Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Can We Lead Again?

In the echoes of what happened today, in the shadows of this transfer of power was the shift of generations. As it has been widely discussed, this campaign and this presidency will be seen as the throngs of the baby boomer generation wielding their power and influence to those of the post-boomer generation. However you want to categorize them; Generation X, Generation Y, The Millennials, The Joneses, etc… The significance of this transformation should not be overlooked, for good or for bad.

The post-boomer generation has the syndication of a movement towards post partisan politics; it has fermented the stamina to erase those divisions of its earlier generations that sought to drive the wedge between right and left ideologies. But what has always shown bright in this generation - that has been perilously coerced from the right by the implosions of the past administration and the party which begat its arrogance and disobedience - was its ability to draw its prosperity on the hopes of accomplishments in the future, and not by what its predecessors have stood on in the past.

There is a lot that will be asked of this post-boomer generation, and even more that will be pushed upon this generation of Millennials, specifically, but my hesitation rests in questioning this group's impetus to give to its country.

Can we work for a candidate that we believe in, that inspires us, that gives us hope for a better future of our country from the one we have been brought up to understand? Yes. But can we give, motivate, endure, and truly engage in a stimulus of service? Can those of us who have had the fortune to be given so much in our lives - privileged childhoods, countless material possessions, superior educations, and immunization to real sacrifice – reinvigorate a passion and a commitment to helping those less fortunate than us? Those who have never met or had the opportunity to truly encounter a person less fortunate than them. Can we find the provocation to sacrifice a night home parsing Facebook or enthralled in the shallowness of American Idol to instead give those hours to a local charity or non-profit, engaging with citizens with the same rights we have, but with less of a privilege to capitalize on them?

It is hard to say whether this generation can act on this call to sacrifice or how much it may be forced to. As the cliche says, time will tell. But in the backgrounds of President Obama’s calling for responsibility, sacrifice and commitment to rebuilding our nation on service and dedication in the cause and spirit of our countries history, are pauses to evaluate and articulate those who are being called. It is my hope that my generation can fill its history and legacy on the foundation that it had the same impulses of similar generations before it that understood sacrifice down to a cup of soup and a piece of bread… I haven’t felt this campaign 'hope' transfer to 'hope' in commiting to service towards a country and its citizens rather than a candidate and his rhetoric. I saw it in working to elect a man that we are privileged to have at this moment far and above any other. But I want to feel its hope in following his call to show a world that the United States will always breed those citizens who in times in which they are stirred by causality and crisis respond no different than generations before. There is a book written on the greatest generation – those of our grandparents – what will ours say?

I leave with this from President Obama's Inaugural Address:

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

China Isn't As Hungry for America Anymore

In the last five years, China has spent as much as one-seventh of its entire economic output buying foreign debt, mostly American. In September, it surpassed Japan as the largest overseas holder of Treasuries.

This from the NYT on China's waning appetite for holding U.S. debt, which has given both the federal government and individual investors the ability to leverage almost exponentially while procuring (essentially subsidizing) interest rates that have been kept at historic lows. With this combination greed ferments, as anyone would expect, but the bigger worry is the skewed interest, and overall psyche of an entire financial system that has been misaligned for such a long period and able to exploit its position for far to long.  

But now Beijing is seeking to pay for its own $600 billion stimulus — just as tax revenue is falling sharply as the Chinese economy slows. Regulators have ordered banks to lend more money to small and medium-size enterprises, many of which are struggling with lower exports, and to local governments to build new roads and other projects. “All the key drivers of China’s Treasury purchases are disappearing — there’s a waning appetite for dollars and a waning appetite for Treasuries, and that complicates the outlook for interest rates,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, an economist in the Hong Kong office of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Fitch Ratings, the credit rating agency, forecasts that China’s foreign reserves will increase by $177 billion this year — a large number, but down sharply from an estimated $415 billion last year.

Pending Derailment

An interesting post on how transit funding works and how it may be treated in this new economic environment in how it relates to proposed stimulus funds. The privatization plans being discussed in Chicago in relation to public transit, parking meters, and airports is a bit troubling. But as this account from someone very close to the Chicago Transit Authority explains, handing a service such as this over to a private company - in doing so eradicating subsidies that keep costs low and encourage transit use - the city would be selling out its problems. Bringing revenue sources such as congestion pricing into the fold eases funding shortfalls and positively discourages driving into the city while boasting ridership. Privatizing a public service (as vital as urban public transit) because of lack of creativity in efforts towards finding capital funding and more efficient operations...just looks lazy and does quite the disservice to our city and its citizens.

The funding mechanisms for transit are perverse--IL funds its transit systems' operating budget through sales taxes and a small amount through real estate transfer taxes. The feds stopped providing operating support to transit systems in 1998. Roads are funded (again, generally speaking) w/gas tax. There have been attempts to realign this crazy situation with congestion pricing and other more equitable arrangements but nothing has come of it. And to recover federal capital dollars a state usually has to provide a state match (and sometimes a local match). IL, unable to pass a capital program since 1999, has recently forfeited much of the federal transit dollars it was to receive in the last transp. law.

Transit is a money losing venture if you look at money put in v. revenues generated. And it SHOULD be. If we asked our riders to pay the actual cost of a ride, we're talking about $6 per ride. That is not only untenable, but exactly the opposite of how we should ask our customers to support us given the benefits we provide. We should find progressive funding mechansisms (congestion pricing) because the actual transaction for taxpayers and metropolitan regions continues to be one that greatly favors transit investment. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good People Worked Down There

G.M. shut down its factory in Janesville, Wisconsin on Tuesday, it had been in service for 90 years employing generation after generation of local workers. As with any other job, the employees here became lifelong friends, not colleagues. Job security had been high for decades, as this factory was responsible for manufacturing S.U.V.s (Chevy Tahoes), at a clip of 20,000 a month, producing over 3.7 million since the early ‘90s. With a 40 percent drop in S.U.V. sales nationally, G.M. decided it couldn’t sustain this production, it had starved it off as long as possible. 5,000 workers, who had various jobs in that factory, good paying jobs, jobs they knew how to do better than anything else they did in life, we’re taken away.

Most of the plant’s 1,100 remaining workers were not scheduled to work the final day, but many showed up for an emotional closing ceremony. Dan Doubleday, who had 22 years on the job, broke down in the plant’s snowy parking lot afterward.  “I was a fork lift driver,” he said, glancing at his watch through welling tears. “Until about seven minutes ago.”…

“It’s been a good ride, man,” said Frank Hereford, a body shop worker, as he left the plant with a microwave oven that heated up countless lunches during many of his 38 years with G.M. “Good people worked down here.”

Its hard for a majority of young people (millennials) to imagine what that feels like. There are many arguments on both sides of whether these companies deserve to be helped by the government. Free market advocates are outraged at government spending to ‘bailout’ mis-managed corporations that were passive to innovation and adaptation in changes within the global automobile industry. But every analysis and decision needs both sides of the argument to be heard without bias. Letting these companies fail, falling into bankruptcy would erase debts (payables) of the GM's, Ford's, and Chrysler's to thousands of suppliers who employee even more people just like those in Janesville, that took those supplier’s parts and put the S.U.V.s together. It’s a domino effect that starts on the showroom floor, trickles down to the production line, which trickles down to the sheet metal factory. These factories are the epitomes of these towns; they become the social and economic foundations of the thousands of Janesville’s across the country.

So that same domino effect within the auto industry begins to filtrate in the Janesville’s of our nation. The family that doesn’t have a paycheck coming in Friday anymore doesn’t shop at the corner store or dine at the diner anymore. The franchisee or local entrepreneur won’t start that new small business downtown anymore.

The Janesville plant once employed more than 5,000 workers and turned out 20,000 Tahoes, Yukons and Suburbans each month. With its closing, residents worried about the future of this city of 64,000 people, about 75 miles southwest of Milwaukee. “Janesville will lose a lot,” said Patti Homan, as she finished a strawberry-topped waffle at the nearby Eagle Inn restaurant. “I expect my electricity to go up, water rates to go up, property taxes to go up, and the value of my home to go down.”

These are the ruins recessions procure and they are a dynamic and a contagious force in so many aspects of communities and lifestyles. While the drama of this bailout brings hyped congressional hearings, over blown transistions from private jet travel to photo-op hybrid roadtrips, and the endless loop of elitist speaker panels, to the people of Janesville it’s a lot simpler than that…they just want a place to show up to next year.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Breaking it Down

Two good articles from The New York Times this week on the intricacies within the world's financial crisis; how they all worked indirectly, some more malicious and ill-advised than others, but all interwoven, unable to escape this globalized economic downturn:

The first is from Paul Krugman , equating what happened in the Madoff scheme to what happened in the financial services sector as a whole. Money quote:

Consider the hypothetical example of a money manager who leverages up his clients' money with lots of debt, then invests the bulked-up total in high-yielding but risky assets, such as dubious mortgage-backed securities. For a while — say, as long as a housing bubble continues to inflate — he (it's almost always a he) will make big profits and receive big bonuses. Then, when the bubble bursts and his investments turn into toxic waste, his investors will lose big — but he'll keep those bonuses. O.K., maybe my example wasn't hypothetical after all. So, how different is what Wall Street in general did from the Madoff affair?

The second is from Tom Friedman on U.S. China trade and how the downturn in the U.S. housing sector is effecting China exports related to new home-buying. Money quote:

This division of labor not only nourished our respective economies, but also shaped our politics. It enabled China's ruling Communist Party to say to its people: "We will guarantee you ever-higher standards of living and in return you will stay out of politics and let us rule." So China's leaders could enjoy double-digit growth without political reform. And it enabled successive U.S. administrations, particularly the current one, to tell Americans: "You can have guns and butter — subprime mortgages with nothing down and nothing to pay for two years, ever-higher consumption and two wars, without tax increases!" It all worked — until it didn't.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Leverage on Ice

A fascinating look into the rapid rise and fall of Iceland's financial system and its perils from exploiting an addiction to leverage in both its commercial banking system and by consumer's accessibility to cheap and easy credit. For our more visual learners there is the chart below which outlines the epidemic in a simple elementary style flow chart. 

The innocence of the chart by no means should undermine the seriousness of what has been lost. The complications of this rise and fall are intricate and involve billions of dollars in investments by regular working people mostly within the U.K. but also throughout the world (in the form of pension funds and retirement accounts); all of which took advantage of the flatness of our globalized financial system.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How We Got Here

Understanding how our economy got where it is today can be analyzed in many different ways, spreading blame and pointing fingers at many different people. But I think the overall analysis, the simplistic themes that resonate whenever anything is written to this analysis, comes back to two factors: Greed & Risk. You can take greed and you can take risk, you can break them down and apply them to the different financial instruments that were created that in the end have proved to be at the crux of the collapse - subprime loans, credit default swaps, Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities, etc.  These instruments were created 20 years ago and exploited throughout the system throughout the years; they are the cliches of blame. 

Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker  nearly 20 years ago as a guidebook to understanding how Wall Street was exploiting these themes and how it would set it up for an epic collapse, what he didn't envision was it taking another 18 years to happen. Most recently he wrote the lead story for the December 2008 edition of Conde Nast titled 'The End'.  It is the best written narrative on the perils of our current economic condition, the story behind it. Its not an outline of events and statistics that brought down the boom of Wall Street; its the human story of the people involved, how they saw it coming and reflections to it all in hindsight. 

A snippet:

What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA. But he couldn't figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. "I didn't understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold," he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. "We always asked the same question," says Eisman. "Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I'd always get the same reaction. It was a smirk." 

"You have to understand this," he says. "This was the engine of doom." Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a "particularly egregious" C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. 

The cause of the financial crisis was "simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers." …Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed. 
Michael Lewis was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal recently.

Money Quote:

We have entered a period of risk aversion unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime. Investors will be too wary for a while. You'll read stories about people who got rich betting against subprime mortgages and then about people who combed through the wreckage and found bargains. The next rich wave will be those who figure out where the value is. As for the average American investor, he'll be a deer in the headlights for years. It will be a while until greed gets comfortable again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Quote for the Day/Year/Recession

I have absolutely no idea how the intricacies of the global financial system function. I had previously taken solace in believing that ‘the other guys’ did understand. What we all now realize is that nobody understands and nobody ever understood.
Thomas Barrack Jr., founder and CEO, Colony Capital

Monday, November 17, 2008

Has the GOP Hit Bottom?

A good reason the Democrats won these elections (2006,2008) - Presidential and Congressional - was because they won independents and disenfranchised moderate republicans. That would be because republicans were not republicans anymore, they had no identity. I think Bobby Jindal gets it, and I think he's one to watch over the next four to eight years in the republican party. He was asked on Face The Nation yesterday about the future coarse of the republican party and very simply, nailed it:

As Republicans, we need to do three things to get back on track. Number one, we have got to stop defending the kind of spending and out-of-control spending that we would never tolerate in the other side. You know, when voters tell us that they trust Democrats more to cut their taxes [and] control spending, that tells you something is wrong with the Republican Party. We've got to match our actions with our rhetoric. 

Number two, we've got to stop defending the kinds of corruption we would rightfully criticize in the other party. The week before the election, our most senior senator is convicted on federal charges - and that's only the latest example. 

Number three, we have got to be the party that offers real solutions to the problems that American voters, American families are worried about. We don't need to abandon our conservative principles; we can't just be the 'party of no.' We need to offer real solutions on making health care more affordable, on the economic challenges facing families, on the international threats.

In times like these, I tend to revert back to the cynicism of my favorite comedic scholar, Lewis Black, in his assessment of the America Political Party system, as he eloquently opines:

The Republicans are the party of bad ideas and the Democrats are the party... of no ideas. And the way it works is a Republican stands up in Congress and yells “I got a really bad idea”. And then a Democrat yells “and I can make it even shittier!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Well Done Keith

A Special Comment from Keith Olbermann, on the passing of Proposition 8 in California last week. Proposition 8 overturns the ruling by the Supreme Court that had allowed any couple the right to marry in the state. The fierce campaign to pass the Proposition, that specifically would amend the state constitution to strip same-sex couples of this right passed by a narrow margin. The Morman church largely funded the campaign to pass this proposition donating over $20 million, mostly from the state of Utah, which had no part or voice in this legislation.

Keith relents in trying to understand how anyone, so selfishly, could voice a vote to restrict this freedom, I couldn't have said it any better myself. My hope is that as millennials, as a generation that grew up in an era that saw this issue with a more open mind than generations before, we will take this campaign for social justice seriously. I have no concerns that Proposition 8 and all that it stands for will be overturned in the future. But I struggle to understand how 6 million people could vote in favor of a restriction on other people. I don't understand their motivations and determinations in voicing their opinion with those specific intentions, that they felt so strongly against this sort of freedom to equality. I guess I don't understand their fears...because that is the only way I can see it, that they were afraid. It will be overturned. The right ideology will prevail in the end; it just has to ask for patience. I'm sure that is not easy to ask for, or acceptable to those effected in California, but it’s the conclusion you have to live with sometimes when you adhere to a democracy.

Money Quote:
If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not... understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want
Please visit Courage Campaign to learn more and sign the "Repeal Prop 8" petition. Its free and it needs more voices.