JMW Turner Lake Llanberis and Snowdon Color Study c.1800
The BoE promoted, incited, cheap credit and the housing bubble by lowering rates. And now it has to kill off what it promoted? Who believes that? The role of central banks is truly poorly understood.
One thing sure to upset Bank of England officials is any suggestion that the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has gone soft on the banking industry and turns a blind eye to reckless lending. It brings back disturbing memories of the 2008 credit crunch, the chaos it brought to the economy and the damage it caused the institution’s reputation. Last week, the Bank of England, which has become the overarching regulator of the banking system, made a point of being tough on the banks following the publication of its latest financial stability report. It slapped a demand for more than £11bn of extra reserves on the major lenders – just in case the current economic slowdown should trigger a rise in defaults.
Governor Mark Carney also warned the lending industry that it should expect tougher rules on how it sells mortgages, car loans and credit cards should the current rise in borrowing rocket any further. But one question remains: can Carney and his troops tame the British consumer’s dependence on debt? The most recent figures would say the answer is no. Last week the Bank’s own figures showed that consumer credit grew by £1.7bn in May, the biggest increase since last November, and higher than the six-month average of £1.5bn. The annual rate at which UK consumers are loading up on their already heaving debt pile remained at 10.3% in the year to May. A look at the total stock of UK consumer credit shows that it reached £198bn in April.
That might seem small compared with the total amount of outstanding mortgage debt, which is around seven times larger, at £1.3trillion, but for banks, consumer credit accounts for a much higher proportion of losses. “Since 2007, UK banks’ total write-offs on UK consumer credit have been 10 times higher than on mortgages,” the BoE says. And all this rising debt comes at a time of extraordinary falls in the savings rate. The most recent GDP figures showed that households were putting aside rainy day money at the lowest rate on record. It is a situation that worries experts of all stripes – from Jane Tully, a senior director at the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, to former Bank of England official Kate Barker, who was a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting committee during the last crash.
Tully said: “We have already seen an 8% rise in the number of people helped by National Debtline by telephone this year, and all the signs are that demand for debt advice will continue to increase. The higher borrowing levels rise, the more households will be exposed to the risk of financial difficulty in the event of a downturn.” Barker is concerned that eight years of ultra-low interest rates are fuelling a dependence on cheap borrowing, without any end in sight. She says that the growth of car finance plans appears to be a side-effect of the clampdown in other areas of credit, in particular the tighter regulation of mortgages. “There is obviously an incentive to borrow, so as one area is clamped down on, the problem pops up in another,” she says.
A 40% fall in prices sounds reasonable.
House prices are teetering on the brink of a crash that could be as bad as the bust of the early 1990s, a leading expert has warned. There are already warning signs that prices are heading towards a near 40% plunge, warns Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics. It raises the alarming spectre of the return of ‘negative equity’ – when a house falls so far in value it is worth less than the mortgage – which hit one million people at the worst point in the 1990s. Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, Prof Cheshire, a former Government housing adviser, said: ‘We are due a significant correction in house prices. I think we are beginning to see signs that correction may be starting. ‘Historically, trends seem always to start in London and then move out across the rest of the country. In the capital, you are already seeing house prices rising less rapidly than in other parts of Britain.’
Such a shift could push many thousands of recent buyers into trouble. From 1989, the price boom fell apart over the next six years, with prices plunging by 37%. In its most recent figures, The National Association of Estate Agents reported the number of homes sold in May for less than the asking price rose to 77%. According to Prof Cheshire, the fall in real incomes – when wages fail to keep up with inflation – is likely to be the spark for a fall in house prices. Inflation hit 2.9% last month, while incomes only grew by 2.1%. Property experts and estate agents say the housing market in wealthier pockets of the country has been further hit by stamp duty hikes. Prof Christian Hilber of the LSE also warned: ‘If Brexit leads to a recession and/or sluggish growth for extended periods, then an extended and severe downturn is more likely than a short-lived and mild one.’ The Council of Mortgage Lenders said earlier this month that the housing market had ‘stalled’
From bad to worse. The hubris boomerang.
Xi Jinping’s tough talk in Hong Kong reflects growing self-confidence in China’s ability to shape world events and browbeat or ignore less powerful countries such as Britain. The Chinese president could have thrown a bone to the pro-democracy movement. He could have offered a sop on civil liberties and political rights to western opinion. Instead, he told Hong Kong who’s boss. Xi the hard man laid down the law according to Beijing. His message: fall into line, or else. His message to Britain was blunt, too, bordering on disdainful. China would not brook outside “interference” in the former colony. Forget about those guarantees of a free, open society painstakingly negotiated before the 1997 handover. “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and challenge the power of the central government is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.
Under Xi’s bastardised version of the Basic Law, any criticism is henceforth forbidden, on pain of serious consequences. Boris Johnson received a stinging lesson in the new balance of power earlier in the week. “As we look to the future, Britain hopes that Hong Kong will make more progress toward a fully democratic and accountable system of government,” the foreign secretary intoned with uncharacteristic meekness. Johnson’s statement was shamefully deferential. He could, and should, have been more forceful about Beijing’s responsibilities and its own egregious, sometimes illegal meddling. But China took umbrage all the same. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in London, set Johnson straight: Hong Kong issues must henceforth be “handled properly” or overall ties would suffer.
Worse was to follow. On Friday, China’s foreign ministry formally renounced the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, the basis on which Britain agreed to relinquish control of the colony. The two sides had agreed the treaty would remain in force for 50 years. “The Sino-British joint declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong,” the spokesman Lu Kang declared. The Foreign Office swiftly rejected the demarche. But in his present bullish mood, Xi is not listening.
Keeping up appearances is getting harder.
[..] the state remains without a spending plan, its tax receipts and outlays mostly on “autopilot”, leaving it with a record $15 billion of unpaid bills as it spent over $6 billion more than it brought in over the past year, and with $800 million in interest on the unpaid bills alone. The impasse has devastated social-service providers, shuttering services for the homeless, disabled and poor. The lack of state aid has wrecked havoc on universities, putting their accreditation at risk. However, in a “shocking” development, just hours remaining before the midnight deadline to pass the Illinois budget, and Illinois’ imminent loss of its investment grade rating, federal judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago ordered Illinois to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars it owes in Medicaid payments that state officials say the government doesn’t have, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Judge Lefkow ordered the state to make $586 million in monthly payments (from the current $160 million) as well as another $2 billion toward a $3 billion backlog of payments – a $167 million increase in monthly outlays – the state owes to managed care organizations that process payments to providers. While it is no secret that as part of its collapse into the financial abyss, Illinois has accumulated $15 billion in unpaid bills, the state’s Medicaid recipients had had enough, and went to court asking a judge to order the state to speed up its payments. On Friday, the court ruled in their favor. The problem, of course, is that Illinois can no more afford to pay the outstanding Medicaid bills, than it can to pay any of its $14,711,351,943.90 in overdue bills as of June 30. The backlog of unpaid claims the state owes to managed-care companies directly, as well as to the doctors, hospitals, clinics and other organizations “is crippling these providers and thereby dramatically reducing the Medicaid recipients’ access to health care,” Lefkow said in her ruling.
Friday’s court ruling, which meant that the near-insolvent state must pay an additional $593 million per month, may have been the straw that finally broke the Illinois camel’s back. “Friday’s ruling by the U.S. District Court takes the state’s finances from horrific to catastrophic,” Comptroller Susana Mendoza, a Democrat, said in an emailed statement after the ruling. [..] “A comprehensive budget plan must be passed immediately.” Realizing where all this is headed, she said that payments to bond holders won’t be interrupted. [..] As a result of the court decision, “payments to the state’s pension funds; state payroll including legislator pay; General State Aid to schools and payments to local governments – in some combination – will likely have to be cut.”
ME, CT, IL and NJ. Who’s next, please?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature are returning to work to try to resolve the state’s first government shutdown since 2006 and the first under Christie. The Republican governor and the Democrat-led Legislature failed to reach an agreement on a new budget by the deadline at midnight Friday, CBS New York reports. In a news conference Saturday morning, Christie blamed Democratic State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto for causing the shutdown. “If there’s not a resolution to this today, everyone will be back tomorrow,” Christie said, calling the shutdown “embarrassing and pointless.” He also repeatedly referred to the government closure as “the speaker’s shutdown.” Christie later announced that he would address the full legislature later at the statehouse on Saturday.
Prieto remained steadfast in his opposition, reiterating that he won’t consider the plan as part of the budget process but would consider it once a budget is signed. Referring to the shutdown as “Gov. Christie’s Hostage Crisis Day One,” Prieto said he has made compromises that led to the budget now before the Legislature. “I am also ready to consider reasonable alternatives that protect ratepayers, but others must come to the table ready to be equally reasonable,” Prieto said. “Gov. Christie and the legislators who won’t vote ‘yes’ on the budget are responsible for this unacceptable shutdown. I compromised. I put up a budget bill for a vote. Others now must now do their part and fulfill their responsibilities.” Christie ordered nonessential services to close beginning Saturday. New Jerseyans were feeling the impact as the shutdown took effect, shuttering state parks and disrupting ferry service to Liberty and Ellis islands.
Where the real power resides.
One of the few elected Democratic lawmakers with an extensive anti-war record, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), has combined forces with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to push legislation through both the House and the Senate that would bar federal agencies from using taxpayer-backed funds to provide weapons, training, intelligence, or any other type of support to terrorist cells such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any other group that is associated with them in any way. The Stop Arming Terrorists Act is so unique that it’s also the only bill of its kind that would also bar the government from funneling money and weapons through other countries that support (directly or indirectly) terrorists such as Saudi Arabia. To our surprise – or should we say shame? – only 13 other lawmakers out of hundreds have co-sponsored Gabbard’s House bill. Paul’s Senate version of the bill, on the other hand, has zero co-sponsors.
While both pieces of legislation were introduced in early 2017, no real action has been taken as of yet. This proves that Washington refuses to support bills that would actually provoke positive chain reactions not only abroad but also at home. Why? Well, let’s look at the groups that would lose a great deal in case this bill is signed into law. With trillions of tax dollars flowing to companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and even IBM, among others, companies that invest heavily in weapons, cyber security systems, and other technologies that are widely used in times of war would stand to lose a lot – if not everything – if all of a sudden, the United States chose to become a nation that stands for peace and free market principles. For one, these companies have a heavy lobbying presence, ensuring that lawmakers sympathetic to their plight are elected every two years.
When the possibility of a new conflict appears on the horizon, these companies are the first to lobby heavily for action. But this dynamic isn’t a secret. We all know that the crony capitalist system that thrives in Washington, D.C., is the very bread and butter of politics in America. After all, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation in his farewell address in 1961 that “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” were becoming the great powers behind U.S. politics, and that if we weren’t weary of this influence, we would risk living in a perpetual state of war. Still, we allowed it to take over. And there isn’t one industry powerful enough to counter this destructive authority. With the support of an army of well-established and connected millionaire lobbyists, the war machine operating in Washington is so powerful that anything can be turned into an existential threat.
Obviously, if only 2% of US politicians are willing to stop the machine, it will march on. Ike may as well have said nothing.
So what did Hersh’s investigation reveal? His sources in the US intelligence establishment – people who have helped him break some of the most important stories of the past few decades, from the Mai Lai massacre by American soldiers during the Vietnam war to US abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004 – told him the official narrative that Syria’s Bashar Assad had dropped deadly sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was incorrect. Instead, they said, a Syrian plane dropped a bomb on a meeting of jihadi fighters that triggered secondary explosions in a storage depot, releasing a toxic cloud of chemicals that killed civilians nearby. It is an alternative narrative of these events that one might have assumed would be of intense interest to the media, given that Donald Trump approved a military strike on Syria based on the official narrative.
Hersh’s version suggests that Trump acted against the intelligence advice he received from his own officials, in a highly dangerous move that not only grossly violated international law but might have dragged Assad’s main ally, Russia, into the fray. The Syrian arena has the potential to trigger a serious confrontation between the world’s two major nuclear powers. But, in fact, the western media were supremely uninterested in the story. Hersh, once considered the journalist’s journalist, went hawking his investigation around the US and UK media to no avail. In the end, he could find a home for his revelations only in Germany, in the publication Welt am Sonntag. There are a couple of possible, even if highly improbable, reasons all English-language publications ignored Hersh’s story. Maybe they had evidence that his inside intelligence was wrong.
If so, they have yet to provide it. A rebuttal would require acknowledging Hersh’s story, and none seem willing to do that. Or maybe the media thought it was old news and would no longer interest their readers. It would be difficult to sustain such an interpretation, but at least it has an air of plausibility – except for everything that has happened since Hersh published last Sunday. His story has spawned two clear “spoiler” responses from those desperate to uphold the official narrative. Hersh’s revelations may have been entirely uninteresting to the western media, but strangely they have sent Washington into crisis mode. Of course, no US official has addressed Hersh’s investigation directly, which might have drawn attention to it and forced western media to reference it. Instead Washington has sought to deflect attention from Hersh’s alternative narrative and shore up the official one through misdirection.
That alone should raise the alarm that we are being manipulated, not informed. The first spoiler, made in the immediate wake of Hersh’s story, were statements from the Pentagon and White House warning that the US had evidence Assad was planning yet another chemical attack on his people and that Washington would respond extremely harshly if he did so. Here is how the Guardian reported the US threats: “The US said on Tuesday that it had observed preparations for a possible chemical weapons attack at a Syrian air base allegedly involved in a sarin attack in April following a warning from the White House that the Syrian regime would ‘pay a heavy price’ for further use of the weapons.”
And then on Friday, the second spoiler emerged. Two unnamed diplomats “confirmed” that a report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had found that some of the victims from Khan Sheikhoun showed signs of poisoning by sarin or sarin-like substances.
“How clear does an orchestration have to be before people are capable of recognizing the orchestration?”
If national security advisers gave Trump such excellent information about the alleged sarin gas attack, completely disproving any such attack, why was he given such bad advice about shooting down a Syrian war plane, or was it done outside of channels? The effect of the shootdown is to raise the chance of a confrontation with Russia, because Russia’s response apparently has been to declare a no-fly zone over the area of Russian and Syrian operations. How do we know that what Hersh was told was true? What if Trump was encouraged to order the Tomahawk strike as a way of interjecting the US directly into the conflict? Both the US and Israel have powerful reasons for wanting to overthrow Assad. However, ISIS, sent to do the job, has been defeated by Russia and Syria. Unless Washington can somehow get directly involved, the war is over.
The story Hersh was given also serves to damn Trump while absolving the intelligence services. Trump takes the hit for injecting the US directly into the conflict. Hersh’s story reads well, but it easily could be a false story planted on him. I am not saying that the story is false, but unless we learn more, it could be. What we do know is that the story given to Hersh by national security officials is inconsistent with the June 26 White House announcement that the US has “identified potential preparations for another chemical attack by the Assad regime.” The White House does not have the capability to conduct its own foreign intelligence gathering. The White House is informed by the national security and intelligence agencies. In the story given to Hersh, these officials are emphatic that not only were chemical weapons removed from Syria, but also that Assad would not use them or be permitted by the Russians to use them even if he had them.
Moreover, Hersh reports that he was told that Russia fully informed the US of the Syrian attack on ISIS in advance. The weapon was a guided bomb that Russia had supplied to Syria. Therefore, it could not have been a chemical weapon. As US national security officials made it clear to Hersh that they do not believe Syria did or would use any chemical weapons, what is the source for the White House’s announcement that preparations for another chemical attack by the Assad regime have been identified? Who lined up UN ambassador Nikki Haley and the UK Defence Minister Michael Fallon to be ready with statements in support of the White House announcement? Haley says: “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.” Fallon says: “we will support” future US action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
How clear does an orchestration have to be before people are capable of recognizing the orchestration?
Yeah, we really need Bloomberg editors’ opinions on matters they know nothing about. Mind you, carbon capture is an empty slogan.
“Clean coal,” always dubious as a concept and never proved as a reality, has now failed as business proposition. Southern Co. has decided to stop work on a process that would have captured carbon dioxide emissions from a coal plant in Mississippi. Giving up on the project, which was nearly $5 billion over budget and three years behind schedule, makes sense for Southern’s customers and shareholders. And giving up on carbon capture makes sense for the energy industry. The technology is too expensive and complicated to be deployed quickly or widely enough to appreciably protect the climate. The better way to cut back on carbon-dioxide emissions is far simpler: Use less coal. Luckily, that change is already under way. (Michael R. Bloomberg supports the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, an effort to replace coal power with cleaner forms of energy.)
Carbon capture once seemed promising – even as recently as a decade ago, when coal fueled almost half of U.S. electricity generation. Back then, continued dependence on the dirty fuel looked inevitable, and a strategy to deal with its prodigious greenhouse-gas emissions seemed essential. Hence, utilities embarked on model coal plants that would capture the carbon dioxide before it could enter the atmosphere. Only a couple have been built, in addition to Southern’s in Kemper County, Mississippi, and none has established an economic case for carbon capture. The Petra Nova facility, in Texas, was reportedly finished on time and on budget, but its construction required a $190 million federal grant, and the carbon-capture unit requires a separate gas-fired power plant.
Canada’s Boundary Dam carbon-capture unit, meanwhile, has operated much less efficiently than expected, suffering multiple breakdowns and requiring expensive repairs. Unfortunately, such costs and complexities are unlikely to diminish very much, and few such facilities are likely to be built worldwide in the next 20 years. A new report issued by the Global Warming Policy Foundation concludes that carbon capture for coal-fired power has “no plausible economic future.”
Is it time to cut the House of Saud down to size?
Qatar said on Saturday it does not fear any military retaliation for refusing to meet a Monday deadline to comply with a list of demands from four Arab states that have imposed a de-facto blockade on the Gulf nation. During a visit to Rome, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani again rejected the demands as an infringement on Qatar’s sovereignty. He said any country is free to raise grievances with Qatar, provided they have proof, but said any such conflicts should be worked out through negotiation, not by imposing ultimatums. “We believe that the world is governed by international laws, that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries,” he told a press conference in Italy. “No one has the right to issue to a sovereign country an ultimatum.” Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic ties with Qatar last month and shut down land, sea and air links.
They issued a 13-point list of demands, including curbing diplomatic ties to Iran, severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and shuttering the Al-Jazeera news network. They accuse Qatar of supporting regional terror groups, a charge Qatar denies. Al Thani rejected the demands and said they were never meant to be accepted. “There is no fear from whatever action would be taken; Qatar is prepared to face whatever consequences,” he said. “But as I have mentioned … there is an international law that should not be violated and there is a border that should not be crossed.” While in Rome, Al Thani met with Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano, who backed the Kuwait-led mediation effort and urged the countries involved in the standoff to “abstain from further actions that could aggravate the situation”. He added that he hoped Italian companies could further consolidate their presence in Qatar.
I read these things and think I must be missing something: “..Greece is braced for a record-breaking 30m holidaymakers this year..” and “For every extra 30 holidaymakers a job is created”.
That sounds like a lot of jobs. But seriously, a country that depends too much on tourism is not a healthy country. Not enough stability or resilience. The longer the US and EU wait, the more unstable Greece will become.
Up high, above the hills of Arcadia, historic Dimitsana is on a roll. Its hotels are brimming, its cafes are full, and its footpaths and monasteries lure busloads of tourists decanted daily from other parts of the Peloponnese. Either side of the main road that splits the mountain village – in a world far removed from talk of emergency bailout funds, international stewardship and gruelling austerity – Greeks are hard at work, running boutique guesthouses, eateries and bars in the stone mansions that line Dimitsana’s cobbled streets. “Business is very good,” says Labis Baxevanos, the village’s deputy mayor, who owns a patisserie along the strip. “So good that a lot of younger couples have come to work here since the country’s economic crisis began.”
Debt-stricken Greece is braced for a record-breaking 30m holidaymakers this year, almost three times its population. Addressing the Panhellenic Exporters Association last week, the tourism minister Elena Kountoura said that between January and May there had been a noticeable increase in arrivals, revenues and occupancy rates with summer bookings in some areas rising by as much as 70%. Travel receipts grew by 2.4% or €23m (£20m). After eight years of grinding austerity, the influx is a tangible gift, on a par with the €8.5bn financial lifeline thrown Greece earlier this month to once again avert default. Dimitsana – once famous for the gunpowder mills that produced the firepower in the nation’s 1821 war of independence against Ottoman rule – is emblematic of the entrepreneurial spirit taking root as a result of the boom.
“Tourism is our lifejacket,” says Theonimfi Koraki, who opened a boutique hotel in the village last summer. “The aim now is diversity and drawing out the season all year round. Here in Arcadia the creation of the 75km-long Menalon [walking] trail has been hugely successful for example with foreign tourists. It has greatly helped the development of the region.” With the exception of shipping, tourism is Greece’s biggest foreign earner, the mainstay of an economy that has otherwise contracted by 27% since late 2009 when the country’s debt crisis began. The industry accounted for eight out of 10 new jobs in 2016, vital for a nation hit by crippling levels of unemployment. Bank of Greece figures show around 23.5 million tourists visited in 2015, generating €14.2bn of revenues, or 24% of gross domestic product. Last year, the country’s tourism confederation, SETE, announced arrivals of 27.5 million, an all-time high.
Increasingly, the sector has helped boost much-needed job creation, according to data released by the labour ministry. Recently, the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, said April and May had been record months for tackling the problem with 92,000 and 89,500 jobs created respectively. For every extra 30 holidaymakers a job is created, say officials. They have been at pains to make the point as striking municipal waste workers not only unnerved tour operators this week but highlighted how important tourism is for the economy.
Translation: the Troika is not done with Greece yet. The bad loans issue will be used to throw more Greeks out of their homes etc.
The European Central Bank plans to inspect Greek banks this year to monitor their progress in working off their huge pile of unpaid loans, ECB director Sabine Lautenschlaeger said on Friday. Greek banks have been cutting their share of non-performing loans (NPL) to companies and households, which account for slightly more than half of their books as a result of a severe economic crisis, to meet targets set by the ECB. The ECB supervises Greece’s four largest banks, or significant institutions (SIs), and is one of the three bodies responsible for the country’s bailout, along with the European Commission and the IMF.
“The ECB will perform on-site missions at the Greek SIs during the second half of 2017, a period in which the main operational measures to address NPLs … have to be already implemented,” Lautenschlaeger said in a letter to IMF chief Christine Lagarde. She was responding to an IMF request for information on the ECB’s supervisory work in Greece in the context of a possible IMF program for the country. Greece secured a credit lifeline from euro zone governments earlier this month. The IMF offered Athens a standby arrangement but said it won’t disburse any money until it obtains greater detail on debt relief for the country.
The best for last today. Schaeuble suggests that Greece could have cut elsewhere and still meet Troika demands. Like kill all health care and education, presumably.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has insisted in an interview that successive Greek governments were to blame for the pension cuts that have been enforced in Greece. The German minister stressed in an interview with Ta Nea newspaper on Saturday that the Greek governments are the ones that decided the mix of policies needed to achieve the country’s targets. He also said that the IMF will never be involved again in a program to rescue a European country. Referring to his Greek counterpart Euclid Tsakalotos, he said they communicate frequently, while he dismissed his flamboyant predecessor Yianis Varoufakis as someone he no longer can “take seriously.”