Category Archives: Guest Post

ECB Stress Tests: The View of an Insider

Yves here. The ECB stress tests are starting to resemble the process that Japan’s Ministry of Finance used in dealing with zombie banks in its post-bubble years. The MOF would gradually acknowledge how bad the loan books were as the banks were able to make writeoffs (not that anyone was really fooled; foreign analysts were regularly making their own assessments). So the exercise is to pretend that the amount of disease revealed is credible, when those in the know recognize full well that is it much worse.

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Exploding Wealth Inequality in the United States

Yves here. This is a particularly important post on the state of inequality since Emanuel Saez, working with Thomas Piketty, was for over a decade tracking the rise in inequality in the US, particularly the way that the top 1% and 0.1% were pulling away from the rest of the population. Gabriel Zucman has made a recent important contribution to the analysis of wealth disparity by sizing the impact on global figures of the funds stashed in tax havens. A full 6% goes unrecorded, which by his estimates is enough to make the US less of a net debtor, Europe a net creditor, and of course, the rich in those regions even richer.

Saez and Zucman are particularly concerned that this level of wealth inequality is on its way to becoming entrenched.

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Yanis Varoufakis: Why the European Bank Stress Tests Have to be Phony

Yves here. I have to admit I never focused on what turns out is a blindingly obviously reason why the European bank stress tests are an exercise in optics. Even though this website derided the US stress tests as a cheerleading exercise, and earlier criticized the Administration for failing nationalize Citigroup as FDIC chairman Sheila Bair sought to do, the US authorities were in a position to Do Something about sick banks. Consider the European case (note I consider Yanis to be too charitable toward US bank regulators, but keep in mind that he’s comparing them to his home-grown version). And then you have the additional problem, which was widely discussed in 2009 to 2011 or so, that the apparent insolvency of states was the result of and bound up with the overindebtedness of European nations. Perversely, tha is almost never put front and center these days when the topic of seriously unwell European banks comes up.

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Drilling Deeper: New Report Casts Doubt on Fracking Production Numbers

Yves here. We’ve discussed the fracking bubble intermittently, particularly that many of the valuations ascribed to shale gas wells don’t reflect how short their production lives really are. This report by Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog focuses on a related result from the same set of unrealistically high production assumptions: that overall fracking output forecasts are likely to prove to be high.

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Bob Goodwin: ‘Drug’ is a Teetering Social Concept

Yves here. Bob Goodwin discusses how the idea of legal versus illegal drugs has become a more obviously porous barrier than it was in his youth, even given the differences in how those differences are enforced across income/racial groups.

One thing that Bob may have deemed to be so obvious as to not be worth discussing is the casualness of prescribing what amount to performance-enhancing drugs to children, such as Ritalin and Adderall, along with troublingly frequent dispensing of antidepressants. Studies on safety are all short term; the idea of messing with the chemistry of developing brains, save in circumstances when the child is in acute distress, is heinous. Yet in parallel, kids have wised up and use various prescription stimulants, most notably Adderall, as study and test aids. I recall reading a New Yorker article on it at least a decade and maybe even more than a dozen years ago, on how utterly routine it was for kids in elite private schools to get these drugs prescribed, or filch their parents’ supplies, and trade them among their peers. My understanding is that the use of these drugs during exams, and for some students, on an ongoing basis, is routine.

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Ilargi: Europe Redefines “Stress” in Its Bank-Boosterist Stress Tests

Yves here. As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, bank “stress tests” are officially-orchestrated bank PR. And the reason they worked so well the first time was that exercise was accompanied by all sorts of Administration “we’re fully behind the banks” messaging, including a commitment that any banks that fell short would get a heapin’ helping of new capital. But the effort to talk bank stock prices up worked so well that many, even the weaker ones, were able to float new shares.

The Europeans have tried emulating the Americans, but with more emphasis on the optics and less on prodding the banks to take meaningful steps to shore up their capital bases. Ilargi describes how even this exercise in porcine maquillage is failing to cover up the unhealthy state of many banks.

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Jamie Dimon: U.S. Must Create a “Safe Harbor” Where JPM’s Corruption Is Not “Punished”

Yves here. The irony is delicious. Chief bank apologist Andrew Ross Sorkin accidentally elicited a damning admission from JP Morgan chieftan Jamie Dimon. But that also reveals Dimon’s confidence that he is a member of a protected class, which sadly happens to be true.

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Class Traitors: How Ideological Brainwashing Gets Rich and Ordinary Americans to Undermine Their Economic Interest

Linda Beale, of ataxingmatter, has written forcefully and persuasively about some of the propagandizing-accepted-as-gospel that the well-heeled use to advocate policies that advance their economic interests. For instance, as most Naked Capitalism readers appreciate, but a remarkably large swathe of the US population does not, tax cuts for big corporations are simply a transfer to the rich. From a post last year:

I’ve argued frequently in the past that there is no there there–i.e., that lowering corporate tax rates will do nothing to create jobs. Instead, I’ve said, it will simply deliver an even higher profit margin to be skimmed off by the highest paid executives and, possibly, shareholders. The higher profit margins are unlikely even to be used to increase workers’ shares of the corporate revenues through higher wages, a place where they could most help the economy other than new jobs created. Thus, the drive for “revenue neutral” corporate tax reform (cut corporate taxes, cut expenditures elsewhere to make up for the decreased corporate tax revenues) is just another example of corporatism as an engine of the modern form of US class warfare

Beale takes up a different theme today: how the rich and poor act against their economic interest. For many in middle and lower income strata in red states, hostility to the government is an article of faith even though those states (and many of those same govement-hating citizens) are significant beneficiaries of Federal programs.

But less well recognized are the ways that the wealthy are undermining themselves. They’ve taken the “increase our distance from everyone else” experiment well beyond its point of maximum advantage, not just to the society around them but also in terms of the costs to the class warriors.

As we’ve pointed out, highly unequal societies have lower lifespans, even among the rich; the shallower social networks of stratified societies and the high cost of losing one’s perch, in terms of loss of friends and status, creates an ongoing level of stress that has a longevity cost. Beale points out something we’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, that creating an underclass with inadequate access to medical services is a great breeding ground for public health problems. The fact that many low income Americans can’t afford to take sick days and health plans generally have high deductibles, which discourage individuals from getting treated until they are sure they are really sick, isn’t a great program design if you want to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

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Gail Tverberg: Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

Yves here. As oil prices have come into focus as a result of a recent Saudi decision to facilitate a reset at a lower price per barrel, they’ve come into focus yet again as a critical nexus of economic and political power, and that’s before you get to the complicating overlay of climate change considerations.

This article by Gail Tverberg takes a more sophisticated, multi-persepctive approach than the overwhelming majority of articles on this topic. One of her big messages is that there is no way the world economy is getting divorced from oil any time soon.

Even so, I have some minor points of contention. For instance, she correctly points out that oil producers, even the Saudis, need oil prices to be at a moderately high prices to sustain national budgets. But Riyadh has a very low production break even point, a large cash horde, and plenty of borrowing capacity. The desert kingdom could afford a price war, say to hurt geopolitical enemies or to forestall investment in and development of alternative energy sources. Low oil prices make other energy sources look unattractive, and volatile prices also deter investment, making it well-nigh impossible to forecast cost advantages (if any) and end user takeup.

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Wolf Richter: Leading Indicator Amazon Gets Re-Crushed

Yves here. As Matt Stoller wrote recently, Amazon’s business strategy is all about becoming a globally-dominant trading company. It might have helped if Amazon and its investors had studied the closest historical analogue to what Amazon is seeking to become: Japanese trading companies. In their heyday, Japanese trading companies, such as Mitsubishi International Corporation, which intermediated trade for the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, and its post-World War II less-tightly-integrated incarnation, a keiretsu, had an almost impossible-looking financial statements: staggeringly large revenues, extremely thin profits (those went to the industrial companies) and enormous balance sheets with breathtaking leverage.

The Amazon 2.0 version has a lot of improved features, the biggest being impressive cash flow, since it manages to get income before it has to pay for goods. However, Amazon, like its Japanese forebearers, is interested in dominance above all. For the Japanese trading companies, that made sense because they were the sales arms for the companies in their group, so the objective wasn’t for them to prosper but to merely get by. But for Amazon, plowing its vast cash flow into growth looks less and less sensible as losses gap up. It’s one thing to incur large costs to obtain a monopoly or oligopoly position, since high margins are expected to come later. Amazon has gotten away with no profits because, in reality, cash flow generation is in many ways a better measure of the true productivity of a business. But in Amazon’s case, its hugely positive cash flow is entirely dependent on its collection v. when it pays suppliers. If suppliers, which Amazon is also squeezing on cost, start to push back this hugely successful machine will look a lot less pretty. And this ins’t a theoretical concern; Justin Fox at the Harvard Business Review points out that Amazon of late hasn’t been able to stretch payables as much at it once could. Amazon is moving on so many fronts where establishing a dominant position is far from assured, which could call its entire model into question.

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