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.

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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.

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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.

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“..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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Read more …

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)
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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.

Read more …

“..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.

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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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