Friday, March 25, 2011

Have we learned enough in the last century?

Buzz Potamkin at Naked Capitalism takes a look at the 100th anniversary of the Shirtwaist Fire. And realizes that we've not grown as much as we could have in the last 100 years - at least in terms of protecting workers. In this post, he reminds us of some business-driven catastrophes that have happened in this millennium...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Someone like you"

This woman has incredible pipes. Here's Adele at the 2011 Brit awards...

An event noted for its striking use of color...

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research is hosting a lecture on "the state of white America."

Once I picked my chin off the floor, I  wondered if the red-staters in the audience will don brown shirts for this rally around the white folk...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Questioning the morality of a $54.5 million pay package

Ford's gearing up for upcoming negotiations with the United Auto Workers by offering Alan Mulally, Ford's CEO, stock options in the company worth $54.5 million.

And that's just a piece of Mulally's package. According to the Chicago Tribune, "his full compensation package has yet to be disclosed." 

UAW president Bob King is outraged:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Let's go Dutch!

WSJ has an interesting story today about ING's CEO's decision to "give up his €1.25 million bonus for 2010, in a bid to allay public anger on his reward for steering the bailed-out Dutch financial-services company back into a profit last year."

Now the way that quote is written suggests some kind of communist uprising from people who are anti-business - that "the people" don't want smart people to be rewarded for bringing a company "back into profit."

That's not true, actually. "The people" just don't want leaders of bailed out companies that are still on the dole to get bonuses. I hear that over here in America a lot, but no one ever seems to listen to those complaints.

So what we have with ING is something completely unimaginable in America. Not only do Dutch citizens get angry over what they perceive to be unfair and unreasonable bonuses to bankers, the bankers actually listen to them!

And check out this nugget:

Monday, March 21, 2011

A remarkable shift in consumer spending habits

The NY Fed has an article seeking to answer the question "Have consumers been deleveraging?"

And according to the story, the answer is a dramatic "yes."

Here's a quote:
"Between 2000 and 2007, consumers’ borrowing added an annual average of about $330 billion to the cash they could spend; by 2009, consumers were diverting $150 billion away from potential spending in order to reduce the debts they had built up. This represents a remarkable $480 billion reversal in cash flow in just two years."

That IS a remarkable change in spending habits! The NY Fed is not clear whether this is by consumer choice or by design:
"A remaining issue is whether this deleveraging is a result of borrowers being forced to pay down debt as credit standards tightened, or a more voluntary change in saving behavior. There is evidence on both sides of this question."
 It's probably a little of both, from what I'm seeing. But in the science of economics, there seems a compulsion for the "either, or" scenario.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The gift that doesn't keep on giving...

Back in 2008, when our economy was in the midst of its nose dive, Warren Buffet stepped in and gave Goldman Sachs a shot in the arm with a $5 billion "investment" in the "bank holding company."

At the time, Buffet was quoted in the Guardian as saying::

"Five years from now, ten years from now, we will look back at this period and we will say you could have made some extraordinary buys.

"The American economy over a period of time will do very well, and people that own a piece of it will do very well."

At that time, he also praised Goldman Sachs for being "an exceptional institution" with an "unrivaled global franchise, a proven and deep management team and the intellectual and financial capital to continue its track record of outperformance."

Back then, Buffet's investment boosted confidence in the markets and calmed the markets.

Today, Buffet has proved to be right about the "extraordinary buys" to be had back in 2008. He was certainly right about characterizing Goldman Sachs as an "exceptional institution."

But he's proving wrong about how people who invested in those "extraordinary buys" would "do very well."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The "powers that be" better watch out...

Parents are beginning to get mad...

I live in Illinois, a state on the brink of financial disaster, a state that is looking to shed billions of dollars from its budget. In its quest to shed those billions, it's floating the idea that school districts now must be consolidated from almost 900 districts to 300.

This idea of consolidation has sparked a lively dialogue in my community. And from what I see is that parents and (unionized) school employees are united in what we don't want to see happen. We don't want more kids in the classroom. We don't want less teachers. We don't see the value of cutting art, physical education and music from the curriculum.

What we want is for our children to have access to the best education we can provide.

What I'm also beginning to hear from fellow parents of school-aged children are questions about the current national focus on pumping billions into our financial sector while our schools are beginning to starve for funds.

What is a society that rewards bankers as it penalizes children?

Friday, March 11, 2011

A snapshot of all that is wrong with healthcare in America

If you've ever been to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you know the pain, terror, hope, fear, grief and love that can be found there. This is where premature babies are nurtured and cared for, a place where you can find diapers the size of big bandaids, a place where medicine can work incredible miracles. Sometimes, it's a place where tiny babies take their first and last breath.

It's a place you hope you never have to be.

There is a drug that can help prevent premature birth. It's a progesterone shot administered weekly, and it's been used for years to help families stay out of the NICU.

In 2003, a study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed these weekly injections "resulted in a substantial reduction in the rate of recurrent preterm delivery among women who were at particularly high risk for preterm delivery and reduced the likelihood of several complications in their infants" (as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

This week, the shot costs about $10 to $20 a dose. Next week, thanks to KV Pharmaceuticals and the FDA, a single dose will now cost $1500.

What happened?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Newt's "come to God" moment, nicely timed...

He's been divorced twice. Served the divorce papers to the first wife when she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. Then married a second time to the woman he'd had an affair with while married to the first.

Then he dumped wife #2 for a woman 23 years younger than him. It was an affair he conducted right around the time he was putting the heat on Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky...

Three marriages into his life, Newt Gingrich is now a convert to Catholicism (in 2009). The church that will excommunicate parishioners if they remarry after divorce.

(Though I guess if you pay the annulment fee, you can pretend the first marriage was a figment of your imagination. Apparently, annulments are booming in the US.)

What's even worse than Newt's three marriages? According to the Chicago Tribune, he's apparently now blaming his infidelities on his love of country. Here's how he's quoted in the Chicago Tribune:

"There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate," Gingrich said.

"What I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn't trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them," he said. "I found that I felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness. Not God's understanding, but God's forgiveness."

Quotes come from an interview he gave to the Christian Broadcasting Network. One wonders just what he means when he says he "wasn't trapped in situation ethics." Does it make it better or worse to be trapped in "situation ethics?"

What does it all mean? That the 2012 season has begun. I myself am weary of politicians who try get good and Godly on us right around the time they decide to run for a big office.

Newt may have asked for God's forgiveness, but he's not gonna get mine. Any man who served divorce papers to a woman undergoing cancer treatment does not have the moral character we need in a president.

Articles you won't see promoted on include:

Politico's bit on Callista Gringrich (wife #3)

The Trib's story

WaPo's take on Newt's conversations about past indiscretions.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When the real meets the virtual, laughter ensues

The real Rahm Emanuel met up the other day with the fake Rahm, Columbia College professor Dan Sinker, the man behind the @mayoremanuel twitter feed. According to the Trib, Real Rahm was in good humor and Fake Rahm was more than a bit nervous:

"Hi, honey, I'm home," the mayor-elect said as he extended his hand to Dan Sinker, the 36-year-old Columbia College journalism assistant professor whose @MayorEmanuel Twitter account became an online sensation before its anonymous author sent his protagonist into the cosmos the day after Emanuel was elected mayor. "Relax, man."

"I am so not relaxed," Sinker said with a laugh, the cheeks above his pointy salt-and-pepper beard having turned beet-red.

"You have tenure," Emanuel quipped. "Don't worry about it. I already called it in."

Real Rahm also suggested that he'd hook up Sinker with his brother, an agent at William Morris, "so I can get my $5,000 back."

When the laughs were done, the mayor-elect handed over a $5,000 check to Sinker's charity of choice - Young Chicago Authors, an after-school organization that teaches creative writing to Chicago Public School students. Chicago media personalities Dan Coe and Richard Roeper each kicked in $1000 and promised to match the mayor-elect's $5,000.

Wanna donate?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A rose by any other name still smells as sweet...

That's why rebranding "too big to fail" (TBTF) institutions as "systemically important" doesn't really change the fact that they are still TBTF. In fact, due to consolidation and bankruptcies, these institutions are even bigger and more "systemically important" than in 2008.

I had never heard of "TBTF" until the crash of 2008, but apparently, the phrase had been bandied about at least since the 1984 collapse of Chicago's Continental Bank, a failure that motivated Ronald Reagan to abandon his free market principles and bail out the bank.

I myself prefer VoxEu's characterization of these institutions as "systemically risky." Let's use language that does not cloud the reality of our financial sector today. Is a "preowned" car any different than "used"? That's why I like "systemically risky." It does not obfuscate the fact that our financial system is as rickety (or even more rickety) than in 2008, when the sector collapsed in that terrifying global panic.

In 2009 testimony to Congress, Ben Bernanke shows he understands how the "systemically important" designation can lead to a risky identification with TBTF:

"Indeed, a more macroprudential focus is essential in light of the potential for explicit regulatory identification of systemically important firms to exacerbate the 'too big to fail' problem. Unless countervailing steps are taken, the belief by market participants that a particular firm is too big to fail, and that shareholders and creditors of the firm may be partially or fully protected from the consequences of a failure, has many undesirable effects. It materially weakens the incentive of shareholders and creditors of the firm to restrain the firm’s risk-taking, provides incentives for financial firms to become very large in order to be perceived as too big to fail, and creates an unlevel competitive playing field with smaller firms that may not be regarded as having implicit government support."

I know the Fed is working on developing resolution criteria to be used when a very large bank fails. But that doesn't change the fact that today's "systemically important" financial institutions remain as risky to our economy as the TBTF banks that dragged us off that cliff in 2008.

Some additional links:
A 2010 Mother Jones article on the influence of Wall Street lobbyists over regulatory legislation

FDIC 1997 report/book chapter on the failure of Continental Bank

Miami Herald article on Ben Bernanke's testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (09/03/10)

FCIC's report on the financial crisis

Politcal unrest in America, as shared with friends on Facebook

Facebook is interesting because you communicate with friends from all phases of your life. And if you're on Facebook, you know that certain topics and videos get shared by a variety of people from very different backgrounds.

Here's the political chit chat that's trending today with my Facebook friends:

A unionized public employee, a teabagger, and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies, looks at the teabagger and says, 'Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie."

Not sure of the source of that joke, but to me, it's a sign that the out-of-balance compensation program we've got going on in America is beginning to simmer on the burner of public opinion. Hope we're not that frog, continuing to sit in increasingly hotter water until we boil to death.

So not everyone is happy with GM these days...

Two WSJ reporters, Evan Newmark and Dennis Berman, offer up some reasons to "hate GM."

Reasons to hate GM include:
— Falling share prices
— The recently profitable automaker operates in an industry "plagued by overcapacity"
— Incentive payments in US went up in 2010 Q4
— Rising price of oil a problem for an automaker dependent on the sale of its trucks
— A small competitor (Volvo) has just gotten a big backer (China)