Monday, March 31, 2008

Put That Deck Chair Over There

As former labor secretary Robert Reich points out, the market reforms announced by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake are largely "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

They're long on consolidation, but they're very short on regulation. For example the Fed can't even require Investment banks to open their books to regulatory inspection unless they are in serious trouble. When it comes time to bail them out they'll disclose the problem, but they won't have the fed nosing around in their business when they're busy creating the problem in the first place.

Consolidation may do some good, but I doubt it. Let's put it this way: creating the homeland security out of 30 different agencies is hardly a model of success for emulation.

RIP Fagels

Robert Fagels, Princeton English professor and classics scholar died today.

I enjoyed his quite readable (but also quite lenghty) translation of the Ilyad.

You've Come A Long Way Toots

I caught Wait Wait Don't Tell Me this Sunday on NPR, as usual. The guest was Fannie Flagg, best known as the author of Fried Green Tomatoes. In the course of the show they discussed her early work as a writer and performer on Alen Funt's "Candid Camera." I had never heard of this, but apparently she was in a set up where the "gag" was that she was the pilot of a commercial airplane. A female! Crazy right? I mean, you wouldn't let one drive your car, much less fly you thousands of feet in the air. They might get scared or hysterical!

Anyway, thanks to the magic of the internets, here it is:

It's pretty amazing that not too long ago, the idea that a woman might be the pilot of a plane was so crazy and outlandish that it was used to provoke funny and alarmed repsonses from passengers and crew. The idea that Ms. Flagg could well have cast her primary ballot for a woman to be the Democratic nominee for president seems pretty incredible when you watch this.

Me Cheeta

Apparently, Cheeta, the monkey sidekick of Tarzan is still alive and well, and has outlived both of his costars.

He's been getting some press because he is the longest living chimp on record at age 76. It seems that while chimps in the wild have far shorter lifespans than humans (40-45 years), with proper medical care they can achieve lifespans comperable to ours.

Apparently the simian star is also coming out with a book. The article amusingly notes:

The memoirs, widely suspected to be the work of a ghostwriter, discuss his acting career, the healthy lifestyle which has replaced his former diet of beer and cigars, and his views on his old co- star Johnny Weissmuller.

Wait, really? The work of a ghost writer? You don't say. . .

Button That Shirt

Interesting little tidbit on shirt buttons. I actually had never noticed that women's shirts buttoned the other way from those of men. So besides being an interesting explanation, it was a revalation to me as well. I resolve to pay more attention to women wearing buttoned shirts.

Around 90 per cent of the world's population is right-handed, and it is easier for right-handers to button shirts from the right. So why do women's garments button from the left?

This is an example in which history seems to matter. When buttons first appeared in the 17th century, they were seen only on garments of the wealthy. At that time it was the custom for rich men to dress themselves and for women to be dressed by servants.

Having women's shirts button from the left thus made things easier for the mostly right-handed servants who dressed them. Having men's shirts button from the right made sense not only because most men dressed themselves, but also because a sword drawn from the left hip with the right hand would be less likely to become caught in the shirt.

Full article from the Daily Mail here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

From The Department Of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Velkommen to zie Stassi Herr Fritz. Vee vill need to szee yor szchlong to meazure eet. For zee fazher land.

Unofficially, 160 officers and men beavered away with 16mm cameras to produce pornographic movies that were shown to top brass of the army in East Germany and for visiting generals from other Warsaw Pact nations.


"beavered away" ... really? Beavered? We had to use that phrase in this article? Just a coincidence I'm sure. . .

Post Lunch Trademark Blogging

A federal district court in Georgia has ruled that if you wear or sell a "Walocaust" tshirt no one in their right mind would get confused and think that maybe Wal Mart had decided to go pro-holocaust in their store brand outerwear selection.

Basically some dude started selling shirts that mimiced the Wal-Mart font and said disparaging things such as... oh linking Wal-Mart to the holocaust with "Walocaust" and using the German eagle. Wal-Mart didn't like it, but the court told them basically to go stuff it. Look, getting made fun of, criticized, taunted, etc is just part of being in America, and no one likes a tattle tale, not even when it's the largest single employer in the United States.

I'm going to spare the technical talk and just say that I think this case was rightly decided.

UPDATE: I corrected the link. It now goes where it was intended.

Virus Art

I don't understand quite how these images were produced (the original is rather vague) but this is a picture of the MYDOOM virus rendered by a "Computational Art" algorithm.

Many more here. Pretty neat looking.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Mr. Google

An interesting meditation on Google personified here.

Not much to add. Click the link though, it's an interesting read.

Iraq: More Violence Is Totally Good News

Good news everyone! Iraq is totally awesome and our plan is working. For proof see this.

See? More violence = good news! Also, note that when the surge reduced violence, that was ALSO good news. This occupation is totally great! It can't fail. Heads, the central government is asserting itself, tails Democracy has brought peace to Iraq! Dude, Iraq is easy!

It's like our foreign policy on this Mobius strip of awesome!

More Signs of Success in Iraq

The spokesman for the Baghdad securty plan kidnapped from his Baghdad home.

Really. The SPOKESMAN FOR THE SECURITY PLAN. You can't even make this shit up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

True Love

Here's something to cheer you up if you found the last post too depressing.

Interestingly, swans mate for life,* so aside from the size difference, this behavior isn't really that unusual. It does have some interesting implications about how swans self-identify as a species. It seems visual shape cues must play an important roll in their mate selection.

* well sort of. See here.

Stuck In The Middle With You

Matthew Yglesias has a smart and sucinct post here about why one of the many crazy ways we're in such a pickle in Iraq.

It truely is insane that we are supporting the Iranian backed ISCI and their Badr Brigade against the also Iranian backed but more nationalist Saderists and their Mahdi Army. Simultaneously, we support the Kurdish population in northern Iraq which is seeking a de facto if not de jure split from the central government, along with the "Concerned Citizen Councils" (aka Sunni Sheiks) who ALSO don't like the central government (but whom we're basically paying off with money and weapons to not attack us).

The more you know about the government's Iraq strategy, the more you realize that there is NO STRATEGY. If things improve, it's proof we need to stay because it's working. If things get worse, it's proof we need to stay to help the government. It's madness. It's all madness.

Speaking of, I saw the Frontline special on Iraq on PBS last night. It's just more details on what I already knew, that the whole debacle was under planned, there was no realistic strategy, and that we have no plan to leave. Worth watching if you can catch it, but be sure to have some wellbutrin handy if you do.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Fitting Tribute

On the MIT campus, this appeared overnight.


You know, the debate over abortion has been one of the most divisive issues in America for 30 years. Even the terminology is problematic. Both sides want to be Pro something not Anti something. People that want to criminalize abortion have taken to calling themselves "Pro-Life" rather than "Anti-Abortion" but of course "Pro-Choice" (not "Pro-Abortion" natch) people object to this. If you're Pro-Life that seems to imply your opposition is, what, anti-life?

But sometimes it's possible to put aside these petty squabbles and agree on some terms. And I think we can all agree that this politician is Pro-Life.

Actually Yes I Do

Via Brad DeLong, comes a link to PZ Myers' discussion of cell chemistry.

This is one of those really great things about science that people don't really stop to think about too often but it's exactly right. Rather than depicting cell chemistry as a precisely orchestrated ballet where the movement of"the molecules are all directed, purposeful, and smooth," it should "look more like a mosh pit filled with meth addicts." All that glorious and seemingly improbably chemistry is the result of a massive amount of random events that are shaded JUST a bit in the right direction. Myers explains:

The closest example on a macro scale that I can think of is a casino. People go in and out of a casino, and they engage in many small probabilistic events. Some people win big, some lose big, and all states in between are represented…but the house always has its small, advantageous odds in its favor. They don't shake down the crowd deterministically and demand a cut from each, instead what they have done is basically tipped the the reaction equilibrium gently to favor the transfer from one state — your pocket — to another state — their bank. From the aggregate kinetics of a great many transactions with only a tiny edge in one way, they have constructed a powerful and reliable siphon hose to draw off your money. (I suspect that's also one, perhaps unconscious, reason why gambling establishments are fanatical about keeping out people with even a hint of a successful gambling system; it doesn't take much of a shift in the percentages to reverse the flow in their money siphon.)

That's it precisely. On a micro level, things seem random, jerky, and unreliable, but on a macro level, you see a smootly operating cell with organelles each performing a precise function to keep your heart beating or your finger nails growing or your brain reading this post.

Enstein once famously objected to quantum mechanics with the quip "God does not play dice with the universe." After half a century of experimentation, however, it seems certain that just the opposite is true.

Play Ball!

The Red Sox and A's kicked the major league baseball season off today in Tokyo. The defending world champs won 6-5 in extra innings.

I briefly entertained the idea of waking up at 5:30AM to watch the game. Then I remembered that it would be totally insane.

Monday, March 24, 2008


This is so sad. I thought I should do something to note the fact that we've passed the 4,000 casualty mark in Iraq. It's perfectly true as some people are eager to note that there's no particular significance of the 4000th rather than the 3895th. But that's sort of the point. Each and every one of these are sensless tragedies of monumental proportions to their loved ones. Each and every one of these men and women should make headlines. But realistically it's not going to happen for a lot of interconnected reasons. At least when it hits a nice big round number it creates an excuse to look closely at the awful cost of war to brave men and women and the families and friends that love them. I'm often accused of liking "dark" or "depressing" stories, but I truely feel that these stories are essential to empathy of the human condition. I don't particularly like how this article makes me feel, but it is important to understand that this is being done by our elected govenment to our citizen volunteers, not just in an intellectual "i am aware it is happening" sense but in a real viceral, emotional way too.

It's worth noting that thanks to modern medicine and improved body armor, the wounded to dead ratio is now 8:1, instead of the 3:1 it was in Vietnam. So if you want to compare casualty numbers with historic conflicts, remember to convert it to metric (double it and add thirty).

I'd like to see more emotional understanding of the consequences of war. It would be good to come to terms with the horrible sacrifices that are being made by Americans. Even better would be to feel love for our "enemies," the uncounted (quite literally, and on purpose) Iraqis who have died so we could "free them" by erecting blast walls between neighborhoods, around shopping areas, and infront of Mosques. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, but no one knows exactly how many. We don't count, I suspect because we don't want to know.

Image found via google image search. I could not locate information for attribution but it was taken from

March Madness

What do you do when you can't show NCAA highlights on your NBC sportscast because CBS won't let you? You bust out your daughter's stuffed animal collection of course!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

Here's a picture of a cute bunny.

Photo from Flickr user unaerica used under creative commons license.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Subprime Primer

This is what the world needed. The debt melt down as explained by stick figures.

Warning: they use the F word.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Will I Dream?

Arthur C. Clark dead at 90.

Barack Obama Speaks

[Photo is from an Obama rally yesterday in Beaver PA]

Obama is (has by now?) delivering a speach on race this moring, largely in response to the endless media flogging of his pastor's intemperate remarks. (for more see here)

I can't watch the speach, but I hope that someone will post it on youtube so I can see it when I get home (who am I kidding, of COURSE someone will post it on youtube). The NY Times has the text of his remarks here.

I suppose we'll see how it's recieved, but if I don't miss my guess I think this speech will be the start of an important dynamic. The Hillary campaign is fond of making the argument that making nice speeches is not the same as effective government. This is true as far as it goes, but the ability to deliver a truely moving and persuasive speech (which, I think we can all agree, is something Obama has in spades) can be a PART of effective government. The news cycle has been harping on this for a few days now, generating a great deal of heat if not light on the topic. Normally this sort of "looks bad but not really substantive" allegations are hard to deal with. If you take the argument seriously, you give them legitimacy in some sense. If you ignore them, the story morphs into an ominous smear of "UNANSWERED QUESTIONS LINGER." If Obama is able to take all the attention to this issue and use this speech to pivot the narrative to "Great Speech Answers Critics" we may see a real sea change in the abilities of these subtle smear tactics to harm him. He's certainly got the media spotlight. He could turn this attack into an opportunity. I hope he does.

Photo from Flickr user Barack Obama used under creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Before I forget, I wanted to wish everyone a happy St. Patrick's Day, a proud day for all white people all of whom will pretend to be Irish today.

For more go here, where you can learn that the largest St. Patrick's Day parade is held right here in NYC, and was started by Brittish soldiers in 1762.

UPDATE: Let me also take the time to recommend "How the Irish Became White" an excellent book about race and identity in the United States.

What Elephant? Where?

Kevin Drumm raises an interesting question on his blog:

[I]s it really that hard to figure out the value of all the assets rolled up into the various CDOs and SIVs (the "who knows where" in Jared's post above) that caused this mess in the first place? I know it's not trivial, especially when the market is in freefall, but there are underlying assets behind all these vehicles. The proposition that nobody really knows what any of this stuff is worth just doesn't seem all that plausible. Anyone care to explain this too?

The answer is no, it's not all that hard. The real problem is, no one wants to. Look, all the major financial institutions have this stuff on their books. So long as "nobody rally knows" what it is worth, they can continue to keep them on their books as asstes with valuations in line for what they paid for them. As soon as that changes, however, lots of bad things happen.

1) If they are correctly valued, lots of those bonds drop dramatically in value, instantly forcing banks to write down their assets and causing huge near term losses to show up on balance sheets.

2) If they are correctly valued, the credit risk of monoliners that have invested heavily in insuring these bonds skyrockets.

3) this causes ALL the bonds so insured to lose their AAA status reflecting increased risk of the insurer going busto (even if the bond itself is still low risk).

4) if bonds are degraded, many funds that hold these bonds are forced to sell them. Why? Because there are lots of funds that are regulated (for example, pension funds) and they, by law, may only make very safe investments. So if a bond goes from AAA to -A, these funds will have to sell by law.

5) if 4 happens, bond prices crash EVEN MORE, because of supply and demand (suddenly, tons of supply!).

Now one might say, isn't this delaying the inevitable? Well of course that's true. But just now no one wants to admit there's an elephant in the room and it's eating all the cake.

As we've seen with Bear (and likely will continue to see) this stuff will eventually come out. It's a matter of time though, and it will get worse before it gets better.

Image from Flickr user exfordy, used under creative commons license.


Wow. File this in things that I thought were wildly unlikely one week ago.

Bear Stearns, the 5th largest investment bank in the US has disappeared. JP Morgan Chase has agreed to buy them out for $2 per share in a deal that was brokered by the Fed. Wow. One year ago today the price was about $145.5 per share. That's such an insane drop in value it's hard to comprehend. That means Bear lost 98.6% of its value in a year. WOW.

I don't even know what this means for the economy but I'm thinking it's probably not good.

UPDATE to link to this which points out that Bear's Madison Ave. headquarters is worth around 1.2 billion. So buying Bear for 270 Million puts the value of Bear as a business at around negative one billion dollars.

Friday, March 14, 2008

THANK YOU Congress

You know, I've been pretty depressed on occasion by the constant knuckling under of the congress to Bush's demands for "compromise" (read: stamp my feet until you pass what I tell you to pass) on FISA legislation. I fully expected the House Republicans plus 20 odd Blue Dogs to screw this up and pass a Bush friendly bill. But they didn't! The House (and really, this came about thanks to the House leadership, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer) passed a very good FISA bill that does not include retroactive immunity for law breaking by phone companies. Yes!

Boy this really makes my day. Really there is no more fundamental issue for Democracy than the principle that no one is above the law. Had this gone through, it would basically eliminate any judicial review of illegal (yes ILLEGAL) spying by the government and the cooperation of telcos. This really is a huge win.

To be sure the fight isn't over. The chances of it passing the Senate are up in the air, and Bush would almost certainly veto, but you know what? That's fine. Look, FISA will still exist with or without this legislation. FISA has been in effect since 1978, the bill itself isn't on the line. This is just an amendment to FISA. So if it doesn't pass, we're just going to stick with the regular old powers that the government had before, which are really quite broad anyway (retroactive warrants, secret court approval of warrants, etc).

Thanks Nancy. Way to not cave.

UPDATE: To link to Glenn Greenwald here.

Happy Pi Day

Today is March 14, Pi Day! 3.14 the only nerd holiday on the calendar.

It's also Einstein's Birthday.

Azrael Totally Not Jealous

This is pure whiskey tango foxtrot if I ever saw it.

Prelunch Finance Blogging


I was going to wait for lunch, but that may not be soon enough.

As of 10:20 today, Bear Sterns has lost 43% of its value, primarily because of this. The fact that the Fed and JP Morgan are going to step in and help out might seem good for Bear, but it's the fact that this is NECESSARY that has the market reeling. This is a far cry from statements Bear was making just, um YESTERDAY:

"We don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis," he [CEO Alan Schwartz] said.

They're going to have to stop trading on it I would think. It was almost at a 5 year low at the start of trading today, and it's down 40% from THAT.

In some sense, I think the general assumption that people felt that Bear was "too big to fail." i.e. that its failure would be so catastrophic that the market and feds would have to cooperate to keep it afloat because total collapse would hurt too many other market players. But these rumors of liquidity crunch at Bear probably are to a certain extent self-fulfilling. People start believing that there's a problem, then your default swaps and interest rates get more expensive, then people don't want to do business with you or take your credit, that makes it more expensive and fuels further rumors, etc.

(update finishing post 10:30 AM, hmm, got as low as 46%, now at 38% ... Who knows where (or if) it will level out)

Good Boy

This scientist has difficulty walking do to his enormous brass balls.

Original from this story.

Image copyright Barcroft Media, used without permission please don't sue.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Well Someone Didn't Get Screwed In All This

Elliot Spitzer's "Kristen" has been revealed: her name is Ashley Alexandra Dupre. To be fair, she's pretty amazingly attractive, maybe not $4,300 per hour hot, but when you've got enough money, it sort of ceases to make a difference I suppose.

For an "aspiring singer" who happens to have an extremely lucrative part time job, being outed couldn't be better. Talk about exposure. Her pictures are all over the internet, including an article with the New York Times. Her parents aren't thrilled I'm sure but her agent is crying all the way to the bank. Apparently, her online single has become incredibly popular.

So she wound up with $10,000 and instant celebrity status. Nice work if you can get it.

On a serious note, while I think we need to come up with a way to ensure sex workers are safer and healthier, and legalizing prostitution might be a way to do this, there are some serious down sides to taking that tack. See Kristoff's op ed here. I find it odd that in this day and age a man or woman can voluntarily have sex with a person of their choosing for any reason EXCEPT in exchange for money. Then it's a crime. [EDIT: The exception to the exception is, of course, if a third party pays for and films the sex act, then it's a free speech expression of a message of sexuality. Got it?] But there are real and serious issues with exploitation, human trafficing, etc, that need to be dealt with realisticly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Afternoon Fun

Something fun for your afternoon: Photoshop Disasters.

Image from a Victoria Secret catalogue, copyright theirs (I assume). Used without permission for purposes of comment and satire.

Spitzer Out

Despite the precedent set by Larry Craig (R ID) and David Vitter (R LA) and Bill Clinton (D), Elliot Spitzer has decided to resign.

On principle, I don't think it was mandatory. Other people have stayed in office despite similar charges, and historically sexual impropriety has not been an indicator of poor [EDIT: policy] judgement.

I don't think it's sad at all though. The media distraction this would have created would have been a serious impediment to governing. More important to my mind is the amazing hypocrisy. Spitzer actively prosecuted prostitutes and pimps as a DA. If sex workers deserve to be put in jail because prostitution is bad, then so do their clients, at the very least they should lose their position as Governor. His behavior basically says "the rules don't apply to me because I'm rich and powerful" and THAT should never be the case.

Obviously Mr. Spitzer doesn't have a problem with prostitution. Had he said so openly and advocated decriminalization, I'd support him. But now? Not so much.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that New York will soon have the first blind governor in the US, which I think is cool. He's also black but don't tell him...

And If Your Aunt Had A D#$% She'd Be Your Uncle

There's been way too much attention paid to this silly comment by Geraldine Ferraro:

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she continued. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

From here.

As the only woman to be on a national ticket of either party, it is perfectly understandable that she is an adament supporter of Sen. Clinton. But implying that Obama somehow is lucky to be African American or that if he were a young charismatic woman that he wouldn't be popular is stupid and a bit racist in my opinion. It sort of sounds like the "oh well if it wasn't for affirmative action then these black people wouldn't be able to compete" type of racism (with the clear implication that white superiority is the only reason that whites are advantaged in society, and not, say, pervasive racism). The notion that being black is some how an advantage in US society is deeply unrealistic. Is it horrible? Well no. Frankly it's pretty common amongst white people, especially of white people her age, but it certainly doesn't reflect well on her.

Regardless though, it is CERTAINLY an extremely silly statement. These kind of crazy counterfactuals are not really helpful or enlightening. Like, sure, and if Hillary Clinton was a man she wouldn't be in the position SHE is in now, because Bill probably wouldn't have won the Whitehouse in '92 as part of a same sex couple. etc...

I'll add too that this apparently didn't come out of the blue. She made a similar statement, indeed nearly identical, about Rev. Jesse Jackson twenty years ago:

President Reagan suggested Tuesday that people don't ask Jackson tough questions because of his race. And former representative Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that because of his "radical" views, "if Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn't be in the race."

Via Politico, full context here, citing a story in the April 15, 1988 Washington Post.

Ferraro shouldn't be cast into the outer darkness for this. I think these statements reflect the type of low level racism that is pretty common among whites generally, even, especially, the many who insist they're "not racist" (like, I'm sure Ferraro will be quick to tell you that she "has several black friends" ... lol, ah the "black friend" what would we do without you?). Much the way that white people get nervous around large black men wearing sneakers, it's unconcious and, probably to a fair extent, unavoidable. The only way to address it is to be aware of one's own feelings and proactively compensate.

Anyway, no real point I suppose. The statement was silly and unthinking, and while it might be racist, it's probably not based in any particular racial animus.

Oh dear, hole: meet shovel.

"Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says let's address reality and the problems we're facing in this world, you're accused of being racist, so you have to shut up," Ferraro said. "Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?"

Yes, the poor opressed white people who have to suffer charges of discrimination, THEY are the real victims of racism. So sad.

She would have been well served to simply say "gosh, that came out wrong, I didn't mean to be racially insensitive" and leave it at that. This type of defense only serves to make it very clear that her comments reflect a sincere belief which she will defend even on reflection.

But again I don't think too much should be made of this. This kind of low level racism is really common among white people. The way to fight it isn't to make an example out of someone who makes an insensitive public statement. That only will serve to increase resentment and send the message "watch what you say white people." The point isn't to make white people scared to talk. The point is people in general need to have more empathy. She needs to understand that when one unpacks some of the underlying assumptions on which statements like this is based, you begin to understand how this might be problematic. It's the process of examining and understanding that needs to happen, not wrist slapping every mildly racist public statement.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi...

Mississippi is voting in their primary today.

Almost certainly another pick up for Obama. Mississippi has a mosdest number of delegates (33), but every one counts (and the relative number is really key). The big item left to be fought over is still Pennsylvania, where Hillary has a solid lead and where demographics are pretty favorable for a Hillary win. Remains to be seen what will happen in the month of campainging we'll have there.

Photo by Flickr user Phil Wood Photo used under Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.

UPDATE: Yep. Obama takes it 59% - 39% with 85% of the precincts reporting.

Lunchtime Finance Blogging: Bear Edition

I heard about this when playing cards with friends last night.

A couple of freinds who were in the market were discussing its implications when we were hanging out. I sat there listening to them for about 5 minutes with a look on my face that was probably best described as "dog being shown magic trick." I had to cut in and admit my complete ignorance, and had them explain it to me.

Basically what this means is that there were rampant rumors Monday that Bear would not be able to pay on contracts. Basically, that it would go bankrupt (one friend said that based on the price of insurance on contracts with Bear, the market put the chances of total collapse at 16%). The price we're talking about here is the price of "credit default swaps." Bear has billions in assets, but they don't just trade on that. They make many many more billions in trades than they have actual money in the bank (just like your local bank will have a reserve of only 10% of all [EDIT bank deposits it holds], the rest of the money is used to lend to other people for their mortgages [EDIT: and small business loans, commercial development, etc...]). Credit default swaps are a way of spreading risk around. I could say "hey I've got a contract with Bear that will pay me 1,000 one year from now, and you have a contract with Goldman that will pay you 1,000 one year from now. I'll guarantee your contract with Goldman (i.e. I will pay you if they can't) and in exchange you guarantee my contract with Bear." (thus Credit Default Swap) This works fine if both banks have similar credit ratings. If one has a worse credit rating, then obviously I'd have to throw in something (money) to make it worth it for you to take it.

That's what's happening. Swaps for Bear contracts are becoming less valuable, thus Bear or people who have contracts with Bear must pay higher rates to insure their risk.

Photo by Flickr user Aussiegal used under creative commons license.

Edited to include corrections

Monday, March 10, 2008

This Is Not The Change Your Looking For

I voted for Elliot Spitzer. He promised to bring change to Albany. And he did. Just... well, one would wish he didn't.

UPDATE to add this from Matt Y. I pretty much agree with that. I think prostitution is morally problematic, but like a lot of things, just because it's immoral doesn't ipso facto mean it should be illegal. However, if you are in a position to change the law such as a senator or governor, and you do not do so (or at least advocate for and introduce such changes) then you should certianly be subjected to the penalty you feel should be imposed on others.

More Lunchtime Finance Blogging

Ah the wisdom of the market.

The whole theoretical basis for why markets work is that if each person is advancing their own interest in a competetive environment that is the best way to value assets. Any individual transaction is not necessarily indicative of anything, but the valuing over thousands of transactions is useful information, taken together.

That's why this is really bad news. Basically, the market is saying that Fed Chairman Benarke will not be able to resist pressures to cut interest rates. And that means it's pretty much guaranteed that we're going to have inflation.

When an inflation guaranteed security is trading at negative value, that means that so many people in the market are so sure that inflation is coming and will eat such a significant portion of investment income that they will over pay just to be sure their money maintains value relative to inflation.

In other words, we're screwed.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Democrats Win Another Seat

Obama won big in Wyoming today, but that was pretty much expected. The count was 61-38.

The real big news is that the Democrats picked up another seat in the house. Even bigger, it was for the seat vacated by former GOP speaker Dennis Hastert. More than the extra seat, the symbolic win is a great morale booster for democrats. It might mean another big swing in congressional races.

As Glenn Greenwald points out here, not only was this a majority Republican district that just elected a Democrat, but he won by running against FISA and the Iraq war. There's a lesson here...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Bad Sign

This goes on the list of "signs you never want to see."

Interestingly, Hippos use feces spray as a means of marking territory or communicating agression. According to National Wildlife male hippos will engage in "ritual 'feces battles.' The one that produces the greatest amount wins."

Image here via icanhascheezeburger.

Ruh Roh!

Boy, this is bad news for the economy.

Read the whole article, but the basic point is that this whole CDO/SIV mortgage fiasco has not shaken out yet. Banks want money back that they leant to investors. This means investors will be forced to sell assets to create liquidity necessary to repay banks. This creates downward pressure in the markets that those investors are in by forcing more supply into those markets. This in turn reduces the value of those investments in other companies portfolios. Which makes banks MORE nervous... Negative feedback loop.

The upshot of all this is that there will be more financial turmoil before this gets better. There may even need to be a major banking shutdown/audit although that would be pretty drastic. More likely would be: more major write downs of CDO holdings, a federal bailout of Sallie Mae/Freddie Mac, plus some significant consolidation in the banking industry as the sounder banks buy off the assets or stock of the banks with the most exposure that wind up cratering.

UPDATE: More bad news here. When the article refers to "margin calls" this is what they're talking about. They were lent money to invest more in mortgages/mortgage backed securities (thus they are investing "on the margin" i.e. with borrowed money). Now the bank says they are calling in those loans because the business is no longer a good credit risk because the value of their assets are falling. But they don't have the money to pay the bank back, and they can't sell their assets to cover the loan thus "have raised substantial doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern." In other words they're going out of business.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Guess This Job Won't "BE MINE" "FOREVER"

In a clear sign of a comming recession, a factory that makes those chalky little heart candies with the messages on them is closing. The New England Confectionary Corp. is closing it's plant in Pewaukee WI. The company has several other factories, so the Sweethearts Conversation Hearts will probably still be available (and still taste kind of crappy) next February.


Yes, it's the design contest for the George Walker Bush presidential library. Woo Hoo!

Lots of good ideas. My personal favorite is the "Hole in the Ground" which is "symbolic of the success of the Bush presidency as a hole."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Call Your Representative

When Congressional Democrats look to "compromise" with the White House, what they mean is "give them everything they want."

There is no middle ground here. Bush is insisting that any company that has illegally spied on you at the government's request must get retroactive immunity from any law suits. The "compromise" is that the bill will be split in two, so that representatives that don't like the idea that laws can be broken and then we can say it's ok later can vote against that, but the bill will still pass and give Bush everything he wants.

This is just, well it's awful. Let's be clear about one thing: this is NOT about whether the government can listen in on Al Queda. This bill is completely unnecessary for that. This is about preventing you from knowing how much your government has been spying on you. Without this immunity, the Telecom companies will have to obey judicial orders to turn over records of who they have been monitoring, and for how long; records that will be very VERY embarrassing for the government (and possibly put a number of people in jail). That's what the retroactive immunity provisions of the Protect America Act (Orwell alert) are for.

Please call your representative and urge them to stop this. Not just "please vote against it" but "actively protest in your caucus, persuade people, anything to STOP it."

For more background see my previous post here, or this or this from Glenn Greenwald.

In addition, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer could use some phone calls. Even if you are not a direct constituent, you can let them know that you expect them to act in the best interests of the country and their party. They have a great deal of power over what comes to the floor of the House and in what form.

Nancy Pelosi can be emailed here. Her phone number in Washington is (202) 225-4965, and (415) 556-4862 in San Francisco.

Steny Hoyer's email is here (annoyingly, he tries to filter it to only get email from his constituents; you must enter 20770 in the zip code). His phone number in Washington is (202) 225-4131 and 301-474-0119 in Maryland.

A list of "blue dog" dems that are supporting retroactive immunity can be found here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Public Radio

I just had to point out that I, as a white person, deeply love NPR.

I listen to it all the time. Half my conversations start with "well I heard on NPR that..." I now know why. I'm white. As he points out, it's like a popouri combination of stuff that white people like.

(Closed Captioning for the humor impared: joke alert)

Down To The Wire

Well, it looks like it's right down to a photo finish on Tuesday. There's been a lot of talk about how Obama has pulled ahead of Hillary in Ohio in the latest Zogby poll. Don't believe it. Zogby has a pretty poor record this primary cycle in general. In all the other polls (full results from here) Hillary has a lead between 6 and 12 points. The most likely result is a win for Hillary, probably under 10 points.

Also interesting is Texas, which is now crazy tight. Obama was leading in most major polls at the end of last week, but now the race seems to be dead even. SUSA, Rassmusen, Mason-Dixon and Zogby have Obama very slightly ahead (within MOE), while Insider Advantage and PPP have Hillary up (and by a significant margin too - 5/6 points). Obama has been trending strongly up and Hillary sharply down, but the massive campaigning by both candidates has arrested the movement and basically brought them dead even. Definitely anybody's gain. If Hillary manages wins in both Texas and Ohio, she'll get a considerable boost from the media narrative on that score ("her strategy worked, etc") even if she still lags behind in pleged delegates (which seems almost certain). It will also serve to swing super delagates to her. Even a narrow win in Texas could bring additional party members and reps into her camp on the theory that since she won their state they should support her.

If Obama wins Ohio and Texas, it's a knockout blow. That seems increasingly unlikely though. Looks like a split of Ohio/Texas (with Rhode Island going for Hillary and Vermont going for Obama) and then both sides will have 6 weeks to bombard Pennsylvania natives with political ads.

Photo by Flickr user ▌√áP▐ used under creative commons license.

Bad News

Wow, well Warren Buffet is making news again. He thinks the economy may be in recession right now.

He is also backing off of his offer to reinsure the muni bond market. It might indicate that he thinks that the continuing weakness in the housing sector will hurt local governments (most of which get money from property taxes... and with home values stagnating or falling, you can see where that's going) to the point that there is increased risk of muni defaults. Considering that I didn't think it was likely that they would ever split their business anyway I don't see this as too big of a deal.

Still, he doesn't like where the economy is going, and that's reason for concern. Others probably have more insight into macroeconomic models, but you can't really find anyone that knows the market better than him, a knowledge that is part macro ecnonomics, part psycology, part valuation. When he starts making comparisons to the '74 economy people get nervous.