Bearer Bonds Breaking Out
I told you I am not going to quit on this story, and it just gets more weird every day.
First off, even the mighty Bloomberg ventured a piece, and this is the first mainstream media sighting:
Suitcase With $134 Billion Puts Dollar on Edge: William Pesek
June 17 (Bloomberg) -- It’s a plot better suited for a John Le Carre novel.
Two Japanese men are detained in Italy after allegedly attempting to take $134 billion worth of U.S. bonds over the border into Switzerland. Details are maddeningly sketchy, so naturally the global rumor mill is kicking into high gear.
Are these would-be smugglers agents of Kim Jong Il stashing North Korea’s cash in a Swiss vault? Bagmen for Nigerian Internet scammers? Was the money meant for terrorists looking to buy nuclear warheads? Is Japan dumping its dollars secretly? Are the bonds real or counterfeit?
The implications of the securities being legitimate would be bigger than investors may realize. At a minimum, it would suggest that the U.S. risks losing control over its monetary supply on a massive scale.
The trillions of dollars of debt the U.S. will issue in the next couple of years needs buyers. Attracting them will require making sure that existing ones aren’t losing faith in the U.S.’s ability to control the dollar...
This is still a story with far more questions than answers. It’s odd, though, that it’s not garnering more media attention. Interest is likely to grow. The last thing Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke need right now is tens of billions more of U.S. bonds -- or even high-quality fake ones -- suddenly popping up around the globe.
Maybe this will light a fire under so called "serious" journalists.
Clusterstock has not let the tale drop, and has this tidbit to add today:
The Japanese Bond Smugglers Are Missing
At least the Japanese press is still interested in story of the two Japanese men caught with some $134.5 billion in (presumably fake) US bearer bonds.
We can't read Japanese, and Google Translate isn't particularly helpful, but a reader informs us that the gist of this story is that a newspaper sent a reporter to Como, Italy and found that the men had been released, with their whereabouts unknown.
Now, the easiest, most-benign explanation for this whole thing is that it's just a counterfeiting scheme. Fine, but then why do you let them go without tracking their whereabouts.
I am sure it is standard Italian police procedure to release two people that are caught holding counterfeited bearer bonds, even is it is 135 Billion, by far and away the largest such crime in the history of the world. I am sure they would let me go if I counterfeited a few thousand bucks then. OK.
Gold ATM's - Sure Sign of a Top?
This Financial Times story about Germany deploying gold vending ATM's was widely seen as marking a monster top for the yellow metal. The story made Kevin Depew's "5 Things You Need to Know" today as number three.
I have a few thoughts about this. First off, I would prefer the precious metal space stay relegated to fools like me that love the stuff. Right now the distribution of metals as an investment is an almost nonexistent fraction of what most people have "invested" in various forms. I like that. Most investors are panic driven, fearful, and quick to make poor decisions. I say stay the heck away form gold and silver and let the few of us buy it all over the next decade or so.
That said, the instant pairing of a gold ATM and a top in gold is curious. I would say it could indeed be a reflection of a saturated gold market at the end of its run. This will hold if the small gold sales do not catch on. And this is a key point.
Is it so hard to see a scenario where gram sized slivers of gold become a hot item? Supermodels have been asking to be paid in Euros and not dollars, how about a few ounces of gold? I can see small gold pieces becoming a sort of "cool" thing to have, and an entire new money economy coming to life where these little babies get traded for various things. Cover charge for a nightclub? Two grams please. A bottle of tequila for the table? $75 dollars, or 3 grams please.
My personal preference is for that not to happen, but you just never know. Holding real gold (even gram sized bullion) is just so different from holding jewelry. let us hope it does not catch on.
Deterrence is Still Lacking in the Financial System
Loyal reader Gawain's Ghost had a great write up that featured this take away point:
Deregulation, securities, infectious greed, stupidity, the Fed, all had their hand in this debacle. But for my money, the overwhelming cause was the prevalence of fraud. Lending fraud, appraisal fraud, brokerage fraud, I mean, it just got out of hand.
I think Gawain's is correct and this relates to tonight's main point.
Unchecked, people will try to get away with the maximum amount that they can short of getting in real trouble. This can be summarized as Deterrence, which Wikipedia tells us:
Deterrence is but a theory from behavioral psychology about preventing or controlling actions or behavior through fear of punishment or retribution
The legal manifesto of Deterrence:
Deterrence is often contrasted with retributivism, which holds that punishment is a necessary consequence of a crime and should be calculated based on the gravity of the wrong done.
Deterrence can be divided into three separate categories.
Specific deterrence focuses on the individual in question. The aim of these punishments is to discourage the criminal from future criminal acts by instilling an understanding of the consequences.
General or indirect deterrence focuses on general prevention of crime by making examples of specific deviants. The individual actor is not the focus of the attempt at behavioral change, but rather receives punishment in public view in order to deter other individuals from deviance in the future.
While many are wrangling about how new regulations can best protect the banking system going forward, what of the regulations we have had in place? With no enforcement regulations are just lines in a book someplace and not real controls.
I think of the cases of all the "pump and dumpers" of the tech bubble era who were so fraudulent in their calls for Cisco Systems to go to $1000 a share that many had to pay fines and suffered some loss of employment.
Now we see that banks were lending money through channels never ending to people that they knew would never pay it back. Here, the real estate fraud in lending, appraisals and other areas mentioned by Gawain's comes into play.
And through is all we still do not have credible deterrence.
CEO of a huge bank, say mythical Bank of the United States? Lose more money than you made in 10 years on bad loans? No worries. Bail outs and you can keep your job.
Say you are the FED head and have overseen a system that was on the brink of collapse that can be directly attributed to easy money policy and lack of understanding of the real estate market? No problem, reappointment is assured.
And it goes down the line.
I am not saying that all these kinds of players need to be put in jail for 100 years or anything. But real deterrence can be had if those that missed what was going on are removed from their posts. So far we have 1, ONE, indictment against Angelo Mozilo to serve as a warning for poor lending standards. What we need is wholesale firings of entire boards and removal from office of the Treasury and the FED. If failure is not punished, nothing ever changes.
And this was my central argument for not bailing out the banks. Left on their own many would have failed and those lessons would not have been lost. Instead what we have is this lesson;
Lose tons of money, get bailed out and have new cash ready to deploy at great terms for your bank. Maybe even engage withe the government in an orchestrated market rally to help things along.
Have a good night.