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It’s not just that banks are no longer needed–they pose a needless and potentially catastrophic risk to the nation. To understand why, we need to understand the key characteristics of risk.
The entire banking sector is based on two illusions:
1. Thanks to modern portfolio management, bank debt is now riskless.
2. Technology only enhances banks’ tools to skim profits; it does not undermine the fundamental role of banks.
The global financial meltdown of 2008-09 definitively proved riskless bank debt is an illusion. If you want to understand why risk cannot eliminated, please read Benoit Mandelbrot’s book The (Mis)Behavior of Markets.
Technology does not just enable high-frequency trading; it enables capital and borrowers to bypass banks entirely. I addressed this yesterday in Banks Are Obsolete: The Entire Parasitic Sector Can Be Eliminated.
Unfortunately for banks, higher education, buggy whip manufacturers, etc., monopoly and propaganda are no match for technology. Just because a system worked in the past in a specific set of technological constraints does not mean it continues to be a practical solution when those technological constraints dissolve.
The current banking system is essentially based on two 19th century legacies. In that bygone era, banks were a repository of accounting expertise (keeping track of multitudes of accounts, interest, etc.) and risk assessment/management expertise (choosing the lowest-risk borrowers).
Both of these functions are now automated. The funny thing about technology is that those threatened by fundamental improvements in technology attempt to harness it to save their industry from extinction. For example, overpriced colleges now charge thousands of dollars for nearly costless massively open online courses (MOOCs) because they retain a monopoly on accreditation (diplomas). Once students are accredited directly–an advancement enabled by technology–colleges’ monopoly disappears and so does their raison d’etre.
The same is true of banks. Now that accounting and risk assessment are automated, and borrowers and owners of capital can exchange funds in transparent digital marketplaces, there is no need for banks. But according to banks, only they have the expertise to create riskless debt.
It’s not just that banks are no longer needed–they pose a needless and potentially catastrophic risk to the nation. To understand why, we need to understand the key characteristics of risk.
Moral hazard is what happens when people who make bad decisions suffer no consequences. Once decision-makers offload consequence onto others, they are free to make increasingly risky bets, knowing that they will personally suffer no losses if the bets go bad.
The current banking system is defined by moral hazard. “Too big to fail” also means “too big to jail:” no matter how criminal or risky the bank managements’ decisions, the decision-makers not only suffered no consequences, they walked away from the smouldering ruins with tens of millions of dollars in personal wealth.
Absent any consequence, the system created perverse incentives to pyramid risky bets and derivatives to increase profits–a substantial share of which flowed directly into the personal accounts of the managers.
The perfection of moral hazard in the current banking system can be illustrated by what happened to the last CEO of Lehman Brother, Richard Fuld: he walked away from the wreckage with $222 million. This is not an outlier; it is the direct result of a system based on moral hazard, too-big-to-jail and perverse incentives to increase systemic risk for personal gain.
And who picked up all the losses? The American taxpayer. Privatize profits, socialize losses: that’s the heart of moral hazard.
Concentrating the ability to leverage stupendous systemic bets in a few hands leads to a concentration of risk. Just before America’s financial sector imploded, banks had pyramided $2.5 trillion in dodgy mortgages into derivatives and exotic financial instruments with a face value of $35 trillion–14 times the underlying collateral and more than double the size of the U.S. economy.
In a web-enabled transparent exchange of borrowers bidding for capital, the risk is intrinsically dispersed over millions of participants. Not only is risk dispersed, but the consequences of bad decisions and bad bets fall solely to those who made the decision and the bet. This is the foundation of a sound, stable, fair financial system.
In a transparent marketplace of millions of participants, a handful of participants will be unable to acquire enough profit to capture the political process. The present banking system is not just a financial threat to the nation, it is a political threat because its outsized profits enable bankers to capture the regulatory and governance machinery.
chart courtesy of Market Daily Briefing
The problem with concentrating leverage and moral hazard is that risk is also concentrated. And when risk is concentrated rather than dispersed, it inevitably breaks out of the “riskless” corral. This is the foundation of my aphorism: Central planning perfects the power of threats to bypass the system’s defenses.
We can understand this dynamic with an analogy to bacteria and antibiotics. By attempting to eliminate the risk of infection by flooding the system with antibiotics, central planning actually perfects the search for bacteria that are immune to the antibiotics. These few bacteria will bypass the system’s defenses and destroy the system from within.
The banking/financial sector claims to be eliminating risk, but what it’s actually doing is perfecting the threats that will destroy the system from within. Another way to understand this is to look at what happened to home mortgages in the runup to the meltdown of 2008: the “safest” part of the financial sector ended up triggering the collapse of the entire pyramid of risk.
Once we concentrate risk and impose perverse incentives and moral hazard as the foundations of our financial/banking system, then we guarantee the risk will explode out of whatever sector is considered “safe.”
Once you eliminate the “risk” of weak bacteria, you perfect the threat that will kill the host.
The banking sector cannot be reformed, for its very nature is to concentrate systemic risk and moral hazard into breeding grounds of systemic collapse. The only way to eliminate the threat posed by banks is to eliminate the banks and replace them with transparent exchanges where borrowers and owners of capital openly bid for yield (interest rates) and capital.
Bankers (and their fellow financial parasites) will claim they are essential and the nation will collapse without them. But this is precisely opposite of reality: the very existence of banks threatens the nation and democracy.
One last happy thought: technology cannot be put back in the bottle. The financial/banking sector wants to use technology to increase its middleman skim, but the technology that is already out of the bottle will dismantle the sector as a function of what technology enables: faster, better, cheaper, with greater transparency, fairness and the proper distribution of risk.
There may well be a place for credit unions and community banks in the spectrum of exchanges, but these localized, decentralized enterprises would be unable to amass dangerous concentrations of risk and political influence in a truly transparent and decentralized system of exchanges.
Of related interest:
Certainty, Complex Systems, and Unintended Consequences (February 14, 2014)
Our Middleman-Skimming Economy (February 11, 2014)
Americans aren’t wild about the government’s currency either. Instead of holding dollars and other financial assets, investors are storing wealth in art, wine, and antique cars. The Economist reported in November, “This buying binge… is growing distrust of financial assets.”
But while the big money is setting art market records and pumping up high-end real estate prices, the distrust-in-government script has not pushed the suspicious into the barbarous relic. The lowly dollar has soared versus gold since September 2011.
Every central banker on earth has sworn an oath to Keynesian money creation, yet the yellow metal has retraced nearly $700 from its $1,895 high. The only limits to fiat money creation are the imagination of central bankers and the willingness of commercial bankers to lend. That being the case, the main culprit for gold’s lackluster performance over the past two years is something else, Tocqueville Asset Management Portfolio Manager and Senior Managing Director John Hathaway explained in his brilliant report “Let’s Get Physical.
Hathaway points out that the wind is clearly in the face of gold production. It currently costs as much or more to produce an ounce than you can sell it for. Mining gold is expensive; gone are the days of fishing large nuggets from California or Alaska streams. Millions of tonnes of ore must be moved and processed for just tiny bits of metal, and few large deposits have been found in recent years.
“Production post-2015 seems set to decline and perhaps sharply,” says Hathaway.
Satoshi Nakamoto created a kind of digital gold in 2009 that, too, is limited in supply. No more than 21 million bitcoins will be “mined,” and there are currently fewer than 12 million in existence. Satoshi made the cyber version of gold easy to mine in the early going. But like the gold mining business, mining bitcoins becomes ever more difficult. Today, you need a souped-up supercomputer to solve the equations that verify bitcoin transactions—which is the process that creates the cyber currency.
The value of this cyber-dollar alternative has exploded versus the government’s currency, rising from less than $25 per bitcoin in May 2011 to nearly $1,000 recently. One reason is surely its portability. Business is conducted globally today, in contrast to the ancient world where most everyone lived their lives inside a 25-mile radius. Thus, carrying bitcoins weightlessly in your phone is preferable to hauling around Krugerrands.
No Paper Bitcoins
But while being the portable new kid on the currency block may account for some of Bitcoin’s popularity, it doesn’t explain why Bitcoin has soared while gold has declined at the same time.
Hathaway puts his finger on the difference between the price action of the ancient versus the modern. “The Bitcoin-gold incongruity is explained by the fact that financial engineers have not yet discovered a way to collateralize bitcoins for leveraged trades,” he writes. “There is (as yet) no Bitcoin futures exchange, no Bitcoin derivatives, no Bitcoin hypothecation or rehypothecation.”
So, anyone wanting to speculate in Bitcoin has to actually buy some of the very limited supply of the cyber currency, which pushes up its price.
In contrast, the shinier but less-than-cyber currency, gold, has a mature and extensive financial infrastructure that inflates its supply—on paper—exponentially. The man from Tocqueville quotes gold expert Jeff Christian of the CPM Group who wrote in 2000 that “an ounce of gold is now involved in half a dozen transactions.” And while “the physical volume has not changed, the turnover has multiplied.”
The general process begins when a gold producer mines and processes the gold. Then the refiners sell it to bullion banks, primarily in London. Some is sold to jewelers and mints.
“The physical gold that remains in London as unallocated bars is the foundation for leveraged paper-gold trades. This chain of events is perfectly ordinary and in keeping with time-honored custom,” explains Hathaway.
He estimates the equivalent of 9,000 metric tons of gold is traded daily, while only 2,800 metric tons is mined annually.
Gold is loaned, leased, hypothecated, and rehypothecated, over and over. That’s the reason, for instance, why it will take so much time for the Germans to repatriate their 700 tonnes of gold currently stored in New York and Paris. While a couple of planes could haul the entire stash to Germany in no time, only 37 tonnes have been delivered a year after the request. The 700 tonnes are scheduled to be delivered by 2020. However, it appears there is not enough free and unencumbered physical gold to meet even that generous schedule. The Germans have been told they can come look at their gold, they just can’t have it yet.
Leveraging Up in London
The City of London provides a loose regulatory environment for the mega-banks to leverage up. Jon Corzine used London rules to rehypothecate customer deposits for MF Global to make a $6.2 billion Eurozone repo bet. MF’s customer agreements allowed for such a thing.
After MF’s collapse, Christopher Elias wrote in Thomson Reuters, “Like Wall Street cocaine, leveraging amplifies the ups and downs of an investment; increasing the returns but also amplifying the costs. With MF Global’s leverage reaching 40 to 1 by the time of its collapse, it didn’t need a Eurozone default to trigger its downfall—all it needed was for these amplified costs to outstrip its asset base.”
Hathaway’s work makes a solid case that the gold market is every bit as leveraged as MF Global, that it’s a mountain of paper transactions teetering on a comparatively tiny bit of physical gold.
“Unlike the physical gold market,” writes Hathaway, “which is not amenable to absorbing large capital flows, the paper market, through nearly infinite rehypothecation, is ideal for hyperactive trading activity, especially in conjunction with related bets on FX, equity indices, and interest rates.”
This hyper-leveraging is reminiscent of America’s housing debt boom of the last decade. Wall Street securitization cleared the way for mortgages to be bought, sold, and transferred electronically. As long as home prices were rising and homeowners were making payments, everything was copasetic. However, once buyers quit paying, the scramble to determine which lenders encumbered which homes led to market chaos. In many states, the backlog of foreclosures still has not cleared.
The failure of a handful of counterparties in the paper-gold market would be many times worse. In many cases, five to ten or more lenders claim ownership of the same physical gold. Gold markets would seize up for months, if not years, during bankruptcy proceedings, effectively removing millions of ounces from the market. It would take the mining industry decades to replace that supply.
Further, Hathaway believes that increased regulation “could lead, among other things, to tighter standards for collateral, rules on rehypothecation, etc. This could well lead to a scramble for physical.” And if regulators don’t tighten up these arrangements, the ETFs, LBMA, and Comex may do it themselves for the sake of customer trust.
What Hathaway calls the “murky pool” of unallocated London gold has supported paper-gold trading way beyond the amount of physical gold available. This pool is drying up and is setting up the mother of all short squeezes.
In that scenario, people with gold ETFs and other paper claims to gold will be devastated, warns Hathaway. They’ll receive “polite and apologetic letters from intermediaries offering to settle in cash at prices well below the physical market.”
It won’t be inflation that drives up the gold price but the unwinding of massive amounts of leverage.
Americans are right to fear their government, but they should fear their financial system as well. Governments have always rendered their paper currencies worthless. Paper entitling you to gold may give you more comfort than fiat dollars.
However, in a panic, paper gold won’t cut it. You’ll want to hold the real thing.
There’s one form of paper gold, though, you should take a closer look at right now: junior mining stocks. These are the small-cap companies exploring for new gold deposits, and the ones that make great discoveries are historically being richly rewarded… as are their shareholders.
However, even the best junior mining companies—those with top managements, proven world-class gold deposits, and cash in the bank—have been dragged down with the overall gold market and are now on sale at cheaper-than-dirt prices. Watch eight investment gurus and resource pros tell you how to become an “Upturn Millionaire” taking advantage of this anomaly in the market—click here.
While we are sure it is a very sad coincidence, on the day when Argentina decrees limits on the FX positions banks can hold and the Argentine Central Bank’s reserves accounting is questioned publically, a massive fire – killing 9 people – has destroyed a warehouse archiving banking system documents. As The Washington Post reports, the fire at the Iron Mountain warehouse (which purportedly had multiple protections against fire, including advanced systems that can detect and quench flames without damaging important documents) took hours to control and the sprawling building appeared to be ruined. The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately clear – though we suggest smelling Fernandez’ hands…
While first print is preliminary and subject to revision, the size of recent discrepancies have no precedent. This suggest that the government may be attempting to manage expectations by temporarily fudging the “estimate ” of reserve numbers (first print) while not compromising “actual” final reported numbers. If this is so, it is a dangerous game to play and one likely to back-fire.
During a balance of payments crisis – as Argentina is undergoing – such manipulation of official statistics (and one so critical for market sentiment) is detrimental to the needed confidence building around the transition in the FX regime.
And today the government decrees limits on FX holdings for the banks…
Argentina’s central bank published resolution late yday on website limiting fx position for banks to 30% of assets.
Banks will have to limit fx futures contracts to 10% of assets: resolution
Banks must comply with resolution by April 30
And then this happens…
Nine first-responders were killed, seven others injured and two were missing as they battled a fire of unknown origin that destroyed an archive of bank documents in Argentina’s capital on Wednesday.
The fire at the Iron Mountain warehouse took hours to control…
The destroyed archives included documents stored for Argentina’s banking industry, said Buenos Aires security minister Guillermo Montenegro.
The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately clear.
Boston-based Iron Mountain manages, stores and protects information for more than 156,000 companies and organizations in 36 countries. Its Argentina subsidiary advertises that itsfacilities have multiple protections against fire, including advanced systems that can detect and quench flames without damaging important documents.
“There are cameras in the area, and these videos will be added to the judicial investigation, to clear up the motive of the fire and collapse,” Montenegro told the Diarios y Noticias agency.
So much for the credibility of the CBRT? After the Lira soared, and the USDTRY plummeted by just under 1000 pips yesterday when the Turkish Central Bank announced its “shock and awe” intervention, it has since pared back virtually all gains, and at last check was just over 2.24 having nearly roundtripped in 12 hours. Why the loss of faith? Two reasons: First, as we pointed out yesterday, suddenly the domestic situation in Turkey takes front stage again, with 4.25% added elements of instability, causing the political instability to soar, leading to an even higher probability of a social and political overhaul. Second, as Goldman pointed out overnight, “the CBRT stated that liquidity “… will be provided primarily from one-week repo rate instead of the marginal funding rate in the forthcoming period”. This implies that the effective rate hike is 225bp (to 10.00%; the 1-week repo rate), as the Non-PD lending rate was 7.75% prior to the announcement.”
In other words, when looked at on a corridor basis, the CBRT hiked not by a shocking and awing 425 bps but by precisely the predicted 225 bps!
Which means the central bankers merely went along consensus, and not a basis point above it, which is the worst of all worlds – giving the impression of massive tightening (for domestic political purposes), while in reality not doing all that much.
The end result, well – see for yourselves:
In what is sure to be met with cries of derision across the European Union, in line with what the IMF had previously recommended (and we had previously warned as inevitable), the Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help. As Reuters reports, the Bundesbank states, “(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required.” However, they note that they will not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax in Germany, saying it would harm growth. We await the refutation (or Draghi’s jawbone solution to this line in the sand.)
Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.
The Bundesbank’s tough stance comes after years of euro zone crisis that saw five government bailouts. There have also bond market interventions by the European Central Bank in, for example, Italy where households’ average net wealth is higher than in Germany.
“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report.
It warned that such a levy carried significant risks and its implementation would not be easy, adding it should only be considered in absolute exceptional cases, for example to avert a looming sovereign insolvency.
The German Institute for Economic Research calculated in 2012 that in Germany a 10-percent levy on a tax base derived from a personal allowance of 250,000 euros would add up to around 230 billion euros. It did not give a figure for crisis countries due to lack of sufficient data.
Greece has been granted bailout funds of 240 billion euros from the euro area, its national central banks and IMF to protect it from a chaotic default and possible exit from the euro zone. Not all funds have been paid out yet.
In Germany, however, the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.
“It is not the purpose of European monetary policy to ensure solvency of national banking systems or governments and it cannot replace necessary economic adjustments or bank balance sheet clean ups,” the Bundesbank said.
In considering some of the potential measures likely to be required, the reader may be struck by the essential problem facing politicians: there may be only painful ways out of the crisis.
There is one thing we would like to bring to our readers’ attention because we are confident, that one way or another, sooner or later, it will be implemented. Namely a one-time wealth tax: in other words, instead of stealth inflation, the government will be forced to proceed with over transfer of wealth. According to BCG, the amount of developed world debt between household, corporate and government that needs to be eliminated is just over $21 trillion. Which unfortunately means that there is an equity shortfall that will have to be funded with incremental cash which will have to come from somewhere. That somewhere is tax of the middle and upper classes, which are in possession of $74 trillion in financial assets, which in turn will have to be taxed at a blended rate of 28.7%.
The programs BCG (and the Bundesbank) described would be drastic. They would not be popular, and they would require broad political coordinate and leadership – something that politicians have replaced up til now with playing for time, in spite of a deteriorating outlook. Acknowledgment of the facts may be the biggest hurdle. Politicians and central bankers still do not agree on the full scale of the crisis and are therefore placing too much hope on easy solutions. We need to understand that balance sheet recessions are very different from normal recessions. The longer the politicians and bankers wait, the more necessary will be the response outlined in this paper. Unfortunately, reaching consensus on such tough action might requiring an environment last seen in the 1930s
The casino metaphor has been widely used as a part-description of the phenomenon of over-financialisation. It’s a handy pejorative tag but can it give us any real insights? This article pursues the metaphor to extremes so that we can file & forget/get back to the football or possibly graduate to next level thinking.
What is the Financialised Economy (FE) and how big is it?
The FE can be loosely described as ‘making money out of money’ as opposed to making money out of something; or ‘profiting without producing’ . Its primacy derives largely from two sources – the ability of the commercial banks to create credit out of thin air and then lend it and charge and retain interest; and their ability to direct the first use of capital created in this fashion to friends of the casino as opposed to investing it in real economy (RE) businesses. So the FE has the ability to create money and direct where it is used. Given those powers it is perhaps unsurprising that it chooses to feed itself before it feeds the RE. The FE’s key legitimate roles – in insurance and banking services – have morphed into a self-serving parasite. The tail is wagging the dog.
The FE’s power over the allocation of capital has been re-exposed, for those who were perhaps unaware of it, as we see the massive liquidity injected by the central banks via QE disappearing into the depths of bank balance sheets and inflated asset values leaving mid/small RE businesses gasping for liquidity.
By giving preferential access to any capital allocated to the RE to its big business buddies the FE enables those companies to take out better run smaller competitors via leveraged buy outs. By ‘investing’ in regulators and politicians via revolving doors and backhanders, it captures the legislative process and effectively writes its own rule book.
Five years after the 2008 crisis hit, as carefully catalogued by FinanceWatch , economies are more financialised than ever. If the politicians and regulators ever had any balls they have been amputated by the casino managers, under the anaesthesis of perceived self-interest. They have become the casino eunuchs. An apparent early consensus on the systemic problems of over financialisation has melted away into a misconceived search for ‘business as usual’.
Derivatives are one of the most popular games in the casino.
Over the counter derivatives, which are essentially bets on the performance of asset prices, stocks, indices or interest rates, have a nominal value (as of December 2012 ) of USD 632 trillion – 6% up from 2007 levels – and 9 times world GDP. If the world decided to stop living and buy back derivatives instead of food, energy, shelter and all the stuff we currently consume, it would take nine years to spend this amount.
OK – it’s a nominal value. Many observers believe (even hope) that its real value is a minute fraction of this, but the only way we will ever find out is if the derivative contracts unwind. That is, prompted presumably by some form of crisis, parties progressively withdraw from the contracts or fold. The regulators (and the FE itself of course) will do everything they can to prevent this from happening, including grinding the population into the dust via austerity, because while no-one knows who precisely holds the unwound risk, most will certainly belong to the FE’s top tier.
Many of these derivatives started life as sensible financial products. Businesses need to insure against an uncertain harvest, or hedge against uncertain currency movements. But only a small proportion of current holders now have an insurable risk. So whereas in the past you could say we insured against our own house burning down, now they bet on their neighbour’s house burning; whereas in the past we bet on our own life expectancy, they now bet on the deaths of others; whereas in the past we insured against currency losses we experienced in our own business transactions, now they bet on currency movements in general. What might be expected when there are incentives to burn your neighbour’s house down? Organisations have even purposely set up junk asset classes, had them AAA rated, sold them to outsiders and then bet on their failure.
Government & Politicians
Politics operates as a debating society in a rented corner of the casino. The rent is high but largely invisible to the populace. The debaters are themselves well off, at least in the U.S. they are .
Now the strange thing is that the government actually owns the casino, but they have forgotten this. For the last 40 years or so, they have asked the casino managers to issue all the chips. The government use the same chips to spend on public services, and require us all to pay taxes in those chips. Mostly they don’t have enough chips for all the services they provide, so they ask the casino managers for loans. The casino managers are happy with this, provided the government pay interest on the loan of chips. This hidden subsidy effectively funds the casino. It’s perverse because the government pays interest on money they could issue themselves debt-free.
It’s not entirely clear why the government thinks the casino managers are better at managing chips than they would be. Arguably the government is elected to carry out a programme and they should be the arbiters of the country’s strategic priorities, so there should be some strategic guidance over the way the chips are spent.
But the government is only here for five years, and the casino managers are here permanently. So perhaps they think it’s safer just to trust the casino managers to get on with it. When asked, the casino managers explain that they allocate chips according to ‘what the market needs’ and no-one quite understands why that doesn’t seem to include much real investment. In any case the government have forgotten that they could issue the chips themselves, and although prompted (e.g. ), have failed to show any interest in reclaiming that power. Occasionally they create a whole new batch of chips themselves (QE) – if they think the tables are quiet – but give them straight back to the casino managers. Maybe it’s too complicated for politicians. Many of them haven’t had proper jobs. There are a few civil servants who understand what’s happening, but most of them don’t want to rock the boat – they are here permanently too and have good pensions. They research for the debaters and have lunch with the casino managers. That keeps them quite busy enough, thank you.
The Real Economy
The Real Economy also operates from a corner of the casino. It’s hard to put an exact figure on it, but perhaps 3-5% of the overall floor space depending how you measure.
It’s a very important corner of the casino, but not for the reasons it should be. It should be important because it’s the place where food is grown, houses are built, energy for warmth and work is created and so on. But these precious things are taken for granted by the casino managers. They have always had enough chips to buy whatever they need – they issue them for God’s sake – and they think food, shelter and energy will always be available to them. Crucially though, they have also managed to financialise this remaining RE corner, and this ‘support’ is trotted out as a continuing justification for the FE’s central importance .
The RE corner has always included important social and cultural, non-GDP activities. The enormous real value of these activities is now being properly articulated and is spawning citizen-led initiatives (e.g. sharing economy approaches, basic unconditional income) but they are often presented as beggars who annoyingly keep petitioning for their ‘entitlements’ and generally clutter up this remote corner of the casino.
On the finance side, individuals and businesses are exploring ways of funding their future activity without going cap-in-hand to the casino managers. They are exploring peer-to-peer finance, crowdfunding, prepayment instruments and so on. What these initiatives have in common is the disintermediation of the casino. They provide ways for people to invest more directly and take more control over their savings and investments. Of course a new breed of intermediary is surfacing to broker and risk-insure these new models, and these new intermediaries can also be captured.
With transparency and short-circuit communication via social media though, there is definitely scope to do things differently. We must hope for progress because the casino managers have little interest in what’s going on outside.
The Planet – outside the casino
The planet outside is used by the casino in two ways – as a source of materials and as a dumping ground for waste.
The materials are not essential to the core FE which is all about making money out of money and needs nothing but ideas, a few arcane mathematical models to give spurious gravitas, and credulous or naive investors. But RE activity performs a valuable role for the casino managers – it provides them with an endless stream of innovative ways of using chips. The shale gas bonanza for example is apparently grounded in the real world need for energy, and is presented as such. Its significance to the FE is as another bubble based partly at least on land-lease ‘flipping’ .
Without an RE-related rationale/narrative, the FE might disappear up its own waste pipe as it re-invested/sliced-and-diced/marketised its own products to itself. So materials from outside the casino are important for the managers’ big corporate proxies in the RE.
FE-favoured RE activities also create lots of waste, some of which is toxic, and may eventually prove terminal, as it builds up. This fact is of little interest to the casino managers. There is a minor interest in waste-related financialised vehicles – carbon markets for example are a relatively new casino game – and in the slight impact on some of the FE’s RE-friends like big energy companies. But mostly the casino managers are too busy with their games and their chips. Occasionally a manager will wake up to the dangers and defect to the real world where they, somewhat perversely, carry more credibility because of their casino experience. A small minority of managers stay within the casino and try to gently modify its behaviour. This is portrayed as a healthy sign of openness; the casino is secure in the knowledge that their ways cannot easily be re-engineered.
Combating the casino’s influence
Essentially there would appear to be three possible lines of response for those who believe there should be more to life than casino capitalism. Marginalise, convert or destroy……
These approaches map on to the three ‘broad strategies of emancipatory transformation’ suggested by sociologist Erik Olin Wright  – interstitial, symbiotic and ruptural. I have a fourth suggestion/ variation of which more in a moment.
The challenge for interstitial initiatives is the sheer pervasiveness of the FE. There are few spaces left where the effects of the FE can be ignored. They may not be well understood, but whenever we pursue dreams, they pop up in front of us, usually as obstacles. Developments that are most heavily attacked by the FE establishment perhaps merit the most attention – community scale renewable energy, crypto currencies, co-ops, the sharing economy, and so on. The more these alternative directions are attacked as utopian or uneconomic the more we can be sure they offer promising interstitial opportunities.
Symbiotic opportunities may represent the triumph of hope over experience. Armed with the power of ideas, we back our ability to persuade policy makers and business leaders to change the game. The main challenges here are the arrogance of the powerful and the danger of being captured by supping with the devil. Vested interests generally feel secure enough that they don’t need to negotiate or even to spend brain power on listening and evaluating alternatives. If enough interest is manifested that symbiotic trial projects are begun, their champions can be captured by being made comfortable.
Ruptural alternatives come in a spectrum from those that would destroy business models to those that would destroy societies. They probably share the above analysis but differ in their degree of radicalism and disconnection from the main. The impact of FE-driven globalisation is beyond the scope of this article, save to note that its effects have unnecessarily radicalised whole populations making more measured responses more difficult to promote than they might have been.
The role of the internet and social media in progressing both interstitial and ruptural initiatives is significant. Most of the space to develop and assemble communities of interest and mission-partners is here, explaining why both are likely to experience increasingly determined attempts to capture.
The nature of one’s chosen response will be a matter of personal choice. We should not be judgemental of those who don’t have the will, energy or resourcefulness to play a more active role. We all suffer from our subservience to a dysfunctional system, some much more than others. The fourth response? Perhaps there’s some mileage in judo principles .
: http://rikowski.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/profiting-without-producing-how-finance-exploits-u s-all/
: “It seems fairly clear at this time that the land is the play, and not the gas. The extremely high prices for land in all of these plays has produced a commodity market more attractive than the natural gas produced.” Art Berman quoted athttp://theautomaticearth.blogspot.ie/2011/07/july-8-2011-get-ready-for-north.html
Featured image: Luxor, Las Vegas. Author: David Marshall jr. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=90604
The market just hit a fresh all time high today which means another major default must be just around the horizon. Sure enough, the FT reported moments ago that a Puerto Rico default “appears increasingly likely” and is why creditors are meeting with lawyers and bankruptcy specialists (most likely Miller Buckfire, fresh from its recent league table success with the Detroit bankruptcy) on Thursday in New York. The FT cited a restructuring advisor, supposedly desperate to sign the engagement letter with creditors and to force the bankruptcy, who said that “the numbers are untenable” and “to issue new debt the yield would have to rise and where they can’t raise new money they will have to stop paying.”
The untenability of PR’s cash flows results from a “debt service burden that requires paying between $3.4bn and $3.8bn each year for the next four years. As doubts grow about the ability of the commonwealth to service that debt, the cost of doing so will inevitably rise.”
For Puerto Rico bonds, such an outcome would not be exactly a surprise, most recently trading at 61:
The rest of the story is largely known:
If Puerto Rico is forced to take that step, the effects will ripple through the entire $4tn municipal bond market. Because the debt is generally triple tax free, in a world of zero interest rates demand is high and it is distributed widely, including in funds that imply they have no exposure to Puerto Rico.
But yields have gone up nevertheless – and prices down – suggesting the markets are increasingly nervous about prospects for repayment. Estimates on how much of that debt is insured range from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of total issuance.
“Everyone thinks they can get out in time,” the restructuring adviser said.
Puerto Rico cannot really raise taxes much more, since the debt per capita is more than $14,000, while income per capita is almost $17,000, a ratio – at 83 per cent – that makes California, Illinois or New York – each at 6 per cent – models of prudence. Meanwhile, at 14 per cent, the unemployment rate is twice the national average.
What would make a Puerto Rico default more interesting is that as in the case of GM, political infighting would promptly take precedence over superpriority and waterfall payments. According to the FT, “any radical step, which the local government denies considering, would involve significant legal wrangling. Congress could step in and create an insolvency regime, lawyers say, since it has comprehensive jurisdiction, but that too would give rise to partisan fighting. The Democrats would say that pension claims have priority while the Republicans would uphold the priority of payments to bondholders, citing the constitutional sanctity of contracts.”
Of course, since in the US a bond contract now is only worth the number of offsetting votes it would cost, nobody really knows what will happen. And so, we sit back and watch, as yet another muni quake appears set to hit the US, in the process obviously sending the S&P to higher, record highs.
In the meantime, keep an eye on bond insurers AGO and MBI which have taken on water in today’s session precisely due to concerns over what a Puerto Rico default would do to their equity.
The European Central Bank is concerned that national differences in how bad debt is classified could cripple its probe into the health of euro-area banks, according to an internal ECB document.
Bad-debt classification practices across Europe show “material differences that, if not considered, would severely affect the consistency and credibility of the exercise,” according to the undated document obtained by Bloomberg News. A person familiar with the text said it was drawn up in late November and contains the ECB’s latest thinking on the subject. An ECB spokeswoman declined to comment.
The Frankfurt-based ECB is conducting a three-stage assessment of bank assets before it assumes oversight of about 130 lenders across the 18-member euro area this November. Using a strict definition of bad debt could threaten banks in countries hit hardest by Europe’s debt crisis, while a laxer rule may not reveal the true condition of the region’s financial system.
“A more ambitious definition would be consistent with the need to convey to external observers that the AQR is a thorough exercise,” the document said, referring to the Asset Quality Review stage of the Comprehensive Assessment. That’s set to culminate with a stress test run in cooperation with the European Banking Authority before October this year.
The ECB document said that not all countries may be able to comply with simplified definitions of non-performing loans set out in October by the London-based EBA, the EU’s top bank regulator, while saying that alignment to those rules is “of the essence.”
European banks’ bad loans are classified according to a variety of national rules, which makes a comparison among lenders difficult. The European Central Bank is struggling to harmonize the definition of non-performing loans so that it can give more credibility to its assessment of the credit quality of the region’s lenders.
In the first half of last year, total doubtful and non-performing loans as a proportion of lending calculated according to national rules exceeded 21 percent in Greece and were less than 1 percent in Sweden, ECB data show.
“It’s crucial to find common rules and a shared vision to overcome the national lobbies,” Karim Bertoni, a senior analyst on European equities at de Pury Pictet Turrettini & CIE SA in Geneva, said by telephone. “This is the main challenge for the ECB, which would allow a better management of banks and risk control.”
The ECB signaled it would apply the EBA’s simplified definition as a minimum, and where possible increase the level of detail on loans made by banks. The EBA sets financial standards for the 28 nations in the European Union, and is working with the ECB on the final part of the Comprehensive Assessment.
That minimum means the ECB would define as non-performing all exposures, including loans, debt securities, financial guarantees and other commitments, which are past due for more than 90 days. That differs from final, more complex, standards, due to be implemented by EBA by the end of this year, that include data on the likelihood of the borrower repaying. Only half of the countries examined could supply that data, according to the ECB report, while limiting the definition to the 90-day rule “seems feasible for the majority of countries.”
Euro-area lenders from Banco Santander SA (SAN) in Spain to Alpha Bank SA (ALPHA) in Greece will come under ECB supervision, with oversight forming the first pillar of a nascent banking union designed to mitigate future financial turmoil.
ECB policy makers have said the central bank will provide more information on the treatment of non-performing loans and the parameters of the concluding stress test by the end of January.
While the simplified EBA rules should be adhered to in the Comprehensive Assessment as a minimum, adding further detail to the assessment could be possible since ECB officials will already be in contact with bank staff, the document said.
“Given the possibility to perform more granular analysis during the on-site visits, it is proposed that this analysis takes into account a more ambitious definition including the unlikeliness to repay criterion,” according to the document.
The ECB said that as there are so many variations between countries on the definition of forbearance — where banks shift the terms of a loan to account for a change in the debtor’s own income — the only possibility is to accept national definitions where they exist, as well as loans that were considered in that category until the end of 2012 but have since been recategorized.
For countries where no standard definition exists, the ECB said it may ask states to report all loans for which concessions have been granted as forborne.
A Calgary woman’s developmentally disabled son is caught in a U.S. tax quagmire that she fears may cost him the money she spent years setting aside for his financial future.
“He’s entrapped,” said Carol Tapanila, the 70-year-old mother. “There’s no way out. He is entrapped into U.S. citizenship.”
Her 40-year-old son was born in a Calgary hospital, but automatically received U.S. citizenship because both his parents were American. That simple fact may soon create financial woes for the Tapanila family.
Starting in July, a new U.S. tax law, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), goes into effect. It requires banks around the world to sift through client accounts to find anyone with U.S. connections and send that information to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
- Canadian banks to be compelled to share clients’ info with U.S.
- FATCA under fire from tax experts and Canadians
The law is aimed at Americans who are hiding offshore accounts, but the information sharing is likely to unearth many unsuspecting Canadians with U.S. citizenship, like Tapanila’s son, who didn’t realize they were required to file U.S. taxes.
Tax law expert Allison Christians calls the Tapanila case “ridiculous” and a “classic example of why the law is unjust.”
The law “was intended to find rich American tax cheats hiding out in Switzerland,” said Christians, who teaches tax law at McGill University, but it “will now punish poor, disabled Americans living in other countries, who are only American by birth.”
These so-called “accidental Americans” also include an Ottawa woman who was born in the U.S. to Canadian parents and moved back north at one year of age.
This woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said her husband is livid that their joint account information will soon be shared with U.S. tax authorities.
Both fear that FATCA will reveal her U.S. citizenship and saddle them with hefty penalties for failing to file U.S. tax returns that will eat into their retirement savings.
“It’s stressful. I think about this every day,” said the woman. “It’s like a big weight over your head that never really goes away, and I’m starting to wonder when and if it’s ever going to go away?”
In advance of the law taking effect, more than a dozen countries have inked intergovernmental information-sharing agreements with the U.S.
These arrangements allow either for banks to hand over information directly to the Internal Revenue Service, or indirectly via their national tax agencies.
Canada is currently in negotiations with the U.S. The banking industry notes that FATCA will affect many Canadians indirectly because of the extra costs of industry compliance.
“We have to comply with FATCA,” said Marion Wrobel, vice-president of policy and operations at the Canadian Bankers Association. “While we don’t like it and we’ve lobbied against it, FATCA is going to be a reality.”
If banks refuse to comply, they face severe financial penalties — a 30 per cent withholding tax on all American-sourced income or sales of American-based assets.
But financial institutions also face costs to comply. Some estimate the manpower and administrative systems required to find clients with U.S. connections could cost up to $100 million per institution, said Wrobel.
“It is expensive, and as far as we see it, it adds nothing,” said Wrobel. “It doesn’t make the banks any safer or sounder.”
Thousands on legal advice
For Tapanila, the financial burden has already been costly. She spent thousands of dollars seeking legal advice on how to renounce her son’s U.S. citizenship. Under the law, a parent, guardian and trustee cannot renounce on someone’s behalf.
‘I wanted my son to have something when I was gone from this Earth.’– Carol Tapanila
She refuses to file U.S. taxes for her son, fearful that it would chip away at the funds she’s stashed in a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) and a Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA).
“I see no common sense in it,” she says. “Put me in jail. I don’t care. But I’m not going to do that.”
RDSPs as well as TFSAs are considered “offshore trusts” by U.S. tax authorities. That makes any gains from these plans — which include contributions from Tapanila and matching ones from the government — taxable by the IRS.
The CBA’s Wrobel said that, based on his talks with the federal government, he’s hopeful that the U.S.-Canada agreement will include exemptions for registered savings accounts.
That would provide some relief, but Tapanila notes that the cost of filing U.S. taxes every year could actually be the largest drain on her savings.
Accounting firms estimate that personal tax filings can cost from $500 to $5,000 a year because of the complexity of U.S. tax law.
“I wanted my son to have something when I was gone from this Earth and so I was a saver,” said Tapanila. “And now I don’t want the U.S. to take one penny that should go to my children.
“I want my hard-earned Canadian money that I’ve saved to go to my children, not to the U.S. or some compliance tax lawyers year after year after year after year.”