Friday, May 28, 2010

Press Briefing

May 28, 2010

Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee

Meatloaf From a Petri Dish Is Innovator’s Goal for the Masses

What Our Intelligence Agencies Could Learn from Silicon Valley - The clamor to increase the power of the Director of National Intelligence is mistaken. We need less hierarchy and centralization.

Bank funding and liquidity management: new report from the Committee on the Global Financial System

Canceling, delaying, banning domestic offshore exploration will increase tanker traffic, foreign imports

Toward a global risk map, by Stephen Cecchetti, Ingo Fender and Patrick McGuire. BIS Working Papers No 309

Global risk maps are unified databases that provide risk exposure data to supervisors and the broader financial market community worldwide. We think of them as giant matrices that track the bilateral (firm-level) exposures of banks, non-bank financial institutions and other relevant market participants. While useful in principle, these giant matrices are unlikely to materialise outside the narrow and targeted efforts currently being pursued in the supervisory domain. This reflects the well known trade-offs between the macro and micro dimensions of data collection and dissemination. It is possible, however, to adapt existing statistical reporting frameworks in ways that would facilitate an analysis of exposures and build-ups of risk over time at the aggregate (sectoral) level. To do so would move us significantly in the direction of constructing the ideal global risk map. It would also help us sidestep the complex legal challenges surrounding the sharing or dissemination of firm-level data, and it would support a two-step approach to systemic risk monitoring. That is, the alarms sounded by the aggregate data would yield the critical pieces of information to inform targeted analysis of more detailed data at the firm- or market-level.

What Our Intelligence Agencies Could Learn from Silicon Valley - The clamor to increase the power of the Director of National Intelligence is mistaken. We need less hierarchy and centralization.

Near-zero interest rates have made investors susceptible to the same stresses at the same time.

Medicare and Double Standards - An ObamaCare mailer tells some howlers.

How to Handle North Korea - Pass the South Korea free trade agreement and give up on negotiating with Kim Jong Il

Statement by the President on Votes to Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Obama's Blowout Preventer - In case you hadn't heard, Ken Salazar had a reform plan . . .

Study Reveals that Regulatory Spending and Staffing Reaches All-Time High. The George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis

Regulatory Spending Rose under Bush

White House: Growing Businesses and Putting Unemployed Workers Back on the Job

Obamacare’s Cooked Books and the “Doc Fix”

Remarks by the President on the Gulf Oil Spill

Panicked Republicans risk future energy development

American Action Forum: Labor Markets and Health Care Reform: New Results (PDF)

The White House Blog: A Blueprint for Pursuing the World that We Seek

Recommitting to a Strong National Defense, by The Honorable Eric Cantor

Budget Hearing for the University of the District of Columbia. By Alice M. Rivlin, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies. Brookings Institution.

Republicans in the Senate: Evaluating the Kagan Nomination - What is known, so far, about President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court

This week Medicare sent a flyer to seniors: The act passed by Congress "will provide you and your family greater savings and increased quality health care"

Medicare and Double Standards. WSJ Editorial
An ObamaCare mailer tells some howlers.WSJ, May 28, 2010

In the full-circle department, recall the moment last September when Senator Max Baucus and Medicare went after the insurer Humana for having the nerve to criticize one part of ObamaCare. It turns out those same regulators have different standards for their own political advocacy.

This week Medicare sent a flyer to seniors, ostensibly to inform them of what ObamaCare "means for you." Many elderly Americans are worried—and rightly so—about where they'll rank in national health care, given that the new entitlement is funded by nearly a half-trillion dollars in Medicare cuts. They must have been relieved to hear that "The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama this year will provide you and your family greater savings and increased quality health care."

That's the first sentence of the four-page mailer, and it gives a flavor of the Administration's respect for the public's intelligence. It goes on to mention "improvements to Medicare Advantage," the program that Democrats hate because it gives nearly one out of four seniors private health insurance options. "If you are in a Medicare Advantage plan, you will still receive guaranteed Medicare benefits."

But that's not what Medicare's own actuary thinks. In an April memo, Richard Foster estimated that the $206 billion hole in Advantage will reduce benefits, cause insurers to withdraw from the program and reduce overall enrollment by half. Doug Elmendorf and his team at the Congressional Budget Office came to the same conclusion, as did every other honest expert.

That's also what Humana told its customers, warning that seniors "could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage so valuable." Medicare threatened the Kentucky-based company with fines and regulatory punishments for "misleading and confusing" beneficiaries, then issued a blanket gag order on Advantage insurers. The agency later backed down, once its Cosa Nostra message had been signed, sealed and delivered.

Medicare's flyer includes answers to other pressing questions in Boca Raton and Scottsdale, such as allowing children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' health plans, and further misleading commentary about keeping the program "strong and solvent." Dave Camp, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, believes the mailer may violate the prohibition on using taxpayer dollars for political propaganda.

The larger issue is the White House's view of political opposition. It seems to think its assertions will be true if they are repeated often enough, as long as no one is allowed to disagree.

The Fed and the May 6 'Flash Crash' - Near-zero interest rates have made investors susceptible to the same stresses at the same time

The Fed and the May 6 'Flash Crash'. By MARK SPITZNAGEL
Near-zero interest rates have made investors susceptible to the same stresses at the same time.WSJ, May 28, 2010

Regulators have been busy searching for the cause of the May 6 "flash crash" when the market dropped by 9.3% and then recovered within minutes. I think it's a good bet no cause will be found; there is still no consensus on what triggered the one-day 20% stock market crash of 1987. But even if there was no trigger, market conditions created by the Federal Reserve's easy money policy definitely made the crash more likely.

The market is a critical system. To illustrate, let's consider another fragile system: the earth's crust. Imagine geologists scouring through the debris of a big earthquake in search of its trigger—as in, "Let's investigate anyone jack hammering in the minutes leading up to the quake." It is intuitively obvious that earthquakes don't have identifiable triggers. We know that big earthquakes, which happen very rarely, are nothing more than many little earthquakes piled on top of each other due to stresses built up within intricate networks of faults. These little fissures cascade into enormous ruptures. The more correlated the fissures, the more delicate the system.

Back to markets. Think of every investor holding a risky position. Then think of all of these investors together in a big herd. Each member of the herd focuses on what the others will do next, since the only reason anyone takes a position is because others are initiating like-minded ones.

When imitative behavior starts happening in markets en masse, expect funny things to happen to liquidity. All you need to know about market dynamics—as I learned as a Chicago pit trader—is that market prices always adjust to the level where market-makers see balanced two-way order flow between buyers and sellers. All market-makers want to do is buy at the bid price, sell at the offer price, and at the end of the day go home unscathed. When there are only buy orders, for instance, expect market-makers to be unwilling to sell to those buyers until the price has adjusted to the point where they see roughly equal buyers and sellers again. To expect them to do anything else is to imagine them as charities.

So when you combine imitative behavior with noncharitable market-makers, there will be seismic waves from time to time. What makes our current system particularly prone to global ruptures is that hair-trigger traders have crowded into exceedingly risky bets. Why would that be, with the crash of 2008 so fresh in traders' minds?

This type of alignment among investors in risky positions is precisely what the central economic planners at the Federal Reserve intended when, in response to the historic credit collapse, they commanded interest rates to zero and signaled that they would prop up all risky assets.

The profitability of an investment is simply its return on capital beyond the cost of that capital. It is against this spread that investors must assess risk. So when the Fed distorted the cost of capital following the 2008 collapse by lowering it for many by roughly 2% (to about 0% for banks), it had the same effect as the 2% higher aggregate dividend yield for stocks or higher credit spreads for investment grade bonds. Suddenly what was toxic looked cheap.

The Fed lured everyone to buy everything and anything that was risky—and did so itself with outright purchases of risky assets like mortgage-backed bonds. Anyone eager for easy profits fell right in line, bidding up dangerous assets like clockwork. Sensing safety in numbers, the herd quickly followed, and in no time the market had consumed the Fed's gifted 2% profit spread and then some.

All in all, it seemed like an impressively engineered recovery. In reality, it was an ephemeral illusion caused by distorting investors' assessment of risk. Despite what zero interest rates were signaling, savers flush with cash weren't flooding the capital markets and credit wasn't expanding.

The Fed has managed to align every little market fault right with each other such that they all succumb to the very same stresses at the very same time. Meanwhile—no surprise—the world remains a very seismically active place. What's extraordinary is that the Fed continues this intentional deception about the real cost of credit, even as we've repeatedly witnessed the consequences of this policy.

Left alone, the market works naturally, with waves of buy-order ruptures and waves of sell-order ruptures. Sometimes mini-ruptures coincide to form much larger ones, such as on May 6. But searching for a discreet trigger for such events is futile. To find the real source of the system's excessive fragility, the regulators will need to look much closer to home.

Mr. Spitznagel is the founder and chief investment officer of the hedge fund Universa Investments LP, based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Obama's Blowout Preventer - In case you hadn't heard, Ken Salazar had a reform plan . . .

Obama's Blowout Preventer. WSJ Editorial
In case you hadn't heard, Ken Salazar had a reform plan . . .WSJ, May 28, 2010

BP and the Coast Guard yesterday were cautiously optimistic that the "top kill" maneuver could stanch the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, and let us hope this is the beginning of the end of the disaster. In Washington, meanwhile, the White House's panicked efforts to put a tourniquet on the political consequences were notably less successful.

"I take responsibility," President Obama said at his press conference yesterday—though responsibility for what? As he explained it, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was predominantly a failure of government, namely, the "scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them." Mr. Obama is referring to the Minerals Management Service, or MMS, and he claims the Administration had a plan to end this putative regulatory capture.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "was in the process of making these reforms," Mr. Obama continued. "But the point that I'm making is, is that, obviously, they weren't happening fast enough. If they had been happening fast enough, this might have been caught." In other words, this is really the fault of the Bush Administration, like everything else.

It would certainly be interesting to hear more details about this no doubt ambitious and unprecedented reform that no one knew anything about until this oil disaster. Mr. Obama made no mention of it when he announced in late March that new offshore areas would be opened to oil and gas development.

"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," the President said at the time. "It's one that Ken and I—as well as Carol Browner, my energy adviser, and others in my Administration—looked at closely for more than a year."

The ex post facto reform effort did get off to a start yesterday with Elizabeth Birnbaum's sacking as the head of MMS. The Administration wants Americans to believe that, finally, someone less corrupted by industry will run the joint—though it has been run for years, under Democratic and Republican Administrations, with rules established by Congress.

But is this the same Elizabeth Birnbaum who Mr. Salazar nominated to run MMS last June? Why yes, it is. "Her in-depth knowledge of energy issues, natural resource policy and environmental law as well as her managerial expertise and work in coalition building," Mr. Salazar said then, "will be especially important as we advance President Obama's new energy frontier and lay the foundation for a clean energy economy."

Mr. Obama's faith in government is so expansive that he thinks it can build a "new energy economy," so perhaps it's not surprising that he also thinks government could have averted the Gulf spill:

To wit, that a far-flung bureaucracy like MMS would have prevented a platform 40 miles offshore—using the planet's most advanced engineering technology to execute the undersea equivalent of landing on the moon—from suffering a massive explosion that killed 11 people and caused the rig to sink 4,993 feet to the ocean floor. Presumably, too, this oversight would have ensured that the cement around the wellhead's casing pipe sealed properly, and that the blowout preventer didn't malfunction, among other miracles.

Mr. Obama added yesterday, with his customary modesty, that "we're also moving quickly on steps to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again." This mainly seems to mean delaying or banning any offshore drilling leases in America.

The White House extended its moratorium on deep water drilling permits for another six months, suspended upcoming lease sales in the Gulf, suspended indefinitely 33 deep water exploratory wells, and delayed a drilling program in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas that was scheduled for next month. The green lobby has been obsessed with the last item for years; a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf accounts for about 27% of U.S. domestic oil production, and overreacting politically to a genuine disaster isn't in anyone's interests. Senator Mary Landrieu (D., La.) noted in a recent letter to Mr. Salazar that the moratorium even on the 57 Gulf platforms drilling in shallow water, which is much safer and with fewer risks, will result in more than 5,000 lost jobs if work doesn't resume within six weeks.

More broadly, whatever Mr. Obama's ambitions for windmills and plug-in cars, the world is dependent on oil. Most of the demand growth is coming from China, India and the developing world, and if America doesn't produce its own energy it will merely import it from somewhere else.

Messrs. Obama and Salazar claim to believe that one more bureaucratic reshuffle can prevent oil spills. They would be more honest, and reduce cynicism about government, if they acknowledged that no human endeavor is without risk, and that government can't prevent every accident.