NPC K & W Tire Co. Rainier truck, Washington, DC 1919
How long will the illusion last?
The price of oil has surged by 8% after the 14-nation cartel Opec agreed to its first cut in production in eight years. Confounding critics who said the club of oil-producing nations was too riven with political infighting to agree a deal, Opec announced it was trimming output by 1.2m barrels per day (bpd) from 1 January. The deal is contingent on securing the agreement of non-Opec producers to lower production by 600,000m barrels per day. But the Qatari oil minister, Mohammed bin Saleh al-Sada, said he was confident that the key non-Opec player – Russia – would sign up to a 300,000 bpd cut. Russia’s oil minister, Alexander Novak, welcomed the Opec move but said his country would only be able to cut production gradually due to “technical issues”. A meeting with non-Opec countries in Moscow on 9 December has been pencilled in.
Al-Sada said the deal was a great success and a “major step forward”, but the news that Saudi Arabia had effectively admitted defeat in its long-running attempt to drive US shale producers out of business was enough to send the price of crude sharply higher on the world’s commodity markets. Brent crude was trading at just over $50 a barrel following the completion of the Opec meeting in Vienna – an increase of almost $4 on the day. Saudi Arabia will bear the brunt of Opec’s production curbs, having agreed to a reduction in output of just under 500,000 bpd. Iraq has agreed to a 210,000 bpd cut, followed by the United Arab Emirates (-139,000), Kuwait (-131,000) and Venezuela (-95,000). Smaller countries are also reducing output, but Iran – which has only recently returned to the global oil market after the lifting of international sanctions – has been allowed to continue raising output.
Let’s say that the jury’s out.
Preet Bharara, the Manhattan U.S. attorney, has agreed to stay in his current role under the Trump administration, a surprise move that could signal the president-elect is serious about cracking down on Wall Street wrongdoing. Mr. Bharara, famous for his aggressive prosecutions of insider trading and corruption in New York, met with President-elect Donald Trump in Trump Tower on Wednesday. Afterward, Mr. Bharara told reporters that Mr. Trump asked whether he was prepared to remain as U.S. attorney, and Mr. Bharara said he was. “We had a good meeting,” Mr. Bharara said. “I agreed to stay on.” Since 2009, Mr. Bharara has served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the highest-profile U.S. attorney’s offices in the country.
An appointee of President Barack Obama, he rose to prominence after pursuing dozens of insider-trading cases, leading to his moniker as the “sheriff of Wall Street.” The office is also seen as a leader in public corruption, cybercrime and terrorism prosecutions. His office has brought corruption charges against a dozen state lawmakers in New York and convicted the leaders of both legislative houses. Keeping Mr. Bharara appears to be at odds with other picks Mr. Trump has made. Despite campaigning against Wall Street excesses and the largest banks, Mr. Trump has tapped Wall Street investors for key positions in his cabinet, including a former Goldman Sachs executive, Steven Mnuchin, for Treasury Secretary and a billionaire private-equity investor, Wilbur Ross, to run the Commerce Department.
Partly as a result, financial services executives have quickly warmed to the prospect of a Trump presidency. His team has promised to roll back parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law enacted in the wake of the financial crisis, saying it has cut back on lending. But the decision to keep Mr. Bharara is likely to temper speculation that a Trump administration might focus less on corporate wrongdoing, white-collar lawyers said.
“In one fell swoop, a significant part of their net worth goes up in smoke.”
Donald Trump’s planned U.S. corporate tax cuts could translate to a big one-time earnings hit for many of the biggest U.S. banks, thanks to tax benefits they generated during the 2008 financial crisis. Citigroup would take the deepest earnings hit – perhaps $12 billion or more, according to recent estimates by the bank’s chief financial officer and several banking analysts. Others, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo could face multibillion-dollar writedowns. The banks might have to write down deferred tax assets, which often pile up when a company loses money and can’t immediately enjoy the tax benefits of those losses.
Any writedowns won’t have much impact on capital levels for the banks for regulatory purposes, and lower taxes will allow for higher earnings in the long run. But a one-time hit to earnings can make for a bruising quarter – and even year – for a bank’s results. “It’s a traumatic experience for companies with large” amounts of such assets, said Robert Willens, an independent tax and accounting expert in New York. “In one fell swoop, a significant part of their net worth goes up in smoke.” Deferred tax assets, as disclosed in securities filings, consist of benefits that companies expect to use to cut their future tax bills.
For most companies, the bulk of their value is tied to the current U.S. corporate tax rate of 35%. (Assets stemming from, say, state tax bills are tied to state tax rates.) The assets include unused credits for foreign taxes companies have paid; deductions they’re allowed to take in future years for prior losses; and future tax advantages that stem from so-called “timing differences” – or gaps between when income or expenses are reported to shareholders and to the Internal Revenue Service. Analysts say that calculating the value of assets associated with timing differences can be as much an art as a science.
America without a car.
The number of subprime auto loans sinking into delinquency hit their highest level since 2010 in the third quarter, with roughly 6 million individuals at least 90 days late on their car-loan payments. It’s behavior much like that seen in the months heading into the 2007-2009 recession, according to data from Federal Reserve Bank of New York researchers. “The worsening in the delinquency rate of subprime auto loans is pronounced, with a notable increase during the past few years,” the researchers, led by Andrew Haughwout, said Wednesday in a blog on their Liberty Street Economics site. Weakness among the lowest-rated borrowers plays out against a robustly growing vehicle lending market.
Originations of auto loans have continued at a brisk pace over the past few years, with 2016 shaping up to be the strongest of any year within the NY Fed’s data, which began in 1999. It’s worth noting that the majority of auto loans are still performing well—it’s the subprime loans, those with associated credit scores below 620, that heavily influence the delinquency rates, the researchers said. Consequently, auto finance companies that specialize in subprime lending, as well as some banks with higher subprime exposure are likely to have experienced declining performance in their auto loan portfolios. Credit officials have stressed that the contagion risk to the financial system from poor auto loans isn’t like the risk posed when subprime mortgage lending pushed the U.S. into the Great Recession.
That’s in large part because repossessed cars are easier to resell than bank-owned homes. Cars can’t sink whole neighborhoods with foreclosure blight. Subprime mortgage lending remains at very low levels since the financial crisis. But as the financial system has recovered, subprime auto lending has ramped up with little hesitation. New auto loans to borrowers with credit scores below 660 have nearly tripled since the end of 2009. So far in 2016, about $50 billion of new auto loans per quarter have gone to those borrowers and about $30 billion each quarter has gone to borrowers with scores below 620, according to data the Fed provided, citing credit-score tracker Equifax.
WHAT? “Property experts disagree furiously about whether prices are in a bubble..”
Sydney houses now cost 12 times the annual income, up from four times when Gough Whitlam was dismissed. As many first time buyers turn to the bank of mum and dad to top up their deposits, a new report “Parental guidance not recommended” warns Australians are being caught up in a classic “Ponzi scheme”. The report by economic consultancy LF Economics – which has previously sensationally warned of a “bloodbath” when Sydney’s property bubble bursts – estimates it will now take the average first time buyer in Sydney nine years to save a deposit, up from three years in 1975. Baby boomers, who have benefited from skyrocketing prices, are increasingly able to fast track their children’s path to property ownership by either stumping up part of the deposit or putting up their own homes as collateral.
LF Economics, founded by Lindsay David and Philip Soos, warns this may be helping a new generation to over-leverage into mortgages they can’t afford, leaving their parents’ homes exposed. “Unfortunately, this loan guarantee strategy in a rising housing market for securing ever-larger amounts of debt is essentially pyramid or Ponzi finance. This leaves many parents in a dangerous predicament should their children experience difficulties making loan payments, let alone defaulting and suffering foreclosure.” “In reality, many parents – the Baby Boomer cohort – are asset-rich but income-poor. The blunt fact is few parents have enough savings and other liquid assets on hand to meet their legal obligations without selling their home if their children default,” the report warns.
Property experts disagree furiously about whether prices are in a bubble and about the best measure of housing affordability. Treasury secretary John Fraser has said that Sydney house prices are in a “bubble”. But many economists remain wary of the term and point out that supply constraints and strong population growth will underpin prices, even if slower wages growth inhibits further price gains. LF Economics argues that price gains have outstripped the fundamental worth of properties. “Financial regulators have ignored the Ponzi lending practices by lenders, believing the RBA will have the adequate ability to bail them out at taxpayers’ expense the day this classic Ponzi lending scheme breaks down.”
Apartment prices in Melbourne fell at the fastest pace in more than two years in November, reinforcing concerns about a looming oversupply of units in Australia’s second-largest city. The 3.2% month-on-month drop is the largest such decline since May 2014, according to figures from data provider CoreLogic Inc. This dragged down the overall increase in dwelling values across the nation’s state capitals to 0.2%, the smallest rise since March this year. Record low interest rates put in place by the Reserve Bank of Australia to help ease the economy’s shift away from mining investment and combat low inflation have helped to spur a housing boom in the nation’s biggest centers and the central bank has repeatedly voiced concern that apartment gluts are developing in central Melbourne and Brisbane.
“Risks around the projected large increases in supply in some inner-city apartment markets are coming to the fore,” the RBA said in its quarterly financial stability review in October. Shayne Elliott, CEO of Australia and New Zealand Bank, said Wednesday that the lender had become increasingly cautious about parts of the housing market. He warned about pockets of over-building, particularly in the small apartments segment. “There are emerging signs of stress” in the economy, the head of Australia’s third-biggest bank told a Reuters event in Sydney. The difficulty for both the RBA and commercial lenders in judging the state of the market is that in other areas house prices have been accelerating. In Sydney, where auction clearance rates have been around the 80% mark for the past three months, the median dwelling price has risen to A$845,000 ($625,000).
Schäuble invites in the vultures.
Paul Kazarian says he’s spent “tens of millions of dollars” mobilizing a team of a hundred analysts to scrutinize Greece’s assets and liabilities. According to him, everyone else – including the IMF, the credit-rating agencies, the EU and the Greek government itself — is massively overstating the problem of the nation’s debt burden relative to economic output. The problem is, the more he tries to convince the world to accept his version of the numbers, the harder it may get for Greece to win the additional debt relief that most economic observers agree is vital to its recovery. Kazarian, an alumnus of (where else) Goldman Sachs, says the investment firm he founded in 1988, Japonica Partners, is the largest private holder of Greek government debt.
Since he first made his interest known about four years ago, he’s declined to be specific about how much he’s invested, or what prices he paid, or whether he’s up or down or sideways on the trade. This isn’t just your standard tale of a bondholder trying to boost the value of his investments by talking his book. What Kazarian has tried to do for the past four years is treat the sovereign nation of Greece the same way he might a private company he’d taken over: by detailing its assets and liabilities, looking for ways to enhance asset value while reducing liabilities, and, most importantly, seeking to install his own managers to take charge. The more you reflect on that latter notion, the more disturbing Kazarian’s larger-than-life presence on the Greek financial scene becomes.
As the keynote speaker at a conference organized by the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens on Monday, the bespectacled, straight-talking American succeeded in turning the afternoon into The Paul Kazarian Show, berating his audience and his fellow speakers with an odd combination of derision and self-effacing charm and dominating the proceedings by sheer force of personality. (In a previous existence, he gained notoriety for firing BB guns into the empty executive chairs in the boardroom of a company he’d seized control of, accompanying the shots with shouts of “Die!”) Presenting a selection of gems from a presentation that runs to more than 110 slides (Kazarian clearly knows them all by heart), the financier leveled a damning accusation against his hosts: Greece, he said, is “crying wolf for debt relief.”
Payday coming up.
India’s demonetization campaign is not going as expected. Overnight, banks played down expectations of a dramatic improvement in currency availability, raising the prospect of queues lengthening as salaries get paid and people look to withdraw money from their accounts the Economic Times reported. While much of India has become habituated to the sight of people lining up at banks and cash dispensers since the November 8 demonetisation announcement, bank officials said the message from the Reserve Bank of India is that supplies may not get any easier in the near future and that they should push digital transactions. “We had sought a hearing with RBI as we were not allocated enough cash, but we were told that rationing of cash may continue for some time,” said a banker who was present at one of several meetings with central bank officials.
“Reserve Bank has asked us to push the use of digital channels to all our customers and ensure that we bring down use of cash in the economy,” said a banker. This confirms a previous report according to which the demonstization campaign has been a not so subtle attempt to impose digital currency on the entire population. Bankers have been making several trips to the central bank’s headquarters in Mumbai to get a sense of whether currency availability will improve. Some automated teller machines haven’t been filled even once since the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes ceased to be legal tender, they said. Typically, households pay milkmen, domestic helps, drivers, etc, at the start of the month in cash. The idea is that all these payments should become electronic, using computers or mobiles.
This strategy however, appears to not have been conveyed to the public, and as Bloomberg adds, “bankers are bracing for long hours and angry mobs as pay day approaches in India.” “Already people who are frustrated are locking branches from outside in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu and abusing staff as enough cash is not available,” said CH Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees’ Association. The group has sought police protection at bank branches for the next 10 days, he added. Joining many others who have slammed Modi’s decision, the banker said that “this is the fallout of one of the worst planned and executed government decisions in decades.”
He estimates that about 20 million people – almost twice the population of Greece – will queue up at bank branches and ATMs over the coming week, when most employers in India pay their staff. In an economy where 98% of consumer payments are in cash, banks are functioning with about half the amount of currency they need. As Bloomberg notes, retaining public support is crucial for Modi before key state elections next year and a national contest in 2019, however it appears he is starting to lose it. “We are bracing ourselves for payday and fearing the worst,” said Parthasarathi Mukherjee, CEO at Laxmi Vilas Bank. “If we run out of cash we will have to approach the Reserve Bank of India for more. It is tough.”
It’s kind of funny that Trump is seen as the end of a 70-year era.
Looking at US history over a fairly long period of time, it is easy to see the destructive path that has accompanied the expansion of the American empire over the last seventy years. While World War II was still raging, US strategists were already planning their next steps in the international arena. The new target was immediately identified in the assault and the dismemberment of the Soviet empire. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet economic model as an alternative to the capitalist system, the West found itself faced with what was defined as ‘the end of’ history, and proceeded to act accordingly. The delicate transition from bipolarity, the world-order system based on the United States and the Soviet Union occupying opposing poles, to a unipolar world order with Washington as the only superpower, was entrusted to George H. W. Bush.
The main purpose was to reassure with special care the former Soviet empire, even as the Soviet Union plunged into chaos and poverty while the West preyed on her resources. Not surprisingly, the 90’s represented a phase of major economic growth for the United States. Predictably, on that occasion, the national elite favored the election of a president, Bill Clinton, who was more attentive to domestic issues over international affairs. The American financial oligarchy sought to consolidate their economic fortunes by expanding as far as possible the Western financial model, especially with new virgin territory in the former Soviet republics yet to be conquered and exploited. With the disintegration of the USSR, the United States had a decade to aspire to the utopia of global hegemony. Reviewing with the passage of time the convulsive period of the 90’s, the goal seemed one step away, almost within reach.
The means of conquest and expansion of the American empire generally consist of three domains: cultural, economic and military. With the end of the Soviet empire, there was no alternative left for the American imperialist capitalist system. From the point of view of cultural expansion, Washington had now no adversaries and could focus on the destruction of other countries thanks to the globalization of products like McDonald’s and Coca Cola in every corner of the planet. Of course the consequences of an enlargement of the sphere of cultural influence led to the increased power of the economic system. In this sense, Washington’s domination in international financial institutions complemented the imposition of the American way of life on other countries. Due to the mechanisms of austerity arising from trap-loans issued by the IMF or World Bank, countries in serious economic difficulties have ended up being swallowed up by debt.
Not surprised. A country that needs to refind itself.
More than a quarter of a million people are homeless in England, an analysis of the latest official figures suggests. Researchers from charity Shelter used data from four sets of official 2016 statistics to compile what it describes as a “conservative” total. The figures show homelessness hotspots outside London, with high rates in Birmingham, Brighton and Luton. The government says it does not recognise the figures, but is investing more than £500m on homelessness. For the very first time, Shelter has totted up the official statistics from four different forms of recorded homelessness. These were: • national government statistics on rough sleepers • statistics on those in temporary accommodation • the number of people housed in hostels * the number of people waiting to be housed by social services departments (obtained through Freedom of Information requests).
The charity insists the overall figure, 254,514, released to mark 50 years since its founding, is a “robust lower-end estimate”. It has been adjusted down to account for any possible overlap and no estimates have been added in where information was not available. Charity chief executive Campbell Robb said: “Shelter’s founding shone a light on hidden homelessness in the 1960s slums. “But while those troubled times have faded into memory, 50 years on a modern-day housing crisis is tightening its grip on our country. “Hundreds of thousands of people will face the trauma of waking up homeless this Christmas.
Just in case you thought things are bad now.
Climate change is set to cause a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale”, according to senior military figures, who warn that global warming is the greatest security threat of the 21st century and that mass migration will become the “new normal”. The generals said the impacts of climate change were already factors in the conflicts driving a current crisis of migration into Europe, having been linked to the Arab Spring, the war in Syria and the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency. Military leaders have long warned that global warming could multiply and accelerate security threats around the world by provoking conflicts and migration. They are now warning that immediate action is required.
“Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century,” said Maj Gen Munir Muniruzzaman, chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on climate change and a former military adviser to the president of Bangladesh. He said one metre of sea level rise will flood 20% of his nation. “We’re going to see refugee problems on an unimaginable scale, potentially above 30 million people.” Previously, Bangladesh’s finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, called on Britain and other wealthy countries to accept millions of displaced people.
Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, a member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project, said: “Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal. “Climate change impacts are also acting as an accelerant of instability in parts of the world on Europe’s doorstep, including the Middle East and Africa,” Cheney said. “There are direct links to climate change in the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, and the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa.”