NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: September 19

The worst is yet to come

In the deteriorating climate he sees unfolding, Gundlach said, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index could fall another 30%, giant Citigroup could become an “AIG-sized debacle,” Morgan Stanley would merge with a banking company, Wachovia won’t be able to stand alone, default rates on even prime mortgages could soar, and European banks’ woes are just beginning.

“This is no market for old men,” said Gundlach, who also manages TCW’s flagship Total Return Bond Fund. “This is no market for old-school thinking.”

Gundlach based his assessment on a belief that housing prices still face several more years of decline, a protracted slump, he said, not seen since the Great Depression. Moreover, Gundlach said it’s possible that home prices could be sluggish until 2022.

“If it’s like the Depression experience — and it sure is shaping up that way — it could take several years. Maybe we won’t see a bottom in home prices until 2014,” he said. [continued…]

Do central banks have an exit strategy?

A year into the global financial crisis, several key central banks remain extraordinarily exposed to their countries’ shaky private financial sectors. So far, the strategy of maintaining banking systems on feeding tubes of taxpayer-guaranteed short-term credit has made sense. But eventually central banks must pull the plug. Otherwise they will end up in intensive care themselves as credit losses overwhelm their balance sheets.

The idea that the world’s largest economies are merely facing a short-term panic looks increasingly strained. Instead, it is becoming apparent that, after a period of epic profits and growth, the financial industry now needs to undergo a period of consolidation and pruning. Weak banks must be allowed to fail or merge (with ordinary depositors being paid off by government insurance funds), so that strong banks can emerge with renewed vigor. [continued…]

Wall Street’s just deserts

At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, what good was Lehman Brothers, anyway? And if Merrill Lynch was so bullish on America, why is it that, despite the torrent of foreign investment that flowed in to Lehman, Merrill and their Wall Street peers over the past half-decade, so few jobs were created in America during that period of “recovery”?

During the late, lamented Wall Street boom, America’s leading investment institutions were plenty bullish on China’s economy, on exotic financial devices built atop millions of bad loans, and, above all — judging by the unprecedented amount of wealth they showered on the Street — on themselves. The last thing our financial community was bullish on was America — that is, the America where the vast majority of Americans live and work. [continued…]

How financial madness overtook Wall Street

Fear is so pervasive today because for years the financial markets — and many borrowers — showed no fear at all. Wall Streeters didn’t have to worry about regulation, which was in disrepute, and they didn’t worry about risk, which had supposedly been magically whisked away by all sorts of spiffy nouveau products — derivatives like credit-default swaps. (More on those later.) This lack of fear became a hothouse of greed and ignorance on Wall Street — and on Main Street as well. When greed exceeds fear, trouble follows. Wall Street has always been a greedy place and every decade or so it suffers a blow resulting in a bout of hand-wringing and regret, which always seems to be quickly forgotten.

This latest go-round featured hedge-fund operators, leveraged-buyout boys (who took to calling themselves “private-equity firms”) and whiz-kid quants who devised and plugged in those new financial instruments, creating a financial Frankenstein the likes of which we had never seen. Great new fortunes were made, and with them came great new hubris. The newly minted masters of the universe even had the nerve to defend their ridiculous income tax break — much of the private-equity managers’ piece of their investors’ profits is taxed at the 15% capital-gains rate rather than at the normal top federal income tax rate of 35% — as being good for society. (“Hey, we’re creating wealth — cut us some slack.”)

Warren Buffett, the nation’s most successful investor, back in 2003 called these derivatives — which it turned out almost no one understood — “weapons of financial mass destruction.” But what did he know? He was a 70-something alarmist fuddy-duddy who had cried wolf for years. No reason to worry about wolves until you hear them howling at your door, right? [continued…]

Wall Street and Washington

What is Washington to do as the financial system collapses? Clearly, stark differences in approach as well as in public policy have already emerged. Bail-out Bear Stearns and pump up the brokerage and investment business with new lines of credit. Nationalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the backs of the taxpayer — but let Lehman drown. Tell the financial community to save itself, after which Bank of America salutes and buys Merrill Lynch. Then, the Fed gets cold feet and decides it can’t let an institution the size of the insurance giant AIG go under as well. Washington is left staring into the abyss. The old rules no longer apply.

And that’s the point. At moments of crisis since the mid-1980s, the relationship between Washington and Wall Street has changed fundamentally, at least when compared to anything that would have been recognizable in the previous century. As a result, the road ahead is dark and unknown.

During the nineteenth century, Washington was generally happy to do favors for Wall Street financiers. Railroad tycoons, who often used those railroads as vehicles of extravagant speculation, enjoyed subsidies, tax exemptions, loans, and a whole smorgasbord of financial fringe benefits supplied by pliable Congressmen and Senators (not to mention armadas of state and local officials). [continued…]

Tutu says West complicit in Palestinian suffering

South African Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu on Thursday accused the West of complicity in Palestinian suffering by its silence, suggesting it did not want to criticise Israel because of the Holocaust.

Archbishop Tutu spoke after delivering a report to the United Nations about Israel’s deadly shelling of the town of Beit Hanoun in Gaza in November 2006, which he said may constitute a war crime.

He criticised the international community for failing to speak out against the suffering in Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, under an Israeli blockade. [continued…]

U.S. strike reported as Mullen consults Pakistanis

A new reported U.S. missile strike inside Pakistan on Wednesday threatened to undermine American efforts to defuse a growing confrontation with Pakistan over aggressive U.S. military actions against Islamist extremists in the country’s turbulent northwest border region.

The strike in the South Waziristan tribal area, which officials said killed six people, came as the United States’ top military officer pledged during a hastily arranged visit to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, that Washington would respect that nation’s sovereignty. He did not specifically rule out further raids, however.

According to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pakistani officials that he “appreciated the positive role Pakistan is playing in the war on terror” and “reiterated the U.S. commitment to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty” and to develop further bilateral cooperation on critical security issues. [continued…]

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