A number of people have argued over the past few days that Hurricane Harvey will NOT boost the US housing market. As if any such argument would or should be required. Hurricane Irma will not provide any such boost either. News about the ‘resurrection’ of New Orleans post-Katrina has pretty much dried up, but we know scores of people there never returned, in most cases because they couldn’t afford to.
And Katrina took place 12 years ago, well before the financial crisis. How do you think this will play out today? Houston is a rich city, but that doesn’t mean it’s full of rich people only. Most homeowners in the city and its surroundings have no flood insurance; they can’t afford it. But they still lost everything. So how will they rebuild?
Sure, the US has a National Flood Insurance Program, but who’s covered by it? Besides, the Program was already $24 billion in debt by 2014 largely due to hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. With total costs of Harvey estimated at $200 billion or more, and Irma threating to cause far more damage than that, where’s the money going to come from?
It took an actual fight just to push the first few billion dollars in emergency aid for Houston through Congress, with four Texan representatives voting against of all people. Who then will vote for half a trillion or so in aid? And even if they do, where would it come from?
Trump’s plans for an infrastructure fund were never going to be an easy sell in Washington, and every single penny he might have gotten for it would now have to go towards repairing existing roads and bridges, not updating them -necessary as that may be-, let alone new construction.
Towns, cities, states, they’re all maxed out as things are, with hugely underfunded pension obligations and crumbling infrastructure of their own. They’re going to come calling on the feds, but Washington is hitting its debt ceiling. All the numbers are stacked against any serious efforts at rebuilding whatever Harvey and Irma have blown to pieces or drowned.
As for individual Americans, two-thirds of them don’t have enough money to pay for a $500 emergency, let alone to rebuild a home. Most will have a very hard time lending from banks as well, because A) they’re already neck-deep in debt, and B) because the banks will get whacked too by Harvey and Irma. For one thing, people won’t pay the mortgage on a home they can’t afford to repair. Companies will go under. You get the picture.
There are thousands of graphs that tell the story of how American debt, government, financial and non-financial, household, has gutted the country. Let’s stick with some recent ones provided by Lance Roberts. Here’s how Americans have maintained the illusion of their standard of living. Lance’s comment:
This is why during the 80’s and 90’s, as the ease of credit permeated its way through the system, the standard of living seemingly rose in America even while economic growth rate slowed along with incomes. Therefore, as the gap between the “desired” living standard and disposable income expanded it led to a decrease in the personal savings rates and increase in leverage. It is a simple function of math. But the following chart shows why this has likely come to the inevitable conclusion, and why tax cuts and reforms are unlikely to spur higher rates of economic growth.
There’s no meat left on that bone. There isn’t even a bone left. There’s only a debt-ridden mirage of a bone. If you’re looking to define the country in bumper-sticker terms, that’s it. A debt-ridden mirage. Which can only wait until it’s relieved of its suffering. Irma may well do that. A second graph shows the relentless and pitiless consequences of building your society, your lives, your nation, on debt.
It may not look all that dramatic, but look again. Those are long-term trendlines, and they can’t just simply be reversed. And as debt grows, the economy deteriorates. It’s a double trendline, it’s as self-reinforcing as the way a hurricane forms.
Back to Harvey and Irma. Even with so many people uninsured, the insurance industry will still take a major hit on what actually is insured. The re-insurance field, Munich RE, Swiss RE et al, is also in deep trouble. Expect premiums to go through the ceiling. As your roof blows off.
We can go on listing all the reasons why, but fact is America is in no position to rebuild. Which is a direct consequence of the fact that the entire nation has been built on credit for decades now. Which in turn makes it extremely vulnerable and fragile. Please do understand that mechanism. Every single inch of the country is in debt. America has been able to build on debt, but it can’t rebuild on it too, precisely because of that.
There is no resilience and no redundancy left, there is no way to shift sufficient funds from one place to the other (the funds don’t exist). And the grand credit experiment is on its last legs, even with ultra low rates. Washington either can’t or won’t -depending on what affiliation representatives have- add another trillion+ dollars to its tally, state capitals are already reeling from their debt levels, and individuals, since they have much less access to creative accounting than politicians, can just forget about it all.
Not that all of this is necessarily bad: why would people be encouraged to build or buy homes in flood- and hurricane prone areas in the first place? Why is that government policy? Why is it accepted? Yes, developers and banks love it, because it makes them a quick buck, and then some, and the Fed loves it because it keeps adding to the money supply, but it has turned America into a de facto debt colony.
If you want to know what will happen to Houston and whatever part of Florida gets hit worst, think New Orleans/Katrina, but squared or cubed -thanks to the 2007/8 crisis.
I wasn’t going to do a Debt Rattle at all. Too much time spent in too narrow and claustrophobic echo chambers. Bunch of loud shrieking parrots. But we have to move on. Tell people who think it all makes sense that really, it doesn’t. What you see is not what you get.
Economics is all about cycles. Central banks trying to deny and prevent them just makes the seasons more extreme.
[..] according to one of the best minds on Wall Street today, Citi’s Matt King, what traders should be far more concerned about, is not who is in the Oval Office or how bombastic the war of words between the US and North Korea may be on any given day, but rather what central banks are preparing to unleash in the coming months. To underscore this, two weeks ago, King made a stark warning when he summarized that we are now more reliant on central banks banks holding markets together than ever before: “with asset prices displaying a high degree of correlation with central bank liquidity additions in recent years, that feedback loop makes the economy, upon which both corporate profitability and bank net interest margins depend, more reliant on central banks holding markets together than almost ever before. That delicate balance may well be sustained for the time being. But with central banks beginning to move, however gingerly, towards an exit, is it really worth chasing the last few bp of spread from here?”
One week later, he followed up with what was arguably his magnum opus on why the market is far too complacent about the threat to risk assets from the upcoming rounds of balance sheet normalization, summarized best in the following charts, showing the correlation between central bank asset purchases and the returns across global stock markets. The unspoken, if all too familiar, message was that riskier financial assets, such as credit and equities, have been artificially boosted by central bank actions, actions which are soon coming to an end whether voluntarily in the case of the Fed, or because the central bank is simply running out of eligible bonds to monetize, in the case of the ECB and BOJ.
In short, King is worried the global market is about to enter another tantrum. Is he right? To answer that question, another Citi strategist, Robert Buckland, admitting that “we are (always) worried”, takes a look at where we currently stand in the business cycle as represented by Citi’s Credit/Equity clock popularized also by Matt King in previous years.
For those unfamiliar, here is a summary of the various phases of the business cycle clock:
Phase 1: Debt Reduction – Buy Credit, Sell Equities Our clock starts as the credit bear market ends. Spreads turn down as companies repair balance sheets, often through deeply discounted share issues. This dilution, along with continued pressure on profits, keeps equity prices falling. For the present cycle, this phase began in December 2008 and ended in March 2009. Global equities fell another 21% even as US spreads tightened.
Phase 2: Profits Grow Faster Than Debt – Buy Credit, Buy Equities The equity bull market begins as economic indicators stabilise and profits recover. The credit bull market continues as improving cashflows strengthen company balance sheets. It’s all-round risk-on. This is usually the longest phase of the cycle. This began in March 2009, and according to most Wall Street analysts, is the phase we find ourselves in right now. Equity and credit investors both do well in this phase.
Phase 3: Debt Grows Faster Than Profits – Sell Credit, Buy Equities This is when credit and equities decouple again. Spreads turn upwards as fixed income investors become increasingly worried about deteriorating balance sheets. But equity markets keep rallying as EPS rise. Share prices are also boosted by the effects of higher corporate leverage, often in the form of share buybacks or M&A. This is the time to favour equities over credit.
Phase 4: Recession – Sell Credit, Sell Equities In this phase, equities recouple with credit in a classic bear market. It is associated with a global recession, collapsing EPS and worsening balance sheets. Insolvency fears plague the credit market, profit warnings plague the equity market. It’s all-round risk-off. Cash and government bonds are usually the best-performing asset classes.
Given the anti-Trump feeding frenzy, we continue to believe that a Swan is on its way bearing Orange. But if that’s not enough to dissuade the dip buyers, perhaps the impending arrival of the Red Swan will at least give them pause. The chart below comprises a picture worth thousands of words. It puts the lie to the latest Wall Street belief that the global economy is accelerating and that surging corporate profits justify the market’s latest manic rip. What is actually going on is a short-lived global credit/growth impulse emanating from China. Beijing panicked early last year and opened up the capital expenditure (CapEx) spigots at the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) out of fear that China’s great machine was heading for stall speed at exactly the wrong time.
The 19th national communist party Congress scheduled for late fall of 2017. This every five year event is the single most important happening in the Red Ponzi. This time the event is slated to be the coronation of Xi Jinping as the second coming of Mao. Beijing was not about to risk an economy fizzling toward a flat line before the Congress. Yet that threat was clearly on the horizon as evident from the dark green line in the chart below which represents total fixed asset investment. The latter is the spring-wheel of China’s booming economy, but it had dropped from 22% per annum growth rate when Mr. Xi took the helm in 2012 to 10% by early 2016. There was an eruption as dramatized in the chart. CapEx growth suddenly more than doubled in the one-third of China’s economy that is already saturated in excess capacity.
The state owned enterprises (SOE) in steel, aluminum, autos, shipbuilding, chemicals, building equipment and supplies, railway and highway construction etc boomed. It was as if a switch had been flicked on by Mr. Xi himself, SOE CapEx soared back toward the 25% year-over-year rate by mid-2016, keeping total CapEx hugging the 10% growth line. However, you cannot grow an economy indefinitely by building pyramids or any other kind of low-return/no return investment – even if the initial growth spurt lasts for years as China’s had. Ultimately, the illusion of Keynesian spending gets exposed and the deadweight costs of malinvestments and excess capacity exact a heavy toll. If the investment boom that was financed with reckless credit expansion is not enough, as was the case in China where debt grew from $1 trillion in 1995 to $35 trillion today, the morning-after toll is especially severe and disruptive. This used to be called a “depression.”
China’s propagated spurt in global trade and commodities was artificial and short-term. It was done to flatter China’s rulers at the 19th party congress. Now that a favorable GDP glide path has been assured, China’s planners and bureaucracy are already back at it trying to find some way to reel in its runaway credit growth and bloated economy before it collapses.
That specialization is the primary source of economic gain has been accepted by economists ever since the famous example of the pin factory with which Adam Smith opened The Wealth of Nations: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; . . . ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. . . . But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day.” David Ricardo extended Smith’s vision of specialization within a given industry to specialization between industries and nations, and made the argument that two countries can benefit from free trade even if one country is absolutely less competitive in both industries than the other.
In his hypothetical example, Portugal could produce both cloth and wine with less labor than England. If England specialized at the industry it was comparatively better at (cloth, obviously) and Portugal specialized in wine, then the total output of both industries would rise. This concept of the advantages of specialization became the core insight of economics, and it continues to be ingrained in and promoted by economists today. Lionel Robbins’s proposition that “Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses” is the dominant definition of economics. It implicitly emphasizes the importance of specialization, so that those “scarce means which have alternative uses” can be efficiently allocated to achieve the maximum level of output.
This belief in the advantages of specialization lies behind the incredulity with which economists have reacted to the rise of populist politicians like Donald Trump in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom’s vote for Brexit. They have, at their most self-righteous, blamed the rise of anti-globalization sentiment on the public’s irrational failure to appreciate the net benefits of trade. Or, more commonly, they have conceded that perhaps the electorate has reacted negatively because the gains from trade have not been shared fairly. There is, however, another explanation for why anti–free trade sentiment has risen: the gains from specialization at the national level were not there to share in the first place, for sound empirical reasons that were ignored in Ricardo’s example. That ignorance has been ingrained in economics since then, as Robbins’s definition—dominant and superficially persuasive, but fundamentally limited—gave economists a starting point from which they could not properly perceive either the advantages or the costs of globalization.
The Oxford English Dictionary has two definitions of the word “conservatism.” The first defines it as a “commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation”; the second defines it as “the holding of political views that favor free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.” The former definition strikes me as the classical definition; the latter, a more modern invention—as those who supported private ownership and free enterprise, such as John Locke and Adam Smith, were in their own times thought of as progressive liberals. But is there a conflict between the two? Not inherently. With the absolute monarchies either abolished or subordinated to the will of parliaments, private ownership and free enterprise have evolved into the status quo.
Given this, one can see how someone who defends this state of affairs might see him or herself as conservative. But in defending this status quo, many who think themselves conservative have instead slipped into supporting a truly radical social doctrine—namely, utilitarianism—a doctrine that has subsequently morphed into neoclassical or marginalist economics. This is a social doctrine that has very little concern for traditional values. Indeed, it often appears to be entirely nihilistic in its consideration of value and truth. Because utilitarianism in its modern form—neoclassical or marginalist economics—is often the primary doctrine used to defend private property and free enterprise, the two definitions from the Oxford dictionary mentioned earlier begin to clash with one another.
What is the essence of the utilitarian doctrine? At its heart, it is the conversion of the human being in all of his or her richness into simplistic, self-contained atoms that are motivated only by their reaction to pleasure and pain. The individual is viewed as a creature isolated from any community: All considerations of intersubjective dynamics are subordinated to atomistic subjective dynamics. Anything resembling intersubjectivity is, in the utilitarian doctrine, merely a product of atomistic desires. There is, as Margaret Thatcher once said, no such thing as society. Simultaneously, although the individual is stripped of all faculties but the ability to feel pleasure and pain, he or she is invested with the ability to perfectly calculate how to best maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Man is divested of his all-too-human nature and endowed with the extremes of animal desires and godlike, calculating omniscience.
Australia’s rising house prices reflect strong fundamentals, says Olumide Soroye, managing director of property data giant Corelogic’s US Information Solutions. Like Australia, which is experiencing rising house prices – which have doubled since the end of the global financial crisis – the US’s affordability is also worsening, Mr Soroye, who visited Australia and New Zealand last week, said. While the proportion of first-home buyers is higher in the US – 35% of total buyers compared with about 8 to 9% in Sydney and Melbourne – people trying to get into the housing markets for the first time are constrained in the US. Five years ago, first-home buyers were 50% of the US market. “The housing industry is in a time of major transformation and one of the forces at work that is going to drive that transformation is the affordability question,” Mr Soroye said.
“It exists here in the US and in Australia and New Zealand.” “Our view is the value of property since the GFC…the levels in the US while they are high they are still within range. We don’t think there is a systemic overvaluation.” “The question is, how does the system respond?” Mr Soroye said the use of macro-prudential tools – controlling lending to homebuyers – to cool the housing market was prudent and the US had done the same especially after the GFC. But that was not enough to reduce prices, and the key solution was supply, Mr Soroye said. He suggested government intervention, home design and the release of more suburban greenfield land supported by strong infrastructure. Reductions in stamp duty and assisted household funding could also help ease the affordability problem, Mr Soroye said.
Dispersing demand into the outer suburbs was another solution but it should be supported by fast trains and good roads. The pace of delivery of infrastructure must also be fast and timely. Importantly, the change in the designs of homes was crucial. Mr Soroye said in the US builders were starting to construct “multi-generational homes” to accommodate parents and their grown children on different floors. “In the context of the US, in 10 years 20% will be over 65. These are the type of parents who will have their millennial children come into their homes,” he said. “Millennials are over two thirds of first-home buyers so you need to figure out what to do with them.” And while planning was slow, particularly in NSW, Australia’s supply delivery was still better than the US and even the UK, Mr Soroye said.
Removing all trade tariffs and barriers would help generate an annual £135bn uplift to the UK economy, according to a group of pro-Brexit economists. A hard Brexit is “economically much superior to soft” argues Prof Patrick Minford, lead author of a report from Economists for Free Trade. He says eliminating tariffs, either within free trade deals or unilaterally, would deliver huge gains. Campaigners against a hard Brexit said the plan amounts to “economic suicide”. The UK is part of the EU customs union, and so imposes tariffs – taxes on imports – on some goods coming into the country. Countries in the customs union don’t impose tariffs on each other’s goods, and every country inside the union levies the same tariffs on imports from abroad. So, for example, a 10% tariff is imposed on some cars imported from outside the customs union, while 7.5% is imposed on roasted coffee. Other goods have no tariffs.
The UK has said it is leaving the EU’s customs union because as a member it is unable to strike trade deals with other countries. Prof Minford’s full report, From Project Fear to Project Prosperity, is due to be published in the autumn. He argues that the UK could unilaterally – before a reciprocal deal is in place – eliminate trade barriers for both the EU and the rest of the world and reap trade gains worth £80bn a year. The report foresees a further £40bn a year boost from deregulating the economy, as well as other benefits resulting from Brexit-related policies. Prof Minford says that when it comes to trade the “ideal solution” would still be free trade deals with major economic blocks including the EU. But the threat that the UK could abolish all trade barriers unilaterally would act as “the club in the closet”.
The EU would then be under pressure to offer Britain a free trade deal, otherwise its producers would be competing in a UK market “flooded with less expensive goods from elsewhere”, his introduction says. He argues UK businesses and consumers would benefit from lower priced imported goods and the effects of increased competition, which would force firms to raise their productivity. [..] During the referendum campaign last year Prof Minford stoked controversy by suggesting that the effect of leaving the EU would be to “eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech”. However in a recent article in the Financial Times he suggested manufacturing would become more profitable post-Brexit.
The firing of Steve Bannon is in my opinion the most significant event to happen during the Trump administration thus far. Moreover, it will have massive reverberations across the U.S. political spectrum for years and years to come. I wasn’t planning on writing today, but this news is so incredibly significant I find myself with little choice. Taking a step back, part of the reason I was immediately able to see through the Trump con was due to my upbringing in New York City. The guy was constantly in the news my entire life, so I had a pretty decent understanding of where he was really coming from and what makes him tick. The mindset of your typical NYC-based billionaire real estate developer is filled with all sorts of perspectives and priorities, but thoughts of populism are not amongst them.
Trump used populism to get elected, and then as soon as he won, immediately appointed some of the most destructive oligarchs imaginable to run his administration. The reason I warned about this incessantly at the time, is because I learned the lesson from the Obama administration. People = policy, and the people Trump was elevating were almost unanimously awful. Irrespective of what you think of Bannon, him being out means Wall Street and the military-industrial complex is now 100% in control of the Trump administration. Prepare for an escalation of imperial war around the world and an expansion of brutal oligarchy. The removal of Bannon is the end of even a facade of populism. This is now the Goldman Sachs Presidency with a thin-skinned, unthinking authoritarian as a figurehead.
Meanwhile, guess who’s still there in addition to the Goldman executives? Weed obsessed, civil asset forfeiture supporting Jefferson Sessions. The Trump administration just became ten times more dangerous than it was before. With the coup successful, Trump no longer needs to be impeached. Here’s another prediction. Watch the corporate media start to lay off Trump a bit more going forward. Rather than hysterically demonize him for every little thing, corporate media will increasingly give him more of the benefit of the doubt. After all, a Presidency run by Goldman Sachs and generals is exactly what they like. Trump finally came out of the closet as the anti-populist oligarch he is, and the results won’t be pretty.
Corporate media got the scalp it wanted, so the hysterical criticisms of him will die down. This is not to say I think the media will become pro-Trump, it just means the obsessive and aggressive propaganda will be dialed back considerably. Trump is now inline, and he will be rewarded by the establishment for that. He will learn that the more he gets with the program, the easier his life will be and the more secure his power. He is merely being conditioned, and my forecast is that Trump will gladly embrace the worst parts of the establishment going forward. Why? Because Trump’s true worldview fits in way more with Goldman Sachs and the military-industrial complex than with populism. It always has. The whole thing was just an act to get elected. Firing Bannon is just Trump coming home to who he always was. A ruthless oligarch.
History shows that maritime powers almost always have the upper hand in any clash; if only because moving goods by sea is cheaper, more efficient, easier to control, and often faster, than moving them by land. So there is little doubt that the US continues to have the advantage. Simple logic, suggests that goods should continue to be moved from Shanghai to Rotterdam by ship, rather than by rail. Unless, of course, a rising continental power wants to avoid the sea lanes controlled by its rival. Such a rival would have little choice but developing land routes; which of course is what China is doing. The fact that these land routes may not be as efficient as the US controlled sealanes is almost as irrelevant as the constant cost over-run of any major US defense projects. Both are necessary to achieve imperial status.
As British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson highlighted in his mustread East And West, empires tend to expand naturally, not out of megalomania, but simple commercial interest: “The true explanation lies in the very nature of the trade route. Having gone to all expenses involved… the rule cannot be expected to leave the far terminus in the hands of another power.” And indeed, the power that controls the end points on the trading road, and the power that controls the road, is the power that makes the money. Clearly, this is what China is trying to achieve, but trying to do so without entering into open conflict with the United States; perhaps because China knows the poor track record of continental empires picking fights with the maritime power. Still, by focusing almost myopically on Russia, the US risks having its current massive head-start gradually eroded. And obvious signs of this erosion may occur in the coming years if and when the following happens:
• Saudi Arabia adopts the renminbi for oil payments • Germany changes its stripes and cozies up to Russia and pretty much gives up on the whole European integration charade in order to follow its own naked self-interest. The latter two events may, of course, not happen. Still, a few years ago, we would have dismissed such talk as not even worthy of the craziest of conspiracy theories. Today, however, we are a lot less sure. And our concern is that either of the above events could end up having a dramatic impact on a number of asset classes and portfolios. And the possible catalyst for these changes is China’s effort to create a renminbi-based gold market in Hong Kong. For while the key change to our global financial infrastructure (namely oil payments occurring in renminbi) has yet to fully arrive, the ability to transform renminbi into gold, without having to bring the currency back into China (assuming Hong Kong is not “really” part of China as it has its own supreme court and independent justice system… just about!) is a likely game-changer.
Clearly, China is erecting the financial architecture for the above to occur. This does not mean the initiative will be a success. China could easily be sitting on a dud. But still, we should give credit to Beijing’s policymakers for their sense of timing for has there ever been a better time to promote an alternative to the US dollar? If you are sitting in Russia, Qatar, Iran, or Venezuela and listening to the rhetoric coming out of Washington, would you feel that comfortable keeping your assets, and denominating your trade, in dollars? Or would you perhaps be looking for alternatives? This is what makes today’s US policy hard to understand. Just when China is starting to offer an alternative—an alternative that the US should be trying to bury—the US is moving to “weaponize” the dollar and pound other nations—even those as geo-strategically vital as Russia—for simple domestic political reasons. It all seems so short-sighted.
One thing sure to upset Bank of England officials is any suggestion that the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has gone soft on the banking industry and turns a blind eye to reckless lending. It brings back disturbing memories of the 2008 credit crunch, the chaos it brought to the economy and the damage it caused the institution’s reputation. Last week, the Bank of England, which has become the overarching regulator of the banking system, made a point of being tough on the banks following the publication of its latest financial stability report. It slapped a demand for more than £11bn of extra reserves on the major lenders – just in case the current economic slowdown should trigger a rise in defaults.
Governor Mark Carney also warned the lending industry that it should expect tougher rules on how it sells mortgages, car loans and credit cards should the current rise in borrowing rocket any further. But one question remains: can Carney and his troops tame the British consumer’s dependence on debt? The most recent figures would say the answer is no. Last week the Bank’s own figures showed that consumer credit grew by £1.7bn in May, the biggest increase since last November, and higher than the six-month average of £1.5bn. The annual rate at which UK consumers are loading up on their already heaving debt pile remained at 10.3% in the year to May. A look at the total stock of UK consumer credit shows that it reached £198bn in April.
That might seem small compared with the total amount of outstanding mortgage debt, which is around seven times larger, at £1.3trillion, but for banks, consumer credit accounts for a much higher proportion of losses. “Since 2007, UK banks’ total write-offs on UK consumer credit have been 10 times higher than on mortgages,” the BoE says. And all this rising debt comes at a time of extraordinary falls in the savings rate. The most recent GDP figures showed that households were putting aside rainy day money at the lowest rate on record. It is a situation that worries experts of all stripes – from Jane Tully, a senior director at the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, to former Bank of England official Kate Barker, who was a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting committee during the last crash.
Tully said: “We have already seen an 8% rise in the number of people helped by National Debtline by telephone this year, and all the signs are that demand for debt advice will continue to increase. The higher borrowing levels rise, the more households will be exposed to the risk of financial difficulty in the event of a downturn.” Barker is concerned that eight years of ultra-low interest rates are fuelling a dependence on cheap borrowing, without any end in sight. She says that the growth of car finance plans appears to be a side-effect of the clampdown in other areas of credit, in particular the tighter regulation of mortgages. “There is obviously an incentive to borrow, so as one area is clamped down on, the problem pops up in another,” she says.
House prices are teetering on the brink of a crash that could be as bad as the bust of the early 1990s, a leading expert has warned. There are already warning signs that prices are heading towards a near 40% plunge, warns Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics. It raises the alarming spectre of the return of ‘negative equity’ – when a house falls so far in value it is worth less than the mortgage – which hit one million people at the worst point in the 1990s. Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, Prof Cheshire, a former Government housing adviser, said: ‘We are due a significant correction in house prices. I think we are beginning to see signs that correction may be starting. ‘Historically, trends seem always to start in London and then move out across the rest of the country. In the capital, you are already seeing house prices rising less rapidly than in other parts of Britain.’
Such a shift could push many thousands of recent buyers into trouble. From 1989, the price boom fell apart over the next six years, with prices plunging by 37%. In its most recent figures, The National Association of Estate Agents reported the number of homes sold in May for less than the asking price rose to 77%. According to Prof Cheshire, the fall in real incomes – when wages fail to keep up with inflation – is likely to be the spark for a fall in house prices. Inflation hit 2.9% last month, while incomes only grew by 2.1%. Property experts and estate agents say the housing market in wealthier pockets of the country has been further hit by stamp duty hikes. Prof Christian Hilber of the LSE also warned: ‘If Brexit leads to a recession and/or sluggish growth for extended periods, then an extended and severe downturn is more likely than a short-lived and mild one.’ The Council of Mortgage Lenders said earlier this month that the housing market had ‘stalled’
Xi Jinping’s tough talk in Hong Kong reflects growing self-confidence in China’s ability to shape world events and browbeat or ignore less powerful countries such as Britain. The Chinese president could have thrown a bone to the pro-democracy movement. He could have offered a sop on civil liberties and political rights to western opinion. Instead, he told Hong Kong who’s boss. Xi the hard man laid down the law according to Beijing. His message: fall into line, or else. His message to Britain was blunt, too, bordering on disdainful. China would not brook outside “interference” in the former colony. Forget about those guarantees of a free, open society painstakingly negotiated before the 1997 handover. “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and challenge the power of the central government is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.
Under Xi’s bastardised version of the Basic Law, any criticism is henceforth forbidden, on pain of serious consequences. Boris Johnson received a stinging lesson in the new balance of power earlier in the week. “As we look to the future, Britain hopes that Hong Kong will make more progress toward a fully democratic and accountable system of government,” the foreign secretary intoned with uncharacteristic meekness. Johnson’s statement was shamefully deferential. He could, and should, have been more forceful about Beijing’s responsibilities and its own egregious, sometimes illegal meddling. But China took umbrage all the same. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in London, set Johnson straight: Hong Kong issues must henceforth be “handled properly” or overall ties would suffer.
Worse was to follow. On Friday, China’s foreign ministry formally renounced the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, the basis on which Britain agreed to relinquish control of the colony. The two sides had agreed the treaty would remain in force for 50 years. “The Sino-British joint declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong,” the spokesman Lu Kang declared. The Foreign Office swiftly rejected the demarche. But in his present bullish mood, Xi is not listening.
[..] the state remains without a spending plan, its tax receipts and outlays mostly on “autopilot”, leaving it with a record $15 billion of unpaid bills as it spent over $6 billion more than it brought in over the past year, and with $800 million in interest on the unpaid bills alone. The impasse has devastated social-service providers, shuttering services for the homeless, disabled and poor. The lack of state aid has wrecked havoc on universities, putting their accreditation at risk. However, in a “shocking” development, just hours remaining before the midnight deadline to pass the Illinois budget, and Illinois’ imminent loss of its investment grade rating, federal judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago ordered Illinois to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars it owes in Medicaid payments that state officials say the government doesn’t have, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Judge Lefkow ordered the state to make $586 million in monthly payments (from the current $160 million) as well as another $2 billion toward a $3 billion backlog of payments – a $167 million increase in monthly outlays – the state owes to managed care organizations that process payments to providers. While it is no secret that as part of its collapse into the financial abyss, Illinois has accumulated $15 billion in unpaid bills, the state’s Medicaid recipients had had enough, and went to court asking a judge to order the state to speed up its payments. On Friday, the court ruled in their favor. The problem, of course, is that Illinois can no more afford to pay the outstanding Medicaid bills, than it can to pay any of its $14,711,351,943.90 in overdue bills as of June 30. The backlog of unpaid claims the state owes to managed-care companies directly, as well as to the doctors, hospitals, clinics and other organizations “is crippling these providers and thereby dramatically reducing the Medicaid recipients’ access to health care,” Lefkow said in her ruling.
Friday’s court ruling, which meant that the near-insolvent state must pay an additional $593 million per month, may have been the straw that finally broke the Illinois camel’s back. “Friday’s ruling by the U.S. District Court takes the state’s finances from horrific to catastrophic,” Comptroller Susana Mendoza, a Democrat, said in an emailed statement after the ruling. [..] “A comprehensive budget plan must be passed immediately.” Realizing where all this is headed, she said that payments to bond holders won’t be interrupted. [..] As a result of the court decision, “payments to the state’s pension funds; state payroll including legislator pay; General State Aid to schools and payments to local governments – in some combination – will likely have to be cut.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature are returning to work to try to resolve the state’s first government shutdown since 2006 and the first under Christie. The Republican governor and the Democrat-led Legislature failed to reach an agreement on a new budget by the deadline at midnight Friday, CBS New York reports. In a news conference Saturday morning, Christie blamed Democratic State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto for causing the shutdown. “If there’s not a resolution to this today, everyone will be back tomorrow,” Christie said, calling the shutdown “embarrassing and pointless.” He also repeatedly referred to the government closure as “the speaker’s shutdown.” Christie later announced that he would address the full legislature later at the statehouse on Saturday.
Prieto remained steadfast in his opposition, reiterating that he won’t consider the plan as part of the budget process but would consider it once a budget is signed. Referring to the shutdown as “Gov. Christie’s Hostage Crisis Day One,” Prieto said he has made compromises that led to the budget now before the Legislature. “I am also ready to consider reasonable alternatives that protect ratepayers, but others must come to the table ready to be equally reasonable,” Prieto said. “Gov. Christie and the legislators who won’t vote ‘yes’ on the budget are responsible for this unacceptable shutdown. I compromised. I put up a budget bill for a vote. Others now must now do their part and fulfill their responsibilities.” Christie ordered nonessential services to close beginning Saturday. New Jerseyans were feeling the impact as the shutdown took effect, shuttering state parks and disrupting ferry service to Liberty and Ellis islands.
One of the few elected Democratic lawmakers with an extensive anti-war record, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), has combined forces with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to push legislation through both the House and the Senate that would bar federal agencies from using taxpayer-backed funds to provide weapons, training, intelligence, or any other type of support to terrorist cells such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any other group that is associated with them in any way. The Stop Arming Terrorists Act is so unique that it’s also the only bill of its kind that would also bar the government from funneling money and weapons through other countries that support (directly or indirectly) terrorists such as Saudi Arabia. To our surprise – or should we say shame? – only 13 other lawmakers out of hundreds have co-sponsored Gabbard’s House bill. Paul’s Senate version of the bill, on the other hand, has zero co-sponsors.
While both pieces of legislation were introduced in early 2017, no real action has been taken as of yet. This proves that Washington refuses to support bills that would actually provoke positive chain reactions not only abroad but also at home. Why? Well, let’s look at the groups that would lose a great deal in case this bill is signed into law. With trillions of tax dollars flowing to companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and even IBM, among others, companies that invest heavily in weapons, cyber security systems, and other technologies that are widely used in times of war would stand to lose a lot – if not everything – if all of a sudden, the United States chose to become a nation that stands for peace and free market principles. For one, these companies have a heavy lobbying presence, ensuring that lawmakers sympathetic to their plight are elected every two years.
When the possibility of a new conflict appears on the horizon, these companies are the first to lobby heavily for action. But this dynamic isn’t a secret. We all know that the crony capitalist system that thrives in Washington, D.C., is the very bread and butter of politics in America. After all, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation in his farewell address in 1961 that “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” were becoming the great powers behind U.S. politics, and that if we weren’t weary of this influence, we would risk living in a perpetual state of war. Still, we allowed it to take over. And there isn’t one industry powerful enough to counter this destructive authority. With the support of an army of well-established and connected millionaire lobbyists, the war machine operating in Washington is so powerful that anything can be turned into an existential threat.
So what did Hersh’s investigation reveal? His sources in the US intelligence establishment – people who have helped him break some of the most important stories of the past few decades, from the Mai Lai massacre by American soldiers during the Vietnam war to US abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004 – told him the official narrative that Syria’s Bashar Assad had dropped deadly sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was incorrect. Instead, they said, a Syrian plane dropped a bomb on a meeting of jihadi fighters that triggered secondary explosions in a storage depot, releasing a toxic cloud of chemicals that killed civilians nearby. It is an alternative narrative of these events that one might have assumed would be of intense interest to the media, given that Donald Trump approved a military strike on Syria based on the official narrative.
Hersh’s version suggests that Trump acted against the intelligence advice he received from his own officials, in a highly dangerous move that not only grossly violated international law but might have dragged Assad’s main ally, Russia, into the fray. The Syrian arena has the potential to trigger a serious confrontation between the world’s two major nuclear powers. But, in fact, the western media were supremely uninterested in the story. Hersh, once considered the journalist’s journalist, went hawking his investigation around the US and UK media to no avail. In the end, he could find a home for his revelations only in Germany, in the publication Welt am Sonntag. There are a couple of possible, even if highly improbable, reasons all English-language publications ignored Hersh’s story. Maybe they had evidence that his inside intelligence was wrong.
If so, they have yet to provide it. A rebuttal would require acknowledging Hersh’s story, and none seem willing to do that. Or maybe the media thought it was old news and would no longer interest their readers. It would be difficult to sustain such an interpretation, but at least it has an air of plausibility – except for everything that has happened since Hersh published last Sunday. His story has spawned two clear “spoiler” responses from those desperate to uphold the official narrative. Hersh’s revelations may have been entirely uninteresting to the western media, but strangely they have sent Washington into crisis mode. Of course, no US official has addressed Hersh’s investigation directly, which might have drawn attention to it and forced western media to reference it. Instead Washington has sought to deflect attention from Hersh’s alternative narrative and shore up the official one through misdirection.
That alone should raise the alarm that we are being manipulated, not informed. The first spoiler, made in the immediate wake of Hersh’s story, were statements from the Pentagon and White House warning that the US had evidence Assad was planning yet another chemical attack on his people and that Washington would respond extremely harshly if he did so. Here is how the Guardian reported the US threats: “The US said on Tuesday that it had observed preparations for a possible chemical weapons attack at a Syrian air base allegedly involved in a sarin attack in April following a warning from the White House that the Syrian regime would ‘pay a heavy price’ for further use of the weapons.”
And then on Friday, the second spoiler emerged. Two unnamed diplomats “confirmed” that a report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had found that some of the victims from Khan Sheikhoun showed signs of poisoning by sarin or sarin-like substances.
If national security advisers gave Trump such excellent information about the alleged sarin gas attack, completely disproving any such attack, why was he given such bad advice about shooting down a Syrian war plane, or was it done outside of channels? The effect of the shootdown is to raise the chance of a confrontation with Russia, because Russia’s response apparently has been to declare a no-fly zone over the area of Russian and Syrian operations. How do we know that what Hersh was told was true? What if Trump was encouraged to order the Tomahawk strike as a way of interjecting the US directly into the conflict? Both the US and Israel have powerful reasons for wanting to overthrow Assad. However, ISIS, sent to do the job, has been defeated by Russia and Syria. Unless Washington can somehow get directly involved, the war is over.
The story Hersh was given also serves to damn Trump while absolving the intelligence services. Trump takes the hit for injecting the US directly into the conflict. Hersh’s story reads well, but it easily could be a false story planted on him. I am not saying that the story is false, but unless we learn more, it could be. What we do know is that the story given to Hersh by national security officials is inconsistent with the June 26 White House announcement that the US has “identified potential preparations for another chemical attack by the Assad regime.” The White House does not have the capability to conduct its own foreign intelligence gathering. The White House is informed by the national security and intelligence agencies. In the story given to Hersh, these officials are emphatic that not only were chemical weapons removed from Syria, but also that Assad would not use them or be permitted by the Russians to use them even if he had them.
Moreover, Hersh reports that he was told that Russia fully informed the US of the Syrian attack on ISIS in advance. The weapon was a guided bomb that Russia had supplied to Syria. Therefore, it could not have been a chemical weapon. As US national security officials made it clear to Hersh that they do not believe Syria did or would use any chemical weapons, what is the source for the White House’s announcement that preparations for another chemical attack by the Assad regime have been identified? Who lined up UN ambassador Nikki Haley and the UK Defence Minister Michael Fallon to be ready with statements in support of the White House announcement? Haley says: “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.” Fallon says: “we will support” future US action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
How clear does an orchestration have to be before people are capable of recognizing the orchestration?
“Clean coal,” always dubious as a concept and never proved as a reality, has now failed as business proposition. Southern Co. has decided to stop work on a process that would have captured carbon dioxide emissions from a coal plant in Mississippi. Giving up on the project, which was nearly $5 billion over budget and three years behind schedule, makes sense for Southern’s customers and shareholders. And giving up on carbon capture makes sense for the energy industry. The technology is too expensive and complicated to be deployed quickly or widely enough to appreciably protect the climate. The better way to cut back on carbon-dioxide emissions is far simpler: Use less coal. Luckily, that change is already under way. (Michael R. Bloomberg supports the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, an effort to replace coal power with cleaner forms of energy.)
Carbon capture once seemed promising – even as recently as a decade ago, when coal fueled almost half of U.S. electricity generation. Back then, continued dependence on the dirty fuel looked inevitable, and a strategy to deal with its prodigious greenhouse-gas emissions seemed essential. Hence, utilities embarked on model coal plants that would capture the carbon dioxide before it could enter the atmosphere. Only a couple have been built, in addition to Southern’s in Kemper County, Mississippi, and none has established an economic case for carbon capture. The Petra Nova facility, in Texas, was reportedly finished on time and on budget, but its construction required a $190 million federal grant, and the carbon-capture unit requires a separate gas-fired power plant.
Canada’s Boundary Dam carbon-capture unit, meanwhile, has operated much less efficiently than expected, suffering multiple breakdowns and requiring expensive repairs. Unfortunately, such costs and complexities are unlikely to diminish very much, and few such facilities are likely to be built worldwide in the next 20 years. A new report issued by the Global Warming Policy Foundation concludes that carbon capture for coal-fired power has “no plausible economic future.”
Qatar said on Saturday it does not fear any military retaliation for refusing to meet a Monday deadline to comply with a list of demands from four Arab states that have imposed a de-facto blockade on the Gulf nation. During a visit to Rome, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani again rejected the demands as an infringement on Qatar’s sovereignty. He said any country is free to raise grievances with Qatar, provided they have proof, but said any such conflicts should be worked out through negotiation, not by imposing ultimatums. “We believe that the world is governed by international laws, that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries,” he told a press conference in Italy. “No one has the right to issue to a sovereign country an ultimatum.” Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic ties with Qatar last month and shut down land, sea and air links.
They issued a 13-point list of demands, including curbing diplomatic ties to Iran, severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and shuttering the Al-Jazeera news network. They accuse Qatar of supporting regional terror groups, a charge Qatar denies. Al Thani rejected the demands and said they were never meant to be accepted. “There is no fear from whatever action would be taken; Qatar is prepared to face whatever consequences,” he said. “But as I have mentioned … there is an international law that should not be violated and there is a border that should not be crossed.” While in Rome, Al Thani met with Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano, who backed the Kuwait-led mediation effort and urged the countries involved in the standoff to “abstain from further actions that could aggravate the situation”. He added that he hoped Italian companies could further consolidate their presence in Qatar.
I read these things and think I must be missing something: “..Greece is braced for a record-breaking 30m holidaymakers this year..” and “For every extra 30 holidaymakers a job is created”.
That sounds like a lot of jobs. But seriously, a country that depends too much on tourism is not a healthy country. Not enough stability or resilience. The longer the US and EU wait, the more unstable Greece will become.
Up high, above the hills of Arcadia, historic Dimitsana is on a roll. Its hotels are brimming, its cafes are full, and its footpaths and monasteries lure busloads of tourists decanted daily from other parts of the Peloponnese. Either side of the main road that splits the mountain village – in a world far removed from talk of emergency bailout funds, international stewardship and gruelling austerity – Greeks are hard at work, running boutique guesthouses, eateries and bars in the stone mansions that line Dimitsana’s cobbled streets. “Business is very good,” says Labis Baxevanos, the village’s deputy mayor, who owns a patisserie along the strip. “So good that a lot of younger couples have come to work here since the country’s economic crisis began.”
Debt-stricken Greece is braced for a record-breaking 30m holidaymakers this year, almost three times its population. Addressing the Panhellenic Exporters Association last week, the tourism minister Elena Kountoura said that between January and May there had been a noticeable increase in arrivals, revenues and occupancy rates with summer bookings in some areas rising by as much as 70%. Travel receipts grew by 2.4% or €23m (£20m). After eight years of grinding austerity, the influx is a tangible gift, on a par with the €8.5bn financial lifeline thrown Greece earlier this month to once again avert default. Dimitsana – once famous for the gunpowder mills that produced the firepower in the nation’s 1821 war of independence against Ottoman rule – is emblematic of the entrepreneurial spirit taking root as a result of the boom.
“Tourism is our lifejacket,” says Theonimfi Koraki, who opened a boutique hotel in the village last summer. “The aim now is diversity and drawing out the season all year round. Here in Arcadia the creation of the 75km-long Menalon [walking] trail has been hugely successful for example with foreign tourists. It has greatly helped the development of the region.” With the exception of shipping, tourism is Greece’s biggest foreign earner, the mainstay of an economy that has otherwise contracted by 27% since late 2009 when the country’s debt crisis began. The industry accounted for eight out of 10 new jobs in 2016, vital for a nation hit by crippling levels of unemployment. Bank of Greece figures show around 23.5 million tourists visited in 2015, generating €14.2bn of revenues, or 24% of gross domestic product. Last year, the country’s tourism confederation, SETE, announced arrivals of 27.5 million, an all-time high.
Increasingly, the sector has helped boost much-needed job creation, according to data released by the labour ministry. Recently, the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, said April and May had been record months for tackling the problem with 92,000 and 89,500 jobs created respectively. For every extra 30 holidaymakers a job is created, say officials. They have been at pains to make the point as striking municipal waste workers not only unnerved tour operators this week but highlighted how important tourism is for the economy.
The European Central Bank plans to inspect Greek banks this year to monitor their progress in working off their huge pile of unpaid loans, ECB director Sabine Lautenschlaeger said on Friday. Greek banks have been cutting their share of non-performing loans (NPL) to companies and households, which account for slightly more than half of their books as a result of a severe economic crisis, to meet targets set by the ECB. The ECB supervises Greece’s four largest banks, or significant institutions (SIs), and is one of the three bodies responsible for the country’s bailout, along with the European Commission and the IMF.
“The ECB will perform on-site missions at the Greek SIs during the second half of 2017, a period in which the main operational measures to address NPLs … have to be already implemented,” Lautenschlaeger said in a letter to IMF chief Christine Lagarde. She was responding to an IMF request for information on the ECB’s supervisory work in Greece in the context of a possible IMF program for the country. Greece secured a credit lifeline from euro zone governments earlier this month. The IMF offered Athens a standby arrangement but said it won’t disburse any money until it obtains greater detail on debt relief for the country.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has insisted in an interview that successive Greek governments were to blame for the pension cuts that have been enforced in Greece. The German minister stressed in an interview with Ta Nea newspaper on Saturday that the Greek governments are the ones that decided the mix of policies needed to achieve the country’s targets. He also said that the IMF will never be involved again in a program to rescue a European country. Referring to his Greek counterpart Euclid Tsakalotos, he said they communicate frequently, while he dismissed his flamboyant predecessor Yianis Varoufakis as someone he no longer can “take seriously.”
According to the latest Fed data, the all-important C&I loan growth contraction has not only continued, but over the past two months, another 50% has been chopped off, and what in early March was a 4.0% annual growth is now barely positive, down to just 2.0%, and set to turn negative in just a few weeks. This was the lowest growth rate since May 2011, right around the time the Fed was about to launch QE2. At the same time, total loan growth has likewise continued to decline, and as of the second week of May was down to 3.8%, the weakest overall loan creation in three years.
Another loan category that has seen a dramatic slowdown since last September, when Ford’s CEO aptly predicted that “sales have reached a plateau.” Since then auto loan growth has been slashed by more than 50% and at this runrate, is set to turn negative some time in late 2017. Needless to say, that would wreak even further havoc on the US car market. For a while, despite numerous attempts at explanation, there was no definitive theory why this dramatic slowdown was taking place. It even prompted the WSJ to inquire “who hit the brakes?” Well, after the latest Fed Senior Loan Officer Survey, we may have the answer.
First, recall that in late April we showed another very troubling trend: consumer credit card default rate as tracked by S&P/Experian Bankcard had surged to the highest level since June 2013, suggesting that contrary to reports otherwise, the US consumer is increasingly unwell. A quick look at the latest Fed Senior Loan officer survey revealed even more disturbing trends. According to the report, “banks reported tightening most credit policies on Commercial Real Estate loans over the past year…. On balance, banks reported weaker demand for CRE loans in the first quarter.” Even more troubling was the continued drop in demand for C&I loans among small, medium and large corporations, with “inquiries for C&I lines of credit remained basically unchanged” staying at a modestly depressed rate.
This stark admission that in addition to declining bank supply due to tighter standard (i.e., worries about further losses), there was less demand by businesses and consumers for loans, has explained once and for all the ongoing collapse in commercial bank loan creation, both total, C&I and auto. Of the two, the declining demand for loans businesses, is by far the most concerning aspect of an economy that is supposedly growing, and where companies should be willing to take out new credit to fund expansion (instead of merely issuing bonds to buyback their stock).
A credit crunch is brewing and when it happens, the UK is going to get hurt. That is the message emerging from senior executives in the financial services industry, who do not think Britain has changed that much since the 2008 credit disaster and the devastating crash that followed. Three developments lie at the heart of this disturbing analysis: spectacular growth in the sale of second mortgages, car loans and credit cards. Second mortgages are widely seen as a signal of consumers taking on risky levels of debt that leave them vulnerable to a downturn in the economy. It was the same before the last banking crash. Tens of thousands of households, many of them struggling to pay monthly mortgage payments, used second mortgages to bypass borrowing limits set by their mortgage lender.
The latest industry figures show the number of people opting to saddle themselves with a second mortgage leapt 22% in March to its highest level since 2008. Car loans are already on the regulator’s radar. Like second mortgages, they are considered secured credit on the basis that lenders have a claim against an asset when borrowers can no longer pay monthly instalments. But cars depreciate from the moment they are bought, so they rank low down the scale of secure credit. And loans have turned in recent years into leases that have customers renewing contracts every three years, keeping them in effect permanently hooked. The main consumer regulator for the financial services industry, the Financial Conduct Authority, is reviewing the market for car leasing, which now accounts for more than 90% of car sales, to check for mis-selling to poorer households who will be vulnerable to default.
The Bank of England is also on the case. More importantly, it is also looking at the big picture and what happens if unemployment suddenly rises and a large number of households default on payments. Officials at the Bank have a growing list of concerns. Not only is there the second mortgage problem and the number of car loans: figures show consumer spending on unsecured credit has also rocketed in the last year. In March alone, the amount UK consumers owed on loans and cards grew by £1.9bn, the highest figure in 11 years. Households are known to have increased their reliance on short-term unsecured loans to buy cars and furniture, and to kit out new kitchens. Some use them to maintain their lifestyle in the face of a decade of flat wages.
Unfortunately, another group use credit to pay the monthly rent. Shelter, the homelessness charity, says one in three renters – around half a million people – on low incomes are having to borrow money to pay the rent. It said the borrowing is often from family and friends, but also on credit cards and through loans.
After a series of friendly gestures by President Donald Trump toward Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over the past few months, US media have recoiled with disgust at the open embrace of governments that ostensibly had heretofore been beyond the pale. “Enabling Egypt’s President Sisi, an Enemy of Human Rights,” was the New York Times‘ editorial position (4/4/17)—followed by “Donald Trump Embraces Another Despot” (5/1/17). A week later, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) lectured Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the Times op-ed page (5/8/17) on “Why We Must Support Human Rights.” “How Trump Makes Dictators Stronger” was Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum’s lament (5/1/17). “Trump keeps praising international strongmen, alarming human rights advocates,” reported an upset Philip Rucker (Washington Post, 5/2/17).
Post contributor Tom Toles (5/2/17) added, “Trump invites ruthless dictators to the White House.” Trump had gone too far, was the media message, crossing a line with his enthusiastic outreach to brutal tyrants. So the Trump administration’s announcement of a plan for not just a friendly visit to Saudi Arabia—scheduled for May 20–21—but also the sale of up to $300 billion in weapons to the oppressive regime, must have provoked the same outcry from these critics, right? Actually, no. Thus far, the LA Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, ABC and CBS haven’t reported on Trump’s massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia, much less had a pundit or editorial board condemn it. Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen has killed at least 10,000 civilians, resulted in near-famine conditions for 7 million people and led to a deadly cholera epidemic—all made possible with US weapons and logistical support.
John McCain, whose New York Times op-ed was unironically shared by dozens of high-status pundits, aggressively backs Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing of Yemen, and has called for increased military support to the absolute monarchy. The New York Times hasn’t written an editorial about Saudi Arabia since October of last year (10/1/16), when, for the second time in the span of a week, the paper defended the regime against potential lawsuits over its role in the 9/11 attacks. When the Times does speak out on the topic of Saudi Arabia, it does so to run interference for its possible connection to international terrorism.
Nice words to the wrong dictators unleash a torrent of outrage from our pundit class. Nice words to the right dictators—along with billions in military hardware, which unlike nice words will be used to continue to slaughter residents of a neighboring country and suppress domestic dissent–result in uniform silence. Not a word from Anne Applebaum, no condemnation from Philip Rucker, no moral preening from Sen. John McCain, no sense that any line had been crossed from the New York Times editorial board. The US’s warm embrace and arming of the Saudis is factored in, it’s bipartisan, and thus not worthy of outrage.
RT: Trump signed a $110-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. How do you think this is going to be received in the US and in the wider international community?
Sharmine Narwani: Not very well. We’ve seen what the Saudis have done with arms in the last six years or so. To understand why this administration is upping arms sales to the Saudis, we have to go back a little bit. In 2010, 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring, the Saudis signed contracts for over $65 billion at that time, the largest ever. And then here we are a number of years later. And the numbers are 110, possibly up to $300 billion. And the reason behind this is basically after the failures of the US intervention in Iraq and invasion of Afghanistan, the Americans were no longer willing to sacrifice blood and treasure, and moving forward they were going to use local proxies to fight their wars. And Saudi Arabia is willing and able to fight wars in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen on behalf of the American administration. But unfortunately, to no avail; these are not winnable wars. And at this point, I think Trump is looking at them as a cash cow.
RT: Trump says he wants to help bring peace to the Middle East. But does striking such a huge arms deal right off the bat send the right signal?
SN: Peace is a relative term. What do the Americans and what does the Trump administration mean by peace, for starters? Peace means the status quo, it means the Americans continue to exercise hegemony over the region, and that is not possible with an empire in decline. So, I think right now what we are seeing with the Trump administration headed by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, spearheading an effort to create what they are calling the Arab NATO, which is a peace deal struck over the Israel-Palestine conflict in which the Saudis and the Gulf States and other Sunni states will agree to some kind of a solution there in order to cooperate with Israel to target Iran. So, in fact, we are going to see an escalation, not peace.
Just how homogenous is the U.S. foreign policy elite? Remember that through the end of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State in 2013, either a Bush or a Clinton held one of the three highest offices in the U.S. – the presidency, vice presidency or secretary of state – for eight straight terms. Another reason why interventionist foreign policy often fails is because federal-government bureaucrats and other outsiders don’t have “skin in the game” – an entrenched interest, financial or of another sort, in the conflict – and therefore, are incapable of achieving a comprehensive understanding of the situation. That goes for both elected leaders, beauracrats, and the media. “We have today so many people sitting in the New York Times Washington office, in an air conditioned office, who can dictate foreign policy with zero risk.”
Dr. Paul seized the opportunity to criticize the “Chickenhawks” who advocate interventionism, but avoided serving in the military during Vietnam. “I don’t fault them for trying to avoid the war, but I fault them for advocating war,” Paul said. Many still haven’t internalized the lesson of the 2007-2008 economic crash and how the monetary policy missteps made by former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan helped cause the crash. As a result, throughout human history, “we’ve never had so many people transferring risk to others,” Taleb asserts. One reason these actors have been allowed to remain in power is that it’s difficult to assign blame to individuals when you’re dealing with “macro” conflicts like the Syrian conflict that involve many different state actors.
This is one reason the policy elite at the State Department – whom Taleb compared to doctors from ancient times, who inflicted more harm than healing on their patients – have managed to stay in power, while a modern-day doctor who was causing an unusual number of patient deaths would quickly be barred from practicing. Turning the conversation toward the asset bubbles that have continued growing since the last crisis, Taleb explained how Greenspan’s discovery that he could stabilize markets by slashing interest rates has led to our current struggle with unprecedented debt creation and a belief in “perpetual wealth and perpetual growth.” “Lowering rates in such a manner leads to distortions. If we didn’t have a Fed, we’d be better off because the price of money would be negotiated between people.”
[..] Whatever happens to the Federal Reserve -if it’s allowed to continue monetizing debt or not – it may not matter. Because digital currencies like bitcoin, which are quickly growing in popularity and value, could one day supplant the use of fiat currencies altogether, Taleb said. During the last U.S. election, people showed that they aren’t “victims of the New York Times.” Moreover, Twitter has helped upend the media power structure in favor of the people and independent thought. “Trump was elected in spite of 264 top newspapers wanting him to lose,” Taleb noted, adding that he believes the future will be “a libertarian dream.” “We will destroy what needs to be destroyed, and build what needs to be built,” he said.
[..] there was no way to listen to the March 5th interview and not come away feeling like Clapper believed he would have known of the existence of a FISA warrant, or of any indications of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, had they existed up until the time he left office on January 20th of this year. Todd went out of his way to hammer at the question of whether or not he knew of any evidence of collusion. Clapper again said, “Not to my knowledge.” Here Todd appropriately pressed him: If it did exist, would you know? To this, Clapper merely answered, “This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government.” That’s not an unequivocal “yes,” but it’s close. There’s no way to compare Clapper’s statements on March 5th to his interviews last week and not feel that something significant changed between then and now.
Clapper’s statements seem even stranger in light of James Comey’s own testimony in the House on March 20th. In that appearance, Comey – who by then had dropped his bombshell about the existence of an investigation into Trump campaign figures – was asked by New York Republican Elise Stefanik when he notified the DNI about his inquiry. “Good question,” Comey said. “Obviously, the Department of Justice has been aware of it all along. The DNI, I don’t know what the DNI’s knowledge of it was, because we didn’t have a DNI – until Mr. Coats took office and I briefed him his first morning.” Comey was saying that he hadn’t briefed the DNI because between January 20th, when Clapper left office, and March 16th, when former Indiana senator and now Trump appointee Dan Coats took office, the DNI position was unfilled.
But Comey had said the counterintelligence investigation dated back to July, when he was FBI director under a Democratic president. So what happened between July and January? If Comey felt the existence of his investigation was so important that he he had to disclose it to DNI Coats on Coats’ first day in office, why didn’t he feel the same need to disclose the existence of an investigation to Clapper at any time between July and January? Furthermore, how could the FBI participate in a joint assessment about Russian efforts to meddle in American elections and not tell Clapper and the other intelligence chiefs about what would seemingly be a highly germane counterintelligence investigation in that direction?
If Corbyn doesn‘t beat May, it’ll be due to his own party members. Corbyn equals Sanders in many ways. Left wing parties, to avoid oblivion, must be drastically changed and rebuilt. But vested interests make that very hard in both the UK and US.
In 2009 the Greek Socialist party, Pasok, entered government with 44% of the vote; by 2015 it was down to seventh, with just 5%. The party’s demise coincided with, and was arguably precipitated by, the rise of the more leftwing Syrza, which went from 5% and fifth place to 36% and government within the same period. This dual trajectory gave rise to the term Pasokification: the dramatic decline of a centre-left party that is eclipsed by a more leftwing alternative. A word was needed for it because there’s a lot of it about. Earlier this month the French Socialist party came fifth in the first round of the presidential election with just 6% of the vote, while the hard left won 20%; back in 2012 the Socialists came first with 28% and went on to win the presidency. In Holland the PvdA, the mainstream social democratic party, won 6% in March and came 7th while the GreenLeft coalition won 9%; back in 2012 the PvdA came second, with 25%.
Less pronounced versions of the same dynamic have occurred across the continent. When parties created to represent the interests of working people in parliament decide instead to make working people pay for the crisis in capital they get punished, and ultimately may be discarded. Anyone who believes that Labour is immune from this contagion just needs to take a look at Scotland, where the party went from 41 seats in 2010 to just one in 2015, before Corbyn was elected leader. To understand the Labour party’s fortunes in this election outside of this trend would be like looking at each national uprising during the Arab spring in 2011, or the collapse of Eastern bloc dictatorships in 1989, as being somehow wholly discrete from each other.
New university students will be freed from paying £9,000 in tuition fees as early as this autumn if Labour wins the election, Jeremy Corbyn will say on Monday. The Labour leader and Angela Rayner, his shadow education secretary, will say tuition fees will be completely abolished through legislation from 2018 onwards. But students starting courses in September will have fees for their first year written off retrospectively so as not to encourage them to defer their studies for a year. Labour said it would seek to provide free tuition for EU students and push for reciprocal arrangements at EU universities as part of the Brexit negotiations. Students who are partway through their courses would no longer have to pay tuition fees from 2018, meaning those starting their final year of study in September would be the last cohort liable for the £27,000 of debts to be paid back when graduates pass an earnings threshold.
Labour said those students would be protected from above-inflation interest rate rises on their debts and the party would look for ways to reduce the burden for them in future. “The Conservatives have held students back for too long, saddling them with debt that blights the start of their working lives. Labour will lift this cloud of debt and make education free for all as part of our plan for a richer Britain for the many not the few,” Corbyn will say. “We will scrap tuition fees and ensure universities have the resources they need to continue to provide a world-class education. Students will benefit from having more money in their pockets, and we will all benefit from the engineers, doctors, teachers and scientists that our universities produce.”
Growth in China’s economy has long centered on the coast, where Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta form some of the world’s most productive regions on their own. But now that tide of internal migration that drew hundreds of millions of workers from the farm to factory is shifting, and lifting the economic prospects of the country’s interior.As big-city living costs rise and job openings become less abundant, more migrants are now leaving China’s urban centers than new ones arriving, according to Oxford Economics. “Labor costs on the East Coast are now too high for industries further down the value chain to remain competitive internationally,” London-based economist Alessandro Theiss wrote in a report, citing an 8 million decline in the migrant population from 2014 to 2016.
The shift should benefit inland provinces, especially in southwest regions like Sichuan, as companies move production to take advantage of lower costs while remaining connected to coastal export hubs and industrial clusters, he said. Southern and northwestern provinces are are likely to keep expanding relatively fast as they benefit from catch-up growth, fiscal support and geographic location, while the northeast is likely to remain the slowest-growing region as population declines and coal mining consolidates more in inland provinces, according to Theiss. While the east coast was hit by slower global trade in recent years, conditions are now improving. Specialized manufacturing clusters and export hubs are innovating and moving up the value chain, and research activity is boosting the region.
That’s good news for some of China’s biggest drivers: Coastal Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces each account for around 10% of national output and all had output last year that exceeded Mexico’s, Theiss said. The future looks favorable for east coast provinces with more mature economies, as well as those in central China.
For commodity traders operating in the Information Age, just good old trading doesn’t cut it anymore. Unlike the stock market in which transactions are typically based on information that’s public, firms that buy and sell raw materials thrived for decades in an opaque world where their metier relied on knowledge privy only to a few. Now, technological development, expanding sources of data, more sophisticated producers and consumers as well as transparency surrounding deals are eroding their advantage. “Everything is transparent, everybody knows everything and has access to information,” Daniel Jaeggi, the president of Mercuria Energy Group, said on Thursday at the Global Trader Summit organized by IE Singapore, a government agency that promotes international trade.
Sitting next to him at a panel discussing ‘What’s Next for Commodity Trading: Drivers, Disruptors and Opportunities’, Sunny Verghese, the chief executive officer of food trader Olam International Ltd., lamented declining margins. “The consumers and producers are trying to eat our lunch. So we got to be smart about differentiating ourselves,” he said. As market participants’ access to information increases, the traders highlighted the need to more than simply buy and sell commodities as profits from arbitrage – or gains made from a differential in prices – shrinks. That means getting involved in the supply chain by potentially buying into infrastructure that’s key to the production and distribution of raw materials, and also providing financing for the development of such assets.
High-risk mortgage loans to young families, professionals and other over-extended borrowers amounting to more than six times household incomes could wipe out 20% of the major banks’ equity base, institutional investment fund JCP Investment Partners has warned. The fund manager’s study warns that official estimates of average household indebtedness are depressed by the sizeable number of mortgages that are effectively full paid off. In a proprietary study of the nation’s record high-and-growing household debt mountain, the Melbourne-based fund said Irish-style housing losses for the bigger-than-recognised pool of riskier borrowers could wipe out half of the banks’ equity capital.
Interest-only loans, said JCP – which is one of three Australian equities managers appointed by the Future Fund – could be “Australia’s sub-prime”. As regulators crack down on interest-only lending and the Turnbull government’s decision to introduce a bank levy drives up the cost of loans, “only time will tell if such households can afford the mortgages they have”. The dramatic warning echoes concerns raised by Reserve Bank of Australia governor Philip Lowe this month that rising household debt had made the economy more vulnerable, and that it was unclear how stretched consumers might behave in a crisis.
It also follows a review by Australian Prudential Regulation Authority chairman Wayne Byres of bank capital requirements for housing exposures, given the “notable concentration in housing”, announced at The Australian Financial Review Banking and Wealth Summit last month. Among the biggest concerns is what may happen when households feel they can no longer service their loans, for instance, as borrowing costs are reset higher or those with interest only mortgages are forced to repay the principal as well. That creates a negative feedback loop – experienced by Ireland after the financial crisis – in which stressed borrowers slash their spending, in turn crunching the economy, driving up unemployment and adding to downward pressure on house prices.
Euro-area finance ministers gather in Brussels on Monday to try to clinch a deal on easing Greece’s debt burden, which would resolve a stalled review of the country’s bailout and pave the way for a new set of rescue loans. While Greece and its bailout supervisors have agreed on economic overhauls, the completion of the country’s review has been held back by disagreements between key creditors over how much debt relief is needed. At the heart of the impasse lies the IMF’s reluctance to participate in a bailout unless the euro area takes further steps to ensure the country’s €315 billion ($353 billion) debt load becomes sustainable. Some nations like Germany, which is resisting changes to Greece’s debt profile, won’t release any new funds until the IMF joins the program. Athens needs its next aid installment of around €7 billion before it has to repay lenders in July.
A global agreement on Greek debt “is within reach and it’s vital,” EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said in an interview on France Inter radio on Sunday. Additional debt relief is also necessary for the ECB to include Greek bonds in its asset purchases program, which would ease the country’s access to bond markets. EU officials see chances for a deal on Monday at 50-50, and point to a meeting of euro-area finance ministry deputies ahead of the ministers’ gathering, which will determine the likelihood of an accord. A key issue of contention is the outlook for Greece’s economy after 2018, when the current bailout expires. The IMF has raised doubts about Greece’s ability to maintain such an optimistic budget performance for decades, while key creditors have been pushing for a more positive outlook. Less ambitious fiscal targets would increase the amount of debt relief needed.
At least 18 countries, including South Africa, the US, Canada, Portugal, France, and Brazil, have faced shortages of benzathine penicillin G over the last three years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With only a few companies in the world still manufacturing the medicine, countries can’t find enough supply of the drug that changed modern medicine 76 years ago. Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it really took off during World War II. In the early 1940s, a US government-led program brought together around 20 commercial firms, plus government and academic research laboratories, who collaborated to scale up penicillin production to supply the military. The goal, according to the book Sickness and Health in America, was to have enough penicillin for the troops landing in France in June 1944.
In March 1945, penicillin was, for the first time, made available for consumers across the US. It’s efficacy made it popular: by 1949, the US annual production of penicillin was 1.3 trillion units—compared to the relative pittance of 1.7 billion units in 1944.\ Penicillin was one of the great achievements of modern medicine. It was the first drug of its kind, considered a miracle, and ushered in the era of antibiotics. Before penicillin, any cut could kill if it got infected; surgeries of any kind could be fatal; and bacterial infections such as strep throat could kill. Gonorrhea, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted illnesses were basically a death sentence. But a single shot of benzathine penicillin G was enough to kill the first stages of syphilis, which had plagued humankind for over 500 years. It could also cure gonorrhea and other infectious disease. Today, benzathine penicillin G is still the most effective drug against deadly diseases such as rheumatic heart disease and syphilis.
[..] Today, just four companies in the world still produce the active ingredient for benzathine penicillin G. Three are in China: North China Pharmaceutical; CSPC Pharmaceuticals; Jiangxi Dongfeng Pharmaceutical. Austria-based Sandoz is the only producer of the active ingredient for benzathine penicillin G in the Western world. Together, these producers have the capacity to deliver up to 600 metric tons of benzathine penicillin G a year, but they produce less than 20% of that. “There is no money in penicillin,” says Amit Sengupta, the New Delhi-based global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement. A shot of benzathine penicillin G typically costs between $0.20 and $2.00, and usually all you need is one—strep throat and syphilis are both cured with a single injection of penicillin.
Do they vote for or against? Do they choose a candidate who represents their politics or one who, opinion polls suggest, is most likely to defeat the woman whose presence as one of two candidates in the second-round runoff in a fortnight seems a given, but whose name still provokes a frisson of fear for many: the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, with her anti-Europe, anti-immigration, “French-first” programme? As election day has approached, and with the added complication of the terrorist threat following the shooting of a police officer on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, the dilemma has caused particular anguish for France’s mainstream leftwing voters, whose candidate is trailing in fifth place.
There are no certainties, but barring all other candidates “dropping from a nasty virus”, as one political analyst put it, Benoît Hamon is facing a crushing defeat in the first round, ending his leadership dreams and putting the future of the country’s Socialist party (PS) in question. In a decline that mirrors that of Britain’s Labour party, the PS is facing years in a political desert, if it survives. If Hamon finishes last among the leading candidates, as polls predict, the party’s only hope of salvaging a thread of power will lie in winning enough parliamentary seats in the legislative elections that follow to form an influential group in the national assembly. Even then it will most likely be part of a coalition rather than a fully functioning opposition.
Even worse, and even more unthinkable, if leftwing voters turn en masse to Jean-Luc Mélenchon as their best hope of a place in the second round against the frontrunners – independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen or the conservative François Fillon – and Hamon polls less than 5%, none of Hamon’s campaign expenses will be reimbursed, bankrupting the PS. “Under 5% and the situation is really catastrophic,” Marc-Olivier Padis, of the Paris-based thinktank Terra Nova, told the Observer. “And it’s possible. We are hearing many socialists wondering if they should vote Mélenchon or Macron. The only thing that can save the party in this election is if enough socialists vote for Hamon out of loyalty.”
The 2017 French Presidential election marks a profound change in European political alignments. There is an ongoing shift from the traditional left-right rivalry to opposition between globalization, in the form of the European Union (EU), and national sovereignty. Standard media treatment sticks to a simple left-right dualism: “racist” rejection of immigrants is the main issue and that what matters most is to “stop Marine Le Pen!” Going from there to here is like walking through Alice’s looking glass. Almost everything is turned around. On this side of the glass, the left has turned into the right and part of the right is turning into the left. Fifty years ago, it was “the left” whose most ardent cause was passionate support for Third World national liberation struggles.
The left’s heroes were Ahmed Ben Bella, Sukarno, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, and above all Ho Chi Minh. What were these leaders fighting for? They were fighting to liberate their countries from Western imperialism. They were fighting for independence, for the right to determine their own way of life, preserve their own customs, decide their own future. They were fighting for national sovereignty, and the left supported that struggle. Today, it is all turned around. “Sovereignty” has become a bad word in the mainstream left. National sovereignty is an essentially defensive concept. It is about staying home and minding one’s own business. It is the opposite of the aggressive nationalism that inspired fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to conquer other countries, depriving them of their national sovereignty.
The confusion is due to the fact that most of what calls itself “the left” in the West has been totally won over to the current form of imperialism – aka “globalization”. It is an imperialism of a new type, centered on the use of military force and “soft” power to enable transnational finance to penetrate every corner of the earth and thus to reshape all societies in the endless quest for profitable return on capital investment. The left has been won over to this new imperialism because it advances under the banner of “human rights” and “antiracism” – abstractions which a whole generation has been indoctrinated to consider the central, if not the only, political issues of our times.
The fact that “sovereignism” is growing in Europe is interpreted by mainstream globalist media as proof that “Europe is moving to the right”– no doubt because Europeans are “racist”. This interpretation is biased and dangerous. People in more and more European nations are calling for national sovereignty precisely because they have lost it. They lost it to the European Union, and they want it back. That is why the British voted to leave the European Union. Not because they are “racist”, but primarily because they cherish their historic tradition of self-rule.
ECB officials signaled that their liquidity facilities remain available to counter any market tension that may arise in the aftermath of France’s presidential election, the first round of which takes place Sunday. “The central bank should be ready for any shocks that should materialize,” Governing Council member Ignazio Visco said at a press conference during the IMF spring meetings in Washington on Saturday. “And if there were to be such a shock, the instruments are the instruments that a central bank should use, which are liquidity provision, refinancing when needed. And intervening very quickly is really very easy now given the instruments we have.” Like the U.K.’s vote on whether to continue its membership of the EU in June, central bank readiness to support the banking system has been sought given the potential for such political events to create market turmoil.
In this case, a strong showing in the first round by anti-euro candidate Marine Le Pen could cast doubt over the future of the single currency. Visco argued that the presence of central bank facilities makes it less likely they’ll actually be needed. [..] The euro area has years of experience with banking freeze-ups and has multiple instruments to address liquidity shortages that strike otherwise solvent banks. In particular, in the event a sudden credit-rating downgrade made French government debt ineligible as collateral for normal ECB refinancing operations, so-called Emergency Liquidity Assistance may be available from the Bank of France. “If there should be problems for specific French banks, liquidity-wise, then the ECB has instruments to help solvent banks with liquidity problems,” Governing Council member Ewald Nowotny said on Saturday. “This is ELA, emergency liquidity assistance. That could be given of course. But we don’t expect any special movements.”
Donald Trump and the GOP need an easy, highly visible legislative victory. Breaking up the Fed meets this criteria. In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, policymakers rushed out the Dodd-Frank Act. This Act increased the Fed’s responsibilities. However, policymakers did this without examining the Fed’s performance in the run-up to the financial crisis. Had they done so, they would have seen the Fed failed as a bank supervisor and regulator. This failure alone mandates breaking up the Fed. After all, why should the Fed be given a second chance given how much its failure hurt the global real economy and taxpayers? Furthermore, this failure strongly suggests policymakers shouldn’t have rewarded the Fed with additional responsibilities. After all, there is no reason to believe the Fed’s failure as a bank supervisor and regulator won’t be repeated with any new responsibilities.
To the extent these new responsibilities exist in the Dodd-Frank Act, they too should be stripped away. What the Fed should be left with is responsibility for monetary policy and the payment system. All of the Fed’s bank supervision and regulatory responsibility should be transferred to the FDIC. There are many significant benefits from doing this including it reinforces market discipline on the banks. Unlike the Fed, the FDIC is responsible for protecting the taxpayers and has the authority to close a bank. The FDIC’s primary responsibility is minimizing the risk of loss by the taxpayer backed deposit insurance fund. It achieves this initially through regulation and supervision, but more importantly by a willingness to step in and close a bank that threatens to cause a loss to the fund.
Shareholders and unsecured bank creditors are keenly aware they are likely to lose their entire investment should the FDIC step up and close the bank they are invested in. As a result, they have an incentive to exert discipline on bank management to limit its risk taking so the bank is never taken over by the FDIC. For those who would argue that it is important to keep bank supervision and regulation together with monetary policy, I would point out there is no evidence showing this produces a better outcome. In the run-up to the Great Financial Crisis, the Bank of England and the ECB did not have supervision and regulation responsibility. The Fed did. Talk about a perfect controlled experiment.
From a global macroeconomic perspective, we encourage readers to consider that the world is experiencing an extended, rolling process of deflating its credit excesses. It is now simply China’s turn. For context, Japan started deflating their credit bubble in the early 1990s, and has now experienced more than 20 years of deflation and very little growth since. The US began its process in 2008, and after eight years has only recently been showing signs of sustainable recovery. The euro zone entered this process in 2011 and is still struggling six years onward. We believe China is now entering the early stages of this process. Having said that, we believe that Chinese authorities have a viable plan for deflating their credit excess in an orderly fashion.
Please stay posted as we will review this multi-pronged, market-based approach in our next column. For now, let’s turn our attention to the size of the credit excess that China created and why we estimate it to be the largest in the world. A credit excess is created by the speed and magnitude of credit that is created – if too much is created in too short a time period, excesses inevitably occur and non-performing loans (NPLs) emerge. To illustrate the credit excess that has been created in China, let’s review several key indicators, including the: 1) flow of new credit; 2) stock of outstanding credit; 3) credit deviation ratio (i.e., excess credit); 4) incremental capital output ratio (efficiency of credit allocation).
The US created 58% of GDP between 2002-07, and the global financial crisis followed. Japan created credit equivalent to the entire size of its economy between 1985-90 and subsequently experienced more than 20 years of deflation (admittedly reflecting the lack of restructuring). Thailand created a significant real estate bubble between 1992-97 and ended up with about 45% NPL ratios. Spain created credit equivalent to 116% of GDP between 2002-07 and still is trying to address a 20% unemployment rate. China created 139% of GDP in new credit between the first quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2014 (when GDP growth peaked), far greater than what was created in other major credit bubbles globally.
[..] Another important measure to assess the amount of credit in the economy which is “excessive” is the credit-to-GDP gap, as reported by the Bank of International Settlements. This ratio measures the difference between the current credit-to-GDP ratio in an economy against its long-term trend of what is necessary to optimally support long-term GDP growth. It is akin to measuring the amount of credit that is productively deployed into an economy. This metric is used by the Basel III framework in determining countercyclical capital buffers for a country’s banking system when credit creation becomes too fast (i.e., high credit growth requires higher capital ratios for banks).
Finally, to show that the pace of credit creation will necessarily slow, thereby exposing misallocated credit and driving the emergence of new NPL formation, we turn to the deterioration in China’s incremental capital output ratio. This ratio is the measure of the number of units of input required to produce one unit of GDP. For the 15 years prior to the credit impulse in 2009-14, China’s incremental capital output ratio has been consistently between two and four. Meaning that two to four yuan in fixed asset investment created one yuan in GDP. But as a result of the credit-driven economic growth model, and the excessive credit that has been created (and the subsequent excess capacity in the industrial economy), China’s investment efficiency has deteriorated to the point that its incremental capital output ratio is now over 13. Said another way, every 1 yuan in new fixed asset investment is now creating only 7 fen in GDP.
The devastation in the US retail sector is accelerating in 2017, and in addition to the surging number of brick and mortar retail bankruptcies, it is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the soaring number of store closures. While the shuttering of retail stores has been a frequent topic on this website, most recently in the context of the next “big short”, namely the ongoing deterioration in the mall REITs and associated Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities and CDS, here is a stunning fact from Credit Suisse:”Barely a quarter into 2017, year-to-date retail store closings have already surpassed those of 2008.”
According to the Swiss bank’s calculations, on a unit basis, approximately 2,880 store closings were announced YTD, more than twice as many closings as the 1,153 announced during the same period last year. Historically, roughly 60% of store closure announcements occur in the first five months of the year. By extrapolating the year-to-date announcements, CS estimates that there could be more than 8,640 store closings this year, which will be higher than the historical 2008 peak of approximately 6,200 store closings, which suggests that for brick-and-mortar stores stores the current transition period is far worse than the depth of the credit crisis depression.
As the WSJ calculates, at least 10 retailers, including Limited Stores, electronics chain hhgregg and sporting-goods chain Gander Mountain have filed for bankruptcy protection so far this year. That compares with nine retailers that declared bankruptcy, with at least $50 million liabilities, for all of 2016. On Friday, women’s apparel chain Bebe Stores said it would close its remaining 170 shops and sell only online, while teen retailer Rue21 Inc. announced plans to close about 400 of its 1,100 locations. Another striking fact: on a square footage basis, approximately 49 million square feet of retail space has closed YTD. Should this pace persist by the end of the year, total square footage reductions could reach 147M square feet, another all time high, and surpassing the historical peak of 115M in 2001.
There are several key drivers behind the avalanche of “liquidation” signs on store fronts. The first is the glut of residual excess retail space. As the WSJ writes, the seeds of the industry’s current turmoil date back nearly three decades, when retailers, in the throes of a consumer-buying spree and flush with easy money, rushed to open new stores. The land grab wasn’t unlike the housing boom that was also under way at that time. “Thousands of new doors opened and rents soared,” Richard Hayne, chief executive of Urban Outfitters Inc., told analysts last month. “This created a bubble, and like housing, that bubble has now burst.”
Retail sale volumes slumped in March, seeming to confirm doubts about the robustness of the consumer-led economy in the wake of last summer’s Brexit vote. According to the Office for National Statistics, sales were down 1.8% in the month, against City expectations of a 0.2% decline. The monthly data can be volatile and March’s decline follows a 1.7% spike in February, but the ONS itself highlighted the weakening trend this year and noted that over the three months to March there was the first quarterly decline in volumes since 2013. In the first quarter of 2017 sales were down 1.4%, the biggest decline since the first three months of 2010 when they fell 2%.
Retail sales performed much better than expected in the immediate wake of last June’s Brexit vote, helping to boost overall GDP growth and confounding widespread expectations that the economy would fall into recession. But economists said the latest data suggested gravity was now asserting itself as inflation, stemming from the sharp depreciation of the pound since last June, eats into incomes and wage growth remains chronically weak. “We should see these retail sales figures as the start of a period of much weaker consumer spending growth – which will act as a drag on the overall progress of the UK economy over this year and next,” said Andrew Sentance, senior economic adviser at PwC.
“This is the clearest indication yet that the expected slowdown in the UK economy has begun, and we should expect to see this confirmed in other economic data over the next few months.” James Knightley, an economist at ING described the figures as “dreadful”. “The story for the household sector isn’t great right now. Inflation is eating into household spending power with wages once again failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living. There is also a growing sense of job insecurity highlighted in some surveys, which may also be making households a little nervous,” he said. The household saving ratio, the gap between the sector’s aggregate income and spending, fell to just 3.3% in the final quarter of 2016, the weakest on record, prompting questions about the sustainability of the rate of consumer spending. Retail sales account for around 30% of household consumption, which in turn accounts for 60% of UK GDP.
The fact that Britain’s unemployment rate has fallen to its joint lowest level since 1975 belies the experience of thousands of BHS staff, who have struggled to find an equivalent job with a contract and regular hours. The jobless rate may be just 4.7% but official records show the number of people on zero-hours contracts hit a record high of 905,000 in the final three months of 2016. That was an increase of 101,000, or 13%, compared with the same period a year earlier. Last year, research by industry trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) identified a “lost generation” of predominantly female shop workers who – as thousands of BHS staff would find out – risk losing their jobs as structural change chews up the high street. It estimated there were nearly 500,000 retail workers, aged between 26 and 45, many of whom have children and need to work close to their family home, who would find it hard to find alternative jobs.
Using the benchmark of those earning less than £8.05 an hour, the BRC says 1.5 million people work in low-paid UK retail jobs. About 70% are female and one in five receive means-tested working age tax credits. Norman Pickavance, chair of the Fabian Society taskforce on the future of retail, says the majority of companies in the sector are trying to save money by moving towards less secure employment models. “There are more and more zero-hours-type contracts and self employment,” he says. “A year on from the demise of BHS, most retailers are continuing down that route of flexibility but there is a risk to them from Brexit. They have only been able to use these methods because of the abundance of labour and might have to rethink.”
[..] This trend is writ larger in the US, where analysts are talking about a “retail apocalypse”, as main street veterans like Macy’s and Sears line up to announce major store closure programmes. With American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch and JCPenney also axing stores, hundreds of American shopping mall outlets are closing for good. The cost in job terms has been stark, with more than 89,000 retail positions eliminated over the last six months. New York-based Global Data analyst Neil Saunders says the US and UK retail markets are not mirror images, with the American woes resulting from the fallout from a belated move by store chiefs to address the threat posed by the internet.
With more than five times more retail square footage per person than the UK, American store chiefs have also got a bigger problem on their hands than their British counterparts. “In terms of online penetration, the US is where the UK was five or so years ago,” continues Saunders. “What we are seeing is large US retailers scrabbling to adjust.” He adds: “Generally, UK retail is at a much later evolutionary stage than the US. There has already been quite a lot of adjustment in terms of the closure and adaptation of physical space.
Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency spied on the Interpol international police agency for years and on the group’s country liaison offices in dozens of countries such as Austria, Greece and the United States, a German magazine said. Der Spiegel magazine, citing documents it had seen, said the BND had added the email addresses, phone numbers and fax numbers of the police investigators to its sector surveillance list. In addition, the German spy agency also monitored the Europol police agency Europol which is based in The Hague, the magazine said. Der Spiegel reported in February that the BND also spied on the phones, faxes and emails of several news organizations, including the New York Times and Reuters.
The BND’s activities have come under intense scrutiny during a German parliamentary investigation into allegations that the US National Security Agency conducted mass surveillance outside of the United States, including a cellphone used by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Konstantin von Notz, a Greens party member who serves on the investigative committee, described the latest report about the BND’s spying activities as “scandalous and unfathomable.” “We now know that parliaments, various companies and even journalists and publishers have been targeted, as well as allied countries,” von Notz said in a statement. He said the latest reports showed how ineffective parliamentary controls had been thus far, despite new legislation aimed at reforming the BND. “It represents a danger to our rule of law,” he said.
Pope Francis urged governments on Saturday to get migrants and refugees out of holding centers, saying many had become “concentration camps”. During a visit to a Rome basilica, where he met migrants, Francis told of his visit to a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last year. There he met a Muslim refugee from the Middle East who told him how “terrorists came to our country”. Islamists had slit the throat of the man’s Christian wife because she refused to throw her crucifix the ground. “I don’t know if he managed to leave that concentration camp, because refugee camps, many of them, are of concentration (type) because of the great number of people left there inside them,” the pope said.
Francis praised countries helping refugees and thanked them for “bearing this extra burden, because it seems that international accords are more important than human rights”. He did not elaborate but appeared to be referring to agreements that keep migrants from crossing borders. In February, the European Union pledged to finance migrant camps in Libya as part of a wider European Union drive to stem immigration from Africa. Humanitarian groups have criticized efforts to stop migrants in Libya, where – according to a U.N. report last December – they suffer arbitrary detention, forced labor, rape and torture.
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.”
Citigroup’s crack trio of credit analysts, Matt King, Stephen Antczak, and Hans Lorenzen, best known for their relentless, Austrian, at times “Zero Hedge-esque” attacks on the Fed, and persistent accusations central banks distort markets, all summarized best in the following Citi chart… have come out of hibernation, to dicuss what comes next for various asset classes in the context of the upcoming paradigm shift in central bank posture. In a note released by the group’s credit team on March 27, Lorenzen writes that credit’s “infatuation with equities is coming to an end.” “What do credit traders look at when they mark their books? Well, these days it is fair to say that they have more than one eye on the equity market.”
Understandable: after all, as the FOMC Minutes revealed last week, even the Fed now openly admits its policy is directly in response to stock prices. As the credit economist points out, “statistically, over the last couple of years both markets have been influencing (“Granger causing”) each other. But considering the relative size, depth and liquidity of (not to mention the resources dedicated to) the equity market, we’d argue that more often than not, the asset class taking the passenger seat is credit. Yet the relationship was not always so cosy. Over the long run, the correlation in recent years is actually unusual. In the two decades before the Great Financial Crisis, three-month correlations between US credit returns and the S&P 500 returns tended to oscillate sharply and only barely managed to stay positive over the long run..
Rudolf E. [email protected]
Replying to @zerohedge
Here is a chart of the well being of the American middle-class and poor over the same period.
The housing sector is therefore picking up the slack, and as far as the Westpac chair can discern the underlying demand is real. “That’s why I believe there is no bubble — there is huge demand from local and offshore buyers,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not looking at things like the capacity to pay interest and repay principal, so we don’t have any issues with the measures announced (on March 31). “APRA has its mandate; we have ours. But we have no interest in lending to people who can’t repay.” That’s the reasoned analysis from Norris and Maxsted, and Henry mostly concurs. If you’re after the full Catherine wheel experience, try taking the alternative position as a market-leading fund manager or economist and warning the public about an inflating property bubble. Legendary US investor Jeremy Grantham did just that, vowing in 2012 he would never do it again. “Tell a European you think there’s a housing bubble and you’ll have a reasonable discussion,” Grantham said. “Tell an Australian and you’ll have World War III. Been there, done that!”
Local economist Steve Keen entered the fray in 2009, likening the experience to “having my genitals cut off”, while hedge fund managers have lost so much money short-selling Australian banks because they expected the bubble to pop that it’s been called the “widow maker’s” trade. True to his word, Grantham failed to respond to an email inviting him to trigger World War III. Keen, who has relocated to Britain but was in Australia this week, has no such hesitation, saying it is abundantly clear that we’re in a debt-fuelled housing bubble that has only a year or two to run before it pops. “We’re in hock to the banks and we depend on endless rising levels of credit,” the economics professor says. “Credit can continue rising but eventually you reach a peak and the gas runs out.”
Denmark, according to Keen, reached its world-record peak in 2010 at a household debt-to-GDP ratio of 139 per cent. While Australia is currently at 123 per cent, the country has some headroom because the corporate sector has deleveraged and the RBA still has some policy ammunition with the 1.5 per cent cash rate. Keen reckons we have two years, at most, before unravelling in a similar, catastrophic way to Ireland in the financial crisis. However Phil Ruthven, the experienced forecaster and founder of IBISWorld, says low interest rates mean that debt servicing is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. “But we do need to increase supply, and we do need to warn home buyers of the dangers of going too deep into debt when interest rates are rising,” Ruthven says.
Eight years into Greece’s ordeal to escape bankruptcy, thousands of Communist party sympathisers packed into Syntagma Square in Athens on Friday to protest at the latest concessions made by Alexis Tsipras’s leftist government to keep the country afloat. Massed before parliament in the fading light of day, they did what they had come to do: rail against the cuts that loom in return for further disbursement of the emergency aid now needed to avert economic collapse. The serial drama of Greece’s debt repayments will reach a climax again when loans of €7.5bn mature in July. That communist-aligned unionists can still muster such protests is testament to the party’s zealous determination to make itself heard. Most Greeks gave up demonstrating long ago.
Two years short of a decade in freefall, and with little prospect of recovery, the nation has succumbed to protest fatigue. With the exception of pensioners – the great losers in Greece’s assault by austerity – anger has been replaced by malaise, the lassitude that strikes when loss becomes commonplace. Friday’s protest, one of more than 60 nationwide, came within hours of Europe escaping another dose of Greek drama after eurozone finance ministers announced that bailout talks – stalled as Athens bickered over the terms of its latest compliance review with lenders – could finally resume. International auditors representing the bodies behind the three bailout packages the country has received since May 2010 are expected to return to Greece on Monday. Once technical issues are addressed, the delayed bailout payment will be disbursed, ensuring default is averted in July.
In exchange, the once fiercely anti-austerity Tsipras has signed up to further reforms worth €3.6bn, the equivalent of 2% of GDP, to be put into effect once the current programme ends next year. “It is in the nature of every agreement for there to be compromises,” said Greek finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos, who faces the thankless task of having to sell the prospect of more pension cuts and tax rises to sceptical leftists in the ruling Syriza party when it convenes on Sunday. “There are things that will upset … the Greek people.” After more than a year of hard talk and bluster – the review was meant to have been concluded in February 2016 – the government once again conceded on its own red lines, reflecting Athens’s overarching policy of keeping Greece in the heart of the eurozone. Tsipras, who fought hard to ensure countermeasures can also be taken to offset losses if economic indicators are better than expected, was quick to sound optimistic. “The Greek economy,” he announced, “is ready to leave the crisis behind it.”
But the breakthrough falls far short of the all-inclusive package the government was hoping for. Once again, promises of reducing the country’s staggering debt pile – at 180% of GDP, the biggest impediment to real economic recovery – will have to wait. [..] Unemployment has increased from 23.2% to 23.5%, with investors – the only guarantee of soaking up such an oversupply of labour – staying away. In a repeat of the chaos that beset the country’s financial system at the height of the crisis in 2015, an estimated €2.5bn of deposits left Greek banks in January and February. Consumption is also down. “The 37% of Greeks at risk of poverty and social exclusion really cannot make ends meet,” said Aliki Mouriki, a leading Greek sociologist. “They no longer have the means to meet basic needs, with consumption of milk and bread right down and payment of electricity bills at an all-time low.”
Economics has a foundation in hard numbers – employment, inflation, spending – that has largely allowed it to sidestep the competing partisan narratives that have afflicted American politics and culture. But not anymore. Since Donald J. Trump’s victory in November, consumer sentiment has diverged in an unprecedented way, with Republicans convinced that a boom is at hand, and Democrats foreseeing an imminent recession. “We’ve never recorded this before,” said Richard Curtin, who directs the University of Michigan’s monthly survey of consumer sentiment. Although the outlook has occasionally varied by political party since the survey began in 1946, “the partisan divide has never had as large an impact on consumers’ economic expectations,” he said.
At the same time, familiar economic data points have become Rorschach tests. That was evident after the government’s monthly jobs report on Friday; Republicans’ talking points centered on a 10-year low in the unemployment rate, while Democrats focused on a sharp decline in job creation. “I find it stunning, to be honest. It’s unreal,” said Michael R. Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Things that were less politicized in the past, like how you feel about the economy, have become more politicized now.” Indeed, the night-and-day views underscore yet another front on which Americans remain polarized five months after the election, and with President Trump nearing his 100th day in office.
[..] The University of Michigan researchers have their own way of measuring the gulf between the two viewpoints and how quickly it has flipped. Among Republicans, the Michigan consumer expectations index was at 61.1 in October, the kind of reading typically reported in the depths of a recession. Confident that Mrs. Clinton would win, Democrats registered a 95.4 reading, close to the highs reached when her husband was in office in the late 1990s and the economy was soaring. By March, the positions were reversed, with an even more extreme split. Republicans’ expectations had soared to 122.5, equivalent to levels registered in boom times. As for Democrats, they were even more pessimistic than Republicans had been in October.
As at the voting booth, the split in perceptions could have real-world consequences. If behavior tracks the recession-era sentiment among Democrats, who account for 32% of respondents in the survey, prophecies could quickly become self-fulfilling by affecting spending and investing decisions. “If one-third of the population cut their consumer spending by 5%, you get a recession,” said Alan Blinder, a Princeton economist who served in the Clinton administration and advised Al Gore and Hillary Clinton on economic policy during their Democratic presidential campaigns. “I don’t think it will happen, but it’s not beyond the realm of the possible.”
To be sure, even if Democratic consumers pulled back, that wouldn’t necessarily bring on a recession. A burst of spending by bullish Republicans, who equal 27% of those polled by the Michigan researchers, could counteract much of that drag. And independents, who are the largest cohort in the survey, at 41%, remain fairly optimistic about future growth. It is rare for “rising optimism to coexist with increasing uncertainty,” said Mr. Curtin, the Michigan expert. “The current level of optimism clearly indicates that no economywide spending retrenchment is underway, but the prevailing level of uncertainty will limit growth in discretionary spending.”
Michael Hudson: If you don’t cancel the debts, they’re going to keep growing, and all of the growth and national income is going to go to the creditors. So the fact is that the debts aren’t owed to the “we” – the 99%. The debts are owed to the 1%. 1% of the population has 75% of the financial assets. All their growth has occurred since 1980. So the question is, who are you going to save? The economy or the banks? If you don’t cancel the debts, they’re going to keep growing, and all of the growth and national income is going to go to the creditors. When President Obama came in, he promised that he was going to write down the debts – especially the junk mortgages – to the actual real value of the homes that the junk mortgage people had taken out.
Or and set the debt service – the money you have to pay every month to pay the mortgage, amortization, and principal, and interest to what the normal rental value of this would be. Well, as soon as he was elected, he dropped it all. He invited the bankers to the White House and said, boys, I’m the only guy standing between you and the pitchforks out there. Don’t worry, I can deliver my constituency to you. So, basically, the Democratic Party broke its voters into a black constituency, a women’s constituency, a LGBTQ constituency, and they’re all for Wall Street. Instead of saving the economy, Obama bailed out and saved the banks by keeping the debts in place. And once you have to pay that, it’s curtains. In the end, everybody’s going to end up in Greece. Greece is where you’re going, if you don’t.
“I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.”
“People in both the agency [the CIA] and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he already should have known – but maybe he didn’t – and they’re afraid that this is moving toward a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict..”
On Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with a “high degree of confidence” that the Syrian government had dropped a poison gas bomb on civilians in Idlib province. But a number of intelligence sources have made contradictory assessments, saying the preponderance of evidence suggests that Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels were at fault, either by orchestrating an intentional release of a chemical agent as a provocation or by possessing containers of poison gas that ruptured during a conventional bombing raid. One intelligence source told me that the most likely scenario was a staged event by the rebels intended to force Trump to reverse a policy, announced only days earlier, that the U.S. government would no longer seek “regime change” in Syria and would focus on attacking the common enemy, Islamic terror groups that represent the core of the rebel forces.
The source said the Trump national security team split between the President’s close personal advisers, such as nationalist firebrand Steve Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner, on one side and old-line neocons who have regrouped under National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army general who was a protégé of neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus. In this telling, the earlier ouster of retired Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and this week’s removal of Bannon from the National Security Council were key steps in the reassertion of neocon influence inside the Trump presidency. The strange personalities and ideological extremism of Flynn and Bannon made their ousters easier, but they were obstacles that the neocons wanted removed.
[..] Alarm within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s hasty decision to attack Syria reverberated from the Middle East back to Washington, where former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported hearing from his intelligence contacts in the field that they were shocked at how the new poison-gas story was being distorted by Trump and the mainstream U.S. news media. Giraldi told Scott Horton’s Webcast: “I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.” Giraldi said his sources were more in line with an analysis postulating an accidental release of the poison gas after an Al Qaeda arms depot was hit by a Russian airstrike.
“The intelligence confirms pretty much the account that the Russians have been giving … which is that they hit a warehouse where the rebels – now these are rebels that are, of course, connected with Al Qaeda – where the rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties. Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear.” Giraldi said the anger within the intelligence community over the distortion of intelligence to justify Trump’s military retaliation was so great that some covert officers were considering going public. “People in both the agency [the CIA] and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he already should have known – but maybe he didn’t – and they’re afraid that this is moving toward a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict,” Giraldi said before Thursday night’s missile strike. “They are astonished by how this is being played by the administration and by the U.S. media.”
Donald Trump’s decision to launch cruise missile strikes on a Syrian Air Force Base was based on a lie. In the coming days the American people will learn that the Intelligence Community knew that Syria did not drop a military chemical weapon on innocent civilians in Idlib. Here is what happened.
• The Russians briefed the United States on the proposed target. This is a process that started more than two months ago. There is a dedicated phone line that is being used to coordinate and deconflict (i.e., prevent US and Russian air assets from shooting at each other) the upcoming operation.
• The United States was fully briefed on the fact that there was a target in Idlib that the Russians believes was a weapons/explosives depot for Islamic rebels.
• The Syrian Air Force hit the target with conventional weapons. All involved expected to see a massive secondary explosion. That did not happen. Instead, smoke, chemical smoke, began billowing from the site. It turns out that the Islamic rebels used that site to store chemicals, not sarin, that were deadly. The chemicals included organic phosphates and chlorine and they followed the wind and killed civilians.
• There was a strong wind blowing that day and the cloud was driven to a nearby village and caused casualties.
• We know it was not sarin. How? Very simple. The so-called “first responders” handled the victims without gloves. If this had been sarin they would have died. Sarin on the skin will kill you. How do I know? I went through “Live Agent” training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
• There are members of the U.S. military who were aware this strike would occur and it was recorded. There is a film record. At least the Defense Intelligence Agency knows that this was not a chemical weapon attack. In fact, Syrian military chemical weapons were destroyed with the help of Russia.
This is Gulf of Tonkin 2. How ironic. Donald Trump correctly castigated George W. Bush for launching an unprovoked, unjustified attack on Iraq in 2003. Now we have President Donald Trump doing the same damn thing. Worse in fact. Because the intelligence community had information showing that there was no chemical weapon launched by the Syrian Air Force. Here’s the good news. The Russians and Syrians were informed, or at least were aware, that the attack was coming. They were able to remove a large number of their assets. The base the United States hit was something of a backwater. Donald Trump gets to pretend that he is a tough guy. He is not. He is a fool.
The cost of war is profound. I’m opposed to the escalation of the counterproductive regime change war in Syria because it will lead to the deaths of more innocent men, women and children. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, the strongest forces on the ground in Syria, will continue to increase their strength and influence over the region in the vacuum of a central government.
Could Marine Le Pen become France’s next president? A quick look at polling trends suggests that at first blush at least, the answer is “no.” [..] But for Serge Galam, a French physicist who predicted Donald Trump’s election in the United States, polls are missing out on an important factor: abstention — and specifically, how it affects voter turnout for different candidates. He argues that abstention, which a poll by CEVIPOF showed could be as high as 30%, is likely to be decisive in a “dirty” campaign dominated by scandals. “Obviously, nothing is done yet but her election is becoming very likely,” said Galam, a researcher with the French National Center for Scientific Research who also studies public opinion at the CEVIPOF political science institute. “I’m taking a scientific view of this — she needs a turnout differential of about 20% to win.”
[..] If Le Pen is projected to lose the runoff by 41 to 59%, for example, Galam argues that Le Pen could still win if the turnout rate for her voters is 90% versus 70% for her rival, for an overall turnout rate of 79%. In other words, the National Front leader could benefit because a substantial number of people who say they will vote for her rival may not actually go to the polls. Equally, if Le Pen is projected to lose by 45 to 55% in the runoff, she could win if turnout for her is 85% versus 70% for her rival, for an overall turnout of 77%. If overall turnout is 76%, then Le Pen would need a turnout of 90% versus 65% for her rival, and so on.
Some polls have Le Pen lagging behind Macron or Fillon by more than 30 percentage points, which would make her victory near impossible. But others show her within striking distance, with a lag of less than 20 points. If she can shrink the gap, then the challenge for Le Pen will be to mobilize a greater proportion of her supporters than her rivals. In this regard, Galam argues that Le Pen has a shot. For different reasons, he says, both Macron and Fillon aroused intense feelings of “aversion” among some voters, with a large proportion of Macron voters saying they could change their mind on election day. Negative or ambivalent feelings could translate into weaker turnout for them on election day.
WikiLeaks release of the latest cache of confidential C.I.A. documents as part of an ongoing “Vault 7” operation exposed some of the U.S. government’s hacking and digital espionage capabilities—this time having to do with iPhones and other smart devices used by hundreds of millions of people across the globe. But cyber security experts and computers scientists are raising concerns over the C.I.A.’s disregard of safety measures put in place for discovering these dangerous flaws in smart gadgets. The federal agency has kept its discovery of many exploits (software tools targeting flaws in products, typically used for malicious hacking purposes) a secret, “stockpiling” that information rather than reporting it to multinational corporations, throwing millions of Americans into the crosshairs of a dangerous, intergovernmental spying game in the process.
“What’s critical to understand is that these vulnerabilities can be exploited not just by our government but by foreign governments and cyber criminals around the world, and that’s deeply troubling,” said Ashley Gorski, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney working on the civil rights group’s national security project. “Our government should be working to help the companies patch vulnerabilities when they are discovered, not stockpiling them.” The C.I.A. knew its own classified documents had been floating around the dark web for at least a year and was well aware the hacking capabilities it was using to break into everyday tech could also have been employed by hostile foreign networks. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin reportedly orchestrated a sprawling governmental operation in an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which featured several cyber attacks on email servers and devices used by members of the Democratic Party.
The government enacted the Vulnerabilities Equities Process to reduce the unnecessary stockpiling of exploits. The procedure was meant to provide guidelines for agencies like the C.I.A. for notifying companies when dangerous issues are discovered in their devices. The measure was put in place during the Obama administration to prevent cyber attacks from terrorist networks and foreign governments, including Russia and China. But the C.I.A. completely ignored the Vulnerabilities Equity Process, instead exploring ways to use exploits for their own purposes, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group that reviewed a copy of the practice after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. “It appears the CIA didn’t even use the [Vulnerabilities Equity Process],” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That’s worrisome, because we know these agencies overvalue their offensive capabilities and undervalue the risk to the rest of us.”
The rains brought torrents, pouring into basements and malls, the water swiftly rising a foot and a half. The city of Dongguan, a manufacturing center here in the world’s most dynamic industrial region, was hit especially hard by the downpour in May 2014. More than 100 factories and shops were inundated. Water climbed knee-high in 20 minutes, wiping out inventory for dozens of businesses. Next door in Guangzhou, an ancient, mammoth port city of 13 million, helicopters and a fleet of 80 boats had to be sent to rescue trapped residents. Tens of thousands lost their homes, and 53 square miles of nearby farmland were ruined. The cost of repairs topped $100 million. Chen Rongbo, who lived in the city, saw the flood coming. He tried to scramble to safety on the second floor of his house, carrying his 6-year-old granddaughter. He slipped. The flood swept both of them away.
Flooding has been a plague for centuries in southern China’s Pearl River Delta. So even the rains that May, the worst in the area in years, soon drifted from the headlines. People complained and made jokes on social media about wading through streets that had become canals and riding on half-submerged buses through lakes that used to be streets. But there was no official hand-wringing about what caused the floods or how climate change might bring more extreme storms and make the problems worse. A generation ago, this was mostly farmland. Three vital rivers leading to the South China Sea, along with a spider’s web of crisscrossing tributaries, made the low-lying delta a fertile plain, famous for rice. Guangzhou, formerly Canton, had more than a million people, but by the 1980s, China set out to transform the whole region, capitalizing on its proximity to water, the energy of its people, and the money and port infrastructure of neighboring Hong Kong.
Rushing to catch up after decades of stagnation, China built a gargantuan collection of cities the size of nations with barely a pause to consider their toll on the environment, much less the future impact of global warming. Today, the region is a goliath of industry with a population exceeding 42 million. But while prosperity reshaped the social and cultural geography of the delta, it didn’t fundamentally alter the topography. Here, as elsewhere, breakneck development comes up against the growing threat of climate change. Economically, Guangzhou now has more to lose from climate change than any other city on the planet, according to a World Bank report. Nearby Shenzhen, another booming metropolis, ranked 10th on that World Bank list, which measured risk as a percentage of GDP.
Shenzhen was transformed in a few decades from a small fishing village into a city of millions.
We are witnessing the demise of the world’s two largest economic power blocks, the US and EU. Given deteriorating economic conditions on both sides of the Atlantic, which have been playing out for many years but were so far largely kept hidden from view by unprecedented issuance of debt, the demise should come as no surprise.
The debt levels are not just unprecedented, they would until recently have been unimaginable. When the conditions for today’s debt orgasm were first created in the second half of the 20th century, people had yet to wrap their minds around the opportunities and possibilities that were coming on offer. Once they did, they ran with it like so many lemmings.
The reason why economies are now faltering invites an interesting discussion. Energy availability certainly plays a role, or rather the energy cost of energy, but we might want to reserve a relatively larger role for the idea, and the subsequent practice, of trying to run entire societies on debt (instead of labor and resources).
It almost looks as if the cost of energy, or of anything at all really, doesn’t play a role anymore, if and when you can borrow basically any sum of money at ultra low rates. Sometimes you wonder why people didn’t think of that before; how rich could former generations have been, or at least felt?
The reason why is that there was no need for it; things were already getting better all the time, albeit for a briefer period of time than most assume, and there was less ‘want’. Not that people wouldn’t have wanted as much as we do today, they just didn’t know yet what it was they should want. The things to want were as unimaginable as the debt that could have bought them.
It’s when things ceased getting better that ideas started being floated to create the illusion that they still were, and until recently very few people were not fooled by this. While this will seem incredible in hindsight, it still is not that hard to explain. Because when things happen over a period of decades, step by step, you walk headfirst into the boiling frog analogy: slowly but surely.
At first, women needed to start working to pay the bills, health care and education costs started rising, taxes began to rise. But everyone was too busy enjoying the nice slowly warming water to notice. A shiny car -or two, three-, a home in the burbs with a white picket fence, the American -and German and British etc.- Dream seemed to continue.
Nobody bothered to think about the price to pay, because it was far enough away: the frog could pay in installments. In the beginning only for housing, later also for cars, credit card debt and then just about anything.
Nobody bothered to look at external costs either. Damage to one’s own living environment through a huge increase in the number of roads and cars and the demise of town- and city cores, of mom and pop stores, of forest land and meadows, basically anything green, it was all perceived as inevitable and somehow ‘natural’ (yes, that is ironic).
Damage to the world beyond one’s own town, for instance through the exploitation of domestic natural resources and the wars fought abroad for access to other nations’ resources, only a very precious few ever cared to ponder these things, certainly after the Vietnam war was no longer broadcast and government control of -or cooperation with- the media grew exponentially.
Looking at today’s world in a sufficiently superficial fashion -the way most people look at it-, one might be forgiven for thinking that debt, made cheap enough, tapers over all other factors, economic and otherwise, including thermodynamics and physics in general. Except it doesn’t, it only looks that way, and for a limited time at that. In the end, thermodynamics always beats ‘financial innovation’. In the end, thermodynamics sets the limits, even those of economics.
That leads us into another discussion. If not for the constraints, whether they emanate from energy and/or finance, would growth have been able to continue at prior levels? Both the energy and the finance/political camps mostly seem to think so.
The energy crowd -peak oilers- appear to assume that if energy would have been more readily available, economic growth could have continued pretty much unabated. Or they at least seem to assume that it’s the limits of energy that are responsible for the limits to economic growth.
The finance crowd mostly seems to think that if we would have followed different economic models, growth would have been for the taking. They tend to blame the Fed, or politics, loose regulation, the banking system.
Are either of them right? If they are, that would mean growth can continue de facto indefinitely if only we were smart enough to either make the right economic and political decisions, or to find or invent new sources of energy.
But what kind of growth do both ‘fields’ envision? Growth to what end, and growth into what? 4 years ago, I wrote What Do We Want To Grow Into? I have still never seen anyone else ask that question, before or since, let alone answer it.
We want growth by default, we want growth for growth’s sake, without caring much where it will lead us. Maybe we think unconsciously that as long as we can secure growth, we can figure out what to do with it later.
But it doesn’t work that way: growth changes the entire playing field on a constant basis, and we can’t keep up with the changes it brings, we’re always behind because we don’t care to answer that question: what do we want to grow into. Growth leads us, we don’t lead it. Next question then: if growth stops, what will lead us?
Because we don’t know where we want growth to lead us, we can’t define it. The growth we chase is therefore per definition blind. Which of necessity means that growth is about quantity, not quality. And that in turn means that the -presupposed- link between growth and progress falls apart: we can’t know if -the next batch of- growth will make us better off, or make our lives easier, more fulfilling. It could do the exact opposite.
And that’s not the only consequence of our blind growth chase. We have become so obsessed with growth that we have turned to creative accounting, in myriad ways, to produce the illusion of growth where there is none. We have trained ourselves and each other to such an extent to desire growth that we’re all, individually and collectively, scared to death of the moment when there might not be any. Blind fear brought on by a blind desire.
As we’ve also seen, we’ve been plunging ourselves into ever higher debt levels to create the illusion of growth. Now, money (debt) is created not by governments, as many people still think, but by -private- banks. Banks therefore need people to borrow. What people borrow most money for is housing. When they sign up for a mortgage, the bank creates a large amount of money out of nothing.
So if the bank gets itself into trouble, for instance because they lose money speculating, or because people can’t pay their mortgages anymore that they never could afford in the first place, the only way out for that bank, other than bailouts, is to sign more people up for mortgages -or car loans-, preferably bigger ones all the time.
What we have invented to keep big banks afloat for a while longer is ultra low interest rates, NIRP, ZIRP etc. They create the illusion of not only growth, but also of wealth. They make people think a home they couldn’t have dreamt of buying not long ago now fits in their ‘budget’. That is how we get them to sign up for ever bigger mortgages. And those in turn keep our banks from falling over.
Record low interest rates have become the only way that private banks can create new money, and stay alive (because at higher rates hardly anybody can afford a mortgage). It’s of course not just the banks that are kept alive, it’s the entire economy. Without the ZIRP rates, the mortgages they lure people into, and the housing bubbles this creates, the amount of money circulating in our economies would shrink so much and so fast the whole shebang would fall to bits.
That’s right: the survival of our economies today depends one on one on the existence of housing bubbles. No bubble means no money creation means no functioning economy.
What we should do in the short term is lower private debt levels (drastically, jubilee style), and temporarily raise public debt to encourage economic activity, aim for more and better jobs. But we’re doing the exact opposite: austerity measures are geared towards lowering public debt, while they cut the consumer spending power that makes up 60-70% of our economies. Meanwhile, housing bubbles raise private debt through the -grossly overpriced- roof.
This is today’s general economic dynamic. It’s exclusively controlled by the price of debt. However, as low interest rates make the price of debt look very low, the real price (there always is one, it’s just like thermodynamics) is paid beyond interest rates, beyond the financial markets even, it’s paid on Main Street, in the real economy. Where the quality of jobs, if not the quantity, has fallen dramatically, and people can only survive by descending ever deeper into ever more debt.
Do we need growth? Is that even a question we can answer if we don’t know what we would need or use it for? Is there perhaps a point, both from an energy and from a financial point of view, where growth simply levels off no matter what we do, in the same way that our physical bodies stop growing at 6 feet or so? And that after that the demand for economic growth must necessarily lead to The Only Thing That Grows Is Debt?
It’s perhaps ironic that the US doesn’t appear to be either first or most at risk this time around. There are plenty other housing markets today with what at least look to be much bigger bubbles, from London to China and from Sydney to Stockholm. Auckland’s bubble already looks to be popping. The potential consequences of such -inevitable- developments are difficult to overestimate. Because, as I said, the various banking systems and indeed entire economies depend on these bubbles.
The aftermath will be chaotic and it’s little use to try and predict it too finely, but it’ll be ‘interesting’ to see what happens to the banks in all these countries where bubbles have been engineered, once prices start dropping. It’s not a healthy thing for an economy to depend on blowing bubbles. It’s also not healthy to depend on private banks for the creation of a society’s money. It’s unhealthy, unnecessary and unethical. We’re about to see why.
Credit strategists are increasingly disturbed by a sudden and rare contraction of US bank lending, fearing a synchronised slowdown in the US and China this year that could catch euphoric markets badly off guard. One key measure of US corporate borrowing is falling at the fastest rate since the onset of the Lehman Brothers crisis. Money supply growth in the US has also slowed markedly. These monetary and credit signals tend to be leading indicators for the real economy. Data from the US Federal Reserve shows that the $2 trillion market for commercial and industrial loans peaked in December. The sector has weakened abruptly as lenders tighten credit, especially for non-residential property. Over the last three months it has dropped at a rate of 5.4pc on annual basis, a pace of decline not seen since December 2008.
The deterioration in the broader $9 trillion market for loans and leases has been less dramatic but it too is shrinking, falling at a 1.6pc rate on a three-month basis. “Corporate lending has ground to a halt and I am staggered that the Fed is raising rates. They have made a very big mistake,” said Patrick Perret-Green from AD Macro. Credit experts at several big US banks have issued warnings over recent days, albeit sotto voce. “We’ve been surprised how little attention the slowdown in US bank lending has garnered,” said Matt King, global credit strategist at Citigroup.
While they are not yet alarmed, their concerns are worth heeding. Credit has tended to pick up signs of trouble several weeks before equity markets in recent episodes of financial stress. “Without another big dose of momentum, the cracks in the global reflationary consensus are liable to grow bigger. All around, existing trends are being called into question,” he said. Net corporate bond issuance has also stalled, indicating that borrowing by US firms as a whole is in decline. “So much for a Trump-driven expansion. Beneath the surface, we think a seismic battle is taking place,” he said.
Elga Bartsch and Chetan Ahya from Morgan Stanley said the credit squeeze is a warning sign and needs watching closely. “On our estimates, the credit impulse turned negative at the end of 2016. We have not seen such a sharp deceleration in bank lending to US corporates since the Great Financial Crisis,” they said. “Historically, credit downturns have led recessions. The plunge could reignite concerns that a highly leveraged US corporate sector may react strongly to even limited interest rates increases,” they said.
[..] Money and credit are certainly not flashing warnings of an imminent crisis, but they are hard to square with the exuberant view of investors that the world is on the cusp of an accelerating economic boom. That boom may already have peaked. The massive stimulus injected by the global authorities last year to counter the Chinese currency scare and any fall-out from Brexit is by now fading, and it is too early to tell whether business will pick up the baton. Any soft patch could all too easily combine with a slowdown in China as the country taps the brakes after an extreme episode of fiscal prime-pumping in 2016. Regulators are clamping down on property speculation and trying to rein in forms of pyramid lending, causing a sharp rise in Shibor lending rates. The worry in China is a maturity mismatch. Huge sums have been borrowed on the short-term markets. These debts have to be rolled over constantly to cover long-term liabilities. It was this sort of mismatch that brought down Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers.
[..] Weak US indicators are clearly at odds with the Trump rally on Wall Street, which has pushed equity valuations to nose-bleed levels. Kevin Gaynor from Nomura says his model of asset pricing suggests markets are in effect assuming global growth of 5pc and earnings increases of 30pc a year. These are heroic. “There is a time decay on this new temporary equilibrium,” he notes acidly. What is so disturbing is that each extra dollar of new debt now generates just $0.17 of extra GDP in the US, down from around $0.75 in the 1960s. Much of the corporate debt built up in this cycle has been to buy back stock or pay dividends.
As members of Congress in Washington debate raising the minimum required to obtain a U.S. immigrant investor visa from $500,000 to $1.35 million, concern about the hike has set off a scramble among wealthy would-be participants in China. “Some clients are demanding that we make sure their applications are submitted before April 28,” the date the program expires unless extended or amended by Congress, said Judy Gao, director of the U.S. program at Can-Reach (Pacific), a Beijing-based agency that facilitates so-called EB-5 Immigrant Investor visas. “We’re working overtime to do that.” China’s wealthy, using not-always-legal means to skirt capital controls to get their money out and at the same time gain residency in the U.S., are continuing to dwarf all others as the largest participants in the EB-5 program, despite heightened measures by the Chinese government.
[..] Because Chinese individuals are limited to exchanging $50,000 worth of yuan a year, a 10th of what the EB-5 program requires, some agents are advising clients who don’t already have assets offshore to use a means nicknamed “smurfing” to move their money. “Our suggestion to the client is to open three to four personal accounts in the U.S. or line up three to four friends’ accounts, so they can split the money and wire it to different personal accounts without being put on a blacklist by the Chinese authorities,” said a Shanghai-based real estate agent who gave the surname Dong. “It may require a trip to the States to do so to facilitate the process.” [..] While the government in Beijing spent much of 2016 working to stop its citizens sending money abroad in order to stabilize its declining currency and foreign reserves, Chinese investors’ use of EB-5 continued anyway, totaling $3.8 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
If the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is shut down in Russia, the country’s banking system will not crash, according to Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina. Russia has a substitute. “There were threats that we can be disconnected from SWIFT. We have finished working on our own payment system, and if something happens, all operations in SWIFT format will work inside the country. We have created an alternative,” Nabiullina said at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. She also added that 90% of ATMs in Russia are ready to accept the Mir payment system, a domestic version of Visa and MasterCard. Izvestia daily reported that as of January 2016, 330 Russian banks had been connected to the SWIFT alternative, the system for transfer of financial messages (SPFS).
In 2014 and 2015, when the crisis in relations between Russia and the West were at their peak over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, some Western politicians urged disconnecting Russia from SWIFT. In November 2015, Nabiullina said the SPFS was close to being completed. The central bank’s website says the system was established “as an alternative channel for interbank cooperation with the aim of ensuring the guaranteed and uninterrupted provision of services for the transmission of electronic messages on financial transactions.” At present, the system has some drawbacks. It doesn’t work from 9pm to 5am Moscow time and costs up to five cents per wire transfer, which is regarded expensive.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who accuses Chancellor Angela Merkel of using “Nazi methods” against Turks in Germany, is setting back their integration by years, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said. Berlin is growing increasingly frustrated about Erdogan repeatedly accusing it of applying “Nazi methods” by banning rallies aimed at drumming up support among Turks in Germany for a referendum that would strengthen the power of his presidency. Turks workers began moving to Germany in the 1960s and the country now has about 3 million people of Turkish background. Some are fully integrated while others live in ethnic communities with less contact with the majority population.
“Erdogan’s rhetoric makes me stunned,” Schaeuble, a veteran member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic (CDU) party, told the Welt am Sonntag weekly newspaper. “In a short time, it wilfully destroys the integration that has grown over years in Germany. The repair of the damage will take years,” he said. Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul on Sunday: “You call the president of the Turkish Republic a dictator. When we call them fascists, they get annoyed. When we call them Nazis, they get annoyed.” “You are fascists, you are. Be annoyed as much as you want with Nazi practices. If you draw swastikas on the walls of our mosques and don’t hold anyone accountable, you cannot take off this stain,” Erdogan said.
The European Union will disappear, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen told a rally on Sunday, aiming to re-enthuse core supporters in the final four weeks before voting gets underway. Buoyed by the unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States and by Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the leader of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant National Front (FN) party, told the rally in Lille that the French election would be the next step in what she called a global rebellion of the people. “The European Union will die because the people do not want it anymore,” Le Pen said to loud cheers and applause. “The time has come to defeat globalists,” she said, adding: “My message is one of emancipation, of liberation … a call for all the patriots to gather behind our flag.”
Opinion polls forecast that Le Pen will do well in the April 23 first round of the presidential election only to lose the May 7 run-off to centrist Emmanuel Macron. Its anti-EU, anti-euro stance is one of the FN’s standard-bearing policies, both a mark of its anti-establishment stance that pleases grass-roots supporters and attracts voters angry with globalization, and a likely obstacle to its quest for power in a country where a majority oppose a return to the franc. Le Pen has over the past few months tried to accommodate this opposition to leaving the euro by continuing to criticize the unpopular EU while telling voters she would not abruptly pull France out of the bloc or the euro but instead hold a referendum after six months of renegotiating the terms of France’s EU membership.
On Sunday she told the rally she would seek to replace the EU by “another Europe,” which she called “the Europe of the people,” based on a loose cooperative of nations. “It must be done in a rational, well-prepared way,” she told Le Parisien in an interview published earlier on Sunday. “I don’t want chaos. Within the negotiation calendar I want to carry out … the euro would be the last step because I want to wait for the outcome of elections in Germany in the fall before renegotiating it.”
The rise of populism has rattled the global political establishment. Brexit came as a shock, as did the victory of Donald Trump. Much head-scratching has resulted as leaders seek to work out why large chunks of their electorates are so cross. The answer seems pretty simple. Populism is the result of economic failure. The 10 years since the financial crisis have shown that the system of economic governance which has held sway for the past four decades is broken. Some call this approach neoliberalism. Perhaps a better description would be unpopulism. Unpopulism meant tilting the balance of power in the workplace in favour of management and treating people like wage slaves. Unpopulism was rigged to ensure that the fruits of growth went to the few not to the many.
Unpopulism decreed that those responsible for the global financial crisis got away with it while those who were innocent bore the brunt of austerity. Anybody seeking to understand why Trump won the US presidential election should take a look at what has been happening to the division of the economic spoils. The share of national income that went to the bottom 90% of the population held steady at around 66% from 1950 to 1980. It then began a steep decline, falling to just over 50% when the financial crisis broke in 2007. Similarly, it is no longer the case that everybody benefits when the US economy is doing well. During the business cycle upswing between 1961 and 1969, the bottom 90% of Americans took 67% of the income gains. During the Reagan expansion two decades later they took 20%.
During the Greenspan housing bubble of 2001 to 2007, they got just two cents in every extra dollar of national income generated while the richest 10% took the rest. The US economist Thomas Palley* says that up until the late 1970s countries operated a virtuous circle growth model in which wages were the engine of demand growth. “Productivity growth drove wage growth which fueled demand growth. That promoted full employment, which provided the incentive to invest, which drove further productivity growth,” he says.
China, one of the oldest and greatest civilizations on Earth, went through the terrible period of ‘humiliation’. Divided, occupied and plundered by the West, it has never forgotten nor forgiven. Now the Chinese Communist state and its mixed economy are helping countries in virtually all parts of the world, from Oceania and Latin America, to the Middle East and especially Africa, to survive and to finally stand on their own feet. Despite all the vitriolic propaganda regurgitated by the West (those people in Europe or North America who know close to zero about Africa or China,habitually passing ‘confident’ and highly cynical ‘judgments’ about China’s involvement in the poor world; judgments based exclusively on the lies and fabrications produced by the Western media), China has been gaining great respect and trust in virtually all corners of the globe.
The Chinese people and their government are now standing firmly against Western imperialism. They will not allow any recurrence of the disgraceful and dreary past. The West is provoking this mighty and optimistic nation, pushing it into a terrible confrontation. China doesn’t want any military conflict. It is the most peaceful, the most non-confrontational large nation on Earth. But it is becoming clear that if pushed against the wall, this time it will not compromise: it will fight. In the last years I have spoken to many Chinese people, as I traveled to all corners of the country, and I’m convinced that by now the nation is ready to meet strength with strength. Such determination gives hope to many other countries on our Planet. The message is clear: the West cannot do whatever it wants, anymore. If it tries, it will be stopped. By reason or by force!
Russia is ready again, too. It is standing next to China, enormous and indignant. Go to Novosibirsk or Tomsk, to Khabarovsk, Vladivostok or Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. Talk to Russian people and you will soon understand: almost nobody there believes or respects the West, anymore. Throughout history, Russia was attacked and ransacked from the West. Millions, tens of millions of its people were murdered, literally exterminated. And now, the nation is facing what some consider to be yet another imminent attack. Like the Chinese people, Russians are unwilling to compromise, anymore. The old Russian forecast is once again alive, that very one professed by Alexander Nevsky: Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as a guest. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and forever will we stand!
The numerous paradoxes that will haunt Donald Trump in the coming months were on full display during the recent Senate vote to undo privacy legislation that was passed in the last few years of the Obama administration. As part of a broader effort to treat internet service providers and telecoms operators as utility companies, Obama imposed restrictions on what these companies could do with all the user data from browsers and apps. Emboldened by Trump, the Republicans have just allowed these businesses to collect, sell and manipulate such data without user permission. From the short-sighted domestic perspective, it seems like a boon to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, especially as they increasingly find themselves confronting their data-rich counterparts in Silicon Valley.
Telecoms companies have been complaining (not entirely without reason) that the Obama administration favoured the interests of Google and Facebook which, invoking the lofty rhetoric of “keeping the internet free” only to defend their own business agenda, have traditionally faced somewhat lighter regulation. The Democrats, always happy to attack Trump, have jumped on the issue, warning that the Senate vote would foster ubiquitous and extensive surveillance by the telecoms industry – and Silicon Valley, of course, would never commit such sins. Under the new rules, complained Bill Nelson, a senator from Florida, “your broadband provider may know more about your health – and your reaction to illness – than you are willing to share with your doctor”.
Never mind that Google and Facebook already know all this – and much more – and generate little outrage from the Democrats. The Democrats, of course, only have themselves to blame for such ineptitude. From the early 1980s onwards, centre-left movements on both sides of the Atlantic no longer discussed technology policy in terms of justice, fairness or inequality. Instead, they preferred to emulate their neoliberal opponents and frame choices – about technology policy, but also about many other domains – in terms of just one goal that rules supreme above all other: innovation. The problem with building a political programme on such flimsy economistic foundations is that it immediately opens the door to competing narratives of just what kind of policy produces more innovation.
While airport terminal architecture has a solid history of style and innovation, rarely is a proposal put forth to utterly redesign the runway. But that’s precisely the aim of Henk Hesselink, a Dutch scientist working with the Netherlands Aerospace Centre. Dubbed the “endless runway”, Hesselink’s brainchild is a 360-degree landing strip measuring more than two miles in diameter. Since airplanes would be able to approach and take off from any direction around the proposed circle, they wouldn’t have to fight against crosswinds.
And three planes would be able to take off or land at the same time. Hesselink’s team uses flight simulators and computerized calculations to test the unconventional design, and have determined that round airports would be more efficient than existing layouts. With a central terminal, the airport would only use about a third of the land of the typical airport with the same airplane capacity. And there’s an added benefit to those living near airports: Flight paths could be more distributed, and thereby making plane noise more tolerable. So far, there have been no plans to actually build a circular runway, but Hesselink’s research continues on.
Harvard engineers who launched the world’s biggest solar geoengineering research program may get a dangerous boost from Donald Trump, environmental organizations are warning. Under the Trump administration, enthusiasm appears to be growing for the controversial technology of solar geo-engineering, which aims to spray sulphate particles into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s radiation back to space and decrease the temperature of Earth. Sometime in 2018, Harvard engineers David Keith and Frank Keutsch hope to test spraying from a high-altitude balloon over Arizona, in order to assess the risks and benefits of deployment on a larger scale. Keith cancelled a similar planned experiment in New Mexico in 2012, but announced he was ready for field testing at a geoengineering forum in Washington on Friday.
“The context for discussing solar geoengineering research has changed substantially since we planned and funded this forum nearly one year ago,” a forum briefing paper noted. While geoengineering received little favour under Obama, high-level officials within the Trump administration have been long-time advocates for planetary-scale manipulation of Earth systems. David Schnare, an architect of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, has lobbied the US government and testified to Senate in favour of federal support for geoengineering. He has called for a multi-phase plan to fund research and conduct real-world testing within 18 months, deploy massive stratospheric spraying three years after, and continue spraying for a century, a duration geoengineers believe would be necessary to dial back the planet’s temperature.
“Clearly parts of the Trump administration are very willing to open the door to reckless schemes like David Keith’s, and may well have quietly given the nod to open-air experiments,” said Silvia Riberio, with technology watchdog ETC Group. “Worryingly, geoengineering may emerge as this administration’s preferred approach to global warming. In their view, building a big beautiful wall of sulphate in the sky could be a perfect excuse to allow uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction. We need to be focussing on radical emissions cuts, not dangerous and unjust technofixes.” [.] “Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year,” he said in 2008, before helping launch a geoengineering unit while he ran the right-wing think tank American Economic Enterprise. “We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.”
A month ago, the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, warned that 20 million people would fall into famine if his aid agencies could not corral $4.4 billion by the end of March. It is almost the end of March, and so far, the United Nations has received less than a tenth of the money – $423 million, according to its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The funding appeal, and the paltry response, comes as the Trump administration is poised to make sharp cuts to its foreign aid budget, including for the United Nations. Historically, the United States has been the agency’s largest single donor for humanitarian aid. For all four countries at risk — Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen – the United States has given $277 million so far this year, not all of it for famine relief.
The conditions for famine are specific and not easy to meet, which is why the last time a famine was declared was in Somalia in July 2011, after 260,000 had died of hunger and related complications. The three criteria for declaring a famine are when one in five households in a certain area face extreme food shortages; more than 30% of the population is acutely malnourished; and at least two people for every 10,000 die each day. A famine has already been declared in a swath of South Sudan. A similar risk looms over Somalia, still reeling from years of conflict, and Yemen, where Houthi insurgents are battling a Saudi-led coalition supported by the United States and Britain. In northern Nigeria, a famine could already be underway, according to an early warning system funded by the United States Agency for International Development.
But the security situation is so bad there that aid workers have been unable to assess levels of hunger. On Thursday, Somalia’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, told the Security Council by videolink from Mogadishu that half the population faces acute food shortages. The United Nations says it needs the $4.4 billion to deliver food, clean water and basic medicine like oral rehydration salts to avert diarrhea deaths among children. Only 8% of the money the agency needs for Yemen has been funded; for Nigeria, 9%; for South Sudan, 18%; and for Somalia, 32%. Of the 20 million who are at risk of famine are 1.4 million children, who are most vulnerable. To put the $4.4 billion appeal in perspective, Britain has made slightly less, $4.1 billion, from weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the two years since the war began in Yemen.
Greece will cease taking back refugees under the controversial Dublin Regulation, as the country’s limited capacities to host people are already on the brink of collapse, the Greek migration minister announced in an interview. As the European Commission pressures Athens to re-implement the Dublin Regulation – stipulating that refugees can be returned to the first EU state they arrived in – the Greek migration minister told Spiegel his country is not in a position to do so. The agreement was put on hold for Greece back in 2011 over problems in the country’s asylum system. “Greece is already shouldering a heavy burden,” Ioannis Mouzalas, the migration minister, said. “We accommodate 60,000 refugees… and it would be a mistake to make Greece’s burden heavier by the revival of the Dublin agreement,” he said, also adding that Germany, the primary destination for most refugees, “wants countries where refugees arrive first to bear a large portion of the burden.”
Under the Dublin Regulation, the European state where the asylum-seeker first arrives in the EU is responsible for examining an asylum claim. Refugees are fingerprinted in their first country of arrival to ensure irrefutable evidence of their entry. However, rights groups warn that imminent transfers from other EU countries back to Greece in line with the regulations are likely to cause more refugees than ever to go underground in western European countries, as many are desperate to stay there because of family links or successful attempts to start a new life. The scheme also adds even greater pressure to existing refugee facilities in Greece and beyond. Asked if Athens is ruling out implementation of the Dublin Regulation, Mouzalas answered in the affirmative, adding, “I want the Germans to understand that this is not because of political or ideological reasons, or failure to appreciate Germany’s assistance.” “Greece simply has no capacities to cope with additional arrival of refugees,” he said.
Greece is examining US proposals for military cooperation which would widen ties to an extent not seen in the last three decades, Kathimerini understands. According to sources, Washington’s desire for stronger ties stems from its view that Greece has a significant geopolitical role to play as a pillar of stability in a volatile region. More specifically, Washington has proposed the participation of a Greek military vessel in a carrier battle group (CVBG), which consists of an aircraft carrier and a large number of escort vessels. According to the US proposals, the participation of a Greek vessel in the CVBG will be accompanied by the renewal of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) between the two countries.
The MDCA is of utmost significance as it is through this pact that American military forces are permitted to use the Souda naval base on Crete. During a meeting last week US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos discussed the option of renewing the agreement for five to 10 years instead of each year, as has been the case to date. The Americans reportedly want to renew the deal every five years, as they want to expand the scope of their activities at the base. Sources have told Kathimerini that the only possible obstacle to the deal’s renewal on a five-year basis is that it must receive approval in Parliament, and the leftist-led coalition fears the possibility of dissent emanating from lawmakers of ruling SYRIZA.
The capital controls were originally supposed to be a one-off measure that would be removed in a matter of months, with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stating in September 2015 that they would be lifted in early 2017. Today, 21 months since they were imposed, the capital controls are still here, and with the drop in bank deposits, it appears more likely they will be tightened than relaxed or lifted. The truth is that a full Greek recovery will not be possible as long as the capital controls remain, but the economy remains mired in uncertainty and the banks have not seen their CCC+ credit rating improve.
Bank officials note it will be a long time before the restrictions are removed, and this will require the consolidation of a basic sense of confidence among citizens that the worst is over. This is particularly difficult today given that few bailout reviews have been completed according to schedule in the last seven years – and the ongoing second review of the third bailout program was supposed to have finished 13 months ago, in February 2016. Banks therefore fear that if deposit outflow continues as it has done in the first quarter of the year, further controls are quite likely.
Carl Mydans Sharecropper’s family in Mississippi County, Missouri 1936
Lots of China again today. Most of it based on warnings, coming from the BIS, about the country’s financial shenanigans. I’m getting the feeling we have gotten so used to huge and often unprecedented numbers, viewed against the backdrop of an economy that still seems to remain standing, that many don’t know what to make of this anymore.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard ties the BIS report to Hyman Minsky’s work, which is kind of funny, because our good friend and Minsky adept Steve Keen is the economist who most emphasizes the need to differentiate between public and private debt, in particular because public debt is not a big risk whereas private debt certainly is.
And that happens to be the main topic where people seem to get confused about China. To quote Ambrose: “..Outstanding loans have reached $28 trillion, as much as the commercial banking systems of the US and Japan combined. The scale is enough to threaten a worldwide shock if China ever loses control. Corporate debt alone has reached 171pc of GDP..”
The big Kahuna question then becomes: should Chinese outstanding loans and corporate debt be seen as public debt or private debt, given that the dividing line between state and corporations is as opaque and shifting as it is? Even the BIS looks confused. I’ll address that below. First, here’s Ambrose:
The Bank for International Settlements warned in its quarterly report that China’s “credit to GDP gap” has reached 30.1%, the highest to date and in a different league altogether from any other major country tracked by the institution. It is also significantly higher than the scores in East Asia’s speculative boom on 1997 or in the US subprime bubble before the Lehman crisis.
Studies of earlier banking crises around the world over the last sixty years suggest that any score above ten requires careful monitoring. The credit to GDP gap measures deviations from normal patterns within any one country and therefore strips out cultural differences. It is based on work the US economist Hyman Minsky and has proved to be the best single gauge of banking risk, although the final denouement can often take longer than assumed.
[..] Outstanding loans have reached $28 trillion, as much as the commercial banking systems of the US and Japan combined. The scale is enough to threaten a worldwide shock if China ever loses control. Corporate debt alone has reached 171pc of GDP, and it is this that is keeping global regulators awake at night. The BIS said there are ample reasons to worry about the health of world’s financial system. Zero interest rates and bond purchases by central banks have left markets acutely sensitive to the slightest shift in monetary policy, or even a hint of a shift.
[..] the state’s control of the financial system and limited levels of overseas debt may mitigate against the risk of a banking crisis. In a financial stability report published in June, China’s central bank said lenders would be able to maintain relatively high capital levels even if hit by severe shocks.
While the BIS says that credit-to-GDP gaps exceeded 10% in the three years preceding the majority of financial crises, China has remained above that threshold for most of the period since mid-2009, with no crisis so far. In the first quarter, China’s gap exceeded the levels of 41 other nations and the euro area. In the U.S., readings exceeded 10% in the lead up to the global financial crisis.
Why am I getting the feeling that the BIS thinks perhaps just this one time ‘things will be different’? If the credit-to-GDP gap (difference with long-term trend) anywhere exceeded 10%, that was a harbinger of the majority of financial crisis. But in China to date, with a 30.1% print, ‘the state’s control of the financial system and limited levels of overseas debt may mitigate against the risk of a banking crisis’. That sounds like someone’s afraid to state the obvious out loud.
If you ask me there’s a loud and clear writing on the Great Wall. But regardless, I didn’t set out to comment on the BIS, I just used that to introduce something else. That is to say, early today, CNBC ran an article on the Chinese property market, seen through the eyes of Donna Kwok, senior China economist at UBS.
Donna sees some light in fast rising home prices (an ‘improvement’..) but also acknowledges they constitute a challenge. She mentions bubbles – she even sees ‘uneven bubbles’, a lovely term, and ‘selective pockets of bubbles’-, but she does seem to understand what’s going on, even if she doesn’t put it in the stark terminology that seems to fit the issue.
CNBC names the article “China Faces Policy Dilemma As Home Prices Jump In GDP Boost”, an ambiguous enough way of putting things. A second title that pops up but has apparently been rejected by the editor is: “Chinese Property Market Is Improving: UBS”. That would indeed have been a bit much. Because calling a bubble an improvement is like tempting the gods, or worse.
Policymakers in China were facing the dilemma of driving growth while preventing the property market from overheating, an economist said Monday as prices in the world’s second largest economy jumped in August. Average new home prices in China’s 70 major cities rose 9.2% in August from a year earlier, accelerating from a 7.9% increase in July, an official survey from the National Bureau of Statistics showed Monday. Home prices rose 1.5% from July. But according to Donna Kwok, senior China economist at UBS, the importance of the property sector to China’s overall economic health, posed a challenge.
It contributes up to one-third of GDP as its effects filter through to related businesses such as heavy industries and raw materials. “On the one hand, they need to temper the signs of froth that we are seeing in the higher-tier cities. On the other hand, they are still having to rely on the (market’s) contribution to headline GDP growth that property investment as the whole—which is still reliant on the lower-tier city recovery—generates…so that 6.5 to 7% annual growth target is still met for this year,” Kwok told CNBC’s “Street Signs.”
The data showed prices in the first-tier cities of Shanghai and Beijing prices rose 31.2% and 23.5%, respectively. Home prices in the second tier cities of Xiamen and Hefei saw the larges price gains, rising 43.8% and 40.3% respectively, from a year ago. Earlier, the Chinese government introduced measures aimed at boosting home sales to reduce large inventories in an effort to limit an economic slowdown. While the moves have boosted prices in top-tier cities with some spillover in lower-tier cities, there were still concerns of uneven bubbles in the market.
“We are seeing potential signs of selective pockets of bubbles appearing again, especially in tier 1 and tier 2 cities,” Kwok said. The Chinese government in the meantime was rolling out selective cooling measures in these cities to try to even out growth. “If it’s navigated in a such a way that the (positive) spillover to the adjacent tier 3 cities continues to spread further, then maybe that’s where you may get a first or second best outcome resulting,” she added.
To summarize: China can only achieve its 6.5 to 7% annual GDP growth target if the housing bubble(s) persist, and that’s the one thing bubbles never do.
If housing makes up -directly and indirectly, after ‘filtering through’- one third of Chinese GDP, which is officially still growing at more than 6.5%, then the effects of a housing crash in the Middle Kingdom should become obvious. That is, if the property market merely comes to not even a crash but just a standstill, GDP growth will be close to 4%. And that is before we calculate how that in turn will also ‘filter through’, a process that would undoubtedly shave off another percentage point of GDP growth.
So then we’re at 3% growth, and that’s optimistic, that would require just a limited ‘filtering through’. If the Chinese housing sector shrinks or even collapses, and given that there is a huge property bubble -intentionally- being built on top of the latest -recent- bubble, shrinkage is the least that should be expected, then China GDP growth will fall below that 3%.
And arguably down the line even in a best case scenario both GDP growth and GDP -the economy itself-, will flatline if not fall outright. Since China’s entire economic model has been built to depend on growth, negative growth will hammer its economy so hard that the Communist Party will face protests from a billion different corners as its citizens will see their assets crumble in value.
What at some point will discourage Beijing from keeping on keeping blowing more bubbles to replace the ones that deflate, as it has done for years now, is that China desperately seeks for the renminbi/yuan to be a reserve currency, it’s aiming to be included in ‘the’ IMF basket as soon as October 1 this year.
That is not a realistic prospect if and when the currency continues to be used to prop up the economy, housing, unprofitable industries etc. Neither the IMF nor the other reserve currencies in the basket can allow for the addition of the yuan if its actual value is put at risk by trying to deflect the most basic dynamics of markets, not to that extent. And not at that price either.
The Celestial Empire will be forced to choose, but it’s not clear if it either acknowledges, or is willing to make, such a choice. Still, it won’t be able to absorb all private debt and make it public, and still play in the big leagues, even if other major countries and central banks play fast and loose with the system too.