program’s (SIGTARP’s) November 17, 2009 report “Factors Affecting Efforts to Limit Payments to AIG Counterparties” hidden in footnotes 33 and 34 is something of a mystery. It might be the beginning of an interconnected financial chain involving Dubai, the Federal Reserve, AIG, Basel I, Eastern Europe and even Switzerland and which, even if it doesn’t worry you, probably should. Or it might be nothing at all.
Consider first “footnote 33,” that reads as follows:
The first Basel Accord, known as Basel I, was issued in 1988; it focused on the capital adequacy of financial institutions. The capital adequacy risk—the risk that a financial institution will be hurt by an unexpected loss—categorizes the assets of financial institution into five risk categories (0 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent, 50 percent, and 100 percent). Banks that operate internationally are required to have a risk weight of 8 percent or less….
The original paragraph that references the footnote reads thus:
As of September 30, 2009, AIG had $172 billion in exposure to swaps in its foreign regulatory capital portfolio. The portfolio contains swaps purchased by financial institutions, principally in Europe, to provide regulatory capital relief under Basel I. [note 33] AIGFP’s COO informed SIGTARP in July 2009 that they expect that most of these swaps will be terminated by the end of the first quarter 2010 as most financial institutions complete their transition to Basel II. Currently, financial institutions are required to hold a certain level of capital against their assets, and one way for a financial institution to reduce the amount of capital is to purchase swap protection on its assets. However, new requirements decrease the level of capital required for such assets and, in most cases, there will be limited capital benefit to holding on to the existing swaps. Nonetheless, AIG warned in a June 29, 2009, SEC filing that if credit markets deteriorate, the company may recognize unrealized losses in AIGFP’s regulatory capital credit default swap portfolio. [note 34] AIG could continue to be at risk if the swaps in its regulatory capital portfolio are not terminated by the end of first quarter 2010 as expected. (Emphasis added).
Taken together we read the thrust of this section to mean that a number of European banks, seeking to limit their regulatory capital requirements under Basel I (read: seeking to increase their leverage) bought swap protection on their assets from AIG. These obligations still sit with AIG and, in the event credit markets sink materially, AIG is likely to take losses on these instruments. Not just that but:
According to an AIG SEC filing, an ongoing concern for AIGFP is whether it will have to post more collateral if credit markets continue to deteriorate. The amount of future collateral postings is partly a function of AIG’s credit ratings, which may be affected by any further decline in AIG’s financial condition. (Emphasis added).
Simply put, AIG might also have to post more collateral. Moreover, though AIG initially expected most of these swaps to “be terminated by the end of the first quarter 2010 as most financial institutions complete their transition to Basel II,” we see from footnote 34 that:
Subsequent to the June filing, European regulators adjusted the implementation timing of Basel II, potentially affecting the holders of AIGFP’s regulatory capital swaps to hold beyond previously anticipated termination dates.
In other words, AIG is still on the hook- and hadn’t planned to be.
This raises a number of questions:
- If the European banks that bought swap protection from AIG are still relying on this protection to meet their capital requirements, and AIG might be unable to make good on the agreements, are these banks actually out of Basel I compliance as we type this?
- Are the banks still able to use swap protection to reduce their collateral requirements because of the implicit or explicit backing of AIG by the Federal Reserve?
- If this situation existed in September-November 2008, as it certainly appears to have, how exactly can the Federal Reserve claim in good faith that it lacked the leverage to negotiate with these banks from a position of strength? (One assumes that many of the same names collecting payment from AIG were also AIG swap protection buyers of the sort mentioned in the SIGTARP report). Failure to back up an insolvent AIG would have resulted in near-immediate Basel I non-compliance as the protection offered by these swaps, and on which these banks depended for their reduced capital requirements, evaporated- a near death sentence.
- Or had these banks somehow, and in the middle of the credit crisis, managed to boost their capital to levels that made the swaps unimportant?
- If so, why keep them on the books now, instead of unwinding them?
- Since it doesn’t seem likely that a teetering AIG could make good on these agreements without substantial assistance is the Fed is currently the ultimate backstop for AIG?
- Does this mean that the Fed is effectively underwriting these swap agreements?
- Will the Fed post collateral if deteriorating credit conditions at AIG (today’s -$11 billion news suddenly seems especially daunting if the potential insurance shortfall has an effect on credit ratings) or general credit market issues require it? Or are we missing something significant? By September 30, 2008 AIG had already posted $974 million in collateral for its “Foreign Regulatory Capital” portfolio.
- What if European banks are hit with more losses from, oh, we don’t know, say… Dubai? Deleveraging, risk reduction and credit tightening would have an effect on LIBOR, the Eurobond market and, of course, Eastern Europe. Might not that sort of contagion easily spread to, say, Switzerland, which enjoyed the other side of the carry trade for years by lending Swiss Franc like mad to any Eastern European mortgage borrower who could sign documents?
- Could it be that the Fed, once again, might have to bail out the world?
Or maybe we are just missing something obvious.