Monday, March 16, 2009

The Obama spring rally pauses as Bernanke and 60 Minutes skirt the bank solvency issue

Nouriel Roubini doesn't mince words. His March 14 post speaks of a "dead cat bounce" and a "bear market suckers rally". And of "a Ground Hog Day movie that we've seen at least six times . . . in the past year or so." Gotta say I love Nouriel even though one of my less enlightened friends jokes that I've become part of his terrorist network. But to show I haven't lost control of my affections, here's a comparison of Nouriel and Warren Buffet on the topic of bank insolvency that gives the laurel to Buffet. Then again, Kansas City Fed president Tom Hoenig here condemns Fed bailouts and calls for big banks to be "resolved [shut down] the old fashioned way."

The Dow closed down a bit today at 7,216. Yet it was fast off the blocks in early trading, up 150 points on news that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's comments on CBS' "60 Minutes" last night were driving gains in early trading on the Dow. So this rally isn't just a "spring rally", it's an Obama rally fueled in part by the President's concerted efforts to boost investor confidence by putting an end to fear itself. Wow. Stakes are high. There will will be much egg on many faces - and a hard fall, I should think - if this rally fails.

CBS boasted last night that no Fed Chairman had ever granted an interview like its "60 Minutes" interview with Bernanke. For the first time ever, Bernanke gave the viewing public inside glimpses into the heretofore sacrosanct Federal Reserve system: we saw the Fed Governors' 30 foot-ceiling, marble walled meeting room and a football-field sized underground vault where robot forklifts shuffled around shrink-wrapped pallets of paper money valued at $64 million each - too much for human hands to touch.

Well la di da. A key question, only glancingly addressed in the interview, was on bank solvency. CBS' Scott Pelle puts it to Bernanke at 11:35 into the interview:
Pelle: Are all the banks that you regulate solvent?

Bernanke: I believe they are, yes, but we are doing a, um, a stress test right now, where we're looking at . . .
Question: why Bernanke change the topic from solvency at present to solvency under the harsh hypothetical conditions of the stress tests? Why didn't Pelle press Bernanke on the solvency issue, which is critical not only for Nouriel and his "zombie banks" but for mainstream Republicans like Senator Richard Shelby and John McCain. What exactly is the basis for Bernanke's belief that the banks are solvent NOW? If they're solvent, wouldn't everyone benefit from knowing so now? To me, either Pelle dropped the ball or real doubts about bank solvency are keeping Bernanke (and CBS) from discussing this topic publicly.

The flipside of this question is to ask Nouriel, Shelby & McCain how they know the banks are insolvent. I'd also ask Nouriel to what extent his case for a bear market hinges on the matter of bank insolvency? If restored to solvency, could the banks lessen or possibly even resolve the problems he predicts in his March 2 post:
Of course you cannot rule out another bear market sucker’s rally in 2009, most likely in Q2 or Q3: the drivers of this rally will be the improvement in second derivatives of economic growth and activity in US and China that the policy stimulus will provide on a temporary basis: but after the effects of tax cut will fizzle out in late summer and after the shovel-ready infrastructure projects are done the policy stimulus will slack by Q4 as most infrastructure projects take year to be started let alone finished; similarly in China the fiscal stimulus will provide a fake boost to non-tradeable productive activities while the traded sector and manufacturing continues to contract. But given the severity of macro, household, financial firms and corporate imbalances in the US and around the world this Q2 or Q3 sucker’s market rally will fizzle out later in the year like the previous 5 ones in the last 12 months.
Nouriel speaks of imbalances. Does this mean solvency? Ouch! Questions, questions, questions, they keep popping up, gotta get outside for some exercise or I'll go nuts, thank goodness spring has finally hit the Midwest (where it's best).

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