Nov 072017
 
 November 7, 2017  Posted by at 10:07 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  5 Responses »
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Edward S. Curtis Zuni Girl with Jar c. 1903

 

Saudi Arabia’s Government Purge — And How Washington Corruption Enabled It (IC)
Saudi Arabia Accuses Lebanon Of ‘Declaring War,’ Egypt Calls For Calm (CNBC)
Oil Prices Surge On Saudi Purge (CNBC)
The Black Swan In Plain Sight – Debt Out The Wazoo (Stockman)
What Could Go Wrong? (Jim Kunstler)
Growing Homeless Camps Contrast With West Coast Tech Wealth (AP)
Profiting from Puerto Rico’s Pain (New Yorker)
Sacked Catalan President Condemns ‘Brutal Judicial Offensive’ (G.)
Bernie Sanders Warns Of ‘International Oligarchy’ – Paradise Papers (G.)
End These Offshore Games Or Our Democracy Will Die (G.)
Four False Viral Claims Spread by Journalists on Twitter in One Week (GG)
Growing Number of Greeks Unable To Pay Taxes (K.)
Greek Notaries Refuse To Carry Out Foreclosures (K.)
Hawking: AI Could Be ‘Worst Event In The History Of Our Civilization’ (CNBC)
The Charter of the Forest (Standing)

 

 

Reading a lot on Saudi. This is good by Ryan Grim. ” And make no mistake, MBS is a project of the UAE — an odd turn of events given the relative sizes of the two countries.”

Saudi Arabia’s Government Purge — And How Washington Corruption Enabled It (IC)

Whatever the official explanation, it is being read around the world as a power grab by the kingdom’s rising crown prince. “The sweeping campaign of arrests appears to be the latest move to consolidate the power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the favorite son and top adviser of King Salman,” as the New York Times put it. “The king had decreed the creation of a powerful new anti-corruption committee, headed by the crown prince, only hours before the committee ordered the arrests. The men are being held in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh. “There is no jail for royals,” a Saudi source noted. The move marks a moment of reckoning for Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which struck a bargain of sorts with Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, and Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S. who has been MBS’s leading advocate in Washington.

The unspoken arrangement was clear: The UAE and Saudi Arabia would pump millions into Washington’s political ecosystem while mouthing a belief in “reform,” and Washington would pretend to believe that they meant it. MBS has won praise for some policies, like an openness to reconsidering Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers. Meanwhile, however, the 32-year-old MBS has been pursuing a dangerously impulsive and aggressive regional policy, which has included a heightening of tensions with Iran, a catastrophic war on Yemen, and a blockade of ostensible ally Qatar. Those regional policies have been disasters for the millions who have suffered the consequences, including the starving people of Yemen, as well as for Saudi Arabia, but MBS has dug in harder and harder. And his supporters in Washington have not blinked.

The platitudes about reform were also challenged by recent mass arrests of religious figures and repression of anything that has remotely approached less than full support of MBS. The latest purge comes just days after White House adviser Jared Kushner, a close ally of Otaiba, visited Riyadh, and just hours after a bizarre-even-for-Trump tweet. Whatever legitimate debate there was about MBS ended Saturday — his drive to consolidate power is now too obvious to ignore. And that puts denizens of Washington’s think tank world in a difficult spot, as they have come to rely heavily on the Saudi and UAE end of the bargain. As The Intercept reported earlier, one think tank alone, the Middle East Institute, got a massive $20 million commitment from the UAE. And make no mistake, MBS is a project of the UAE — an odd turn of events given the relative sizes of the two countries.

“Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around,” Otaiba has said privately. For the past two years, Otaiba has introduced MBS around Washington and offered assurances of his commitment to modernizing and reforming Saudi Arabia, according to people who’ve spoken with him, confirmed by emails leaked by the group, Global Leaks. When confronted with damning headlines, Otaiba tends to acknowledge the reform project is a work in progress, but insists that it is progress nonetheless, and in MBS resides the best chance of the region.

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“The region cannot support more turmoil..”

Saudi Arabia Accuses Lebanon Of ‘Declaring War,’ Egypt Calls For Calm (CNBC)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Middle Eastern nations to maintain stability just as tensions were suddenly spiking between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. “The stability of the region is very important and we all have to protect it … I am talking to all the parties in the region to preserve it,” Al-Sisi said in an interview with CNBC over the weekend that aired Tuesday morning. On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri shocked the political establishment in Beirut by announcing his resignation. The leader said he was stepping down amid concerns of a potential assassination plot against him. Speaking from Riyadh, Hariri criticized Iran, and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, for igniting conflict in the region.

Following the CNBC interview, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia sharply escalated rhetoric in the region by declaring that Lebanon had — figuratively at least — declared “war” against it because of aggression from Hezbollah. Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan said the government of Lebanon “would be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia,” Reuters reported. When asked whether the time had come for Egypt to consider its own measures against Hezbollah, Al-Sisi replied, “The subject is not about taking on or not taking on, the subject is about the status of the fragile stability in the region in light of the unrest facing the region.” “The region cannot support more turmoil,” he said.

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What OPEC couldn’t do.

Oil Prices Surge On Saudi Purge (CNBC)

Oil prices surged to their highest levels since the summer of 2015 on Monday as a major political shakeup in Saudi Arabia underpinned a rally fueled by geopolitical risk, analysts said. Crude futures hit the new highs overnight after the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman coordinated the arrest of several princes and ministers, ostensibly as part of crackdown on corruption. Prices pulled back in morning trade as the market digested a wealth of analysis on the Saudi purge, but futures suddenly shot higher at midday. International benchmark Brent crude oil topped $64 a barrel for the first time since June 2015. Meanwhile U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude broke above $57, a level the market has not seen since July 2015.

WTI finished Monday’s session $1.71 or 3.1 percent, higher at $57.35. Brent was trading up $2.04, or 3.3 percent, at $64.11 by 2:27 p.m. ET. Analysts cautioned against pinning the surge on any one headline, or even the Saudi arrests alone. Instead, they said a growing cloud of geopolitical uncertainty was unleashing animal spirits in an already bullish market. “You can grab all sorts of different headlines when you have a runaway market, and this is a runaway market right now,” said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service. In this kind of environment, “people throw caution to the wind, and this is like the grand finale of fireworks,” he said.

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More debt, fast.

The Black Swan In Plain Sight – Debt Out The Wazoo (Stockman)

The black swan in plain sight does emit the Donald’s orangish glow, but at the end of the day its true color is actually red. That is, monumental towers of rapidly rising debt loom everywhere on the planet. For the moment, the artificial cash flow from this unsustainable borrowing spree is keeping a simulacrum of growth and prosperity alive. Yet this whole outbreak of debt madness – represented by $225 trillion outstanding on a global basis – is careening toward a financial and economic dead end that will soon crush today’s fiscally profligate politicians and heedless financial punters, alike, in a devastating reset of bond yields. For our first case in point, the always excellent Wolf Richter published a great chart over the weekend on the exploding US public debt.

To say the least, it constitutes a clanging wake-up call amidst the absolute fantasy world that prevails on both ends of the Acela Corridor. That’s because during the mere 8 weeks since the public debt ceiling was suspended by the Donald’s end-run with Nancy and Chuckles in September, the national debt has spiked by $640 billion. That’s about $16 billion per Federal business day, and they are not done yet. The US Treasury will continue to borrow heavily until the current debt ceiling “suspension” expires on December 8 – at which time it will repair to the old game of divesting trusting funds and employing other gimmicks which circumvent the ceiling, while waiting for Congress to blink and raise the ceiling or authorize a new “temporary” suspension.

As Wolf pointed out, this pattern played out during the debt showdowns of 2013 and 2015, as well, when the resulting “temporary” suspension resulted in borrowing spikes of $464 billion and $650 billion, respectively. Accordingly, Washington has suspended it way into a $5.7 trillion increase in the public debt in just six years since October 2011. That is, during a period which supposedly constitutes the third longest business expansion in US history.

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“The “narrative” is firmest before its falseness is proved by the turn of events, and there are an awful lot of events out there waiting to present, like debutantes dressing for a winter ball.”

What Could Go Wrong? (Jim Kunstler)

The economy isn’t growing and can’t grow. The economy is a revenant of something that used to exist, an industrial economy that has rolled over and died and come back as a moldy ghoul feeding on the ghostly memories of itself. Stocks go up because the unprecedented low interest rates established by the Fed allow company CEOs to “lever-up” issuing bonds (i.e. borrow “money” from, cough cough, “investors”) and then use the borrowed “money” to buy back their own stock to raise the share value, so they can justify their companies’ boards-of-directors jacking up their salaries and bonuses — based on the ghost of the idea that higher stock prices represent the creation of more actual things of value (front-end-loaders, pepperoni sticks, oil drilling rigs).

The economy is actually contracting because we can’t afford the energy it takes to run the things we do — mostly just driving around — and unemployment is not historically low, it’s simply mis-represented by not including the tens of millions of people who have dropped out of the work force. And an epic wickedness combined with cowardice drives the old legacy news business to look the other way and concoct its good times “narrative.” If any of the reporters at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal really understand the legerdemain at work in these “mysteries” of finance, they’re afraid to say. The companies they work for are dying, like so many other enterprises in the non-financial realm of the used-to-be economy, and they don’t want to be out of paycheck until the lights finally go out.

The “narrative” is firmest before its falseness is proved by the turn of events, and there are an awful lot of events out there waiting to present, like debutantes dressing for a winter ball. The debt ceiling… North Korea… Mueller… Hillarygate….the state pension funds….That so many agree the USA has entered a permanent plateau of exquisite prosperity is a sure sign of its imminent implosion. What could go wrong?

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All bubbles disrupt.

Growing Homeless Camps Contrast With West Coast Tech Wealth (AP)

SEATTLE — Housing prices are soaring here thanks to the tech industry, but the boom comes with a consequence: A surge in homelessness marked by 400 unauthorized tent camps in parks, under bridges, on freeway medians and along busy sidewalks. The liberal city is trying to figure out what to do. “I’ve got economically zero unemployment in my city, and I’ve got thousands of homeless people that actually are working and just can’t afford housing,” said Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien. “There’s nowhere for these folks to move to.” That struggle is not Seattle’s alone. A homeless crisis is rocking the entire West Coast, pushing abject poverty into the open like never before. Public health is at risk, several cities have declared states of emergency, and cities and counties are spending millions – in some cases billions – in a search for solutions.

San Diego now scrubs its sidewalks with bleach to counter a deadly hepatitis A outbreak. In Anaheim, 400 people sleep along a bike path in the shadow of Angel Stadium. Organizers in Portland lit incense at an outdoor food festival to cover up the stench of urine in a parking lot where vendors set up shop. Homelessness is not new on the West Coast. But interviews with local officials and those who serve the homeless in California, Oregon and Washington — coupled with an Associated Press review of preliminary homeless data — confirm it’s getting worse. People who were once able to get by, even if they suffered a setback, are now pushed to the streets because housing has become so expensive. All it takes is a prolonged illness, a lost job, a broken limb, a family crisis. What was once a blip in fortunes now seems a life sentence.

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“There is no European Union standing ready to bail out Puerto Rico.”

Profiting from Puerto Rico’s Pain (New Yorker)

In 2012, Cate Long was working at the news service Reuters, where she wrote a daily column on the municipal-bond market. Municipal bonds are typically a sleepy corner of investing. They are forms of debt issued by states, counties, or cities, usually to fund infrastructure projects, such as airports and highways, and they are generally considered a safe investment, paying relatively low levels of interest. Finding a compelling story about the municipal-bond market is not an easy task, so when Long came across a document related to an $800 million bond sale that Puerto Rico would be undertaking that spring, she decided to look at the numbers more closely. What she found was startling. “I sat down and read it for a couple of hours, and I said, ‘These people are going to default,’ ” she told me recently. “It was pretty obvious.”

In the column she wrote about her analysis, titled “Puerto Rico Is America’s Greece,” Long expressed concern about the island’s economic health, calling it “America’s own Third World country.” At the time, Puerto Rico’s per-capita income was just $15,203 (less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest of the fifty states), and 45% of its residents were living below the poverty line. Puerto Rico also had a “massive” amount of debt, and was issuing even more bonds, which mutual funds and individuals were eagerly buying up, in spite of the warning signs. In her article, Long seemed to charge almost everyone involved, borrowers and creditors alike, with disingenuousness, incompetence, or both. “As happened with Greece, bond investors continue to buy the debt assuming at some point the government will be bailed out by somebody, somewhere,” she wrote.

“Caution, bond investors: There is no European Union standing ready to bail out Puerto Rico.” The article sent shock waves through the investment community. Moody’s Investors Service, which provides credit ratings, asked Long to come to its offices and defend her findings. (Her defense was, essentially, “I’m looking at the numbers.”) Nevertheless, the island continued its unsustainable borrowing for years—and Wall Street investors kept lending it money. By 2017, five years after Long’s warning, Puerto Rico’s bond debt had soared to $74 billion, almost a third of which was held by hedge funds. Meanwhile, the government was struggling to provide basic services to residents.

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Guess: he won’t be back in Catalonia in time for the Dec 21 elections.

Sacked Catalan President Condemns ‘Brutal Judicial Offensive’ (G.)

The deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has accused the Spanish authorities of conducting a “brutal judicial offensive” against members of his ousted government and said he was afraid they would not receive an unbiased hearing in Spanish courts. Writing in the Guardian, Puigdemont said it was a “colossal outrage” that he and 13 colleagues were being investigated over possible charges including sedition and rebellion in relation to their roles in last month’s declaration of independence. “Today, the leaders of this democratic project stand accused of rebellion and face the severest punishment possible under the Spanish penal code; the same as for cases of terrorism and murder: 30 years in prison,” he said.

Puigdemont said he doubted that he and his colleagues would get a “fair and independent hearing” and called for “scrutiny from abroad” to help bring the Catalan crisis to a political, rather than judicial, conclusion. He added: “The Spanish state must honour what was said so many times in the years of terrorism: end violence and we can talk about everything. We, the supporters of Catalan independence, have never opted for violence, on the contrary. But now we find it was all a lie that everything is up for discussion.” The former Catalan leader fled to Brussels with a handful of cabinet colleagues last week, hours before Spain’s attorney general announced he would be seeking to bring charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against them.

On Thursday, a national court judge ordered the jailing of the eight Catalan politicians and, a day later, issued a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and four of his allies. Late on Sunday, a Belgian judge granted the five conditional release. They will make their first appearance in court on 17 November when a judge will decide on whether to execute the arrest warrant. The conditions of release include a ban on them leaving Belgium until their appearance in the court of first instance in Brussels later this month. With the extradition process likely to take months rather than weeks, there is growing scope for Puigdemont’s presence in Belgium to cause the country’s coalition government serious difficulties.

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No kidding.

Bernie Sanders Warns Of ‘International Oligarchy’ – Paradise Papers (G.)

Bernie Sanders has warned that the world is rapidly becoming an “international oligarchy” controlled by a tiny number of billionaires, highlighted by the revelations in the Paradise Papers. In a statement to the Guardian in the wake of the massive leak of documents exposing the secrets of offshore investors, Sanders said that the enrichment of wealthy individuals and companies in tax havens was “the major issue of our time”. He said the Paradise Papers opened the door on a “major problem not just for the US but for governments throughout the world”. “The major issue of our time is the rapid movement toward international oligarchy in which a handful of billionaires own and control a significant part of the global economy. The Paradise Papers shows how these billionaires and multinational corporations get richer by hiding their wealth and profits and avoid paying their fair share of taxes,” the US senator from Vermont said.

Sanders, who came in a close second to Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, pointed the finger of blame for the flourishing of offshore holdings on both Congress and the Trump administration. He told the Guardian that Republicans in Congress were responsible for providing “even more tax breaks to profitable corporations like Apple and Nike”. The same tax breaks, he said, were being seized upon by super-wealthy members of Trump’s cabinet “who avoid billions in US taxes by shifting American jobs and profits to offshore tax havens. We need to close these loopholes and demand a fair and progressive tax system.”

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“We must accept that Big Finance and runaway inequality are incompatible with either a functioning democracy or a sustainable economy.”

End These Offshore Games Or Our Democracy Will Die (G.)

Tax avoidance is now so systemic that the Queen’s own wealth managers apparently see nothing wrong with her receiving £82m a year from taxpayers while shunting £10m into the Caymans and elsewhere. Shuttling between tax havens is so commonplace that economist Gabriel Zucman describes it as an “elite sport” – a sport in which the loser each time is the rest of society, which sees its taxbase shrink. These papers are aptly named: they outline a model that is paradise for the super-rich and purgatory for the rest of us. The second myth of British politics is that austerity was the only correct response to the high-living of the New Labour boom. That was always opposed by some of us – now it is exploded with each new tax investigation.

Drawing in part on data from last year’s Panama Papers and the HSBC files leaked in 2015, Zucman recently co-published a study that found wealthy Britons have stashed about £300bn – equivalent to 15% of our GDP – in offshore tax havens. Three hundred billion quid would more than cover our entire education budget for the rest of this decade and into the 2020s. Or, if you prefer, it is the equivalent of £350m being paid into the NHS every week for the next 16 years. Instead, it is funnelled offshore and used to buy yachts and mansions and other baubles – tax efficiently, of course. The economics of David Cameron and George Osborne can be summed up simply: punish the poor, but reward the rich for fear they will flee offshore. To that end, they scrapped the 50p tax rate for millionaires, they drove down corporation tax to a record low, and cut sweetheart deals with companies such as Google who couldn’t be bothered to pay even that much.

The result is that London has more super-rich residents than any other city – yet however soft the kid gloves with which they are treated, our wealthiest 0.01% stick 30-40% of their wealth offshore. In high-tax Sweden, by contrast, the rich do not use havens half as much. The logic that has underpinned our tax system over this entire decade is rubbish. [..] Add the City of London to Britain’s crown dependencies such as Jersey and the Isle of Man, and overseas territories such as the Caymans, and Britain’s tax havens account for nearly a quarter of the entire offshore financial industry. According to Deutsche Bank, London itself receives about £1bn a month in what it calls “hidden capital flows”, much of it Russian. It ends up in Stucco-fronted houses and fine art.

Much of this could be changed, and quickly. Britain has previously ordered the Caymans and other overseas territories to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish the death penalty. It could do the same with tax transparency, in an Order of Council that, a Mayfair tax lawyer recently told me, need be no longer than two sides of A4. We could change the rules on Lords and Commons’ members’ interests so that all offshore holdings would have to be registered. These are the fixes, but a real solution is ultimately political. We must accept that Big Finance and runaway inequality are incompatible with either a functioning democracy or a sustainable economy. Britain either shrinks the City of London, or the City of London will swallow Britain.

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Lots of talk about this, with widely differing views.

Four False Viral Claims Spread by Journalists on Twitter in One Week (GG)

There is ample talk, particularly of late, about the threats posed by social media to democracy and political discourse. Yet one of the primary ways that democracy is degraded by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is, for obvious reasons, typically ignored in such discussions: the way they are used by American journalists to endorse factually false claims that quickly spread and become viral, entrenched into narratives, and thus can never be adequately corrected. The design of Twitter, where many political journalists spend their time, is in large part responsible for this damage. Its space constraints mean that tweeted headlines or tiny summaries of reporting are often assumed to be true with no critical analysis of their accuracy, and are easily spread.

Claims from journalists that people want to believe are shared like wildfire, while less popular, subsequent corrections or nuanced debunking are easily ignored. Whatever one’s views are on the actual impact of Twitter Russian bots, surely the propensity of journalistic falsehoods to spread far and wide is at least as significant. Just in the last week alone, there have been four major factually false claims that have gone viral because journalists on Twitter endorsed and spread them: three about the controversy involving Donna Brazile and the DNC, and one about documents and emails published by WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. It’s well worth examining them, both to document what the actual truth is as well as to understand how often and easily this online journalistic misleading occurs:

Viral Falsehood #1: The Clinton/DNC agreement cited by Brazile only applied to the General Election, not the primary.

Viral Falsehood #2: Sanders signed the same agreement with the DNC that Clinton did.

Viral Falsehood #3: Brazile stupidly thought she could unilaterally remove Clinton as the nominee.

Viral Falsehood #4: Evidence has emerged proving that the content of WikiLeaks documents and emails was doctored.

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Deep deep deeper and down.

Growing Number of Greeks Unable To Pay Taxes (K.)

Almost half a million taxpayers were added to the long list of debtors to the state in the month of September, according to the latest data from the Independent Authority for Public Revenue. The authority’s figures are a reflection of citizens’ increasing inability to pay their taxes, with 410,000 not paying their second income tax installment and the ENFIA property tax in September. More specifically, 4,267,408 taxpayers owed money to the Greek state in September, up from 3,857,086 in August. Moreover, by the end of September, the amount of unpaid taxes since the beginning of the year came to 9.25 billion euros. What concerns the government is whether the 410,000 that couldn’t pay their taxes in September will join the Finance Ministry’s 12-month installment program, as the hole in tax revenues will only grow if they don’t.

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What good will kicking people out do?

Greek Notaries Refuse To Carry Out Foreclosures (K.)

The outlook for property foreclosures in Greece is unclear after notaries announced a boycott on auctions until the end of the year, citing abuse by protesters, though foreign creditors expect the first online auctions to take place this month. According to sources, Greece’s lenders have suggested that the responsibility for foreclosures be shifted from notaries to Greek courts or possibly to Justice Ministry officials. The latter model, which has been tried and tested in Germany and Spain, was first mooted last month during a visit to Athens by bailout monitors. The auditors made it clear that the resumption of foreclosures on the homes of overindebted Greeks, which have dragged during the crisis years due to strikes by lawyers and notaries and more recently due to anti-austerity protesters, is a prerequisite for the successful conclusion of Greece’s current bailout review.

In comments at Monday’s summit of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels, ECB President Mario Draghi indicated that the resumption of property auctions would help banks by reducing the large proportion of bad loans that they hold. Commenting, Greek Finance Ministry sources said Athens was committed to “not taking our foot off the gas in the implementation of reforms for the review.” One of the many conditions of the latest review is that Greece launch electronic foreclosures. The first is supposed to take place on November 29. However, it is unclear how that procedure will be carried out in view of the protracted walkout by Greek notaries.

In a joint statement on Monday, the associations representing notaries in Athens, Piraeus and the islands of the Aegean and the Dodecanese said they will not be conducting any property auctions through December 31. The decision was reached during a meeting on Saturday with a vote of 134 in favor and 132 against. The associations said the decision was aimed at initiating talks with the Justice Ministry in order to provide protection to notaries who have come under attack – often violent – by anti-establishment groups and protesters opposed to foreclosures. Notaries also want the Justice Ministry to be made responsible for electronic auctions, as well as to address any disputes that may arise from them.

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I don’t share his optimism.

Hawking: AI Could Be ‘Worst Event In The History Of Our Civilization’ (CNBC)

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) could be the “worst event in the history of our civilization” unless society finds a way to control its development, high-profile physicist Stephen Hawking said Monday. He made the comments during a talk at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in which he said, “computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it.” Hawking talked up the potential of AI to help undo damage done to the natural world, or eradicate poverty and disease, with every aspect of society being “transformed.” But he admitted the future was uncertain. “Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it,” Hawking said during the speech.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.” Hawking explained that to avoid this potential reality, creators of AI need to “employ best practice and effective management.” The scientist highlighted some of the legislative work being carried out in Europe, particularly proposals put forward by lawmakers earlier this year to establish new rules around AI and robotics. Members of the European Parliament said European Union-wide rules were needed on the matter. Such developments are giving Hawking hope.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world. That it can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” Hawking said.

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We want one!

The Charter of the Forest (Standing)

Eight hundred years ago this month, after the death of a detested king and the defeat of a French invasion in the Battle of Lincoln, one of the foundation stones of the British constitution was laid down. It was the Charter of the Forest, sealed in St Paul’s on November 6, 1217, alongside a shortened Charter of Liberties from 2 years earlier (which became the Magna Carta). The Charter of the Forest was the first environmental charter forced on any government. It was the first to assert the rights of the property-less, of the commoners, and of the commons. It also made a modest advance for feminism, as it coincided with recognition of the rights of widows to have access to means of subsistence and to refuse to be remarried. The Charter has the distinction of having been on the statute books for longer than any other piece of legislation.

It was repealed 754 years later, in 1971, by a Tory government. In 2015, while spending lavishly on celebrating the Magna Carta anniversary, the government was asked in a written question in the House of Lords whether it would be celebrating the Charter this year. A Minister of Justice, Lord Faulks, airily dismissed the idea, stating that it was unimportant, without international significance. Yet earlier this year the American Bar Association suggested the Charter of the Forest had been a foundation of the American Constitution and that it was more important now than ever before. They were right. It is scarcely surprising that the political Right want to ignore the Charter. It is about the economic rights of the property-less, limiting private property rights and rolling back the enclosure of land, returning vast expanses to the commons.

It was remarkably subversive Sadly, whereas every school child is taught about the Magna Carta, few hear of the Charter. Yet for hundreds of years the Charter led the Magna Carta. It had to be read out in every church in England four times a year. It inspired struggles against enclosure and the plunder of the commons by the monarchy, aristocracy and emerging capitalist class, famously influencing the Diggers and Levellers in the 17th century, and protests against enclosure in the 18th and 19th. At the heart of the Charter, which is hard to understand unless words that have faded from use are interpreted, is the concept of the commons and the need to protect them and to compensate commoners for their loss. It is scarcely surprising that a government that is privatising and commercialising the remaining commons should wish to ignore it.

In 1066, William the Conqueror not only distributed parts of the commons to his bandits but also turned large tracts of them into ‘royal forests’ – ie, his own hunting grounds. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, there were 25 such forests. William’s successors expanded and turned them into revenue-raising zones to help pay for their wars. By 1217, there were 143 royal forests. The Charter achieved a reversal, and forced the monarchy to recognise the right of free men and women to pursue their livelihoods in forests. The notion of forest was much broader than it is today, and included villages and areas with few trees, such as Dartmoor and Exmoor. The forest was where commoners lived and worked collaboratively.

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Oct 222017
 
 October 22, 2017  Posted by at 2:02 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  14 Responses »
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Alfred Wertheimer Elvis 1956

 

New Zealand’s new prime minister Jacinda Ardern calls capitalism a blatant failure. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis says capitalism is ‘merely’ coming to an end because it is making itself obsolete. Mathematics professor Bruce Boghosian claims that without redistribution of wealth, our market economy would not be stable, because wealth always tends to concentrate. The people at Artemis Capital Management write that the stock market has begun self-cannibalizing like a snake eating its tail, and the only reason we’re not in a recession already is ‘financial alchemy’.

At the very least we can say that the system is under pressure. But what system is that? It would be nice to have a clearcut definition of capitalism, but alas, there are many, about as many as there are different forms of it. That doesn’t make this any easier. Americans call many European economies ‘socialist’, which seems to mean they are not capitalist. But Scandinavian countries don’t function like the Soviet Union either.

And if you see how much money is involved in transfer payments to citizens in the US, the supposed bastion of free market capitalism, it’s tempting to conclude the system has already failed. But even with transfer payments, inequality is at record levels. That would seem to confirm Boghosian’s statement that “even if a society does redistribute wealth, if it’s too small an amount, “a partial oligarchy will result..” So what then?

 

 

Varoufakis and others want a “universal basic dividend”, or “universal basic income”. Would that be the end of capitalism as we know it? Or is it just a -perhaps more extreme- form of ‘state capitalism’? Varoufakis deems it inevitable because technology will eradicate so many jobs from societies that people won’t be able to make money from work. Personally, I’ve long thought that the pending large-scale demise of pensions systems will lead to some form of UBI.

37-year-young Jacinda Ardern is very clear in her assessment of New Zealand’s form of capitalism. If you’ve got the worst homelessness in the developed world, you have a broken system. If the system fails the people, it’s no good. Other people might argue that capitalism never promised to take care of everyone. Or rather, not through state interference. Labour’s Ardern has her view:

 

New Zealand’s New Prime Minister Brands Capitalism A ‘Blatant Failure’

[Jacinda] Ardern, has pledged her government will increase the minimum wage, write child poverty reduction targets into law, and build thousands of affordable homes. In her first full interview since becoming prime minister-elect, she told current affairs programme The Nation that capitalism had “failed our people”. “If you have hundreds of thousands of children living in homes without enough to survive, that’s a blatant failure,” she said. [..] “When you have a market economy, it all comes down to whether or not you acknowledge where the market has failed and where intervention is required. Has it failed our people in recent times? Yes. How can you claim you’ve been successful when you have growth roughly 3%, but you’ve got the worst homelessness in the developed world?”

So to which extent should a state interfere in markets, and in society at large? There are obviously wide ideological divides when it comes to answering that one. Does that mean there is no answer possible at all? Perhaps not. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the system is predestined to fail, as Boghosian’s mathematical models suggest: “Our work refutes the idea that free markets, by virtually leaving people up to their own devices, will be fair..”

That doesn’t necessarily demand a lot of interference, we could ‘simply’ write the rules of the game in such a way that the ‘natural tendency’ towards wealth concentration is blocked. An example is the history of the top US income tax rate. Arguably, the nation was doing a lot better under Eisenhower and Kennedy, with a top rate of 91%, than it is today. If you put a few rules like that in play, perhaps including Varoufakis’ idea of a ‘common welfare fund’, maybe the state doesn’t have to interfere much otherwise.

 

 

One of the main underlying claims of capitalism, and of macroeconomics in general, is that markets -and societies- will sort themselves out if left alone. Bruce Boghosian says this is not true, and that he has the math to prove it. The entire notion of markets tending towards a ‘supply-demand equilibrium’ is nonsense, he says (echoing Minsky, Steve Keen et al). Trickle-down economics is a figment of the imagination, while trickle up-economics flourishes.

This refutes much of what our economic systems are based on, which would appear to indicate that we need an urgent revision of these systems. Unless we would agree that Darwin-on-Steroids is a good idea. We don’t and won’t, because it would mean Stephen Foster’s “frail forms fainting at the door” all over the place. A market ideology that causes widespread misery has no future.

 

The Mathematics of Inequality

Seven years ago, the combined wealth of 388 billionaires equaled that of the poorest half of humanity , according to Oxfam International. This past January the equation was even more unbalanced: it took only eight billionaires, marking an unmistakable march toward increased concentration of wealth. Today that number has been reduced to five billionaires.

Trying to understand such growing inequality is usually the purview of economists, but Bruce Boghosian, a professor of mathematics, thinks he has found another explanation—and a warning. Using a mathematical model devised to mimic a simplified version of the free market, he and colleagues are finding that, without redistribution, wealth becomes increasingly more concentrated, and inequality grows until almost all assets are held by an extremely small percent of people.

“Our work refutes the idea that free markets, by virtually leaving people up to their own devices, will be fair,” he said. “Our model, which is able to explain the form of the actual wealth distribution with remarkable accuracy, also shows that free markets cannot be stable without redistribution mechanisms. The reality is precisely the opposite of what so-called ‘market fundamentalists’ would have us believe.”

While economists use math for their models, they seek to show that an economy governed by supply and demand will result in a steady state or equilibrium, while Boghosian’s efforts “don’t try to engineer a supply-demand equilibrium, and we don’t find one,” he said. [..] The model tracks the data with remarkable accuracy, he said. He and his team will soon publish a paper on how it relates to U.S. wealth data from 1989 to 2013.

“We have also begun to apply it to wealth data from the ECB, and so far it seems to work very well for certain European countries as well,” he said [..] It turns out that when agents do well in early transactions, the odds are so increasingly stacked in their favor that—without redistribution from taxes or other wealth-transfer mechanisms—they will get more money, and keep accruing wealth inevitably.

“Without redistribution of wealth, our market economy would not be stable,” said Boghosian. “One person would run away with all the wealth, and it would keep going until it came to complete oligarchy.” And even if a society does redistribute wealth, if it’s too small an amount, “a partial oligarchy will result,” Boghosian said.

If markets and societies cannot survive under current rules, theories and ideologies, what do we do? The Artemis guys strongly suggest we stop the practice of excessive stock buybacks- even if they’re the only thing propping up the whole market system. Because they’re leading us straight into a recession. Because they’re making that recession a lot worse.

 

Volatility and the Alchemy of Risk

The Ouroboros, a Greek word meaning ‘tail devourer’, is the ancient symbol of a snake consuming its own body in perfect symmetry. The imagery of the Ouroboros evokes the infinite nature of creation from destruction. The sign appears across cultures and is an important icon in the esoteric tradition of Alchemy. Egyptian mystics first derived the symbol from a real phenomenon in nature. In extreme heat a snake, unable to self-regulate its body temperature,will experience an out-of-control spike in its metabolism. In a state of mania, the snake is unable to differentiate its own tail from its prey,and will attack itself, self-cannibalizing until it perishes. In nature and markets, when randomness self-organizes into too perfect symmetry, order becomes the source of chaos.

The Ouroboros is a metaphor for the financial alchemy driving the modern Bear Market in Fear. Volatility across asset classes is at multi-generational lows. A dangerous feedback loop now exists between ultra-low interest rates, debt expansion, asset volatility, and financial engineering that allocates risk based on that volatility. In this self-reflexive loop volatility can reinforce itself both lower and higher. In a market where stocks and bonds are both overvalued, financial alchemy is the only way to feed our global hunger for yield, until it kills the very system it is nourishing.

 

 

[..] At the head of the Great Snake of Risk is unprecedented monetary policy. Since 2009 Global Central Banks have pumped in $15 trillion in stimulus creating an imbalance in the investment demand for and supply of quality assets. Long term government bond yields are now the lowest levels in the history of human civilization dating back to 1285. As of this summer there was $9.5 trillion worth of negative yielding debt globally. Last month Austria issued a 100-year bond with a coupon of only 2.1%(6) that will lose close to half its value if interest rates rise 1% or more. The global demand for yield is now unmatched in human history. None of this makes sense outside a framework of financial repression.

Amid this mania for investment, the stock market has begun self-cannibalizing… literally. Since 2009, US companies have spent a record $3.8 trillion on share buy-backs financed by historic levels of debt issuance. Share buybacks are a form of financial alchemy that uses balance sheet leverage to reduce liquidity generating the illusion of growth. A shocking +40% of the earning-per-share growth and +30% of the stock market gains since 2009 are from share buy-backs. Absent this financial engineering we would already be in an earnings recession.

Any strategy that systematically buys declines in markets is mathematically shorting volatility. To this effect, the trillions of dollars spent on share buybacks are equivalent to a giant short volatility position that enhances mean reversion. Every decline in markets is aggressively bought by the market itself, further lowing volatility. Stock price valuations are now at levels which in the past have preceded depressions including 1928, 1999, and 2007. The role of active investors is to find value, but when all asset classes are overvalued, the only way to survive is by using financial engineering to short volatility in some form.

Yanis Varoufakis doesn’t so much argue that capitalism has already failed, he says it is bound to fail in the near future. Because new technology, including artificial intelligence, will destroy too many jobs for society to continue to function intact. That is already happening, in that we both produce and consume Google’s ‘products’, but we get none of the profits. An example:

 

Google’s Plan To Revolutionise Cities Is A Takeover In All But Name

Alphabet’s weapons are impressive. Cheap, modular buildings to be assembled quickly; sensors monitoring air quality and building conditions; adaptive traffic lights prioritising pedestrians and cyclists; parking systems directing cars to available slots. Not to mention delivery robots, advanced energy grids, automated waste sorting, and, of course, ubiquitous self-driving cars. Alphabet essentially wants to be the default platform for other municipal services. Cities, it says, have always been platforms; now they are simply going digital.

“The world’s great cities are all hubs of growth and innovation because they leveraged platforms put in place by visionary leaders,” states the proposal. “Rome had aqueducts, London the Underground, Manhattan the street grid.” Toronto, led by its own visionary leaders, will have Alphabet. Amid all this platformaphoria, one could easily forget that the street grid is not typically the property of a private entity, capable of excluding some and indulging others. Would we want Trump Inc to own it? Probably not. So why hurry to give its digital equivalent to Alphabet?

Google aims at taking over our entire communities, and claims this will be to our benefit. We let the new technology companies expand far and wide, to a large extent because our ‘leaders’ don’t understand what is happening any better than we do. But that is not a good thing, for many different reasons. It’ll be very hard to whistle them back later, both because of the wealth they’re building, and because of the intensifying links they have to government, including -or especially- the intelligence community.

 

Capitalism Is Ending Because It Has Made Itself Obsolete

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has claimed capitalism is coming to an end because it is making itself obsolete. The former economics professor told an audience at University College London that the rise of giant technology corporations and artificial intelligence will cause the current economic system to undermine itself.

Mr Varoufakis [..] said companies such as Google and Facebook, for the first time ever, are having their capital bought and produced by consumers. “Firstly the technologies were funded by some government grant; secondly every time you search for something on Google, you contribute to Google’s capital,” he said. “And who gets the returns from capital? Google, not you. “So now there is no doubt capital is being socially produced, and the returns are being privatised. This with artificial intelligence is going to be the end of capitalism.”

Warning Karl Marx “will have his revenge ”, the 56-year-old said for the first time since capitalism started, new technology “is going to destroy a lot more jobs than it creates”. He added: “Capitalism is going to undermine capitalism , because they are producing all these technologies that will make corporations and the private means of production obsolete. “And then what happens? I have no idea.”

Describing the present economic situation as “unsustainable” and fearing the rise of “toxic nationalism”, Mr Varoufakis said governments needed to prepare for post-capitalism by introducing redistributive wealth policies. He suggested one effective policy would be for 10% of all future issue of shares to be put into a “common welfare fund” owned by the people. Out of this a “universal basic dividend” could be paid to every citizen.

Has capitalism failed already, as Jacinda Ardern claims, or will that happen only in the future, as Varoufakis says? It may be a moot question once the system and the markets start collapsing. That they will, and must, is not a question but a certainty, even a mathematical one. Whatever your ideology, that is not a good thing. And the current ideology has caused this, that much is clear.

If the remaining wealth is not divided better than it is today, those who have gathered most of it will also find themselves in non-functioning societies and communities. Unless perhaps you’re George W. and have property in Paraguay.

But even then. We’re eating our tails.

 

 

Sep 092017
 
 September 9, 2017  Posted by at 9:04 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,  4 Responses »
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Irma projections took a slight deflection west

 

Hurricane Irma Becomes Category 5 Storm Again (CNN)
5.6 Million People Told To Evacuate Florida Due To Irma (AP)
Hurricane Irma Thrives On Fateful Mix Of ‘Ideal’ Conditions (R.)
Harvey Won’t Help Flagging Housing Market (DDMB)
Swamp Fever (Jim Kunstler)
Capitalism, the State and the Drowning of America (CP)
The “Real” Vampire Squid (Roberts)
Venezuela’s Maduro Says Will Shun US Dollar In Favor Of Yuan, Others (R>)
What Happens To Nations That Try To Ditch The Dollar (TAM)
Bitcoin Tumbles On Report China To Shutter Digital Currency Exchanges (R.)
Russia Faces Internal Battle Over Bitcoin (Forbes)
Artificial Intelligence Fuels New Global Arms Race (Wired)
Data Swamped US Spy Agencies Put Hopes On Artificial Intelligence (AFP)
EU Brushes Off ‘Democratic Scandal’ Of Greek Bailout (EUO)

 

 

Irma took a light dip south towards Cuba last night. This may save Miami from a direct hit – but not Tampa. Irma’s the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in Cuba since 1924. 3 storms making landfall at the same time has never been recorded before.

Hurricane Irma Becomes Category 5 Storm Again (CNN)

Hurricane Irma regained Category 5 status late Friday as the core of the storm made landfall in Cuba with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph, the US National Hurricane Center said. Irma made landfall on the Camaguey archipelago of Cuba, the center said late Friday night. The massive storm edged closer to US landfall in the Florida Keys after leaving a trail of devastation and death in much of the Caribbean as it advanced toward South Florida. Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center say the storm’s wind speeds will increase after Irma passes Cuba then slips into the extremely warm waters near the Keys. “Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe,” the National Weather Service tweeted.

There were worries the storm’s most powerful winds, on the northeastern side of the core, could pummel Miami, but it appears the city will avoid a direct hit, while still getting pounded by strong winds, storm surge and heavy rains. At least 24 people were killed this week when Irma pummeled northern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and the Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people – nearly 70% of the US territory’s utility customers – were left without power, the governor’s office said. Irma slammed the Turks and Caicos, and southeastern Bahamas early before it was off to pound northern Cuba and the central Bahamas.

Irma is expected be near the Florida Keys and South Florida by early Sunday, and many residents there have moved inland or to shelters. Many counties are under evacuation orders. “If you have been ordered to evacuate, leave now. Not tonight, not in an hour, now,” Gov. Rick Scott said Friday night. Staying in homes could subject residents to storm surge as high as 12 feet, the governor added. Forecasters have advised that the storm’s potential path could change and residents should realize that most of Florida will feel its impact.

Read more …

How do you evacuate millions? The logistics are staggering.

5.6 Million People Told To Evacuate Florida Due To Irma (AP)

Florida has asked 5.6 million people to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma, or more than one-quarter of the state’s population, according to state emergency officials. Andrew Sussman, the state’s hurricane program manager, said Friday the total includes people throughout the southern half of the state as well as those living in inland Florida in substandard housing who were also told leave due to the dangerous storm that will slam the state this weekend. Florida is the nation’s third-largest state with nearly 21million people according to the U.S. Census. For days Gov. Rick Scott has been urging residents to evacuate, especially those who live in coastal areas that could be flooded due to the walls of water expected from Irma’s arrival. The National Hurricane Center is warning Floridians that even if the storm seems to moving away from the East Coast in the latest tracks, don’t get complacent.

“This is a storm that will kill you if you don’t get out of the way,” said National Hurricane Center meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen. Feltgen says the storm has a really wide eye, with hurricane-force winds that cover the entire Florida peninsula and potentially deadly storm surges on both coasts. “Everybody’s going to feel this one,” Feltgen said. As Florida deals with a catastrophic, dangerous hurricane, it may have a financial storm to deal with. The annual budget forecast released this week shows, despite an ongoing economic recovery, Florida is expected to bring in just enough money to meet its spending needs. That forecast shows the state will have a surplus of just $52 million during the fiscal year that starts in July 2018. The new estimate does not take into account the potential effects that will come from Hurricane Irma.

Read more …

Ironically, Irma has sucked up so much warm surface water, it is lowering water temperatures and thereby ‘hampering’ the next storm up, José. Who was still noted as ‘close to Category 5’ overnight.

Hurricane Irma Thrives On Fateful Mix Of ‘Ideal’ Conditions (R.)

Hurricane Irma, a deadly, devastating force of nature, rapidly coalesced from a low-pressure blip west of Africa into one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, following an unhindered atmospheric path and fed by unusually warm seas. A combination of many factors, experts said on Friday, set the stage for Irma’s formation and helped the storm achieve its full thermodynamic potential, creating the monster tropical cyclone that wreaked havoc on the eastern Caribbean and may inflict widespread damage on Florida. “It got lucky,” said John Knaff, a meteorologist and physical scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “This storm is in the Goldilocks environment for a major hurricane. It’s bad luck for whoever is in its path, but that’s what going on here.”

Brian Kahn, an atmospheric scientist and cloud specialist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called the ocean conditions that spawned Irma “absolutely ideal.” Balmy water temperatures along Irma’s trajectory ran deep beneath the surface and slightly higher than normal, by as much as a degree Fahrenheit in places, providing ample fuel for the storm’s development, scientists said. Irma also encountered little if any interference in the form of wind shear – sudden changes in vertical wind velocity that can blunt a storm’s intensity – as it advanced at about 10 to 18 miles per hour, an ideal pace for hurricanes. Its fortuitous path of least resistance was essentially ordained by a well-placed atmospheric ridge of high pressure that steered the storm by happenstance through some of the Caribbean’s warmest waters as well as an area mostly devoid of wind shear.

The result was a gargantuan storm that rapidly grew to a Category 5, the top of the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, the most forceful ever documented in the open Atlantic. It also ranks as one of just five Atlantic hurricanes known to have achieved such wind speeds during the past 82 years.

Read more …

“..of the 1 million or so mortgaged homeowners in the disaster area, more than 300,000 could become delinquent within two months..”

Harvey Won’t Help Flagging Housing Market (DDMB)

Something is up, or more likely down, with the U.S. housing market. And the reconstruction after Hurricane Harvey may not do much to help. Here’s the evidence: The latest take on home-builder sentiment showed that buyer traffic stubbornly remains in negative territory, despite some of the highest readings of the current cycle on builders’ expectations for sales gains in the next six months. In addition, recent mortgage rate declines have not led to an increase in applications to buy a home. Over the past few weeks, purchase activity has slumped to a six-month low, even though rates are at their lowest level since November. This defies a central tenet of the housing market that falling rates naturally lead to an uptick in sales. As for actual sales volumes, both new and existing July home sales missed forecasts by wide margins.

At an annualized rate of 571,000, new home sales dropped to a seven-month low, well off their long-term average pace of 727,000. The number of homes on the ground rose to 276,000 units, the highest since June 2009. At July’s pace, it would take 5.8 months to clear the inventory. The existing home sales report that followed was similarly weak, with closings sliding to the lowest since August 2016. Not only was the 5.44-million annualized pace 110,000 units below forecast, July’s figures reveal the all-important spring selling season was something of a bust, given July’s data captured contracts signed from April through June. Prices have been and remain the main impediment. The median new home sales price of $313,700 marked the highest July price on record and is up more than 6% over last year’s level.

At an annual gain of 6.2%, the best that can be said of the median sales price for previously occupied homes is that it’s off the record pace it set in June. Corroborating the slowdown in sales, both the Federal Housing Finance Agency and S&P Case-Shiller home-price indexes have softened unexpectedly. [..] About 1.2 million homes in and around Houston were at moderate to high risk for flooding but aren’t in a designated flood zone that would have required insurance. Many will qualify for federal disaster relief. Still, the government program comes in the form of low-interest rate loans to help shoulder the burden of repair costs at a time when many households are already buried in debt with precious little in savings; as the third quarter got underway, the saving rate fell to 3.5%, a fresh low for the current cycle.

Although many have drawn comparisons to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Harvey will affect more than twice as many mortgaged properties. According to Black Knight Financial Services, of the 1 million or so mortgaged homeowners in the disaster area, more than 300,000 could become delinquent within two months, and 160,000 are at risk of becoming seriously delinquent inside a four-month period. As per the Mortgage Bankers Association, homes in foreclosure nationwide totaled 502,437 in the second quarter, exemplifying the very real potential for Harvey to leave a huge scar on the housing market.

Read more …

“A week or so after Irma has gone away, the ill-feeling that heaps this country like a swamp fever will still be there, driving the new American madness into precincts yet unknown.”

Swamp Fever (Jim Kunstler)

The destruction of Florida (and whatever else stands in the way up the line) will be as real as it gets. You’ve heard the old argument, I’m sure, that a natural disaster turns out to be a boon for the economy because so many people are employed fixing the damage. It’s not true, of course. Replacing things of value that have been destroyed with new things is just another version of the old Polish Blanket Gag: guy wants to make his blanket longer, so he cuts a foot off the top and sews it onto the bottom. The capital expended has to come from something and somewhere, and in this case it probably represents the much talked-about necessary infrastructure spending that is badly needed for bridges, roads, water and sewer systems, et cetera, in all the other parts of the USA that haven’t been hit by storms.

Instead, these places and the things in them will quietly inch closer to criticality without drawing much notice. The second major weather disaster this year may not be enough to induce holdouts to reconsider the issue of climate change, but it ought to provoke some questioning about the development pattern known as suburban sprawl, which even in its pristine form can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Surely there will be some debate as to whether Florida, or at least parts of it, gets rebuilt at all. The wilderness of strip malls, housing subdivisions, and condo clusters deployed along the seemingly endless six-lane highways that accumulated in the post-war orgy of development was an affront to human nature, if not to a deity, if one exists.

There are much better ways to build towns and we know how to do it. Ask the shnooks who paid a hundred bucks to walk down Disney’s Main Street the week before last. Apart from all that remains the personal tragedy that awaits, the losses of many lifetimes of work invested in things of value, of homes, of meaning, and of life itself. Many people who evacuated will return to… nothing, and perhaps many of them will not want to stay in such a fragile place. But the America they roam into in search of a place to re-settle is going to be a more fragile place, too. A week or so after Irma has gone away, the ill-feeling that heaps this country like a swamp fever will still be there, driving the new American madness into precincts yet unknown.

Read more …

Is it really capitalism that’s to blame? Do other systems not build where they should not? It seems a general human propensity to look at a desert or a swamp and declare ‘there’s nothing there’, so let’s build and exploit.

Capitalism, the State and the Drowning of America (CP)

What we need to understand is how capitalism has managed to reproduce itself since the Great Depression, but in a way that has put enormous numbers of people and tremendous amounts of property in harm’s way along the stretch from Texas to New England. The production of risk began during the era of what is sometimes called regulated capitalism between the 1930s and the early 1970s. This form of capitalism with a “human face” involved state intervention to ensure a modicum of economic freedom but it also led the federal government to undertake sweeping efforts to control nature. The motives may well have seemed pure. But the efforts to control the natural world, though they worked in the near term, are beginning to seem inadequate to the new world we currently inhabit.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built reservoirs to control floods in Houston just as it built other water-control structures during the same period in New Orleans and South Florida. These sweeping water-control exploits laid the groundwork for massive real estate development in the post–World War II era. All along the coast from Texas to New York and beyond developers plowed under wetlands to make way for more building and more impervious ground cover. But the development at the expense of marsh and water could never have happened on the scale it did without the help of the American state. Ruinous flooding of Houston in 1929 and 1935 compelled the Corps of Engineers to build the Addicks and Barker Dams. The dams combined with a massive network of channels—extending today to over 2,000 miles—to carry water off the land, and allowed Houston, which has famously eschewed zoning, to boom during the postwar era.

The same story unfolded in South Florida. A 1947 hurricane caused the worst coastal flooding in a generation and precipitated federal intervention in the form of the Central and Southern Florida Project. Again, the Corps of Engineers set to work transforming the land. Eventually a system of canals that if laid end to end would extend all the way from New York City to Las Vegas crisscrossed the southern part of the peninsula. Life for the more than five million people who live in between Orlando and Florida Bay would be unimaginable without this unparalleled exercise in the control of nature. It is not simply that developers bulldozed wetlands with reckless abandon in the postwar period. The American state paved the way for that development by underwriting private accumulation.

Concrete was the capitalist state’s favored medium. But as the floods mounted in the 1960s, it turned to non-structural approaches meant to keep the sea at bay. The most famous program along these lines was the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) established in 1968, a liberal reform that grew out of the Great Society. The idea was that the federal government would oversee a subsidized insurance program for homeowners and in return state and local municipalities would impose regulations to keep people and property out of harm’s way.

Read more …

Central bankers lie when they say there is a recovery, but still keep buying assets by the trillions.

The “Real” Vampire Squid (Roberts)

According to the Bank for International Settlements: “Policy tools that involve the active use of central bank balance sheets – both the assets and the liabilities – can help monetary authorities to navigate the policy challenges during times of financial stress and when interest rates are close to zero.“ But wait, this is what Draghi said next: “The economic expansion, which accelerated more than expected in the first half of 2017, continues to be solid and broad-based across countries and sectors.” So, what is it?

If you actually have “solid and broad-based” economic growth across countries and sectors, why are you still flooding the system with “emergency measures,” and keeping interest rates near zero? That’s a rhetorical question. The reality is that Central Banks are keenly aware of the underlying economic weakness that currently exists as evidenced by the inability to generate inflationary pressures. They also understand that if the financial markets falter, the immediate feedback loop into the global economic environment will be swift and immediate. This is why there continue to be direct purchases of equities by the ECB and the BOJ. Which is also the reason why, despite nuclear threats, hurricanes, geopolitical tensions and economic disconnects, the markets remain within a one-day striking distance of all-time highs.

Read more …

Maduro trying to stay ahead of the CIA.

Venezuela’s Maduro Says Will Shun US Dollar In Favor Of Yuan, Others (R>)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday his cash-strapped country would seek to “free” itself from the U.S. dollar next week, using the weakest of two official foreign exchange regimes and a basket of currencies. Maduro was refering to Venezuela’s “DICOM” official exchange rate in which the dollar buys 3,345 bolivars, according to the central bank. At the strongest official rate, one dollar buys just 10 bolivars, but on the black market the dollar fetches 20,193 bolivars, a spread versus the official rate that economists say has fostered corruption. A thousand dollars of local currency bought when Maduro came to power in 2013 would now be worth $1.20. “Venezuela is going to implement a new system of international payments and will create a basket of currencies to free us from the dollar,” Maduro said in an hours-long address to a new legislative superbody, without providing details of the new mechanism.

“If they pursue us with the dollar, we’ll use the Russian ruble, the yuan, yen, the Indian rupee, the euro,” Maduro said. The oil-rich nation is undergoing a major economic and social crisis, with millions suffering food and medicine shortages and what is believed to be the world’s highest inflation. Monthly inflation quickened to 34%, according to the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Critics say that instead of overhauling Venezuela’s failing currency controls or enacting reforms to shake the economy out of a fourth straight year of recession, Maduro has dug in and increased controls. On Thursday night, he increased the country’s minimum wage by 40%, taking it to just over $7 per month at the black market exchange rate. He also announced that around 50 “essential” products and services would have their prices frozen at new levels, auguring higher inflation and more shortages.

Read more …

Sorry, but this isn’t “a theory advanced in William R. Clark’s book Petrodollar Warfare”. This is general knowledge, has been for many years.

What Happens To Nations That Try To Ditch The Dollar (TAM)

Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves but has been undergoing a major crisis, with millions of people going hungry inside the country which has been plagued with rampant, increasing inflation. In that context, the recently established economic blockade by the Trump administration only adds to the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans rather than helping their plight. A theory advanced in William R. Clark’s book Petrodollar Warfare essentially asserts that Washington-led interventions in the Middle East and beyond are fueled by the direct effect on the U.S. dollar that can result if oil-exporting countries opt to sell oil in alternative currencies. For example, in 2000, Iraq announced it would no longer use U.S. dollars to sell oil on the global market. It adopted the euro, instead. By February 2003, the Guardian reported that Iraq had netted a “handsome profit” after making this policy change. Despite this, the U.S. invaded not long after and immediately switched the sale of oil back to the U.S. dollar.

In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was punished for a similar proposal to create a unified African currency backed by gold, which would be used to buy and sell African oil. Though it sounds like a ludicrous reason to overthrow a sovereign government and plunge the country into a humanitarian crisis, Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails confirmed this was the main reason Gaddafi was overthrown. The French were especially concerned by Gaddafi’s proposal and, unsurprisingly, became one of the war’s main contributors. (It was a French Rafaele jet that struck Gaddafi’s motorcade, ultimately leading to his death). Iran has been using alternative currencies like the yuan for some time now and shares a lucrative gas field with Qatar, which may ultimately be days away from doing the same. Both countries have been vilified on the international stage, particularly under the Trump administration.

Nuclear giants China and Russia have been slowly but surely abandoning the U.S. dollar, as well, and the U.S. establishment has a long history of painting these two countries as hostile adversaries. Now Venezuela may ultimately join the bandwagon, all the while cozying up to Russia, as well (unsurprisingly, Venezuela and Iran were identified in William R. Clark’s book as attracting particular geostrategic tensions with the United States). The CIA’s admission that it intends to interfere inside Venezuela to exact a change of government — combined with Trump’s recent threat of military intervention in Venezuela and Vice President Mike Pence’s warning that the U.S. will not “stand by” and watch Venezuela deteriorate — all start to make a lot more sense when viewed through this geopolitical lens.

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It’s still unclear what exactly Beijing is banning.

Bitcoin Tumbles On Report China To Shutter Digital Currency Exchanges (R.)

Bitcoin fell sharply on Friday after a report from a Chinese news outlet said China was planning to shut down local crypto-currency exchanges, although analysts said this was just a temporary setback. Sources close to a cross regulators committee that oversees online finance activities told Chinese financial publication Caixin that authorities plan to shut key bitcoin exchanges in China. [..] two sources in direct contact with officials at three Chinese bitcoin exchanges – Beijing-based OKCoin, Shanghai-based BTC China, and Beijing-based Huobi – said the platforms told them that they have not heard anything from the Chinese government.

The news follows China’s move earlier this week to ban so-called “initial coin offerings,” or the practice of creating and selling digital currencies or tokens to investors in order to finance start-up projects. Greg Dwyer, business development manager at crypto-currency trading platform BitMEX, said there was confusion over whether China would close bitcoin exchanges following the ICO ban. [..] China’s Bitcoin exchanges said on Saturday they are still awaiting clarification from the authorities on a media report that they will be shut down.

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Nabiullina, the world’s smartest central banker, doesn’t seem to be seeing eye to eye with Putin on this.

Russia Faces Internal Battle Over Bitcoin (Forbes)

A lot can happen in month. Russian institutions went from preparing the Moscow Stock Exchange for the legal trading in crypto-currencies like bitcoin and ether, the two most popular ones used in Russia, to coming a hair away from following in China’s footsteps and banning initial coin offerings (ICO), a crypto-currency funding mechanisms for new tech companies. “The use of crypto-currency as a surrogate for the ruble in trading in goods and services, in our opinion, has a risk of undermining the circulation of money,” central banker Elvira Nabiullina told Russian newswire Tass on Friday. “We will not allow the use of crypto-currency as a surrogate money,” she said without mentioning ICOs in particular. One can only speculate that those crowdfunding platforms are on her radar.

Nabiullina is arguably one of the most powerful women in Russia. She has Vladimir Putin’s ear on all things economic and financial. Putin defers to her on such matters. This summer, Putin met with Ethereum developer and CEO Vitalik Buterin to discuss developments in so-called blockchain technologies, the tech platforms that provide the backbone to digital money. Buterin later told a local newspaper in Tatarstan that he felt Putin was opening to these new technologies as a matter of Russian national tech strategy. “Many people at different levels of the Russian government are open to crypto-currencies. I think my meeting with Putin helped him see things clearer,” Buterin was quoted as saying in Tatarstan’s online daily Realnoe Vremya. This is the second time this week that the Russian Central Bank has come out against crypto-currencies.

“Crypto-currencies are issued by an unlimited circle of anonymous entities. Due to the anonymous nature of the issuance of crypto-currency, citizens and legal entities can be involved in illegal activities, including legalization (laundering) of proceeds from crime and financing of terrorism,” the Russian central bank said in a statement issued on September 4. “Given the high risks of circulation and use of crypto-currency, the Bank of Russia considers it premature to admit crypto-currencies, as well as any financial instruments nominated or associated with crypto-currencies, into circulation and used at organized trades such as clearing and settlement infrastructure within the territory of the Russian Federation.” Nabiullina likened the rapid expansion of crypto-currency to the gold rush. Others have referred to it as a bubble. “For a long time there was very little growth (in this technology), and now we see something like a gold rush,” she warned.

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Why Google and Facebook won’t be regulated anythime soon. They’re part of the CIA now.

Artificial Intelligence Fuels New Global Arms Race (Wired)

For many Russian students, the academic year started last Friday with tips on planetary domination from President Vladimir Putin. “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind,” he said, via live video beamed to 16,000 selected schools. “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Putin’s advice is the latest sign of an intensifying race among Russia, China, and the US to accumulate military power based on artificial intelligence. All three countries have proclaimed intelligent machines as vital to the future of their national security. Technologies such as software that can sift intelligence material or autonomous drones and ground vehicles are seen as ways to magnify the power of human soldiers.

“The US, Russia, and China are all in agreement that artificial intelligence will be the key technology underpinning national power in the future,” says Gregory C. Allen, a fellow at nonpartisan think tank the Center for a New American Security. He coauthored a recent report commissioned by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that concluded artificial intelligence could shake up armed conflict as significantly as nuclear weapons did. In July, China’s State Council released a detailed strategy designed to make the country “the front-runner and global innovation center in AI” by 2030. It includes pledges to invest in R&D that will “through AI elevate national defense strength and assure and protect national security.” The US, widely recognized as home to the most advanced and vibrant AI development, doesn’t have a prescriptive roadmap like China’s.

But for several years the Pentagon has been developing a strategy known as the “Third Offset,” intended to give the US, through weapons powered by smart software, the same sort of advantage over potential adversaries that it once held in nuclear bombs and precision-guided weapons. In April, the Department of Defense established the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team to improve use of AI technologies such as machine vision across the Pentagon. Russia lags behind China and the US in sophistication and use of automation and AI, but is expanding its own investments through a military modernization program begun in 2008. The government’s Military Industrial Committee has set a target of making 30 percent of military equipment robotic by 2025. “Russia is behind the curve—they are playing catchup,” says Samuel Bendett, a research analyst who studies the country’s military at the Center for Naval Analyses.

Algorithms good at searching holiday photos can be repurposed to scour spy satellite imagery, for example, while the control software needed for an autonomous minivan is much like that required for a driverless tank. Many recent advances in developing and deploying artificial intelligence emerged from research from companies such as Google. China’s AI strategy attempts to directly link commercial and defense developments in AI. For example, a national lab dedicated to making China more competitive in machine learning that opened in February is operated by Baidu, the country’s leading search engine.

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It’s not just about warfare either, it’s about tracking your own people.

Data Swamped US Spy Agencies Put Hopes On Artificial Intelligence (AFP)

Swamped by too much raw intel data to sift through, US spy agencies are pinning their hopes on artificial intelligence to crunch billions of digital bits and understand events around the world. Dawn Meyerriecks, the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy director for technology development, said this week the CIA currently has 137 different AI projects, many of them with developers in Silicon Valley. These range from trying to predict significant future events, by finding correlations in data shifts and other evidence, to having computers tag objects or individuals in video that can draw the attention of intelligence analysts. Officials of other key spy agencies at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington this week, including military intelligence, also said they were seeking AI-based solutions for turning terabytes of digital data coming in daily into trustworthy intelligence that can be used for policy and battlefield action.

AI has widespread functions, from battlefield weapons to the potential to help quickly rebuild computer systems and programs brought down by hacking attacks, as one official described. But a major focus is finding useful patterns in valuable sources like social media. Combing social media for intelligence in itself is not new, said Joseph Gartin, head of the CIA’s Kent School, which teaches intelligence analysis. “What is new is the volume and velocity of collecting social media data,” he said. In that example, artificial intelligence-based computing can pick out key words and names but also find patterns in data and correlations to other events — and continually improve on that pattern finding.

AI can “expand the aperture” of an intelligence operation looking for small bits of information that can prove valuable, according to Chris Hurst, the chief operating officer of Stabilitas, which contracts with the US intelligence community on intel analysis. “Human behavior is data and AI is a data model,” he said at the Intelligence Summit. “Where there are patterns we think AI can do a better job.” The volume of data that can be collected increases exponentially with advances in satellite and signals intelligence collection technology. “If we were to attempt to manually exploit the commercial satellite imagery we expect to have over the next 20 years, we would need eight million imagery analysts,” Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said in a speech in June.

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The EU is full of people who have no say. Ultimately, only Merkel does, or rather, those who keep her in power. The Eurogroup is not accountable to anyone but her, because it doesn’t even officially exist.

EU Brushes Off ‘Democratic Scandal’ Of Greek Bailout (EUO)

The European Commission has defended its role in the Greek bailout despite Pierre Moscovici, the EU finance commissioner, having called the Eurogroup “a democratic scandal.” The Eurogroup is a club of eurozone states’ finance ministers presided over by Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem but dominated in practice by his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble. It imposed its will on Greece when the country was teetering on the verge of economic collapse and a eurozone exit in 2015, in exchange for access to bailout funds from the European Commission, the ECB, and IMF. A Commission spokesperson on Tuesday (5 September) noted that the EU executive had “invested a lot of time and effort and resources to keep Greece in the eurozone.” But Pierre Moscovici, the EU finance commissioner, took a more critical line.

Over the weekend, he described the Eurogroup as a “democratic scandal”, given that its talks are held behind closed doors and without any public accountability. “Let’s face it, the Eurogroup as we know it is rather a pale imitation of a democratic body,” he said in his blog on Saturday (2 September). Moscovici said the governance behind the EU’s economic and monetary union had also lacked proper democratic oversight. “Sometimes in the past, when we look at Greece, it has been close to a democratic scandal,” he said. Moscovici’s admission is all the more striking given the recent publication of a book by Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis, who steered Greek talks at the Eurogroup until his resignation in July 2015, provides a detailed account of the Commission’s double-standards during the initial rounds.

He said that Moscovici would agree in private to easing the austerity measures but, in the Eurogroup, the Commission’s representative would then reject everything in favour of harsh measures driven by Dijsselbloem and Schaeuble. In one private meeting in Dijsselbloem’s office, Varoufakis said that Moscovici had even capitulated to Dijsselbloem, despite having previously agreed to concessions that would render the Greek programme more flexible. Dijsselbloem refused to agree to the measures proposed by the Commission. Varoufakis said that Moscovici had responded to Dijsselbloem with “whatever the Eurogroup president says” in a voice that quavered with dejection. “During the Eurogroup meeting, whenever I looked at him [Moscovici] I imagined the horror Jacques Delors or any of the EU’s founding fathers would have felt had they observed the scene in Jeroen’s [Dijsselbloem’s] office,” writes Varoufakis.

[..] Most of the bailout funds have gone towards paying off international loans and proved beneficial to German and French banks that were massively exposed to Greek public debt in the lead up to the financial crisis. According to one study, Germany had also ended up with large profits, yielding interest savings on German bonds of more that €100 billion during the period of 2010 to 2015 from the Greek debt crisis.

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Sep 022017
 
 September 2, 2017  Posted by at 8:58 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  4 Responses »
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René Magritte Promenades d’Euclid 1955

 

Whoever Leads In AI Will Rule The World – Putin (RT)
Deflation Is Already Here – Albert Edwards (ZH)
Fiscal Austerity After The Great Recession Was A Catastrophic Mistake (Coppola)
Ugly Jobs Report: August Payrolls Miss (ZH)
Deciphering The Swamp’s Unemployment Deception (Feierstein)
The Working Class Can’t Afford the American Dream (HowMuch)
Central Banks Must Be Ready With Cash To Calm Brexit Nerves – Bank Lobby (R.)
How to Crack the Code on Gold – Rickards (DR)
Trump Seeks $7.85 Billion For Harvey Relief, Warns On Debt Ceiling (R.)
Harvey: “Unprecedented” Disruptions To Supplies Of “Essential” Chemicals (ZH)
Irma Intensifies Over The Atlantic (R.)

 

 

Plenty scary thought.

Whoever Leads In AI Will Rule The World – Putin (RT)

Vladimir Putin spoke with students about science in an open lesson on September 1, the start of the school year in Russia. He told them that “the future belongs to artificial intelligence,” and whoever masters it first will rule the world. “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said. However, the president said he would not like to see anyone “monopolize” the field.

“If we become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with entire world, the same way we share our nuclear technologies today,” he told students from across Russia via satellite link-up, speaking from the Yaroslavl region. During the 45-minute open lesson (the standard academic hour in Russia), Putin also discussed space, medicine, and the capabilities of the human brain, pointing out the importance of cognitive science. “The movement of the eyes can be used to operate various systems, and also there are possibilities to analyze human behavior in extreme situations, including in space,” Putin said, adding that he believes these studies provide unlimited opportunities. The open lesson was attended by students and teachers from 16,000 schools, Rossiyskaya Gazeta reports. The total audience exceeded one million.

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“..never since the mid-1960s, when records began, has core CPI (less food, energy and shelter) declined over a six-month period..”

Deflation Is Already Here – Albert Edwards (ZH)

At the start of the year, we were surprised when SocGen’s Albert “Ice Age” Edwards, the biggest perma-deflationist on Wall Street, flipped his outlook on the US economy, and said he now expected a fast spike in inflation driven by wage growth, which in turn would prompt an even more accelerated tightening cycle by the Fed. We did not see it, and said so, pointing out that the bulk of US job growth in recent years has been among industries that have little to no wage power. More than half a year later, and several months after a puzzled Edwards asked “Where Is The Wage Inflation?”, the SocGen strategist has finally thrown in the towel, and in a note released this morning, admits he was wrong, or as he puts it “I was too optimistic”, to wit:

“At this point in the US economic cycle a tight labour market would normally be producing a notable upturn in wage and CPI inflation. This would usually prompt the Fed into a tightening cycle that would typically end in a surprise recession. This is exactly what I expected to occur at the start of this year and I thought it would be that recession that would tip the US into outright deflation ? but I was wrong. I was too optimistic!” And while there has been a modest improvement in average hourly earnings according to the BLS, if not according to the BEA’s wage data, which according to the just released Personal Income data showed another drop in both private and government worker wages…

… broader inflation trends continue to disappoint. Furthermore, when digging through the recent CPI data, Edwards noticed something unexpected: as he writes, although wages have accelerated due to the tight labor market, the last six months has seen consistent downside surprises. And then this: “this has come hand-in-hand with an unprecedented slump in underlying US CPI inflation into outright deflation – in stark contrast to the eurozone where core CPI inflation has decisively risen.” Putting the finding in context, the “wrong, too optimistic” Edwards writes that never since the mid-1960s, when records began, has core CPI (less food, energy and shelter) declined over a six-month period, as demonstrated by the red line in the chart below. Or, as he summarizes, “Deflation did not need another US recession to emerge. It is already here.”

the SocGen strategist has some advice to the Fed: “If I were a Fed Governor I would be pretty shocked/concerned/bemused at inflation developments this year. However confident the Fed is of a self-sustaining-recovery, there is growing evidence of a slide into outright deflation even ahead of the next recession which will likely unambiguously take us deep into deflationary territory.” Imminent deflationary prints notwithstanding, Edwards still thinks rates should be normalised. Why? “Well, because the longer the current credit excesses are allowed to continue, the deeper the next recession and deflationary bust will ultimately be.”

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“What a complete, utter, disastrous failure of public policy, not just for Greece but for the world.”

Fiscal Austerity After The Great Recession Was A Catastrophic Mistake (Coppola)

In a new paper presented at Jackson Hole last week, the economists Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko showed that, contrary to popular belief, fiscal expansion after a major financial shock such as that in 2008 did not cause debt/GDP ratios to rise. In fact, the researchers found that debt could become more sustainable, not less, after fiscal stimulus: For a sample of developed countries, we find that government spending shocks do not lead to persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or costs of borrowing, especially during periods of economic weakness. Indeed, fiscal stimulus in a weak economy can improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study. Fiscal stimulus works. What a pity we did not allow ourselves to do it, much. But what about Greece? Surely fiscal austerity was necessary there?

Well, maybe. “The experience of Greece and other countries in Southern Europe is a grave warning about the political risks and limits of fiscal policy,” say the researchers. “Bridges to nowhere, “pet” projects and other wasteful spending can outweigh any benefits of countercyclical fiscal policy.” But they nevertheless find that fiscal expansion works even when debt/GDP levels are high. “The penalty for a high debt-to-GDP ratio does not appear to be high at the debt levels experienced historically for developed countries,” they say. So when Greece’s debt was a mere 100% of GDP, fiscal expansion could have been a good strategy. Now, of course, Greece’s debt/GDP ratio is off the chart, because of the aforementioned catastrophic failure of public policy. The researchers warn that their results are uncertain at very high debt/GDP levels. So fiscal expansion might now be too late for Greece. What a tragedy.

“We have been giving catastrophically bad advice to countries with high debt to GDP ratios”, said Jason Furman, the former chair of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers who is now at Harvard. Too right. And Greece has paid the price. But it is not just Greece that has paid. If Auerbach and Gorodnichenko are right, then the policy path since 2010 has been wrong for many more countries. They have truncated their recoveries and hurt their populations by embarking on premature fiscal consolidation, while cudgeling central banks into somehow conjuring up a recovery that monetary policy is incapable of producing at the lower bound. As a result, there has been a prolonged and wholly unnecessary global slowdown, which will leave lasting scars, particularly on the young. What a complete, utter, disastrous failure of public policy, not just for Greece but for the world.

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Pre-Harvey ugly.

Ugly Jobs Report: August Payrolls Miss (ZH)

[..] moments ago the BLS reported that in August just 156K jobs were created, a big miss to the 180K expected, and following a sharp downward revision to June and July, which were revised to 210K and 189K, respectively, a 41K drop combined. But don’t worry, the worse, the better as the more disappointing the economic data, the less likely the Fed will hike in September, December, or ever for that matter. And keep in mind, today’s data did not include the Harvey devastation, which will assure no rate hikes from the Fed for months, if not decades to come. Not helping matters – for the economy, if not the stock market which now once again loves bad data – was the Household Survey, according to which the number of employed Americans declined by 74,000 to 153,439K. On an annual basis, the increase in the employment level dropped to 1.2%, the lowest since March.

The unemployment rate also disappointed, rising from 4.3% to 4.4%, while the avg hourly earnings missed, increasing by 2.5% Y/Y in August, below the 2.6% estimate and the same as July. The sequential increase in earnings was just 0.1%, also below the 0.2% expected, and far below the 0.3% in July. Furthermore, since average weekly hours declined also, from 34.5 to 34.4, average weekly earnings declined outright from $909.42 to $907.82 in August. Furthermore, average weekly earnings rose just 2.2% Y/Y, the lowest rate of increase since January.

While the labor force participation rate remained unchanged at 62.9%, the number of Americans not in the labor force increased once again, growing by 128K in August to 94.785 million.

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Mitch wants investigations. And not the ones going on right now.

Deciphering The Swamp’s Unemployment Deception (Feierstein)

I strongly see the need for a full and open inquiry into Hillary’s illegal server, Clinton’s leaking of top secret documents, the pay-to-play Clinton Foundation, the entire ‘Fake news’ Russian collusion affair and James Comey’s ‘Fake FBI investigation’ with a predetermined outcome. I am not taking a partisan position here. However, I am guessing many people will reason: ‘The Republicans are bashing the Democrats over these inquiries; this guy Feierstein wants an inquiry, so he must be a Republican.’ I don’t blame people for making these assumptions. Our whole country has become infected with this kind of twisted logic. Our entire political debate has caught the virus. Yet, it makes no sense. No sense at all. Here are two facts and one conclusion:

Fact One : Hillary had an illegal server in the basement of her home that contained ‘Top-Secret Emails.’ Fact Two : Senators Grassley and Graham’s statement regarding FBI’s James Comey’s exoneration of Clinton read: “Conclusion first, fact-gathering second—that’s no way to run an investigation. The FBI should be held to a higher standard than that, especially in a matter of such great public interest and controversy.” Conclusion : These allegations are serious enough to deserve an open investigation, period. Partisan bickering and political spin is simply a diversion from the action that American people deserve — and the truth that the American people require.

I say all this because I’m about to call attention to another government department: the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, I know that Democrats are currently bashing President Trump over everything he does. I know that Trump is bashing back. But, people, the issue at stake is the creation of jobs in America and the way those things are being recorded and reported. The issues I’m about to address were present under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They haven’t changed under Donald Trump. The depression which struck this country in the wake of financial crisis 1.0 might have peaked under a Democrat, but it was born in a Republican era. If you yourself are so partisan that you want to make fine distinctions about these things, you should go ahead and make them. Me: I see two peas in a pod.

Good. Preamble over. Here’s the issue: “The number of jobs created in America declined by 74,000 to 153,439 in August. A horrible number, far below expectations. The jobless rate rose to 4.4 and hourly earnings missed increasing only 2.5% year-over-year. Average hours worked also declined, seeing as weekly wages followed suit.” Yet, central bank manipulated stocks are surging, on the terrible economic news, in anticipation of more global central bank easing. News and economic data are irrelevant in our “rigged” system as market participants eagerly line up like heroin addicts awaiting another federal reserve fix.

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As if anyone still believes in that dream.

The Working Class Can’t Afford the American Dream (HowMuch)

The national conversation in the U.S. is focused squarely on improving the lives of people in the working class. The debate revolves around exactly how to do that. Politicians and pundits have all sorts of ideas, from efforts to save jobs, create tax cuts, subsidize housing, and provide universal healthcare. Thing is, people don’t even agree on how to define the working class, much less how their living conditions stack up across the country. We created a data visualization to illustrate this complex situation. Each bubble represents a city. The color corresponds to the amount of money a typical working-class family would have left over at the end of the year after paying for their living costs, like housing, food and transportation.

The darker the shade of red, the worse off you are. The darker the shade of green, the better off you are. The size of the bubble also fits on a sliding scale—large and dark red means the city is totally unaffordable. Bigger dark green bubbles likewise indicate a city where the working class can get by. The data come from our new True Cost of Living Tool. It’s kind of a big deal because it lets you drill down to a specific city and search through layers of relevant information to understand exactly how much money it takes to live in any given area. We stitched together a variety of different reputable sources, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics for income levels, the National Bureau of Economic Research for tax data, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the cost of food. Basically, you can check our work.

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Banks say central banks must be ready to give money to … banks.

Central Banks Must Be Ready With Cash To Calm Brexit Nerves – Bank Lobby (R.)

Central banks should be ready to inject cash into the financial markets to keep them stable after Britain leaves the European Union in 2019, a draft report from a bank industry lobby said. The Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME), in a draft report seen by Reuters, said that regulators, central banks and national governments should continue to support financial market stability between Britain’s departure from the EU and start of new trading terms. “This may require particular attention during the uncertain period around Brexit, and in particular during the transition, and may involve more regular market communications and targeted support in case of market need, for example, access to liquidity schemes,” the report said. This and other steps would be needed to minimise disruption, it said. AFME’s report also provides a blueprint for a transition phase after Britain’s EU exit in March 2019.

This would include a “bridging phase” to avoid “short-term disruption” until new trading terms are ratified and an “adaptation phase” for moving to the new terms. The report did not specify a time frame for the transition but said it should be limited. “It is crucial that clarity is provided as soon as possible on a transitional period, and ideally before the end of this year,” AFME said. AFME wants existing market arrangements maintained throughout the transitional period, reflecting worries among bankers that they might have to comply first with a transition period and then the new trading terms. “This means that existing legislation, regulation, permissions and authorisations should continue to be effective during the transitional period,” it said. Company bosses also want Britain to negotiate a staggered departure from the EU by the end of this year or they will have to push ahead with plans that assume they will lose all access to the single market after March 2019.

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Rickards sticks to his guns.

How to Crack the Code on Gold – Rickards (DR)

“Don’t underestimate the extent to which gold is being impacted by hedge funds, leverage players, and others that are in the mix for the current high in gold. They don’t really care if it is gold, soybeans, etc. but it is simply another commodity. They receive a nice profit with tight profits, tight stops.” “The bigger picture to look as here is that gold hit an interim low last December and has been grinding higher ever since. Now gold is up over $200 an ounce and is one of the best performing assets in 2017. There’s a pattern of higher highs and shows a very positive occurrence.” [..] “This all relates to currency wars. I think of gold by weight.”

“When most people look at the cost of gold they relate it to the dollar. That gives the dollar a privilege to say that it is the way to count everything. It is also possible to count gold in euro, yen or even bitcoin. I think of gold as money. These are all just cross rates. When I see a higher dollar price for gold, I think of the dollar as being weaker. Likewise, if I see a lower price for gold it just shows that gold is constant and the dollar got stronger.” “There are three things going on right now in gold. There’s a fear trade, there’s technicals with supply shortages and ultimately a weaker dollar. If you want to know where the dollar price for gold is going, ask yourself where the dollar is headed. As the dollar gets weaker due to Federal Reserve Chair Yellen’s plan to tighten rates into weakness. We’re getting disinflation, not inflation and the desire from the Fed is a weaker dollar.”

[..] “I expect to see gold hit $5,000 and eventually to $10,000 an ounce. Maybe not tomorrow or a couple of years but that is the fundamental price of gold as money.” [..] “Bitcoin is a very small market cap compared to gold. I don’t think it has much impact on gold and looks like a bubble right now.” “As someone who has been around Wall Street a long time I’ve seen a lot of different tricks of the trade and frauds that come and go. I am seeing all of the various schemes in bitcoin right now. There’s good forensic evidence that there are people doing wash sales right now and the suckers don’t know they are getting sucked in. Gold is still the ultimate safe haven.”

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That’s just emergency funding. Washington will need to find ways to help the uninsured.

Trump Seeks $7.85 Billion For Harvey Relief, Warns On Debt Ceiling (R.)

U.S. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for an initial $7.85 billion for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, the White House budget director said on Friday, adding that failure to raise the budget ceiling may hinder disaster relief spending. In a letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said the request included $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund and $450 million for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program. “This request is a down-payment on the president’s commitment to help affected states recover from the storm, and future requests will address longer-term rebuilding needs,” Mulvaney said. Trump had been expected to request $5.95 billion for the recovery effort after Harvey flooded areas of Houston and other parts of Texas.

The White House has said that it would make multiple requests for aid from Congress to fund the Harvey recovery effort. White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters on Thursday aid funding requests would come in stages as more became known about the impact of the storm. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said that his state may need more than $125 billion. Bossert said the Trump administration wanted Congress to pass the disaster relief measure on its own and not add it to other measures, such as the effort to raise the debt ceiling. The U.S. government has a statutory limit on how much money it can borrow to cover the budget deficit that results from Washington spending more than it collects in taxes. Only Congress can raise that limit. Mulvaney urged Congress to act “expeditiously to ensure that the debt ceiling does not affect these critical response and recovery efforts.”

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Ethylene, polypropylene. It’s silly, but we ‘need’ them.

Harvey: “Unprecedented” Disruptions To Supplies Of “Essential” Chemicals (ZH)

The unprecedented destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey will impact the US economy in ways may not be immediately apparent. Until recently, coverage of the storm’s impact has focused on property damage and the impact on the energy industry. But in a story published Friday, Bloomberg explains the devastating impact the storm has had on Texas’s chemicals industry, which is already causing supply-chain headaches for American manufacturers who’re struggling to source the chemicals required to produce plastics and other components used in everything from milk jugs to car parts. Indeed, if Texas’s chemicals plants are closed for an extended period, production at a potentially huge number of American manufacturers to grind to a halt.

More than 60% of the US’s production capacity for ethylene – one of the most important chemical building blocks for American manufacturers – has been taken offline by the storm, a development that could ripple across the US manufacturing industry. “Texas alone produces nearly three quarters of the country’s supply of one of the most basic chemical building blocks. Ethylene is the foundation for making plastics essential to U.S. consumer and industrial goods, feeding into car parts used by Detroit and diapers sold by Wal-Mart. With Harvey’s floods shutting down almost all the state’s plants, 61% of U.S. ethylene capacity has been closed, according to PetroChemWire.” Ethylene, the gas given off by fruit as it ripens, occurs naturally, but it’s also a crucial product of the $3.5 trillion global chemical industry, with factories pumping out 146 million tons last year.

Processing plants turn the chemical into polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic, which is used in garbage bags and food packaging. When transformed into ethylene glycol, it’s the antifreeze that keeps engines and airplane wings from freezing in winter. It’s used to make polyester for both textiles and water bottles. Ethylene is an ingredient in vinyl products such as PVC pipes, life-saving medical devices and sneaker soles. It helps combat global warming with polystyrene foam insulation and lighter, fuel-saving plastic auto parts. It’s used to make the synthetic rubber found in tires. It’s even an ingredient in house paints and chewing gum. Ethylene and its derivatives account for about 40% of global chemical sales, according to Hassan Ahmed, an analyst at Alembic Global Advisors. And the Gulf Coast is a crucial player in the global market: US production accounts for one of every five tons on the market. International ethylene plants were running nearly full out to meet rising demand before Harvey.

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‘T is the season. The lesser Antilles could get hit bigtime.

Irma Intensifies Over The Atlantic (R.)

As Harvey diminishes a new storm has emerged. Irma, the fourth hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, has strengthened over the eastern Atlantic to become a Category 3 storm, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory Thursday. Irma is forecast to intensify Thursday night and is projected to be a very dangerous hurricane for the next few days, the Miami-based center said. Irma is located about 1,845 miles east of the Leeward Islands and has maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, the NHC said. NHC forecast models were showing it heading for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and neighboring Haiti with possible landfall by the middle of next week.

While currently a Category 3 storm, Irma’s winds could strengthen to become a Category 4 storm in five days’ time, the Miami Herald reported. Irma will not reach the eastern Caribbean Lesser Antilles islands until the middle of next week, and it is too soon to determine whether or not the storm will pose a threat to the U.S., according to The Weather Channel. Still, the potential for a U.S. landfall should prompt all who may be affected in those areas to closely monitor the storm in the coming days, The Weather Channel said. “Irma is forecast to become a major hurricane by tonight and is expected to be an extremely dangerous hurricane for the next several days,” the NHC said Thursday, while adding there is no current risk to land from the storm.

Read more …

Aug 012017
 
 August 1, 2017  Posted by at 8:45 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »
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Paul Cézanne Young Italian Woman at a Table c1900

 

How Can The Richest Nation On Earth Be Lagging So Far Behind Its Peers? (BBG)
With LIBOR Dead, $400 Trillion In Assets Are Stuck In Limbo (ZH)
Amazon And The 110% Surge In US Retail Bankruptcies (ZH)
No Bubble in Stocks But Look Out When Bonds Pop, Greenspan Says (BBG)
Trump Got This One Right: Shutting Down The CIA’s Ghost War In Syria (WS)
The Tweet That Is Shaking the War Party (David Stockman)
Pentagon Offers To Arm Ukraine, McCain Delighted (ZH)
Killing Them is Killing Us (Robert Gore)
Scaramucci’s China Dealings Pushed Him Out Of White House – Rickards (CNBC)
Unsecured UK Consumer Credit Tops £200 Billion For First Time Since 2008 (G.)
Moody’s Warns Of Growing UK Household Debt As Brexit Downturn Looms (Ind.)
Facebook AI Creates Its Own Language In Creepy Preview Of Our Future (F.)
Narratives Are Not Truths (Jim Kunstler)
Aid Groups Snub Italian Code Of Conduct On Mediterranean Rescues (G.)

 

 

I blame Darwin.

How Can The Richest Nation On Earth Be Lagging So Far Behind Its Peers? (BBG)

What do the economists at the IMF see when they look at the U.S.? An economy in the midst of a long expansion (“its third longest expansion since 1850”), with “persistently strong” job growth, “subdued” inflation and something close to “full employment.” But also this: For some time now there has been a general sense that household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy. This sense is generally borne out by economic data and when comparing the U.S. with other advanced economies. The IMF then goes on to compare the U.S. with 23 other advanced economies in the OECD in this chart:

[..] the overall point is that the U.S. has been losing ground relative to other OECD members in most measures of living standards. 1 And in the areas where the U.S. hasn’t lost ground (poverty rates, high school graduation rates), it was at or near the bottom of the heap to begin with. The clear message is that the U.S. – the richest nation on Earth, as is frequently proclaimed, although it’s actually not the richest per capita – is increasingly becoming the developed world’s poor relation as far as the actual living standards of most of its population go. This analysis is contained in the staff report of the IMF’s annual “consultation” with the U.S., which was published last week. Another IMF report released last week, an update to its World Economic Outlook that downgraded short-term growth forecasts for the U.S. and U.K., got a lot more attention. But the consultation report is more interesting.

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With Libor shut down to prevent revelations of involvement in manipulation by ‘higher-ups’, what will these same ‘higher-ups’ opt to use instead? Who has the political clout to make the decisions?

They better hurry: “moving an existing $9.6 trillion retail mortgage market, $3.5 trillion commercial real estate market, $3.4 trillion loan market and a $350 trillion derivatives market is a herculean task.”

With LIBOR Dead, $400 Trillion In Assets Are Stuck In Limbo (ZH)

In an unexpected announcement, earlier this week the U.K.’s top regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority which is tasked with overseeing Libor, announced that the world’s most important, and manipulated, benchmark rate will be phased out by 2021, catching countless FX, credit, derivative, and other traders by surprise because while much attention had been given to possible LIBOR alternatives across the globe (in a time when the credibility of the Libor was non-existent) this was the first time an end date had been suggested for the global benchmark, which as we explained on Thursday, had died from disuse over the past 5 years.

Commenting on the decision, NatWest Markets’ Blake Gwinn told Bloomberg that the decision was largely inevitable: “There had never been an answer as to how you get market participants to adopt a new benchmark. It was clear at some point authorities were going to force them. The FCA can compel people to participate in Libor. What can ICE do if they’ve lost the ability to get banks to submit Libor rates?” And while the rationale for replacing Libor is well understood (for those unfamiliar, read David Enrich’s “The Spider Network”), there are still no clear alternatives. Ultimately, as Bank of America calculates, “moving an existing $9.6 trillion retail mortgage market, $3.5 trillion commercial real estate market, $3.4 trillion loan market and a $350 trillion derivatives market is a herculean task.”

And with nearly half a quadrillion dollar in securities referncing a benchmark that is set to expire in under 5 years, the biggest problem is one of continuity: as Bloomberg calculated last week, in addition to the hundreds of trillion in referencing securities, there is also currently an open interest of 170,000 eurodollar futures contracts expiring in 2022 and beyond – contracts that settle into a benchmark that will no longer exist. “What are existing contract holders and market makers supposed to do?” Then there is the question of succession: with over $300 trillion in derivative trades, and countless billions in floating debt contracts, referening Libor, the pressing question is what will replace it, and how will the transition be implemented seamlessly?

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Tech monopolies are devastating economies.

Amazon And The 110% Surge In US Retail Bankruptcies (ZH)

As Amazon flirts with a $500 billion market cap, letting Jeff Bezos try on the title of world’s richest man on for size if only for a few hours, for Amazon’s competitors it’s “everything must go” day everyday, as the bad news in the retail sector continue to pile up with the latest Fitch report that the default rate for distressed retailers spiked again in July. According to the rating agency, the trailing 12-month high-yield default rate among U.S. retailers rose to 2.9% in mid-July from 1.8% at the end of June, after J. Crew completed a $566 million distressed-debt exchange. Meanwhile, with the shale sector flooded with Wall Street’s easy money, the overall high-yield default rate tumbled to 1.9% in the same period from 2.2% at the end of June as $4.7 billion of defaulted debt – mostly in the energy sector – rolled out of the default universe.

In a note, Fitch levfin sr. director Eric Rosenthal, said that “even with energy prices languishing in the mid $40s, a likely iHeart bankruptcy and retail remaining the sector of concern, the broader default environment remains benign.” He’s right: after the energy sector dominated bankruptcies in the first half of 2016, accounting for 21% of Chapter 11 cases, in H1 2017 the worst two sectors for bankruptcies are financials and consumer discretionary. And if recent trends are an indication, the latter will only get worse as Fitch expects Claire’s, Sears Holdings and Nine West all to default by the end of the year, pushing the default rate to 9%. “The timing on Sears and Claire’s is more uncertain, and our retail forecast would end the year at 5% absent these filings,” Rosenthal wrote. Putting the retail sector woes in context, Reorg First Day has calculated that retail bankruptcies soared 110% in the first half from the year-earlier period, accounting for $6 billion in debt.

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Oracle dementia.

No Bubble in Stocks But Look Out When Bonds Pop, Greenspan Says (BBG)

Equity bears hunting for excess in the stock market might be better off worrying about bond prices, Alan Greenspan says. That’s where the actual bubble is, and when it pops, it’ll be bad for everyone. “By any measure, real long-term interest rates are much too low and therefore unsustainable,” the former Federal Reserve chairman said in an interview. “When they move higher they are likely to move reasonably fast. We are experiencing a bubble, not in stock prices but in bond prices. This is not discounted in the marketplace.” While the consensus of Wall Street forecasters is still for low rates to persist, Greenspan isn’t alone in warning they will break higher quickly as the era of global central-bank monetary accommodation ends.

Deutsche Bank’s Binky Chadha says real Treasury yields sit far below where actual growth levels suggest they should be. Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets, says it’s only a matter of time before inflationary pressures hit the bond market. “The real problem is that when the bond-market bubble collapses, long-term interest rates will rise,” Greenspan said. “We are moving into a different phase of the economy – to a stagflation not seen since the 1970s. That is not good for asset prices.” Stocks, in particular, will suffer with bonds, as surging real interest rates will challenge one of the few remaining valuation cases that looks more gently upon U.S. equity prices, Greenspan argues. While hardly universally accepted, the theory underpinning his view, known as the Fed Model, holds that as long as bonds are rallying faster than stocks, investors are justified in sticking with the less-inflated asset.

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How on earth can Obama and Hillary have supported this?

Trump Got This One Right: Shutting Down The CIA’s Ghost War In Syria (WS)

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump was shown a disturbing video of Syrian rebels beheading a child near the city of Aleppo. It had caused a minor stir in the press as the fighters belonged to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a group that had been supported by the CIA as part of its rebel aid program. The footage is haunting. Five bearded men smirk as they surround a boy in the back of a pickup truck. One of them holds the boy’s head with a tight grip on his hair while another mockingly slaps his face. Then, one of them uses a knife to saw the child’s head off and holds it up in the air like a trophy. It is a scene reminiscent of the Islamic State’s snuff videos, except this wasn’t the work of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The murderers were supposed to be the good guys: our allies.

Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether. On July 19, the Washington Post broke the news of Trump’s decision: “a move long sought by Russia,” the paper’s headline blared. Politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly howled in protest, claiming that Trump’s decision was a surrender to Vladimir Putin.

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I said it before: Stockman’s had enough.

The Tweet That Is Shaking the War Party (David Stockman)

Most of the Donald’s tweets amount to street brawling with his political enemies, but occasionally one of them slices through Imperial Washington’s sanctimonious cant. Indeed, Monday evening’s 140 characters of solid cut right to the bone: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad…..” Needless to say, we are referencing not the dig at the empire of Bezos, but the characterization of Washington’s anti-Assad policy as “massive, dangerous and wasteful”. No stouter blow to the neocon/Deep State “regime change” folly has ever been issued by an elected public official. Yet there it is – the self-composed words of the man in the Oval Office. It makes you even want to buy some Twitter stock! Predictably, the chief proponent of illegal, covert, cowardly attacks on foreign governments via proxies, mercenaries, drones and special forces, Senator McWar of Arizona, fairly leapt out of his hospital bed to denounce the President’s action: “If these reports are true, the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin.”

That’s just plain pathetic because the issue is the gross stupidity and massive harm that has been done by McCain’s personally inspired and directed war on Assad – not Putin and not Russia’s historic role as an ally of the Syrian regime. Since 2011, Senator McCain has been to the region countless times. There he has made it his business to strut about in the manner of an imperial proconsul – advising, organizing and directing a CIA recruited, trained and supplied army of rebels dedicated to the overthrow of Syria’s constitutionally legitimate government. At length, several billions were spent on training and arms, thereby turning a fleeting popular uprising against the despotic Assad regime during the 2011 “Arab spring” into the most vicious, destructive civil war of modern times, if ever. That is, without the massive outside assistance of Washington, Saudi Arabia and the emirates, the Syrian uprising would have been snuffed out as fast as it was in Egypt and Bahrain by dictators which had Washington’s approval and arms.

As it has happened, however, Syria’s great historic cities of Aleppo and Damascus have been virtually destroyed – along with its lesser towns and villages and nearly the entirety of its economy. There are 400,000 dead and 11 million internal and external refugees from an original population of hardly 18 million. The human toll of death, displacement, disease and disorder which has been inflicted on this hapless land staggers the imagination. Yet at bottom this crime against humanity – there is no other word for it – is not mainly Assad’s or Putin’s doing. It can be properly described as “McCain’s War” in the manner in which (Congressman) Charlie Wilson’s War in Afghanistan during the 1980’s created the monster which became Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

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And of course they just go on.

Pentagon Offers To Arm Ukraine, McCain Delighted (ZH)

The WSJ reports that, in what appears to be the next gambit by the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex (or “deep state” for those so inclined) to force Trump to “prove” that he did not, in fact, collude or have any ties with Russia or Vladimir Putin, Pentagon and State Department officials have devised plans to hit Russia where it hurts the most, and supply Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry, and are now seeking White House approval at a time when ties between Moscow and Washington are as bad as during any point under the Obama administration. American military officials and diplomats say the arms, which they characterized as defensive, are meant to deter aggressive actions by Moscow, which the U.S. and others say has provided tanks and other sophisticated armaments as well as military advisers to rebels fighting the Kiev government.

The question of course is, “why now?” Since the start of the Crimean conflict, which in turn was the byproduct of a State Department-facilitiated presidential coup in Ukraine, the US has been supporting Russian-speaking insurgents in the country’s east however Washington, wary of escalating the conflict, has largely limited its support for Kiev’s military to so-called non-lethal aid and training. So one attempt at “why now”, is because with Trump reeling, and having already caved on the latest Congressional anti-Russia bill, why not push the president to escalate the Russia conflict to a point where not even his predecessor dared to take it. For now, Trump is unaware of the plan: “A senior administration official said there has been no decision on the armaments proposal and it wasn’t discussed at a high-level White House meeting on Russia last week. The official said President Donald Trump hasn’t been briefed on the plan and his position isn’t known.”

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“The blood never washes away.”

Killing Them is Killing Us (Robert Gore)

There is something eerily fascinating about cold-blooded murderers – a staple of Hollywood thrillers and crime dramas—killing without emotion or remorse. Ordinary humans, afflicted with guilt for minor, not even criminal transgressions, can’t conceive of pulling the trigger and then sitting down for dinner. In real life, the number of people who can is glancingly small. Even for those few, actions have consequences. The blood never washes away. “Live and let live,” is, in American mythology, a benevolent and almost uniquely American attitude. We destroyed Japan and Germany in World War II and then helped rebuild them. Live and let live goes down well with the living, the winners. However, it’s often nothing more than balm for an uneasy conscience, hand sanitizer for bloodstained hands.

A century and a half later, many Southerners lack this “unique” American attitude towards their conquerers in the War of Northern Aggression. The war on terror has laid waste to large swaths of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Cities, towns, and villages have been reduced to smoking, bombed-out rubble, chaos reigns, the carnage is ubiquitous. The US military keeps count of its own personnel wounded and killed, a number in the thousands. Civilian casualties —or collateral damage as the military calls it—across Chaostan (Richard Maybury’s apt coinage) are in the millions, as are the number of people displaced (an estimated 11 million in Syria alone).

Imagine the American fury and media sensationalism if a small US town was carpet-bombed by a foreign power. YouTube’s servers would melt from the overflow of viewers watching videos of parents pulling their dead children from collapsed homes. The war on terror’s refugee flows threaten to upend civic order and submerge the cultures of the countries receiving them. It’s a vicious act of intellectual corruption to maintain that the war on terror does not create terrorists, that those killed, wounded, or displaced have no friends or family who will exact what they consider justified vengeance. The terrorism we see now is lava trickling from a volcano of hatred that has boiled, bubbled, and occasionally erupted for centuries, and will continue to do so. There will be no live and let live. Blood will have blood, not banalities.

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A different perspective.

Scaramucci’s China Dealings Pushed Him Out Of White House – Rickards (CNBC)

The abrupt dismissal of White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci less than two weeks after his appointment may be linked to the outspoken financier’s China dealings. The firing has been widely attributed to Scaramucci’s verbal tirade to a reporter in addition to orders from new chief of staff John F. Kelly. But there’s a third issue that may have played into the decision, Jim Rickards, editor of investment newsletter Strategic Intelligence, told CNBC. The sale of Scaramucci’s hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, to HNA Capital, a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate HNA Group, was a red flag for Washington, according to Rickards. The acquisition, which was finalized in January and reportedly values SkyBridge at around $200 million, is currently pending approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States – or CFIUS – a government panel that reviews foreign purchases of American companies for national security risks.

Officially chaired by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, CFIUS involves multiple U.S. agencies, including the defense, commerce and state departments. Rickards, who previously worked with intelligence officials on CFIUS regarding foreign acquisitions of U.S. financial services firms, said he believes the Skybridge deal was “a sleeper story waiting to come back to haunt the White House.” HNA’s purchase is likely to get rejected amid concerns of Chinese control over U.S. hedge funds and investment banks — a decision that wouldn’t bode well for President Donald Trump’s administration, he said. “My recommendation would have been for CFIUS to turn the deal down…we had always warned ‘don’t let our adversaries such as China or Russia get plugged into the U.S. financial system’…When I was involved, this deal would have not gone through,” he said.

“In some ways, the White House is probably relieved to get rid of Scaramucci because now, no matter what happens to that deal, that burden won’t be with the White House,” Rickards continued. “Using the [New Yorker] interview was great cover to get rid of Scaramucci before the hedge fund deal and national security review blew up in his face.”

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Oh well, someone will always say it’s because of confidence…

Unsecured UK Consumer Credit Tops £200 Billion For First Time Since 2008 (G.)

The financial watchdog has announced fresh measures to protect consumers from spiralling debt as official data showed that borrowing through credit cards, overdrafts and car loans has topped £200bn for the first time since the global financial crisis. The Financial Conduct Authority said it was cracking down on the high cost of overdrafts and reviewing the booming car loan market. The regulator’s latest intervention came as credit ratings agency Moody’s also warned about the growing household debt mountain, saying that some borrowers would struggle to repay their debt as the economy weakened and inflation ate into their salaries. Unsecured consumer credit, which includes credit cards, car loans and overdrafts, peaked in the autumn of 2008 – just as the banking crisis was taking hold.

It fell in subsequent years, but has been rising again since 2014 and is now in touching distance of the pre-crisis lending boom. Data from the Bank of England on Monday showed that it grew by 10% in the year to June, to almost £201bn. The last time outstanding debt was above £200bn was December 2008. In a paper published on Monday, the FCA said that one in six people with debt on credit cards, personal lending and car loans – 2.2 million – were in financial distress. They are more likely to be younger, have children, be unemployed and less educated than others. As households grapple with rising living costs, charities and policymakers have raised concerns that consumers are increasingly turning to loans amid worrying signs of a return to reckless lending by the banks.

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… but in reality it’s not confidence, but poverty that rules Britannia.

Moody’s Warns Of Growing UK Household Debt As Brexit Downturn Looms (Ind.)

A credit rating agency has warned that soaring levels of household debt could leave Britain’s lower-income families dangerously exposed amid signs of an economic downturn linked to Brexit. Moody’s said the UK’s weak economic climate meant it had to downgrade four of the five consumer finance sectors to negative. The agency’s warning over credit came as the Bank of England revealed that the amount borrowed by UK consumers through credit cards, loans and overdrafts had reached £200bn for the first time since the financial crash of 2008. Inflation, triggered by the low pound, is now rising faster than wage growth and has put growing pressure on households, squeezing budgets and causing credit card spending to increase and savings to fall.

In this context, the Bank of England has expressed concerns over surging levels of unsecured consumer borrowing on credit cards, which is going up by more than 10 per cent a year and outstripping income. Moody’s analyst Greg Davies said: “Household debt is high and still growing, leaving consumers vulnerable to an economic downturn, while higher inflation, weaker wage growth and levels of indebtedness leaves those in lower-income brackets the most exposed. “An additional challenge is that households’ capacity to draw on savings to maintain consumption and/or service their consumer debts has significantly diminished.” The credit rating agency has also warned in recent weeks of the potential economic damage if the UK fails to secure an exit trade deal with the EU.

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“Our entire world is wired and connected. An artificial intelligence will eventually figure that out – and figure out how to collaborate and cooperate with other AI systems. Maybe the AI will determine that mankind is a threat, or that mankind is an inefficient waste of resources – conclusions that seems plausible from a purely logical perspective.”

Facebook AI Creates Its Own Language In Creepy Preview Of Our Future (F.)

Facebook shut down an artificial intelligence engine after developers discovered that the AI had created its own unique language that humans can’t understand. Researchers at the Facebook AI Research Lab (FAIR) found that the chatbots had deviated from the script and were communicating in a new language developed without human input. It is as concerning as it is amazing – simultaneously a glimpse of both the awesome and horrifying potential of AI. Artificial Intelligence is not sentient—at least not yet. It may be someday, though – or it may approach something close enough to be dangerous. Ray Kurzweil warned years ago about the technological singularity. The Oxford dictionary defines “the singularity” as, “A hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.”

To be clear, we aren’t really talking about whether or not Alexa is eavesdropping on your conversations, or whether Siri knows too much about your calendar and location data. There is a massive difference between a voice-enabled digital assistant and an artificial intelligence. These digital assistant platforms are just glorified web search and basic voice interaction tools. The level of “intelligence” is minimal compared to a true machine learning artificial intelligence. Siri and Alexa can’t hold a candle to IBM’s Watson. Scientists and tech luminaries, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak have warned that AI could lead to tragic unforeseen consequences. Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking cautioned in 2014 that AI could mean the end of the human race. “It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Why is this scary? Think SKYNET from Terminator, or WOPR from War Games. Our entire world is wired and connected. An artificial intelligence will eventually figure that out – and figure out how to collaborate and cooperate with other AI systems. Maybe the AI will determine that mankind is a threat, or that mankind is an inefficient waste of resources – conclusions that seems plausible from a purely logical perspective.

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Racketeering.

Narratives Are Not Truths (Jim Kunstler)

The American polity is not thriving. It has been incrementally failing to meet its needs for quite a while now, playing games with itself to pretend that it is okay while its institutional organs and economic operations decay. It turns this way and that way ever more desperately, over-steering like a drunk on the highway. It is drunk on the untruths it tells itself in the service of playing games to avoid meeting its real needs. Narratives are not truths. Here is a primary question we might ask ourselves: do we want to live in a healthy society? Do we want to thrive? If so, what are the narratives standing in the way of turning us in the direction? Let’s start with health care, so called, since the failure to do anything about the current disastrous system is so fresh. What’s the narrative there?

That “providers” (doctors and hospitals) can team up with banking operations called “insurance companies” to fairly allocate “services” to the broad population with a little help from the government. No, that’s actually not how it works. The three “players” actually engage in a massive racketeering matrix — that is, they extract enormous sums of money dishonestly from the public they pretend to serve and they do it twice: once by extortionary fees and again by taxes paid to subsidize mitigating the effects of the racketeering. The public has its own narrative, which is that there is no connection between their medical problems and the way they live. The fact is that they eat too much poisonous food because it’s tasty and fun, and they do that because the habits-of-life that they have complicitly allowed to ev0lve in this country offers them paltry rewards otherwise.

They dwell in ugly, punishing surroundings, spend too much time and waste too much money driving cars around it in isolation, and have gone along with every effort to dismantle the armatures of common social exchange that afford what might be called a human dimension of everyday living. So, the medical racket ends up being nearly 20 percent of the economy, while the public gets fatter, sicker, and more anxiously depressed. And there is no sign that we want to disrupt the narratives.

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Well, they got the NGOs fighting each other now. Mission accomplished.

Aid Groups Snub Italian Code Of Conduct On Mediterranean Rescues (G.)

Five aid groups that operate migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean have refused to sign up to the Italian government’s code of conduct, the Interior Ministry said, but three others backed the new rules. Charity boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore so far this year against less than one percent in 2014, according to the Italian coastguard. Italy, fearing that the groups were facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and encouraging migrants to make the perilous passage to Europe, proposed a code containing around a dozen points for the charities. Those who refused to sign the document had put themselves “outside the organised system of sea rescues, with all the concrete consequences that can have”, the ministry said.

Italy had previously threatened to shut its ports to NGOs that did not sign up, but an source within the Interior Ministry said that in reality those groups would face more checks from Italian authorities. Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has taken part in many of the rescues of the 95,000 migrants brought to Italy this year, attended a meeting at the Interior Ministry but refused to sign the code. MSF objected most strongly to a requirement that aid boats must take migrants to a safe port themselves, rather than transferring people to other vessels, which allows smaller boats to stay in the area for further rescues. “Our vessels are often overwhelmed by the high number of [migrant] boats … and life and death at sea is a question of minutes,” MSF Italy’s director, Gabriele Eminente, wrote in a letter to the interior minister, Marco Minniti.

“The code of conduct puts at risk this fragile equation of collaboration between different boats,” he continued, adding that MSF still wanted to work with the ministry to improve sea rescues. [..] “For us, the most controversial point … was the commitment to help the Italian police with their investigations and possibly take armed police officers on board,” Jugend Rettet coordinator Titus Molkenbur said. “That is antithetical to the humanitarian principles of neutrality that we adhere to, and we cannot be seen as being part of the conflict.”

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Dec 032014
 
 December 3, 2014  Posted by at 12:25 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »
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Harris&Ewing National Emergency War Garden Commission display, Wash. DC 1918

New US Oil And Gas Well November Permits Tumble Nearly 40% (Reuters)
Think Collapsing Oil Is Bullish? Think Again (MarketWatch)
Deficit Spending And Money Printing: A German Point Of View (Salzer)
OPEC Is Wrong To Think It Can Outlast US On Oil Prices (MarketWatch)
Oil War Slams Venezuela, Probability of Default Soars to 84% (Wolfstreet)
Why Oil Is Finally Declining, Which May Lead to Disaster (Lee Adler)
The Financialization of Oil (CH Smith)
Oil, the Ruble and Putin Are All Headed for 63. A Russian Joke (Bloomberg)
What Low Oil Prices Mean For The Environment (Reuters)
French Bank Tells Investors To Dump UK Assets (CNBC)
Australia Headed Into Perfect Storm In 2015 (CNBC)
If Deflation Is So Terrible, Why Are Spain, Greece Growing? (MarketWatch)
Eurozone Business Activity Slumps To 16-Month Low (CNBC)
Non-Eurozone Czech Central Banker: We Need ECB Easing Too (CNBC)
The Gold Fairy Tale Fails Again (Barry Ritholtz)
Stop Talking about NATO Membership for Ukraine (Spiegel)
We Are Starting To Learn Who Owns Britain (Monbiot)
Mediterranean Diet Keeps People ‘Genetically Young’ (BBC)
Olive Oil Prices Soar After Bad Harvest (Guardian)
Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind (BBC)

Putting a brave face on the desperate hope for higher prices, soon. Or else.

New US Oil And Gas Well November Permits Tumble Nearly 40% (Reuters)

Plunging oil prices sparked a drop of almost 40% in new well permits issued across the United States in November, in a sudden pause in the growth of the U.S. shale oil and gas boom that started around 2007. Data provided exclusively to Reuters on Tuesday by industry data firm Drilling Info Inc showed 4,520 new well permits were approved last month, down from 7,227 in October. The pullback was a “very quick response” to U.S. crude prices, which settled on Tuesday at $66.88, said Allen Gilmer, chief executive officer of Drilling Info. New permits, which indicate what drilling rigs will be doing 60-90 days in the future, showed steep declines for the first time this year across the top three U.S. onshore fields: the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford in Texas and North Dakota’s Bakken shale. The Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico showed a 38% decline in new oil and gas well permits last month, while the Eagle Ford and Bakken permit counts fell 28% and 29%, respectively, the data showed.

That slide came in the same month U.S. crude oil futures fell 17% to $66.17 on Nov. 28 from $80.54 on Oct. 31. Prices are down about 40% since June. U.S. prices fell below $70 a barrel last week after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to maintain output of 30 million barrels per day. Analysts said the cartel is trying to squeeze U.S. shale oil producers out of the market. Total U.S. production reached an average of 8.9 million barrels per day in October, and is expected to surpass 9 million bpd in December, the highest in decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Gilmer said last month’s pullback in permits was more about holding off on drilling good locations in a low-price environment than breaking even on well economics. “I think in this case this was just a quick response, saying ‘there are enough drill sites in the inventory, let’s sit back, take a look and see what happens with prices,'” he said.

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Hey, that’s my headline!

Think Collapsing Oil Is Bullish? Think Again (MarketWatch)

The biggest story of 2014 isn’t the end of quantitative easing. It’s the unrelenting collapse in oil prices, and what that means for stock markets worldwide. The meme out there? Falling oil is bullish. After all, the more oil falls, the more consumers and companies save. I’m sorry, but there are a number of flaws with this argument. First of all, falling oil can be bullish, but collapsing oil tends to historically be very bearish. Many major corrections and bear markets have been preceded by oil in a precipitous fall. Second, people forget that several state budgets actually rely on tax revenue that is derived from oil drilling and exploration activities. If that tax revenue collapses because those companies collapse on that oil decline, what’s the response by those states? Raises taxes on, you guessed it, consumers.

Third, you might want to be careful what you wish for when it comes to falling oil prices. A good amount of many junk-debt indices is made up of energy-sector bonds. Junk-debt spreads have been widening, and should defaults occur in the energy space, that could serve as a butterfly effect for all bonds. The biggest thing that counters the “collapsing oil is bullish” meme is the behavior of defensive sectors of the stock market, which our equity sector ATAC Beta Rotation Fund BROTX, +0.68% has the ability to position all in to based on our proprietary risk trigger. If indeed falling oil were bullish, shouldn’t more cyclical areas of the market rally on that? If falling oil were bullish, shouldn’t U.S. small-cap stocks — which are heavily dependent upon domestic U.S. revenue growth — be substantially outperforming?

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And that’s my line! “Why do we insist upon economic growth, if we don’t actually need the products which are additionally produced every year?” Good to see I’m not the only one writing about that.

Deficit Spending And Money Printing: A German Point Of View (Salzer)

What we experience today is completely contrary to the German (maybe not the U.S.) understanding of the role of the Central Bank. The ECB has now assumed a role not only to protect the value of our common currency against inflation but also to take action as if it is responsible to create economic growth and full employment with instruments like money printing, zero interest rates and unlimited investments in bonds which the free market is rejecting.

We pay a high price for the chimera that we need constant economic growth and that it is a stigma if our GDP-growth is only 1.5% p.a. Can’t we accept that after 50 years of undisturbed peace and continuous prosperity we have reached a certain degree of personal satisfaction where we don’t need a new car every year, another cell-phone, additional furniture, more TV-sets, more laptops etc, etc.

Why do we insist upon economic growth, if we don’t actually need the products which are additionally produced every year? Is it really worth it to increase the already heavy burden of public debt, which our children must service someday, by accepting even more debt in a vain effort to increase public demand? Let’s instead be happy with zero GDP growth, zero inflation and zero growth of public debt! That could be a more rational solution. Why don’t we consider it?

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To what extent is North Dakota spinning its numbers? ” .. the state of North Dakota says the average cost per barrel in America’s top oil-producing state is only $42 [..] In McKenzie County, which boasts 72 of the state’s 188 oil rigs, the average production cost is just $30, the state says.”

OPEC Is Wrong To Think It Can Outlast US On Oil Prices (MarketWatch)

Give Saudi Arabia credit: Whoever sets oil-production policy for the desert kingdom has guts. Unfortunately, the sheiks have made what’s likely to become a sucker’s bet. You know this part already, but the 12-nation Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries last week declined to cut production, sending Brent crude oil futures tumbling to their cheapest point since 2009. The Saudis appear to be spoiling for a fight, trying to find out exactly how cheap oil must be to force surging U.S. shale-oil production to seize up like an unlubricated engine. “Naimi declares price war on U.S. shale oil,” a Reuters headline shouted, referring to Saudi Arabia Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi. But there are at least three big problems with this strategy.

One, North American crude isn’t as expensive to produce as it used to be. Two, there’s more than you think in the pipeline to make it even cheaper. And third, OPEC nations, including Saudi Arabia, have squandered their edge in cheap oil supplies on welfare states rulers can’t easily cut back. In 2012, when U.S. shale burst into public consciousness, common wisdom was that it would cost at least $70 to $75 a barrel to produce. As recently as last week, saying U.S. producers could tolerate $60 oil seemed aggressive. But data from the state of North Dakota says the average cost per barrel in America’s top oil-producing state is only $42 — to make a 10% return for rig owners. In McKenzie County, which boasts 72 of the state’s 188 oil rigs, the average production cost is just $30, the state says.

Another 27 rigs are around $29. That’s part of why oil companies aren’t cutting capital spending much — and they say they can keep production rising without spending more, by getting more out of wells they have already drilled. A key example is mega-independent Devon, which produces about 200,000 of the 9 million-plus barrels the U.S. drills each day. Devon wouldn’t give an interview, but said last month that it expects production to rise 20%-25% next year with little growth in capital spending. It has room to work because its pretax cash profit margins have widened by 37% in the first nine months of this year, to almost $30 per barrel of oil equivalent. More than half its 2015 production is protected by hedges if prices stay below $91 a barrel, the company says.

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Can the CIA finally take over?

Oil War Slams Venezuela, Probability of Default Soars to 84% (Wolfstreet)

OPEC member Venezuela has one of the largest oil and natural gas proven reserves in the world. It’s the 12th largest producer in the world. It’s still one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the US. Oil produces 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings. Oil and gas account for 25% of GDP. Oil is Venezuela’s single most important product. Oil is its critical source of foreign currency with which to pay for all manner of imported consumer and industrial products. But the price of oil has plunged 35% since June. Venezuela was already in trouble before the price of oil plunged. The fracking boom in the US and the tar-sands boom in Canada have been replacing Venezuelan imports of crude to the US for years.

The Keystone pipeline, if Congress approves it, will replace costly oil trains to move Canadian tar-sands crude to US refineries, making it even more competitive with Venezuelan crude. Shipments of crude from Venezuela to the US will continue to dwindle. Venezuela’s budget deficit is 16% of GDP, the worst in the world. Inflation is running at a white-hot 63%, also the worst in the world. The economy is heavily subsidized, but now the money for the subsidies is running out. Currency controls have been instituted to shore up the Bolivar. But instead, they’re strangling what is left of the economy. Anti-government protests and riots burst on the scene earlier this year as the exasperated people couldn’t take it any longer. The scarcity of even basic consumer products such as toothpaste and toilet paper has now spread across the spectrum, including medical supplies. Next year, scarcity is going to be even worse.

Venezuelan economist Angel Garcia Banchs worries that “what’s coming to Venezuela is chaos that will probably lead to barbarity and people looting.” It doesn’t help the budget that the government sells its most valuable export commodity at heavily subsidized prices at home, based on a special though iffy deal: the people get cheap energy, and in return, hopefully, they don’t riot, or outright revolt. The hope is that the government gets to stay in power a little longer even as it is going bankrupt. Yet social spending isn’t going to get cut, promised President Nicolas Maduro on state TV on Friday. “If we had to cut anything in our budget, we would cut extravagances, we would cut our own salaries as high officials, but we will never cut one Bolivar of the money that goes to education, food, housing, the missions of our nation,” he said.

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“For the biggest speculators and financiers in the world, oil was a money substitute, a hedge against the massive money printing campaigns of the Fed, the BoJ, and the ECB.”

Why Oil Is Finally Declining, Which May Lead to Disaster (Lee Adler)

The price of oil has finally started to obey the law. What law is that? The Law of Supply and Demand. Thanks to the US fracking boom that has done this (see chart) to US production, the supply of oil worldwide has outstripped demand since 2012. So why haven’t prices fallen before this summer? And are falling oil prices now a good thing? Or not? While US production was exploding, other countries had level or declining production. Meanwhile consumption was falling in developed nations, but the developing world more than made up for that. Worldwide consumption has been steadily increasing since 2009. However, because of the US fracking boom, with the exception of 2011 supply has exceeded demand. Prices should have been declining since 2012, right? After the oil price bubble peaked in 2008, the price of oil did crash when demand dropped. That drop in demand created a huge oversupply just as the US fracking boom was in its infancy.

Then the Fed and its cohort central banks started printing money helter skelter in 2009. The results showed up not only in world stock markets but in commodities as well, particularly oil. The price of oil rose in spite of the fact that world oil production continued to outstrip demand. For the biggest speculators and financiers in the world, oil was a money substitute, a hedge against the massive money printing campaigns of the Fed, the BoJ, and the ECB. It worked for a while, and the oil market even helped in 2011 when supply fell below consumption for a year. But then the US production increase again overran world wide consumption.

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Prices don’t have to sink further to cause mayhem, they only need to stay where they are now.

The Financialization of Oil (CH Smith)

Like home mortgages, oil has been viewed as a “safe” asset. The financialization of the oil sector has followed a slightly different script but the results are the same: A weak foundation of collateral is supporting a mountain of leveraged, high-risk debt and derivatives. Oil in the ground has been treated as collateral for trillions of dollars in junk bonds, loans and derivatives of all this new debt. The 35% decline in the price of oil has reduced the underlying collateral supporting all this debt by 35%. Loans that were deemed low-risk when oil was $100/barrel are no longer low-risk with oil below $70/barrel (dead-cat bounces notwithstanding). Financialization is always based on the presumption that risk can be cancelled out by hedging bets made with counterparties.

This sounds appealing, but as I have noted many times, risk cannot be disappeared, it can only be masked or transferred to others. Relying on counterparties to pay out cannot make risk vanish; it only masks the risk of default by transferring the risk to counterparties, who then transfer it to still other counterparties, and so on. This illusory vanishing act hasn’t made risk disappear: rather, it has set up a line of dominoes waiting for one domino to topple. This one domino will proceed to take down the entire line of financial dominoes. The 35% drop in the price of oil is the first domino. All the supposedly safe, low-risk loans and bets placed on oil, made with the supreme confidence that oil would continue to trade in a band around $100/barrel, are now revealed as high-risk. [..]

The failure of one counterparty will topple the entire line of counterparty dominoes. The first domino in the oil sector has fallen, and the long line of financialized dominoes is starting to topple. Everyone who bought a supposedly low-risk bond, loan or derivative based on oil in the ground is about to discover the low risk was illusory. All those who hedged the risk with a counterparty bet are about to discover that a counterparty failure ten dominoes down the line has destroyed their hedge, and the loss is theirs to absorb. All the analysts chortling over the “equivalent of a tax break” for consumers are about to be buried by an avalanche of defaults and crushing losses

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Putin is still very popular in Russia. Western media will tell you that’s because of domestic propaganda, but they themselves engage in anti-Putin propaganda over here.

Oil, the Ruble and Putin Are All Headed for 63. A Russian Joke (Bloomberg)

Heard the one about Vladimir Putin, the oil price and the ruble’s value against the dollar? They will all hit 63 next year. That’s the joke doing the rounds of the Kremlin as the Russian government digs in to weather international sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. According to at least five people close to Putin, pressure from the U.S. and Europe is galvanizing Russians to withstand a siege on their economy. The black humor is part of an image of defiance not seen since the Cold War. As the economy enters its first recession in more than five years, the ruble depreciates to records and money exits the country, Putin’s supporters are closing ranks and say he’s sure to run for another six-year term in 2018. “We are becoming poorer, our savings vanish, prices grow, however we see an opposite effect to the one that is wanted by people who wish to see Putin knocked down,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist studying the elite at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The jokes just underline their determination to stand till the end, she said.

Putin celebrates his 63rd birthday on Oct. 7. The price of Brent crude sank to a five-year low of $67.53 a barrel this week. The ruble has dropped to near 55 to the dollar from as strong as 34 less than six months ago, meaning it needs to lose another 13% to complete the joke. A friend of Putin who spoke on condition of anonymity said sanctions won’t work because the U.S. and European Union don’t understand the Russian mentality. The country endured the Leningrad siege for more than two years during World War II and will survive this too, he said. “The West is wrong in its understanding of the motivation Putin and his inner circle have,” said Evgeniy Minchenko, head of the International Institute of Political Expertise in Moscow. “They think Putin is a businessman, that money is the most important thing for him and that by pressing him and his allies financially they will break them.”

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Not much so far.

What Low Oil Prices Mean For The Environment (Reuters)

Are low oil prices good or bad for the environment? From one perspective, they’re bad: lower oil prices mean lower gas prices, which in turn encourage people to drive rather than use more environmentally friendly means of transportation. But in the case of U.S. shale oil, lower prices are good for Mother Earth, if only temporarily. Oil prices have been falling steadily since June, and given OPEC’s recent decision not to curb production, it seems they’ll remain low for a while. As Myles Udland pointed out in Business Insider last week, a lot of shale projects have break-even prices beneath the $80-per-barrel price level, but producers become less and less incentivized to start new projects as prices fall. [..] shale drilling permits fell 15% across 12 major shale formations in October, a sign that shale producers are willing to slow their rapid expansion until they can get more bang for their buck. It comes down to opportunity cost.

As Harold Hamm, an early shale pioneer who has lost $10 billion since August (let that sink in), told Bloomberg, “Nobody’s going to go out there and drill areas, exploration areas and other areas, at a loss. They’ll pull back and won’t drill it until the price recovers. That’s the way it ought to be.” Many see OPEC’s refusal to curb output as a multi-billion-dollar game of chicken with U.S. shale producers, whose booming production can be credited with the recent fall in world oil prices. Early evidence shows that it may be working—for now; fuelfix.com reported yesterday that Texas shale permits were down 50% in November. Ultimately, the case can be made that low oil prices are bad for the environment, as they encourage more oil use now, which makes investments in alternative energy less urgent. And the shale isn’t going anywhere–it’s just waiting there patiently for prices to become sufficient for new extraction projects.

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“Stay away from U.K. assets into the 7 May elections ..”

French Bank Tells Investors To Dump UK Assets (CNBC)

French bank Société Générale has told investors to steer clear of U.K. assets and sell sterling, because “zero” reform and political deadlock pose key risks to the country’s economy. “Stay away from U.K. assets into the 7 May elections,” the SocGen global asset strategy team, led by Alain Bokobza, said in the bank’s 2015 outlook. “In the U.K., 2015 will be marked by the General Election, triggering some volatility and pushing the risk premium on the FTSE 100 higher as the debate on the European Union exit gains momentum.” As such, Bokobza recommended: “Minimal exposure to U.K. assets as political deadlock and delayed tightening by the Bank of England should lead to a weakening of sterling.”

This warning comes despite the U.K.’s robust economic growth compared with the euro zone. U.K. GDP grew by 0.7% in the third quarter on the previous quarter, while the euro zone and France grew by just 0.2% and 0.3% respectively over the same period. But the French banking group insisted that U.K. assets remained risky, and had continually underperformed. “We have been underweight on U.K. assets in the last quarters, with little reason for regret. In particular, U.K. equities are underperforming all developed markets, and a lower GBP/USD is one of our strategic calls (with a 1.50 target),” the bank’s asset strategy team said. “So far there has been zero structural reform and no improvement in twin deficits or exports despite a significant devaluation of the currency. Also, the spillover effects of weak euro zone fundamentals have been underestimated. We are concerned, and therefore seek to protect our asset allocation.”

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The perils of having just one main client.

Australia Headed Into Perfect Storm In 2015 (CNBC)

Australia’s economy will undergo a crucial stress test in 2015, faced with a triple whammy from the lagged impact of plunging commodity prices, sharp declines in mining investment and renewed fiscal tightening, says Goldman Sachs. “The challenges are now widely known…but these challenges still lie mainly ahead for Australia rather than behind,” Tim Toohey, chief economist, Australia at Goldman Sachs wrote in a note on Wednesday. On top of the these headwinds, the economy also needs to contend with tighter financial conditions and lower levels of housing investment, said Toohey, factors that had previously helped to offset the slump in the mining sector. The bank expects GDP growth to average just 2.0% next year, down from an estimated 2.9% in 2014, as the economy continues to search for new growth drivers.

The decline in mining investment will continue to be a major drag on the economy, leaving commodity exports and consumption to pick up the slack, the bank said. Australia’s third quarter GDP data published on Wednesday pointed to a sluggish domestic economy, suggesting rebalancing away from mining-driven growth is taking longer than hoped. The economy expanded 2.7% on year in the three months to September, undershooting expectations for growth of 3.1%, as construction spending fell while sliding export prices hit incomes. “This GDP result concurs broadly with the perceived wisdom on the Australian economy, albeit with perhaps a little more domestic weakness than expected, said David de Garis, director and senior economist at National Australia Bank.

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A perfect example of why seeing deflation only as falling prices is so completely useless and dumbing. If you refuse to look a WHY prices fall, you never learn a thing, and you will always be behind. Apart from the fact that the idea of Greece and Spain doing well can easily be refuted by 1000 other data sources, looking at one day or week or month tells you nothing. You need to look at consumer spending over at least the past few years. That would also show more respect for the 25% of the working population, and 50% of youth, who are unemployed in both countries.

If Deflation Is So Terrible, Why Are Spain, Greece Growing? (MarketWatch)

Prices are starting to fall across the European continent. Mass unemployment, and a grinding recession are forcing companies with too much capacity to charge less for their products. Company profits will soon be collapsing, while government debt ratios threaten to spiral out of control. The threat of deflation is so worrying, the European Central Bank is expected to throw everything in its armory to prevent it, and to get prices rising again. It may even move towards full-blown quantitative easing as early as Thursday. But here’s a puzzle. The two countries with the worst deflation in Europe are Greece and Spain. And two of the countries with the best growth? Funnily enough, that also happens to be Greece and Spain. So if deflation is so terrible, how come those two are recovering fastest?

The answer is that deflation is not nearly as bad as it sometimes made out to be by mainstream economists. The real problem is debt. But if that is true, perhaps the eurozone would be better off trying to fix its debt crisis than campaigning to raise prices — especially as it probably won’t have much success with that anyway. There is no question that the eurozone is sliding inexorably towards deflation. Only last week, we learned that the inflation rate across the zone ratcheted down to 0.3% last month, from 0.4% a month earlier, and a significantly lower figure than the market expected. It has been going steadily down for some time. Consumer inflation has not hit the ECB’s target level of 2% since the start of 2013. It has been falling steadily since it peaked at 3% in late 2011

It would be rash to expect that to change any time soon. The oil price has collapsed, and other commodity prices are coming down as well. That will all feed into the inflation rate. Retail sales are still weak, and unemployment is still rising. People who have lost their job don’t spend money — and companies don’t hike prices when the shops are empty.

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Super Mario to the rescue.

Eurozone Business Activity Slumps To 16-Month Low (CNBC)

Business activity in the euro zone fell to a 16-month low in November, according to data released on Wednesday, confirming fears that the region’s economy is faltering. Final euro zone composite Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) data from Markit came in at 51.1 in November, below flash estimates of 51.4 released last month. It marks a fall from October’s final reading of 52.1. The composite reading measures both manufacturing and services activity, with the 50-point mark separating contraction from expansion. The figures could put more pressure on the ECB to increase stimulus measures ahead of its next monetary policy announcement on Thursday. There is growing pressure on the bank to start buying government bonds, although Germany has opposed the move to date.

The euro zone data was preceded by disappointing services PMI figures for Germany and France, the euro zone’s largest and second-largest economies respectively. The slowdown across the 18-country region reflected weakness in new order inflows, as new business fell for the first time since July last year. Job creation also remained near-stagnant, Markit said. Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said there were “worrying signs” of economic performance deteriorating in the euro zone’s core countries, which, if sustained, “could drive the region back into recession.” “France remains the biggest concern, suffering an ongoing decline in business activity, but growth has also slowed to the weakest for one-and-a-half years in Germany,” he added.

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“ECB easing is necessary for us, we are closely related with the euro zone and ECB easing should, in the long run, generate more demand in the euro zone, which is helpful for us ..”

Non-Eurozone Czech Central Banker: We Need ECB Easing Too (CNBC)

As the European Central Bank’s (ECB) next policy meeting looms, the governor of the Czech central bank has insisted that further euro zone easing will have “necessary” knock-on benefits for the Czech Republic. The ECB is expected to leave monetary policy unchanged on Thursday, although there are growing calls for the bank to launch a full-blown quantitative easing package. ECB President Mario Draghi is likely to wait until the new year before deciding on sovereign bond-buying measures – a move that Czech National Bank (CNB) Governor Miroslav Singer said he supported. “It (further easing) is helpful for us. ECB easing is necessary for us, we are closely related with the euro zone and ECB easing should, in the long run, generate more demand in the euro zone, which is helpful for us,” Singer told CNBC.

Speaking from the CNB in Prague, Singer said that easing could take some time to filter through to some weaker parts of the euro zone, but added that a weaker euro would help “shield” the Czech Republic’s economy by giving some of the region’s biggest countries a boost. The Czech Republic is a member of the European Union, but doesn’t yet use the euro. Its currency is called the Czech koruna. The euro has weakened against the dollar and other currencies since the summer, falling to a two-year low against the greenback last month after Draghi hinted that the bank was prepared to undertake more stimulus. Singer added that a weaker euro had helped boost countries like Germany, which price their exports in euros. A weaker euro makes euro zone exports cheaper in the global market.

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Barry shares my worries.

The Gold Fairy Tale Fails Again (Barry Ritholtz)

Yesterday, oil rallied 4.3% and gold gained 3.6% as commodities had an up day after a long and painful fall. The fascinating aspect of the trading wasn’t the $45 pop in gold, nor the even greater%age rally in oil, but the accompanying narrative. (As of this writing, each has giving up about half of those gains). When it comes to speculating, especially in precious metals, it is all about storytelling. Over the years, I have tried to remind investors of the dangers of the narrative form (See this, this and this). Following a storyline is a recipe for losing money. Why? The spoken word emerged eons ago and narration was a convenient way to pass along information from person to person, generation to generation. Your DNA is coded to love a good yarn of heroes and villains and conflicts to resolve, preferably in a way that is both exciting and memorable. However, your genetic makeup wasn’t created with the risks and rewards of capital markets in mind. When it comes to being suckers for storytelling, I have been especially critical of the gold bugs.

Since 2011, the gold narrative has been a money loser, the secular bull market for the metal clearly over. However, gold often provides a plethora of teachable moments. I want to point out several recent gold narratives that have been dangerous to investors. One of my favorite narratives involves the SPDR Gold Shares, an exchange-traded fund. The history of this ETF is a fascinating tale, well told by Liam Pleven and Carolyn Cui of the Wall Street Journal. Since its peak in September 2011, GLD has declined 37%. As we discussed almost a year ago, the most popular gold narrative was that the Federal Reserve’s program of quantitative easing would lead to the collapse of the dollar and hyperinflation. “The problem with all of this was that even as the narrative was failing, the storytellers never changed their tale. The dollar hit three-year highs, despite QE. Inflation was nowhere to be found,” I wrote at the time.

More recently, the narrative has shifted. Switzerland was going to save gold based on a ballot proposal stipulating that the Swiss National Bank hold at least 20% of its 520-billion-franc ($538 billion) balance sheet in gold, repatriate overseas gold holdings and never sell bullion in the future. This was going to be the driver of the next leg up in gold. Except for the small fact that the “Save Our Swiss Gold” proposal was voted down, 77% to 23%, by the electorate. Why anyone believed this fairy tale in the first place is beyond me. Surveys of voters suggested that the ballot proposal was likely to fail. And yet there’s muddled thinking about gold among the bears too. Short sellers loaded up on bets that gold would plummet, a mistake in its own right since the outcome was all but foretold. When the collapse failed to materialize as the ballot initiative lost, the shorts had to cover their errant bets, sending spot prices higher (temporarily it seems).

Why do these narratives all tend to fail? For the most part, they reflect information that is already in prices. Markets are far from perfectly efficient (they are kinda- sorta-eventually-almost efficient). But they are more efficient than many seem to assume. What’s that you say? Consumers in China and India are big buyers of gold? You mean, the way they always have been? Indeed, most of the recent narratives contain information that is already reflected in prices. Yesterday, I read a breaking news article that said India’s decision to lift gold import restrictions would have a big, positive impact on prices. The problem with that narrative is that India eased import limits in May – and it moved gold prices higher by all of 0.5%.

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The Germans don’t like what NATO is up to.

Stop Talking about NATO Membership for Ukraine (Spiegel)

Just to be sure there is no misunderstanding: Vladimir Putin bears primarily responsibility for the new Cold War between the West and Russia. These days, you have to make that clear before criticizing Western policies so as not to be shoved into the pro-Putin camp. When NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels today, the question of Ukraine’s possible future membership in the alliance is not on the agenda. It will, however, overshadow the meeting — and that is the fault of two politicians. During an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday night, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he would like to hold a referendum on NATO membership at some point in the future. And new NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg apparently had nothing better to do than to offer Poroshenko his verbal support and to reiterate the right of every sovereign nation in Europe to apply for NATO membership.

As if that weren’t enough, Stoltenberg added in comments directed at Moscow that “no third country outside NATO can veto” its enlargement. In the current tense environment, open speculation about possible Ukrainian membership in NATO is akin to playing with fire. German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed the former Norwegian prime minister as NATO chief because he is considered to be a far more level-headed politician than predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen. But since he took the helm, differences between the two have been difficult to identify. Hawkish statements made by NATO’s top military commander, Philip Breedlove, haven’t done much to ease the situation either. Why is it even necessary for NATO officers to comment so frequently about Ukraine? Since the outbreak of the crisis, the alliance has expressed the opinion that the conflict cannot be resolved through military means. If that’s true, then wouldn’t it be better if Stoltenberg, Breedlove and company kept quiet?

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“David Cameron has been just as generous with our money: as he cuts essential services for the poor, he has almost doubled the public subsidy for English grouse moors, and frozen the price of shotgun licences, at a public cost of £17m a year.”

We Are Starting To Learn Who Owns Britain (Monbiot)

Bring out the violins. The land reform programme announced last week by the Scottish government is the end of civilised life on Earth, if you believe the corporate press. In a country where 432 people own half the private rural land, all change is Stalinism. The Telegraph has published a string of dire warnings – insisting, for example, that deer stalking and grouse shooting could come to an end if business rates are introduced for sporting estates. Moved to tears yet? Yes, sporting estates – where the richest people in Britain, or oil sheikhs and oligarchs from elsewhere, shoot grouse and stags – are exempt from business rates, a present from John Major’s government in 1994. David Cameron has been just as generous with our money: as he cuts essential services for the poor, he has almost doubled the public subsidy for English grouse moors, and frozen the price of shotgun licences, at a public cost of £17m a year.

But this is small change. Let’s talk about the real money. The Westminster government claims to champion an entrepreneurial society of wealth creators and hardworking families, but the real rewards and incentives are for rent. The power and majesty of the state protects the patrimonial class. A looped and windowed democratic cloak barely covers the corrupt old body of the nation. Here peaceful protesters can still be arrested under the 1361 Justices of the Peace Act. Here the Royal Mines Act 1424 gives the crown the right to all the gold and silver in Scotland. Here the Remembrancer of the City of London sits behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons to protect the entitlements of a corporation that pre-dates the Norman conquest. This is an essentially feudal nation.

It’s no coincidence that the two most regressive forms of taxation in the UK – council tax banding and the payment of farm subsidies – both favour major owners of property. The capping of council tax bands ensures that the owners of £100m flats in London pay less than the owners of £200,000 houses in Blackburn. Farm subsidies, which remain limitless as a result of the Westminster government’s lobbying, ensure that every household in Britain hands £245 a year to the richest people in the land. The single farm payment system, under which landowners are paid by the hectare, is a reinstatement of a medieval levy called feudal aid, a tax the vassals had to pay to their lords.

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Sounds good, tastes good too.

Mediterranean Diet Keeps People ‘Genetically Young’ (BBC)

Following a Mediterranean diet might be a recipe for a long life because it appears to keep people genetically younger, say US researchers. Its mix of vegetables, olive oil, fresh fish and fruits may stop our DNA code from scrambling as we age, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. Nurses who adhered to the diet had fewer signs of ageing in their cells. The researchers from Boston followed the health of nearly 5,000 nurses over more than a decade. The Mediterranean diet has been repeatedly linked to health gains, such as cutting the risk of heart disease. Although it’s not clear exactly what makes it so good, its key components – an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as poultry and fish, rather than lots of red meat, butter and animal fats – all have well documented beneficial effects on the body. Foods rich in vitamins appear to provide a buffer against stress and damage of tissues and cells. And it appears from this latest study that a Mediterranean diet helps protect our DNA.

The researchers looked at tiny structures called telomeres that safeguard the ends of our chromosomes, which store our DNA code. These protective caps prevent the loss of genetic information during cell division. As we age and our cells divide, our telomeres get shorter – their structural integrity weakens, which can tell cells to stop dividing and die. Experts believe telomere length offers a window on cellular ageing. Shorter telomeres have been linked with a broad range of age-related diseases, including heart disease, and a variety of cancers. In the study, nurses who largely stuck to eating a Mediterranean diet had longer, healthier telomeres. No individual dietary component shone out as best, which the researchers say highlights the importance of having a well-rounded diet.

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But then this does not help. Especially for the poor in southern Europe.

Olive Oil Prices Soar After Bad Harvest (Guardian)

Take it easy with the salad dressing: the price of Italian olive oil has more than doubled in the past year to its highest level in a decade as the impact of drought and a fruit fly infestation has hit production. The price of extra virgin oil from Spain, the world’s biggest producer, is also up 15% year-on-year after olive trees across the Mediterranean suffered from drought and extreme heat in May and June, their peak blooming period when moisture is vital to develop a good crop. Analysts began warning that prices would rise this summer, but the cost of Italian extra virgin olive oil soared by nearly a quarter in November compared with October as the poor state of the harvest became clear, according to market analysts Mintec. Loraine Hudson at Mintec said demand could outstrip supply over the next year as Italian production would be down 35% and global production down 19% to 2.5m tonnes at a time when global consumption is rising.

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“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate ..”

Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind (BBC)

Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence. He told the BBC:”The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” His warning came in response to a question about a revamp of the technology he uses to communicate, which involves a basic form of AI. But others are less gloomy about AI’s prospects. The theoretical physicist, who has the motor neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is using a new system developed by Intel to speak.

Machine learning experts from the British company Swiftkey were also involved in its creation. Their technology, already employed as a smartphone keyboard app, learns how the professor thinks and suggests the words he might want to use next. Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

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