Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bush and Madoff: Signs of Things to Come?

Angry mobs tend to occur most in times of high stress and their anger, more often than not is directed at two groups: the government and the rich.

Over the past few days we have witnessed an angry Iraqi journalist throw shoes at our outgoing president, Mr. Bush, and a photographer emerge from a mob to shove billionaire criminal Bernard Madoff, the man who stole billions of dollars from some of the most sophisticated investors in the world.

In less civilized times, more people would have joined in the effort. Imagine if other journalists had joined Muntadar al-Zeidi in his "shoe protest" or that ordinary citizens and scorned investors had been part of the media throng outside Madoff's tony Manhattan apartment. Bush may have been injured, or worse. Madoff might have been beaten to death on the street.

It may come to that.

The world economy is teetering on the brink of disaster and up to this point all of the remedies have been directed by the government toward the rich. These are the two groups most responsible for the economic calamities which have befallen us. Nary a nickel has been offered to homeowners, average working class Joes and Janes who are struggling to make ends meet in difficult times. If matters continue to spin out of control, would anyone be surprised to hear that a wall Street banker is gunned down in broad daylight or that workers' protests turn violent? does anyone not believe that rank-and-file union members at GM would not want to punch CEO Rick Waggoner squarely on the kisser, or poke a finger in the eye of his counterpart at Chrysler, Bob Nardelli?

That's why these people fly on private jets, ride in bullet-proof limousines and dine at the most exclusive restaurants. Not because they're rich and they can - that's surely part of it - but they must fear for their personal safety. A high-up executive dining at a worker-type diner would be taking his own physical well-being very much for granted at times like this, and chances are very good that conditions will worsen in coming days, weeks and months. Those execs, and especially the walled-in Wall Street types had better hope they don't become victims of their greed.

Angry people have a tendency to find company and turn into angry mobs, capable of all kinds of violence and disruptive behavior. Here in America, and surely, in places around the globe, we have seen it all before. Deteriorating economic conditions for large swathes of people can ignite mob passions into burning infernos. While that is the outcome we would least desire, the actions of the Iraqi journalist and the NY photographer may be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

There's plenty of video of both events available, though the one Madoff video most circulated (aired o CNBC) doesn't really capture the scene well. I found these clips from ABC news to be of the highest quality, but since they are owned by ABC, I cannot embed them here. Here are links to the Bush incident and Bernie Madoff outside his apartment building. (Both links should open in new windows)

As for the state of the economy, investors are still not convinced of anything, especially since Chrysler announced plans to shut down all 30 of their US plants for a month, beginning Friday.

If there's anything that can cause the stock market to swoon, it's uncertainty, and in the final 33 days before George Bush leaves the White House and Barack Obama moves in, uncertainty is a commodity that will be in ample supply. There are only a handful of trading days left in the year, and of course, following that, this January may be one of the worst we've seen in a while, though last year's was certainly no picnic.

For today, investors got scared off early in the day. The major indices were marginally higher in early trading, but by 10 o'clock they were all flat lining. By noon they all began to sink and by the close of the session, the losses had extended, resulting in another bad day on the Street.

Dow 8,604.99, -219.35 (2.49%)
NASDAQ 1,552.37, -26.94 (1.71%)
S&P 500 885.28, -19.14 (2.12%)
NYSE Composite 5,617.76, -152.04 (2.64%

This should come as no surprise. stocks are essentially overbought, short term, and lows will once again be retested, since a new low was put in just a month ago, on November 20. We are due for another round of profit-taking, selling and options-related mischief. Friday, by the way, is a quadruple witching day, and the last of the year. It could turn into a whopper of a session.

For Thursday, the internals were as bloody as the headlines, with declining issues outpacing advancers, 4045-2670. New lows surpassed new highs by a margin of 163-34. Volume was moderate to low, especially on the NYSE.

NYSE Volume 1,382,620,000
NASDAQ Volume 2,064,510,000

In commodities trading, oil futures continued to drop precipitously, falling another 10%, or $3.84, to $36.22, the lowest price for a barrel of light crude in 4 1/2 years. Gold fell into line, dropping, $7.90, to $860.60, with silver following the trend, losing 30 cents to close at $11.12.

It was another day for deflation, and surely not the last. At least the executives of Exxon Mobil and Chevron will feel a little more secure in their mansions. Their counterparts in banking and finance may have reason to cower and hide in darkness.

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