Thursday Reads: S & P, the New Madrid Fault, the Gaddafis, and Obama in the Eye of Hurricane Irene

Good Morning!! I think I have some interesting reading for you today, so let’s get right to it.

Last night I wrote about Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein possibly being in trouble with the feds. Interestingly, on Monday another high-profile exec announced he’ll be stepping down. I’m referring to S&P president Deven Sharma. From The New York Times:

The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said late on Monday that its president, Deven Sharma, who has become the public face of the firm in the wake of its historic downgrade on the United States’ long-term debt rating, will step down and leave the company by the end of the year….

The management change had been in the works for months and was unrelated to either the Justice Department’s inquiry or to the emergence of the activist investors, Jana Partners and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, according to people briefed on the matter.

Oh really? Kind of a strange coinky-dink, then, isn’t it?

The ratings agency’s decision to downgrade the United States’ long-term credit rating to AA+ from AAA on Aug. 5 set off a storm of controversy, including criticism by President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. The decision contributed heavily to the worst drop in American stocks since the financial crisis three years ago, as well as volatility that continues to whipsaw the markets weeks later. The other big ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, maintained their top-tier rating on United States debt.

At the same time, the agency is being investigated over whether it improperly rated mortgage securities in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Standard & Poor’s, along with the other major ratings agencies, gave their highest ratings to bundles of troubled loans that appeared less risky during the housing boom, but have since collapsed in value.

Since the financial crisis, the agencies’ business practices and models have been scrutinized by Congress, and Standard & Poor’s is also being investigated by the Justice Department, people briefed on the matter have previously said. At issue is whether the agency’s independent analysis was driven by profits. The Justice Department inquiry, which began before the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States’ debt, is centered on whether analysts’ decisions to assign securities a low credit rating on subprime mortgage loans were overruled by business managers.

Right. I’m sure none of that had anything to do with the president of the troubled company stepping down. /snark

The Financial Times has a piece on the incoming president, Douglas Peterson.

As head of Citigroup’s Japanese operations in 2004, Mr Peterson dramatically bowed in apology before Tokyo regulators after they shut down Citi’s private banking operations there.

Now, as he takes over the embattled ratings agency just weeks after its unprecedented downgrade of US credit, Mr Peterson is likely to find himself before regulators in the US, who are looking into the downgrade and reportedly investigating S&P’s ratings of mortgages before the financial crisis.

Yet, it is Mr Peterson’s experience in Japan, and his more recent turn running Citibank, the retail banking arm of Citigroup, that has given S&P’s owner McGraw-Hill confidence that he is the right man for the job.

Seven years ago, Mr Peterson was given the tricky task of mending relations with Japanese regulators and rebuilding Citi’s tarnished reputation after the US bank’s private banking unit was found to have illegally amassed large profits and was ordered to close down.

By all accounts, the affable Mr Peterson, who is widely described in Tokyo as “nice” and “sincere”, succeeded in reassuring the Financial Service Agency and the Japanese public alike that Citi could once again be trusted with the considerable financial assets of one of the largest economies in the world.

IOW, Peterson has been hired because of his pleasing personality and his ability to make friends and influence people.

But Sean Gregory at Time argues that “A New Leader Won’t Save S&P.”

It’s tempting to read the resignation of Deven Sharma, who stepped down as president of S&P Monday night, as an admission that the rating agency goofed in downgrading the United States’ sovereign rating from AAA to AA+, even as Fitch and Moody’s maintained America’s top grade. Warren Buffett said the U.S. should be rated “quadruple A.” The Treasury department complained that S&P overestimated the nation’s future debt by $2 trillion. Timothy Geithner said that the S&P decision shows “a stunning lack of knowledge about basic U.S. fiscal budget math. And I think they drew exactly the wrong conclusion from this budget agreement.”

Guess Sharma and Geithner won’t be hanging out at any holiday parties. If the S&P downgrade was indeed a mistake, it was an expensive one. In the week after the Aug. 5 S&P downgrade, according to Bloomberg, the market value of global stocks tumbled by $7.6 trillion. Sharma, a former Booz Allen Hamilton consultant who has headed S&P for the past four years, might not be trumping this fact on his newly-polished resume. So you’re the guy who cost the world $7.6 trillion in wealth? You’re hired!

Like FT, Gregory points out that S&P has been shopping for a new leader for months, mostly because Sharma has failed the company in a number of ways. So will a new president make a difference? No, because the ratings agencies simply aren’t qualified to evaluate the credit of sovereign states.

There’s a frightening earthquake story at The Daily Beast: The Quake We Should Fear. Apparently it’s the Midwest that is due for a big one–not the east coast.

Early in the morning of May 16, while most of America was being titillated and transfixed by the appearance in court of the then-suspect Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an urgent message was suddenly received at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C.

Reports were streaming in of a catastrophic earthquake, magnitude 7.7, that had struck the Midwest near the town of Marked Tree, Ark. First reports were alarming: phenomenal property damage; casualty figures were unprecedented; transportation links were severed; and cities like St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock, and Cincinnati had been thrown into utter turmoil. Eight states were believed to have been directly affected, and it was thought the death toll would be in the thousands.

A gigantic federal relief mission swung into action. Nine thousand National Guardsmen were ordered to be deployed. Triage centers were opened in all the affected cities—a list that grew longer as a secondary magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck close to the city of Mt. Carmel, Ill. The Red Cross deployed emergency teams. Power companies were given priority to restore electricity and gas supplies. Heavy equipment was sent in to clear highways and railway tracks.

Within 72 hours some kind of order was restored. Hospitals found themselves more able to cope with the vast number of patients suffering injuries. Refugees fleeing in panic were being assembled into special camps. Temporary tent cities were set up along the main refugee routes.

Huh? Oh wait. That was a FEMA exercise. But it was based on the real possibility of a major earthquake on the Madrid fault. It’s happened before and is due to happen again.

This year marks the bicentennial of the great swarm of earthquakes that afflicted New Madrid between December 1811 and February 1812—hundreds of them, day after day, but punctuated by four enormous ruptures, two occurring on Dec. 16, and one each on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7. These caused spectacular effects all across the then young, sparsely settled United States—toppling church steeples in South Carolina, ringing church bells in Boston, causing the Mississippi to reverse it course, and sinking numerous properties deep into the liquefied earths of the prairies.

Yikes! But I’m still worried that Boston hasn’t had a major earthquake since 1755–so we’re probably due also.

Yesterday I came across a couple of interesting stories on Muammar Gaddafi and his son Saif that you might want to check out.

From Scientific American: Egotist Rex: Are a Dictator’s Defiant Statements Indicative of Self-Delusion? It’s an interview with George Washington University Professor of Psychiatry Jerrold Post.

The interviewer asks Post about the many bizarre statements that Gaddafi has made since the rebellion began. He seems out of touch with reality. Is he delusional? Post discusses the circles of sycophants that surround every world leader–this may make it difficult for the leader to see what is really happening outside this protective bubble of supporters.

They can have a very unrealistic understanding and believe, as Qadhafi stated again and again, “My people, they all love me.”

I found this language of his quite remarkable. And with Qadhafi as an exaggerated example, this is true of any of the other leaders, too—namely, they believe they have widespread support. If there are public demonstrations against them, that must reflect outside agitators. This was true with [ousted Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak as well. He spoke of outside conspiracies.

But it is particularly true of Qadhafi. There is an interesting kind of almost syllogism for him: “My people all love me, and therefore if there is anyone protesting against me, they are not really my people, and that must be a consequence of outside provocation.” And one of the points that he made early on was that this was crazed youth who were on hallucinogens with which their Nescafe had been laced, which I thought was rather creative, really.

I found Qadhafi’s language in general very striking. And what is most interesting about it is it is entirely in the first person singular: “My people all love me. They will support me. My people, they love me.” It was very “me” centered.

Next the interviewer asks whether narcissism is a characteristic of many national leaders? The response could perhaps be applied to someone a little closer to home, if you know what I mean. Check it out.

Vanity Fair has a new article up about Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi. It’s rather long, but here’s the introductory paragraph:

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi—son of Muammar, and long regarded as his heir—was subjected to an arrest warrant months ago by the Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Libyan rebels in Tripoli reported that he was in custody, but Saif soon appeared in public, rallying what’s left of pro-Qaddafi forces. As NATO bombs fell on Libya, the distinguished international lawyer Philippe Sands sat down with those who know Saif Qaddafi best—a London professor, his Libyan mentor, and the prosecutor who may decide his fate. Saif Qaddafi may claim that he was merely an intermediary, or a force for moderation, or perhaps even a victim. But whatever the claims, according to the prosecutor, he was deeply complicit in his father’s crackdown this year.

Hurricane Irene could become a category 3 sometime today. It’s still predicted to go right up the coast to New England. States all along the east coast are preparing for the worst. Will it hit the Cape and islands? The LA Times suggests President Obama might have to be evacuated.

First, President Obama’s golf game was interrupted by an earthquake. Now, it appears that Hurricane Irene is beating a path toward Martha’s Vineyard, where the president is vacationing with his wife and two daughters.

The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast shows Hurricane Irene reaching landfall in the Carolinas late Friday and early Saturday before raking its way up the East Coast and into New England. Coastal areas are urged to keep tabs on the storm’s path and remain alert for possible evacuation orders as the hurricane continues to grow in intensity.

It swelled to a Category 3 storm overnight with winds that could exceed 110 mph, and remains on track to gain in strength and ferocity to become a Category 4 hurricane.

Obama is supposed to be in Washington on Sunday to speak at the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial and then return to the Vineyard. The storm is supposed to hit DC before moving up to Massachusetts.

The eye of the storm appears to be sticking to the coastal outlines, which could spell trouble for Martha’s Vineyard, an island accessible only by boat or plane. As it has done throughout the storm, the National Hurricane Center stresses that the projected path could change dramatically as weather projections come into sharper focus over the next several days.

Hmmm…. Perhaps Mother Nature is trying to send a message to our obtuse leader: Americans need jobs!! Or maybe not.

That’s all I’ve got for you today. What are you reading and blogging about?


Monday Reads

Good Morning!! Yesterday was an exciting day for the Libyan rebels, who have taken over the capital city, Tripoli. From the NYT:

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power dissolved with astonishing speed on Monday as rebels marched into the capital and arrested two of his sons, while residents raucously celebrated the prospective end of his four-decade-old rule.

In the city’s central Green Square, the site of many manufactured rallies in support of Colonel Qaddafi, jubilant Libyans tore down green flags and posters of Colonel Qaddafi and stomped on them. The leadership announced that the elite presidential guard protecting the Libyan leader had surrendered and that they controlled many parts of the city, but not Colonel Qaddafi’s leadership compound.

The National Transitional Council, the rebel governing body, issued a mass text message saying, “We congratulate the Libyan people for the fall of Muammar Qaddafi and call on the Libyan people to go into the street to protect the public property. Long live free Libya.”

Officials loyal to Colonel Qaddafi insisted that the fight was not over, and there were clashes between rebels and government troops early on Monday morning. But NATO and American officials said that the Qaddafi government’s control of Tripoli, which had been its final stronghold, was now in doubt.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens next. I hope it will mean the U.S. pulling out of there, but that’s probably a vain hope. After all, Libya has oil and gold.

Business Insider: AFTER QADDAFI: Oil Prices Will Tank, Stock Prices Will Soar

Watch what happens to oil prices if and when the Qaddafis lose and leave.

In short order, Libyan oil production will ramp up. As it does, oil prices in world markets will fall and oil futures markets will reflect the expected increase in production of oil from Libya. The key prices to watch are those trading in Europe, like Brent. US oil prices (WTI) are no longer the leading indicator of world prices intersecting with world supply/demand. Excess inventory at Cushing, OK is complicating the pricing structure.

We expect oil prices to fall when highly desirable, sweet Libyan crude production is fully resumed and enters the pipeline. Maybe, they are going to fall by a lot. This will come as a much-needed boost to the US economy and to others in the world.

Remember: the oil price acts like a sales tax on consumption. To clarify this relationship we convert crude oil prices to gasoline prices and then estimate what a change in gas price will mean for the American consumer. Roughly, a penny drop in the gas price per gallon gives Americans 1.4 billion more dollars a year to spend on other than gasoline. That is a huge stimulant to the economy. The ratio is different in Europe because the gas taxes are so much higher there. Nevertheless, it is still significant.

In other news, President Obama is still on vacation, and unemployment is still soaring. From the SF Chronicle: Obama keeps full vacation day after Libya briefing

In between briefings on Libya, President Barack Obama packed golf, beach time, a stop at a seafood restaurant and a visit to a wealthy friend’s seaside compound into his Martha’s Vineyard vacation Sunday….

Then Obama and his family headed to dinner at the house where White House adviser Valerie Jarrett is staying.

Earlier, Obama spent about an hour at the home of Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts after playing golf with some buddies. The golf foursome included Obama’s Chicago pal Eric Whitaker, UBS America executive Robert Wolf and a White House aide. Obama spent the morning at the beach with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia.

From the LA Times: Congresswomen hear economic, unemployment woes at Inglewood event

…hundreds of people from Los Angeles-area communities…gathered Saturday to share their stories of hardship and to urge local members of Congress to push corporations to help fix the economy and devise ways to put people back to work. Three Democratic U.S. representatives attended the event: Maxine Waters and Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Laura Richardson of Long Beach….
The recession has slammed Los Angeles County, where 1 in 4 workers are jobless or underemployed, according to Good Jobs LA. This summer, L.A. businesses announced 5,700 layoffs, the jobs advocacy group said.

At the same time, corporations are hoarding almost $2 trillion in cash but failing to invest in jobs, the advocacy group said. The group also cited skyrocketing bonuses for many chief executives and big tax breaks for some of the nation’s largest companies.

Warren Buffet recently asked President Obama to raise taxes on the rich for the good of all. Another multi-billionaire, David Koch, disagrees with Buffet that rich Americans should sacrifice anything for their country.

America’s current tax system forces people making $50,000 a year to pay a higher rate than hedge fund managers making $2.4 million an hour. Warren Buffett penned an op-ed last week declaring that America’s super-rich have been “coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress.” Lamenting the numerous tax loopholes and special breaks afforded to billionaire investors, Buffett noted that in his entire career, even when capital gains rates were as high as 39.9 percent, he never saw anyone “shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain.”

Charles Koch, head of the massive petrochemical, manufacturing, and commodity speculating Koch Industries corporation, has responded to Warren’s call for shared sacrifice: “No Thanks.” In a statement to right-wing media, Koch states:

Much of what the government spends money on does more harm than good; this is particularly true over the past several years with the massive uncontrolled increase in government spending. I believe my business and non-profit investments are much more beneficial to societal well-being than sending more money to Washington.

Yeah, like supporting wingnuts like Scott Walker and Paul Ryan is good for our country. I’d like to see Koch’s fortune confiscated. Maybe we need to bring back the guillotine?

Romney's home in La Jolla, CA

Speaking of rich A$$holes, Mitt Romney has decided that his $12 million mansion in La Jolla must be enlarged–he wants the already huge house to be four times as big.

LA JOLLA — GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, scheduled to attend a series of fundraisers this weekend in San Diego, is also working on plans to nearly quadruple the size of his $12 million oceanfront manse in La Jolla.

Romney has filed an application with the city to bulldoze his 3,009-square-foot, single-story home at 311 Dunemere Dr. and replace it with a two-story, 11,062-square-foot structure. No date has been set to consider the proposed coastal development and site development permits, which must be approved by the city.

The former governor of Massachusetts purchased the home three years ago. According to a description from the listing agent, the Spanish-style residence at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac is sophisticated and understated in its décor, “offering complete privacy and unsurpassed elegance.”

Tentative plans call for new retaining walls and a relocated driveway, but would retain the existing lap pool and spa.

Just how many homes does this man own anyway? Slate Magazine says “just” two. He had a huge house in Massachusetts, not too far from where I live, but he sold it in 2009 for $3.5 million.

I guess after he used (screwed) our state to set up his run for President, he decided to clear out and move his con man act to California. He also sold a “$5.25 million, 9,500-square-foot ski villa in Deer Valley, Utah,” according to Slate. Time calls that “the new frugality.” He’s hanging onto a home in New Hampshire apparently. Where’s that guillotine?

In science news, from Clive Cookson at the Financial Times: Life on earth came from space

The existence of amino acids in space has already been proved by the analysis of meteorites that have struck earth, and comet samples collected in space during Nasa’s Stardust mission. It has been harder to prove that traces of nucleobases found in meteorites were not the result of contamination after they arrived – but the new study seems to do so, while showing that nucleobases reach earth from space in greater diversity and quantity than scientists had thought.

The Nasa team analysed samples of 12 carbon-rich meteorites, including nine found in Antarctica (a rich collecting ground), and detected guanine and adenine, two of the four nucleobases that make up DNA. They also found three related molecules known as nucleobase analogues, a discovery which provides confirmation that the organic compounds in meteorites come from space.

“You would not expect to see these nucleobase analogues if contamination from terrestrial life was the source, because they’re not used in biology,” says Michael Callahan, lead author of the study, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “However, if asteroids are cranking out prebiotic material, you would expect them to produce many variants of nucleobases, not just the biological ones, because of the wide variety of ingredients and conditions in each asteroid.”

Further confirmation came from an analysis of Antarctic ice, taken from near where the meteorites were collected, which showed no trace of the compounds.

Wait…. you mean life didn’t originate in the Garden of Eden?

In related news, a court has ruled that a teacher who made fun of creationism and Christianity cannot be sued for expressing her opinions.

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a California teacher could not be sued for criticizing Christianity and Creationism during a college-level European history course.

“This was a really important ruling for academic freedom,” University of California constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who took on the case pro bono, told The Orange County Register. “There has never been a precedent set for something like this before. Teachers should be able to criticize religion just like they can criticize government, business and similar groups without the fear of being sued.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a lower court’s decision, which held that teacher James Corbett violated a student’s First Amendment rights by making comments during class that were hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular….

Corbett said during his class that serfs opposed social, political and economic [sic] that were in their best interest because of religion, compared Creationism to “magic,” and made twenty other comments that then-sophomore Chad Farnan alleged were disparaging to Christians.

Oh, did I mention this was a college course? Good grief!!

That’s all I have for today. What are you reading and blogging about?


When Obama Said, “Be the Change,” Did He Mean, “Do It Yourself?”

This morning, President Obama set out on a three-day “bus tour” of five tiny towns in three Midwestern states before he returns to his comfort zone among the wealthy elites on Martha’s Vineyard for a ten-day vacation.

According to the National Journal, each of the towns on the tour is in an area that is doing very well economically.

The best part about these towns? They’re doing darn well in the face of the country’s worst economic decline since the Great Depression.

Where the country faces an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck in the 9-point range, the four counties Obama will visit top out at 7.7 percent in Henry County, Ill. The lowest, in Winnishiek County, Iowa, is a mere 5.9 percent.

Part of the reason the town mayors all said they escaped the perils of the recession is that none relied heavily on hard-hit industries like construction. Most have diverse industries, split between a small amount of manufacturing and typical Midwestern agriculture. So when Obama goes to “discuss ways to grow the economy, strengthen the middle class and accelerate hiring in communities and towns across the nation,” he’ll be talking to success stories. As cameras flood in, they won’t find closed-down plants or houses with foreclosure signs; they’ll find picturesque small farms, and, in Alpha, Ill., an 8-acre corn maze.

However, a difficult issue for the Obama is that the towns he will visit are

overwhelmingly white; so white that 2010 census figures suggest Obama will be the only black person in Atkinson, Ill., when he visits on Wednesday. That image may be neutral among, say, white, working-class voters, with whom Obama has struggled in recent elections. It won’t look as good to the African-American community, which has been particularly hard hit by the recession.

African-American unemployment hovers at 16.2 percent, the highest for any ethnic group and double the rate of unemployment for whites. While Obama spends the beginning of the week in three cities with white populations over 93 percent, the Congressional Black Caucus will be hosting job fairs, seminars and job readiness workshops in struggling cities over the August recess, hoping to connect unemployed African-Americans with employers in Detroit, Miami, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The bus tour may not sit well with the CBC, either: Obama will not be attending any of the Congressional Black Caucus events.

That’s pretty troubling, although not surprising. You’d think if the taxpayers are covering the expenses, the President could at least talk to some people who are suffering the worst consequences of the Great Recession.

Jay Leno got off a couple of middling-funny cracks about the trip and the U.S. economy last night.

Leno: President Obama is off on his three-state bus tour this week. I believe the three states are Confusion, Delusion and Desperation.

Leno: More fallout from that Standard & Poor’s credit downgrading of the U.S.. Today England, France and Germany unfriended us on Facebook.

Leno: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will stay on with President Obama and not join the private sector. Thanks to his economic policies there are no private sector jobs.

Okay, I thought you could use a little comic relief. Now back to Obama’s road trip.

The head of the RNC Reince Priebus followed Obama to his first stop, Cannon Falls, MN, where he made his own failed attempt at humor, referring to the President’s trip as “Obama’s Debt-End Tour.” Frankly, I don’t get it. But Mitt Romney had a better one, the “Magical Misery Tour.”

None of the articles I’ve read say whether the President will actually ride on a bus from place to place, but I did learn that the Secret Service recently purchased two buses that will be used on the trip. The White House insists this is not a campaign swing, but an “official trip,” so we taxpayers will be picking up the tab.

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