Thursday, October 30, 2014

US Federal Reserve ends “quantitative easing” program after funneling trillions to financial markets


The US Federal Reserve made the expected announcement on Wednesday that it was ending its bond-buying program known as "quantitative easing," which has funneled trillions of dollars into the markets over the past six years and fueled a massive stock market bubble.

The formal end to the program known as QE3 has been carefully forecast by the Fed for months in order to avoid negative reactions on the markets. At its peak, QE3 involved the purchase of $85 billion in assets (mortgage-backed securities and US treasury bonds) each month, but these purchases have been gradually "tapered" since December.

To assure banks and investors that they would continue to have access to virtually free cash, Wednesday's statement included a promise to keep interest rates at their current near-zero level for a "considerable time"—expected to last well into 2015. At the same time, the Fed has made clear that while it is no longer buying new assets, it will not actually reduce the size of its holdings until after it begins raising interest rates.

QE3, which was initiated in September 2012, was one of a series of asset-purchase programs that began in November 2008, when the Federal Reserve announced that it would buy $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities.

The collapse in the value of mortgage-backed securities during the subprime mortgage meltdown precipitated the financial crisis of 2008, and the quantitative easing program allowed major financial institutions to offload their nearly worthless assets onto the central banks. QE1, the first quantitative easing program, was followed by another $600 billion program announced in November 2010.

In all, the US central bank increased the size of its balance sheet through these purchases by some $3.5 trillion, or about one fifth of the total value of goods and services produced in the United States in a single year. Never before has a central bank engaged in such a massive money-printing operation. This virtually unlimited allocation of cash has coincided with endless claims that there is no money to fund basic social programs and infrastructure.

Most of the cash created through the quantitative easing programs found its way, in one form or another, into the financial markets, leading to a surge in stock market share values that bears no relationship to the state of the "real" economy.

S&P 500 vs Federal Reserve Assets

Since the QE3 program began two years ago, the value of the S&P 500 stock index has increased by over 42 percent, tracking a course that has led it back to its pre-crash peaks (see chart).

Since stock ownership is overwhelmingly concentrated among the super-rich, the wealth of the corporate and financial elite has increased in line with the run-up in stock prices. Since 2009, the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 (the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States) has nearly doubled, to $2.9 trillion.

Due in large part to the Federal Reserve policies, together with similar measures by leading central banks in Europe and Japan, the top one percent of the world's population now controls nearly half of all wealth, according to a Credit Suisse report released earlier this month. All told, central banks around the world have funneled an estimated $7 to $10 trillion into financial markets.

While the Fed explained its decision Wednesday by referring to a supposed "recovery" in the jobs market (in the Fed's words, "underutilization of labor market resources is gradually diminishing") the fact is that the principal aim of QE was not to lower unemployment, and it has not done so.

As asset prices have surged, wages for workers have declined, and the US continues to be plagued by mass joblessness. The official unemployment rate has fallen, but this is due largely to the departure of millions of workers from the labor force. The banks have used the infusion of cash from the Fed not to invest in productive enterprises or lend to consumers, but to hoard, gamble and speculate.

The QE programs have been a critical part of a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich, a process that will continue, if in somewhat altered form. "Quantitative easing" has had the full support of both big business parties, the Democrats and Republicans, and has been pursued under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

The Fed decision comes as there are growing concerns from sections of the ruling class itself that the inflation of asset values has merely created the conditions for another and even more spectacular crash. There are many indications of economic stagnation in Europe, Asia and the United States. And there are bitter divisions between the major powers over policy, reflected in the moves by European central banks to expand their asset purchases even as the Fed ends its own programs.

In the end, "quantitative easing" has only intensified the contradictions tearing apart the world capitalist system, and further exposed the bankruptcy of the ruling class that presides over it.

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Fwd: 10 Things to Expect If Republicans Win the Senate

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Center for American Progress Action Fund
  10 Things to Expect If Republicans Win the Senate  
  Mitch McConnell
With Election Day a few days away, it seems each day brings new polls and new predictions about which party will control the Senate. Ultimately control of the upper chamber hinges on a few races that are still too close to call. So perhaps a more productive question than who will prevail after Election Day, is what will a GOP-led Senate do? From that perspective, there is a lot at stake for progressives. A new CAP Action report released last week takes a look at ten things to expect next year if Republicans take control of the Senate.

1. Additional attempts to use the budget process to advance a conservative ideological agenda. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told Politico in August that he intends to use the appropriation process to push his conservative agenda should he become the Senate majority leader. In other words, should Republicans take the senate, McConnell has promised more of the same brinkmanship and political gridlock Congressional Republicans have used in the past few years.

2. More tax cuts for the wealthy and further spending cuts for middle- and working-class families. A Republican-controlled Senate would bring back the same old top-down, trickle-down economic policies that have been proven to benefit the very wealthy few at the expense of the rest, while hurting the overall economy.

3. Obstruction of well-qualified judicial nominees, leaving vacancies on federal courts. A GOP Senate would likely change the rules for judicial nominations reinstituting obstructionism by filibuster and stalling judicial nominations for years with the hope that a Republican president would be able to fill the vacancies in 2017 with ideologically conservative judges.

4. A vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Still outraged about the 50-plus repeal votes cast by Republicans in the House? Republicans in the Senate have indicated that even though the rest of the world is ready to move on, they still want to fight old political fights and move the country backwards by voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

5. Attempts to roll back women's health gains. GOP senators and candidates have tried to distance themselves from their anti-women records this election season, but with safe control of the upper chamber they would most certainly vote legislation that is harmful to women's health like an anti-abortion bill introduced last year by Sen. Graham (R-SC).

6. Use of the Congressional Review Act to weaken environmental rules, jeopardizing public health. A Republican Senate would try to undo all of the efforts the administration has been able to make combatting climate change putting the public health of current and future Americans at risk.

7. Action to dramatically expand people's ability to carry concealed, loaded guns. Republicans in the Senate have already proven that they are beholden to the NRA, whose primary goal is to expand individual's ability to carry concealed guns anywhere—including into bars, churches, and schools – via the National-Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act. With a majority in the Senate they would be able to pass this bill, undermining current states' gun laws and creating a race-to-the-bottom in terms of gun safety.

8. Legislation that adversely affects the LGBT community. Following a continued expansion of same-sex marriages and recent support of marriage equality from the Supreme Court, Republicans in the Senate have proven that they are committed to restricting the rights of the LGBT community and they could do so by passing the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act that allows for government-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBT community.

9. Legislation to deport DREAMers. A year after passing comprehensive immigration reform, many Senate Republicans are distancing themselves from the bipartisan bill and instead siding with the extreme Senator Ted Cruz who wants to stop the Obama administration from carrying out DACA, which would help thousands of immigrant children.

10. New cuts to programs and rules that increase college access, affordability, and readiness. While the cost of higher education skyrockets and the United States continues to fall behind its peers in math, science and reading, a Republican Senate would make it harder for students to afford college.

It is safe to say that a Republican controlled Senate would bring back the same top-down, trickle-down economic policies that have already failed our country. Even more pressingly, with Republicans controlling both chambers they would have the opportunity to roll back progressive policies like the protection of clean air, immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act, while pursuing a conservative agenda harmful to women's health and LGBT rights.

This a friendly reminder to vote on Tuesday, November 4.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

WikiLeaks: US pushes to extend drug monopolies in secret proposed trade deal


Excerpts from a proposed international trade agreement leaked to the web this week suggest that the United States is pushing for changes that would make it more difficult to get life-saving drugs overseas.

On Thursday, transparency group WikiLeaks published a draft chapter from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement which 12 countries, including the US, have been negotiating in near total privacy for years.

According to the secret-spilling organization, the latest leaked chapter — an excerpt from May 2014 detailing proposed intellectual property, or IP, rules — indicates that American trade reps want to maintain a monopoly on life-saving drugs and stifle efforts from foreign nations to obtain such products affordably and with ease.

A portion of the chapter backed by the US, WikiLeaks wrote in a statement that accompanied Thursday's unauthorized disclosure of the draft document, would "force Parties to enact an automatic monopoly period (marketing exclusivity) for life-saving drugs, with a choice for the groups to decide for definitive inclusion within the treaty of 0, 5, 8 or 12 years."

"Experts state that the United States is pushing for the maximum 12 years, with the countries' Ministers to decide as the IP negotiators cannot agree on this controversial issue," WikiLeaks reported. According to their analysis, achieving as much if and when the TPP is finally approved could have catastrophic results and run counter to exactly what the White House has said in the past.

"Administration will have gone back on its promise to make cancer drugs affordable, having previously pledged to reduce the monopoly period on biotech drugs from 12 to 7 years. This will mean patients needing these drugs will remain with hugely expensive medical bills for years to come. These costs are also generally unattainable for citizens in the developing countries in the TPP," WikiLeaks said.

Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, said in a statement that: "The lack of movement within the TPP IP Chapter shows that this only stands to harm people, and no one is satisfied. This clearly demonstrates that such an all-encompassing and divisive trade agreement is too damaging to be brought into force. The TPP should stop now."

Indeed, analysts at the Washington, DC-based Public Citizen consumer rights advocacy group raised concerns of their own about the draft this week.

"The text includes US-backed measures that would expand pharmaceutical monopoly power and compromise access to medicines in Pacific Rim countries," the group said. "Deep resistance to these measures from many negotiating countries has endured for years. The US has dropped some harmful proposals, but continues to insist on many others."

Providing longer-term monopolies for the companies that produce life-saving drugs, Public Citizen agreed, "contradicts the policies included in recent White House budgets and if adopted would undermine key cost savings touted by the administration." Nevertheless, passage of the TPP in this form would allow little room for change, the group said, because "Congress would be unable to reduce monopoly periods without risking significant penalties and investor-state arbitration."

"With billions at stake, Big Pharma wants the TPP to be a road map for rules that will govern Pacific Rim economies for the next several decades," Public Citizen said.

"The leak shows our government demanding rules that would lead to preventable suffering and death in Pacific Rim countries, while eliminating opportunities to ease financial hardship on American families and our health programs at home," Peter Maybarduk, the director of that group's Global Access to Medicines Program, said in a statement.

Representatives from 12 nations in all — the US, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand and Brunei — have been involved so far in TPP negotiations, and are scheduled to meet later this month in Canberra, then Sydney, to further discuss the proposal.

Much to the chagrin of WikiLeaks and other transparency advocates, the TPP has been negotiated almost entirely in secrecy since the start of discussions.

"No wonder they kept it secret," online entrepreneur Kim Dotcom of New Zealand previously told RT's Andrew Blake when WikiLeaks published a chapter of the TPP late last year. "What a malicious piece of US corporate lobbying. TPP is about world domination for US corporations. Nothing else. We will stop this madness in New Zealand."

According to WikiLeaks, the group's decision to publish a TPP excerpt last November may have forced some trade reps in the months since to reconsider certain aspects.

"Since that point, some controversial and damaging areas have had little change; issues surrounding digital rights have moved little. However, there are significant industry-favouring additions within the areas of pharmaceuticals and patents. These additions are likely to affect access to important medicines such as cancer drugs and will also weaken the requirements needed to patent genes in plants, which will impact small farmers and boost the dominance of large agricultural corporations like Monsanto," WikiLeaks said. "Nevertheless, some areas that were highlighted after WikiLeaks' last IP Chapter release have seen alterations that reflect the controversy; surgical method patents have been removed from the text. Doctors' groups said this was vitally important for allowing doctors to engage in medical procedures without fear of a lawsuit for providing the best care for their patients. Opposition is increasing to remove the provision proposed by the US and Japan that would require granting of patents for new drugs that are slightly altered from a previous patented one (evergreening), a technique by the pharmaceutical industry to prolong market monopoly."

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