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Thursday
Feb042016

Election 2016: A Battle of Billionaires (Except for Bernie Sanders)

This Piece Originally Appeared in TomDispatch.

Speaking of the need for citizen participation in our national politics in his final State of the Union address, President Obama said, “Our brand of democracy is hard.” A more accurate characterization might have been: “Our brand of democracy is cold hard cash.”

Cash, mountains of it, is increasingly the necessary tool for presidential candidates. Several Powerball jackpots could already be fueled from the billions of dollars in contributions in play in election 2016. When considering the present donation season, however, the devil lies in the details, which is why the details follow.

With three 2016 debates down and six more scheduled, the two fundraisers with the most surprising amount in common are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Neither has billionaire-infused super PACs, but for vastly different reasons. Bernie has made it clear billionaires won’t ever hold sway in his court. While Trump... well, you know, he’s not only a billionaire but has the knack for getting the sort of attention that even billions can’t buy.

Regarding the rest of the field, each candidate is counting on the reliability of his or her own arsenal of billionaire sponsors and corporate nabobs when the you-know-what hits the fan. And at this point, believe it or not, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 and the super PACs that arose from it, all the billionaires aren’t even nailed down or faintly tapped out yet.  In fact, some of them are already preparing to jump ship on their initial candidate of choice or reserving the really big bucks for closer to game time, when only two nominees will be duking it out for the White House.

Capturing this drama of the billionaires in new ways are TV networks eager to profit from the latest eyeball-gluing version of election politicking and the billions of dollars in ads that will flood onto screens nationwide between now and November 8th. As super PACs, billionaires, and behemoth companies press their influence on what used to be called “our democracy,” the modern debate system, now a 16-month food fight, has become the political equivalent of the NFL playoffs. In turn, soaring ratings numbers, scads of ads, and the party infighting that helps generate them now translate into billions of new dollars for media moguls.

For your amusement and mine, this being an all-fun-all-the-time election campaign, let’s examine the relationships between our twenty-first-century plutocrats and the contenders who have raised $5 million or more in individual contributions or through super PACs and are at 5% or more in composite national polls. I’ll refrain from using the politically correct phrases that feed into the illusion of distance between super PACs that allegedly support candidates’ causes and the candidates themselves, because in practice there is no distinction.

On the Republican Side:

1. Ted Cruz: Most “God-Fearing” Billionaires

Yes, it’s true the Texas senator “goofed” in neglecting to disclose to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) a tiny six-figure loan from Goldman Sachs for his successful 2012 Senate campaign. (After all, what’s half-a-million dollars between friends, especially when the investment bank that offered it also employed your wife as well as your finance chairman?) As The Donald recently told a crowd in Iowa, when it comes to Ted Cruz, “Goldman Sachs owns him. Remember that, folks. They own him.”

That aside, with a slew of wealthy Christians in his camp, Cruz has raised the second largest pile of money among the GOP candidates. His total of individual and PAC contributions so far disclosed is a striking $65.2 million. Of that, $14.28 million has already been spent. Individual contributors kicked in about a third of that total, or $26.57 million, as of the end of November 2015 -- $11 million from small donors and $15.2 million from larger ones. His five top donor groups are retirees, lawyers and law firms, health professionals, miscellaneous businesses, and securities and investment firms (including, of course, Goldman Sachs to the tune of $43,575).

Cruz’s Keep the Promise super PAC continues to grow like an action movie franchise. It includes his original Keep the Promise PAC augmented by Keep the Promise I, II, and III. Collectively, the Keep the Promise super PACs amassed $37.83 million. In terms of deploying funds against his adversaries, they have spent more than 10 times as much fighting Marco Rubio as battling Hillary Clinton.

His super PAC money divides along family factions reminiscent of Game of Thrones.  A $15 million chunk comes from the billionaire Texas evangelical fracking moguls, the Wilks Brothers, and $10 million comes from Toby Neugebauer, who is also listed as the principal officer of the public charity, Matthew 6:20 Foundation; its motto is “Support the purposes of the Christian Community.”

Cruz’s super PACs also received  $11 million from billionaire Robert Mercer, co-CEO of the New York-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. His contribution is, however, peanuts compared to the $6.8 billion a Senate subcommittee accused Renaissance of shielding from the Internal Revenue Service (an allegation Mercer is still fighting). How’s that for “New York values”?  No wonder Cruz wants to abolish the IRS.

Another of Cruz’s contributors is Bob McNair, the real estate mogul, billionaire owner of the National Football League’s Houston Texans, and self-described “Christian steward.”

2. Marco Rubio: Most Diverse Billionaires

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has raised $32.8 million from individual and PAC contributions and spent about $9 million. Despite the personal economic struggles he’s experienced and loves to talk about, he’s not exactly resonating with the nation’s downtrodden, hence his weak polling figures among the little people. Billionaires of all sorts, however, seem to love him.

The bulk of his money comes from super PACs and large contributors. Small individual contributors donated only $3.3 million to his coffers; larger individual contributions provided $11.3 million. Goldman Sachs leads his pack of corporate donors with $79,600.

His main super PAC, Conservative Solutions, has raised $16.6 million, making it the third largest cash cow behind those of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. It holds $5 million from Braman Motorcars, $3 million from the Oracle Corporation, and $2.5 million from Benjamin Leon, Jr., of Besilu Stables. (Those horses are evidently betting on Rubio.)

He has also amassed a healthy roster of billionaires including the hedge-fund “vulture of Argentina” Paul Singer who was the third-ranked conservative donor for the 2014 election cycle. Last October, in a mass email to supporters about a pre-Iowa caucus event, Singer promised, “Anyone who raises $10,800 in new, primary money will receive 5 VIP tickets to a rally and 5 tickets to a private reception with Marco.”

Another of Rubio's Billionaire Boys is Norman Braman, the Florida auto dealer and his mentor. These days he’s been forking over the real money, but back in 2008, he gave Florida International University $100,000 to fund a Rubio post-Florida statehouse teaching job. What makes Braman’s relationship particularly intriguing is his “intense distaste for Jeb Bush,” Rubio’s former political mentor and now political punching bag. Hatred, in other words, is paying dividends for Rubio.

Rounding out his top three billionaires is Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who ranks third on Forbes’s billionaire list.  Last summer, he threw a $2,700 per person fundraiser in his Woodside, California, compound for the candidate, complete with a special dinner for couples that raised $27,000. If Rubio somehow pulls it out, you can bet he will be the Republican poster boy for Silicon Valley.

3. Jeb Bush: Most Disappointed Billionaires

Although the one-time Republican front-runner’s star now looks more like a black hole, the coffers of “Jeb!” are still the ones to beat. He had raised a total of $128 million by late November and spent just $19.9 million of it.  Essentially none of Jeb’s money came from the little people (that is, us). Barely 4% of his contributions were from donations of $200 or less.

In terms of corporate donors, eight of his top 10 contributors are banks or from the financial industry (including all of the Big Six banks). Goldman Sachs (which is nothing if not generous to just about every candidate in sight -- except of course, Bernie) tops his corporate donor chart with $192,500. His super PACs still kick ass compared to those of the other GOP contenders. His Right to Rise super PAC raised a hefty $103.2 million and, despite his disappearing act in the polls, it remains by far the largest in the field.

Corporate donors to Jeb’s Right to Rise PAC include MBF Healthcare Partners founder and chairman Mike Fernandez, who has financed a slew of anti-Trump ads, with $3.02 million, and Rooney Holdings with $2.2 million. Its CEO, L. Francis Rooney III, was the man George W. Bush appointed ambassador to the Vatican. Former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg’s current company, CV Starr (and not, as he has made pains to clarify, he himself), gave $10 million to Jeb’s super PAC. In the same Fox Business interviewwhere he stressed that distinction, he also noted, “I’m sorry he is not living up to expectations, but that’s the reality of it.” AIG, by the way, received $182 billion in bailout money under Jeb’s brother, W.

4. Ben Carson: No Love For Billionaires

Ben Carson is running a pretty expensive campaign, which doesn’t reflect well on his possible future handling of the economy (though, as he sinks toward irrelevance in the polls, it seems as if his moment to handle anything may have passed). Having raised $38.7 million, he’s spent $26.4 million of it. His campaign received 63% of its contributions from small donors, which leaves it third behind Bernie and Trump on that score, according to FEC filings from October 2015.

His main super PACs, grouped under the title “the 2016 Committee,” raised just $3.8 million, with rich retired people providing the bulk of it.  Another PAC, Our Children’s Future, didn’t collect anything, despite its pledge to turn "Carson’s outside militia into an organized army."

But billionaires aren’t Carson’s cup of tea. As he said last October, “I have not gone out licking the boots of billionaires and special-interest groups. I’m not getting into bed with them.”

Carson recently dropped into fourth place in the RealClearPolitics composite poll for election 2016 with his team in chaos. His campaign manager, Barry Bennett, quit. His finance chairman, Dean Parke, resignedamid escalating criticism over his spending practices and his $20,000 a month salary. As the rising outsider candidate, Carson once had an opportunity to offer a fresh voice on campaign finance reform. Instead, his campaign learned the hard way that being in the Republican hot seat without a Rolodex of billionaires can be hell on Earth.

5. Chris Christie: Most Sketchy Billionaires

For someone polling so low, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has amassed startling amounts of dosh. His campaign contributions stand at $18.6 million, of which he has spent $5.7 million. Real people don’t care for him. Christie has received the least number of small contributions in either party, a bargain basement 3% of his total.

On the other hand, his super PAC, America Leads, raised $11 million, including $4.3 million from the securities and investment industry. His top corporate donors at $1 million each include Point 72 Asset Management, the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, and Winnecup Gamble Ranch, run by billionaire Paul Fireman, chairman of Fireman Capital Partners and founder and former chairman of Reebok International Ltd.

Steven Cohen, worth about $12 billion and on the Christie campaign's national finance team, founded Point 72 Asset Management after being forced to shut down SAC Capital, his former hedge-fund company, due to insider-trading charges. SAC had to pay $1.2 billion to settle.

Christie’s other helpful billionaire is Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot. But Langone, as he told the National Journal, is not writing a $10 million check. Instead, he says, his preferred method of subsidizing politicians is getting “a lot of people to write checks, and get them to get people to write checks, and hopefully result in a helluva lot more than $10 million.” In other words, Langone offers his ultra-wealthy network, not himself.

6. Donald Trump: I Am A Billionaire

Trump’s campaign has received approximately $5.8 million in individual contributions and spent about the same amount. Though not much compared to the other Republican contenders, it’s noteworthy that 70% of Trump’s contributions come from small individual donors (the highest percentage among GOP candidates). It’s a figure that suggests it might not pay to underestimate Trump’s grassroots support, especially since he’s getting significant amounts of money from people who know he doesn’t need it.

Last July, a Make America Great Again super PAC emerged, but it shut downin October to honor Trump’s no super PAC claim.  For Trump, dealing with super PAC agendas would be a hassle unworthy of his time and ego. (He is, after all, the best billionaire: trust him.) Besides, with endorsements from luminaries like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and a command of TV ratings that’s beyond compare, who needs a super PAC or even his own money, of which he’s so far spent remarkably little?

On The Democratic Side:

1. Hillary Clinton: A Dynasty of Billionaires 

Hillary and Bill Clinton earned a phenomenal $139 million for themselves between 2007 and 2014, chiefly from writing books and speaking to various high-paying Wall Street and international corporations.  Between 2013 and 2015, Hillary Clinton gave 12 speeches to Wall Street banks, private equity firms, and other financial corporations, pocketing a whopping $2,935,000. And she’s used that obvious money-raising skill to turn her campaign into a fundraising machine.

As of October 16, 2015, she had pocketed $97.87 million from individual and PAC contributions.  And she sure knows how to spend it, too. Nearly half of that sum, or $49.8 million -- more than triple the amount of any other candidate -- has already gone to campaign expenses.

Small individual contributions made up only 17% of Hillary’s total; 81% came from large individual contributions. Much like her forced folksiness in the early days of her campaign when she was snapped eating a burrito bowl at a Chipotle in her first major meet-the-folks venture in Ohio, those figures reveal a certain lack of savoir faire when it comes to the struggling classes.

Still, despite her speaking tour up and down Wall Street and the fact that fourof the top six Wall Street banks feature among her top 10 career contributors, they’ve been holding back so far in this election cycle (or perhaps donating to the GOP instead).  After all, campaign 2008 was a bust for her and nobody likes to be on the losing side twice.

Her largest super PAC, Priorities USA Action, nonetheless raised $15.7 million, including $4.6 million from the entertainment industry and $3.1 million from securities and investment. The Saban Capital Group and DreamWorks kicked in $2 million each.

Hillary has recently tried to distance herself from a well-deserved reputation for being close to Wall Street, despite the mega-speaking fees she’s garnered from Goldman Sachs among others, not to speak of the fact that five of the Big Six banks gave money to the Clinton Foundation. She now claims that her “Wall Street plan” is stricter than Bernie Sanders’s. (It isn’t. He’s advocating to break up the big banks via a twenty-first-century version of the Glass-Steagall Act that Bill Clinton buried in his presidency.) To top it off, she scheduled an elite fundraiser at the $17 billion “alternative investment” firm Franklin Square Capital Partners four days before the Iowa Caucus. So much for leopards changing spots.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Hillary has billionaires galore in her corner, all of whom backed her hubby through the years.  Chief among them is media magnate Haim Saban who gave her super PAC $2 million. George Soros, the hedge-fund mogul, contributed $2.02 million. DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg gave $1 million. And the list goes on.

2. Bernie Sanders: No Billionaires Allowed

Bernie Sanders has stuck to his word, running a campaign sans billionaires. As of October 2015, he had raised an impressive $41.5 million and spent about $14.5 million of it.

None of his top corporate donors are Wall Street banks. What’s more, a record 77% of his contributions came from small individual donors, a number that seems only destined to grow as his legions of enthusiasts vote with their personal checkbooks.

According to a Sanders campaign press release as the year began, another $33 million came in during the last three months of 2015: “The tally for the year-end quarter pushed his total raised last year to $73 million from more than 1 million individuals who made a record 2.5 million donations.” That number broke the 2011 record set by President Obama’s reelection committee by 300,000 donations, and evidence suggests Sanders’s individual contributors aren’t faintly tapped out. After recent attacks on his single-payer healthcare plan by the Clinton camp, he raised $1.4 million in a single day.

It would, of course, be an irony of ironies if what has been a billionaire’s playground since the Citizens United decision became, in November, a billionaire’s graveyard with literally billions of plutocratic dollars interred in a grave marked: here lies campaign 2016.

The Media and Debates

And talking about billions, in some sense the true political and financial playground of this era has clearly become the television set with a record $6 billion in political ads slated to flood America’s screen lives before next November 8th. Add to that the staggering rates that media companies have been getting for ad slots on TV’s latest reality extravaganza -- those “debates” that began in mid-2015 and look as if they’ll never end. They have sometimes pulled in National Football League-sized audiences and represent an entertainment and profit spectacle of the highest order.

So here’s a little rundown on those debates thus far, winners and losers (and I’m not even thinking of the candidates, though Donald Trump would obviously lead the list of winners so far -- just ask him).  In those ratings extravaganzas, especially the Republican ones, the lack of media questions on campaign finance reform and on the influence of billionaires is striking -- and little wonder, under the money-making circumstances.

The GOP Show

The kick-off August 6th GOP debate in Cleveland, Ohio, was a Fox News triumph. Bringing in 24 million viewers, it was the highest-rated primary debate in TV history. The follow-up at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 16th, hosted by CNN and Salem Radio, grabbed another 23.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in CNN's history.  (Trump naturally took credit for that.)  CNN charged up to $200,000for a 30-second spot.  (An average prime-time spot on CNN usually goes for $5,000.) The third debate, hosted by CNBC, attracted 14 million viewers, a record for CNBC, which was by then charging advertisers $250,000 or more for 30-second spots.

Fox Business News and the Wall Street Journal hosted the next round on November 10th: 13.5 million viewers and (ho-hum) a Fox Business News record. For that one, $175,000 bought you a 30-second commercial slot.

The fifth and final debate of 2015 on December 15th in Las Vegas, again hosted by CNN and Salem Radio, lassoed 18 million viewers. As 2016 started, debate fatigue finally seemed to be setting in. The first debate on January 14th in North Charleston, South Carolina, scored a mere 11 million viewers for Fox Business News. When it came to the second debate (and the last before the Iowa caucuses) on January 28th, The Donald decided not to grace it with his presence because he didn't think Fox News had treated him nicely enough and because he loathes its host Megyn Kelly.

The Democratic Debates

Relative to the GOP debate ad-money mania, CNN charged a bargain half-off, or $100,000, for a 30-second ad during one of the Democratic debates. Let’s face it, lacking a reality TV star at center stage, the Democrats and associated advertisers generally fared less well. Their first debate on October 13th in Las Vegas, hosted by CNN and Facebook, averaged a respectable 15.3 million viewers, but the next one in Des Moines, Iowa, overseen by CBS and the Des Moines Register, sank to just 8.6 million viewers. Debate number three in Manchester, New Hampshire, hosted by ABC and WMUR, was rumored to have been buried by the Democratic National Committee (evidently trying to do Hillary a favor) on the Saturday night before Christmas. Not surprisingly, it brought in only 7.85 million viewers.

The fourth Democratic debate on NBC on January 17th (streamed live on YouTube) featured the intensifying battle between an energized Bernie and a spooked Hillary.  It garnered 10.2 million TV viewers and another 2.3 million YouTube viewers, even though it, too, had been buried -- on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In comparison, 60 Minutes on rival network CBS nabbed 20.3 million viewers.

The Upshot

So what gives? In this election season, it’s clear that these skirmishes involving the ultra-wealthy and their piles of cash are transforming modern American politics into a form of theater. And the correlation between big money and big drama seems destined only to rise.  The media needs to fill its coffers between now and election day and the competition among billionaires has something of a horse-betting quality to it.  Once upon a time, candidates drummed up interest in their policies; now, their policies, such as they are, have been condensed into so many buzzwords and phrases, while money and glitz are the main currencies attracting attention.

That said, it could all go awry for the money-class and wouldn’t that just be satisfying to witness -- the irony of an election won not by, but despite, all those billionaires and corporate patrons.

Will Bernie’s citizens beat Hillary’s billionaires? Will Trump go billion to billion with fellow New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg? Will Cruz’s prayers be answered? Will Rubio score a 12th round knockout of Cruz and Trump? Does Jeb Bush even exist? And to bring up a question few are likely to ask: What do the American people and our former democratic republic stand to lose (or gain) from this spectacle? All this and more (and more and more money) will be revealed later this year.

Tuesday
Jan052016

My Financial Road Map For 2016

Happy New Year to All! May 2016 bring peace to you and your loved ones.

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to stay away from airports and hike Runyon Canyon with my dogs. For those of you that have never traversed Runyon’s peaks and dips, they are nature’s respite from the urban streets of Los Angeles, yet located in the heart of the City of Angels. It’s a place in which to observe, reflect, and think about what’s coming ahead.

As a writer and journalist covering the ebbs and flows of government, elite individual, central bank and private industry power, actions, co-dependencies, and impacts on populations and markets worldwide, I often find myself reacting too quickly to information. As I embark upon extensive research for my new book, Artisans of Money, my resolution for the book - and the year - is to more carefully consider small details in the context of the broader perspective. My travels will take me to Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan, Germany, Spain, Greece and more. My intent is to converse with people in their respective locales; those formulating (or trying to formulate) monetary, economic and financial policy, and those affected by it.

We are currently in a transitional phase of geo-political-monetary power struggles, capital flow decisions, and fundamental economic choices. This remains a period of artisanal (central bank fabricated) money, high volatility, low growth, excessive wealth inequality, extreme speculation, and policies that preserve the appearance of big bank liquidity and concentration at the expense of long-term stability. The potential for chaotic fluctuations in any element of the capital markets is greater than ever. 

The butterfly effect - the flutter of a wing in one part of the planet altering the course of seemingly unrelated events in another part - is on center stage. There is much information to process. So, I’d like to share with you – not my financial predictions for 2016 exactly - – but some of the items that I will be examining from a geographical, political and financial perspective as the year unfolds.

1) Central Banks: Artisans of Money

Since the Fed raised (hiked is too strong a word) rates by 25 basis points on December 16th, the Dow has dropped by about 3.5%. Indicating a mix of fear of decisive movements and a market awareness deficit regarding the impact of its actions, the Federal Reserve hedged its own rate rise announcement, noting that its "stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase.”

These words seem fairly clear: there won’t be many, if any, hikes to come in 2016 unless economies markedly improve (which they won’t, or the words would be much more definitive.) Still, Janet Yellen did manage to alleviate some stress over the Fed's inaction on rate rises during the past 7 years, by invoking the slighted action possible with respect to rates. 

Projections are past reactions here. The Fed, to save face more than anything or to “appear” conclusive, raised the Fed Funds rate (the rate US banks charge each other to borrow excess reserves, of which about $2.5 billion are with the Fed anyway), to .25-.50% from 0-.25%. And yet, the effective rate stood within the old Fed target range, or at an average of .20% on December 31 for various reasons, the timing of which was not lost on the Fed. It was at .35% or so on the first day of 2016. The Fed’s rate move was tepid, and it’s possible the Fed moves rates up another 25 or 50 basis points over 2016, but less likely more than that and more likely it engages in heightened currency swap activities with other central banks as a way to “manage” rates and exchange rates regardless.

Meanwhile, most other central banks (Brazil being an extreme counter example) remain in easing mode or mirror mode to the Fed. It’s likely that more creative QE measures amongst the elite central banks will pop up if liquidity, markets or commodities head southward. Less powerful central banks will attempt to respond to the needs of their local economies while balancing the strains imposed upon them by the elite central banks.

2) Global Stock Markets

They say that behavior on the first day of the year is indicative of behavior in the year to come. If so, the first trading day doesn’t bode well for the rest. Turmoil began anew with Asian stock markets crumbling at the start of 2016. In China, the Shanghai Composite hit two circuit breakers and China further weakened the yuan.

Yes, there’s the prevailing growth-decline story, a relic of 2015 “popular opinion”, being served as a reason for the drop. But also, restrictions on short selling by local Chinese companies are expiring. Just as in last August, China will have to balance imposing fresh sell restrictions with market forces pushing the yuan down.

The People’s Bank of China will likely inject more liquidity through further reserve requirement reductions and rate cuts to counter balance losses. The demise in stock values is not simply due to slower growth, but to high debt burdens and speculative foreign capital outflows; the story of China as a quick bet is no longer as hot as it was when China opened its markets to more foreign investors in mid-2014, since which volumes and volatility increased. It will be interesting to see if China responds with more capital controls or less, and how its  “long-game” of global investments plays out.

Blood shed followed Asian into European markets. Subsequently, the Dow dropped by about 1.6% unleashing its worst start to a year since the financial crisis began. Last year's theme to me was volatility rising; this year is about markets falling, even core ones. This is both a reaction to global and local economic weakness, and speculative capital pondering definitive new stomping grounds, hence thinner and more dispersed volumes will be moving markets.

3) Global Debt and Defaults

As of November 2015, Standard & Poor’s tallied the number of global companies that defaulted at 99, a figure only exceeded by that of 222 in 2009. Debt loads now present greater dangers. Not only did companies (and governments, of course) pile on debt during this zero interest rate bonanza period; but currency values also declined relative to the dollar, making interest payments more expensive on a local basis.

If the dollar remains comparatively strong or local economies weaken by an amount equivalent to any dollar weakening, more defaults are likely in 2016. In addition, the proportion of junk bonds relative to investment grade bonds grew from 40% to 50% since the financial crisis, making the likelihood of defaults that much greater. Plus, the increase in foreign, especially dollar, denominated debt in emerging markets will continue to hurt those countries from a sovereign downgrade and a corporate downgrade to default basis.

I expect sovereign downgrades to increase this year in tandem with corporate downgrades and defaults. Also, as corporate defaults or default probabilities increase, so does corporate fraud discovery. This will be a year of global corporate scandals.

In the US about 60% of 2015 defaults were in the oil and gas industry, but if oil prices stay low or drop further, more will come. Related industries will also be impacted. In mid-December, Fitch released its leveraged loan default forecast of the TTM (Trailing Twelve Month index) predicting a 2.5% rise in default rates for 2016, or $24 billion in global defaults. That’s an almost 50% increase in default volume over 2015, and more than the total over the 2011-2013 period. Besides higher energy sector defaults, the retail sector could see more defaults, as consumers lose out and curtail spending.

4) Brazil and Argentina

Brazil is a basket case on multiple levels with nothing to indicate 2016 will be anything but messier than 2015. Even the upcoming Olympics there have reeked of scandal in the lead up to the summer games.

Brazilian corporations have already sold $10 billion in assets to scrape together cash in 2015, a drop in the bucket to what’s needed. Brazil’s main company, Petrobras, is mired in scandal, its bond and share prices took massive hits last year as it got downgraded to junk, and a feeding frenzy between US, Europe and China for any of its assets on the cheap won’t be enough to alter the downward trajectory of Brazilian’s economy. In fact, it will just make recovery harder as core resources will be effectively outsourced.

Fitch downgraded seven Brazilian sub nationals to junk, with more downgrades to come. Brazil itself was downgraded to junk by S&P with no positive outlook from anywhere for 2016. Falling revenues plus higher financial costs due to higher debt burdens will accentuate trouble. In addition, pension funds are going to be increasingly underfunded, which will enhance local population and political unrest, as unemployment increases, too.

Though Brazil will have the toughest time relative to neighboring countries, Argentina, will not be having a walk in the park under its new government either. The new centrist government removed currency capital controls in a desperate bid to attract capital. This resulted in crushing the Argentinean Peso (a.k.a. “Marci’s devaluation”) and will only invite further speculative and political volatility into the country. It could get ugly.

5) The Dollar and Gold

Despite what will be a year of continued pathways to trade and currency arrangements amongst countries trying to distance themselves from the US dollar, the fact that much of the world is careening toward global Depression will keep the dollar higher than it deserves to be. It will remain the comparative currency of choice, as long as central banks continue to fabricate liquidity in place of government revenues from productive growth.

Outside the US, most central banks (except Brazil which has a massive inflation problem) have maintained policies of rate reduction, lower reserve requirements, and other forms of QE or currency swap activities. As in 2015, the dollar will be a benefactor, despite problems facing the US economy and its general mismanagement of monetary policy. But the US dollar index and the dollar itself might exhibit more volatility to the downside this year, straying from its high levels more frequently than during 2015.

Last year, given the enhanced volatility in various markets, I expected gold to rise during the summer as a safe haven choice, which it did, but it also ended the year lower in US dollar terms. Because the US dollar preserved its strength, the dollar price of gold fell during the year - yet not by as much as other commodities, like oil.

I take that as a sign of gold finding some sort of a floor relative to the US dollar, with the possibility of more upside than downside for 2016, though in similar volatility bands to the US dollar. Gold relative to the Euro was just slightly down for 2015, relative to the approximate 10% decline in value relative to the US dollar. Considering the home currency is important when examining gold price behavior.

Also, it’s important to note that investing in gold requires a longer time horizon - months and years, rather than weeks and months - and should be done through physical gold, coins or allocated bars depending on disposable investment thresholds, not paper gold. 

In addition, as I mentioned last year, routinely extracting cash from bank accounts and keeping it in safe non-bank locations, remains a smart defensive play for 2016.

6) The People’s Economies

As companies default and economies suffer, industries will inevitably shed jobs this year around the world. The Fed’s publicly expressed optimism about employment figures and the headline figure decrease in US unemployment will be met with the realities of companies cutting jobs to pay the debts they took on during the ZIRP years and due to decreased demand.

Unemployment is already rising in many emerging countries, and it will be important to note what happens in Europe and Japan, as well as the US in that regard.  This Recession 3.0 (or ongoing Depression) could fuel further artisanal money practices that might again be good for the markets and banks, but not for real economies or jobs lost through reactive corporate actions.  

7) Oil

With Saudi Arabia and Iran pissed off at each other in a round of tit-for-tat power positioning, it’s unlikely either OPEC heavy weight will reduce oil production, this while tankers worldwide remain laden with their loads and rigs are quiet. Tankers off the coast of Long Beach in California for instance, that used to come in and unload, remain in stalling patterns away from the shoreline, waiting for better prices. This means tankers are making money on storage, but also that extra oil supplies are hovering off shore, and even if prices rise, release of that supply would have a dampening consequence on prices.

Oil futures have been a generally highly speculated product, so I’ve never believed that simple supply and demand ratios drive the price of spot oil as it relates to the futures price of oil. Only in this case, not only is there oversupply and weakening demand, but speculators are playing to the short side as well. That combination seems destined to keep oil prices low, or push them lower in the near future, but should be closely watched.

Meanwhile, signs of knock on problems are growing. In China, for instance, shipyards are struggling because global rig customers don’t need their rig model orders fulfilled.  

8) Europe

While Greece faces more blood-from-a-stone extortion tactics and none of the Troika get why austerity measures don't actually produce local revenues at high enough levels to pay expensive debts to foreign investors and multinational entities, other parts of Europe aren’t looking much better for 2016. Spain is facing political unrest, Italy, despite exhibiting a tenuous recovery of sorts, still has a major unemployment problem, and the Bank of Portugal lowered its growth estimates - for the next two years.

Mario Draghi, European Central Bank (ECB) head decided to extend Euro-QE to March 2017 from September 2016, having had the markets punish his less enthusiastic verbiages about QE late last year, because he has no other game. The Euro will thus likely continue to drop in value against the dollar, negative interest rates will prevail, and potential bail ins will appear if this extra dose of QE doesn’t keep the wheels, big banks and core markets of Europe properly greased.

9) Mexico

The Mexican Peso closed near record lows vs. the dollar for 2015. Much of the Peso’s weakness was attributed to low oil prices and Mexico’s dependence on its oil sector, but the Peso was already depreciating before oil prices dropped. If the US dollar remains comparatively high OR if oil prices continue to remain low or drop, the Peso is likely to do the same.

When I was in Mexico a few years ago, addressing the Senate on the dangers of foreign bank concentration, there were protests throughout Mexico City on everything from teachers’ pay to the opening of Pemex, Mexico’s main oil company to foreign players. The government’s promise then was that foreign firms would provide capital to Mexico as well as industry expertise that would translate to revenues. Oil prices were hedged then at 74 dollars per barrel. With oil prices at half of that, many of those hedges are coming off this year and that will cause additional pain to the industry and Pemex.

That said, though Mexico will feel the global Depression pain this year as a major player, it is still set to have a much better year than Brazil on every level; from a higher stock market to a higher currency valuation relative to the US dollar to lower inflation to lower unemployment to a better balance of trade with the US than Brazil will have with China. Plus, it has far less obvious inbred corporate-government corruption.

10) Elections and Media Coverage

It’s been a minute since the last debate or late night show fly-by from any Presidential hopeful, but this is the year of the US election. I look forward to continuing to post my monthly wrap on TomDispatch as the Democratic and Republican nominees emerge. I will be taking stock of the most expensive election in not just US history, but in the history of the World. Look for more on the numbers behind the politics later this month.

From a financial standpoint, this election has low impact on flows of capital. Given the platforms of everyone in reasonable contention (with the exception of Bernie Sanders’ platform), no one will actually touch excessive speculation, concentration risk in the banking or other critical sectors like healthcare, or meaningfully examine the global role of artisanal central bank policy, particularly as emanating from the Fed. 

Elsewhere, economic stress throughout the globe and a general sense of exasperation and distrust with politicians is putting new leaders in place that are pushing for more austerity or open capital flow programs rather than foundational growth and restrictions on the kind of flows that cause undue harm to local economies. That is a recipe for further economic disaster that will fall most heavily on populations worldwide.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday
Dec042015

The American Hunger Games:The Six Top GOP Candidates, Economic Policies And Panem 2016 

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Fact: too many Republican candidates are clogging the political scene. Perhaps what’s needed is an American Hunger Games to cut the field to size. Each candidate could enter the wilderness with one weapon and one undocumented worker and see who wins. Unlike in the fictional Hunger Games for which contestants were plucked from 13 struggling, drab districts in the dystopian country of Panem, in the GOP version, everyone already lives in the Capitol. (Okay, Marco Rubio lives just outside it but is about to enter, and Donald Trump like some gilded President Snow inhabits a universe all his own with accommodations and ego to match.)

The six candidates chosen here (based on composite polling) have remarkably similar, unoriginal, inequality-inducing, trickle-down economic recommendations for the country: reduce taxes (mostly on those who don’t need it), “grow” the economy like a sprouting weed, balance the budget by cutting as yet not-delineated social programs, overthrow Obama’s health-care legacy without breaking up the insurance companies, and (yawn)... well, you get the idea. If these six contenders were indeed Hunger Games tributes, their skills in the American political wilderness would run this way: Ben Carson inspires confusion; Marco Rubio conveys exaggerated humility; Ted Cruz exudes scorn; Jeb Bush can obliterate his personality at a whim; and Carly Fiorina’s sternness could slice granite. This leaves Donald Trump, endowed with the ultimate skill: self-promotion. As a tribute, he claims to believe that all our problems stem from China and Mexico, as well as Muslim terrorists and refugees (more or less the same thing, of course), and at present he’s leading the Games.

 

When it comes to economic policy, it seems as if none of them will ever make it out of the Capitol and into the actual world of American reality.  Like Hillary Clinton, blessed by Wall Street’s apparently undying gratitude for her 9/11 heroism, none of the Republican contestants have outlined a plan of any sort to deal with, no less break the financial stronghold of the big banks on our world or reduce disproportionate corporate power over the economy, though in a crisis Cruz would “absolutely not” bail them out again.   Stumbling around in the wilderness, Carson at least offered a series of disjointed, semi-incomprehensible financial suggestions during the last Republican “debate,” when asked why he wouldn’t break banks up. "I don't want to go in and tear anybody down,” he said. “I mean that doesn't help us, but what does help us is to stop tinkering around the edges and fix the problem."

Rubio, already in top Hunger Games form, swears that it’s recent regulations (not legacy elite decisions) that did the dirty deed. “The government made [the banks] big by adding thousands and thousands of pages of regulations," he saidof Dodd-Frank legislation (which doesn’t actually alter Wall Street structurally in any way). In fact, in recent decades every major power grab or consolidation in American business, from banks to energy companies, resulted from bipartisan deregulation.

None of these big-money-backed candidates seem particularly concerned that another economic crisis could ever cripple the country, or have evidently even noticed that most Americans have yet to experience the present “recovery.”  None seem to realize that when the Federal Reserve winds down its cheap money policy and banks and companies are left to fend for themselves, more economic hell could break loose in the style of the 2007-2008 meltdown. Jeb Bush recently summed up the general 2016 Republican position on the economy in a single what-me-worry-style sentence: “We shouldn't have another financial crisis.” ‘Nuff said.

In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s chances dwindled after hedisparaged 47% of the country as so many leeches. Today’s Hunger Gamers have learned from his experience. Optics spell opportunity, so as a group they’re shuffling the usual Republican-brand tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy in with selective recognition of the broader population and promises to kill all loopholes in some future utopian tax bill. None of them, of course, would consider raising the minimum wage to put more money in the pockets of workers before tax-time hits. Even old Henry Ford knew the power of wages when, early in the last century, he strengthened his car empire by doubling the then-prevailing minimum wage for his workers to $5 a day -- enough for them not only to save up and buy his Model-Ts, but also boost productivity.

The present set of Hunger Gamers could invoke Republican President Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting ire, or President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s willingness to fund vast national construction projects, or even (to reach into the distant past) President Herbert Hoover’s initial attempts to pass what became, under Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that separated deposit-taking from speculation at banks. But to be realistic, none of them belong to the Republican Party as it once existed.  They all live in an American Panem and so feel no compunctions about promoting the idea that corporations contributing ever less to the federal till would Make America Great Again.

Now, let’s send those six candidates into that wilderness, weapons in hand, one at a time, and while we’re at it, examine their minor differences by checking out their campaign websites to see what kind of games we can expect in a coming Republican era of “good times.”

Ben Carson

If you look through the index of Ben Carson's latest bestseller, A More Perfect Union, you won’t even find the words “economy,” “banks,” or “Wall Street.”  Instead, his campaign slogan “Heal, Inspire, Revive,” could headline a yoga retreat. His position as the Republican co-frontrunner or runner-up (depending on which polls you look at) relies on his soft-spoken, non-politician persona, not his vague economic ideas that flash by in a chameleon-like fashion.

Yes, he was a brilliant neurosurgeon, but the tenacity and skills required to become a gifted medical practitioner have not translated well into presidential-style economic policies.  To the extent that he has a policy at all, it’s a shopworn version of the twenty-first-century Republican usuals: ratifying a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution “to restore fiscal responsibility,” introducing a flat tax, not raising the minimum wage, yada, yada, yada.  In a Washington Post op-ed last year, he recounted his mother’s days as a “domestic in the homes of wealthy people who were generous to her” and would slip young Carson and his brother “significant monetary incentives” in return for good grades. One even loaned him a luxury convertible. With such employers -- and the incredibly rich are a well-known generous bunch, at least when it comes to supporting Republican presidential candidates (just 158 families have contributed more than half the money to this election so far, mostly to Republicans) -- who needs a government-declared minimum wage?

Regarding taxes, Carson considers the 74,000-page tax code “an abomination.” And who would argue otherwise? But like his various opponents, he's not about to point out that it was largely crafted by the representatives of mega-corporations, not Wal-Mart workers at meet-ups with senators. He’s for a flat tax of 10% with no exemptions for the poor, based on biblical economics 101. Maybe people who don’t produce bumper crops should just pray for a better lot.

He would conveniently cut the official corporate tax rate from 35% (the average effective tax rate is 27.9% but the biggest, brightest companies don’t even approach that amount) to between 15% and 20%, the definition of corporate manna from heaven.  He would also allow companies to bring their foreign profits back to the U.S. completely tax-free if they would even... pretty, pretty please... consider allocating 10% of them to “finance enterprise zones” in major cities. And so it goes in Carsonland.

Best bet on his campaign website: A $25 bumper sticker that says #IAMACHRISTIAN, proof that he’s eager to channel his inner evangelical Katniss.

Donald Trump

Trump actually brought up President Dwight Eisenhower recently, but only for Operation Wetback, his grim Mexican immigrant deportation program. No I-like-Ike mention was made of his funding of the interstate highway system or the way he strengthened banking regulations.

The Donald lists five core positions on his site, including the two economic pillars of his campaign: “U.S.-China trade reform” and “tax reform,” both of which would, of course, “make America great again.” This may already sound a bit repetitively familiar to you, but he wants to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15% because it “would be 10 percentage points below China’s and 20 points below our current burdensome rate that pushes companies and jobs offshore.”  Given that our biggest companies already pay far less than that “burdensome” rate, can there be any question that lowering it further would produce more generous CEOs and slay dreaded China at the same time?

Like President Snow, Trump would start aggressively and only get more so, economically speaking. He would “attack” the national debt and deficit by eliminating government waste, fraud, and abuse, and “grow” the economy xenophobically by doing in local Mexicans and distant Chinese, and all of this cutting and slashing would, like a Chia Pet, make the economy sprout even as tax revenues were savaged.  Or, even if it isn’t one of his five core positions, he could pull a genuine Snow and get rid of old-fashioned-style government, leaving Americans officially beholden to an oligarch.

In another piece of (black) magic, his campaign website assures readers that cutting the deficit and reducing our debt would also stop China from “blackmail[ing] us with our own Treasury bonds.” No matter that China actually lent us money to run our government and bolster our financial system, and that a thank-you note might be in order (on paper made in China, of course).

When it comes to tax reform, Trump’s “populist” program would remove 75 million households from the income tax rolls and provide them, so he claims, with a simple one-page form to send the IRS, saying “I win.”  Though he would cut the current seven tax brackets to four -- 0%, 10%, 20%, and 25% -- it’s his 15% corporate tax rate that trumps the field. Rubio would only chop it to 25%, Bush to 20%, Cruz to 16%, and Carson... who knows? Various estimates suggest that Trump’s plan would lead to a staggering federal revenue loss (so lucky for us that, in a Trump presidency, the rich would undoubtedly be so grateful that their generosity would soar beyond imagining). The nonpartisan Citizens for Tax Justice computed the cost of his plan at $12 trillion over 10 years.  So don’t expect any Eisenhower-esque national building campaigns (other than that “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border).

Best gimmick on his campaign website: A $15 Trump dog sweater modeled bythe saddest damn wiener dog ever. Perhaps its mother was a deported Chihuahua.

Marco Rubio

Rubio’s slogan “a new American century” couldn’t be grander, perhaps to compensate for the lackluster version of economic policy at his campaign website.  It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d expect from someone aspiring to be president of the world’s largest economy. Despite that, rest assured that he’s had economics and success on his mind 24/7.  After all, Goldman Sachs is now his top contributor and his super PACs are on a run, too, including the rap-inspired “Baby Got Pac” just launched by multimillionaire John Jordan.

And in true Hunger Games fashion -- when the “odds” head in a tribute’s favor, the patrons and gifts begin rolling in -- Rubio just bagged Republican mega-donor billionaire Frank VanderSloot. Mitt Romney’s former national finance co-chairman, VanderSloot joins a growing roster of Rubio billionaires, including hedge-fund moguls Paul Singer and Cliff Asness.

“Marco Rubio is the brightest and most capable candidate," wrote VanderSloot of his new political buddy. Of the others he and his brain trust considered, headded, "Jeb simply does not have the leadership skills necessary to unite the people behind him"; Carson lacks “the international knowledge or skill set"; Cruz and Trump are “simply not electable in a general election" (no billionaire-envy there); and Fiorina, his second choice, “simply isn’t resonating with the voters.”

Rubio’s tax plan, the “cornerstone” of his economic policy, would -- you won’t be surprised to learn -- reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three and eliminate taxes in ways particularly beneficial to the billionaire (especially hedge-fund billionaire) class, including the estate tax and taxes on capital gains and dividends. For the broad population, Rubio includes family tax cuts. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, his plan would be a bargain compared to Trump’s, costing federal government coffers a mere $2.4 trillion or more in receipts over the next decade. As a byproduct, his program is essentially guaranteed to spark a new round of financial speculation, but don’t for a second let the 2007-2008 meltdown cross your mind since, as every Republican knows, with a Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson in the Oval Office that can’t happen.

Best gimmick on his campaign website: You can “fall into campaign season” by ordering a “Marco Polo” made-in-the-USA shirt for $48 in patriotic red, white, or blue naturally! For a mere $500 extra, you can personally have the honor of buying Rubio a “plane ticket” (perhaps to meet and greet his next billionaire).

Ted Cruz

The Cruz campaign website offers a hodge-podge of semi-incoherent economic salesmanship. His tax plan, or what he likes to call (without the slightest justification) the “next American revolution,” promises to “reignite growth in our economy.” His “simple flat tax” (yep, another of those!) would abolish the Internal Revenue Service as well.  Personal income tax brackets would go from seven to... count ‘em!... one at a 10% rate across the board and the corporate income tax would be replaced by a flat tax of 16%. And it should be taken for granted that the American economy would soar into the stratosphere!

Cruz’s tax code would be so “simple with a capital-S” that it would make Donald Trump’s look complicated. A postcard or phone app would suffice for individual and family filings. There would be no tax on profits earned abroad and it almost goes without saying that Obamacare taxes would die a strangulated death. Loopholes for businesses would apparently go, too.

Cruz claims his simple flat tax will elevate the gross domestic product, increase wages by 12.2%, create nearly five million new jobs, and undoubtedly fill the world with unicorns.  It would also wipe out between $768 billion and $3.6 trillion in federal tax receipts over 10 years.

Best gimmick on his campaign website: For $55 you can get a bad-boy posterof Cruz sporting a Sons of Anarchy look (tattoos, cigarette in mouth, etc.) captioned “Blacklisted and Loving It.”

Jeb Bush

Jeb! has by far the sleekest web page. He and his donor entourage took the “presidential concept” seriously with a look that seems to have been stolen directly from “the Capitol” in the Hunger Games.

Its economic section excoriates the tax code for being “rigged with multiple carve-outs for favored industries.” He blasts Obama’s economic policies for leading to “low growth, crony capitalism, and easy debt.” Yet, under Jeb’s governorship, Florida's debt escalated from $15 billion to more than $23 billion. After his term, the housing-bubble that had inflated the state’s coffers burst big time, and Florida's economy under-performed much of the country during the financial crisis. While homeowners statewide went underwater, helanded a multi-million dollar consultancy gig with... gulp!... Lehman Brothers.

By now, you won’t be shocked to learn that Bush’s plan would cut tax brackets from seven to three: 28%, 25% and 10%, and that he would cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, five points below China’s. (These days, if you’re a Republican, you’ve got to stick it to China.)

While Jeb would not rein in Wall Street (for all the obvious and already well-documented reasons), right now it looks as if he’s not going to have a chance to not rein in anything.  While his PR team maintains “Jeb can fix it,” invigorating his wilting campaign will require more than a bow and arrow and a mockingbird.

Best gimmick on his campaign web page: “The Guaca Bowle” for $75because who doesn’t need one? (Bush family guac recipe not included.)

Carly Fiorina

Fiorina’s web page doesn’t offer a lot of economic anything. It’s more like a personality infomercial. For her official positions, you need to watch video clips of her TV appearances from CBS This Morning to late night talk shows and -- if you’re starting to get bored -- just imagine Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host of festivities Caesar Flickerman narrating.

Fiorina calls for “zero-based budgeting” because “zero” sounds so much cleverer than “balanced” and touts ad nauseam a three-page tax plan (perhaps the current one in a microscopic font, since we don’t actually know the details). The repetition of simple concepts to the masses seems to be her modus operandi.

Best gimmick on the Carly for America Super PAC website: For only $26 you can get a “Hillary Who?” infant one-piece, the perfect gift for any Republican baby.

How Corporations Really Pay Taxes

Despite the prominence of tax cuts in the policies of the top six Republican candidates, even the venerable Brookings Institution found that they have a minimal effect on economic growth.  In addition, when you consider all the promised corporate cuts, you should know that corporations already don’t contribute much.

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2012, 26 of the 288 Fortune 500 firms (consistently profitable in those years) managed to pay nothing, nada, zero in federal income tax.  The 288 firms collectively paid an effective federal income tax rate of 19.4%, and a third of them paid an effective rate of less than 10%. Five companies -- Wells Fargo, AT&T, IBM, General Electric, and Verizon -- also bagged over $77 billion of the $364 billion in tax breaks doled out in those years. Extra jobs didn't follow. Think of this crew as the real winners of the American Hunger Games in this period.

For 2014, for instance, Goldman Sachs avoided forking over federal income taxes on almost half of its $6.8 billion in U.S. profits, paying an effective tax rate of 18.6%. Between 2010 and 2012, due to tax breaks associated with executive pay, Fortune 500 companies saved an extra $27 billion in federal and state taxes. That’s a lot of dosh to use for Super PAC support.

In 2012, the Democrats blasted candidate Mitt Romney’s tax plan as a giveaway to the rich. This time around, our six tributes-cum-candidates are taking no such chances.  They’re making sure to throw crumbs to the middle and working classes, even as they offer more caviar to the wealthy and corporations. Depending on the candidate and plan, the overall loss of national revenue will range from an estimated $1.6 trillion (even factoring in growth that may never happen) to $12 trillion, but will be a stunning amount.

Perhaps with such a field of candidates, the classic Hunger Games line will need to be adapted: “Let the games begin and may the oddity of it all be ever in your favor.” Certainly, there has never been a stranger or more unsettling Republican campaign for the presidential nomination or one more filled with economic balderdash and showmanship.  Of course, at some point in 2016, we’ll be at that moment when President Snow says to Katniss Everdeen, "Make no mistake, the game is coming to its end." One of these candidates or a rival Democrat will actually enter the Oval Office and when that happens, both parties will be left with guilt on their hands and all the promises that will have to be fulfilled to repay their super-rich supporters (Bernie aside). And that, of course, is when the real Hunger Games are likely to begin for most Americans.  Those of us in the outer districts can but hope for revolution.