Why I had to stop reading Michael Lewis’ The Big Short

I’m a fan of writer Michael Lewis. Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, Sandra Bullock Wins An Oscar, are all good books. As is The Big Short, his latest. I started reading it yesterday and by bedtime I was half-way through (it’s a short book and I’m a fast reader). When I got up this morning Mrs. CollateralDamage said I was making very unhappy noises in my sleep and I’ve felt on edge all day. I read some more of the book, realized I was getting increasingly agitated and finally put it down. This book is a non-fiction horror story, and one whose end we don’t yet know.

Daily Show gets it right again. The Big Short is about four people who guessed (and bet) right about mortgage-related ponzi scheme which has led to our current economic “downturn”. What is probably upsetting me about the book is that it confirms my most cynical beliefs about the world. Several of the people in the book repeatedly ask questions of bankers, bond raters, bond salesmen and anyone else they can find in hopes that someone can prove to them that all this buying and selling of sub-prime mortgage securities isn’t just a house of cards. They want to know because they are betting that it is and want to find out if they’ve just blown their money. That, my friends, is a motivated investigator. They are either told they don’t understand how this all works (which we quickly realize means the person who should understand doesn’t) or they are met with blank stares. They try to tell regulators, they try to tell other investors, they even try telling the investment bankers who created this train wreck what is about to happen. AND NO ONE WILL LISTEN. They are Cassandra’s writ huge – except that they make a crap load of money, whereas Cassie just had to suffer.

The other terrifying thing about Big Short, is that it confirms my greatest cynical fears: That most of the people in places of power are either corrupt or fools. Now you’d think that after eight years of George W. I would already have had these fears confirmed but there’s something about Lewis stories of smug, arrogant idiots/crooks gaming the system that scared the feces out of me. It doesn’t help that I really don’t see any reason for the economy to improve. The head of our bankrupt government wants to spend more money. His opposition thinks the best way to deal with the government’s being bankrupt is to keep in place a tax cut for the richest people in the nation. The banks are pretending they’re solvent. People keep saying it’s up to consumers to spend our way out of this mess but it’s overspending that got us into the mess in the first place.  And no one but no one is talking about what happened to all the debt created by the mortgage fiasco. Wall St. and the financial press seem to think that as long as the Dow is over 10K all is right in the world – EVEN THOUGH NONE OF THE PROBLEMS THAT GOT US INTO THIS HAVE BEEN ADDRESSED. Meanwhile no one who was responsible for any of this is going to jail and the nation continues to bleed money and people in two wars everyone knows we have no business fighting.

Sorry, Mr. Lewis, I can’t take anymore. I’m going to go read something much more soothing, like World War Z or John Dies At The End. As my old drinking buddy John Milton once told me, “Stare into the abyss long enough and it starts to stare back.” Well, at least St. Peter told me I was the nicest of the damned…

 

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The silver lining: “Amid Higher Unemployment, Fewer Workplace Injuries”

One more reason I love the Wall Street Journal.

The Labor Department’s report of occupational injuries and illnesses that required days away from work mimicked the shifts the recession caused in the labor market in 2008. Hard-hit sectors, such as construction and retail, reported fewer injury and illness cases. Older workers experienced more injuries as their labor force participation rose. And incidents among younger workers fell as fewer remained employed.

The end of the end of the Great Recession

It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place. – Mencken

Remember all that robust economic activity we heard so much about last month? The stuff about the economy expanding at 3.5% for the third quarter of this year and “officially” marking an end to the Great Recession? Ooops.

It was only 2.8% according to revised Commerce Department numbers. (And every reporter who is even semi-competent knew this reduction was coming. This number will be revised at least once more.)

That 0.7% difference is big. It means the basis of all this activity was mostly a result of the Federal gov’t running up its credit card and not by the creation of goods and services as a result of non-government created demand. Most of the spending was the result of government subsidies of the housing and auto industries via the Cash For Clunkers program and the $8,000 tax “credit” for 1st time homebuyers. It had been hoped that these would spur ancillary spending and thereby help the economy. This was not the case. People spent only on the things they could get a deal on.

And even that spending was problematic as the FHA seems intent on recreating the subprime insanity that got us into this mess.

Robert Toll, CEO of Toll Brothers, said today at a New York home builders conference that FHA lending could create another huge crisis in the mortgage industry, referring to it as “yesterday’s subprime.” He also went as far as calling it a “definite train wreck,” noting that a “flag will go up in the next couple of months” for bail out money.

It is worth pointing out that Mr. Toll’s money comes from the FHA so he  has a vested interest in NOT saying this.

Nor were individuals the only ones to reign rein in their spending:. Via AP: “Companies cut back spending on commercial construction — a weak spot in the economy — at 15.1% annualized pace. That was deeper than the 9% annualized cut back first estimated.” On the plus side: Corporate profits climbed by the most in five years.

Oh, wait, you mean you aren’t a corporation?

OOOOOPS, again.

Maybe that’s not good news.

The AP story tries so hard to offer both sides of the story that it contradicts itself in places:

For the current quarter, some economists think economic growth will slow to around a 2.5 percent pace, though others say it could reach 3 percent if holiday sales turn out better than expected. [I would like some drug testing done on those “others”.]

Most say they think the economy will weaken again next year, with growth at a pace of around 1 percent as the impact of the $787 billion stimulus package fades and consumers keep tightening their belts under the strain of high unemployment and hard-to-get credit.*

So for some reason consumers are going to shell out in this quarter but then stop. I may have missed it but I don’t think there has been a subsidy for Christmas presents. Unlike some other economists, I think most people know January follows December and behavior that won’t make sense then doesn’t make sense now.

By the way, the professional wishful thinking classes will be out in force for Black Friday so make sure not to believe a single damn thing they say. Reporting false bright numbers about the coming weekend is an annual and longstanding tradition. See: Journalists still too lazy to report truth about Black Friday

Journalists deeply irritated at working over the long weekend writes stories that begin: “Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst.” Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG.

I don’t know which irritates me more, that we are being lied to so badly or that we are so eager to go along with it.

PS: The FDIC Deposit Insurance fund is now in “Negative Territory” (ie, broke) as the number of bank failures continues to increase.

*The article has a great example of how journalists say what they believe to be true without getting caught at it: “What’s not clear is whether the recovery can continue after government supports are gone. If consumers clam up, the economy could tip back into recession.”