John Vachon Trucks loaded with mattresses at San Angelo, Texas Nov 1939
“It’s just the nature of the business. You’re not going to go drill holes in the ground if you think prices are going down.”
• Oil Crash Exposes New Risks for U.S. Shale Drillers (Bloomberg)
Tumbling oil prices have exposed a weakness in the insurance that some U.S. shale drillers bought to protect themselves against a crash. At least six companies, including Pioneer Natural Resources and Noble Energy, used a strategy known as a three-way collar that doesn’t guarantee a minimum price if crude falls below a certain level, according to company filings. While three-ways can be cheaper than other hedges, they can leave drillers exposed to steep declines. “Producers are inherently bullish,” said Mike Corley, the founder of Mercatus Energy Advisors, a Houston-based firm that advises companies on hedging strategies. “It’s just the nature of the business. You’re not going to go drill holes in the ground if you think prices are going down.”
The three-way hedges risk exacerbating a cash squeeze for companies trying to cope with the biggest plunge in oil prices this decade. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, dropped 50% since June amid a worldwide glut. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided Nov. 27 to hold production steady as the 12-member group competes for market share against U.S. shale drillers that have pushed domestic output to the highest since at least 1983. Shares of oil companies are also dropping, with a 49% decline in the 76-member Bloomberg Intelligence North America E&P Valuation Peers index from this year’s peak in June. The drilling had been driven by high oil prices and low-cost financing. Companies spent $1.30 for every dollar earned selling oil and gas in the third quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on 56 of the U.S.-listed companies in the E&P index.
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450,000 people work in Britain’s oil industry.
• North Sea Oil Industry ‘Close To Collapse’ (BBC)
The UK’s oil industry is in “crisis” as prices drop, a senior industry leader has told the BBC. Oil companies and service providers are cutting staff and investment to save money. Robin Allan, chairman of the independent explorers’ association Brindex, told the BBC that the industry was “close to collapse”. Almost no new projects in the North Sea are profitable with oil below $60 a barrel, he claims. “It’s almost impossible to make money at these oil prices”, Mr Allan, who is a director of Premier Oil in addition to chairing Brindex, told the BBC. “It’s a huge crisis.” “This has happened before, and the industry adapts, but the adaptation is one of slashing people, slashing projects and reducing costs wherever possible, and that’s painful for our staff, painful for companies and painful for the country. “It’s close to collapse. In terms of new investments – there will be none, everyone is retreating, people are being laid off at most companies this week and in the coming weeks. Budgets for 2015 are being cut by everyone.”
Mr Allan said many of the job cuts across the industry would not have been publicly announced. Oil workers are often employed as contractors, which are easier for employers to cut. His remarks echo comments made by the veteran oil man and government adviser Sir Ian Wood, who last week predicted a wave of job losses in the North Sea over the next 18 months. The US-based oil giant ConocoPhillips is cutting 230 out of 1,650 jobs in the UK. This month it announced a 20% reduction in its worldwide capital expenditure budget, in response to falling oil prices. Other big oil firms are expected to make similar cuts to their drilling and exploration budgets. Research from the investment bank Goldman Sachs predicted that they would need to cut capital expenditure by 30% to restore their profitability at current prices. Service providers to the industry have also been hit. Texas-based oilfield services company Schlumberger cut back its UK-based fleet of geological survey ships in December, taking an $800m loss and cutting an unspecified number of jobs.
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“The prolongation of the downward trend of the oil price in world markets is a political conspiracy going to extremes.”
• North Sea Oilfields ‘Near Collapse’ After Price Nosedive (Telegraph)
The North Sea oil industry is “close to collapse”, an expert has warned, as a slump in prices piles pressure on drillers to cut back investing in the region. Robin Allan, chairman of the independent explorers’ association Brindex, told the BBC that it is “almost impossible to make money” with the oil price below $60 per barrel. “It’s a huge crisis. This has happened before, and the industry adapts, but the adaptation is one of slashing people, slashing projects and reducing costs,” he said. Mr Allan’s glum outlook for oil production and exploration in the UK Continental Shelf came on a volatile day of trading for crude. Brent – a global pricing benchmark comprising crude from 15 North Sea fields – ended trading in London down 1% at around $60 per barrel after trading up by as much as 3% earlier in the session. Mr Allan’s warning comes after The Telegraph reported that £55bn worth of oil projects in the North Sea and Europe could be cancelled due to the current slide in prices, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
Concern over the ability of the North Sea to endure the current downturn has increased since OPEC decided to keep pumping at its current rate of 30m barrels per day (bpd) in late November. Opec kingpins Saudi Arabia and Iran were at odds on Thursday over the reason behind falling prices in an indication of the pain being caused to many of the cartel’s 12 members. Iran’s oil minister has said that a “political conspiracy” is to blame for the dramatic slump in remarks which could signal that the Islamic Republic will try to exert pressure on Opec to again consider cutting output. Bijan Zanganeh told the country’s state petroleum news agency: “The prolongation of the downward trend of the oil price in world markets is a political conspiracy going to extremes.”
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“Companies that are already producing oil will continue to operate those wells because the cost of drilling them is already sunk into the ground ..”
• Exxon Mobil Shows Why U.S. Oil Output Rises as Prices Plunge (Bloomberg)
Crude oil production from U.S. wells is poised to approach a 42-year record next year as drillers ignore the recent decline in price pointing them in the opposite direction. U.S. energy producers plan to pump more crude in 2015 as declining equipment costs and enhanced drilling techniques more than offset the collapse in oil markets, said Troy Eckard, whose Eckard Global owns stakes in more than 260 North Dakota shale wells. Oil companies, while trimming 2015 budgets to cope with the lowest crude prices in five years, are also shifting their focus to their most-prolific, lowest-cost fields, which means extracting more oil with fewer drilling rigs, said Goldman Sachs. Global giant Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. energy company, will increase oil production next year by the biggest margin since 2010.
So far, OPEC’s month-old bet that American drillers would be crushed by cratering prices has been a bust. “Companies that are already producing oil will continue to operate those wells because the cost of drilling them is already sunk into the ground,” said Timothy Rudderow, who manages $1.5 billion as chief investment officer at Mount Lucas Management. “But I wouldn’t want to have to be making long-term production decisions with this kind of volatility.” A U.S. crude bonanza that has handed consumers the cheapest gasoline since 2009 has left oil exporters like Russia and Venezuela flirting with economic chaos. The ruble sank as much as 19% on Dec. 16 to a record low of 80 per dollar before recovering to close at 68; Russian bond and equity markets also crumbled.
In Venezuela, the oil rout is spurring concern the country is running out of dollars needed to pay debt and swaps traders are almost certain default is imminent. U.S. oil production is set to reach 9.42 million barrels a day in May, which would be the highest monthly average since November 1972, according to the Energy Department’s statistical arm. Output from shale formations, deep-water fields, the Alaskan wilderness and land-based wells in pockets of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania that have been trickling out crude for decades already have pushed demand for imported oil to the lowest since at least 1995, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
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“The essence of its action was that your money is not welcome in Switzerland ..”
• Central Banks Are Now Uncorking The Delirium Phase (David Stockman)
Virtually every day there is an eruption of lunacy from one central bank or another somewhere in the world. Today it was the Swiss central bank’s turn, and it didn’t pull any punches with regard to Russian billionaires seeking a safe haven from the ruble-rubble in Moscow or investors from all around its borders fleeing Mario Draghi’s impending euro-trashing campaign. The essence of its action was that your money is not welcome in Switzerland; and if you do bring it, we will extract a rental payment from your deposits. For the time being, that levy amounts to a negative 25 bps on deposits with the Swiss Central bank – a maneuver that is designed to drive Swiss Libor into the realm of negative interest rates as well. But the more significant implication is that the Swiss are prepared to print endless amounts of their own currency to enforce this utterly unnatural edict on savers and depositors within its borders.
Yes, the once and former pillar of monetary rectitude, the SNB, has gone all-in for money printing. Indeed, it now aims to become the BOJ on steroids – a monetary Godzilla. So its current plunge into the netherworld of negative interest rates is nothing new. It’s just the next step in its long-standing campaign to put a floor under the Swiss Franc at 120. That means effectively that it stands ready to print enough francs to purchase any and all euros (and other currencies) on offer without limit. And print it has. During the last 80 months, the SNB’s balance sheet has soared from 100B CHF to 530B CHF – a 5X explosion that would make Bernanke envious. Better still, a balance sheet which stood at 20% of Swiss GDP in early 2008 – now towers at a world record 80% of the alpine nation’s total output. Kuroda-san, with a balance sheet at 50% of Japan’s GDP, can only pine for the efficiency of the SNB’s printing presses.
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Are they all going to sell in January?
• Dow’s 421-Point Leap Is Biggest Gain In 3 Years (MarketWatch)
A surging U.S. stock market rallied to its best two-day gains in three years Thursday. The monster rally, which kicked off Wednesday after Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen assured the markets that the central bank would be patient about lifting interest rate, burst into an all-out bull run late in Thursday trading. The move caps a two-day charge higher, bringing the Dow back to within shouting distance of 18,0000, after rocky trading days. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 421 points, or 2.4%, to 17,778.15, its biggest one-day gain in three years, a day after the Federal Reserve said it “can be patient” about the timing of its first rate hike, signalling increases will be slow and steady. It was the first time in more than six years since the Dow recorded back-to-back days of gains exceeding 200 points.
The S&P 500 jumped 48.34 points, or 2.4%, to 2,061.23, it’s biggest one-day gain in nearly two years. It is also the first time since Aug 2002 that the benchmark index posted two consecutive days of gains greater than 2%, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. The Nasdaq Composite jumped 104 points, or 2.2%, to 4,748, as technology companies recorded big gains. Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. market strategist at RBC Capital Markets, attributed today’s rally to halo effect from the Fed’s announcement on Wednesday. “The Fed told equity investors what we already assumed and believed,” Golub said. “There was fear that if there was going to be any change in the stance, it would be towards hawkishness, but the statement dispelled that, so stock markets rallied,” the RBC strategist added.
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Can we have some polar vortex please?
• Already Crummy US Economy Takes a Sudden Hit (WolfStreet)
The Fed yesterday, in a fit of its typical though inexplicable optimism, raised its projection for economic growth. In September, it had projected that the US economy would grow between 2.0% and 2.2% in 2014. Now it raised its “central tendency” to a growth of 2.3% to 2.4%. That type of measly economic growth is far below the ever elusive escape velocity that Wall Street keeps promising without fail every year to justify sky-high stock valuations. But now reality is once again mucking up our already not very rosy scenarios. The service sector, the dominant force in the US economy, has taken another hit. Markit’s Services PMI Business Activity index slumped in December to 53.6, down from 56.2 in November. It’s now nearly 3 percentage points below the average over the last two years (56.4). And it is barely above the terrible growth rate in February (53.3), for which the polar vortex that had covered much of the nation was amply blamed.
Here is a chart of the shrinking services PMI. The peak was in June. From that point of maximum exuberance, it has been one heck of a downhill ride. Note the sudden no-polar-vortex plunge from November to December.
This time, there were no polar vortices to blame. But there were plenty of business reasons. Incoming new work was the lowest in nine months, with some survey respondents indicating that “the economic outlook had weighted on client demand at the end of the year.” The rate of job creation dropped to the lowest since April, with some respondents citing softer new business as reason. The Composite PMI, which combines the Services PMI and the Manufacturing PMI, dropped sharply from 56.1 in November to 53.8 in December. It has been on the same trajectory as the Services PMI, with the peak in June, followed by a downhill ride that culminated in a sudden plunge in December that left it below February’s polar-vortex low!
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“.. if you read some of Stanley Fischer’s early work on the rational expectation model you find that the key to fixing the lack of long term effectiveness to monetary policy is by confusing the working man. The idea being, people will act rationally with the information they are provided and so what typically happens is that people change their behaviour which counters the impact of the policy being implemented.
• The Fed Delivers the Message that Our Economy is Dead (Beversdorf)
I used to get a kick out of the cute little children waiting for the Fed Chair to come and deliver presents or coal. So giddy and excited from the anticipation of not knowing who Janet thinks were good boys and girls. Who’s going to be rewarded and who disappointed? And I don’t know how many people asked me today what the Fed will do. My answer was “The same f@#*ing thing they always do, nothing. So stop asking”. You see, if you read some of Stanley Fischer’s early work on the rational expectation model you find that the key to fixing the lack of long term effectiveness to monetary policy is by confusing the working man. The idea being, people will act rationally with the information they are provided and so what typically happens is that people change their behaviour which counters the impact of the policy being implemented.
The solution is to keep us guessing. And so what they have done for essentially every meeting is nothing. However, they use the media to talk about all the things they just might do. And the pundits on television go on and on about all the things that might happen and what the follow on implications will be given those alternatives and then the moment comes and ahhh nothing, damn they fooled me again! I really thought this time was it gosh golly dang it!. I guess it was just that this or that was just slightly out of place otherwise they said they were totally gonna do this or that. So close, but ultimately they are right. Yep they made the right choice based on all the variables. They are just swell. At this point, I just get annoyed with the ridiculous foolishness of people. We’ve got to start using our own brains. The Fed stopped using any benchmarks because while the benchmarks were improving, the economy wasn’t and isn’t.
And so they were being railroaded by the transparency that benchmarks provide. And now it is just a black box of various indicators that will be analyzed in real time to form justifiable actions, far too complex for you and I but trust them that there is a definite method and it’s very quantifiable at that, they just can’t tell us what it is because it would just confuse everyone. Does anyone really not get it?? I mean I was under the impression that the pundits on television were just acting for the sake of good drama. Is that not the case? Are people really still confused by what’s happening in the market and broader economy? It’s been 6 years of the absolute same bullshit. How could anyone not clearly understand exactly what is behind the action or non action of the Fed??? Come on people wake up. Take a deep breath, grab some coffee, do whatever you need to do but please wake the hell up.
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They’re all addicted to Fed QE. But that’s gone, and there’s no alternative available.
• Emerging Markets In Danger (Erico Matias Tavares)
MSCI Emerging Markets Index and Yield Spread between High Grade Emerging Markets and US AAA Corporates: 14 March 2003 – Today. Source: US Federal Reserve.
There are some signs of trouble in emerging markets. And the money at risk now is bigger than ever. The yield spread between high grade emerging markets and US AAA-rated corporate debt has jumped, almost doubling in less than three weeks to the highest level since mid-2012.
This means that the best credit names in emerging markets have to pay a bigger premium over their US counterparts to get funding. When this spread spikes up and continues above its 200-day moving average for a sustained period of time, it is typically a bad sign for equity valuations in emerging markets, as shown in the graph above. One swallow does not a summer make, but it is worthwhile keeping an eye on this indicator.
As yields go up the value of these emerging market bonds goes down, resulting in losses for the investors holding them. The surge of the US dollar in recent months could magnify these losses: if the bonds are denominated in local currency they will be worth a lot less to US investors; otherwise, the borrowers will now have to work a lot harder to repay those US dollar debts, increasing their credit risk. Any losses could end up being very significant this time around, as demand for emerging markets bonds has literally exploded in recent years.
Average Annual Gross Debt Issuance ($ billions, percent): 2000 – Today. Source: Dealogic, US Treasury. Note: Data include private placements and publicly-issued bonds. 2014 data are through August 2014 and annualized.
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The craze in China stocks makes money scarce…
• China’s Short-Term Borrowing Costs Surge as Demand for Money Grows (WSJ)
Short-term borrowing costs in China soared Thursday as demand for cash surged due to a number of new stock offerings and the year-end shopping spree. A recent ruling that bans the use of lower-grade corporate bonds as collateral for loans, once a key source of funding for many institutional investors, has also intensified the scramble for funds. The cash squeeze is putting the country’s financial system under renewed stress, though so far it hasn’t spread to other sectors such as stocks or the bond markets. The money markets in China have grown dramatically in recent years, with smaller banks especially vulnerable to the higher borrowing costs as they’re most reliant on the interbank market for cash.
The weighted average of seven-day repurchase agreements, or repo, a benchmark for short-term funding costs in China’s money market, rose to 5.27% from 3.89% Wednesday and 3.53% at the beginning of this week. However, the level remains well below the 12% peak that it touched at the height of the unprecedented cash crunch that China suffered in the summer of 2013. “The u%oming IPOs is the most important reason behind today’s funding squeeze. The usual year-end thirst for cash also is also playing a part,” said Wang Ming, a partner at Shanghai Yaozhi Asset Management Co. A dozen companies, including broker Guosen Securities and budget carrier Spring Airlines, are raising a total of $2.2 billion over the next few weeks from domestic stock listings. They are set to take orders for their offerings between Dec. 18 and Dec. 23.
Investors’ enthusiasm about the new IPOs was even more evident in the smaller funding market on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the bigger of China’s two exchanges. The weighted average of the seven-day repo on the Shanghai market, where investors use exchange-listed bonds as collateral for short-term borrowing, soared to 12.20% from 10.60% Wednesday. It stood at 6.80% Monday. Such one-off factors aside, the recent strong rally in China’s stock market and a fresh move by Beijing to rein in growing risk in the corporate bond market are having a more lasting impact on the supply of funds, Mr. Wang said. China’s securities clearing house last week banned the use of lower-grade bonds, mostly issued by cash-strapped local governments and small firms, as collateral for short-term borrowing between investors.
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And banks feel the pinch.
• PBOC Offers Loans to Banks as Money Rate Jumps Most in 11 Months (Bloomberg)
China’s central bank offered short-term loans to commercial lenders as the benchmark money-market rate jumped the most in 11 months. The amount of money made available by the People’s Bank of China wasn’t clear, according to people familiar with the matter. Policy makers are adding funds to the financial system to address a cash crunch as subscriptions for the biggest new share sales of the year lock up funds. Twelve initial public offerings from today through Dec. 25 will draw orders of as much as 3 trillion yuan ($483 billion), Shenyin & Wanguo Securities Co. estimated. The seven-day repurchase rate, a gauge of interbank funding availability in the banking system, surged 139 basis points, or 1.39%age points, to a 10-month high of 5.28% as of 4:39 p.m. in Shanghai, according to a weighted average compiled by the National Interbank Funding Center. The increase was the biggest since Jan. 20.
“The IPOs are affecting the market, leading to cautious sentiment with fewer institutions willing to lend,” said Li Haitao, a Shanghai-based analyst at China Guangfa Bank Co. “Quite a few traders found it very difficult to meet their funding needs yesterday.” Lenders paid 4.65% for 60 billion yuan of three-month treasury deposits auctioned today by the PBOC, the most they’ve paid since January for such funds. The central bank also rolled over this week at least some of the 500 billion yuan of three-month loans granted to lenders in September, a government official said yesterday, declining to be identified as the details haven’t been made public. “Banks have to prepare for quarter-end regulatory checks, including loan-to-deposit requirements, and hoard cash to meet year-end demand,” said Wang Ming, chief operations officer at Shanghai Yaozhi Asset Management LLP, which oversees 2 billion yuan of fixed-income investments. “With all these factors affecting the market, it’s no surprise it’s suffering more than during previous IPOs.”
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Eastern links will get much stronger as a result of western policies vs Russia.
• Russia May Seek China Help To Deal With Crisis (SCMP)
Russia could fall back on its 150 billion yuan (HK$189.8 billion) currency swap agreement with China if the rouble continues to plunge. If the swap deal is activated for this purpose, it would mark the first time China is called upon to use its currency to bail out another currency in crisis. The deal was signed by the two central banks in October, when Premier Li Keqiang visited Russia. “Russia badly needs liquidity support and the swap line could be an ideal tool,” said Bank of Communications chief economist Lian Ping. The swap allows the central banks to directly buy yuan and rouble in the two currencies, rather than via the US dollar. Two bankers close to the People’s Bank of China said it was meant to reduce the role of the US dollar if China and Russia need to help each other overcome a liquidity squeeze.
China has currency swap deals with more than 20 monetary authorities around the world. Swaps are generally used to settle trade. “The yuan-rouble swap deal was not just a financial matter,” said Wang Feng, chairman of Shanghai-based private equity group Yinshu Capital. “It has political implications as it is a sign of mutual trust.” The rouble has lost more than 50% against the US dollar this year, pushing Russia to the brink of a currency crisis, though measures announced by the central bank helped it recover some ground yesterday. Li Lifan, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the swap would not be enough for Russia even if it is used in its entirety. “The PBOC might agree to extend something like 15 billion yuan initially as a way of showing China’s commitment to Russia.”
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How to blow up the EU.
• Draghi Counts Cost of Outflanking Germany in Stimulus Battle (Bloomberg)
As Mario Draghi prepares to push the European Central Bank into quantitative easing, he’s counting the cost of alienating its home nation. With the ECB president signaling that he’ll override German-led concerns on government bond purchases if needed, his institution is under attack in the country whose DNA inspired it. The outrage reflects concern that the Frankfurt-based central bank, which is modeled on the Bundesbank, is taking risks that its forerunner would never tolerate. The Italian is now pursuing a charm offensive in the euro area’s biggest and most populous economy before the Governing Council’s Jan. 22 meeting to soften the blow as he presses on with stimulus. His challenge is to outflank the Bundesbank without risking a spillover into national politics serious enough to threaten German support for the single currency.
“The ECB has built up enough credibility on its own,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London. “That the Bundesbank may object to sovereign-bond purchases is largely taken for granted by markets. Tacit support from Berlin would neutralize Bundesbank objections in the German public debate.” The momentum toward QE is building, with more than 90% of economists in Bloomberg’s monthly survey predicting it’ll start in 2015. Euro-area inflation was 0.3% in November, compared with the ECB’s goal of just under 2%, and is poised to turn negative because of a slump in oil prices.
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“The rule prevents federally-insured banks from using their own money when investing in certain risky assets.”
• Federal Reserve Delays Parts Of Volcker Rule Until 2017 (BBC)
The US Federal Reserve has given Wall Street banks even more time to comply with parts of the Volcker Rule, a key provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The rule prevents federally-insured banks from using their own money when investing in certain risky assets. The Fed had already announced banks would have until 2017 to deal with one type of trading product. It will now grant an extension to other types of funds. Initially, the Fed had said banks would have until 21 July 2017 to stop trading in collateralised loan obligations, which essentially move the risk of investments in loans off their balance sheet. The new extension applies to other types of “legacy covered funds”, according to a release on the Fed’s website, which include “having certain relationships with a hedge fund or private equity fund”.
The Volcker rule is named after former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker and it limits the ownership stake banks can have in risky funds to a maximum of 3%. Part of the rule, which bans proprietary trading, is still scheduled to go into effect on 1 July 2015. This is the second big victory for banks, who have spent nearly four years arguing that the regulations stipulated in the 1,600-page Dodd-Frank bill are too onerous. Last week, a coalition of big banks, led by Citigroup, succeeding in convincing Congress to repeal a provision that required banks to put their riskier investments into separate holding companies that would not be insured by the US government.
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An exhaustive overview, with tons of graphs, of all aspects of the true state of the union, from obesity to poverty to incarceration rates. Don’t miss it.
• “Neoconica” – America For The New Millennium (Thad Beversdorf)
I recently wrote an piece on the comprehensive breakdown of America. In it I laid out, from an analytical perspective, the things that are leading America to an economic collapse. But it might be interesting to take a look at a broader view of American life today. Policy and economic discussions are useful but in them we can lose the tangibility of what it all comes back to, which is the well being of Americans. Whether or not the national budget is 190% of GDP and whether interest rates will rise or not are important issues but only so far as they will impact the quality of life of the people. And so let s have a look at the lives of the American people. Have the policies over the past 15 to 50 years led to substantial improvements in the day to day real lives of Americans? Let’s have a look. And while we ve seen a couple of these more economic charts think about them in context of the other charts or other sides of life.
The above charts inform us that the bottom 80% of income households are making less than they did in the early 1980s, and remember the number of two income households today is far greater than it was in 1980 making this a staggering reality. However the top 20% and especially the top 1% have seen incredible income gains since the early 1980s. Total net worth for the bottom 80% of Americans has also been crushed. Since 2001 median net worth for the bottom 80% is down some 30% and this is during a period where stocks have reached all time highs. How could this be you ask?? Well this is not happenstance or simple unexplainable market forces. Those things do not exist in today s world. These results are by design.
I get frustrated hearing, even from the most intelligent of people that the Fed is doing its best and that given enough time this will work out for everyone. And that everyone is better off today than they used to be because this is America and that s just the way America works. But when we let the empirical data drive our perspective rather than our blind loyalty we see a very different story. The data tells a story of a political class that has been implementing programs and policies that are making the working class sick. We are given all sorts of medicines in the form of social programs and infinite debt to mask the symptoms but when we look at the actual medical test results we are not getting any better. In fact, our condition continues to worsen. Yet so many of us continue to listen to our political and economic shamans. We have such faith. And it is that faith that people like Ayn Rand recognized would be the death of America. So let’s continue on our journey through the life of the working class American today.
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“The solution for these three Members was to ensure that no other Members were present. It would have been difficult for other Members to object anyway, as no one else in the House had even seen the bill!”
• Bombs Away! Obama Signs Bill For Lethal Aid To Ukraine (Daniel McAdams)
President Obama made good today on his promise to sign the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which had passed Congress last week. Dubbed by former Rep. Dennis Kucinich the bill that “reignited the Cold War while no one was looking,” the Act imposes new sanctions on the Russian defense and energy industries, authorizes $350 million in lethal military assistance to the US-backed government in Kiev, urges that government to resume its deadly military operations against the Russian-speaking areas of east Ukraine seeking to break away from Kiev’s rule, and authorizes millions of dollars to fund increased US government propaganda broadcasts to the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Just days before Christmas, this bill is a massive gift to the US defense industry from which Ukraine will be required to purchase its lethal wish list. Perhaps as disturbing as the bill itself is the shocking process by which it passed the US House of Representatives. Three Members of the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), planned to be on the House Floor after the business of the day (passage of the massive omnibus spending bill) was completed and Members had left the Floor. Under a parliamentary move called “unanimous consent” the normal rules of the House can be suspended provided not a single other Member objects. The solution for these three Members was to ensure that no other Members were present. It would have been difficult for other Members to object anyway, as no one else in the House had even seen the bill!
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“Even in the worst of times, ‘we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.’”
• US TV Shows American Torturers, But Not Their Victims (Glenn Greenwald)
Ever since the torture report was released last week, U.S. television outlets have endlessly featured American torturers and torture proponents. But there was one group that was almost never heard from: the victims of their torture, not even the ones recognized by the U.S. Government itself as innocent, not even the family members of the ones they tortured to death. Whether by design (most likely) or effect, this inexcusable omission radically distorts coverage. Whenever America is forced to confront its heinous acts, the central strategy is to disappear the victims, render them invisible. That’s what robs them of their humanity: it’s the process of dehumanization.
That, in turn, is what enables American elites first to support atrocities, and then, when forced to reckon with them, tell themselves that – despite some isolated and well-intentioned bad acts – they are still really good, elevated, noble, admirable people. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this morning found that a large majority of Americans believe torture is justified even when you call it “torture.” Not having to think about actual human victims makes it easy to justify any sort of crime. That’s the process by which the reliably repellent Tom Friedman seized on the torture report to celebrate America’s unique greatness.
“We are a beacon of opportunity and freedom, and also [..] these foreigners know in their bones that we do things differently from other big powers in history,” the beloved-by-DC columnist wrote after reading about forced rectal feeding and freezing detainees to death. For the opinion-making class, even America’s savage torture is proof of its superiority and inherent Goodness: “this act of self-examination is not only what keeps our society as a whole healthy, it’s what keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with and immigrate to.” Friedman, who himself unleashed one of the most (literally) psychotic defenses of the Iraq War, ended his torture discussion by approvingly quoting John McCain on America’s enduring moral superiority: “Even in the worst of times, ‘we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.’”
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“The Vatican is historically a place of politics and not just religion and has been for hundreds of years, with many popes starting their careers as diplomats for the Holy See ..”
• Pope Francis Scores on Diplomatic Stage With U.S.-Cuba Agreement (Bloomberg)
After misfires in the Middle East and South Korea, Pope Francis is finding his place on the stage of world diplomacy — by taking the initiative. The pontiff who has made his name mostly by opening up debate in the Catholic Church about divorce and homosexuality yesterday achieved his first geopolitical success: The Argentine-born pope played a key role in brokering the accord between the U.S. and Cuba to move toward normal relations. After Pope Francis and President Barack Obama discussed Cuba during a Vatican meeting in March, the pontiff wrote directly to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro urging them to conclude a prisoner exchange, according to an Obama administration official. It was the first such letter the president had received from the pope, the official said.
“The role of Pope Francis has been decisive,” said Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin on Vatican Radio today. “He was the one who took the initiative of writing to the two presidents to invite them to overcome the problems between the two countries and find an agreement.” Francis, 78, had greater success with Cuba than in his other political ventures because it was an obsolescent standoff waiting for a solution and because of his Latin American roots, said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “The Cuba situation simply made no sense to anyone anymore,” said Moreau-Defarges.
While the Vatican diplomatic corps exchanges representatives with 179 countries and popes have been sending emissaries since the 4th century, modern-day pontiffs haven’t always been politically involved. Benedict XVI, Francis’ German predecessor, focused more on doctrinal issues. His predecessor, John Paul II, pope from 1978 to 2005, spoke out frequently against military force and dictatorship and is credited with hastening the collapse of communism in his native Poland. “The Vatican is historically a place of politics and not just religion and has been for hundreds of years, with many popes starting their careers as diplomats for the Holy See,” said Federico Niglia, a history professor at Luiss University in Rome. “What’s somewhat unusual is Francis acting in person beyond diplomatic circles, which has close parallels to the style of predecessor John Paul II.”
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Brain structures are fascinating, with built-in resilience, redundancy.
• Can You Live A Normal Life With Half A Brain? (BBC)
How much of our brain do we actually need? A number of stories have appeared in the news in recent months about people with chunks of their brains missing or damaged. These cases tell a story about the mind that goes deeper than their initial shock factor. It isn’t just that we don’t understand how the brain works, but that we may be thinking about it in the entirely wrong way. Earlier this year, a case was reported of a woman who is missing her cerebellum, a distinct structure found at the back of the brain. By some estimates the human cerebellum contains half the brain cells you have. This isn’t just brain damage – the whole structure is absent. Yet this woman lives a normal life; she graduated from school, got married and had a kid following an uneventful pregnancy and birth. A pretty standard biography for a 24-year-old. The woman wasn’t completely unaffected – she had suffered from uncertain, clumsy, movements her whole life.
But the surprise is how she moves at all, missing a part of the brain that is so fundamental it evolved with the first vertebrates. The sharks that swam when dinosaurs walked the Earth had cerebellums. This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum. Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour. This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum.
Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour. Part of the problem may be our way of thinking. It is natural to see the brain as a piece of naturally selected technology, and in human technology there is often a one-to-one mapping between structure and function. If I have a toaster, the heat is provided by the heating element, the time is controlled by the timer and the popping up is driven by a spring. The case of the missing cerebellum reveals there is no such simple scheme for the brain. Although we love to talk about the brain region for vision, for hunger or for love, there are no such brain regions, because the brain isn’t technology where any function is governed by just one part.
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