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Warren Buffett: Crony Capitalist

by Bill O'Connell on August 26, 2011

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Photo by Dave Makes

Two news items yesterday, when put together, start to tell an interesting story. Warren Buffett invested $5 billion in Bank of America in a private sweetheart deal that will guarantee him a 6% return (that’s $300 million per year) and he is hosting a fund raiser for Barack Obama in New York where the tickets start at $10,000. What’s going on?

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The Republicans Don’t Have a Plan!

by Bill O'Connell on June 16, 2011

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How many times are we going to hear asinine comments like the following from Zack Burgess at the Philadelphia Tribune?

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Freedom Connect and Two Books for our Times

by Bill O'Connell on February 17, 2011

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In the midst of the budget battles some pretty large numbers are being thrown about. Sometimes the size of the numbers starts to lose its meaning and what the long term consequences of what the government is doing gets blurred.

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Democrats: Free Market Capitalists-No, Crony Capitalists-Yes

by Bill O'Connell on December 3, 2010

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The latest news on the economy is not encouraging: a mere 39,000 jobs added and the unemployment creeps ever closer to 10% at 9.8%.  In spite of this, or apparently ignorant of it, the lame duck House voted yesterday for another whopping tax increase on the most productive among us. Yes, yes, they will beat the class warfare drums about tax “cuts” for the rich, when what they are voting on is not a cut at all, but either leaving things the way they are or raising taxes.  With the recovery barely showing a pulse, it is not the time to take money out of the hands of free market capitalists and put it in the hands of the government.  Who do you think can pull the economy out of the doldrums, entrepreneurs or government bureaucrats?

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Never Mind Fannie and Freddie, Let’s Nail Betsy

by Bill O'Connell on August 11, 2010

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The Dodd-Frank Act that in a mere 2,000 pages sought to put the control back in financial regulation skipped right over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac the Government Sponsored Enterprises that were at the heart of the fiscal crisis and are bleeding red ink.  Focusing instead on those evil bankers on Wall Street the Dodd-Frank Act really put those guys in a box, until Goldman Sachs slipped its fetters faster than Houdini.  So who’s buried under the pile of rubble that is the latest masterpiece of our massive government, Betsy Jensen.  Who is Betsy Jensen?

Betsy Jensen is a farmer in southwest Minnesota.  She and her family grow wheat and soy beans.  She doesn’t have a mortgage, so she didn’t cause the housing bubble.  But she does use derivatives to control the risk in farm prices which can be rather volatile.  For example, a bushel of wheat went for $18.69 in February of 2008 whereas it was selling for $3.49 in July of 2010.  A farmer has to buy their seed and fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season and they don’t sell their product until the harvest.  If prices fluctuate wildly during that interval, it isn’t hard to imagine what that can do to your business, let alone your sleep patterns.

So where do derivatives come in?  Farmers like Betsy can negotiate a guaranteed price for their grain with their customers.  Betsy risks missing out on some profits if the prices go up as they have recently (45%) due to fires in the wheat producing region of Russia, but she also is protected against a price drop, for similar reasons beyond her control.  She recently negotiated a price of $7.15 per bushel and with that knowledge, she can manage her farm business and sleep a little more peacefully.  For her purchases she can also use derivatives to buy fuel and fertilizer, where the latter has seen price fluctuations of $435 to $685 per ton.  Then along come Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, a couple of career politicians who never worked in the private sector.

The Dodd-Frank Act says it is unlawful to enter into swaps (derivatives) “in excess of such amount as shall be fixed from time to time” by the Commodities Futures Trading Corporation (CFTC).  That doesn’t sound like a free market to me.  What if, in Betsy’s example, the CFTC didn’t get around to raising the amount on wheat above $5 per bushel?  Betsy couldn’t arrange to sell it for $7.15.  What if the grain elevator couldn’t turn around and sell Betsy’s wheat for the 45% increase in price due to the Russian fires?  Do you think with a cap on the upside they might not be willing to pay as much for Betsy’s wheat?

From Dodd-Frank to Bill O’Reilly we hear about the evils of speculators.  O’Reilly used to rail against the speculators when gas prices were rising toward $5 per gallon.  The evil, greedy speculators were driving up the price of gas!  But little mention was made of speculators when the price of gasoline fell back down?  Did the speculators retire?  Go on vacation?  The reality is that speculators don’t care if the price goes up or down, they only care it moves in the same direction on which they are betting.  They can drive the price down just as fast as they can drive it up.  But they are useful, not evil.

Speculators bring liquidity, that is, money to the market.  Betsy Jensen estimates that about one-third of the purchasers of wheat contracts are traders who never take physical control of the product.  But by adding their view and their money to the market they keep prices from fluctuating wildly.  If these traders are banned then, as she put it, one-third of her customers would disappear.  With one-third fewer customers the price swings will increase rather than decrease.  Remember, a trader who does not take delivery of the wheat can make money on small swings in the price and is likely to get in or get out on smaller moves and thus change the market price accordingly.  If only those who take physical possession of the product are in the market, then other factors such as transport, storage, spoilage, must be factored into each transaction and the price swings will be wider and wilder.

But Betsy said it best, “I may not be able to manage Mother Nature, but I can manage my risk with derivatives.”  If only our government would get out of her way and let her do so.

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It never ceases to amaze me how the political class thinks they are so much smarter than the rest of us.  They think they can write a 2,000 page law that will really “fix” things and don’t believe that all the intellectual horsepower in America can’t disassemble their work in a matter of days.  Today’s political class is too dumb to realize Thomas Paine was right and still is, “that government is best that governs least.”

This is from Fox Business News.  Goldman Sachs has figured out a way to get around the Volker Rule’s restrictions on trading that was just enacted in the Dodd-Frank Act. It is doing this by changing its “risk taking- traders into asset managers.”

The move is designed to exploit a loophole in the Volker Rule, part of the recently signed financial-reform legislation named after presidential economic adviser and former Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker. The Volcker Rule is supposed to scale back on Wall Street risk taking by ending what’s known as proprietary trading, where firms use their own ideas and capital to make market bets.

But by having the traders work in asset management, where they will take market positions while dealing with clients, Goldman believes it can meet the rule’s mandates, avoid large-scale layoffs and preserve some of the same risk taking that has earned it enormous profits, people close to the firm say.

This is really about the arrogance of those who have been breathing the heady air of Washington, DC for too long.  From way up in those ivory towers they can’t see that among those on the ground are the most brilliant minds in the world and before one of their lofty laws tossed from the tower hits the ground, the huddled masses will turn it into mince meat.  Why does Medicare/Medicaid lose $60 – $100 billion a year to fraud?  Because for every beltway pinhead writing a regulatory rule, there are 100,000 people reading that same rule and finding all the ways to get around it and how to use the same rule to tie the government in knots so it can’t stop them.

Are they really that arrogant?  When asked that question John Kerry sniffed and said, “Let them pay taxes.”  He then cackled, stepped on to his 74 foot yacht Isabel and sailed off into the sunset, quaffing champagne as he went.

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Financial Reform — NOT

by Bill O'Connell on April 24, 2010

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It was like the movie Rocky the Democrats (Rocky) were getting pounded left and right over their heavy handed tactics.  They crammed through a health care bill that an overwhelming majority of the country opposed.  They moved on to financial reform and they still couldn’t get any traction.  Their poll numbers continued to drop and it was looking like a dismal election coming up in the fall. 

 And then, just like in the movie Rocky swings from his heels and connects knocking the champ to the canvas.  In this case it was the SEC charging Goldman Sachs with fraud.  Now they could fire a full fusillade of class warfare at the Republicans and either get Republicans to help pass the financial reform bill or be tarred as the party of the evil bankers and greedy Wall Street robber barons.  But unlike the movie, right after knocking the opponent down, when the referee sends Rocky back to a neutral corner he slips in his own sweat, flips on his back and knocks himself out.  By that I mean the news came out that employees of the SEC spent an inordinate amount of their time watching porn instead of the financial markets.  How do you expand the role of government on the heels of that disclosure?

 Trying to Make Up for Bernie Madoff?

When Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme was in full swing, Harry Markopolos brought the scam to the SEC practically tied in a bow.  The SEC did not respond.  Perhaps they were too busy…, well never mind.

With the Democrats trusty weapon, class warfare, holstered it’s time to delve more deeply into this financial reform legislation.

In a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell, luminaries including former SEC Chief Accountant Lynn Turner, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, hedge fund owner Jim Chanos, former Lehman Brothers Vice Chair Peter Solomon, former S&L investigator Bill Black, former Senate Banking Committee Chief Economist Rob Johnson, economists Dean Baker, Barry Eichengreen and others pointed out that Dodd’s proposed financial reform legislation wouldn’t have prevented the current crisis … and won’t prevent the next crisis.

So tell me again why we are doing this?  It’s all about more government control and more power in Washington, not about fixing any real problem.  Where are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in this bill?  They were at the very core of the financial meltdown.  In other words it’s all politics and it’s all straight out of the Saul Alinsky tome Rules for Radicals:

 Rule No. 13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.  In conflict tactics there are certain rules that [should be regarded] as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and ‘frozen.’…

     “…any target can always say, ‘Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?’ When your ‘freeze the target,’ you disregard these [rational but distracting] arguments…. Then, as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all the ‘others’ come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target…’

     “One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.” (pps.127-134)

The target in this case, is Wall Street and the Banks.  Demonize them.  When the “others”, meaning the Republicans, come out to challenge the ineffectiveness of the bill, then they can be attacked as being for the fat cats and against the little guys; class warfare at its ugliest.

 Follow the Money

But who is really in bed with the fat cats?  The Political Action Committees (PACs), employees, families of employees and other associates of Goldman Sachs gave almost $1 million in campaign contributions to Obama.  In this legislation, the concept of too big to fail remains untouched.  There will be a $50 billion fund created with money from the top banks to standby if needed for a bailout, but this also gives the impression that the largest banks are now safer because of this fund and therefore can get a lower interest rate on their borrowings compared to smaller banks.

 Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman said:

 “The Dodd bill has unlimited executive bailout authority. That’s something Wall Street desperately wants but doesn’t dare ask for. The bill contains permanent, unlimited bailout authority.”

 Why ask for it when the Obama administration will give it to you.  All you have to do is let them smack you around a bit to prime the class warfare pump, and you’re all set.

If you are backstopped by unlimited executive bailout, go ahead, take bigger and bigger risks.  The government will step in if you fail.  So here we have yet another fat cat (Wall Street/Big Banks) wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing (the little guy; Main Street). 

 If you want real financial reform, then in the name of capitalism, the big banks and Wall Street have to learn to play with their own money. If they hit a home run, good for them.  If they strikeout, they should lose their own money and if they don’t have enough to cover their losses, goodbye.   They should not be allowed to take huge risks and if they pay off, everybody there gets a new mansion in the Hamptons, but if they go bust, hand the bill to us.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we were told were private entities, not part of the government, but wink, wink, nudge, nudge, everyone knew the federal government was standing behind them and would not let them go bust.  So they too, got the kind of interest rates, half a point lower than their competitors, based on this implied backing not based on the strength of their balance sheet.

We have to fight this one too.  This is just more smoke and mirrors from the Obama administration.  Another power grab without any substantive benefit to the American people.

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Hard Luck Stories – Reading Between the Lines

by Bill O'Connell on April 22, 2010

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You don’t have to go too far to find a story about people suffering in these tough economic times, and your heart goes out to them.  Some have lost houses, are living in cars, really tough stuff.  But there is another story under the surface that reflects common attitudes developed growing up in the nanny state kicked into high gear by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the midst of these tough economic times, instead of getting out of the way by cutting taxes and red tape, the Obama administration is focused on piling on more government programs.  Worthless stimulus packages, health care reform, and efforts to push cap and trade have not moved the unemployment needle a whit.  They extend unemployment benefits and keep whistling past the graveyard hoping they won’t get swallowed up.

Personal Responsibility

Since the Great Depression and the growth of the nanny state, more and more people have bought into the myth that the government can provide all, and our responsibility is to enjoy the ride.  An article in today’s New York Times writes about people benefitting from a government program to keep them in their houses if they face becoming homeless.  But there are some subtleties in the hard luck stories that give me pause.

There is the case of Antonio Moore who lost his job as a mortgage consultant that paid him $75,000 per year.  He lost his 3-bedroom house with a Jacuzzi and his Lexus sedan.  He is now faced with eviction from his apartment.  The article doesn’t go into details, but in most cases you don’t lose your house and car if they are all paid for.  Again, it doesn’t say if Mr. Moore bought his car new or used, but when I think of a car like a Lexus I usually don’t think that fitting in the budget of someone making $75,000 living in the San Francisco Bay area.  Had Mr. Moore purchased a Toyota Corolla instead of the Lexus would he be in better shape?  Again, I don’t know the details.  I am just wondering.

Then there is the case of Dawn Martin.

Ms. Martin is mortified to be asking for help. She grew up wealthy, with vacations spent on Caribbean cruises. “I had everything I ever wanted,” she says.

She and her husband have a painting business that until 2008 was grossing $100,000 per year, but in this tough economy it dropped to $38,000.  That’s hard.  But then here is the between the lines story:

Her father has money to help if it really comes down to it, she acknowledges.

“I don’t see him letting his grandkids land on the street,” she says, “but he’d hold it over our heads for a long time. That would lower me to a level that I wouldn’t want to go.”

So she is here, at Samaritan House, filling out the paperwork for the homeless prevention program.

So because of her pride, she turns to your family and mine, through higher taxes to fund a government program, to help her through her rough spot before she will turn to her own family.  But don’t worry.  When our money is gone, she will turn to Dad.  The painting business is picking up so Ms. Martin is confident they will be able to sustain themselves.  She is able to take our money to tide her over and still maintain her pride. 

But what did Ms. Martin learn about money when “growing up wealthy”?  Is Dad responsible for not teaching her or was she a rebellious child who ignored him and perhaps that is why he would hold it over her head for a long time.  Will she do something different this time around or hope for another government program?

Perhaps I was a little torqued before reading this story by another in the Wall Street Journal that wrote about the homes underlying the Goldman Sachs fraud case.  This article talks about a Ms. Onyeukwu, a 43-year old nursing home assistant with pre-tax income of $9,000 per month.  She is having trouble paying her $688,000 mortgage at $5,000 per month which is 56% of her pre-tax income.  Her solution?  Refinance it with a $786,250 mortgage.  But hey, the interest rate is lower so her payments of $5,000 per month will stay the same.  What is she thinking?  I could be way off base here but I’ll bet she could get a nice apartment for significantly less than $5,000 per month.  Sell the house, live within your means.

Government as Savior or Government as Pusher?

This is a tale of two government programs and personal responsibility.  We had or still have a massive government program that uses threats, goals, and sleight of hand to help millions achieve the American dream of home ownership.  This is not through thrift, like our parents did it, but by the government threatening banks with charges of racism (there’s the race card again) if the banks didn’t lower their lending standards.  As the housing market took off, the feeding frenzy intensified and everyone was trying to buy houses or finance them with less and less money down.  The Community Reinvestment Act, HUD, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac were all players in this debacle, but don’t expect our elected officials to wade into that swamp to see what happened.  No, they will pile the blame on the banks and Wall Street, while they take Wall Street’s massive donations and do nothing but pass meaningless “reform legislation”.  Now we need new government programs to keep these people hanging on.  How similar is this to the drug pusher who gives you your first hit for free to get you hooked and dependent on them forever.

What About Personal Responsibility?

Unlike the people in the articles, I believe I have responsibility first and foremost for my actions.  If I need help beyond myself I turn to my family and then the charity of my church.  I believe many conservatives share my views, which is why on average conservatives give 30% more to charities than liberals.  It is why I gave the moniker “Buck a Day Biden” to Vice President Joe Biden because in his financial disclosure forms he reported give only about $300 a year to charity.  Here is a man who has been drawing six figure salaries from the taxpayers for years, is a millionaire, but will not reach very deep into his own pocket to help his fellow man, but has no problem reaching into your pocket and mine to create some government program to give your tax dollars to someone else.

There is a man named Dave Ramsey, who was a millionaire in his mid-twenties but later lost it all and declared bankruptcy.  He now teaches others how to live without debt and take responsibility for their financial lives.  It is a lesson all of us should learn and if we do, I’ll have to find something else to write about that sets me off.  But in the mean time we have a lot of work to do.  First we have to stop the federal government’s runaway train.  Next, we have to shrink government.  Then we have to go back to being responsible for ourselves and wean ourselves off the government.

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If Regulations Aren’t Working, Add More Regulations

by Bill O'Connell on April 20, 2010

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Democrats think they have a winner.  They want to lather on some more financial regulations because regulators dropped the ball on enforcing what already exists.  So as conservatives point out that what they are proposing is unnecessary or won’t work, they can gleefully say, “Republicans are for the fat cats, while we’re for the little guy.”

Broken Regulations

Harry Markopolos recognized within “minutes” that Bernie Madoff was a fraud.  He took his case to the SEC and was promptly ignored.  He took it to Forbes magazine…not interested.  Bernie Madoff himself was surprised how long it took to be found out. 

So what does the SEC do now?  It initiates a case against Goldman Sachs where professionals on both sides of a transaction knew what they were getting into.  One side bet on housing prices continuing to rise, the other betting the bubble would burst.  The decision on pursuing this was voted 3-2, with three Democrats voting in favor of pursuing the case, and two Republicans voting against.  It must be the Democrats looking out for the little guys and the Republicans looking out for evil Wall Street, right?

John Paulson is the investor who allegedly played unfairly by being able to choose the securities that went into the investment that Goldman Sachs allegedly didn’t disclose to the other party.  Mr. Paulson hasn’t been charged with anything.  Mr. Paulson also contributed $30,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last June.  If you recall Jon Corzine, former Democratic Senator and Governor of New Jersey, used to be the chairman of Goldman Sachs.  The new head of the SEC enforcement division in the Obama Administration, Adam Storch, is a former Goldman Sachs Vice President.  So who’s in bed with Wall Street? 

Democrats Need a Diversion

With almost every measure of public opinion on government appointment sinking to all time lows, the Democrats need to ramp up the class warfare machine to find anything that will gain traction with the public.  They know they can’t fight on the facts so they have to start the fog machine.  Typical Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals stuff.

Conservatives must focus the debate on the issues and not shrink from the fight.  It is far too easy to show that Big Government (Obama) and Big Business (GE, et al) are really partners in dividing up the spoils amongst themselves and telling the rest of us how to live our lives.

Remembering Reagan

Ronald Reagan famously said that the statists believe:

“If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

There is currently no more telling example of this than Senator Chuck Schumer bloviating about Spirit Air Lines charging passengers for carry on baggage.  He wants to introduce legislation prohibiting this.  Hey, Chuck, if you don’t like Spirit charging you for your carryon bags, pick another airline!  That’s how markets work.  But the genius that is Washington is, NO we have to regulate that!  So the idiots would pass a law prohibiting charging for carryon bags and the airlines will respond by raising ALL ticket prices to compensate.  So instead of my having a choice of carrying a bag on board or saving the money, or choosing another airline altogether, the government will make everything equal and more expensive.

So, Chuck, how are you and your pals doing as far as growing the economy and getting the unemployment rate down?   Maybe you should spend some time on that, no?

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Congressional Clunkers

by Bill O'Connell on August 1, 2009

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Can anyone offer us a deal to give us cash if replace our Congressional Clunkers?  How about the health insurance companies?  They’d probably kick in, since they are Congress’ new whipping boy.  Oil companies, coal companies?  They get bashed every time Congress screws up and bans nuclear power, offshore drilling, ANWR, and coal as the price of oil climbs.  Banks who didn’t take TARP money?  Well Congress wants to set their salaries now.

Congressional Mileage

How much liberty per dollar are we getting for the money guzzling Congressmen and Senators who pull down $169,300 per year (more for committee chairs, and Speaker Pelosi who weighs in at $217,400)?  And this doesn’t begin to count their expense budgets, gold plated health care, etc.  I’m sure we could get much better mileage from a smaller government and a Congress that only meets half a year.  I’m willing to bet that the longer Congress stays in session the more trouble they get us into, while consolidating their power and feathering their own nests.

Here’s the Plan

Let’s set up a fund.  We’ll let Goldman Sachs run it, as they seem to know how to turn a buck. Anyone can contribute to the fund, no limits. For every Congressman who voted for the Stimulus, Cap and Trade, and the Health Care disaster and is run out of office, the fund will pay out a percentage of the fund to everyone who registered and voted.  The percentage will be calculated as the percentage of these clunkers who are retired out of Congress.

Think about it.  If you are a voter who really, really believes that the Stimulus, Cap and Trade, and the government takeover of our health care system is a good thing, you will vote to re-elect the members of Congress who voted the same way.  However if you don’t, then perhaps you need a little personal stimulus to cross party lines, or set aside ideology, and vote the bums out.  It might even help improve voter turnout.  And why not?  If ACORN can get illegal aliens and dead people to vote for their candidates, we need a way to fight back.

What do you think?

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