Pablo Picasso Visage 1928
S h i m o n P r o k u p e c z from the courtroom: “Judge tells the courtroom that Manafort is not being sentenced for anything related to the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference. Ellis said “He is not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government”
So what’s the Guardian headline? “Trump-Russia figure Paul Manafort jailed”.
• Paul Manafort Sentenced To 47 Months In Prison (ZH)
In a surprise decision that stands as a slap in the face to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Judge Ellis handed Paul Manafort a surprisingly light sentence of 47 months -or just under four years in prison – rejecting federal sentencing guidelines that recommended Manafort face up to 24 years in prison – a sentence that would have effectively condemned him to die in jail. Manafort was also fined $50,000 (equivalent to a few of Manafort’s bespoke suits) and ordered to pay restitution of $25 million. At this rate, Manafort might be out before Mueller finally wraps up his probe.
Early in the trial, Manafort appeared headed for a stiff sentence despite showing up in court in a wheelchair and green prison jumpsuit. Initially, after a lengthy review of Manafort’s charges, Ellis, who presided over Manafort’s August trial, said he would reject his lawyers’ request for leniency and accused the former Trump campaign executive of not being entirely forthcoming with the court about his finances. Furthermore, he refused to give him credit for accepting responsibility for his crimes, and also rejected his lawyers’ argument that the fact that Manafort hadn’t been found complicit in Russian collusion detracted from the charges for which he was convicted. When it came time for their statement, prosecutors told the judge Manafort offered little meaningful help during his 50 hours of meetings with investigators, and that the main reason he spent so much time with investigators was because he had lied.
But when it came his turn to speak, Manafort sounded genuinely contrite, telling the judge he felt “humiliated and ashamed” for what he’d done, and that the last two years had been “the most difficult years for my family and I.” “I appreciate the fairness of the trial you conducted,” he said. “My life is professionally and financially in shambles.” In the first indication that the sentence would be lighter than many had anticipated, the judge told Manafort and the court that he felt the federal sentencing guidelines were too stiff, and that Manafort had led an “otherwise blameless” life. Ellis recommended that Manafort – who is reportedly suffering from gout and other unspecified health issues – serve his sentence in a Cumberland, Maryland prison camp. He also credited him with nine months already served.
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The power of central banks is destructive in every possible sense.
• ECB’s Surprise Policy Moves Send Shivers Through Global Stock Markets (MW)
Mario Draghi has been grumbling about the deleterious side effects of trade tensions and other geopolitical worries for months, but the ECB’s surprise policy moves in the face of a slowing global economy appeared to bring the danger home to investors. Stocks on Wall Street fell alongside European equities, underlining rising worries among investors that weakness in the global economy could prove to be a drag on U.S. growth. While analysts had expected the ECB president to strike a dovish tone, policy makers went much further than anticipated.
First, the ECB extended its so-called forward guidance on ultralow interest rates, saying it doesn’t expect to begin lifting them until at least early 2020. That’s compared to its earlier plan to leave them on hold at least through the end of this summer. Second, the ECB launched its third iteration of a program of cheap loans — known as targeted long-term refinancing operations, or TLTROs — to eurozone banks. It all came as ECB staff slashed their macroeconomic forecasts, including reducing the outlook for 2019 GDP growth to 1.1% from a previous 1.7% and signaling that inflation will take even longer to reach the central bank’s target of near but just below 2%. Price stability is the ECB’s sole policy mandate.
Draghi’s comments on the economy were getting the blame from analysts and investors for a decline in European and, in part, U.S. stocks. The pan-European Stoxx Europe index ended 0.4% lower, while on Wall Street, the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended with a loss of more than 200 points, or 0.8%, after declining 320 points at its session low. European government bonds rallied and the euro extended a decline versus the U.S. dollar.
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Draghi just scared friend and foe. Get rid of him, and his job. The damage is unthinkable.
• US Dollar Hits 52-Week High on New ECB Stimulus (WS)
The Dollar Index (DXY), which tracks the dollar against the euro, yen, pound sterling, Canadian dollar, Swedish krona, and Swiss franc, and which is dominated by the euro, jumped 0.83% to 97.71 at the moment, hitting at least briefly its 52-week high, as the euro slumped 1.1% against the dollar, following the ECB’s announcement earlier today. But it wasn’t just a one-day event for the dollar, but an eight-day rally in an uptrend that started in early February. The real worry is the economy in the Eurozone – despite the fabulous stimulus the ECB has heaped on it for years, including a brutal negative-interest-rate policy and massive QE that has inflated the ECB’s balance sheet to over 40% of Eurozone GDP (by comparison, the Fed’s balance sheet is down to 19.5% of US GDP).
The Eurozone economy is deteriorating rapidly. In the post-meeting press conference today, ECB president Mario Draghi announced that the ECB had slashed its economic growth forecast for the Eurozone to 1.1% for 2019, a sharp cut from its forecast of 1.7% growth at the December meeting, and down from its 1.9% growth forecast last summer. “Incoming data have continued to be weak, in particular in the manufacturing sector, reflecting the slowdown in external demand compounded by some country and sector-specific factors,” the statement says.
Instead of admitting that its radical experimental monetary policies were a colossal error as the economic growth is now dwindling despite or because of the stimulus, and instead of gradually raising its policy rates above the rate of inflation to end its brutal “financial repression,” and instead of shedding the bonds on its balance sheet to push up long-term interest rates and force a restructuring of the bogged-down European economy so that it would liquidate or restructure the debts of zombie companies and lighten the load of restructured companies to allow them to have a fresh start – all of it at investors expense – the ECB does the opposite.
It promises new bank liquidity programs in the Eurozone which is already drowning in central-bank liquidity, to get banks to lend more to these zombie companies and keep them from restructuring their debts.
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When did that big Party meeting end?
• China Exports Fall 20.7% In February; Trade Data Much Weaker (CNBC)
China on Friday reported worse than expected trade data for the month of February, customs data showed amid Beijing’s trade dispute with the U.S. Dollar-denominated exports plunged 20.7 percent for the month of February from a year ago, missing economists’ expectations of a 4.8 percent decline, according to a Reuters poll. January exports had risen 9.1 percent from a year ago. Dollar-denominated imports fell 5.2 percent in February from a year ago, missing economists’ forecast of a 1.4 percent fall. January imports had fallen 1.5 percent on-year. China’s February trade balance was also significantly weaker than expected at $4.12 billion. Economists polled by Reuters had expected the overall trade balance to come in at $26.38 billion.
The country’s trade balance in January had been $39.16 billion. China’s politically sensitive trade surplus with the U.S. narrowed sharply to $14.72 billion in February from $27.3 billion in January. Although the 20.7 percent decline in Chinese exports for the month of February was a “big number” and the market will be “clearly disappointed,” the negative number should not come as a surprise as investors have been expecting a slowdown both globally and in China, said Sarah Lien, director and client portfolio manager at Eastspring Investments. “There are a lot of headwinds; there’s a lot of moving parts in market,” Lien told CNBC.
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So no currency manipulation needed?
• China’s February Trade Surplus With US Narrows Sharply To $14.72 Billion (R.)
China’s trade surplus with the United States narrowed to $14.72 billion in February, from $27.3 billion in January, customs data showed on Friday. For January-February combined, China’s trade surplus with the U.S. stood at $42.1 billion. China’s large trade surplus with the United States has long been a sore point with Washington, and is at the center of a bitter dispute between the two countries. In 2018, the two governments imposed tit-for-tariffs on goods worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
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Do note: what wealth there is, or is measured, sits in real estate and stocks, the very two biggest bubbles blown by the Fed. Net worth my donkey.
• US Households See Biggest Decline In Net Worth Since Financial Crisis (CNBC)
Americans’ net worth fell at the highest level since the financial crisis in the fourth quarter of 2018 as sliding stock market prices ate into the household balance sheet. Net worth dropped to $104.3 trillion as the year came to an end, a decrease of $3.73 trillion from the third quarter, according to figures released Thursday by the Federal Reserve. The fall amounted to a drop of 3.4 percent. Much of the slide came due to Wall Street’s woes, as the stock market suffered a precipitous decline that started in October and briefly reached bear market status. Equities skidded as investors began to fear that the Fed would keep raising interest rates even as economic conditions began to deteriorate. By the time the market drop ended in late December, households saw $4.6 trillion worth of equity value deteriorate.
The decline was offset somewhat by a $300 billion increase in real estate value. The overall move was the second-highest quarterly dollar drop since the Fed began tracking the statistic. Overall, financial assets totaled just more than $85 trillion at the end of the year, while real estate value was $29.2 trillion. Household net worth has been rising strongly since the crisis and is up 73 percent since 2009. After suffering their worst Christmas Eve in history, stocks staged a turnaround and ultimately saw their best two-month start to a year since at least 1991. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is off about 1.6 percent in March though still up more than 9 percent year to date.
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• Fed QE Unwind Reaches $501 Billion, Balance Sheet Falls Below $4 Trillion (WS)
Over the next few months, the Fed is expected to announce its new plan for its balance sheet. Meanwhile, as we’re riveted to the edge of our seat, the old plan continues on autopilot, and February was one of the few months when the Treasury “roll-off,” as Chairman Jerome Powell likes to call it, hit the “caps.” In February, the Fed shed $57 billion in assets, according to the Fed’s balance sheet for the week ended March 6, released this afternoon. This slashed the assets on its balance sheet to $3,969 billion, the lowest since December 2013. Via its “balance sheet normalization,” the Fed has now shed $501 billion. And since peak-balance-sheet at the end of 2014, the Fed has shed $547 billion:
During peak-balance-sheet at the end of 2014, total assets ($4.52 trillion) amounted to 26% of GDP. Today’s assets amount to 19.4% of GDP. In the years before QE started, the balance sheet ran around 6% of GDP. By comparison, the ECB’s balance sheet assets now exceed 40% of GDP, and the Bank of Japan’s assets amount to 101% of GDP. February’s drop of $57 billion is larger than the scheduled QE unwind that is capped at $50 billion. But the Fed has other activities that impact the balance sheet. QE revolved around Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). And so does the QE unwind.
[..] On February 15, three issues of Treasury securities on the Fed’s balance sheet totaling $43.5 billion matured. On February 28, three issues totaling $12.5 billion matured. This brought the total for the month to $56 billion – above the cap of $30 billion. So the Fed reinvested $26 billion in new Treasury securities and allowed $30 billion of Treasuries to “rolled off” the balance sheet without replacement. This reduced the total balance of Treasury securities by $30 billion, to $2,175 billion, the lowest since December 2013 – and down by $290 billion since the QE unwind began. This has whittled down the Treasuries acquired during the infamous “QE Infinity” by about one-third:
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When it comes to things like 5G networks, which cross borders, the rest of Europe has little choice but to follow Germany.
• Germany Won’t Ban Huawei, Says Ready To Oppose US Pressure (RT)
Germany does not intend to prevent Chinese tech giant Huawei from developing 5G networks, the country’s economy minister said, adding that the EU stands ready to defend its interests, should a trade war with Washington escalate. Berlin will not pre-emptively ban any specific companies from bidding for contracts to develop the country’s next generation 5G mobile network, despite immense pressure from the United States to ostracize Huawei, Peter Altmaier said on Thursday evening, during a debate on ZDF television. “No, we will not want to exclude any company,” he stressed, explaining that the government is capable of implementing enough safeguards to protect Germany’s future networks.
Ignoring Washington’s earnest ‘concerns’ that, through Huawei systems, the Chinese government is planning to spy on the entire world, German authorities produced a list of telecom security requirements on Wednesday. Part of the new German rules requires certifying any security-related components with Germany’s IT security agency. The 5G network “may only be sourced from trustworthy suppliers whose compliance with national security regulations and provisions for the secrecy of telecommunications and for data protection is assured,” Germany’s Economic Ministry and the Federal Network Agency said in their guidelines. Thus Huawei, which has recently sued the US government demanding to see any proof behind their claims, can participate in the tendering process if it meets the requirements set out by Berlin.
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3 weeks to D-Day. Cue blame game.
• May Urges EU To Agree Brexit Backstop Changes (BBC)
Theresa May will urge the EU to help get her Brexit deal through the Commons by agreeing legally binding changes to the controversial backstop. On Friday, she will say the EU’s actions will “have a big impact on the outcome” when MPs vote on it next week. But Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer said it was now “clear” the PM “will not be able to deliver the changes she promised to her failed Brexit deal”. The EU says the UK must come forward with new ideas to break the deadlock. The UK is due to leave on 29 March.
Mrs May will visit workers in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, on Friday, days before the second “meaningful vote” in the Commons on the withdrawal deal she has negotiated with the EU. She will tell them: “Just as MPs will face a big choice next week, the EU has to make a choice too. “We are both participants in this process. It is in the European interest for the UK to leave with a deal. “We are working with them but the decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote.”
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Has Corbyn done anything not wrong?
• Corbyn Backtracks On Final Say Referendum (Ind.)
Labour has admitted it will not support a new referendum on Brexit in all circumstances, in a major blow to those in the party campaigning for one. Sources close to the Labour leadership confirmed that the party is not advocating a referendum on anything other than a “damaging Tory Brexit” and will not support one if Britain leaves the EU on terms that Labour backs. The Independent has learnt that the issue was the subject of a row between Mr Corbyn’s shadow ministers that pitted Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry against Brexit-backing frontbenchers led by Jon Trickett. As it dawned on Labour Remainers today, a prominent MP who backs the People’s Vote campaign warned that a failure of the party to follow through on the pledge to back a new referendum would be seen as a “betrayal”.
It comes as deputy leader Tom Watson is in the process of forming a new “social democrat” group within the party, while eight MPs have quit the party, in large part over Brexit policy, to form the new Independent Group. Labour said last week that it would support a vote on any “credible” exit plan passed by parliament, and shadow ministers took to the airwaves to promise to demand a “confirmatory referendum” on “whatever deal may or may not pass through parliament”. However, sources have now told The Independent that the party will only support a referendum on a “damaging Tory Brexit” deal. Crucially, it is understood that Labour does not consider this to include the type of arrangement being proposed by former Conservative ministers Sir Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, who Mr Corbyn held talks with yesterday. Their plan would keep the UK in the single market and a customs union with the EU.
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This should panic the country like nothing else. But instead all the talk is Brexit and they’re signaling the advantages for pension schemes of people dying younger.
• British Life Expectancy Falls By Six Months (G.)
British adults’ life expectancy has been cut by six months in the biggest reduction in official longevity forecasts. The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, which calculates life expectancy on behalf of the UK pension industry, declined to speculate on why longevity is deteriorating for men and women in England and Wales. Some analysts, however, blame austerity and cuts in NHS spending, others point to worsening obesity, dementia and diabetes. The institute said it now expects men aged 65 to die at 86.9 years, down from its previous estimate of 87.4 years, while women who reach 65 are likely to die at 89.2 years, down from 89.7 years. The actuaries said the evidence of slowing life expectancy that first emerged around 2010-11 is “a trend as opposed to a blip”. Falling longevity has accelerated.
Last year’s analysis cut forecasted life expectancy by two months. This year it took off another six months. Compared with 2015, projections for life expectancy are now down by 13 months for men and 14 months for women. Flat or falling longevity has major implications for health, finance and government policy. The state pension age is planned to rise to 68 in 2037, and the government has floated the idea of increasing it to 70 but will come under pressure to backtrack if longevity drops. [..] Pension companies have already begun to cash in on falling expectations. This week Legal & General said it was releasing £433m of the reserves it holds to pay future pensions because of the reductions in longevity expectations.
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European parliament elections in May. That will bring a lot into the open.
• Default Or Exit: A Battle Between Italy And The EU Is Inevitable (OR)
There is a dual Italian crisis brewing in the European Union. On the one hand, it is a political, or even geopolitical, crisis. Italy is undermining the unity of the European Union; blocking the EU’s recognition of those behind the coup in Venezuela as the legitimate authority; preventing the expansion of sanctions against Russia; and even supporting the ‘yellow vest’ movement in France, which is arousing the anger of the French government. On the other hand, the crisis is economic in nature. Italy is once more sliding into a recession (economic growth was negative in the country); Italian banks are again facing financial problems; and the business media has already estimated that the Italian economic crisis could blow up the entire European banking system.
There is a strong possibility that the EU’s leaders will soon be faced with a choice: try to save Italy (and the whole of Europe) from yet another crisis or set an example by punishing the Italian government for the country’s independent economic and foreign policies. In turn, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government will most likely have its own dilemma to deal with: bow down and sell its principles to get help from Brussels or go all out and regain Italian independence. The choice will not be easy and either decision will be painful. Neither ending to this Italian drama could really be called happy. As this headline in The Telegraph quite rightly notes: “Crisis brewing in Italy will lead to default, exit from the euro, or both.”
[..] To really understand the Italian problem, it should be borne in mind that, as a member of the European Union and the eurozone, Italy does not have full national sovereignty, especially when it comes to economic matters. It does not control the monetary policy of the European Central Bank and cannot even prepare a budget in line with the wishes of its own government or parliament without the risk of running into sanctions or fines from the European Commission. What’s more, Italian eurosceptic politicians suspect that the European Commission (in which the main roles belong to people hand-picked by Germany, France and the US) is punishing Italy and literally strangling its economy because of a political dislike of the Italian government’s geopolitical actions.
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If this happens more often it won’t be a coincidence.
• Blackout Darkens Much Of Venezuela (AFP)
Most of Venezuela plunged into darkness on Thursday evening as a blackout served up more misery for people enduring an economic crisis that has fueled a potent challenge to President Nicolas Maduro’s rule. The socialist government quickly blamed the outage affecting 23 of the country’s 24 states on what it called sabotage of a major hydroelectric dam. In Caracas, traffic lights went out and the subway system ground to a halt, triggering gridlock in the streets and huge streams of angry people trekking long distances to get home from work. The blackout in the capital was total and hit at 4:50 pm (2050 GMT), just before nightfall. Caracas is one of the world’s most crime-ridden cities so people set out for home early, well before the sun went down.
Commerce was shut down because most transactions are done with debit or credit cards. Hyperinflation has rendered the local currency, the bolivar, almost worthless. Telephone services and access to the internet were also knocked out. The capital’s international airport was hit, according to social media posts from would-be travelers. A Copa Libertadores football game in the city of Barquisimeto was postponed. As night set in, the nationwide outage dragged on and some people in Caracas banged pots and pans – a traditional Latin American method of letting off steam. About seven hours after the mess started, the lights did come back on in some buildings in eastern Caracas.
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But campaign finance!
• This Jew Tells Speaker Pelosi: “You May Well Prove Ilhan Omar Correct” (Cohen)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly still considering a symbolic “show vote” in Congress on an anti-Semitism and “hate” resolution – which would offer all the authenticity and honesty of a Soviet show trial. If Pelosi proceeds, it will prove Rep. Ilhan Omar’s point about the inordinate influence wielded over Congress by the “Israel-right or-wrong”/AIPAC lobby and its power to stifle criticism of Israel. The anti-Omar resolution, whether mentioning Omar or not, was originated by two Democrats who are among Congress’s most longstanding pro-Israel diehards: Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey. Both endorsed Bush’s Iraq invasion. Both opposed Obama’s Iran nuke deal. Both supported Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
I’m a proud Jew raised in a liberal family that supported civil rights and human rights. My experience growing up during the 1950s and 1960s was typical of many Jewish Americans. Like many Jews with this background, I’ve grown increasingly ashamed of Israel. For 40 years, Israel has been ruled mostly by a series of right-wing governments – more and more openly racist and abusive of Palestinian rights. It’s not the land of tree-planting, kibbutzim and “a country treating its Arab minority nicely” that we were sold as youngsters. That’s why a large number of proud Jewish Americans – raised to believe in civil liberties and open discussion – are appalled by the campaign to muzzle Rep. Ilhan Omar, as well as Speaker Pelosi’s role in it. We’re also appalled that human-rights-abusing Israel is virtually off-limits to debate.
[..] Rep. Omar has made a simple and undeniable point – that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the funding it [receives] influences exert extraordinary power over Congress. Disputing that point is flat-earther terrain. The Capitol Hill farce of an “anti-hate” resolution would provide still more evidence on behalf of her argument.
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We lock up our best, brightest and bravest. It’s the only way we can continue on our present paths. But there should be a big Hollywood movie in the works about Chelsea Manning as a role model for all young Americans.
• Chelsea Manning Risks Jail To Fight WikiLeaks Grand Jury (SP)
Chelsea Manning will face a closed contempt hearing after she refused to answer questions during proceedings held by a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, that is investigating WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks grand jury investigation has been ongoing in some form or another in Alexandria since at least December 2010. It was convened by the Justice Department in response to disclosures Manning made to WikiLeaks in 2010, when she was an intelligence analyst for the United States Army. What Manning disclosed exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable conduct by U.S. government officials. But she arrested, subject to a court-martial, and convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other related offenses.
She received a 35-year sentence and was released after six years in military prisons because a grassroots campaign successfully pressured President Barack Obama to commute her sentence. “A judge will consider the legal grounds for my refusal to answer questions in front of a grand jury. The court may find me in contempt and order me to jail,” Manning stated. On March 6, Manning appeared before the grand jury after she was granted immunity for her testimony. “All of the substantive questions pertained to my disclosures of information to the public in 2010—answers I provided in extensive testimony during my court-martial in 2013. I responded to each question with the following statement: ‘I object to the question and refuse to answer on the grounds that the question is in violation of my First, Fourth, and Sixth Amendment, and other statutory rights.’”
Manning added, “In solidarity with many activists facing the odds, I will stand by my principles. I will exhaust every legal remedy available. My legal team continues to challenge the secrecy of these proceedings, and I am prepared to face the consequences of my refusal.” She could face up to 18 months in jail if she is found “in contempt” of court. A legal attempt to quash the subpoena prior to her appearance before the grand jury was rejected by a federal judge on March 5. Grand juries can be empaneled for 18 months, or if they are “special” grand juries, they may last up to 36 months. Over the past eight years, the grand jury has presumably gone through multiple iterations, either being renewed or relaunched.
According to a report from the Washington Post, the grand jury is interested in whether WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange solicited Manning to disclose documents. Manning testified during her court-martial about accounts linked to WikiLeaks, or WLO, that she communicated with. It is possible she communicated with Assange, but they never exchanged identifying information. “No one associated with the WLO pressured me into giving more information. The decisions that I made to send documents and information to the WLO and the website were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility for my actions,” Manning asserted. The grand jury would like to try and poke holes in Manning’s testimony to try and build a case against Assange and possibly other staff members of WikiLeaks.
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