Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I Must Be Dreaming

This is far too easy. Way too inviting. Someone pinch me, please. No wait, it's real? Golly, how great is this, I get to write a post about two things I love, NFL football and the joke that is Rush Limbaugh. Cool. Word is the aforementioned sultan of slime, er, pill-popping propagandist, uh, that leader of the lost is joining forces with Dave Checketts, owner of the NHL's St. Louis Blues, to buy the St. Louis Rams of the NFL. A man who has made his living from sowing the seeds of hatred and trumpeting the false propaganda of the right wants to own an NFL franchise. Oh, the sweet delicious irony of it all, where to start?!

He wants to buy the St. Louis Rams, yes the Rams who have lost 15 straight games. At this moment they may be the worst team I've ever seen play, and I remember the first year of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although admittedly, vaguely. BTW those same Bucs along with the Rams, Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs are the only remaining teams without a victory so far this year at 0 and 5. Meanwhile, the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings are at 5 and 0 and along with the New Orleans Saints at 4 and 0, are the last undefeated teams standing.

He wants to buy an entertainment business in a city where he hates, distrusts, reviles and despises over half the population. 51.3% of the population of St. Louis is black. Not to mention the fact that the majority of the assets (players) employed by the team are black. I thought Rush viewed NFL football today as "a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons". Players have already come out to say they would never play for a Rush-owned team. I don't care if Rush claims to be the least racist talk show host, or if some of the quotes attributed to him may be false (try these for starters, then here, or here), there is no denying that he engages in race baiting. It's an tried and true tactic, one that he seems to be perfecting in his anti-Obama campaign. From hoping his president fails to blaming Obama for black kids beating up white kids on buses to stirring up fears of a hidden socialist agenda, it plays on people's fears and it's dangerous.

Despite being so vehemently opposed to Obama's socialist plan, Rush wants to do business in a socialist market. Yes the NFL is socialist, they share about two-thirds of revenues (mostly TV rights) equally among the 32 teams. You see, the NFL understands that capitalism is a beast that in many cases needs to be tethered in order to level the playing field to allow the market to function properly. In order to avoid a world where the powerful elite are allowed to set the rules in order to become even more powerful, the league prefers to see parity amongst the teams, allowing each an opportunity to be successful and thus creating an exciting, competitive atmosphere that attracts a diverse fan base. The analogy this seems to have with the US economy is almost uncanny; if only Reagan (or at least his puppet-masters) and his snake-oil salesmen had known that some controls can actually make for a better product, the entire world would be a much better place today.

Rush can supply all the pain killers the team needs while blaming the users for destroying the country.

He'd also become the only league owner to weigh more than the average of his offensive line.

Oh, I agree with Al Sharpton for once.

Well, actually, on second thought, I don't agree with Reverend Al on much. Sharpton's argument seems to rest on the need for the NFL to hold up to 'standards'. Um, guess he's missed out on what the NFL 'standards' are of late. I mean what kinda crazy juice does Al drink?

A franchise sale would have to be approved by 24 league owners, something that's never going to happen. Think about it, if you owned anything worth over a billion dollars, would you allow anything that could lessen it's value get anywhere near it? Colts owner Jim Irsay came out with this gem, "I myself couldn’t even think of voting for him".

His misogynist attitude will really work well with the NFL's attempt at wooing female fans. Witness the success the league seems to have had promoting Breast Cancer Awareness Month during week 4. I wonder what Rush would have to say about women even watching football, and god forbid they're ugly?

Perhaps the biggest reason Limbaugh's bid will be rejected was his ill-fated short-lived affiliation with the NFL in 2003. He was ultimately forced to resign following comments he made about Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb on Sunday NFL Countdown that included, "I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve". At the time, the Eagles had a 36-22 record in games which McNabb had started and he has gone on to lead his team to 5 NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. As usual, Rush's comments were simply racist and he was only trying to stir up controversy. The irony here is that when Limbaugh's bid gets rejected, he'll play the victim card to the hilt. I can already hear his complaints of being victimized by the liberal media. Yet there he was on his show a couple of years back bemoaning the fact that he had turned McNabb into a victim. You reap what you sow Rush, eat it.

The bottom line is the NFL is too smart to let Limbaugh into it's exclusive club. The ultimate irony is that the other owners may agree with 99% or what Rush spews forth, but will reject his application for purely capitalistic reasons. His admittance to the club would bring down the value of the assets of the entire league, he would be toxic debt that would drag down everything around it. Huh, sounds familiar for some reason.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Isn't life great when you've got the do-over? No matter what goes wrong, what mistake you make, how bad you lose the game, you can always just take a mulligan and tee off again. Unfortunately life doesn't work like that for most of us, but for the Treaty of Lisbon and the EU that's exactly what they did and they took full advantage, knocking they're second drive from the tee right down the middle of the fairway. Isn't it comforting to know that the EU has chosen to go the Zimbabwe route of dealing with election results they don't like.

What a difference 16 months makes. It took that long for the Irish to completely change their minds about the Treaty of Lisbon, a treaty designed to further integrate Europe. Then, 46.6% of Irish voted "Yes" and 53.4% "No"; Saturday, 67.1% of Irish voters approved it, while 32.9% voted "No" - that's more than 2 to 1 in favour. Just look at the swing in those numbers in only 16 months. That's more than just a few people who changed their minds on something a little more important than switching from Coke to Pepsi. Hmmm, I wonder what it could be that made so many voters flip-flop? Was it the fear that they would give away more of their national identities, ceding ever greater control to a more integrated Europe? Or lose the ability to set their own taxes, along with their antiabortion laws and the ability to remain militarily neutral while still retaining their seat on the European Commission? Well, Ireland was given "guarantees" that the treaty wouldn't affect any of these areas, but none have actually been attached to the treaty - just ask Angela Merkel if she thinks the EU will have a standing army. No, the fact is, in today's Ireland, these are all minor worries. The reason the 'Yes' side of the campaign were able to recruit the help of prominent businesses like Intel and Ryanair as well as celebrities such as U2 guitarist The Edge and the poet Seamus Heaney to their side is good old fashioned money.

Probably no country has benefited more economically from the EU than Ireland. Over the quarter of a century since Ireland joined what was then the European Community in 1973 they have witnessed an economic boom that has seen peat bogs and grazing pastures give way to gleaming semiconductor plants and suburbs full of McMansions. While much of the world still holds onto the image of rural Ireland, much of the population has traded in their Guinness pints for Starbucks paper cups (27 stores in Dublin alone!) and stories of the potato famine for talk of real estate prices. Oh, but how quickly things can change. One mighty world economic crisis and the economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger turned into a meltdown.

To be fair, Ireland did achieve financial success in a remarkably short time. In retrospect, it is easy to point out the policy errors that positioned her economy for a precipitous fall, but who wants to be the doomsayer in the middle of a party? Ireland slashed spending in areas such as health expenditures, education, agricultural spending, roads and housing, and the military, while abolishing agencies such as the National Social Services Board, the Health Education Bureau, and regional development organizations. By 1993, government non-interest spending declined to 41 percent of GNP, down from a high of 55 percent of GNP in 1985. Subsequently, it significantly lowered corporate tax rates to 12.5 percent, at a time when the lowest corporate rates in Europe were 30 percent and U.S. rates stood at 35 percent. Since 2004, Ireland also has offered a 20 percent tax credit on research and development. In short, as Paul Krugman put it, Ireland became "just like us (the US), only more so." At the height of the boom in 2006, Ireland was building more homes per head than anywhere else in the world. Why not? Over 10 years, property prices increased five-fold. The Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

Of course, we all know how this story ends. An economy that had become so dependent on construction and banking was doomed to fall. At the time of the first vote, a soft landing at worst was still envisioned, but the bottom fell out. It is thought that the Irish economy will suffer the biggest contraction in the industrialized world since the Great Depression, "something in the order of about 12 or 15 percent". Much like the rest of the world, the Irish government found itself having to take responsibility for the mistakes of private bankers. Ireland again needed the EU as she offered government guarantees on bank liabilities that put tax payers on the hook for potential losses of more than twice the countries GDP, a figure that would be equivalent to $30 trillion for the United States. "Without the steadfast support of the European Central Bank, our financial system would have collapsed," said the finance minister, Brian Lenihan. Without the EU, Ireland would've became another Iceland as they are living well beyond their means, borrowing almost €400 million a week. The Irish voter quickly became repentant, and the 'Yes' vote was a transparent, "sorry sir, we'll fall back into line".

But what is this Treaty of Lisbon really? No one seems to know. MSM articles quickly gloss over it by saying it is aimed at "streamlining decision-making in the 27-nation bloc". Once France and the Netherlands shot down the EU constitution in spring of 2005, EU lawyers went right to work figuring out how to get around those pesky voters. Instead of replacing all earlier EU treaties constitution style, the Lisbon Treaty simply amends the Treaty on the European Union (Maastricht) and the Treaty Establishing the European Community (Rome). Additionally they dropped all references to EU symbols such as the flag, the anthem and the motto, even though in practice these things will continue to exist. Quirky laws allowed every other nation besides Ireland (whose supreme court ruled all major amendments to EU treaties needed referendums in 1987) to simply pass it with a simple parliamentary vote - yes the Irish got to vote twice, everyone else not at all. The Lisbon Treaty is simply a constitution in disguise. Was the treaty necessary to advance the European agenda? Yes. Without out it there would be no hope for growth beyond Croatia and Iceland. It will also make dealing with trans-national issues such as global warming and fixing the banking system far easier. Should we be as leery as many conservative conspiracy theorist loonies in the UK? Maybe. It's hard not to notice that the treaty's biggest external manifestation will be the creation of two new posts, an EU president (which horror of horrors will be the result of back room dealing, without any formal vote and is expected to go to Tony Blair) as well as a High Representative of Foreign Affairs. And of course something called the External Action Service for the EU, with embassies around the world. Hmm, sounds a bit like the makings of a body with real supranational powers.

Perhaps the real answer lies somewhere in between, however it still may be a moot point in the end. See, Poland and the Czech Republic have yet to ratify the treaty which needs the support of all 27 member states. While Poland's acceptance is a mere Lech Kaczynski signature away having already been passed by the Sejm, the Czechs may drag their feet a little longer. President Vaclav Klaus, a confirmed Eurosceptic has stated that he will not sign the treaty until his country's constitutional court pronounces on its validity. He loves that he's controlling the destiny of 500 million people. Making things more interesting is the situation in the UK where an election must be called by next May at the latest and David Cameron's Conservatives are well ahead in the polls, 17 points by last count. Cameron's party has promised to hold a referendum if elected and the treaty has not already been put into force and has therefore written a letter to the Czech president basically asking him to drag his feet for a few more months. Aaaah, isn't life great knowing we can just relax as our future's are being decided through backroom deals?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Rent Seeking Parasites

Editor's note: There is no editor. Much like Qaddafi's translator at the UN, the editor went mad halfway through and began screaming "I can't take it anymore!". Therefore, venturing forward into this stream of consciousness is a decision not to be taken lightly, continue at your own peril.
If your still determined to continue, just click here, move the pop-up aside, and read.

Imagine walking into a casino where you're always a winner. Every game is rigged in your favour, every dealer is not only your friend, but accomplice, and the pit bosses are all in your pocket. At first, you can't imagine your luck, so you pump a few quarters into the slots. With each pull your stake grows. Over at the blackjack table you make a couple of small bets and your cards keep adding to 21. Emboldened by your early success you walk over to the craps tables where you start to push your luck as the dice are hot. A crowd grows, the collective excitement of the screams, shouts and cheers pushes you on as if in a dream. Other players are drawn in, with piles of chips going onto the 'pass' line and the 'no pass' bar on each roll as everyone is getting into the action, betting with and against you - how do they both keep paying off? You must have been born lucky as you've wandered into no ordinary casino. Somehow you've won the lottery and wound up a big banker in today's America, a world onto it's own where thanks to the system you can't lose. All well and good for those fortunate few, but really, can it go on forever?

We're a year removed from what was nearly the biggest global financial meltdown ever, yet looking around it's hard to see any tangible proof that we're in a better position than we were then; I'd argue that things have, in fact, gotten worse. The heart of the problem lies in the Panglossian vision of the financial world that still reigns supreme despite the abyss that we stared into not so long ago. Instead of viewing the markets as a casino with risks and pitfalls that need to be controlled, we live in the best of all possible worlds where the efficient market theory asserts that financial markets always get asset prices right given the available information. Therefore the best thing corporate chieftains can do, not just for themselves but for the sake of the economy, is to maximize their stock prices. Problem is, this efficient market is far too heavily influenced by a few rent seekers (some would call them parasites, sucking the blood out of the organism while giving nothing in return, others, simply banksters). A feedback loop wherein increased wealth leads to increased influence leading to increased wealth... Eventually those in power become completely beholden to these few. Together, they have managed to dupe the entire world into believing in the market's omniscience. Witness the knee jerk reaction by large swaths of the population, many of whom are dirt poor, without health insurance, to any suggestion of trying to improve the lot of millions, as it would involve obstructing the 'free' market. In other words, finance economists believed that we should put the capital development of the nation in the hands of what Keynes had called a “casino”. What keeps the rest of us content is the illusion that we, too, will eventually be able to game the system, so long as the government doesn't interfere.

Yet interfering is exactly what the government has done over the past year, with little or no questioning of why we're supporting a broken system. To seriously question a system that promotes short term profits and corruption remains blasphemous. Fact is,
the capitalism we have is evil and it's threatening to devour itself along with the world. When a financial crisis hits most nations, investors run for the exits, the IMF swoops in, sweeps away the old banking regime and imposes usurious trading rules and financial regulation on the country. We've now seen what happens when a similar crisis hits the USA. A couple of scapegoats are allowed to fail (Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch...) while the friends of the ruling elite are saved by pumping tax payer money into them; trillions of dollars of wealth transferred from tax payers to wealthy bankers. Of course it was these bankers who made the ridiculous gambles seeking short term profits which allowed them to pay themselves huge salaries and bonuses. When the giant Ponzi scheme collapsed, no one was found responsible, worse yet, to question and regulate is seen as somehow "communist", and those guilty parties are allowed to continue on their merry way.

So, how did we get here? Historically, banking has been a risky industry having seen its share of spectacular crashes. Until the Great Depression, major crises struck about every 15 to 20 years – in 1792, 1797, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893,
1907 and 1929-33. Then the crises stopped. The last two led directly to the creation of the Federal Reserve and the New Deal. A magical machine to manufacture money out of thin air along with financial regulation such as federal deposit insurance, the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act and the separation of commercial and investment banking created a stable environment without hindering growth which was also broad based as we saw either stable or falling income inequality. Unfortunately, the seeds of moral hazard were also planted. As depositors and investors no longer had to worry about the soundness of the banks, they would be attracted to riskier institutions and higher rates of return without the fear of downside risk, causing money to flow to weak banks rather than strong. Said one opponent in 1933, “A reputation for high character [in banking] would be cheapened and recklessness would be encouraged.” Fortunately, the authors of Glass-Steagall (and the follow-on Banking Act of 1935) prepared for this threat, authorizing not only public deposit insurance but also meaningful bank regulation, designed to ensure the safety and soundness of insured banks.

All was well for almost 50 years, creating wealth but also breeding arrogance. We began to forget the lessons of the past as memories of the Depression faded and economists fell back in love with the idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets. We moved away from Keynes' vision of financial markets as a casino and replaced it with Eugene
Fama's efficient market theory in which financial markets price assets at precisely their intrinsic worth given all publicly available information. John Meynard Keynes didn't replace capitalism as many critics feared at the time, he simply fixed it. Unfortunately, the last half a century saw a revival of the neoclassical Adam Smith style belief in 'trust the market'. Your Milton Friedmans and Schumpeters of the world convinced us to start loosening the grip on the banksters. The hubristic faith in the market omniscience was embodied by Alan Greenspan, a man who believed the market could regulate itself on everything from fraud to derivative trading. At the same time the influence the banksters could exert on public policy was growing. Finance's success in the 80's coincided with the rise of the era of Washington lobbyists which lubricated the revolving door between Wall Street and government. Just looking at the myriad of connections between Goldman Sachs and political power is mind boggling. Henry Paulson, Dubya's last Treasury secretary and present secretary is a former Goldman CEO, Robert Rubin, Clinton's last Treasury secretary spent 26 years at Goldman before becoming chairman at Citigroup; John Thain, he of the $87,000 area rug for his office, spent time at Goldman before driving Merrill Lynch into the arms of Bank of America, Robert Steel, Mark Patterson, Ed Liddy, the heads of the Canadian and Italian central banks, the World Bank, the New York stock exchange, the last two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York ... you get the picture. Somehow Wall Street was able to launch a successful takeover bid of the Beltway and could now dictate its terms. Regulation needed to be eliminated in order to allow finance to continue to grow; to achieve this, in the 10-year period beginning in 1998, financial companies spent $1.7 billion on federal campaign contributions and another $3.4 billion on lobbyists. In 1997 and 1998, the years leading up to the passage of Phil Gramm's fateful act that gutted Glass-Steagall, the banking, brokerage and insurance industries spent $350 million on political contributions and lobbying. Gramm alone — then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee — collected $2.6 million in only five years.

"Human nature, in no form of it, could ever bear prosperity” - John Adams, as quoted by David Brooks in the NY Times a week ago and seven years ago - compare and contrast.

Culturally, America and her wannabes, the rest of the world, changed too. (Begin using old man voice) Back in the day, it was understood that you had to work hard to be successful. Today, that ethos has been lost as everyone and their uncle search for the next get rich scheme. Materialism has gone beyond acceptance and become the standard to which we strive. Both the public and private spheres have made their contributions as government
s sponsor lotteries, gambling which disproportionately hurts the poor while we are subjected to a 24/7 media which promotes an excessive lifestyle. The effects are plain to see; between 1950 and 1980 personal consumption was remarkably stable in the US, amounting to about 62 percent of GDP. In the next three decades, it shot upward, reaching 70 percent of GDP in 2008. During this period, debt exploded. In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income; by 2007, this figure had surged to 133 percent. By 2019 the federal government's debt will be 83% of GDP with yearly interest payments of $803 billion. By the end of the Bush presidency, one that saw over $1.3 trillion in tax cuts which mainly benefited the top 1% of earners, the poverty rate had risen to 13.2% while median household income had fallen to $50,303 from $51,295 ten years earlier, adjusted for inflation. Consumerism became more than just keeping up with the Jones', it became patriotic even while debt levels were driving risk to unsustainable levels. Yet, somehow through all this, the teabaggers and their ilk have saved their anger for a Socialist/Nazi/Communist/Alien plot to destroy the nation by trying to give health care to the masses. Immodesty has become as ubiquitous as advertising as self indulgence, self-love, self-advertisement, are not only accepted but celebrated. It would seem that Ayn Rand has truly won the day.

"When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done” - John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

Worse yet, the warning signs were all there. Since the age of deregulation we've seen Savings & Loan meltdown, the LTCM debacle, the Asian Crisis, yet we keep marching to the same drum beat. Accounting scandals, market manipulation and an internet bubble showed us how easy it is to be lured to the dark side, yet we keep dancing to the same song. Maybe it's because we've been hypnotized by the rhythm for so long we no longer have the power to stop the music. Finance and banking exist for one simple purpose, to efficiently allocate capital. So, what happens when all the capital, both human and monetary, is all tied up in finance? Profits of the financial industry as a percentage of total global profits were a mere 5% when Reagan sat in office in the early eighties; by the time of the crisis, that number had reached 30%. Wiz kids coming out of school no longer dream of working for NASA or becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer; the holy grail is now finance, to come up with a
Gaussian copula function to evaluate or even eliminate risk. And why not, they're just behaving in a logical, capitalistic way, as pay in the financial sector has risen dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007. Works intended as cautionary tales of excess such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, Barbarians at the Gate and Wall Street, have served only to increase Wall Street's mystique. 10 years ago if you'd have been walking down the main drag of my home in Poznan, Poland, Swiety Marcin, you would've been able to stop at a variety of shops. Today, you can drop by a branch of some bank and walk by empty shops squeezed out by the higher rents brought on by their well-heeled neighbours. Speak to the majority of the brightest minds entering higher education and you'll learn that most dream of a career on Wall Street. And why wouldn't they? Even after the crash, the 30,000 employees of Goldman Sachs earn an average salary of $700,000. Eight major American and European banks will pay the 141,000 employees in their investment banking units $77 billion in 2011, about $543,000 per worker.

While the financial crisis may have been good for the planet, it wiped out a lot of wealth; US households alone saw their
net worth decline by $13 trillion. There was a time when bankers had to pay a price for their mistakes; if you ran a bank, and the bank couldn’t repay depositors or other creditors, those people had the right to confiscate all your personal assets and income until you repaid. Even the idea of 'double liability' in which stockholders were responsible for twice the original value of their shares in a bank existed until the age of the Fed in the US. Let's see a few examples of what happens today:

AIG. Patient Zero of the global economic meltdown, Joseph Cassano, head of AIGFP (400 employee London-based AIG Financial Product division). After bundling the crappiest mortgages they could find and slapping AAA ratings on them, banks needed someone to insure them. Enter Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Credit Default Swaps, CDS. AIGFP's returns went from $737 million in 1999 to $3.2 billion in 2005. Over the past seven years, the subsidiary's 400 employees were paid a total of $3.5 billion; Cassano himself pocketed at least $280 million in compensation. Of course we know how this story ends, housing prices start falling, AIG's AAA credit rating begins to slide, triggering collateral calls and by February 2008, AIG is posting an $11.5 billion loss. What happens to Joseph? Burned at the stake? No, the company not only allowed Cassano to keep $34 million in bonuses, it kept him on as a consultant for $1 million a month. A short time later, it came out that AIG was planning to pay some $90 million in deferred compensation to former executives, and to accelerate the payout of $277 million in bonuses to others. When Congress balked, AIG canceled the $90 million in payments. Then, in January 2009 AIG decided to pay out another $450 million in bonuses. And to whom? To the 400 or so employees in Cassano's old unit, AIGFP, which is due to go out of business shortly! Yes, that's right, an average of $1.1 million in taxpayer-backed money apiece.

Two of the other main culprits in the financial meltdown, Fannie May and Freddie Mac,
have actually gotten bigger, and therefore more dangerous.

Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O'Neal, a man who acknowledged his mistake in
overexposing his firm to subprime and thus causing its downfall walked away from the company with a severance package worth $162 million. Executives of the company had their $3.6 billion in bonus payments moved forward to December last year before the firm was taken over by Bank of America for fear of having them cancelled. Well, at least someone's trying to do something about it.

Five of the biggest US banks - Goldman, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America - posted second-quarter profits totaling $13 billion. That's more than double what they made in the second quarter of 2008 and nearly two-thirds as much as the $20.7 billion they earned in the second quarter of 2007, when the economy was strong. The main argument for the bank bailouts was that they were "too big to fail", yet the net result is banks that are now even bigger. The bailout enabled mergers and acquisitions have left those banks still standing in an even more dominating position. And what happens when 4 banks (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase and Citi) issue one of every two mortgages and about two of every three credit cards? The top four banks raised fees related to deposits by an average of 8 percent in the last quarter.

Speaking of Bank of America,
take a look at this sweet deal they got.

In the UK, banks such as RBS, the Royal Bank of Scotland, behaved even more scandalously. Despite posting the largest loss in UK banking history a year ago, the former chief accused of bringing the bank to its knees, Sir Fred Goodwin, not only received a £2.7 million tax-free advance on his vast pension, he'll get £693,000-a-year as it's total worth is £16 million. I do suppose home security will be expensive for him. Well, they did say sorry, which I guess is why they figure it's OK to pay new boss Stephen Hester £9.6 million a year.

Barclay's got some of Lehman's US business, including its
glitzy Manhattan headquarters, for what many regard as a fire-sale price, $1.75 billion. Well, I guess you deserve a prize for remaining the
only major British-owned High Street bank to be fully independent from government capital.

Meanwhile, if you weren't best friends with the US Secretary of the Treasury, your bank may have gone out of business. Another 94 have closed their doors this year alone, while the number of 'problem' banks had risen to 416 by June 30th, up from 305 three months earlier. And guess what? The FDIC, those folks who are supposed to protect the consumer again the risk of bank default actually underestimated the risk of bank defaults. Yep, looks like they'll need a bailout soon too.

how about Goldman Sachs? The bank paid out an astonishing $4.7 billion in bonuses and compensation in the first three months of this year, an 18 percent increase over the first quarter of 2008. It also raised $5 billion by issuing new shares almost immediately after releasing its first quarter results. Taken together, the numbers show that Goldman essentially borrowed a $5 billion salary payout for its executives in the middle of the global economic crisis it helped cause, using half baked accounting to reel in investors, just months after receiving billions in a taxpayer bailout. And what did Goldman give back to the people of the United States in 2008? Fourteen million dollars, an effective tax rate of one percent. The bank paid out $10 billion in compensation and benefits that same year and made a profit of more than $2 billion, yet it paid the Treasury less than a third of what it forked over to CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who made $42.9 million last year.

The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations. Previously, a dozen or so big banks formed the top tier. Now Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are clearly the strongest, with Morgan Stanley struggling to compete. Bank of America and Citigroup are the weakest big banks, heavily reliant on government guarantees to survive. The extensive government support that began after Lehman collapsed will lead investors to assume that governments will always prevent major banks from collapsing. The
Greenspan put has been replaced by the Bernanke put (a put is effectively a promise to buy an asset at a fixed price if you are unable to sell it to someone else at a higher price – this is a way to lock-in profits or limit losses on investments) so investors will continue to lend money to the financial industry on easy terms. In turn, financial institutions will use that cheap money to make risky loans and trades. The banks will keep the profits when their bets pay off, while taxpayers will swallow the losses when the bets go bad and threaten the system. Economists call the phenomenon moral hazard. Bankers have a different term: I.B.G. The phrase implies that by the time a deal goes sour, “I’ll be gone,” after I get my huge bonus.

Even when someone in a position of power raises the issue of whether parts of our financial system have become dysfunctional, s/he faces heavy criticism from all quarters.
Witness the reaction faced by the UK’s chief financial regulator, Adair Turner, when he suggested just that, and called for greater capital requirements at banks and pondered how it would be possible for regulators to preserve the valuable parts of our financial system while regulating to limit the harmful parts. For some reason it is a given that the rich deserve an advantage of say, 30 milliseconds. Or that it's a good thing that financial gurus are giving up bundling mortgages in favour of old and dying people's life insurance policies. Or that instead of betting on you to default on those mortgages, now there just making bets on nations defaulting on their sovereign debts, in index form, and not just Argentina. Wait, even better, remember all the slicing and dicing, with the tranches and other voodoo they did to turn those crappy mortgages into AAA securities? Well, apparently, with a little more alchemy and sharper knives, they can be re-rebundled in order to further lower bank capital requirements. Hooray, it's the re-remic!

But what's the problem you may ask.
Markets are up, nations are emerging from the recession, the financial industry is back to inventing new ways to make profits, all will be well in the world once again, maybe we do live in the best of all possible worlds. Wrong. Someone has to pay when the bubbles burst, and who has been paying the bill upfront for the taxpayer to this point? - China. And just as investment firms such as Goldman Sachs had insurers like AIG protecting their exposed behinds while they placed their bets on various financial derivatives, China is busy trying to hedge their bets on the US economy. After AIG wrote hundreds of billions of dollars of credit insurance and had no money to make good on its promises when the bonds defaulted, the US government was there, but who will be there when the US government can't find someone to buy their debt to pay the bills? So China is covering their bets by putting their money on themselves, with a little help from glittering gold. Realizing the world will not continue to support a fiat currency that can simply multiply itself at will to solve any problem and thereby reduce it's value (simple economics), China seems to be putting all the pieces into place to make themselves the world's store of wealth. Aaah, yes, competition. With nowhere else but US Treasuries to invest until now, the world has been forced to support the bubbles that America has chosen to create. September 28th saw an important volley in the coming financial war as 6 billion yuan worth of government bonds went on sale in Hong Kong. Taken together with the push for increased importance of the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights and lust for gold, it's clear they're looking for other avenues of investment. Any good investor knows that you have to limit your downside risk, and the financial industry's debt along with the increase it has caused in government debt pose significant systematic risk. While everyone moaned and groaned about the $700 billion TARP bailout, the real cost to the taxpayer is clouded by secretive operations with names no one has heard of such as Term Auction Facility, the Term Securities Lending Facility, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, the Commercial Paper Funding Facility and a monster called the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility, or how about something called a Money Market Investor Funding Facility, plus three facilities called Maiden Lane I, II and III. No one even knows where the bailout money has gone or how it's being paid, but the bottom line is a potential price tag of $23 trillion, yes trillion with a 't' for the US tax payer to pay for the mistakes of the financial industry and China knows that not even they can finance that. History is replete with examples of financial experts telling us that this time it's different, but if there is one common them to financial crises it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by governnment, banks, corporations or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems [to do] during a boom.

No ideology can stand alone in the world. That would be a monopoly. Capitalism has stood unchallenged for 20 years now as an unchallenged monopoly (What do we really call
China's system these days?). Monopolies are cancerous to the capitalist system. The defeat of its only legitimate rival, communism, has brought about a situation that has slowly killed what capitalist, neo-cons and Reaganites dreamed of creating. Is that irony? Or some kind of meta-level parallel. I don't know, but it's become clear that the monster created by this untethered beast, the financial system, is ever closer to destroying the world that it's trying to control and there's no one trying to stop it. Back in 1907, they say that JP Morgan single handedly saved Wall Street guaranteeing tens of millions of dollars to keep the wheels of finance turning. Today, the people, through their governmental agent, the Fed are guaranteeing trillions due to the latest bubble, and I'm afraid the bubbles have to get bigger each time to keep the party going. Oh no, the G20 meeting might force new regulations onto the industry, not! More likely they would be encouraging instability in order to smooth the way for the FSB (the Financial Stability Board, not the new KGB). Oh no, President Obama is giving a speech to bankers about their responsibility to act prudently, well, what self-respecting banker would bother going to be lectured to? If you wonder why they don't need to listen, just ask yourself whose money put Obama in the White House. Then perhaps you may realize as Voltaire's Candide did, that Dr. Pangloss really is just wearing rose coloured glasses.