Monday, August 19, 2013 – Not Attending Jackson Hole

Not Attending Jackson Hole
by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 70 = 15,010
SPX – 9 = 1646
NAS – 13 = 3589
10 YR YLD + .05 = 2.88%
OIL – .51 = 1365.20
GOLD – 11.60 = 1366.60
SILV – .07 = 23.29
It don’t know where Ben Bernanke is. I know he is not scheduled to be in Jackson Hole, Wyoming this week. Most of the Federal Reserve policy makers will be at Jackson Hole for the annual economic get-together to debate whether the Fed should pull back from its $85 billion dollar per month asset purchase plan known as Quantitative Easing, also known as QE, also known as Stock Market Rocket Fuel. QE has lifted the markets to record highs this year, and talk of exiting QE has dropped the markets from highs the past couple of weeks.
Egypt continues to slip into a dark place as the military continues its bloody crackdown on civilian protesters. Just don’t call it a coup; that specific designation would require an end to foreign aid. Egypt has been one of the biggest recipients of US foreign aid over the years. Egypt gets about $1.3 billion a year in aid. The money is not sent directly to Egypt; it goes to defense contractors who then send military equipment and expertise to the Egyptian military.
The biggest recipients of foreign aid to Egypt are Lockheed Martin, pulling in more than a quarter billion a year, followed by several others pulling in tens of millions, including DRS Technologies, L-3, Deloitte & Touche (apparently to keep track of everything), Boeing, Raytheon, and many more. The products include F-16s, surveillance equipment, Apache helicopters, Stinger missiles, motors, spare parts, and even teargas grenades.
The latest news out of Egypt is that a court has ordered the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak be released from custody. Mubarak has been detained on a variety of charges since his ouster in 2011. The courts say let him go. Not today, but maybe in a couple of weeks. Don’t hold your breath. Actually, the court order means more volatility for Egypt; probably more protests; more protests means more teargas, so if you were in Cairo – hold your breath.
You may recall that when the Arab Spring began, Mubarak used some of the military equipment against protesters, including teargas grenades that proclaimed “Made in the USA”. This turned out to be a very bad marketing strategy. The Muslim Brotherhood then won the election and you have to wonder if the anti-US propaganda was a part of that. The Muslim Brotherhood turned out to be very bad at governing Egypt; the military, equipped with US made equipment, has now taken over the government. Just don’t call it a coup.
You may also recall that one of the many factors in the Arab Spring was the release of Wikileaks diplomatic cables showing widespread political corruption. Wikileaks has just created its own “insurance” policy; sort of. Wikileaks is the website founded by Julian Assange; the site has released huge amounts of classified documents, also known as data dumps, detailing all sorts of governmental and diplomatic shenanigans. Assange has sought asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. WikiLeaks has released about 400 gigabytes’ worth of mysterious data in a series of encrypted torrent files called “insurance.” And no one can open it. File encryption means that the data is hidden and no one can see what’s in the shared files without a key to unlock them, which hasn’t been publicly released.
What is the meaning of calling it “insurance”? Is it meant to protect Bradley Manning (who has just been sentenced to 60 years), Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, or someone else? We don’t know. The bigger question is what is in the “insurance” data dump? We don’t know. It might be the identities of every secret agent working for the US around the world; it might be incriminating video; or everything that Edward Snowden had collected from his job with the NSA; it might be nothing more than a mumbo jumbo of code. It might even be the long anticipated data dump on the wrongdoing by the big banks.
For JPMorgan it appears bad habits, potentially illegal habits can’t be broken. Last week, two junior level traders were criminally charged in connection with the London Whale losses. The bank is under investigation by eight agencies; add one more. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating whether JPMorgan’s Hong Kong office hired the children of China’s state-owned company executives with the express purpose of winning underwriting business and other contracts.
US law does not stop companies from hiring politically connected executives, but hiring people in order to win business from relatives can be bribery, and the SEC is investigating JPMorgan’s actions under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. If it’s not one thing it’s another.
The big banks seem to get away with…, everything. That’s not always the case with the hedge fund managers; they tend to be viewed in a slightly different light; they are not considered systemically important; Bernie Madoff was sent to the big gray house. Steven Cohen saw his hedge fund charged, although Cohen wasn’t personally charged. Today, the SEC announced a deal against Phil Falcone which includes an $18 million penalty, and Falcone must admit wrongdoing, and he will be banned from the securities industry for at least 5 years.
In June 2012, federal regulators had accused Falcone of manipulating the market by improperly using $113 million in fund assets to pay his own taxes and to favor some customer redemption requests secretly over others, among other things. His actions, “read like the final exam in a graduate school course in how to operate a hedge fund unlawfully.”
Falcone and his Harbinger hedge fund entities engaged in serious misconduct that harmed investors, and the SEC says their admissions leave no doubt that they violated the federal securities laws. For Falcone, who is currently engaged in two battles over LightSquared, a broadband company in bankruptcy he is fighting to maintain control over, the settlement appeared to be a positive turn of events. He struck a more upbeat note than the regulator saying he was, “pleased that we were able to reach a settlement to resolve these matters with the S.E.C.”
Following the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve, which is actually a regulator of banks; we forget that some times; the Fed, in addition to its other mandates of price stability and maximum employment, the Fed regulates banks, even though they don’t really have their heart in it. The Fed in the role of regulator is kind of like a Pope who doesn’t believe in religion. Anyway, following the financial crisis, the Fed started conducting stress tests on the big banks. They graded on a curve.
These annual financial health checkups continue and today the Fed described some significant shortcomings in the banks’ responses to the so-called stress tests. Despite the severity of the recent housing bust, the Fed said some banks weren’t taking into account the possibility of falling house prices when valuing certain mortgage-related assets for the tests. In other cases, banks assumed they would be strong enough to take business away from competitors in stressed times.
The Fed appeared most concerned that banks were applying the tests too generally. In other words, such banks didn’t pay enough attention to the risks that were particular to their assets and operations. Banks excluded material that was relevant to the bank’s “idiosyncratic vulnerabilities.” Under the tests, the banks have to assume weakness in the economy and turmoil in the markets, and then calculate the losses they would suffer under such conditions. The banks then subtract those losses from capital, the financial buffer they maintain to absorb losses. If the assumed losses cause capital to fall below a regulatory threshold, the banks effectively fail the test.
As part of the stress tests, banks have to carefully lay out capital plans to show regulators that they would have the strength to operate through tough times. The Fed says the banks are, in essence just trying to pass the test without really addressing the problems.
The stress tests have created tension between the Fed and the banks. One reason is that the tests can determine how much a bank is allowed to pay out in dividends or spend on stock buybacks.
President Obama is meeting with regulators today to get a status report on the progress of the Dodd-Frank reform act, the financial reform legislation that appears to have stalled after three years. This fall, the president will face a host of renewed efforts for financial reform, including housing finance reform. Just a reminder that September will mark the 5 year anniversary of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and so maybe it’s time to get around to some reforms to prevent another Lehman Brothers collapse.
The Dodd-Frank law, which Congress passed in response to the meltdown, called for hundreds of new rules, including new oversight of the massive swaps market, mortgages and consumer financial products, and large nonbank financial firms. Regulators have missed deadlines on many of the most controversial requirements. The rules are about 40 percent complete. For example, the so-called Volcker rule to forbid banks from making risky trades with their own money is more than a year behind schedule, as five different agencies struggle to agree on a single rule. Despite that, the Dodd Frank act has grown while shrinking; grown from 848 pages of statutory text to 13,789 pages – more than 15 million words of regulation.
The White House meeting features the heads of major financial regulatory agencies, including the Treasury, Comptroller of the Currency, Securities and Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, among others.

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