It’s all happening at once. Venezuela’s socialist economy is crashing and burning; Brazil’s socialist president is being impeached for doctoring budget figures to make that country’s faltering economy look better; Argentina’s socialist ex-president is on trial for defrauding her economic basket case of a country to the tune of five billion dollars.
All of these corrupt, incompetent, and ideologically misguided regimes – as we’ve pointed out time and again on this website – have had their share of foolish celebrity admirers north of the border, from Oliver Stone to Sean Penn. But as these economies have nose-dived, the gushing has tended to die down, and the fans have tended to scatter. In late May, we focused our gaze on Nick Dearden, a full-time anti-capitalist activist and one of the few stooges who’ve continued to be lured by the siren song of South American socialism. He’s recently blamed Argentina’s woes on its creditors, and in January he actually described Venezuela as an economic “beacon of hope.”
Another member of this curious club is Mark Weisbrot. The difference between the two men is that while Dearden, who runs a group called Global Justice Now, is pretty much what he presents himself as being – namely, a far-left street-agitator type who never quite seems comfortable without a protest sign in his hand or his fist in the air – Weisbrot actually poses as a serious economist of the first order.
Is he? Well, put it this way. Some stooges are more useful than others; Weisbrot is a really useful one. Want a defense of the indefensible from somebody whose credentials as an economic expert sound legit? Want an economist whose loyalty to the creeps in the Milaflores Palace and to the sticky-fingered czarina who recently vacated the Casa Rosada outstrips the devotion of the most zealous fan of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber – no matter how dismal the latest quarterly results? Look no further. Weisbrot’s your man.
We’ll spend this week probing Weisbrot’s history of defending socialist regimes in South America. But let’s start with a couple of his more recent pieces on Venezuela, which he wrote during a period when other enthusiasts for the Bolivarian Republic were heading for the hills. Take an article he wrote for The Guardian in November 2013. Its headline: “Sorry, Venezuela haters: this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” Its subtitle: “Predicting a Venezuelan apocalypse won’t make it happen.”
“For more than a decade,” Weisbrot sneered, “people opposed to the government of Venezuela have argued that its economy would implode.” For years, he stated, the predictions had failed to come true. But now Venezuela was “facing economic problems that are warming the cockles of the haters’ hearts” – as if the critics of chavista economics hated the Venezuelan people, when in fact what they hated was the socialist policies that were gradually destroying those people’s lives.
Noting that supplies of consumer goods were shriveling, that consumer prices had risen 49% in the last year, and that the U.S. dollar was worth seven times the official rate on the black market, Weisbrot might have acknowledged a degree of personal responsibility for the way things were going. Instead, he slickly made the critics of his approach into the bad guys: “Will those who cried wolf for so long finally see their dreams come true?”
His answer: no. While Maduro’s opponents saw Venezuela as being “caught in an inflation-devaluation spiral,” Weisbrot insisted that “a government with more than $90bn in oil revenue” could not – and would not – “end up with a balance-of-payments crisis…..This government is not going to run out of dollars.” Nor, he maintained, was the country in serious danger of hyperinflation; notwithstanding the current problems, Venezuela was “very capable of providing healthy growth even while bringing down inflation.” While the country was “facing serious economic problems,” they weren’t the kind of problems that were being experienced by Greece and Spain.
Even last December, by which time Venezuela was clearly circling the drain, Weisbrot maintained his boosterish take on chavismo. Tune in tomorrow.
Yesterday, as part of our portrait of powerful, anti-capitalist economist Joe Stiglitz, we took a look at his outspoken support for Greece in its current budget crisis – and his close friendship with Greek leaders, who’ve paid him scads of (other people’s) money either for his advice or (could it be?) for his public advocacy on their behalf.
Then there’s Argentina. Stiglitz’s relationship with the corrupt Kirchner regime goes back a long way. He was a paid advisor to the late President Néstor Kirchner, who was in office from 2003 to 2007, and has played the same role for Kirchner’s wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He’s traveled frequently to Buenos Aires to advise the Kirchners and been paid handsome sums to deliver lectures there. Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt in 2001, and Stiglitz took its side, filing an amicus curiae brief when Argentina appealed a U.S. court ruling ordering it to pay creditors $1.3 billion.
In 2012, he served as a paid consultant for the Kirchner regime in a case before the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. In the same year, he held a speech at the Casa Rosada in which he bashed the free market and praised Cristina Kirchner, head of a grotesquely kleptocratic government, for the wisdom of her economic policies; Cristina, for her part, sat there applauding Stiglitz.
It’s worth asking: is Stiglitz being paid by the Kirchners for his advice – or for allowing them to use his name and reputation to whitewash their inept and criminal economic activities?
Then, last year, after being ordered by New York judge Thomas P. Griesa to pay off not just some but all of its creditors, Argentina defaulted again. It was the country’s second default in 13 years. Stiglitz again stood up for Argentina, publicly giving Cristina Kirchner a thumbs-up and calling for – what else? – “an international convention for sovereign debt restructuring to resolve these issues.”
In an August 2014 article written with Martin Guzman, Stiglitz ardently defended Cristina Kirchner – who, in collusion with her rapacious army of cronies, comrades, and confidantes, has stolen her nation blind – and instead viciously slammed everyone else in the picture. He slammed Griesa, whose only offense was to make a ruling that strictly adhered to the law. (Stiglitz and Guzman even promoted a Twitter hashtag, “#Griesafault,” as a way of deflecting responsibility for Argentina’s economic chaos from the crooked Kircherites to the U.S. judge.)
He also slammed Argentina’s holdout creditors, whom, directly echoing Kirchner’s own rhetoric, he smeared as “vultures,” their only crime being that they expected to be paid in full for the debts they were owed. “Repayment on Griesa’s terms,” pronounced Stiglitz, “would devastate Argentina’s economy.” No, what has devastated Argentina’s economy has been years of governance by the unscrupulous, thieving Kirchner regime – including economy minister Axel Kicillof, who on October 9 tweeted a picture of himself and Stiglitz, writing: “Great dialogue with @JosephEStiglitz about the debt-restructuring process and the fight against the vulture funds.”
As with Greece, then, how can Stiglitz expect anyone to take his pronouncements on Argentina seriously?
Another month, another new low for Kyle Bass, the favorite hedge-funder of Argentine autocrats.
First, a quick recap. Bass, who founded his Dallas-based fund, Hayman Capital Management, in 2006, made his fortune – and international headlines – by correctly predicting the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. For a while there, he was a superstar. He was M. Night Shayamalan in 2001, coming out of nowhere to get nominated for both his script and direction of The Sixth Sense. Observers jumped to the conclusion that Bass was some kind of genius who could do no wrong.
But time went on.
And time has not been kind to Kyle Bass.
The magic touch – if he ever had it – is long gone. Just as Shayamalan has made bad movie after bad movie, Bass has made bad call after bad call.
And he’s done it in full view of the market-following public. The guy seems never to turn down an invitation to go on TV and pontificate – proffering so-called “analysis” that invariably serves his own bottom line.
In addition to making bad calls, he’s made unsavory alliances. While pretty much everyone else in the business thinks that the economically illiterate Argentinian despot Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the worst thing that ever happened to her country’s economy, Bass can’t stop singing the woman’s praises. Last year, her country defaulted on its sovereign debt for the second time in thirteen years – an action at once indefensible and irrational. But, as we’ve seen, Bass defended it and rationalized it anyway, sounding so outrageously out of touch with reality that, as the New York Post put it, he sounded more like Argentina’s leftist economy minister Axel Kicillof than a U.S. hedge-fund manager.
If Bass came off like one of the hyper-socialist Kirchner’s lackeys and minions, that should be no surprise – because he is one of her lackeys and minions. The BBC has said he has a good relationship with her. That’s putting it mildly: Bass has consistently championed her preposterously irresponsible economic policies and has delicately ignored the cartoonish degree to which she and her breathtakingly amoral cronies have ripped off their own people.
And he’s gone even further than that: when New York Judge Thomas Griesa ruled that Argentina couldn’t just shell out to creditors who’d agreed to settle for reduced amounts, but also had to pay creditors – including Paul Singer of Elliott Management – who insisted on full payment, Bass took Kirchner’s side, calling Singer & co. “immoral” for, as he put it, “holding poor countries as hostages” and “holding up 42 million people from progress.” As we’ve said before, what’s really holding up progress in Argentina are Kirchner and her staggeringly incompetent and corrupt flunkies, whose economic illiteracy and limitless avarice have sent poverty levels sky high in a once affluent nation.
The question is: why? Why is Bass such a Buenos Aires bootlicker? Why is his nose a bright salmon pink from rubbing it up against the walls of the Casa Rosada? What kinds of secret, unscrupulous deals does he have – or want to have – with the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours Kirchner dynasty?
Bass’s shady ties with Kirchner and her crew aren’t his only ethical lapse since his fifteen minutes of glory. This is, for example, the guy who, in order to make good on his investment in General Motors, went on TV to try to shift the blame for fatalities caused by non-deploying airbags and faulty power steering in GM cars – problems that the auto giant knew about and failed to act on – onto the dead victims themselves, charging (disgustingly) that they’d either been drunk or failed to wear seatbelts.
Then there’s his business ties to the late Chris (American Sniper) Kyle, whose widow, Taya, is now embroiled in a messy lawsuit with one of Bass’s subordinates at Hayman, whom she’s accused of all kinds of unethical behavior. (Imagine!)
And this is also, note well, the guy who, as we’ve reported, came up a year or so ago with a ploy so vile that both houses of Congress are now working overtime – on a bipartisan basis – to close up the loophole that makes it possible.
The scheme is as simple as it is loathsome: Bass – in collusion with one Erich Spangenberg, known as “the world’s most notorious patent troll” – picks out certain pharmaceutical firms, short-sells their stocks, then challenges one or more of their patents via a front organization, the Coalition for Affordable Drugs, that he set up precisely for this purpose. The inevitable result: the stocks go down, Bass rakes in a few million quick simoleons, and the pharma companies’ prices go up while their motive to fund medical research goes down – thus causing palpable harm to the millions of people who depend on those firms’ products to ameliorate their suffering, relieve their symptoms, or prolong (or even save) their lives.
But why care about the sick and infirm when you’re in a position to turn a buck?
When Bass first got called on this sleazy dodge, he insisted he was doing it for a noble reason: bust patents and competition will drive drug prices down. On close examination, his explanation didn’t really make sense – and it didn’t fool anybody. “There’s nothing in this man’s history,” pointed out James C. Greenwood, a pharma industry leader, “to suggest he has any interest in lowering health-care costs.” Scott McKeown, an intellectual-property expert, dismissed Bass’s claim that he’s actually trying to help patients. Bass, he said, was “simply hoping to spook financial markets to his benefit.” Nobody disagrees.
So transparent was his pretense of altruism, in fact, that Bass has dropped it and switched to another defense. In a response to a filing against him by Celgene, the pharma firm that’s been his biggest target, Bass acknowledged he was motivated by a lust for profit – but quickly added that pharmaceutical companies, too, are driven by financial self-interest. So what, he asked, is the difference?
Well, some people do see a difference, and they’re out to stop him. As we’ve noted, a government agency, the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB), is considering sanctioning Bass for abusing the system with his patent challenges. Also – get this – Celgene has charged Bass and Spangenberg with extortion. Spangenberg, apparently, sent Celgene drafts of patent-challenging petitions, saying, accordingto Bloomberg News, that “he’d file them unless given cash.”
Some observers might wonder why Bass, who for fifteen minutes there was the Wunderkind of the hedge-fund industry, would be engaged in such grubby hijinks. Why would a guy who’s flown so high and cashed in so handsomely sink so low in order to further line his already well-stuffed pockets? An August 13 article in Barron’s helps clear up that question. We already knew that Bass had lost his fabled magic touch. But it turns out things are even worse than we imagined.
Jim McTague tells the story: “Bass has had a dismal time of it recently….Suddenly, the former luminary can’t seem to get anything right.” While it’s hard “to know exactly how Bass’ funds are doing because he keeps his fund’s actual performance metrics close to the vest,” news reports say he “lost somewhere around 30% in 2014, the mirror opposite of the industry’s best-performing hedge fund managers.”
Thirty percent! No further questions, Your Honor.
McTague quotes a recent article in which Bass himself admitted to having had “a tough year.” “It’s nice to win all of the time,” Bass said. “When you are not winning and everyone else is, it makes life difficult.”
No wonder he’s pulling this chintzy pharma con and sucking up to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, that despotic queen of the pampas!
According to McTague, Bass’s two current preoccupations are oil (everyone else to the contrary, he’s counting on prices to rise within a year) and Argentina (where, in McTague’s words, Bass continues to be “bullish where others are heading for the exits”).
Bass, reports McTague, refuses to talk about his and Spangenberg’s tacky patent ruse. Meanwhile, the latest news from Capitol Hill is that bills triggered by Bass’s activities have easily cleared both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, with legislators hoping that by the end of this month a law will be on the books that “cut[s] the legs from under this particular Bass strategy.”
Once that happens, what’s on deck for Bass? What squalid swamp will he wade into next? What sordid small-time con will he cook up? We don’t hold his stock-picking powers in particularly high regard – not anymore, at least – but we’re bubbling over with confidence that this shameless bottom-feeder has a cornucopia of uniquely unethical make-a-buck stratagems left in him.
And, of course, if all else fails, he’ll always have Buenos Aires.
UPDATE, August 27: Only hours after this post went up, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board denied Bass’s first two patent challenges. The PTAB’s decision “sets a worrying precedent for Bass,” wrote Business Insider, which also noted this very illuminating response by Bass: “It should be axiomatic that people do not undertake socially valuable activity for free.” In Bass’s world, it’s all about the money.