Mathless thinking pervasive

John Hussman is one of the few useful thinkers on the numbers behind mainstream mindlessness on bank bailouts. His letter this week is worth reading. Here are some of the highlights:

-“…among the most important research coordination that government provides comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds basic medical research in cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other conditions, and where the total annual budget is about $31 billion annually (roughly $100 per American). Add in just over $7 billion in research through the National Science Foundation, and about $120 per citizen a year is spent by the government on essential medical and non-military scientific research through these agencies. These figures pale in comparison to the amounts that are increasingly demanded in order to make bondholders whole on their voluntary, bad investments. The Federal Reserve provided an amount equal to the entire NIH budget simply to backstop the rescue of Bear Stearns, which allowed Bear Stearns bondholders to receive 100 cents on the dollar, plus interest. In return, the Fed got questionable assets that it pouched into a shell company called “Maiden Lane,” which were later reported to have “underperformed.”

–“That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we’ve become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner’s triumph and humanity’s collective loss.”

–” The most depressing display of math-illiteracy by investors last week was the excitement over a report suggesting that France and Germany had agreed to a 2 trillion euro bailout package for Europe, which triggered a “risk-on” tone for the rest of the week, even after the report was retracted as inaccurate. It was almost beyond belief that investors took that report seriously, but people have become so tolerant of unbelievably large figures that virtually any bailout number can now be tossed out without triggering the least bit of scrutiny. Notably, 2 trillion euros is more than the GDP of France, and is half the GDP of Germany and France combined.”

–“Of course, Europe wouldn’t need to blow all of these public resources or impose depression on Greek citizens if bank stockholders and bondholders were required to absorb the losses that result from the mind-boggling leverage taken by European banks. It’s that leverage (born of inadequate capital requirements and regulation), not simply bad investments or even Greek default per se, that is at the core of the crisis.”

–“..weak regulation of bank leverage, inadequate capital requirements, and the need for prompt, streamlined restructuring for insolvent banks are among the most urgent problems that the global economy faces. Consider this. The Financial Times reported on Friday that in 2008, Dexia lent 1.5 billion euros of its capital to two institutional investors, who used the cash to buy newly issued shares in … wait for it … Dexia. Remember that as a bank, Dexia operated at leverage of about 50 times its tangible shareholder equity (see last week’s comment ). So Dexia’s maneuver made it possible to meet regulatory capital standards and take on a huge amount of additional leverage, without actually raising any bona-fide capital. As FT noted, “The unorthodox funding move, which roused Belgian regulators’ concern at the time, amounted to Dexia borrowing money from itself to finance a capital increase. This is illegal in most jurisdictions and is now banned in the European Union, but did not break Belgium’s existing laws.”

-“…overbought rallies in negative market climates (as we observe today) simply fail…as for stocks, recession-linked bear markets don’t end before the recession even begins.”

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3 Responses to Mathless thinking pervasive

  1. michael says:

    Is it “deja’ vu all over again”?
    The 2009 “bottom” was marked by a well timed up beat statement by a bank CEO.
    The 2011 version by Merkel and Co.

    The puppet dance continues to the wild applause of the crowd….the comedic tragedy continues to it’s inevitable conclusion.

  2. taxpayer says:

    John Hussman’s letter EVERY week is worth reading. Thanks for the reminder.

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