My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Extraordinary and alarming front row seat view into deeply buried exploitation practices of some Wall Street traders. The good news is that the book also tells the story of a handful of heroic finance whizzes to restore some fairness to the stock market.
Even so, Lewis doesn’t sugarcoat the news that the battle is ongoing, even though some progress is being made. As usual with Lewis, he writes in such an energetically paced and colorful style, that the book is an enjoyable read. Highly recommend for anyone wanting to understand a little bit more about the finance markets and how they work — or don’t work is perhaps more accurate.
And for anyone who needs a glossary to help follow the narrative, here’s a good one that I found online (free): http://www.wallstreetoasis.com/financ…
As she was in the beginning (Angela Merkel)
What is the nitty gritty of what precisely is happening with the European Union — the Europe project — in these days? An answer to that puzzle is set out clearly, shortly and sweetly by Irishman Jason O’Mahony in a blog post today.
O’Mahony rests the matter of Europe’s future squarely on the shoulders of the remarkable Angela, the current Chancellor of Germany. Merkel faces a very clear choice between saving Europe or destroying Europe, O’Mahony argues. Check out what he has to say here.
My favorite part of the post, though, is this excerpt.
British eurosceptics constantly remark that the euro was a political project, as if that is a killer argument. It was. It was supposed to be, and whilst it is malfunctioning from bad design, the fact with European integration is that it has been the great success story of post-war Europe.
A few days ago in an email conversation with my daughter I mentioned that the political and economic turmoil in Europe had intensified this past two weeks. Writing back, she asked me to send her a few links to news stories that could give her some insight into the situation.
Harrumph, I mumbled to myself, I wish I could ask the same of some wise news guru.
And I suspect I’m not the only one. It’s much more difficult than it should be to find news reports that aren’t simplistic re-cyclings of various prejudicial stereotypes or political ideologies posing as expertise.
As an example, just last week economist Bill Black strongly criticized the mighty New York Times‘s coverage of the European crisis as “overwhelmingly written from the German perspective.” You can read the post here on the Naked Capitalism website.
So when I found these two videos this morning featuring Harvard University economist Richard Parker talking about Greece, I decided to post them. Parker has a bit of an inside track on Greece especially. He served as an adviser to former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou from 2009 to 2011 (see bio).
In the first video (click on screenshot above), Parker advises against falling for easy answers “about the character or moral values of other people to explain a crisis of the kind we’re seeing in Greece.” He then quickly refutes some of the worst stereotypes against the country that are found in daily news headlines.
I particularly liked Parker’s summing up comment because he calls for citizen activism as part of the resolution. Here it is:
Now in Europe as in the United States there have been attempts to rein in the power of an unregulated financial system. But it’s very difficult to do. So the way forward in the 21st century in the wake of this crisis that we’re still living through is going to require a kind of intelligence and vision that transcends national borders. And that will have to come in part from citizens demanding behavior of public leaders of all sorts that moves us to a new world.
This video is a concise three and a half minutes and was posted online earlier this week (May 14).
The second video I found, via Googling, is a six-minute excerpt of a lecture Parker gave last October to the World Affairs Council of Connecticut. In this video, the economist traces step by step how the Greek economic crisis began some years ago to its current deepening turmoil.
It is a brilliant stroke by Romano Prodi in an interview yesterday with Spiegel Online International when he parries a challenge from the interviewer by asking bluntly “Is Germany better off with the euro or without it?”
The interviewer has just referred to German PM Angela Merkel’s stated opposition to eurobonds, and to Germans’ fear that it is primarily Germany that will carry the financial burden for the bonds. Excerpt:
SPIEGEL: …By now, Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be completely isolated, with all partners exerting huge pressure on her. Will that be effective?
Prodi: That is the way politics works. But let’s be rational. Is Germany better off with the euro or without it?
SPIEGEL: With the euro.
In a later section of the interview, the subject of a “two-speed” Europe comes up. Here also, Prodi offers an interesting perspective. And he goes on to talk about a major criticism that he says he hears increasingly voiced about Europe’s power globally.
You can read the full Q&A here, which also includes some discussion of the current and past state of things in Italy.
I do wish Prodi hadn’t retired from Italian politics (and I’m not the only one).
Surely I’m not the only one to take notice that the bulk of the doomsday talk these days about the imminent fall of the euro is coming either from outside Europe or from eurosceptics.
An underlying assumption of this dire talk, perhaps, may be the idea that eurozone citizens are so discontented that they are demanding return to national currencies. But where is there evidence of this? Even most Greeks, supposedly mad as hell at EU leadership, reportedly want to stay with the euro (see here, for example).
And, although it’s admittedly an anecdotal report, I can say I’ve not heard or seen either a peep or a scribble of any such San Pietro! let’s return to the lira talk here in Italy either. That is, except for the usual disgruntled voices of the northern far right who, more or less, want to exit everything including the southern half of their own country.
And then this just now in the UK Guardian‘s live blog on the eurozone crisis:
1.47pm: Almost four out of five Germans believe the 17-nation single currency will survive, according to poll for ZDF television. Some 78% of people asked said the euro would survive despite its problems while 56% felt chancellor Angela Merkel was doing a good job of managing the crisis. That’s an improvement on a similar poll in October which had her approval rating at 45%.
How much of a role does the European public play in the rise or fall of the euro? I have no idea really, given the murky fog that constitutes most financial reporting, and the politicians’ backroom political jockeying. But if eurozone voters’ support is needed to drive the currency into collapse, seems to me that’s a non-starter.
This morning while reading a couple of analyses about the great Greek referendum brouhaha, the shade of John Lennon floated past murmuring “Democracy is what happens while politicians are busy making other plans.”
Might that be the case if the Greeks are allowed to vote on the EU’s latest proposal to rescue/doom them into penury for years to come? Wouldn’t that be nice (shades of the Beach Boys just now floated by). Messy? Maybe yes, but maybe not.
The two informative commentaries mentioned above are “Time to resign Mr Papandreou” by Greek economics professor Yanis Varoufakis (here), and “Papandreou shows no regret as he faces a grilling from Sarkozy and Merkel” by the Guardian‘s Helena Smith (here). They offer differing perspectives on the Greek PM. Varoufakis scorns his government leader’s latest referendum maneuver as political ploy only. Smith, in contrast, casts Papandreou more admirably, as in this quote from an unidentified “adviser”:
He is not afraid to upset others if he firmly believes it is in the interests of his country. And as a committed socialist George really does believe in the value of participatory democracy.
Well, notwithstanding that Varoufakis makes powerful argument to the contrary, we can hope that Smith’s featured adviser may prove to be auspicious. That whether mere political operator or democracy’s champion, Papandreou will by hook or crook give the people a voice. That would be true democratic process, wouldn’t it?
As for me, I prefer to make my own decisions about who I do or don’t support, rather than allow banks and credit card companies to make them for me.
Click on image above to play video.
Impressively concise assessment of what it means to belong to a currency union — in this case the Euro — offered this week by Protesilaos Stavrou, a young European studies student from Cypress (“Should Germany leave the euro and let others crash and burn?” Aug 27, 2011).
Countries in a currency union are interconnected, since they have first abolished all or most of the trade barriers between them, their economies have practically merged into a single market and their banking sector, as well as other important sectors of the economy, are organically linked. Severing a part of this “organism” will doom both the part and the whole just as if a vital organ is removed from the human body where both die.
The reason that is true is because the country that opts out will trigger a chain effect in the banking sector and in all other sectors it can influence, which will see private banks and other corporations falling one after the other just like in a domino.
It’s not at all hard to find China in the news headlines, given that increasing numbers of people — experts and ordinary citizens — reportedly see it fast arriving as the world’s new superpower.
Highly detailed views from particularly informed experts, however, are not so plentiful. A lengthy video discussion recently between Carl Walter of JP Morgan and Victor Shih of Northwestern University, hosted by G+, is “spectacular” (per MacroBusiness.com) and informative.
For me, one of the most thought provoking observations comes in the first video (starts at 13:44). Walter describes the reaction of the Chinese government to the 2008 financial crisis and the fall of Lehman Brothers. At that point, the highly alarmed Chinese, according to Walter, lost all faith in the Western financial model.
Summing this up, Walter says:
The Chinese want to have a clear model that they can try out and see if it works and then expand on, and now that [Western model] financial system is gone…
Watch the full discussion here, posted on MacroBusiness. Note — the comments section is also interesting.
One of the key events on which the United States is founded is the historical act of citizens refusing to pay their taxes — celebrated by patriots as the Boston Tea Party. So it puzzles me a bit when I hear some of the descendants of these same brave revolutionaries routinely jeer at Italy as a place where people don’t pay their taxes.
One, the blanket condemnation isn’t true. Many Italians do pay their taxes. But for those who don’t, a chart published in the Globe and Mail last Friday offers some justification for the tax-dodging. It shows Italians being taxed at the third highest rate in the developed world (“Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in the developed world” July 29, 2011).
Tax rates in the US, in contrast, are among the lowest, according to the chart, with the country ranking third from the bottom.
A Book Review
That the superrich across the globe are in the process of stealing most of the world’s wealth and resources from the rest of us is by now common knowledge among those who aren’t persisting in turning a blind eye. That superrich defined is the top 1 percent approximately (or 0.01 percent more accurately).
But for those who still don’t know about this mindboggling raid on the human planet and its population, I hope you will take a look at two recent sources of information that describe the process chapter and verse.
The first, thoroughly documented and alarming, is the book “Winner-Take-All Politics” – the authors are two political science professors in American universities (Yale and UC Berkeley), Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.
As an example of what they are writing about, here’s a 1954 quote they cite from President Dwight Eisenhower (Republican):
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt…, a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Unfortunately, as Hacker and Pierson demonstrate over and over in their book, Eisenhower was wrong about his central point. One of the two US major political parties (and the other one also to a huge extent) is persisting in doing just what he described as impossible, and that party is very much still part of political history in the making.
A second source of information about the superrich and their grand theft of all there is to have is a recent article in the UK’s Guardian – “Anxiety keeps the super-rich safe from middle-class rage” by Peter Wilby (May 18, 2011).
That is the most important point about what has happened to incomes in Britain and America during the neoliberal era: the very rich are soaring ahead, leaving behind not only manual workers – now a diminishing minority – but also the middle-class masses, including doctors, teachers, academics, solicitors, architects, Whitehall civil servants and, indeed, many CEOs who don’t run FTSE 100 companies, to say nothing of the marketing, purchasing, personnel, sales and production executives below them.
Neither Hacker and Pierson in their book nor Wilby in his Guardian article play favorites with political labels. The superrich driving this ruthless and barbaric raid on the planet and their fellow human beings evidently don’t care whether you call yourself a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist, Anarchist or general apolitical layabout. To paraphrase the pop song, they just want your money, honey, they don’t need your love.
Again, I highly recommend reading these two exposès. What you choose to do once you are aware of the real state of affairs is, of course, your choice. But this is not the time to stand silently by on the sidelines.
Writing with a fighting voice, wellknown Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Toole sadly and scaldingly recounts the current Irish government’s disgrace and surrender, in an article yesterday for openDemocracy (“Ireland: the challenge of failure” Fintan O’Toole, Nov 23, 2010).
Sovereignty is a bit like a clock whose constant ticking you notice only when it stops. It becomes conspicuous in its absence. Most of the time, in an interdependent world where no nation can exist on its own, it seems a rather fuzzy concept. But it becomes crystal clear when you don’t have it.
There is nothing abstract in the sudden reality of officials from the EU and the IMF poring over the books in Merrion Street and the prospect of all big decisions on government spending and taxation having to be approved by those same bodies for years to come. A simple rule of thumb for a sovereign state is that it – and it alone – makes its own decisions about taxation and spending. For the foreseeable future, Irish governments will not pass this test.
O’Toole’s article offers an inside view of the pain and humiliation an Irish citizen is going through these days. Read full piece here.
Cutting the deficit is the battle cry of many countries’ leaders these days. But, begging to differ, Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang says this is a mistake that ignores the core problem causing the financial crisis.
Chang was speaking in a video interview published online yesterday for the Guardian (“In the worst case scenario these cuts might actually increase the deficit” Nov 22, 2010).
Chang names a different culprit as the cause of deficits and offers ideas for recovery. Chang is the author of the recently published book “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” (see earlier post here).
The world as we know it still has need of strong leaders, be they perfect or most definitely not. For my part — though I’m often gloomily skeptical about the state of the world (Eeyore move over) — I take some comfort in seeing those few women leaders we have now calling the shots for good or ill here and there.
One of those few is here in Europe, the increasingly powerful German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not everyone is happy with her and some are furious, judging by reports in the English language press I’m reading. Well, I’m not cheering wildly for so many of her moves either. My political preferences are a bit left of Chancellor Merkel’s.
But the gender factor in leadership in this case is at least some compensatory pleasure.
Those pros and cons
There’s always some opinion somewhere, though, predicting Merkel’s imminent departure at the hands of grumpy German voters. An in-depth feature at Yahoo! News this week tracks the mixed reviews she receives at home and elsewhere (“Special Report: The two lives of Angela Merkel” by Andreas Rinke and Stephen Brown, Nov 16, 2010).
But an article in yesterday’s Spiegel Online International reports that, at least, when it comes to her position as leader of her party, Merkel is now more secure than ever (“The Beginning of the Merkel Era” Nov 16, 2010).
We smile coyly through our tears.
Online now at the Financial Times (and not behind their paywall – yet) is a feature listing the top 50 women in world business, see here.
In a related piece, the FT features a five-minute video interview with a woman truly at the top on the world political and economic stage, French finance minister Christine Lagarde (“Lagarde speaks out on female quotas” Nov 16, 2010).
Answering questions from FT editor Lionel Barber, Lagarde acknowledges a recent change of mind about what’s needed for women to move beyond being an endangered species in politics around the world and in company board rooms.
Barber: And in practical terms, do you favor quotas to strengthen women’s representation on boards?
Lagarde : Well, when I was a lot younger, I was dead against quotas. I thought at the time that, you know, we should be accepted on our own merits and everybody’s terms. But as I’m getting older, I see that it’s moving on too slowly. And I support quota. I support quota in companies. I support quota in the political circles as well. There are not enough women at the top…
Lagarde was in London as a keynote speaker at the FT‘s Women at the top Conference this week. Click on video link above to hear full FT interview. Go here to read more about Lagarde’s speech at the conference.
Earlier this week an authoritative, much listened to voice on the impact of the Internet on our social and economic structures, Clay Shirky, definitively dissected the recent user statistics of the UK Times and its experiment with locking its news content away behind a paywall.
In a post on his blog, Shirky, writer and New York University professor, offers no optimism about paywalls as saviors of newspapers (“The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics” Nov 8, 2010).
The advantage of paywalls is that they raise revenue from users. The disadvantages are that they reduce readership, increase customer acquisition and retention costs, and eliminate ad revenue from user-forwarded content. In most cases, the disadvantages have outweighed the advantages.
So what’s different about News paywall? Nothing. It’s no different from other pay-for-access plans, whether the NY Times’ TimesSelect* or the Harligen Texas Valley Morning Star.* News Corp has produced no innovation in content, delivery, or payment, and the idea of 90%+ loss of audience was already a rule of thumb over a decade ago. Yet something clearly feels different…
Read full post here.
In his battle against financial corruption in the U.S. Congress — a fight that I support and track on this blog — Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig displays unwavering dedication, bi-partisanship, an open mind and a whole lot of patience.
Yesterday blogging for The Huffington Post, he brought all of these attributes into service in writing a surprising appreciation for the much publicized Tea Party movement in the USA. First pointing out his strong disagreement with some aspects of the movement, he then writes:
…I am a genuine admirer of the urge to reform that is at the heart of the grassroots part of this, perhaps the most important political movement in the current political context.
He goes to elaborate:
My admiration for this movement grew yesterday, as at least the Patriots flavor of the Tea Party movement announced its first fight with (at least some) Republicans. The Tea Party Patriots have called for a GOP moratorium on “earmarks.” Key Republican Leaders (including Senator Jim DeMint and Congressman John Boehner) intend to introduce a resolution to support such a moratorium in their caucus. But many Republicans in both the House and Senate have opposed a moratorium. Earmarks, they insist, are only a small part of the federal budget. Abolishing them would be symbolic at best.
This disagreement has thus set up the first major fight of principle for the Tea Party…
(Earmarks are, according to FactCheck.org, “government funds that are allocated by a legislator for a particular pet project, often without proper review.”)
Read the full post here:
Are we talking about the ship QE2?
Are we, metaphorically speaking, talking about the Titanic?
According to Naked Capitalism‘s Yves Smith, yes, we are in terms of its prospects for the U.S. economy.
Smith is referring to the Federal Reserve (known as the Fed) and its just launched $600 billion quantitative easing program QE2. Yesterday Smith sat for an in-depth interview with Paul Jay at The Real News (videos below).
(On a post on her website today Smith apologized for speaking so fast in this interview, saying she was rushed for time – but there’s a transcript below the videos for anyone who gets a bit lost).
Paul Jay: So let’s see if I have this right. The Fed’s going to take $600 billion and buy government bonds that are owned by the big banks. Except they’re not going to just buy them from the banks, they’re going to let other people buy them from the banks and then sell them to the Fed and make money on that.
I mean the whole thing seems rather bizarre. The critics are saying that this move, as many other moves of the Fed, seems to have absolute benefit for the big banks and relative to dubious benefit to the economy. So what’s your take?
Yves Smith: I would agree with that…
Smith goes on to explain just why the Fed’s QE2 is not a great idea. Along the way, she provides an expert view of the Wall Street (and elsewhere) financial world before, during and after the 2008 crisis. She also talks about the Tea Party movement in the U.S. and why its followers are so angry. A succinct analysis of what President Obama has done to make matters worse is also included.
Highly recommended viewing. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing a bit of reading about QE2, and I think this interview with Smith offers as clear and complete an understanding of the confusing and complicated FED and its various QEs as you may be able to find. (Tip: on the Real News webpage, the bottom video is segment one, and the top video is segment two of the interview).
Warning, you may need a good stiff drink afterwards.
Interview, segment one:
Interview, segment two:
How the international news media is assessing the flogging that the Democrats just took in yesterday’s midterm elections in the U.S., is the subject of an entertaining and informative article by Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy (“The World Weighs in” Nov. 3, 2010).
Opening with a wry sub-heading alluding to the D.C. power shift and the world’s press trying to figure out what it means for them — and whether Obama is still worth talking to, Hounshell writes:
Around the world, though, U.S. midterm elections generally elicit little more than a collective shrug. Beyond the obvious fact that it’s hard to whip up enthusiasm in Brazil over the congressional race for Kansas’s 1st district, the world’s newspapers are generally focused on their own political dramas — Tim Huelskamp’s romp in Kansas isn’t about to kick Dilma Rousseff’s groundbreaking election off the front pages in São Paolo. But this year’s Democratic meltdown is notable because the global infatuation with Obama is now cast against his diminished luster in the United States. To the extent that there is any theme to the coverage, it’s an attempt to answer the age-old question: What’s in it for us? But, moving forward, there’s a larger issue lurking: Is Obama still the undisputed leader of the world’s most powerful nation?
Hounshell then moves into a rundown of some commentary in some of the world’s leading newspapers. A good read — see the full piece here.
It’s still too early to yet find much homegrown, morning after opinion of the meaning of yesterday’s big and messy skid downward for the Democratic Party in the 2010 midterm elections. In the meantime, here are some quotes and other stuff I’ve found that may be of interest.
From Jeremy P. Jacobs at the National Journal (“Starting Lineup: After The Storm“):
Good Wednesday morning. Here’s what’s on the radar: Republicans deliver a Democratic bloodbath in the House; Democrats hold off the Republican tidal wave in the Senate; GOP picks up eight governorships to the Democrats’ one…
From Paul Begala at The Daily Beast (“Election Night Fallout“):
It’s jobs, stupid. That’s the lesson I take from this election. For all the bloviating that Americans hated Speaker Pelosi, or opposed Obamacare, or wanted to shrink the federal government, this election was about jobs. If the unemployment rate had been 4 percent instead of 9.6 percent (and by the broader U6 measure, 17 percent), Obamacare would be beloved. If we were creating jobs by the hundreds of thousands there would be no Tea Party. If the economy were humming like it was under President Clinton, no one would be wringing their hands about President Obama’s inability to emote.
From Alan Fram for The Associated Press (“Exit poll: Ailing economy, tea party fuel GOP”):
The exit poll also pointed to problems for Obama as he considers a 2012 re-election bid. In a sign of his diminished luster, hardly any first-time voters went to the polls Tuesday despite campaign-trail pleas – a contrast to 2008, when about 1 in 10 voters were new and strongly backed Obama.
Independents supported him solidly two years ago but on Tuesday disapproved of his job performance by almost 3-2. They were also pivotal for Republican candidates, giving them about 55 percent of their votes after leaning solidly Democratic in Obama’s 2008 presidential race and the 2006 midterms that saw Democrats win congressional control.
From Amanda Paulson at the Christian Science Monitor (“Amid big Republican gains, House gets more polarized”):
In many cases, those Democrats lost despite amassing relatively conservative voting records and opposing key Obama Administration initiatives.
At the same time, it was a banner night for many conservative, tea-party-anointed Republican candidates.
More from National Journal, this by Ron Fournier (“GOP Gains Control of House, Narrows Dem Lead in Senate”):
With unemployment at 9.6 percent nationally, interviews with voters revealed an extraordinarily sour electorate, stressed financially and poorly disposed toward the president, the political parties, and the federal government.
About 4 in 10 voters said they were worse off financially now than they were two years ago, according to preliminary exit poll results and preelection surveys by the Associated Press. More than 1 in 3 said their votes were an expression of opposition to Obama. More than half expressed negative views about both political parties. Roughly 40 percent of voters considered themselves supporters of the conservative tea party movement. Less than half said they wanted the government to do more to solve problems.
From James Burnett, Rolling Stone (“Things We Learned at the Midterms“):
–A hard-line stance on immigration isn’t the winning position some GOP candidates and their consultants seem to think it is. Just ask Angle, Carly Fiorina, and Tom Tancredo.
From Michael Tomasky, blogging for the Guardian (“Midterm election results: the fight Obama now faces”):
Come next year, Obama will need to do two opposite things simultaneously. He will have to move to the middle on some issues. Independents, who backed him in 2008, left his party in massive numbers this year. If he can’t get a big chunk of them back, he will not be re-elected in 2012.
But he also has to fight. Republicans will pick fights, and they’ll think they can roll him. And they will hold a constant parade of hearings investigating the administration, trying to snare some big administration fish (maybe Obama himself?) in a perjury or obstruction of justice trap.
Republicans play for keeps. And now, Obama is going to have to, too. It’s a long and grim way from 2008.
Also from the Guardian, a video offering glimpses of a few conspicuous winners and losers (“US midterm election results herald new political era as Republicans take House”):
Not only candidates
But there were important things in play yesterday other than just Democratic and Republican candidates. There also were various voter referendums around the country. One that was most closely watched was the initiative calling for legalization of marijuana in California. It lost.
Or did it really? From Tim Dickinson at Rolling Stone (“California’s Prop 19: Just Say…Maybe Next Time”):
Prop 19 actually provides a textbook lesson in “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.” Strong public support for legalization gave the state legislature and the Governator cover to decriminalize marijuana a month ago. In early October, they overhauled California law so that there’s no longer any sanction for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana. Smoking dope is now an infraction — like a parking ticket. No felony. No misdemeanor. If you get hassled by a cop, the worst thing that’ll happen to you is you have to pony up a $100 fine.
And now to finish this saga of opining
As a dismal illustration that the more things change the more they remain the same, I end the round-up with this. One thing that definitely didn’t alter in yesterday’s election (except in tiny glimmers here and there) is that in the U.S. Congressional landscape white men still rule.
For a whole bunch of pictures that speak volumes about this, take a look at this photo roster of the new group of freshmen Congressional members. Again from the National Journal, see here (“Meet the Newcomers of the 112th Congress”).