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Wednesday, May 15, 2013 – Have Another Cookie

Have Another Cookie
by Sinclair Noe
DOW + 60 = 15275
SPX + 8 = 1658
NAS + 9 = 3471
10 YR YLD – .01 = 1.94%
OIL + .18 = 94.39
GOLD – 33.30 = 1393.50
SILV – .82 = 22.69
More record highs on Wall Street. We celebrate with milk and cookies, and remembrances of the days of rice and beans and tins of tuna. Record highs are fleeting, almost ephemeral. I know the trend is your friend; don’t fight the Fed; a rising tide lifts all boats; yada, yada. Why is this starting to feel like an asset bubble?
Stock Traders Daily did a comparison of quarter to quarter earnings and revenue growth rates for the S&P 500 and the Dow Industrials: “For the past two consecutive quarters, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has had zero growth. In fact, this quarter revenue growth declined by 2.65% (25 companies reporting thus far) and earnings have barely budged. Last quarter, there was negative earnings growth with revenue growth less than 1%, and since the third quarter of 2010, the EPS growth rate for the Dow has been declining steadily.”
So, the growth rate is at zero and the prices keep going higher. Don’t worry, have another cookie; after 13 years in the market, you should be back to break even.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing-market index rose to 44 in May from 41 in April. The NAHB says builders are noting an increased sense of urgency among potential buyers as a result of thinning inventories of homes for sale, continuing affordable mortgage rates and strengthening local economies. Have another cookie.
Wholesale prices dropped in April. The producer-price index declined by a seasonally adjusted 0.7% to mark the biggest drop in more than three years. Wholesale prices over the past 12 months are up just 0.6%. In April, the cost of fuel fell 2.5%, led by a 6.0% drop in gasoline prices. Electricity and home-heating-fuel costs also eased, though natural-gas prices posted the biggest increase since mid-2008.
The price of food, meanwhile, fell 0.8% in April after jumping by the same amount in March. Vegetable prices plunged 10.6%, with the cost of squash, lettuce, celery and cucumbers all taking a dive. Meat prices also fell. Cookie prices were not included in the report.
The muted rate of inflation at both the producer and consumer levels gives the Federal Reserve more leeway to keep interest rates low and continue with QE. So, the talk about tapering off of QE might make more sense if the Fed was actually getting closer to its targets of 6.5% unemployment or 2.5% inflation. They aren’t close.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports households reduced debt during the first quarter by 1 percent to the lowest level since 2006. Household debt fell to $11.2 trillion in the first quarter compared with a peak burden of $12.7 trillion in the third quarter of 2008. Consumers reduced debt by $110 billion after increasing their borrowing by $31 billion in the fourth quarter of 2012, while delinquency rates fell across the board. Student debt bucked the trend, rising to a record $986 billion.
Households in the first quarter improved their debt payment patterns as delinquency rates on mortgages fell to 5.4 percent from 5.6 percent, on home equity loans to 3.2 percent from 3.5 percent, on credit cards to 10.2 percent from 10.6 percent and on student loans to 11.2 percent from 11.7 percent. One way to look at this is that reducing debt results in a better vintage of debt. Student lending has surpassed credit cards, auto loans, and home equity loans, and is now the largest form of consumer debt after mortgages.
Last week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said “the Fed could push banks to maintain a higher leverage ratio, hold certain types of debt favored by regulators, or other steps to give the largest firms a ‘strong incentive to reduce their size, complexity, interconnectedness.’

The Fed chairman acknowledged growing concerns that some financial companies remain so big and complex the government would have to step in to prevent their collapseand said more needs to be done to eliminate that risk.”
And Fed Governor Jeremy Stein said pretty much the same thing; and Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo also picked up on the talking point.
James Kwak raised a vital question about these talking points: Too-big-to-fail banks enjoy implicit subsidies and impose externalities on the rest of us; therefore those subsidies and externalities should be priced; and then those banks can decide whether they want to absorb those costs or make themselves smaller. 

Here’s what they are saying: Too-big-to-fail banks are too big and complex and pose a systemic risk to all of us; therefore they need to become smaller and less complex; and the Fed will tweak the regulations until they become smaller and less complex.
What’s remarkable about this? These three men—probably the three most important on the Board of Governors when it comes to systemic risk regulation (as opposed to monetary policy, for example)—all say that they know that the megabanks are too big and complex. They all say that accurate pricing of subsidies and externalities is not an end in itself.* They all say that the goal is smaller, less complex banks.

If the goal is smaller, less complex banks, why not just mandate smaller, less complex banks? Why beat around the bush with capital requirements and minimum long-term debt levels? Those tools might be appropriate if you think huge, complex banks should exist but you want to make them safer. But if you’ve already concluded that banks need to be smaller and less complex, then they’re just a waste of time.
They also betray a frightening naivete regarding corporate governance. The theory is that higher capital requirements, for example, will lower banks’ profits, which will upset shareholders, who will eventually force the board of directors to eventually convince the CEO to break up his empire. This scenario, unfortunately, depends on the premise that American corporations are run for the benefit of their shareholders, which is only roughly true, and even that often requires long, expensive, and messy shareholder activist campaigns.
Instead, there’s an obvious solution: rules that limit the size and scope of financial institutions. But Bernanke has ruled out “arbitrary” size caps in favor of his cute regulatory dial-tweaking.
Again, Bernanke’s position might be defensible if he wasn’t already sure that today’s banks are too big and complex. Then it might make sense to tweak the incentives and see how the market reacts. But if he knows they are too big and complex, he should eliminate that risk in the simplest, most direct way possible. If he’s not sure how much smaller and simpler banks need to be, he can do it in steps: set one set of size and scope limits, see what he thinks about the outcome, and then set another set of limits if he’s still unhappy.
To use a crude analogy, let’s say we’re concerned about guns on airplanes. Ben Bernanke thinks, like I do, that guns on planes present an unacceptable risk to the safety of air travel. But his approach is to charge a $100 fee for anyone who wants to bring a gun onto a plane. If people keep bringing guns on board, he’ll raise the fee to $200, then $300, and so on until people stop. The sensible, obvious solution is to just ban guns on planes. But that would be “arbitrary.”

It is theoretically plausible that one should simply price the subsidies and externalities and then let the market determine whether big banks provide enough societal benefit to offset the costs they impose on the rest of us. But that is not what Stein, Tarullo, and Bernanke are saying.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder was speaking before the House Judiciary Committee hearing today on another subject, but he was asked about comments he made back in March about the idea that the big banks are too big to jail. He said his comments were misconstrued and he added that there is “no bank, there’s no institution, there’s no individual who cannot be investigated and prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice.”
And that was the straightest answer he gave in testimony today. Have another cookie.
Meanwhile, a few years ago, I wrote a book about breaking up the too big to fail banks; Eat The Bankers: The Case Against Usury: The Root Cause of the Economic Crisis and the Fix
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