Capital Markets, IPO, Bubbles and Stock Market Crashes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 22nd, 2013

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs turn to Venture Capitalists because they Need a Lot of Money Fast

It takes money to make money.  Anyone who ever started a business knows this only too well.  For starting a money-making business takes money.  A lot of it.  New business owners will use their lifesavings.  Mortgage their home.  Borrow from their parents.  Or if they have a really good business plan and own a house with a lot of equity built up in it they may be able to get a loan from a bank.  Or find a cosigner who is willing to pledge some collateral to secure a loan.

Once the business is up and running they depend on business profits to pay the bills.  And service their debt.  If the business struggles they turn to other sources of financing.  They pay their bills slower.  They use credit cards.  They draw down their line of credit at their bank.  They go back to a parent and borrow more money.  A lot of businesses fail at this point.  But some survive.  And their profits not only pay their bills and service their debt.  But these profits can sustain growth.

This is one path.  Entrepreneurs with a brilliant new invention may need a lot of money fast.  To pay for land, a large building for manufacturing, equipment and tooling, energy, waste disposal, packaging, distribution and sales.  And all the people in production and management.  This is just too much money for someone’s lifesavings or a home mortgage to pay for.  So they turn to venture capital.  Investors who will take a huge risk and pay these costs in return for a share of the profits.  And the huge windfall when taking the company public.  If the company doesn’t fail before going public.

The Common Stockholders take the Biggest Risk of All who Finance a Business

As a company grows they need more financing.  And they turn to the capital markets.  To issue bonds.  A large loan broken up into smaller pieces that many bond purchasers can buy.  Each bond paying a fixed interest rate in return for these buyers (i.e., creditors) taking a risk.  Businesses have to redeem their bonds one day (i.e., repay this loan).  Which they don’t have to do with stocks.  The other way businesses raise money in the capital markets.   When owners take their business public they are selling it to investors.  This initial public offering (IPO) of stock brings in money to the business that they don’t have to pay back.  What they give up for this wealth of funding is some control of their business.  The investors who buy this stock get dividends (similar to interest) and voting rights in exchange for taking this risk.  And the chance to reap huge capital gains.

The common stockholders take the biggest risk in financing a business.  (Preferred stockholders fall between bondholders and common stockholders in terms of risk, get a fixed dividend but no voting rights.)  In exchange for that risk they get voting rights.  They elect the board of directors.  Who hire the company’s officers.  So they have the largest say in how the business does its business.  Because they have the largest stake in the company.  After all, they own it.  Which is why businesses work hard to please their common stockholders.  For if they don’t they can lose their job.

During profitable times the board of directors may vote to increase the dividend on the common stock.  But if the business is not doing well they may vote to reduce the dividend.  Or suspend it entirely.  What will worry stockholders, though, more than a reduced dividend is a falling stock price.  For stockholders make a lot of money by buying and selling their shares of stock.  And if the price of their stock falls while they’re holding it they will not be able to sell it without taking a loss on their investment.  So a reduced dividend may be the least of their worries.  As they are far more concerned about what is causing the value of their stock to fall.

Investors make Money by Buying and Selling Stocks based on this Simple Adage, “Buy Low, Sell High.”

A business only gets money from investors from the IPO.  Once investors buy this stock they can sell it in the secondary market.  This is what drives the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  This buying and selling of stocks between investors on the secondary market.  A business gets no additional funding from these transactions.  But they watch the price of their stock very closely.  For it can affect their ability to get new financing.  Creditors don’t want to take all of the risk.  Neither do investors. They want to see a mix of debt (bonds) and equity (stocks).  And if the stock price falls it will be difficult for them to raise money by issuing more stock.  Forcing them to issue more bonds.  Increasing the risk of the creditors.  Which raises the bond interest rate they must pay to attract creditors.  Which makes it hard for the business to raise money to finance operations when their stock price falls.  Not to mention putting the jobs of executive management at risk.

Why?  Because this is not why venture capitalists risk their money.  It is not why investors buy stock in an IPO.  They take these great risks to make money.  Not to lose money.  And the way they expect to get rich is with a rising stock price.  Business owners and their early financers get a share of the stock at the IPO.  For their risk-taking.  And the higher the stock trades for after the IPO the richer they get.  When the stock price settles down after a meteoric rise following the IPO the entrepreneurs and their venture capitalists can sell their stock at the prevailing market price and become incredibly rich.  Thanks to a huge capital gain in the price of the stock.  At least, that is the plan.

But what causes this huge capital gain?  The expectations of future profitability of the new public company.  It’s not about what it is doing today.  But what investors think they will be doing tomorrow.  If they believe that their new product will be the next thing everyone must have investors will want to own that stock before everyone starts buying those things.  So they can take that meteoric rise along with the stock price.  As this new product produces record profits for this business.  So everyone will bid up the price because the investors must have this stock.  Just as they are sure consumers will feel they must have what this business sells.  When there are a lot of companies competing in the same technology market all of these tech stock prices can rise to great heights.  As everyone is taking a big bet that the company they’re buying into will make that next big thing everyone must have.  Causing these stocks to become overvalued.  As these investors’ enthusiasm gets the better of them.  And when reality sets in it can be devastating.

Investors make money by buying and selling stocks.  The key to making wealth is this simple adage, “Buy low, sell high.”  Which means you don’t want to be holding a stock when its price is falling.  So what is an investor to do?  Sell when it could only be a momentary correction before continuing its meteoric rise?  Missing out on a huge capital gain?  Or hold on to it waiting for it to continue its meteoric rise?  Only to see the bottom fall out causing a great financial loss?  The kind of loss that has made investors jump out of a window?  Tough decision.  With painful consequences if an investor decides wrong.  Sometimes it’s just not one individual investor.  If a group of stocks are overvalued.  If there is a bubble in the stock market.  And it bursts.  Look out.  The losses will be huge as many overvalued stocks come crashing down.  Causing a stock market crash.  A recession.  A Great Recession.  Even a Great Depression.

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GM doing well in China after the Taxpayer-Funded Obama Administration Bailout

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 23rd, 2012

Week in Review

President Obama saved General Motors (GM).  He bailed them out.  Instead of letting them go through normal bankruptcy proceedings where the creditors are protected and contracts are rewritten so the company can become competitive again.  The Obama bailout didn’t follow normal bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor contract law.  Secured creditors became unsecured by presidential decree.  They transferred ownership to the UAW.  And billions of taxpayers’ money propped up the UAW pension fund.  None of which improved GM’s competitiveness.  And the Obama administration poured more money into the Chevy Volt that no one wanted and few are buying.

But the president did all of these things to save US jobs.  Even though normal bankruptcy proceedings would have made GM more competitive and actually created more jobs.  In fact, under normal bankruptcy proceedings those new jobs would probably have been in the US (see GM opens China test track in effort to remain market leader by Ben Klayman posted 9/21/2012 on Reuters).

General Motors Co(GM.N) opened a new, large vehicle test track west of Shanghai on Saturday as part of its push to retain its leading market share in the world’s largest auto market.

The No. 1 U.S. automaker and its joint venture partners, including SAIC Motor (600104.SS), invested about $252.5 million to build what GM China President Kevin Wale called the country’s largest proving ground…

GM invests $1.5 billion annually in China.

The government still owns GM stock.  So that investment in China was technically made by a company the US government partially owns.  And some of those dollars invested in China were US taxpayer dollars.  So the Obama bailout of GM has allowed GM to invest in China.  And to create jobs in China.

GM is making the investment despite a slowing in the Chinese auto market because it is focused on the long-term growth prospects, Wale said…

GM, whose joint venture in China began building vehicles in 1999, sells under the Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Opel, Wuling, Baojun and Jiefing brands. Wale said GM had to continue to roll out new products as the market grows, including adding products in the SUV and luxury car segments.

The government has raised fuel economy standards and pushed the Chevy Volt.  So we would stop buying the cars we want to buy.  And start buying the cars they want us to buy.  Like the Chevy Volt.  While the Chinese are expanding the SUV and luxury car segments.  Making it easy for the Chinese to buy the cars they want to buy.  Thanks to that taxpayer-financed government bailout.

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States’ Rights, Debt, Interstate Commerce, Russia, Barbary Pirates, Spain, Britain, Shays Rebellion and Miracle of Philadelphia

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 19th, 2012

Politics 101

After Winning their Independence from Great Britain the Common Enemy was no more Leaving them Little Reason to Unite

The South lost the American Civil War for a few reasons.  Perhaps the greatest was the North’s industrial superiority.  Her industry could make whatever they needed to wage war.  While the South suffered behind the Union’s blockade.  Unable to trade their cotton for the means to wage war.  And then there was the fact that the North was united.  While the states’ rights issue that they were fighting for prevented the South from being united.  The southern states (whose governments were dominated by the planter elite) did not like the federal government in Washington (except when they forced northern states to return southern slaves).  And as it turned out the states didn’t like the federal government in Richmond any better.  They fought Jefferson Davis from consolidating his power.  They put the states’ interests ahead of the national interest.  Such as winning a war to secure their states’ rights.  And any supplies a state had they wouldn’t share them with another state.  Even if they had a warehouse full of surplus shoes while troops from another states fought barefoot.

So the North won the American Civil War because they were united.  They had an advanced economy based on free market capitalism and free labor.  And they were wealthy.  Basically because of the prior two statements.  But it wasn’t always like this.  The United States of America is a large country.  Even before it was a country.  When it was only a confederation of sovereign states.  With independent republican governments.  Still it covered great tracts of land.  Allowing the states to keep to themselves.  Much like it would be some 75 years later in the South.

After winning their independence from Great Britain the common enemy was no more.  And they had little reason to unite.  Which they didn’t.  For the several states included a lot of disparate people.  Who agreed on little with the people beyond their state’s borders.  Which was one of the criticisms of republican government (i.e., an elected representative government).  And one held by perhaps the greatest influence on the Framers of the Constitution.  French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu.  Who believed that the larger the geographic size the more dissimilar the people’s interest.  And therefore making republican government more difficult.  As it was too difficult to arrive at a consensus with such a large electorate.  Which James Madison disagreed with, making this a heated topic during the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process.  But before that convention it would appear to be incontrovertible.  The United States were anything but united.

The Americans defeated one Distant Central Power and were none too keen on Answering to a New Central Power

The first American identity appeared in the Continental Army.  Where soldiers came from different states and fought together as Americans.  General Washington fostered this spirit.  Forbidding any anti-Catholic displays.  One thing that all the Protestant American colonists enjoyed.  No matter which state they came from.  But to fight the British Empire they needed a large army drawn from all the states.  And to get the French Canadians living in British Canada to join them they needed to embrace religious freedom.  Even for Catholics.  Which was even more important if they had any chance of getting support from the most likely foreign power.  The eternal enemy of Britain.  Catholic France.  Washington, as well as those who served in the Continental Army, understood the success of their cause required less infighting and more uniting.  That it was imperative to set aside their sectional interests.  Only then could the new nation join the world of nations.  Strong and independent.  And avoid the European nations pulling them into their intrigues.

But of course that wasn’t going to happen.  After the war no one called themselves American.  Except for a few.  Like Washington.  And some other veterans of the Continental Army.  No.  The country people belonged to was their state.  Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, called Virginia his country.  As did most if not all of the Patriots of ’76.  The war was over.  They defeated the distant central power.  And they were none too keen on a new central power to answer to.  Even if it was on their side of the Atlantic.  To these Revolutionary Patriots the Continental Congress was just another foreign legislature trying to infringe on their sovereignty.

The national congress had no power.  Delegates didn’t always show up leaving the congress without a quorum.  Which didn’t matter much as they couldn’t pass anything when they had a quorum.  For any legislation they wanted to pass into law required a unanimous vote of all thirteen states.  Which rarely happened.  They couldn’t levy taxes.  Which meant they couldn’t fund an army or navy to protect their states from foreign aggressors.  Or protect their international trade on the high seas.  Which was a problem as the British no longer provided these services.  And they couldn’t repay any of their debts.  Their prewar debt owed to a lot of British creditors (which they had to repay according to the treaty that ended the war and gave them their independence).  Or their war debt.  States owed other states.  And the Congress owed foreign creditors in Europe.  Especially their war-time ally.  France.  Who they owed a fortune to.  The states charged duties and tariffs on interstate commerce.  They made their own treaties with the Indians.  Some states defaulted on the debt they owed to out of state creditors.  States even fought each other over land.  The Untied States were anything but united.  And it showed.

The Delegates of the Continental Congress agreed to meet in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation

Europe watched the Americans with amusement and contempt.  The Americans didn’t get much respect from Catherine the Great, tsarina of Russia.  The ruler of the world’s largest country viewed the Americans as a bit uppity and not worthy to join the European courts.  Besides, she was more interested in expanding her powers into Turkey.  And into Poland.  Who caught some of that spirit of liberty from the Americans.  That Catherine wanted to squelch.  Making her less of an America fan.  But it wasn’t only Russia.  The Barbary pirates were targeting American shipping in the Mediterranean.  Selling their crews to the slave markets of North Africa.  Western settlers using the Mississippi River to ship their produce were denied passage through the Port of New Orleans by Spain.  The British refused to vacate their forts in the Northwest.  Even worked with the Indians to cause some mischief in the borderlands.  Why did the Europeans do these things?  Because they could.  For the Americans could not stop them.

To make matters worse the Americans were drifting towards civil war.  The northern provinces were talking about leaving the confederation and forming their own.  The North feared the South would do the same.  Even aligning itself more with Europe than the American states.  Meanwhile the economy was tanking.  Trade was down.  People were out of work.  Farmers were unable to pay their debts.  Even losing their farms.  In western Massachusetts Daniel Shays gathered together disgruntled veterans and rebelled.  Again.  Only this time it wasn’t against the British.  It was against the legal authorities in Massachusetts.  Shays Rebellion spread to other states.  And grew violent.  Massachusetts asked the Continental Congress for help.  And the Congress asked the states for $530,000 to raise an army to put down the rebellion.  Twelve of the thirteen states said “no.”

With no other choice Massachusetts went to rich people for funding.  Used it to raise a militia of some 4,400 men.  In time and after some bloody fighting they put down this rebellion.  But some of the rebels continued a guerilla war.  Making many in the new United States live in fear.  Washington, despondent of what was happening to the republic he had fought for so long to secure, pleaded, “Let us look to our national character and to things beyond the present moment.”  And so they did.  The delegates of the Continental Congress agreed to meet in Philadelphia in 1787.  To revise the Articles of Confederation.  To reign in the chaos.  To get their finances in order.  And to gain the respect of the world of nations.  But to do that would require s stronger central government.  And that is exactly what emerged from Philadelphia.  So they did what the Confederates did not do nearly 75 years later.  Which is the reason why they lost the American Civil War.  Because of an ideal.  States’ rights.  That was so absolute that it weakened the Confederacy to the point she could not survive.  Something the Miracle of Philadelphia prevented in 1787.  Which left the states sovereign.  And the new federal government only governed that which extended beyond the states’ borders.  And it worked well.  For some 75 years.  When it hit a road bump.

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Obama’s Economic Policies have Failed because they’re Keynesian Economic Policies

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 2nd, 2011

Government Spending and Easy Monetary Policy haven’t created any Jobs 

The new jobs report is in.  It’s not good.  Surprise, surprise (see ‘No confidence’ sparks rush to safety by Blake Ellis posted 9/2/2011 on CNNMoney).

The Labor Department reported that the economy added no jobs in August, while the unemployment rate remained at 9.1%. That was the worst reading since September 2010, when the economy lost 27,000 jobs.

Economists had been expecting a weak report given the recent debt ceiling gridlock, plunging consumer confidence and the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating in August. But what they got was even worse than expected.

These Keynesian economists have been predicting every kind of wonderful they could with every new Keynesian policy.  But government spending and easy monetary policy haven’t created any jobs.  If they did we’d have them.  Jobs.  But we don’t have them.  After close to 3 years of trying.  I mean, the economy is so bad that oil prices are falling.

Since a healthy economy typically spurs demand for oil, fears that another recession is around the corner are causing traders to worry about waning demand, said Flynn.

“Crude oil is looking at demand destruction right now,” he said. “With a lack of people going back to work and economic data as a whole as it is, it’s just not a supportive environment for higher prices.”

So the Obama administration has spent the U.S. to record deficits.  And record debt.  But because so many people are unemployed demand for oil is destructing.  What a terrible tradeoff for cheaper oil.

Oil is the lifeblood of a healthy economy.  So you know an economy is not healthy when people aren’t buying oil.  In a country where chronically insufficient domestic supplies once raised the price of gasoline to over $4/gallon.  Now any spikes in gas prices seem to have more to do with a depreciating dollar (thanks to all that easy monetary policy) than demand.

Keynesians see no Downside to Excessive Government Spending or Inflation

Still there are some who say the problem is not excessive spending.  But spending that was not excessive enough (see Fatal Distraction by Paul Krugman posted 9/2/2011 on The New York Times).

Zero job growth, with unemployment still at nosebleed levels. Meanwhile, the interest rate on 10-year US bonds is down to 2.04%, and it’s negative on inflation-protected securities.

Aren’t you glad we pivoted from jobs to deficits a year and a half ago?

Krugman is a Keynesian.  So by ‘jobs’ he means government spending.  And by ‘deficits’ he means responsible government.  He sees no downside to excessive government spending.  Or inflation.  As if the 1970s never happened.

A lot of People hate the Rich and Successful, especially Ivy League Elitists

But the 1970s did happen.  And we had double-digit inflation at the end of that decade.  Didn’t help.  It didn’t make a dent in the unemployment numbers.  Yet there are those who want to take that very dangerous road again (see View: Inflation Is Easy to Free, Hard to Control by the Editors posted 9/1/2011 on Bloomberg).

…But now, a growing number of voices, mainly on the left wing of the Democratic Party but also in the Federal Reserve, are calling for what is in effect default in slow motion. It goes by the name of inflation.

Inflation decreases the value of debts, like the $14 trillion owed by the federal government to lenders such as the government of China (and a lot of ordinary American savers, too), and it increases the value of assets, like houses. Thus it helps all debtors, from the federal government to individual homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages. Inflation has been running at an average of 2.4 percent over the past decade. After a couple of years of, say, 6 percent inflation, that $14 trillion would be worth closer to $12 trillion in current dollars. A $400,000 mortgage would be worth about $350,000.

Some may say, shrinks debt?  Increases asset value?  Well where’s the problem with that? 

We call it class warfare.  Of the worse kind.  Creditors versus debtors.  The poor versus the rich.  The poor hate the rich because they have to borrow from them to buy a house.  And they would love to not pay them back.  But if you start doing this eventually the rich won’t loan their money anymore.  So there will eventually be no more home ownership.  Except for the rich. 

It’s a story as old as time.  And the U.S.  The states were passing debtor laws.  Favoring debtors.  Harming creditors.  And destroying legal contracts in the process.   Which a nation built on the rule of law could not have.  For if there are no contracts there is only force.  Where the most powerful get what they want.  And those not powerful enough to fight them off simply lose what they have. 

This is one of the reasons why the Founding Fathers called for the Philadelphia Convention in 1787.  To save what they just fought 8 years to get.  A nation where no man is above the law.  And contracts are legal binding.  Still, there are a lot of people who hate the rich and successful.  Who think contracts are merely suggestions.  Especially Ivy League elitists who have no ability but arrogance and condescension.  Who could never become rich and successful on their own.  Preferring privilege over hard work.  And have no problem trampling over people’s contract rights.  Or Constitutional rights, for that matter.  But that’s another story.  For another time.

As it happens, a couple of years of 6 percent inflation is exactly what the leading economist advocating this approach — Kenneth Rogoff at Harvard — recommends. He is joined by Paul Krugman and by a growing number of economic journalists and commentators. Some of these people have been saying that inflation is no threat worth worrying about, because it has not appeared despite circumstances that ordinarily would have produced it. Now they say inflation is no threat because a little of it would actually be a good thing.

At Bloomberg View, we think that doing anything to encourage increased inflation is a very bad idea. People who advocate it are either too young or too old to remember our last adventure with inflation, in 1979 and 1980…

You can’t easily pencil in two years of 6 percent inflation and then go on your merry way. Inflation is self-feeding and takes on a life of its own. And it works only by surprise. If lenders all know that the government is going to induce or at least tolerate something like 6 percent inflation, they will demand something like 8 percent interest from borrowers. There goes the grease on the wheels. And it’s not just lenders: Labor negotiators will have their backs stiffened if they know that any dollar figure they negotiate will buy less and less. Manufacturers who know their inputs are going to be getting more expensive, in dollar terms, will raise their prices in anticipation, thus making inflation a self-fulfilling prophecy. Long-term planning becomes difficult to impossible.

This is what happened in the Seventies.  It’s why there were double-digit interest rates.  Inflation was depreciating the dollar so fast that it took near usury rates before anyone would loan money.  It was great for people with money to loan.  But horrible for people who had to borrow.

There is no Record of increasing Taxation and Regulation increasing Economic Activity

This is not just a condemnation of the Obama economic policies.  This is a condemnation of Keynesian economics as a whole.  They only lead to a bloated federal government.  That grows at the expense of the job-producing private sector (see Needed: A Reagan Moment To Stop Our Decline by Lawrence Kudlow posted 9/2/2011 on Investors).

During the Bush years, the federal government increased from 18% of GDP to 21%. The debt went up $2.5 trillion, from roughly 32% of GDP to 40%. And now, during the Obama period, spending has moved even higher to at least 24% of the economy, while total federal debt has ballooned near 100% of GDP.

It’s almost a mirror image: The expansion of the public sector and the decline of the private sector. This is completely inimical to the American peacetime experience…

And all while jobs, the economy and stocks slumped over the past 10 years, the dollar dropped 37% and gold increased by nearly 500%, from $250 to nearly $1,900 an ounce.

We don’t have the kind of inflation today that we experienced in the 1970s. But it is certainly worth noting that a collapsing currency and a skyrocketing gold price are key barometers of a loss of confidence in the American economic story.

But the Keynesians aren’t worried.  Mr. Paul Krugman belittles those ‘responsible’ people who worry about phantom demons like inflation.  When it comes to spending, their constant refrain is to flame on.  And only worry when inflation is burning white hot.  Then they can simply tap their monetary breaks and make everything good again.  Or so they think.

But there is a bigger problem.  This ‘limited’ government of the Founding Fathers is growing into a leviathan. 

My key thought is that the U.S. in the last decade has adopted a wrongheaded policy of government expansion — primarily spending and regulating — financed by ultra-easy monetary policy and rock-bottom interest rates.

Tax rates haven’t moved much. But the whole tax system is badly in need of pro-growth flat-tax reform and simplification. However, the expansion of spending and regulating is robbing the private sector of its entrepreneurial vitality. Here’s the new fear: More big-government spending stimulus from Obama’s jobs plan. More EPA. More NLRB. More Dodd-Frank. More ObamaCare.

And as the policy mantle for growth has swung to Federal Reserve stimulus, we are learning once again what Milton Friedman taught us 40 years ago: The central bank can produce new money, but there is no permanent production of jobs and growth from that pump-priming.

Big government financed by easy money is a lethal economic combination. It must be reversed. We should be reducing the regulatory and spending state while keeping money predictably stable (and even re-linked to gold).

The supply-side nostrum that worked so well for 20 years, beginning with Ronald Reagan, was low tax rates, light regulation, limited government, and a hard dollar. Gold collapsed between 1980 and 2000 as stocks, jobs, and the economy roared. The last ten years? We’ve gotten the policy mix completely backwards. The results show it.

And that’s something that the Keynesians can’t point to.  When they had full legislative power (as they had since the Democrats won the House and Senate back in 2006), they can’t point to a historical record of success.  Like the tax-cutting supply-siders can. 

JFK cut taxes and saw economic growth.  Reagan cut taxes and saw economic growth.  George W. Bush cut taxes and saw economic growth.  But there is no record of increasing taxation and regulation increasing economic activity.  You know why?  Because it doesn’t.  If it did the economy would be booming now because the government has never spent or regulated more.

Let’s hope the Keynesians Concede Failure while there is still an Economy to Save

How many bad economic reports will it take before the Keynesians will finally concede failure?  When will the Ivy League elitists stop hating people who are more talented and successful than they are?  And when will the people that put them into power see that it’s only the power they’re interested in?  Not the economy.  Or our well being?

I hope these people come to their senses soon.  While there is still an economy to save.

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Geithner Shuffles Money, Keeps U.S. under Debt Limit

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 16th, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Holds, Government Pension Funds Raided instead

Timothy Geithner warned the US Congress that it would be the end of the world if they did not raise the debt ceiling yesterday.  It was that urgent.  Here it is today and the world is still here.  Apparently they were fudging a little with the doom and gloom (see US reaches $14tn debt limit and cuts investments by the BBC posted 5/16/2011 on the BBC News Business).

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said that he will suspend investing into two large government pension funds.

This delays any breaching of the limit to 2 August…

The full amount of the suspended payments into the two pension funds will be restored if Congress raises the debt ceiling.

Before the Federal Reserve there was J. P. Morgan.  During the Panic of 1907, Morgan bailed out the U.S. banking system.  Because he could.  Because he was that rich.  And because he would.  He cared that much for his country.  People hated him, though, for his wealth.  Can you imagine anyone rich enough to bail out the United States?  Apart from a couple of government pension funds, that is.

Mr Geithner had previously set a deadline for a deal on increasing the debt ceiling to 8 July, but said that better tax receipts meant the deadline could be extended to 2 August.

An extension?  Guess things aren’t as bad as they’ve been saying.  Then again, this administration has not been very good with their forecasts.  The stimulus bill would, they promised, keep the unemployment rate under 8%.  Since that promise and the passing of the stimulus the unemployment rate passed 8 %.  9%.  And even 10%.  Briefly.  In fact, the more they seem to do the worse things seem to get.

In April, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its US credit rating outlook from stable to negative, increasing the likelihood that the rating could be cut within the next two years.

Standard & Poor’s didn’t do this because they’re worried that Congress wouldn’t raise the debt ceiling.  They did it because they’re worried about the debt level of the United States.  For two reasons.  First of all, it has to be paid back.  Second, until it is, interest has to be paid.  And the larger the debt gets the harder it makes it to do these things.  In fact, it can get so bad that the treasury secretary could ask Congress to raise the debt ceiling because they have to borrow more to pay their bills.  And when you start borrowing money to pay the interest on your debt it makes creditors nervous.

An Economy still in Recession

And it’s not only Standard & Poor’s worried about the size of the debt (see Economists cut U. S. growth estimates because of fuel prices by Christina Rexrode, Associated Press, posted 5/16/2011 on USA Today).

A survey by the National Association for Business Economics predicts GDP will grow 2.8% this year — down from the group’s February prediction that it would grow 3.3%. Their outlook for consumer spending and the housing market also weakened, in part because they expect oil prices to remain above $100 a barrel through 2012.

In a survey the NABE released Monday, 41 economists also said they “remain highly concerned” about the growing federal deficit, and said growth the first three months of the year had been weaker than expected.

So GDP growth is weaker than first predicted.  Consumer spending is weak.  The housing market is weak.  And oil is still above $100 a barrel.  This is not how recession ends.  This is an economy in recession.  So the U.S. isn’t going to grow itself out of its deficit anytime soon by a surge of tax receipts from a booming economy.  And continued deficits will only add to the debt.  Further spooking the credit markets.

China Spooked by U.S. Growing Debt

So is anybody else nervous out there?  Any of our creditors?  How about the largest holder of U.S. Debt?  China.  If they aren’t worried then there’s probably nothing to worry about (see China cuts holdings of US Treasurys for 5th month by Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer posted 5/16/2011 on Yahoo! Finance).

China, the biggest buyer of U.S. securities, trimmed its holdings for a fifth straight month.

The Treasury Department said Monday that China cut its holdings by $9.2 billion to $1.14 trillion.

And, of course, they’re worried.  At one time, China alone was financing the annual deficit.  Not anymore.  Something must have spooked them.  And it’s not that Congress may not raise the debt ceiling.  Few would doubt the world’s largest economy will be able to service its debt.  They have the money.  They may just have to transfer it from other spending.  Like from some government pension funds.  Clearly, though, the Chinese are not amused.  And that’s some pretty harsh criticism.  Especially considering that they’re a bunch of communists.

It’s not the Debt Limit.  It’s the Debt.

Have you ever missed a credit card payment?  And use your card only to see it declined?  What happens after you catch up on your payments?  You can use it again.  Maybe get a late payment fee.  No big deal.

Have you ever had a financial problem that you turned to your credit cards?  Run up a lot of debt fast?  And one day try your card and see it declined?  Getting that card turned back on isn’t as easy.  Why?  Because your creditors have lost faith in you.  Because your debt is so high that they have doubts that you’ll be able to service your debt.  Let alone pay it down.

This is kind of where the United States is now.  Creditors look at the spending and scratch their head.  They know the spending is growing out of control and needs to stop.  And yet the government spends more.  Telling them that the U.S government is not serious about getting their finances in order.  At this point it’s not raising the debt ceiling that concerns them.  It’s the debt.  In fact, they’d probably welcome a partial shutdown of the government and a missed interest payment or two.  Just to knock some sense into someone somewhere in Washington.

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LESSONS LEARNED #17: “The raison d’être of federalism is to keep big government small.” -Old Pithy.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 10th, 2010

ALEXANDER HAMILTON WAS a real bastard.  John Adams hated him.  Thomas Jefferson, too.  George Washington looked at him like a son.  Aaron Burr killed him.  Politics.  It can get ugly.

Hamilton’s father was having an affair with a married woman in a loveless marriage.  Fathered two children with her.  First James.  Then Alexander.  Both born on the British island of Nevis in the Caribbean.  His father then moved the family to the Danish island of St. Croix.  Shortly thereafter, Hamilton’s father abandoned his family.  Alexander was 10ish (there is some disagreement about his year of birth). 

At age 11ish, Alexander became a clerk at Cruger and Beekmen, an import-export firm.  There he learned about business and commerce.  People noticed his talent and ability.  Soon, they collected some money and sent him off to the American colonies for a college education.  Hamilton’s fondest memory of his childhood home was seeing St. Croix disappear into the horizon from the ship that delivered him to America.

Hamilton’s father did have some nobility in his lineage but he squandered it before it could do Alexander any good.  He was an illegitimate child (a real bastard).  His father abandoned him.  His mother died while he was young.  He had little but ability.  But that was enough to take him from St. Croix to the founding of a new nation.

Hamilton served in the Continental Army.  He served as General Washington’s aide-de-camp.  Hamilton was in the know as much as Washington.  His understanding of business, commerce and money made him acutely aware of the financial disarray of the Army.  And of the Continental Congress.  What he saw was a mess.

The Continental Congress was a weak central government.  It could not draft soldiers.  It could not impose taxes to pay her soldiers.  It could only ask the states for money to support the cause.  Contributions were few.  The congress tried printing money but the ensuing inflation just made things worse.  The Army would take supplies for subsistence and issue IOUs to the people they took them from.  The Congress would beg and borrow.  Most of her arms and hard currency came from France.  But they ran up a debt in the process with little prospect of repaying it.  Which made that begging and borrowing more difficult with each time they had to beg and borrow.

The army held together.  But it suffered.  Big time.  Washington would not forget that experience.  Or Hamilton.  Or the others who served.  For there was a unity in the Army.  Unlike there was in the confederation that supported the Army.

WARS ARE COSTLY.  And France fought a lot of them.  Especially with Great Britain.  She was helping the Americans in part to inflict some pain on her old nemesis.  And in the process perhaps regain some of what she lost to Great Britain in the New World.  You see, the British had just recently defeated the French in the French and Indian War (aka, the 7 Years War).  And she wanted her former possessions back.  But France was bleeding.  Strapped for cash, after Yorktown, she told the Americans not to expect any more French loans.

Wars are costly.  The fighting may have been over, but the debt remained.  The interest on the debt alone was crushing.  With the loss of a major creditor, America had to look elsewhere for money.  The Continental Congress’ Superintendent of Finance, the guy who had to find a way to pay these costs, Robert Morris, said they had to tax the Americans until it hurt they were so far in debt.  He put together a package of poll taxes, land taxes, an excise tax and tariffs.  The congress didn’t receive it very well.  Representation or not, Americans do not like taxes.  Of the proposed taxes, the congress only put the tariffs on imports before the states.

Rhode Island had a seaport.  Connecticut didn’t.  Rhode Island was charging tariffs on imports that passed through her state to other states.  Like to Connecticut.  Because they generated sufficient revenue from these tariffs, their farmers didn’t have to pay any taxes.  In other words, they could live tax free.  Because of circumstance, people in Rhode Island didn’t have to pay taxes.  Connecticut could pay their taxes for them.  Because of the Rhodes Island impost.  And the Robert Morris’ impost would take away that golden goose.

As the congress had no taxing authority, it would take a unanimous vote to implement the impost.  Twelve voted ‘yes’.  Rhode Island said ‘no’.  There would be no national tax.  ‘Liberty’ won.  And the nation teetered on the brink of financial ruin. 

DEFALTION FOLLOWED INFLATION.  When the British left, they took their trade and specie with them.  What trade remained lost the protection of the Royal Navy.  When money was cheap people borrowed.  With the money supply contracted, it was very difficult to repay that debt.  The Americans fell into a depression.  Farmers were in risk of losing the farm.  And debtors saw the moneymen as evil for expecting to get their money back.  The people demanded that their state governments do something.  And they did.

When the debtors became the majority in the state legislatures, they passed laws to unburden themselves from their obligations.  They passed moratoriums on the collection of debt (stay laws).  They allowed debtors to pay their debts in commodities in lieu of money (tender acts).  And they printed money.  The depression hit Rhode Island hard.  The debtors declared war on the creditors.  And threw property laws out the window.  Mob rule was in.  True democracy.  Rhode Island forced the creditors to accept depreciated paper money at face value.  Creditors, given no choice, had to accept pennies on the dollars owed.  No drawbacks to that, right?  Of course, you better pray you never, ever, need to borrow money again.  Funny thing about lenders.  If you don’t pay them back, they do stop lending.  The evil bastards.

Aristotle said history was cyclical.  It went from democracy to anarchy to tyranny.  Hamilton and James Madison, future enemies, agreed on this point.  A democracy is the death knell of liberty.  It is a sure road to the tyranny of the majority.  If you don’t honor written contracts, there can be no property rights.  Without property rights, no one is safe from arbitrary force.   Civilization degenerates to nature’s law where only the fittest and most powerful survive.  (In the social utopias of the Soviet Union and Communist China, where there were no property rights, the people’s government murdered millions of their people).

WINNING A WAR did not make a nation.  Before and after the Revolution, people thought in provincial terms.  Not as Americans.  Thomas Jefferson hated to be away from his country, Virginia.  Unless you served in the Continental Army, this is how you probably thought.  Once the common enemy was defeated, the states pursued their own interests.  (Technically speaking, they never stopped pursuing their own interests, even during the War).

In addition to all the other problems a weak Continental Congress was trying to resolve, states were fighting each other for land.  A localized war broke out between Pennsylvania and Connecticut over the Wyoming region in north east Pennsylvania.  And a region of New York was demanding their independence from that state.  Hamilton helped negotiate a peaceful solution and the confederacy admitted the new state, Vermont.

There were problems with the confederation.  And people were getting so giddy on liberty that that they were forgetting the fundamental that made it all possible.  Property rights.  States were moving closer to mob rule with no check on majority power.  And the smallest minorities held the legislation of the Confederate Congress (the Continental Congress renamed) hostage.  Land claims were pitting state against state with the Congress unable to do anything.  Meanwhile, her finances remained in shambles.  She had no credit in Europe.  And creditors wanted their money back. 

They were choosing sides.  And you can probably guess the sides.  Hamilton had no state allegiances, understood finance and capital, saw how an impotent congress was unable to support the Army during war, saw provincial interests hinder national progress and threaten civil war.  George Washington, Virginia’s greatest son, had long looked to the west and saw America’s future there.  Not Virginia’s future.  His war experience only confirmed what he believed.  America had a great future.  If they could only set aside their provincialism and sectional interests.  James Madison saw the tyranny of the majority in the Virginian State House first hand.  He liked partisanship.  He liked competing ideals debated.  He did not want to see a majority stampede their vision into law.

These were the nationalists.  Madison wanted a strong federal government to check the tyranny of the states.  Hamilton wanted to do away with the states altogether.  Washington wanted what was best for these several united states as a whole after so many labored for so long during the Revolutionary War.  Ultimately, he wanted to capitalize the ‘u’ and the’s’ in united states and make it a singular entity.

On the other side were many of the old 1776 patriots.  Many of who did not have any army experience.  Such as Thomas Jefferson.  In them, the Spirit of ’76 was alive and well.  The Revolutionary War was to free the states from the yoke of British oppression.  They remained provincials.  They did not spend up to 8 years in an army made up of soldiers from different states.  They had no sense of this nationalism.  They saw everything through the eyes of their state.  And a strong central government was just another yoke of oppression in their eyes.

THE ANSWER TO all of their concerns was federalism.  Shared sovereignty.  The states would give up a little.  And the new central government would take up a little.  The drafters of the Constitution set up a 3-branch government.  It included a bicameral legislature.  Membership in the House of Representatives would be proportional to a state’s population.  They would have power of the purse.  Including the authority to levy taxes.  In the Senate, each state would get 2 senators.  They would be chosen by the states’ legislatures (a constitutional amendment changed this to a popular vote).  This was to keep the spending of the House in check.  To prevent mob-rule.  And to check national power.  Each chamber would have to approve legislation for it to become law.  But each chamber did not need to have unanimous approval. 

That was in the legislature.  In the executive branch, the president would be head of state and execute the laws written by the legislature.  He would also conduct a uniform foreign policy.  The president could veto legislation to check the power of the legislature.  And the legislature could override the president’s veto to check the power of the president.  Where the law was in dispute, the judiciary would interpret the law and resolve the dispute.

At first glance, the people didn’t love the U.S. Constitution.  Those at the convention didn’t either, but they thought it was the best they could do.  To help the ratification process, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of essays, subsequently published as the Federalist Papers making the case for ratification.  Those opposed wanted a Bill of Rights added.  Madison did not think one was necessary.  He feared listing rights would protect those rights only.  If they forgot to list a right, then government could say that it wasn’t a right.  He acquiesced, though, when it was the price to get the Virginian Baptists on board which would bring Virginia on board. 

Madison promised to add a Bill of Rights after ratification.  So the states ratified it.  And he did.  The final document fell between what the nationalists wanted and what the ‘states’ government’ people wanted. 

OVER THE FOLLOWING years, each side would interpret the document differently.  When Hamilton interpreted broadly to create a national bank, to assume the states’ debts and to fund the debt, the other side went ballistic.  Madison, the father of the Constitution, would join Jefferson in opposition.  For they believed the point of the constitution was to keep big government small.  Hamilton was interpreting the ‘necessary and proper’ clause of the Constitution to make government big.  Nasty, partisan politics ensued.  And continue to this day.

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