Joseph E. Stiglitz: the perfect crony for a corrupt regime

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Joseph E. Stiglitz and Cristina Kirchner

Back in October we spent a few days pondering the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, whose curious views are taken far more seriously in the corridors of power than they deserve. Stiglitz, as we pointed out, has called for a socialist U.N. superstate; so preoccupied is he with income inequality, moreover, that he views the Great Depression more fondly than he does the 1980s. Financial analyst Peter Tenebrarum has legitimately ridiculed Stiglitz’s claim that corporate tax rates have “little effect on investment,” observing that only “a life-long leftist academic and bureaucrat who has never created one iota of real wealth in his life” could ever utter such drivel. 

Then there are Stiglitz’s deep and longstanding ties to the corrupt Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner (2003-7) and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (who left office in December). Stiglitz, who’s been a paid Kirchner advisor and consultant, filed an amicus curiae brief when Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001; when it did so again in 2014, he once more took the Kirchners’ side.

Quite admirably, Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, is trying to clean up the mess that his crooked predecessors created. To this end, he’s reached an agreement with his country’s major creditors that will set Argentina back on the road to fiscal responsibility and international respectability. Any sensible observer who respects the rule of law would applaud.

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Mauricio Macri

Not Stiglitz. In an April 1 New York Times op-ed, co-written with his protégé and frequent collaborator Martin Guzman, Stiglitz slammed Macri’s move – and Argentina’s creditors.

The very title of the op-ed was a lie: “How Hedge Funds Held Argentina for Ransom.” Ransom? When a government run by thugs – kleptocrats who’ve looted their country’s treasury – refuses to pay debts ruled legitimate by two U.S. courts, it’s not ransom. It’s the rule of law.

Let’s parse the op-ed’s first sentence. “Perhaps the most complex trial in history between a sovereign nation, Argentina, and its bondholders – including a group of United States-based hedge funds – officially came to an end yesterday when the Argentine Senate ratified a settlement.” Readers might assume, quaintly, that since this piece appeared in America’s so-called newspaper of record, there must’ve been some fact-checking. But apparently not.

First of all – and this is hardly a tiny detail – there has been no trial.

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Martin Guzman

A trial generally indicates that there is some dispute over the facts of a case involving evidence that must be examined, typically by a jury. But no one ever disputed that Argentina defaulted on more than $80 billion in 2001 and refused to pay certain creditors in violation of their contractual agreements. The lawsuits over Argentina’s bonds were not disputes over these indisputable facts, but rather processes to determine the proper remedies for these violations. Furthermore, lest we be accused of being nitpicky about the terminology, it is also incorrect to say that this litigation “came to an end” last week. In fact, the litigation is ongoing, with important legal questions about Argentina’s settlement offers still pending before a U.S. Court of Appeals.

Second, the mention of hedge funds was a slick move, plainly intended to set knees jerking among anti-capitalist types for whom hedge funds are, by definition, pure evil. Never mind that there are other people – some of them citizens of Argentina – who also hold Argentinian bonds. In fact, it is precisely these small Argentinian bondholders who continue to litigate against Argentina due to the fact that Argentina has for some reason offered them less than it offered the hedge funds. (Stiglitz and Guzman would know this if they bothered to read the news sections of … the New York Times!) Thus, these small bondholders are doubly inconvenient for Stiglitz and Guzman – their existence both contradicts the pair’s erroneous declaration that the Argentinian debt saga has ended while simultaneously undermining their blatant attempt to blame the “evil” hedge funds for all of Argentina’s problems.

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Judge Thomas Griesa

Third, the Argentinian Senate did not ratify a settlement. What it did was agree to lift the Kirchner-era laws that were intended to frustrate U.S. court rulings – and that led New York District Judge Thomas Griesa to hold Argentina in contempt.

The op-ed’s first sentence, then, was a minor masterpiece of misrepresentation. Perhaps we should thank Stiglitz and Guzman for making it clear from the git-go that what followed wasn’t going to be factually reliable.

The resolution,” Stiglitz and Guzman went on to say, “was excellent news for a small group of well-connected investors, and terrible news for the rest of the world, especially countries that face their own debt crises in the future.” No: it was excellent news for the health of the international credit market, and terrible news for irresponsible governments that are inclined to pursue serial defaults.

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At the World Economic Forum

Stiglitz and Guzman proceeded to describe Argentina as “[u]nable to pay its creditors” (a questionable contention) and to describe holdout investors as having “earned the name vulture funds.” Funny way to put it: these investors didn’t “earn” that name; it was coined by their debtor, the Argentinian government, and was taken up by Stiglitz and his ilk as a glib way of smearing creditors who’ve asked only to be paid what they’re owed. By obscuring the origins of the term “vulture funds,” of course, Stiglitz and Guzman were giving legitimacy to it – and providing themselves with a veneer of justification for repeatedly (and childishly) hurling this slur throughout their piece.

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At another forum, this one called Forum Invest

In what was perhaps the most dishonest part of their op-ed, Stiglitz and Guzman purported to sum up Griesa’s 2012 ruling. As they put it, he “threw the game in the vulture funds’ favor” by “blocking Argentina from paying” creditors who’d agreed to reduced settements “until it had paid the vultures in full.” The ruling “gave the vultures the weapon they needed: Argentina had to either pay them off or renege on the default they had negotiated, ruining the country’s credit in the future and threatening its recovery.” Omitted entirely from this tendentious summary – which makes it sound as if Griesa did something shady – is Griesa’s rock-solid legal reasoning: under the pari passu (or “equal footing”) clause in the bond agreement, Argentina was strictly forbidden from paying off some creditors while stiffing others. What Stiglitz and Guzman neatly sidestepped, in other words, is the fact that if Argentina had honored the pari passu clause, all its creditors could have been paid. The point, quite simply, is that Cristina Kirchner didn’t want to pay.

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At yet another forum, this one called the, er, World something-or-other Forum

The op-ed’s mendacity continued with the claim that Macri’s deal “will carry a high price for the international financial system, encouraging other funds to hold out and making debt restructuring virtually impossible.” Nonsense. In fact, the market has already adjusted: in place of pari passu clauses, sovereign-debt agreements now include collective-action clauses. Stiglitz and Guzman would have us believe that nations like Argentina can’t protect themselves and can’t structure loans as they wish; instead of worrying about that, we should be concerned about those nations’ continued ability to default and force terms on bondholders.

Most countries,” maintained Stiglitz and Guzman, “are intimidated by the creditors and accept what is demanded.” Intimidated? Was Cristina Kirchner intimidated when she maligned her creditors as “vultures” and basically gave Judge Griesa the finger? Our heroes then called sovereign-debt restructurings destructive – after all, they’re are often “followed by another restructuring or default within five years.” And what example did they cite? That of Greece, which underwent restructuring in 2012 and is already “in desperate need of more relief.” But the case of Greece doesn’t prove anything about restructuring; all it proves is that if a country is economically irresponsible on a colossal scale, the chickens will eventually come home to roost.

Cristina-Kirchner-y-Stiglitz-AFPHow, then, to resolve sovereign-debt conflicts? Easy: Stiglitz and Guzman touted a set of sovereign-debt “principles” that they themselves proposed to the U.N. General Assembly, which approved them overwhelmingly last September. Among those “principles”: that indebted nations should be immune from foreign courts’ verdicts and that creditors should be compelled to accept restructuring deals approved by a majority of their fellow debt holders. Predictably, the six countries that voted against the resolution were those whose citizens tend to be on the creditor end of these arrangements – Canada, Germany, Israel, Japan, Britain, and the U.S. The countries that approved the measure were, in effect, asserting their own right to dodge repayment of debts – not just debts owed to hedge funds, but debts owed to mom-and-pop investors, too. Some justice.

Many countries have bankruptcy laws,” concluded Stiglitz and Guzman. “But there is no equivalent framework for sovereign bankruptcies….The United Nations has taken the lead to fill this vacuum, and as Argentina’s case proves, the initiative is more important than ever.” Saying this, however, doesn’t make it so. What Argentina’s case proves is that some countries, like some people, are deadbeats; if permitted to do so, they’ll default repeatedly on their debt for no other reason than that the law lets them.

None of this is new, of course – we already knew where Stiglitz stood on Argentina’s deadbeat behavior. In fact, he’s become something of a broken record on the subject. Take his hyperbolic claim in the op-ed that “[t]he resolution … [will make] debt restructuring virtually impossible.” He’s plagiarized this same claim from himself many times in commenting on various cases, at least once using virtually identical language in the same newspaper. Each time, he is proven wrong by subsequent sovereign debt restructurings that are successfully concluded via constructive, good-faith negotiations with creditors (i.e., the opposite of the coercive approach that he and Cristina Kirchner favor) – most recently in Ukraine

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Axel Kicillof

So why now? Why has Stiglitz chosen this moment to repeat the same tired justifications of the Kirchners’ behavior and vilifications of Argentina’s creditors? For answers, look at the headlines surrounding the deal, and it seems clear at once: As the praise for Macri’s economic policies in general and his handling of the debt dispute in particular pours in from around the world, defenders and abettors of the Kirchners’ disastrous policies are looking worse and worse in retrospect. And, as you might expect, some have lashed out with desperate attempts to justify their actions and/or sabotage the Macri administration. Each is doing it with the tools at hand: For instance, former Kirchner Economy Minister Axel Kicillof now has a seat in Congress, so he is trying mightily to derail Macri’s settlement and keep Argentina mired in default. By contrast, Stiglitz has a standing invitation to bloviate on the op-ed pages of the Times. So bloviate he does.

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Stiglitz meeting last October with Kicillof, who tweeted afterward that they’d had a “great dialogue…about the debt-restructuring process and the fight against the vulture funds”

But no amount of retrospective whitewashing can change the fact that the policies Stiglitz advocated as an advisor to the Kirchners were followed, and followed faithfully, with disastrous consequences for Argentina’s citizens. The Kirchners’ refusal to fully resolve the 2001 default in order to spite its creditors led directly and indirectly to the years of grinding legal battles, the punitive interest rates that Argentina was forced to pay as a result of its status as the world’s worst deadbeat, the falsified economic statistics that undermined its government’s credibility with everyone except for a handful of despots, the cozying up to said despots that further undermined its global reputation, the spiraling inflation that punished its citizens as access to dollars became scarcer and scarcer – Stiglitz was there every step of the way, cheering for Cristina in the international media. And now that she’s gone and someone more responsible is trying to clean up the mess that he helped make, Stiglitz is still there, jeering from the sidelines, and pointing the finger of blame somewhere else.

Joseph Stiglitz – a Useful Stooge for the ages.

Joseph Stiglitz: Greeks bearing gifts

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Joseph Stiglitz

During the last couple of days, we’ve been pondering the career and views of big-government economist Joseph Stiglitz. We started out on Monday by mentioning Stiglitz’s glittering résumé. Here’s a little P.S. about that résumé: writing last year in National Review, Eliana Johnson noted that while it ran (at that point) to 56 pages, it omitted a good deal of Stiglitz’s speaking and consulting activity – even though, at $40,000 per lecture, he earned most of his income from that activity. These omissions, noted Johnson, were in direct violation of the transparency rules in effect at the Columbia Business School, where Stiglitz teaches. They also hid what any sensible observer would recognize as clear conflicts of interest. 

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Angela Merkel

What kinds of omissions – and conflicts of interest – are we talking about here? Well, one of them involves Greece. Over the course of the Greek financial crisis, Stiglitz has weighed in repeatedly on the subject – consistently on the side of the Greek government. While other economists argue that Greece brought on its own economic woes by spending far more money on generous welfare benefits and the like than it could afford, confident that Germany and other rich EU members would keep making up the shortfall, Stiglitz has depicted Greece as an innocent victim and its EU partners (which eventually got sick of picking up the tab) as heartless heavies.

Germany, he charged in July 2015 at an international development financing summit in Addis Ababa, lacked “solidarity” with Greece. “Asking even more from Greece would be unconscionable,” he said. In response to Western leaders who criticized Greece for failing to collect taxes, he accused those same leaders of being hypocrites for “trying to undermine” his own efforts to institute an international tax system.

The same month, in an article for Time, Stiglitz even went so far as to compare Angela Merkel’s Germany to Hitler’s:

The U.S. was generous with Germany as we defeated it. Now, it is time for the U.S. to be generous with our friends in Greece in their time of need, as they have been crushed for the second time in a century by Germany….Greece needs unconditional humanitarian aid; it needs Americans to buy its products, take vacations there, and show a solidarity with Greece and a humanity that its European partners were not able to display.

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Stiglitz and Papandreou at a 2013 Columbia University forum

As if that weren’t enough, Stiglitz wrote a New York Times op-ed – also in July 2015 – casting Greece as a “sacrificial lamb” victimized by what he calls the “troika” – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission.

What Stiglitz failed to acknowledge in these pieces – and elsewhere – is that he’s not a neutral observer of the Greek economic disaster. Far from it. From 2009 to 2011, he worked as a paid advisor to Greek prime minister George Papandreou, whom he’s described as a friend. In February 2010, while serving in that advisory position, Stiglitz actually said this about Greece: “There’s clearly no risk of default. I’m very confident about it.” Was he speaking as an honest, responsible analyst, or as a paid flunky? 

(A flunky, one might add, who was cashing checks from a government that should instead have been using that money to pay down its debts.)

More tomorrow.

 

Kyle Bass: The frantic investments of a desperate gambler

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Kyle Bass

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.

bassstrategyIn 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.

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

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. immoralfor, as he put it, holding poor countries as hostagesand holding up 42 million people from progress.As we’ve said before, whats 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?

kyle_gmBass’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.

bassprofitThe 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?

spangenberg2When 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?

kyle2010Well, 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, according to Bloomberg News, that “he’d file them unless given cash.” 

kyle2011Some 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.

kyle2012Lots worse.

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.”

kyle2013 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!

kyle2014According 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.”

bass2aOnce 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.