Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where’s the Asteroid When We Need One

O.K. You’ve all been reading my blog long enough to wonder, does this guy ever just have fun? I mean, who seriously reads the fine print in thousands of pages of financial data just to find out who’s really behind the scenes? Well, let’s take a moment and enjoy a little levity. I was thinking, while on my carbon free 36 mile bike ride with my Earth Science teacher brother Tim, how could I explain our economic situation in terms that an eight-grader in his class would understand. On one of our particularly long hill climbs in Central Virginia, I began musing about last night’s conversation about “extinction events”. Apparently, an extinction event is when a luminous object hurtles through space and smashes into Earth significantly altering life as it was known immediately prior to said event. So… I started musing about Ben Bernanke’s Friday, September 25th comments about how we need to get consumers borrowing again and it hit me – we have an asteroid coming in and unfortunately for some, we have two species of beasts who have walnut-sized brains and extremely large appetites, who are running the show. I’ll let you decide whether I’m referring to Geithner and Bernanke or whether I’m referring to certain entities on Wall Street but, let’s agree that, at impact, it won’t matter. Oh, and the moral to this story is to be one of the little furry creatures who is smart enough to live in a community as far away from these characters as possible.

Veloci extractor (from Latin meaning playing a shell game so fast that the friction burns up whatever was under the shells but always slipping one loaded shell off the table into its own pocket while no one is looking.) This beast believes that the way to maintain power and control is to keep acronyms coming at unsuspecting prey faster than they can understand what’s really being done. It is sometimes referred to as a quant fund or a Goldman Sachs’ rapid trading platform so vital to profitability for themselves that they are in a quandary over exactly how vigorously to pursue the lawsuit against a mathematician who allegedly misappropriated the algorithm. Interestingly, the Veloci extractor has no concern for its prey and simply wants to devour any and all living matter so long as it can take calories from fresh or carrion alike.

Transactosaurus wrecks (from Latin meaning a belief that you solve a challenge by denying its root cause but coming up with a story that unsuspecting prey will believe long enough for you to eat them). This beast believes that the way to maintain power and control is to keep prey so focused on consumption at their miniscule level that they won’t see the carnage being wrought by its own kind. It is sometimes seen in the company of rating agencies, pension fund managers, or Government Sponsored Enterprises. Lately, the Transactosaurus wrecks has been hanging around the FDIC and the close to 1,000 soon to be failed banks in the company of Veloci extractors as they’ve formed a great scheme that takes statutory reserve funds (for banking, insurance, and pensions) and seeks to use them as long as they can do so with impunity. At the G-20 Summit (or as I like to call it G20assic Park), many of these beasts successfully got the leaders of the new 12 member countries to believe that the way to become globally powerful is to clone the same genus and species of walnut-sized brain inspired programs that took us to the brink. However, what they didn’t point out is that the Veloci extractors’ and Transactosaurus wrecks’ real motivation was to expand their feeding grounds with prey that they understand.

As the asteroid of illumination comes closer to us, you should see both of these beasts continuing to ravage unsuspecting prey like they do. You should assiduously avoid putting yourself within easy reach of having “prey” and “you” as synonyms and if you do, all I can recommend is the homonym.

The good thing about being one of the smaller furry creatures is that you can prosper with a smaller appetite. You can band together and create shelter and safety. You can keep warm and cozy with other furry things. And, most importantly, you can think! So start using the part of your brain above the stem, disengage the fear that the beasts have used to their advantage for a long time, and celebrate that change is that growing light in the sky!


Saturday, September 26, 2009

When Green Meets Gold

John Schmidt and I will be discussing the interplay between economic systems and the adoption of ethical prosperity energy, water, and infrastructure systems. Here's John's summary of the conversation which will be broadcast live on MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 28 at 2pm EDT on VoiceAmerica Business...

When Green Meets Gold

David Martin PhD., Executive Chairman of M-CAM ( —the international leader in innovation finance and trade—returns to ZOOM’D for a further riveting look at the relationship between the world’s growing green economy and the current global system of finance in a show entitled “When Green Meets Gold.” David reveals realities of the financial system to be aware of, describes the underbelly of inertia and barriers that complicate responses to climate change, and points to a view of positive movement that showcases potential, not gloom and doom. The global financial crises may have a silver lining—offering opportunities not before seen at scale and around which engaged leadership across society can be mobilized. This ZOOM’D segment initiates explicit emphasis on visions for a desirable future—which extend beyond the polarities, doomsday clamor, and fear that pervades much of the dialogue going on within this era of extraordinary change.

To listen to the show, please point your browser to...


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Maelstrom and the Matador

I took a few days to make sure you all downloaded the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds report for September 17 and waited to see if any of you would take up the baton to explain what’s happening to the rest of us. If you were one of the lucky ones, you read the Reuters report that gushed that U.S. household wealth grew by $2 trillion. “Household” ownership of U.S. Treasuries grew to a level 65% greater than similar holdings one year ago. On the surface of the superficial reporting one could have concluded that the September 17 report was, well…uneventful. But that’s if you don’t look at the report.

A dear friend of mine read last week’s post and asked if I could explain the “maelstrom” metaphor I used. And, I realized that several weeks ago I promised an expansion on the Matador analogy so, here goes.

Popularized in the English language by the University of Virgina’s favorite (drug addict) son Edgar Allen Poe in 1841 , the term maelstrom has Nordic and Dutch etymology likely from the Dutch for “crushing (or grinding) current”. In Poe’s terrible short story, we see a remarkable metaphor for the past, present and future of the U.S. financial situation. The narrator in Poe’s story, during the descent, reports the following.

“I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that, as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent — the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere — the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.”

Let us consider my use of the metaphor informing the Federal Funds Flow data. We’ve all been inundated with the “too big to fail” moniker since the great unraveling last year. Ironically, what we’ve done is actually responded by making a few things bigger. In a review of the Flow of Funds, a simple realization comes into sharp focus. First, consumer and business access to, and use of, credit is moribund. Second, the Federal Reserve has done a wonderful job of consolidating it’s sphere of influence (yes, read the double Poe meaning) in both conventional debt instruments and those linked to GSEs or Government Sponsored Enterprises. Calculating the loss of future-income based personal and corporate access to and use of credit combined with a measurement of the excessive, off-setting utility of unsecured credit by the Federal government, one realizes that we are left with a rapidly GROWING insolvency. There is greater debt in the system and it is further removed from revenue-related enterprise. Remember that tax is the revenue that services the debt in a simplified sense and, with profits, income, and employment depressed on a >35% devalued dollar, you have a going-concern problem.

And, I can’t help but add my signature warning. In the September 17 release, we found out that pension reserves are MORE desperately under-funded and leveraged than previously estimated. So, in a time when personal “savings” growth is almost entirely attributed to three “assets” – namely, functionally uninsured deposits in FDIC formerly insured banks; U.S. Treasuries (which are the ultimate Ponzi as the individual buyer will one day have to pay - in tax - for the insolvency of the maturity of the instruments); and Mutual Funds (overloaded with, you guessed it, Treasuries, municipal bonds and equities in Government Sponsored Enterprises) – and the population is aging, we’ve placed fewer, larger bets at the high-roller table. Are you ready for this? Reserves for pensions and insurance defined benefits now stands at about 1/3 of the value the same liabilities had 4 years ago. That's right, with LESS financial confidence in the system, we have 2/3 less backing our annuity obligations. And, yes, the PBGC is still in a free-fall.

Which begs a number of questions that I’ll touch on later. However, let’s settle into the precipitous descent. The anniversary of the Matador’s slaying of the bull – death by a thousand lances – has been marked by a recognition of the identity of the Matador. Many readers thought I meant Bank of America when I used the metaphor. But, alas, I didn’t. The identity is the Fed, Treasury, NY Banking trinity which used the cataclysm of Merrill Lynch and the collapse of Lehman Brothers to create the most amazing hostile takeover of a national financial infrastructure since – well, the 1840’s when Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman read a short-story by Edgar Allan Poe. Isn’t symmetry wonderful? We are all under the waves on this one in the U.S. And, worst of all, September 17, 2009 really was what I had reported – the conclusive evidence that we’ve got challenging days ahead. And, foreshadowing a future posting, you’ll note that insurance and reinsurance firms will be reporting revenue growth from increasing fees assessed to policy-holders as they are rapidly unwinding their balance sheets before the next circuit of the maelstrom.

(1) Edgar Allan Poe. “A Descent into the Maelstrom”. Graham’s Magazine, May 1841, 18:235-241.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

If They Didn’t See It Coming, Why Do We Believe Them When They Say It’s Over?

I wish that I was amazed that we are now standing in the litter of the past year and patting ourselves on the backsides passing around report cards stating that the “financial crisis” is on its way out and we’re on the mend. The reason I’m not amazed is that the heralds of recovery are as blind in detecting health as they were in diagnosing the disease. Allow me to be, well, blunt. We are not better. In fact, the government intervention only saved one interest for a remarkably short period of time – their own. And when the AP story “Avoiding the Financial Abyss: Success Without Glory” (Sept. 13, 2009) states that halting the “death plunge” of the financial sector was the greatest achievement of the government this year, it should come as no surprise that the ticker tape parades are not showing up in every town. It’s because the current financial media reports and speeches are to Obama what “Mission Accomplished” on an aircraft carrier was to George Bush – an untimely delusion which is COSTING HUMAN LIVES to say nothing for the larger global ecosystem! And the reason we’re not seeing celebrations is because we’re not better – in fact, we’re worse off.

WAKE UP! Realize, that in the euphoria of the first African American President, we still have 60% greater unemployment among “Blacks” (sic) as reported by the Department of Labor (15.1%) compared to “Whites” (sic) at 8.9%. And, by the way, in our self-congratulatory “recovery”, the disparity has been growing. 2.3 million people (up from one year ago when it was about 630,000) are deemed “marginally attached”. THESE PEOPLE DO NOT COUNT as unemployed and, when added to the official figures of unemployed, would push the real unemployment rate over the much-to-be-chagrined 10%. When I say the do not count, I mean it. When unemployment benefits run out or when active application for work ceases for 4 weeks, you're no longer "unemployed" in the eyes of the U.S. Government. In short, we’re thinking that some are better because we’re measuring the success of a smaller number of those privileged enough to still have a job. However, MUCH MORE OF AMERICA IS MUCH WORSE and they simply don’t count because they're not counted. By the way, the Labor Department does a nice job of expressing their sympathy by pointing out that the number of “discouraged” workers double in the last 12 months.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had the audacity of saying this past week that the banking sector was showing signs of recovery. While Audacity was a cool theme for the President’s book, you don’t gain much when the Treasury Secretary has it. Together with the President and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, this trinity seem to believe that each other is responsible for leading us “through” a crisis. News flash. The FDIC is still insolvent. Remember that in the same breath that told us that they still had about $10.5 billion, Sheila thanked the private capital providers for pitching in to fire sale $11 billion in distress in the past few months. Last time I checked, 11 is greater than 10.5. Which means that my multi-year statements about the liquidity of the FDIC were correct. And remember, when the trinity says that we’re fine, the recovered banking sector has no guarantee to the American depositor. So, using a metric that makes no sense to anyone, we’re better.

But wait Dave, what about Wall Street where the bulls are back. Well, let’s look at that one shall we? In what currency are we back? When is the last time you looked at what’s driving the numbers? There probably was a day – a long time ago – when investors actually invested based on management, business productivity and a desire to be part of great companies. Regrettably, if you look at the market’s rebound, it has not been based on an investor belief in the long-term growth of industry. Instead, awash with automated quantitative models which trade on fractional spreads of behavioral dynamics at the expense of “buy and hold” fund managers managing your money, the market isn’t back – the Dow Jones casino is just comping watered-down drinks to keep you playing. The inflation adjusted price to earnings ratio – which currently stands at about 18.01 (as most recently estimated by Robert Schiller at Yale for the S&P 500) is about where we were in the early 90’s. However, if you look at the precipitous decline in earnings – masked by media coverage of performance against analysts expectations which are also off a cliff – you realize that we are much worse off and headed in the wrong direction.

Bottom line, our metrics and our surveyors (or, more appropriately, diviners) missed the real problem that we still really have and are proclaiming victory over a paper monster which has just been fed the livelihoods of many people. Failing to consider people – seeing only “labor”; failing to consider the use of credit for future industry productivity – seeing only accounting games on bank balance sheets; and, failing to understand that it is industrial output and activity, not whimsical stock prices that are tests of industrial health, we’ve been led into an even more destructive maelstrom. We will not recover until we acknowledge the true disorder. And we will not heal if we leave our neighbor behind. It’s time to actually call for accountability and once called for, hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.

Wake up!


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Enough To Go Around


Today, we are celebrating a great thing. For those of you who are regular readers of InvertedAlchemy and who appreciate the quest for transparency, please read all the way through as this entry has to do with quite possibly the best example of the new paradigm that’s coming when the last of the incumbent greed breathes its last. For those of you who are here for the first time, please read several other entries to get the import of this post.

My dear friend Chip Duncan’s book that came out this week is quite possibly the most important publication of our time. And, when you’re done reading, I hope you see that it may be the most important book of all time. In a stroke of brilliance, Enough To Go Around is the first successful manifestation of telling an entirely new story in places we all think we know. From the Madonna and Child that graces the cover to the Sufi Mystic’s Ecstasy (page 114) to the Optimist of Mazar-e-Sharif (page 30) to the Face of Eternal Hope (page 89), Chip tells a graphic story of hope and humanity in places which have become synonymous with the worst injustices of our times. Assiduously avoiding a patronizing sympathy, Chip weaves the fabric – in images and words – which give the world a gift. The gift is that ancient present wisdom that when we understand that there’s Enough we are liberated from the greed that enslaves and we are then welcomed into a world where the ultimate wealth is found in the fellowship of a unified humanity.

However, this posting is not about Chip’s book. It’s about HOW Chip’s book came into being. As you will see when you read it, this book is the tale of three friends. One belongs to a family of inestimable monetary wealth. One has the power of telling ancient stories. And one is a couple who can make the intangible visible.

In the linear world of wealth and greed, this book may not have happened. These three sets of friends have scores of monetarily-endowed associates for whom supporting the publication of this book would have represented a rounding error in 30 minutes of market fluctuations in their asset portfolios. When asked to defray the costs of publication, for some reason, none of them responded to the request with what the linear world sees as their wealth. Ironically, like the Buddhist monks who realize that it is in their begging that they open up the opportunity for others to give, they offered, through their unfunded support an invitation for others to give. One friend responded with an effusive and eloquent gift of words which provide the book’s invocation. When it looked like this book might not come into being, one of the friends – oddly enough, the one who had the least available cash – agreed to sponsor the printing with the first check to get the publication going. And one of them, buoyed by the knowledge that there’s always Enough To Go Around, put reputation and credibility on the line KNOWING that if you Just Do, there will be ENOUGH. And when you think you know which friend is which, you’ll be surprised to know that all three are all three.

You see, we can futilely live in a world where we can find our humanity AFTER we have "enough". But the problem is that when we use fear of an uncertain future as our gauge of “enough”, there’s never ENOUGH. We don’t stop and ask ourselves, as I asked my friends in Salt Lake City one day, if our wealth came at the expense of implicit injustice, is it possible to redeem our souls with philanthropy? If our asset portfolios are loaded with stocks that always seek “shareholder value” at the expense of human dignity in labor, raw materials and energy, and relentless pursuit of unbridled consumption, can we ever find ENOUGH?

Can we see an Afghanistan where we all share the responsibility for the legacy of the Cold War that armed allies of convenience who, when winds changed became enemies and realize that both ally and enemy were, and are, a civilization which has persisted for millennia? Can we see that the fracturing of tectonic plates in Pakistan merely serves as nature’s commentary on what colonial impulses triggered which fractured families, communities, and religions and that rebuilding is not merely a question of shelter but of sanctuary? Can we see that our insatiable quest for oil and resources is directly fueling the flames of genocide at the convergence of Chad, the Central African Republic and Sudan?

This book shows the faces of hope and smiles of the wealth of humanity in places where we expect to see none. This book tells the stories of wisdom held by those who, in the face of the loss of all that we recognize as wealth, find ENOUGH. And this story is told without political or corporate agenda so that its accessible to anyone who wants to taste a world where a different story – one energized by a borderless ENOUGH – is told. So, three improbable friends (and dozens of others who gave the project its current life), drawing on wealth made possible by the ALWAYS ENOUGH put into tangible manifestation a clarion call to all. By just DOING and bringing a book into being which carries the stories and messages of hope from those who are the most marginalized, we all have a chance to put an End to Irrational Fear.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will We Remember 9-17 the Way We Remember 9-11?

In my last posting, I pointed out the incredible irony that the FDIC liquidity quagmire is $9.17 trillion and that the global market can expect to see the consequence of it on September 17. Symmetry? Irony? Are we going to declare war on rating agencies and derivative traders? Can we have a “shock and awe” aerial campaign on S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch? Can we have a Cabinet appointment of the Department of Home Finance Accountability? Can we declare a “Greenberg Zone” around 70 Pine St. in Manhattan and insure that we have a demilitarized zone cordon around it? Oh, that’s right, we’ve already done that! Where’s the yellow cake?

I was sitting down after a leisurely dinner looking across the hilltop to the home of Mr. Jefferson wondering WWJD? I figured, as he was a voracious reader, he’d pick up the August 2009 AIG financial statement, like I did, to see how we’re doing as shareholders in the stalwart financial institution we now own. Because, you see, I’m trying to make sense out of some numbers. I’m sure that the solution will turn out to be the absolute value of the Fibonacci sequence divided by the number of Goldman Sachs former executives employed by the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury divided by 9.17. And in my quest for the mean of Phidias, I decided to do something more accessible – namely read the financial statement. And…

In the past 6 months, our total liabilities in AIG have reduced by $30.4 billion. That’s GREAT news and somewhat mysterious as the debt to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York actually rose by $432 million during the same period. And then there’s another mysterious thing-a-ma-jig that you see if you happen to look at the interest obligation to the Federal Reserve in that we accrued $2.9 billion in interest and amortization for the debt in 6 months of 2009 – money that apparently we don’t seem to need to integrate into our aggregate liabilities. Oh, and since we need to have a balance sheet that, well, balances, we LOST $30 billion in assets. Isn’t it cool that we lost less balance on one side of a Balance than on the other? And then, one final note. Isn’t it ironic that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has the senior lien holder preference and the U.S. taxpayer – the one we were just told is lucky that it has been the beneficiary of government bailout investments that have been profitable – is fourth in line AFTER all other non-taxpayer interests (see the Reuters report of August 31, 2009 in which they extol the $14 billion Fed profit from bailout loans). It’s the FED, not the taxpayer that’s done well and it’s the FED, not the taxpayer who stands at the preferred front of the line.

Sooo, I went back to our Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Fun Filled Fact Sheet and I looked for the GREAT AIG news on the Table F.1 summary of Borrowing and Lending in the Credit markets and, if you look at the second significant digit in the 2009 net borrowing… drum roll please… you get the digits of the Fibonacci sequence. Almost. Kind of in the same “almost” category as the US Financial institutions were “almost” compliant with the IMF’s accountability standards reported on August 31, 2009 – in other words, NOT.