Friday, October 03, 2008

Friday Music Blogging

Heart - These Dreams

I just felt like we all needed something hypnotic and sexy to take our minds off this past week.

Friday Kitten Blogging

I has a flavor! So mush so, mah peeps, dat da bet had to see me dis week. Her sed I has a flavor ob "new roses"! I fink dass a gud fing, right? I tase so gud I lecked da fer rite off mah tummy! Dadby got skeered an tuke me to da bet but da bet sed noffin wrong wif me dat kitty Prozac won hep!

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) Winter really IS coming soon...To MARS!

2) I have a feeling this is good news for Obama.

3) You might have missed this rather important story this week, so as a service to you, here it is again.

4) I often despair of the attention span and intellect of the American voter, but finally, there are signs of life!

5) Only the Republicans could claim that a not-quite-epic fail was a success...

6) By the way, here's a really cool random Palin phrase generator. She really does sound like the infinite monkey.

7) In the details of this story, check out the name of the California health department spokesperson!

8) For want of a vacuum cleaner, we would not have a pretty decent Scotch.

9) Wow. Karzai has to get Saudi help to get the Taliban to talk? It seems to me that we ought to get our sorry asses out of Iraq and take these bastards out.

10) I have a job for John McCain once he loses this November.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Real Bailout

OK, I've given this at least as much thought as McCain did to skipping Letterman last week, and I have a bailout plan. It's not simple, it won't be easy, and it will take a few months to work itself through the system. Please consider this as part of the "NotPresident" Campaign Platform ©.

Here goes:

1) End the invasion of Iraq, immediately. In totality, this has cost us nearly $700 billion over the past five years. I don't think this is a coincidence. I sometimes wonder, late at night after that cup of cocoa that's supposed to make me sleepy for three days, if indeed we aren't paying extortion money to Al Qaeda, instead of bailing out the banks.

2) Take that $700 billion bailout and pay it to every man, woman, and child in the country. It seems to me that this is a no-brainer. It's roughly $3,300 per person. People who need it for their mortgages will help bailout their local bank. People who don't need it will either spend it or invest it, which will raise both economic activity and available investable capital. More on this in a later post. And this way, accountability is directly to the American people.

3) Cut out the middle man. There ought to be a truth-in-lending law that traces who your specific mortgage is sold to. If you need to bargain for a refinance or a repackaging, that's the person who you ought to be speaking to. They have the skin in the game (by buying the mortgage, they take the risk out of your bank's balance sheet), plus this forces them to personalize their policies regarding refinances/repackagings. Right now, they can be bloodless, heartless bastards. Let's force them back into the pool.

4) Raise taxes on the rich. Obama has already said he would do this, but he needs to be clearer, much clearer about it. If I was debating McCain, and was challenged on this, I would look straight into the camera and say the following: "My fellow Americans, Senator McCain would like you to believe that I will raise your taxes. Well, I won't, and this is a promise you can take to the bank: I will not raise your taxes. I am going to raise theirs, and that terrifies them."

5) Create government work jobs, make work if necessary. $3,300 is a good start to jump starting the economy, but our workforce will be suffering layoffs. We will need a program to absorb as much of these folks and utilize them for the good of the nation. We have infrastructure problems, we have security issues, and we can create grand programs to modernize such things as Internet access in rural communities (yes, they still have dial up in large swaths of the country!) and bring green energy technologies to everyone.

6) Impose an excess profits tax on oil companies. 40% ought to do it, above and beyond the profit earned at the $50 a barrel level. Hey, we gave them a price support when oil was hovering around $15 a barrel, they ought to be *grateful* to pay.

7) Strong incentives to communities to develop mass transit. Transportation uses about two thirds of US energy consumption each year. That's ridiculous. This could be part of my public works program. Our economic freedom will never be assured until we can get people out of their cars and into work.

8) Treat corporations as second class citizens. Finally, I would nullify the 1979 Supreme Court decision that expanded the "civil" rights of corporations to actually make them more free than you or I. It's about time to acknowledge that in this nation, speech is not free, but is priced at what the market can bear and that corporations have an enormous advantage over true human citizens. If I had to pack the SCOTUS to do this, I would, but I would simply have Congress pass new legislation, and hold a figurative gun to the head of any Congresscritter who felt even the slightest temptation to vote his re-election coffers.

There should be more done, but this is the barebones outline (as I said, I've given this only a little thought) for a bailout plan that rewards human beings for surviving this far, and not faceless corporate entities.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Welcome To The World Of Liberal Journalism, Katie!

Kathleen Parker, that is:
Who says public discourse hasn't deteriorated?
The beauty of this rather naked confession on Ms. Parker's part is, she got raked over the coals by thr folks on her side of the aisle!

Allow me to introduce myself. I am a traitor and an idiot. Also, my mother should have aborted me and left me in a dumpster, but since she didn't, I should "off" myself.

Those are a few nuggets randomly selected from thousands of e-mails written in response to my column suggesting that Sarah Palin is out of her league and should step down.
Now, that's a reasonable position she's taken, if a bit provocative. After all, for the bounce Palin gave the ticket early on, the erosion of said bounce has Palin dangerously close to a dead weight on McCain's campaign...not that it needs the help, mind you.

Parker's conclusion from this experience? Well, after careening all over, trying to slap some of the blame on Nancy Pelosi and liberals in general, she finally sputters forth this set of bromides:
The picture is this: Anyone who dares express an opinion that runs counter to the party line will be silenced. That doesn't sound American to me, but Stalin would approve.

Readers have every right to reject my opinion. But when we decide that a person is a traitor and should die for having an opinion different from one's own, we cross into territory that puts all freedoms at risk. (I hear you, Dixie Chicks.)
Well, at least she's back to acknowledging that the fault, my dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

And may you long remain beneath our contempt, madam.

Obama's Best. Day. Ever.

Wow! To read up on both Memeorandum and the Google News homepage, this must be Barack Obama's best day on the campaign trail!
Obama Over Fifty Percent In Florida - So The Daily Show focus group was NOT an outlier!

Debate Moderator "In The Tank" For Obama - The world according to Mickey Mouse, MALKIN, I mean: Black journalists can only now write about white people.

Nervous GOP Urge McCain To Attack - Apparently, they want the negative campaigning to get even stiffer. What else can McCain do? Claim Obama's a "tar baby"?

No Sale- Fudgie The Whale finds that NBC executive Jeffrey Zucker is behind an Obama Youth video...OOPS!, wrong Jeff Zucker! He can't keep his Jews straight, even on Rosh Hashana!

Poll: Obama Has 15 Point Lead In Pennsylvania - Maybe he bought the entire state guns and Bibles?

Springsteen, Joel To Headline Concert For Obama - OK, this one I might go see, just for shits and giggles.

New Voters Like Obama, But May Not Show up at Polls - I've had dates like that. Still, outpolling McCain 2 to 1 in new voters is a good sign for Obama.

Jay-Z concert in Miami for Obama - Not to be outdone, hip hop is representin'!

Palin To Debate As Edge Wanes Among Wal-Mart Moms - You can lead a redneck to a candidate, but you can't make them vote!

Palin refuses to name papers, mags she reads - In defense of Sarah, this is a step up for the United States. She can read.

Palin Continues to Question Human Role in Global Warming - Or perhaps she can't, after all

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

False Truths

My good friend, Britisher, makes a very cogent observation in comments from yesterday's post:
Im a technical ignoramus when it comes to high finance but...isn't this while mess ALL about debt? Debt incurred by gambling on future profits based not on tangibles but on "prospects"?.

It seems to me that for years now trade has not been based on identifiable tangible need ( barter as it were) so much as on desire.

I mean a lot of the money at stake is surely imaginary. A lot of the wealth accumulated was imaginary. Investments were made without any supporting collateral and then more investments were made on those investments that weren't supported by anything so everyone shuffling money got rich by pure accumulation.

In short investment banks started 'printing' money and trading that money for other money and more money which was also 'printed'.

This mess is actually a market adjustment.

Am I right? Or partly right?
Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus.

I'm going to get financially technical for a moment, but bear with me. I think I can make it understandable.

All investments are speculations. When you purchase an investment, any investment, from your house to a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card to a diamond ring, you are placing a bet.

See, factored into the price you pay for your house/card/diamond/stock is what are called "future cash flows". These can either be income, like a dividend or an interest payment, or capital gains, meaning your purchase is going to go up in value.

This future income or profit is discounted and added to the cost of the investment (what it physically costs to create). In most investments, that cost is minimal (it is not in the purchase of a house).

As Michael Kinsley points out in Time:
How is the country any richer if the exact same stock of existing housing is suddenly worth, say, 20% more? Other markets produce things. They sell what they produce. When prices go up, they produce more. Not so with real estate, for the most part. This market consists primarily of trading the same thing again and again. And you know the old saw about land: They're not making any more of it. Real estate is the only major consumer market in which how much you'll pay someone depends on your belief about how much someone else will pay you. In this market, prices go up when people believe they will continue to go up. To restore confidence would mean restoring belief in the greater fool.
And he's right, of course. Land is a fixed commodity, but there is plenty of land in the country, believe it or not, since half the population lives within 150 miles of a coastline. Yes, you want to be close to your job, but on the other hand, the way the economy is trending and the way workforces are being distributed and outsourced, you might want to live away from a city and telecommute now.

Land prices should probably fall back further, based on this alone.

But I digress. Kinsley's larger point, that buying a home is betting that you can get a sucker to pay even more for it after you've lived in it and aged it, is valid. Not only valid, but has been the basis of real estate sales since postwar America in the 50s.

Too, the perception that, by mortgaging nearly 100% of the cost to purchase you are in effect playing with house money, feeds into this conceit. You are gambling with money you have little responsibility for, because if you walk away from the mortgage, hey, the bank will foreclose, sell your house, pay off your mortgage and you still have a little left over, if the system works "the way its supposed to".

That's not to trivialize foreclosures: they are painful processes and usually occur because of some other trauma to the family/owner: job loss, medical expenses, or divorce. But if you know the bank will be "taken care of", you have one less worry on your plate while dealing with the primary problem in your life.

The trouble is, as Brit points out, it's all a fucking illusion. All of it. Rather explicity, I might also point out.

When you purchase a house, you should be paying what you think it is worth now to you, to live in, to spend some time in, to establish a domicile. We're not talking about buying a stock. Stocks are like going to a casino: you shouldn't do it unless and until you can afford to lose all of the money you invest.

This is why brokers are formally referred to as "broker-dealers" because they're dealing cards at a blackjack table, and they hold all the aces. The investment game is rigged in their favor and so any bets you might make have to be carefully picked for you to beat the house.

A house is different. A house is real money for a real necessity. If it goes up in value, then that's a bonus. But that shouldn't be the reason you go out and buy a house. You should buy a house because you need a house.

Now, you're sitting there thinking I'm kicking the American homeowner while he's down. I am, but I'm also not, because I don't blame people for wanting to believe what they want to believe, or for believing that house prices would always go up.

That's what we've all been told. And there's where the blame lies. Who told us? The bankers, brokers and developers who right now stand to be bailed out. The people who marketed "zero money down, interest only loans" without warning us that in five years, you'd have to start paying down principal AND that interest rates would like double or even triple! There is no way in the world your income can triple in five years, unless you are extremely fortunate.

The difference here is, while those banks and you gambled that you might earn enough money in five years to actually pay down your loan, or that your house might accumulate enough new value to pay off the mortgage on a sale, you couldn't have known better, while they should have!

They are financially savvy and you are not. Or at least they are supposed to be, which is why they are supposed to be licensed mortgage broker-dealers. But past history dictates that even the "experts" are not expert when things get complicated enough.

Hell, even I couldn't have foreseen the depth of this crisis, altho I had an inkling and indeed let my "inner pessimist" run amok on this blog about the coming collapse of the American economy.

There's a bitter lesson to be learned from all this: nothing, no part of your life, is without risk, is not a gamble of one sort or other. Houses were supposed to be the safest investment you could make. Indeed, they were the single largest investment you could make.

You have to start thinking about what you buy and how much you pay for it in terms of purchasing a car (the second largest purchase most people will make in their lifetimes, and an object lesson): what can the actually asset you are buying do for you?

See, cars only lose value when you drive them off the lot, at least for the first twenty years, and even then, you have to have taken immaculate care of them for them to earn back your original purchase price, even. The rational decision with a car is to buy one you can drive into the ground, making it cost as little as possible for the value attained from it (hauling groceries, taking vacations, commuting). You want to drive the car so much that the cost to own per mile is as small as possible.

So it should be with your house. You ought to buy a house that means something to you in twenty years, that makes it worth the purchase price, and forget that it *might* increase in value enough for you to retire on.

And screw the economic royalists and their attempts to shove down your throat some illusion. You're better than that!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Gravity Sucks

As anybody who's ever ridden a bicycle or even stood up knows, what goes up must come down.

This is as true for the stock market as it is for anything else. Granted, it's a whole lot harder for the market to fall back to sea level, something about retained earnings and asset values underpinning stock prices, but trust me on this: it is not impossible.

Enter Paul Krugman:
...The bailout plan released yesterday is a lot better than the proposal Henry Paulson first put out — sufficiently so to be worth passing. But it’s not what you’d actually call a good plan, and it won’t end the crisis. The odds are that the next president will have to deal with some major financial emergencies.

I'm not arguing that this is the mother of all financial crises. I am arguing, however, that the MOAFC stands a better chance of happening now, when the market is weakened and the solutions ineffectual, just like an opportunistic flu is more likely to incubate when the body's defenses are weakened.

The trouble with this bailout package is, it's like giving a bandage to a patient who's suffered a heart attack because he got a papercut filling in his admittance forms.

The real trouble is, well, ask a hundred pundits the cause of this problem, and you'll get a hundred different answers, all of them wrong.

Ask a hundred different economic pundits and you'll get a hundred different answers, of which 95% are incomplete.

Make no mistake about this: this crisis is pervasive and infiltrates the coziest sectors of our economy, and the world's economy. There was no single simple cause and there will not be a single answer, although the ultimate solution may end up being enormously simple. I think. I'll post more on my solution later this week.

We were worried about avian flu? This is an economic avian flu.

Curiously and coincidentally, this flu, like the avian one, has its roots in Asia. America exports debt. Period. We're good at it. We export roughly $700 billion annually (there's a reason that the bailout was pegged at that figure, and that's the reason right there).

Asian nations, flush with cash as their economies have overheated, have invested heavily in American debt, first in Treasuries bill and notes, and then when the purchase of those became unprofitable (for the same reason mortgages became attractive) in mortgage backed securities.

The gamble everyone made was that housing prices could only keep going up. Remember the title of this column?

As housing prices peaked and slid down a little, banks stopped lending money, forcing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to step in to keep the supply of mortgages consistent with the (overmarketed) demand.

How many and Countrywide commercials were there each hour just a few years ago? Five? Ten? Twenty? It's no surprise that these companies were the canary in the flu mine. They had the riskiest loans with the least capitalization, and needed to borrow the money they were lending.

And banks were only too happy to lend to them. Why? Because banks knew that the Fed and Treasury would step in when things got hairy. After all, the Fed helped arrange the bailout Long Term Capital Management. They'd have to step in where people's homes were at risk!

This is not the only cause of the current crisis and books will be written about them all, until eventually a comprehensive picture is put together, but I think this is a reasonable timeline of this crisis and how it unfolded. Call it the tree on which to hang the ornaments.

But like a Christmas tree, what goes up eventually must come down...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Goodbye Old Friend, Redux

I had actually wanted to find the poster that my sister had on her dorm wall many many years ago, but I found this and realized it had more meaning to me.

What can I say that hasn't been said by a billion other people?

I met Paul Newman once in my life. He worked closely with one of the men who owns the firm I work for, so six years ago or so, Newman came up to the offices and I "chanced" by to get a signature. He was a gracious and lovely man, unassuming and despite people still fawning over him after nearly fifty years of fame, didn't tire of us.

Goodbye, Paul.