February 25, 2009

Global Market Comments for February 25, 2009
Featured Trades: (C), (BAC)

1) So nationalize the banks already! Get it over with! Call it whatever you want: partial nationalization, temporary nationalization, socialization, liverwurst, or rutabaga. Just get it over with! This tortuous slow drip of on again, off again, stop gap measures is going to cost us more than if we executed the politically incorrect 'N' word. Of course, a government takeover is the worst nightmare for many Republicans. But now that former Fed governor Alan Greenspan and many fiscal conservatives are on board, this shouldn't amount to political suicide for Obama. The FDIC's Sheila Bair already does this on an almost daily basis with smaller regional banks, like Washington Mutual, but for some reason the top nine 'too big to fail' banks are sacrosanct. Their deposits have been effectively nationalized with government guarantees since last fall. The market is already selling us that many of these once hallowed institutions are now worthless. This is what Citigroup (C) at $1 and Bank of America (BAC) at $2 are telling us. Just wipe out the pitifully little the common shareholders have left, clean them up, and resell them in five years after the credit markets are restored. Every government that ever did this, like the UK in the eighties and Hong Kong in 1998, made a fortune. I was involved with both, and serious coin was made by the sellers and the buyers. Not to drive a stake through the hearts of these de facto 'zombie' banks really would risk a Great Depression II and an 'L' shaped lost decade. The markets would love decisive and surgical action like this and rocket.

2) Looks like the San Francisco Chronicle may be about to join the dustbin of history. The industry rag, Editor and Publisher, says that the privately owned Hearst Corporation has given the venerable paper an ultimatum to cut costs or close. The 150 year old Chronicle lost $50 million last year. Of course, this may all be a ploy just to beat up one of the last surviving unions, but they have made a similar threat to their paper in Seattle. Ironically, Hearst acquired the Chronicle and dumped the San Francisco Examiner in 2,000, which was then put on a crash diet and made profitable by its new owners. If the Chronicle goes it will join the Philadelphia Enquirer which went under last week, and the soon to be shut Christian Science Monitor. Google has been eating their lunch for years, and classified ads have migrated to Craig’s List. It is tough to chop down a forest to make paper, get a union to print it, and manually distribute your product, and then compete against a one man email blast on costs. If the Chronicle goes it will be survived by a much smaller SFGate.com, one of the most successful web based newspaper portals out there. There could be a ninth earning save by a surprise buyer. But moguls willing to hemorrhage     money just to promote a political view are a dying breed. Rupert Murdoch has been the only recent buyer of newspapers, and something tells me that a match with the Chronicle would not exactly be one made in Heaven. In five years there will probably be only two mass circulation papers left, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, with the Washington Post as an outlyer. Thousands of small, local, niche publications will take up the slack. As a long time print journalist dating back to the typewriter days myself, I am sad to see newspapers go. But you can't exactly sit like Denmark's old King Canute and order the tide to stop rising. Journalism is degrading into an army of guys banging away at the computers at 3:00 AM in their boxer shorts. Trust, accuracy, objectivity, style, and taste will be the victims.

3) I thought Joe Biden's chief economist Jared Bernstein made an interesting comment today. He inferred that Obama had a tough time crafting a stimulus and recovery plan because so many government data releases last year were massaged, distorted, obfuscated and misrepresented to hide how serious the unfolding economic crisis really was.

4) Expatriates have been bailing on Dubai so fast that there are now 3,000 abandoned luxury cars parked at the airport. Those with multiyear leases who don't want to pay early return penalties are just abandoning their vehicles with the keys left in the ignition, some with apology notes taped to the windshield. Failure to pay debts can get one locked up in a local prison.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

'Do not allow our newspapers to degenerate into propagandist organs,' said the late press baron, William Randolph Hearst.