Category Archives: Government

Why I Like The Dutch

Mario Draghi visited the Dutch parliament today and received an “unenviable grilling” from Dutch MPs for nearly two hours which, as the FT said, left the usually implacable Italian confrontational and riled up as tempers flared.

At the end of the meeting, the Dutch gave Draghi a gift – a tulip.

At least someone still has a sense of humor.

The Swamp

President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. In doing so, he took on not only the Democratic party but also the McCain-led Republican party establishment, both part of the same swamp, to say nothing of the “deep state” of politicized judges, bureaucrats and contractors.

While it clearly needs doing, the swamp is fighting back, obstructing him at every turn. So far his strategy has been appeasement and it has not worked. Does Comey’s firing mark a return to open hostilities?

We’ll see. But the conflict does mean that government is essentially at a standstill and will remain so indefinitely. It puts basis of the Trump rally in grave doubt. Taken together with an economic slowdown and the mess resulting from Obama’s disastrous international relations policies, the whole situation is an accident waiting for a place to happen.

Don’t believe the VIX as a measure of risk. These days, it is simply a trader’s tool for running short squeezes. Risk is as high as it gets.

Consumer Prices

Everybody has a bias when it comes to measuring price inflation. Reports like the Devonshire one come out quite frequently, usually complaining that the government indexes understate inflation. They all say, well the numbers don’t reflect reality. The problem is, they don’t know what reality is any more than the government does. My reality and the next person’s are completely different because we buy different things. Cheap loans have allowed universities to raise prices in an outrageous fashion – but our kids have long since graduated so it doesn’t affect me, although anyone putting kids through college is being eviscerated. Consumers react to prices. Technology changes. Quality changes. Fashions change. And so on. All these things make any index pretty much useless, except for making political arguments. So one has to ask, in the famous words of Ms. Clinton – “What difference does it make?”

If you ask someone in Venezuela right now, of course, you would get an expletive for an answer. There is massive consumer price inflation because there are not enough consumer goods to meet demand, and so people are going hungry and without toilet paper. They are driving up prices, trying to outbid one another to compete for what little supply there is. But even in that desperate situation, there is no agreement on what consumer prices actually are, even by disinterested parties. The only way to fix the problem in Venezuela is to get goods back on the shelves. If the Venezuelan government can do that, then consumer prices will reflect the value of the bolivar and general world price levels.

There’s your clue. If you want to measure consumer prices, it is easy. Just use the Big Mac, as the Economist does. It works. 2016 USA Big Mac price inflation was 2.6%. Venezuela Big Mac prices in bolivars:

July 2014: 75

December 2014: 245

July 2015: 485

December 2015: 940

December 2016: 3550

Looks like a pretty decent metric. It tells you what you need to know – there’s a big problem.

But the economy does not run on Big Macs, and I’m interested in the inputs, not the outputs so much. And those are labor and energy. Nothing else much matters.

The End Of Volatility?

This morning, the VIX has a 9 handle. The stock market has gone 8 days without a move of more than 0.2%. Buffett, Grantham and others are arguing that this time really is different. In fact, they agree that the market has reached a permanently high plateau, although they do not dare us those words. Who are these people and what have they done with Warren Buffett and Jeremy Grantham?

Of course it is different. It is always different. History never repeats itself. In the first four months of 2017, according to Bank of America, central banks – mostly the ECB and BoJ – purchased more than $1 trillion in securities, a record rate. So of course that means blue skies forever.

And that blue sky is full of tree-tops. As the Chinese proverb goes, this too will pass. That massive liquidity pumping is not benign, it is a symptom of panic as economies refuse to respond to the therapy the bankers prescribe.

As John Hussman observes, these signs and portents are a call to lace up the gloves, not hang them up. Extended periods of low volatility and excessive bullishness are always followed by the converse. Commodities and trade are quietly collapsing, GDP barely has a heartbeat and subprime defaults are rising, especially in cards and autos, pension funds are struggling, valuations are beyond extreme.

Beware the gathering storm.

Fed Day

Fed says the economic weakness is “transitory.”

I say “We’ll see about that.” Of course, if “transitory” is referring to geological epochs, then I’ll agree.

Nothing Really Matters

Ooh yeah, ooh yeah
Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters nothing really matters to me

Anyway the wind blows

— Freddy Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody

Source: zero hedge, of course.

Nobamacare

The repeal or gutting of Obamacare is apparently back on the table.

This US system of so-called health insurance is a joke. The principle behind all insurance is that you pay the statistical or actuarial cost of your protection, based on your personal risk exposure. To over-simplify, the idea is that you can afford to pay 1% of the cost of a condition that you have a 1% chance of getting, and if your number comes up, the insurance company can afford to cover your costs because of the 99 other people paying, who don’t get the condition.

In the case of health “insurance”, this simply doesn’t work for everyone because many people can’t afford to pay, especially those with known conditions. So they are denied coverage, either explicitly, at any price, or implicitly by prohibitive premiums.

Many countries simply say, well that’s no good, so we’ll throw out the insurance model and simply pay for everyone’s healthcare out of tax revenues. This is better than one might think because getting rid of the insurance companies saves enormous amounts of money, and controlling the pay of health care providers saves even more.

Obamacare took a different tack, which was to say we’ll keep the insurance model but make healthy pay insurance premiums which are much higher than their risk to subside the cost of care for the sick. In effect, this gave the worst of both worlds – a tax paid to the “insurers”  and out-of-control costs of care. The insurers liked this because they could charge what they liked, the providers loved it because the insurers had no motive to control costs.

Unfortunately for this model, a loophole was left where healthy people could pay a relatively small penalty and avoid paying the “tax” – excessive premiums. So they did. and the insurers were left with a client base of sick people who could not afford to pay the cost of their care. In order to avoid complete collapse, President Obama took the profits from Fannie Mae and other government lenders and funneled them to the insurance companies as a sub-rosa subsidy. President Trump can stop this with a stroke of his pen.

Personally, I think we should get rid of the insurance companies and fall in line with everyone else. This is not likely to happen, because the insurers and the providers will bribe Congress to continue their largesse.

Trumpets

Markets are all excited because Trump declared that the dollar is “too strong” and Ms Yellen is “not toast.” Not crumpet either, I would say, and Trump clearly knows his crumpet.

The End Of Hope

I had hoped that Donald Trump’s presidency would see some change in Washington. The attack on Syria finally dashed this hope.  The neocons’ campaign to demonize Russia has shaken his confidence to the point that they are now back in charge. This is a catastrophe, for which there is no one to blame but Trump.

Almost as seriously, presumably at the urging of the Goldmanites, he has not only failed to even attempt to slow the financial bubble, of which his pre-election statements show he is well aware, but has cynically relished it as proof of his success. This failure is likely to be his downfall.

We are so screwed. Sauve qui peut.

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