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The Wall Street Greek blog is the sexy & syndicated financial securities markets publication of former Senior Equity Analyst Markos N. Kaminis. Our stock market blog reaches reputable publishers & private networks and is an unbiased, independent Wall Street research resource on the economy, stocks, gold & currency, energy & oil, real estate and more. Wall Street & Greece should be as honest, dependable and passionate as The Greek.

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Top Ten Signs You're Suffering From Swine Flu Hysteria

Visit the front pages of Wall Street Greek and Market Moving News to see our current coverage of economic reports and financial markets.

comedy writer greek comic famous columnistJudging by the amount of traffic our beloved blog is receiving to its Swine Flu related work, it seems the world is indeed concerned about the first pandemic since 1968. However, we've given you enough to worry about here, so we thought we might lighten the mood and explore the possibility that we may be overdoing things. Google reports some truly confounding search queries around the topic of this nascent virus, and so I wonder how many of us have passed the point of healthy worry into the halls of hysteria.

Top Ten Signs You're Suffering From Swine Flu Hysteria

  • 10 - For "Cinco de Mayo" this year, you're planning a trip to Kamchatka

  • 9 - You wake up in a cold sweat every evening screaming, "Remember the Alamo!"

  • 8 - You asked a liquor store clerk if the worm in your tequila has been properly screened

  • 7 - You greet your pizza delivery boy with Lysol and a wind turbine

  • 6 - Suddenly "Kosher" sounds tasty

  • 5 - You insist to your local diner proprietor that BLT stands for biscuit, lettuce and tomato

  • 4 - Your new bedtime rendition of "The Three Little Pigs" gives your kids insomnia

  • 3 - Your boss calls you in for your inappropriate visits to the CDC website and your cubicle shrine to Matt Drudge

  • 2 - You find yourself fantasizing about Janet Napolitano

  • 1 - You conclude every conversation with the words "Ebde bde bde That's all folks!"Blank

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Please see our disclosures at the Wall Street Greek website and author bio pages found there. (Article interests: NYSE: NVS, Nasdaq: MATK, Nasdaq: GILD, Nasdaq: BCRX, Nasdaq: CELG, Nasdaq: BIIB, Nasdaq: DNDN, DIA, SPY, QQQQ, NYX, DOG, SDS, QLD, XLF, IWM, TWM, IWD, SDK).

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Discussion Topic: Swine Flu, Are You Worried?

Visit the front pages of Wall Street Greek and Market Moving News to see our current coverage of economic reports and financial markets.

is swine flu concerning to you discussion topicAfter SARS and Avian Influenza failed to materialize into formidable threats, mostly due to Asia's successful containment of SARS and the pace of evolution of Avian Flu, we wonder if there is a resultant complacency in the United States. As the World Health Organization raises the Pandemic Alert Level, now to 5 (one from the top), it seems clear the world will experience its first pandemic since 1968.

So we would like to know, what does this mean to you? Are you concerned, or do you think Chicken Little is running the show at the CDC and WHO? Tell us, are you:
  1. Highly Concerned
  2. Still Not Sure What to Make of Things
  3. Not Worried at All
Tell us why you feel the way you do, and how your life and plans have changed so far, and how you believe your life will change over the coming months. Click the "Discuss Topic" tab here to share your opinion. It may take a short while for your comment to appear on our site.

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Please see our disclosures at the Wall Street Greek website and author bio pages found there. (Article interests: NYSE: NVS, Nasdaq: MATK, Nasdaq: GILD, Nasdaq: BCRX, Nasdaq: CELG, Nasdaq: BIIB, Nasdaq: DNDN, DIA, SPY, QQQQ, NYX, DOG, SDS, QLD, XLF, IWM, TWM, IWD, SDK).

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is Swine Flu a Weapon of Biological Attack?

swine flu influenza biological weapon attack bio engineered virus
Visit the front pages of Wall Street Greek and Market Moving News to see our current coverage of economic reports and financial markets.

What if the outbreak were not a coincidence of biological evolution. What if Swine Influenza (Flu) H1N1 was in fact the weapon of a biological attack? Consider this...

wall street geopolitical affairs global strategy world newsIf you were planning an attack on the United States using a bio-engineered virus, how would you go about it to avoid detection? Well, I believe many of the natural routes and passages that have allowed this particular swine strain to so easily become the concern of the world, and a direct threat to the United States, offer an opportunity to reverse-engineer the possible plan behind it.

The advantages of using Mexico for instance are:
  1. Mexico is easy to infiltrate with a weapon of mass destruction, and worlds easier than the US
  2. Mexicans both legally and illegally cross the border into the US at an incredible rate, allowing for effective spreading of the disease into the US
  3. Mexico City is one of the most populated urban centers in the world, giving the virus a perfect incubation environment, and providing the disease with ample opportunity to spread beyond control
  4. The Mexican government is not as adept as the United States at: (1) noticing and identifying a new disease before it has spread too far; (2) containing it once discovered; (3) and Mexico is also likely to wait too long before notifying disease control experts that might contain and eradicate a new virus
Clearly, using Mexico as an incubation center for an attack on the United States makes strategic sense for our enemies and would-be enemies. If this virus had been born in the United States, the chances of it being contained would have been much greater. As it stands now, the CDC, WHO and Department of Homeland Security agree that Swine Flu is realistically beyond containment at this point. So, if a biological weapon, than H1N1 was employed effectively.

Using the Flu Defies Some Logic, But Not All

A biological attack of this means, using a virus like Swine Influenza (Flu), seems to make little sense due to risk of self destruction. So, why would one of our enemies use a weapon that is more likely to kill a greater multitude of its own citizens than our own? After all, the United States has a well-developed health care infrastructure and a tight plan for containment and treatment. In answering this, I must first remind readers that not all of our potential enemies are sensible and logical war strategists, and they cannot be counted on to play to plan. However, I would attribute a hypothetical attack in this case to a different reasoning other than pure homicidal mania. I'll tell you why this event, if planned, makes perfect sense for many of our current adversaries.


al-Qaeda is an organization about to come under a long-overdue intensification of pressure from a United States led UN initiative into Afghanistan and the borderland tribal areas of Pakistan. Perhaps feeling the heat, AQ has turned eastward of late, seeking to infiltrate and disease Pakistan from the inside out. At the same, it may now be more likely to lash out at the United States with whatever means it may possess.

If I may stray for a moment...

The Taliban has made great inroads into Pakistan over a very short span, and as a result, it has drawn the attention of both the United States and the Pakistani government. Shariah Law, the extremely strict rule of law employed by Islamic fundamentalists and abhorred by human rights activists, has made its way eastward with the Taliban to as close as 100 miles from Islamabad. Pakistan has responded with new troop deployments and air bombardments that have forced the Taliban to pull back temporarily. Even so, since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it has become clearer that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have a much greater long-term interest in Pakistan than just safe passage. Pakistani rulers who may have overlooked too many things might soon end up like the man who raised a crocodile only to see it eat him when it was all growed up.

What greater a nation for AQ to control than Pakistan, with its nuclear stockpile and advanced missile technology. After all, mountain life can grow tiresome, even for a terrorist. Through its grassroots effort, Pakistan might even open up to the possible entry of a foreign born leader some day, namely Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. I realize how far-fetched this may seem, but in a nation where Islamic Law is at least as important as nationality, well, stranger things have happened. Not less concerning, someone equally dangerous could rise to power through normal means and open the gate from the inside.

What about biological attacks...

al-Qaeda is an organization that benefits from global chaos. For it is within chaos that a flame can burn freely into a wildfire. The terror that germ warfare creates also fits al-Qaedo's MO. Biological weapons are the easiest weapons of mass destruction to produce. For a technologically constrained and border absent entity that is on the run, biological weapons represent the most likely WMD threat attainable, in my humble opinion. While nuclear and chemical weapons may also be attainable, these are more easily traced.

With its back against the wall, a biological attack by the terrorist organization now seems to make perfect sense. AQ is like a cornered dog, with Pakistan and the United States raising the stakes. A cornered dog is prone to bite, and if he has teeth, these seem like the most likely.


People have been telling me for years that a war with Iran will never happen, but I am comfortable in contention with them. The reason is because these same folks once told me Iran wanted nuclear energy. And I'm not talking about Joe Schmo from the local pub, but an anonymous UN representative I happened to cross paths with one evening (at the local pub), a representative of a close ally of our nation (and not Greek nor Cypriot). I was ahead of the game back then, but it still seemed like logical consequence to me, even some five years ago.

Today, despite President Obama's brave and brilliant attempt at outreach, I continue to believe a stubborn Iran with years and money invested will not back away from its program, nor tailor it to our requirements. Only one nation would have this kind of knowledge for sure, and that would be Iran. So, given this assumption, why wouldn't Iran, a beneficiary of our busy case load, offer us a big biological mess to add to the rest of our troubles. This seems even more likely as Israel solidifies its new government and very likely prepares for the inevitable.

North Korea

North Korea has been walking the fence between entering normal world relations and progressing toward something unsavory. One might say we've been played though. What separates North Korea from the other two wild cards is that the Communist North is not currently within our cross-hairs. However, who can know how Kim Jung-Il got ill... and who can predict how a paranoid government led by Kim might act at any time, let alone after a significant health scare.

We're talking about a country that kidnaps foreign women and starves it populous for the sake of military development and progression of a criminal state... so logical reasoning is a bit skewed. Is it coincidence that Korea has backed away now from its pledges to enter the world of nations and to halt its nuclear weapon and missile development? I fear not, and I cannot imagine that the otherwise tiny enemies of the United States would not cooperate with one another. So, even if it were not directly involved in the theoretical biological attack, it may well have knowledge of it.

The greatest red flag regarding North Korea's potential use of biological weaponry would be its isolation. What nation has the least concern about a global pandemic, if not an isolated prison state.

"Other" Powers

Other powers might find value in further injuring the United States, because a shift away from the dollar system might benefit our closer rivals over the long run. Recently, China has publicly called for such a development. Russia would also like to see the US-reinforced NATO off its turf, and oil priced higher, both natural consequences of a weaker dollar. For certain, keeping us busy at home and limiting our financial means weakens our bargaining position on global issues. If you think our rivals to the east are too wise to take such risk, I would point toward the many blatant examples of moral disregard that have been displayed for the world to see all too often. Do I need to name them...

While pointing my finger, I cannot overlook our own mistakes from years past. Our ongoing military development is inspired by a sort of paranoia, distrust and perverted logic not too dissimilar from that of our Korean pals. Who could blame us though right, when the potential for another Hitler rising to power somewhere cannot be ruled out, and with so many wild cards on the loose... and so we build and build and build so that when we blow up our planet, the rest of the universe might see.

In Conclusion

So we have made logical cases for biological weapon development and employment by our adversaries, and we know this current Swine Flu strain could easily be man made. It was not but five years ago that we openly discussed the creation of a new strain of virus ourselves. The CDC said it wanted to understand how one might develop in the wild, and therefore, maybe gain knowledge that might allow for its eventual eradication. We know biological weapon development more potent than Swine Flu is not fantasy fiction. So then why couldn't this epidemic be man-made, given just some of the possible reasons listed above.

After its economic hit, the United States is like a boxer stunned by a clean blow. Our enemies might hope to seize upon our momentary daze, especially with a new president in office, and such a nice guy at that. Some view weakness in kindness, but your author sees greater strength in tolerance, especially when that tolerance is viewed as weakness. Still, in this world full of ravenous and savage animals (read men), the tolerant can expect to be tested.

Whether its man-made or natural, a weapon or a means for a global wake up call, Swine Flu must now be dealt with. For the sake of the global population, your fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and even enemies, this foe to humanity must be the focus of united effort. Finally, development of WMD, and in this case biological weaponry, including those that target food crops must be stopped before they stop humanity.

Inspired by Thomas Merton

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Please see our disclosures at the Wall Street Greek website and author bio pages found there. (Article interests: DIA, SPY, QQQQ, NYX, DOG, SDS, QLD, XLF, IWM, TWM, IWD, SDK).

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Influenza (Flu) Outbreak / Pandemic Information & News

Welcome to our Swine Flu Information Center. Find updated articles, advisories & videos on swine influenza (flu) outbreak / pandemic.

Video News About the Swine Influenza (Flu) Outbreak / Pandemic

WHO Alert Level: 6 (PANDEMIC)
Lab Confirmed Cases:

Sickened: 28,774
Deaths: 144
Mortality Rate: 0.5%

Nations Affected: 75*

  1. Mexico: 6,241 - 108 Deaths
  2. USA: 13,217 - 27 Deaths
  3. Argentina: 256
  4. Australia: 1307
  5. Austria: 7
  6. Bahamas: 1
  7. Bahrain: 1
  8. Barbados: 3
  9. Belgium: 14
  10. Bolivia: 5
  11. Brazil: 40
  12. Bulgaria: 2
  13. Canada: 2446 - 4 Dead
  14. Cayman Islands: 2
  15. Chile: 1694
  16. China: 174
  17. Chinese Taipei: 36
  18. Colombia: 35
  19. Costa Rica: 104
  20. Cuba: 5
  21. Cyprus: 1
  22. Czech Republic: 4
  23. Denmark: 10
  24. Dominica: 1
  25. Dominican Republic: 91
  26. Ecuador: 67
  27. Egypt: 10
  28. El Salvador: 69
  29. Estonia: 4
  30. Finland: 4
  31. France: 73
  32. Germany: 95
  33. Greece: 7
  34. Guatemala: 60
  35. Honduras: 89
  36. Hungary: 4
  37. Iceland: 3
  38. India: 9
  39. Ireland: 12
  40. Israel: 68
  41. Italy: 54
  42. Jamaica: 10
  43. Japan: 518
  44. South Korea: 53
  45. Kuwait: 18
  46. Lebanon: 8
  47. Luxembourg: 1
  48. Malaysia: 5
  49. Netherlands: 30
  50. New Zealand: 23
  51. Nicaragua: 45
  52. Norway: 13
  53. Panama: 221
  54. Paraguay: 25
  55. Peru: 64
  56. Philippines: 77
  57. Poland: 7
  58. Portugal: 2
  59. Romania: 11
  60. Russia: 3
  61. Saudi Arabia: 1
  62. Singapore: 18
  63. Slovakia: 3
  64. Spain: 357
  65. Sweden: 19
  66. Switzerland: 20
  67. Thailand: 8
  68. Trinidad & Tobago: 2
  69. Turkey: 10
  70. Ukraine: 1
  71. United Arab Emirates: 1
  72. United Kingdom: 822
  73. Uruguay: 24
  74. Venezuela: 13
  75. Vietnam: 16
U.S. States Confirmed Cases: 50 States
  1. Alabama: 94
  2. Alaska: 3
  3. Arkansas: 9
  4. Arizona: 547
  5. California: 973
  6. Colorado: 75
  7. Connecticut: 395
  8. Delaware: 142
  9. Florida: 247
  10. Georgia: 33
  11. Hawaii: 115
  12. Idaho: 16
  13. Illinois: 1357
  14. Indiana: 173
  15. Iowa: 92
  16. Kansas: 92
  17. Kentucky: 96
  18. Louisiana: 134
  19. Maine: 17
  20. Maryland: 89
  21. Massachusetts: 787
  22. Michigan: 298
  23. Minnesota: 82
  24. Mississippi: 40
  25. Missouri: 46
  26. Montana: 15
  27. Nebraska: 60
  28. Nevada: 128
  29. New Hampshire: 64
  30. New Jersey: 148
  31. New Mexico: 108
  32. New York: 858
  33. North Carolina: 30
  34. North Dakota: 23
  35. Ohio: 35
  36. Oklahoma: 93
  37. Oregon: 167
  38. Pennsylvania: 299
  39. Rhode Island: 18
  40. South Carolina: 60
  41. South Dakota: 10
  42. Tennessee: 104
  43. Texas: 1670
  44. Utah: 461
  45. Vermont: 9
  46. Virginia: 55
  47. Washington: 577
  48. Washington DC: 24
  49. Wisconsin: 2217
  50. Wyoming: 25
  51. Puerto Rico: 1

Swine Influenza (Flu) Outbreak / Pandemic News & Information Center

Below you will find news articles from the most reputable news sources in the world, and original content and advice offered by our concerned writers, as we track the spread and devastation of the Swine Influenza (Flu) Outbreak / Pandemic and try to guide you to safety and good health.

News Articles on Swine Influenza (Flu) Outbreak / Pandemic

Tips on How to Keep Yourself & Others Safe and Well:

swine influenza flu outbreak pandemic information newsRecent WHO Advisory
June 11, 2009
WHO Website

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Ladies and gentlemen,

In late April, WHO announced the emergence of a novel influenza A virus.

This particular H1N1 strain has not circulated previously in humans. The virus is entirely new.

The virus is contagious, spreading easily from one person to another, and from one country to another. As of today, nearly 30,000 confirmed cases have been reported in 74 countries.

This is only part of the picture. With few exceptions, countries with large numbers of cases are those with good surveillance and testing procedures in place.

Spread in several countries can no longer be traced to clearly-defined chains of human-to-human transmission. Further spread is considered inevitable.

I have conferred with leading influenza experts, virologists, and public health officials. In line with procedures set out in the International Health Regulations, I have sought guidance and advice from an Emergency Committee established for this purpose.

On the basis of available evidence, and these expert assessments of the evidence, the scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met.

I have therefore decided to raise the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 5 to phase 6.

The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic.

We are in the earliest days of the pandemic. The virus is spreading under a close and careful watch.

No previous pandemic has been detected so early or watched so closely, in real-time, right at the very beginning. The world can now reap the benefits of investments, over the last five years, in pandemic preparedness.

We have a head start. This places us in a strong position. But it also creates a demand for advice and reassurance in the midst of limited data and considerable scientific uncertainty.

Thanks to close monitoring, thorough investigations, and frank reporting from countries, we have some early snapshots depicting spread of the virus and the range of illness it can cause.

We know, too, that this early, patchy picture can change very quickly. The virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time.

Globally, we have good reason to believe that this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity. As we know from experience, severity can vary, depending on many factors, from one country to another.

On present evidence, the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild symptoms and make a rapid and full recovery, often in the absence of any form of medical treatment.

Worldwide, the number of deaths is small. Each and every one of these deaths is tragic, and we have to brace ourselves to see more. However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe or fatal infections.

We know that the novel H1N1 virus preferentially infects younger people. In nearly all areas with large and sustained outbreaks, the majority of cases have occurred in people under the age of 25 years.

In some of these countries, around 2% of cases have developed severe illness, often with very rapid progression to life-threatening pneumonia.

Most cases of severe and fatal infections have been in adults between the ages of 30 and 50 years.

This pattern is significantly different from that seen during epidemics of seasonal influenza, when most deaths occur in frail elderly people.

Many, though not all, severe cases have occurred in people with underlying chronic conditions. Based on limited, preliminary data, conditions most frequently seen include respiratory diseases, notably asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and obesity.

At the same time, it is important to note that around one third to half of the severe and fatal infections are occurring in previously healthy young and middle-aged people.

Without question, pregnant women are at increased risk of complications. This heightened risk takes on added importance for a virus, like this one, that preferentially infects younger age groups.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest concern, we do not know how this virus will behave under conditions typically found in the developing world. To date, the vast majority of cases have been detected and investigated in comparatively well-off countries.

Let me underscore two of many reasons for this concern. First, more than 99% of maternal deaths, which are a marker of poor quality care during pregnancy and childbirth, occurs in the developing world.

Second, around 85% of the burden of chronic diseases is concentrated in low- and middle-income countries.

Although the pandemic appears to have moderate severity in comparatively well-off countries, it is prudent to anticipate a bleaker picture as the virus spreads to areas with limited resources, poor health care, and a high prevalence of underlying medical problems.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A characteristic feature of pandemics is their rapid spread to all parts of the world. In the previous century, this spread has typically taken around 6 to 9 months, even during times when most international travel was by ship or rail.

Countries should prepare to see cases, or the further spread of cases, in the near future. Countries where outbreaks appear to have peaked should prepare for a second wave of infection.

Guidance on specific protective and precautionary measures has been sent to ministries of health in all countries. Countries with no or only a few cases should remain vigilant.

Countries with widespread transmission should focus on the appropriate management of patients. The testing and investigation of patients should be limited, as such measures are resource intensive and can very quickly strain capacities.

WHO has been in close dialogue with influenza vaccine manufacturers. I understand that production of vaccines for seasonal influenza will be completed soon, and that full capacity will be available to ensure the largest possible supply of pandemic vaccine in the months to come.

Pending the availability of vaccines, several non-pharmaceutical interventions can confer some protection.

WHO continues to recommend no restrictions on travel and no border closures.

Influenza pandemics, whether moderate or severe, are remarkable events because of the almost universal susceptibility of the world’s population to infection.

We are all in this together, and we will all get through this, together.

Thank you.

Recent CDC Advisory
May 20, 2009
CDC Website

Novel influenza A (H1N1) is a new flu virus of swine origin that was first detected in April, 2009. The virus is infecting people and is spreading from person-to-person, sparking a growing outbreak of illness in the United States. An increasing number of cases are being reported internationally as well.

It's thought that novel influenza A (H1N1) flu spreads in the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread; mainly through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick with the virus.

It's uncertain at this time how severe this novel H1N1 outbreak will be in terms of illness and death compared with other influenza viruses. Because this is a new virus, most people will not have immunity to it, and illness may be more severe and widespread as a result. In addition, currently there is no vaccine to protect against this novel H1N1 virus. CDC anticipates that there will be more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths associated with this new virus in the coming days and weeks.

Novel influenza A (H1N1) activity is now being detected through CDC's routine influenza surveillance systems and reported weekly in FluView. CDC tracks U.S. influenza activity through multiple systems across five categories. The fact that novel H1N1 activity is now detected through seasonal surveillance systems is an indication that there are higher levels of influenza-like illness in the United States than is normal for this time of year. About half of all influenza viruses being detected are novel H1N1 viruses.

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Visit the front pages of Wall Street Greek and Market Moving News to see our current coverage of economic reports and financial markets. Please see our disclosures at the Wall Street Greek website and author bio pages found there. Tickers: AMEX: DIA, AMEX: SPY, Nasdaq: QQQQ, NYSE: NYX, AMEX: DOG, AMEX: SDS, AMEX: QLD, AMEX: XLF, AMEX: IWM, AMEX: TWM, AMEX: IWD, AMEX: SDK.

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Week Ahead: Swine Flu, Stressed Banks and Stretched Stocks

swine flu influenza stock market economic reaction global economy
Visit the front pages of Wall Street Greek and Market Moving News to see our current coverage of economic reports and financial markets.


The Week Ahead

wall street the greek economist stock analystThe week ahead offers threat to the nascent bull run. Stocks seem stretched after leveling out last week. In that most recent period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI) closed down fractionally.

While technical analysis is not an area of focus for "The Greek," I can tell when the market reaches a point of inflection. I believe we got there last week, and with the results of the bank stress test just ahead, I see market upside potential limited in the near-term. Of course, the bank stress test is proving to be a joke of an exam, graded on a scale and one in which nobody of significance is likely to fail... because seriously, why would a central bank that has gone to such great lengths to preserve the largest of the nation's financial institutions choose to be the determinant of their demise now...

Beyond the stress test, the Swine Influenza outbreak is a very real and dangerous threat to the global economy. Therefore, we expect the market has good enough reason to give back significant ground this week.


Even though there are no economic reports scheduled for Monday, plenty of potential market drivers loom. The outbreak of a new strain of Swine Influenza has Mexico City on lock-down and several American states already dealing with local threat. This looks to be a clear driver for downside on Monday morning, as risk is high if the flu proves to be as virulent as the first 1,000 cases indicate it might. At our last check, the morbidity rate was around 7%. Early American cases have not been deadly thus far, but it is still way too early to exhale.

The U.S. Treasury is scheduled to announce its estimated borrowing needs for the second and third quarters around 3:00 PM EDT. The number may see revision higher if tax receipts did not satisfy its forecast.

The Milkin Institute holds its annual conference Monday. Just a month ahead of its candidate exams for its prestigious charter, the CFA Institute hosts NYU Economist Nouriel Roubini and Finance Professor Andrew Lo. The French Finance Minister and the ECB President are also scheduled to speak at the Global Financial Forum hosted by JP Morgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) and the New York Fed.

Markets will be shut in Australia, but the earnings schedule is still hot and heavy in the United States. American Express (NYSE: AXP) will hold its annual meeting, after the shares soared to close out last week's trading. Look for fresh earnings reports from Checkpoint Software (Nasdaq: CHKP), Whirlpool (NYSE: WHR), Verizon (NYSE: VZ), Aaron Rents (NYSE: AAN), Alberto Culver (NYSE: ACV), Alliance Holdings (Nasdaq: AHGP), Axis Capital (NYSE: AXS), Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU), Banco Popular (MCE: POP.MC), BE Aerospace (Nasdaq: BEAV), Corning (NYSE: GLW), Energizer (NYSE: ENR), Fidelity National Financial (NYSE: FNF), First Advantage (Nasdaq: FADV), Gulfmark Offshore (NYSE: GLF), Health Management Associates (NYSE: HMA), HealthStream (Nasdaq: HSTM), Humana (NYSE: HUM), Kyocera (NYSE: KYO), Lorillard (NYSE: LO), MBT Financial (Nasdaq: MBTF), Montpelier Re (NYSE: MRH), PartnerRe (NYSE: PRE), Plum Creek Timber (NYSE: PCL), PrePaid Legal (NYSE: PPD), Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), Rent-A-Center (Nasdaq: RCII), Smith Int'l (NYSE: SII), Telefonos De Mexico (NYSE: TMX), Travelzoo (Nasdaq: TZOO), Universal Health Services (NYSE: UHS), Valero Energy (NYSE: VLO), Weingarten Realty Investors (NYSE: WRI), XL Capital (NYSE: XL) and many more.


Look for S&P/Case Shiller's Home Price Index release just before the open on Tuesday. However, the data being reported is simply too old to matter much to a market that already has a good idea of current price trend. For informational purposes, we note that January's data showed record annual rates of decline in both the 10 (-19.4%) and 20 (-19%) metro area composites. The Federal Housing Finance Agency reported last week that February prices increased 0.7% over those of January. The FHFA also reported that for the 12-month period ending in February, prices were 6.5% lower.

Bloomberg's consensus of economists sees the Conference Board's measure of consumer confidence rising slightly again for April. The group forecasts a reading of 30.0 on the index this time around, versus 26.0 for March. We've seen confidence improvement (or less deterioration anyway) in the weekly same-store sales data out of the International Council of Shopping Centers. Last week, that report showed only a 0.1% year-to-year decline, with a 0.4% weekly drop posted.

The Federal Open Market Committee begins its two-day meeting on Tuesday. The earnings schedule highlights reports from McGraw-Hill (NYSE: MHP), Tellabs (Nasdaq: TLAB), ACE Ltd (NYSE: ACE), Advent Software (Nasdaq: ADVS), AGCO (NYSE: AG), American Commercial Lines (Nasdaq: ACLI), American Greetings (NYSE: AM), American Safety Insurance (NYSE: ASI), Anadigics (Nasdaq: ANAD), Avery Dennison (NYSE: AVY), Beckman Coulter (NYSE: BEC), Becton, Dickinson & Co. (NYSE: BDX), BP Plc (NYSE: BP), Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), BTU Int'l (Nasdaq: BTUI), Buffalo Wild Wings (Nasdaq: BWLD), Celanese (NYSE: CE), Centene (NYSE: CNC), Ceradyne (Nasdaq: CRDN), Cerner (Nasdaq: CERN), China Eastern Airlines (NYSE: CEA), China Southern Airlines (NYSE: ZNH), Coca-Cola Enterprises (NYSE: CCE), Coventry Health Care (NYSE: CVH), Daimler AG (NYSE: DAI), Danaos (NYSE: DAC), Deutsche Bank (NYSE: DB), Dream Works Animation (NYSE: DWA), E*TRADE (Nasdaq: ETFC), EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK), Franklin Resources (NYSE: BEN), Franklin Street Properties (NYSE: FSP), Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL), Hercules Offshore (Nasdaq: HERO), Honda Motor (NYSE: HMC), Hospira (NYSE: HSP), Jacobs Engineering (NYSE: JEC), Kelly Services (Nasdaq: KELYA), Kulicke & Soffa (Nasdaq: KLIC), Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE), National Instruments (Nasdaq: NATI), Office Depot (NYSE: ODP), OptionsXpress (Nasdaq: OXPS), PACCAR (Nasdaq: PCAR), Panera Bread (Nasdaq: PNRA), Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), Psychiatric Solutions (Nasdaq: PSYS), RF Micro Devices (Nasdaq: RFMD), Rockwell Collins (NYSE: COL), Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: JAVA), Superior Energy Services (NYSE: SPN), Under Armour (NYSE: UA), Unisys (NYSE: UIS), United States Steel (NYSE: X), Vestas Wind Systems (VWS.CO), VF Corp. (NYSE: VFC), Waters Corp. (NYSE: WAT), Websense (Nasdaq: WBSN), Williams Controls (Nasdaq: WMCO) and more.


At 8:30 AM, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will publish the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first quarter of 2009. According to Bloomberg's tally of experts, GDP should have contracted by 5.0% in the quarter, but the range of forecasts extends to as low as -6.2%. At its final counting, GDP contracted by 6.3% in the fourth quarter of 2008.

The FOMC issues its monetary policy decision at 2:15 PM, and you can expect its commentary to weigh heavily on market action. Given the new downside economic catalyst, pandemic influenza, expect ongoing quantitative easing efforts. Also, the Treasury plans to make its quarterly refunding announcement at 9:00 AM.

The Mortgage Bankers Association reports its weekly data on mortgage activity in the pre-market. In the week ended April 17, application volume improved, with the Market Composite Index rising 5.3%. The Easter holiday played a role, outweighing a small increase in contracted 30-year fixed rate mortgage rates, to 4.73%. Also, an increase in refinancings outweighed a decrease in purchase activity last week.

President Obama may have to change the focus of his scheduled prime time news conference, which is planned for 8:00 PM. We suspect his initial plan was for economic discussion, but progress of the Swine Flu may require a different sort of address to the American people.

Japan's markets are closed on Wednesday. The EIA issues its weekly Petroleum Status Report at 10:30. Last week's data indicated crude oil inventories rose by 3.9 million barrels last week, while gasoline increased by 0.8 million. Bank of America has its annual meeting, including an important vote that will determine whether embattled CEO Ken Lewis is reelected. Key shareholder interests stand opposed to Mr. Lewis as of the hour of publishing this report. Morgan Stanley's shareholders are also scheduled to meet on Wednesday.

The day's earnings schedule highlights news from Aetna (NYSE: AET), Qwest Communications (NYSE: Q), Southern (NYSE: SO), Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI), Aflac (NYSE: AFL), Agnico-Eagle Mines (NYSE: AEM), Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM), Akeena Solar (Nasdaq: AKNS), Amkor (Nasdaq: AMKR), ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT), Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX), Burger King (NYSE: BKC), CACI Int'l (NYSE: CAI), China Petroleum & Chemical (NYSE: SNP), Citrix Systems (Nasdaq: CTXS), Covance (NYSE: CVD), Drugstore.com (Nasdaq: DSCM), Everest Re (NYSE: RE), Express Scripts (Nasdaq: ESRX), First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR), Flowserve (NYSE: FLS), FTI Consulting (NYSE: FCN), Genco Shipping (NYSE: GNK), General Dynamics (NYSE: GD), Goodyear (NYSE: GT), Green Mountain Coffee (Nasdaq: GMCR), GSI Commerce (Nasdaq: GSIC), Harman Int'l (NYSE: HAR), Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI), Jones Apparel (NYSE: JNY), Kaiser Aluminum (Nasdaq: KALU), Lithia Motors (NYSE: LAD), Medco Health (NYSE: MHS), MGIC Investment (NYSE: MTG), Moody's (NYSE: MCO), Navios Maritime (NYSE: NM), Oceaneering Int'l (NYSE: OII), Praxair (NYSE: PX), Regis (NYSE: RGS), Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI), Rockwell Automation (NYSE: ROK), Sanofi-Aventis (NYSE: SNY), SAP (NYSE: SAP), Sealed Air (NYSE: SEE), Siemens (NYSE: SI), Time Warner (NYSE: TWX), Visa (NYSE: V), Waste Management (NYSE: WMI), Wyeth (NYSE: WYE) and more.


Thursday offers a busy slate, with three economic reports scheduled for before the opening bell. The market is always interested in the Weekly Jobless Claims data, reported at 8:30. New claims filers increased 27K last week to 640K. We believe Easter again played a role in keeping the prior week total subdued some. Economists again forecast 640K for this week. Whether we've seen the highs in weekly claims filings hinges on the fate of Chrysler, General Motors (NYSE: GM) and the auto supplier and dealer networks. Chrysler came to a favorable agreement with the UAW over the weekend that may help a Fiat absorption to occur before Chrysler would be forced to file for bankruptcy.

Labor costs are clearly pressured now by the depth of this economic downturn. We've seen major concessions from employee unions that prefer those over their constituents' unemployment. The Employment Cost Index still rose 0.5% in Q4 of 2008, as compared to Q3. Economists see the same rate of increase for the first quarter of 2009.

The Personal Income and Outlays data for March is also due at 8:30, rounding out the trio. We noted recently that the Core PCE Price Index proved critical to market movement on the day of report last month. While other factors may dull that effect this month (read Swine Flu), if prices remain stubbornly anchored on the consumer level again, expect shares to find the news as adequate enough reason for concern. Economists are looking for a 0.2% increase in the aforementioned index, which would match the 0.2% move for February. Personal Spending is seen unchanged, versus a 0.2% increase in February. Income is expected to have fallen by 0.2% from the prior month, versus a similar change in February.

One more economic data point is due at 9:45, the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) for April. This reports' Business Barometer Index is expected to measure 35.0, versus 31.4 in March. The EIA Natural Gas Report, detailing the commodity's stockpiling or net usage, is due at 10:30 as usual.

Look for earnings news and calls from Motorola (NYSE: MOT), Viacom (NYSE: VIA), NYSE Euronext (NYSE: NYX) Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW), Kellogg (NYSE: K), Affiliated Computer (NYSE: ACS), AmeriGas (NYSE: APU), Apache (NYSE: APA), Asset Acceptance (Nasdaq: AACC), AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN), BorgWarner (NYSE: BWA), Cabela's (NYSE: CAB), Calamos Asset Management (Nasdaq: CLMS), Callaway Golf (NYSE: ELY), Carbo Ceramics (NYSE: CRR), Celgene (Nasdaq: CELG), Chiquita Brands (NYSE: CQB), CIGNA (NYSE: CI), Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL), Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), Corinthian Colleges (Nasdaq: COCO), Domino's (NYSE: DPZ), Ethan Allen (NYSE: ETH), Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLR), Fiserv (Nasdaq: FISV), Gentiva Health (Nasdaq: GTIV), Hartford Fin'l (NYSE: HIG), International Paper (NYSE: IP), Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO), Martha Stewart Living (NYSE: MSO), MetLife (NYSE: MET), MICROS System (Nasdaq: MCRS), Monster Worldwide (NYSE: MWW), Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN), National Fuel Gas (NYSE: NFG), Newell Rubbermaid (NYSE: NWL), Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM), Nobel Learning (Nasdaq: NLCI), Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL), OfficeMax (NYSE: OMX), Quixote (Nasdaq: QUIX), Revlon (NYSE: REV), Travelers (NYSE: TRV), Tyco Int'l (NYSE: TYC) and more.


It's the first day of the new month! Markets in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Mexico and others will be closed for May Day.

In the US, however, automakers are due to report April's sales results. Last month, domestic sales improved in aggregate, to an annual pace of 6.9 million. That's still drastically short of the prior year level, but was above February's 6.3 million pace. While new incentive programs are in effect now, unemployment continues to rise and there remains a high level of concern regarding the bankruptcy potential for two out of the Detroit three. Despite the government's willingness to backstop warranties, we expect sales are being impacted. We expect that if we see GM secure itself for cash flow survival, there would be a resulting bump up in sales. Pent-up demand is building as the average age of vehicles on the road moves into record territory.

With a backdrop consisting of China calling for stress tests of reserve currencies and suggesting that nations turn to a one world currency system, it should be interesting to hear Timothy Geithner's views after he actively works on US/China relations in Washington on Friday. Recall, the Treasury Secretary put his foot in his mouth and then pulled it back out with regard to China and its alleged currency manipulation. St. Louis Fed President Bullard is also scheduled to address a group on Friday, so keep on the look out for any market moving comments from him.

The Reuters/University of Michigan Sentiment measure is expected to hold steady at 61.9, compared to the mid-April reporting. April's ISM Manufacturing Index is expected to improve to 38.3, compared to 36.3 in March. Needless to say, a reading below 50 still signifies economic contraction. March Factory Orders are due out at 10:00 a.m., with Bloomberg's consensus of economists forecasting a decline of 0.5%. February orders rose 1.8% on strong durable goods orders that have since pulled back.

The earnings schedule includes Metlife (NYSE: MET), Aon (NYSE: AOC), Allergan (NYSE: AGN), Ameren (NYSE: AEE), American Axle (NYSE: AXL), Apartment Investment & Management (NYSE: AIV), Black Hills (NYSE: BKH), Cameco (NYSE: CCJ), Chevron (NYSE: CVX), Clorox (NYSE: CLX), CNA Surety (NYSE: SUR), Consolidated Edison (NYSE: ED), Dean Foods (NYSE: DF), Federal Signal (NYSE: FSS), Fortune Brands (NYSE: FO), MasterCard (NYSE: MA), Nicor (NYSE: GAS), PNM Resources (NYSE: PNM), The Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) and a few more.


Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A, BRK-B) and its legendary leader Warren Buffet hold their gala of an annual meeting in Omaha on Saturday.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Bank of America News: CEO Lewis Felt Pressure from Bernanke and Paulson to Close Merrill Acquisition (NYSE: BAC)

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(Relative Tickers: BAC, XLF, AIG, C, WFC, JPM, GS, MS, DIA, SPY, QQQQ, DOG, SDS, QLD, FRE, FNM)

Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis seems to have been effectively pressured into dealing a near death blow to his own company. He's indicated that the consummation of his company's acquisition/absorption of Merrill Lynch came at the prodding of government representatives, according to the Wall Street Journal's accounting of his sworn testimony to the New York District Attorney's Office.

business news financial markets stock bankIt seems Mr. Lewis is a good obedient citizen, and whatever he is asked to do by any federal official, he will do. In February, he was asked by New York District Attorney Cuomo why he bought the highly troubled Merrill Lynch, even after getting a good look at the books. More importantly, the DA wanted to know why Lewis didn't disclose Merrill's toxic load to shareholders before closing the deal. The embattled CEO answered like the good soldier would, with the truth, which effectively shifted the spotlight to our old pals, Bernanke and Paulson.

Before that, in the fall of 2008, Lewis was reportedly asked to move forward with his acquisition of Merrill Lynch despite gaining awareness of its poisonous balance sheet. Again he obeyed the good will of his government, or at least its representatives, and closed the deal. But, just in case, BofA took on another trailer full of TARP debt, stacking its burdensome load of government aid to $45 billion.

God bless America, and who is to say that we would not have done the same thing in that moment of chaos that did in Lehman Brothers and brought AIG (NYSE: AIG) to its knees. As a matter of fact, I believe "The Greek" was a supporter of the "system crusade," through the passage of TARP I anyway. Not long after that, it became clear some of the chickens in DC had no heads.

Still, here's the problem with what took place in BofA's situation. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) is a private company, owned by its shareholders, to which Mr. Lewis holds fiduciary responsibility to serve and obey. It's the job of the Fed and Treasury to protect the system, not Bank of America's! Unfortunately for the parties involved, we don't live in the days of J.P. Morgan when CEOs and central bankers could get away with this kind of cowboy bravado (I really mean it - it's unfortunate). So the axe will fall and the guys who stuck their necks out will be sacrificed (read Lewis and maybe Paulson).

The story goes that Lewis had second thoughts about Merrill as he had time to learn the details of its woes (more than the sleepless weekend in September anyway). Lewis was rumored to have considered employing a clause rarely used in M&A, in order to back out of the deal. He would have effectively claimed Merrill's condition had deteriorated significantly enough to allow for his firm's exit.

However, the government, namely Messengers Bernanke and Paulson, allegedly leaned on Lewis. They may have implied that "mum" was the word regarding the condition of Merrill, and supposedly noted that failure to consummate could cost him and his team their jobs, or something like that. Needless to say, the rest is history. I must admit that I'm now even more curious of how the big Merrill bonus payments came to be through this whole mess. The scandal expands and writers have fodder for their fingers...

Why Did BAC Shares Rise Given Thursday's Scandalous News

You must be wondering why the stock jumped 7.8% on Thursday ($0.56), given the news flow. Well, in one word, I would say the answer is culpability. BAC investors are hoping the company's pain, and the blame for it, can be shifted over to the government to bear. It's the least Uncle Sam can do, considering the mess it engineered for them while saving the rest of us. In my humble opinion, this is one of those cases where bad news is actually viewed positively by shareholders. You can look at it a few ways...

  1. Lewis' Era Concludes - BofA's CEO has probably seen his last days at the helm, as nice a guy as he seems to be. Whether it be by shareholder vote or by stress-driven resignation, the odds are stacked against him now more than ever. A pivotal shareholder meeting is set for April 29. Even if the company's betrayed shareholders find a patriotic bone to chew on and can sympathize (money beats patriotism though), is any amount of post-TARP executive compensation worth the stress that Mr. Lewis has got to be bearing these days? The problem is that TARP babies carry all kinds of limitations on once-golden parachutes, now made simply of silk.

    Sometimes walking away can be a victory of sorts, and God knows the man still has a great deal more than so many of you who are reading... and we who are scribbling. So, given the broad interpretation (utter disgust) of the decisions this management team has made, including its purchase of Countrywide, shareholders were likely enthused on Wednesday that there might be a new captain at the helm of their ship soon. Thus, the share rise.

  2. Culpability Shift - The other potential driver of the stock Thursday is similar, yet different. Shareholder suits now have a bigger fish to fry, the federal government. If there is pliable credence to the alleged claims of Mr. Lewis, than there may be culpability to place in Washington. And oh by the way, that's where all the money comes from. Thus, the share rise.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Inflation Risk: Reality or Fantasy, It Matters to the Market

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Inflation Fear Proves a Real Threat

wall street the greek famous writer columnistOn a fateful day in late March, in the middle of the rally, the market opened gap-lower and dropped 2% on the day. There were three factors attributed to the decline, but the gap-open revealed the true culprit, inflation fear. The PCE Price Index, released that morning, was, needless to say, troubling.


In an old copy of our "Week Ahead," we wrote:

"The Core PCE Price Index is the Fed's most favored inflation gauge. It is expected to produce a change this time around that the market would seem likely to dislike due to recently revived inflation concern. In case you can't read between the lines, this may prove a catalyst for Friday decline in the broader marketplace."

After receiving the Personal Spending and Income Report in the pre-market on that last Friday in March, the broader indexes opened gap lower and closed down for the day. The S&P 500 Index ^GSPC was off by 2%, the Dow Jones Industrials ^DJI fell 1.9% and the Nasdaq Composite ^IXIC sank 2.6% to be exact. A "gap open" price change happens for a reason: because of a catalyst that came to be before the trading day began.

There were three factors widely attributed as responsible for the market's decline on that telling day, but only one of them came to be in the pre-market. For this reason, I suppose the other two only played supportive roles, while inflation concern played the lead.

Market Driving Factors

First Supportive Factor - Regulation Worry

On Friday, March 27th, Treasury Secretary Geithner testified before the House Financial Services Committee on the subject of financial regulatory reform. The Secretary suggested the creation of a "super regulator" that would be empowered to seize private businesses when the failure of those businesses threatened the broader system. He also proposed a tighter watch on hedge funds, and a clearing house for derivatives markets has been discussed as well.

Despite the big mess we have gotten ourselves into because of the human tendencies to lie, cheat and steal, it seems the market still remains fearful of government meddling, given its reaction on that day in March. Can you imagine that after all the chicanery that has taken place, the hawks are still preying on the chickens... I draw an analogy here to the tendency of criminals to justify their crimes, however heinous they may be. We are clearly incapable of regulating ourselves, and that may have never been more obvious than during this latest crisis. I point to the many faults, ranging from biased credit rating agencies, to greedy mortgage brokers, to exotic securities designers and marketers (read Wall St.) and negligent banks.

Representative Al Green of Texas said it best when he stated, "Too big to fail is the right size to regulate." Yes, and I agree; we need supervision. Like bearing your way through the surgery you dread but realize you need, I think the market should also now accept this strong medicine for its better good.

We think the "super regulator" idea troubled investors the most, because of concern the decision to seize private property might be too subjective in nature. " To that end, it's not necessarily the regulation we fear, but the designers behind the rules who have proven at times as inept as the players on the field. In fact, it was Congress' home ownership push that stoked the mess in the first place.

The Second Supportive Factor - The Rally Extended Far

Despite that Friday's loss, shares still closed broadly higher for the week and were on target to return fabulously for the month of March. In fact, stocks had gained over 20% from the low reached on March 9, classifying the run as a full blown bull market. Given what preceded this nascent rally, it was only prudent to reconsider positions. Friday's are notorious for this, and weekends also offer too much down-time to read, review and reconsider. Thus, the market drifted again on Monday, albeit aided by the General Motors (NYSE: GM) bankruptcy scare.

The Real Catalyst - Inflation Fear

Whether you think inflation is a near-term threat or a far off concern would not prevent your believing it was the key market driver on that peculiar Friday. This is because perception drives stocks, not necessarily reality. I argue that the PCE Price Index published in the pre-market played the key role in killing this young bull (or bear market rally), albeit a temporary death prescribed to it at the time.

The Personal Income & Outlays Report, which was issued that day, contains the Fed's favorite inflation gauge, and therefore a measure the whole of the marketplace watches closely. The aforementioned PCE Price Index rose 0.3% in February, matching January's stubborn increase. What's more troubling is that the Core PCE Price Index also increased 0.2%, again matching the climb in January. The Core PCE rise was in line with expectations, but concerning just the same (as we alluded to in our weekly copy).

The Fed and economists worldwide anticipate prices will ease due to demand softness. Indeed, commodity and raw materials prices have already dropped precipitously from bubblistic points of the past, though they are somewhat recovered from their lows. Yet, prices at the consumer level remain stubbornly held up, or anchored as the Fed puts it. There has been price improvement, but maybe not as much as expected.

Looking at the year-to-year change in the Core PCE, we can better see a decline in prices. The year-to-year change for February was +1.8%, certainly down from the 2+% levels we saw before the recession began. However, February's measurement was hotter than January's level of 1.7%, raising more than a few eyebrows.

Markets are not worried so much about the current level of inflation, but the future level that might get a head start if prices don't drop some more before this recession is through. More than a handful of economists are concerned about the potential side effects of the Fed's drastic and historic monetary and non-traditional actions, not to mention other factors. So when looking around for potential catalysts for market cascade, consider inflation a threat. While it may or may not be a credible threat to the economy, it seems to have clearly proven a threat to stocks.

The next PCE Price Index reporting is pending for Thursday April 30th. Earlier this month, consumer prices remained stubbornly anchored, while the producer price index showed pricing giving ground. Consumer level price stubbornness seems to say investor beware come month's end...

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Monday, April 20, 2009

A Spiritual Response to the Financial Crisis? Making Decisions for the Really Long Run

Visit the front pages of Wall Street Greek and Market Moving News to see our current coverage of economic reports and financial markets. Relative Tickers: FNM, FRE, JPM, GS, BAC, MS, XLF, DIA, SPY, QQQQ, DOG, SDS, QLD.

greek economist charles calomirisBy Charles W. Calomiris*
Columbia University and NBER

* Henry Kaufman Professor of Financial Institutions. This paper was written for presentation on March 10, 2009 at the colloquium, "Hope, Prayer, and the Economic Crisis," sponsored by The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, New York.


When the Church of the Annunciation invited me to comment on the current financial crisis from a spiritual perspective I was hesitant. I am not a theologian, just a lay member of the Orthodox Church. I agreed partly because I was intrigued by the question and uncertain about what I would be able to say in response to it. I have studied financial crises most of my professional career, and since mid-2007 I have been busy researching, writing and speaking about the current crisis and the policy responses to it; but I had never considered the points of intersection between spirituality and financial crises.1 I see my attempt here as a starting point for exploring those points of intersection.

The Present Crisis

Let's begin with a review of where we are and how we got here. During the economic expansion of 2003-2007, lenders the world over accumulated large portfolios of risky investments. One particularly large category of those investments (more than $3 trillion) took the form of highly levered and unusually risky mortgage loans to US borrowers with poor credit histories and little or no downpayments. The profitability of this so-called "subprime" lending was heavily dependent on the continuing appreciation of houses and the continuing growth of the economy (to provide jobs for these risky borrowers); committing several trillions of dollars in subprime lending was a bet on both the economy and the housing market – if either stalled, mortgage defaults would rise dramatically and lenders would lose hundreds of billions of dollars on subprime lending.

The 2003-2007 boom saw new peaks in US stock prices, house prices, and wealth per capita, which supported new peaks in consumption and consumer debt, largely in the form of mortgage debt. The US also increasingly borrowed from other countries to fund its consumption boom. Many international economists regarded the burgeoning current account deficit that accompanied this consumption boom as an unsustainable increase, and worried that a severe decline in consumption might be required to repay that accumulated foreign indebtedness (the so-called "hard landing" worry).

Beginning in mid-2006, housing prices started to stall; by the middle of 2007 it was clear that subprime defaults would rise dramatically and that lenders would suffer significant losses. As losses mounted in 2007 and 2008, given the high leverage of the banks that had placed large bets on those loans (which included many of the largest financial institutions in the world), some lenders found that subprime losses threatened them with the possibility of insolvency.

As financial institutions scrambled to shore up their positions in response to those losses, the supply of credit contracted in all financial markets. The combination of recognized loss and the fear of further loss brought the global financial system to its knees.

Four categories of causal factors are generally agreed to have been the most important in precipitating the crisis: (1) monetary policy errors from 2002 to 2005 that promoted loose credit during the boom, (2) housing policy errors that encouraged homeowners to over-borrow during the boom, (3) the underestimation of subprime risk by some of the largest banks and other institutional investors, and (4) the regulatory failure to identify and respond to the first three errors.

Monetary policy set the stage for the boom and bust of 2002-2009 by making credit far too cheap for too long. The real (inflation-adjusted) fed funds interest rate (the main instrument of monetary policy controlled by the Federal Reserve) remained negative during 2002-2005. Only once before in the postwar era, during the high-inflation environment of 1975-1978, had the Fed targeted real fed funds interest rates at such low levels for so long.

From the standpoint of the "Taylor rule" (a mathematical formula that derives the appropriate fed funds rate as a function of the prevailing levels of unemployment and inflation), monetary policy persistently was excessively accommodative throughout 2002-2005; a normal adherence to the Taylor rule would have implied interest rate levels substantially higher than those that prevailed throughout that period.

Government "affordable housing" policy was a substantial contributor to the crisis because it encouraged homeowners, especially those with low and risky incomes, to borrow excessively to buy homes. The US government subsidizes housing in many ways, all of which encourage homeowners to lever their houses to the hilt. The reason these policies encourage risk is simple: the subsidy you get as a homeowner is proportional to how much you are willing to borrow; the only way to get more subsidy is to borrow more.

These leverage subsidies include lending policies of the Federal Housing Administration, subsidized Federal Home Loan Bank advances to mortgage lenders, and most importantly, government backing (once implicit, now explicit) for the debts of the housing behemoths, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie (NYSE: FRE) were the 800 pound gorillas in the housing market; not only did they dominate the market in terms of market share, they also provided liquidity to the market – that is, they bought and sold mortgages in secondary markets, and made other holders of these risky mortgages confident that someone would be willing to buy risky mortgages and mortgage-backed securities even if market conditions deteriorated (e.g., as Fannie and Freddie had done for the non-subprime mortgage market in 1998 and 2001). In fact, Fannie and Freddie remained in the market in 2006 and 2007 after many other market players left the market, continuing to provide support for the riskiest cohorts of subprime mortgage originations (namely, those originated in late 2006 and early 2007).

Why did Fannie and Freddie do this? Largely in response to Congressional pressures to increase their support for "affordable housing," they decided in 2004 to relax origination standards and to substantially increase their investments in subprime mortgages and related securities, which led to a rapid acceleration of subprime originations in that year (Calomiris and Wallison 2009). Between 2004 and 2007, Fannie and Freddie came to own half of the $3 trillion exposure in the subprime mortgage market. In December, I testified before Congress (Calomiris 2009e) about the role of Fannie and Freddie in the crisis. I was given access to emails between Fannie and Freddie's risk managers and their CEOs during the critical decision moment of 2004. The emails are very revealing. Despite strongly voiced concerns from risk managers (some of whom lost their jobs for voicing those concerns), the CEOs pushed ahead with subprime buying, largely because of their desire to please Congress by demonstrating good "affordable housing" motivations. As the risk managers feared would happen, these two large lenders "made the market" in poorly underwritten, risky mortgages, and encouraged other market participants to view these as acceptable investments.

The story of the willingness of banks and other institutional investors to take on the huge risks of subprime lending are more complex and varied. That story is best understood as the result of a deliberate underestimation of risk by some of the world's most sophisticated buy-side market participants. Not all banks participated (for example, JP Morgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) avoided large exposures to subprime lending during the boom). Why did other banks decide to ride the subprime bubble created by loose monetary policy and relaxed underwriting standards at Fannie and Freddie?

The banks that took on the biggest risks relating to subprime mortgages – which was accomplished through a combination of owning subprime-related assets and insuring others against losses from subprime-related assets – seem to have consciously overpaid for those assets or established compensation incentives within their organizations that would lead others to consciously overpay for them. Other sophisticated buy-side investors (within pension funds, mutual funds, and insurance companies) also seem to have willingly participated in the underestimation of risk when buying assets.2

Such willfully unprofitable investment decisions can occur as the result of what are called "agency" conflicts in economics. Agents (e.g., bank CEOs) may consciously harm their "principals" (e.g., bank stockholders) because doing so benefits the agents (e.g., results in higher compensation for the agents). Decisions by "buy side" agents to harm principals (pensioners, and bank, mutual fund, and insurance company stockholders) reflect a lack of discipline by principals over agents. Short-term revenue and asset growth were rewarded by large bonuses within financial organizations without offsetting penalties in compensation that would have discouraged buy-side agents from taking on high risk.

The CEOs who established these guidelines got away with this for two reasons. First, the various laws and regulations that govern the market for corporate control in commercial banking make it virtually impossible for stockholders to discipline commercial bank CEOs (Calomiris 2009a). Second, complex statistical models based on limited prior experience with subprime lending during the 2001 recession (when booming house prices limited subprime losses) offered a factual basis, however distorted and inaccurate, for bank CEOs and other buy-side agents to pretend to believe that subprime risk was very low on a forward-looking basis. These unrealistic risk models will probably allow agents to avoid blame for subprime portfolio losses; by pointing to widespread low ex ante risk estimates by subprime asset buyers, buy-side agents will be able to argue that large ex post losses were not forecastable – a buy-side sequence of behavior I call the "plausible deniability equilibrium" (Calomiris 2009b).

Of course, regulators are also to blame, since they did nothing to stop Fannie, Freddie, banks, investment banks, or other buy side investors from taking on these excessive risks. During the subprime boom, regulation failed to identify substantial unrecognized increases in the risks associated with subprime lending. The regulatory failure was particularly acute with respect to the regulation of risk taking by large commercial banks, which economists have long identified as the institutions most prone to taking on excessive risks because of the special implicit protection they are afforded by the government as the result of the so-called "too-big-to-fail" problem. The government safety net protects large banks more than other financial institutions because their failure is perceived as having adverse consequences for the whole economy (through their complex linkages to other financial intermediaries and their central role in providing credit to all sectors of the economy).

Too-big-to-fail protection implies a special need for the regulators of large banks to control excessive risk taking in order to limit large banks' abuse of safety net protection. I want to emphasize that the regulatory failure here was not primarily about allowing commercial banks to locate assets off their balance sheets, although that did contribute to the problem; even if all of the subprime risk had been booked on commercial bank balance sheets, existing regulatory standards would not have required adequate budgeting of equity capital to absorb those risks. The key problem was a regulatory risk measurement system that relied (and still relies) on false measures of risk, especially on banks' own risk models, and on the opinions of rating agencies (who have every incentive to cooperate with incentive-conflicted buy-side investors in the underestimation of risk). Critics, including myself and many other academics, had been criticizing this regulatory approach to risk measurement for more than a decade.

Note that all four of these causal factors have largely to do with government interventions into the economy that had bad unintended consequences for risk taking incentives, particularly with respect to mortgage lending. Note also that these errors were purposeful rather than accidental, and each had been the subject of substantial commentary prior to the onset of the current financial crisis. One could see that the Fed was violating the Taylor Rule throughout the 2002-2005 period. Government policies to promote highly levered subprime mortgages were well known, and market participants were aware of Fannie and Freddie's 2004 decisions to relax underwriting standards. The mispricing of risk and underrating of risks was commented on widely, as were the regulatory flaws that permitted the understatement of bank risk.

The Policy Response To the Crisis

The financial system and the economy are still sinking, and it now appears that we will continue to sink until economic circumstances get bad enough to stir the political willingness to act more boldly than we have to date. The personal consequences of the crisis already entail millions of lost jobs, millions of homes that either have been foreclosed or are likely to face foreclosure, and substantial losses of wealth.

The policy response to the crisis initially was bold in many respects (including unprecedented means of Fed lending to financial institutions, and unprecedented Treasury activism in seeking new means of assisting banks), but it has turned out to be not bold enough, especially in response to the accelerating financial collapse that began in mid-September, 2008. Washington has been willing to dribble some funds into banks, to offer limited guarantees against loss in support of some financial institutions, and to make occasional purchases of banks' risky assets. It has all been too little, too late. The current bank assistance plans proposed by the US Treasury are unlikely to work any better than the prior ones, and are widely regarded by the experts I talk with as designed more to give the appearance of action than to actually resolve our banking system's problems.

What is lacking is a willingness in Washington to stop the banking system's death spiral by intervening to systematically remove the extreme downside of toxic asset values that are held by banks. What is needed is a game-changing intervention that will make the prices of risky assets recover to sustainable long-run values, as they would if financial markets stopped worrying about the extreme downside.

In other words, any real recovery plan has to solve the problem of market underpricing of risky assets, which reflects the panic-induced scramble for liquidity by the holders of risky assets. Instead our government has been offering "pretend plans" that would buy assets at current prices or inject limited amounts of capital into banks, and following political imperatives imposed by Congress that the Treasury get a "good deal for taxpayers" in its assistance arrangements with banks. This cautious approach does not actually protect the interests of taxpayers because it is penny wise and pound foolish.

The key political problem that is keeping us from addressing our economic problems is the lack of political courage to do the necessary but unpopular thing: namely, for the government to absorb significant downside risk that currently resides in bank portfolios. This idea is as unpopular with the public as it is necessary to restoring health to the economy. It is unpopular because of the understandable public outrage against banks, and because the public misunderstands how to account for the prospective incremental cost of an effective government policy to absorb downside risk. In other words, that cost seems higher than it actually is.

A proper measurement of the incremental cost of risk absorption should take two key factors into account: (1) a positive offset due to the huge preexisting taxpayer loss exposures that would be reduced by a comprehensive and effective intervention (recall that taxpayers already own half of subprime losses through their effective ownership of Fannie and Freddie alone), and (2) the fact that current prices of risky assets are far below long-term realistic expected recovery values, reflecting the impact of the liquidity crisis on pricing. An aggressive intervention would be largely self-financing through its effects in raising market valuations closer to recovery values, and avoiding losses on preexisting government exposures to loss.

For example, consider a portfolio of 2005 subprime mortgages that is currently worth only 0.35 now, but has a long-term recovery value conservatively estimated at 0.75. If the government were to offer the holder of these mortgages a put option at 0.55 for three years, that would raise the value of the portfolio to about 0.60 or higher immediately. It would also increase liquidity for the portfolio holder, since the holder could borrow 0.50 easily against the newly government-insured portfolio.

The raising of asset values and restoring of liquidity would begin the process of rebuilding stock prices and raising bank capital in the market (which I suggest should be required as a quid pro quo for participation in the put option assistance program – Calomiris 2009c, 2009d).

Of course, in addition to implementing effective crisis resolution measures, policymakers also need to address the long-term design flaws that led to the crisis, to reduce the vulnerability of the financial system going forward. It is worth emphasizing that policy makers throughout the world have failed repeatedly to respond to crises adequately in the recent past, and that our continuing failure to redress financial system design problems has produced roughly 130 significant national banking crises around the world in the past thirty years, with increasing frequency and severity, several of which have given rise to major global crises, of which the current crisis is the worst.

Of course, financial crises, including banking crises relating to real estate booms and busts, have occurred for centuries. But that should not be taken as an indication that crises are an historical constant. The past 30 years have seen an unprecedented frequency and severity of financial crises around the world, driven by the increasing magnitude of the policy distortions affecting the incentives for risk taking that I described above. There has been a huge outpouring of research on this topic over the past two decades, which politicians have largely ignored.

Thus, the policy challenges for us as a country (and as a group of countries) trying to manage this crisis are twofold: first, to stop the downward spiral of risky asset prices, and second, to rewrite the rules of the game to prevent these costly crises from recurring. Meeting those challenges will require us (1) to find the political courage to absorb risk in the short run, and (2) to reform government policies toward housing finance, corporate governance of financial institutions, and regulation of the measurement and management of financial system risk. This is a challenging reform agenda; so far the political response of the United States and most other countries (the UK is the exception) has not been encouraging.

A Spiritual Response to the Financial Crisis?

Crisis is a word derived from the Ancient Greek krinein, which, according to the Dictionary of Word Origins, means "to sift, to separate, or to judge." In other words, crises are moments when circumstances force us to make important decisions. But why should our individual or collective decisions in response to financial crises have a spiritual component? How will spirituality make our decisions better?

The first and most obvious answer to these questions is an historical one. The Bible, after all, is itself largely a crisis chronicle. It might be best described as a recounting of a sequence of political, economic, and personal crises, which often coincide, and in which spiritual insights or errors prompted people to make important decisions, for better or worse, about their personal and societal futures. Adam and Eve, Moses, Gideon, David, Solomon, Jesus, and Paul, just to name a few, were all faced with crises that they had to manage. What these people did in response to crises is very instructive. I would even go so far as saying that the Bible could be used as a crisis management manual.

What do we learn from the Bible about crisis management? And more broadly, what do we learn from the spiritual approach to crises illustrated by the Bible?

In discussing Biblical accounts of spiritually informed responses to crises I want to emphasize two aspects: Spiritually informed responses manifested on the inside (silent, internal learning), and those manifested on the outside (through actions taken in the presence of others).

Responding spiritually to a crisis in the right way on the inside involves reflection and prayer. Crises shake our world, but they also stop us in our tracks emotionally; and thus, amidst all the chaos that they entail they also create unique opportunities for reflection and prayer.

Crises also test our commitment to doing what is right because it is harder to do what is right during a crisis. What we do and say in the presence of others during crises can have profound effects on them; the survival of the Church through the ages is testimony to the lasting consequences of inspiring examples of faith displayed during crises. Martyrdom, an often misunderstood Greek word, simply means witnessing, and refers to these sorts of actions, which demonstrate to others one's relationship with God.

To illustrate these two aspects of spiritual responses to crises (internal learning and external witnessing) I will briefly discuss two of the books of the Old Testament, those of Ruth and Job, traditionally viewed by theologians as two of the clearest models of crisis management.

The book of Ruth was written c. 1300 BC at a time of continuing political and economic crises in Israel. An economic crisis (in this case, a famine) causes Ruth's Israelite husband to move their family to Ruth's ancestral home, Moab. When her husband dies, Ruth makes a surprising choice: she chooses the difficult path of remaining loyal to her mother-in-law (who had released her from any requirement of care) and remaining loyal to Israel's God, rather than returning to an easier life among her own family in Moab. Her righteous actions lead ultimately to her happy remarriage in Israel, to Boaz. Ruth ends up becoming the great grandmother of King David.

Ruth's devotion to her mother-in-law and to God illustrate what is called in the Rabbinical tradition chesed, or steadfast love. That devotion made a profound impression on everyone around her, so much so that the Israelites named a book of their Bible after someone who was a woman and a foreigner. That was no small achievement.

Another non-Jew who managed to get a book in the Old Testament devoted to him was Job, the famously just man who is said to have lived around 1600 B.C. His personal trials (including the loss of his home, his wealth, his health, and his family) are the subject of his Biblical book. Despite Job's patience and loyalty to God, he ultimately is driven to despair, and even wishes for his own death. Job and those that surround him are perplexed by the events that befall such a just man, and most of the book recounts attempts by Job's companions to explain the hidden reasons for his suffering. The litany of false interpretations offered by the three "experts" (TV talking heads beware!) is discredited at the end of the book by God Himself, who reminds them and Job of the limitations of their understanding. Job's suffering ultimately leads him to learn profound things – most importantly, about the need for humility, about the central role of faith in overcoming despair, and about the sanctity of life.

What do these and other Biblical stories about crises tell us about spiritually informed responses to the current crisis? During a crisis we are called on to decide important things. The quality of the decisions we make as individuals and as a society will depend on our capacity to learn from suffering, our humility in understanding and shaping our world, our ability to remain faithful and hopeful, and our commitment to act as true witnesses.

What are the most important lessons we should learn from the current financial crisis? I don't presume to know most of the answers to that question, especially since answers will differ across individuals and will be revealed more fully over a long period of time. Here is my list so far:

  1. I think often these days about my father and mother, who were teenagers during the Depression, and who used to love to say: "Your generation is spoiled. I wonder if you could survive a real economic crisis." So far, in spite of the grief that many have suffered, people are showing their strength under pressure, and in the process we have already become stronger as a country. I would like to think that, like Job and his friends, we are learning some humility, too, as well as the importance of not surrendering to despair. And I would like to think that, in the process, we also are becoming less focused on what we have and more focused on who we are trying to become and what we are doing for each other.

  2. I observe family members being drawn closer together these days, as they are forced to rely more on each other. I imagine that will be especially true in families where people are forced by circumstances to double up in houses. I think about grandchildren and grandparents living under the same roof, about the new dimensions added to old relationships.

  3. The financial crisis offers lots of lessons for public policy, as I indicated before. These are lessons not only about specific policy mechanisms that need fixing, but more importantly perhaps, about the need for humility by our political leaders and our economists (myself included), if we are willing to learn that lesson. The four categories of policy mistakes that I believe brought about this crisis not only offer an agenda for specific policy reforms, but also remind us that government grand designs often go wrong. This is a lesson we need to keep in mind as we set about fixing things, lest we do even more damage.

  4. We are also reminded of the importance of coming together to address our problems. Politically, we have not come together yet, and I believe that is the primary cause of our continued suffering. As I pointed out before, and as Warren Buffett remarked recently, we need to find political courage to deal with our problems, to rise above seeking advantage as individuals or as members of political parties so that we can accomplish what is right for our country. How will we get there? The quality of our government and its actions reflects our national character, which is nothing more than the aggregation of our individual characters. It is up to us to press our political leaders to rise to the occasion, which means that first we as individuals must rise to the occasion, in ways big and small, in our families, in our communities, perhaps even at community events like this.

"These financial leaders showed us that what matters in the really long run, what defines a human being ultimately, is what one chooses to learn and how one chooses to behave in a time of crisis."

When it comes to making good decisions during a crisis we Americans have some great models to draw from, particularly from our country's distinguished history of financial leadership. Interestingly, the greatest financial leaders of our past are known not just, or even mainly, for what they did to manage financial crises, but rather for who they were as human beings, which became most vivid during crises.

Alexander Hamilton, perhaps our greatest financial mind, resolved our national debt crisis after the Revolution, founded the most important banks of his time, and established our public finances and coinage systems on sound bases. But he is known and revered for other actions: serving as aid-de-camp to General Washington at Valley Forge, writing an important speech for Washington that prevented a military coup at the end of the Revolution, firing his pistol into the air rather than taking aim at his dueling adversary, Aaron Burr, and admitting publicly to an adulterous relationship to avoid bringing any dishonor to the US Treasury.

JP Morgan during the Panic of 1907 called upon his banking colleagues to think about the collective good, not just their individual welfare, as they faced the worst crisis of the early twentieth century. At a critical moment during the Panic, he locked the door to his board room and would not let his colleagues leave until they had agreed on an effective approach to dealing with the crisis they were facing.

Andrew Mellon, while he was dying, and despite being vilified by his political opponents and falsely accused of being a tax cheat, focused in his dying days not on discrediting others or justifying himself, but rather on pursuing his dream of making a lasting contribution to his country. He founded and endowed our National Gallery of Art as a personal gift to us all, one that he never lived to see completed.

These financial leaders showed us that what matters in the really long run, what defines a human being ultimately, is what one chooses to learn and how one chooses to behave in a time of crisis.

In 33 AD, Rome suffered the world's first "global" financial crisis (gripping the entire Roman Empire). The crisis brought panic and depositor runs to the banks of the Via Sacra in Rome. Emperor Tiberius rose to the occasion and stopped the panic by loaning the banks money from the Imperial Treasury. This intervention is still regarded as one of history's most successful policy interventions in dealing with a financial crisis. And yet, Tiberius is not remembered much for his success. Around the same time as that first global panic, someone stole Tiberius's thunder, a Jew who was suffering through a crisis of his own in Jerusalem, one that the world would never forget. His willingness to make difficult decisions, His commitment to righteous witnessing, and His love for others remain an unequalled and inspiring model of good decision making during a crisis.


Calomiris, Charles W. (2009a). "Financial Innovation, Regulation, and Reform," Cato Journal, forthcoming.

------- (2009b). "The Subprime Turmoil: What's Old, What's New, and What's Next," Journal of Structured Finance, forthcoming.

------- (2009c). "Helping Wall Street—And Main Street," Forbes.com, January 21.

------- (2009d). "The US Government Must Take Risks," FT.com, February 18.

------- (2009e). "Statement Before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives," Hearing on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, December 9.

Calomiris, Charles W., and Peter J. Wallison (2009). "The Last Trillion Dollar Commitment," Journal of Structured Finance, forthcoming.

Reardon, Patrick Henry (2005). The Book of Job: Orthodox Reflections on The Book of Job, Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press.

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