Monday, November 16, 2015

Vive la France!

France vector map I sympathize with the great nation and people of America's oldest ally -- FRANCE.    God bless you all.

Our President is mistaken about the national security challenges we face.  Unfortunately, he views each domestic problem through the lens of social justice or race while proclaiming evil abroad is "contained".   

As Divider-in-Chief Mr. Obama demonizes free enterprise, law enforcement, or just people holding views to the right of his own.   All the while, the national debt has grown more under his tenure than it has under all previous US presidents combined 

I'm counting the days until he leaves office.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

More fun paring back the candidates

Happy halloween card with a hand drawn skull Free Vector
Freepik image
My Halloween post is dedicated to the GOP Presidential candidates without prospects who remain in the race.  This group collectively absorbs attention and resources best allocated to the inevitable contenders.  More about the likely finalists later.

First, let's call out the hopeless candidates, in no order of importance.  All fine men to be sure -- but enough already -- fold 'em!

Jeb Bush - Peggy Noonan gets it right today in her column  ("The Not Ready for Prime Time Bush").   A few years ago, Jeb Bush's wholesome character, patrician roots and steady public demeanor might have allowed him to coast to the nomination.  That is exactly what scores of professional pundits predicted last year.  I didn't buy into the inevitability predictions, but I would have supported his candidacy.  Unfortunately, we're too sick of seven years of Obama-Pelosi-Reid-etc. to make Jeb Bush's run viable.  Exit with dignity soon.

We want someone to whip hell out of the Left and an angry base has lost confidence in establishment candidates.  That's not an original analysis -- but it makes a great deal of sense when one tries to understand this race.  It's also why many Republicans have tolerated, even been attracted to the boorishness of Trump and overlooked the silly or disgraceful things he's said on the trail. 

Bobby Jindal -- John Kasich -- Mike Huckabee -- George Pataki -- All current or former governors, all with good records and all putting us to sleep.  I'm not saying that the present hunger for combativeness and street smarts is a good thing.  I'm simply saying it is palpable and strong enough to sink all of them.  It's over.  Exit with dignity soon.

Rick Santorum -- Lindsey Graham -- Both distinguished themselves in the Senate, both are one dimension candidates: Mr. Santorum's brand is one of strong Social Conservatism and Mr. Graham's is one of strong National Defense and both were finished before they began their campaigns.  Exit with dignity soon.

Rand Paul -- Like his father, he's superb on fiscal matters but too isolationist for our times.  Additionally, his debate exchange with Governor Christie on privacy rights vs. national security, was inept and wrong-headed.  Exit with dignity soon.



I'm still on the fence about Chris Christie, and I've said nothing about the prospects of Ted Cruz, but it doesn't matter.  The GOP presidential nominee will be Marco Rubio who will tap Carly Fiorina as his running mate.  It will be a formidable ticket.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson will decompose in the coming months and try to trade whatever political capital they have in the form of an endorsement, for something they can use to remain relevant.  They will not fade away from politics as Ross Perot did after he garnered 19% of the popular vote in 1992 running as an Independent.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Having fun halving the candidates

I'm doing my part to shrink the GOP gang of 16 by cutting it in half to eight.  I'd appreciate it if each of the candidates mentioned below in bold would end their campaign shortly because their prospects of success individually and collectively are hopeless.   

Rick Santorum -- You're a well-educated and distinguished public servant, but you can't win by focusing so heavily on social conservatism.  You also missed your chance to convert Pennsylvania to a Right to Work state.  Your passion is compelling but that's not enough.  PRESCRIPTION: Please leave the race.  Don't leave angry -- just leave.  It's not personal.
Rick Santorum Wikipedia

Lindsey Graham -- You are also a distinguished public servant and one with exemplary military credentials, but you can't expect your signature issue of national defense to carry the day, much less the nomination.  Further, you are viewed as a perennial Washington Pol at a time when the electorate craves an outsider.  PRESCRIPTION:  Please see prescription for Rick Santorum.  

Jim Gilmore -- Sorry.  Who are you?  Raise your profile -- raise anything and take credit for it -- then we'll talk.

Mike Huckabee -- Governor, I love your notions on tax reform, your unabashed faith life and your electronic bass-playing.  You add color and context to these public contests whenever you speak, but it's just not meant to Huckabee.  The caucuses require something much more unusual.  Please leave.  Thanks. 
Mike Huckabee Wikipedia

Scott Walker -- Governor, you redefined political courage in my home state of Wisconsin, but you are not ready for this stage.  Part of me wants you Governor for Life -- OK that's a bit much -- but we need you to continue your reforms here in the Badger State.  Turn the bus back toward Madison and call this Presidential quest a good experience -- but it's over.

Barnum and Bailey poster Wikipedia

Bobby Jindal -- John Kasich -- George Pataki 

It's unfair to lump all of you together but none of you will be the nominee.  You deserve more than a curt ending to this obscure blogger's post, but brevity is required when we have too many candidates vying for our attention.  (We also have too many bloggers but that's another post).

Fine Governors you are or were one and all (and Mr. Kasich distinguished himself in Congress as a fiscal reformer too), but I'd like each of you to exit the greatest show on earth at this time in the interest of the greater good.  Thanks guys.
 Nobody can see ahead more than a week, but my feeling at the moment is the GOP will win the White House in 2016 if two or three things happen:  1. Hillary is the Dems' nominee (Biden would be only marginally harder to beat), 2. a more-credible-than-Trump candidate is the GOP nominee and 3. assuming his popularity continues -- Trump doesn't play spoiler.  If his popularity wanes -- and there is plenty of time for that -- the third condition doesn't apply.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

The real danger to our civil liberties

Destruction of evidence, failure to comply with Congressional subpoenas and giving false testimony before Congress are impeachable offenses when practiced by public officials.  Am I reviving images of Watergate which resulted in prison time for a few officials and forced the resignation of President Nixon?

No, I'm referring to the IRS scandal I first wrote about over two years ago ("IRS Plot Could Be Worse Than Watergate" June 9, 2013).  I'm astonished how little fallout has occurred since.  For me, one plausible explanation is that the Obama administration doesn't care about abuse of government power when the targets are Conservatives.

An article for readers to examine the facts was published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last month by two Congressmen.  The WSJ pay-wall won't let me provide a link, but any reasonable person with a subscription -- who still denies a scandal -- ought to read:

"The Stonewall at the Top of the IRS" -- July 28, 2015
by Congressman Ron DeSantis and Congressman Jim Jordan

Also well-worth reading in WSJ: "How Congress Botched the IRS Probe" -- May 15, 2015 by Foley & Lardner attorney, Ms. Cleta Mitchell. 

To my Libertarian friends -- where are you?  Last week, during the Republican Presidential debates, Sen. Rand Paul ranted about meta data collected to catch terrorists, but nary a word about this issue. 
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen
Official photo

The IRS scandal is vastly more tangible than any federal surveillance problems we've seen, yet Sen. Paul prefers to slam the NSA with zero evidence of citizen abuse.  

If you will read just one article on the issue, please make it the one mentioned above by Messrs. DeSantis and Jordan

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Spring has sprung!

While it's still too cool in Wisconsin to get excited about the weather, the morning sunlight streaming across my lawn is enough.  A week of travel on a sour stomach and poor weather in north Texas, makes me appreciate the moment all the more.

I recently discovered a quote by John Stossel that captured my attention.  I don't know much about Stossel, other than the fact he's a Libertarian.  I've seen a few of his topical reports on television and that's about it, but his pithy take on taxation made me smile...

"Politicians, bureaucrats and the people they 'rescue' get money through force — taxation.  Don't think taxation is force? Try not paying, and see what happens."

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Private mortgage underwriting can benefit America

“Isn't this what got us in trouble in the first place?” 

That was the first reader comment following a CNN/Money web article concerning a recent shift by government sponsored entities (GSEs) who buy most mortgages from lenders, to accept down payments as low as 3%. The previous minimum was 5%.  In an era when banks are forced to hold more capital, the GSEs which became insolvent during the financial crisis and received one of the largest bailouts in American history, have cut the minimum down payment for home buyers.

This policy change enacted by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) which regulates the GSEs and by extension, influences trillions of dollars in mortgage exposure to American taxpayers, is worrisome.  Defenders of the FHFA actions point out that the change still protects taxpayers by requiring private mortgage insurance (PMI) and it applies only to issuance of fixed rate loans. 

Fixed rate requirement
To be fair, fixed rate notes help borrowers to service their debt predictably, which in turn helps to manage taxpayer exposureMany will recall that waves of defaults occurred in 2007-2008 after in-over-their-heads borrowers experienced mortgage payment increases from adjustable rate loans that reset to higher interest rates.  

Private mortgage insurance requirement
The PMI component offers less comfort to critics.  PMI is by design reactive -- it kicks in after default.  President Obama recently directed the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to decrease premiums it collects for FHA mortgage insurance. (The FHA is an agency of the federal government that insures private loans issued for new and existing homes).  Like the GSEs, the FHA mortgage insurance fund required a taxpayer-funded lifeline in 2013, after unprecedented default volumes.  The stated intention behind all of these moves is to lower the cost of a conventional mortgage for lower income home buyers. According to HUD, these lower mortgage insurance premium rates (alone) will add 250,000 new first-time home buyers. Should the goal be 2.5 million new first-time buyers?  Would that make the move more successful in the eyes of policy makers or their base?  

The debate, my take
We continue creation of potentially catastrophic bubbles inflated by some noble intentions and lots of ignoble politics.  I'm dismayed when I encounter people who still prefer to blame The Great Recession completely on the banks.  They completely ignore an indispensable factor -- federal government housing policy.  Without its unparalleled ability to encourage loans to anyone with a pulse, the housing crisis -- and subsequent financial paralysis -- could not have occurred.  There would not have been enough lousy loans to securitize.

Private sector alternatives
Private sector partnerships can help mitigate publicly-backstopped asset bubbles in the sub-prime housing markets.  Such programs, which are beginning to take hold in the Twin Cities and elsewhere around the country -- prove that public-private partnerships can work when funded by entities and accredited investors risking their own money.  

Such programs can help moderate the huge spigot of taxpayer-sponsored mortgage credit and mortgage insurance that the Left continues to embrace too fully.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Crowd lending" as an investment?

You've probably heard of crowd funding web sites like Kickstarter that function as online forums for well wishers to support new business enterprises or community projects.  People fund these ventures because they believe a given solicitor's work has intellectual merit, serves some worthy ideal, or includes a compelling new technology.  Contributors do not receive any equity or financial return in exchange for their "investment".  

You might be less familiar with online forums created for "Debt Crowdfunding" which can indeed reward investors with a financial return on invested capital.  The concept itself is not exactly new.  The leader in this space is the Lending Club Corporation which was incorporated in 2007, trades on the NYSE under ticker LC and is registered with the SEC.  A competing company is called Prosper Funding LLC.  

Lending Club touts itself as "the world’s largest online marketplace connecting borrowers and investors" and it has made a palpable impact on the future of consumer lending (and probably commercial lending) by facilitating over $6.2B in loans since its platform launch, according to the company website.  If this business doesn't qualify as one with a "disruptive technology"; I don't know one that would.   

Individual or institutional investors that use Lending Club's exchange can invest in hundreds or even thousands of individual notes with consumer loan repayment periods of 36 months or 60 months -- or small business notes -- with loan repayment periods of 12 months to 60 months.  (The majority of consumer loans are issued for debt consolidation or to pay off credit card debt).  

Lending Club partners with WebBank who issues the loans and charges interest rates pegged to each borrower's credit profile.  Less credit worthy borrowers pay comparatively higher interest rates on loans.  Investors in these notes are compensated for the added risk of default, with comparatively higher ROI.  That transparency, or at least that built-in linkage between risk and reward, is one thing that attracted me to Lending Club.  Disclosure: I don't give investment advice, make paid endorsements or financial recommendations, but I've invested in Lending Club notes.

The investor web site is impressively simple to navigate with powerful views, charts and calculations.  One can see individual consolidated returns and returns for Lending Club investors, in the aggregate.  The site also gives investors an ability to see loan level detail (without personal identifiers of borrowers) and repayment performance on individual notes.  

As loans are paid back (some loans of course do not perform and get charged off with investors absorbing 100% of the loss) investor cash is credited, less a 1% management fee to Lending Club.  Investor cash -- which is the portion of one's Lending Club investment not committed to credit issuance -- is pooled in a trust account at Wells Fargo Bank.  Lending Club does not take custody of investor cash remitted to this account and investors can withdraw cash via ACH transfer to their own bank account at any time.  

Exiting an investment in notes prior to maturity is beyond the scope of this post and like any asset class, one ought not invest more than one is prepared to lose.  There's no guarantee on any of the notes or, of course, the solvency of Lending Club.  All said, crowd lending is an intriguing alternative investment, to explore with caution.  
Renaud Laplanche photo from Lending Club.

Finally, a word about Lending Club's founder, Renaud Laplanche.  Mr. Laplanche is a former practicing attorney with an MBA from the London Business School who turned himself into a software entrepreneur.  Last year he won the Innovation Award in the consumer products category from the Economist periodical.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Related to that Christmas Eve post...

There's a piece in today's Wall Street Journal called "The Fed's Needless Flirtation With Danger" in which Martin Feldstein writes that to stimulate demand, "Well-designed tax rules are a safe and effective alternative to quantitative easing".  Dr. Feldstein argues that we'd have been better served by stimulative tax policies that induce businesses to make new investments and help consumers consume, as opposed to so much QE.   

Unrelated to that X-mas Eve post...

I once saw an Economist on Squawk Box who insisted that nearly all economists collectively agree on all major policy prescriptions.  I
Nassim Taleb, Wikipedia
wish I could recall his name. 
He still strikes me as wishful, if not slightly delusional.  In my opinion, the guy wanted viewers to believe that the discipline of economics actually breeds the kind of certainty found in the natural sciences.  

In any case, wouldn't a Krugman-Feldstein debate or a Taleb-Krugman debate be an interesting spectacle?  I'd settle for a Twitter smack-down.
Paul Krugman, Wikipedia

I miss the old TV debates that featured thought leaders at opposite ends of a policy spectrum, hashing out their differences on politics and economics.  My favorite debater remains the late William F. Buckley.*
*Amazon Prime members can access some of WFB's old Firing Line debates -- free.
WFB, Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday cheers for the American consumer

Have you read about the recent boost in U.S. consumer spending?  Of course you have and you know it is widely attributed -- at least in part -- to a steep drop in energy prices, particularly a drop in gasoline prices. clip art
This development is often described by the financial press as a tax cut because the dollar benefit accrues to the consumer in much the same way a tax cut does.  That is, by paying less at the pump, we automatically keep more of what we earn.  I wonder how Keynesian-devotees and other Paul Krugman types (who routinely advocate for enormous government spending to stimulate demand), are reacting.  

It appears that putting money directly in the hands of taxpayers, also spurs consumption.  Shocking.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer notes on New York

I've taken business trips to New York since the Eighties and for me much remains unchanged -- both good and not-so-good. 
Times Square street performer
John Maddente photo

Thousands of taxi cabs now co-exist with new and superior competitors like Uber and Lyft, but the ride through decrepit parts of Queens to or from LaGuardia airport, is still dreary.  

The Times Square area remains a crowded kaleidoscope of sounds, sights and smells that probably began to lose charm in the Seventies.  Unkempt oddballs mill around a neon backdrop of seedy shops and streets that cry for updates, or at least a protracted power wash. 

On the other hand, I'm still captivated by the view looking southward down Park Avenue that terminates at the Met Life Building and Grand Central Terminal, or looking northward down Park Avenue from the other side of these buildings. 

Central Park remains a rolling, twisting, verdant place of tranquility.  In Lower Manhattan ("Downtown") adjacent to the monolithic New York Stock Exchange, a timeless and magnificent statue of George Washington still looks on above the steps of Federal Hall where General Washington took his oath to become President.

I could go on about the gems of old New York, but have a look at the gleaming new Freedom Tower!  It is one of the most breathtaking buildings I've seen.  This structure with its inspired shape, beautiful blue color and sheer enormity -- soars over the somber space where the World Trade Center Towers stood. 

Freedom Tower
John Maddente photo

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Leftist slander goes unpunished

As a teen, I once scraped together enough money to buy a hamburger at a diner, then sat down at a table and waited.  I watched waitresses serving customers around me and after a long period, I caught the attention of one waitress.  I asked if someone could take my order.  She replied that another waitress had seen me steal a tip and that's why nobody would wait on me.  The charge was bogus.  I had taken nothing.  I protested my innocence and left the diner with emotions recalled decades later as I write these words.

If one is going to accuse another of being a thief, one must be able to back up the accusation, or there ought to be consequences for the accuser.  Whether it breaches a legal standard or not, slanderous or libelous commentary is often allowed in America's political environment because it gets passed off as free speech.  There are no rules for fair play
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when public policy fights occur.  Unfortunately, class warfare often works well to smear someone as long as the one doing the smearing advocates for a populist cause.  Yes, without evidence, one can accuse another of depraved motives like "voter suppression" or "racism" and get away with it.  Want examples?   

Do you recall when Sen. Harry Reid likened the GOP to slavery sympathizers because he couldn't handle Obamacare criticisms?  (See my Examiner column published here).  His disgraceful words are largely forgotten.  

Consider Vice President Joe Biden's spoken gem on the campaign trail, telling African-American voters that Republicans are "...going to put y'all back in chains."  Pundits dismissed the remark as one more bone-headed comment by Biden, then Romney got crucified for citing an accurate statistic about the extent of government transfer payments. Romney's utterance, wasn't populist so the opposition could vilify him, yet Biden's reprehensible remarks -- left him unscathed.

Political slander often occurs after Conservatives disclose ideas to reform the welfare state or tax system.  Some ideas are better than others, but there's always a number of Leftist character assassins that cry "racism!"  And honest advocates to reduce voter fraud often attract a full scale tar job, replete with charges of "voter suppression."   

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Most Conservatives encounter this sort of thing sooner or later.  So, what if political slander happens to you?  My advice is to expose your character assassins fully, fairly and early on.  Fight with facts -- but fight no less.  

If you have a better remedy; please let me know.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Fast food and class warfare

CAUTION: The fast food wage debate is heating up. Get too close and you could get burned.  Consider recent actions against McDonald's undertaken by labor unions and community organizers and then...
Big Mac
Wikipedia image
read Al Lewis' column, ("Let Them Eat Burgers" September 1, 2013).  Lewis concludes a super-sized minimum wage increase is justified on the basis of a single data point (average age of minimum wage workers has increased) and a weak comparison to an Australian business model.  

Mr. Lewis' account of a recent protest demonstration reminds me of the danger I've been talking about since 2008.  Here's the story...

A mob is demanding a doubling of the minimum wage to $15 an hour, in front of a Denver-area McDonald's which had to shut down because of the ruckus.  Lewis interviews a man working at McDonald's (albeit a different McDonald's) -- twenty-six year old Dakota Bosma, who had this to say about his employer, 

"They'd rather line their own pockets, than take care of us." 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are over four million workers employed at fast food establishments in the U.S. and half work part time. Turnover is high and this job pool is expected to narrow as new technologies become cost efficient alternatives to tasks currently performed by humans.

The education level required to perform most of these jobs is less than a high-school education.  Such jobs were not conceived as self-sustaining careers.  They are low skilled, temporary jobs for which the market pays a correspondingly low wage.  Nothing wrong with the work of course -- most of us have performed such jobs -- and I take Lewis' point that if the average age of minimum wage workers is increasing, it says something troubling about the employment picture.  I never said that no increase is warranted.  So far, we're fine.

However, does McDonald’s have a primary responsibility to "take care of us" or satisfy their customers, franchisees and shareholders?  What are the larger implications to our system if a corporation like McDonald's is pressured to transform itself from a great American business into a social safety net that also sells burgers?

What motivates these protests?  Is it a feeling that one has no choice?  What disturbs me most is the implication that employees are "owed" more by McDonald's.  Most McDonald's restaurants are not even owned by McDonald's Corporation -- they are franchised to individuals or small businesses that pay royalties and franchise fees to McDonald's. This fact might not matter to Mr. Bosma who added,

"The corporation makes billions of dollars every year -- they can afford to pay us $15".

Piling on, Mr. Lewis writes, "Companies have paid the lowest wages they could, for as many years as they could" but he fails to acknowledge that unions sought higher wages and benefits with limited productivity requirements.  It's called negotiation.

Microsoft Clip Art