Friday, September 19, 2008

Frederick the Great vs. Hank Paulson

This is total panic time. They're now firing off everything that they have after the first several attempts at an options expiration week stick save failed badly. Basically, the Treasury is guaranteeing virtually everything now with backstops for money market mutual funds and a new super SIV for bad assets. But as Fredrick the Great said: "He who defends everything, defends nothing!" This was a simple acknowledgement of military reality - concentrate on protecting the most important assets. Spreading yourself too thin invites defeat in detail and the destruction of your forces. Then the enemy can loot at leisure.

The government seemingly doesn't understand this but they will. There simply isn't the money to do everything and in their arrogance the Fed and Treasury have over-reached badly. By trying to save all of the bankrupt financial companies, they are weakening the defenses of the strategic key - Treasury debt. The bond market is already demanding 50 basis points more in interest than just days ago. Another way to look at it is that 10-year government bonds have lost 3.5% of their value in that time. The Treasury is the logistics depot from which the army defending every other target is being supplied. If it falls, the war is over and our enemies win.


One shot wonder, long-term consequences
The SEC, erstwhile market watchdog is barking up the wrong tree again. They sat on their hands and did nothing while the disaster built all around them and now they are attacking the group pointing out the problem, not the ones who caused it. In banning short-selling, they also increase the probability that there will be no bounce when the next decline occurs since short-covering is the one thing that has kept our stock market from collapsing like much of the rest of the world's.


The fact that they feel the need to use this one-time guaranteed short-squeeze now ought to tell you everything you need to know when the cost is so high for so little gain in terms of time. This tells me that election politics are paramount here since there is at least a chance (maybe 50/50) to delay the crash by 6 weeks. There is little prospect that we make it 6 months. With so little difference, I'd prefer it occur before the election to guarantee an Obama presidency. Whichever party holds power over the next 4 years will be discredited for a generation (after Hoover and GD 1.0, the Republicans were unable to build sustainable majorities for two generations). Though I'm disgusted with both political parties, there is at least some chance that the Republicans will return to their Reaganite roots after a time in the wilderness. I have no hope at all where the Democrats are concerned. The fundamentals are positively horrific and much depends on sustaining the illusion of control. Short-sellers overwhelmingly profit from disparities between perception and reality - as such, they are always among the first to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Given the stakes, anyone who sees through the deception must be punished and silenced.

There isn't even enough tax money to cover the normal operations of our bloated government, much less this madness. But the bond market was willing to make up the difference as long as there was a high probability of repayment. But the checks that Paulson is writing with his mouth right now are guaranteed to bounce and some bond buyers are noticing. From a low beneath 3.30% this week, the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond has skyrocketed by 50 basis points. The fact that the bailout silliness has more than doubled that deficit doesn't help at all. Like any fool who continues to spend far beyond his means, the creditors will charge us more and more to borrow until insolvency.

The only solution is immediate cuts in government spending and the repudiation of all the backstops that have been proposed. Getting within shouting distance of a balanced budget is the only thing that can prevent an imminent spike in Treasury rates. The entire game depends on the willingness of foreign savers to fund the now gaping chasm of the Federal Deficit. If they balk, the whole structure is endangered. By taking on the toxic waste of the financial industry, all the US government has done is place itself at risk in the inevitable implosion. This is too large for any government or even all of them together to solve. Remember how Congress sent the GSEs out to save a drowning housing market and the "lifeguards" not only failed the rescue but also got pulled to the bottom right along with everybody else? That is precisely what is going to happen to the US government if they don't extricate themselves now. A blowout in borrowing costs was a precursor to the demise of Fannie and Freddie; we appear to be seeing a super slow-mo, reverse-angle replay with the Treasury right now.

One reason the US survived GD 1.0 without the political damage in the rest of the world (think Hitler, generals in Japan, Peron and petty dictators from Pilsudski to Metaxas) was the fact that the our government's finances never reached a state of existential crisis. The deficit (what there was of it) and government bonds were always sure to be paid back. That assurance is not present today and the government's actions are making ultimate repayment ever less likely. The Argentine example is particularly poignant. In the early 20th century, that country had a higher per capita income than the USA. After decades of socialist and corporatist policies under the Perons, they became the ongoing basket case and borderline Third World country they are today.

I hate to paraphrase anything from the Star Wars series but it is too apropos: This is how freedom dies - to thunderous applause.