Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It would be better for our economy to enforce anti-manipulation laws, and require that speculators have enough capital to cover their risks, than to attempt to squash speculation

In Defense of Financial Speculation. By DARRELL DUFFIE
It is not the same thing as market manipulation.WSJ, Feb 24, 2010

George Soros, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and others are proposing to curb speculative trading and even outlaw it in credit default swap (CDS) markets. Their proposals appear to be based on a misconception of speculation and could harm financial markets.

Speculators earn a profit by absorbing risk that others don't want. Without speculators, investors would find it difficult to quickly hedge or sell their positions.

Speculators also provide us with information about the fundamental values of investments. When the fundamentals appear favorable, they buy. Otherwise, they sell. If their forecasts are correct, they profit. This causes prices to more accurately forecast an investment's value, spreading useful information. For example, the clearest evidence that Greece has a serious debt problem was the run-up of the price for buying CDS protection against the country's default.

Is this sort of speculation wrong? I have not heard why.

Those who call for stamping out speculation may be confused between speculation and market manipulation. Manipulation occurs when investors "attack'' a financial market in order to profit by changing the value of an investment. Profitable speculation occurs when investors accurately forecast an investment's fundamental strength or weakness.

An example of manipulation is an attack on a currency with a fixed exchange rate in an attempt to cause a devaluation of that currency. Mr. Soros allegedly attacked the British pound in 1992 and the Malaysian ringgit in 1997. An attack on the equity or CDS of a bank could create fears of insolvency, leading to a bank run and allowing the manipulator to profit from his attack.

In the week of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy in September 2008, John Mack, then CEO of Morgan Stanley, suggested that the difficulties facing his firm stemmed from such an attack. But firms complaining of unfounded short-selling often had real problems beforehand.

A market manipulator can also attempt to profit by "cornering" a market. This is done by holding such a large fraction of the supply of an asset that anyone who wants to buy that asset is at the mercy of the corner holder when negotiating a price.

The market for silver was temporarily cornered in 1979-80, when Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brother William Herbert Hunt held silver derivatives representing approximately half of annual global silver production. In the end, the Hunt brothers were unable to maintain a corner. As they sold, silver prices fell, causing them calamitous losses.

Market manipulation for profit is not easily done. If the fundamentals of supply and demand suggest that the value of something is $100, then a manipulator must buy at prices above $100 in order to drive the price up or to accumulate a monopolistic position. He then owns an asset that on paper could be worth more than what he paid for it. However, he must sell his asset in order to cash in on his profit. This spurs the price of that asset to fall, as the Hunt brothers learned.

Simply driving up the price, as speculators are alleged to have done in the oil market in 2008, is not enough. To make a profit, a manipulator needs to obtain monopolistic control of the supply. Given the size of the oil market, that seems implausible, absent a major and sustained conspiracy.

In the United States, trade with an intent to manipulate financial markets is generally illegal. Regulators should keep anti-manipulation laws up to date and aggressively monitor potential violators.

Speculation is not necessarily harmless. If a large speculator does not have enough capital to cover potential losses, he could destabilize financial markets if his position collapses. The Over-the-Counter Derivatives Markets Act, which could come up for a vote in the Senate soon, will hopefully reduce such risks.

It would be better for our economy to enforce anti-manipulation laws, and require that speculators have enough capital to cover their risks, than to attempt to squash speculation.

Mr. Duffie is a professor of finance at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.

My Gift to the Obama Presidency - Bush lawyers were protecting the executive's power to fight a vigorous war on terror

My Gift to the Obama Presidency. By JOHN YOO
Though the White House won't want to admit it, Bush lawyers were protecting the executive's power to fight a vigorous war on terror.
WSJ, Feb 24, 2010

Barack Obama may not realize it, but I may have just helped save his presidency. How? By winning a drawn-out fight to protect his powers as commander in chief to wage war and keep Americans safe.

He sure didn't make it easy. When Mr. Obama took office a year ago, receiving help from one of the lawyers involved in the development of George W. Bush's counterterrorism policies was the furthest thing from his mind. Having won a great electoral victory, the new president promised a quick about-face. He rejected "as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" and moved to restore the law-enforcement system as the first line of defense against a hardened enemy devoted to killing Americans.

In office only one day, Mr. Obama ordered the shuttering of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, followed later by the announcement that he would bring terrorists to an Illinois prison. He terminated the Central Intelligence Agency's ability to use "enhanced interrogations techniques" to question al Qaeda operatives. He stayed the military trial, approved by Congress, of al Qaeda leaders. He ultimately decided to transfer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of the 9/11 attacks, to a civilian court in New York City, and automatically treated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, as a criminal suspect (not an illegal enemy combatant). Nothing better could have symbolized the new president's determination to take us back to a Sept. 10, 2001, approach to terrorism.

Part of Mr. Obama's plan included hounding those who developed, approved or carried out Bush policies, despite the enormous pressures of time and circumstance in the months immediately after the September 11 attacks. Although career prosecutors had previously reviewed the evidence and determined that no charges are warranted, last year Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a new prosecutor to re-investigate the CIA's detention and interrogation of al Qaeda leaders.

In my case, he let loose the ethics investigators of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) to smear my reputation and that of Jay Bybee, who now sits as a federal judge on the court of appeals in San Francisco. Our crime? While serving in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in the weeks and months after 9/11, we answered in the form of memoranda extremely difficult questions from the leaders of the CIA, the National Security Council and the White House on when interrogation methods crossed the line into prohibited acts of torture.

Rank bias and sheer incompetence infused OPR's investigation. OPR attorneys, for example, omitted a number of precedents that squarely supported the approach in the memoranda and undermined OPR's preferred outcome. They declared that no Americans have a right of self-defense against a criminal prosecution, not even when they or their government agents attempt to stop terrorist attacks on the United States. OPR claimed that Congress enjoyed full authority over wartime strategy and tactics, despite decades of Justice Department opinions and practice defending the president's commander-in-chief power. They accused us of violating ethical standards without ever defining them. They concocted bizarre conspiracy theories about which they never asked us, and for which they had no evidence, even though we both patiently—and with no legal obligation to do so—sat through days of questioning.

OPR's investigation was so biased, so flawed, and so beneath the Justice Department's own standards that last week the department's ranking civil servant and senior ethicist, David Margolis, completely rejected its recommendations.

Attorney General Holder could have stopped this sorry mess earlier, just as his predecessor had tried to do. OPR slow-rolled Attorney General Michael Mukasey by refusing to deliver a draft of its report until the 2008 Christmas and New Year holidays. OPR informed Mr. Mukasey of its intention to release the report on Jan. 12, 2009, without giving me or Judge Bybee the chance to see it—as was our right and as we'd been promised.

Mr. Mukasey and Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip found so many errors in the report that they told OPR that the entire enterprise should be abandoned. OPR decided to run out the clock and push the investigation into the lap of the Obama administration. It would have been easy for Mr. Holder to concur with his predecessors—in fact, it was critical that he do so to preserve the Justice Department's impartiality. Instead the new attorney general let OPR's investigators run wild. Only Mr. Margolis's rejection of the OPR report last week forced the Obama administration to drop its ethics charges against Bush legal advisers.

Why bother fighting off an administration hell-bent on finding scapegoats for its policy disagreements with the last president? I could have easily decided to hide out, as others have. Instead, I wrote numerous articles (several published in this newspaper) and three books explaining and defending presidential control of national security policy. I gave dozens of speeches and media appearances, where I confronted critics of the administration's terrorism policies. And, most importantly, I was lucky to receive the outstanding legal counsel of Miguel Estrada, one of the nation's finest defense attorneys, to attack head-on and without reservation, each and every one of OPR's mistakes, misdeeds and acts of malfeasance.

I did not do this to win any popularity contests, least of all those held in the faculty lounge. I did it to help our president—President Obama, not Bush. Mr. Obama is fighting three wars simultaneously in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against al Qaeda. He will call upon the men and women serving under his command to make choices as hard as the ones we faced. They cannot meet those challenges with clear minds if they believe that a bevy of prosecutors, congressional committees and media critics await them when they return from the battlefield.

This is no idle worry. In 2005, a Navy Seal team dropped into Afghanistan encountered goat herders who clearly intended to inform the Taliban of their whereabouts. The team leader ordered them released, against his better military judgment, because of his worries about the media and political attacks that would follow.

In less than an hour, more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked and killed all but one member of the Seal team and 16 Americans on a helicopter rescue mission. If a president cannot, or will not, protect the men and women who fight our nation's wars, they will follow the same risk-averse attitudes that invited the 9/11 attacks in the first place.

Without a vigorous commander-in-chief power at his disposal, Mr. Obama will struggle to win any of these victories. But that is where OPR, playing a junior varsity CIA, wanted to lead us. Ending the Justice Department's ethics witch hunt not only brought an unjust persecution to an end, but it protects the president's constitutional ability to fight the enemies that threaten our nation today.

Mr. Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was a Justice Department official from 2001-03. He is the author, among other books, of "Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush" (Kaplan, 2010).

Financial Amplification Mechanisms and the Federal Reserve’s Supply of Liquidity during the Crisis

Financial Amplification Mechanisms and the Federal Reserve’s Supply of Liquidity during the Crisis. By Asani Sarkar and Jeffrey Shrader
Federal Reserve Bank of NY, February 2010

The small decline in the value of mortgage-related assets relative to the large total losses associated with the financial crisis suggests the presence of financial amplification mechanisms, which allow relatively small shocks to propagate through the financial system. We review the literature on financial amplification mechanisms and discuss the Federal Reserve’s interventions during different stages of the crisis in light of this literature. We interpret the Fed’s early-stage liquidity programs as working to dampen balance sheet amplifications arising from the positive feedback between financial constraints and asset prices. By comparison, the Fed’s later-stage crisis programs take into account adverse-selection amplifications that operate via increases in credit risk and the externality imposed by risky borrowers on safe ones. Finally, we provide new empirical evidence that increases in the Federal Reserve’s liquidity supply reduce interest rates during periods of high liquidity risk. Our analysis has implications for the impact on market prices of a potential withdrawal of liquidity supply by the Fed.

"The President's Proposal" on health-care

ObamaCare at Ramming Speed. WSJ Editorial
The White House shows it has no interest in compromise.WSJ, Tuesday, February 23, 2010 As of 3:09 AM

A mere three days before President Obama's supposedly bipartisan health-care summit, the White House yesterday released a new blueprint that Democrats say they will ram through Congress with or without Republican support. So after election defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and even Massachusetts, and amid overwhelming public opposition, Democrats have decided to give the voters what they don't want anyway.

Ah, the glory of "progressive" governance and democratic consent.

"The President's Proposal," as the 11-page White House document is headlined, is in one sense a notable achievement: It manages to take the worst of both the House and Senate bills and combine them into something more destructive. It includes more taxes, more subsidies and even less cost control than the Senate bill. And it purports to fix the special-interest favors in the Senate bill not by eliminating them—but by expanding them to everyone.

The bill's one new inspiration is a powerful federal board that would regulate premiums in the individual insurance market. In all 50 states, insurers are already required to justify premium increases to insurance commissioners, who generally have the power to give a regulatory go-ahead, or not. But their primary concern is actuarial soundness and capital standards, making sure that companies have enough cash to pay claims.

The White House wants to create another layer of review that will be able to reject any rate increase that is "unreasonable or unjustified." Any insurer deemed guilty of such an infraction by this new bureaucracy "must lower premiums, provide rebates, or take other actions to make premiums affordable." In other words, de facto price controls.

Insurance premiums are rising too fast; therefore, premium increases should be illegal. Q.E.D. The result of this rate-setting board will be less competition in the individual market, as insurers flee expensive states or regions, or even a cascade of bankruptcies if premiums are frozen and the cost of the care they are expected to cover continues to rise. For all the Dickensian outrage about profiteering by WellPoint and other companies, insurance is a low-margin business even for health care, and at least 85 cents of the average premium dollar, usually more, is devoted to actual health services.

Price controls are always the first resort of national health care—i.e., Medicare's administered prices for doctors and hospitals. This new White House gambit is merely a preview of ObamaCare's inevitable planned medical economy, which will reduce choice and quality.

The coercive flavor that animates this exercise is best captured in the section that purports to accept the Senate's "grandfather clause" allowing people who like their current health plan to keep it. Except that "The President's Proposal adds certain consumer protections to these 'grandfathered' plans. Within months of legislation being enacted, it requires plans . . . prohibits . . . mandates . . . requires . . . the President's Proposal adds new protections that prohibit . . . ban . . . and prohibit . . . The President's Proposal requires . . ." After all of these dictates, no "grandfathered" plan will exist.

Meanwhile, the new White House plan further vitiates the remnants of cost-control that remained in the House and Senate bills. Now the highly vaunted excise tax on high-cost insurance plans won't kick in until 2018, whereas it would have started in 2013 in the Senate bill, and this tax will only apply to coverage that costs more than $27,500.

Very few plans ever reach that threshold, and sure enough, this is the same $60 billion deal the White House cut in December with union leaders who have negotiated very costly benefits. Now it is extended to all to avoid the taint of political favoritism.

While the White House claims to eliminate the "Cornhusker Kickback," the Medicaid bribe that bought Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson's vote, political appearances are deceiving. As with the union payoff, what the White House really does is broaden the same to all states, with all new Medicaid spending through 2017 and 90% after 2020 transferred to the federal balance sheet. Governors will love this ruse, but national taxpayers will pay more.

And more again, because the White House has adopted the House's firehose insurance subsidies. People earning up to 400% of the poverty line—or about $96,000 for a family of four in 2016—will qualify for government help, and, naturally, this new entitlement is designed to expand over time.

The Administration also claims to have discarded the House's 5.4-percentage-point surtax on joint-filers earning more than $1 million a year, but it sneaks it back in by expanding the Senate's expansion of the 2.9% Medicare payroll tax to joint income about $250,000. The White House would now apply that tax for the first time to income from "interest, dividends, annuities, royalties and rents," details to come.

The larger political message of this new proposal is that Mr. Obama and Democrats have no intention of compromising on an incremental reform, or of listening to Republican, or any other, ideas on health care. They want what they want, and they're going to play by Chicago Rules and try to dragoon it into law on a narrow partisan vote via Congressional rules that have never been used for such a major change in national policy. If you want to know why Democratic Washington is "ungovernable," this is it.