Bailed-Out Banks Haven’t Changed

Wall Street hasn’t learned and isn’t repentant.  We’re likely to have another crisis. Maybe this year, maybe next. Maybe they keep it together for a few years.  But sooner or later this house of cards falls.

Derivatives is one of the dirty words of the financial crisis. Though these often-risky bets were blamed by many for helping fuel the credit crunch and the downfall of Lehman Brothers and AIG, it seems that Wall Street has yet to learn its lesson.

U.S. commercial banks earned $5.2 billion trading derivatives in the second quarter of 2009, a 225 percent increase from the same period last year, according to the Treasury Department.

More than 1,100 banks now trade in derivatives, a 14 percent increase from last year. Four banks control the market: JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Citibank account for 94 percent of the total derivatives reported to be held by U.S. commercial banks, according to national bank regulator the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The credit risk posed by derivatives in the banking system now stands at $555 billion, a 37 percent increase from 2008. “By any standard these [credit] exposures remain very high,” Kathryn E. Dick, the OCC’s deputy comptroller for credit and market risk, said in a statement.

via Derivatives: Bailed-Out Banks Still Making Billions Off Risky Bets.

US income gap widens as poor take hit in recession – Yahoo! News

Not much else to say:

The recession has hit middle-income and poor families hardest, widening the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans as rippling job layoffs ravaged household budgets.The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans — those making more than $138,000 each year — earned 11.4 times the roughly $12,000 made by those living near or below the poverty line in 2008, according to newly released census figures. That ratio was an increase from 11.2 in 2007 and the previous high of 11.22 in 2003.Household income declined across all groups, but at sharper percentage levels for middle-income and poor Americans. Median income fell last year from $52,163 to $50,303, wiping out a decade’s worth of gains to hit the lowest level since 1997.

via Yahoo & AP.

There’s No Crowding Out Here.

People who worry the most about the recent increases in US government borrowing are generally worried about one of two things: crowding out or inflation.  They fear that either if The Fed doesn’t “print new money” for the govt to borrow, then the government’s demands for borrowing money will drive up interest rates.  This driving up of interest rates would then, in turn, discourage businesses from borrowing/expanding/growing.  I’ll deal with the inflation fear in a different post.  But right now, it appears there’s little prospect of crowding out.  It’s true businesses (and households) aren’t borrowing, but it’s not because of high interest rates.

In the past, when the government became a heavy borrower, there was talk about crowding out private borrowers. But this time, interest rates have remained low and no one seems to be worried about that.

The reason is simple: Rather than crowding out the private sector, Uncle Sam is now standing in for it. Much of the government borrowing went to investments in financial institutions needed to keep them alive. Other hundreds of billions went to a variety of programs aimed at stimulating the private economy, including programs that effectively had the government pick up part of the cost for some home buyers and some auto buyers.

via Off the Charts – A Rich Uncle Picks Up the Borrowing Slack – NYTimes.com.

TheSpec.com – BreakingNews – New bubble created by U.S. policy

Steven Pearlstein of the The Washington Post explains via this story in the Hamilton Spectator why the run-up in the stock exchange of the last 6 months isn’ t necessarily a good thing.  Instead of being a predictor of good times to come, the run-up in the stock market is more likely the latest in a series of financial bubbles.  We started with real estate & S&L’s in the 80’s, then it was dot-com’s and tech stocks in the nineties, then back to real estate and houses until 2006, then oil and commodities in 2007-8 (remember $130 barrel oil?).  We still aren’t reforming our financial system and we’re still letting speculators, bubble-blowers, and Wall St drive our policies.

Less encouraging is what’s happening on Wall Street. It turns out that all those bold and necessary steps by the Federal Reserve to prevent the financial system from collapsing wound up creating so much liquidity that it has now spawned another financial bubble.

Let’s start with the $1.45 trillion that the Fed has committed to propping up the mortgage market – money that, for the most part, was simply printed. Effectively, most of that has been used to buy up bonds issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from investors, who turned around and used the proceeds to buy “safer” U.S. Treasury bonds. At the same time, the Fed used an additional $300 billion to buy Treasurys directly. With all that money pouring into the market, you begin to understand why Treasury prices have risen, and interest rates have fallen, even at a time when the government is borrowing record amounts of new money.

At the same time it was printing all that money, the Fed was also lowering the interest rate at which banks borrow from the Fed and each other, to pretty close to zero. What didn’t change was the interest rate banks charged for everyone else. As a result, “spreads” between what banks pay for money and what they charge are near record highs.So who is doing the borrowing? By and large, it’s not households and businesses, which are reluctant to borrow during a recession. Rather, it’s hedge funds and other investors, who have been using the money to buy stocks, corporate bonds and commodities, driving prices to levels unsupported by the business and economic fundamentals.

I recommend reading the full story at the link.

More evidence against patents

Yes, patents, copyrights, etc., the intellectual so-called property protections are really profits-protection for existing large corporations.  The stronger patents and copyrights are, the weaker is innovation and growth.

…weaker IP protections might actually correlate with economic growth,…

via Scholarly Communications @ Duke » The joy of statistics.

Save the Whales! Abolish Patents!

Well, actually it likely wouldn’t save the whales. But, abolishing patents would likely re-invigorate the economy, revive competition, lower costs (particularly healthcare costs), and speed up innovation.

Levine and Boldrin help lay out the case against patents in this piece.  An excerpt ( I recommend following the link):

Abolishing so-called intellectual “property” (IP) won’t solve all social ills — and it certainly won’t save the whales. But it would be a big step in the right direction for solving a range of problems from the high cost of health care, to innovating our way out of the current recession. In a series of posts with my co-author Michele Boldrin, we’ll tackle these issues one at a time.

….

With the exception of Japan, the rest of the world spends only about 60-70% of what we spend for prescription drugs. The European countries’ average is 60%, with some countries at around 55%.That means that simply paying what the rest of the world pays would reduce our health care bill by at least 4% – that is about 0.7% of national GDP, or roughly $100 billion.

via David K. Levine: Save the Whales! Abolish Patents!.

Also, it’s worthwhile to go to their blog at