The Undead of the Banking World

Hey, the economy is not only recovering…it’s becoming better than ever before!

“Banks recover to their levels before the fall of Lehman,” is a headline in this Monday’s El Pais from Madrid.

“Public assistance enables the world’s largest 15 financial firms to return to the capitalization they had in September 2008,” the article continues. The largest of the largest, HSBC, is now judged to be worth $186 billion, according to the stock market. China’s ICBC is on its heels, with a market cap of $178 billion. BNP Paribas is 7th at $87 billion.

We will overlook the compromising detail that banks actually lost money in the last quarter – more than $3 billion. And let’s forget that China’s major banks are sitting on mega-losses from more than eight years ago (to say nothing of the more recent losses). Western banks, too, still have billions in assets whose real worth is an open question…and subject to quick reconsideration…

El Pais goes on to report something intriguing: “The two big Spanish banks leave the crisis stronger.”

Ah. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The world economy is recovering, or so people believe. Stocks are going up – led by the banks. But are the undead of the banking world really stronger?

Ha ha…don’t make us laugh.

But the world seems to believe it. The Wall Street Journal reports that just five big financial stocks are behind the stock market’s rally. Fannie Mae, Citigroup, Freddie Mac, Bank of America and AIG account for nearly a third of market’s daily turnover. Seems everyone is speculating on the banks…and moving them higher.

You will recall, dear reader, the banks made a fortune during the bubble years. You may also recall that they made so much money that when the bubble years came to a close, that they were almost all broke. Without hasty action from the feds, it would have been the end of the road for every major bank on Wall Street. As it was, even with government help, none of them survived intact. They all either went bankrupt, were sold off, or got bailouts with strings attached.

What busted the banks was too much of a bad thing. They made their money by peddling debt. In order to move the stuff, they convinced clients that their products were good safe investments – even leveraged derivatives backed by subprime mortgages! Such good salesmen were they that they even convinced themselves. When the crisis came, they realized that they had been buyers of the debt…as well as sellers of it. What could they do with it…except sell it to the feds?

But the whole financial industry is coming back to life. According to El Pais, it’s back…and it’s better than ever.

But wait? How could that be? Hasn’t the world entered the worst recession since the great depression? How could lending money be such a good business? People don’t borrow in a recession.

Strategic Short Report’s Dan Amoss is just as skeptical. “The banking system has no experience managing through the current ‘negative home equity’ environment,” he tells us. “This is an environment in which mortgage rates are already about as low as they can get and consumer balance sheets are as stressed as ever. Due to the nonrecourse nature of mortgages, most borrowers have no financial incentive to keep paying. Many are choosing to mail the keys back to the lender.

“This problem will cap the upside of bank stocks for years to come, so the sector will offer lots of short selling opportunities.”

Borrowing by households has fallen off a cliff. Instead of borrowing, they’re paying back debt at the fastest rate since the ’50s. No money to be made there.

How about commercial and business loans? Are you kidding? Businesses are cutting back too. Businesses borrow to expand…and there is no expansion going on. This is a contraction. Credit is contracting along with everything else.

Then, how could the banks make money? Let’s refer to that news item again. Oh…there are the magic words: “Public assistance enables…”

The banks are making money the same way Detroit is making money…dishonestly and temporarily. Instead of doing honest deals with willing and able counterparties, the banks are pulling a fast one. Their money comes, ultimately, from the poor taxpayer…the poor sap who funds all the government’s giveaways. The private sector lived far beyond its means during the bubble years. People wasted their money they didn’t have on things they didn’t need. Now, they try to save their money. But now the government wastes their money for them.

Speaking of which…a quick note on the Cash for Clunkers program. Numbers to be released today are expected to show a peak in sales in August caused by the feds’ incentives. President Obama calls the program a showcase, proving how effective government can be at getting the economy back on the road.

But let’s go back to basics. It’s a sham when people waste their own money. It’s a crime when they waste other peoples’ money. Prosperity comes from accumulating (saving) capital…and using it to increase productive capacity. The formula is pretty simple: Save your money. Invest it in productive business. The Clunkers program encouraged people to do the opposite – consume capital, other peoples’ capital.

’Nuff said.

We were going to let Ted Kennedy go to his grave without mention here at The Daily Reckoning. The newspapers, television and radio shows have mentioned it enough. Even the foreign press has taken note of the event.

We might have let it go, but we have taken an oath: whenever we see a bubble we must pop it. And there is a bubble in Kennedy worship so big it threatens to blot out the sun. Today, we approach with a needle.

No writer has failed to mention that Mr. Kennedy was not the first of the clan die. The press cannot resist hero worship – especially when its heroes die young.

The Kennedy brothers could have lived comfortably all their lives on their father’s liquor money. Instead, they took up the banner of ‘public service’ and wrapped themselves in it so tightly it suffocated them all. The oldest of the band was killed in WWII. Ted Kennedy’s grave lies only 100 feet from his brother, Robert, killed in 1968 while running for president. And only another 100 feet from another brother who was shot down five years earlier. With that kind of curse on a family, you’d think the younger bro would have gone back into the liquor business. Instead, the younger held his head up…headed for glory…and drove off a bridge. The bridge probably saved him. Had he made it beyond the primaries, some nutcase would have certainly taken a shot at him.

The bridge incident would have sunk a lesser man – that is, one who lacked the name, family connections, lawyers, and money of Ted Kennedy. It probably would have sunk a more reflective, more sensitive man too. A man with a sharper conscience might have seen the girl’s face in his dreams and have been driven to drink…eventually drowning himself in his own guilt, like a character from a Russian novel. But Kennedy had the ability to rise above shame and put scandal behind him, with some helpful amnesia from the press. Chappaquiddick is reported in today’s press as though it were a personal triumph. A lesser man would have gone to jail for manslaughter; Kennedy went on to become the ‘lion of the Senate.’ He merely gave up his presidential aspirations and buckled down to the life of a Senate hack. The eulogies tell us that driving off the bridge, drunk, made him what he was: “the greatest legislator of all time,” as the President put it.

No, we never shared the conservatives’ loathing for the man. We never met him. Had we known him personally, we probably would have found him as agreeable a drinking companion as anyone else. But we come neither to bury Ted Kennedy, nor to praise him…we merely poke fun at the world that idolizes him.

The fact that the Kennedys committed themselves to ‘public service’ seemed to make them part of the furniture of public life. Everywhere you looked, there they were. The newspapers loved them. Everyone knew what they looked like. Hairdressers knew their private lives. Taxi drivers suffered their personal tragedies as if they were one of the family.

But the Kennedys were more than just furniture. First, because they were not particularly useful…you couldn’t sit on them or dine on them. More importantly, when it came to decorating the republic, they were the ones who wanted to arrange the furniture.

All the obituaries hammered this point as if they were hardening steel: “He devote his life to public causes…” says one. “He fought for the poor and the downtrodden…” says another.

He said so himself. In a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, Kennedy seemed to write his own obituary. He allowed as how he had “done his best to champion the rights of the poor and to open doors of economic opportunity. I’ve worked to welcome the immigrant, fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education…”

USA Today provides a typical illustration of the Senator’s magnanimity and generosity.

A woman with an autistic son asked the government for help. “The Haitian immigrant wrote to her senator, ‘the only one who can understand what it takes to raise a child with disabilities.’” (Kennedy’s son lost a leg and his sister, Rosemary, was mentally disabled. This, according to USA Today, gave him “a connection with the public’s private pain.”)

“Within three weeks,” the news item continues, “they secured vocational and life skills training [for the son]…that allowed his mother to finally earn a college degree last year at age 58.

“I have my life back and my son is no longer under by my care 24 hours a day…”

No…now he’s under someone else’s care! Kennedy redecorated. He moved the cost of caring for the poor fellow on to someone else.

And what does the mother do with her free time? She’s now a “community organizer.” You can bet she’s organizing more transfers…of money from the people who earned it to the people who didn’t.

“He was always reaching out,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. Yes, he was always re-arranging the furniture. And USA Today told us that he inspired a whole race of redecorators – people infected by a desire for ‘public service.’

“Hundreds of lesser-known former Kennedy staffers and campaign volunteers…followed him into public service…The alumni of his office pepper the government…”

But what is the consequence of all this meddling? Is the nation better off for it? None of the obituaries we saw even raised the question. How do you know if something is genuinely a public service? Is it a public service when you take money from one person and give it to another? The press seems to think so. Is it a public service when you load up the nation with hundreds of billions worth of programs and pet projects?

Kennedy was a prolific proposer…a serial legislator…a Tom Friedman with a Senate seat. Surely some conservative think tank has totted up the cost of all his legislation. And surely it is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Where did the money come from? It had to come from somewhere. It has to come from people who had ideas and plans of their own…people who had put the couch under the window and the TV in front of the easy chair, just the way they wanted it. Were they really any better off when Kennedy moved things around? Was the republic stronger, healthier, more prosperous and more honest after the Kennedy brothers got through with it?

We leave you with the question.

As for Ted Kennedy, the man was a scalawag. But he was God’s scalawag; and all His creatures deserve our respect. And now that he’s in the dirt, God will do with him as He chooses. RIP.

Until tomorrow,

Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning