Tuesday 28 October 2008


The Republican base may have brought George W. Bush two presidential victories. This time, pandering to it may be the downfall of John McCain

Two standout moments in the McCain campaign have graphically illustrated the delusional ideology that has helped put the US on the brink of economic collapse.

The first was back in September when Joe Biden made the seemingly self evident statement that paying tax was patriotic. The comment was seized upon by the McCain Palin team as they rallied their flag waving base, to symbolise the supposed dangers of an Obama presidency.

At those same rallies, McCain talked of his plans to freeze government spending except in the "valid" areas of expanded government - defense, security and veteran's entitlements. He failed to connect the simple fact that it is tax that pays for these programmes.

McCain plays to a US nationalism that waves the flag but doesn't pay its way - much the same nationalism of the Bush years.

More recently, the McCain campaign has been referencing Obama's comments to Joe the plumber "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody". Obama made this seemingly self evident comment in the context of a conversation where he argued for reducing taxes on low and middle class incomes (less than 250K US). Yet once again, the mainly Christian Right Republican base, is horrified at the prospect of sharing some of the enormous wealth concentrated in hands of a few with the wider American population.

This comment has been the inspiration for the psychotic screams "socialism" "it's socialism John" that have peppered the increasingly rabid McCain - Palin outings.

The United States, like every country in the developed world, has a progressive tax system that by definition "spreads the wealth around". Indeed, Adam Smith, one of the ideological fathers of capitalism enshrined the concept of progressive tax in his work.

It's just that the US does a worse job of spreading the wealth around than most developed countries which is why its health and education systems as well as its national infrastructure perform poorly by OECD standards for most of its population.

That these two points have become iconic for McCain, shows his desperation to mobilise the Republican base at a time when its policy bankruptcy has left the country on the brink of ruin - and plenty of Americans can see that now.

He deserves to be punished at the polls for that. Let's see if he is.

Monday 27 October 2008


Malcolm Turnbull's empty confidence busting outbursts are the enemy of mortgage trust investors and the economy as a whole.

Any consumer of the news media during the past week - from channel 9 news to The Insiders would reasonably have drawn the following conclusions -

* That the Government's guarantee of bank deposits was made without proper consultation with Treasury and the Reserve Bank.
* That this same guarantee precipitated the freeze in mortgage funds that has occurred during the past week.

Neither of these conclusions are true.

While the first was comprehensively refuted by both Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens last week, the prevailing impression of the week remains, without a shred of evidence, that somehow, the Government, the Treasury and the Reserve Bank colluded to deceive the general public about the level of agreement upon which the guarantee policy was founded. The Australian newspaper, which created the myth on its front page, remains unrepentant in spite of the comprehensive debunking of it by those at the centre of the story.

As for the other prevailing myth that the guarantee has precipitated the freeze of mortgage funds, consider this analogy. A fire burns in two buildings. Building A contains the fundamental supplies and assets of the community. Building B is sprawling and contains some of the community's other assets - important these are - but not near as fundamental to the community's survival as those in building A. The fire brigades arrive and use all resources to extinguish the fire burning in building A with its essential supplies. Meanwhile, damage is inflicted to building B before the fire brigades can allocate resources to quelling the blaze.

Do we blame the fire brigade?

Like all analogies, this one is clumsy in parts. But there are some irrefutable points that get virtually no media attention.

* The run on mortgage funds is the result of the financial crisis - the fire. Mortage fund investors feel insecure like all investors in non-cash assets the world over. While "putting out the fire" in bank deposits made them a more a attractive asset to hold, the inherently risky nature of mortgage funds has always been a feature of these assets - and it's a feature that has brought investors higher returns in the past than boring bank deposits.
* The Government's action to sure up the banks has made every speculative instrument less attractive - mortgage funds, shares, derivatives and commercial and residential property. Should the Government be moving towards guaranteeing these financial instruments as well?

Malcolm Turnbull has revealed the reckless damage that he is ready to inflict on Australia for his political gain. If Mr Turnbull had a genuine disagreement with the Government's position in matters of such grave consequence, he would be compelled as opposition leader to voice this disagreement and advocate some alternatives. He has done no such thing. Instead he has sat on the sidelines as Wrecker in Chief destroying confidence and adding nothing to the real policy discussion.

Of course the Government should and is taking steps to try and improve the liquidity of mortgage funds but any Government actions are likely to be of minimal consequence until there is increased confidence in the basic assets of mortgage funds. Malcolm Turnbull has consistently and wilfully undermined confidence in his comments over the past few weeks.

It has been interesting to see the extent to which the opposition leader has become the champion of the victims of the frozen mortgage funds. You would think from the furore that these funds are lost. They are not. They are tied up in property which is by definition less liquid than cash.

You would also think that these investors are the only Australian victims to date of the economic crisis.

There would be few people who have not experienced a decline in wealth during the past twelve months through falling superannuation, shares property and a collapsing dollar.

Malcolm's empathy with mortgage fund investors springs from his ability to distort their misfortune to score a political point.

Many Australians have been experiencing the bitter taste of the previous decade of reckless lending and speculation for more than a year now. They weren't so lucky as to have excess liquidity available to invest in mortgage funds or shares. No, they're the people in the less privileged suburbs of Australia who have negative equity in their homes or who have had their properties repossessed.

Malcolm hasn't been able to voice any empathy for them as this might impugn him, his investment banking past and the previous Government. He's quite content to trash the confidence in our system and institutions at a time where confidence is everything. Malcolm is the enemy of confidence. He's the mortage fund investor's illusory friend.


Paul Kelly's piece in the Weekend Australian was rational and Kerry O'Brien's interview with Malcolm was the first I've seen to expose the ruthless political animal dressed up in a lawyer's eloquence and pre-crisis banker's self confidence. The AFR coverage was also measured.

Wednesday 22 October 2008


Malcolm Turnbull got his first real workout as leader of the Opposition last night. He didn't come out well.

It was good watching the unflappable Malcolm Turnbull in a flap last night on the 7.30 Report.

Kerry O'Brien once again proved his skill as journalist - interrogator. As he digs deeper into the whole banking guarantee question and the financial crisis, Turnbull is playing with fire.

At stake is confidence in our banking system and the success of our responses to it. Turnbull's strategy is to test the boundaries here for a political point that looks increasingly flimsy.

The big issue is the one raised by Ken Henry yesterday and concerns the extent to which Turnbull's reckless speculation about the previous $20,000 guarantee covering bank deposits in itself contributed to the need for a hasty but essential response. I for one was surprised and alarmed to discover two weeks ago that the integrity of our savings was being brought into question amidst all of the assurances about strength of our banks. Malcolm Turnbull began that discussion. Everybody knows that when it comes to the banks, perceptions of security are everything. In a time of international turmoil, the sensitivity is heightened.

It should be remembered that Turnbull spent months berating Wayne Swan over the impact of his declarations - proven correct - that the "inflation genie" was out of the bottle in the Australian economy. If there was a self fulfilling element to Swan's inflation references, it was dwarfed by the impact of Malcolm Turnbull's decision to raise questions about the $20,000 guarantee cap at a time of global banking turmoil.

Turnbull revealed his real concerns late in the interview when he said "What about this Kerry, what about someone who's taken their money out of a cash management trust, paid an exit fee, put their money into a bank because they wanted to get the benefit of the Government guarantee.

And they're now going to have to pay a tax to Wayne Swan for doing... for taking advantage of a guarantee Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd told them on the 12th of October was free?"

As any changes being mooted by the government to the guarantee concern only those holding deposits in excess of one million dollars, Turnbull's comments reflect his real interest. He wasn't able to voice any pleasure at the fact that the bank deposits of the rest of the population were safe. Nor was he able to point the finger at his former investment banking colleagues who created the mess - those same guys who levied the sacred "exit fees" Malcolm refers to. Now he's concerned about his other mates moving their millions to guaranteed bank deposits and expecting it all to be free and easy - and taxpayer funded. Aren't those the attitudes that got us here in the first place?