Minimum Wage, Maximum Stupidity

11 comments

Posted on 30th June 2014 by Administrator in Economy |Politics |Social Issues

Minimum Wage, Maximum Stupidity

By Doug French, Contributing Editor

The minimum wage should be the easiest issue to understand for the economically savvy. If the government arbitrarily sets a floor for wages above that set by the market, jobs will be lost. Even the Congressional Budget Office admits that 500,000 jobs would be lost with a $10.10 federal minimum wage. Who knows how high the real number would be?

Yet here we go again with the “Raise the minimum wage” talk at a time when unemployment is still devastating much of the country. The number of Americans jobless for 27 weeks or more is still 3.37 million. And while that’s only half the 6.8 million that were long-term unemployed in 2010, most of the other half didn’t find work. Four-fifths of them just gave up.

So, good economics and better sense would say, “make employment cheaper.” More of anything is demanded if the price goes down. That would mean lowering the minimum wage and undoing a number of cumbersome employment regulations that drive up the cost of jobs.

But then as H.L. Mencken reminded us years ago, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Which means the illogical case made by Republican multimillionaire businessman Ron Unz is being taken seriously.

We Don’t Want No Stinkin’ Entry Level Jobs

Unz says the minimum should be $12 and recognizes that 90% of the resistance is that it would kill jobs. So what’s his answer to that silver bullet to his argument? America doesn’t want those low-paying jobs anyway. In his words, “Critics of a rise in the minimum wage argue that jobs would be destroyed, and in some cases they are probably correct. But many of those threatened jobs are exactly the ones that should have no place in an affluent, developed society like the United States, which should not attempt to compete with Mexico or India in low-wage industries.”

He doesn’t think much of fast-food jobs either. But he knows that employment can’t be shipped overseas, so Mr. Unz’s plan for those jobs is as follows:

So long as federal law requires all competing businesses to raise wages in unison, much of this cost could be covered by a small one-time rise in prices. Since the working poor would see their annual incomes rise by 30 or 40 percent, they could easily afford to pay an extra dime for a McDonald’s hamburger, while such higher prices would be completely negligible to America’s more affluent elements.

The Number of Jobs Isn’t Fixed

He believes that if all jobs pay well enough, legal applicants will apply and take all the jobs. This is where Unz crosses paths with David Brat, the economics professor who recently unseated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Brat claims to be a free-market sympathizer and says plenty of good things. However, in his stump speeches and interviews, Brat says early and often, “An open border is both a national security threat and an economic threat that our country cannot ignore. … Adding millions of workers to the labor market will force wages to fall and jobs to be lost.”

That would make sense if there were a fixed number of jobs, but that’s not the case. An economics professor should know that humans have unlimited wants and limited means, which, as Nicholas Freiling explains in The Freeman, “renders the amount of needed labor virtually endless—constrained only by the economy’s productive capacity (which, coincidentally, only grows as the supply of labor increases).”

An influx of illegal immigrants may or may not drive down wages, but even if it does, that’s a good thing. Low wages allow employers to invest in other things. More efficient production lowers costs for everyone, producers and consumers, allowing for capital creation. In the long run, it is capital investment that creates jobs.

Employers Bid for Labor Like Anything Else

Mr. Unz claims that low-wage employers are being subsidized by the welfare state. “It’s a classic case of where businesses manage to privatize the benefits of their workers—they get the work—and socialize the costs. They’ve shifted the costs over to the taxpayer and the government,” writes Unz.

It makes one wonder how the businessman made millions in the first place. Wage rates aren’t determined by what the employee’s expenses are. “Labor is a scarce factor of production,” wrote economist Ludwig von Mises. “As such it is sold and bought on the market. The price paid for labor is included in the price allowed for the product or the services if the performer of the work is the seller of the product or the services.”

Mises explained that a general rate of wages does not exist. “Labor is very different in quality,” Mises wrote, “and each kind of labor renders specific services. each is appraised as a complementary factor for turning out definite consumers’ goods and services.”

Not every job contributes $12 an hour in production benefits toward a finished good or service. And many unskilled laborers can’t generate $12 an hour worth of output. The Congress that created the minimum wage knew this and carved out the 14(c) permit provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, allowing an exemption from minimum wage requirements for businesses hiring the handicapped.

That Congress included in the act this language:

The Secretary, to the extent necessary to prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment, shall by regulation or order provide for the employment, under special certificates, of individuals … whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by age, physical or mental deficiency, or injury, at wages which are lower than the minimum wage.

Entrepreneurs must purchase all factors of production at the lowest prices possible. No offense to labor—that’s what customers demand. All cuts in wages pass through to customers. If a business pays more than the market wage rate, the business “would be soon removed from his entrepreneurial position.” Pay less than the market, and employees leave to work somewhere else.

Who Picks Up The Tab?

First, Unz says, “American businesses can certainly afford to provide better pay given that corporate profits have reached an all-time high while wages have fallen to their lowest share of national GDP in history.” So, instead of taxpayers supporting the poor, Unz wants business to pay. No, wait: later he writes that consumers will support the poor by paying higher prices.

“McDonald’s and fast-food places would probably have to raise their prices by 8 or 9 percent, something like that. Agricultural products that are American-grown would go up by less than 2 percent on the grocery shelves. And those sorts of price increases are so small that they would be almost unnoticed in most cases by the consumer.” Walmart would cover a $12 minimum wage with a one-time price increase of 1.1%, he says, with the average Walmart shopper paying just an extra $12.50 a year. So it’s consumers—who are also taxpayers—who get to be their brother’s keeper either which way with Unz’s plan.

Walmart Must Be Offering Enough

Fortune magazine writer Stephen Gandel appeared on Morning Joe this week, making the case that Walmart should give its employees a 50% raise (his article in Fortune on the subject appeared last November). According to him, the company is misallocating capital by not paying higher wages. He says investors are not giving the company credit for the lower pay in the stock price, so they should just do the right thing and pay their employees more.

But Walmart does pay more when it has to compete for employees. In oil-rich Williston, North Dakota, the retail giant is offering to pay entry-level workers as much as $17.40 per hour to attract employees.

Walmart isn’t alone. McDonald’s is paying $300 signing bonuses to attract workers. The night shift at gas stations in Williston pays $14 an hour.

By the way, whatever Walmart is paying, it must be enough, because it has plenty of applicants to choose from. In 2005, 11,000 people in the Bay Area applied for 400 positions at a new Oakland store. Three years later near Chicago, 25,000 people applied for 325 positions at a new store.

Last year a new Walmart opened in the DC area. Again, the response was overwhelming. Debbie Thomas told the Washington Post, “It’s hard to live in this city on $7.45 or $8.25 an hour. I’ve lived here all my life, and I want to stay here. In the end, I’m just glad Wal-Mart’s here. I might get a job.”

Throughout history, people have had to relocate to find work. Today is no different.

In the long run, as the minimum wage increases, capital will be invested to replace labor. We’ve seen it for years. Machines don’t call in sick, sue for harassment, require health insurance, or show up late. Now patrons pour their own drinks. Shoppers scan their own groceries and pump their own gas. Soon we’ll be ordering from electronic tablets at our tables in sit-down restaurants to cut down on wait staff, and the cooks will be replaced by automated burger makers.

Unz may well believe what he proposes would be doing good; however, it means kids and the unskilled go unemployed and in the end, are unemployable.

You read an excerpt from the Daily Dispatch, Casey Research’s wildly popular e-letter. Stay in the loop on big-picture trends, precious metals, energy, technology, and more. Sign up here to receive the Daily Dispatch free of charge in your inbox.

The article Minimum Wage, Maximum Stupidity was originally published at caseyresearch.com.

Good Reason for Doom and Gloom

1 comment

Posted on 9th June 2014 by Administrator in Economy |Politics |Social Issues

Good Reason for Doom and Gloom

By Doug French, Contributing Editor

Predicting the future, like getting old, ain’t for sissies. Questioning the bull market is even more treacherous.

Howard Gold, writing for MarketWatch, makes fun of seers who made what he calls “the four worst predictions to gain traction over the past few years.”

Gold says the last six years have been a disaster for those who stayed out of the stock market. He claims there’s a bull market in doom and gloom, referring to a column by his colleague Chuck Jaffe, who points out, “The fortune-tellers … know that the more outrageous the prediction, the more attention they get. They can highlight any forecasts they get right, knowing that their misfires are forgotten quickly. Thus, calamity and catastrophe sells. Right now, it’s a bull market for bearish forecasts.”

If such a bull market in doom were really happening, the market wouldn’t be hitting all-time highs. Besides, no one ever went broke being out of the market.

But more importantly, there is a very good reason people respond to gloomy forecasts. Behavioral economics pioneer and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow that when people compare losses and gains, they weigh losses more heavily. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce,” Kahneman explains.

Most people, when given the opportunity to win $150 or lose $100 on a coin flip, decline the bet because the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150. Kahneman writes that the typical loss aversion ratio seen in most experiments is 1.5 to 2.5. Professional stock traders have much higher tolerance for risk, but most people investing their retirement accounts are not pros and have little fortitude for losses.

The average Joe can’t just sit tight while his retirement account drops 40%. He’s not wired that way. His retirement savings represent safety, and a market crash is the modern equivalent of a flood, a bear, or a warring tribe. When stocks start falling, survival mode kicks in. He or she sells and runs for cover.

So when someone makes a compelling case that stocks might crash, the average person rightly listens. Otherwise they don’t get any sleep.

Gloomy Forecasts

Economist and financial newsletter writer Harry Dent predicted the DJIA would crash to 3,000 and told investors to bail out between early 2012 and late 2013. Some people likely took him up on it. In July 2010, Robert Prechter of Elliott Wave fame predicted the DJIA would fall to well below 1,000 over the ensuing five or six years.

“I’m saying: ‘Winter is coming. Buy a coat,’” Prechter told the New York Times. “Other people are advising people to stay naked. If I’m wrong, you’re not hurt. If they’re wrong, you’re dead. It’s pretty benign advice to opt for safety for a while.”

While Prechter sees massive deflation on the horizon, Marc Faber, editor of the Gloom, Boom & Doom Report, says Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation is on the way. Gold calls this “the single worst prediction of the past five years.” Gold calls Faber wacky for telling Bloomberg in 2009:

I am 100% sure that the U.S. will go into hyperinflation. Not tomorrow, but the problem with the government debt growing so much is that when the time will come and the Fed should increase interest rates, they’ll be very reluctant to do so and so inflation will start to accelerate.

Peter Schiff’s call for $5,000/oz gold also has Mr. Gold laughing. Schiff sees the Fed printing more to stimulate the economy, which will send the yellow metal soaring.

“Back in the real world,” sneers Gold, “new Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen is actually winding down the Fed’s extra bond buying (quantitative easing, or QE), and she’s on pace to finish by fall.”

Europe’s economic problems had establishment news outlets like The Economist saying in November 2011, the euro “could break up within weeks.” President Obama’s former chief economist, Austan Goolsbee, said “there probably isn’t” any way to hold the eurozone together.

And the ultimate establishment voice, Alan Greenspan, told CNBC the divergent cultures using one currency “simply can’t continue to work.”

So it’s not just wackadoodles wearing tinfoil hats missing the mark, as Mr. Gold implies. He writes, “But too many people have lost precious time and a chance to make real money by listening to these fear mongers. They’re probably kicking themselves now, or should be.”

However, nearly all of the gloomy prognostications Gold makes fun of are in response to the actions of central bankers, who have been at least as wrong as anyone else in their predictions.

Big financial-services companies should be kicking themselves for paying Greenspan $100,000 a speech these days. The Maestro reportedly hauled in an $8.5 million advance for his book, The Age of Turbulence. That’s a lot to pay for someone who whiffed on the housing bubble. In 2002, Greenspan said, “Even if a bubble were to develop in a local market, it would not necessarily have implications for the nation as a whole.”

Ben Bernanke, who used to make $200,000 a year, now makes “that in just a few hours speaking to bankers, hedge fund billionaires and leaders of industry,” the New York Times reports. “This year alone, he is poised to make millions of dollars from speaking engagements.”

He hasn’t exactly been an accurate predictor either. In 2005, Ben Bernanke was asked if the housing market was overheated. “Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise,” he replied. “It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis.”

Even former Treasury Secretary and ex-New York Fed President Tim Geithner is getting in on the action, receiving $100,000 to $200,000 per talk. Plus he likely received a large advance for his book Stress Test.

Geithner admits he didn’t see the financial crisis coming. In his review of Geithner’s book, Flash Boys author Michael Lewis writes, “The story Geithner goes on to tell blames everyone and no one. The crisis he describes might just as well have been an act of God.”

They Warn for a Reason

Mr. Gold believes that economic catastrophes have natural causes. “Bad things happen in life,” he writes. “Hurricanes and tornadoes destroy communities. Nuclear war and climate change are big long-term dangers. And there will be bear markets and deep recessions in the years ahead.”

Inflation to any degree is not an act of God. Neither are currency nor stock market crashes. Central bankers create these calamities and then ride off into the sunset, earning six-figure speaking fees and multimillion-dollar book deals. The positive reinforcement they receive ensures they’ll repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Thus, warnings must be issued constantly. Bad things are going to happen to the finances of individuals who aren’t prepared.

It’s not a matter of if, but when. Better scared than sorry.

(Editor’s Note: How quickly a crisis can creep up on you is demonstrated in our Casey Research documentary, Meltdown America. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. Click here to watch this free video.)

The article Good Reason for Doom and Gloom was originally published at caseyresearch.com.

Yellen’s Wand Is Running Low on Magic

5 comments

Posted on 12th May 2014 by Administrator in Economy |Politics |Social Issues

Yellen’s Wand Is Running Low on Magic

By Doug French, Contributing Editor

How important is housing to the American economy?

If a 2011 SMU paper entitled “Housing’s Contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) quot; is right, nothing moves the economic needle like housing. It accounts for 17% to 18% of GDP.

And don’t forget that home buyers fill their homes with all manner of stuff—and that homeowners have more skin in insurance on what’s likely to be their family’s most important asset.

All claims to the contrary, the disappointing first-quarter housing numbers expose the Federal Reserve as impotent at influencing GDP’s most important component.

The Fed: Housing’s Best Friend

No wonder every modern Fed chairman has lowered rates to try to crank up housing activity, rationalizing that low rates make mortgage payments more affordable. Back when he was chair, Ben Bernanke wrote in the Washington Post, “Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance.”

In her first public speech, new Fed Chair Janet Yellen said one of the benefits to keeping interest rates low is to “make homes more affordable and revive the housing market.”

As quick as they are to lower rates and increase prices, Fed chairs are notoriously slow at spotting their own bubble creation. In 2002, Alan Greenspan viewed the comparison of rising home prices to a stock market bubble as “imperfect.” The Maestro concluded, “Even if a bubble were to develop in a local market, it would not necessarily have implications for the nation as a whole.”

Three years later—in 2005—Ben Bernanke was asked about housing prices being out of control. “Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise,” he said. “It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in home prices on a nationwide basis.”

With never a bubble in sight, the Fed constantly supports housing while analysts and economists count on the housing stimulus trick to work.

2014 GDP Depends on Housing

There’s more expansion ahead for the housing market in 2014, with starts and new-home sales continuing to rise at double-digit rates, thanks to tight inventory,” writes Gillian B. White for Kiplinger. The “Timely, Trusted Personal Finance Advice and Business Forecast(er)” says GDP will bounce back.

Fannie Mae Chief Economist Doug Duncan says, “Our full-year 2014 economic forecast accounts for three key growth drivers: an acceleration in spending activity from private-sector forces, waning fiscal drag from the federal government, and continued improvement in the housing market.

We’ll see about that last one.

Greatest Housing Subsidy of All Time Running Out of Gas

With the central bank flooding the markets with liquidity, holding short rates low, and buying long-term debt, mortgage rates have been consistently below 5% since the start of 2009. For all of 2012, the 30-year fixed mortgage rate stayed below 4%. In the post-gold-standard era (after 1971), rates have never been this low for this long.

The Fed’s unprecedented mortgage subsidy has helped the market make a dead-cat bounce since the crash of 2008. After peaking in July 2006 at 206.52, the Case-Shiller 20-City composite index bottomed in February 2012 at 134.06. It had recovered to 165.50 as of January.

However, while low rates have propped up prices, sales of existing homes have fallen in seven of the last eight months. In March re-sales were down 7.5% from a year earlier. That’s the fifth month in a row in which sales fell below the year-earlier level.

David Stockman writes, “March sales volume remained the slowest since July 2012.” He listed 13 major metro areas whose sales declined from a year ago, led by San Jose, down 18%. The three worst performers and 6 of the bottom 11 were California cities. Las Vegas and Phoenix were also in the bottom 10, with sales down double-digits from a year ago.

This after housing guru Ivy Zelman told CNBC in February, “California is back to where it was in nirvana.” Considering the entire nation, she said, “I think nirvana is not far around the corner… I think that I have to tell you, I’m probably the most bullish I’ve ever been fundamentally, and I’m dating myself, been around for over 20 years, so I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs.”

Housing Headwinds

Housing is contributing less to overall growth than during both the days of 20% mortgage rates in the 1980s and the S&L crisis of the early 1990s.

In Phoenix, where home prices have bounced back and Wall Street money has vacuumed up thousands of distressed properties, the market has gone flat.

In Belfiore Real Estates’ April market report, Jim Belfiore wrote, “The bad news for home builders is they have created a glut of supply in previously hot market areas… Potential buyers, as might be expected, feel no sense of urgency to buy because they believe this glut is going to exist indefinitely.”

Nick Timiraos points out in the Wall Street Journal that with a 4.5% mortgage rate and prices 20% below their peak, “… homes are still more affordable than in most periods between 1990 and 2008.” So why is demand for new homes so tepid? And why have refinancings fallen 58% year-over-year in the first quarter?

“Housing’s rocky recovery could signal weakness more broadly in the economy,” writes Timiraos, “reflecting the lingering damage from the bust that has left millions of households unable to participate in any housing recovery. Many still have properties worth less than the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages, while others have high levels of debt, low levels of savings, and patchy incomes.”

More specifically, “So far we have experienced 7 million foreclosures,” David Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, writes. “Beyond that there are still nine million homeowners seriously underwater on their mortgages, and there are millions more who are stranded in place because they don’t have enough positive equity to cover transactions costs and more stringent down payment requirements.”

Young people used to drive real estate growth, but not anymore. The percentage of young home buyers has been declining for years. Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of homeowners among people in their late twenties fell from 43% to 38%. And after the crash, the downtrend continued. The percentage of young people who obtained mortgages between 2009 and 2011 was just half what it was ten years ago.

Young people don’t seem to view owning a home as the American dream, as was the case a generation ago. Plus, who has room to take on more debt when 7 in 10 students graduate college with an average $30k in student loan debt?

“First-time home buyers are typically an important source of incremental housing demand, so their smaller presence in the market affects house prices and construction quite broadly,” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told homebuilders two years ago.

There’s not much good news for housing these days. For a little while, the Fed’s suppression of interest rates juiced housing enough to distract Americans from weak job creation and stagnant real wages. Don’t have a job? No problem! Just borrow against the appreciation of your house to feed your family.

But Yellen’s interest rate wand looks to be out of magic. The government had a pipe dream of white picket fences for everyone. But Americans can’t refinance their way to wealth. Especially in the Greater Depression.

Read more about the Fed’s back-breaking economic shenanigans and the ways to protect your assets in the Casey Daily Dispatch—your daily go-to guide for gold, silver, energy, technology, and crisis investing. Click here to sign up—it’s free.

The article Yellen’s Wand Is Running Low on Magic was originally published at caseyresearch.com.

Paper Gold Ain’t as Good as the Real Thing

5 comments

Posted on 12th February 2014 by Administrator in Economy |Politics |Social Issues

Paper Gold Ain’t as Good as the Real Thing

By Doug French, Contributing Editor

For the first time ever, the majority of Americans are scared of their own federal government. A Pew Research poll found that 53% of Americans think the government threatens their personal rights and freedoms.

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.

Zombies Make Dangerous Neighbors

1 comment

Posted on 27th November 2013 by Administrator in Economy |Politics |Social Issues

Zombies Make Dangerous Neighbors

By Doug French, Contributing Editor

On March 16, 2009, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), a private-sector organization that establishes financial accounting and reporting standards in the US, turned the stock market around and at the same time motivated banks to become the worst slumlords and neighbors imaginable.

Most people believe accounting is conservative, the rules cut and dried. Accountants make economists look frivolous. But accountants are people too, and FASB succumbed to pressure from Capitol Hill in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

How It All Started

The S&P 500 hit a devilish low of 666 on March 6, 2009. More major bank failures seemed a certainty. Somebody had to do something—and in stepped the accounting board prodded by the House Committee on Financial Services.

The board changed financial accounting standards 157, 124, and 115, allowing banks more discretion in reporting the value of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) held in their portfolios and losses on those securities. Floyd Norris reported at the time for the New York Times,

The change seems likely to allow banks to report higher profits by assuming that the securities are worth more than anyone is now willing to pay for them. But critics objected that the change could further damage the credibility of financial institutions by enabling them to avoid recognizing losses from bad loans they have made.

“With that discretion,” fund manager John Hussman writes, “banks could use cash-flow models (“mark-to-model”) or other methods (“mark-to-unicorn”).”

And author James Kwak wrote on his blog “The Baseline Scenario” just after FASB amended their rules: “The new rules were sought by the American Bankers Association, and not surprisingly will allow banks to increase their reported profits and strengthen their balance sheets by allowing them to increase the reported values of their toxic assets.”

Banks were loaded with securities containing subprime home loans. When borrowers stopped paying en masse, the value of these securities plunged. Until the change in March 2009, these losses had to be recognized. With financial institutions leveraged at upwards of 30-1 at the time, the sinking valuations made much of the industry insolvent… until March 16, 2009. Since then the S&P has nearly tripled.

Bad-Neighbor Banks

Nobody has more friends on Capitol Hill than bankers, who are not wild about free-market capitalism when it works against them.

“Bankers bitterly complained that the current market prices were the result of distressed sales and that they should be allowed to ignore those prices and value the securities instead at their value in a normal market,” Norris wrote for the New York Times on April 2, 2009.

The change in the rules first of all allowed banks to remain in business. Second, with banks having wide discretion in valuing mortgage-backed securities, they had little incentive to care for the collateral of the loans contained in those MBSs. It may even be in a bank’s best interest to leave houses in what the Sun Sentinel newspaper called “legal limbo.”

Last year the Florida paper devoted a three-part series to “Bad-Neighbor Banks.” When homeowners walk away, one would think it would be in the banks’ best interests to gain legal possession as soon as possible and either sell as is, or repair and sell quickly.

Apparently that’s not the case. All across Florida, banks “have halted foreclosure proceedings because the remaining equity in the properties is deemed inadequate to cover the banks’ costs to reclaim title and maintain, refurbish and sell them,” Megan O’Matz and John Maines wrote for the Sun Sentinel.

When pressed about weed- and rodent-infested abandoned properties, banks often pointed the finger at mortgage servicers. South Florida attorney Ben Solomon, who represents condos and community associations in foreclosure cases, stated, “We see bank delays every day. They really continually have been getting worse. More and more time is going by.”

As banks sit on assets indefinitely without having to recognize a loss, homes get lost in vast bank bureaucracies. When the banks finally figure out what they have, “lenders also have been walking away from foreclosure actions involving homes with low market values, after their cool-headed calculation that the homes cannot resell for enough to offset the costs of foreclosing, repairing, maintaining and marketing them,” O’Matz and Maines wrote.

Now banks have rebuilt their balance sheets and are able to withstand losses from bad property loans. Enough banks are walking away from properties that the Treasury Department issued “guidance” in 2011, advising to do so cautiously.

Banks that do foreclose with tenants living in a property are notorious for not maintaining their newly acquired properties. “Some banks are failing to follow local and state housing codes, leaving tenants to live in squalor—without even a number to call in the most dire situations,” writes Aarti Shahani for NPR.

I’m not sure why anyone would expect banks to be good property managers. “Banks don’t want to take your home and own it,” Paul Leonard, senior vice president of the Housing Policy Council, told NPR. “They’re stuck with plumbing and electrical maintenance that is well beyond their mission. They have to hire a property manager to take care of the property.”

Global banking behemoth Deutsche Bank foreclosed on 2,000 houses in the Los Angeles area between 2007 and 2011. The big bank was such a bad landlord, the city filed suit and the bank recently settled the case by paying $10 million—which the bank didn’t even have to pay itself. According to Deutsche Bank officials, “The settlement will be paid by the servicers responsible for the Los Angeles properties at issue and by the securitization trusts that hold the properties.”

If banks, not to mention Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and FHA, had been allowed to fail, the housing market would have cleared and stories like these would be a thing of the past. However, one intervention begets another, and the market is held stagnate.

Auctions: Bids Coming Up Short

While there are housing booms popping up in various cities, Bloomberg just reported a failed auction by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

After successfully selling 50,000 non-performing, single-family FHA-insured loans since 2010, HUD deemed the bids for $450 million too low to accept at their October 30 sale.

(As an interesting aside, the FHA was a product of Roosevelt’s administration during the Great Depression and hasn’t required the help of taxpayers until this September when the agency asked for a $1.7 billion bailout to keep operating… a piece of news that got drowned out by the looming government shutdown, the slowly developing Obamacare train wreck, and the Breaking Bad series finale.)

HUD has another $5 billion auction scheduled and is currently qualifying bidders. The auctions run through the website DebtX, which has compiled a Bid-Ask Index to compare recent years’ buyers’ bid performance versus seller expectations. For the last three years, bids have come up short of sellers’ ask prices. The index prior to the failed auction was -5.7%.

Meanwhile, the banking industry purrs right along earning a record $42.2 billion in the second quarter.

The Banks Are the Only Ones Profiting

For the banks, this was the 16th consecutive quarter of year-over-year increases. A primary driver of the record earnings is less money being socked away in loan-loss reserves. Banks put away the lowest loss provision since the third quarter of 2006. The banking industry’s coverage ratio of reserves to noncurrent loans is still only 62.3%, far below what was once the standard of greater than 100%.

Remember when President Obama and the Treasury Department claimed the bank bailouts were generating a profit? Special Inspector General Christy Romero overseeing TARP said, “It is a widely held misconception that TARP will make a profit. The most recent cost estimate for TARP is a loss of $60 billion. Taxpayers are still owed $118.5 billion (including $14 billion written off or otherwise lost).”

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have turned things around and are generating huge profits, you say?

Not so fast.

According to bank analyst Chris Whalen, “If we were to implement the guidance from FHFA today, it is pretty clear that the profits of the GSEs [government-sponsored enterprises] would have been largely offset by the allocations needed to replenish the reserves.” GSE profits would disappear, and $10 to $20 billion would need to be added to reserves.

“Not only does FNM [Fannie Mae] seem to be unprofitable under the new FHFA guidance, but payments made to Treasury might need to be reversed,” writes Whalen.

A zombie government armed with accounting tricks has bailed out a zombie banking industry using even more financial phoniness. A few numbers pushed here and there, and the industry is earning record profits. But out in the real world where people live and work, things aren’t so rosy. Zombies make negligent landlords and dangerous neighbors.

Read more from Doug French, former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in the Casey Daily Dispatch—different writers, different topics, different investment sectors each day of the week. Get it free of charge in your inbox, Monday through Friday—click here.