Edward Hopper Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks 1924
UPDATE: There still seems to be a problem with our Paypal widget/account that makes donating -both for our fund for homless and refugees in Greece, and for the Automatic Earth itself- hard for some people. What happens is that for some a message pops up that says “This recipient does not accept payments denominated in USD”. This is nonsense, we do. We notified Paypal weeks ago.
We have no idea how many people have simply given up on donating, but we can suggest a workaround (works like a charm):
Through Paypal.com, you can simply donate to an email address. In our case that is recedinghorizons *at* gmail *com*. Use that, and your donations will arrive where they belong. Sorry for the inconvenience.
“So Why Are They Investing In The Exact Same Fashion?”
• Everyone Knows Pensions Are Screwed (Felder)
The average pension fund assumes it can achieve a 7.6% rate of return on its assets in the future. As noted in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, the majority of these assets are invested in the stock market. The rest are invested in bonds, real estate and alternatives. An aggregate bond index fund yields 2.5% today. Real estate investment trusts, as a group, yield nearly 4%. Alternatives are a mixed bag but the point is that, in order for pensions to meet this 7.6% rate of return they require that stocks (and, to a much lesser degree, alternatives) do far better than even that optimistic assumption because the balance of the portfolio is nearly guaranteed to fall short of that mark. The trouble is that for stocks to return anywhere near 8% they would need to fall more than 50% first.
Warren Buffett famously said, “the price you pay determines your rate of return.” John Hussman puts an even finer point on it this week showing that if you want an 8% rate of return over the coming 12 years you should not be willing to pay more than 1,281 for the S&P 500 today. Currently, the index trades at roughly 2,690 thus it would take a major stock market crash for investors to have the opportunity to invest at a level that would enable them to achieve anything close to what pensions now require. But if stocks were to crash again, as they did after the last two times valuations reached current extremes, that would obviously create other problems for pensions that are now fully invested in risk assets and already underfunded to the tune of several trillion dollars.
Even if they don’t crash, however, it is now almost inevitable that pensions will face a massive crisis sometime over the next decade or so. Still, it’s fascinating to note that even though this issue is common knowledge today, investors as a group have decided to ensure they will come to the very same fate. Passive investing, which has exploded in popularity in recent years, is essentially a way for individual investors to model pension investing, typically with an even greater exposure to equities.
Of course they could. But Jeremy Grantham’s ‘Melt-Up’ is being criticized by quite a few voices. The question is not ‘could they rise’, but ‘how long until they will plunge’?
• Shares Have Gone Through The Roof: Could They Possibly Go Even Higher? (G.)
Shares are expensive – keep buying them. That appears to be investors’ consensus view. The storming run for stock markets in 2017 seemed almost too good to be trusted, but 2018 has started in similar style. In the US, the Dow Jones industrial average soared past 25,000 last week, almost exactly 12 months after 20,000 was achieved. In the UK, the FTSE 100 index stands at a record high. Even the Japanese market, for years an international laggard, is back at a 26-year high. Last year the MSCI World index – a proxy for a global stock market – delivered a return of 20.1%. Optimists expect more of the same. The other camp warns that a dangerous bubble is about to burst. Both sides could probably agree that the recent run in stock markets has been astonishing.
Or, rather, the truly remarkable feature has been the steady and unbroken pace of the march upwards. Stock markets, we used to think, offered thrills, spills and rollercoaster rides. Individual shares still provide such excitement, of course, but the overall market seems bizarrely free of stress. Andrew Lapthorne, who crunches the market numbers for French bank Société Générale, called 2017 “the year volatility died” in his end-of-year round-up. He wrote: “Those of us expecting greater market turbulence in 2017 could not have been more wrong. Not only did global equity markets perform well, but they did so with such low volatility and consistency that, if this were a fund, it would perhaps merit a visit from the authorities to check exactly what you were up to.”
What happened? First, investors seem to have decided that rising interest rates in the US, a big worry a year ago, are not the bogeyman they seemed. The US Federal Reserve has been a protective nurse. Rate rises have been gradual, and ultra-cheap money has been followed by very cheap. A US rate of 1.5% ain’t so bad. Second, President Donald Trump’s administration, amid its chaos and crises, has delivered the policy investors in companies cared about most: corporate tax cuts. Maybe a growth-generating splurge on infrastructure, the second part of his economic agenda, will follow.
More of a partisan thing.
• States Threaten “Economic Civil War” On Washington (ZH)
The new year has only just begun, but already Democratic politicians in the country’s largest high-tax states are threatening lawsuits and publicly touting proposed workarounds to help compensate tax payers for the elimination of the state and local tax (SALT) deductions which were dramatically rolled back, along with deductions for mortgage interest, as part of the White House’s tax reform plan. During his state of the state address earlier this week, New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue the federal government over the tax bill, claiming that the plan is unconstitutional and overly burdensome to New Yorkers. Cuomo said that the new law could raise some families’ taxes by as much as 25% and said the plan amounted to “double taxation.”
He later accused President Donald Trump of waging “economic civil war” on states that didn’t back him during the election, and promised to consider workarounds that would help lower residents’ federal tax bills, according to Bloomberg. Then, on Thursday, California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon introduced a bill that the Washington Post said could become a model for how blue states push back against the Trump tax plan. According to the Trump tax plan, which took effect in January, taxpayers can only deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes when they file their federal return.
“De Leon’s bill, if it became law, would essentially allow Americans to deduct much more than the $10,000 limit by redirecting state tax payments into a type of charitable contribution that would be later redirected to the state. The new federal tax law, which was supported only by Republicans, went into effect in January and does not include any caps on charitable deductions. “The Republican tax plan gives corporations and hedge-fund managers a trillion-dollar tax cut and expects California taxpayers to foot the bill,” de León said in a statement. “We won’t allow California residents to be the casualty of this disastrous tax scheme.” Several states have said they are looking for ways to challenge or work around the law, particularly states such as California and New York where residents pay a higher level of local taxes that they have traditionally been able to deduct without any limits. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has said he is looking at a way of challenging the new law in court.”
Then on Friday, incoming New Jersey Gov. Democrat Phil Murphy said he’s working on a plan similar to California’s that would allow taxpayers to pay a percentage of their state income taxes as if they were a charitable donation. The money will eventually be redirected to the state. And there’s nothing in the Republican tax plan that limits charitable deductions. Predictably, the White House has threatened to push back against these strategies. During a televised interview this week, Gary Cohn said the administration would be looking into ways to stop states from implementing these work-arounds.
Seems easy to avoid.
• UK Companies Will Face Huge New VAT Burden After Brexit (G.)
More than 130,000 UK firms will be forced to pay VAT upfront for the first time on all goods imported from the European Union after Brexit, under controversial legislation to be considered by MPs on Monday. The VAT changes spelled out in the taxation (cross-border trade) bill – one of a string of Brexit laws passing through parliament – are causing uproar among UK business groups, which say that they will create acute cashflow problems and huge additional bureaucracy. Labour and Tory MPs and peers said that the only way to avoid the VAT Brexit penalty would be to stay in the customs union or negotiate to remain in the EU-VAT area. On Sunday night the Tory chair of the all-party Treasury select committee, Nicky Morgan, said the committee would launch an urgent investigation.
She also said she would be writing to the head of HM Revenue and Customs to see what contingency plans were being made to avoid hitting UK firms. The bill, which has its second reading in the Commons on Monday, spells out clearly how VAT would have to be paid upfront by companies. The government’s own explanatory notes on the bill say the existing regime will end “so that import VAT is charged on all imports from outside the UK”. The Labour MP and former minister Chris Leslie said that the VAT hit to firms was “yet another aspect of Brexit that the Leave campaign failed to inform the public about”. He added that he would be tabling urgent amendments to ensure the UK remained in the EU VAT area – a move that would enrage pro-Brexit MPs.
UK companies that import machine parts or goods ready for sale from the EU can currently register with HMRC to bring them into the UK free of VAT. They register the VAT charge and reclaim it later, all as a paper exercise. VAT is added to the price of the product whenever it is sold to the final customer. Without a VAT deal with Brussels, importers will have to pay the VAT upfront in cash and then recover the money later, creating a huge outflow of funds before they can be recouped.
“Once made, a promise is as weighty as a thousand ounces of gold..”
• China To Move Millions Of People From Homes In Anti-Poverty Drive (G.)
Over the next three years Xi Jinping’s anti-poverty crusade – which the Communist party leader has declared one of the key themes of his second five-year term – will see millions of marginalised rural dwellers resettled in new, government-subsidised homes. Some are being moved to distant urban housing estates, others just to slightly less remote or unforgiving rural locations. Other poverty-fighting tactics – including loans, promoting tourism and “pairing” impoverished families with local officials whose careers are tied to their plight – are also being used. By 2020, Beijing hopes to have helped 30 million people rise above its official poverty line of about 70p a day while simultaneously reinforcing the already considerable authority of Xi, now seen as China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.
China’s breathtaking economic ascent has helped hundreds of millions lift themselves from poverty since the 1980s but in 2016 at least 5.7% of its rural population still lived in poverty, according to a recent UN report, with that number rising to as much as 10% in some western regions and 12% among some ethnic minorities. A recent propaganda report claimed hitting the 2020 target would represent “a step against poverty unprecedented in human history”. In his annual New Year address to the nation last week Xi made a “solemn pledge” to win his war on want. “Once made, a promise is as weighty as a thousand ounces of gold,” he said. The current wave of anti-poverty relocations – a total 9.81 million people are set to be moved between 2016 and 2020 – are taking place across virtually the whole country, in 22 provinces.
[..] Mark Wang, a University of Melbourne scholar who studies Beijing’s use of resettlements to fight poverty, attributed Xi’s focus on the issue partly to the seven years he spent in the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Xi was born into China’s “red aristocracy” – the son of the revolutionary elder Xi Zhongxun – but was exiled to the parched village of Liangjiahe in the 1960s after his father strayed to the wrong side of Mao. Wang claimed those years of rural hardship continued to shape Xi’s political priorities: “From the bottom of his heart he knows the Chinese farmers … He understands what they want … He even knows the dirty language the people use in the fields when they are farming.”
But hard-nosed political calculations also explained Xi’s bid to paint himself as a champion of the poor – an effort undermined by a recent crackdown on migrants in Beijing which has reportedly seen tens of thousands of poor workers forced from the capital. “How can you make sure a billion people trust you and say: ‘This is our strong leader?’” asked Wang, who argued one answer was waging war on poverty.
• Trump Takes Credit For Olympics Talks Between North and South Korea (G.)
Donald Trump said on Saturday he was open to talking to Kim Jong-un and hoped good could come from negotiations between North and South Korea over this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The US president also took credit for those talks, saying: “If I weren’t involved they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics right now. They’d be doing no talking or it would be much more serious.” North and South Korea have agreed to discuss cooperation on the games as well as other issues in rare meetings set to begin on Tuesday in Panmunjom, a village that straddles the demilitarised zone between the two countries. Amid international concern over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, the talks will be the first staged since December 2015. The discussions will be held at the Peace House on the South Korean side of Panmunjom.
[..] Speaking to reporters at Camp David in Maryland on Saturday, at the end of a week marked by the publication of an explosive book about his administration and his mental capacity for his job, the president was asked if he would speak to Kim on the telephone. “Sure, I believe in talking,” he said. “… Absolutely I would do that, no problem with that at all.” Asked if that meant there would be no prerequisites for such talk, the president said: “That’s not what I said at all.” Trump added: “[Kim] knows I’m not messing around, not even a little bit, not even 1%. He understands that. “At the same time, if we can come up with a very peaceful and very good solution, we’re working on it with [secretary of state] Rex [Tillerson], we’re working on it with a lot of people. “If something good can happen and come out of those talks it would be a great thing for all of humanity. That would be a great thing for the world. Very important.”
Prines have been arrested, tortured, forced to sign away their fortunes. But now they protest over water bills? And think they’ll win that one?
• 11 Saudi Princes Sent to Maximum-Security Prison After Protesting Utility Bills
Saudi authorities made a fresh round of arrests of royal-family members as a group of princes staged a palace protest in the capital over the non-payment of their electricity and water bills. Security services on Thursday arrested the 11 princes after they refused to leave Qasr Al-Hokm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s Attorney General, Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb, said in an emailed statement. The princes, who objected to a decree that ordered the state to stop paying their utility bills, will be held at al-Ha’er prison pending their trial, Al Mojeb said. “No one is above the law in Saudi Arabia, everyone is equal and is treated the same as others,” Al Mojeb said. “Any person, regardless of their status or position, will be held accountable should they decide not to follow the rules and regulations of the state.”
In November, authorities swept up dozens of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most influential people, including princes and government ministers, and detained them at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. The arrests were ordered by a newly established anti-corruption committee, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince’s anti-graft drive appeared designed to tap into a popular vein among young Saudis who are bearing the brunt of low oil prices and complaining, privately and on social media, that the kingdom’s elite were above the rule of law. King Salman on Saturday ordered extra pay for Saudi government workers and soldiers this year after the implementation of value-added taxation and a surge in fuel prices stirred grumbling among citizens, highlighting the kingdom’s struggle to overhaul its economy without risking a public backlash.
The handouts will cost the state more than 50 billion riyals ($13.3 billion), Saud Al-Qahtani, an adviser to the royal court, said on his Twitter account. The princes arrested at the palace were also seeking compensation for a death sentence that was issued against one of their cousins, who had been convicted of killing another man and executed in 2016, according to Al Mojeb’s statement. Earlier Saturday, the Jeddah-based newspaper Okaz reported the princes had been arrested. The Al-Ha’er facility south of Riyadh is one of Saudi Arabia’s maximum-security prisons. Many of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic militants who have fought abroad are held there.
That’s where the life is.
• Scientists Lament The Likely Loss Of ‘Most Of The World’s Coral Reefs’ (Grist)
“Before the 1980s, mass bleaching of corals was unheard of,” Terry Hughes, a coral scientist at Australia’s James Cook University and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. Hughes personally surveyed thousands of miles of the Great Barrier Reef during the 2015 and 2016 bleaching. “It broke my heart,” he told the Guardian last year. The new study finds that 94% of surveyed coral reefs have experienced a severe bleaching event since the 1980s. Only six sites surveyed were unaffected. They are scattered around the world, meaning no ocean basin on Earth has been entirely spared. The implications of these data in a warming world, taken together with other ongoing marine stressors like overfishing and pollution, are damning.
“It is clear already that we’re going to lose most of the world’s coral reefs,” says study coauthor Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch program. He adds that by 2050, ocean temperatures will be warm enough to cause annual bleaching of 90% of the world’s reefs. For conservation biologists like Josh Drew, whose work focuses on coral reefs near Fiji, that loss of recovery time amounts to a “death warrant for coral reefs as we know them.” “I’m not saying we’re not going to have reefs at all, but those reefs that survive are going to be fundamentally different,” says Drew, who is not affiliated with the new study. “We are selecting for corals that are effectively weedy, for things that can grow back in two to three years, for things that are accustomed to having hot water.”
Reefs are incalculably important not only as a harbor for life — they shelter about one-quarter of all marine species in just a half-percent of the ocean’s surface area — but also for human nutrition and many nation’s economies.
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