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Tuesday, October 08, 2013 – Low Probability High Consequence

10082013 Script
Low Probability High Consequence
by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 159 = 14,776
SPX – 20 = 1655
NAS – 75 = 3694
10 YR YLD un = 2.63%
OIL + .53 = 103.56
GOLD – 3.50 – 1319.90
SILV – .06 = 22.39
The Dow Industrials are down for 11 of the past 14 sessions, posting a loss of nearly 900 points. It’s not exactly a crash; Wall Street is still expecting a resolution to the debt ceiling and the shutdown. The debt ceiling will likely be resolved with some short-term band-aid, but there is a chance that the idiots will mess it up and there will be a default. There is a low probability of default but a high consequence; that’s a nasty mix and the reason I don’t play Russian Roulette.
Most financial markets are only slowly getting worried about the possibility of a debt default, but in one tiny corner of the bond market things are starting to look a little panicky.

Today, investors dumped one-month Treasury bills due for payment after October 17, the date the Treasury Department has warned it will no longer have the cash to pay all of its obligations unless Congress raises its borrowing limit, known as the debt ceiling. Every day that passes after that date raises the risk the government will default on some of its debt. These short-term bills will probably be the first to go unpaid. Interest rates and bond prices move in opposite directions; so as prices dropped today, rates spiked, which means the government is paying more to borrow for one month than it does to pay for one year, a freak occurrence. Yep, everything is going exactly according to plan.
President Obama held a news conference today, calling on Republicans to both fund and reopen the government and to raise the nation’s borrowing limit as the federal shutdown entered a second week. President Obama phoned Speaker Boehner earlier this morning to urge him to allow a House vote on a budget bill without conditions, as Mr. Boehner called on the president to come to the negotiating table to resolve a spending standoff that has shuttered the government for eight days.
So far this whole shutdown hasn’t been working out. What has been accomplished? Damage the livelihood of millions of Americans? Check. Government secretaries, food-truck operators, cleaners who work in motels near national parks: They’re all hurting. Waste billions of taxpayer dollars? Check. It costs a lot to shut agencies, Web sites and parks, and it will cost a lot to reopen them. Meanwhile, the House has voted to pay the salaries, eventually, of hundreds of thousands of employees whom it has ordered not to work.
And the lack of accomplishment just reinforces intransigence. In private, it appears Speaker Boehner has told his allies that he won’t bring up a clean CR, and he’s hopeful that as the deadline nears, President Obama will deal. It’d be nice to read that in private, there was some more conciliatory language, but at the moment, all of the private rhetoric is about hardening people’s positions and convincing the team that the other side will cave.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln had some choice words for Southerners who charged that he, not they, would be to blame for secession if Lincoln refused to compromise on the extension of slavery. Lincoln said: “A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’ ”
So, while there may be a low probability of default, you still have to consider who’s got a finger on the trigger. The debt ceiling is considered leverage, not a bullet to the skull.
And even if there is a stop-gap resolution to the debt ceiling and the shutdown, we still have other issues to deal with. The international Monetary Fund today issued a warning to central banks to move with extreme caution as they wind down emergency stimulus, warning that a botched exits risk setting off an asset crash in emerging markets and worldwide contagion.
The report said a witches’ brew of sliding currencies and excess credit could spin out of control. “Thin markets could amplify price movements and kick off sale spirals. Contagion effects could both amplify and broaden asset price movements and capital outflows as investors flock out of emerging market economies.”
Oh yeah, the taper!
The Supreme Court is in session again. I’m not sure how that works in a government shutdown. Maybe they pay the stenographer with an IOU, or a gift card to Wal-Mart. Today they heard arguments in a very important case,  McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that maybe you could call Citizens United 2.0. 

 Here’s the background. During the 2012 election season, Shaun McCutcheon, an electrical engineer who lives in Alabama, started making donations to all the candidates he supported. He mademany donations, always staying under the donation limit of $2,500. Eventually, though, McCutcheon went over a different limit: the cap on the overall amount of money a single donor can dole out. Political donors can give no more than $123,200 during the two-year election cycle—$48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and related committees. McCutcheon believed the aggregate limit was unreasonable and unconstitutional, and so, with the backing of the Republican National Committee, a coplaintiff in his case, he sued his way to the Supreme Court.

At stake in McCutcheon is whether it’s constitutional for the government to cap overall donations made by a single political donor. McCutcheon, his lawyers, and their conservative allies say the limit curbs First Amendment rights and does little to guard against corruption or the appearance of corruption, the court’s justification for placing limits on political giving and spending. On the other side, campaign finance watchdogs and their lawyers say ending the aggregate limit would create a system in which wealthy donors could cut multimillion-dollar checks to candidates and parties, making Republicans and Democrats alike even more beholden to wealthy contributors.

The Supreme Court’s landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo upheld the overall contribution limit, at the time set at $25,000 for every two-year cycle. The court held that limiting the amount of contributions imposed only a marginal restriction on speech since the important thing was the act of contributing, not the amount). And the court said the government’s interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption justified that marginal restriction.
Fast forward to Citizens United, which overturned a couple of previous decisions that argued that some donation limits are constitutional. What happens if the overall cap is eliminated? A single donor could give nearly $3.7 million by maxing out his or her donations to every candidate of a preferred party, plus the state committee, the national party and its affiliated committees. With the overall limit scrapped party operatives could create mega-fundraising committees that can solicit seven-figure checks and then spread the money far and wide within their party at the federal and state level.
But wait, there’s more! The Supreme Court has agreed to let a lawyer for the Kentucky Republican Seantor Mitch McConnell argue before the court. McConnell, the Senate minority leader is a vehement foe of campaign finance regulations; he led the fight to overturn the 2002 McCain-Feingold law with his suit, McConnell v. FEC, which he lost, and he has repeatedly filibustered Senate bills to beef up disclosure of dark money spending in our elections.

This time, McConnell wants to go even farther than McCutcheon;today the attorney for McConnell argued that the court should revisit the underlying legal principle that justifies whether there should be any limits on contributions to candidates. The aggregate contribution limits, he said, force candidates and political parties to compete for an “artificially limited pool of money.” That seems a strange argument in light of Citizens United which allows an individual, like Mr. McCutcheon, to say whatever he wants and spend as much as he wants on independent, campaign related messages.
The FEC will have a tough row to hoe before the Roberts Court. The FEC seems to be arguing against an overall cap, but if an individual can give a few thousand to 23 different candidates, why not give the same amount to a 24thcandidate? Based upon today’s arguments, that is probably what will decide the issue, but it misses the point. This is not a case about freedom of speech. One thing the Court has not truly explained is how spending a boatload of money is considered free speech. Of course, one should be free to speak about the government and politics, but I don’t think that should include the ability to buy politicians and then bribe them to look after one’s special interests.
James Madison wrote that government should be dependent on the great body of the people and not an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it. There was a time, in the late 19th Century I believe, when business moguls actually put bags of cash on the desks of politicians to buy favors. Money has always been involved in this country’s electoral politics, but many of the most blatently corrupt practices were reigned in during the 20th Century. Now, we seem to have returned to the age of the robber barons and to politicians who are for sale to the highest bidder. At every level, bottom to top, campaign contributions are a bribe. And what the Supreme Court is deciding is the difference between a democracy and an oligarchy; unfortunately that is not what they will consider, and that is part of the shame.
The justices will issue their opinion in McCutcheon before the end of June.

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