The unwillingness of the top four U.S. banks to lend cash combined with a burst of demand from hedge funds for secured funding could explain a recent spike in U.S. money market rates, the Bank for International Settlements said. Cash available to banks for short-term funding all but dried up in late September, and interest rates deep in the plumbing of U.S. financial markets climbed into double digits. That forced the Fed to make an emergency injection of billions of dollars for the first time since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.
While the exact cause of the squeeze is unclear – with explanations ranging from large withdrawals for quarterly tax payments to a big settlement of a trade in U.S. Treasuries – BIS analysts said the growing reliance on the biggest U.S. banks to keep the repo market functioning may have been a big factor. The big four banks, which BIS did not name in its report, have become net providers of funds to repo markets as they account for more than half of all Treasuries held by banks in the United States at the Federal Reserve.
The repo market underpins much of the U.S. financial system, helping ensure banks have liquidity to meet their daily operational needs. In a repo trade, Wall Street firms and banks offer U.S. Treasuries and other high-quality securities as collateral to raise cash, often just overnight, to finance their trading and lending. The next day, borrowers repay the loans plus what is typically a nominal rate of interest and get their bonds back. In other words they repurchase, or repo, the bonds.
About a month ago, we first laid out how the sequence of liquidity-shrinking events that started about a year ago, and which starred the largest US commercial bank, JPMorgan, ultimately culminated with the mid-September repo explosion. Specifically we showed how JPM’s drain of liquidity via Money Markets and reserves parked at the Fed may have prompted the September repo crisis and subsequent launch of “Not QE” by the Fed in order to reduce its at risk capital and potentially lower its G-SIB charge – currently the highest of all major US banks.
Shortly thereafter, the FT was kind enough to provide confirmation that the biggest US bank had been quietly rotating out of cash, while repositioning its balance sheet in a major way, pushing more than $130bn of excess cash away from reserves in the process significantly tightening overall liquidity in the interbank market. We learned that the bulk of this money was allocated to long-dated bonds while cutting the amount of loans it holds, in what the FT dubbed was a “major shift in how the largest US bank by assets manages its enormous balance sheet.”
The moves saw the bank’s bond portfolio soar by 50%, and were prompted by capital rules that treated loans as riskier than bonds. And since JPM has been aggressively returning billions of dollars to shareholders in dividends and share buybacks each year, JPMorgan had far less room than most rivals to hold riskier assets, explaining its substantially higher G-SIB surcharge, which indicated that the Fed currently perceives JPM as the riskiest US bank for a variety of reasons. An executive at a large institutional investor told the FT that what JPM did “is incredible”, adding that “the scale of what JPMorgan is doing is mind-boggling . . . migrating out of cash into securities while loans are flat.”
The dramatic change, which occurred gradually over the year, and which may have catalyzed the spike in repo rates in September, was first flagged by JPMorgan at an investor event back in February. Then CFO Marianne Lake said that, after years of industry-leading loan growth, “we have to recognize the reality of the capital regime that we live in”. About half a year later, the rest of the world did too when the overnight general collateral rate briefly did something nobody had ever expected it to do, when it exploded from 2% to about 10% in minutes, an absolutely unprecedented move, and certainly one that was seen as impossible in a world with an ocean of roughly $1.3 trillion in reserves floating around.
[..] in a novel twist, the BIS also found that hedge funds exacerbated the turmoil in the repo market with their thirst for borrowing cash to juice up returns on their trades. Here is what the BIS said: “US repo markets currently rely heavily on four banks as marginal lenders. As the composition of their liquid assets became more skewed towards US Treasuries, their ability to supply funding at short notice in repo markets was diminished. At the same time, increased demand for funding from leveraged financial institutions (eg hedge funds) via Treasury repos appears to have compounded the strains of the temporary factors.”
The latest GDP figures released on Wednesday suggest on the surface the overall economy is doing better, but further inspection highlights the underlying weakness. The domestic private sector is in a dire state, having now shrunk for four consecutive quarters – the worst result since the 1990s recession – and the economy is now more dependent on government spending to keep it afloat than at any time since the GFC . First the good news – things are better than we previously thought. The GDP figures contained some fairly significant revisions of past data, based on more accurate underlying data. Whereas in June it appeared the economy grew by just 1.5% – the worst since 2001 – now the ABS estimates in June the economy was growing at an annual rate of 1.7% and is now growing at 1.8% in trend terms:
This is good, and yet it is pretty sad really how low the bar has become to think economic growth can be called “good”. The current growth rate of 1.8% is around 1% point below the long-term trend and well below the old marker of 3% growth that used to be considered average. In the September quarter the economy grew by 0.4% (seasonally adjusted), or 0.5% (trend), still below average, but what is important is where this growth is being generated. The biggest driver was net exports – contributing 0.35% pts of that growth.
Northern Ireland customs arrangements may thwart Boris Johnson’s plan to leave the EU by December 2020, according to a document said to be leaked from civil servants in the Department for Exiting the EU. In the document, seen by the Financial Times, staff raised concerns about the readiness of the new customs arrangement, calling the protocol to keep part of the EU customs code in Northern Ireland, a “major” obstacle to Brexit delivery. The FT reported that the document was sent to senior Whitehall officials last week and said that implementing the Northern Ireland protocol before next December was a “strategic, political and operational challenge”.
The protocol would implement a form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – an alternative arrangement to the Northern Irish “backstop” in the withdrawal agreement. Civil servants reportedly highlighted the “legal and political” repercussions both within the UK and Europe of failing to deliver Brexit on time, which Boris Johnson has made it the focal issue of his election campaign. Doubt was also cast on the free-trade agreement that Johnson has pledged to establish with the EU next year, with the document, marked “official sensitive”, reportedly stating that “delivery on the ground would need to commence before we know the outcome of negotiations”.
The government said it did not comment on leaks, but insisted that its deal with the EU would comprehensively withdraw the whole of the UK – including Northern Ireland. It reiterated its commitment to complete the process before December 2020.
Michel Barnier has torpedoed Boris Johnson’s promise that Brexit will be done and dusted by the end of next year. The Sunday Mirror has seen minutes of a private meeting between the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator and MEPs which rubbish the PM’s pledge. Mr Johnson has said he will not extend the transition period beyond 2020 – which raises the danger of the UK crashing out with no deal. Trade talks are planned after Britain formally leaves the EU on January 31. But Mr Barnier told EU Employment and Social Affairs Committee MEPs: “The EU/UK future relationship cannot be settled in 11 months.” He added that means prioritising some areas while more time will be needed for other issues such as transport.
I live in a marginal constituency, where the excellent Joanna Cherry of the SNP has a lead of just over 1,000 over the Tories. If the most recent opinion polls are correct, the parties’ standings at this moment are similar to the result last time, the momentum is with the Tories and this should be a key Tory target. Yet I have not received one single Tory leaflet (and I live on one of the main residential streets) nor have I seen one single Tory campaigner, including when I have been out delivering leaflets for Joanna Cherry myself. Nor have I seen one single Tory poster in a house.
It is not just on TV that the Tories have been skipping interviews and debates, they seem to have eschewed any semblance of a ground campaign too, in what presumably is a key target seat for them. Boris Johnson is not popular with any of the local residents I have spoken to, and there is no enthusiasm at all for Brexit in this part of Edinburgh. In short, I am absolutely unable to square the opinion polls with the evidence of my own eyes and ears.
China has ordered that all foreign computer equipment and software be removed from government offices and public institutions within three years, the Financial Times reports. The government directive is likely to be a blow to US multinational companies like HP, Dell and Microsoft and mirrors attempts by Washington to limit the use of Chinese technology, as the trade war between the countries turns into a tech cold war. The Trump administration banned US companies from doing business with Chinese Chinese telecommunications company Huawei earlier this year and in May, Google, Intel and Qualcomm announced they would freeze cooperation with Huawei.
By excluding China from western know-how, the Trump administration has made it clear that the real battle is about which of the two economic superpowers has the technological edge for the next two decades. This is the first known public directive from Beijing setting specific targets limiting China’s use of foreign technology, though it is part a wider move within China to increase its reliance on domestic technology.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has charged NATO with wanting to “dominate the world” a day after 70th anniversary events of the alliance concluded in London. “We absolutely understand that NATO wants to dominate the world and wants to eliminate any competitors, including resorting to an information war, trying to unbalance us and China,” Lavrov said from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, while attending the 26th Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He seized upon NATO leaders’ comments this week, specifically Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, naming China as a new enemy alongside Russia. Stoltenberg declared at the summit that NATO has to “tackle the issue” of China’s growing capabilities.
Lavrov told reporters Thursday: “I think that it is difficult to unbalance us and China. We are well aware of what is happening. We have an answer to all the threats that the Alliance is multiplying in this world.” He also said the West is seeking to dominate the Middle East under the guise of NATO as well. The new accusation of ‘world domination’ comes at a crisis moment of growing and deep divisions over the future of the Cold War era military alliance, including back-and-forth comments on Macron’s “brain death” remarks, and looming questions over Turkey’s fitness to remain in NATO, and the ongoing debate over cost sharing burdens and the scope of the mission.
“Naturally, we cannot but feel worried over what has been happening within NATO,” Lavrov stated. “The problem is NATO positions itself as a source of legitimacy and is adamant to persuade one and all it has no alternatives in this capacity, that only NATO is in the position to assign blame for everything that may be happening around us and what the West dislikes for some reason.”
The U.S. military believes that an unarmed American drone reported lost near Libya’s capital last month was in fact shot down by Russian air defenses and it is demanding the return of the aircraft’s wreckage, U.S. Africa Command says. Such a shootdown would underscore Moscow’s increasingly muscular role in the energy-rich nation, where Russian mercenaries are reportedly intervening on behalf of east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s civil war. Haftar has sought to take the capital Tripoli, now held by Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa command, said he believed the operators of the air defenses at the time “didn’t know it was a U.S. remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it.”
“But they certainly know who it belongs to now and they are refusing to return it. They say they don’t know where it is but I am not buying it,” Townsend told Reuters in a statement, without elaborating The U.S. assessment, which has not been previously disclosed, concludes that either Russian private military contractors or Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army were operating the air defenses at the time the drone was reported lost on Nov. 21, said Africa Command spokesman Air Force Colonel Christopher Karns. Karns said the United States believed the air defense operators fired on the U.S. aircraft after “mistaking it for an opposition” drone. An official in Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) told Reuters that Russian mercenaries appeared to be responsible.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell played down concerns about recent market volatility, arguing Tuesday that the dramatic swings do not weigh heavily on his outlook for the economy and maintaining his expectation for further gradual increases in interest rates. In Capitol Hill testimony, Powell emphasized that the job market remains robust, consumer spending is solid and wage growth is accelerating. He also highlighted gains in U.S. exports and stimulative fiscal policy as new “tailwinds” for the economy. “After easing substantially during 2017, financial conditions in the United States have reversed some of that easing,” he said in prepared remarks. “At this point, we do not see these developments as weighing heavily on the outlook for economic activity, the labor market and inflation. Indeed, the economic outlook remains strong.”
Powell’s appearance before the House Financial Services committee was his first as the powerful chairman of the world’s most influential central bank. The Fed has been aiming to boost inflation to 2%, but the recent pickup in monthly readings has spooked some investors who worry the central bank might overshoot its target. Instead, Powell’s remarks suggested the firmer data give Fed officials confidence they will actually hit a goal that has long proved elusive. He characterized inflation as “low and stable.” “Despite the recent volatility, financial conditions remain accommodative. At the same time, inflation remains below our 2% longer-run objective. In the FOMC’s view, further gradual increases in the federal funds rate will best promote attainment of both of our objectives.”
Donald Trump is all about delusional and so are the casino punters. They keep buying what the robo-machines are buying, which, in turn, persist in feasting on the dip because it’s there and because it’s worked like a charm for nine years running. So doing, the punters have become downright reckless. After all, the market was already sky high last January – trading at 23X earnings on the S&P 500 and resting precariously on a record $554 billion of margin debt . Yet in order to load up on even more of these ultra risky shares, punters have since added $112 billion to their already staggering margin accounts, thereby helping to propel the S&P index to a truly ludicrous 27X by the end of January 2018.
And therein lies the true danger of the Fed’s 30-year long regime of Bubble Finance and the $67 trillion of debt it has piled upon the US economy. To wit, it has completely unmoored Wall Street from the main street economy, meaning that the speculative momentum and internals of the casino are operating in free flight: They will just keep levitating financial asset prices higher until some powerful shock triggers another meltdown of the type experienced during 2008, 2000 and 1987.
We happen to believe strongly that a bond market “yield shock” will be the crash-trigger this time around and for a self-evident reason. The central banks of the world have unleashed a credit monster – $67 trillion in the US, $40 trillion or more in China and $230 trillion on a global basis—and know they must finally stop the relentless monetization of existing debt and other assets. The leadership for that task falls to the new Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian and lifetime crony capitalist bubble rider. Indeed, during the 45 meetings during which he served as a member of the Bernanke-Yellen Fed, he did not dissent a single time.
So he now owns the epic bubble generated by that madcap regime of massive money printing and drastic interest rate repression, but through his Keynesian beer goggles Powell is thoroughly clueless about the resulting giant disconnect between main street and Wall Street. Accordingly, he seems to think that there is a strong full-employment economy on main street, when it’s nothing of the kind; and a reformed, prudently regulated banking system at the center of Wall Street, when in fact it’s teeming with the fruits of relentless speculation – FANGS, leveraged ETFs, options gambling, risk parity trades, structured finance deals loaded with hidden risk and debt and countless more.`
In other words, the Fed’s new chairman avers that there is smooth sailing ahead, even suggesting to Congress today that the US economy is blessed with considerable tailwinds – including exports and fiscal policy! We will address that tommyrot below, but what’s ahead is tumult, not smooth. That’s because the disconnect between a flat-lining main street economy and Wall Street’s bubble ridden financial house of cards is blatantly unstable and unsustainable. Indeed, this fraught condition, which Powell and his Keynesian posse fail to see, will soon give rise to a thundering upheaval triggered by the Fed’s own action.
A third month of slowing inflation in the euro-area has given European Central Bank President Mario Draghi ammunition to ward off the hawks a little while longer. The rate of price growth slowed to 1.2% this month from 1.3%, dropping to its weakest since 2016. The core measure was unchanged at 1%. The figures follow a series of releases that have checked the economy’s thundering momentum at the start of 2018, which had emboldened policy makers who want a faster unwinding of the central bank’s crisis-era monetary stimulus. Draghi emphasized to European lawmakers this week that an expansionary policy is still warranted even as the economic situation is “improving constantly.”
At the same time, he’s more confident that declining unemployment will boost pay and inflation eventually, even if the rate remains below the ECB’s target of just under 2% for now. The ECB’s Governing Council meets next week and is likely to discuss a change in its policy language to pave the way for an end of quantitative easing. Executive Board member Benoit Coeure – an architect of the program who has more recently taken a hawkish turn – said last week that the ECB can afford to slow bond purchases, as long as it gives clear guidance on the path of interest rates. Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, who has long argued in favor of unwinding stimulus, chimed in on Tuesday, saying in a Bloomberg TV interview that the ECB’s guidance on interest rates is “rather vague” and could be strengthened as the end of bond buying approaches.
The European Commission said on Tuesday euro-area economic sentiment slipped for a second month in February after touching a 17-year high in December. Data last week showed business confidence in Germany and manufacturing and services activity in the euro area all weakened more than economists forecast. Such bumps along the road of Europe’s recovery from the ravages of its debt crisis underscore why Draghi is not yet ready to pare back support for the euro area.
Banks have the “right” to do the leveraged lending they want as long as it does not impair their “safety and soundness,” Joseph Otting, Comptroller of the Currency, said on Tuesday. Otting was speaking to an audience at the ABS Vegas conference co-hosted by SFIG, in response to a question from the audience about whether the OCC would be more lenient with banks about leveraged lending. The Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, said last October that US bank guidelines on leveraged lending are subject to Congressional review, clearing the way for them to possibly be overturned. The GAO said the guidelines, which critics said have hampered the leveraged debt market, are under the purview of the Congressional Review Act of 1996, which they would not be if the GAO had deemed them to be less formal instruments of policy.
“As long as banks have the capital, I am supportive of banks doing leveraged lending,” said Otting. That stands even if leveraged lending activities transgresses guidelines, he said. “When (the idea of the) guidance came out – it was like people were afraid to jump over the line without feeling the wrath of Khan from the regulators,” Otting said. “But you have the right to do what you want as long as it does not impair safety and soundness. It’s not our position to challenge that.” US regulators said they are open to revising restrictions on leveraged lending, offering an olive branch to a Republican-controlled Congress keen to roll back banking regulations. The response from regulators indicated a desire to avoid a protracted battle with a Congress.
As the Trump administration considers what action to take on trade tariffs on steel and aluminum, EU and Chinese officials are considering taking aim at politically strategic products made in the U.S., such as bourbon and motorcycles. Of the options laid out by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the administration is considering the most wide-reaching penalty: slapping tariffs on all steel and aluminum imported into the U.S., not just imports from specific countries. The EU is targeting products with political punch, revisiting a list compiled during George W. Bush-era trade disputes of symbolic American brands. Potentially in the EU’s sights: items such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, whose corporate headquarters is in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin.
Bourbon is another target, having enjoyed a surge in exports to the EU. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky exported $154 million worth of bourbon to the EU, up from $128 million in 2016, according to data from the International Trade Commission. Agriculture products such as cheese, orange juice, tomatoes and potatoes are also targets for retaliation. “The EU stands ready to react swiftly and appropriately in case our exports are affected by any restrictive trade measures from the U.S.,” a European Commission source tells CNBC. The counterpunch from China could land harder because of the scale of trade between the two countries and the reliance of American farmers on China as an export destination. China’s Ministry of Commerce is already investigating whether to limit imports of U.S. sorghum, a cereal grain used to feed livestock, in response to previous tariffs from the White House on solar panels and washing machines.
People living in the world’s most cashless society may soon lose their access to notes and coins. To avoid that extreme scenario, Swedish cash-handling provider Loomis wants authorities to force banks and retailers to continue accepting cash. The warning follows similar calls from the Swedish central bank, which is worried that the rapid disappearance of cash will ultimately lead to the disintegration of the infrastructure needed to use notes and coins and undermine its task to promote a safe and efficient payment system. “We have to have cars, vaults and all that, and in order to maintain the infrastructure we also need a base volume,” Loomis CEO Patrik Andersson said in an interview. He says Sweden’s more remotely populated areas in the north are most at risk of losing access to cash.
Such a scenario would be worrying in the event of natural disaster or a technological breakdown, with Swedes potentially unable to buy the basics needed to survive. “Cash is important in a crisis situation,” Andersson said. “Swedes don’t maybe have the insight to understand the effects of such a crisis, that it pervades the whole community.” A parliament committee reviewing the broader framework for the Riksbank plans to publish a special report this summer looking at the challenges posed by declines in cash usage. Riksbank Governor Stefan Ingves this week called for legal changes to safeguard the central bank’s governance of the payment system amid the rapid decrease in the use of cash. [..] The amount of cash in circulation in Sweden last year dropped to the lowest level since 1990 and is now more than 40% below its 2007 peak. The declines in 2016 and 2017 were the biggest on record.
Prime Minister Theresa May is preparing to reject the EU’s draft Brexit deal when it’s published Wednesday, a senior official said, as her government steps up its fight with the bloc over the terms of Britain’s departure. With just three weeks left to agree on the Brexit transition phase, the EU will unveil a legal text that’s likely to infuriate euroskeptics in May’s Conservative government, piling further pressure on the premier at a critical time. According to the senior official, May will take on the EU over two of its key proposals that are unacceptable to her government. These are allowing the European Court of Justice to oversee the final deal, and arranging a separate trading regime for Northern Ireland – which, although it could avoid a “hard border” with Ireland, would impose new barriers with mainland Britain.
Almost a year in since May triggered the U.K.’s withdrawal from the 28-nation club, talks have yet to begin on what kind of trade accord will follow. Time is running out to limit the damage this ongoing uncertainty will cause to British businesses, who want a status quo transitional phase to be agreed by the end of March at the latest, to help them prepare and adapt when Britain leaves in March 2019. Yet key conflicts remain unresolved between the U.K. and the EU negotiating teams. “I maintain the evaluation that I gave you three weeks ago, which is that in light of these divergences, that we haven’t achieved the transition,” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Tuesday. His remarks raise the prospect that the deal will miss its crucial end-March deadline.
Arguing that the western war machine is a good way to bring about peace and justice is like arguing that a bulldozer is a useful tool for brain surgery. Arguing that the western war machine is a good way to bring about peace and justice in Syria is like arguing that the gasoline which was used to start a house fire can also be used to extinguish it. The cutesy fairy tale you will hear from empire loyalists is that what started out as peaceful protests slowly morphed into a battle between the Syrian government and various terrorist factions, with the west only backing the terrorists later on in the conflict. This is false. [..] This has never been about “saving children”; this is about money, power, and resources, which are all of course ultimately the same thing as far as the empire is concerned.
Longtime US rival Russia has recently been awarded exclusive rights to oil and gas production in Syria in return for its efforts in helping its longtime ally stop the regime change, a predictable step in the fight for fossil fuel dominance in the region. Syria’s border dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights means that Israel has every reason to want to keep Syria destabilized, not only because the Golan Heights contains oil but because it provides a third of Israel’s water supply. Bashar al-Assad also launched what he called his “Five Seas Vision” in 2004, a strategy to use Syria’s supreme geographic location to become an economic superpower. Such a plan wouldn’t sit well with the US hegemon, which can only maintain its dominance by keeping other nations down.
“Once the economic space between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran becomes integrated, linking the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Arabian Gulf, will not only be important in the Middle East,” Assad once famously said in 2009. “When these seas are connected, we will become the inevitable intersection of the whole world in investment, transportation, and more.” It’s not hard to imagine how the imperialists would suddenly accelerate the urgency of removing Assad once he began speaking like that. Go try and find anything damning about Bashar al-Assad in the western mainstream media prior to 2009. You’ll find a bunch of positive expressions, including a nomination for honorary knighthood in 2002 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Interesting how he then suddenly transformed overnight into a bloodthirsty sexual sadist who gets off on gassing children to death for no reason.
Several thousand protesters rallied in Skopje, the capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), late Tuesday for the government to call off talks with Greece aimed at settling a decades-long name dispute. The protesters marched peacefully from the main Orthodox cathedral in Skopje past the European Union office, chanting “Macedonia! Macedonia!” and waving national flags. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s 9-month-old center-left government has opened negotiations with Greece to resolve the dispute over the country’s name. Greece says the country’s name in its current form implies a territorial claim against its own region of Macedonia. Zaev has said he is willing to support a modified name. But the head of the so-called “World Macedonian Congress” group, Todor Petrov, told the protesters that changing the country’s name would be tantamount to committing treason.
“Our country has a name….To change it would mean that the Macedonian identity would be permanently lost,” he said. The rally was organized by several hard-line nationalist associations. The rally ended peacefully, but a Greek flag was burned during the march. Greeks also held a large rally in Athens earlier this month to reject a proposed compromise. Zaev has said he could accept a “geographical qualifier” in Macedonia’s name – such as “new”, “upper” or “north” – to forge a compromise, but insisted the new name must “respect the dignity” of people in both countries. Greece is also seeking changes in FYROM’s Constitution to eliminate what Athens considers tacit territorial claims. FYROM insists constitutional amendments made in 1995 already addressed Greek concerns.
Shoppers in the Netherlands will get the chance to visit Europe’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle on Wednesday in what campaigners claim is an turning point in the war on plastic pollution. The store in Amsterdam will open its doors at 11am when shoppers will be able to choose from more than 700 plastic-free products, all available in one aisle. The move comes amid growing global concern about the damage plastic waste is having on oceans, habitats and food chains. Scientists warn plastic pollution is now so widespread it risks permanent contamination of the natural world. [..] Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, the group behind the campaign, said the opening represented “a landmark moment for the global fight against plastic pollution”.
“For decades shoppers have been sold the lie that we can’t live without plastic in food and drink. A plastic-free aisle dispels all that. Finally we can see a future where the public have a choice about whether to buy plastic or plastic-free. Right now we have no choice.” The aisle will open in the Amsterdam branch of the Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza. The company says it will roll out similar aisles in all of its 74 branches by the end of the year. Ekoplaza chief executive, Erik Does, has been working with the campaign for the past month and said the initiative was “an important stepping stone to a brighter future for food and drink”. “We know that our customers are sick to death of products laden in layer after layer of thick plastic packaging. Plastic-free aisles are a really innovative way of testing the compostable biomaterials that offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic packaging.”
The aisle will have more than 700 plastic-free products including meat, rice, sauces, dairy, chocolate, cereals, yogurt, snacks, fresh fruit and vegetables. Campaigners say the products will not be anymore expensive than plastic-wrapped goods and will be “scalable and convenient”, using alternative biodegradable packing where necessary rather than ditching packaging altogether. They add the aisles will be a “testbed for innovative new compostable bio-materials as well as traditional materials such as glass, metal and cardboard.” Sutherland said: “There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic. Plastic food and drink packaging remains useful for a matter of days yet remains a destructive presence on the Earth for centuries afterwards.”
An alarming heatwave in the sunless winter Arctic is causing blizzards in Europe and forcing scientists to reconsider even their most pessimistic forecasts of climate change. Although it could yet prove to be a freak event, the primary concern is that global warming is eroding the polar vortex, the powerful winds that once insulated the frozen north. The north pole gets no sunlight until March, but an influx of warm air has pushed temperatures in Siberia up by as much as 35C above historical averages this month. Greenland has already experienced 61 hours above freezing in 2018 – more than three times as many hours as in any previous year. Seasoned observers have described what is happening as “crazy,” “weird,” and “simply shocking”.
“This is an anomaly among anomalies. It is far enough outside the historical range that it is worrying – it is a suggestion that there are further surprises in store as we continue to poke the angry beast that is our climate,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “The Arctic has always been regarded as a bellwether because of the vicious circle that amplify human-caused warming in that particular region. And it is sending out a clear warning.” Although most of the media headlines in recent days have focused on Europe’s unusually cold weather in a jolly tone, the concern is that this is not so much a reassuring return to winters as normal, but rather a displacement of what ought to be happening farther north.
At the world’s most northerly land weather station – Cape Morris Jesup at the northern tip of Greenland – recent temperatures have been, at times, warmer than London and Zurich, which are thousands of miles to the south. Although the recent peak of 6.1C on Sunday was not quite a record, but on the previous two occasions (2011 and 2017) the highs lasted just a few hours before returning closer to the historical average. Last week there were 10 days above freezing for at least part of the day at this weather station, just 440 miles from the north pole.
Update: Bitcoin and Bitcoin Futures have collapsed since the futures opened…
Dropping over $2200 to converge with spot…
Both CME and CBOE Bitcoin Futures contracts opened above $20,000 this evening (with Bitcoin spot hovering around $19,000). However, as soon as trading started, Bitcoin futures got hammered lower.
Those expecting a surge in futs volumes on the CME vs the CBOE will be disappointed: In fact, spoting actual trades in the first few minutes of trading is not heavy to say the least. Obviously Jan is seeing all the volume… And March not so much… (let alone the $1200 bid-offer spread).
The lack of trading will likely be a surprise to those who were expecting a more “vigorous” futures launch on the CME, such as Brooks Dudley, vice president of risk in New York at ED&F Man Capital Markets who told Bloomberg that “CME’s bitcoin contract may not be first, but they are a larger futures clearinghouse and we are looking forward to our clients trading their product on Sunday evening. Not all market participants have been able to short the Cboe bitcoin futures. We have allowed our clients to go long or short to take advantage of dislocations between the futures and the underlying spot market.” For now, nobody appears to be taking advantage of anything.
This chart shows a seven-day average of the total number of minutes it takes to confirm a bitcoin transaction, since May 2016. Like the price of bitcoin itself, transaction time has been rising as the months go by. At the time of writing, it took four-and-a-half hours to confirm a bitcoin trade, on average:
If you are holding bitcoin, and you’re worried that the price is a bubble – it cleared $17,000 last week – then bitcoin transaction times should really start to scare you. The price of bitcoin is shifting up and down by hundreds or thousands of dollars each day. No one knows what the price will be one hour from now, except that we know it will be very, very different. The schedule for the world’s largest ICO, the $500 million Dragon casino offering, has been pushed back two weeks, the company says, “due to the extreme congestion on both the Bitcoin and Ethereum Networks, [in which] ICO investors or contributors have faced significant challenges when transferring their Bitcoin and Ethereum to participate in the Dragon Pre-ICO.”
The transaction time is built into the system. Each transaction must be confirmed by six bitcoin miners, and that takes time. There is a finite number of miners, and the more transactions they have to confirm, the longer it takes as their network bandwidth gets filled. Worse, they charge for transactions and prioritise transactions based on price. Those who pay more get processed first. Imagine how bad this is going to get on the day some negative news hits the wires and the really significant holders of bitcoin decide, “I’ve had enough of this. I’ve made my money. I am bailing.” The majority of bitcoins are held by a tiny percentage of the market. 40% are held by 1,000 people. Those few major holders can crash the market whenever they want.
As anyone who remembers the market crashes of 2000 and 2008 knows, these things happen fast. Billions get wiped off the market in minutes. People who need to cash out now, but who are an hour or so behind the news, can lose their shirts. It is brutal. And blockchain just isn’t equipped to deal with it. Part of the increase in transaction time has, no doubt, been caused by the recent arrival of new, less knowledgeable investors who are coming into the market only because they have seen the headlines about the price of bitcoin going up, up, up. That gives us an idea of just how congested it will be on the way down. It will also be expensive. By some counts, transaction fees are doubling every three months. Ars Technica reported that fees reached $26 per trade recently.
Japanese exports accelerated sharply in November, yet again pointing to growing momentum in the world’s third-biggest economy. There was just one catch: inflation remained stubbornly low and well off the central bank’s 2% target. The combination of steady growth and benign consumer prices mean the Bank of Japan will lag other major central banks in exiting crisis-era monetary stimulus, with analysts widely expecting BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda to keep the liquidity tap wide open at a meeting later this week. “Inflation expectation is in a gradual recovery trend, but a gap between firm economic indicators and weak price indexes remains wide open,” said Yuichiro Nagai, economist at Barclays Securities.
Indeed, a BOJ survey on Monday showed companies’ inflation expectations heightened only a touch in December from three months ago, despite a tight labor market and business confidence at over a decade high. The persistently low inflation – with core prices running at an annual pace of 0.8% – was also hard to square off with the robust performance of Japan Inc., which has benefited from booming exports thanks to upbeat global demand. Separate data from the Ministry of Finance showed exports grew 16.2% in the year to November, beating a 14.6% gain expected by economists in a Reuters poll and accelerating from the prior month’s 14.0% increase, led by a stellar sales to China and Asia.
[..] “The BOJ will likely be forced into cutting its price projections once again in its quarterly outlook report in January. That will highlight a distance to an exit from the BOJ’s monetary stimulus,” said Barclays’ Nagai. The BOJ quarterly “tankan” survey on corporate inflation expectations survey showed companies expect consumer prices to rise 0.8% a year from now, slightly ahead of their projection for a 0.7% increase three months ago. The marginal nudge up in expectations underscored why inflation is still well off the BOJ’s target, with firms expecting consumer prices to rise an annual 1.1% three years from now and 1.1% five years ahead, unchanged from three months ago, the survey showed.
Over the past few weeks, people here in Beijing have been riveted by the so-called migrant “clean-out” – the government’s attempt to evict tens of thousands of migrant workers from their homes in the poorer parts of the city. What’s not being discussed, however, is how the crackdown could threaten one of the government’s other main priorities: managing debt. In China, mobility is legally restricted according to a household registration system, called the hukou. Chinese citizens receive an urban or rural hukou which officially identifies them as residents of a specific area and which allows them to live and work only in that area. Few if any of the migrant workers affected by the current sweep possess a Beijing hukou. Previously, this didn’t really matter.
For the past three decades, during the period of China’s furious economic growth, the country’s fastest-growing regions were desperate for cheap labor to fill factories and build infrastructure. With local government officials graded in large part on their ability to generate rapid growth, they largely ignored hukou restrictions and made migration into their cities easy. Hundreds of millions of workers traveled from their hukou areas to wherever there were jobs, in particular big cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai. The attitudes of local authorities may be changing now as the economy slows and officials become more concerned about unemployment and tensions over access to schools and other social services. One of the easiest tools the authorities have to manage both problems is to enforce the hukou rules that are already on the books.
In Beijing, the campaign is broadly popular among legal residents, who complain about overcrowding and rising rents. If it spreads, however, the crackdown could carry a significant macroeconomic cost. Enforcing the residency system nationally could severely limit labor mobility in China. This would in turn constrain monetary policy, which is critical to minimizing the cost to China of what’s likely to be a very difficult adjustment after decades of deeply unbalanced growth. How exactly would this happen? It’s important to remember that while China is a huge economy with a great deal of variety across different regions, it can nonetheless operate effectively with a single currency because it has most of the characteristics of an optimum currency area. In the 1960s, Columbia University’s Robert Mundell argued that four conditions were required to establish such an area.
They include high levels of labor mobility, high levels of capital mobility, a system of transfers that shares risks across the region, and coordinated business cycles. If labor mobility in China slows dramatically, growth rates in different parts of the country would diverge even more than they have already, rather than converge. As a result, monetary policies aimed at restraining credit growth overall might end up being too tight for some regions, leading to accelerating bankruptcies, and too loose for others, fueling out-of-control credit growth.
Price cutting by homeowners desperate to shift their property in a slowing market has reached the highest levels in six years, according to an analysis by website Zoopla. Just over 35% of the homes marketed on the site have marked down their price in the hope of achieving a sale, with the biggest discounts in the London property market. The 35% figure compares with 29% just before the EU referendum in 2016, although it is below the levels recorded in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Sellers in Richmond and Kingston upon Thames in south-west London, both relatively prosperous areas, are among those to have made the deepest reductions in sale prices. Zoopla put the average mark-down by sellers in Kingston at £84,244.
It added that around half of all the properties for sale in Kingston and other nearby locations such as Mitcham and Camberley in Surrey have been reduced since their first listing, indicating that sellers are having to significantly readjust their hopes in the light of the Brexit vote. Lawrence Hall, at Zoopla, said it was good news for first-time buyers trying to get on the property ladder. “A slight rise in levels of discounting is to be expected at this time of year when house-hunters are likely to be delaying their property search until activity picks up in January,” Hall said. “Those on the look-out for a bargain should consider looking in Camberley or Kingston upon Thames in the south, or areas of the north-east – home to some of Britain’s biggest discounts.”
The average asking price reduction across the country currently stands at £25,562, according to Zoopla. The property website said towns in Scotland and northern England have proved more resilient to discounts. About 16% of homes in Edinburgh have been reduced in price, followed by 19% in Salford, 22% in Glasgow, and 25% in Manchester – all below the national average. In London, 39% of property listings have recorded a price reduction, up from 37% in July.
Britain’s banks have written to Theresa May and Philip Hammond warning that a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU post-Brexit is not ambitious enough and that alignment with EU rules on finance is crucial. The open letter from UK Finance, which represents major banks and other financial institutions, said the government must place the City at the centre of Brexit trade talks or risk dealing a major blow to the economy. “Ceta [the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada] is an interesting template, but given the UK and the EU 27 start from a position of regulatory convergence that the UK and Canada didn’t have, we should seek to be far more ambitious,” said the letter.
The banks congratulated May on successfully negotiating a move to the second phase of withdrawal negotiations with the EU, which it called the first substantive evidence that a final deal could be agreed. But the trade body called on the government to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit and broker a smooth transition by focusing on alignment with Europe. “Pragmatic decisions to align the two regimes from a regulatory perspective … should be seen not as concessions, but as mechanisms to maximise benefits and choice within a deep regional capital market for the benefit of citizens and our economies,” it said. The alternative is “an unnecessary loss” of GDP, it added.
“A high degree of mutual cross-border market access is fundamental to the continued success of our financial services sector – and to the success of the economies and citizens which our sector serves in the UK and the EU 27,” UK Finance wrote.
[..] polling shows that the British people are disillusioned with the privatisation of key sectors, and favour nationalisation. They seek protection from the impact of deregulated market forces on their lives and livelihoods and on their children’s prospects. Business leaders have been made aware – by the IMF, the OECD and the Bank for International Settlements – that the Conservatives’ dependence on what David Cameron called his government’s “monetary radicalism and fiscal conservatism” has gone too far. There is now real concern about the long-term impact of quantitative easing which, coupled with austerity, has led to rocketing asset prices, falling wages and rising inequality. Those with access to central bank largesse have been enriched as the prices of assets have risen; while those without assets and dependent on earnings have suffered as incomes have fallen in real terms.
Falling incomes and spare capacity have not been good for business. While the Treasury, the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent watchdog, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a thinktank, have obsessed over supply-side issues, politicians have been persuaded by economists to sit on their hands, as Britain’s economy falters under huge, unused capacity. Howard Bogod, who runs a business with a turnover of under £20m, wrote recently: “Economic models have failed to explain why wages have not increased as unemployment has fallen so low. These same models are incorrect in their conclusions about productivity growth – indeed these two failures are linked. My conclusion based on observing actual businesses is that if nominal demand were to continue to grow then both productivity and real wages would start to grow more quickly, and economists would again be left scratching their heads.”
There is, nevertheless, anxiety over the scale of Labour’s public investment plans and their impact on the UK’s credit rating. But Labour has a record, in key respects, of being more fiscally conservative than Conservatives. For example, a review by economists at Policy Research in Macroeconomics of current budget deficits or surpluses (that is, excluding public investment) for the whole period before the global financial crisis, from 1956 to 2008, reveals that Conservative governments had an average annual surplus of 0.3% of GDP, while Labour governments had an average annual surplus of 1.1%.
In October 1517, an unknown Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther changed the world when he grabbed a hammer and nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation started there. The tale of how the 95 theses were posted is almost certainly false. Luther never mentioned the incident and the first account of it didn’t surface until after his death. But it makes a better story than Luther writing a letter (which is what probably happened), and that’s why the economist Steve Keen, dressed in a monk’s habit and wielding a blow up hammer, could be found outside the London School of Economics last week.
Keen and those supporting him (full disclosure: I was one of them) were making a simple point as he used Blu Tack to stick their 33 theses to one of the world’s leading universities: economics needs its own Reformation just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago. Like the mediaeval church, orthodox economics thinks it has all the answers. Complex mathematics is used to mystify economics, just as congregations in Luther’s time were deliberately left in the dark by services conducted in Latin. Neo-classical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats anybody who challenges the creed of self-righting markets and rational consumers as dangerous heretics. Keen was one of those heretics. He was one of the economists who knew there was big trouble brewing in the years leading up to the financial crisis of a decade ago but whose warnings were ignored.
The reason Keen was proved right was that he paid no heed to the equilibrium models favoured by mainstream economics. He looked at what was actually happening rather than having a preconceived view of what ought to be happening. Somewhat depressingly, nothing much has happened, even though it was a crisis neo-classical economics said could not happen. There was a brief dalliance with unorthodox remedies when things were really bleak in the winter of 2008-09, but by late 2009 and early 2010, there was a return to business as normal.
As she fights for her political life Soon-to-be-ex-Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel will go down swinging against her stiffest political opponents in the European Union, the Poles. Merkel and French President Emmanual Macron publicly agreed to back Article 7 proceedings against Poland for refusing to comply with EU immigration quotas and changes to its judicial system. Immigration quotas, I might add, that are becoming harder to defend as the war in Syria is mostly over and the flow of refugees from there has slowed to a trickle. But, those brought in and stranded in camps in Italy and Greece apparently need to go somewhere else. But, no one wants them. And the rest of the EU is trying to bully Poland and the rest of the Visigrad countries – Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – into taking on their ‘fair share.’
The problem with this is that Merkel made this decision unilaterally and foisted it on the rest of the EU. And she is determined not to lose this fight to Poland, not because this is any kind of humanitarian issue at this point. No, this is about the primacy of EU diktats being enforced at the expense of logic and political cohesion. And, as I’ve been warning about all year, Merkel will put the EU before any practical consideration and bring Article 7 proceedings against Poland. Because she has to. Immigration and the destruction of individual European cultures is the guiding principle behind the EU’s biggest benefactors. This policy is part of the long-term strategic goals of the EU. It has created an army which will be used to quell secessionist movements in the name of ‘continental security.’ Because despite the fevered dreams of a few hundred Latvians, the Russians are not invading Europe anytime soon.
And I have to wonder who will staff this Grand Army of the Oligarchy? After impoverishing an entire generation of people thanks to a decade-long banking system bailout, you shouldn’t be expecting the crème de la crème of the vanishing European middle class. You can expect a number of these newly-integrated immigrants that Merkel invited at everyone else’s expense will be in their ranks. And only the most politically-acceptable members of the current armies of each country will be invited to positions of authority in this new EU army. Their loyalty will be to the EU first and their homes second. The very definition of a Vichy gendarme for the 21st century. Poland and the rest of the Visigrad Four – Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – are headed for a collision course with the rest of Western Europe over this issue and many others.
And invoking Article 7 will eventually allow the European Parliament to rescind all economic aid to Poland and its voting rights within the body. While at that same time not allowing Poland free access to international trade because it will not be an independent nation at that point. Any move to extricate itself from the EU politically or practically will be met with the most strident opposition. Look no further than Brexit talks and the brutal put-down of Catalonia’s independence movement to see Poland’s future.
Greeks love cash: Not only do they make most of their payments in cash – more than in any other eurozone country – but they also use it to pay their regular monthly obligations, such as utility bills, rent and even their taxes. The main reason for this proclivity for paper money is not an inherent aversion towards electronic payments, but that the vast majority of Greeks, far more than in other eurozone member states, still get paid in cash. This is evident in the recent European Central Bank survey on cash use in eurozone households, which showed that 57% of Greeks are paid in paper. Cyprus and Slovenia come a distant second, with a rate of 28%, while in the other eurozone countries the share of people getting paid “cash in hand” ranges between 5 and 20%.
Behind this particularly high rate of people paid in cash in Greece lies the large number of small or family owned enterprises and freelancers who work for cash. This also serves to illustrate the extensive tax evasion in this country, which tends to be focused on a series of professional categories, mainly among freelancers. The above figures concern 2016, while banks estimate that this picture has started changing considerably after the compulsory payment of salaried workers via a bank account from early 2017. The ECB figures show that the cash culture is not a strictly Greek phenomenon, as 79% of transactions in the eurozone – with great variations from country to country – are conducted with coins and banknotes.
Yet contrary to European habits, Greeks use cash for a series of transactions that are regular every month: 40% of Greeks pay their taxes in cash against just 9% in the eurozone, 50% use paper to pay for their insurance against 10% in the eurozone, and 70% pay for their medicines in cash against 31% in the eurozone. Similarly, electricity and phone bills are paid by 60% of Greeks in cash, compared to 16% in the eurozone, and 30% of rents are covered by cash against just 6% in the eurozone. ECB data also revealed that Greeks hold an average of 80 euros in cash on them, against the Spaniards’ 50 euros and the Italians’ 69 euros, while the Portuguese like to keep just 29 euros at hand.
In a bid to ease growing pressure on overcrowded refugee camps on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, the government is drafting a law to accelerate the process of granting asylum to refugees with a bill expected to go to Parliament as early as this week. Arrivals of migrants from Turkey radically dropped after Ankara signed an agreement with the European Union to crack down on human smuggling over the Aegean. But the influx has picked up in recent months. Also the process of returning migrants to Turkey, as foreseen by the pact, is very slow, partly due to the influence of critics of the deal within leftist SYRIZA. “The only way to deal with the problem on the Greek islands is for the EU-Turkey agreement to be effectively enforced and for there to be a significant number of returns to Turkey,” an official at the Citizens’ Protection Ministry told Kathimerini.
Since the deal was signed in March 2016, around 48,600 migrants have arrived on the Greek islands, according to the United Nations refugee agency. During that time only some 1, 500 people have been returned to Turkey. Thousands of asylum applications are pending, chiefly because migrants generally appeal rejected claims. At a summit of EU leaders last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged to bolster Greek efforts to accelerate the asylum process and to help increase the presence of Frontex, the EU’s border monitoring agency, at the country’s frontiers with Turkey and Bulgaria, Greek officials said. Meanwhile, there are concerns that a decision by the government to move migrants from cramped island camps to the mainland could encourage smugglers to bring more migrants to Greece.
Ask a woman right now how her Christmas is going and she will almost certainly unfurl her to-do list before your eyes, from the turkey to the costumes for the kids’ concerts. They should call it the Season of To-dos. For women, anyway. Christmas is the one time of the year when the gender pay gap is an open festering wound. Most of women’s work goes unvalued, unpaid, unseen by the patriarchal valuing system we call money. It’s invisible to money but it’s also pretty invisible even to ourselves. For a woman, it’s just what you do. For men, it’s stuff that just… happens. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to give up being Santa. I love it, I’m good at it, and I still do it for my kids even though they’re way past believing. That doesn’t mean it’s not work and it’s not worth something. People love their work and still get money for it.
(A little aside: isn’t it interesting that the man behind Santa is almost never a man? It’s almost like the patriarchy wants to take the credit for all of women’s work at Christmas time.) But whoever coined the term “holiday season” was clearly a bloke. It ain’t no holiday. For women, it’s the busiest time of the year. There’s something really broken about a valuing system that doesn’t recognize how much important work goes into bringing up children, socially integrating the tribe, bonding with each other and appreciating the beauty of each individual in the family and all the gifts they bring. A valuing system that doesn’t recognize the gains of having good-natured humans brought up in solid, loving environments that are closely networked in the goodwill economy. A family that will look after each other.
There’s something wrong with a valuing system that doesn’t recognize healthy humans, or the redistribution of goods, or the disappearing of problems forever. There’s something deeply sick about a valuing system that only knows how to pay people to make more problems, more sickness, more work for themselves. Invent a problem, and then sell your “solution” to it. That’s pretty much every business model ever. Libertarians will tell you earnestly that all our valuing decisions should be left up to “the markets.” If left to its own devices, the intelligence of money is meant to somehow create a handsome retirement savings package for a hardworking single mom of six. It’s somehow going to pay people to reuse and redistribute goods that they don’t need and fill all the unused houses with house-less people. It’s going to reward leaving minerals in the ground and pay for people to be healthy and live simply and for the environment to flourish and sustain life.
1. Stock prices run in cycles. Periods of re-pricing are usually quick and powerful.
7. Your first loss will often be your best loss. No one is right all the time and you don’t have to be. There are market participants that are immensely profitable by being right only 30% of the time. It is good to have conviction in your investment thesis, but discipline should always trump conviction.
8. Optimism and pessimism in the stock market are contagious. Investor psychology often loses its logic and become emotional. The news media and the most recent price action play a particularly important role in developing moods of mass optimism or pessimism.
A big problem with house prices experiencing even a “moderate” correction of 10% to 20% — already underway in many of the most over-priced regions — is with between 40% and 50% of all house purchases for years being of the “less than 10% down” variety — and because it takes 8% to 10% equity to sell plus the 3% to 10% down payment on the new house — it doesn’t take much downside to swamp the nation in “NEGATIVE EQUITY” once again. And we know for certain that many homeowners rather pay their credit cards and car payments before their mortgage when they are underwater.
ITEM 1) Household income INCREASE needed to Buy the Median Priced House in Key Cities. Bottom Line: On a “national” basis the divergence isn’t too bad…6%. But, in the key cities that drive the US economy, Bubble 2.0 has blown large. This represents significant downside, especially in the sand states, just like in Bubble 1.0.
ITEM 2) DIVERGENCE between Actual Household Income & Income Needed to Buy the Median Priced House. Bottom Line: Here too, on a “national” basis the divergence isn’t too bad…-6%. But, in the key cities that drive the US economy, Bubble 2.0 has blown large.
A former senior Treasury mandarin has compared quantitative easing to heroin and called for an end to almost a decade of electronic money printing by central banks. Nick Macpherson was permanent secretary to the Treasury when Bank of England officials started buying UK government bonds to stimulate the economy following the financial crisis. On Monday, he said it was “time to move on” from QE, which is credited with helping Britain into recovery but remains in use nine years later amid concerns over Brexit. Threadneedle Street initially began pumping £200bn into the gilt market in 2009 to boost the economy, before expanding the programme to £435bn, including an extra £60bn following the EU referendum. The bond buying scheme is similar to massive stimulus packages used by other countries, such as the Fed’s $4.5tn of asset purchases (£3.5tn) and the ECB ’s €2.3tn (£2.1tn) plan.
Lord Macpherson’s call comes as pressure mounts on the world’s central bankers to give more clues about how they intend to exit QE in a process known as “normalisation” almost a decade on from the crash. Some indications could be given at a meeting of senior officials at Jackson Hole in the US later this week. Mario Draghi, the ECB governor, is expected to be the star turn at the event watched by global investors, although he is not thought to be preparing to announce the end of QE just yet. While QE is credited with lowering borrowing costs and helping banks to lend more to consumers and businesses, critics say such schemes inflate assets owned by the richest in society, while punishing savers without large amounts of wealth. Macpherson did not single out the specific bond-buying programme of a particular central bank. “QE like heroin: need ever increasing fixes to create a high. Meanwhile, negative side effects increase. Time to move on,” he wrote on Twitter.
UK consumers are increasingly purchasing goods on plastic with the number of transactions on credit and debit cards jumping 12% in the last year. The increase was the fastest annual rise in the number of card transactions since 2008 and comes after warnings from the Bank of England about the growth of personal debt. Shoppers spent 7.2% more on all types of cards in the year to the end of June, despite real wages falling over the period, data from industry body UK Finance showed. The total value of credit and charge card purchases increased 6.9% over the 12 months with credit card lending accelerating in April, May and June to an annual growth rate of 9%. During those three months, the number of people defaulting on their credit card bills and personal loans “increased significantly”, the Bank of England said in a recent report.
The rise comes as official figures show real earnings have declined. Average pay rose at an annual rate of 2.1% in the three months to June – well below the inflation rate of 2.6% in the year to the end of June. Overall consumer spending was up 1.3% in the year to July, the Office for National Statistics said in a separate release this month. Peter Tutton, head of policy at StepChange debt charity, expressed concern at the findings. “With our research estimating 3.2 million people are using credit cards to pay for everyday household expenses, the growing stock of credit card debt should focus attention on households in financial difficulties,” he said. Mr Tutton said the growth in credit card cash advances was particularly worrying. This type of borrowing is expensive and can be a warning sign that borrowers are facing financial difficulty.
There’s a pub in the Welsh hills, not far from where I live, called ‘The Tylers Arms’ – pronounced ‘tillers’. The name originated, I believe, in the 18th century. The local villagers, who all worked on the land, would go there to pick up their wages in the form of ‘tyles’ – some of which would be immediately exchanged for beer, and thus returned to the landowner…who also owned the pub…and the local store. Thus, the ‘tyles’ circulated regularly, providing employment & cheap produce for the villagers, a steady and almost ‘captive’ profit for the landowner, and stability for the community. As the industrial revolution progressed some of the larger UK manufacturers adopted a similar system, but using fiat currency – e.g. there is a ‘village’ in Birmingham known as Bourneville, which was built by the Cadbury family.
Now before anyone thinks I’ve got unresolved baggage on feudalism, a ‘downer’ on capitalism, or a yearning for socialism…hold your horses please…this is about something far more serious than the ‘isms’. This is about who controls the money. The folks who do that…can, and do, call the tune for the rest of us. And that’s what I want to talk about here.
These days our monetary masters are much more sophisticated – our ‘tyles’ are pieces of paper backed by government fiat. You can work for pretty much whomever you like, and you can buy from whomever you like, but one way or another the government will take a cut of everything you earn and everything you spend. You can do the odd ‘swapsie’ with your pals but you can’t pay taxes with home grown tomatoes – the IRS don’t do vegetables – they can’t digitise them or create them with a keystroke so veggies would confuse the poor dears.
What happens next is technical and varies between territories, so let’s just deal with the ‘myth’: The taxman’s ‘cut’ is used to boost the economy on your behalf by spending it on useful things like building roads and bridges. It also includes an ever-growing list of things that you didn’t even realise you need, like cruise missiles & other stuff that goes ‘BANG’, along with other seemingly ‘essential’ services like bribing foreign governments and funding ‘moderate rebels’ to remove the foreign governments that can’t be bribed. Clearly we’ve come a long way from tyles, especially in the case of the dollar, which can used to bribe governments on seven continents. The chap who owned the Tillers never dreamt of such power – this is considered to be progress…
“There is zero chance, no chance we won’t raise the debt ceiling,” swore Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) at an event in Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday. He who couldn’t get his Republican ducks all lined up in a row to get any major legislation passed this year was confident that the Senate would pass a bill that would raise the debt ceiling so that the government could continue to pay for things that Congress told the Government to pay for, and so that the government could service its debts, rather than default on them. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was there with him, pleading once again for a “clean” debt-ceiling increase, according to the Wall Street Journal. His “magic super Treasury powers” that allow the government to conserve cash to avoid having to issue more debt will expire at the end of September, he said.
“This is not about spending money,” he said. “This is about paying for what we’ve spent, and we cannot put the credit of the United States on the line.” The debt ceiling is just under $20 trillion. While the government can issue bonds to redeem maturing bonds – and it does this all the time – it cannot allow the gross national debt to go beyond the debt ceiling. But because it has to continue to pay for things that Congress mandated in its various spending bills over the years, the Treasury scrounges up the money from other government accounts, robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. For example it temporarily short-changes the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund. These “extraordinary measures,” as they’re called, or the “magic super Treasury powers,” as Mnuchin called it, run out after a while.
Mnuchin said in his last letter to Congress that the out-of-money-date is September 29. But as in the past, the real out-of-money date can probably be stretched into October. These shenanigans make the entire world shake its collective head and pray that Congress, after going through its charade, will for the umpteenth time raise the debt limit. The other option is a US default. Its global consequences are too ugly to even imagine. But this charade has some peculiar effects, beyond its entertainment value: for months on end, it covers up the true extent of US government debt, and the current surge of this debt. This chart shows the gross national debt going back to 2011, including the last two debt-ceiling fights. Note the long flat lines leading into October or November, followed each time by an enormous spike:
A good example of exatly how stuck governments and central banks are after blowing housing bubbles. There was an Australian tycoon this week who said the Oz bubble won’t pop because people are too heavily invested in property…
When former treasurer Peter Costello called on Monday for interest rates to be ‘normalised’ upwards to stop Australia’s credit bubble getting any larger, he was very nearly half right. As long as the Reserve Bank keeps the official cash rate at the record low of 1.5%, the economy will become increasingly “unbalanced”, as he put it. And although struggling families will protest that they can’t afford higher mortgage repayments, the other side of that coin is that each successive wave of first home owners is taking on even higher debts. The longer that super-low rates persist, the more debt the banks will be able to balance on the shoulders of new home buyers. That has already created huge property-based inequality. But Mr Costello’s comments weren’t focused on that imbalance – he’s worried about the impact that unstable house prices or teetering banks could have on economic growth more generally.
He told The Australian that “once [the price of] money returns to more normal levels” Australia could face a “big problem” with asset prices and the housing market. Quite right, but what could prevent that? A gradual increase in rates will not, in itself, ‘fix’ the housing market. To do that, two other abnormalities need to be addressed. The one mentioned most by Mr Costello’s side of politics is the availability of suitable dwellings – the ‘supply problem’. That is a wildly misunderstood problem, so I will look at it separately in coming days. But bigger than either low rates or the supposed ‘supply problem’ is the abnormality that Mr Costello himself created – tax laws that reward investors for making annual losses in the housing market, so as to reap lightly-taxed capital gains years down the track.
These two words are the hinge that is swinging American life — and the advanced techno-industrial world, for that matter — toward darkness. They represent an infection in the critical operations of daily life, like a metabolic disease, driving us into disorder and failure. And they are so omnipresent that we’ve failed to even notice the growing failure all around us. Mostly, these diminishing returns are the results of our over-investments in making complex systems more complex, for instance the replacement of the 37-page Glass-Steagall Act that regulated American banking, with the 848 page Dodd-Frank Act, which was only an outline for over 22,000 pages of subsequent regulatory content — all of it cooked up by banking lobbyists, and none of which replaced the single most important rule in Glass-Steagall, which required the separation of commercial banking from trafficking in securities.
Dodd-Frank was a colossal act of misdirection of the public’s attention, an impenetrable smokescreen of legal blather in the service of racketeering. For Wall Street, Dodd-Frank aggravated the conditions that allow stock indexes to only move in one direction, up, for nine years. During the same period, the American economy of real people and real stuff only went steadily down, including the number of people out of the work force, the incomes of those who still had jobs, the number of people with full-time jobs, the number of people who were able to buy food without government help, or pay for a place to live, or send a kid to college. When that morbid tension finally snaps, as it must, it won’t only be the Hedge Funders of the Hamptons who get hurt. It will be the entire global financial system, especially currencies (dollars, Euros, Yen, Pounds, Renminbi) that undergo a swift and dire re-pricing, and all the other things of this world priced in them.
And when that happens, the world will awake to a new reality of steeply reduced possibilities for supporting 7-plus billion people. The same over-investments in complexity have produced the racketeering colossus of so-called health care (formerly “medicine”), in case you’re wondering why the waiting room of your doctor’s office now looks exactly like the motor vehicle bureau. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the citizens of this land have never been so uniformly unhealthy, even as they’re being swindled and blackmailed by their “providers.” The eventual result will be a chaotic process of simplification, as giant hospital corporations, insurance companies, and overgrown doctors’ practices collapse, and the braver practitioners coalesce into something resembling Third World clinics.
There is little doubt that the US, despite the evidence that economic recovery is at hand, could spiral into a self-destructive descent of dysfunction, dystopia, and anomie. The path toward a “second civil war” has significant parallels with the causes of the first US Civil War (1861-65). Both events — the 19th Century event and a possible 21st Century one — saw the polarization of a fundamentally urban, abstract society against a fundamentally regional, traditional society. In some respects, it is a conflict between people with long memories (even if those memories are flawed and selective) and people to whom memories and history are irrelevant. Equally, it is a conflict between identity and materialism, with the abstract social groups (the urban populations) the most preoccupied with short-term material gain.
I have covered the US for 50 years, and my earliest view of it was, a half century ago, that its populations would inevitably polarize into protective islands of self-interest, surrounded by seas of unthinking locusts. What is ironic is that the present islands of wealth and power — the cities — have come to represent short-term materialism, as cities have throughout history. But what is interesting is that, despite the global attention on the political/geographic polarizations occurring in the US and other parts of the Western world, there has been a reversion in other parts of the world to a sense of Westphalian or pre-Westphalian nationalism. The fact that “the West” may have ring-fenced Iran, Russia, and so on, with sanctions and other forms of isolation may well be what ensures their enduring status.
They have avoided the contagion of globalism. Russia, indeed, recovered from the Soviet form of globalism in 1991. An urban globalist “victory” over Trump and Brexit would trigger that meltdown toward a form of civil societal collapse – civil war in some form or other – as the regions disavow the diktats of the cities. That would, in turn, bring about the global economic uncertainty which could impact the PRC and then the en-tire world. But such a conflict – physical or political – could, equally, lead to a victory for nationalism over globalism, and to the protection of currencies and values. We have seen this cycle repeated for millennia. It is the eternal battle.
It occurred to me the other day that there’s a curious disconnect between one of the most common assumptions most of us make about how to make the world better, on the one hand, and the results that this assumption has had when put into practice, on the other. It’s reminiscent of the realization that led James Hillman and Michael Ventura to title a once-notorious book of theirs We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse. In this case as in that one, something that’s supposed to make things better doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—in fact, quite the opposite—and it’s time that we talked about that. You know the assumption I have in mind, dear reader. It’s the conviction that certain common human emotions are evil and harmful and wrong, and the way to make a better world is to get rid of them in one way or another.
That belief is taken for granted throughout the industrial societies of the modern West, and it’s been welded in place for a very long time, though—as we’ll see in a moment—the particular emotions so labeled have varied from time to time. Just now, of course, the emotion at the center of this particular rogue’s gallery is hate. These days hate has roughly the same role in popular culture that original sin has in traditional Christian theology. If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.
At the far end of this sort of rhetoric, you get the meretricious slogan used by Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign last year: LOVE TRUMPS HATE. I hope that none of my readers are under the illusion that Clinton’s partisans were primarily motivated by love, except in the sense of Clinton’s love for power and the Democrats’ love for the privileges and payouts they could expect from four more years of control of the White House; and of course Trump and the Republicans were head over heels in love with the same things. The fact that Clinton’s marketing flacks and focus groups thought that the slogan just quoted would have an impact on the election, though, shows just how pervasive the assumption I’m discussing has become in our culture.
Now of course most people these days, when confronted with the sort of things I’ve just written, are likely to respond, “Wait, are you saying that hate is good?”—as though the only alternatives available are condemning something as absolutely bad or praising it as absolutely good. Let’s set that simplistic reaction to one side for the moment, and ask a different question: what happens when people decide that some common human emotion is evil and harmful and wrong, and decide that the way to make a better world is to get rid of it?
A sudden spike in the number of undocumented migrants arriving from neighboring Turkey has led to concern on the part of Greek authorities, who expect the next few days to reveal whether the rapid increase is a random occurence or the beginning of a new trend. A total of 643 migrants who had set out from the Turkish coast landed on the islands of the eastern Aegean between Friday and Monday morning, according to government figures. Another 114 people arrived in two separate smuggling boats later on Monday, putting authorities on alert.
Early on Monday, a vessel belonging to the European Union’s border monitoring agency Frontex spotted a smuggling boat off the coast of Chios and intercepted the 53 migrants who had been aboard. Later in the day another 61 migrants were found in a boat that had reached Samos and were also detained. Tensions are already high in reception centers on several Aegean islands. Most of the facilities are at around twice their capacity as hundreds of migrants and refugees await the outcome of asylum applications or deportation orders. Tolerance has been tested in several island communities as dozens of migrants continue to arrive daily from nearby Turkish shores. There are currently more than 14,400 migrants living on camps on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros.
With Monsanto’s latest flagship weed killer, dicamba, banned in Arkansas and under review by U.S. regulators over concerns it can drift in the wind, farmers and weed scientists are also complaining that confusing directions on the label make the product hard to use safely. Dicamba, sold under different brand names by BASF and DuPont, can vaporize under certain conditions and the wind can blow it into nearby crops and other plants. The herbicide can damage or even kill crops that have not been genetically engineered to resist it. To prevent that from happening, Monsanto created a 4,550-word label with detailed instructions. Its complexity is now being cited by farmers and critics of the product. It was even singled out in a lawsuit as evidence that Monsanto’s product may be virtually impossible to use properly.
At stake for Monsanto is the fate of Xtend soybeans, it largest ever biotech seed launch. Monsanto’s label, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed and approved, instructs farmers to apply the company’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip on its latest genetically engineered soybeans only when winds are blowing at least 3 miles per hour, but not more than 15 mph. Growers must also spray it from no higher than 24 inches above the crops. They must adjust spraying equipment to produce larger droplets of the herbicide when temperatures creep above 91 degrees Fahrenheit. After using the product, they must rinse out spraying equipment. Three times. “The restriction on these labels is unlike anything that’s ever been seen before,” said Bob Hartzler, an agronomy professor and weed specialist at Iowa State University. The label instructions are also of interest to lawyers for farmers suing Monsanto, BASF and DuPont over damage they attribute to the potent weed killer moving off-target to nearby plants.
Paraquat, a pesticide so lethal that a single sip can be fatal, has caused thousands of accidental deaths and suicides globally, and was outlawed by EU states in 2007. But Swiss pesticide manufacturer Syngenta is exporting thousands of tonnes of the substance to other parts of the world from an industrial plant in Huddersfield. Campaigners have condemned the practice as an “astonishing double standard”, while a UN expert said it was deeply disquieting that the human rights implications of producing a substance for export that is not authorised in the EU were being ignored. “The fact that the EU has decided to ban the pesticide for health and environmental reasons, but they still export it to countries with far weaker regulation and far weaker controls, is shocking to me,” said Baskut Tuncak, the UN special rapporteur on toxic wastes.
Syngenta is responsible for 95% of Europe’s exports of paraquat, which it sells under the brand name Gramoxone. The substance can be absorbed through the skin and has been linked with Parkinson’s disease. Syngenta has exported 122,831 tonnes of paraquat from the UK since 2015, an average of 41,000 tonnes a year, according to export licensing data analysed by the Swiss NGO Public Eye and shared with the Guardian. Since 2015, when a facility in Belgium stopped exporting paraquat, all EU exports of the pesticide have come from Syngenta’s UK base, according to Public Eye. Almost two-thirds of these exports by volume – 62% – go to poor countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Guatemala, Venezuela and India. A further 35% is exported to the US, where paraquat can only be applied by licensed users.
Authorities in Mumbai have shut down a manufacturing company after it was accused of dumping untreated industrial waste and dyes into a local river that resulted in 11 dogs turning blue. The group of strangely coloured canines was first spotted on 11 August, according to the Hindustan Times, prompting locals to complain to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board about dyes being dumped in the Kasadi river, where the animals often swim. Footage shows the animals roaming the streets with bright blue fur. “It was shocking to see how the dog’s white fur had turned completely blue,” said Arati Chauhan, head of the Navi Mumbai Animal Protection Cell, told the Times. “We have spotted almost five such dogs here and have asked the pollution control board to act against such industries.”
Chauhan had posted images of the blue dogs on the group’s Facebook page, saying the “pollutants from Taloja Industrial area not only ruining the water bodies affecting humans there but also affecting animals, birds, reptiles”. The board investigated, shutting down the company on Wednesday after confirming that canines were turning blue due to air and water pollution linked to the plant. An animal welfare agency managed to capture one of the dogs and wash some of the blue dye off. The group concluded that animal seemed unharmed in all other ways. The Kasadi River flows through an area with hundreds of factories.
Harvard professor and chess grandmaster Kenneth Rogoff has said some pretty out there stuff before, in his role as self-appointed crusader against cash, but apparently he’s not done yet. In fact, he might just be getting started. This time around he sounds like a crossover between George Orwell and Franz Kafka, with a serving of ‘theater of the absurd’ on top. Rogoff wants to give central banks total control over your lives. They must decide what you do with your money. First and foremost, they must make it impossible for you to save your money from their disastrous policies, so they are free to create more mayhem.
Negative interest rates will be needed in the next major recession or financial crisis, and central banks should do more to prepare the ground for such policies, according to leading economist Kenneth Rogoff. Quantitative easing is not as effective a tonic as cutting rates to below zero, he believes. Central banks around the world turned to money creation in the credit crunch to stimulate the economy when interest rates were already at rock bottom.
Central banks create recessions and crises. Not people, and not economies. Central banks. The next recession, which is inevitable, that’s the one thing Rogoff has right, will come when the bubbles in housing, stocks, bonds, etc., created by central banks’ QE, ZIRP, NIRP, start to pop. And there’s nothing worse than giving central banks even more tools for creating crises. We should take away the tools they have now, not hand them more sledgehammers.
In a new paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives the professor of economics at Harvard University argues that central banks should start preparing now to find ways to cut rates to below zero so they are not caught out when the next recession strikes. Traditionally economists have assumed that cutting rates into negative territory would risk pushing savers to take their money out of banks and stuff the cash – metaphorically or possibly literally – under their mattress. As electronic transfers become the standard way of paying for purchases, Mr Rogoff believes this is a diminishing risk.
Risk? What risk? The risk of people doing with their money what they choose to do, doing what they think is best? Of people trying to save their savings from being burned by central bank policies? What kind of mind comes up with this nonsense? Who is Ken Rogoff to think that he knows better what you should do with the money you worked for than you yourself do? You’d be a fool not to protect you hard-earned earnings from negative interest rates. Rogoff therefore seems intent on creating nations full of fools.
“It makes sense not to wait until the next financial crisis to develop plans and, in any event, it is time for economists to stop pretending that implementing effective negative rates is as difficult today as it seemed in Keynes time”, he said. The growth of electronic payment systems and the increasing marginalisation of cash in legal transactions creates a much smoother path to negative rate policy today than even two decades ago. Countries can scrap larger denomination notes to reduce the likelihood of cash being held in substantial quantities, he suggests. This is also a potentially practical idea because cash tends now to be used largely for only small transactions. Law enforcement officials may also back the idea to cut down on money laundering and tax evasion.
What makes sense is to not create crises. What does not make sense is negative interest rates. Ultra low interest rates have already destroyed trillions in savings and pensions, and now Rogoff effectively says central banks should take this a step further, and target whatever it is you have left. This is insane megalomania. It’s communism in its worst possible form. Oh, and it’s outright theft. Of a form that’s far more insidious and harmful than money laundering.
The key consequence from an economic point of view is that forcing savers to keep cash in an electronic format would make it easier to levy a negative interest rate. “With today’s ultra-low policy interest rates – inching up in the United States and still slightly negative in the eurozone and Japan – it is sobering to ask what major central banks will do should another major prolonged global recession come any time soon,” he said, noting that the Fed cut rates by an average of 5.5 percentage points in the nine recessions since the mid-1950s, something which is impossible at the current low rate of interest, unless negative rates become an option. That would be substantially better than trying to use QE or forward guidance as central bankers have attempted in recent years.
Forcing savers to keep cash in an electronic format would make it easier to steal it. Central banks could dictate that you lose 5% of your money every year. Or at least, that’s what they think. They want you to spend your money, and they got just the way to force you to do that. Or so they think. Well, go ask Abe and Kuroda how that’s worked out in Japan lately. What actually happens is that when you start stealing people’s money, savings etc., they become afraid of losing the rest too, so they start looking for ways to save their savings, not spend them.
In that sense, Rogoff’s suggestions amount to terror, to terrorizing people into doing things that go against their very survival instincts. What gets people to spend money is if they don’t feel terror, when they see their money and savings grow by a few percent per year. That is the exact opposite of what Rogoff wants to do. When people ‘sit’ on their savings, they do so for good reasons. What do you think has happened to Japan?
“Alternative monetary policy instruments such as forward guidance and quantitative easing offer some theoretical promise for addressing the zero bound,” he said, in the paper which is titled ‘Dealing with Monetary Paralysis at the Zero Bound’. “But these policies have now been deployed for some years – in the case of Japan, for more than two decades – and at least so far, they have not convincingly shown an ability to decisively overcome the problems posed by the zero bound.”
No wait, Rogoff is right second time: indeed “they have not convincingly shown an ability to decisively overcome the problems”. Because they’re terribly wrong. Theoretical promise? That’s all? But that means you’re just experimenting with people’s lives and wellbeing. Who gave you that right?
It’s high time, even if it’s very late in the game, to take political power away from central banks- and thereby from the banks that own them. There is nothing worse for our societies than letting these people decide what you can and cannot do with our money. Because as long as they have that power, they will seek to expand it. To prop up their member banks at your expense. And there is only one possible end result: you’ll be left with nothing. They want it all.
Until we take that power away from them, please don’t talk to me about democracy. Talk to me about Orwell and Kafka instead.
A Communist Party mouthpiece is crowing that malfunctioning U.S. leadership is making China “great again” on the eve of highly anticipated bilateral trade talks between the two countries. The op-ed published in the People’s Daily said the U.S. was in political chaos and suffered from a broken system, which was why Washington couldn’t get anything done. It also claimed the U.S. mess was giving China an opportunity to shine. “U.S. foreign policy is in total disarray, and world regard for the U.S. has plummeted. Indeed, America is making China ‘great again,'” the op-ed said. “Once the world’s model, the great American meltdown has turned the U.S. into some bizarre soap opera.” This isn’t the first time China has piggybacked off an American saying — remember President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” slogan?
This time around, the tone is a bit sharper, with Chinese state media not backing down ahead of annual bilateral talks that have been rebranded this year as the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue. Although both Beijing and Washington have indicated they understand the need to play nice, both sides are pushing their own agenda as expected. The U.S. wants to reduce the more than $300 billion trade deficit with China and make good on a campaign promise from President Donald Trump to pressure China on a number of fronts, such as opening up its markets to more foreign participation and to bring jobs back to America. China, on the other hand, has pushed back, saying Chinese investment has helped the U.S. But it’s clear that as the U.S. continues to face political turmoil, China is enjoying its time in the spotlight. That is, Beijing is explicitly seeking to fill the void the U.S. left as it backed out of various multilateral talks and agreements…
An extraordinary new Pentagon study has concluded that the US-backed international order established after World War 2 is “fraying” and may even be “collapsing”, leading the United States to lose its position of “primacy” in world affairs. The solution proposed to protect US power in this new “post-primacy” environment is, however, more of the same: more surveillance, more propaganda (“strategic manipulation of perceptions”) and more military expansionism. The document concludes that the world has entered a fundamentally new phase of transformation in which US power is in decline, international order is unravelling, and the authority of governments everywhere is crumbling. Having lost its past status of “pre-eminence”, the US now inhabits a dangerous, unpredictable “post-primacy” world, whose defining feature is “resistance to authority”.
Danger comes not just from great power rivals like Russia and China, both portrayed as rapidly growing threats to American interests, but also from the increasing risk of “Arab Spring”-style events. These will erupt not just in the Middle East, but all over the world, potentially undermining trust in incumbent governments for the foreseeable future. The report, based on a year-long intensive research process involving consultation with key agencies across the Department of Defense and US Army, calls for the US government to invest in more surveillance, better propaganda through “strategic manipulation” of public opinion, and a “wider and more flexible” US military.
[..] Observing that US officials “naturally feel an obligation to preserve the US global position within a favorable international order,” the report concludes that this “rules-based global order that the United States built and sustained for 7 decades is under enormous stress.” The report provides a detailed breakdown of how the DoD perceives this order to be rapidly unravelling, with the Pentagon being increasingly outpaced by world events. Warning that “global events will happen faster than DoD is currently equipped to handle”, the study concludes that the US “can no longer count on the unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence it enjoyed for the 20-plus years after the fall of the Soviet Union.” So weakened is US power, that it can no longer even “automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range.”
The US is the only advanced nation that lacks universal health care. Even though it is the world’s richest nation, millions of US citizens cannot afford to see a doctor much less acquire more complex health care (for example, surgery). It it clear that in seeking private profits, the private health care insurers drive up the cost of health care which means, in nominal terms, the proportion of GDP expenditure devoted to it will rise. It is quite obvious that when private profits are included costs will rise unless efficiency is vastly improved. The ‘free market (not!)’ lobby always appeal to arguments that competitive systems are always more effective. The Commonwealth Report shows emphatically that strong (dare we call them socialist) government-dominated universal care systems like the NHS are vastly more effective than the profit-driven US system.
There also doesn’t seem to be any reason for private insurance in health care at all. And it is here that we enounter the ‘funding’ myths. Too often health care debates get stuck in irrelevant fiscal arguments about whether the government can afford to expand and/or invest in health care. The justification for private insurance is usually predicated on these ‘governments cannot afford’ to pay for the system type arguments. They are fallacious of course. In the pursuit of profits, private health insurance providers have an incentive to move towards the US model where they seek to avoid payment and set up exclusions etc. There is no ‘funding’ reason for the existence of these private insurance providers. The NHS in the UK demonstrates that clearly.
There has clearly been a strong private health industry lobby to privatise as much of the health care system as possible in places like Australia and the UK, where there are good fully-funded public systems of universal health care operating. That lobby has been powerful in the US and continually claims there will be a fiscal blow out and Americans will live in high-taxed penury forever because some latinos or blacks are getting health care for the first time as a result of the Obama changes. From a MMT perspective, the fiscal component of the debate is irrelevant.
The fiscal beat-up is framed in terms of ‘adding heavy costs’ to the ‘budget’ such that their will be soaring deficits, which will penalise future generations etc etc. What is a heavy cost? What is a soaring deficit? These are irrelevant concepts devoid of meaning. Any sophisticated society will deem health care to be a human right. The constitution of the World Health Organisation says: “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without the distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” The hallmark of a sophisticated nation is maximising the potential of its citizens. That must include placing health care under the responsibility of the currency-issuing government.
The current weakness in the U.S. dollar may be short lived, as a pick-up in inflation and expected rate hikes by the Federal Reserve will support the greenback in the coming months, JPMorgan Asset Management said Wednesday. “We’re thinking that the dollar will actually rebound in the second half, and this is mainly as the markets re-price in interest rates hike. We’re of the view that inflation will actually be picking up in the U.S. and currently, markets have only priced in one rate hike now till end-2018,” Jasslyn Yeo, global market strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management, told CNBC’s “Street Signs.” “So, we think (markets) are going to do a bit of re-pricing and that will support a bit of a rebound in the dollar,” she added.
The U.S. dollar tumbled to a 10-month low on Tuesday after the Republican health-care bill aimed at replacing Obamacare failed to get enough backing to proceed to a debate. Some market observers have said that a weaker dollar can help to boost earnings of S&P 500 companies and eventually justify their high valuations. But Yeo said equity markets outside the U.S., such as Europe and Japan, have more upside potential. Yeo noted that margins in Europe are starting to improve and that could translate into stronger earnings growth, while Japan is likely to benefit from a weaker yen versus the U.S. dollar. “We still like certain spots in the U.S. market. Currently we still favor U.S. banks, which we like in terms of rate hike expectations, bond yields moving higher as well as the promise for financial deregulation in the banking system,” she said.
Foreign purchases of U.S. residential real estate surged to the highest level ever in terms of number of homes sold and dollar volume. Foreign buyers closed on $153 billion worth of U.S. residential properties between April 2016 and March 2017, a 49% jump from the period a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors. That surpasses the previous high, set in 2015. The jump follows a year-earlier retreat and comes as a surprise, given the current strength of the U.S. dollar against most foreign currencies, which makes U.S. housing even more expensive. Apparently, the value of a financial safe-haven is outweighing the rising costs. Foreign sales accounted for 10% of all existing home sales by dollar volume and 5% by number of properties. In total, foreign buyers purchased 284,455 homes, up 32% from the previous year.
Half of all foreign sales were in just three states: Florida, California and Texas. Chinese buyers led the pack for the fourth straight year, followed by buyers from Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico and India. Russian buyers made up barely 1% of the purchases. But the biggest overall surge in sales in the last year came from Canadian buyers, who scooped up $19 billion worth of properties, mostly in Florida. They are also spending more, with the average price of a Canadian-bought home nearly doubling to $561,000. “There are more [baby] boomers now than ever before. It’s the demographic,” said Elli Davis, a real estate agent in Toronto who said she is seeing more older buyers downsize their primary home and purchase a second or third home in Florida. “The real estate here is worth so much more money. They all have more money. They’re selling the big city houses that are now $2 million-plus, where they went up so much in the last 10 to 15 years, so they’re cashing in.”
Australia on Wednesday ordered the country’s biggest banks to raise capital for the second time in two years and signalled further action to shore up their burgeoning mortgage books, potentially squeezing shareholder returns. The banking regulator said it would release a discussion paper later this year to include risk weights on mortgages among other changes, in-line with expected rules due to be finalised by global regulators. The warning on mortgages came as it raised the target for the four major banks’ common equity Tier 1 ratio – a key gauge of a lender’s strength – to at least 10.5%. That translates into an average increase of 100 basis points above the banks’ December 2016 levels. They are expected to meet the new benchmarks by January 2020.
The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has now ordered the big banks to boost capital twice since 2015 as it seeks to make the sector impregnable to global shocks. Australia’s major lenders – Commonwealth Bank of Australia , Westpac Banking Corp, ANZ Banking Group and National Australia Bank – hold combined market share of more than 80%, raising fears their failure could fatally weaken the broader economy. “Capital levels that are unquestionably strong will undoubtedly equip the Australian banking sector to better handle adversity in the future and reduce the need for public sector support,” APRA Chairman Wayne Byres said in a statement.
Australia has 200,000 more homes sitting empty than it had a decade ago, new figures show, despite the country grappling with a housing supply shortage that is pushing the cost of a first home beyond many of its residents. The figures from the 2016 census have been described as “cruel and immoral” by leading UNSW urban policy expert Hal Pawson, who has warned the government must act to stem the growth in unoccupied housing. “There is gross under-occupation across Australia,” Mr Pawson said, adding that there were up to a million homes with three or more extra bedrooms than the owner required. “There is a growing realisation that our housing market is not working well. It doesn’t just create a problem for people on low incomes, it also hurts spending in the economy when housing is overvalued.”
The figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show up to 11.2% of properties are now unoccupied, up from 9.8% in 2006. In the space of two decades Australia has added 2.1 million homes to its property portfolio but an extra 360,000 are being left vacant. Separate analysis by the Grattan Institute, released on Monday, found the number of Australian home owners has been falling for three decades, with the spike in home ownership restricted to baby boomers. “Falling home ownership rates for younger Australians, especially 25 to 34-year-olds where home ownership rates are down 6% in the last decade alone, are just the latest evidence that the traditional Australian dream is slipping out of their reach,” said Grattan Institute fellow Brendan Coates.
[..] “The census showed empty property numbers up by 19% in Melbourne and 15% in Sydney over the past five years alone,” he said. “Considering that thousands of people sleep rough – almost 7000 on census night in 2011, more than 400 per night in Sydney in 2017 and that hundreds of thousands face overcrowded homes or unaffordable rents – these seem like cruel and immoral revelations.”
There is an audacious economic experiment happening in China. It has nothing to do with debt, infrastructure spending or the other major economic topics du jour. It has to do with cash – specifically, how China is systematically and rapidly doing away with paper money and coins. Almost everyone in major Chinese cities is using a smartphone to pay for just about everything. At restaurants, a waiter will ask if you want to use WeChat or Alipay – the two smartphone payment options –before bringing up cash as a third, remote possibility. Just as startling is how quickly the transition has happened. Only three years ago there would be no question at all, because everyone was still using cash. “From a tech standpoint, this is probably one of the single most important innovations that has happened first in China, and at the moment it’s only in China,” says Richard Lim, managing director of the venture capital firm GSR Ventures.
There are certain parts of the Chinese internet that have to be seen to be believed. Coming from outside the country, it’s hard to comprehend that Facebook or Google can be completely blocked until you are forced to do without them. It’s tough to fathom how critical the messenger app WeChat is for everyday life until the sixth person of the day asks to scan your QR (quick response) code – a square-shaped barcode – to connect the two of you. What’s happening with cash in China is similar. For the past three years, I have been outside mainland China covering Asian technology from Hong Kong, which has a very different internet culture from the mainland. I knew that smartphone payments were taking over in China, as the statistics were stark: in 2016, China’s mobile payments hit £42 trillion ($5.5tn), roughly 50 times the size of America’s £860bn market, according to consulting firm iResearch.
[..] Some Scandinavian countries have also weaned themselves from cash but still use cards frequently. In China, the change has been to phones. One friend didn’t realise how reliant she had become on mobile payments until her bank called her. She had left her ATM card in the machine three weeks earlier and had not noticed its absence. In practical terms, this means that two Chinese companies – Tencent, which runs WeChat, and Alibaba, whose financial affiliate, Ant Financial, runs Alipay – are sitting atop a goldmine of staggering proportions. Both companies can make money off the transactions, charge other companies to use their payment platforms and all the while collect the payments data to be used in everything from new credit systems to advertising.
Survivors of the 9/11 attacks have written to Prime Minister Theresa May – urging her to make public a British government report into the extent of Saudi Arabia’s funding of Islamist extremism in the UK. The report into the significance of the financing of Islamic extremists in Britain by Saudi Arabia and other nations was commissioned by Ms May’s predecessor, David Cameron, as part of a deal to obtain political support for a parliamentary vote on UK airstrikes on Syria. Last week, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the report was not being published “because of the volume of personal information it contains and for national security reasons”. Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas suggested the refusal to make public the report was linked to a reluctance to criticise the kingdom, with which Britain has long had close strategic and economic ties.
Now, a group representing US survivors of the 9/11 attacks and the relatives of some of the almost 3,000 people who died, has urged Ms May to seize the chance to release the report, even if it is not fully complete. “The UK now has the unique historic opportunity to stop the killing spree of Wahhabism-inspired terrorists by releasing the UK government’s report on terrorism financing in the UK which, according to media reports, places Saudi Arabia at its centre of culpability,” says the letter, signed by 15 people. “The longer Saudi Arabia’s complicity is hidden from sunlight, the longer terrorism will continue. They must be stopped; but who will stop them? We submit that you are uniquely situated to shine the cleansing light of public consciousness.” It adds: “We respectfully urge you to release the report now, finished or unfinished. We ask you to consider all the victims of state-sponsored, Saudi-financed terrorism, their families and their survivors in the UK and all over the world.”
Michael Barrett and Jenna Mulligan, emergency paramedics in Berkeley County, West Virginia, recently got a call that sent them to the youth softball field in a tiny town called Hedgesville. It was the first practice of the season for the girls’ Little League team, and dusk was descending. Barrett and Mulligan drove past a clubhouse with a blue-and-yellow sign that read “Home of the Lady Eagles,” and stopped near a scrubby set of bleachers, where parents had gathered to watch their daughters bat and field. Two of the parents were lying on the ground, unconscious, several yards apart. As Barrett later recalled, the couple’s thirteen-year-old daughter was sitting behind a chain-link backstop with her teammates, who were hugging her and comforting her.
The couple’s younger children, aged ten and seven, were running back and forth between their parents, screaming, “Wake up! Wake up!” When Barrett and Mulligan knelt down to administer Narcan, a drug that reverses heroin overdoses, some of the other parents got angry. “You know, saying, ‘This is bullcrap,’ ” Barrett told me. “ ‘Why’s my kid gotta see this? Just let ’em lay there.’ After a few minutes, the couple began to groan as they revived. Adults ushered the younger kids away. From the other side of the backstop, the older kids asked Barrett if the parents had overdosed. “I was, like, ‘I’m not gonna say.’ The kids aren’t stupid. They know people don’t just pass out for no reason.” During the chaos, someone made a call to Child Protective Services.
At this stage of the American opioid epidemic, many addicts are collapsing in public—in gas stations, in restaurant bathrooms, in the aisles of big-box stores. Brian Costello, a former Army medic who is the director of the Berkeley County Emergency Medical Services, believes that more overdoses are occurring in this way because users figure that somebody will find them before they die. “To people who don’t have that addiction, that sounds crazy,” he said. “But, from a health-care provider’s standpoint, you say to yourself, ‘No, this is survival to them.’ They’re struggling with using but not wanting to die.”
The U.S. is in the throes of an “unprecedented opioid epidemic,” reports the Centers for Disease Control. The crisis has spurred calls for action to halt the rising death toll, which has devastated many rural communities. It’s true that there’s an opioid epidemic, a public health disaster. It’s not true that it’s unprecedented. A remarkably similar epidemic beset the U.S. some 150 years ago. The story of that earlier catastrophe offers some sobering lessons as to how to address the problem. Opioids are a broad class of drugs that relieve pain by acting directly on the central nervous system. They include substances such as morphine and its close cousin, heroin, both derived from the opium poppy. There are also synthetic versions, such as fentanyl, and medications that are derived from a mix of natural and synthetic sources, such as oxycodone.
Opioid addiction can take many forms, but the current crisis began with the use and abuse of legal painkillers in the 1990s, and has since metastasized into a larger epidemic, with heroin playing an especially outsized role. All of this is depressingly familiar. The first great U.S. opiate-addiction epidemic began much the same way, with medications handed out by well-meaning doctors who embraced a wondrous new class of drugs as the answer to a wide range of aches and pains. The pharmacologist Nathaniel Chapman, writing in 1817, held up opium as the most useful drug in the physician’s arsenal, arguing that there was “scarcely one morbid affection or disordered condition” that would fail to respond to its wonder-working powers. That same year, chemists devised a process for isolating a key alkaloid compound from raw opium: morphine.
Though there’s some evidence that opiate dependency had become a problem as early as the 1840s, it wasn’t until the 1860s and 1870s that addiction became a widespread phenomenon. The key, according to historian David Courtwright, was the widespread adoption of the hypodermic needle in the 1870s. Prior to this innovation, physicians administered opiates orally. During the Civil War, for example, doctors on the Union side administered 10 million opium pills and nearly three million ounces of opium powders and tinctures. Though some soldiers undoubtedly became junkies in the process, oral administration had all manner of unpleasant gastric side effects, limiting the appeal to potential addicts.
In 2013 she stumbled across a deserted clapboard house on the campus of George Mason University in Virginia. It was stuffed with the unsorted archives of a man who had died that year whose name is probably unfamiliar to you: James McGill Buchanan. She says the first thing she picked up was a stack of confidential letters concerning millions of dollars transferred to the university by the billionaire Charles Koch. Her discoveries in that house of horrors reveal how Buchanan, in collaboration with business tycoons and the institutes they founded, developed a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich. The programme is now reshaping politics, and not just in the US.
Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C Calhoun, who argued in the first half of the 19th century that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property (including your slaves) however you may wish; any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses. James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare.
Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital. Any clash between “freedom” (allowing the rich to do as they wish) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defence of freedom. His prescription was a “constitutional revolution”: creating irrevocable restraints to limit democratic choice. Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he developed a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like, and a strategy for implementing it. He explained how attempts to desegregate schooling in the American south could be frustrated by setting up a network of state-sponsored private schools. It was he who first proposed privatising universities, and imposing full tuition fees on students: his original purpose was to crush student activism.
He urged privatisation of social security and many other functions of the state. He sought to break the links between people and government, and demolish trust in public institutions. He aimed, in short, to save capitalism from democracy. In 1980, he was able to put the programme into action. He was invited to Chile, where he helped the Pinochet dictatorship write a new constitution, which, partly through the clever devices Buchanan proposed, has proved impossible to reverse entirely. Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend programmes of privatisation, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982. None of this troubled the Swedish Academy, which through his devotee at Stockholm University Assar Lindbeck in 1986 awarded James Buchanan the Nobel memorial prize for economics. It is one of several decisions that have turned this prize toxic.
Italy has confirmed it is considering issuing temporary humanitarian visas that would allow tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived in the country from Libya to travel around the European Union. The move would provoke an immediate Austrian response, including the closure of the border with Italy at the Brenner Pass. The chances of Italy being able legally to grant unilateral humanitarian visas in this way is slight, but the threat is intended to concentrate minds in the EU after Italy failed to win clear practical support from Germany and France to take more people that have been arriving in increasing numbers from Libya.
The refugee crisis is putting growing political domestic pressure on the Democratic party (PD)-led government, with PD mayors refusing to take extra migrants and plans for legislation on citizenship being shelved at the weekend by the Italian prime minister, Paulo Gentiloni. In an interview with Il Manifesto, Mario Giro, the deputy foreign minister, said the government was looking at all options including the granting of temporary visas. Previously he had simply described the idea as speculation, and it had been dismissed by the interior minister. Giro said: “We are in a tug of war.” He said Italy wanted to avoid unilateral gestures, but was against the strict application of EU law which required migrants to remain in their first country of arrival.
“We don’t accept being turned into a European hotspot, or feeling guilty because we rescue people, so deciding what to do with the migrants who arrive is everyone’s responsibility,” he said. On Monday, the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said the idea of humanitarian visas was not on the agenda. The EU high commissioner for external affairs, Federica Mogherini, insisted the issue was not discussed at the EU foreign affairs council meeting on Monday in Brussels. But the Italians are examining whether they could invoke the application of directive 2001/55, a measure approved following the Balkan wars, that allows the granting of humanitarian visas. It was too early to say when or how many such permits could be issued, Giro said, adding that the Italian authorities who received asylum requests already had the power to grant them.
I know the echo chamber won’t agree, but after watching quite a bit of it, four things stood out for me in the Comey testimony, other than the somewhat too loud remarks about how the entire White House lied about him and the FBI:
1) He admitted to leaking information of his private talk with Trump in the Oval Office. Comey said he didn’t understand why Trump asked everyone to leave the room, but, well, perhaps it’s this: that if anything leaked, it would be clear whodunnit. And leaking info about a private talk with your president is not an obvious thing to do. Illegal? Borderline? Comey stated that he did it because he thought it would lead to a special counsel being appointed. But who is he to ‘promote’ such a thing?
2) He finally said in public that Trump himself had not been under investigation, something the president had asked him to do on three occasions. There was some excuse about not doing it because he might have to walk that back later, but the fact remains: no Trump investigation, and despite all other leaks, no public acknowledgement of that.
3) Comey insisted in no uncertain terms that the entire US intelligence community is convinced that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, and Russia here means the Kremlin, re: Putin. Well, let’s finally see the proof.
4) He recounted how then-AG Loretta Lynch pushed him to relabel the criminal investigation into the Clinton server as a “matter”, a term the Clinton campaign used. But why would an AG do it too, and push the FBI to do the same? Very odd. And then Comey added that this was a reason to call the press conference in which he advised the Department of Justice not to indict Clinton.
As we detailed earlier, during his testimony today, former FBI Director Comey testified that he only leaked the memo about his contact with the President AFTER he saw President Trump’s tweet…
COMEY: I asked — the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might a tape. My judgement was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it. [..] A close friend who is a professor at Columbia law school.
Pretty clear – it was a response to a tweet. But, as President Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz states: “Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified.
He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leak should be investigated along with all those others being investigated”
So the question is – having called President Trump a liar, did Comey just get caught in an even bigger lie… ?
If you count yourself among the die-hard, disaffected Hillary supporters still holding out hope that President Trump will be impeached for conspiring with Russian spies to stage a coup in the United States, then you may want to sit down because earlier today one of your biggest cheerleaders just threw in the towel on that whole narrative. Yes, MSNBC’s very own Chris Matthews, the same man who confessed he “got a thrill up his leg” from simply watching Obama speak, admitted today that Comey’s testimony pretty much confirmed that “there’s no ‘there’ there” when it comes to Trump colluding with the Russians.
“The assumption of the critics of the President, of his pursuers, you might say, is that somewhere along the line in the last year is the President had something to do with colluding with the Russians … to affect the election in some way. Some conversation he had with Michael Flynn or Pual Manafort or somewhere.” “And yet what came apart this morning was that theory in two regards…the President said, according to the written testimony of Mr. Comey, go ahead and get any satellites of my operation and nail them. I’m with you on that…” “And then also, Comey said that basically Flynn wasn’t central to the Russian investigation.” “And I’ve always assumed that what Trump was afraid of was that he had said something to Flynn and Flynn could be flipped on that and Flynn would testify against the President that he’d had some conversation with Flynn in terms of dealing with the Russians affirmatively.” “And if that’s not the case, where’s the there-there?”
And when Chris Matthews throws in the towel on a liberal narrative, you know the gig is up. Oh, and by the way, this probably doesn’t help your case either… Burr: “Director Comey, did the President at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?” Comey: “Not to my understanding, no.” Burr: “Did any individual working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the Russian investigation?” Comey: “No.”
Theresa May can stay until the Tories throw her out; she’s proven to be an awful liability, not a leader. Far too risky. How much would she lose next time around? Their problem is there’s no-one else who’s obvious, there must be dirty fights in dark and rainy alleys first.
So: Tories will throw out May, while Corbyn will have to throw the Blairites out of Labour who made his position a living hell.
Most likely seems Corbyn as PM of a minority government. But that’s a big risk going into Brexit talks.
The UK faces the prospect of a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party after the general election produced no overall winner. With nearly all results in, Theresa May faces having fewer seats than when she called the election. The Tories are projected to get 318 seats, Labour 261 and the SNP 35. Jeremy Corbyn has urged the PM to resign but the BBC understands she has no intention of doing so at this stage and will try to form a government. The prime minister has said the country needs stability after the inconclusive election result and the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg said Mrs May intended to try and govern on the basis that her party had won the largest number of votes and seats.
Labour is set to make 29 gains with the Tories losing 13 seats – and the SNP down by 22 seats in a bad night for Nicola Sturgeon, with her party losing seats to the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems. The Conservatives are forecast to win 42% of the vote, Labour 40%, the Lib Dems 7%, UKIP 2% and the Greens 2%. Turnout so far is 68.7% – up 2% up on 2015 – but it has been a return two party politics in many parts of the country, with Labour and the Conservatives both piling up votes in numbers not seen since the 1990s. UKIP’s vote slumped dramatically but rather than moving en masse to the Tories, as they had expected, their voters also switched to Labour.
Despite a lot of the good news streaming out of counts everywhere right now, make no mistake: this is going to be chaos. A deep and growing sense of frustration is about to ripple through the country, because what May has essentially done in her arrogance is take a gamble that could cost us decades of stability and prosperity. It is likely that what awaits us over the next few weeks is, to put it bluntly, a mess. Hung parliament. No clear majority. No willingness to form a coalition. A possible resignation from the Prime Minister (whether she’s pushed or jumps is yet to be seen) and then yet another leadership contest. Boris Johnson is said on the Westminster grapevine to already be positioning himself as a candidate, yet his reputation has turned increasingly sour over the last few years.
Many now regard him as a cynical power-grabber without much regard for the people he claims to represent. The Tories have spent the last two years playing Russian roulette with the electorate in the hope of cementing their credibility, and causing utter shambles along the way. Having barely recovered from a referendum result which caused deep divisions and painful rifts within our society, and as Europe watches us scramble for any sort of political legitimacy, who will now head into the talks that will determine our economic and political future? Theresa May has now shoved us off a cliff into political unknowns just when what we actually needed was, ironically enough, some strong and stable leadership.
Any reassurance from Westminster that the lives of ordinary people in this country mattered more than political point-scoring would be welcome. What we’ll get instead, despite the Labour surge, is yet another election, whether that be in two months’ or two years’ time. It feels inspiring and hopeful that we have so many progressive and wonderful MPs back in the Commons. But until we have a government and a plan of how to get ourselves through this, that hope is limited to a symbolic step in the right direction. In the words of one particularly concise campaign poster: strong and stable, my arse.
The EU will force a humiliated Theresa May to explain her intentions at a face-to-face meeting in Brussels as senior diplomats and politicians warned that the hung parliament resulting from the UK election was a “disaster” that hugely increases the chance of a breakdown in the Brexit negotiations. The result is likely to delay the point at which Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has someone with whom to negotiate. Sources said a meeting of the European council on 22 June was the deadline by which time the EU27 would want to know the prime minister’s plans. Guenther Oettinger, the German member of the European commission, said: “We need a government that can act. With a weak negotiating partner, there’s the danger than the negotiations will turn out badly for both sides … I expect more more uncertainty now.”
It had been hoped that officials from both sides would have informal talks next week over the logistics of the negotiations, before formal talks began on the week starting 19 June. With the prime minister needing to both seek to form a minority or coalition government, as well as potentially revise her goals for the talks in the light of the election result, the original timetable seems unrealistic to officials in Brussels. The EU had, until now, believed it understood that May wanted to take the UK out of both the single market and the customs union, but in the early hours of Friday morning the Brexit secretary, David Davis, had suggested the election result could prompt a rethink.
[..] despite 8-years of a bull market advance, one of the prevailing myths that seeming will not die is that of “cash on the sidelines.” To wit: “Underpinning gains in both stocks and bonds is $5 trillion of capital that is sitting on the sidelines and serving as a reservoir for buying on weakness. This excess cash acts as a backstop for financial assets, both bonds and equities, because any correction is quickly reversed by investors deploying their excess cash to buy the dip,” Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou, the managing director of global market strategy at JPMorgan, wrote in a client note. This is the age old excuse why the current “bull market” rally is set to continue into the indefinite future. The ongoing belief is that at any moment investors are suddenly going to empty bank accounts and pour it into the markets.
However, the reality is if they haven’t done it by now after 3-consecutive rounds of Q.E. in the U.S., a 200% advance in the markets, and ongoing global Q.E., exactly what will that catalyst be? However, Clifford Asness previously wrote: “There are no sidelines. Those saying this seem to envision a seller of stocks moving her money to cash and awaiting a chance to return. But they always ignore that this seller sold to somebody, who presumably moved a precisely equal amount of cash off the sidelines.” Every transaction in the market requires both a buyer and a seller with the only differentiating factor being at what PRICE the transaction occurs. Since this must be the case for there to be equilibrium to the markets there can be no “sidelines.”
Each month, the Investment Company Institute releases information related to the mutual fund industry. Included in this data is the total amount of assets invested in mutual funds, ETFs and money market funds. As a rough measure of investor sentiment, this indicator looks at the total assets invested in equity mutual funds and ETFs, and compares it to the total assets invested in the safety of money market funds. The higher the ratio, the more comfortable investors have become holding stocks; the lower the ratio, the more uncertainty there is in the market. Currently, with the ratio at the highest level on record there is little fear of holding stocks. Negative free cash balances also suggest the same as investors have piled on the highest levels of leverage in market history.
Furthermore, with investors once again “fully invested” in equities, it is not surprising to see cash and bond allocations near historic lows. Cash on the sidelines? Not really. Everyone “all in the boat?” Absolutely. Historical outcomes from such situations? Not Great.
In the Fed’s latest Flow of Funds report, today the Fed released the latest snapshot of the US “household” sector as of March 31, 2017. What it revealed is that with $110.0 trillion in assets and a modest $15.2 trillion in liabilities, the net worth of the average US household rose to a new all time high of $94.835 trillion, up $2.4 trillion as a result of an estimated $500 billion increase in real estate values, but mostly $1.78 trillion increase in various stock-market linked financial assets like corporate equities, mutual and pension funds, as the stock market continued to soar to all time highs . At the same time, household borrowing rose by only $36 billion from $15.1 trillion to $15.2 trillion, the bulk of which was $9.8 trillion in home mortgages.
And the historical change of the US household balance sheet.
And while it would be great news if wealth across America had indeed risen as much as the chart above shows, the reality is that there is a big catch: as shown previously, virtually all of the net worth, and associated increase thereof, has only benefited a handful of the wealthiest Americans. As a reminder, from the CBO’s latest Trends in Family Wealth analysis, here is a breakdown of the above chart by wealth group, which sadly shows how the “average” American wealth is anything but.
While the breakdown has not caught up with the latest data, it provides an indicative snapshot of who benefits. Here is how the CBO recently explained the wealth is distributed: In 2013, families in the top 10% of the wealth distribution held 76% of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90thpercentiles held 23%, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held 1%. Average wealth was about $4 million for families in the top 10% of the wealth distribution, $316,000 for families in the 51st to 90th percentiles, and $36,000 for families in the 26th to 50th percentiles. On average, families at or below the 25th percentile were $13,000 in debt In other words, roughly three-quarter of the $2.4 trillion increase in assets went to benefit just 10% of the population, who also account for roughly 76% of America’s financial net worth,
The opioid crisis that is ravaging urban and suburban communities across the US claimed an unprecedented 59,000 lives last year, according to preliminary data gathered by the New York Times. If accurate, that’s equivalent to a roughly 19% increase over the approximately 52,000 overdose deaths recorded in 2015, the NYT reported last year. Overdoses, made increasingly common by the introduction of fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids into the heroin supply, are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. And all evidence suggests the problem has continued to worsen in 2017. One coroner in Western Pennsylvania told a local newspaper that his office is literally running out of room to store the bodies, and that it was recently forced to buy a larger freezer. The initial data points to large increases in these types of deaths in states along the East Coast, particularly Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine.
In Ohio, which filed a lawsuit last week accusing five drug companies of abetting the opioid epidemic, the Times estimated that overdose deaths increased by more than 25% in 2016. In some Ohio counties, deaths from heroin have virtually disappeared. Instead, the primary culprit is fentanyl or one of its many analogues. In Montgomery County, home to Dayton, of the 100 drug overdose deaths recorded in January and February, only three people tested positive for heroin; 97 tested positive for fentanyl or another analogue. In some states in the western half of the US, data suggest deaths may have leveled off for the time being – or even begun to decline. Experts believe that the heroin supply west of the Mississippi River, traditionally dominated by a variant of the drug known as black tar which is smuggled over the border from Mexico, isn’t as easily adulterated with lethal analogues as the powder that’s common on the East Coast.
That $110 billion arms deal President Donald Trump signed with Saudi Arabia isn’t much of a deal at all, according to reports which found the majority of the agreement was based on memos, rather than contracts. On May 20, Trump negotiated an arms deal with Riyadh. The State Department said it was worth nearly $110 billion to support “the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of malign Iranian influence and Iranian related threat.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hailed it the “largest single arms deal in US history.” The State Department then released a general list of the weapons that were included in the deal. However, many experts have said that most of the arms sales had not been cleared by the State Department, Congress or even the industries themselves.
On Thursday, Defense News released a more detailed list of the weapons included in the deal, according to documents they obtained from the White House. The ‘deal’ lists $84.8 billion under memos of intent (MOI) “to be offered at visit,” and $12.5 billion under letters of agreement (LOA), rather than contracts. NPR also obtained a list of commercial deals from a White House spokeswoman and found that it added up to $267 billion, but said most of the deals were listed as “memoranda of understanding” (MOU). “There is no $110 billion deal,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel wrote in blog post Monday. “Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts,” Riedel said. “Even then the numbers don’t add up. It’s fake news.”
Washington is Greece’s only true international ally, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos insisted on Thursday, and accused the country’s European partners of showing a lack of respect. “The Greek people are well aware that the United States has been the country’s only genuine ally,” Kammenos said. “The others are allies, but they are [allies] only in the form of creditors, without [any sense of] respect and this is because some of them will never forget that they lost World War II to this country,” Kammenos, who is also leader of junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, added during a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the US Office of Defense Cooperation in Athens yesterday. “For this reason, we welcome US support at this very difficult moment for our country,” said Kammenos, who also called for the strengthening of the Hellenic Navy with US help so “that it can operate from Crete to the Suez.”
Bolstering the navy and the country’s military aviation capabilities are necessary, he said, to intercept the flow of drugs, weapons and fuel through which terrorism is funded. He also said that Greece is positively inclined to extend the time frame of the defense agreement between the two countries, adding that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his government are working in that direction. He also referred to the latest developments in the Gulf states and stressed that he supports describing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Aiming his fire at Turkey, he said that each country must choose “whose side they want to be on.” It is certain, he said, that “Greece will be on the side of the US.” For his part, US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt praised relations between Athens and Washington, adding that as Greece’s economy stabilizes, it will become even more active in its role as a bridge between countries of the region.
Any countries in the European Union receiving asylum requests from refugees have an obligation to process them irrespective of where the applicants first entered into the bloc, an advocate general at the European Court of Justice said on Thursday. Eleanor Sharpston said in a non-binding opinion that under the “exceptional circumstances” of the refugee crisis, member states should not be bound by the Dublin Regulation’s requirement that first-entry states handle all asylum applications, even after a refugee or migrant has moved on to a different country. “The words ‘irregular crossing’ in the Dublin III Regulation do not cover a situation where, as a result of the mass inflow of people into border member states, those countries allowed third-country nationals to enter and transit through their territory in order to reach other member states,” she wrote.
Sharpston referred to the case of a Syrian national who traveled to Slovenia via Croatia and that of an Afghan family that entered Europe in Greece and then made its way to Austria. Slovenia and Austria should be responsible for examining their asylum applications, she said. “If border member states… are deemed to be responsible for accepting and processing exceptionally high numbers of asylum seekers, there is a real risk that they will simply be unable to cope with the situation,” Sharpston wrote. “This in turn could place member states in a position where they are unable to comply with their obligations under EU and international law,” she added.
It is difficult to believe that after Greece’s judiciary offered protection to eight members of the Turkish military, rejecting Ankara’s request for their extradition, the government would agree to the illegal, secret and inhuman expulsion of people who requested asylum here. Yet unease grows. On Wednesday the government spokesman stated, “The Greek government does not engage in pushbacks.” Let us hope that is so. The Hellenic League for Human Rights cites two instances where groups of Turkish citizens who requested asylum in Greece appear to have been handed over illegally to Turkish authorities. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the head of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, have expressed concern at the possibility.
There is also the strange story of three Turkish military men who where arrested in Edirne last month, accused of being part of a group that intended to kidnap President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the failed coup last July. Turkish media said the men were arrested while on their way to Greece; some Greek lawyers, however, claim that the three had crossed into Greece when they disappeared, only to turn up in Turkish custody. The Citizens’ Protection Ministry in Greece scoffed that the claims were “fairy tales.” The case of the eight servicemen who arrived in Alexandroupoli in a helicopter the day after the coup attempt shows how difficult it is for any country to withstand Ankara’s pressure. It is understandable that no government would like to open a new front with a neighbor who can cause problems at will. But it is of paramount importance that Greece withstand such pressures.
In the past few years, among our country’s very few victories were the welcome provided to refugees and the institutional way in which it dealt with the “Eight.” Our great wound, though, is the lack of strategy, of method, of goals – of follow-up. On the refugee issue, government incompetence undermined the initial, heroic efforts of citizens. In the case of Turkish asylum seekers, the difficulties of handling the case of the Eight should not lead to cynicism, to injustice, to the violation of international conventions. Greece has a responsibility toward its own people and toward the Turkish people, to serve the principles of humanism, to abide by the law. Strenuous defense of these principles is part of the identity we aspire to but also our shield. And it is the best thing that we can offer our neighbors – the hope that there is something better than that which they are now enduring.
In honor of the Donald’s “Mother of All Bomb” (MOAB) attack on the Hindu Kush mountains Thursday, let me introduce MOAD. I’m referring to the “Mother of All Debt” crises, of course. The opening round is coming when Washington goes into shutdown mode on April 28, which happens to be Day 100 of the Donald’s reign. In theory, this should be just a routine extension of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 continuing resolution (CR) by which Congress is funding the $1.1 trillion compartment of government which is appropriated annually. The remaining $3 trillion per year of entitlements and debt service is on automatic pilot, but the truth is Washington can’t agree on what to do about either component — except to keeping on borrowing to pay the bills. There is a problem with this long-running game of fiscal kick-the-can, however.
Namely, a 100 year-old statute requires Congress to raise the ceiling for treasury borrowing periodically, but the Imperial City has now reached the point in which there is absolutely no way forward to accomplish this. Moreover, that critical fact is ill-understood by Wall Street because it does not remotely recognize that all the debt ceiling increases since the public debt exploded after the 2008-09 crisis were an accident of the Obama presidency. That is, surrounded by Keynesian economic advisers and big spending Democratic politicians, he had no fear of the national debt at all and obviously even believed the more debt the better. And Obama was also able to bamboozle the establishment GOP leadership led by former Speaker Boehner into steering enough GOP votes to the “responsible” course of action.
Needless to say, Obama is gone, Boehner is gone and the 17-month debt ceiling “holiday” that they confected in October 2015 to ride Washington through the election is gone, too. What’s arrived is vicious partisan warfare, a new President who is clueless about the urgency of the debt crisis and a bloc of 50 or so Freedom Caucus Republicans who now rule Washington. And good for them! They genuinely fear and loathe the banana republic financial profligacy that prevails in the Imperial City, and would rip the flesh from Speaker Ryan’s face were he to go the Boehner route and try to assemble a “bipartisan” consensus for a condition-free increase in the debt ceiling.
What that means is a completely new ball game in the Imperial City that will absolutely dominate the agenda as far as the eye can see. That’s because the Freedom Caucus will insist that sweeping entitlement reforms and spending cuts accompany any debt ceiling increase. Even “moderate” Senator Rob Portman (Ohio) has legislation requiring that dollar for dollar deficit cuts accompany any increase in the debt ceiling. But if you think the GOP fractures and fissures generated by Obamacare replace and repeal were difficult, you haven’t seen nothin’ yet. There is absolutely no basis for GOP consensus on meaningful deficit cuts, meaning that MOAD will bring endless starts, stops, showdowns and shutdowns, as the U.S. Treasury recurringly exhausts its cash and short-term extensions of its borrowing authority.
In the meanwhile, everything else — health care reform, tax cuts, infrastructure — will become backed-up in an endless queue of legislative impossibilities. Accordingly, there will be no big tax cut in 2017 or even next year. For all practical purposes Uncle Sam is broke and his elected managers are paralyzed. The Treasury will be out of cash and up against a hard stop debt limit of $19.8 trillion in a matter of months. But long before that there will be a taste of the Shutdown Syndrome on April 28 owing to the accumulating number of “poison pill” “riders” to the CR.
U.S. military commanders are stepping up their fight against Islamist extremism as President Donald Trump’s administration urges them to make more battlefield decisions on their own. As the White House works on a broad strategy, America’s top military commanders are implementing the vision articulated by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: Decimate Islamic State’s Middle East strongholds and ensure that the militants don’t establish new beachheads in places such as Afghanistan. “There’s nothing formal, but it is beginning to take shape,” a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. “There is a sense among these commanders that they are able to do a bit more—and so they are.” While military commanders complained about White House micromanagement under former President Barack Obama, they are now being told they have more freedom to make decisions without consulting Mr. Trump.
Military commanders around the world are being encouraged to stretch the limits of their existing authorities when needed, but to think seriously about the consequences of their decisions. The more muscular military approach is expanding as the Trump administration debates a comprehensive new strategy to defeat Islamic State. Mr. Mattis has sketched out such a global plan, but the administration has yet to agree on it. While the political debate continues, the military is being encouraged to take more aggressive steps against Islamic extremists around the world. The firmer military stance has fueled growing concerns among State Department officials working on Middle East policy that the Trump administration is giving short shrift to the diplomatic tools the Obama administration favored.
Removing the carrot from the traditional carrot-and-stick approach, some State Department officials warn, could hamper the pursuit of long-term strategies needed to prevent volatile conflicts from reigniting once the shooting stops. The new approach was on display this week in Afghanistan, where Gen. John Nicholson, head of the U.S.-led coalition there, decided to use one of the military’s biggest nonnuclear bombs—a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB—to hit a remote Islamic State underground network of tunnels and caves. A senior administration official said Mr. Trump didn’t know about the weapon’s use until it had been dropped. Mr. Mattis “is telling them, ‘It’s not the same as it was, you don’t have to ask us before you drop a MOAB,’” the senior defense official said. “Technically there’s no piece of paper that says you have to ask the president to drop a MOAB. But last year this time, the way [things were] meant, ‘I’m going to drop a MOAB, better let the White House know.’”
We constantly hear the factoids about “American households” that paint a picture of immense wealth – and therefore a lack of risk for consumer lenders during the next downturn. We hear: “This – the thing that happened in 2008 and 2009 – won’t happen again.” For example, total net worth (assets minus debt) of US households and non-profit organization (they’re lumped together) rose to an astronomical $92.8 trillion at the end of 2016, according to the Federal Reserve. This is up by nearly 70% in early 2009 when the Fed started its QE and zero-interest-rate programs. Inflating household wealth was one of the big priorities of the Fed during the Financial Crisis. It would crank up the economy. In an editorial in 2010, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke himself called this the “wealth effect.”
So with this colossal wealth of US households, what could go wrong during the next downturn? Here’s what could go wrong: About half of Americans do not have enough savings to pay for even a minor emergency expense. The Federal Reserve found that 46% of adults could not cover an emergency expense of $400, such as a broken windshield. They would either have to borrow the money or try to sell the couch or something. So nearly half of the adults in the US live from paycheck to paycheck. About 15% of American households have either zero or negative net wealth, according to the New York Fed. Negative net worth means they have more debt than in assets. And nearly 47 million Americans, or nearly 15% of the population, live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.
So who benefited from the “wealth effect”? Those who had the most assets. At the very tippy-top: Warren Buffet. At the other end of the spectrum, in 2016, only 52% of households owned stocks directly or indirectly. The phenomenal stock market boom left 48% – usually those below the poverty line, those who cannot cover emergency expenses, those with zero or negative net worth, etc. etc. – in the dust.
The time has come for financial institutions to prepare for an environment with rising interest rates, a Bundesbank board member told CNBC on Thursday. Many risk managers have focused on credit and liquidity risks, but they need to insert interest rate risks into the equation too, Andreas Dombret, an executive board member of the German Bundesbank, said. “Let’s face it, there are quite a number of risk managers who have never seen interest rates rise and who have never seen the interest rate risk and even thought about (it) and have concentrated on credit risk and have concentrated on liquidity risk, so it’s about time to prepare for a potential change,” Dombret said.
The former vice-chairman of Bank of America’s European global investment unit explained that the German central bank is taking interest rate rises “very seriously” and is “actively” working with German banks to ensure that changes to monetary policy will not disrupt them in any way. “Should there be sharp rises in interest rates that of course would be a challenge for any bank,” Dombret said. Members of the German central bank have been critical of the low interest rate environment in the euro zone, arguing this is hurting banks’ balance sheets. Earlier this month, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, called on the ECB to start tightening its monetary policy.
While China Hongqiao Group may be best known for being the world’s largest aluminum producer, it has in recent months featured just as prominently among short-seller reports who have accused the company of being a fraud. As the WSJ’s Scott Patterson writes, questions about China Hongqiao’s finances first emerged in November, when an anonymous short seller wrote on a website called Hongqiao Exposed that the company’s profits are “too good to be true.” China Hongqiao in the March 31 statement called the report “untrue and unfounded.” A subsequent 46-page report on Feb. 28 by Emerson Analytics, a trading firm focused on Chinese stock-market fraud, disclosed more allegations of fraud involving the Chinese commodity giant.
Emerson accused China Hongqiao of “abnormally high” profits generated by underreporting production costs and disclosing electricity expenses—one of the biggest costs for aluminum producers—as much as 40% below their true cost. Emerson said it investigated Chinese electricity costs, spoke to former China Hongqiao employees and compared the company’s costs and profits with other comparable companies.
Additionally, China Hongqiao has been more profitable than some Chinese competitors. For instance, China Hongqiao earned an average operating profit margin of 27% in the past five years, compared with minus-1.7% for state-owned Aluminum Corp. of China , known as Chalco, and 5.9% for Alcoa, according to FactSet. “People were always skeptical about how they managed to be more profitable than their peers,” said Sandra Chow, a credit analyst at CreditSights. And while China Hongqiao denied the Emerson report’s allegations and said it hired an investigative agency to look into the firm and people behind the claims, things are starting to unravel rapidly for the Chinese megacap.
As Patterson reports, China Hongqiao – the world’s biggest aluminum producer – is in trouble, locked in a feud with its accountant over fraud allegations that have forced it to suspend trading of its shares and seek help from the central government in Beijing. Just like in the case of its cow dairy peer, the problems emerged to the surface following the bearish 3rd party reports. Just days after the Emerson Analytics note, on March 4 China Hongqiao sought assistance from a trade group, the Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Industry Association, or CNIA, saying the short sellers’ claims of inflated profits were forcing the company’s accountant, Ernst & Young, “to adopt an extremely conservative and careful attitude.” One wonders just whose books E&Y had been reviewing until that point if it took an outside party to bring attention to potential fraud at one of its biggest Chinese clients.
The value of China’s home sales remained buoyant in March, though volume figures indicated that curbs in a number of cities may be slowing the recent buying frenzy. New home sales by value rose 18% to 1 trillion yuan ($145 billion) last month from a year earlier, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data released Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics. The increase compares with a 23% surge in the first two months of the year. But the value of sales partly reflected surging home prices. By volume, home sales grew only 11% in March to 130 million square meters, according to Bloomberg calculations, below the 24% growth in the first two months of 2017. “The curbs are showing their effects,” said Liu Feifan at Guotai Junan Securities in Shenzhen, who predicted that sales growth will continue to slow.
Policy makers are seeking to clear a glut of unsold homes in smaller urban centers, while pledging to enforce strict curbs in most first- and second-tier cities to prevent a housing bubble. In a month when at least 64 cities announced new or stricter property-buying restrictions, some of the growth in home sales reflected buyers flocking into the market fearing they’d be ruled ineligible for future purchases. Investment in real estate development gained 9.4% in March from a year earlier, up from 8.9% in the first two months, according to Bloomberg calculations. Strong property investment helped China’s fixed-asset investment excluding rural areas expand 9.2% in the first quarter, accelerating from 8.1% growth last year.
Some of the growth represented a “delayed effect” from an earlier property boom, and the rate is likely to decelerate soon, Zhou Hao at Commerzbank wrote in a note after the data release. Liu at Guotai Junan said the increasingly high leverage that Chinese households have taken on for home purchase is “not sustainable.” New medium and long-term loans to households, made up mostly of mortgages, picked up again last month to 450.3 billion yuan, according to official data last Friday.
You probably have figured it out by now, but let me state it anyway. Ten years from now, if you’re reading this paper in a driverless car, it will be on a limited-access highway or a closed-off, experimental city circuit. You will not be thumbing through your text messages in a driverless car capable of carrying you anywhere, at all hours, in all weather conditions, over all kinds of roads. And even so, you will be expected to take over driving at a moment s notice. Ditto electric cars. If you own an electric car, you will be a member of a still-small minority. Electric-car owners will be people who own multiple cars or otherwise are willing to settle for a car with limited utility, suited for a daily commute but not a family trip or a long weekend. Even so, a new phenomenon will become apparent. After unexpected tie-ups on the interstate, tow trucks will routinely have to come and remove three or four Teslas that risked a long-distance trip and ran out of juice.
All this we offer as a discordant note amid the hype for electric cars and autonomous driving. Last week the market value of Tesla surpassed that of Ford and General Motors. Tesla is now the most valuable homegrown American car company, worth almost $US52 billion.Yet in the same week a reputable consultancy, Navigant Research, showed that Ford and GM lead all others, including Tesla and Google, in the autonomous car race. Shocking? Not really. These companies are making and selling cars, while the Silicon Valleyites have been mostly engaged in brand-building exercises based on public fascination with jazzy, futuristic auto technology. Google, the pioneer of self-driving hype, recently admitted it won’t build and sell a car after all. Google, though, still finds it pays to trundle its handful of robot cars on the exquisitely mapped streets of a few locales in perfect weather as obstacles to other motorists.
Apple reaped untold millions in free publicity based mainly on rumours and job postings for automotive engineers. Uber briefly suspended its own self-driving taxi experiment in three cities after an accident last month. Uber customers knew they were in a driverless car, by the way, because it had two drivers instead of one. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Tesla’s triumph in the market-cap sweepstakes underscores the profound change occurring in the global automotive industry as Silicon Valley pursues a vision for transportation … that could up-end century-old competitors. Except that the stock prices of traditional car makers haven’t exactly been tanking. GM’s remains within yelling distance of its postbankruptcy high. Look at BMW, whose market cap Tesla nearly equals. Even if Tesla succeeds in its high-risk plan to ramp up annual production to 500,000 from 80,000 in a scant two years, it will sell a quarter as many luxury cars as BMW does, and has yet to show it can do so profitably.
On Good Friday, when markets were closed and when the entire financial world was tuned out, and when certainly no one was supposed to pay attention, Uber, the most highly valued – at $62.5 billion – and the most scandal plagued tech startup in the world, took the until now unprecedented step of disclosing its audited revenues and losses for the fourth quarter and for the full year of 2016. Rumors of ballooning losses for 2016 had been swirling since last summer. Bloomberg reported in August that Uber had lost “at least $1.2 billion” in the first half. In December, Uber’s loss in Q3 was said to “exceed $800 million,” according to Bloomberg, and its annual loss “may hit $3 billion.”
Others chimed in as some of Uber’s dozens of investors who’re getting its financial statements share them in dribs and drabs with the media. But on Friday, Uber itself disclosed that it lost $2.8 billion before interest, tax, depreciation, and employee stock options – the latter likely being a big chunk, as the earnings of publicly traded companies that award stock-based compensation, such as Twitter, regularly show. Translated into a net loss, including the expense for stock-based compensation? Dizzying. But Uber wisely didn’t disclose it. The Financial Times, which reported this disclosure, mused that Uber is “cementing its place as the most heavily-lossmaking private company in the history of Silicon Valley.”
In Q4 alone, it lost $991 million before interest, tax, depreciation, and stock-based compensation, up 5% from the losses in Q3 and nearly double its loss in Q1. However, as Uber has expanded at break-neck speed into more than 70 countries, stirring up numerous hornets’ nests of local and national laws and regulations, revenue soared over 200% from Q1 to reach $2.9 billion in Q4. For the whole year, revenue reached $6.5 billion. This is the image of its skyrocketing 2016 quarterly revenues and ballooning losses before interest, tax, depreciation, and stock-based compensation:
Five months have passed since the demonetisation drive, but the people of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam continue to face shortage of cash in banks and ATMs. Sources said more than 90% of the ATMs in the region do not have cash while in the plains and Agency areas running dry. “The last date for paying my daughter’s tuition fees at Visakha Valley School was April 10, but I could not pay due to unavailability of cash. Moreover, the school does not have any online payment system,” said a worried P Srinivasa Rao. Speaking to TOI, State Bank of India (SBI) deputy general manager Ajoy Kumar Pandit said the customers are losing confidence in them due to the crisis.
“Nearly 70% of our 648 ATMs in the three districts are out of cash. The rest will also become dry in the next few days as we do not have cash to refill the machines. We are helpless from our side,” he said. A banking source said the RBI has diverted most of the cash to north India due to the recent elections. This has affected the southern parts of the country. “The government’s intention is to encourage smart payment systems, but the infrastructure is not up to the mark,” the source said. Many ATMs have not been upgraded with the new software required for handling the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 denominations, the source added.
The referendum has revealed the opposite of what Erdogan claims it has; namely, a dramatically divided Turkey. A powder keg. Recounts first? Is the judicial system still strong enough to order them? Changing a constitution with a 50% + 1 majority is questionable enough, since a constitution is supposed to be the result of many years of deliberation; in most places it would require 67% or even 75%. On top of that, this referendum was executed with many opposition politicians and many journalists behind bars. And even then only a very slim margin?!
An emboldened Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed his win in a referendum that ratified the supremacy of his rule by taking aim at political opponents at home and abroad. At his victory speech late on Sunday, supporters chanted that he should bring back the death penalty – a move that would finish off Turkey’s bid to join the EU – and Erdogan warned opponents not to bother challenging the legitimacy of his win. He told them to prepare for the biggest overhaul of Turkey’s system of governance ever, one that will result in him having even fewer checks on his already considerable power. “Today, Turkey has made a historic decision,” he said. “We will change gears and continue along our course more quickly.” The lira surged as much as 2.5% against the dollar in early trading on Monday in Istanbul before gains moderated.
The success of a package of 18 changes to the constitution was narrow, with about 51.4% of Turks approving it. It came at the end of a divisive two-month campaign during which Erdogan accused opponents of the vote of supporting “terrorists” and denounced as Nazi-like the decision of some EU countries to bar his ministers from lobbying the diaspora. “The referendum campaign was dominated by strongly anti-Western rhetoric and repeated promises to bring back the death penalty,” said Inan Demir at Nomura in London. “One hopes that this rhetoric will be tempered now that the vote is over,” but recent steps by the Turkish government do “not bode well for the hoped-for moderation in international relations.”
“It looks like the best outcome for financial markets because it gives the mandate, but not a strong mandate,” said Ozgur Altug, the chief economist at BGC Partners in Istanbul, who predicts stocks in Istanbul will rally about 7%. While markets looked favorably on the result as a sign political turmoil in the majority Muslim nation of 80 million people may settle down and help jumpstart the economy, Turkey’s biggest political party alleged fraud, demanding a recount after election officials accepted ballots without official stamps.
The EU’s rapporteur on Turkey, Kati Piri, said given the “unfair election environment,” EU accession talks will be suspended if the constitution is passed in its current form. The European Commission, in a statement, said the constitutional amendments, and their implementation “will be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations” as an accession candidate and as a member of the Council of Europe. “You saw how the West attacked. But despite this, the nation stood tall, didn’t get divided,” Erdogan told his supporters, while calling on Turks who opposed him to “stop tiring themselves out” and accept the course the country is headed on.
It’s more likely that the last time you bought a pack of gum or a can or soda, you used a credit card. People like their credit cards so much they’re using them even for the tiniest purchases, according to a new survey released Monday from the credit cards site CreditCards.com. Among people with credit cards, 17% said they use them to buy items in brick-and-mortar stores that cost less than $5, up from 11% last year. CreditCards.com surveyed about 1,000 U.S. adults in March 2017. After a lull in the wake of the Great Recession, credit cards are once again being used with increased frequency. The Federal Reserve reported last week that collective credit card debt in the U.S. had reached $1 trillion.
Credit-card debt and auto loan debt balances for people ages 60 and older have also risen since 2008, that Fed data showed, whereas credit-card debt for those 59 and younger has fallen. The Fed, when describing that phenomenon, said lending standards have tightened since the recession, and those who are older may also be more creditworthy. But when consumers can pay their balances each month, turning to credit cards for small purchases isn’t a bad thing, said Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. Putting more charges on a credit card may indicate consumers feel more optimistic about their financial picture for the future, he said. “People who are chasing rewards realize that those little purchases can add up to a lot of rewards over the course of a year,” he added.
Indeed, several high-profile credit cards offer cash back and perks for spending. For example, Amazon introduced a credit card this year for Prime members that gives 5% cash back on Amazon purchases (Prime itself costs $99 per year.) Some retailers, however, prohibit credit-card purchases below a certain amount to avoid paying transaction fees to the credit-card issuers for such purchases. That said, cash and debit cards still are the go-to options for making small purchases, despite the speed with which credit cards are gaining on them. Of those surveyed, 24% said they use debit cards for small purchases, and 55% said they use cash. It appears younger consumers are behind at least some of the growth in credit card use: Some 70% of baby boomers and their older cohorts, the Silent Generation, still choose cash for small purchases versus 43% of those under 53.
[..] the push to get rid of cash is hitting speed bumps all over. India, for example, is already partly reintroducing its 500- and 1000-rupee bills after the government’s abrupt demonetization program drew sharp criticism for hurting its cash-dependent rural population. The U.S. shows no inclination to pare back its notes. “I’m very conscious of the $100 bill being the world’s reserve currency, and every central bank around the world has stacks of $100 bills where they used to have gold,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal shortly before he left office in January. One reason it’s a non-starter in the U.S.: About 8% of people don’t have a checking or savings account, making it all-but-impossible for them to participate in a cashless economy.
Banning cash “would bring the economy and many people to their knees if enforced,” said Hoover Institution economist John Cochrane. In the aboveground economy, card-based and digital payment systems offering ever-greater speed, safety and convenience have been steadily encroaching on paper money, even for small consumer transactions. Euromonitor International, a market-research firm, said the volume of global cash payments in 2016 for the first time fell below payments on credit and debit cards. Some of the growth in cash can be attributed to the financial crisis and the aftermath, when people lost faith in banks, and when ultralow interest rates and anemic investment returns reduced the opportunity costs of holding savings in cash. The number of $100 bills in circulation, worth $1.15 trillion in December, has surged 76% since 2009, according to Federal Reserve data.
“The change of change is now negative,” said the CIO. “Global growth is still rising, but the rate of improvement is slowing,” he explained. “Same holds true for global inflation, oil prices, copper, iron ore. Credit growth is slowing in the US, Europe, Japan, China.” If these things were all contracting, we’d plunge into recession, but we’re not there. We’re simply at the point in the cycle where the rate of acceleration is slowing – which is both evidence of a pause, and a precondition for every major turn. “The last time we had a major shift in the change of change was a year ago.” In Jan/Feb 2016, China was imploding. Commodity prices were tanking with equity markets, the dollar soared alongside volatility. Then China unleashed explosive credit stimulus, while the Fed blinked, guiding forward interest rates dramatically lower. Within a short time, the change of change turned positive.
Which is not to say things immediately accelerated, it’s just that they started contracting more slowly. And that marked the time to buy. “Pretty much everything that happened in 2016 can be explained by two things; China and oil prices,” he said. “Literally, that’s it.” China’s stimulus-induced rebound and the oil price recovery is all that mattered. “Brexit was a joke. Trump was a joke. In fact, the only real significance of those events was that they provided investors with opportunities to jump on board the reflation trade at back near Q1 prices.” The reflation trade quietly began in the Q1 collapse, and accelerated off the extreme post-Brexit summer lows in global interest rates. That’s what made last year remarkable. Even investors who missed the first opportunity, had two chances to make a lot of money.” You see, that reward is usually reserved for those who act on the first signs of a change in the change of change.
Commercial bankruptcy filings, from corporations to sole proprietorships, spiked 28% in March from February, the largest month-to-month move in the data series of the American Bankruptcy Institute going back to 2012. They’re up 8% year-over-year. Over the past 24 months, they soared 37%! At 3,658, they’re at the highest level for any March since 2013. Commercial bankruptcy filings skyrocketed during the Financial Crisis and peaked in March 2010 at 9,004. Then they fell sharply until they reached their low point in October 2015. November 2015 was the turning point, when for the first time since March 2010, commercial bankruptcy filings rose year-over-year.
Bankruptcy filings are highly seasonal, reaching their annual lows in December and January. Then they rise into tax season, peak in March or April, and zigzag lower for the remainder of the year. The data is not seasonally or otherwise adjusted – one of the raw and unvarnished measures of how businesses are faring in the economy. Note that there is no “plateauing” in this chart: since the low-point in September 2015, commercial bankruptcies have soared 65%! That red spike is the mega-increase in March:
At first, they blamed the oil bust. The price of oil began to collapse in mid-2014. By 2015, worried bankers put their hands on the money spigot, and a number of companies in that sector, along with their suppliers and contractors, threw in the towel and started filing for bankruptcy protection. But now the price of oil has somewhat recovered, banks have reopened the spigot, Wall Street has once again the hots for the sector, new money is gushing into it, and oil & gas bankruptcy filings have abated. So now they blame brick-and-mortar retail which is in terminal decline, given the shift to online sales. I have reported extensively on the distress of the larger chain stores, but brick-and-mortar retailers include countless smaller operations and stores that no ratings agency follows because they’re too small and can’t issue bonds, and many of them are even more distressed.
[..] Now come the consumers – not all consumers, but those with mounting piles of debt and stagnating or declining real incomes, of which there are many. They’d been hanging on by their teeth, with bankruptcy filings consistently declining since 2010. But that ended in November 2016. In December, bankruptcy filings rose 4.5% from a year earlier. In January they rose 5.4%. It was the first time consumer bankruptcies rose back-to-back since 2010. I called it “a red flag that’ll be highlighted only afterwards as a turning point.” In March, consumer bankruptcy filings rose 4% year-over-year, to 77,900, the highest since March 2015, when 79,000 filings occurred, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute data. The turning point has now been confirmed. Total US bankruptcy filings by consumers and businesses in March spiked 40% from February and rose 4% year-over-year to 81,590, the highest since March 2015:
President Donald Trump’s pledge to roll back regulations on U.S. banks could face resistance from an influential constituency: bondholders. While stockholders of firms like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have cheered Trump’s plans to repeal or soften rules imposed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, bond-rater Standard & Poor’s is warning that such a move could undermine the industry’s creditworthiness. Measures like “stress testing,” in which regulators evaluate banks annually to determine if they’re sufficiently prepared to withstand a deep economic or market downturn, have made the firms safer, according to S&P. And so-called resolution planning – the practice of planning in advance how big banks would be wound down following a Lehman Brothers-style collapse – also has contributed to the industry’s resilience, the ratings firm wrote in a March 20 report.
The timetable for any such changes isn’t yet clear, however. Trump in February signed an executive order directing U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to identify any laws that might impede economic growth or vibrant markets. Those could include the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, signed by former President Barack Obama to curb risky activities like using excessive borrowings to fuel earnings growth and allowing in-house traders to speculate on markets with proprietary capital. “An overhaul of Dodd-Frank could be detrimental for bank creditors,” S&P wrote in the report. “If changes to Dodd-Frank watered down these features, and if banks reacted to such changes by weakening their financial management, we could lower ratings.” The fresh concerns could contribute to a shift in investor sentiment that’s been mostly positive toward banks since Trump’s surprise election on Nov. 8.
Donald Trump’s decision to attack Syria had also been designed to intimidate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a Chinese newspaper has claimed, as G7 foreign ministers meet to discuss the fallout from last week’s missile incursion. The state-run Global Times said a US strike against North Korea would unleash carnage on the Korean peninsula. The US navy has deployed a strike group towards the western Pacific Ocean, to provide a presence near the Korean peninsula. South Korean officials suspect Kim may be planning to hold his country’s sixth nuclear test later this week to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-sung on 15 April, an event a number of foreign journalists have been invited to cover.
In an editorial entitled: ‘After Syria strikes, will North Korea be next?’, the Global Times suggested the US might now be preparing to launch “similar actions” against Pyongyang and warned of catastrophic consequences if it did. “A symbolic strike against North Korea by the US would bring a disaster to the people in Seoul,” the newspaper said, claiming a “decapitation attack” on North Korea was now “highly possible”. Such a strike would “very likely evolve into large-scale bloody war on the peninsula”. The Global Times noted the decision to deploy a strike force to the Western Pacific over the weekend and cautioned Pyongyang against doing anything that might further inflame the situation.
“New nuclear tests will meet with unprecedented reactions from the international community, even to a turning point.” The warnings came after the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, claimed that the situation in North Korea had “reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken”. Asked if the attack on Syria could be seen as a message to Pyongyang, Tillerson told ABC: “The message that any nation can take is: ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”
In the BBC’s brief and pressured half-hour I wanted to get across that globalisation had not delivered on its promise – to make ‘the market’ the main driver of a more effective, more productive economy; to transform societies into nations of ‘shareholders’; to ensure a revolution in homeownership, and to avoid what Hayek called the threat of a totalitarian state. Instead financial globalisation has been an era largely fuelled by carbon (oil and coal) – as had been the case for over a century. However, unlike the Bretton Woods era, post 1970s de-regulated financial globalisation was built on mountains of private and public debt. The first – private debt – led to recurring financial crises, and the second – public debt – rose as private sector activity weakened, and tax revenues fell.
The consequences of these recurring financial crises in ‘advanced’ economies included ‘austerity’, the removal of employment protection, rising housing and education costs, the return of deflationary pressures, high unemployment, falling real wages, low productivity and rising inequality. These crises have led to increased insecurity and over-rapid social and economic change- as well as the greatest financial and economic crisis since 1929 (itself a product of excessive laissez-faire ideology). More widely, the insecurities and dislocations generated by financial globalisation have led whole populations to seek the ‘protection’ of a strong man (e.g. Presidents Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia).
Not that this worries the extreme adherents of laissez-faire – recall how Hayek supported the murderous dictator Pinochet in Chile for his brutal imposition of deregulatory ‘reform’. And so, contrary to Hayek’s expectations, financial globalisation has proved that it is market fundamentalism, and not the regulatory state that is leading the world into an era of authoritarianism and totalitarianism – in the US, Eastern Europe, India and China.
New South Wales has taken over as Australia’s economic engine as the mining investment boom tails off, with central Sydney contributing almost a quarter of the nation’s growth last fiscal year. That success has come with a price. As workers flock to Sydney, an under-supply of housing, coupled with record-low interest rates, has made the city the world’s second-most expensive property market. Home prices jumped 19 percent in the past 12 months, stoking concern home ownership is increasingly beyond the reach of younger people. That’s a big political problem for the state’s new Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who made housing affordability one of her priorities when she took the job in late January. Housing affordability is “a barbecue stopper,” Berejiklian, 46, said in an interview in her Sydney office on Thursday.
“We are convinced if we put downwards pressure on prices through supply, that’s the best way we can solve it as a state government.” Sydney’s housing completions reached a 15-year high in 2016, though Berejiklian says the state is only now playing catch-up after “a decade of under-investment.” “There are about 100,000 dwellings we are behind on in terms of really digging into the demand,” she said. [..] There are several barriers to boosting housing supply in Sydney. The city is bordered by mountains to the west, the ocean to the east and rivers and national parks to the north and south, restricting the supply of new land, while moves to increase housing density in established suburbs have run into opposition from residents. That’s meant in the past three years, almost 70 percent of new detached houses have been built more than 30 kilometers from Sydney’s central business district…
Toronto’s mayor won’t rule out selling some of the city’s prime downtown real estate as he looks to make better use of assets amid an unprecedented property boom. “Would I take that off the table? No, I wouldn’t,” Mayor John Tory said in an interview last week at Bloomberg’s Toronto office. Selling buildings in the city’s costly downtown market probably wouldn’t be “quite as politically charged” as divesting other types of assets, such as the parking authority or power utility Toronto Hydro, he said. The need for North America’s fourth-largest city to fund critical transit upgrades and housing improvements coincides with skyrocketing property prices in the region. Toronto’s real estate portfolio includes 6,976 buildings with 106.3 million square feet (9.9 million square meters), almost half of which is multifamily, according to a Dec. 6 report on the city’s assets.
With all of the demands on the city to raise money for building transit lines and repairing existing housing, then “might you be looking at the business case for handling real estate in a different way? Because this is the most expensive downtown real estate you could possibly have,” said the mayor, elected in 2014. The report, commissioned by the city and conducted by Deloitte, estimates the value of municipal real estate including community housing, parks and forestry is C$27 billion ($20 billion), while the annual operating costs in “core” real estate and facilities management is C$1.1 billion. Tory said he watched with passing interest the federal government’s sale earlier this year of the Dominion Public Building. The historic downtown property beside Toronto’s Union Station sold for about C$275 million ($205 million), according to newspaper reports.
The property was “super underutilized,” BMO analyst Heather Kirk said in an interview, adding the Canadian government has been trying to find ways to “crystallize” the value in some of its property assets. “What a building is worth to the government in current form is totally different than the value to a developer,” Kirk said. “They are buying density.” When asked how any properties might be sold, Tory stressed he didn’t currently have any specific recommendations to make to the city council, although “I just know those are things that sit out there still as options that are in front of the city government to raise money to do the things we have to do,” he said.
A secret recording that implicates the Bank of England in Libor rigging has been uncovered by BBC Panorama. The 2008 recording adds to evidence the central bank repeatedly pressured commercial banks during the financial crisis to push their Libor rates down. Libor is the rate that banks lend to each other and it sets a benchmark for mortgages and loans for ordinary customers. The Bank of England said Libor was not regulated in the UK at the time. The recording calls into question evidence given in 2012 to the Treasury select committee by former Barclays boss Bob Diamond and Paul Tucker, the man who went on to become the deputy governor of the Bank of England. Libor, the London Interbank Offered Rate, tracks how much it costs banks to borrow money from each other.
As such it is a big influence on the cost of mortgages and other loans. Banks setting artificially low Libor rates is called lowballing. In the recording, a senior Barclays manager, Mark Dearlove, instructs Libor submitter Peter Johnson, to lower his Libor rates. He tells him: “The bottom line is you’re going to absolutely hate this… but we’ve had some very serious pressure from the UK government and the Bank of England about pushing our Libors lower.” Mr Johnson objects, saying that this would mean breaking the rules for setting Libor, which required him to put in rates based only on the cost of borrowing cash. Mr Johnson says: “So I’ll push them below a realistic level of where I think I can get money?” His boss Mr Dearlove replies: “The fact of the matter is we’ve got the Bank of England, all sorts of people involved in the whole thing… I am as reluctant as you are… these guys have just turned around and said just do it.”
The more basic stuff goes back at least twenty years, to the period where trouble was stored up for the future by fanatical federalists cutting every corner and pulling out all the stops to get EMU (the prototype single currency) up and running. Several eminent economists on continents ranging from Australia and the US to the UK and Europe itself made very sound predictions at the time about coming disaster, and they did so saying two related things: 1) It would offer Germany a cheap, fixed currency leading inevitably to its economic dominance, 2) It would point up the economic consequences of imposing one rigid means of exchange on 18 varietal cultures, leading generally to Southern/South Eastern Europe falling behind.
Just to add more weedkiller to the poisonous formulation, the key European leaders not only ignored the advice; they also first, ignored all the data showing that several member States were nowhere near ready to join the eurozone based on agreed criteria; and then second, were implicated in several corrupt deals on commodities – as varied as German butter, Italian wines and Greek olive oil – to cloud the existence of stark differentials in both export and industrial development. For once, the economic naysayers proved to be soothsayers. Messrs Hollande and Muscovici shrink from the limelight about their own book on the subject of cultural difference (fancy that) but it proved to be spot on….as did the musings of Lawson and Thatcher et al in relation to Germany’s dominance.
The Mark from around 1963 until the creation of EMU was the most reliable, performance-related currency on the planet. But only massive debt forgiveness by the victors after the Second World War enabled that outcome. Both the realities in that last paragraph explain why lectures from Hollande and Merkel today – when joined by hypocrisy from Draghi at the ECB – evoke so much hatred of the EU’s prime movers among the so-called ClubMed nations….and those of us Brits in the Brexit camp. I make these points not to be nihilistic, but rather to level the playing field of media coverage that has been so bombed, excavated, deliberately over-watered and then tilted for good luck by Brussels, Wall Street and Berlin obfuscation and mendacity since 2010. A very real outcome of nihilism is being encouraged (and indeed made inevitable) by the EC’s refusal to recognise that – even as the SS Eunatic set sail – there was a raging fire in the hold.
The mid-term debt relief measures so that Greece can enter the quantitative easing program is the prerequisite to vote for the new measures, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Sunday. Addressing the SYRIZA Central Committee, the party leader spoke about the new austerity measures his administration has agreed to with creditors. He spoke of a compromise that had to be made so that measures had to be counter-balanced by social relief measures of equal fiscal value and aid that the Greek negotiating team. “There are measures that are neither necessary, nor are they the ones we would ever choose, but the compromise achieved would have counter-measures that would counterbalance the fiscal impact and generate zero fiscal balance, and both will be legislated and implemented simultaneously,” Tsipras said.
Speaking on the initial agreement reached at the Malta Eurogroup on Friday, the prime minister said that, “After Malta the way for the identification of the medium-term measures for the debt is open. This will send a clear message to the markets that the uncertainty is over.” “Now we will be the ones to decide the fiscal path the country will follow after the end of the program,” Tsipras said, explaining the strategy for the next round of negotiations. He stressed that without medium-term measures for debt relief that would allow Greece to enter the QE program, he would not implement the new measures.
The prime minister also unleashed an indirect attack against main opposition New Democracy claiming that, “Some were scheming so that the evaluation would not close, because they didn’t want us to be the ones who will pull Greece out of the crisis.” He also attacked ND leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis accusing him of “rushing to meet with the German finance minister to get his blessing and undermine the negotiations.” He also said that the conservative party espouses extreme neoliberalism.
Back-to-back severe bleaching events have affected two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, new aerial surveys have found. The findings have caused alarm among scientists, who say the proximity of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events is unprecedented for the reef, and will give damaged coral little chance to recover. Scientists with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies last week completed aerial surveys of the world’s largest living structure, scoring bleaching at 800 individual coral reefs across 8,000km. The results show the two consecutive mass bleaching events have affected a 1,500km stretch, leaving only the reef’s southern third unscathed. Where last year’s bleaching was concentrated in the reef’s northern third, the 2017 event spread further south, and was most intense in the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef.
This year’s mass bleaching, second in severity only to 2016, has occurred even in the absence of an El Niño event. Mass bleaching – a phenomenon caused by global warming-induced rises to sea surface temperatures – has occurred on the reef four times in recorded history. Prof Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, said the length of time coral needed to recover – about 10 years for fast-growing types – raised serious concerns about the increasing frequency of mass bleaching events. “The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery,” Hughes told the Guardian. “It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year’s bleaching.”
Germany was well aware of it’s post WWII collapsing birth rate and the impact of this on economic growth as this shrinking population of young made it’s way into the Core. Consider Germany’s Core population peaked in 1995 and it’s domestic consumer base has been shrinking since, now down over 3.3 million potential consumers (about a 9% Core decline…remember a depression is a 10% decline in economic activity, which a 9% and growing decline in German consumers would have almost surely induced).
The chart below shows Germany’s Core population from 1950–>2040…but understand this is no guestimate through 2040. This is simply taking the existing 0-24yr/old population (plus anticipated immigration) and sliding them into the Core through 2040. Germany’s Core population is set to fall by over 30% or 10+ million by 2040 (far more than the 7 million Germans of all ages who died in WWII).
But Germany had a plan. With the advent of the EU and Euro just as Germany’s Core began shrinking, Germany was able to avoid the pitfalls of a shrinking domestic consumer base, circumvent the strong German currency, and effectively quadruple it’s effective export market across Europe. German exports, as a % of GDP, have essentially doubled since the advent of the Euro (22% in ’95 to almost 50% in ’16). The chart below highlights Germany’s shrinking Core vs. rising GDP (primarily via exports) since 1995.
[..] the German motivation for the EU and Euro are fairly plain as are the resultant economic transfusion from South to North. But for Germany to be a winner, there had to be a loser in this shrinking pie game. Hello PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), you lost. As the old poker adage goes, when you don’t know who the sucker at the table is…it’s you. Particularly when you “win big” at first and it all seems so easy…but then it all turns.
The chart below shows the PIGS Core population peaking about 15 years later than in Germany but likewise clearly rolling over. By 2040, the PIGS Core population will be back at it’s 1960 levels…down from the 2010 peak by 17 million or about a 30% decline.
But if we look at the PIGS combined GDP and Core population…we see a very different picture than in Germany. The chart below shows the PIGS GDP turned down ahead of the Core population peak. The rise in GDP in these nations was a credit bubble premised on cheap EU wide interest rates more appropriate for Germany. Exports as a % of GDP (which were higher than Germany’s in ’95) have risen less than half of Germany’s increase (rising as a % primarily due to declining PIGS GDP). Low German wage increases and high quality German goods helped displace PIGS domestic manufacturing base.
Top Greek and European officials indicated Wednesday that it’s possible to reach a breakthrough in the country’s difficult bailout talks over the next two days. Greece’s prime minister said that if a deal on paying Athens the next bailout installment fails to materialize, the eurozone should hold a special summit. Alexis Tsipras said negotiators are “just a breath away” from an agreement at Friday’s scheduled meeting in Malta of the so-called eurogroup, the gather of finance ministers from countries that use the euro. But Tsipras blamed unnamed negotiators among Greece’s European creditors and the IMF for “moving the goalposts” each time Greece was getting close to meeting approval conditions for the bailout. “We are not playing games here … that must stop,” he said, after talks in Athens with EU Council President Donald Tusk.
Greece has to agree on budget measures to get access to its loans. But the talks have dragged on for months, freezing the latest loan payout and hurting chances of a Greek economic recovery after years of recession and turmoil. Without the bailout payment, Greece would struggle to make a debt payment in July, raising anew the prospect of default. Tsipras’ left-led government is pushing for a comprehensive deal that would cover more than just spending cuts and harsh reforms by Greece, but also alleviate the country’s debt burden and ease its access later this year to international bond markets. “If the eurogroup is not in a position to (reach an agreement) on Friday, I have asked President Tusk to convene a eurozone summit to achieve an immediate agreement,” Tsipras said. “I don’t think that will be needed, because there will be a result on Friday, but these delays cannot continue.”
More than seven years after the Great Recession officially ended, there is yet more depressing research that at least half of Americans are vulnerable to financial disaster. Some 50% of people is woefully unprepared for a financial emergency, new research finds. Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) Americans have nothing set aside to cover an unexpected emergency, while nearly 1 in 3 (31%) Americans don’t have at least $500 set aside to cover an unexpected emergency expense, according to a survey released Tuesday by HomeServe USA, a home repair service. A separate survey released Monday by insurance company MetLife found that 49% of employees are “concerned, anxious or fearful about their current financial well-being.”
One explanation: Americans are crippled under the same amount of debt as they had during the recession. The New York Federal Reserve on Monday predicted that total household debt will reach its previous peak of $12.68 trillion in 2017. The last time it reached that level was in the third quarter of 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession. Indeed, it’s already close: Total household debt in the fourth quarter of 2016 was $12.58 trillion. Fewer borrowers have housing-related debt in 2017 and, instead, have taken on auto and student loans.
One illness can push people to the brink of financial ruin. Wanda Battle, a registered nurse for four decades, was recently hit with a $100,000 medical bill. She has visited her local emergency room on more than one occasion due to severe migraines and mini-strokes. Battle, who is based near Nashville, Tenn., managed to reduce her latest hospital bill to $32,000 based on her relatively low income, but still faces $650 monthly payments for a previous $22,000 medical bill. “There were times I couldn’t work,” she told MarketWatch. “I have not held a job that is continuous.”
In a private meeting with lawmakers, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said he supports a policy that could radically reshape Wall Street’s biggest firms by separating their consumer-lending businesses from their investment banks, said people with direct knowledge of the matter. Cohn, the ex-Goldman Sachs executive who is now advising President Donald Trump, said he generally favors banking going back to how it was when firms like Goldman focused on trading and underwriting securities, and companies such as Citigroup primarily issued loans, according to the people, who heard his comments. The remarks surprised some senators and congressional aides who attended the Wednesday meeting, as they didn’t expect a former top Wall Street executive to speak favorably of proposals that would force banks to dramatically rethink how they do business.
Yet Cohn’s comments echo what Trump and Republican lawmakers have previously said about wanting to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that kept bricks-and-mortar lending separate from investment banking for more than six decades. In the years after the law’s 1999 repeal, banks such as Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase gobbled up rivals and pushed into all sorts of new businesses, becoming one-stop-shopping financial behemoths. Many banking executives believed that the inclusion of former finance executives like Cohn in Trump’s White House would temper major changes such as a Glass-Steagall return. But his Wednesday remarks suggest he could be a wildcard should Congress get serious about reinstating the law. White House officials haven’t said what an updated version of Glass-Steagall might look like.
The IMF has published a Working Paper on “de-cashing”. It gives advice to governments who want to abolish cash against the will of their citizenry. Move slowly, start with harmless seeming measures, is part of that advice. In “The Macroeconomics of De-Cashing”, IMF-Analyst Alexei Kireyev recommends in his conclusions:
“Although some countries most likely will de-cash in a few years, going completely cashless should be phased in steps. The de-cashing process could build on the initial and largely uncontested steps, such as the phasing out of large denomination bills, the placement of ceilings on cash transactions, and the reporting of cash moves across the borders. Further steps could include creating economic incentives to reduce the use of cash in transactions, simplifying the opening and use of transferrable deposits, and further computerizing the financial system. The private sector led de-cashing seems preferable to the public sector led decashing. The former seems almost entirely benign (e.g., more use of mobile phones to pay for coffee), but still needs policy adaptation.
The latter seems more questionable, and people may have valid objections to it. De-cashing of either kind leaves both individuals and states more vulnerable to disruptions, ranging from power outages to hacks to cyberwarfare. In any case, the tempting attempts to impose de-cashing by a decree should be avoided, given the popular personal attachment to cash. A targeted outreach program is needed to alleviate suspicions related to de-cashing; in particular, that by de-cashing the authorities are trying to control all aspects of peoples’ lives, including their use of money, or push personal savings into banks. The de-cashing process would acquire more traction if it were based on individual consumer choice and cost-benefits considerations.”
Note, that the author is not talking about unreasonable objections and imagined disadvantages: He does count it among the advantages of de-cashing in the very next paragraph that personal savings are pushed into banks and he also does count total control of all aspects of financial life under the pros, as in the last sentence of the last quote below.
“As de-cashing gives incentives to economies’ agents to convert their currency in bank deposits, the deposit base of the banking system will increase, which can help reduce the lending rates and expand credit.”
And finally the advice to do it together:
“Coordinated efforts on de-cashing could help enhance its positive effects and reduce potential costs. At least at the level of major countries and their currencies, the authorities could coordinate their de-cashing efforts. Such coordinated efforts are, in particular, important in the decisions to phase out large denomination bills for all major currencies, to use ceilings and other restrictions on cash transactions, and to introduce the reporting requirements for cash transactions or their taxation. For currency areas, a single decashing policy would be clearly preferable to a national one. Finally, consensus between the public and the private sector and outreach on the advantages and modalities of gradual decashing should be viewed as key preconditions for its success.”
The biggest banks are still as dangerous as they were before the last crisis, even as they push for less regulation. The big six banks U.S. banks are JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley. Despite their belly-aching about heinous Dodd-Frank Act regulations cramping their betting style, they have all done damn good recently. Since Trump was elected and started talking about deregulation, the big six bank stock values have collectively skyrocketed 33.5% (as of March 10th). Bank of America tops that rise with an eye-popping increase of 48.8% in three months. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley shares shot up 36.6%. Of course, most stocks have been moving up since the election. But keep in mind that the S&P 500 rose just 10.9% during that same period.
Beyond a few extra capital requirements (mostly in the form of a set of rules called Basel III coming from Europe), the need to establish a “living will” in case of another financial emergency, and some limitations on risky trading, not much has changed for these banks. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the big six banks’ total assets have increased by 21%. The big four by 25%. Yet, of the total Global Derivatives Notional amount of $544 trillion, the big six U.S. banks carry $168 trillion of it. Comparing that figure to their total assets, we get a leverage amount of 24 times. To put that in perspective, that’s only slightly less than the leverage their derivatives positions before the 2008 crisis. The biggest banks are still the ones most at risk, and most threatening to anyone with money in the stock market. Cracks have started popping up that make it clear to us that the next financial crisis is just around the corner.
[..] The Fed’s data shows bank lending to businesses has been strong, perhaps too strong. That’s why it’s just now starting to trail off. We’ve had an epic credit expansionary cycle on the back of cheap, central bank fabricated money and ultra-loose monetary policy — what I call “artisanal” money. But defaults and distressed credit activity is rising. Last year, corporates posted their fifth-highest yearly default volume. According to Forbes, “62 companies defaulted on $59.3 billion in debt — 57% higher than the $37.7 billion of defaults in 2015.” That’s an ominous trajectory.
Bank of America just revealed that its 30-90 day consumer credit delinquencies are rising significantly again. So are delinquencies at Wells Fargo. The bank card default rate is at a 42 month high. U.S. subprime auto loan losses are at their highest level since the ’08 crisis. Banks that had been offering more commercial real estate loans now say they will tighten standards. Fears are rising that a greater%age will become delinquent just as they did in the lead up to the last financial crises. A downturn is inevitable. It’s a matter of when, not if.
Federal Reserve officials commented on the stock market in March, as minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee meeting revealed the central bank is working to reduce its $4.5 trillion in bonds on its balance sheet this year. Danielle DiMartino Booth, a former Dallas Fed advisor and president of Money Strong, said on CNBC’s Power Lunch on Monday, “It always makes me uncomfortable,” when the central bank comments on U.S. equities. In the summary of the March meeting, Fed members “commented that the recent increase in equity prices might in part reflect investors’ anticipation of a boost to earnings from a cut in corporate taxes or more expansionary fiscal policy, which might not materialize.
They also expressed concern that the low level of implied volatility in equity markets appeared inconsistent with the considerable uncertainty attending the outlook for such policy initiatives.” “I don’t think it’s necessarily the purview of central bankers to comment on this,” DiMartino Booth said. She said the Fed’s comments on the market shows “they are also verbally concerned about financial instability,” and may consider it when the Fed makes fiscal policy decisions, in addition to labor and inflation mandates. David Nelson, chief strategist at Belpointe Asset Management, agreed, “I don’t think the Fed should be commenting on stock prices.”
The good news, for those fearing having to enter monetary rehab, is that it’s going to take a mighty long time to shrink the balance sheet. The fine folks over at Goldman Sachs figure that getting from Point A ($4.5 trillion) to Point B ($2 trillion based on balance sheet contracting just over a tenth the size of the country’s GDP) will take at least five years. (An aside for you insomniacs out there: Have a look back at Mind the Cap, penned back on December 16, 2015, released hours before the Fed hiked rates for the first time in order to raise the cap on the Reverse Repo Facility (RRP) to $2 trillion. (Mind The Cap via DiMartinobooth.com) Come what may, you can consider Goldman’s estimate of the terminal value of a $2 trillion balance sheet and the size of the RRP to be anything but coincidental.)
In any event, things change. As per Goldman, by 2022, “…changes in Fed leadership, regulation, Treasury issuance policy, or macroeconomic conditions could alter both the near-term path and the intended terminal size of the balance sheet.” Indeed. It is entertaining to watch market pundits shift in their skivvies trying to assure the masses that a shrinking balance sheet will be welcomed by risky assets. It was downright comical to read that the Fed’s strategically allowing only long-dated Treasuries to expire and not be replaced would prevent the yield curve from inverting, thus staving off recession. Pardon the interruption, but domestic non-financial sector debt stood at about 140% of GDP in 1980. Today, it’s crested 250% of GDP and keeps rising.
Interest rate sensitivity, especially in commercial real estate, household finance and junk bonds is particularly acute. Oh, and by the way, monetary policy is a global phenomenon. At last check, the European periphery and emerging market corporate bond market were not in the best position to weather a rising rate environment. The best performance, though, was delivered by Chair Janet Yellen herself. In the spirit of giving credit its due, Business Insider’s Pedro da Costa highlighted this delightful nugget from testimony Yellen presented to Congress in February: “Waiting too long to remove accommodation would be unwise, potentially requiring the FOMC to eventually raise rates rapidly, which could risk disrupting the financial markets and pushing the economy into recession.” Isn’t the rapidly flattening yield curve communicating that ‘removing accommodation’ today is one and the same with ‘pushing the economy into recession’?
Residential property sales in Greater Toronto soared 17.7% year-over-year to 12,077 homes, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB). New listings jumped 15.2% to 17,052. Prices for all types of homes, based on the MLS Home Price Index Composite “Benchmark,” soared 28.6%. The “average” selling price soared 33.2%! That average selling price of C$916,567 is up from C$688,011 a year ago. Over the past five years, it has doubled! The heavenly manna was spread across the spectrum. For condos, the average price in Greater Toronto soared 33.1% to C$518,879; for townhouses it soared 32.9% to C$705,078; for semi-detached houses, 34.4% to C$858,202; and for detached houses, 33.4% to C$1,214,422. Even the house price bubble in Beijing cannot compete with this sort of miracle; new house prices there increased only 22% year-over-year in February.
And Sydney’s fabulous house price bubble just flat out pales compared to the spectacle transpiring in Toronto, with prices up only 19% in March. Vancouver has its own housing bubble to deal with. But there, the government of British Columbia has tried to tamp down on wild speculation with various measures, including a transfer tax aimed squarely at foreign non-resident investors, with “mixed” success. Now the great fear in Toronto’s real estate circles is that the government of Ontario might impose similarly cruel and unusual punishment on the participants in this spectacle. Some measures are on the table, with folks wondering how to stop the bubble from inflating further and causing even greater harm to the real economy when it deflates, as all bubbles eventually do.
They’re reluctant. It seems they want to see how BC’s measures are washing out in Vancouver. The central government too is trying to fine-tune some macroprudential measures, but they’ve had absolutely no effect on Toronto’s housing bubble. And the Bank of Canada, which has been fretting about the housing bubble for a while – always couched in its very careful terms – refuses to raise rates. Everyone is talking. No one dares to do anything real about Toronto’s house price bubble. In Toronto, according the real estate folks, it’s all based on fundamentals. It’s based on supply and demand and very rational calculated thinking, and there is no bubble in sight, lenders are just fine, and if Canadians are locked out of the housing market, so be it, it’s just a shortage of housing, really.
Former National Australia Bank boss Don Argus has added to warnings about the overreliance of interest-only loans, declaring it is going to “lead to tears” as interest rates eventually move higher. After a widely expected decision by the Reserve Bank to leave its official cash rate unchanged at a record low 1.5% at its monthly board meeting yesterday, Mr Argus declared that borrowers had “forgotten” the cyclical nature of interest rates. “You can only hope that some of these dizzy values that you see people paying for houses now, you hope that they stand up on any correction, any economic correction”, Mr Argus told The Australian. Backing a tightening of so-called macroprudential controls on home lending announced by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority last week, Mr Argus, a former BHP Billiton chairman, said the capacity of borrowers to repay loans “was always a primary concern in housing loans of yesteryear”.
“If you progressed to just an interest-only environment, that’s only going to lead to tears.” However, in a speech given in Melbourne last night, RBA governor Philip Lowe took aim at banks and other lenders for making overly generous serviceability assessments. “Despite the focus on this area over recent times, too many loans are still made where the borrower has the skinniest of income buffers after interest payments”, Dr Lowe said. “In some cases, lenders are assuming that people can live more frugally than in practice they can, leaving little buffer if things go wrong. So APRA quite rightly has said lenders can expect a strong supervisory focus on loans with a very low net income surplus.” Dr Lowe also noted that the prevalence of interest-only lending was “unusual” globally.
“A reduced reliance on interest-only loans in Australia would be a positive development and would help improve our resilience. With interest rates so low, now is a good time for us to move in this direction,” he said. Almost 40% of residential mortgage lending in Australia is interest-only, where the borrower pays off the interest rather than the principal.
China’s economy is not just about providing jobs, goods and services. It is about regime survival for a Chinese Communist Party that faces existential risk if they stumble. Given the systemic problems inherent in trying to run an economy in the absence of the accurate price signals only free markets provide (a problem for both Chinese socialism and the West’s corrupt crony markets), their challenges are worsening every day. Malinvestments the size of ghost cities are not lost on the world’s central bankers who fear a systemic collapse of China’s economy, nor on the brilliant investors who are betting on China’s collapse like they bet against the corrupt banking products in the U.S. housing bubble. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the Chinese debt-to-GDP ratio was 147%; now, it is at about 250%.
Quietly, the Chinese leadership has begun to lower growth expectations but even those numbers should be taken with skepticism. The methodology used to calculate their GDP figures is not publicly known but uses economic data that can be manipulated for sake of appearances. Declining growth impacts China’s financial market as well. Local banks are struggling with non-performing debt rapidly increasing. Non-bank financial institutions referred to as the “shadow banking system” are spreading, with little regulation or recognition of the risks. The government’s attempts to better regulate the system is stymied by local corruption where exaggerated assets and little documentation mask a wave of malinvestments. Like the appearance of no-doc “liar” loans in the U.S. in 2004-2006, the entire shadow banking system is signalling risk of systemic collapse.
Another source of malinvestment is the real estate market. Commercial real estate bubbles are breathtaking and residential real estate values have begun to fall. This seriously threatens social unrest as many Chinese families have put their life savings into real estate believing well intended but nonsensical government assurances of support to an ever increasing housing market. As is typical with most countries, the Chinese government tries to mask the ravages of inflation by adjusting their public measurement downwards. Doing so conceals the impact it has on households. But when values collapse wiping out the entire family savings for their old age, there will be a terrifying political backlash.
Yet another concern is that the 2008 Lehman bankruptcy marked a plateau in world trade. This has been particularly difficult for China as exports accounted for more than 40% of their GDP. With reduced global trade, China began to lose competitiveness in the market place. Inflation of the money supply in the Chinese economy required higher wages to offset rising prices. In turn, China tried to move into higher value exports by manufacturing more technologically advanced and complicated products. Unfortunately, in the transition, quality suffered and foreign markets began to look for alternatives to Chinese components.
Just days after the US Administration changed course on Syrian President Assad, saying he could stay, an alleged chemical weapon attack that killed dozens of civilians has been blamed on the Syrian government. Did Assad sign his own death warrant with such an attack…or does some other entity benefit?
“Sort of like in a divorce case where lawyers are hired, investigators are hired just to find out what the other person is doing from morning until night and then you try to piece it together later on.”
The intelligence reports at the center of the Susan Rice unmasking controversy were detailed, and almost resembled a private investigator’s file, according to a Republican congressman familiar with the documents. “This is information about their everyday lives,” Rep. Peter King of New York, a member of the House Intelligence committee said. “Sort of like in a divorce case where lawyers are hired, investigators are hired just to find out what the other person is doing from morning until night and then you try to piece it together later on.” On the House Intelligence Committee, only the Republican chairman, Devin Nunes of California, and the ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, also of California, have personally reviewed the intelligence reports. Some members were given broad outlines.
Nunes has consistently stated that the files caused him deep concern because the unmasking went beyond the former national security adviser Mike Flynn, and the information was not related to Moscow. Schiff said in a statement, “I cannot comment on the content of these materials or any other classified documents, and nothing should be inferred from the fact that I am treating classified materials the way they should be treated – by refusing to comment on them. Only the Administration has the power to declassify the information and make it available to the public.” Former National Security Adviser Rice is under scrutiny after allegations she sought to unmask the identities of Trump associates caught up in surveillance – such as phone calls between foreign intelligence targets. Rice denies ever having sought such information for political purposes and has defended her requests as routine.
[..] During his March 20 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, NSA director Admiral Mike Rogers said only 20 individuals within the agency are authorized to approve those requests. “They receive specific training, there are specific controls put in place in terms of our ability to disseminate information out of the databases associated with U.S. persons,” Rogers said at the time. What it appears to suggest is that the NSA itself agreed that the instances in which Rice requested unmasking warranted that action. FBI Director James Comey was less direct. “I don’t know for sure. As I sit here, surely more, given the nature of the FBI’s work,” he testified.
Carbon dioxide concentrations are heading towards values not seen in the past 200m years. The sun has also been gradually getting stronger over time. Put together, these facts mean the climate may be heading towards warmth not seen in the past half a billion years. A lot has happened on Earth since 500,000,000 BC – continents, oceans and mountain ranges have come and gone, and complex life has evolved and moved from the oceans onto the land and into the air. Most of these changes occur on very long timescales of millions of years or more. However, over the past 150 years global temperatures have increased by about 1ºC, ice caps and glaciers have retreated, polar sea-ice has melted, and sea levels have risen.Some will point out that Earth’s climate has undergone similar changes before. So what’s the big deal?
Scientists can seek to understand past climates by looking at the evidence locked away in rocks, sediments and fossils. What this tells us is that yes, the climate has changed in the past, but the current speed of change is highly unusual. For instance, carbon dioxide hasn’t been added to the atmosphere as rapidly as today for at least the past 66m years. In terms of geological time, 1ºC of global warming isn’t particularly unusual. For much of its history the planet was significantly warmer than today, and in fact more often than not Earth was in what is termed a “greenhouse” climate state. During the last greenhouse state 50m years ago, global average temperatures were 10-15ºC warmer than today, the polar regions were ice-free, palm trees grew on the coast of Antarctica, and alligators and turtles wallowed in swamp-forests in what is now the frozen Canadian Arctic.