Another Call for a Gold Peg from QB Partners

“Bang – the soundness of the dollar suddenly becomes unquestioned because it has scarcity value. Its hegemony is protected and its status as global reserve currency is solidified.”

http://www.ritholtz.com/b…/adults-wanted/

As somewhat of a goldbug, I can’t help but enjoy reading the following updated article (See the original gold peg call from QB Partners posted in December 2008) from Paul Brodsky and Lee Quaintance, who run investment fund QB Partners. The article is posted on Barry Ritholtz’s Big Picture.

Gold at $3K/oz would be pretty incredible for current precious metal holders. Gold at $9,000? That is hard to imagine.

Yet if history is any guide, when we start seeing gold make a serious run up and everybody starts diving into the asset class, we could easily see some unbelievable prices reached.

The rebuttal is that all of this deleveraging will result in deflation, which will take down commodities and gold. With the Fed pulling all the stops, I don’t see that happening. They’ll overshoot on monetary policy (as always) and the resultant rice in prices will mean hell to pay (to buy anything!).

In our papers last year we established that an equilibrium price of gold (our “Shadow Gold Price”) would be something north of $9000/oz today. We used simple, Bretton Woods-model math (Federal Reserve Bank liabilities divided by US official gold holdings). To save the US and European banking systems and stabilize western economies we believe the US dollar peg to gold should be implemented at a much lower conversion price than its equilibrium price. The following actions should be taken:

1)The Fed announces a public tender for any/all outstanding private gold holdings at $3,000/oz.

2)The Fed prints Federal Reserve Notes (aka US dollars) to fund these purchases

3)As once privately-held gold flows into the Fed, the Fed’s balance sheet de-levers in gold terms

4)The Fed would soon own enough gold to credibly support the newly-designated peg

5)The Fed would also purchase the “people’s gold” currently held by the Treasury Department at the $3,000/oz clearing auction price (Treasury is carrying gold on its books at $42.22/oz.)

Bang – the soundness of the dollar suddenly becomes unquestioned because it has scarcity value. Its hegemony is protected and its status as global reserve currency is solidified.

A three-fold increase in the gold price should be enough to guarantee that the “free market” would drive asset prices up to the point that all toxic and opaquely-marked paper is once more reserved by banks at ratios greater than one. The loss that JP Morgan et al would suffer in their gold/silver short positions (yes we know about those) should be more than offset by the move to Par in all their respective paper assets. In fact, given the current interest rate structure of sovereign yield curves, we would argue that most dubiously-priced paper held by banks would be valued well in excess of Par, as credit spreads would collapse to reflect sharply higher asset collateral coverage ratios.

On an ongoing basis, the Fed would hold public auctions (as a buyer/seller) to maintain the $3,000/oz. peg. The gold market would become the new outlet for the Fed’s open market operations. Other economies would have to follow suit and devalue their currencies to preserve trade relationships (particularly net exporters to the US). This would be a huge transfer of wealth to the US, particularly from China and Japan. No doubt the US would have to negotiate terms with these exporters.

Warren “The Oracle” Buffett and the War on the Economy

Buffett has assuredly been fantastically astute at picking up mispriced assets and he’s also a sort-of folksy philosopher regarding business; however, he also has been fantastically lucky. In the above quote, Buffett isn’t being merely honest, he’s being downright profound: his success was predicated on our finance-driven (“enormous quantities of marketable securities were traded”), bubbling (“ridiculously mispriced” assets) economic system!

Warren Buffett a.k.a. “The Oracle of Omaha” was interviewed by CNBC yesterday via Becky (Not-so) Quick and Joe Kernan. The interview was apparently three hours long; however, I’ve only watched and quoted about 25 minutes of Buffett via the first two online videos on CNBC.com, listed below:

I have compiled some Buffett quotes from the first two videos and additionally will cite “Oracle” quotes compiled by John Hempton of Bronte Capital, as John’s quotes are clearly from one of the other six videos I have not seen. For a deep-dive into all things Buffett, CNBC has a full transcript of the interview from yesterday as well as all other previous interviews with Buffett. I’m not sure it’s a wealth of information, but it sure is a lot. Find CNBC’s Buffett Archive here.

A great deal of deference is given to Warren Buffett. After all, he managed to eek out steady, 20% plus returns via Berkshire Hathaway for decades. He has won over pundits, believers in efficient markets, and investors worldwide with his folksy charm. You don’t get a moniker like “The Oracle” for nothing!

Full disclosure, I am a former stockholder of Berkshire: I owned a paltry single B class share of Berkshire from 2003 to August 2007 and made a little off of it in the sale. I also use GEICO and have recently become a Wells Fargo customer (via the shell that was Wachovia). Further still, I was a bit of a Buffett junkie in year’s past. From a post on Warren Buffett over at autoDogmatic I made back in July of 2006:

He’s also a hero of mine. Ever since plowing through Roger Lowenstein’s Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist and subsequently picking up The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, only to go on to read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, I’ve recognized the Oracle of Omaha as an avatar for capitalism.

My take on Buffett has changed and changes still. Berkshire hasn’t been nearly as successful in the past decade: why is that? Has Buffett’s luck simply run out? I can’t help by reread a portion of my autoDogmatic post which included Buffett’s own analysis of his success — look at the bolded bit in the blockquote:

When Buffett announced that he would give his wealth to the Gates Foundation, he said the following:

We agreed with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society. In my case, the ability to allocate capital would have had little utility unless I lived in a rich, populous country in which enormous quantities of marketable securities were traded and were sometimes ridiculously mispriced. And fortunately for me, that describes the U.S. in the second half of the last century.

In light of what we have seen in recent years, is it not clear that bubbles have dominated the American economy over the past few decades? Commodities reached unprecedented highs in the 1970s. From there, we had a bubblicious double-decade secular equities bull market that began in the 80s and ended with the dotcom bust. Finally, our credit-based bubble economy blew what will likely go down in history as the greatest real estate bubble ever.

Buffett has assuredly been fantastically astute at picking up mispriced assets and he’s also a sort-of folksy philosopher regarding business; however, he also has been fantastically lucky. In the above quote, Buffett isn’t being merely honest, he’s being downright profound: his success was predicated on our finance-driven (“enormous quantities of marketable securities were traded”), bubbling (“ridiculously mispriced” assets) economic system!

Today, Buffett has been struggling to make use of the above one-two punch that served him so well. Even worse, he is starting to seem out of touch if not downright confused. Simply read a few of his quotes below. What should strike you most are his comparisons of our current situation to a war — even though the Obama Administration has yet to take a play from George W. Bush’s book (yet), Buffett has clearly decided that there is a “War on the Economy,” a war that must be won and we should all toe the line! Throughout his interview with Quick, Buffett analogizes the current credit crisis to Pearl Harbor. That’s evocative imagery that may stoke the flames of patriotism and may be appropriate in describing the direness of our current predicament; however, we are talking about banking and finance and not foreign invaders! Haven’t we seen the dangers and fundamental futility of waging a war on an intangible idea? For reference, just look at how things have turned out with the “War on Terror” or the “War on Drugs.”

Donald Ruffkin elaborates further on Buffett’s bizarre War analogy in his post Come on, Buffett! Here’s a quote from Ruffkin:

I noted then, as I will now, that it is disingenuous at best for Buffett to be calling this an “Economic Pearl Harbor”. (1) There is no external aggressor. (2) We are more like a drug addict or an alcoholic than a populus being attacked. (3) His metaphor implies we are not at fault – we just need to fight back against the force which is fighting us. In many, many ways this is not an appropriate metaphor. I understand that he is trying to convey a sense of urgency, and a need to put aside our differences to reach a good solution. But the gaping holes in the metaphor are so large that I am left with the impression that he is simply trying to scare us into following the prescription of Obama.

It would seem that not all out of the CNBC interview with “The Oracle” sounds as crazy as the war analogy. John Hempton of Bronte Capital’s transcript of a portion of the interview (the portion I did not watch) where Buffett discusses the toxic assets on bank balance sheets is worth discussing (See Hempton’s post here). For just a flavor of this discussion, here is Hempton:

[Buffett] says the problem of American banks are not overwhelmingly toxic assets. This is a radical view – but it is in my view correct. The problem with the banks is that nobody will trust them and they have not been able to raise funds. The view that this is a liquidity crisis – and not a solvency crisis – has long been a staple of the Bronte Capital blog. It is radical though. Krugman, Naked Capitalism and Felix Salmon think alike – asserting – seemingly without proof – that the problem is solvency. Buffett doesn’t even think the US banks (on average) require capital – a view that most people would find startling (though again I think is correct provided appropriate regulatory forbearance is given).

It is hard for me to be as sanguine about Buffett’s viewpoint as Hempton, and I question (as does Hempton via his post title!) whether channeling Buffett’s current prognostication is any indication of the insight or accuracy of one’s conclusions.

Quotes from Warren Buffett’s discussion with Becky Quick

Much, much more could be said about Buffett’s interview, but for the most part, many of the holes in Buffett’s remarks are so obvious that they need no discussion but I did emphasize comments worth further thought or questioning.

  • Well we went wrong originally because we had a belief that — everyone had the belief — I had it, the government had it mortgage lenders had it borrowers had it the media had it everybody thought house prices could go nothing but up and or at least they couldn’t go down a lot and once you had that belief and that was nationwide it didn’t make any difference what you lent on a house because if the guy couldn’t pay you’d sell it at a profit anyway or you wouldn’t lose much money. So you had 11 trillion of residential mortgage debt built upon this theory that who was borrowing and what their income was wasn’t that important b/c the house itself had to go up in price. And when that tumbled … a) it’s a huge amount out of people’s net worth and then secondarily all these instruments that were built upon it that people didn’t understand too well started toppling to various degrees in value and then that exposed other things … I mean it was like you know some kid was saying the emperor has no clothes and then after he says that on top of that the emperor has no underwear either!”
  • “If you’re in a war if we really are in an economic war if there is a obligation to the majority to behave in ways that don’t go around inflaming the minority . . . I think I think that the minority really does have an obligation to support things that are clearly designed to fight the war in a big way. . . . Job one is to win the economic war. . . . I would do no finger pointing whatsoever.
  • “We have a system, largely free market, rule of law, quality of opportunity that caused the potential of humans be unleashed . . . but the machine gets gummed up from time to time.”
  • “There was a paralysis of confidence in banks and which is silly now because of the FDIC. . . . If you don’t trust where you have your money the world stops. And they recognized that but it was a little belatedly and they didn’t put in deposit insurance until the start of 1934 with the Glass-Steagall act. We have a system that is far better organized to deal with that. The trouble is that a lot of people don’t believe in the system. . . . No one should be worrying about having their money in a bank in the United States.
  • Patriotic democrats and patriotic americans will realize this is a war; and if they didn’t realize it immediately, it’s not as dramatic as a physical war when the news comes over and you know you’re under attack; but it is virtually as serious and I think that once the degree of that seriousness becomes apparent to both parties overwhelmingly they will behave well.”
  • “We need clarity on the financial system.”
  • “The American banking system is too big to fail.”
  • “We have to deal with all large quasi-financial institutions as well as all of the banks and people can’t be worried about them and we can’t have a contagion like we almost had in September. The world almost came to a stop in September . . . We need to get banks back to banking. . . . we should not be giving lectures to people. . . . [Money]’s cheap its abundant and the spreads are terrific.
  • [In retort to Quick’s comment about whether Wall Street should be profitable given their involvement in creating the crisis] “Well the shipowners made money in World War II. [and nobody was questioning them]”

Additional Transcript from John Hempton

BUFFETT: Yeah, the interesting thing is that the toxic assets [of American banks is] if they’re priced at market, are probably the best assets the banks has, because those toxic assets presently are being priced based on unleveraged buyers buying a fairly speculative asset. So the returns from this market value are probably better than almost anything else, assuming they’ve got a market-to-market value, you know, they have the best prospects for return going forward of anything the banks own. The problems of the banks are overwhelmingly not toxic assets, you know. They may have been one or two at the top banks, but they are not going to do in–if you take those 20 banks that are subject to the stresses, they’re not going to do those banks in. Those banks have the earning power which has never been better on new business going out of this to build capital positions if they pay low dividends which they’re starting to do now.

JOE: Hm.

BUFFETT: Toxic assets really are not the problem they were. Now, when I said it was contingent–I didn’t remember being exactly contingent on TARP, but it was contingent on the government jumping in.

JOE: Right.

BUFFETT: The government needed to act big time in September, I will tell you that.

JOE: So…

BUFFETT: And they did act big time.

JOE: So you are OK with the shift to providing the banks with capital as opposed to the original intention of the TARP for actually getting the toxic assets off the books?

BUFFETT: Yeah, and interestingly enough, they don’t need to supply the banks, in my view, with lots of capital. They need to let almost all of–I mean, the right prescription with most of the banks is just let them pay very little in the way of dividends and build up capital for awhile, and they will build up a lot of capital. The government has needed to say–what the government needs to say is nobody’s going to lose a dime by having their deposits in these banks. They’re going to make lots of money with the deposits.

JOE: Hm.

BUFFETT: The spreads have never been wider. This is a great time to be in banking, you know, if you just get past the past and they are getting past the past. I mean, right now every time a loan is made to somebody to buy a house–and we’re making, you know, making millions of loans–four and a half million houses will change hands this year out of a total stock of less than 80 million. So those people are making good mortgages. You want those assets on your books and you get a great spread in putting them on now. So it’s a great time to be in banking, but you do have to get past this past. But the toxic assets, in my view, you know, if they’ve been written down to market, I’d rather buy those assets from the bank than any other assets they’ve got.

JOE: Hm. OK…

Post-script — In all seriousness, I think it’s time Warren consider laying off the Cherry Cokes (See my post on Ketones and Alzheimer’s) as he may be showing initial signs of senility. That’s a scary thing to say, and I hope it is not true, but after watching these interviews, hearing such a nonsensical war analogy beaten to death, and hearing Buffett blame the crisis on a symptom rather than a cause (bolded quote below), I’m starting to wonder.

Stop “FHA Subprime” – Defeat HR 600 and SFDPA

http://ml-implode.com/sfdpacampaign.html

STOP HR 600: STOP 'FHA Subprime!'While flying the flag of “helping” would-be homebuyers in lower income brackets, “seller funded downpayment assistance” inflates the home price via “laundering” a downpayment from seller to buyer in order to get the homebuyer in an FHA approved loan. This process instantly puts the house into negative equity.

Not surprisingly, “SFDPA” is very profitable in fees to the companies who make it possible while stacking the cards against the “assisted” homebuyer, who research has shown, is considerably more likely to go into foreclosure.

As if putting homebuyers into instantly underwater homes that are much more likely to go into foreclosure under the “auspices” of helping them out wasn’t bad enough, when the loans default, they dump back onto the FHA and thereby the taxpayer.

So who wins in this mess of “charity?” The companies lobbying for its re-legalization via H.R. 600.

And if H.R. 600 gets passed, let there be no doubt, our elected officials have learned nothing from the credit collapse.

More on Seller Funded Downpayment Assistance and HR 600 at ML-Implode.com:

This practice has been criticized or ruled against by the FHA, the GAO, the IRS, the FBI, and even US Congress itself, which outlawed it (for the time being) in the 2008 Housing Bill. Yet those who profit off the practice are trying to revive it.

So What is it??

The contentious practice is called “seller-funded downpayment assistance” (SFDPA). It is used to allow home buyers getting Federally-backed mortgages to bypass the need for a downpayment, supposedly for charitable reasons.

On the surface, it sounds benign, but it is actually fraud and money laundering inflicted on the Federal Housing Administration (that is, taxpayers), the housing market in general, and in a sense, even the buyers!

One of these companies, Global Direct Sales (which runs the “Grant America Program”) has sued us in an attempt to stop us from revealing the existence of SFDPA and discussing it frankly. SO FAR A FEDERAL JUDGE HAS BLOCKED THEIR ATTEMPTS TO SILENCE US. (Read More about our battle here. Help us to fight this NUISANCE lawsuit which is a blatant attack on free speech!)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “Bankers Designed Banks to Blow Up”

http://www.bloomberg.com/…mMd4PSxEKeE.asf

Just watched a fifteen minute interview by Bloomberg of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan). In the interview Taleb discusses the current crisis, robust systems, nationalizing the banks and the fallacy of using narratives of history to guide present-day policy/response.

Below are some quotes from NNT, which I’ve organized into like-nuggets of wisdom:

  • Looking at biology, things that survive have redundancy . . . we have spare parts, which is the exact opposite of leverage. . . . We have diversity and nothing is too big. Things fail early. . . . Banking is organized in a completely opposite way. . . . Complex systems have properties that banks don’t have. And biological systems have survived.
  • [We have an] Illusion of stability and then blow-ups are larger. Imagine if half-country was fed by one restaurant it’d be okay except one day people would starve.
  • Bad news travels immediately . . . This environment won’t tolerate the smallest mistake . . . I don’t know the system can allow for too much leverage.
  • People can invest in real things – they don’t have to invest in paper. . . .
  • What we have is a system of deposit where people buy a company, they borrow against it, and buy another company. . . . If that disappears we have less growth but it would be a more robust economic system.
  • The government is neither nationalizing the banks nor letting them break.
  • [With regard to banking,] separate the payment system from the risk taking system.
  • It looks like we have no control. The government has no control over what the banks are doing. The banks aren’t in control of what they are doing.
  • The press reports everything except the important stuff. September 18th . . . we had the run on money market funds and the government had to step in.
  • The situation is not comparable to the Great Depression. The situation is very different.
  • This crisis is not so much a Black Swan to me. It’s like saying you’ve got a pilot who doesn’t know about storms. . . . The Black Swan for me would be to emerge out unscathed and go back to normalcy.
  • We should be very careful when we make a historical analogy like the Great Depression because the world is not like it was in the Great Depression.
  • Capitalism is you let what’s breakable break fast.

Bloomberg also ran an article on the interview with Taleb, but it is spartan as far as quotes or insights from the actual interview.

From what I can tell, it seems Taleb views bank nationalization as similar to taking out plane hijackers. It’s an interesting, more palatable way to look at nationalization in that it frames the situation as one where the public will be harmed unless someone (in this case the government) steps in and takes drastic action.

Having said that, I don’t get the impression that Taleb is a proponent of long-term nationalization. NNT would prefer banking be structured similarly to a biological system where there are redundancies and fragile things “break early.” This system wouldn’t foster as much leverage and therefore would slow growth, but it would be considerably more robust.

This is more or less what I believe, as well. A free market is an organic, naturally forming system that is decentralized and redundant. It’s robust because market actions failing apart at any micro level will not break the entire system.

How do we get there from here? Good question.

(H/T to Jesse)

George Soros finally gets it

http://optionarmageddon.m…inally-gets-it/

Rolfe over at Option Armageddon tackles George Soros amazing flip-flop from his side-pocket banking position that he publicized a bit over two weeks ago (Feb. 4).

As I commented on OA, it seems more and more true believers in the financial system are losing faith and turning into apostates. What’s interesting in Soros’ case is how dire he paints the present situation, comparing it to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps he’s not far off the mark.

Per Rolfe:

Anyway, only three weeks after arguing “side-pockets” were the magic bullet, Soros now sounds downright despondent. Reuters:

Renowned investor George Soros said on Friday the world financial system has effectively disintegrated, adding that there is yet no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis.

Soros said the turbulence is actually more severe than during the Great Depression, comparing the current situation to the demise of the Soviet Union.

He said the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September marked a turning point in the functioning of the market system.

“We witnessed the collapse of the financial system,” Soros said at a Columbia University dinner. “It was placed on life support, and it’s still on life support. There’s no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom.”

Three weeks ago George thought all we needed was a little financial engineering. Now he sees “no prospect” of resolution and says we’re falling like the Soviet Union. What changed? My guess is that George finally started to think outside the box; he put his big brain to work thinking about the very foundation of our economic system and realized its broken.

Why highlight this particular flip-flop with a blog post? I think it’s emblematic, and not in a good way.

I continue to be struck by the level of ignorance among our captains of industry, our leading policitians, our financial elite and, most ominously, our economic “experts.” Few appear to recognize the depth of the crisis we face. Most still aren’t prepared to ask the hard, fundamental questions about our economic system. Anyone who mentions the gold standard, for instance, is treated as a novelty.

The problem, I think, is that so many of our leaders are tied immovably to the old way of doing business. A man will make himself believe most anything if his salary depends on it. Lots of salaries are at risk, so lots of heels are digging themselves in.

Anyway, as I’ve argued for awhile, the only way to “solve” the crisis is to let asset prices fall. And that means the balance sheets on which those assets currently reside need to recognize substantial losses. Call it the “Fight Club” solution*—everyone goes back to $0. This would be highly painful for ALL Americans. But it would be most painful for those with the most to lose…

—————

*Fight Club screenplay:

JACK
…I believe the plan is to blow up the headquarters of these credit card companies and the TRW building.

STERN
Why these buildings? why credit card companies?

JACK
If you erase the debt record, we all go back to zero. It’ll create total chaos.

As I noted (H/T MVC), today happens to be Chuck Palahniuk’s, Fight Club author, birthday.

Crisis of Credit Visualized

http://vimeo.com/3261363

Even as simplified as this great 10 minute video is, it still gets complicated. And as you can imagine, when you’ve got so many transactions handling a piece of mortgage paper, even the bankers have a hard time keeping track, which just complicates this process further — sending it to a grinding halt in some cases.

I.e. you’re foreclosing and the bank wants you out of the house. You demand to see the loan and the bank can’t find it. Until they can show it to you, they can’t kick you out. Yeah, really. So often people are staying in their houses mortgage-free for months before the bank can track down the loan and actually foreclose/kick them out.


The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.