Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dark clouds over America - the annual tribute

I have been reading ‘The Essays of Warren Buffet: Lessons for Corporate America’. There is much gold to be mined here by the moral philosopher. Here is one important theme: the transfer of wealth from the US to the rest of the world.

In 2003 Buffet wrote:

(I)n recent years our country’s trade deficit has been force-feeding huge amounts of claims on, and ownership in, America to the rest of the world. For a time, foreign appetite for these assets readily absorbed the supply. Late in 2002, however, the world started choking on this diet, and the dollar’s value began to slide against the major currencies.

In 2004:

Last year we had $1.15 trillion of such honest–to-God trade and the more of this, the better. But, as noted, our country also purchased an additional $618 billion in goods and services from the rest of the world that was unreciprocated. This is a staggering figure and one that has important consequences.
The balancing item to this one-way pseudo-trade … is a transfer of wealth from the US to the rest of the world. … This force-feeding of American wealth to the rest of the world is now proceeding at the rate of $1.8 billion daily, an increase of 20% since I wrote to you last year. Consequently, other countries and their citizens now own a net of about $3 trillion of the US. A decade ago their net ownership was negligible.

Buffet goes on to project that a decade from now (in 2014) net foreign ownership of the US would amount to about $11 trillion and at 5% interest, the US would need to spend $.55 trillion annually to ‘service’ this foreign investment. With a GDP of about $18 trillion, 3% of GDP would go to the rest of the world as 'annual tribute’ for financing Americans’ overindulgences.

If the US were running a $.6 trillion current-account (trade) surplus, commentators worldwide would violently condemn our policy, viewing it as an extreme form of ‘mercantilism’…
Our spendthrift behaviour won’t, however, be tolerated indefinitely. And though it's impossible to forecast just when and how the trade problem will be resolved, it’s improbable that the resolution will foster an increase in the value of our currency relative to that of our trading partners.

In 2005 the situation continued to worsen and in 2006 Buffet notes another ‘milestone' in the deteriorating financial health of the US:

Already the prediction I made last year about one fall-out from our spending binge has come true: The ‘investment income' account of our country – positive in every previous year since 1915 – turned negative in 2006. Foreigners earned more on their US investments than we do on our investments abroad. In effect, we’ve used up our bank account and turned to our credit card. And, like everyone who gets in hock, the US will now experience ‘reverse compounding’ as we pay ever-increasing amounts of interest on interest.

This situation will only change if the US ‘massively under consumes and begins to run consistent and large trade surpluses’.

Buffet points out that the huge US budget deficits do not transfer wealth. Only when we buy more than we sell is wealth transferred to the net seller.

However, when we also borrow money to buy more than we sell, we are hastening our financial demise, and that is what we see today.

And let us not even mention what road we are taking if we don’t even borrow but merely print the money out of thin air…

I leave you with this video about the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai, the ‘Burj Dubai’. It is an impressive architectural achievement and a proud symbol of Dubai’s economic power. But while I watched in awe, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing possibly the most spectacular manifestation of the transfer of wealth out of the US.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dark clouds over America - Bill Gross: What has become of the American nation?

Thank you to Shocked Investor for the heads up on the publication of Bill Gross’s new Economic Outlook for 2010.
Bill Gross is managing director of Pimco ‘a leading global investment management firm with more than 1,200 employees in offices in Newport Beach, New York, Amsterdam, Singapore, Tokyo, London, Sydney, Munich, Toronto and Hong Kong.’
This is the same Pimco that recently announced it would be a net seller of UK Government bonds this year and that it would reduce its holdings of American treasury debt (see this post at The Market Ticker).

Shocked Investor comments ‘You’d think something is about to give.’ Since being so shocked, he’s so cool about everything now.

Here is the beginning of Bill Gross’s Economic Outlook 2010 (my bold letters):

Quixotic journeys often make for great literature, but by definition are rarely productive. I am, after all, referring to windmills here - not their 21st century creation, but their 17th century chasing. Futility, not productivity, was the ultimate fate of Cervantes' man from La Mancha. So it is with hesitation, although quixotic obsession, that I plunge headlong into a discussion of American politics, healthcare legislation, resultant budget deficits and - finally - their potential effect on financial markets. There will be windmills aplenty in the next few pages and not much good can come of these opinions or my tilting in their direction. Still, I mount my steed, lance in hand, and ride forward.

Question: What has become of the American nation? Conceived with the vision of liberty and justice for all, we have descended in the clutches of corporate and other special interests to a second world state defined by K Street instead of Independence Square. Our government doesn't work anymore, or perhaps more accurately, when it does, it works for special interests and not the American people. Washington consistently stoops to legislate 10,000-page perversions of healthcare, regulatory reform, defence, and budgetary mandates overflowing with earmarks that serve a monied minority as opposed to an all-too-silent majority. You don't have to be Don Quixote to believe that legislators - and Presidents - often do not work for the benefit of their constituents: A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported that over 65% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing "only some of the time" and a stunning 19% said "never." What most politicians apparently are working for is to perpetuate their power - first via district gerrymandering, and then second by around-the-clock campaigning financed by special interest groups. If, by chance, they're ever voted out of office, they have a home just down the street - at K Street - with six-figure incomes as a starting wage.

Read the full report here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dark clouds over America - what happened to the Vision?

You have to go deeper than the mainstream media to get an idea of what is really going on in the US. If you listen to the mainstream media you may think that now is the time to get back into the market, the recession is behind us, the government has handled the crisis well and has the situation in hand and things are looking up. If you believe all this I urge you to visit some of the blogs and sites that I follow.

Remember my post last year, A Vision for America , about President Obama’s inaugural speech? Remember these lines?

As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us, watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting for us to lead.
It is time to put in place tough, new commonsense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation and punishes shortcuts and abuse…

What happened? Via Danielle Park’s Juggling Dynamite I found this article at Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi:

Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street as the global economy melted down in that fateful fall of 2008. He pushed a tax plan to soak the rich, ripped NAFTA for hurting the middle class and tore into John McCain for supporting a bankruptcy bill that sided with wealthy bankers "at the expense of hardworking Americans." (…)What inspired supporters who pushed him to his historic win was the sense that a genuine outsider was finally breaking into an exclusive club, that walls were being torn down, that things were, for lack of a better or more specific term, changing.

Then he got elected.

What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

Read the full article Obama’s Big Sellout.

For knowledgeable and detailed information and no punches pulled commentary and insight on the financial crisis and government’s action and non action in the face of it, you must read Karl Denninger’s The Market Ticker. For a great overview of 2009 and what 2010 holds (not pretty) do yourself a favour and read Where we are, where we’re heading 2010. Here is an excerpt:

If you take nothing else away from this Year in Review Ticker, it should be that singular chart above and a decent understanding of what it means:

To come back into equilibrium, assuming we do not decrease debt in the system at all, we would have to shrink GDP by about 20%. But shrinking GDP means that money available to pay down debt would also decrease which would generate even more defaults.

This is how deflationary depressions happen - years, even decades of playing Ponzi by layering debt upon debt. Bernanke and Geithner, along with President Obama, are well-aware of these facts which is why they are all pounding the table demanding that banks "loan more."

The problem with such a prescription is that the wise person won't borrow, for he knows what's coming. The unwise has no collateral to pledge, and thus can't borrow.

If the government forces (either by persuasion or legislation) lending to those who can't pay they only extend the Ponzi and in doing so make the inevitable collapse WORSE.

Before you get a headache, I will just leave you with a video I found through this post at Shocked Investor. It closes the loop on the opportunity that existed for Obama and that he seemed poised to seize in his inaugural address to reform the banking industry. Instead we are simply back where we started but when this bubble bursts there will be no more stimulus, no more money and no more bubbles to save us.

The eyes of all people in all nations are upon the US alright but what they see, including these eyes, is not good.

Bill Moyers speaking to Simon Johnson of the Peterson Institute for International Finance and representative Marcy Kaptur:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dark clouds over America - the Supreme Court rules detainees are not persons

One of the blogs I read for insight into the economy is Humble Student of the Markets by Cam Hui. Here I read of an alarming development in his post Two more steps toward Argentina. The original story is this, as told by Chris Floyd at Empire burlesque:

While we were all out doing our Christmas shopping, the highest court in the land quietly put the kibosh on a few more of the remaining shards of human liberty.

It happened earlier this week, in a discreet ruling that attracted almost no notice and took little time. In fact, our most august defenders of the Constitution did not have to exert themselves in the slightest to eviscerate not merely 220 years of Constitutional jurisprudence but also centuries of agonizing effort to lift civilization a few inches out of the blood-soaked mire that is our common human legacy. They just had to write a single sentence.

Here's how the bad deal went down. After hearing passionate arguments from the Obama Administration, the Supreme Court acquiesced to the president's fervent request and, in a one-line ruling, let stand a lower court decision that declared torture an ordinary, expected consequence of military detention, while introducing a shocking new precedent for all future courts to follow: anyone who is arbitrarily declared a "suspected enemy combatant" by the president or his designated minions is no longer a "person." They will simply cease to exist as a legal entity. They will have no inherent rights, no human rights, no legal standing whatsoever -- save whatever modicum of process the government arbitrarily deigns to grant them from time to time, with its ever-shifting tribunals and show trials.

Cam Hui asks what happened to ‘inalienable rights’ and compares the road that the US is now taking to that taken by Argentina:

This Supreme Court ruling sets up the preconditions for a Dirty War that Argentina saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where government forces made suspected left-wing guerrillas and their sympathizers “disappear”. Just as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall did not result in immediate consequences, I don’t believe that we will see the effects of this ruling overnight but the long term effects are potentially disastrous.

What about ‘Land of the free, home of the brave’? What about the Constitution?

This ruling tramples on the Constitution and one of the most powerful symbols of America. Just understand this - that Constitution was paid for by blood, not only of the Founding Fathers, but by every American soldier. Every G.I. that ever enlisted swore an oath, not to the president of the day, but to the Constitution of the United States.

When the Supreme Court of the nation that champions freedom and justice in the world comes out with a ruling like this, at the fervent request of the President of the nation, one has to take note and wonder where this is all going to lead.
Some may say that in war there are no rules. Certainly Churchill made it clear to Hitler that if he invaded Britain, the British would use all means available to them to defend themselves, the implication being biological weapons would be used. But where is the threat to the US today that faced Britain in her darkest hour?
I would say this: war can be waged without rules but the nations that wage war without rules always lose in the end. War can be waged without rules but philosophy teaches that life cannot. Such victors sow the seeds of their own ultimate destruction. Remember: sincerity is the treasure of a land and by sincerity we also understand integrity and the moral life. The US has a proud record of going to war to defend those values, now it must look in the mirror. The US does not need such a ruling, it is an act of weakness, an act of fear, and it is a shame and a disgrace to all the American men and women who have given their lives so we can enjoy freedom and justice, not just Americans but the whole world.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism points out that Romans of 2,000 years ago now enjoyed more rights than Americans today:

Roman citizens enjoyed a right to a trial, a right of appeal, and could not be tortured, whipped, or executed except if found guilty of treason, and anyone charged with treason could demand a trial in Rome. We have regressed more than 2000 years with this appalling ruling.

I am reminded of my recent reading of ‘The Peloponnesian War’ by Donald Kagan. The Athenians were blessed with a noble and capable leader in the form of Pericles of whom Plutarch says:

For whereas all sorts of distempers, as was to be expected, were rife in a rabble which possessed such a vast empire, he alone was so endowed by nature that he could manage each one of these cases suitably, and more than anything else he used the people's hopes and fears, like rudders, so to speak, giving timely check to their arrogance, and allaying and comforting their despair. Plutarch

While Pericles lived the Athenians kept to the noble path and could hope for victory. When he died, the war became more desperate, more brutal and hope receded. I can’t help but think that the US is in need of a Pericles today.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 - with courage and fortitude

So another year has passed, another decade in fact. 10 years have passed since the world was worrying about the coming Y2K bug, which turned out to be unnecessary like so many worries. In 2010 the world has bigger things to worry about. But let us worry about them tomorrow. Today I wish you a Happy New Year’s Day, spent with family and friends, and time to reflect on what you wish for yourself and for others in 2010. And I wish you above all courage and fortitude, which will see you through whatever the year has in store.

But sudden apparitions of imminent danger many times break our resolutions; and the fancy troubled with the imagination of approaching peril chases away true judgment from her seat. For fear not only astonishes the memory, according to the saying of Thucydides, but it dissipates all manner of consideration, sense of honour, and resolution; while philosophy binds and keeps them together. Plutarch

Noble therefore was the saying of Antisthenes, that we ought to wish an enemy all things beneficial to mankind except fortitude; for so these blessings will belong not to their possessors but to the conqueror. Therefore it was, they say, that Nature provided for the hart, one of the most timorous of creatures, such large and branchy horns, to teach us that strength and weapons nothing avail where conduct and courage are wanting. Plutarch

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond