Friday, May 30, 2008



On CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning, kindred spirit Mark Haines, who, like yours truly, has watched the financial markets, and generally been around, a long time and thus usually has the presence and the knowledge to step back and call nonsense what it is, was discussing the issue of the economic books’ being cooked, if you will. For example, a few weeks ago, we were told that the price of gasoline was down in April because of the idiosyncrasies of seasonal adjustment. This morning, we were told that inflation was well under control as measured by the personal consumption expenditures index. I’ve written on government statistics, especially the inflation statistics, on numerous occasions. The gist of my argument is that the books must be being cooked because of the government’s tremendous conflict of interest that arises from its both measuring inflation (in this case the CPI) and being on the hook to social security recipients for the adjustments to their checks for those very same CPI numbers. A less quantitatively tremendous conflict arises from the government’s measurement of the CPI and its having to adjust the principal value of its Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (“TIPS,” which are currently, and have been for some time, my favorite investment, but that is another topic). My conclusion is that either the government is cooking the books or that those who come up with such whoppers as a currently relatively stable CPI and the Wall Street wunderkinds who so glibly depend on those fantasies are so insulated from the real world that they haven’t the slightest hope for accuracy in generating such quantitative fairy tales. For example, if “transportation” means getting around New York or Washington in a price controlled cab and “food” meant eating in restaurants at which the actual price of the food itself is an almost immeasurable percentage of the cost of the “dining experience,” well, then, I guess that one could say with a straight face that the prices of gasoline and food don’t really matter and that, therefore, inflation is under control as long as the prices of, say, jewelry, luxury cars, and yachts remain stable, but I digress.

However, this entry is not about the substance of the discussion Mr. Haines was having with economists Steve Liesman and Michele Girard (both of whom I respect), another economist whose name I didn’t catch, and his co-host, the comely, witty, and well informed Erin Burnett. What made me want to stand up and cheer for Mark Haines was his rhetorical question in response to Ms. Burnett’s, and the other panelists’, contention that he is a curmudgeon:

“Why is it that when I get fed up with stupidity, I’m a curmudgeon?”

This statement so perfectly encapsulates my approach to life that even I, with all my skills with the written and spoken word, could not possibly improve on it.

Mr. Haines went on to utter a statement only slightly less profound:

“Standing up and saying something makes no sense is not curmudgeonly, it’s common sensical.” (sic)

As someone who still trades relatively actively, I am tuned into CNBC, albeit usually with the sound muted, throughout the day and, like most watchers, have come to, in a sense, know and like many of the hosts on its shows. (They are, by the way, quite an accomplished lot with, in most cases, considerable experience and genuinely useful books under figuratively under their belts. While one can see, judging from the appearance of most of the hosts (Messrs. Haines and Liesman excluded) how people can argue that one gets a job on CNBC from physical attractiveness alone, a look at the background of its on the air personnel quickly dispels that notion. But I digress.) I have, except for years ago when I first started watching CNBC (and was much younger), always liked the way Mr. Haines thinks. I’ve always gotten the sense that his approach to nonsense and snake oil was similar to mine. I also have long had the idea that his frustration with cheerleading and groundless, gormless optimism passing for thought and insight was, like mine, growing on a daily basis. But his observations today were so perfect that I felt compelled to break my long absence from these pages to draw your attention to them.

One more thing: I don’t mind being tagged with monikers like “curmudgeon” and don’t even mind “misanthrope” occasionally, even when such descriptives not preceded by adjectives like “lovable.” I take them as badges of honor in today’s world that is characterized mostly by silliness and idiocy being accepted, indeed celebrated, as long as enough people engage in such silliness and idiocy I suspect, but have no means of knowing, that Mr. Haines feels the same way.

No comments: