Thursday, March 31, 2011

New viewing options for Finance Trends readers

Blogger has introduced some new viewing options for blog readers and I wanted to share these with you. 

In addition to our regular site layout, you can now view Finance Trends Matter in five new formats called, "dynamic views" for readers

While I thought this would be a gimmicky style option, it turns out that the new views are pretty sleek and I imagine they'd be great for mobile web readers and iPad users. Here's one format I particularly liked, called "flipcard". 

As you can see, this view contains all our recent posts and I like they way the images from certain posts stack up with neighboring post titles. Pretty sharp, actually.

Take it for a spin. You'll find a drop-down bar that lets you easily navigate the five viewing formats to find the one that's right for you. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wages and Inflation

Those who see no inflation in our future usually rest their argument on slow wage growth. The argument is that if wage rates don't increase, then there is nothing to pass on in the form of higher prices. Would that it were so?

The real issue is not whether wages are rising. The real issue is whether or not labor costs are rising. Wages are only one component of the cost of labor to business and wages represent a declining portion of that cost. Ask Walmart.

As Walmart faces a potential multi-billion lawsuit, companies around the US brace themselves for massive copy-cat employee lawsuits. All large companies now have to factor in dramatically higher potential liability costs associated with the Walmart lawsuit. Don't believe that companies aren't watching the developments in the Walmart case -- they are.

As for Walmart, you can be sure that they will make every effort, over time, to pass their litigation costs on to their labor force. But, in the short run, the cost of labor at Walmart has just risen dramatically, while wages have gone nowhere.

Lawyers are the big winners here. The losers are folks looking for a job or looking for a wage increase. Even if wages decline, there will be substantially higher labor costs ahead thanks to government efforts to "protect" employees. All of these protection mechanisms are costly and will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The issue is not whether wages are rising. The issue is whether labor costs are rising. The answer is that labor costs are rising and rising at an incredible pace. Hence, higher prices.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Weekly futures chart: Trend in oil prices

Taking a gander at the longer-term trend in crude oil prices via this Finviz weekly futures chart.

You can plainly see the bull move of 2007-2008 and the ensuing correction (plunge) from $140 that followed here. Then we see the bottoming process and rally off the early 2009 lows, when crude oil traded near $30 a barrel. The uptrend of the past two years has taken us back above $100 a barrel.

You'll also notice the COT (commitment of traders report) data below the price chart. It seems the commercial hedgers are the savvy players in the oil market. Their relatively infrequent net long exposure seems to occur near cyclical bottoms in crude oil prices. Of course, their net short positions tend to increase as the price of oil trends higher. 

Perhaps some of our commodity-savvy readers can fill us in on any useful ways to read & use the COT data. If you have some helpful insights, please add them in the comments.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Inflation is Picking Up

While Bernanke continues to look in the rear view mirror hoping to spot some deflation, the facts on the ground and the road ahead are clearly all about rising inflation. The February CPI numbers released today, an annual rate of five percent should give Bernanke and his QE2 activity a reason to reflect. It is true that in a world of no food and no energy the numbers look better, but who lives in that world?

What are the implication of rising inflation? Trouble in bond land. This means investor losses on bonds and headwinds for stocks. Unanticipated inflation is always bad news for stocks. Inflation reduces the value of the national debt, but inflation increases the deficit, offsetting the former effect.

One big plus: the housing market will benefit from increasing inflation, mostly because homeowners are big debtors and have fantastic tax advantages compared to the owners of any other asset (even better than owning oil wells!). Those who buy homes now and over the next year or two will be big winners. Stocks will do fine longer term, bonds are headed for disaster, and homeowners will strike gold.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cost Is Not The Real Issue

You hear the President criticized over the cost of the new Libyan military adventure. Whatever the merits or demerits of the President's new military activities, they are not really that costly. That's why they are so easy to do. The cost restraint for military adventurism is not really binding anymore. We could fight a number of wars all over the globe for a pittance of what it costs to support Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and Social Security.

War is cheap! The volunteer army did that for us. It replaced conscripts with folks that really wanted to do this. So we have fewer of them, pay them better, and they do a better job. Plus, war technology has improved.

So, Obama gets a push-button war on the cheap. Whether it's a good idea or not is an entirely different story, but cost is not the issue.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Trading lessons from Nicolas Darvas

Charles Kirk recently re-posted a very worthwhile rundown of trading lessons from Nicolas Darvas.

Here is an excerpt from that piece:

Nicolas Darvas has inspired traders for many generations. His book, “How I Made 2,000,000 in the Stock Market” is one that you’ll find on many recommended reading lists including my very own. While some have argued that much of Darvas’ success had to do with lucky timing, his books are still widely read and for good reason.

A lot of traders can identify easily with Darvas because he went through the process of learning how to trade much like most people do today as he first began by searching for the “secret” to making money in the market. And, just like all of us have found, after finding no success from trading on the stock tips of others including brokers and expensive newsletters, Darvas figured out that he ultimately had to develop a trading system on his own.

Check out Kirk's notes on Darvas' trading approach and the lessons gleamed from his famous book. This is a great rundown of the wisdom found in Darvas' personal approach to trading the stock market.

For those who'd like to read How I Made 2,000,000 in the Stock Market,
you can find it at Amazon or read it online, here in the Scribd Trading Books collection.

Related posts:

1. What makes a great trader? Managing risk - Finance Trends.

2. Interviews with Nicolas Darvas - Maoxian.

Bob Herbert on "Losing Our Way"

Bob Herbert is a hard left columnist for the New York Times. Normally, his columns are showers of praise for the Obama Administration (like most every other political column in the NY Times). Today, Herbert is on a different tack. He is criticizing the Administration for spending tax dollars in Libya (and other foreign adventures) while "...simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quantity of life here at home." Sounds compelling doesn't it.

This article shows the depth of the lack of understanding of the hard left for what is really going on in the US and Western Europe. First and foremost, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for laying off any public employees. Were it not for the absurd work rules and legal restrictions, public employees would take compensation adjustments and there would be few, if any, layoffs.

In my own county of Albemarle County, Virginia, rather than take a five percent paycut, the teachers lobby prefers to have five percent of the teachers laid off. That is a cruel and unfair outcome for the five percent who are laid off. The 95 percent who retain their jobs and benefits could care less. All that matters to them is that their pay and benefits are maintained. Under seniority rules only the newest teachers are at risk. The old fuddy duddies are completely protected from layoffs (as well as from any accountability at all). The "children be damned" attitude of the public school teacher lobby in this community (and in this state) mirrors that of teacher lobbies and teachers unions across the US and Europe. It is their decision to have layoffs. These would be very easy to avoid. Ditto for other public employees.

But, Herbert's column raises a deeper question. If money is spent on foreign adventures, doesn't that take money away from funding an economic recovery in the US? The answer is a resounding "no." Regardless of the merits or demerits of foreign adventures, there is simply no evidence that governments who spend money promote economic recovery, progress or growth. In fact, the opposite is true. What the government needs to do is get out of the way. No amount of government spending can undo the damage of the Dodd-Frank legislation or Obamacare. Sending Elizabeth Warren back to Harvard and dismantling the mis-named Consumer Protection Agency would do more for economic recovery than spending another trillion dollars funding Obama's political allies (Obama's definition of stimulus spending).

A similar argument applies to public education. Public education in the US and increasingly in Europe is in shambles. Why? Money? Just look at the numbers. Schools, public and private, higher education and lower education, absorb an increasing share of national output, not only in the US but throughout Europe. Are our schools getting better? Our schools, in fact, are poorly run, dominated by administrators and teachers with political, not educational, motivation. It is easy to teach students, if that is what you want to do, But, increasingly, teaching students is not what teachers want to do. You can see this most clearly in higher education, but it shows up dramatically in the modern public schools as well. The recent activities by teachers in Wisconsin show you where their true interests is not in the classroom.

Money isn't the issue, Bob Herbert. In fact, more money can cause even more mischief for our public schools, for our economic recovery. The best thing the government can do is to shrink itself and get out of the way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Soft Economy Amidst a Sea of Liquidity

Some parts of the economy have returned to pre-crisis levels. The stock market for one. The stock market is now well ahead of where it was just prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Prices of the best buildings in NYC and London are nearing the peaks reached in 2007, if not exceeding them. Luxury homes are on the rebound. Yet the overall US economy is moribund and headed nowhere. How can this be?

The simple answer is the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve is monetizing substantial amounts of US treasuries (buying treasuries, in other words). This is equivalent to printing money instead of selling debt from the point of view of government financing. This is QE2. This process, QE2, adds enormous amounts of liquidity to the financial system, available to whatever suits the fancy of the financial system. Normally, such excess liquidity feeds directly into asset prices -- stocks, bonds, high end real estate -- and that is exactly what has been happening.

Business is not really using the excess liquidity to expand capital equipment and employment. Business is not optimistic about the future, mostly because business understands all too well what the Obama Administration is all about. Instead the excess liquidity is being soaked up into an asset bubble -- a bubble that will inevitably end badly.

Don't look for further rallies in asset prices. QE2 is coming to an end soon and there is not likely to be a QE3. Incredibly slow economic growth will continue on pace for the next two years as we slog our way to a 7-8 percent unemployment range with rising inflation -- a condition known as stagflation. Stock prices will stall here and bond prices will get hammered. High end asset prices, rising now from Bernanke's foolishness, will settle back to earth. There won't be a crash or a double dip, but the asset price rally will be ending soon while the economy will continue to trudge along.

The big unknown is the exploding debt nightmare. That nightmare could upset the slow moving turtle that is the American economy.

Portugal, Greece and More

Greek unemployment has now surged to 16.5 percent as it struggles to implement a half-baked austerity program. Greek's austerity program is an example of policy gone berserk. The austerity program that Greek politicians have pursued (with the support of the EU) is too little to have any impact on their spiraling debt problems and too much to permit the economy to avoid collapse. Why do this?

The Portuguese have rejected austerity. Others will follow. Austerity without at least a partial debt default is a foolish and unsustainable policy. The best historical precedent for the madness going on in the European union today is the reparations payments program foisted onto Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. We know how that experiment ended. Enough.

There is no reason to insulate bondholders from the folly of their investments. They should bear the brunt of bad decisions. Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Spain should default, at least in part, on their sovereign debt. "Should" will eventually turn to "will" anyway. There is no way that these austerity programs are bearable.

None of the European economies are truly competitive any more. Europe has been carried along by the American economic engine for the past two generations. But, the US can't be the engine that pulls the EU anymore. The US has problems of its own that increasingly mirror the problems of the European zone.

The economic future is with countries that have competitive economies fostered by governments that see economic growth, not economic pie redistribution, as the number one goal of economic policy. This means Asia. This means parts of Eastern Europe. It means one or two isolated situations in Latin America. Everywhere else, the number one goal is to divide up the economic pie. That never leads to good things for the average person who finds, inevitably, his/her share of the diminishing pie diminishing as well.

The rich do not necessarily get richer. Sometimes the rich get preoccupied with implementing policies that stifle economic growth. Hubris breeds incompetence. That is what has happened to Europe and the United States.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Beat Goes On

Jose Socrates, Prime Minister of Portugal, failed this week to get his country to complete the fiscal austerity program designed to save Portugal from defaulting on their sovereign debt. The truth is that no one cares about Portugal. The big concern is Spain. Portugal is a relatively small economy and EU bailout fund could easily accommodate Portugal's needs (and probably will do so soon). But, that leaves Spain. Spain's problems are so immense that the EU has no serious way of dealing with it.

Thoughts of Portugal lead to the contemplation of Spain, in true domino-theory progression. It is hard to see what the EU will do when Spain is the headline. That could be game over (and we haven't even begun to speak of Italy).

All of this is a policy of wishful thinking by the EU, of course. It is simply a matter of time until all the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) default on their sovereign debt and are forced to nationalize their largest banks. Why they think putting this off is a good idea is something of a mystery. It only gets worse with time.

The US is not far behind.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Interview with Michael Bigger, trader & author

Trader and author/blogger, Michael Bigger of Bigger Capital offers his thoughts on "trading recipes" and collaborative communities in this interview for The Trading Elite website.

Having read some of Michael's posts and thoughts on algorithmic trading and self-publishing, I was interested to hear more about his entrepreneurial trading efforts and building creative collaboration networks.

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Michael talks about getting started in algorithmic trading. Start young, build a simple framework and improve it as you go over time. Start learning & experimenting as early as possible.
  • Develop some "trading recipes" with your algo experiments. You can learn more over time and try to scale your best trading ideas.
  • There are creative people who can help you develop programs and teach you more about trading. Michael wants to use the power of the internet to reach out to people and build collaborative trading communities.
  • Technology available to individuals now in many ways surpasses what Bigger had while trading billions at a large bank 10 years ago.
  • Wealth in finance will flow increasingly flow to those who are able to interpret info better than others. Filtering info and connecting important ideas & concepts is key for the future.
  • There is this pool of talented individuals who remain untouched by the teachings, dogma of elite schools. These are the people you want to reach out to and collaborate with.
  • Blogging, writing ideas down, and communicating with other traders and programmers via Twitter and social media is essential. You never know who you will meet or what will come out of it.
  • Hard work and long hours are key to Bigger's success, but he views this as worthwhile and just a part of something he loves to do.
Definitely a worthwhile chat. Check out the full interview, I think you'll enjoy it too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Check out Matthew Klein's Piece in NYTime Today

Matthew Klein's article dubbed "Educated, Unemployed, and Frustrated," describes the plight of American young people looking for a job and a future. He notes that 21 percent of workers between ages 16 to 24 are unemployed. These, of course, are mostly not college graduates, although Klein strongly suggests that they are in a typical NYTimes manner. The truth is that college grads have a very low unemployment rate, less than 5 percent in the aggregate, while non college grads have five times that number. Klein doesn't bother to ask why?

Klein does note the burden of entitlements which systematically favor age over youth, but that doesn't explain why young folks are struggling so in the job market, especially those without a college degree. Perhaps, he should look at some of the other editorials that grace the NY Times -- the ones that support employer mandates, the ones that suggest that all business folks are crooks, the ones that support higher taxes for employers, the ones that support Obamacare and other back breaking mandates on business, the ones that encourage frivolous lawsuits aimed at deep-pocket business when business is not really the offender, and on and on.

The answer is simple. We have priced these young folks out of the market. Who can afford to hire them. Not American business. The rest of the world, fortunately for them, unfortunately for us, does not load up employees with goodies that need to be financed by those who hire them (except in Europe, where young people face the same dismal future as our own). If you increase the price of something, people want less of it. Employees are no different than anything else.

Recap: Sunday $Macro chat on StockTwits

Last night on StockTwits, the Sunday $Macro gang convened for a global macro chat in 140 characters.

I hosted the chat, and with the help of some Sunday macro regulars and some new faces, the discussion was rolling in no time (see screenshot below).

Here's a partial recap of some important themes and debate points from our macro discussion:
  • Early on the discussion centered around Japan and the currency interventions designed by the G7 nations and BOJ to make the Yen cheaper. As I was not following the currencies closely, it was good to have the other stream members fill me in and offer their views on the likely impact of the recent Yen strength on Japan's economy.
  • The Yen discussion carried over into a thread on Japan's rebuilding efforts, and how a "repatriation of assets" held abroad might bring renewed Yen strength. Some debated the effect (if any) Japan's investors would have on global stock and commodity markets.
  • Some debate followed on various beneficiaries in Japan's rebuilding phase. LNG, shippers, copper, and timber were some materials and sectors thought to offer upside in coming weeks and months. Demand for cotton was also discussed briefly on the stream.
  • We discussed the media's coverage of the nuclear crisis in Japan. I highlighted James Altucher's recent post on the subject and asked the stream participants if the threats from this disaster were being over-amplified by the media. Some discussion on risks of nuclear power and plant siting ensued. Some stream members also highlighted the risks to food and the latest movements in grain prices.
  • Our chat was moving along so well that some of the stream participants moved to keep chatting beyond the conventional 1 hour time slot, so we continued the discussion ("$macro overtime") for another 30 minutes. I cannot recall the last time this happened. It was great to see the discussion take off and branch off into many smaller side discussions on a variety of topics, including geopolitical events, war, and energy issues.
Lastly, I'd like to thank all the regular and newer $Macro 140 participants for their insights and questions on the stream. It's been great reviving the spirit of the old Sunday global macro chats (hosted by Gregor Macdonald) with you, and I'd especially like to thank Jim Gobetz for his help in bringing these discussions to life during the past few $Macro 140 sessions.

I'm hearing that StockTwits TV will be producing a new $Macro show with (I believe) Jack Barnes and Robert Sinn. I will be sure to tweet the details of this new program when I have them. See you on the stream!

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Whatever your source of the news, you must feel bombarded by the headlines from Japan, from Libya, and from other troublespots around the globe. These headlines and news stories are obscuring the underlying facts about what is going on.

Oil is not going to spike to $ 200 -- no matter what happens in the Middle East. There is not going to be a nuclear conflagration in Asia or even in Japan resulting from the damage to Japan's nuclear facilities. And, yes, there is no one to blame for the earthquake and tsunami.

The news media is so preoccupied with finding people to blame about every possible difficulty that the world faces that it obscures the real facts about what is taking place. The real facts remain: the western economies are mired in one of the slowest economic recoveries in the history of the world, while Asian economies and some Latin American economies and Eastern European economies are booming.

Western economies have mortgaged their futures by massive transfer payments to current citizens, mostly the older half of the population, financed by younger citizens and citizens yet to be born. The method, debt financing, is now seen as unsupportable. This is true of Greece as it is true of the United States (and Japan). There is no real answer other than some form of bankruptcy. Whether these steps are taken now or in the future just depends upon the outcome of political jockeying. But, it will take place. The numbers do not permit any easy fix, short of some form of bankruptcy.

The slow pace of economic recovery in the Western economies is mainly a result of their governmental policies toward labor, health care, the environment, and the regulatory regime. The attempt to shower private and public employees with benefits has made labor much more expensive to (all) employers -- hence a dramatic and permanent drop in hiring. This has been a deliberate policy in the United States and in Western Europe. If you increase a price, the demand for the product falls. If you increase the cost of employees, the demand for them will decline and has declined in the Western world (and will continue to decline).

Economic growth, which will continue in the West, will eventually lead to more jobs and, two or three years from now, to lower unemployment rates. But, we will never regain the vigor of the past unless the rules governing employees change in the Western world, which is unlikely. Slow growth and decadence are the future for the US and Western Europe. This is the new normal. Only a move toward free markets can change this and a move in that direction seems politically unlikely. Politicians of all stripes in the US and Western Europe support the legislative agenda that has lead to the current morass. That's not likely to change.

Meanwhile, Asia marches on, Japan aside. Asian nations have not mortgaged the future of their young and unborn to the current older generation. Thus, they have a real future. Economic progress is not shackled by a host of walls built by good intentions. You can't eat "good intentions."

Rich folks everywhere support making employees more expensive and increasing the stranglehold of regulations on businesses. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett certainly support this program, but so do most rich folks, because it is not going to change their lifestyle.

Many college students, dreaming of working for non-profits and basking in the glow of self-congratulatory adulation, have been sheltered from the harsher side of the economy for most of their lives. They have little or no sympathy for the plight of the average citizen, struggling to find work, but finding themselves priced out of the market by government rules and regulations.

The elites, as Tom Sowell calls them, are mainly about looking in the mirror and talking about what "good people" they are. Katie Couric is the poster child for this kind of self image. But, others, like the NPR folks, are pretty stong candidates for runner-up poster children. If it feels good and sounds good, who cares how many people get hurt in the process. That seems to be the position of the elite of the news media.

That lower incomes are battered by these policies is not the concern of the elite who push these regulations. If you were to ask a college senior if he/she would support a law making it against the law to hire someone at a salary less than $ 100,000 per year, they would instantly recoil. But that same college student supports minimum wage increases, living wage proposals and other things that damage the future prospects of the poorest among us. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet will never suffer from an increase in the minimum wage, but countless millions of Americans have already suffered from this type of punitive legislation and untold millions will be similarly penalized in the future.

So, don't get lost in the hysterical headlines about Japan and Libya. The real facts on the grounds are that government policies in the Western economies are hastening their declining share of real economic output. Other parts of the world, that have not put such policies in place, are growing rapidly and will, within a generation, surpass the Western world economically. This is the real story.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Will Get Through This

Don't count out the Japanese. They will get through this current crisis and find a way to deal with their difficulties.

The radiation leakage will likely be localized. The lingering problem will be energy shortages for the Japanese economy and for the needs of Japanese families. The market reaction in Tokyo is much overdone. The real financial problem in Japan is Japan's sovereign debt and Japan's unreasonable commitments to old age pensions and medical care. Sound familiar? The demographics are not helpful -- Japan is an aging and declining population -- but that is a problem that most of the developed world faces.

The earthquake is not good news, but it is by no means as catastrophic for Japan as much of the media assumes. The sell-off in American stocks, more muted, is more reasonable than the 15 percent decline in the Japanese market during the first two days of this week.

The media is not helpful in this crisis, which is usually the case in crises of any description.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Joe Fahmy interviews Market Wizard, Mark Minervini

Wanted to share this excellent video chat on trading and the stock market with you. Joe Fahmy interviews his trading mentor, Mark Minervini of Stock Market Wizards fame.

Mark and Joe both maintain a presence on Twitter and StockTwits, so it's been rather interesting to get a closer look at some of their thoughts on markets and trading through their real-time updates.

In this interview, Joe talks with Mark Minervini about his trading philosophy and the importance of blocking out meaningless distractions when focusing on one's trading strategy. This is a great discussion, and it serves as a very good learning opportunity for stock traders.

Check it out, and when you're done, take advantage of some of the other archived posts and trading videos on Joe Fahmy's excellent site.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A New Beginning in Wisconsin

No one objects to the freedom of assembly. Workers anywhere should have the right to form a union. The issue is: what is the union permitted to do? That is the central concern in Wisconsin.

The idea behind collective bargaining is that workers need protection against a potentially rapacious employer -- so what is the applicability of this notion to public employees? There is no application at all, unless what is being said is that the taxpayer at large is a rapacious employer. Public employee unions should not have the power to engage in collective bargaining.

Not only does collective bargaining lead to absurdities (seniority, tenure, etc.), but there is no profit pie to divide up -- just unsuspecting taxpayers (typically unborn ones) footing an absurd system of benefits.

Lets face it, unions have busted every industry where they have organized workers. Is there an exception? Now, unions are busting state and local governments.

Should a public employee union have the right to bankrupt the taxpayers of Wisconsin and burden future unborn taxpayers? The voters in Wisconsin elected Scott Walker governor on his promise to eliminate union collective bargaining for public employees. Walker and his legislative allies have fulfilled that campaign promise. This is good news for Wisoonsin and a harbinger of more to come.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dana Galante on the value of auditing firms

Currently rereading Jack Schwager's Stock Market Wizards and I came across a very illuminating excerpt from an interview with short-seller, Dana Galante.

Had you read Galante's interview back in 2000, especially her comments on the value of auditing firms and the discretion banks and fund managers had in valuing illiquid investments, you might not have been surprised by subsequent events in our capital markets (read: Enron, Arthur Andersen, The Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, and so on).

Here's an excerpt from Schwager's chat with Galante in which she explains how a former boss was hiding trading losses from investors by marking up the value of illiquid private company investments in the fund's portfolio:

"JS: It almost sounds as if he was gambling with the portfolio.

DG: It sure appeared to be gambling. Looking back, it seemed that he tried to hide these losses by marking up the prices on privately held stock in his portfolio. He had complete discretion on pricing these positions.

How was he able to value these positions wherever he wanted to?

Because they were privately held companies; there was no publicly traded stock.

Is it legal to price privately held stocks with such broad discretion?

Yes. In respect to private companies, the general partner is given that discretion in the hedge fund disclosure document. The auditors also bought off on these numbers every year. He would tell them what he thought these companies were worth and why, and they would accept his valuations. They were these twenty-two-year-old auditors just out of college, and he was the hedge fund manager making $20 million a year; they weren't about to question him.

Another hedge fund manager I interviewed who also does a lot of short selling said that the value of audits on a scale of 0 to 100 was zero. Do you agree?


Even if it's a leading accounting firm?

Oh yeah."

Now this type of exchange may not come as a surprise to readers in 2011, but I can assure you that plenty of people were shocked and caught unaware by these realities back in 2001-2003 and once again during the recent financial crisis.

So I guess the moral of the story is, do your own thinking and don't rely on the word of prestigious auditing firms and conflicted ratings agencies. Always do your own homework and try to understand how "business as usual" at the supposed safeguard firms can lead to disastrous results for those caught unaware.

Monday, March 7, 2011

It Can't Be Oil

The stock market went from up to down today and it really hasn't done much for several weeks. The Dow Jones got above 12,000 sometime back and it is barely above that level now with a lot of huffing and puffing.

The pundits point to oil and to events taking place in Libya. Don't believe it. There's plenty of oil and even if the bad guys get a hold of some oil, the first thing they will do is sell it to the highest bidder. So what else is new? Chavez sells to us. I rest my case.

The more serious problem is what is (not) going on politically. Except for some valiant souls in selected state governor mansions, there is no serious discussion afoot to tackle the US's entitlement nightmare. Europe is no better. Greece was quietly downgraded again by Moodys over the weekend without a comment from the US or European press.

It is not surprising that the press isn't noticing what the problem is here. The press seems to think that fighting to boost the income and benefits of folks making triple the average income in Wisconsin is somehow a great cause. They should start campaigning to pay baseball players and movie stars more money. That would fit their "activist" credo. They have completely lost sight of the people who are struggling in the US (and in Wisconsin). I'll give you a's not tenured school teachers in Wisconsin.

Oil is not the real problem here except in its manifestation of inflation. The real problem is debt, debt, and more debt. Until the President and the Congress acknowledge what the real issues are and begin to advance policy positions that move the needle in the right direction, markets are going to be sluggish. This is isn't much of a recovery after all and Obamacare is standing right in the way.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wisconsin Democrats Cave

It's amazing what a $ 100 per day fine will get you -- the return of the missing Wisconsin Senate Democrats. They, the missing Senators, have agreed to return to Madison and vote on Governor Walker's bill to reign in the suffocating power of the union bosses. Populism and Progressivism is alive and well in Wisconsin!

That makes two states, so far, to begin to roll back the exhorbitant demands of the union movement -- Wisconsin and Ohio. There will be more to come.

Michael Moore Fights for the Rich

Yesterday, Michael Moore cheered on the highest paid workers in the state of Wisconsin in their fight to maintain their status as the richest folks in Wisconsin. This is consistent with Moore's other well known battles to defend rich people and tin horn dictators around the world. Moore's contempt for middle class Americans and taxpayers is palpable. Unfortunately, the poor and the middle class are tapped out and cannot indulge Moore's fantasy of furthering pampering the wealthiest workers in the state of Wisconsin.

Truth and the New York Times

The New York Times has absolutely no standards. Even the truth is not a prerequisite for their news reporting. The latest example of non-facts in the New York Times is today's article by Peter Lattman. In an article in today's Business section on the prosecution of the Rajaratnam insider trading case, he refers to "...when Rudolph Giuliani, the United States attorney, prosecuted Wall Street executives for insider trading crimes, including Ivan F. Boesky and Michael R. Milken....."

Boesky, indeed, pled guilty to insider trading, but Milken? Why is Milken mentioned in this article? Not only was Milken not convicted of insider trading, he was never charged by Giuliani or anyone else. Indeed no one ever alleged that Milken engaged in insider trading -- never, not once. Milken plead guilty to "parking" securities, a victim-less crime that no one else in history has ever been charged with, much less convicted. The government never alleged that Milken was an inside trader. So, why the slander by the New York Times or is it just a habit with them?

When will truth become a standard for news reporting by the New York Times? How does the New York Times justify reporting outright falsehoods as in today's article and claim to be a news organization?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Standing Up for the Big Guy in Wisconsin

The protestors in Madison make, on average, three times what a typical taxpayer makes and have a benefit package for retirement and health care that the average Wisconsin citizen can only dream about. This is as if Marie Antoinette was out demonstrating in the streets of Paris for more champagne.

Students, of course, join in. There is no more privileged part of American society than college students, especially at elite schools like University of Wisconsin. The children of the average taxpayer in Wisconsin can't afford to attend University of Wisconsin, even if they could get in. But households headed by two public employees with income in the $ 200,000 plus area can certainly afford it .... and more, so long as taxpayers and bondholders are willing to pay for this largesse.

It is truly astounding that the wealthiest folks in Wisconsin, which, as a group, are the public employees, have such a "public be damned" attitude. Not since JP Morgan has the country witnessed such contempt for the average citizen as it evidenced by the demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin.

Palin is Right on Track

Sarah Palin is drawing attention to the real policy issues that the country faces by redirecting our attention to the entitlements and social security in particular. Social security is easy to fix, only courage is required. We need only tax social security to recoup it from higher income tax payers and move the age of retirement out (a similar strategy solves the problems of the enormous unfunded liabililties of state and local government pension plans).

Palin is not distracted, as Obama and the Congress seem to be, by worrying about the current $ 60 billion spat between House Republicans and the Obama White House. $ 60 billion isn't even two weeks of the current deficit at the federal level (not to mention the horrendous situation in state budgets). Palin was right when she referred to "death panels" in Obamacare and she is right to redirect our attention to social security and the health care entitlements.

Check out Paul Johnson's take on Sarah Palin in today's lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Palin, like Reagan and Thatcher before her, has had to to deal with the media hate mongers, but has maintained her focus and vision. If you want to see how the press treated Ronald Reagan, go to archives of the NY Times in the 1970s and you will read about Reagan characterized in essentially the same terms as Palin is today. Something about Sarah Palin's courage and forthrightness strikes a raw nerve with the left and with the most arrogant of the right (Peggy Noonan, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, etc.). America doesn't need more arrogance. What America needs is more people that are forthright about our debt situation, forthright about the need for free markets and less interested in demagoguery. In short, America needs more Sarah Palins.

Health Care -- First Principles

Americans are now facing the staggering first glimpses of sticker shock associated with Obamacare. Insurance companies are ratcheting up fees to meet the new burdens of Obamacare and hospitals are doing the same. There is really no limit to where these costs are headed. Even absent Obamacare, health insurance costs would be rising, but, with Obamacare, they are escalating out of sight. Meanwhile more and more doctors and hospitals are backing away from servicing medicare and medicaid patients, which replaces expensive health care with no health care. These are the fruits of Obama's ambitious health care vision and we are just at the beginning of this nightmare.

What is wrong with this picture?

First and foremost, health care should be expensive if it is important. Consumers of the service should pay a lot to get it. That principle underlies any reasonable allocation of a scarce resource. You can't promise inexpensive luxuries on a grand scale. The numbers will never add up. So, even if you are unlucky and your genes lead to an expensive-to-treat disease, you should not have a free ride financially.

Second, it is important to recognize the role of incentives in the provision of health care. Any system of provision of health services that does not require patients to pay for the bulk of their own health care means that patients will be less likely to take steps necessary to prevent future health problems. Why are older Americans among the most obese humans on the planet? The reason is that Americans see no connection between their own financial situation and how obese they are. They assume that other people (the government) will finance their future health care woes, so why worry? Why do low income Americans smoke in such large numbers? Because they assume that they will not be paying for the resultant health care problems (and they are right)! By taking away the financial burden of future health care costs (or convincing the public that you are taking away the financial burden of future health care costs), you are eliminating the incentives for individuals to take actions that improve their future health care. Some folks may do the right thing anyway, absent any financial incentives, but it very obvious that most do not.

Third, by setting up a system that will eventually require cost controls on hospitals, doctors and other health care providers, you guarantee a reduction in the supply in the quantity and quality of these services. If you want good health care, those who work in the industry must have financial incentives. These incentives are broadly under attack with current belt tightening in medicare and medicaid and the clear direction of Obamacare.

Only the free market supplemented with charity and a public safety net of modest proportions for the indigent can supply a truly efficient and quality health care system. The systems in Europe and other developed countries are notorious for inefficiencies and rationed care. The best health care in the world is to be found in the USA for those that can afford it. Medicare, medicaid and Obamacare will guarantee that fewer and fewer Americans will be able to afford good health care. Only a free market in health care and a free market in health care insurance can produce top quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The New Normal on Unemployment

The pundits cheered today's unemployment rate, which was reported to be 8.9 percent. After adjustments for January, net job creation was an anemic 180,000 -- a pitiful number for this stage of an economic recovery. The fact that a number this bad was greeted with applause says a lot about how low expectations for the economy have become since the Obama presidency began. Obama was quick to note that 1.5 million jobs have been added since last year -- an abysmal record for the second year of a recovery by any standard. If Obama is proud of this number, he must have given up hope for any kind of serious growth in employment levels or economic recovery.

To create jobs, it is crucial to make labor affordable. Everything the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies have done so far has made labor much more expensive. That's the failed European strategy, an area of the world that thinks that double digit unemployment is perfectly acceptable. Young folks in Europe have no real future -- the rich get richer and the young have lost hope. Most European children stay in their families' homes until they reach mid 30s. The wealthiest families in Europe are the same families that dominated European wealth 50 years ago. There is no economic mobility in Europe. Is that where we are headed?

Don't forget that in the "bad old days," that Obama doesn't want to see returned, unemployment dipped below 4 percent at times and was typically below 6 percent during the preceding 25 years. Gee, we certainly don't want to return to that, do we?

Booms and busts are part of life. Trying to eliminate busts by the heavy hand of government with bailouts, excessive regulations and payoffs to public employee supporters is absurd policy. But, it is the Obama way. What Obama means by "investments" is to spend money to reward his supporters. That's basically what the stimulus package was all about. Obama's proposed budget proposes more of the same.

Lets go back to booms and busts. They were certainly a lot better than this. The opportunities that were abundant in the 1980s and 1990s have vanished with the new normal of the Obama era. We need to go back to the bad old days.