Rembrandt The Descent from the Cross 1634
April 28. There won’t be one big halt, it’ll come in incremental steps.
In honor of the Donald’s “Mother of All Bomb” (MOAB) attack on the Hindu Kush mountains Thursday, let me introduce MOAD. I’m referring to the “Mother of All Debt” crises, of course. The opening round is coming when Washington goes into shutdown mode on April 28, which happens to be Day 100 of the Donald’s reign. In theory, this should be just a routine extension of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 continuing resolution (CR) by which Congress is funding the $1.1 trillion compartment of government which is appropriated annually. The remaining $3 trillion per year of entitlements and debt service is on automatic pilot, but the truth is Washington can’t agree on what to do about either component — except to keeping on borrowing to pay the bills. There is a problem with this long-running game of fiscal kick-the-can, however.
Namely, a 100 year-old statute requires Congress to raise the ceiling for treasury borrowing periodically, but the Imperial City has now reached the point in which there is absolutely no way forward to accomplish this. Moreover, that critical fact is ill-understood by Wall Street because it does not remotely recognize that all the debt ceiling increases since the public debt exploded after the 2008-09 crisis were an accident of the Obama presidency. That is, surrounded by Keynesian economic advisers and big spending Democratic politicians, he had no fear of the national debt at all and obviously even believed the more debt the better. And Obama was also able to bamboozle the establishment GOP leadership led by former Speaker Boehner into steering enough GOP votes to the “responsible” course of action.
Needless to say, Obama is gone, Boehner is gone and the 17-month debt ceiling “holiday” that they confected in October 2015 to ride Washington through the election is gone, too. What’s arrived is vicious partisan warfare, a new President who is clueless about the urgency of the debt crisis and a bloc of 50 or so Freedom Caucus Republicans who now rule Washington. And good for them! They genuinely fear and loathe the banana republic financial profligacy that prevails in the Imperial City, and would rip the flesh from Speaker Ryan’s face were he to go the Boehner route and try to assemble a “bipartisan” consensus for a condition-free increase in the debt ceiling.
What that means is a completely new ball game in the Imperial City that will absolutely dominate the agenda as far as the eye can see. That’s because the Freedom Caucus will insist that sweeping entitlement reforms and spending cuts accompany any debt ceiling increase. Even “moderate” Senator Rob Portman (Ohio) has legislation requiring that dollar for dollar deficit cuts accompany any increase in the debt ceiling. But if you think the GOP fractures and fissures generated by Obamacare replace and repeal were difficult, you haven’t seen nothin’ yet. There is absolutely no basis for GOP consensus on meaningful deficit cuts, meaning that MOAD will bring endless starts, stops, showdowns and shutdowns, as the U.S. Treasury recurringly exhausts its cash and short-term extensions of its borrowing authority.
In the meanwhile, everything else — health care reform, tax cuts, infrastructure — will become backed-up in an endless queue of legislative impossibilities. Accordingly, there will be no big tax cut in 2017 or even next year. For all practical purposes Uncle Sam is broke and his elected managers are paralyzed. The Treasury will be out of cash and up against a hard stop debt limit of $19.8 trillion in a matter of months. But long before that there will be a taste of the Shutdown Syndrome on April 28 owing to the accumulating number of “poison pill” “riders” to the CR.
This is not good: “A senior administration official said Mr. Trump didn’t know about the weapon’s use until it had been dropped.”
U.S. military commanders are stepping up their fight against Islamist extremism as President Donald Trump’s administration urges them to make more battlefield decisions on their own. As the White House works on a broad strategy, America’s top military commanders are implementing the vision articulated by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: Decimate Islamic State’s Middle East strongholds and ensure that the militants don’t establish new beachheads in places such as Afghanistan. “There’s nothing formal, but it is beginning to take shape,” a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. “There is a sense among these commanders that they are able to do a bit more—and so they are.” While military commanders complained about White House micromanagement under former President Barack Obama, they are now being told they have more freedom to make decisions without consulting Mr. Trump.
Military commanders around the world are being encouraged to stretch the limits of their existing authorities when needed, but to think seriously about the consequences of their decisions. The more muscular military approach is expanding as the Trump administration debates a comprehensive new strategy to defeat Islamic State. Mr. Mattis has sketched out such a global plan, but the administration has yet to agree on it. While the political debate continues, the military is being encouraged to take more aggressive steps against Islamic extremists around the world. The firmer military stance has fueled growing concerns among State Department officials working on Middle East policy that the Trump administration is giving short shrift to the diplomatic tools the Obama administration favored.
Removing the carrot from the traditional carrot-and-stick approach, some State Department officials warn, could hamper the pursuit of long-term strategies needed to prevent volatile conflicts from reigniting once the shooting stops. The new approach was on display this week in Afghanistan, where Gen. John Nicholson, head of the U.S.-led coalition there, decided to use one of the military’s biggest nonnuclear bombs—a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB—to hit a remote Islamic State underground network of tunnels and caves. A senior administration official said Mr. Trump didn’t know about the weapon’s use until it had been dropped. Mr. Mattis “is telling them, ‘It’s not the same as it was, you don’t have to ask us before you drop a MOAB,’” the senior defense official said. “Technically there’s no piece of paper that says you have to ask the president to drop a MOAB. But last year this time, the way [things were] meant, ‘I’m going to drop a MOAB, better let the White House know.’”
We are all of us in the gutter (but some of us are looking at the stars).
We constantly hear the factoids about “American households” that paint a picture of immense wealth – and therefore a lack of risk for consumer lenders during the next downturn. We hear: “This – the thing that happened in 2008 and 2009 – won’t happen again.” For example, total net worth (assets minus debt) of US households and non-profit organization (they’re lumped together) rose to an astronomical $92.8 trillion at the end of 2016, according to the Federal Reserve. This is up by nearly 70% in early 2009 when the Fed started its QE and zero-interest-rate programs. Inflating household wealth was one of the big priorities of the Fed during the Financial Crisis. It would crank up the economy. In an editorial in 2010, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke himself called this the “wealth effect.”
So with this colossal wealth of US households, what could go wrong during the next downturn? Here’s what could go wrong: About half of Americans do not have enough savings to pay for even a minor emergency expense. The Federal Reserve found that 46% of adults could not cover an emergency expense of $400, such as a broken windshield. They would either have to borrow the money or try to sell the couch or something. So nearly half of the adults in the US live from paycheck to paycheck. About 15% of American households have either zero or negative net wealth, according to the New York Fed. Negative net worth means they have more debt than in assets. And nearly 47 million Americans, or nearly 15% of the population, live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.
So who benefited from the “wealth effect”? Those who had the most assets. At the very tippy-top: Warren Buffet. At the other end of the spectrum, in 2016, only 52% of households owned stocks directly or indirectly. The phenomenal stock market boom left 48% – usually those below the poverty line, those who cannot cover emergency expenses, those with zero or negative net worth, etc. etc. – in the dust.
Germany is one of the precious few who might benefit from higher rates. But Germany seems to forget it is not an island.
The time has come for financial institutions to prepare for an environment with rising interest rates, a Bundesbank board member told CNBC on Thursday. Many risk managers have focused on credit and liquidity risks, but they need to insert interest rate risks into the equation too, Andreas Dombret, an executive board member of the German Bundesbank, said. “Let’s face it, there are quite a number of risk managers who have never seen interest rates rise and who have never seen the interest rate risk and even thought about (it) and have concentrated on credit risk and have concentrated on liquidity risk, so it’s about time to prepare for a potential change,” Dombret said.
The former vice-chairman of Bank of America’s European global investment unit explained that the German central bank is taking interest rate rises “very seriously” and is “actively” working with German banks to ensure that changes to monetary policy will not disrupt them in any way. “Should there be sharp rises in interest rates that of course would be a challenge for any bank,” Dombret said. Members of the German central bank have been critical of the low interest rate environment in the euro zone, arguing this is hurting banks’ balance sheets. Earlier this month, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, called on the ECB to start tightening its monetary policy.
While China Hongqiao Group may be best known for being the world’s largest aluminum producer, it has in recent months featured just as prominently among short-seller reports who have accused the company of being a fraud. As the WSJ’s Scott Patterson writes, questions about China Hongqiao’s finances first emerged in November, when an anonymous short seller wrote on a website called Hongqiao Exposed that the company’s profits are “too good to be true.” China Hongqiao in the March 31 statement called the report “untrue and unfounded.” A subsequent 46-page report on Feb. 28 by Emerson Analytics, a trading firm focused on Chinese stock-market fraud, disclosed more allegations of fraud involving the Chinese commodity giant.
Emerson accused China Hongqiao of “abnormally high” profits generated by underreporting production costs and disclosing electricity expenses—one of the biggest costs for aluminum producers—as much as 40% below their true cost. Emerson said it investigated Chinese electricity costs, spoke to former China Hongqiao employees and compared the company’s costs and profits with other comparable companies.
Additionally, China Hongqiao has been more profitable than some Chinese competitors. For instance, China Hongqiao earned an average operating profit margin of 27% in the past five years, compared with minus-1.7% for state-owned Aluminum Corp. of China , known as Chalco, and 5.9% for Alcoa, according to FactSet. “People were always skeptical about how they managed to be more profitable than their peers,” said Sandra Chow, a credit analyst at CreditSights. And while China Hongqiao denied the Emerson report’s allegations and said it hired an investigative agency to look into the firm and people behind the claims, things are starting to unravel rapidly for the Chinese megacap.
As Patterson reports, China Hongqiao – the world’s biggest aluminum producer – is in trouble, locked in a feud with its accountant over fraud allegations that have forced it to suspend trading of its shares and seek help from the central government in Beijing. Just like in the case of its cow dairy peer, the problems emerged to the surface following the bearish 3rd party reports. Just days after the Emerson Analytics note, on March 4 China Hongqiao sought assistance from a trade group, the Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Industry Association, or CNIA, saying the short sellers’ claims of inflated profits were forcing the company’s accountant, Ernst & Young, “to adopt an extremely conservative and careful attitude.” One wonders just whose books E&Y had been reviewing until that point if it took an outside party to bring attention to potential fraud at one of its biggest Chinese clients.
It’s really not that long ago when Chinese were reluctant to go into debt. But look now.
The value of China’s home sales remained buoyant in March, though volume figures indicated that curbs in a number of cities may be slowing the recent buying frenzy. New home sales by value rose 18% to 1 trillion yuan ($145 billion) last month from a year earlier, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data released Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics. The increase compares with a 23% surge in the first two months of the year. But the value of sales partly reflected surging home prices. By volume, home sales grew only 11% in March to 130 million square meters, according to Bloomberg calculations, below the 24% growth in the first two months of 2017. “The curbs are showing their effects,” said Liu Feifan at Guotai Junan Securities in Shenzhen, who predicted that sales growth will continue to slow.
Policy makers are seeking to clear a glut of unsold homes in smaller urban centers, while pledging to enforce strict curbs in most first- and second-tier cities to prevent a housing bubble. In a month when at least 64 cities announced new or stricter property-buying restrictions, some of the growth in home sales reflected buyers flocking into the market fearing they’d be ruled ineligible for future purchases. Investment in real estate development gained 9.4% in March from a year earlier, up from 8.9% in the first two months, according to Bloomberg calculations. Strong property investment helped China’s fixed-asset investment excluding rural areas expand 9.2% in the first quarter, accelerating from 8.1% growth last year.
Some of the growth represented a “delayed effect” from an earlier property boom, and the rate is likely to decelerate soon, Zhou Hao at Commerzbank wrote in a note after the data release. Liu at Guotai Junan said the increasingly high leverage that Chinese households have taken on for home purchase is “not sustainable.” New medium and long-term loans to households, made up mostly of mortgages, picked up again last month to 450.3 billion yuan, according to official data last Friday.
Tesla, Uber, same bubble. Giant losses with no future profits in sight. “Uber customers knew they were in a driverless car, by the way, because it had two drivers instead of one.”
You probably have figured it out by now, but let me state it anyway. Ten years from now, if you’re reading this paper in a driverless car, it will be on a limited-access highway or a closed-off, experimental city circuit. You will not be thumbing through your text messages in a driverless car capable of carrying you anywhere, at all hours, in all weather conditions, over all kinds of roads. And even so, you will be expected to take over driving at a moment s notice. Ditto electric cars. If you own an electric car, you will be a member of a still-small minority. Electric-car owners will be people who own multiple cars or otherwise are willing to settle for a car with limited utility, suited for a daily commute but not a family trip or a long weekend. Even so, a new phenomenon will become apparent. After unexpected tie-ups on the interstate, tow trucks will routinely have to come and remove three or four Teslas that risked a long-distance trip and ran out of juice.
All this we offer as a discordant note amid the hype for electric cars and autonomous driving. Last week the market value of Tesla surpassed that of Ford and General Motors. Tesla is now the most valuable homegrown American car company, worth almost $US52 billion.Yet in the same week a reputable consultancy, Navigant Research, showed that Ford and GM lead all others, including Tesla and Google, in the autonomous car race. Shocking? Not really. These companies are making and selling cars, while the Silicon Valleyites have been mostly engaged in brand-building exercises based on public fascination with jazzy, futuristic auto technology. Google, the pioneer of self-driving hype, recently admitted it won’t build and sell a car after all. Google, though, still finds it pays to trundle its handful of robot cars on the exquisitely mapped streets of a few locales in perfect weather as obstacles to other motorists.
Apple reaped untold millions in free publicity based mainly on rumours and job postings for automotive engineers. Uber briefly suspended its own self-driving taxi experiment in three cities after an accident last month. Uber customers knew they were in a driverless car, by the way, because it had two drivers instead of one. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Tesla’s triumph in the market-cap sweepstakes underscores the profound change occurring in the global automotive industry as Silicon Valley pursues a vision for transportation … that could up-end century-old competitors. Except that the stock prices of traditional car makers haven’t exactly been tanking. GM’s remains within yelling distance of its postbankruptcy high. Look at BMW, whose market cap Tesla nearly equals. Even if Tesla succeeds in its high-risk plan to ramp up annual production to 500,000 from 80,000 in a scant two years, it will sell a quarter as many luxury cars as BMW does, and has yet to show it can do so profitably.
Case in point.
On Good Friday, when markets were closed and when the entire financial world was tuned out, and when certainly no one was supposed to pay attention, Uber, the most highly valued – at $62.5 billion – and the most scandal plagued tech startup in the world, took the until now unprecedented step of disclosing its audited revenues and losses for the fourth quarter and for the full year of 2016. Rumors of ballooning losses for 2016 had been swirling since last summer. Bloomberg reported in August that Uber had lost “at least $1.2 billion” in the first half. In December, Uber’s loss in Q3 was said to “exceed $800 million,” according to Bloomberg, and its annual loss “may hit $3 billion.”
Others chimed in as some of Uber’s dozens of investors who’re getting its financial statements share them in dribs and drabs with the media. But on Friday, Uber itself disclosed that it lost $2.8 billion before interest, tax, depreciation, and employee stock options – the latter likely being a big chunk, as the earnings of publicly traded companies that award stock-based compensation, such as Twitter, regularly show. Translated into a net loss, including the expense for stock-based compensation? Dizzying. But Uber wisely didn’t disclose it. The Financial Times, which reported this disclosure, mused that Uber is “cementing its place as the most heavily-lossmaking private company in the history of Silicon Valley.”
In Q4 alone, it lost $991 million before interest, tax, depreciation, and stock-based compensation, up 5% from the losses in Q3 and nearly double its loss in Q1. However, as Uber has expanded at break-neck speed into more than 70 countries, stirring up numerous hornets’ nests of local and national laws and regulations, revenue soared over 200% from Q1 to reach $2.9 billion in Q4. For the whole year, revenue reached $6.5 billion. This is the image of its skyrocketing 2016 quarterly revenues and ballooning losses before interest, tax, depreciation, and stock-based compensation:
In a country of over 1 billion people, failures look big.
Five months have passed since the demonetisation drive, but the people of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam continue to face shortage of cash in banks and ATMs. Sources said more than 90% of the ATMs in the region do not have cash while in the plains and Agency areas running dry. “The last date for paying my daughter’s tuition fees at Visakha Valley School was April 10, but I could not pay due to unavailability of cash. Moreover, the school does not have any online payment system,” said a worried P Srinivasa Rao. Speaking to TOI, State Bank of India (SBI) deputy general manager Ajoy Kumar Pandit said the customers are losing confidence in them due to the crisis.
“Nearly 70% of our 648 ATMs in the three districts are out of cash. The rest will also become dry in the next few days as we do not have cash to refill the machines. We are helpless from our side,” he said. A banking source said the RBI has diverted most of the cash to north India due to the recent elections. This has affected the southern parts of the country. “The government’s intention is to encourage smart payment systems, but the infrastructure is not up to the mark,” the source said. Many ATMs have not been upgraded with the new software required for handling the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 denominations, the source added.
The referendum has revealed the opposite of what Erdogan claims it has; namely, a dramatically divided Turkey. A powder keg. Recounts first? Is the judicial system still strong enough to order them? Changing a constitution with a 50% + 1 majority is questionable enough, since a constitution is supposed to be the result of many years of deliberation; in most places it would require 67% or even 75%. On top of that, this referendum was executed with many opposition politicians and many journalists behind bars. And even then only a very slim margin?!
An emboldened Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed his win in a referendum that ratified the supremacy of his rule by taking aim at political opponents at home and abroad. At his victory speech late on Sunday, supporters chanted that he should bring back the death penalty – a move that would finish off Turkey’s bid to join the EU – and Erdogan warned opponents not to bother challenging the legitimacy of his win. He told them to prepare for the biggest overhaul of Turkey’s system of governance ever, one that will result in him having even fewer checks on his already considerable power. “Today, Turkey has made a historic decision,” he said. “We will change gears and continue along our course more quickly.” The lira surged as much as 2.5% against the dollar in early trading on Monday in Istanbul before gains moderated.
The success of a package of 18 changes to the constitution was narrow, with about 51.4% of Turks approving it. It came at the end of a divisive two-month campaign during which Erdogan accused opponents of the vote of supporting “terrorists” and denounced as Nazi-like the decision of some EU countries to bar his ministers from lobbying the diaspora. “The referendum campaign was dominated by strongly anti-Western rhetoric and repeated promises to bring back the death penalty,” said Inan Demir at Nomura in London. “One hopes that this rhetoric will be tempered now that the vote is over,” but recent steps by the Turkish government do “not bode well for the hoped-for moderation in international relations.”
“It looks like the best outcome for financial markets because it gives the mandate, but not a strong mandate,” said Ozgur Altug, the chief economist at BGC Partners in Istanbul, who predicts stocks in Istanbul will rally about 7%. While markets looked favorably on the result as a sign political turmoil in the majority Muslim nation of 80 million people may settle down and help jumpstart the economy, Turkey’s biggest political party alleged fraud, demanding a recount after election officials accepted ballots without official stamps.
The EU’s rapporteur on Turkey, Kati Piri, said given the “unfair election environment,” EU accession talks will be suspended if the constitution is passed in its current form. The European Commission, in a statement, said the constitutional amendments, and their implementation “will be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations” as an accession candidate and as a member of the Council of Europe. “You saw how the West attacked. But despite this, the nation stood tall, didn’t get divided,” Erdogan told his supporters, while calling on Turks who opposed him to “stop tiring themselves out” and accept the course the country is headed on.