Cramer Takes on the White House, Frank Rich and Jon Stewart
By Jim Cramer
Suddenly, bloggers, opinion people, columnists and, yes, pundits who haven't paid attention to anything I have been saying or writing for the past 18 months are all over me. Suddenly, I find myself in the center of a firestorm over Obama's economic policies, taking enfilading fire from the "liberal" media (from serious columnist Frank Rich to entertainer Jon Stewart) while being defended by Rush Limbaugh, the standard-bearer for the Republicans.
I'm uncomfortable being in the crosshairs of columnists and comedians I enjoy, and I find the embrace of Rush Limbaugh most certainly strange if not antithetical to many of my viewpoints.
So, why after toiling in the cable wilderness for four years with Mad Money am I the target of the wrath of the Obama clan, and the darling, albeit surely momentary, of the Obama-critics? After all, my criticism of Obama's handling of the economic crisis is a lot less pointed than my withering August 2007 "They Know Nothing" meltdown against the previous regime's handling of the economic crisis. Then, I advocated a swift slashing of interest rates by the Federal Reserve and a concomitant policy for potential widespread banking failures that were sure to come because of the Republican administration's pernicious laissez-faire attitude toward Wall Street.
The answer lies in the way the two administrations handled criticism. The Bush administration, I believed, simply chose to ignore my warnings, perhaps because of a brutal combination of ideology, fecklessness and complacency. Publicly, it was easy to ignore a carping Democrat, even as most of my insight came from apolitical people who ran many of the major trading desks and were simply worried about the sure-to-come tsunami spawned by subprime mortgages. The Bush administration's endless "fundamentals are sound" observations seemed ridiculous in the face of what most chief executive officers from Main Street companies and all executives of the top investment banks knew to be the case. Ben Bernanke didn't seem to understand the urgency, perhaps because of his academic background. Tim Geithner, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the most important regulator of Wall Street, didn't seem to get the importance of a consistent policy in the face of frightened and confused participants in the capital markets. Hank Paulson confused me the most. He ran Goldman Sachs (Stock Quote: GS), for heaven's sake. He had to know better, but he didn't.
When Paulson and Geithner wrongly euthanized Lehman Brothers, the consequences pretty much spelled the end of finance as we know it. Saving Lehman was well within their capacity, even though they refuse to admit it or say it was even a mistake. The markets have never recovered.
Their hands-off policies ended after Lehman. Two days later, when worries about moral hazard went out the window, they did a total about-face and began what is now an endless bailout of AIG (Stock Quote: AIG).
Nevertheless, they never questioned their beliefs and therefore never answered to anyone -- Congress, the press or the pundits -- so sure were they that everything was fine and things would work out well in the end.
President Obama's team, unlike Bush's team, demonstrates a thinness of skin that shocks me. When I somewhat obviously and empirically judged that the populist Obama administration is exacerbating the crisis with its budget and policies, as evidenced by the incredible decline in the averages since his inauguration, I was met immediately with condescension and ridicule rather than constructive debate or even just benign dismissal. I said to myself, "What the heck? Are they really that blind to the Great Wealth Destruction they are causing with their decisions to demonize the bankers, raise taxes for the wealthy, advocate draconian cap-and-trade policies and upend the health care system? Do they really believe that only the rich own stocks? What do they think we have our retirement accounts in, CDs? Where did they think that the money saved for college went, our mattresses? Do they think the great middle class banks at the First National Bank of Sealy and only the wealthiest traffic in the Standard & Poor's 500?"
They exacerbated their insensitivity when President Obama proclaimed that he wasn't worried about the averages, dismissing them as traffic polls that go up and down in the short term. Ah, if only they went up occasionally and not down endlessly then I would believe the President's logic.
Don't get me wrong, Obama was dealt a terrible hand by the previous croupier. But this administration's handling of the banking crisis, something that has brought Citigroup (Stock Quote: C), Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC), Wells Fargo (Stock Quote: WFC) and even JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) to their knees, has been devastating. The indecision of Geithner, who has floated to the media every single idea in his head, only to announce none orally, has created a vacuum that has allowed short-sellers to dictate policy.
As someone who just wants to help people preserve capital and help it appreciate when the time comes when it is not too risky to do so, I am appalled at the attack and badly want to engage in the issues and tone down the rhetoric. What's the point? The country's in crisis. We need to stop the lurching nationalization of banks, something that's come about because the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have not been able to regain control of the banking system from the short-sellers who seek to wipe out the common equity and "win" by placing all banks in receivership.
The pundits won't engage in the merits of, say, favoring Tier 1 capital for the banks vs. common equity, or forbearing on the banks to work the situation out over time because the banks can be profitable if we have some patience. They just attack me.
Take Frank Rich and Jon Stewart. Both seize on the urban legend that I recommended Bear Stearns the week before it collapsed, even though I was saying that I thought it could be worthless as soon as the following week. I did tell an emailer that his deposit in his account at Bear Stearns was safe, but through a clever sound bite, Stewart, and subsequently Rich -- neither of whom have bothered to listen to the context of the pulled quote -- pass off the notion of account safety as an out-and-out buy recommendation. The absurdity astounds me. If you called Mad Money and asked me about Citigroup, I would tell you that the common stock might be worthless, but I would never tell you to pull your money out of the bank because I was worried about its solvency. Your money is safe in Citi as I said it was in Bear. The fact that I was right rankles me even more. I never said the same thing about Lehman, where your accounts weren't safe. I expect a skewering from the comedian Stewart. I was shocked, however, that the rigorous Rich wouldn't investigate further and relied on the show's truncation of the truth. After all, how many times were the pull quotes from reviews by Rich used against him when he may have been panning a play in his former role as entertainment critic?
Rich also chastises me for endorsing Wachovia's stock after then-CEO Bob Steel came on Mad Money and spoke positively about the bank. Was I taken in? Yes, and I made a mistake. I apologized both on Mad Money and on the Today Show for believing in Steel. But others say I have been too hard on myself given that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Steel's appearance on my show for truthfulness. I chalk it up to something different: Sometimes you just get had.
After the White House briefing, Rush Limbaugh defended me as a wayward leftist who has seen the light. I am always glad to have any allies and defenders, but I do favor almost all of Obama's agenda, right down to having the rich pay more of their freight in this great country. It's just not the right time. We need to declare a war on unemployment and solve it before we let it get out of hand. We need to stop house-price depreciation. Neither the pork-laden stimulus plan nor the confusing mortgage proposal put forward by Obama will defeat either enemy. When Obama trounces both unemployment and house-price depreciation, he will have the power to enact anything he wants. But all the initiatives he wants to rush, like tax hikes, changes in health care, tinkering with the mortgage deduction -- good grief, right now in the midst of the worst housing downturn ever -- and the tough cap-and-trade rules, will derail any chance we have of turning this economy around. Instead, they put the Second Great Depression smack on the nation's table. The markets thought he could stop it; hence the giant relief rally when he was elected. But in fewer than 50 days of his ascendancy, the markets' hopes were totally dashed and the averages are now forecasting the worst decline since the Great Depression. As someone who listens to what the averages are screaming, I think they are accurately predicting the future.
I welcome any serious exchange with the administration on the issues that are not beyond my ken: fixing house price depreciation, stopping the destruction of wealth as demonstrated by the stock market's plunge, and solving the banking crisis before we nationalize every bank.
(Oh, and memo to Bill Maher: Stop insulting my faux great-great-uncle Vlad Lenin. I am using him to dramatize the point of a failed nationalization and confiscation of the banks at the hands of the people. It is funny how the right is certainly very civil as my old friends and new allies as of last week, Fred Barnes and Sean Hannity, don't hold my left wing social view against me when they talk about my criticism of the president! I always love anyone from Fox on the team because they are fierce in their defense with much less gratuitous slamming.)
It's time to get serious. It's time to take the issue from the pundits and from the left and right, and put it where it belongs: serious non-ideological debate to put out the real firestorm, the collapse of the economy from Wall Street to Main Street and the ensuing Great Wealth Destruction for all.
But if it stays ad hominem, we will all be betrayed and the train wreck will become inevitable.
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