Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Facebook – My Take

From the Fidelity website (3 days and counting):


Warning:
  • Facebook
    Fidelity continues to deal with the aftermath of Friday’s market issues in delayed processing of orders for Facebook (FB) stock. As they did then, Fidelity’s systems continue to operate normally. Although some executions were reported back from market makers over the weekend, we are still waiting for final responses on other orders. This is an industry-wide issue and we are working aggressively to address it. We appreciate your continued patience.

What some had inexplicably hoped would be a catalyst to bring the retail investor back to the equity markets has added yet another reason to stay away.  Apparently the largest allocations to Fidelity investors were 100 – 150 shares, the average I have heard being 50 shares.  Participation was limited to accounts with a balance of at least $500,000 and had a certain level of activity.  These requirements further narrowed the number of eligible buyers.  Yet despite such limited participation, Fidelity’s retail investors still don’t know if they sold their stock, where they sold it or if they sold it.  Now, with a balance of at least half a million, the hit should be small but the psychological impact wil be much larger.  As these stories spread, investor confidence wil be further eroded.  Of course, none of this is Fidelity’s fault but rather NASDAQ.  However, all will suffer in the aftermath and we see volumes continue to dry up even despite yesterday’s rally.

So why was it ludicrous to believe that a successful FB IPO would bring back the retail investor?  First of all, the deal was too hyped, too richly valued and too big to succeed in spectacular fashion.  But even if it did, the news on other fronts, in particular Europe, provides too much uncertainty.  At most it would have been a respite from the realities.  The best hope we have for the markets is shock and awe from Europe.  I’m not counting on it.

The European Spring: Why Caution is the Best Market Position

In typical Hollywood fashion, the producers of the successful Arab Spring

have announced the sequel,  The European Spring, starring the people of

France.  In fact, pre-filming has already begun for the 3rd installment in

the series, The US Spring which will be airing the first Tuesday in

November.

The French

The French hosting elections on a Sunday is itself an interesting issue; I

have to assume they value their days off during the work week too much to go

to the polls than they value their leisure time on Sundays.  Logistics

aside, the polls point to a victory by François Hollande and socialism again

taking front and center stage in the City of Lights.  (Why shouldn’t

Parisians leave the lights on – the government is footing the bill.)   Of

course, Sarkozy can pull it out in the final days if he is able to draw in

the fence sitters and Le Pen acolytes; this should not be completely

discounted.  But assuming Hollande wins, I have heard the argument that this

event is already priced into the market. So will the rhetoric about

endangering the EU fade as political campaign promises often do?  Not on

your life.  With legislative elections upcoming on June 10th and June 17th,

the rhetoric is just beginning.  Those arguing against France’s

participation in the bailout fund and austerity as the path to growth will

be emboldened to speak even louder.  That, after all, will be the proven

path to winning a seat in the National Assembly of the Fifth Republic.

The Greeks

The Greeks have their own election on Sunday.  With massive unemployment,

there is hardly a reason to hold their elections on the weekend. Don’t these

people need something to do during the week or is that when the beaches are

less crowded?  From all reports, it looks like the coalition will survive by

the slimmest of margins. The rhetoric here too will build as their exit from

the EU remains the likely end game.  But if the coalition falls apart,

either on Sunday or near term, then the collapse of the EU is an immediate

fait accompli.

The Rhetoric

So the chatter will increase as the citizens of France, the Netherlands,

Italy, etc., continue to question with increasing authority and anger, why

they should labor under austerity programs in order to support the

irresponsible governments of Spain and Greece.  This will continue to

pressure the indices particularly as Spain and Italy continue coming to the

market to roll over their debt. At present, there is no avenue to growth and

Draghi seems unwilling to inject anymore stimulus into the markets until

governments put forth growth initiatives (and maybe, actually do cut

spending).

The Sequel

So this is the sequel to the Arab Spring as the Europeans rise up and say no

mas.  It is a more civilized uprising, as they perhaps torch candles instead

of themselves, but an uprising nonetheless. And then, in November, it will

be our turn.

Add to this the slowing US economy – yes, slowing, not a pause, and the EU

and China continuing to slow, and you have a rather poor outlook for US

equities.  But Brazil is the bright spot, isn’t it?  Nope. China is the

economic delta for Brazil.  We had an earnings season that few had expected

in terms of growth and outlook but the skepticism about the future is what

preys most acutely on the market, and, the economy.  Sure there are bargains

to be had but like most retailers, there is never one clearance price.  And

yes, Treasuries are fully valued and arguably in a bubble, but that’s been

the story for a while too.  I don’t know who is good picking bottoms and

tops so I’m staying low beta and fairly neutral.  There is very little

chance that under this scenario, allocators have a call to arms for

equities.  That will happen but not now. Not perhaps unless there is a

Romney victory and Europe puts forth some plans for growth.  I would

actually support a position that puts Greece in default, cuts back on

austerity in favor of responsible spending for growth  but I’ll leave my

daydreaming for when I’m at the chick flicks my wife occasionally drags me

to.

I continue to be short global cyclical stocks such as materials.  I hate

beta, except perhaps on the short side and bunting instead of the long ball.

As my favorite metals and mining analyst, Pete Ward, said to me yesterday,

“steel has very high barriers of exit.”

During your market respite, you may want to read an excellent new book: The Big Win.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Big-Win-Learning-Successful/dp/0470916109

The Perfectly Written FOMC Statement For Stock Pickers

The concerns supporting a bear view on U.S. indices issues prior to yesterday’s FOMC press release were clear:

1)      “I’m negative on the market because the economy is not recovering.”

2)      “The Fed is killing us by keeping interest rates so low.  Savings accounts are a negative carry, hurting the household.”

3)      “The QE’s were a disaster and did nothing but we’ll take another serving.”

4)      “The banks can’t make money with a flat yield curve.”

5)      “Inflation is an issue.”

6)      “Europe and China will take us down.”

In my view, the FOMC press release was perfectly turned out for everyone except for those misguided souls staying too long at the bond party.  To paraphrase the statement:  the economy is recovering but we’re going to keep rates low until the end of 2014.  Instead of driving the markets lower, investors should do a hosanna, take a breath and start picking stocks – not any stocks, but those more dependent on the U.S. economy.   The rising tide lifting all stocks is ebbing making this a great environment for stock picking.

 

By not hinting at a QE3 while paying homage to an improving economy and labor market – I trust the Fed’s mark-to-market much more so than their forecasts –  a large part of the bear case for US equities was served a debilitating blow.  After a short period of adjustment the market will continue its assent.  Yes, markets do rise as the Fed tightens as long as monetary policy remains fairly accommodative.  But all is not lost as to the Fed and monetary policy.  As with a recovering addict in rehab who has been mainlining heroin courtesy of a benevolent pusher, the Fed will not force us to go cold turkey so I look for a modest bridge to higher rates upon the expiration of Operation Twist in June.

The focus of naysayers will now increase on the purported impact a slowing global economy may have upon the U.S.  and, ultimately, our equities.  What has resonated so loudly is silence on the fact that the U.S.  still has largest economy in the world and that while not entirely self-sustainable, we can drive decent growth given that our reliance on the EU and China as markets for our goods is small relative to our internal consumption.

Banks, already on the upswing from improving credit, upward trending existing home sales, and being the beneficiaries of distressed European banks’ need to sell non-distressed assets at distressed prices, will soon be able to make money on a steepening yield curve.  This environment should be panacea for U.S. banks providing they remain disciplined in feeding out their inventory of homes to an improving market.

Inflationary pressures caused by a weaker dollar will abate, not that the Fed ever saw them as anything more than transitory, pressuring gold but helping the consumer as will higher yielding bank accounts but pity the fool who doesn’t see major principal loss in much small moves in yield.

I continue to like the market primarily because I anticipate upside in this reporting season relative to expectations, laboring under the belief that businesses and individuals are stronger.  I like the USD long versus the Euro short.  I hate the Aussie dollar and added to my short; China is a drag on their export and minerals economy and they have extremely high rates that have to come down.  I am long domestically focused equities.  Technology continues to play an important part in my portfolio, the issue with SNDK specific to their business model (I bought today).  I am opportunistically shorting steel, copper and coal on a trading basis.

Go U-S-A.  U-S-A.  U-S-A.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The market of the last two days reminds me of my grandfather, Phil.  He was a surly guy and had his voice been disassociated from his body, one would have envisioned a much more stout individual than he actually was. Gravity had taken its toll as he advanced into his 90’s, shrinking his frame to little more than five feet two on his tallest days.  The often inverse correlation of age to patience took its toll and his gruff and demanding personality continued to overshadow a diminutive frame, expanding to a size that would better fit someone sporting the physique of Ray Lewis or Vitali Klitcshko.  Phil was never indecisive in his demands but increasingly, he never wanted what he asked for.   The following true story provides an example and a parallel to today’s market.

“I’ll take the sirloin,” he grumbled.

“Of course, sir.  How would you like it prepared?”

“Medium” he groused in response.

The kitchen turned it out perfectly medium but his rote response, his knee jerk reaction, was to send it back.

“This is raw,” he said, misconstruing pink for red.  “It needs more fire.  I don’t want to see any pink.  I want it well-done,” he barked, clearly contradicting his original order although he didn’t see it that way.

The waiter did as he was told and again delivered the steak perfectly prepared to order; well-done, not charred.  My grandfather’s rebuke was even more harsh.

“This is burnt,” he said, chastising the defenseless waiter.

And so it went.  I left significant compensatory damages behind, padding my grandfather’s meager tips, hoping to assuage my embarrassment and to maintain my good standing with the service establishment in New York City.

The moral: .   While you can hardly compare ordering a steak to positioning a portfolio but if Phil had not pre-judged the result, determined to return the slab of meat even if it came out perfectly cooked, perhaps he would have been able to profit from a good result.

The Case for Being Bullish; The Tooth Fairy and The EU

As I have noted before, the best plan that Europe can author for solving the sovereign debt crisis is not to devise a plan.  Admittedly a facetious statement, the reality does not fall far from the tongue firmly planted in my cheek.  Consider the brilliance of indecision; the markets have been so conditioned to negative news that it would take the default of a major country such as Italy – not going to happen – to shake investors from their positions.  Even a “no deal” – unlikely – on Greece’s debt swap, which would likely push the country into default, would only be a minor nuisance, a knee jerk sell-off before a collective sigh of relief that no more energy need be expended searching for that plume of white smoke signaling that a settlement has been reached.  I can imagine the conversations between the EU ministers and bank CEO’s over a glass of Chateau Margaux:

Venizelos: “I told them we were hours away last time. It’s your turn.”

Van Rompuy:  “But I told them the time before that.”

Juncker: “Don’t look at me.  I’m clearly not the optimist in this group.”

Ackermann: “I guess I vill have to do it today since it’s my shares that are trading down while you dumbkoffs play around.”

Strangely,  delaying any pronouncement (I’m trying awfully hard to avoid employing the now hated term “kick the can…”) of a plan has been a key component of the recent decline in yields of Italy and Spain debt as shown below.

Coupon

 

6.750

 

 

Spain 

 

 

2  Year

 

2/1 Yld

2.220

Month Ago

5.194

Year Ago

3.154

3.000   5  Year

3.474

5.835

4.349

3.500   10 Year

4.581

6.196

5.197

2.250 Italy 

2

3.110

3.518

6.778

4.750  

5

4.364

4.725

7.366

5.000  

10

5.641

5.942

6.897

   

 

 

 

 

BUT the real catalyst, the primary catalyst by far, has been the LTRO.   This has removed the threat of default and opened the credit markets. Oh, and it has also allowed the banks and sovereigns to both buy in their bonds and  basically self-fund through the lending facility thereby driving down rates.  Another important, albeit less critical component, has been the lowering of rates to 1% by the ECB.

All this points out how critical a central banker is to the economy. Trichet blew it through arrogance and stubbornness while Draghi, taking a lower profile, has been nothing short of spectacular in the role.   In addition to the all-important LTRO, there have been other, more stealth like, moves by the EU and ECB to provide liquidity to what was a near frozen financial system including relaxation of collateral commitments for loans and lowering of reserve requirements.

Undoubtedly all these moves have happened with the approval of Merkel and Sarkozy while allowing them to stick with their tougher public personas preserving, to some extent, their political base back home.

And then the coup de grace will be the next LTRO later this month with the danger that high end expectations of a billion Euros may prove disappointing should the final tally be similar to the first installment which was slightly sub-500 million.  Nonetheless, any decline in the market will be a buying opportunity.

In the meantime, the Fed has pledged to keep rates low for an even more extended period of time, in my view an acknowledgement of a potential European spillover into our economy.  (I am still appreciative of the comic relief offered by strategists that a US economic revival would not be damaged by an EU recession. Pure folly.  As evidence of this, one only needs to review this quarter’s earnings period which were very mixed.)  Bernanke’s moves were more symbolic than substantive but he let the markets know that the helicopter is on the launch pad awaiting further instructions.

And China is not landing hard, or so they tell us.  The commodities last year told a different story but now China is stepping in and reloading so shouldn’t that be all we care about?  It’s the tooth fairy all over again.  I’m not sure my kids ever cared if that flying munchkin was real or not as long as that dollar bill (we were not cheap parents!) was under their pillow when they woke up.  The markets feel the same way.

All of this liquidity has brought rates to historically low levels and will ultimately draw money into equities – I swear it will.  We have already started to see inflows and as more and more people and institutions realize that the increase in bond values has run its course that performance will no longer offset low yields and that fixed income instruments are fully valued.

So bottom line, for now I am bullish although not fully invested.  I am more cautious as we head into the back half of the year since I do believe that austerity plans will bring Europe into a recession – Italy, the 3rd largest economy didn’t grow in the good times, and enforcement of the new budgetary measures will be long in coming.

You can’t fight the Fed, unless it’s actually in a ring with a Budweiser logo on the canvas, and tougher to fight the combined might of the global central banks working in concert.

So there you have it.  I am more invested than I have been for a while after shaving exposure after the initial 4% move. I am still not fully invested and largely staying away from the deep cyclicals although they will likely continue to move.   Yield will still do well this year, again, although utilities will suffer from the warm weather.  Natural gas, at this point, will not recover until we see more companies shut in production.  Crude should trade lower once the Iranian situation calms down but not sure that will ever happen.  With temperatures across the country remaining unseasonably warm, household spend on heating will decline putting more money in consumer’s pockets.  I continue to favor technology, see managed care as inexpensive, like other healthcare stocks such as MDRX and high end retail.  However, there is no need to be so precise since this will be a rising tide as flows drive the upside.  As the Republican party rallies around Romney, the possible end of an Obama Presidency will bring further joy to the markets and corporations may even start to spend their largesse on M&A and hiring.  Sure problems remain, but the market is generally an optimistic sort and the glass will continue to be viewed as half full.

My concerns go to the second half of the year when I believe China’s leaky housing bubble will exhale more forcefully and the recession in the EU will deepen, including a possible default by Greece when the markets can better handle it. But no sense in dealing with that now.

Europe: The Lehman Moment Is Fast Approaching

I was bearish before; I’m even more bearish now. European sovereigns are evidencing a lack of confidence in their own bailout plan and the Lehman moment is fast approaching.  Have to be crazy to have much, if any exposure, to this market.  We will hit new lows.  How’s that for dire?

Building the bailout fund is incredibly similar to building a book on an IPO or secondary, something I have done hundreds of times. I can tell a bad deal from a mile away. This deal is bad.  With a hot deal, everyone wants in regardless of their fundamental view.  Funds will even play in an “okay” deal if they are confident the syndicate bid will support the selling pressure.  Sometimes, a fund is even willing to take a small  hit in the interest in maintaining a good dialogue with the Lead Managers.  But no one willingly goes into any deal if they expect to lose substantial funds.  Insiders – in this case, the EU countries with the most to lose if the deal falls apart – often add to their holdings on the offering, justifying it as a capital infusion or a necessary sacrifice.  If the UK were convinced the current plan to stave off European default would solve the crisis and substantial principal wasn’t at risk, they would gladly contribute rather than being labeled the “bad guy” by sitting out the deal.   The UK, however, recognizes that this transaction will break syndicate bid before the shares are delivered and that they have to keep their powder dry for when contagion hits their shores in a much bigger way.  Once it becomes clear to a book running manager that the deal is being given the cold shoulder by the conventional buyer, they then approach others, such as sovereign wealth funds.  In this case, that would be China but they have said no as well.

Coming up 50 billion short on a 200 billion euro book is a huge miss.   Unlike a lot of IPO’s and secondaries, the EU bailout can’t be downsized to get it to the market in an effective manner.  And by the way, a lot of downsized deals often fail because the market regards them as troubled.

Ultimately, the markets shun the underwriters with poor performance by getting their borrows lined up even before pricing.  Given the track record of the EU and IMF, the UK and US have already decided the ESFS is a short.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Europe Falls Short Again: What’s Next for Commodities and Stocks

“I could not have been more clear, I specifically asked for a bazooka and all I got was this little long range pea shooter,” said Mr. Market, clearly dejected.

Europe has done it again, taken the markets to the brink of despair, then sweet talked investors off the edge.  Frau Merkel has proven herself to be as alluring as the mythological Greek Sirens, her sweet songs of a stronger European Union with tighter budgetary controls enticing enough to convince unsuspecting traders to increase their risk.  But like a pimply faced teenager stuck at first base, they too will feel unsatisfied and longing for more.

At least they got smart about one thing, or so they believe, extending the deadline for the seminal announcement until March.  After the last two short window lead ins, they realized it takes months, or more, to craft a plan rather than a fortnight.  They will still come up short as each country realizes what Britain did which is they have no interest in being governed by the same country they had major problems with, well actually not exactly problems, more like out and out war.  However, even if reasonable  minds say that was then and this is now, the cultural divide between each country will prey upon this agreement.  But even if it does pass – it has not been officially ratified – and the countries needing approval from their broader government secures their assent, the very core of the agreement is flawed.  Let me see if I get this right: a country fails to either establish or enforce a budget in line with the requirements of the EU so the EU will then assess heavy sanctions upon the profligate nation.  Yup, that will work.

Candidly, as to my kids, I was not much of a disciplinarian. “If you do that again…,” I would say, both they and I knowing they would do it again and I would say that again.  Thankfully they turned out great.  Not so with Greece.  Without moral hazard, countries will continue to do what is in their politicians’ best interests.  Greece lied their way into the EU and the EU is responding with bailout after bailout.  I still believe allowing them to fail would be the best result.

This is the fifth bite of the apple for Europe and they continue to come up short, lagging a step behind.  Still no ring-fence, still no plan to save the banks, still nothing of substance; just words.  They are behind in everything, even video games.  The Mario Brothers went out of style a long time ago and the Italian version – Monti and Draghi – are not showing themselves to be Super Marios at all.  Draghi can get there if he opens the purse strings with a massive liquidity push, buying even more bonds than the ECB has in the past,  but despite two easings, he is still prone to alligator arms like the clients I used to wine and dine from my perch at Lehman;  his hands don’t reach the bottom of his pockets.   And with the most recent cut in rates being the result of a divided vote, it may get tougher for him to cut further given the European single mandate.  However, as the global economy slows and the USD strengthens, inflationary pressures will ease providing cover more rate cuts.

The banks still need $153 billion in new capital which I don’t see how they can raise without nationalizing some of the banks. But Santander does have a solution: they will just lower the risk level on their assets. Yup, that worked for Lehman.  So much for paying heed to the EU.  And should there ever be  a default and the CDS insurance kicks in, the global financial system will see a bigger meltdown than a forty-year old Japanese reactor.

The AAA ratings in Europe will be a relic of the past, no question as they are in virtually everyone’s mind, the only unknown is whether this will mark a near term bottom.  These ratings agencies continue to be an embarrassment, always multiple steps  behind.  Rumor has it that S&P management is urging their employees to contribute to the Herman Cain campaign for President.

Meanwhile, China continues to be slowing and I believe there is little they can do, or want to do, about the real estate bubble popping.  This bodes poorly for commodities.  With construction slowing, China has enough stockpiles of needed commodities to wait for a further decline in prices.  This is what they have always done when able and this is what makes them great traders.  They are like a private company, not worried about quarter to quarter earnings, taking a long-term view.  They were Warren Buffett before Warren Buffett became Warren Buffett, buying when others are fearful.  But with their primary end market, Europe,  going into a recession, possibly depression, the Chinese are limited in terms of what they can do to drive growth.  They would rather look for defaults and then step in and buy Greece or maybe even Hungary – its time to move on now that Taiwan seems under control.  India, though, not so much. The slowing in their economy, while not a complete surprise, is not welcome nonetheless.

This slowing will also hurt crude.  If Iran were not in the mix, we would already be trading in the 80’s to low 90’s.  Inventory figures have not been very good.

Euro short/ dollar long continues to be my favorite position.  As to stocks: I remain very light in exposure and tilted toward defensive.  Commodities look cheap but they always look cheap on the way to the bottom. I can be patient.  There has been too much beta chasing recently, in stocks such as X, that has to unwind.

The strengthening of the dollar will be as much a result of the strengthening US economy as well as the crumbling European economy.

So where can I go wrong?  The only way out of this is for massive stimulus by the ECB.   IMF rescues haven’t necessarily helped in the past. I am again inserting these charts I borrowed from JP Morgan:

IMF

Lee Cooperman’s Letter to Obama

Lee is one of the true legendary hedge fund managers and a friend.  I wrote a chapter on him in The Billion Dollar Mistake, although his missteps are rare.  A great thinker, excellent investor and, with this letter, a literary competitor. Here is the complete version of the letter. Thanks to Josh Brown who got to it before me.

Omega Advisors, Inc. I Wall Street Plaza • 88 Pine Street • 31 st Floor | New York, New York 10005 Tel: 212-495-5210 | Fax: 212-495-5236

Leon G. Cooperman, C.F.A. Chairman & Chief Executive Officer

OPEN LETTER TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

November 28, 2011

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President,

It is with a great sense of disappointment that I write this. Like many others, I hoped that your election would bring a salutary change of direction to the country, despite what more than a few feared was an overly aggressive social agenda. And I cannot credibly blame you for the economic mess that you inherited, even if the policy response on your watch has been profligate and largely ineffectual. (You did not, after all, invent TARP.) I understand that when surrounded by cries of “the end of the world as we know it is nigh”, even the strongest of minds may have a tendency to shoot first and aim later in a well-intended effort to stave off the predicted apocalypse.

But what I can justifiably hold you accountable for is your and your minions’ role in setting the tenor of the rancorous debate now roiling us that smacks of what so many have characterized as “class warfare”. Whether this reflects your principled belief that the eternal divide between the haves and have-nots is at the root of all the evils that afflict our society or just a cynical, populist appeal to his base by a president struggling in the polls is of little importance. What does matter is that the divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them. It is a gulf that is at once counterproductive and freighted with dangerous historical precedents. And it is an approach to governing that owes more to desperate demagoguery than your Administration should feel comfortable with.

Just to be clear, while I have been richly rewarded by a life of hard work (and a great deal of luck), I was not to-the-manor-born. My father was a plumber who practiced his trade in the South Bronx after he and my mother emigrated from Poland. I was the first member of my family to earn a college degree. I benefited from both a good public education system (P.S. 75,  Morris High School and Hunter College, all in the Bronx) and my parents’ constant prodding. When I joined Goldman Sachs following graduation from Columbia University’s business school, I had no money in the bank, a negative net worth, a National Defense Education Act student loan to repay, and a six-month-old child (not to mention his mother, my wife of now 47 years) to support. I had a successful, near-25-year run at Goldman, which I left 20 years ago to start a private investment firm. As a result of my good fortune, I have been able to give away to those less blessed far more than I have
spent on myself and my family over a lifetime, and last year I subscribed to Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge to ensure that my money, properly stewarded, continues to do some good after I’m gone.

My story is anything but unique. I know many people who are similarly situated, by both humble family history and hard-won accomplishment, whose greatest joy in life is to use their resources to sustain their communities. Some have achieved a level of wealth where philanthropy is no longer a by-product of their work but its primary impetus. This is as it should be. We feel privileged to be in a position to give back, and we do. My parents would have expected nothing less of me.\

I am not, by training or disposition, a policy wonk, polemicist or pamphleteer. I confess admiration for those who, with greater clarity of expression and command of the relevant statistical details, make these same points with more eloquence and authoritativeness than I can hope to muster. For recent examples, I would point you to “Hunting the Rich” (Leaders, The Economist, September 24, 2011), “The Divider vs. the Thinker” (Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2011), “Wall Street Occupiers Misdirect Anger” (Christine Todd Whitman, Bloomberg, October 31, 2011), and “Beyond Occupy” (Bill Keller, The New York Times, October 31, 2011) – all, if you haven’t read them, making estimable work of the subject.

But as a taxpaying businessman with a weekly payroll to meet and more than a passing familiarity with the ways of both Wall Street and Washington, I do feel justified in asking you: is the tone of the current debate really constructive?

People of differing political persuasions can (and do) reasonably argue about whether, and how high, tax rates should be hiked for upper-income earners; whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended or permitted to expire, and for whom; whether various deductions and exclusions under the federal tax code that benefit principally the wealthy and multinational corporations should be curtailed or eliminated; whether unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut should be extended; whether the burdens of paying for the nation’s bloated entitlement programs are being fairly spread around, and whether those programs themselves should be reconfigured in light of current and projected budgetary constraints; whether financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” should be serially bailed out or broken up first, like an earlier era’s trusts, because they pose a systemic risk and their size benefits no one but their owners; whether the solution to what ails us
as a nation is an amalgam of more regulation, wealth redistribution, and a greater concentration of power in a central government that has proven no more (I’m being charitable here) adept than the private sector in reining in the excesses that brought us to this pass – the list goes on and on, and the dialectic is admirably American. Even though, as a high-income taxpayer, I might be considered one of its  targets, I find this reassessment of so many entrenched economic premises healthy and long overdue. Anyone who could survey today’s challenging fiscal landscape, with an un- and underemployment rate of nearly 20 percent and roughly 40 percent of the country on public assistance, and not acknowledge an imperative for change is either heartless, brainless, or running for office on a very parochial agenda. And if I end up paying more taxes as a result, so be it. The alternatives are all worse.

But what I do find objectionable is the highly politicized idiom in which this debate is being conducted. Now, I am not naive. I understand that in today’s America, this is how the business of governing typically gets done – a situation that, given the gravity of our problems, is as deplorable as it is seemingly ineluctable. But as President first and foremost and leader of your party second, you should endeavor to rise above the partisan fray and raise the level of discourse to one that is both more civil and more conciliatory, that seeks collaboration over confrontation. That is what “leading by example” means to most people.

Capitalism is not the source of our problems, as an economy or as a society, and capitalists are not the scourge that they are too often made out to be. As a group, we employ many millions of taxpaying people, pay their salaries, provide them with healthcare coverage, start new companies, found new industries, create new products, fill store shelves at Christmas, and keep the wheels of commerce and progress (and indeed of government, by generating the income whose taxation funds it) moving. To frame the debate as one of rich-and-entitled versus poor-and-dispossessed is to both miss the point and further inflame an already incendiary environment. It is also a naked, political pander to some of the basest human emotions – a strategy, as history teaches, that never ends well for anyone but totalitarians and anarchists.

With due respect, Mr. President, it’s time for you to throttle-down the partisan rhetoric and appeal to people’s better instincts, not their worst. Rather than assume that the wealthy are a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot who must be subjugated by the force of the state, set a tone that encourages people of good will to meet in the middle. When you were a community organizer in Chicago, you learned the art of waging a guerilla campaign against a far superior force. But you’ve graduated from that milieu and now help to set the agenda for that superior force. You might do well at this point to eschew the polarizing vernacular of political militancy and become the transcendent leader you were elected to be. You are likely to be far more effective, and history is likely to treat you far more kindly for it.

Sincerely,

Leon G. Cooperman
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

 


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