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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Boeing: Poster Child for Capitalism Reform

The Daily Escape:

La Sal Mountains in background, Canyonlands NP and Colorado River in foreground, UT – 2019 photo by Larnek

The Boeing 737 MAX story is getting worse. Just when you thought you had the whole story, you find more ugliness underneath. Ralph Nader published an open letter to Dennis A. Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, and it’s quite the takedown, capturing the essence of Boeing’s problem:

“Aircraft should be stall-proof, not stall-prone.”

The stall-prone MAX was supposedly fixed, but then it failed. Nader has a personal interest in the MAX’s problems, since his niece, 24-year-old Samya Stumo, was among the 157 victims of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash last month. Here’s a part of his letter:

“Your narrow-body passenger aircraft – namely, the long series of 737’s that began in the nineteen sixties was past its prime. How long could Boeing avoid making the investment needed to produce a “clean-sheet” aircraft and, instead, in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek “push an aging design beyond its limits?” Answer: As long as Boeing could get away with it and keep necessary pilot training and other costs low…as a sales incentive.”

Nader draws a connection between Boeing’s decision to “push an aging design” and their financial engineering.

“Did you use the $30 billion surplus from 2009 to 2017 to reinvest in R&D, in new narrow-body passenger aircraft? Or did you, instead, essentially burn this surplus with self-serving stock buybacks of $30 billion in that period?”

Nader notes that Boeing is one of the companies that MarketWatch labelled as “Five companies that spent lavishly on stock buybacks while pension funding lagged.” Their pension fund is only 79.6% funded. More:

“Incredibly, your buybacks of $9.24 billion in 2017 comprised 109% of annual earnings….in 2018, buybacks of $9 billion constituted 86% of annual earnings….in December 2018, you arranged for your rubberstamp Board of Directors to approve $20 billion more in buybacks.”

Nader’s focus on stock buybacks shows that Boeing had the capital to invest in developing a new plane. From Bloomberg in 2019:

”For Boeing and Airbus, committing to an all-new aircraft is a once-in-a-decade event. Costs are prohibitive, delays are the norm and payoff can take years to materialize. Boeing could easily spend more than $15 billion on the NMA, according to Ken Herbert, analyst with Canaccord Genuity….”

NMA means the New Middle-of-the-Market Aircraft. Boeing has already spent a total of $30 billion in share repurchases, with another $8 billion to come in 2019. A new aircraft would have cost half of that amount.

The main reason may have been Boeing’s earlier problems with the launch of the 787:

“In the summer of 2011, the 787 Dreamliner wasn’t yet done after billions invested and years of delays. More than 800 airplanes later…each 787 costs less to build than sell, but it’s still running a $23 billion production cost deficit.…”

The 737 MAX was Boeing’s answer. It allowed them to continue their share buybacks while paying for the 787 cost overruns. Abandoning the 737 for a new plane would’ve meant walking away from its financial golden goose. OTOH, someone should be responsible for the 346 deaths Boeing’s MAX has caused.

Finally, there are reports that some pilots are giving the MAX a vote of no confidence. The FAA has opened another 737 Max investigation based on reports on the FAA whistleblower hotline:

“A source familiar with the matter says the hotline submissions involve current and former Boeing employees describing issues related to the angle of attack sensor — a vane that measures the plane’s angle in the air — and the anti-stall system called MCAS, which is unique to Boeing’s newest plane.”

Reuters says:

“American Airlines pilots have warned that Boeing’s draft training proposals for the MAX do not go far enough to address their concerns, according to written comments submitted to the FAA.”

Stock buybacks like Boeing’s were once illegal because they are a type of stock market manipulation.

But in 1982, then President Reagan wanted to do his banker buddies a favor. So his Securities and Exchange Commission passed rule 10b-18, which created a legal process for share buybacks. That opened the floodgates for companies to start repurchasing their stock en masse.

Is it too much to ask that the Boeing CEO be asked to resign, even if he did kill a lot of people?

After all, wasn’t he only trying to maximize shareholder value?

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 18, 2019

The Daily Escape:

View from Angel’s Landing, Zion NP – 2019 photo by ducc517

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) says that she favors “capitalism with serious rules.” David Leonhardt wrote in Sunday’s NYT:

Her platform aims to reform American capitalism so that it once again works well for most American families. The recent tradition in Democratic politics has been different. It has been largely to accept that big companies are going to get bigger and do everything they can to hold down workers’ pay. The government will then try to improve things through income taxes and benefit programs.

Warren is trying to treat not just the symptoms of inequality, but the underlying disease. Warren also called for an annual wealth tax, for people with assets greater than $50 million. She has proposed a universal child-care and pre-K program. She favors tougher guidelines on future mergers, and also a breakup of the giant tech companies (Google, Facebook) that resemble monopolies.

Of the current crop of Democrats, she’s the reform capitalism candidate. But one idea that Warren hasn’t espoused is the Financial Transactions Tax, (FTT). Wrongo first wrote about a FTT in March 2013.

Sen. Brian Schatz, (D-HI) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced a tax of one-tenth-of-one-percent, or 10 basis points (100 basis points equals 1 percentage point), on securities trades, including stocks, bonds, and derivatives. The CBO estimates that the FTT would raise $777 billion over 10 years. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are co-sponsors of the bill.

For the math-challenged, 10 basis points on a $1,000 trade equals one dollar. Jared Bernstein says:

FTTs exist in various countries, including the UK and France, with Germany considering the tax (also, Brazil, India, South Korea, and Argentina). The UK is a particularly germane example, where an FTT has long co-existed with London’s vibrant, global financial market.

More from Bernstein: (brackets by Wrongo)

Because the value of the stock holdings is highly skewed toward the wealthy, the FTT is highly progressive: The TPC [Tax Policy Center] estimates that 40% of the cost of the tax falls on the top 1% (which makes sense as they hold about 40% of the value of the stock market and 40% of national wealth).

Vox also reports that an FTT would mostly affect wealthy Americans, because an estimated 84% of the value of stocks is owned by the wealthiest 10% of households. Schatz isn’t the first Democrat to suggest an FTT, Bernie Sanders ran on a similar idea in the 2016 Democratic primary. He pitched it as a way to pay for free college.

Globally, there is plenty of experience with FTTs. In the UK, a 0.5% “stamp tax” is charged when someone buys shares on the stock market, and the UK market is fine. France in 2012 introduced a tax on financial transactions, and a study from the European Commission found that trading volumes declined slightly, but share prices and volatility weren’t meaningfully changed. France and Germany have pushed for a European Union-wide FTT.

Opponents include the high-frequency traders, who note that even a small FTT could upend their extremely low margin business model. Although a dollar on a $1,000 trade doesn’t sound like much, if the industry is making 4 billion trades a day, it can add up.

Time to wake up and support an FTT, America. Sens Warren and Sanders support this idea, and you should too. Those who think that the government should use the tax code to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead, and that we should do more to ensure the well-being of our citizens aren’t socialists.

If that makes us socialists, then Eisenhower, who presided over a 90% top tax bracket, was also a socialist.

To help you wake up, here’s Steely Dan with “Any World That I’m Welcome To from their 1975 album “Kay Lied”. This tune gives you the benefit of hearing the late, great, Hal Blaine on drums. Blaine may have been the most recorded drummer in pop music history. From the late 50s through the mid-70s, Blaine did sessions with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Mamas and the Papas, and The Grass Roots.

The famously picky Steely Dan only used Blaine for this one tune:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – November 4, 2018

Truthout reports:

Wall Street donors have been lavishing the Democrats in the Senate with far more money than their GOP colleagues. The top six recipients (and nine of the top 10) of Wall Street money in 2018 among senators are Democrats. Of the top 20 Senate candidates to receive donations from Wall Street this cycle, 17 are Democrats, up from six in the last midterm in 2014…

Here are the top 12 recipients of Wall Street money. Eleven are Democrats:

Screen shot from Center for Responsive Politics

Why is Wall Street supporting these Dems? Seventeen Democrats helped repeal portions of the Obama-era Dodd-Frank legislation by voting with Republicans on the Dodd-Frank repeal. Nine Democrats also crossed party lines to appoint Goldman Sachs bailout attorney Jay Clayton to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. 37 Democratic Senators opposed his confirmation.

This is despite Pew saying in a May 2018 poll that two-thirds of Americans support laws to limit money in politics. Truthout says that for this mid-term, Wall Street has donated nearly $43 million to Senate Democrats, compared with only $19 million for Republicans, a departure from typical election years.

The Democrats’ dependence on Wall Street money is not new. In fact, President Obama raised more money from finance than any candidate in history in his first presidential campaign. Even though polling shows deep distrust over Wall Street, most politicians don’t seem to care.

Will taking Wall Street money be worth it? Will McCaskill, Tester and Heitkamp hold on? If voters really want this to change, they’ll have to stop electing politicians who represent Wall Street. On to cartoons:

Will Tuesday bring nightmares?

Tuesday’s choice:

Shouldn’t we be more worried about the gerrymandering, the crooked voting machines, the $ billions in corporate money, and the slander and attack ads?

Trump’s parade:

And a yoga class. The home of the brave has become the fortress of fear:

Keeping out the criminals:

It’s getting tougher for the GOP to keep using terrorism as their rallying call:

 

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Letter From Russia, Part III

The Daily Escape:

The Assumption Cathedral, Yaroslavl, RU. Originally built in 1210, it was  blown up by the Soviets in 1937 as part of their anti-religion policy. This new cathedral was constructed in 2010 on the same spot. In front is an eternal flame memorializing the soldiers and the workers of WWII.

Wrongo and Ms. Right spent the day in Yaroslavl, Russia. It’s a mid-sized town of about 600k residents, and an important port on the Volga River. The Volga is more than 2,000 miles long, tying the western Russian cities together. Yaroslavl is an ancient city, founded in 1010.

In Yaroslavl, we learned two interesting facts about Russian towns. Any town of size has a fortress that includes a church. In Russia, that space is called a “Kremlin”. Second, despite the collapse of the the Soviet Union, statues of the heroes of the revolution were not taken down. The idea is that young people should understand their history, both the good and the bad. Major streets have kept their revolutionary names as well.

Maybe there is a lesson in that for America.

In visiting both tiny towns and large cities, it quickly becomes evident that the peoples of Russia have suffered immensely over the centuries. They endured long periods of starvation, and their losses in blood and treasure at the hands of both their enemies and their rulers were truly extraordinary:

  • As many as 17 million died under Stalin in the Gulags. At their high point, there were thousands of Gulags across the Soviet Union.
  • In WWII, during the war with Germany, Russia lost 27 million people.
  • During the 400 years of serfdom, millions of serfs died during forced labor. They built the palaces, roads and waterways that remain in use today between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

If history teaches us just one thing about Russia, it is that its people know suffering. They have survived, and in Wrongo’s brief visit, appear to have thrived. Stores are full of product, markets are busy with the purchase of fresh vegetables, meats and fish. New cars are on the streets, theaters are open, and everything looks very clean.

How have a people who have endured so much suffering, succeeded in the modern world? How were they not irretrievably damaged by their multiple tragedies?

How are they so resilient?

Perhaps their legendary winters forge a determination to do whatever is necessary to survive a long, hard fight with limited resources. Perhaps Russia’s long history of invasion and occupation by hostile powers has played a role: Russians have been invaded by the Mongols, the Turks, the Poles, the Swedes, the Germans and the French. Their story is ultimately one of resilience despite tremendous loss of life, repeated destruction of infrastructure, and against long odds.

Another thing is that the people seem to have a profound and deep feeling for their homeland, Mother Russia. That seems to be true, regardless of who is in control in the Kremlin, or which Tsar was in charge at the time.

So they fought and died for the motherland, regardless of who was leading them.

Compare that with America’s resilience. How resilient are we, in the 21st Century? We have never faced invasion, but we have faced attack. On our homeland, we fought a seven-year revolution, and a bloody civil war. We’ve faced natural disasters.

After 9/11, we overreacted to the threat of Islamic extremists by weakening our First Amendment rights with the Patriot Act. We launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, we didn’t come together as a nation. In fact, 9/11 threw gasoline on the fire of America’s already factionalized politics.

When Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor in 1941, we came together as a people. There were a few who said we shouldn’t go to war, but the vast majority of our people got behind a global war against fascism. We sent our fathers, brothers and husbands off to war. Women worked in the factories for the war effort. Some were on the front lines with the troops. We rationed butter and sugar.

Our people knew hardship, and pulled together in common cause.

The question is: Will today’s America still pull together in common cause? Do we have the strength of character, the grit, to fight for something larger than ourselves? Could we again sacrifice for what we believe to be the right thing?

Our response to the Great Recession of 2008 showed us that in an American financial crisis, it’s every person for themselves, unless that citizen happens to be a financial institution.

When you think about it, do you still love Lady Liberty enough to fight for her?

To send your kids to fight for her?

And, do you think that we love her as much as Russians seem to love Mother Russia?

 

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Monday Wake Up Call – August 13, 2018

(Wrongo will be taking the next few days off. He has blog fatigue, and also needs to work on some deferred maintenance here on the fields of Wrong. He’ll be back later this week, unless events require him to jump back in sooner.)

The Daily Escape:

Abandoned house, Wasco, OR – 2018 photo by Shaun Peterson.

We wake up today to Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece’s, review of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World” by Adam Tooze posted in The Guardian. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University in NYC.

This isn’t a review of Tooze’s book, which sounds fascinating. Rather, it’s a meditation on one of Varoufakis’s ideas in his review of the book. Varoufakis says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!

Tooze focuses on the causes of the Great Recession in 2008, and the implications for our 10-year long economic recovery. He observes that neoliberalism’s mantra about markets had to be shelved to save the US economy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Whereas since the 1970s the incessant mantra of the spokespeople of the financial industry had been free markets and light touch regulation, what they were now demanding was the mobilization of all of the resources of the state to save society’s financial infrastructure from a threat of systemic implosion, a threat they likened to a military emergency.

We have no idea where the current aporia will take us, particularly since this “moment” has already lasted 10 years, and the hard-won economic progress may be easily reversed. Varoufakis continues:

Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism.

We are clearly at a point of intense bewilderment. What direction is correct for our economy and our society? The concept of aporia may explain why no real solutions have emerged in the past 10 years.

Tooze thinks that the world economy today is at a similar point to where it was in 1914. That is, we’re headed to a global war based on the competition of the advanced economies for resources (this time, it’s markets, water and energy), while the Middle East is at war, competing to determine which variant of Islam will be transcendent.

Varoufakis thinks we are more likely to be where we were in 1930, just after the crash. Since 2008, like back then, income inequality has continued to grow, and we have a potential fascist movement in the wings. Varoufakis asks if today’s politicians have the vision, or the ability, to corral corporatist power on one side, and the emerging nationalist movement on the other.

We’re into the post-2008 world, one in which the owners of society, the largest corporations along with the international capitalists, portray austerity as our only answer. They stress the need for continued globalization and the upward transfer of wealth via tax cuts as the best chance to survive and prosper after the 2008 crash.

This is global capitalism at work: Continuing to extract all the wealth that it can in every economy with a compliant government.

People are getting near a breaking point. They want a better life, and they want to regain political control. The challenge for capitalists and their politicians is: Can they continue to distract the base, keeping them compliant with corporatism and the financialization of our capital markets?

Capitalism ought to fear nationalism, because a nationalist movement could easily rally the poor and the middle class against Wall Street and corporate America. But, for the moment, capitalism seems to be stirring the nationalist pot. To what end?

Whether a fight against Wall Street and Corporatism will emerge, whether it will evolve into a fascist-style rallying cry remains to be seen.

We’re too early in this iteration of aporia to know or to see where we are going clearly. We need an alternative to today’s global capitalism because the track we’re on could easily turn the world into a gigantic Easter Island-like landscape.

What alternative to today’s capitalism (if any) will develop? Will ordinary people have some say in the alternative?

Stay tuned.

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Send Establishment Democrats to the Bench

The Daily Escape:

City Hall Subway Station, NYC – via @themindcircle

We live in disorienting times. Disorienting in that our society, and our values, are in motion. We are no longer anchored by social mores, beliefs, or any shared vision of the future. Our politics are evolving as well. We can’t simply blame Trump, or those who elected him for taking us to this scary place. The bipartisan consensus that’s ruled this country since the 1940s — neoliberal domestic policy, and neoconservative foreign policy ─ no longer produces the same results for our citizens that it has produced since the Eisenhower era.

Establishment Democrats bear some of the blame. And looking forward to the mid-terms and beyond, they have failed to do the simplest work — forming a worldview, then persuading others about their vision, and the steps to achieve it.

We can also blame establishment Republicans, but they have collapsed. The new right is much farther right, more authoritarian, and whiter. And who would have thought they would be the pro-Russia, anti-FBI, anti-DOJ, and (maybe not a complete surprise), the pro-police state party?

History shows that when society turns like this, the establishment parties can disappear, as did the Federalists and the Whig parties. And when one party changes, the other must as well. After Lincoln, neither the Republicans, nor the Democrats, were the same parties.

Perhaps it’s time to take these words in the Constitution to heart:

…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…

Therefore, if the Dems are to win back the hearts and minds of the people, regardless of what the banks and corporations want to do, Government must be the advocate for the People.

That requires that our political parties confront the banks, corporations, military contractors, and the other oversized creatures that feed at the government trough.

Is that something that the establishment Democrats (Wrongo likes calling them the “Caviar Dems”) are willing to do? They used to champion social and economic justice, but not so much today. Today, they follow the same neo-liberal economic policies that Republicans champion.

And with few exceptions, they are as neo-conservative on foreign policy as any Republican.

Republicans have undergone a different mutation. They celebrate the globalized economy, and support the domestic gig economy as a means of growing corporate profits. They still celebrate Christian values, so controlling Supreme Court appointments is their great achievement, along with ruinous tax cuts.

America’s corporate tax revenues are going down, while social and infrastructure costs keep rising. So far, under both parties, government has continued to spend money it doesn’t have. It borrows, and pretends that everything is under control.

Now, after 10 years of economic expansion, we continue to pile up deficits. What’s going to happen in the next recession? The truth is, we are poorer, and weaker, as a country than we think. But few politicians are willing to help us face reality.

We see both Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic nominee for Congress in NY, describe themselves as socialists. But, in fact, that’s not what they are. Merriam-Webster defines socialism as:

Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective, or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.

Obviously, they hope to take over the corporate-friendly establishment Democratic Party, but if you call yourself a socialist, then, at a minimum, you need to advocate for government ownership of the means of production, i.e., industry. You’re only a socialist to the extent that you advocate that.

Will Bernie or Alexandria nationalize General Motors, Apple, or ExxonMobil? No.

Even advocating for “Medicare for all,” isn’t socialism. Neither Medicare, nor other single-payer programs like Medicaid, are really socialized medicine. No one is advocating for an actual government takeover of hospitals, or turning doctors into government employees. If they really wanted socialized medicine, their cry would be “VA for all,” not “Medicare for all.”

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are social democrats. In a social democracy, individuals and corporations continue to own the capital and the means of production. Wealth remains produced privately.

But taxation, government spending, and regulation of the private sector are much more muscular under social democracy than is the case under today’s neo-liberal economic system.

Joel Pett has a great illustration of the difference between Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez and Republicans:

It’s time for the Dems to change direction. Carry the “Medicare for all” banner proudly. Work to end income inequality. Work to add jobs for the middle class.

Send the establishment Democrats to the bench.

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Saturday Soother – April 21, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Bluebells in Hallerbos, Belgium – April 2018 photo by shinbaninja. Bluebells bloom only for about 10 days.

Welcome to the weekend. Let’s take a detour from the continuous drip, drip, drip, of Comey, Stormy, Syria, Cohen, Russia, and North Korea. Instead, take a look at an example of GOP maliciousness that passed under the radar, like a cruise missile, but aimed at American consumers.

The NYT’s Thursday business section reported about Senate Republicans passing a piece of legislation that will eviscerate a little bit more of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (Bureau) supervision in the financial sector: (emphasis, brackets and link by Wrongo)

The Senate voted on Wednesday to overturn an Obama-era rule that restricted automobile lenders from discriminating against minorities by charging them higher fees for car loans, in the latest attempt by Republican lawmakers to roll back financial regulations.

Republican lawmakers, along with one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, seized on the Congressional Review Act to overturn guidance issued in 2013 by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The 1996 law [Congressional Review Act] gives Congress the power to nullify rules formulated by government agencies but has primarily been used to void recently enacted rules.

After the Government Accountability Office determined late last year that the consumer bureau’s 2013 guidance on auto lending was technically a rule that could be rolled back, Republicans, led by Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA), targeted it for rescission by using the Congressional Review Act. The House is expected to follow suit and also use the Congressional Review Act to void the guidance.

Republicans have been against the Bureau, which was established under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law since it was passed. Trump’s pick to lead the agency, at least on an interim basis, Mick Mulvaney, has largely frozen its rule-making and enforcement.

Democrats and consumer watchdogs criticized the Senate’s move. Rion Dennis of Americans for Financial Reform, said:

By voting to roll back the CFPB’s work, senators have emboldened banks and finance companies to engage in racial discrimination by charging millions of people of color more for a car loan than is justified….Lawmakers have also opened the door to challenging longstanding agency actions that are crucial to protecting workers, consumers, civil rights, the environment and the economy.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT) warned that rescinding the Bureau’s guidance would lead to a flood of unfair, predatory lending:

This truly repugnant resolution ignores the unacceptable, undeniable truth that consumers’ interest rates are regularly marked up based on their race or ethnicity — a disgusting practice that continues to run rampant across the country…

A 2011 report from the Center for Responsible Lending analyzed loan level data and found that African-Americans and Latinos were receiving higher numbers of interest rate markups on their car loans than white consumers. The Bureau issued guidance in 2013 urging auto lenders to curb discriminatory lending practices and used that guidance to justify lawsuits that they brought against auto finance companies.

The Department of Justice can still bring lawsuits against auto lenders for discriminatory practices, even if the guidance is nullified. But legal experts say the government could be less successful in bringing such cases without the guidance from a government agency saying the practices are viewed as improper.

Why are Republicans so mean-spirited? This is just gratuitous maliciousness towards African-Americans and other people of color. Who benefits, except a few huge GOP donors in the financial services industry?

This is another example of why TURNOUT in November is all that we have left to save the Republic.

No way to spin it, we’ve had another tough week, so it’s time for a Saturday Soother. Let’s start by brewing a yuuge cup of Sumatra Tano Batak ($21/12 oz.). The beans come from the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and are valued for their complex earth and fruit notes. That comes from using unorthodox fruit removal and drying practices called “wet-hulling.” Then the beans are roasted by PT’s Coffee in Topeka, Kansas. According to them, drinking it invokes the experience of eating cherries in a flower garden next to a patch of fresh, fragrant, just-turned earth.

Sounds like it could be the Fields of Wrong on a warm April day.

Now settle back in a comfy chair and listen to the most underappreciated jazz singer, Johnny Hartman. He’s Wrongo’s favorite of that era. Here he is singing “I’ll Remember April” from his 1955 album, “Songs from the Heart”. It was Hartman’s debut album:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Bankers Gotta Bank

The Daily Escape:

Drake Hooded Mergansers with a female Common Merganser tagging along. Housatonic River, Litchfield County CT – January 9, 2018 photo by JH Clery

You missed it. During the Christmas holiday week, the Trump Administration published a notice in the federal register announcing that it would waive the outstanding criminal sanctions against some of the world’s largest banks: Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays, UBS and Deutsche Bank.

The banks were facing sanctions stemming from a variety of wrongdoing, including the trillions’ worth of fraud in the LIBOR scandal, and Deutsche Bank’s role in laundering $10B for Russian oligarchs.

The LIBOR fraud effected every interest rate in the world.

Four of the banks receiving waivers, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays and UBS, received temporary waivers from the Obama administration late in 2016 for one year. Now, the Trump administration has offered five-year waivers to Citigroup, JPMorgan and Barclays, and three-year waivers to UBS and Deutsche Bank.

By laws that protect retirement savings, financial firms with affiliates convicted of violating securities statutes are barred from the lucrative business of managing those savings. But, a special exemption will allow these banks to keep their status as “qualified professional asset managers”.

It makes you wonder what a bank has to do to get punished, or for a bank president to go to jail, when laundering money for drug dealers and manipulating global interest rates aren’t serious enough crimes. We’ve entered a period of extreme social stratification in this country, one that is similar to India’s: The bankers and politicians are the Brahmins and the rest of us are the untouchables.

These interactions with the Trump administration and the federal government are transpiring as Deutsche remains a key creditor for Donald Trump’s businesses. From David Sirota:

Donald Trump owes the German bank at least $130 million in loans, according to the president’s most recent financial disclosure form. Sources have told the Financial Times the total amount of money Trump owes Deutsche is likely around $300 million. The president’s relationship with the bank dates back to the late 1990s, when it was the one major Wall Street bank willing to extend him credit after a series of bankruptcies. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported Trump and his companies have received at least $2.5 billion in loans from Deutsche Bank and co-lenders since 1998.

In the year leading up to the new waiver for Deutsche Bank, Trump’s financial relationship with the firm prompted allegations of a conflict of interest. The bank also faced Justice Department scrutiny by five separate government-appointed independent monitors.

Meanwhile, the NYT recently reported that federal prosecutors subpoenaed Deutsche for:

Bank records about entities associated with the family company of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Not enough for you? The just-appointed number two in the DOJ’s office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is Robert Khuzami, formerly director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division. And before that, he was Deutsche Bank’s General Counsel.

Nothing to see here. Conflicts of interest are all over this case. Trump’s waiver is a clear conflict of interest. And both his son-in-law Jared and the new US Attorney have more than incidental relationships with Deutsche.

First Obama went easy on the banksters, and now, so does Kaiser Tweeto.

Republicans are happy to see Der Trump helping the banking industry and not pursuing them. And thanks to President Clinton, they no longer suffer under the restrictions of the Glass/Steagall act.

But, what about the conflicts of interest?

Who in this rogue’s gallery is working for us?

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Saturday Soother – July 8, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Marble Caves, Patagonia – photo by Clane Gessel

Any idea which investor-types are the largest buyers of US stocks? It is the corporations themselves, buying back their own stock. They are followed by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). Here is a graphic:

From Bloomberg:

The entities shoveling more money into the stock market than any other this year, as has been the case for the past few years, remain corporations. Buybacks are on pace to reach nearly $550 billion, or $150 billion more than ETFs.

None of that cash is going into new markets, new products, R & D, or innovation. The buyback is equivalent to the CEO saying: “I’ve got no idea what we should be doing to improve profits or market share”.  Arne Alsin at Forbes said this:

For most of the 20th century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the SEC, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the C-Suite tool shed. And it’s obvious why Wall Street loves them: Buying back company stock can inflate a company’s share price and boost its earnings per share — metrics that often guide lucrative executive bonuses.

Alsin suggests that buybacks are big because we’re in a period of technological disruption. New industries like cloud computing, electric cars, and streaming video are rapidly changing the world. But older companies are slow to adapt, and rather than investing in R & D (or simply holding onto cash) the corporate boards of legacy businesses are bolstering stock prices the only way they know how: buying back their stock.

Alsin offers Hewlett-Packard as an example:

In the last decade, the company has invested $47 billion in stock buybacks — which is nearly double the company’s current market capitalization. That risk is senseless. HP knows they are facing existential threats from upstart competitors, but instead of paying out dividends or letting cash accrue on the balance sheet, HP is choosing the riskiest option.

Buybacks are the result of several converging forces: pressure from activist shareholders; executive compensation programs that tie pay to per-share earnings and share prices that buybacks can boost; increased global competition; and fear of making bets on products and services that may not pay off.

This financialization of non-financial firms increasingly crowds out other types of investment, to the detriment of lower level employees, whose jobs are less secure. It can hurt long-term investors, who hold these stocks in their 401(k)s and pension plans.

Serving customers, creating innovative new products, employing workers, and taking care of the environment are not the objectives of these firms.

So think carefully about the companies you invest in, or buy from.

Enough worrying for this week! Time to unstress. Grab a cuppa Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Company’sDarkest Roast”, $11.25/lb. (It is available in decaf), settle into your favorite chair, and listen to “Ashokan Farewell” performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band, live in the Folk Alley studio at WKSU 89.7 FM. WKSU is Kent State’s college radio station:

Wrongo supports Folk Alley, and recommends that everyone should. Ungar composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982. It is written in the style of a Scottish lament. Ungar sometimes introduces it as:

A Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.

Ungar says that Ken Burns heard the song in 1984, and asked to use it in his (then) upcoming PBS series, “The Civil War”. The original version and a few other versions are heard 25 times in the show, for a surprising total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds of the 11-hour series. For the non-math majors, that is 9% of the show!

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Audit The Federal Reserve?

Well, it should be no surprise that the Federal Reserve is already audited, but Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) re-introduced an “Audit the Fed” bill in the House on Wednesday, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced companion legislation in the US Senate. This has been a pet idea of Republicans for years. The GOP’s reasoning was summed up by Rep. Massie:

Behind closed doors, the Fed crafts monetary policy that will continue to devalue our currency, slow economic growth, and make life harder for the poor and middle class…

Mr. Massie apparently does not know that the US dollar is among the strongest currencies in international markets. Otherwise, he wouldn’t say that the Fed is debasing our currency. This guy is the exact reason why Congress’ role in directing the Fed should not be enlarged. Some suggest the bill is inaccurately named, but as the WSJ says:

Fed officials meet several times a year to decide what to do with short-term interest rates and how to influence them—actions that affect the borrowing costs of households, businesses and investors across the country. The “Audit the Fed” measures would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine those decisions.

And then report their findings to various Congressional committees. The GAO already has some Fed oversight, but the bill would repeal restrictions on their oversight. The most important restriction blocks the GAO from reviewing:

Deliberations, decisions, or actions on monetary policy matters, [as well as] discussion or communication among or between members of the Board and officers and employees related to such deliberations.

The repeal of these existing restrictions would allow the GAO to view all materials and transcripts related to meetings of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the entity that sets US interest rates. It would require the GAO, at the request of Congress, to provide recommendations on monetary policy, including the FOMC’s interest-rate decisions, to Congress.

This would make meeting-by-meeting monetary policy decisions subject to Congressional review and, potentially, Congressional pressure. Judging by Mr. Massie’s level of knowledge about central banking, it would be highly likely that political pressure and rabble-rousing would be unavoidable.

The Fed’s financial statements are already audited in the usual sense by the government’s Inspector General (IG) and by Deloitte, a world-class independent accounting firm. The resulting financial reports are available to the public online. Every security owned by the Fed, including its unique identifying CUSIP number, is also available online.

The GAO reviews the Fed’s activities at the request of Congress, and has wide latitude to review Fed operations. For example, the Dodd-Frank Act required the GAO to conduct reviews of the Fed’s emergency lending programs during the 2008 crisis, along with the Fed’s governance structure.  Since the financial crisis, the GAO has done some 70 reviews of aspects of Fed operations. That’s about 10 reviews a year since the end of the crisis.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who joined with Sen. Paul to introduce the “Audit the Fed” legislation in the Senate, speaks for many of the Right Wing political class when he says, “the Fed is a group of unaccountable, unelected philosopher kings making decisions that affect every American”.

The bill’s proponents argue that “transparency” is lacking, and this will be cured with more Congressional oversight. Or, by more finger-pointing by certain gerrymandered GOP lifers talking about how the FOMC decisions are based on incorrect assumptions and broken models. There will probably be about as much value-added oversight as the various Benghazi committees exercised over the State Department.

In 2017 we’re having the same debates about the role of the Federal Reserve Bank that America had in the early 1900s prior to the Federal Reserve Act’s passage in 1913. We still hear voices calling for either more or less restrictive monetary policy, for more or less regulation, and even for the Fed to be abolished.

These are the same issues that Sen. Nelson Aldrich, banker Paul Warburg and their colleagues debated a hundred years ago. Back then, the debate was highly politicized, since there was widespread populist mistrust of Wall Street and of the concept of a centralized federal banking authority. Sound familiar?

So, time to let the GOP politicize the Fed. Time to let the Congress get its hands on monetary policy, even though they have proven to have zero ability to handle fiscal policy. Consider Congress’s failure to pass budgets, and their willingness to let the US government default on its debt.

Shouldn’t we keep the Fed’s deliberations free from grandstanding politicians playing to a conspiracy hungry constituency?

Isn’t this supposed to be the Congress that believed in less government?

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