MGM Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy in the film Riffraff 1936
Well, that’s great news, isn’t it? Blackwater is back. After a first wave of negative publicity over its involvement in Iraq, a major PR hush-hush campaign led to a series of mergers, takeovers and name changes; first, in 2009, it became Xe Services, only to turn into Academi in 2011. What a brilliant moniker for a bunch of modern day mercenaries that is. Who would expect a ruthless killing machine behind a name like that?
Russia quite matter of factly mentioned that it doesn’t appreciate the presence of 150 mercenaries from Academi affiliate Greystone in Ukraine, wearing, no less, Ukrainian special task police uniforms, where the soldiers of fortune are apparently being deployed, by US/EU/Ukraine, to stifle the protests in eastern cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv. Does make you wonder if the US would be just as matter of factly if a heavily armed Navy Seal style Russian or Chinese private army were active in Mexico or Canada.
The Russians are very aware of what Blackwater did in Iraq and Afghanistan, far more so than we as the public are. And even we, with the limited information we got, didn’t like what we saw one bit. Of course Blackwater wasn’t the only private contractor the US paid vast amounts of money to operate with impunity in Iraq and Afghanistan. It merely turned into the symbol of everything that’s wrong with hiring private entities to do, again: with impunity, that part of an army’s work that’s too dirty to live up to daylight exposure.
This next chapter in the sordid tale of one of the frighteningly deep black crevices in recent American history comes just as the US Congress declassified a report on what the perpetrators label ‘enhanced interrogation’ and everybody else says is called torture. And that brings back to mind the whole story of the “job well done” in Iraq by Halliburton, the company with such strong links to Dick Cheney, and it brings back Cheney and Rumsfeld to the forefront of news media, albeit only for a day or so, after which they can go back to bragging at private cocktail and hunting parties about their achievements in public service. Where’s Parkinson when you need him?
Mind you, both of these career psychopaths had some 50 years to refine their warped notions of what the nation should stand for while riding the revolving door train known as Capitol Hill. And when they finally got to step up to the big jobs, they weren’t going to be held back by such ideas as the ones they themselves were the first to loudly proclaim in front of every camera they could find: promoting democracy, freeing foreign nations from dictators, and bringing prosperity to the whole world. No, Rummy and Cheney had bigger things on their mind: there were huge power games to be played, and these came with a great bonus: you got to kill and torture people, and if you played your cards well, be praised for it.
Jon Stewart summarized it very eloquently last night: America has a history of doing a tremendous amount of things ‘we don’t do’. But America does do these things, and when a neutral observer gets to write the history books, the picture that emerges will be very different from the one the nation itself likes to propagate. And things don’t seem to get any better, either. While elite Special Ops forces were deployed in some 60 countries when Rummy and Cheney were still in charge, today that number has risen to 134. And that’s without the likes of Blackwater being added to the tally. Of which, incidentally, in its present Academi shape, Rummy/Cheney chum John Ashcroft, the Attorney General who forced his people into elaborate morning prayer sessions every day, is a key board member.
Here’s what Russian press agency ITAR-TASS said this morning:
Russia Urges Ukraine To Halt Military Preparations To Avert Civil War
The Russian Foreign Ministry urged Ukraine to halt any interior military preparations, which could instigate a civil war in the country, the ministry was quoted as saying on its Facebook.com account.
According to numerous reports, Ukraine is redeploying special task police units from all over the country to the southeastern regions of Ukraine in a bid to thwart anti-government protests, which flared up over the weekend. “According to our information, units of the Interior troops and Ukraine’s national guards as well as militants from the illegal armed formation ‘The Right Sector’ are being amassed in the southeastern parts of Ukraine and in the city of Donetsk,” the ministry said.
“We are particularly concerned that the operation involves some 150 American mercenaries from a private company Greystone Ltd., dressed in the uniform of the [Ukrainian] special task police unit Sokol,” the ministry said. “Organizers and participants of such incitement are assuming a huge responsibility for threatening upon the rights, freedoms and lives of Ukrainian citizens as well as the stability of Ukraine,” the ministry added.
Ukraine makes no effort to try and deny Blackwater’s presence. Which points to the country’s conviction, along with the US and EU, that the portrayal of Putin and all Russians as blood thirsty land hungry bogeymen is working in the west:
Ukrainian parliament-appointed Interior Minister Arsen Avakov confirmed late on Monday night that special task police units have been redeployed to the southern and eastern parts of the country from other regions of Ukraine. “These special task units are ready to solve immediate tasks without paying attention to local peculiarities,” Avakov said. “I call on all hotheads to refrain from criticism and panic sentiments and help the police to take the situation under control.”
As for why the western “coalition” has deemed in necessary to engage Blackwater troops, the answer is the Ukrainian army and police force refuse to do the bidding of the new Kiev government under “Yats”:
The current situation particularly in the city of Kharkiv remained tense, but under control, Avakov said, adding that the majority of policemen failed to comply with their duties. “I had an opportunity today to evaluate the police work in Kharkiv and have to admit that the majority of the Interior Ministry’s law enforcers failed to appropriately fulfil their duties,” he said adding that the personnel reshuffle would follow.
A government that doesn’t have the support of either its army or its police force. That’s never a good sign. Moreover, a fight broke out in the Ukraine parliament today when communist MP Petro Symonenko accused the sitting government, and the right wing Svoboda party in particular, of instigating fights with, intimidating and arresting peaceful protesters. Good thing “Yats” brought in Blackwater when he did, right?
Americans really need to ask themselves if they want Blackwater/Academi to represent them around the world, in the same spirit the Cheney/Rummy/Halliburton interests did. When you ponder these things, it becomes hilariously ridiculous to claim that America stands for promoting democracy, or human rights, or any of the lofty goals people like to associate with the country, and the Constitution it was founded upon. It may not be too late yet to get that spirit back, but it’s certainly getting late.
• S&P Tumbles From Record-High To Red Year-To-Date In 2 Days (Zero Hedge)
Well that didn’t take long… Friday morning’s post-payrolls record all-time high in the S&P 500 (because, as Steve Liesman said, “he can’t find any reason to be bearish about jobs data”) has rapidly collapsed to being negative year-to-date (and worst start to a year since 2009’s crash). Only the Transports remain green in 2014, with the Dow, Nasdaq (worst start to a year since 2008), and Russell all coincidentally gathered around a 2% negative return YTD.
But April is the best seasonal month in the year? Of course USDJPY is about to test 103 again so prepare for a bounce…
Biotechs are back to red after bouncing to various VWAPs (and Friday’s major volume plunge VWAP levels)… and breaking back below its 200DMA at $132
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Will Fed tapering lead to Asian countries hoarding US dollars? How could it not?
• The Coming Currency Clash in Asia (WSJ)
Emerging markets realize that, no matter how sound their policies may be, they are subject to whiplash from the policies of advanced economy central banks. Top G-20 officials spoke loftily of central bank coordination at their recent summit in Sydney. But in reality, there is no mechanism to make central banks take measures that would contravene their national mandates for the benefit of other countries. So it’s not irrational for emerging-economy policy makers to conclude that the best way to insure themselves against a future crisis is to act today in a way that would encourage developed-economy leaders to help. And a reading of the criteria the Fed used when parceling out international assistance suggests dollar reserve accumulation is the best way to force the Fed to take notice.
The key question now is how much of a reserve is enough. Conventional views of reserve adequacy—enough to cover short-term external debt or six months of imports—are no longer relevant. During the worst of the crisis, some emerging markets with massive reserves lost nearly a third of them in less than a year. What’s for sure is that once speculators smell blood, they attack a currency relentlessly and reserves can evaporate quickly. The only way to protect a currency is to have enough reserves to deter speculators. No one knows exactly how much that will take. So the motto of central bankers has become more is better.
Today, while the Fed continues to taper, private capital has begun to flow back to emerging markets. Even economies such as India and Indonesia that were battered by capital flight last year have benefited. The Bank of Japan recently signaled it was getting ready to open the monetary spigots wider. The People’s Bank of China has taken forceful steps to prevent the yuan from appreciating even as it widened the currency’s trading band. These trends only add to the pressure on other Asian emerging economies to hold down the value of their currencies and accumulate reserves. All told, the events of the past year presage a return to uphill flows of capital and rising currency tensions. It certainly feels like monetary déjà vu all over again.
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• Accounting Trick Turns UK Into Nation Of Savers (FT)
A radical overhaul of the national accounts this autumn will double the official measure of household savings, presenting Britons as a nation of unexpected prudence and undercutting their widely held reputation for profligacy. For the first time in 15 years, the Office for National Statistics is preparing to rip up the way it measures Britain’s economy, with the new techniques showing a huge increase in the size of the economy, a higher level of public debt and a much increased savings ratio. There is also a good chance that the statisticians will significantly revise up growth recorded in the economy in 2012 and last year.
The reforms will have the potential both to overturn Britain’s reputation as a spendthrift nation and significantly improve the poor productivity performance of the past few years. The ONS will introduce new global accounting standards to gross domestic product and related measures in September, following similar changes already introduced in the US, Canada, Australia. Under the new system of accounts, research and development spending will count towards GDP rather than being seen as a cost of production, and building aircraft carriers and other weapons of war will also add to the size of the economy. The ONS said the change would add between 2.5% and 5% to the level of GDP, adding £40bn to £75bn to the total.
One of the largest changes, announced by ONS officials on Monday, arises from how savings are measured. From now on, the official figures will count future pension rights as if they were present income. With Britain one of the few countries to have a large funded defined-benefit pension system, the change will significantly raise measured household incomes, thereby increasing the savings ratio. Officials said the savings ratio would rise “by around 5 percentage points”, practically doubling the current 5.1% and putting it around 10%, far closer to those seen in other European countries.
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And more entertainment.
• Nigeria Just Doubled The Size Of Its Economy With The Stroke Of A Pen (Simon Black)
Over the weekend, Nigeria’s government made an accounting adjustment in how it calculates its GDP statistics. By changing the base-year in GDP calculations from 1990 to 2010, Nigeria increased the reported size of its economy by 89% over the weekend. So with a stroke of a pen, the West African nation leapfrogged South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy. And in doing so the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio fell below 20%. The ratio of bad loans in the banking system when compared to the overall size of the economy also dramatically declined in proportion.
The same thing happened in Poland last year when the government there made a grab for private pensions, then counted those new assets against government debt. It was just another accounting scam. But it dramatically lowered Poland’s debt-to-GDP ratio on paper, even though the government had not actually gotten any ‘richer’. Just hours ago, the European Central Bank released its 2013 annual report, showing a massive 44% surge in profits. Diving into the numbers, though, it turns out that most of the ECB’s profits come from funny accounting tricks—revaluing a permanent swap line they have with the Federal Reserve, and moving funds from the “risk provision” column into the profit column.
I’m also reminded of the Federal Reserve’s own admission that they had $50+ billion in ‘unrealized losses’ due to the erosion of their portfolio of US Treasuries. This is almost as much as their entire capital reserve… meaning that the Fed is practically insolvent by its own admission. Not to worry, though. The Fed gets to employ its own accounting tricks to make these losses disappear, marking the assets on the balance sheet at their much higher ‘book value’, rather than the much lower ‘market value’. Of course, the US government does exactly the same thing… often conveniently leaving out huge portions of its total debt such as the non-marketable securities it owes to the Social Security trust funds.
All of this really just goes to show how absurd it is to rely on these numbers conjured by politicians and central bankers. Sure, the statistics are computed to multiple decimal places and wrapped up in lengthy reports. But there’s not a shred of truth to any of this false precision. It’s all about maintaining a false sense of confidence at all costs, no matter what lies they have to fabricate, no matter what fraud they have to commit.
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• Russia Warns Use Of Force Could Tip Ukraine Into Civil War (AFP)
Russia on Tuesday warned Kiev that any use of force in Ukraine’s east, where pro-Kremlin militants have seized government buildings in several cities, could tip the country into civil war. “We call for the immediate cessation of any military preparations, which are fraught with the risk of unleashing civil war,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. The warning came after pro-Russia activists seized state buildings in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk, where they also declared independence and vowed to vote on joining Russia.
Kiev accused Russia of fomenting the unrest and Washington warned the Kremlin to stop efforts to “destabilise Ukraine,” accusations that Moscow brushed off. The Russian foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had information that Ukraine was sending internal security forces and volunteers from its National Guard including fighters from Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) ultra-nationalist group, to southeastern Ukraine including Donetsk.
It also alleged that Ukraine was deploying US private security operatives dressed as Ukrainian special forces. It said the mercenaries came from the Greystone Ltd security firm. It said Ukraine had tasked the forces with “suppression using force of the residents of the southeast of the country against the policies of the current Kiev authorities.” “The organisers and participants in this provocation are taking on a huge responsibility for creating a threat to the rights, freedoms and lives of peaceful Ukrainian citizens and to the stability of the Ukrainian state” it warned.
The ministry released the statement on its website following talks late Monday between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsya. The ministry said in a statement that Lavrov stressed the “necessity of a respectful attitude to the aspirations of the inhabitants of southeastern Ukraine.” Lavrov said Kiev must not allow “attempts to react by force to their legal demands for their linguistic, cultural and social-economic rights.” Lavrov called for Kiev to take “urgent measures” to organise a national dialogue, saying it was ready to “support this process along with the European Union and the United States.”
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• Russia Accuses US Mercenaries Of Inciting Civil War In Ukraine (Zero Hedge)
In response to claims by the Ukraine government (and the west) that Russia provoking trouble in Eastern Europe – with The White House’s Jary Carney even suggesting that pro-Russia demonstrators were paid – Russia’s foreign ministry has responded. Posting via their Facebook page, Russia urged Ukraine to halt any interior military preparations which could instigate a civil war. But the kicker, for which we anxiously await a rebuttal, is Russia’s comment that they “are particularly concerned that the operation involves some 150 American mercenaries.”
The US administration perspective… (via WaPo)
In Washington, the Obama administration expressed deep skepticism that the scattered uprisings and building takeovers in cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv have been spontaneous. “There is strong evidence suggesting some of these demonstrators were paid,” said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman. “If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine, either overtly or covertly, this would be a very serious escalation,” Carney said.
The Ukrainian perspective…
The Ukrainian government dispatched its highest-level police and security officials to the region Monday in an effort to put down the separatist agitation. Kiev is confronting an attempt to “destabilize the situation,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at an emergency cabinet meeting Monday. “The plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow.”
And the Russian perspective, as ITAR-TASS reports,
The Russian Foreign Ministry urged Ukraine to halt any interior military preparations, which could instigate a civil war in the country, the ministry was quoted as saying on its Facebook.com account. “According to our information, units of the Interior troops and Ukraine’s national guards as well as militants from the illegal armed formation ‘The Right Sector’ are being amassed in the southeastern parts of Ukraine and in the city of Donetsk,” the ministry said. “We are particularly concerned that the operation involves some 150 American mercenaries from a private company Greystone Ltd., dressed in the uniform of the [Ukrainian] special task police unit Sokol,” the ministry said.
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Still the only sane voice in the US when it comes to Ukraine. And still utterly silenced in US media.
• Ron Paul: ‘Ukraine Needs Economic Freedom, Not Foreign Aid’ (RT)
Ukraine needs a new economic system but not just a bailout program that would impoverish people rather than help them, former US Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul told RT. “If you just bail them out, like we just bailed out all our rich people during 2008-09, the system continues, but the poor get poorer and the middle class keeps shrinking,” he said on RT’s SophieCo show. Ron Paul believes that the Ukrainian people need “freedom, and the concept of property rights,” – they also need to work hard, have an incentive system and get rid of central economic planning, and “they would recover.”
“I don’t think a penny is going to go to the people; they’re going to get a freeze in their wages, and they are going to have higher prices for their fuel and their taxes are going to go up. So there is no benefit,” Paul added. He claims that the foreign aid packages never go to the people as that money is actually taken from them, which makes them even poorer. “It’s taken from the poor and it’s given to the rich in another country, because there is always the rich in the different countries and that of course is what we have to change,” he said.
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Not sure this is true.
• Russia’s South Stream Pipeline In Deep Freeze As EU Tightens Sanctions (AEP)
The European Union is close to freezing plans to complete the $50bn (£30bn) South Stream gas pipeline through the Black Sea from Russia, the first serious EU action to punish the Kremlin for the seizure of Crimea. Key details emerged in a leaked briefing by the European Commission’s chief, Jose Manuel Barroso, to Bulgarian politicians, warning the country not to stand in the way of the EU’s tough new line on the project, or attempt to undercut a unified EU response over Ukraine. “We are telling Bulgaria to be very careful,” he said, according to reports in Bulgaria’s press. Mr Barroso said there are “people in Bulgaria who are agents of Russia”, a reference to figures in the ruling Socialist party who have been trying to clinch a bilateral deal with the Kremlin.
The warning came as Ukraine once again rattled investors. Russia’s Micex index of stocks fell 2.4% and the rouble slid 1pc against the dollar after armed pro-Russian protesters seized government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and declared the region “independent”. They also stormed offices in Kharkiv and Luhansk. Ukraine’s premier, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of preparing the ground for seizure of the Donbass region, home to most of Ukraine’s heavy industry. “The aim of this scenario is to divide Ukraine into parts and turn part of Ukraine into a slave territory under a Russian dictatorship,” he said.
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Greece’s “revival” is a nothing but a great accounting trick.
• Doom-to-Darling Greece’s Fault Lines Exposed by Cleaners (Bloomberg)
The fault line in Greece’s unprecedented return to favor with investors runs the length of 5-7 Nikis Street in Athens. There, in front of the six-story Greek Finance Ministry, a dozen or so of the 595 cleaning ladies set to lose their state-paid jobs staged protests almost daily at being added to the 27.5 percent of Greeks who are unemployed. The women were watched over by helmeted, baton-carrying riot police, among a group of security personnel due for a bonus next month. “They picked on us because they thought we wouldn’t speak up,” said Dimitra Manoli, 52, a mother of two who made 500 euros ($687) a month cleaning the tax office in the port of Volos, 320 kilometers from Athens. “They thought we would just go away, but we won’t. We can’t.”
The shrinking of Greece’s state employment machine slashed 8.75 billion euros from the public payroll, removing a hurdle to further international aid and ushering a return to capital markets in coming months. Yet beneath the headline figures, most of the 200,000 former state workers retired or were short-term contractors while the roster remains bloated with staff whose jobs-for-life are protected by the constitution. “The burden sharing has been extremely uneven,” said Jens Bastian, a former member of the European Commission’s Greek taskforce. Monthly unemployment bulletins “speak a terrifying language about who has had to do the heavy lifting,” he said.
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From the “Don’t touch my bonus” category.
• Banks Urge Basel U-Turn on Global Asset-Backed Debt Rules (Bloomberg)
Banks from Deutsche Bank to Barclays attacked proposals to overhaul global capital rules for asset-backed debt, saying they risk choking securitization while clashing with efforts to boost lending to businesses. Proposals by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision would be so onerous for some securitizations that banks would shun investments in the debt, according to consultation responses published on the group’s website. “Left unchanged, the proposed rules would substantially reduce the incentives for banks to participate in securitizations” and could hamper “the availability of affordable credit to the wider economy,” Deutsche Bank said in its public response to the Basel group.
The rules risk being “very punitive,” Europe’s biggest investment bank by revenue said. Basel regulators have been grappling with how to set capital rules for asset-backed debt since the market collapsed in the wake of the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. While the Basel group has focused on ensuring banks have enough capital to cover risks from their holdings, other authorities have focused on ways to revive high-quality securitizations.
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Will Mario save the zombies?
• Mario Draghi’s QE Catch 22 (RT)
Last week ‘Super Mario’ (the financial press fawn over central bankers with a certain ironic gusto) emerged from an ECB Council meeting to announce that finally the ECB was edging towards perhaps deploying a full QE program. As Britain, America and even Japan, amongst others, printed money with alacrity, the euro has, despite its broad range of fundamental maladies, actually increased in value! This has impacted on Europe’s export competitiveness, at a time when nations like Greece and Spain are still teetering somewhat on the cusp of economic survival. Therefore, faced with an overvalued currency, 12 percent average unemployment and, at best, economic stagnancy…well maybe it is time to do “whatever it takes.”
So is Mario Draghi’s finger poised over the red button to activate the money printing presses? Actually, Super Mario faces an incredible dilemma – damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. To work, QE must trickle into the real economy. Even in UK/US schemes, often the cash has remained stubbornly within the investment world chasing paper assets as opposed to invigorating the manufacturing and service economy. Within the EU the problem is not just this trickle down aspect. Rather vital issues with the banks themselves have not been addressed. Put simply: the political class remain in denial at the extent of banks’ problems. Many EU banks may fail the autumn round of stress tests. Gutless eurozone governments have palpably failed to take control of the economic situation, wrapping bandages around vast festering wounds.
Thus throughout the eurozone, there are many zombie banks, de facto insolvent entities being protected by stubborn (scared) politicians. These walking dead institutions are not merely in the depressed Mediterranean nations with rampant unemployment, they even exist in Angela Merkel’s otherwise prosperous German hinterlands. Given how she has sought to ‘punish’ incompetent governments, her hypocrisy in punishing other citizens (e.g. in Ireland) to protect her banks is rather incredible. It also threatens the long-term survival of the euro, let alone the EU. Mario Draghi faces a genuine Catch-22 situation. If he launches QE it may reduce the euro in value, but at the same time, even by the standards of QE, his ability to pump prime the economy through a trickle-down effect through the banking system is very modest. A massive tsunami of freshly minted euro might simply end up propping up zombie banks which need to be closed.
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• US Warns China After Renminbi Depreciation (FT)
The US has warned Beijing not to go back to manipulating its currency, following a sharp depreciation of the renminbi since the start of 2014. “If the recent currency weakness signals a change in China’s policy away from allowing adjustment and moving toward a market-determined exchange rate, that would raise serious concerns,” said a senior Treasury official ahead of this week’s IMF, World Bank and G20 meetings in Washington.
The renminbi has fallen more than 2.5% against the US dollar since mid-February, a small amount for most emerging markets but a dramatic shift for the Chinese currency following years of slow and steady appreciation. It trades at Rmb 6.20 against the US dollar, roughly the same level as this time last year. The US comments highlight concern in Washington that China will be tempted to respond to a slowing economy by holding down its currency in order to boost exports. Such moves could lead China to reduce global demand at a time when several other regions of the world, such as the eurozone, are weak. That in turn could hamper US growth.
The fall in the renminbi has been widely seen as an engineered policy move by the country’s central bank, which has the ability to move the currency through a daily fixing rate, and through direct intervention. The renminbi can now trade higher or lower from its mandated fix by 2% a day following the recent widening of the official trading band.
However, most analysts believe that Beijing’s decision to weaken the renminbi was not a ploy to boost competitiveness. Instead, the authorities have sought to stamp out currency speculation from companies and investors who had treated the renminbi as a one-way bet by introducing more meaningful two-way volatility. It also has the positive side-effect of increasing domestic liquidity at a time when stress within the financial system is rising.
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Turns out the bubble’s entirely self defeating.
• Hot Air Hisses Out Of Housing Bubble 2.0 (Wolf RIchter)
As home prices have soared in cities around the country, sales have cratered. The weather has been blamed, though the weather has been gorgeous in California where sales have crashed too, even in temporary boom town San Francisco. The “lack of inventory” and other excuses have been dragged out as well. In reality, homes have gotten too expensive …
Even for hedge funds, private equity funds, REITs, and other forms of Big Money with access to the Fed’s limitless free juice. They’d become powerful buyers over the last two years, gobbling up vacant homes sight-unseen by the thousands, in order to get them off the closely watched for-sale list and shuffle them over to the ignored for-rent list, where they might languish undisturbed. The hope is that they might rent them out somehow and sell them later at a big fat profit, to the dumb money via a ridiculously hyped IPO. But now their business model has collapsed.
“Prices have gotten to the stage where we cannot buy a house, renovate it, rent it, and still make a reasonable return,” explained Peter Rose, a spokesman for Blackstone Group, a private equity giant whose real-estate division, Invitation Homes, has grown in two short years from nothing to the largest landlord in the country with 41,000 rental single-family houses to is name. “There was a moment in time where it made sense,” Rose said. Not anymore. Blackstone already cut its purchases in California by 90% last year. It wasn’t alone. Another mega-buyer with access to nearly free money, Colony Capital, is doing the same thing. Oaktree Capital is trying to dump its portfolio of 500 homes before prices head south.
“Private capital made a lot of money early, and now they’re starting to pull back,” Dave Bragg, head of Residential Research at Green Street Advisors, told the LA Times. “Home prices are up significantly, and houses are definitely less attractive.” With these mass-buyers out of the market, volumes have collapsed to a four-year low, according to Redfin, an electronic real-estate broker that covers 19 large metro areas around the country. Because, let’s face it, who can still afford to buy these homes? Forget first-time buyers, the crux of a healthy housing market. In February, they only bought 28% of the homes, down from 30% a year earlier, down from the three-decade average of 40%, and down from the mid-40% range during good times. That hapless lot has been pushed out of the market a while ago.
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• Father Of High Speed Trading: “The Market We Created Is A Casino” (Patterson)
The speaker who would set off the most fireworks was Peterffy, the founder of Timber Hill, one of early users of Island. He looked out over the podium at the upturned faces of his peers and grimaced. Peterffy had become extremely disillusioned with the market he’d helped create. It wasn’t just the deceptive tactics of firms like Trillium, it was the unregulated speed traders who were picking off his own firm’s orders, with no firm obligation to stick in the market during tough times. The stock market had been turned into a Wild West of dueling algos — and some firms, it seemed, had special advantages. Like Haim Bodek at Trading Machines, Peterffy was steamed that his orders were getting clipped time and time again. He wasn’t going to take the abuse without fighting back.
He cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses, and launched into his speech. “An exchange used to be a place, yes, a physical place, where people would come together to buy or sell, hoping to achieve the best price for themselves,” he said. “The more the exchange was able to attract all of the buy and sell interests in a product, the more the prices on the exchange would reflect the true state of supply and demand.” It was the old mantra: liquidity breeds liquidity. But something had changed.
“In the last twenty years came computers, electronic communications, electronic exchanges, dark pools, flash orders, multiple exchanges, alternative trading venues, direct access brokers, OTC derivatives, high-frequency traders … Reg NMS in the U.S. – and what we have today is a complete mess.” He looked out at the crowd. Dead silence. Peterffy hadn’t bothered to warm the audience up with a joke, a humorous anecdote. He cut straight to the point – and most in that room didn’t like what he was saying.
“It is not so much anymore that the public does not trust their brokers. They do not trust the markets, the exchanges, or the regulators either. And why should they, given our showing the past few years? To the public the financial markets may increasingly seem like a casino, except that the casino is more transparent and simpler to understand.” Visible tension spread through the room. Did Thomas Peterffy just call the market a casino? That was an attack they might have expected from the likes of Arnuk and Saluzzi or Senator Ted Kaufman – but from the founder of Timber Hill and Interactive Brokers, the godfather of electronic trading?
TP Speech Oct2010
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China’s economy is very much like an ocean liner: hard to change course, let alone turn around.
• The Global Origins of China’s Domestic Conflicts (Diplomat)
Globalization divided China into two unequal parts: the successful, aligned and satisfied people on the top, versus the poor, frustrated and marginalized on the bottom. The large-scale outbreaks of social tensions in recent years, including the tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, should not just be seen as isolated cultural or political battles, but rather should be heard as both the battle cry of China’s new class struggle and as a conflict of globalization. Based on the recent public opinion surveys, Chinese citizens have frequently ranked corruption, pollution, and social tension as their top concerns. In fact, all these issues are directly related to the factors of globalization that have helped China rise. The opportunities brought by globalization have hidden costs.
China’s embrace of globalization has aligned once fractious elites behind a banner of shared economic interest. China’s globalization dividends, including its trade surplus and the world’s highest reserves of foreign currency, have provided the government with huge resources to buy the loyalty of the intellectual and economic elites. Scholars, entrepreneurs, and government officials, who just 25 years prior stood divided in Tiananmen Square, have now found themselves as allies. They have become the stakeholders and co-owners of the new China Inc. People on the top are content, sharing the dividends of their prosperity while harmoniously singing the praises of globalization and the stability of one party rule.
By hitching its fate to the opportunities brought by globalization, China has risen at a roaring speed. However, the real danger for the regime is that it has now become reliant on the speed of economic development. Only if China can maintain its unbridled growth rate can it continue to meet the masses’ expectations regarding employment and a standard of living. Beijing used to call an 8% GDP growth rate as a “red line” of life or death. During the recent National People’s Congress session, Premier Li Keqiang tried to persuade the delegates to agree to lower the rate to around 7.5%. To some extent, Chinese society is now like the bus in the Hollywood movie Speed that must keep moving at a speed of 50 miles per hour; to fall below this speed will explode the bomb sitting just beneath the bus. Beijing is indeed playing a dangerous game.
Globalization has also tied Western leaders to the top of the bus, because a failed China would be catastrophic for the world’s economy. However, staying above the red line means that the wealth gap and socioeconomic marginalization will continue. Unfortunately, this may also mean that conflict will continue, especially when the marginalized have learned that the world will pay attention when violence is the messenger. Neither China nor the rest of the world can ignore this dilemma and paradox; with every “made in China” product we buy we are contributing to this rise in wealth, and the rise in frustration, social tension and air pollution.
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Overbuilding, oversupply, overpriced.
• Chinese Developers Seen Facing More Challenges on Oversupply (Bloomberg)
Chinese developers will probably face more challenges this year because of an oversupply of housing in smaller cities, according to a Bloomberg News survey. Developers in regions where the housing market slowed and access to financing shrunk face rising default risks, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said in a Jan. 17 report. “Oversupply remains the top concern of the real estate sector,” Qinwei Wang, London-based economist at Capital Economics Ltd., wrote in the survey. “Inventories have continued to rise, with the situation vulnerable in some third cities. Looking ahead, the increase of demand for new properties will probably be far weaker than over the last decade.”
The pressure on Chinese developers as economic growth slows and the government allows local cities to implement their own housing curbs was underscored by the collapse of a developer in a city south of Shanghai last month. About 67% of housing under construction in China last year was in less affluent cities, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. While most respondents didn’t expect China’s property market to collapse this year, four out of five respondents, who see a crash, expect it to happen in smaller third-tier cities, according to the survey.
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When the economy goes down for real, Québec will revisit this.
• Quebec Separatist Party Suffers Crushing Election Defeat (AP)
Quebec voters gave a resounding no to the prospects of holding a third referendum on independence from Canada, handing the main separatist party in the French-speaking province one of its worst electoral defeats ever. The Liberal Party, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, won Quebec’s legislative elections Monday, while the pro-independence Parti Quebecois suffered a crushing defeat that puts its dream of a sovereign Quebec on hold for years. The results will allow the Liberals to form a majority government, less than 18 months after voters had booted the party from power for the first time in nine years amid allegations of corruption.
With all but a handful of polling stations reporting, the Liberals had 41.5% of the vote and took 70 seats in the 125-member National Assembly. The Parti Quebecois had 25.4% and won 30 seats. The Coalition for Quebec’s Future, which downplayed the sovereignty issue to focus on the economy, was close behind with 23.1% and 22 seats. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who led a minority government, called the snap elections last month in hopes of securing a majority for her PQ party. But the campaign stirred up speculation that a PQ majority would ultimately lead to another referendum on independence from Canada, an idea that has lacked support in recent years. Fears of a referendum galvanized supporters of the Liberals. Marois suffered a humiliating defeat, even losing her own seat, and announced that she would step down as party leader.
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• Canada’s Economy Will Go to a Vote (Bloomberg)
Canada’s first Conservative majority government in a generation is facing an election next year, just as the country’s post-recession comeback is starting to falter. So this is a good time to start thinking about how to judge the Conservatives’ signature project: managing Canada’s economy. In a series of posts, I’ve looked at that question from different angles: Slowing growth rates, the uncertain labor market, stagnant wages and rising debt levels, rising poverty rates for seniors and more households going hungry, and carbon intensity figures moving in the wrong direction.
How much of this is the current government’s fault? Not all of it, to be sure. Many of these changes reflect a mix of forces, from global economic pressure to demographic and technological shifts. Some may have been too strong for the federal government to overcome, whichever party held the reins. But government action matters, especially when one party makes a strong economy the core of its argument for public support. So the question that ought to define the next election is whether, beneath the slogans and the happy talk, Canada’s economy can be judged a success — and what exactly the other parties propose doing differently.
Sounds obvious, right? If you think so, go back and watch the sole English-language debate among party leaders during Canada’s last federal election, when the opposition parties rambled on about the Conservatives’ perceived ethical faults, leaving Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s mantle of economic super-manager all but unchallenged. The scandals have only piled up since then, and with them the temptation to make the next campaign another attempt for the opposition to claim the moral high ground. They shouldn’t. If there’s one lesson from the last election, it’s that bad behavior is inherently subjective.
The economy, on the other hand, isn’t — or at least it doesn’t need to be. But an election campaign that fails to generate a debate on a handful of key economic problems, with each party explaining how it would address those problems and why, is one that gives the winners a free hand to act as they please, pursuing a mandate so vague — who does not want a stronger economy, for the middle class or anyone else? — as to be meaningless.
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• Forward Guidance (Jim Kunstler)
Guess what? There is none. Rather, the Federal Reserve practice of Delphically divulging its intentions ought to be understood as the master pretense of US economic life — the delusion that wise persons are actually in control of anything. The result of this guidance continues to be the mis-pricing of everything, especially the cost of money as represented in the operations of debt, and hence the value of everything denominated in money.
The interventions of our central bank have really been aimed at one objective: to compensate for the contraction of real wealth in an economy that replaced purposeful activity with Kardashian studies and tattoo art. Purposeful economic activity provides surpluses that allow for the repayment of debt. Kardashian study and tattoo art lead to entropic entrapment, aka, a death spiral of culture and economy. That’s where we are at. The debt is now eating us alive, and the central bank trick of piling on additional debt to mask the failure of repaying old debt is losing its palliative punch.
One big problem with the Fed’s policies is that the mis-pricing of everything ends up being expressed in the very statistics (GDP, unemployment, inflation) that are used to justify further interventions that produce ever deeper perversities. That is, the Fed distorts prices, which distort statistics used to make policy, which prompt the fed to ramp up policies that further distort prices, a dangerous recursive dynamic. Since prices are the basic information for running an economy, we end up in a situation where nothing really adds up. The antidote to that has been pervasive accounting fraud — the covering-up of mis-pricing, pretending that things add up when they don’t.
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• Welcome To Terminus (Jim Quinn)
As I watch the hordes of hideous brain dead zombies shuffling across the apocalyptic landscape seeking to satiate their basest cravings I can’t help but see the parallels with the millions of mindless tattooed obese slobs waddling across mall parking lots past vacant store fronts staring zombielike at their iGadgets as they seek to satisfy their basest desires at Macy’s and Chipotle. A virus has overspread our country causing a vast swath of the population to gratuitously assuage their every want without thinking of the consequences. The sickness is caused by being imprisoned for twelve years in government run public schools, watching thousands of hours of propaganda emitted by the corporate media, viewing hundreds of brain cell destroying reality TV shows, reading and sending thousands of texts and tweets, and being overwhelmed by the delusional belief spending more than they make, saving nothing, and piling up mountains of debt is the path to success in our contaminated society. [..]
There are 318 million Americans and a majority of them fall into the category of zombies in my estimation. Every American has the zombie virus within them. It has been incubated by corrupt vote seeking politicians, control hungry government sociopaths, mind numbingly worthless public education, and the relentless dumbing down through corporate media propaganda and vacuous reality TV entertainment. Once cogent thinking aware citizens have been zombiefied into mindless impulsive consumers.
How can you not see the parallels between American society and the zombies in the Walking Dead? Walk down any city street in America and you see hordes shuffling along staring with blank faces and glazed over eyes at their iGadgets. Black Friday is identical to flinging a freshly slaughtered hog in front of the flesh eating zombies. Americans flock to malls across our apocalyptic suburban sprawl landscape and proceed to stampede, gouge, and punch their way to an fantastic bargain on a Chinese slave labor produced microwave they must have to cook their toxic frankenfood created by one of our corporate food conglomerates. The Black Friday crowds actually make the zombies from the Walking Dead seem well behaved. While the American zombies are shambling through superficial lives of pleasure seeking, mass consumption, and a delusional faith in debt based wealth, there is still a minority of rational thinking people who can control their impulses and resist the disease devouring our culture.
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• Australian Unemployment Heads For 11-Year High (Guardian)
Australia’s sluggish economy could need further rate cuts by the end of the year as unemployment looks set to hit an 11-year high, economists have warned. Business confidence fell from seven points in February to four in March, according to the National Australia Bank monthly survey on Tuesday. Business conditions remained subdued but lifted slightly to one point in March. Optimism was at its lowest level since its post-federal election bounce last year and mining was the least confident industry, the report said.
“Rather than conditions rising to confirm the improvement in confidence, it seems that confidence is beginning to succumb to the continuing softness in conditions,” NAB economists said. With unemployment figures on Thursday expected to show the jobless rate at 6.1%, its highest since 2003, the authors of the report believe that the Reserve Bank of Australia may be forced to reduce the cost of borrowing again.
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• This Couple Built Their Own Tiny Home For $10,000 (Yahoo!)
McMansions may be making a comeback in the U.S., but it’s nice to see the tiny-house movement is still going strong. Tiny-home singles even have their own dating site, Tinyhousedating.com. The site launched two weeks ago and already has more than 400 members, according to founder Kai Rostcheck. “It’s hard to meet other people who are making that same [lifestyle] choice,” Rostcheck told Yahoo Finance. But is it really possible to thrive as a couple in such a, well, tiny space? What do you do when the inevitable argument heats up and you’ve only got 100 square feet of breathing room? How do you pare down not only your life but your partner’s life to fit in a home no bigger than a tool shed?
We caught up with Rhode Island couple Jess Belhumeur, 28, and Dan Sullivan, 26, who chronicle their tiny-home lifestyle on their blog, Living In A Tiny House. In January they completed their 128-square-foot abode, which they built and furnished for a mere $10,000. “I had already owned a home before this and I realized that I only used two rooms — the kitchen and the living room,” Jess says. “I felt ridiculous. I was in a stressful financial situation and I wasn’t even making use of the house I had.”
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• Oklahoma Swamped by Surge in Earthquakes Near Fracking (Bloomberg)
There have been more earthquakes strong enough to be felt in Oklahoma this year than in all of 2013, overwhelming state officials who are trying to determine if the temblors are linked to oil and natural gas production. The state on April 6 experienced its 109th earthquake of a magnitude 3 or higher, matching the total for all of 2013, according to Austin Holland, a research seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey. More quakes followed, including a magnitude 4 near Langston about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Oklahoma City.
A surge in U.S. oil and gas production by fracturing, or fracking, in which drillers use a mix of water and chemicals to coax liquids from rock formations, has generated large volumes of wastewater. As fracking expanded to more fields, reports have become more frequent from Texas to Ohio of earthquakes linked to wells that drillers use to pump wastewater underground. “We certainly likely have cases of earthquakes being caused by different oil and gas activity,” Holland said in an interview. “Evaluating those carefully can take significant amounts of time, especially when we’re swamped.”
Within the past year, earthquakes thought to be tied to wastewater disposal wells were recorded in Azle, Texas; Jones, Oklahoma; and northeastern Ohio, according to Art McGarr, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. Pumping fracking wastewater underground has been linked to a sixfold jump in quakes in the central U.S. from 2000 to 2011, according to the science agency, part of the Interior Department.
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Why money needs to be banned from politics, chapter 826.
• Monsanto And Co. Pouring Money Into Defeating County Measure To Ban GMOs (RT)
Monsanto and five other top agrochemical companies have donated a combined $455,000 to defeat an Oregon county ballot initiative that would restrict the growth of genetically-modified crops in area farms. The internationally-powerful “Big Six” chemical companies are flooding the Measure 15-119 ballot campaign in Jackson County, Oregon with lucrative donations that have helped opponents of the measure amass an eight-to-one spending advantage, according to state figures.
Monsanto ($183,294), DuPont Pioneer ($129,647), Syngenta ($75,000), Bayer ($22,353), BASF ($22,353), and Dow AgroSciences ($22,353) have donated a combined $455,000 to Good Neighbor Farmers, the political action committee fighting Measure 15-119, which county voters will consider on the May 20 ballot. “This is a staggering amount of money for a local ordinance,” said Center for Food Safety senior attorney George Kimbrell. “For every vote they might get, Monsanto and its pals could afford to take each voter out for a fancy steak dinner.” Overall, Good Neighbor Farmers has $556,000 cash on hand, according to the Oregon Secretary of State. The Center for Food Safety reported that, all in all, opponents of the measure have a total of $799,000.
Meanwhile, two political action committees supporting the measure, GMO Free Jackson County and Our Family Farms Coalition, have a combined $102,368. Measure 15-119 “would ban any person from propagating, cultivating, raising or growing ‘genetically-engineered’(defined) plants in Jackson County.” Kimbrell’s group says that even before the latest contribution avalanche from the “Big Six,” about 95% of donations in the campaign had come from outside Jackson County. “It goes to prove just how much money is coming from outside of our county,” Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farms Coalition, told The Oregonian. “The general reaction is that people are really angry that outsiders are pouring this much money into a county measure.” [..]
The vast majority of conventional processed foods in the US are made with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Around 93% of all soybean crops planted in the US last year involved genetically-modified, herbicide-tolerant (HT) variants, the US Department of Agriculture has acknowledged. HT corn and HT cotton constituted about 85 and 82% of total acreage, respectively. GMO crops are now grown in 28 countries, or on 12% of the world’s arable land, with the acreage doubling every five years. However, in the European Union, only two GMO varieties (compared to 96 in the USA) have so far been licensed for commercial harvesting. Russia, for instance, recently barred the import of GMO products.
Powerful food industry and biotechnology players are currently banding together on other fronts to protect their investment in GMO technology despite national and international pushback. Their main effort in the US is seen in potential federal legislation that would block states from passing mandatory GMO labeling measures despite the “right to know” movement’s rising popularity.
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