What's the Problem?

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?....In response to a Paul Krugman post about the Treasury wasting time implementing a capital infusion program for distressed banks, a commenter wrote:

They still don't know why banks don't trust enough to lend commercial paper.

If it's balance sheet issues then unloading toxic debit will work.

If it's a need to de-leverage then a capital infusion is required.

But if it's trust then we need regulation of and a change in management at the banks.

And if it's fear of credit default swaps, or other essentially incalculable obligations, then they need to be unwound and banned, at least the incalculable or morally hazardous ones, going forward.

My guess is that all four of these are issues, but it's the last one that keeps me up at night (metaphorically speaking, anyway). If CDS losses turn out to be the biggest problem — and potentially, at least, they seem to be responsible for far bigger losses than the underlying subprime losses themselves — then even a big capital infusion might not make much of dent in the credit crisis. But how do we find out?

And here's another thing to be curious about. When Gordon Brown announced his capital infusion plan, Britain's four biggest banks apparently took him up on his offer almost immediately. But what about America's biggest banks? Have they been putting out feelers? Burning up the phone lines begging Paulson to get off his ass and offer them a deal? Or what? And which American banks are in weak enough shape to want fresh capital at (presumably) punitive prices? All of them? A few big ones? Lots of little ones? Wait and see, I guess.

UPDATE: That should have been "Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman's post." Apologies for the error.

Obama's Ads

OBAMA'S ADS....Politico reports on Barack Obama's fundraising:

One official close to the campaign said that September's fundraising haul set a new record, surpassing the $66 million Obama raised in August. Another aide, asked about the campaign's take, would only describe it: "big."

How big is "big"? Well, big enough that I've actually seen a few Obama ads myself. In California. I guess maybe they were national ad buys, but I don't think so. And I can hardly remember the last time I saw a presidential campaign bothering to advertise in California. (Maybe for a few days in 2000 when Karl Rove was having delusions that Bush might win here? That's all that comes to mind.)

Anyway, I don't quite know what this means, but Obama must really have money to burn if he's buying ads here in the Golden State.

SUNDAY BONUS CATBLOGGING.... There's too much tension and stress this weekend over our ongoing financial tsunami. What's needed is some bonus catblogging to explain in layman's terms how we got into this mess.

In today's installment, Inkblot demonstrates graphically what happened to our banking system. Like the titans of our financial industry, last night he became convinced that the answer to all his problems was increased leverage. With enough leverage, along with some positive thinking, he was sure he could fit himself into the box lying on the floor. And he almost did it. Unfortunately, he eventually found himself forced to deleverage his position, at which point the box went kablooey and he needed to be bailed out. Sort of like our banks. Lesson learned?

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, commenting on the financial crisis:

"Intensifying solvency concerns about a number of the largest U.S.-based and European financial institutions have pushed the global financial system to the brink of systemic meltdown."

If he means "largest" literally, he's talking about Citi, Chase, and BofA. I wonder if he's talking literally?

Also: why only U.S. and European banks? How are things going in Asia and Australia? How have they managed to avoid the contagion?

SECURITY AGREEMENT UPDATE....From Juan Cole:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that its sources in Baghdad say that the al-Maliki government will sign off on a security agreement with the Bush administration "within days." The report says that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has assured the government that he will accept the agreement if it can pass parliament. Pundits are debating how likely the measure is to get through the Iraqi legislature, with some denying it has a chance and others saying it will sail through.

Cole suggests this might be an attempt at an "October surprise," but I don't really see that. It's been in the works for months, everyone knows it's been in the works for months, and even if it passes the Iraqi parliament it's hardly election-changing news anyway. I'm surprised it's taken as long as it has, but my guess is that the delay has been of a fairly mundane variety.

Tracking the Markets

TRACKING THE MARKETS....Am I the only one who finds this chart that I adapted from today's LA Times a little puzzling? Yes, financial stocks are down a bit more than either big caps or small caps, but shouldn't they be down a lot more?

As usual, maybe I'm just missing something here. But if our banking system is systemically undercapitalized; if the global financial system is close to meltdown; and if the solution is likely to include massive share dilution from a federal government equity injection, shouldn't financial stocks be sucking really, really hard? Can someone enlighten me?

If you missed it the first time, David Brooks offers a poignantly sad piece in NYT about the GOP's warm embrace of mediocrity and class warfare. It's counterintuitive (being smart and accomplished is now a no-no on the right) and so devastating in its insight. It deserves a very close reading:

...over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

George W. Bush restrained some of the populist excesses of his party — the anti-immigration fervor, the isolationism — but stylistically he fit right in. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book, "Rebel-in-Chief," Bush "reflects the political views and cultural tastes of the vast majority of Americans who don't live along the East or West Coast. He's not a sophisticate and doesn't spend his discretionary time with sophisticates. As First Lady Laura Bush once said, she and the president didn't come to Washington to make new friends. And they haven't."

The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions — Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.

The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it's 2-to-1. With tech executives, it's 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it's 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.

If it remains on its present course, the GOP may well self-immolate. It's bad enough that we only have two viable parties in this country. Getting down to only one is not something even Democrats should cheer.

Troopergate Finale

TROOPERGATE FINALE....I read most of the Branchflower report on Troopergate last night, but the MSM seemed to be doing a fine job of reporting the results all its own so I never got around to posting about it. The basic story, of course, revolves around Todd and Sarah Palin's crusade to get their ex-brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, fired from his job as a state trooper, and their efforts to get Alaska's Commissioner of Public Safety, Walt Monegan, to do the firing. Most of this story is pretty well known already. However, Time's Nathan Thornburgh points out the aspect of the report that struck me as the most remarkable:

The result is not a mortal wound to Palin....But the Branchflower report still makes for good reading, if only because it convincingly answers a question nobody had even thought to ask: Is the Palin administration shockingly amateurish? Yes, it is. Disturbingly so.

The 263 pages of the report show a co-ordinated application of pressure on Monegan so transparent and ham-handed that it was almost certain to end in public embarrassment for the governor.

....Monegan and his peers constantly warned these Palin disciples that the contact was inappropriate and probably unlawful. Still, the emails and calls continued — in at least one instance on recorded state trooper phone lines.

The state's head of personnel, Annette Kreitzer, called Monegan and had to be warned that personnel issues were confidential. The state's attorney general, Talis Colberg, called Monegan and had to be reminded that the call was putting both men in legal jeopardy, should Wooten decide to sue. The governor's chief of staff met with Monegan and had to be reminded by Monegan that, "This conversation is discoverable ... You don't want Wooten to own your house, do you?"

Monegan pointed out to a steady stream of people that (a) Wooten was protected by civil service and there was nothing more that could be done since he'd already gone through a formal disciplinary procedure, and (b) any conversation about Wooten was discoverable in court if Wooten ever got tired of being hounded and decided to file a civil suit. And yet the contacts kept coming and coming and coming — and coming and coming. And Branchflower documents them in painful detail. It's all quite remarkable.

In fact, here's the part that really puzzles me: what exactly did Todd and Sarah Palin hope to accomplish? Surely they knew perfectly well that Monegan was right: he couldn't have fired Wooten even if he wanted to. And they must also have known that even if Monegan were replaced, any replacement would quickly check into the situation and report back the same thing. Wooten had already been disciplined, and unless something new cropped up there was simply nothing that anyone could do to force him out of his job. In fact, the Palins' efforts probably made it nearly impossible even to reassign Wooten since it would so obviously have been politically motivated. It was a completely futile crusade they were on.

So what were they thinking? Or were they?

Banks

BANKS....Justin Fox on the "shadow banking system":

And another thing: If you borrow short and lend long, you're effectively a bank. It's becoming ever less clear to me what justification there is for nonbank borrow-short-lend-long-institutions other than regulatory arbitrage.

Brad DeLong responds:

Not just "effectively" a bank. You are a bank. Not until the twentieth century did we have organizations that borrowed short and invested long that did not call themselves "banks." The emergence of non-bank banks has always been the result of attempts at regulatory arbitrage.

So what's the answer? What should our 21st century definition of "bank" be for regulatory purposes? Any entity that invests other people's money in any way? That can't be right, can it? Or can it?

Were Sarah "I can see Russia" Palin not already having a tough time on the campaign trail, the report released on Friday by a special prosecutor in Alaska finding that she "abused her power" might be more of a blow to the McCain-Palin campaign. But even though she has already fallen in the polls, there is room for more of a drop. And now the mavericky reformer who is part of a campaign attacking Barack Obama as old-style Chicago pol looks like a lying, vengeful pol herself.

The report was commissioned by a bipartisan group of Alaskan legislators after Palin was accused of firing her public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, after Monegan did not dismiss Mike Wooten, a state trooper who had gone through an ugly divorce with Palin's sister. Though Palin--pre-veep campaign--had pledged to cooperate fully, once she became part of the Republican ticket, she reneged on that promise, as the McCain camp tried to shut down the investigation. But the Alaskan courts refused to short-circuit the investigation, and Stephen Branchflower, a former prosecutor retained by the Alaskan legislators, managed to finish his inquiry, after getting reluctant witnesses--including Todd Palin, the governor's husband--to answer written questions.

The report is blunt:

I find that, although Walt Monegan's refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety.