Lieutenant Island Views : Commentary About Finance, Politics and Baseball

The Treasury Department Should Focus Less on Social Policy and More on Financing the Economy

June 11, 2009
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On April 14 we posted a discussion entitled “How Deficits Are Financed Does Matter”
(see link below). We pointed out that the government was missing an opportunity to finance its deficits and stimulus measures at once in a lifetime 30 year long term rates in favor of cheaper short term levels. We suggested that that rate rises were inevitable, could come quickly and that waiting would have significant incremental costs to the US taxpayers as well as US corporate debt issuers whose bonds are priced at a spread to US Treasuries. The analogy of Americans who are using ARMs rather than financing long today is an apt comparison that most Americans can readily comprehend. They would not do what the Treasury is doing!!

At the time of our April post, 30 year Treasuries were trading at approximately 3.6%. Today 10 year treasuries are at 3.93% and 30 year Treasuries are now at 4.69%! A 100 basis point or 30% rise in six weeks is bad news. Worse yet, the 10 years are only at that level due to intervention by the Fed and treasury to keep yields below 4%.
That 100 basis point swing alone would result in an annual financing cost of an incremental annual cost of $10billion on $1trillion of debt. Even if we were to just finance for 10 years rather than the previously suggested 30 years, the cost would be $3billion more annually than had we financed for 30 years 7 weeks ago. To make matters worse, Brazil and Russia are making serious noises about dumping upwards of $10billion in treasuries in favor of new IMF bonds. This could be a leading example for other foreign governments to diversify their foreign reserves away from US Govt. obligations. India and China frequently follow in tandem with the actions of Brazil and its Central Bank wizard, Henrique Meirelles. The cost to taxpayers and US corporates would be huge and could significantly impair prospects for economic recovery.

I find it tragic that a socialist nation like Brazil is exhibiting far more economic discipline in financing its deficits and managing its reserves that the United States.
They are not confused between acting in their economic best interests vs. using the Treasury or Central Bank as an instrument of social policy. Likewise, they are very careful to evidence a strong respect for lender rights and the rule of law as it impacts their access to the capital markets.(

Add to these problems is the fact that investors at home and abroad are increasingly worried about the US Government’s lack of respect for the rule of law regarding lender rights in bankruptcy (e.g. GM and Chrysler). America won’t go the way of Weimar Germany but stagflation (inflation without growth) is a real possibility. Savings will be diminished and businesses will become less and less competitive globally. As an investor, government policy leads me to buy mostly foreign securities and inflation hedged companies with assets like oil and iron ore. As a card carrying Democrat, I am troubled for my country’s economic future. We can and must do better.

Follow the links below for copies of prior posts on financing the Treasury and Brazil’ Central Bank President

http://lieutenantislandview.com/2009/04/14/how-deficits-are-financed-does-matter/

https://lieutenantislandview.com/2009/03/23/brazil-shouldnt-count-on-meirelles-not-washington/


Rules of Law Apply to Indentures as Well as Torture

May 3, 2009
2 Comments

Harvard Law School Professor Mark Roe made some extremely thoughtful observations in a Friday “Op Ed” piece in the Wall Street Journal (“A Chrysler Bankruptcy Won’t Be Quick”). Central to his discussion are the following key questions:

• Are Chrysler’s secured lenders receiving fair value for their claims as is their legal right in bankruptcy?
• Was the 70% lender vote to accept $.32 on the dollar valid or was it coercively tainted by government influence on banks who had received TARP funds? The law requires a 2/3 vote of secured creditors to accept a settlement. TARP banks make up the vast preponderance of the lenders who accepted the govenment’s proposal. Non-TARP lenders can reasonably ask if TARP lenders would have voted to accept if the government did not have an ability to influence their operations.

Professor Roe makes it clear that there is a reasonable basis for lenders to resist the settlement “mandated” by the Obama Administration. If so, creditor claims may make the final outcome less than clear and the process long and contentious.

What is not said but also must be considered is the generally heavy hand of the government to obviate the contractual rights of secure lenders. This does not begin to address the issue of unions gaining majority control of the Company.

The overall process raises significant and pernicious issues for our national economic future. If lenders rights are not protected, the appetite for U.S. corporate debt will diminish significantly. This will have severe adverse implications on economic growth, employment and our national standard of living. We have already seen how unilateral government interference has caused a significant measure of investor reluctance to play in TALF programs to buy “Toxic Loans”. The Chrysler bankruptcy could make matters worse. Fears of government intervention against indenture terms will not necessarily be reduced by higher interest rates, though higher rates will be one possible outcome. They will more than likely result in reduced lending until fears abate. The government will find that it has a hard time forcing lending by any institution that it does not control (ie foreign banks etc). If the over arching goal of Treasury policy is to get credit flowing, the government’s role in Chrysler is a major step backward.

Just as the American government was wrong in condoning torture against the laws of the nation and the civilized world, so too are actions which disregard freely negotiated loan terms which are critical to financing American industry. If we learned anything from the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, we need to understand and believe that our laws can’t be selectively followed or enforced.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124113528027275219.html


PAC Giving-Down 6% is the New Up!

April 7, 2009
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Who’s kidding who? The fact that PAC contributions fell only 6% in the first two months of 2009 vs. 2007 is remarkable. Big banks which are receiving TARP funding have been virtually out of the PAC business. Add to this the facts that businesses are facing tight liquidity, major losses and an administration espousing squeaky clean policies on political giving. Down ONLY 6% is the new up! The Wall Street Journal and others can write all they want about how political giving is way down. Anything in the range of a 10% or less decline in PAC giving says to this author that PAC giving is actually deemed as an important business priority for the givers’ employers. Anyone who has been in any significant role at a major US corporation knows that PAC giving is voluntary in name only. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you never want to receive a call from your boss asking why you have not given to the firm’s PAC! If employers are making such calls today, they must really mean business.

Is the Wall Street Journal in cahoots with business to mask this story or do they just not get the joke?

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123905882020994793.html


Tom Toles’ Take on the Estate Tax

April 3, 2009
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As my mom often tells me, “many a truth is told in jest”. Tom Toles captures the estate tax argument in a cartoon. What is hard to believe, in times like these, is that there is substantive Republican discussion about the estate tax. For those in the Republican leadership who have gripes about the $7million limit before taxation that President Obama proposes, they and their constituents should be happy if they can still pass that level of tax free capital to their children. They may not realize that many who might have been able to do so can no longer do it due to the financial crisis. Likewise, when they had a chance to increase the limit, they overreached and sought to completely eliminate it on a permanent basis. Fighting over this issue now raises a serious issue of certain leaders’ priorities in a conflagration!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/opinions/tomtoles/?name=Toles&date=04032009&type=c


Paul, We Love You But Get a Grip!

March 27, 2009
2 Comments

The same guy who says that the Obama Administration should be spending trillions more on everything does not like the government’s plan to liquify toxic bank assets. He also seems to hate the capital markets. I guess he thinks that the incremental trillions he wants us to spend come from the printing press rather than the global markets.

What is the real source of his problem? He is is a truly smart guy but today’s piece in the New York Times really lacks clarity. His article “The Market Mystique” fulminates on multiple topics but never really specifies the underlying sources of his problems.

He clearly sees a need for more regulation of markets and then grudgingly admits that the Obama Administration is moving to significantly increase regulation. He dislikes markets and won’t come to grip with the fact that they can’t be ignored. He seems to forget that even in his favorite generation, the fifties, the government used markets to finance its operations. Maybe he thinks that in that era, America was like the Fonz and always had money but did not have to do anything to get it! Only the Fonz failed to realize that there is no free lunch.

It is less clear what Krugman wants other than for banks to admit that the assets have a low value. The argument comes down to what is fair value. If banks follow Krugman’s draconian solution, it could be Lehman redux, unless mark to market rules are eliminated, which his logic would argue against. Forcing big markdowns triggers capital inadequacy issues and, probably, government takeover (s) of some big banks. In this scenario, the FDIC gets to own the assets and probably lots more as a result of a collapse in market confidence (remember what happened when Lehman fell). The government would have to step in and, like it or not, figure out how to finance everything it acquired. It would have to go to the markets. The fellows who make up the markets might not have a Krugmanesque point of view (those Chinese fellows, in particular, have no sense of humor when it comes to losing money in American assets). The elegant thing about the Geithner plan is that it does not deny the valuation issue and provides government funding. The difference in the plan versus Krugman is that it does it by attracting outside capital and reigniting trading in the assets. Krugman’s plan lays it all on the government’s shoulders to finance after triggering a very negative series of events. We saw this with Paulson at the helm. do we want to watch it again?

Paul, please take a bite of a reality sandwich. You can’t avoid markets so use them for our benefit. Obama, Geithner and equity investors get the joke. Why can’t you?

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/opinion/27krugman.html?_r=1&ref=opinion


Spitzer for Treasury Secretary? Are You Joking Katrina?

March 25, 2009
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Recently Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Editor of the the Nation, has been suggesting that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner should be replaced by Elliot Spitzer. We know that she and her husband have been his friend since their days at Princeton but her suggestion is an embarrassment. Perhaps she is letting friendship cloud her judgment. Aside from the fact that Spitzer pleaded no contest to several of the crimes (Mann Act violations, illegal currency wire transfers, aiding and abetting prostitution etc.) that he often used to coerce his targets when he was New York Attorney General, he may have been the root cause of AIG’s demise. His actions, which forced out AIG’s long time CEO, Hank Greenberg, led to new management which took the company in the wrong direction. Greenberg’s successors had a difficult time maintaining his earnings record. They went for what they saw as easy money in credit default swaps and other esoteric insurance products. This was a large and real deviation from the way Greenberg ran the company. We all know the rest of the story.

The laws of unintended consequences really can be punishing when you act in a vindictive manner rather than as a result of a deliberate strategy.

As a secondary question, does Katrina expect an easy confirmation for her friend Elliot? Larry Summers was kept away from the Senate confirmation process because he spoke out about the gap between women and men in scientific fields of study. Imagine if he had broken multiple laws to hire $5,000 per hour hookers! At least Elliot paid his taxes.


If Goldman Returns its TARP Funds, Will Others Follow?

March 24, 2009
2 Comments

Given that Wall Street functions largely as a “Land of Lemmings” where one idea, regardless how good or bad, is usually criticised and then copied if it is seen as potentially beneficial to either personal pecuniary interests or corporate revenue generation. Right now, many on Wall Street believe that repaying TARP money certainly addresses the first point and could serve the second (or give a competitor a leg up if not followed). The article attached goes into detail on many of the implications of possible paybacks. One that seems to be missing is details on how many of the banks can raise the capital quickly. One needs only look to a bank’s loan book for the answer. To the extent that a bank can find a way not to “roll” a large revolver, use a technical covenant default to reduce exposure, not reapply toxic loan sales to new credits or generally accellerate a cutback in corporate lending (because that’s where the large loans are and Congress is not focusing on corporate liquidity), it can free up capital for repaying the government. Unfortunately, the casualty of this is a major reduction in corporate credit just when we need to help corporations make it through the downturn with available loan capital. In no small way is this part of the “unintended consequences” we addressed in our earlier piece on Congress’ compensation legislation. Even if the bill does not become law, the simple passage by the House has put the fear of God into banks. The really bad news is that the Lemmings of Wall Street may march their corporate clients into the sea to rid themselves of the yoke of TARP!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/business/24sorkin.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=if%20goldman%20returns%20aid,%20will%20others?&st=Search


Whither the Dollar?

March 24, 2009
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Whither the dollar? That is the question. As the attached article points out, the Chinese government is worried. If they are worried, we should be too! A cheaper dollar certainly debases their investment in dollar denominated securities, particularly the Treasury obligations which they already own. Equally significant, a cheaper dollar will likely force us to pay higher rates on the Treasuries which we will sell to finance the large stimulus package that will be unfolding in the coming months. The only silver lining is that China is as addicted to a high dollar as we are. As we are their largest market for all sorts of goods, and because their currency is basically pegged to ours, their income and purchasing power erodes as the dollar declines. One answer for them is to allow their currency to trade more freely like other currencies do. While it sounds reasonable, they know that freeing their currency to trade on a “market basis” is the proverbial slippery slope. It is a slope that they will find pock marked with speed bumps and other hidden dangers that they have, to date, assiduously avoided. This is a relationship that bears watching closely and must be handled with deft skills by the Obama administration

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/23/AR2009032301782.html?wpisrc=newslette


Assessing Krugman’s Take on Toxic Asset Plan

March 23, 2009
2 Comments

Regardless whether one agrees or disagrees with Paul Krugman’s op ed in today’s New York Times, it is hard to disagree with his agrgument that the the plan is largely a subsidization of banks and/or a low risk option for investors. What he fails to point out is that, because of his points, that it is a huge subsidy, banks ought to rush to sell as much as they can of their toxic paper. Without the low interest rate, non-recourse government loan (means that the government can’t go after the new investors for any more than the underlying assets), the assets would almost certainly sell at lower price levels. Krugman argues that this is a failure to recognize the loss. He probably is correct but such recognition won’t get capital flowing or move the process forward. This government/private investor investment is effectively another capital injection into the banks. What Krugman also fails to note is that the subsidy should help facilitate trading in the aftermarket for these assets, if for no other reasons than the fact that there will be an auction to determine value. If nothing else, and maybe only for today, the market seems to like the plan. This evidenced by a huge rally led by the financial sector. I am sure that even Prof Krugman agrees that it is hard to ‘fight the tape”.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/opinion/23krugman.html?ref=opinion

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/geithner-plan-arithmetic/”>


From Whence Cometh Our Financial Mess?

March 22, 2009
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Beneficiaries of a Jesuit education learn early that logic and careful analysis are predicates to better judgments and conclusions. Jesuit pedagogues would also suggest that careful analysis and judgments are also necessary for appropriate corrective actions in addressing major problems. When it comes to our current national and global financial mess, blaming the usual suspects (George Bush, greedy CEOs, Wall Street, high executive compensation et al) or pandering to mass frustration may be cathartic but can never be confused with analysis or be a basis for corrective action.

In the coming days, we hope to address the nature of many of the issues that we believe contributed to our current economic troubles. We will endeavor to do so in a clear, simple and concise manner. Please do not be offended if we do not cover each issue in the first or second post. We believe that the issues fed on one another and are best examined seriatim rather than in one fell swoop.

What then were some of the most significant issues?

• The Growth of Leverage, Particularly in the Last Five Years
• Credit Default Insurance
• Mark to Market Rules
• CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) and CLOs (Collateralized Loan Obligations)
• Failure to Guarantee Fannie and Freddie Preferred Shares
• Letting Lehman Fail
• Delayed and Insufficient Action on AIG
• Treasury “Crying Fire in a Burning Building” to Pass TARP
• TARP Mismanagement

From these issues flowed incremental and very significant problems and issues including:

• Bank Failures and Capital Inadequacy in the Financial Sector
• AIG Insolvency
• Sub-prime Surge and Failings
• Mortgage Foreclosures
• Stock Market Meltdown
• Post-TARP AIG Compensation Levels

In the coming days we will deal with each issue and seek to expand our discussion by building on each issue and reflecting on subsequent problems that flowed from them. Stay tuned!!

(Note: While the author has long admired the discipline, training and learned nature of the Jesuit Order, he is neither a Roman Catholic nor the beneficiary of a Jesuit education.)


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About author

Mr Thaler is currently the Managing Partner of Lieutenant Island Partners, an organization providing corporate finance advice and general consulting to corporations and not-for-profit organizations. Mr Thaler retired as Vice Chairman of Deutsche Bank Securities in early 2008. His background includes experience as an investment banker, senior manager, business builder, college professor, not for profit board chair and trustee. In his thirty plus years as an investment banker for Deutsche Bank and Lehman Brothers, he has been involved in numerous significant debt and equity financings, mergers & acquisitions, leverage buyouts, restructurings and cross border transactions. Of particular note, Mr Thaler has been one of the most active participants and strategic advisors to the homebuilding industry. In a period of significant turmoil and losses, he was one of the few active bankers to the industry who did not have either a loss or credit write down. He is currently advising several public builders on strategic matters and is an adjunct professor of finance at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Though he lives in New York, he is a life long Red Sox fan! www.LieutenantIslandPartners.com

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