Bubbles Always Pop

The global economy has been on life support since 2008 thanks to trillions of dollars of  government spending and central bank printing of trillions more. Both strategies have boosted asset prices and given the illusion of economic growth.

It is difficult to know the extent that markets and the global economy have benefited from official policy stimulus; however, six years after the crash, economic growth and the labor recovery remain subpar. Strong growth should have been ignited by now.

Bubbles popMost economists still believe in the ‘official position’ that growth is edging higher and that interest rates will slowly rise to reflect it. They could be correct, but should it fail to unfold as expected, confidence in the efficacy of official policy will diminish and the social contract will break down further. Since markets require confidence, they will also react accordingly.

Some argue that economic benefits to stimulus have run its course, while the costs from looming unintended consequences have not yet been unleashed. Many believe (including us) that the risks and costs of current Fed policy outweigh the benefits.

The Fed’s asset purchase program (QE) and Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) are the foremost factors that have widened wealth inequalities. The richest few have benefited the most, simply because the 10 percent richest Americans own 80 percent of US stocks. The FOMC believe that its asset-price-inflation-trickle-down-policy leads to spending which ultimately leads to job creation, especially for the poor.

However, several FOMC members themselves have questioned Fed policies, citing that they have not worked as well as had been hoped, and pointing out that aggregate demand has been weak throughout the recovery. To his credit Fed Governor Jeremy Stein broached the subject of unintended consequences of Fed policies when he mentioned in his February paper, “A prolonged period of low interest rates, of the sort we are experiencing today, can create incentives for agents to take on greater duration or credit risk, or to employ additional financial leverage in an effort to ‘reach for yield’”.

Zero interest rates have incentivized corporations to issue debt in order to capitalize on the historically low interest rates; however, corporations have primarily used the money to pay greater dividends, buyback shares, or modernize plant and equipment. There is a strong case to be made that holding interest rates at zero for a prolonged period is actually counter-productive to the Fed’s efforts to achieve either of its dual mandates. This is because increasing productivity through modernization typically exposes redundancies: it allows firms to lay-off workers, while the improvement in competitiveness allows firms to drop prices.

An unintended consequence of ZIRP could be to lower household spending rather than raise it. There are some conservative savers who have a predetermined goal in mind for the minimum amount of savings they wish to accumulate over time. Those investors may refuse to move out the risk curve in search of higher yields (likely widening the wealth divide). To them, lower interest rates simply mean a slower rate of accumulation, which likely will jeopardize their minimum goal. The only recourse for this investor is to save more, which is the exact opposite intention of the Fed’s policy. For example, if interest rates fall from 4 percent to 3 percent, an investor would have to increase savings by more than 20 percent each year to reach the same goal over 30 years.”

Another negative result of ZIRP is that banks and other lenders are discouraged from lending due to puny return levels; and, therefore, the Fed’s desire to expand lending is compromised. Are lower (or negative) interest rates supposed to increase the incentive to lend money? That is an absurd assumption. Although somewhat counter-intuitive, if interest rates rose, then the supply of money willing to be lent would increase due to wider interest margins.

Current policies are so unprecedented and unproven that it is possible that the Fed itself has now become a source of financial instability. This could be the case either through the potential fueling of asset bubbles, through its compromised ability to conduct future monetary policy (due to it  unwieldy $4 trillion balance sheet), or due to “unknown unknowns.”

In a low to zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) environment, investors desperately search for yield. This frequently chases investors into assets to which they are ill-suited and to which they will miscalculate liquidity and downside potential. Under ZIRP paradigms, riskier assets become the best-performing. Credit spreads collapse and equities soar.

Massive monetary ‘printing’ by global central banks has not just emboldened investors, but these actions have collectively changed their behavior and psychology. There is evidence that policies have led to misallocation of resources. Investors are emboldened to take what many critics believe is inappropriate or reckless levels of risk. The motto, “Don’t fight the Fed” has taken on added meaning. Moral hazard and a deep-seated bullish psychology have become rampant.

Extended Fed promises of lower rates and a continuation of asset purchases even as the economy heals, are conspiring to propel prices ever-upward. Investing today has become mostly about seeking relative yield, rather than assessing value or determining if the investment’s return is sufficient compensation for the risk.

Simply stated, investors and speculators receive ever-lower returns for ever-higher levels of risks. Over time, the ability of an investor to assess an asset’s fundamental value becomes ever-increasingly impaired.

There have been persistent cycles of asset booms (bubbles) that eventually turned to ‘busts’. Very low or negative real rates always create economic distortions and the mispricing of risk, thereby creating asset bubbles. Each ‘boom’ had some differences, but the common factor has always been easy money which the Fed was too slow to withdraw. Providing liquidity is always easier than taking it away, which is one reason why the Fed has hit the “Zero Lower Bound” in the first place.

Eventually asset prices always return to their fundamental value, which is why bubbles always pop. The FOMC has backed itself into a corner. Current changes in policy are being designed around efforts to manage the unwind process seamlessly. Central bank micro-management appears based on a belief that they can exert an all-encompassing central control over markets and peoples’ lives. Those in power have come to believe that policies have a precise effect that can be defined and managed. This is highly unlikely.

In ‘normal’ times there is a more discernable connection between cause and effect. However, the usual relationships particularly break down during periods of over-indebtedness, unprecedented regulatory changes, and official rates reaching the zero lower bound. Today, the world is far from ‘normal’. It is not difficult to imagine the looming fallout from policies that have promoted asset price inflation, and which have materially compromised market liquidity.

In the long run, policies that punish savers at the expense of helping risk-takers and speculators are bad long-run policies for any country. It would be better to transform the country into net savers, rather than to continue to promote policies where growth is reliant on overly-leveraged consumers or speculators, and is micro-managed by attempts of central-control.

Looting the Pension Funds

We’ve written about the challenges facing public and private pension plans several times. Matt Taibbi has published a wide ranging and in-depth analysis of the catastrophe waiting for unsuspecting future pensioners. We really enjoy Taibbi’s work. He isn’t afraid to call out the perpetrators no matter who they may be. Consider Goldman Sachs – The Vampire Squid.

The article is lengthy but worth a read.

All across America, Wall Street is grabbing money meant for public workers

by Matt Taibbi

20130924-nattaff-x600-1380050191In In the final months of 2011, almost two years before the city of Detroit would shock America by declaring bankruptcy in the face of what it claimed were insurmountable pension costs, the state of Rhode Island took bold action to avert what it called its own looming pension crisis. Led by its newly elected treasurer, Gina Raimondo – an ostentatiously ambitious 42-year-old Rhodes scholar and former venture capitalist – the state declared war on public pensions, ramming through an ingenious new law slashing benefits of state employees with a speed and ferocity seldom before seen by any local government.

Detroit’s Debt Crisis: Everything Must Go

Called the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011, her plan would later be hailed as the most comprehensive pension reform ever implemented. The rap was so convincing at first that the overwhelmed local burghers of her little petri-dish state didn’t even know how to react. “She’s Yale, Harvard, Oxford – she worked on Wall Street,” says Paul Doughty, the current president of the Providence firefighters union. “Nobody wanted to be the first to raise his hand and admit he didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about.”

Soon she was being talked about as a probable candidate for Rhode Island’s 2014 gubernatorial race. By 2013, Raimondo had raised more than $2 million, a staggering sum for a still-undeclared candidate in a thimble-size state. Donors from Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, Bain Capital and JPMorgan Chase showered her with money, with more than $247,000 coming from New York contributors alone. A shadowy organization called EngageRI, a public-advocacy group of the 501(c)4 type whose donors were shielded from public scrutiny by the infamous Citizens United decision, spent $740,000 promoting Raimondo’s ideas. Within Rhode Island, there began to be whispers that Raimondo had her sights on the presidency. Even former Obama right hand and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel pointed to Rhode Island as an example to be followed in curing pension woes.

What few people knew at the time was that Raimondo’s “tool kit” wasn’t just meant for local consumption. The dynamic young Rhodes scholar was allowing her state to be used as a test case for the rest of the country, at the behest of powerful out-of-state financiers with dreams of pushing pension reform down the throats of taxpayers and public workers from coast to coast. One of her key supporters was billionaire former Enron executive John Arnold – a dickishly ubiquitous young right-wing kingmaker with clear designs on becoming the next generation’s Koch brothers, and who for years had been funding a nationwide campaign to slash benefits for public workers.

Nor did anyone know that part of Raimondo’s strategy for saving money involved handing more than $1 billion – 14 percent of the state fund – to hedge funds, including a trio of well-known New York-based funds: Dan Loeb’s Third Point Capital was given $66 million, Ken Garschina’s Mason Capital got $64 million and $70 million went to Paul Singer’s Elliott Management. The funds now stood collectively to be paid tens of millions in fees every single year by the already overburdened taxpayers of her ostensibly flat-broke state. Felicitously, Loeb, Garschina and Singer serve on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a prominent conservative think tank with a history of supporting benefit-slashing reforms. The institute named Raimondo its 2011 “Urban Innovator” of the year.

The state’s workers, in other words, were being forced to subsidize their own political disenfranchisement, coughing up at least $200 million to members of a group that had supported anti-labor laws. Later, when Edward Siedle, a former SEC lawyer, asked Raimondo in a column for Forbes.com how much the state was paying in fees to these hedge funds, she first claimed she didn’t know. Raimondo later told the Providence Journal she was contractually obliged to defer to hedge funds on the release of “proprietary” information, which immediately prompted a letter in protest from a series of freaked-out interest groups. Under pressure, the state later released some fee information, but the information was originally kept hidden, even from the workers themselves. “When I asked, I was basically hammered,” says Marcia Reback, a former sixth-grade schoolteacher and retired Providence Teachers Union president who serves as the lone union rep on Rhode Island’s nine-member State Investment Commission. “I couldn’t get any information about the actual costs.”

This is the third act in an improbable triple-fucking of ordinary people that Wall Street is seeking to pull off as a shocker epilogue to the crisis era. Five years ago this fall, an epidemic of fraud and thievery in the financial-services industry triggered the collapse of our economy. The resultant loss of tax revenue plunged states everywhere into spiraling fiscal crises, and local governments suffered huge losses in their retirement portfolios – remember, these public pension funds were some of the most frequently targeted suckers upon whom Wall Street dumped its fraud-riddled mortgage-backed securities in the pre-crash years.

Today, the same Wall Street crowd that caused the crash is not merely rolling in money again but aggressively counterattacking on the public-relations front. The battle increasingly centers around public funds like state and municipal pensions. This war isn’t just about money. Crucially, in ways invisible to most Americans, it’s also about blame. In state after state, politicians are following the Rhode Island playbook, using scare tactics and lavishly funded PR campaigns to cast teachers, firefighters and cops – not bankers – as the budget-devouring boogeymen responsible for the mounting fiscal problems of America’s states and cities.

Secrets and Lies of the Bailout

Not only did these middle-class workers already lose huge chunks of retirement money to huckster financiers in the crash, and not only are they now being asked to take the long-term hit for those years of greed and speculative excess, but in many cases they’re also being forced to sit by and watch helplessly as Gordon Gekko wanna-be’s like Loeb or scorched-earth takeover artists like Bain Capital are put in charge of their retirement savings.

It’s a scam of almost unmatchable balls and cruelty, accomplished with the aid of some singularly spineless politicians. And it hasn’t happened overnight. This has been in the works for decades, and the fighting has been dirty all the way.

How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform

There’s $2.6 trillion in state pension money under management in America, and there are a lot of fingers in that pie. Any attempt to make a neat Aesop narrative about what’s wrong with the system would inevitably be an oversimplification. But in this hugely contentious, often overheated national controversy – which at times has pitted private-sector workers who’ve mostly lost their benefits already against public-sector workers who are merely about to lose them – two key angles have gone largely unreported. Namely: who got us into this mess, and who’s now being paid to get us out of it.

The siege of America’s public-fund money really began nearly 40 years ago, in 1974, when Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. In theory, this sweeping regulatory legislation was designed to protect the retirement money of workers with pension plans. ERISA forces employers to provide information about where pension money is being invested, gives employees the right to sue for breaches of fiduciary duty, and imposes a conservative “prudent man” rule on the managers of retiree funds, dictating that they must make sensible investments and seek to minimize loss. But this landmark worker-protection law left open a major loophole: It didn’t cover public pensions. Some states were balking at federal oversight, and lawmakers, naively perhaps, simply never contemplated the possibility of local governments robbing their own workers.

Politicians quickly learned to take liberties. One common tactic involved illegally borrowing cash from public retirement funds to finance other budget needs. For many state pension funds, a significant percentage of the kitty is built up by the workers themselves, who pitch in as little as one and as much as 10 percent of their income every year. The rest of the fund is made up by contributions from the taxpayer. In many states, the amount that the state has to kick in every year, the Annual Required Contribution (ARC), is mandated by state law.

Chris Tobe, a former trustee of the Kentucky Retirement Systems who blew the whistle to the SEC on public-fund improprieties in his state and wrote a book called Kentucky Fried Pensions, did a careful study of states and their ARCs. While some states pay 100 percent (or even more) of their required bills, Tobe concluded that in just the past decade, at least 14 states have regularly failed to make their Annual Required Contributions. In 2011, an industry website called 24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of the 10 brokest, most busted public pensions in America. “Eight of those 10 were on my list,” says Tobe.

Among the worst of these offenders are Massachusetts (made just 27 percent of its payments), New Jersey (33 percent, with the teachers’ pension getting just 10 percent of required payments) and Illinois (68 percent). In Kentucky, the state pension fund, the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS), has paid less than 50 percent of its ARCs over the past 10 years, and is now basically butt-broke – the fund is 27 percent funded, which makes bankrupt Detroit, whose city pension is 77 percent full, look like the sultanate of Brunei by comparison.

Here’s what this game comes down to. Politicians run for office, promising to deliver law and order, safe and clean streets, and good schools. Then they get elected, and instead of paying for the cops, garbagemen, teachers and firefighters they only just 10 minutes ago promised voters, they intercept taxpayer money allocated for those workers and blow it on other stuff. It’s the governmental equivalent of stealing from your kids’ college fund to buy lap dances. In Rhode Island, some cities have underfunded pensions for decades. In certain years zero required dollars were contributed to the municipal pension fund. “We’d be fine if they had made all of their contributions,” says Stephen T. Day, retired president of the Providence firefighters union. “Instead, after they took all that money, they’re saying we’re broke. Are you fucking kidding me?”

There’s an arcane but highly disturbing twist to the practice of not paying required contributions into pension funds: The states that engage in this activity may also be committing securities fraud. Why? Because if a city or state hasn’t been making its required contributions, and this hasn’t been made plain to the ratings agencies, then that same city or state is actually concealing what in effect are massive secret loans and is actually far more broke than it is representing to investors when it goes out into the world and borrows money by issuing bonds.

Some states have been caught in the act of doing this, but the penalties have been so meager that the practice can be considered quasi-sanctioned. For example, in August 2010, the SEC reprimanded the state of New Jersey for serially lying about its failure to make pension contributions throughout the 2000s. “New Jersey failed to provide certain present and historical financial information regarding its pension funding in bond-disclosure documents,” the SEC wrote, in seemingly grave language. “The state was aware of . . . the potential effects of the underfunding.” Illinois was similarly reprimanded by the SEC for lying about its failure to make its required pension contributions. But in neither of these cases were the consequences really severe. So far, states get off with no monetary fines at all. “The SEC was mistaken if they think they sent a message to other states,” Tobe says.

But for all of this, state pension funds were more or less in decent shape prior to the financial crisis of 2008. The country, after all, had been in a historic bull market for most of the 1990s and 2000s and politicians who underpaid the ARCs during that time often did so assuming that the good times would never end. In fact, prior to the crash, state pension funds nationwide were cumulatively running a surplus. But then the crash came, and suddenly states everywhere were in a real, no-joke fiscal crisis. Tax revenues went in the crapper, and someone had to take the hit. But who? Cuts to corporate welfare and a rolled-up-newspaper whack of new taxes on the guilty finance sector seemed a good place to start, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, it was then that the legend of pension unsustainability was born, with the help of a pair of unlikely allies.

Most people think of Pew Charitable Trusts as a centrist, nonpartisan organization committed to sanguine policy analysis and agnostic number crunching. It’s an odd reputation for an organization that was the legacy of J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil (the future Sunoco) during its early 20th-century petro-powerhouse days and a kind of australopithecine precursor to a Tea Party leader. Pew had all the symptoms: an obsession with the New Deal as a threat to free society, a keen appreciation for unreadable Austrian economist F.A. Hayek and a hoggish overuse of the word “freedom.” Pew and his family left nearly $1 billion to a series of trusts, one of which was naturally called the “Freedom Trust,” whose mission was, in part, to combat “the false promises of socialism and a planned economy.”

The Great American Bubble Machine

Still, for decades Pew trusts engaged in all sorts of worthy endeavors, including everything from polling to press criticism. In 2007, Pew began publishing an annual study called “The Widening Gap,” which aimed to use states’ own data to show the “gap” between present pension-fund levels and future obligations. The study quickly became a leading analysis of the “unfunded liability” question.

In 2011, Pew began to align itself with a figure who was decidedly neither centrist nor nonpartisan: 39-year-old John Arnold, whom CNN/Money described (erroneously) as the “second-youngest self-made billionaire in America,” after Mark Zuckerberg. Though similar in wealth and youth, Arnold presented the stylistic opposite of Zuckerberg’s signature nerd chic: He’s a lipless, eager little jerk with the jug-eared face of a Division III women’s basketball coach, exactly what you’d expect a former Enron commodities trader to look like. Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room and remembers those tapes of Enron traders cackling about rigging energy prices on “Grandma Millie” and jamming electricity rates “right up her ass for fucking $250 a megawatt hour” will have a sense of exactly what Arnold’s work environment was like.

The People vs. Goldman Sachs

In fact, in the book that the movie was based on, the authors portray Arnold bragging about his minions manipulating energy prices, praising them for “learning how to use the Enron bat to push around the market.” Those comments later earned Arnold visits from federal investigators, who let him get away with claiming he didn’t mean what he said.

As Enron was imploding, Arnold played a footnote role, helping himself to an $8 million bonus while the company’s pension fund was vaporizing. He and other executives were later rebuked by a bankruptcy judge for looting their own company along with other executives. Public pension funds nationwide, reportedly, lost more than $1.5 billion thanks to their investments in Enron.

In 2002, Arnold started a hedge fund and over the course of the next few years made roughly a $3 billion fortune as the world’s most successful natural-gas trader. But after suffering losses in 2010, Arnold bowed out of hedge-funding to pursue “other interests.” He had created the Arnold Foundation, an organization dedicated, among other things, to reforming the pension system, hiring a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Dick Armey named Denis Calabrese, as well as Dan Liljenquist, a Utah state senator and future Tea Party challenger to Orrin Hatch.

Soon enough, the Arnold Foundation released a curious study on pensions. On the one hand, it admitted that many states had been undercontributing to their pension funds for years. But instead of proposing that states correct the practice, the report concluded that “the way to create a sound, sustainable and fair retirement-savings program is to stop promising a [defined] benefit.”

In 2011, Arnold and Pew found each other. As detailed in a new study by progressive think tank Institute for America’s Future, Arnold and Pew struck up a relationship – and both have since been proselytizing pension reform all over America, including California, Florida, Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky and Montana. Few knew that Pew had a relationship with a right-wing, anti-pension zealot like Arnold. “The centrist reputation of Pew was a key in selling a lot of these ideas,” says Jordan Marks of the National Public Pension Coalition. Later, a Pew report claimed that the national “gap” between pension assets and future liabilities added up to some $757 billion and dryly insisted the shortfall was unbridgeable, minus some combination of “higher contributions from taxpayers and employees, deep benefit cuts and, in some cases, changes in how retirement plans are structured and benefits are distributed.”

What the study didn’t say was that this supposedly massive gap could all be chalked up to the financial crisis, which, of course, had been caused almost entirely by the greed and wide-scale fraud of the financial-services industry – particularly with regard to state pension funds.

A study by noted economist Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy and Research bore this out. In February 2011, Baker reported that, had public pension funds not been invested in the stock market and exposed to mortgage-backed securities, there would be no shortfall at all. He said state pension managers were of course somewhat to blame, but only “insofar as they exercised poor judgment in buying the [finance] industry’s services.”

In fact, Baker said, had public funds during the crash years simply earned modest returns equal to 30-year Treasury bonds, then public-pension assets would be $850 billion richer than they were two years after the crash. Baker reported that states were short an additional $80 billion over the same period thanks to the fact that post-crash, cash-strapped states had been paying out that much less of their mandatory ARC payments.

So even if Pew’s numbers were right, the “unfunded liability” crisis had nothing to do with the systemic unsustainability of public pensions. Thanks to a deadly combination of unscrupulous states illegally borrowing from their pensioners, and unscrupulous banks whose mass sales of fraudulent toxic subprime products crashed the market, these funds were out some $930 billion. Yet the public was being told that the problem was state workers’ benefits were simply too expensive.

In a way, this was a repeat of a shell game with retirement finance that had been going on at the federal level since the Reagan years. The supposed impending collapse of Social Security, which actually should be running a surplus of trillions of dollars, is now repeated as a simple truth. But Social Security wouldn’t be “collapsing” at all had not three decades of presidents continually burgled the cash in the Social Security trust fund to pay for tax cuts, wars and God knows what else. Same with the alleged insolvencies of state pension programs. The money may not be there, but that’s not because the program is unsustainable: It’s because bankers and politicians stole the money.

Still, the public mostly bought the line being sold by Arnold, Pew and other anti-pension figures like the Koch brothers. To most, it didn’t matter who was to blame: What mattered is that the money was gone, and there seemed to be only two possible paths forward. One led to bankruptcy, a real-enough threat that had already ravaged places like Vallejo, California; Jefferson County, Alabama; and, this summer, Detroit. In Rhode Island, the tiny town of Central Falls went bust in 2011, and even after a court-ordered plan lifted the town out of bankruptcy in 2012, the “rescue” left pensions slashed as much as 55 percent. “You had guys who were living off $24,000, and now they’re getting $12,000,” says Day. Though Day and his fellow retirees are still fighting reform, he says other union workers might rather settle than file bankruptcy. Holding up an infamous local-newspaper picture of a retired Central Falls policeman in a praying posture, as though begging not to have his whole pension taken away, Day sighs. “Guys take one look at this picture and that’s it. They’re terrified.”

Such images chilled many public workers into accepting the second path – the kind of pension reform meagerly touted by one-percent-friendly politicians like Gina Raimondo. Anyone could see that “reform” meant giving up cash. But the other parts of these schemes were murkier. Most pension-reform proposals required that states must go after higher returns by seeking out “alternative investments,” which sounds harmless enough. But we are now finding out what that term actually means – and it’s a little north of harmless.

Looting Main Street: How the Nation’s Biggest Banks Are Ripping Us Off

One of the most garish early experiments in “alternative investments” came in Ohio in the late 1990s, after the Republican-controlled state assembly passed a law loosening restrictions on what kinds of things state funds could invest in. Sometime later, an investigation by the Toledo Blade revealed that the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation had bought into rare-coin funds run by a GOP fundraiser named Thomas Noe. Through Noe, Ohio put $50 million into coins and “other collectibles” – including Beanie Babies.

The scandal had repercussions all over the country, but not what you’d expect. James Drew, one of the reporters who broke the story, notes that a consequence of “Coingate” was that states stopped giving out information about where public money is invested. “If they learned anything, it’s not to stop doing it, but to keep it secret,” says Drew.

Invasion of the Home Snatchers

In fact, in recent years more than a dozen states have carved out exemptions for hedge funds to traditional Freedom of Information Act requests, making it impossible in some cases, if not illegal, for workers to find out where their own money has been invested.

The way this works, typically, is simple: A hedge fund will refuse to take a state’s business unless it first provides legal guarantees that information about its investments won’t be disclosed to the public. The ostensible justifications for these outrageous laws are usually that disclosing commercial information about hedge funds would place them at a “competitive disadvantage.”

In 2010, the University of California reinvested its pension fund with a venture-capital group called Sequoia Capital, which in turn is a backer of a firm called Think Finance, whose business is payday lending – a form of short-term, extremely high-interest rate lending that’s basically loan-sharking without the leg-breaking, and is banned in 15 states and D.C. According to American Banker, Think Finance partnered with a Native American tribe to get around state interest-rate caps; someone borrowing $250 in its “plain green loans” program would owe $440 after 16 weeks, for a tidy annual percentage rate of 379 percent. In a more recent case, the pension fund of L.A. County union workers invested in an Embassy Suites hotel that is trying to prevent janitors and other employees from organizing. California passed a law in 2005 making hedge-fund investments secret.

The American Federation of Teachers this spring released a list of financiers who had been connected with lobbying efforts against defined-benefit plans. Included on that list was hedge-funder Loeb of Third Point Capital, who sits on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a group that advocates for an end to these traditional plans for public workers – that is, pensions that promise a guaranteed payout based on one’s salary and years of service. When Rhode Island union rep Reback complained about hiring funds whose managers had anti-labor histories, she was told the state couldn’t make decisions based on political leanings of fund managers. That same month, Rhode Island moved to disinvest its workers’ money from firearms distributors in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Hedge funds have good reason to want to keep their fees hidden: They’re insanely expensive. The typical fee structure for private hedge-fund management is a formula called “two and twenty,” meaning the hedge fund collects a two percent fee just for showing up, then gets 20 percent of any profits it earns with your money. Some hedge funds also charge a mysterious third fee, called “fund expenses,” that can run as high as half a percent – Loeb’s Third Point, for instance, charged Rhode Island just more than half a percent for “fund expenses” last year, or about $350,000. Hedge funds will also pass on their trading costs to their clients, a huge additional line item that can come to an extra percent or more and is seldom disclosed. There are even fees states pay for withdrawing from certain hedge funds.

In public finance, hedge funds will sometimes give slight discounts, but the numbers are still enormous. In Rhode Island, over the course of 20 years, Siedle projects that the state will pay $2.1 billion in fees to hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds. Why is that number interesting? Because it very nearly matches the savings the state will be taking from workers by freezing their Cost of Living Adjustments – $2.3 billion over 20 years.

“That’s some ‘reform,’” says Siedle.

“They pretty much took the COLA and gave it to a bunch of billionaires,” hisses Day, Providence’s retired firefighter union chief.

When asked to respond to criticisms that the savings from COLA freezes could be seen as going directly into the pockets of billionaires, treasurer Raimondo replied that it was “very dangerous to look at fees in a vacuum” and that it’s worth paying more for a safer and more diverse portfolio. She compared hedge funds – inherently high-risk investments whose prospectuses typically contain front-page disclaimers saying things like, WARNING: YOU MAY LOSE EVERYTHING – to snow tires. “Sure, you pay a little more,” she says. “But you’re really happy you have them when the roads are slick.”

Raimondo recently criticized the high-fee structure of hedge funds in the Wall Street Journal and told Rolling Stone that “‘two and twenty’ doesn’t make sense anymore,” although she hired several funds at precisely those fee levels back before she faced public criticism on the issue. She did add that she was monitoring the funds’ performance. “If they underperform, they’re out,” she says.

And underperforming is likely. Even though hedge funds can and sometimes do post incredible numbers in the short-term – Loeb’s Third Point notched a 41 percent gain for Rhode Island in 2010; the following year, it earned -0.54 percent. On Wall Street, people are beginning to clue in to the fact – spikes notwithstanding – that over time, hedge funds basically suck. In 2008, Warren Buffett famously placed a million-dollar bet with the heads of a New York hedge fund called Protégé Partners that the S&P 500 index fund – a neutral bet on the entire stock market, in other words – would outperform a portfolio of five hedge funds hand-picked by the geniuses at Protégé.

Five years later, Buffett’s zero-effort, pin-the-tail-on-the-stock-market portfolio is up 8.69 percent total. Protégé’s numbers are comical in comparison; all those superminds came up with a 0.13 percent increase over five long years, meaning Buffett is beating the hedgies by nearly nine points without lifting a finger.

Union leaders all over the country have started to figure out the perils of hiring a bunch of overpriced Wall Street wizards to manage the public’s money. Among other things, investing with hedge funds is infinitely more expensive than investing with simple index funds. On Wall Street and in the investment world, the management price is measured in something called basis points, a basis point equaling one hundredth of one percent. So a state like Rhode Island, which is paying a two percent fee to hedge funds, is said to be paying an upfront fee of 200 basis points.

How much does it cost to invest public money in a simple index fund? “We’ve paid as little as .875 of a basis point,” says William Atwood, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment. “At most, five basis points.”

So at the low end, Atwood is paying 200 times less than the standard two percent hedge-fund fee. As an example, Atwood says, the state of Illinois paid a fee of just $57,000 last year on $550 million of public money they put into an S&P 500 index fund, which, again, is exactly the sort of plain-vanilla investment that Warren Buffett used to publicly kick the ass of Wall Street’s cockiest hedge fund.

The fees aren’t even the only costs of “alternative investments.” Many states have engaged middlemen called “placement agents” to hire hedge funds, and those placement agents – typically people with ties to state investment boards – are themselves paid enormous sums, often in the millions, just to “introduce” hedge funds to politicians holding the checkbook.

Bank of America: Too Crooked to Fail

In Kentucky, Tobe and Siedle found that KRS, the state pension funds, had paid a whopping $14 million to placement agents between 2004 and 2009. In Atlanta, a member of the city pension board complained to the SEC that the city had hired a consultant, Larry Gray, who convinced the city pension fund to invest $28 million in a hedge fund he himself owned. Raimondo says she never hired placement agents, but the state did pay a $450,000 consulting fee to a firm called Cliffwater LLC.

Doughty says the endless system of highly paid middlemen reminds him of old slapstick comedies. “It’s like the Three Stooges,” he says. “When you ask them what happened, they’re all pointing in different directions, like, ‘He did it!’”

How Wall Street Is Using the Bailout to Stage a Revolution

Even worse, placement agents are also often paid by the alternative investors. In California, the Apollo private-equity firm paid a former CalPERS board member named Alfred Villalobos a staggering $48 million for help in securing investments from state pensions, and Villalobos delivered, helping Apollo receive $3 billion of CalPERS money. Villalobos got indicted in that affair, but only because he’d lied to Apollo about disclosing his fees to CalPERS. Otherwise, despite the fact that this is in every way basically a crude kickback scheme, there’s no law at all against a placement agent taking money from a finance firm. The Government Accountability Office has condemned the practice, but it goes on.

“It’s a huge conflict of interest,” says Siedle.

So when you invest your pension money in hedge funds, you might be paying a hundred times the cost or more, you might be underperforming the market, you may be supporting political movements against you, and you often have to pay what effectively is a bribe just for the privilege of hiring your crappy overpaid money manager in the first place. What’s not to like about that? Who could complain?

Once upon a time, local corruption was easy. “It was votes for jobs,” Doughty says with a sigh. A ward would turn out for a councilman, the councilman would come back with jobs from city-budget contracts – that was the deal. What’s going on with public pensions is a more confusing modern version of that local graft. With public budgets carefully scrutinized by everyone from the press to regulators, the black box of pension funds makes it the only public treasure left that’s easy to steal. Politicians quietly borrow millions from these funds by not paying their ARCs, and it’s that money, plus the savings from cuts made to worker benefits in the name of “emergency” pension reform, that pays for an apparently endless regime of corporate tax breaks and handouts.

A notorious example in Rhode Island is, of course, 38 Studios, the doomed video-game venture of blabbering, Christ-humping ex-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who received a $75 million loan guarantee from the state at a time when local politicians were pleading poverty. “This whole thing isn’t just about cutting payments to retirees,” says syndicated columnist David Sirota, who authored the Institute for America’s Future study on Arnold and Pew. “It’s about preserving money for corporate welfare.” Their study estimates states spend up to $120 billion a year on offshore tax loopholes and gifts to dingbats like Schilling and other subsidies – more than two and a half times as much as the $46 billion a year Pew says states are short on pension payments.

The bottom line is that the “unfunded liability” crisis is, if not exactly fictional, certainly exaggerated to an outrageous degree. Yes, we live in a new economy and, yes, it may be time to have a discussion about whether certain kinds of public employees should be receiving sizable benefit checks until death. But the idea that these benefit packages are causing the fiscal crises in our states is almost entirely a fabrication crafted by the very people who actually caused the problem. It’s like Voltaire’s maxim about noses having evolved to fit spectacles, so therefore we wear spectacles. In this case, we have an unfunded-pension-liability problem because we’ve been ripping retirees off for decades – but the solution being offered is to rip them off even more.

Everybody following this story should remember what went on in the immediate aftermath of the crash of 2008, when the federal government was so worried about the sanctity of private contracts that it doled out $182 billion in public money to AIG. That bailout guaranteed that firms like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank could be paid off on their bets against a subprime market they themselves helped overheat, and that AIG executives could be paid the huge bonuses they naturally deserved for having run one of the world’s largest corporations into the ground. When asked why the state was paying those bonuses, Obama economic adviser Larry Summers said, “We are a country of law. . . . The government cannot just abrogate contracts.”

Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?

Now, though, states all over the country are claiming they not only need to abrogate legally binding contracts with state workers but also should seize retirement money from widows to finance years of illegal loans, giant fees to billionaires like Dan Loeb and billions in tax breaks to the Curt Schillings of the world. It ain’t right. If someone has to tighten a belt or two, let’s start there. If we’ve still got a problem after squaring those assholes away, that’s something that can be discussed. But asking cops, firefighters and teachers to take the first hit for a crisis caused by reckless pols and thieves on Wall Street is low, even by American standards.

This story is from the October 10th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/looting-the-pension-funds-20130926

 

 

Has the Recent Stock Rally Lulled You to Sleep?

Here’s why you SHOULDN’T get too comfortable

By Elliott Wave International

Bear markets are cunning beasts.

Don’t get me wrong — we are not in the bear market territory yet. At least, not officially.

An “official” bear market begins when the stocks indexes decline 20%. The DJIA’s decline from the May 2, 2011 high to the September 21 low is about 17%. Close, but no cigar.

Add to that the strong rallies we’ve seen over the past few weeks (Sept. 12-20: +685 points in the Dow, for example) — and lots of people conclude that despite the volatility, things aren’t so bad.

But let’s get some perspective. The stock market has been around a while. Only when you look at its history do you realize just how cunning — and fast, and strong — bear markets can be.

Here’s a chart we’ve shown readers before. It’s worth printing out and keeping on the wall above the desk where you open your brokerage statements.

This is the DJIA between 1930 and 1932, one of the worst bear markets in history. Robert Prechter, EWI’s president, took the time to measure the percentage gain of each bear market rally during the 2-year period — you can see them in this chart.

how the air goes out of a financial bubble

When you routinely see double-digit rallies (11 percent, 18 percent, even 39%) over the course of two or three years, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that maybe things aren’t so bad.

The reality, of course, is that the bear market’s chokehold grows tighter around your neck with every drop-rally sequence. (Think back to the 2007-2009 collapse, and you’ll remember the same behavior.)

Which brings us to here and now. Rallies and declines of 300-400+ points have been so common since August that we’re kind of getting used to them.

The question is: Are we in a bear market, or is it that “maybe things aren’t so bad”?

What If the Unthinkable Happens?–Two Possible Collapse Scenarios

Never before has the federal government’s manipulation of financial markets created greater dangers – and opportunities! The federal government and Federal  Reserve have escalated their “extend and pretend” game to new heights – even though there is evidence as to the economic destructiveness of these policies. Repeated market and monetary manipulations in recent years not only haven’t worked they have proven to be disastrous.

They led to a stock market bubble and bust in 2000 … to an even larger housing bubble and bust in 2007 … and then the greatest banking crisis of the last 75 years in 2008.

Have We Learned Nothing?

It appears that the “kick the can down the road” playbook has only one play. And the government continues to use it despite any real evidence that its policy of “quantitative easing” (i.e. printing vast sums of currency) is stimulating the real economy. QE2 has now ended. It’s only a matter of time before QE3 is announced. What’s ironic is that, despite the failures, the Federal Reserve continues to use the very same policies that caused the crises – although today their attempts are larger in scope than ever before. This time the government has created the mother of all bubbles, in the one asset that, until now, had been considered above the fray: U.S. government debt.

It has been well documented how disastrous the sovereign debt crisis has been in Europe. We know that the United States government’s finances are notin better shape. And we also can anticipate that a bust in U.S. debt could make the housing and banking crisis of 2008 look mild by comparison.

The only remaining question is not if, but HOW a debt crisis will hit the U.S. as well. I see two possible scenarios …

Bond collapse scenario. Mass psychology in global bond and currency markets drive the action.

One night, you go to bed thinking that the majority of market participants retain confidence in government debt, more than enough to prop up bond markets forever.

Then, the next morning you wake up to discover that the global confidence in the U.S. has been shattered by a singular event (a “black swan”), and all hell is breaking loose.

Borrowing becomes next to impossible or prohibitively expensive. Banks fail. The financial system as we know it unravels. The economy plunges into recession.

Will this be a replay of 2008? No. Because this time governments do not have the means to fight it.

Recession scenario.We wind up essentially falling off the same cliff as in the bond collapse scenario, but we get there via a different path.

This scenario begins where the first scenario ends — with another recession.

The recession guts government tax revenues, bloating the federal deficit even further.

And this is what leads to a government funding crisis, much as it has for many cities and states around the U.S.

So Which Scenario Will it Be?

It is too soon to say. But we already have some evidence that BOTH are in process.

Standard and Poor’s (S&P) has put the U.S. government’s debt outlook on “negative” status. This was unimaginable just a few years ago, but now it has become just one more reminder of the unfolding debt crisis scenario.

We also see signs of the double-dip recession scenario:

  • Inflation: Historically rapid rises in inflation have consistently triggered a recession, or at a minimum, severe bear markets or crashes. Since inflationary pressures are on the rise, this indicator is a clear warning sign.
  • Rising crude oil prices have also been associated with recessions in the past. Increases of more than 150 percent in two years rarely happen. But when they do, a recession isn’t far off. So this indicator is currently also in “recession warning” mode.
  • The U.S. housing market is falling again. And the mortgage credit reset schedule seems to assure much more downward pressure during the next year. This doesn’t bode well for the housing market itself, the banking sector, or the economy. A sustainable economic recovery with an ongoing price slump in housing is very unlikely.
  • Then we have rising interest rates. In Europe the bond market is driving longer term rates up. And in emerging markets, central banks have implemented restrictive monetary measures, hiking interest rates and reserve requirements. So far the U.S. has remained unscathed by rising interest rates. But, that won’t last forever. And rising interest rates can trigger bear markets and recessions.
  • These are four strong reasons for another economic downturn in the not-too-distant future.

With governments already massively over-indebted …

With inflation expectations on the rise, and …

With central banks starting to jack up interest rates …

I doubt the governments of Europe or the U.S. can pull another rabbit out of the hat. Soon the stock market will feel the pressure, and the economy would likely follow.

How can you profit from these events? If you’re heavily invested in stocks or mutual funds, look into inverse ETFs. Inverse ETFs offer a relatively safe way to profit from the rise and fall of markets with diversification in many cases. Inverse ETFs are available for broad market indexes such as the Dow Industrials, S&P 500 or NASDAQ. The also offer the ability to target venerable market sectors, such as banking, using an ETF like the ProShares UltraShort Financials ETF (symbol: SKF). They’re easy to buy. You can never lose more than you invest. And they’re a very good hedge.

Market Crashes: The South Sea Bubble

It’s said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. I believe that examining historical market bubbles and crashes can provide valuable insight into our current economic condition.

It is frequently implied, or even outright stated, by today’s powers that be that “this time is different”. Well, I beg to differ. This time is not different. To help illustrate that fact please examine the South Sea Bubble and crash. The parallels between the South Sea Bubble and the recent Internet Bubble are many. In summary:

  • The South Sea Company was perceived to have a “can’t lose” franchise.
    No one questioned the inexperience of South Sea Company management.
  • Few (if any) investors stopped to examine the actual business plan and practices of the South Sea Company. The frenzy to buy was such that rational caution was abandoned. Ridiculous ideas were treated as viable business plans.
  • When the bubble popped, as with all  bubbles, the descent was fast and furious – even more so than the ascent.

    In the 18th century the British empire was the big dog on the block. Their economic and political influence spanned the entire globe. For the British, the period was a time of prosperity and wealth. A large percentage of the population had money to invest and were looking for places to put their money. As a result, the South Sea Company had no problem attracting investors. The South Sea Company assumed the national debt that England had incurred during the War of Spanish Succession for £10,000,000.00.

    South_Sea_BubbleThe few companies offering stock to the public at that time were difficult investments to buy. For example, the East India Company was paying out tax-free dividends to their mere 499 investors. The South Sea Company was perched on top of what was perceived to be the most lucrative monopoly on earth.

    The first issue of South Sea Company stock wasn’t enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of investors. Investors felt that the South Sea Company was blessed with a “guarantee” of dominance, i.e. it could not fail. The popular conception was that Mexicans and South Americans were just waiting for someone to introduce them to the finery of wool and fleece in exchange for mounds of jewels and gold.

    No one questioned the repeated reissue of stock by the South Sea Company. Investors bought the stock as fast as it was offered. It didn’t matter to investors that the company wasn’t headed by inexperienced management. Those who headed the company, however, were blessed with public relations skills. They knew the value of appearances. They set up offices furnished with affluence in the most extravagant quarters. People, once they saw the wealth the South Sea Company was “generating,” couldn’t keep their money from gravitating towards the company.

    Not long after the emergence of the South Sea Company, another company, the Mississippi Company, was established in France. The company was the brainchild of an exiled Brit named John Law. I’ve discussed the Mississippi Company in another post: The Mississippi Bubble and the French Bailout. John Law’s idea would warm the hearts of central bankers the world over. He advocated switching the monetary system from one based on gold and silver into a paper currency (fiat) system. The Mississippi Company caught the fancy of continental traders. Soon the Mississippi Company’s stock was worth 80 times more than all the gold and silver in France. Law’s success on the European continent stirred British pride. Believing that British companies were superior to the French, British investors became desperate to invest their money in the South Sea Company.

Those same investors were blind to indications that the South Sea Company was a poorly run enterprise (e..g. whole shipments of wool were misdirected and left decaying in foreign ports). Investors continued to buy stock, pushing up the share price. The price of the stock went up over the course of a single year from about one hundred pounds a share to almost one thousand pounds per share – a tenfold increase.

Its success caused a country-wide frenzy as all types of people—from peasants to lords—developed a feverish interest in investing. IPOs began to sprout everywhere, including companies that promised to reclaim sunshine from vegetables and to build floating mansions to extend Britain’s landmass. Among the many companies to go public in 1720 is, famously, one that advertised itself as “a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”.

The share price reached £1,000 in August 1720. Then the selling started. The management team of South Sea Company realized that the value of their shares in no way reflected the actual value of the company or its earnings. They sold their personal stakes in the summer of 1720. The actions of South Sea Company management quickly spread. Soon panic selling of South Sea Company stock certificates ensued. The share priced collapsed, falling to one hundred pounds per share before the year was out,. triggering bankruptcies among those who had bought on credit.