Feb 252017
 
 February 25, 2017  Posted by at 9:31 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  


Dorothea Lange Saturday afternoon, Pittsboro, North Carolina 1939

 

Trump An ‘Idiot’ On China, ‘No Clue What Currency Manipulation Means’ (CNBC)
The Fiscal Horror Show Playing Soon in Washington (Stockman)
Homeland Security Report Disputes Threat From 7 Banned Nations (AP)
Multiple News Outlets Denied Access To White House Press Briefing (G.)
Tsipras Says The Era Of Austerity In Greece Is Over (AP)
Transcript Of IMF Press Briefing Thursday, February 23, 2017 (IMF)
Toronto Housing Market May Need Vancouver-Style Cooling (BBG)
Just As Neoliberalism Is Finally On Its Knees, So Too Is The Left (G.)
Documents Indicate Germany Spied on Foreign Journalists (Spiegel)
Surgeons Should Not Look Like Surgeons (NN Taleb)

 

 

From one of Reagan’s main economic advisers.

Trump An ‘Idiot’ On China, ‘No Clue What Currency Manipulation Means’ (CNBC)

President Donald Trump may think the Chinese are the “grand champions” of currency manipulation, but he’s wrong, expert John Rutledge told CNBC on Friday. “Trump is an idiot on this. He has no clue what currency manipulation means,” the chief investment officer of global investment firm Safanad said in an interview with “Closing Bell.” During the campaign, Trump accused China of keeping its yuan currency artificially low against the U.S. dollar to make Chinese exports cheaper, “stealing” American manufacturing jobs. On Thursday, the president told Reuters he has not “held back” in his assessment, despite not acting on a pledge to declare the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office. “Well they, I think they’re grand champions at manipulation of currency. So I haven’t held back,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens.”

However, earlier Thursday Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNBC he wasn’t ready to pass judgment on China’s currency practices. “We have a process within Treasury where we go through and look at currency manipulation across the board. We’ll go through that process. We’ll do that as we have in the past. We’re not making any judgments until we continue that process,” he told “Squawk Box.” Rutledge, who was one of the principal architects of President Ronald Reagan’s economic plan, said China is actually trying to support its currency. “Chinese authorities have actually sold a trillion dollars’ worth of foreign reserves in the last year to support their currency that’s trying to fall because Chinese nationals are trying to get their money out of China,” he said. That is anti-manipulation.”

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It’s all about the debt ceiling.

The Fiscal Horror Show Playing Soon in Washington (Stockman)

The Deep State’s coup against Donald Trump is palpable. So count it as another element of reality to which Wall Street and its raging robo-machines and day traders are blind as bats. After all, they are essentially “pricing-in” the most successful presidency in modern times on the economic front. The Trump Stimulus was even supposed to be “in like Flynn” in time to boost corporate earnings materially in 2017. But it has already transpired that the Flynn in question was named Mike, not Errol; and the conquest was not that of a swashbuckling outsider who quickly had his way with the Imperial City, but the doings of resident swamp creatures bent on turning back the Donald’s unwelcome challenge.

So in a matter of weeks or months at most, Trump will be struggling to survive, while the giant fiscal stimulus that has Wall Street all bulled-up will amount to a heap of ruins scattered about a debilitating political war zone on Capitol Hill. I never thought the vaunted Trump tax cut and infrastructure boom would see the light of day in their own right, of course, because the Donald is caught in an inherited debt trap that he does not yet even dimly appreciate. Yet with each passing day, the magnitude of the trap materially enlarges. As of the Daily Treasury Statement for February 17, for example, the public debt was $19.895 trillion compared to $18.99 trillion on the same date a year ago. When you factor in a slight gain in the Treasury’s cash balance to $262 billion, the math speaks for itself.

During the past year Uncle Sam’s “cash burn rate” was nearly $75 billion per month. That means Washington actually consumed $885 billion of cash during the last 365 days — or far more than implied by the official budget deficit of $587 billion for the fiscal year just ended (FY 2016). It also means that once the tax collection season ends in April, it will be Katie-bar-the-door time on the debt ceiling front. When the latter becomes frozen into place on March 15 after the insidious Boehner-Obama debt ceiling “holiday” expires, there will not be enough cash to last the summer — even if the Treasury resorts to the usual gimmicks, such as temporarily divesting the trust funds. So let this part be crystal clear. What is coming down the track is the mother of all debt ceiling showdowns and the virtual certainty of government shutdowns and deferred payments to states, contractors and even some transfer payment beneficiaries.

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Funny, but not new. They can always deflect criticism be saying it was an Obama list.

Homeland Security Report Disputes Threat From 7 Banned Nations (AP)

Analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban pose a terror threat to the United States. A draft document obtained by The Associated Press concludes that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats to the United States and that few people from the countries Trump listed in his travel ban have carried out attacks or been involved in terrorism-related activities in the U.S. since Syria’s civil war started in 2011. Trump cited terrorism concerns as the primary reason he signed the sweeping temporary travel ban in late January, which also halted the U.S. refugee program. A federal judge in Washington state blocked the government from carrying out the order earlier this month.

Trump said Friday a new edict would be announced soon. The administration has been working on a new version that could withstand legal challenges. Homeland Security spokeswoman Gillian Christensen on Friday did not dispute the report’s authenticity, but said it was not a final comprehensive review of the government’s intelligence. “While DHS was asked to draft a comprehensive report on this issue, the document you’re referencing was commentary from a single intelligence source versus an official, robust document with thorough interagency sourcing,” Christensen said. “The … report does not include data from other intelligence community sources. It is incomplete.”

The Homeland Security report is based on unclassified information from Justice Department press releases on terrorism-related convictions and attackers killed in the act, State Department visa statistics, the 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community and the State Department Country Reports on Terrorism 2015. The three-page report challenges Trump’s core claims. It said that of 82 people the government determined were inspired by a foreign terrorist group to carry out or try to carry out an attack in the United States, just over half were U.S. citizens born in the United States. The others were from 26 countries, led by Pakistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Of these, only Somalia and Iraq were among the seven nations included in the ban.

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It’s one way to change the conversation. C’mon, guys, you’ll be let back in soon.

Multiple News Outlets Denied Access To White House Press Briefing (G.)

The White House barred several news organizations from an off-camera press briefing on Friday, handpicking a select group of reporters that included a number of conservative outlets friendly toward Donald Trump. The “gaggle” with Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, took place in lieu of his daily briefing and was originally scheduled as an on-camera event. But the White House press office announced later in the day that the Q&A session would take place off camera before only an “expanded pool” of journalists, and in Spicer’s West Wing office as opposed to the James S Brady press briefing room where it is typically held. Outlets seeking to gain entry whose requests were denied included the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, the Daily Mail and others.

Conservative publications such as Breitbart News, the One America News Network and the Washington Times were allowed into the meeting, as well as TV networks CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC. The Associated Press and Time were invited but boycotted the briefing. The decision to limit access to Spicer, hours after Trump once again declared that much of the media was “the enemy of the American people” while speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, marked a dramatic shift. While prior administrations have occasionally held background briefings with smaller groups of reporters, it is highly unusual for the White House to cherry-pick which media outlets can participate in what would have otherwise been the press secretary’s televised daily briefing.

The briefing has become indispensable viewing for journalists trying to interpret the often contradictory statements coming out of the Trump administration, and Spicer’s aggressive handling of the press and delivery of false or misleading statements have already been memorably mocked on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. “Gaggles” – more informal briefings – with the press secretary are traditionally only limited to the pool when they conflict with the president’s travel, in which case they often take place aboard Air Force One. At times, impromptu gaggles form with reporters who spend their days in the White House, but denying outlets wishing to participate is extremely uncommon.

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Don’t believe it for a second.

Tsipras Says The Era Of Austerity In Greece Is Over (AP)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says the era of austerity is over for his country, painting a positive picture Friday of reforms the country has agreed to take after its latest bailout program ends in 2018. Speaking in parliament, Tsipras described the deal reached Monday as an “exceptional success” and said it showed the country’s creditors accepted Greeces insistence that it could no longer bear any further budget austerity. “I am fully convinced we achieved an honorable compromise,” Tsipras said, adding that all sides at the eurozone finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels had agreed for the “first time after seven years … to leave the path of continued austerity behind us.”

On Monday, Greece agreed to legislate new reforms to come into effect in 2019, but said these will be fiscally neutral: for every euros worth of new burdens on the Greek taxpayer, an equal amount of relief will be granted. In return, Greeces creditors agreed to send their bailout inspectors back to Athens next week for further talks to complete a long overdue review of progress made in Greeces bailout. Tsipras said both creditor-requested new measures and government-proposed relief measures will be legislated at the same time, and that therefore there was no conditionality for the relief measures. The prime minister’s left-led coalition government, trailing in polls, has presented the deal as a decisive, positive step forward for austerity-weary Greeks hammered by seven years of a financial crisis that plunged the country into an economic depression.

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I found this very interesting. Looks like the IMF has never truly looked at whether being part of the euro is best for Greece. Why not? It’s not as if they only do what countries want. Whose interests is the IMF really defending here?

Part of transcript of a press briefing with Gerry Rice, IMF Director of Communications, and reporters.

Transcript Of IMF Press Briefing Thursday, February 23, 2017 (IMF)

QUESTIONER: Gerry, help me to understand how the IMF weighs a member country’s interests, economic interests when it is in a monetary union, when the interests may be that it be out of a monetary union. I haven’t seen any analysis by the IMF about the pros and cons, economic pros and cons of Greece exiting the euro. And it seems to me that Madame Lagarde has expressed herself as a pro euro and a pro EU advocate. So help me to understand, one, why we haven’t seen any economic analysis to defend the IMF’s position to not counsel Greece for exiting the euro or – and two, how it weighs this decision when obviously other member countries who are not in a program want Greece to stay in the euro. Do you understand where I’m getting at? I just haven’t seen any analysis from the IMF to defend or argue either case.

MR. RICE: You know, the amount of economic analysis that we’ve undertaken on Greece over the last seven years, you probably know as well as anyone, is voluminous. So, you know, I think there’s plenty out there to analyze and digest. [..] So, you know, on the question of Greece being a member of the eurozone and the monetary union, you know, it’s been Greece’s explicit objective to retain its membership of the eurozone. It’s been one of its priority objectives since the very beginning. It’s been also a priority objective of the other eurozone members. So, you know, in terms of how we weigh our service and support to a member country, you know, these are obviously important factors that we take into account, and we have taken those into account and are trying to support and service the member as best we can in that context.

QUESTIONER: But, if I may follow up, Gerry. There are cases in which a member country is explicitly – to use your language – has an explicit objective to do for economic policies that the IMF believes to not be in that member country’s economic interests or in the global economic interest. And it speaks truth to power, and yet there has been no analysis to argue why Greece should remain part of the euro or why it shouldn’t. And to me that’s a fundamental economic argument, since you’re talking about internal devaluation versus a nominal exchange rate devaluation. I mean, that’s at the heart of the problem. So can you tell me why the IMF hasn’t at least published its analysis or any analysis on why Greece should remain in the euro or should exit as a part of its truth-telling economic advice to a member country?

MR. RICE: Well, you know, again I think there’s been plenty of analysis of Greece’s economic situation and how the IMF assesses what is in Greece’s best interests. And, you know, I just think there’s voluminous information on that. And –

QUESTIONER: If you can point me to the – and respectfully, I appreciate your patience and me interrupting you – but if you can point me to the voluminous analysis of Greece – which I admit is voluminous, it will probably fill several volumes in fact, several history books, but I have seen in none of it that I am aware of any analysis of the pros and cons of Greece staying or exiting the eurozone.

MR. RICE: [..] I’ll come back to you, but I do believe there is actually a lot of analysis where you can clearly distill what the IMF’s view is as being in Greece’s best economic interest. I would include in that the many staff reports and, in particular, these ex post evaluation studies that we have done that, again, I can point you to some of this material afterwards. But I do think there’s plenty of material.

QUESTIONER: I just want to follow up on Ian’s question and maybe have another question if you don’t mind. Maybe you can clarify do you think – does the IMF think that it’s in Greece’s best interest to retain its membership in the eurozone? And the second question has to do with the timeline entry, because you mentioned the fact that the discussion on the debt will take place following the discussion on reforms. So should we assume that this discussion on the debt relief won’t start before the second review is completed?

MR. RICE: Yes, I don’t have the timing on the completion of the second review. Again, I want to revert to my formulation. Before we would be able – we, the IMF – would be able to, you know, make a commitment on our participation in the program, we would need to have the discussion of both policies and debt relief, and beyond the discussion, credible commitments in which we have confidence. So that’s the way I would like to formulate that.

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Been saying that forever. But as we saw last week, Toronto’s entire budget is based on high and rising house prices.

Toronto Housing Market May Need Vancouver-Style Cooling (BBG)

Toronto may require measures to cool its red-hot housing market similar to moves taken in Vancouver if interest rates don’t increase, said Royal Bank of Canada Chief Executive Officer David McKay. The head of Canada’s largest lender said Toronto housing is “running hot” and is fueled by a “concerning mix of drivers” that include lack of supply, continued low rates, rising foreign money and speculative activity. Similar circumstances in Vancouver prompted British Columbia’s government last year to impose a 15% tax on foreign buyers. “In the absence of being able to use higher rates to reduce that, I do think we’re going to at some point have to consider similar measures to slow down the housing price growth,” McKay said Friday in a telephone interview.

The comments from the bank CEO come as frustration grows over the unaffordability of properties in Canada’s biggest city. The average home price in Toronto jumped 22% in January from the previous year, the fifth straight month of gains topping 20%. Listings have dropped off, down by half from last year, squeezing prices further. The CEOs of Canada’s other big banks last year called on the government to increase housing regulation amid skyrocketing prices in Vancouver and Toronto. National Bank of Canada CEO Louis Vachon said that minimum downpayments should return to 10% from 5%, while Bank of Nova Scotia head Brian Porter suggested his company was pulling back on mortgage lending due to concern about high home prices in those two cities.

Vancouver, once Canada’s fastest-paced home market and now supplanted by Toronto, has seen slowing sales after several regulatory moves. In August, British Columbia added a 15% tax to home purchases by non-Canadians after they were found to have bought more than C$1 billion ($760 million) in property in a five-week period. The city of Vancouver in January began taxing empty homes and plans to further regulate short-term rentals. Since the tax was imposed in Vancouver, monthly transactions in the metro region fell on average by 36% compared to a year earlier, according to data from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. Prices for prized single-family detached homes had been rising in double digits last year. In the past six months, they’ve fallen 6.6% to an average C$1.47 million, according to board figures released earlier this month.

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The left largely has itself become part of neoliberalism. Ergo: there is no left, left, other than in name.

Just As Neoliberalism Is Finally On Its Knees, So Too Is The Left (G.)

The 10th anniversary of the global financial crisis looms this year, which means it’s almost a decade since neoliberal economics began to fall apart. The crisis spawned a global recession, the near collapse of global finance and the subsequent eurozone crisis as governments incurred huge debts amid efforts to rescue the hapless banking industry. The then Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, observed in the immediate aftermath: The current crisis is the culmination of a 30-year domination of economic policy by a free-market ideology that has been variously called neoliberalism, economic liberalism, economic fundamentalism, Thatcherism or the Washington consensus. The central thrust of this ideology has been that government activity should be constrained, and ultimately replaced, by market forces.

The global recession that followed was the worst in 70 years and its effects continue to be felt in many developed countries. Australia was one of the fortunate few to avoid a recession, thanks to enormous government-funded stimulus packages and the continuation of an unprecedented mining boom. Nevertheless, economic activity has been sluggish ever since, job growth has stalled, wage growth has collapsed and inequality is on the rise. And yet in 2017, just as neoliberalism is on its knees, so too is the left. It matters not whether we are describing social democrats, socialists, the hard left or the moderate left. A swath of populist extreme rightwing forces is sweeping through many developed countries. Europe now resembles a graveyard for social democracy. How did it come to this?

First and foremost, there is incompetence. Neoliberal economics, a creation of the right and embraced to varying degrees by social democrats, has dominated western politics for nigh on four decades. Its mantras of deregulation, privatisation and cutting tax for the wealthy and corporations have been exhausted, if not discredited. There are only so many assets that can be privatised and, as the head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, has noted, replacing a public-sector monopoly with a private-sector monopoly has simply driven up prices. The fetish for deregulation and tax cutting has caused immense harm – for consumers, for workers and for governments seeking to provide services demanded of them but hampered by inadequate revenue.

It is not just Pope Francis who has called for major reform of the economic system. The World Economic Forum, which met in January, advocated “fundamental reforms to market capitalism to tackle inequality”. In doing so, it echoed statements of the IMF and World Bank, formerly strong advocates of the neoliberal agenda.

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Legal schmegal. If they can do it, they will. All of them. Question: is this worse than banning them?

Documents Indicate Germany Spied on Foreign Journalists (Spiegel)

According to documents seen by SPIEGEL, the BND conducted surveillance on at least 50 additional telephone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses belonging to journalists or newsrooms around the world in the years following 1999. Included among them were more than a dozen connections belonging to the BBC, often to the offices of the international World Service. The documents indicate that the German intelligence agency didn’t just tap into the phones of BBC correspondents in Afghanistan, but also targeted telephone and fax numbers at BBC headquarters in London. A phone number belonging to the New York Times in Afghanistan was also on the BND list, as were several mobile and satellite numbers belonging to the news agency Reuters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The German spies also conducted surveillance on the independent Zimbabwean newspaper Daily News before dictator Robert Mugabe banned it for seven years in 2003. Other numbers on the list belonged to news agencies from Kuwait, Lebanon and India in addition to journalist associations in Nepal and Indonesia. Journalists in Germany enjoy far-reaching protection against state meddling. They enjoy similar legal protection to lawyers, doctors and priests: occupations that require secrecy. Journalists have the right to refuse to testify in court in order to protect their sources. German law forbids the country’s domestic intelligence agency from conducting surveillance on persons who have that right.

The German chapter of Reporters without Borders says that the BND’s systematic surveillance of journalists is an “egregious attack on press freedoms” and “a new dimension of constitutional violation.” Christian Mihr, head of the German chapter of Reporters without Borders, says that press freedom “is not a right granted by the graciousness of the German government, it is an inviolable human right that also applies to foreign journalists.” The allegations come as the German parliamentary investigative committee focusing on U.S. spying in Germany is completing its inquiry. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who appeared before the committee last Thursday, was the last witness called and now the committee members are working on their closing report. But even as the committee also addressed extensive BND spying, the surveillance of journalists was only a fringe issue.

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Things are not what they seem.

Surgeons Should Not Look Like Surgeons (NN Taleb)

Say you had the choice between two surgeons of similar rank in the same department in some hospital. The first is highly refined in appearance; he wears silver-rimmed glasses, has a thin built, delicate hands, a measured speech, and elegant gestures. His hair is silver and well combed. He is the person you would put in a movie if you needed to impersonate a surgeon. His office prominently boasts an Ivy League diploma, both for his undergraduate and medical schools. The second one looks like a butcher; he is overweight, with large hands, uncouth speech and an unkempt appearance. His shirt is dangling from the back. No known tailor in the East Coast of the U.S. is capable of making his shirt button at the neck. He speaks unapologetically with a strong New Yawk accent, as if he wasn’t aware of it. He even has a gold tooth showing when he opens his mouth.

The absence of diploma on the wall hints at the lack of pride in his education: he perhaps went to some local college. In a movie, you would expect him to impersonate a retired bodyguard for a junior congressman, or a third-generation cook in a New Jersey cafeteria. Now if I had to pick, I would overcome my suckerproneness and take the butcher any minute. Even more: I would seek the butcher as a third option if my choice was between two doctors who looked like doctors. Why? Simply the one who doesn’t look the part, conditional of having made a (sort of) successful career in his profession, had to have much to overcome in terms of perception. And if we are lucky enough to have people who do not look the part, it is thanks to the presence of some skin in the game, the contact with reality that filters out incompetence, as reality is blind to looks.

When the results come from dealing directly with reality rather than through the agency of commentators, image matters less, even if it correlates to skills. But image matters quite a bit when there is hierarchy and standardized “job evaluation”. Consider the chief executive officers of corporations: they not just look the part, but they even look the same. And, worse, when you listen to them talk, they will sound the same, down to the same vocabulary and metaphors. But that’s their jobs: as I keep reminding the reader, counter to the common belief, executives are different from entrepreneurs and are supposed to look like actors.

Now there may be some correlation between looks and skills; but conditional on having had some success in spite of not looking the part is potent, even crucial, information. So it becomes no wonder that the job of chief executive of the country, that is, the president, was once filled by a former actor, Ronald Reagan. Actually, the best actor is the one nobody realizes is an actor: a closer look at the record and the activity shows that Barack Obama was even more of an actor: a fancy Ivy-League education combined with a liberal reputation is compelling as an image builder. (In fact much as President Trump has going for him is that he doesn’t act as a president).

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May 082015
 
 May 8, 2015  Posted by at 6:39 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Jack Delano Long stairway in mill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1940

We at the Automatic Earth always try to steer clear of elections as much as possible, because there are no functioning democracies left in the west -no more than there are functioning markets-, and no journalists reporting on them either. Interesting question, by the way: how can a journalist report on a democracy that isn’t there? And where in that setting does news turn to mere opinion, and where does opinion then become news ?

Still, of course we caught some bits of the UK elections along the way regardless. The decisive moment for us must have been when Jeremy Paxman interviewed David Cameron at the BBC, and asked him if he knew how many foodbanks had been added in Britain since he took office 5 years ago.

Cameron, well duh obviously, had no idea, and instead of answering the question he started a flowery discourse praising the many volunteers who work in the foodbanks he didn’t know existed. Paxman cut him short and said there were 66 when Cameron came to power, and 421 now. Apparently in Britain, volunteers are needed to take care of the needy, they’re not going to pay people to do that. You would think that takes care of Cameron’s candidacy, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

At least Paxman seemed to try, but interviews like his should take place on the eve of an election, not 6 weeks before them like this one. That leaves far too much time for spin doctors to repair damage done by their candidate’s ignorance and gullibility. It’s crazy enough that party leaders can refuse to discuss each other, let alone the public, in public. Then again, that too would only be significant if there would be an actual democracy in Britain.

As things are, they might as well have put the royal baby in charge as soon as she was born, or for that matter the newborn macaque in Japan that ‘stole’ her name (at least there was an honest public ballot for that). Or perhaps the adorable little monkey can take over polling in the UK, since we can’t imagine any British pollsters still being employed tomorrow morning, not with the degrees to which they missed any and all election outcomes today.

A whole bunch of ‘leaders’ will leave too, but there’s plenty of shades of dull grey humanoids waiting in the wings to replace them. Besides, though Nigel Farage has often been dead on in describing, in the European Parliament, the inherent failures of Brussels, at home he’s never been more than a sad lost clown. I had to think hard about LibDem Clegg’s first name, even needed to look it up -it’s Nick- , and that sort of says it all: he would do well to change his name to Bland.

And perhaps Ed Milibland should do the same. Can anyone ever really have believed that this lady’s underwear salesman could have won this election? Or did they all just fudge the numbers so they had material to print? Ed Milibland never stood a chance. And Russell Bland can now go lick his wounds from supporting the guy, and no, Russell, saying now that you’re just a comedian won’t do the trick. You’ve been tainted. If it’s any consolation, you screwed up the same way Springsteen did when he played Obama’s support act. No surrender, no excuses.

Milibland, by the way, had one last no-no to offer in stepping down. He tweeted: “I am grateful to the people who worked on our campaign and for the campaign they ran. The responsibility for the result is mine alone.” Sorry, boyo, but that just ain’t so. The responsibility lies at least as much with the people who put you in the leader’s chair that doesn’t fit you, and with those who kept you in that chair throughout the campaign.

All Brits should feel blessed that they’re not in America, where these campaigns, which are equally hollow and devoid of democratic principles, last ten times as long. If your blessings are few, do count them.

But then, we all get what we deserve. If the Brits want to be governed and gutted by the same people who raised the number of foodbanks the way they have, by a factor of seven in five years, and who fabricated the pretense of a functioning economy by blowing the biggest bubble in British history in selling off London town to monopoly money printing Chinese, Russian expat oligarchs and other such impeccable and blameless world citizens, if that’s what the Brits want, then let them have it.

One things’s for sure: Cameron and his ilk, now that they have a majority, will let them have it. And then some. In reality, though, even if they deserve what they get, there’s no vox populi here: the people have not spoken, the people have done what the press told them to do. Like in so many countries, there effectively is no press anymore in Britain, at least not in the sense that we used to knowl; the press no longer asks questions. Which begs yet another question: what is first to go, the media or the democratic values?

Peter Yukes wrote this for Politico just before the election:

The British Press Has Lost It

For months polls have put Conservatives and Labour close with about third of the vote each, and smaller parties destined to hold some balance of power. But there has been no balance in the papers. Tracked by Election Unspun, the coverage has been unremittingly hostile to Ed Miliband, the Labour challenger, with national newspapers backing the Conservative incumbent, David Cameron over Labour by a ratio of five to one.

Veteran US campaign manager David Axelrod finds this politicization of the print media one of the most salient differences with the US. “I’ve worked in aggressive media environments before,” he told POLITICO, “but not this partisan.” Axelrod may have ax to grind as he advises the Labour Party, but even a conservative commentator and long-serving lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch has been shocked. “Tomorrow’s front pages show British press at partisan worst,” Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times rued. “All pretense of separation between news and opinion gone, even in ‘qualities.’”

Excuse me, but how is ‘this politicization of the print media one of the most salient differences with the US’? Which US paper has not long been grossly politicized? It’s a shame Yukes devalues his article with such statements.

And that’s the difference. The whole newspaper industry seems to be affected by the tabloid tendentiousness trade-marked by Murdoch’s best-selling the Sun when it roared, in 1992, “It’s the Sun Wot Won It.” The Daily Mail specializes in political character assassination and the ‘Red Ed’ tag was predictable. But when the paper went on from attacking Miliband’s dead father to a hit-job on his wife’s appearance, the politics of personal destruction sank from gutter to sewer.

In this precipitous race to the bottom, perhaps the Daily Telegraph had the steepest fall. Known as a bastion of the Tory thinking, it had long been respected for separating fact from comment. During this election cycle is was caught sourcing its front pages direct from Conservative Campaign HQ, seeming to confirm the parting words of its senior political commentator, Peter Oborne, that it was intent on committing “a fraud on its readership.”

Well, at least it’s no surprise that the Telegraph does what it’s always done. Nobody expects them to be impartial.

The paper of record, The Times, fared a little better, in that there has been two vaguely positive front pages about Miliband — compared to 18 for Cameron.Meanwhile, the publication that arose in rebellion to Murdoch’s acquisition of the Times in the 80s, The Independent, shocked most its staff and readership by backing a continued Lib Dem/Tory Coalition. Reports said the endorsement was a ‘diktat’ from the wealthy Russian-born owner, Evgeny Lebedev, causing many to mock its original ad slogan “The Independent: It’s Not. Are You?” or renaming it ‘The Dependent’.

Even the sober, tight-lipped Financial Times, which once supported Blair and endorsed Obama, lost credibility. The paper said it backed another Conservative-led coalition because Ed Miliband was too “preoccupied with inequality.” But that magisterial tone was undermined when it emerged the leader writer, Jonathan Ford, was pictured in the notorious 1987 photo of Oxford’s elite hard drinking Bullingdon Club next to the Tory mayor Boris Johnson and just below David Cameron.

A bigger problem would seem to be that Milibland can’t have been far from that club; he attended much of the same educational institutions the other ‘leader elites’ did. Yukes is on to something, but he’s missing the point.

Therein lies the problem, and an indication the newspaper world is a microcosm of a wider malaise. The Conservative politician John Biffen once said “whenever you find a senior politician and a powerful media owner in private conclave, you can be certain that the aims of healthy, plural democracy are not being well-served.” This election that conclave looks like an exclusive club.

Rarely have the economic interests of the handful of wealthy men who own most the press (nine men own 90% of all national and regional titles) appeared so brutally transparent. Most of the conservatives among them don’t like Cameron’s modernizing project, or the fact he looks set to fail to get a majority for a second time. But they fear Miliband with a passion because he threatens their power in several ways.

They fear(ed) Milibland? I don’t believe that for a second. I think it’s much more likely that they’ve all intentionally exaggerated Milibland’s poll numbers to make it look like there was an actual race going on. That they were only too happy to have a guy run against theirs that everybody could see from miles away would never be a contender (maybe if his first name would have been Marlon? or Stanley?)

Plus they have the outdated and somewhat inane electoral system, in which for instance the Green Party got – roughly – one million votes and 1 seat, while the Conservatives accumulated 10 million votes and 331 seats. If you can work that system in your favor, you’re half way home. Moreover, if and when you hire the cream of the crop American spin doctors, as the Cons have certainly done, who love purchasing media, you’re way past halfway.

The system can certainly be given some sort of name, but a functioning democracy it’s not. If anything, a democracy is “A system of government in which power is vested in the people”. Makes us wonder how many clients of the 421 foodbanks and counting have voted Con. and figured they were proudly doing their democratic duty.

Mar 142015
 
 March 14, 2015  Posted by at 2:58 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


DPC Launch of freighter Howard L. Shaw, Wyandotte, Michigan 1900

I think I should accept that I will never in my life cease to be amazed at the capacity of the human being to spin a story to his/her own preferences, rather than take it simply for what it is. Your run of the mill journalist is even better at this than the average person – which may be why (s)he became a journalist in the first place -, and financial journalists are by far the best spinners among their peers. That’s what I was thinking when I saw another Bloomberg headline that appealed to my more base instincts, which I blame on the fact that it shows a blatant lack of any and all brain activity (well, other than spin, that is).

Here’s what Bloomberg’s Craig Torres and Michelle Jamrisko write: “American Mystery Story: Consumers Aren’t Spending Even In a Booming Job Market”. Yes, it is a great mystery to 95% of journalists and economists. Because they have never learned to even contemplate that perhaps people can be so deep in debt that they have nothing left to spend. Instead, their knowledge base states that if people don’t spend, they must be saving. Those are the sole two options. And so if the US government reports that 863,000 underpaid new waiters have been hired, these waiters have to go out and spend all that underpayment, they must consume. And if they don’t, that becomes The American Mystery Story.

For me, the mystery lies elsewhere. I’m wondering how it ever got to this. How did the capacity for critical thinking disappear from the field of economics? And from journalism?

American Mystery Story: Consumers Aren’t Spending Even In a Booming Job Market

It’s an American mystery story: More people have jobs and extra pocket money from lower gas prices, but they aren’t buying as much as economists expected. The government’s count of how much people shelled out at retailers fell in February for a third consecutive month. Payrolls are up 863,000 over the same period. The chart below shows retail sales and payrolls generally move in the same direction, until now. The divergence could portend lower levels of economic growth if Americans’ usually reliable penchant to spend is less than what it once was.


YoY growth in U.S. retail and food services sales (red) against year-over-year change in non-farm payrolls (blue).
Sources: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Inevitably, when faced with such a mystery, Bloomberg’s scribblers dig up a household savings graph. Et voilà, problem solved:

“The expenditures that add up to gross domestic product are coming in a lot softer than employment,” said Neil Dutta at Renaissance Macro Research. “Why would retailers be hiring if sales are falling? Why would they be boosting hours if sales are falling and why would they be paying more?” Also, take a look at the household saving rate. It’s gone up as gas prices fell:

And why are all those crazy American waiters hoarding all that cash they, as per economists, just got to have lying around somewhere? You knew it before I said it: it was cold! Crazy cold!

Ben Herzon at Macroeconomic Advisers isn’t that worried yet. As usual, the data is quirky. First, he notes, “it was crazy cold in February.” Aside from stocking up on milk in the snowstorm, staying indoors was probably a more attractive option for most shoppers.

And it gets better. How about this for a whopper?

Herzon notes that lower gas prices also depressed the count in prior months. The government is adding up dollars spent, so fewer dollars to fill a gas tank results in lower sales.

Let’s see. Gas was cheaper, so people spent less on that. And that drove down retail sales. But wasn’t it supposed to drive them up? Wasn’t that the boost the economy was predicted to get? You mean to tell me that lower gas prices actually function to drive spending down? That our newfound platoon of waiters took all that newfound money and spent it on .. nothing at all? Not to worry. March will be much better or “Our story would be wrong…” And how likely is that, right?

That even bleeds into narrower measures of retail sales because grocery stores such as Safeway, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club also sell gasoline. Herzon is counting on a March rebound. There won’t be the weather to blame anymore, and gas prices have rebounded off their lows of late January and early February. “Payroll employment has been great, and it is generating a lot of labor income that you think would be spent,” Herzon said. “March should be a rebound. Our story would be wrong if it doesn’t happen.”

Halle-bleeping-lujah. Is this creativity on the part of the writer and interviewee, or is it just a knee-jerk reaction? Don’t they understand because they don’t have the appropriate grey matter, or don’t they simply want to?

And Bloomberg takes us from mystery to surprise (I’m guessing that’s one level lower on the What? scale), The surprise is that the US has not lived up to what Bloomberg and its economists had dreamt up all by themselves.

Surprise: US Economic Data Have Been the World’s Most Disappointing

It’s not only the just-released University of Michigan consumer confidence report and February retail sales on Thursday that surprised economists and investors with another dose of underwhelming news. Overall, U.S. economic data have been falling short of prognosticators’ expectations by the most in six years. The Bloomberg ECO U.S. Surprise Index, which measures whether data beat or miss forecasts, fell to the lowest since 2009, when the nation was in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. There’s been one notable exception to the gloom, and it’s a big one: payrolls. The economy added 295,000 jobs in February and 1.3 million over four months, a reflection of a healthier labor market in which the unemployment rate has fallen to the lowest in almost seven years.

Most everything else? Blah. This month alone, personal income and spending, manufacturing as measured by the Institute for Supply Management, auto sales, factory orders, and retail sales have all come in a bit weak. Citigroup keeps economic surprise indexes for the world, and its scoreboard shows the U.S. is most disappointing relative to consensus forecasts, with Latin America and Canada next, as of March 12. Emerging markets were supposed to be hurt by falling oil prices but are now delivering positive surprises. U.S. policymakers frequently talk about weakness in Europe and China, though both are exceeding expectations.

In short, Bloomberg and its economists were once again embarrassingly off target. Though they prefer to use different terminology:

And there’s one rub. The surprise shortfall in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean the world’s largest economy is in dire straights. It’s just falling short of some perhaps overly elevated expectations.

Perhaps? What do you mean perhaps? US data are the biggest disappointment of all of your numbers. There’s no perhaps about it. Just admit you get it wrong all the time.

Maybe they are mystified because of data like the following, coming from the Fed, no less.

Fed: US Household Net Worth Hits Record $83 Trillion In Q4 2014

Household net worth rose by $1.5 trillion in the fourth quarter of last year to a record $83 trillion, the Federal Reserve said on Thursday. The gains were driven by a surging real estate market. Household real estate holdings rose to their highest level since 2007. Real estate equity levels also hit a 2007 high. Household stock holdings also rose with the broader markets.

Since those 683,000 waiters would only qualify for subprime loans, you can bet that only a few of them profited from this ‘surging real estate market’. Household net worth may have hit a record, but that has nothing to do with the lower rungs of society. Which we can prove by looking at the second part of the piece:

But at the same time, the central bank reported debt was on the rise. Total debt – including households, governments and corporations – rose 4.7% , the most since 2012.

No doubt that this additional debt can be made to show up somewhere as a positive thing. How about: look, consumers feel confident enough to take on more debt again.

Nomura’s Richard Koo elegantly lays bare the global – and American – economic conundrum in just a few words: “When no one is borrowing money, monetary policy is largely useless..”

Why We’re At Risk Of A QE Trap: Koo (CNBC)

The problem with central banks’ massive bond-buying programs is that if consumers and businesses fail to borrow money to stimulate economic growth, the policy is rendered mostly “useless,” one Nomura economist said Friday. The U.S. and U.K. embarked on asset-purchase, or QE programs, following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Japan joined the QE club in 2013 and the ECB began its €1 trillion bond-buying stimulus this week. “Both the U.S. and Europe are facing the same problem– which is that we are in a situation where the private sector in any of these economies is not borrowing money at zero interest rates or repairing balance sheets following what happened in the crisis,” Richard Koo, Chief Economist at Nomura, told CNBC on the side lines of the Ambrosetti Spring Workshop in Italy.

“When no one is borrowing money, monetary policy is largely useless,” he added. In the run-up to the launch of QE in the euro zone, loans to the private sector, which are a gauge of economic health, contracted. Data published late last month showed that the volume of loans to private firms and households fell by 0.1% on year in January, compared with a 0.5% drop in December. According to Koo, major central banks are holding reserves far in excess of levels they need because of the monetary stimulus. This has not led to a rise in private sector spending because big economies are struggling with a balance sheet recession – a situation where companies are focused on paying down debt rather than spending or investing – increasing the risk of QE trap.

“In a national economy if someone is saving money, you need someone to borrow money and this is the part that is missing. They [central banks] are pumping money but no one is borrowing, so you get negative interest rates and all sorts of distortions,” Koo said. He added that instead of looking to raise interest rates, the U.S. Federal Reserve should first focus on reducing its balance sheet which stands at over $4 trillion. The Fed, which meets next week, is widely expected to raise rates this year against a backdrop of improving economic data. “They [Fed policy makers] should not rush into a rate rise; they should reduce the balance sheet when people are not worried about inflation,” Koo said.

That’s all you need to know, really. Americans don’t spend, and they don’t borrow. That makes all QE measures useless for the larger economy, and a huge windfall for the upper echelons of society.

You could also say QE is a criminal racket, but I’m pretty sure journalists, economists, central bankers and politicians alike will only admit to stupidity, not to being accomplices in such a racket. Or perhaps not even stupidity; they’ll just claim nobody could have foreseen this, like they always do when they run into room size elephants.

Still, you have to love a piece like the following by Thad Beversdorf:

The Fed Gives A Giant F##k You to Working Class Americans

I was shocked today by the absolute gaul of the Fed releasing a statement about Net Worth in America reaching record levels. Now I get that they are under extreme pressure to sell the story that everything is rainbows and butterflies. But surely they understand that working class Americans are going along with the story because they really don’t have any say in our nation’s policies anymore. That doesn’t mean they want it thrown in their faces that the Fed has spent 6 years now inflating the wealth of the top 10% so much that it actually lifts the total wealth of the nation’s citizens to record highs. The ugly reality is that the bottom 80% of Americans experienced none of that gain. That’s right: a big ole goose egg.

And so when the Fed via its ass pamper boy, Steve Liesman, start banging on about the fact that some sliver of society is being handed extraordinary wealth while the working class has lost 40% of their net worth since 2007, well a big fuck you right back at ya bub! The Fed is very aware that the bottom 80% of Americans own less than 5% of US equity markets. And so the Fed is very aware that its manipulation of stock prices such that it creates immense unearned wealth to those in the markets doesn’t reach the bottom 80%. So why celebrate the results of the stock market price manipulation?? It is embarrassing that our policymakers are either that inconsiderate or that stupid to celebrate such a brutal dislocation between the haves and have nots.

I don’t know what one can even say about the Fed making a celebratory statement like that today. It is somewhat beyond words. And really paints the picture as to how little thought goes into the lives and well being of the bottom 80%. Just to give you something to compare and contrast the situation of the bottom 80% here in the US to counter the Fed’s celebration today. I want you to think about how lucky we are not being in one of the PIIGS nations of Europe. These are the nations that are essentially bankrupt and just hanging on by the kindness of the Troika.

So there it is. While the average net worth of Americans is 4th in the world pulled up by the top 10%, the median net worth of Americans comes in the 19th spot. Yep, behind Spain, Italy and Ireland so 3 of the 5 PIIGS nations. Meaning the bottom 80% in these broke ass barely hanging on nations have more wealth than the bottom 80% of us here in America. So I’d like to ask the Fed, is it that you just hate the working class here in America and thus like to torment them or are you truly that stuck up your own asses that you just cannot see the light?

Rest assured, Thad, the Fed has seen the light. And they don’t actually hate working class America, they just don’t give a flying f#ck about them.

Imagine the founding fathers looking down on all of this. Hell imagine those who fought on the beaches of Normandy looking down at what America has become. Knowing that they sacrificed everything just to hand the nation over to a group of foreign sociopaths. Imagine those men having to see that Americans no longer have any sense of dignity other than to yell loudly that “we are still great”[..]. How incredibly disheartening it would be for those WWII soldiers to see us now.

Plenty of those guys are still alive. So we could ask them. But the gist is clear, and all those who died on those beaches can no longer speak for themselves, so we need to do it for them. Is this the world they died for? Is this the freedom they gave their lives for, the freedom to turn America into a nation of debt slaves?

There is no mystery anywhere to be found in the fact that US retail sales don’t follow the jobs trend. Not if you look at what kind of jobs they are, let alone at all the other made up and manipulated numbers that are being thrown around about the US economy.

The only mystery is why everyone persists in talking about a recovery. That recovery will never come, simply because all 90% of Americans do is pay for the other 10% to get richer. There are many other factors, but that all by itself makes a recovery a mathematical mirage.

Jun 232014
 
 June 23, 2014  Posted by at 1:12 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  


Russell Lee Young flood refugee in schoolhouse, Sikeston, Missouri January 1937

Can you see what’s wrong with this picture? Over the weekend, the US released $572 million in ‘military aid’ to Egypt, at the same time that an Egyptian court confirmed the death sentences for 183 Muslim Brotherhood members/supporters, a Canadian and an Australian journalist were sentenced to 7-10 years maximum security prison for a conspiracy “to tarnish Egypt’s reputation and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood”, while 15 others, including two British and one Dutch journalists, got 10 years each in absentia on similar charges.

And “we” are handing them tanks and Apache helicopters? At the very moment journalists from fellow NATO member countries are being thrown in jail on opaque and convoluted charges? Excuse me? Ever heard of timing everything?

John Kerry Voices Strong Support for Egyptian President Sisi

Secretary of State John Kerry voiced strong U.S. support for Egypt’s new president and signaled that Washington will continue the flow of military aid in an American welcome of the post-coup government. Mr. Kerry is the most senior Obama administration official to meet Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the former commander of the Egyptian armed forces, since his inauguration as president earlier this month. The American diplomat stressed that Washington was eager to kick-start its strategic relationship with Cairo anew. Mr. Kerry said that the U.S. had recently released $575 million in assistance for Egypt’s military and that he was confident 10 Apache helicopters would be delivered to Egypt soon. [..]

Note that Morsy (or Morsi, Mursi), about whom I have no opinion to express, was an elected president. “We” don’t seem to like those much lately, do we? Here’s some factoids, starting with the Wall Street Journal:

Egypt Court Upholds 183 Death Sentences

An Egyptian court upheld the death sentences against Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 182 of the group’s supporters Saturday. They were among hundreds of people found guilty in April of taking part in a deadly attack on a police station last year. The incident occurred after sit-ins supporting deposed President Mohamed Morsy at squares in Cairo were broken up. “Of 683 defendants in the case, 183 were sentenced to death, four were sentenced to life imprisonment and 496 defendants were acquitted,” at Minya Criminal Court, state-run Ahram Online reported.

183 death sentences shirks eerily close to organized genocide. And I know the US is the only “civilized” nation that still has enthusiasm for executing its citizens, but 183 is a crazy number that reeks of political games far more than criminal activity. But of course we could claim that’s an internal Egyptian affair to decide. A claim we can’t make when it comes to our own journalists. Or are Australia, Canada, Britain and Holland perhaps not “our own” enough? Would Obama have refused the mass arms shipments to today’s flavor in power in Egypt if American journalists were involved?

Egypt Court Jails Al Jazeera Journalists For 7-10 Years

An Egyptian judge sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists on Monday to seven years in jail after finding them guilty on charges including helping a “terrorist organisation” by publishing lies. The three include Australian Peter Greste, Al Jazeera’s Kenya-based correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, bureau chief of Al Jazeera English. A third defendant, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, received an additional three-year jail sentence on a separate charge involving possession of weapons. Another 11 defendants were sentenced in absentia to 10 years.

Canada’s Globe and Mail published this on the trial recently, before the sentences were delivered:

Footage Of Sheep, Australian Rock Song Part Of Prosecution’s Case Against Egyptian-Canadian Journalist

“They hand-picked only one side of the story,” Mr. Fahmy’s brother, Adel Fahmy, said in a telephone interview from Cairo after the Thursday hearing ended. The clips that were displayed to the judge, he said, were selected to include interviews with people who support the Muslim Brotherhood and footage of protests against former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the front-runner in next week’s presidential election. But prosecutors left out interviews that the Al Jazeera team had conducted with people who are supportive of the existing regime, said Adel Fahmy.

Much of the evidence presented was “ridiculous,” said Adel Fahmy. It included, without explanation, a grainy recording of the hit song Somebody That I Used to Know by the Australian musician Gotye, as well as audioclips of people telling jokes, videos of sheep, footage from other correspondents, and a documentary about football in Egypt that Mr. Greste told the judge demonstrates the journalists’ willingness to portray the country as being stable under the current military rulers. [..] U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders demanded the release of the journalists.

And it’s not as if the White House didn’t know. From the WSJ article quoted above:

On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced to death more than 180 members of the Brotherhood for allegedly attacking a police headquarters in southern Egypt and killing an officer and a civilian. The Egyptian government is also trying three journalists from the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network and 17 co-defendants for allegedly conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the Egyptian state. A verdict in the case is expected on Monday.

Mr. Kerry said that he raised these issues with Mr. Sisi during a nearly two-hour session in the presidential palace in Cairo. The U.S. diplomat stressed that Mr. Sisi needed more time to address U.S. and international concerns about these cases. “He gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to make certain that the process he has put in place, a re-evaluation of human-rights legislation, a re-evaluation of the judicial process, and other choices that are available are very much on his mind,” Mr. Kerry said.

That last paragraph is a great depiction of what “we” have become. The US doesn’t stand for anything anymore, including the protection of its own people (and I do count journalists from NATO countries as our own people). But it’s not just the US. This is from an AP piece after the journalists’ verdicts:

Western governments and rights groups have voiced concern over freedom of expression in Egypt since Mursi’s ouster and the crackdown has raised questions about Egypt’s democratic credentials three years after an uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power and raised hopes of greater freedoms. “This is a deeply disappointing result. The Egyptian people have expressed over the past three years their wish for Egypt to be a democracy. Without freedom of the press there is no foundation for democracy” Britain’s ambassador to Egypt, James Watt, told Reuters after the verdict. Australia’s ambassador Ralph King also said his prime minister would make his disappointment clear after entreaties made by his government in recent days appeared to make little difference.

Instead of Britain and Australia expressing outrage over both the sentences AND Obama’s decision to hand $570 million worth of weapons to the regime that delivers the sentences, both say they’re “disappointed”. Woe be the Brits or Aussies who find themselves on the wrong side of a line their government arbitrarily draw at any given point in time that’s entirely at their discretion. You’re on your own, guys.

And I know that violent movements are once again rising in Iraq and elsewhere, and I’ve seen Obama and Kerry and Bush and Cheney and Blair’s inane claims that they never had nothing to do with none of the unrest. But even then, refusing to stand up for your own people crosses a line that frankly disgusts me.

How hard would it have been for Kerry to tell, what’s his face, Sisi, that he can can have his guns and helicopters, and support “our” cause, but only after he releases at least all westerners involved in that grotesque Al Jazeera court case? Not hard at all. So what’s going on? Does the White House maybe hate Al Jazeera as much as Egypt does? Or is this about all journalists in general who don’t toe the party line? And of course there’ll be voices who say that it’s all difficult, and diplomacy is hard etc., but it’s really not. All Obama needs to do is say give me my people back or I’ll take those $572 million worth of guns and point them at you.

We know that the truth vanished from Washington long ago. Now we find that the last scrap of morality did too.

Oh, and the world of finance today? Stocks are held up by behemoth buybacks in the US and Japan, while the latter also moves record amounts of pension funds into the stock market. The most striking line today came in a Bloomberg article on Yellen controlling bond markets, and said: “Bond Vigilantes Have All Been Quieted”. They won’t be quiet forever, promise, unless they keep being fed free money forever. Fed by the Fed.

US Stock Buybacks Near 2007 Peaks (TPit)

Buybacks peaked precisely at the top of the market in Q3 2007 then plunged over 80%. By Q2 2009, when stocks were cheapest, buybacks had nearly stopped. It seems like a clockwork of bad timing: buybacks soar when stocks go into bubble mode and collapse when stocks get cheap. But the relationship works the other way around. The purpose of buybacks is to use shareholder equity to manipulate up the stock price. It works in three ways: one, through the sheer buying pressure – especially easy during these times of super-low trading volume; two, through this form of financial engineering that boosts earnings per share by lowering the share count, though it does nothing for actual earnings; and three, through the hype surrounding the buyback announcements and even the whispers of them.

And it works even when, as for example in IBM’s case, revenues and actual earnings are crummy for two years in a row, and when the stock should be roasting in purgatory. At every earnings announcement, the stock plunges, but then over the next three months, mirabile dictu, the share price rises again, fired up by buybacks. The Wall Street hype machine uses them as bait. Investors swallow them hook, line, and sinker. But that’s all buybacks do. What they don’t do is generate future revenues and earnings, unlike R&D or capex or any of the other productive activities companies undertake. In this way, the moolah blown on buybacks simply disappears as a driving force from the economy – an issue that has been dogging the US for two decades, as the range-bound chart above shows.

Read more …

Record Japan Buybacks Salvaging Stocks (Bloomberg)

Japanese businesses left behind this year as global equities rallied to a record found a winning strategy in buying back shares the rest of the world preferred to avoid. Companies in the Topix index are acquiring their own stock at the fastest pace ever, led by NTT Docomo and Toyota., with $25 billion of announced purchases so far this year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The buybacks are limiting losses in the world’s worst-performing developed equity market: Companies using the strategy have gained even as the Topix slid. The combination of record cash, cheap shares and a government-led drive to buoy return on equity is making buybacks irresistible to Japanese executives at a time when the MSCI All-Country World Index is trading at unprecedented highs.

Mitsubishi Corp. rose 6.2% this year through last week, compared with the Topix’s 2.6% drop. Japan’s biggest trading company said on May 8 it would buy back as much as 60 billion yen ($589 million) of shares, the most in seven years. “It’s a pretty big sea change,” said Kieran Calder, head of equities for Asia at Coutts & Co., which manages about 28.5 billion pounds ($48.6 billion). “Corporate mindsets are definitely changing,” he said. “It makes Japan more of a normal market.” The Topix dropped as much as 13% this year amid growing doubt Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make good on promises for reforms from loosening labor laws to reducing government support for farmers. The index is down this year after a world-beating 51% jump in 2013.

Foreign investors, which account for about 60% of market turnover, reduced holdings of Japanese shares in all but one month this year just as buybacks surged. Companies that announced purchases worth more than $100 million this year climbed an average 4.1% in 2014 through June 20. “Share buybacks have the effect of supporting the market when it’s weak,” Daiwa Securities Group Inc. quantitative analyst Masahiro Suzuki wrote in a report on June 10. “Return to shareholders is a big theme.”

Read more …

Bond. James Bond.

Sovereign Debt The ‘Ultimate Bubble’ (CNBC)

A bubble currently brewing in sovereign debt will likely burst in the next couple of years, U.S. billionaire Wilbur Ross warned on Monday. “I’ve felt for some time that the ultimate bubble, when we look back a few years from now, is going to be sovereign debt, both U.S. and other, because it’s way below any sort of reversion to the mean of interest rates,” the distressed debt investor told CNBC. “If you look at where the U.S. 10-year had averaged over the 10 preceding years, it’s around 4 percent. If it reverts back to that level at some point there will be terrible losses in the long-term Treasury market and those will probably be accentuated in other areas of fixed income.”

Ross argued that slowing issuance of assets like mortgage-backed securities and long-term Treasurys post-credit crisis, had helped to insulate the market from the full impact of the Federal Reserve’s gradual slowdown of quantitative easing – a process known as tapering. Investors have to “build in refinancing risk” when buying assets at the moment, he said The amount of cheap money in the market, as a result of quantitative easing by both the Fed and its European counterpart the European Central Bank (ECB), has been credited with the resurgence in investment in assets like peripheral euro zone bonds.

Read more …

“All on red” doesn’t even begin to cover this wager.

Pension Money Already Flowing In To Prop Up Japan’s Stocks (Zero Hedge)

With almost metronomic regularity, Japan will gush forth a headline proclaiming the ever-closer time when all the nation’s retirees savings will be greatly rotated to the stock market and away from the nation’s largest bond market in the world. This week was no exception; however, as Nikkei Asian Review reports, it appears the “all-talk” has turned to action…The Government Pension Investment Fund and other public pensions sold about 1.8 trillion yen ($17.4 billion) more in Japanese government bonds than they bought in the first three months of the year, fueling speculation that the GPIF may be rebalancing its portfolio sooner than expected. It seems rotating away from government bonds (which the GPIF has been worried about since 2011) into junk bonds and junk stocks is a far better use of ‘wealth’ – we can only imagine the GPIF risk models just got switch to ’11’. As we explained last year, Japan’s Plan B is not only not a panacea, but it is a House of Bonds Cards that would not survive an even modest gust of wind, and an even more modest contemplation into its true internal dynamics. We would urge Messrs Abe and Kuroda to come up with a fall back plan to the fall back plan before it, once again, becomes too late.

Read more …

Bond Vigilantes Have All Been Quieted (Bloomberg)

As the Federal Reserve works to extricate itself from the bond market, its influence over debt investors is only increasing and boosting the chance of a soft landing for Treasuries. While the Fed scales back the unprecedented stimulus that has inundated the world’s largest economy with more than $3 trillion of cheap cash, the differences between short- and long-term yields of U.S. government bonds indicate that investors are confident Fed Chair Janet Yellen can keep inflation in check as growth rebounds without having to ratchet up interest rates. The relative calm clashes with forecasters who say investors have grown too complacent over the direction of central bank policy with consumer prices climbing the most in more than a year and signs of labor-market strength.

Bond bulls are instead focusing on the Fed’s reduced estimate for how high rates ultimately need to rise and echoing the view of PIMCO’s Chief Economist Paul McCulley, who said this month the taming of inflation starting in the 1980s means there’s little risk in keeping borrowing costs low. “The market is giving the Fed the benefit of the doubt that Yellen and crew have everything under control,” Robert Tipp, the chief investment strategist at Prudential Financial Inc.’s fixed-income unit, which oversees about $335 billion, said in a June 19 telephone interview. “Inflation is not overheating even with job growth stable and the economy continuing to accelerate.” In the past 13 months, the gap between yields of two- and five-year Treasuries has doubled to 1.22 percentage points, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. At the same time, the difference between those of five- and 30-year securities has narrowed to the least since 2009 as the long bond rallied.

Because yields on longer-dated debt usually rise more than shorter-term notes when investors see faster inflation spurring rate increases, the moves suggest a more sanguine outlook, according to Priya Misra, the New York-based head of U.S. rates strategy at Bank of America, one of 22 primary dealers obligated to bid at U.S. debt auctions. Taken together, the relationship now implies that while investors anticipate the Fed will eventually lift its benchmark rate after holding it close to zero for six years, they don’t foresee the central bank’s stimulus measures creating the kind of inflationary pressures that would force its hand, she said. “The bond vigilantes have all been quieted,” Misra said by telephone on June 19. “The idea that just the act of printing money gets you inflation has been debunked.”

Read more …

Story for your grand kids: there once was a time when people borrowed all they wanted.

Automakers Crowding Banks Out Of US Car Loan Market (Reuters)

U.S. banks looking to get in on a booming market for financing new-car sales have run into a formidable competitor: the auto manufacturers themselves. Financing arms of car companies, including Toyota, Honda, and Ford, made half of all new U.S. car loans in the first quarter, up from 37% a year earlier and the largest%age of the market in four years, according to credit data firm Experian. These companies also write the vast majority of leases, which contributed a record 26% of new car sales in the quarter, up from 23% last year and 20% in 2012. The financing arms are providing subsidies from the manufacturers, lowering monthly payments and extending loan terms to make it easier for buyers to drive away in a shiny, new vehicle. As a result, major banks are increasingly moving into riskier parts of the market to make loans.

US Bancorp, for example, for the first time ever decided to start financing used cars, an area of the market that the automakers’ finance companies have little interest in. It also started offering loans to less creditworthy borrowers. And Wells Fargo has been leveraging off a nationwide deal with General Motors to provide loans subsidized by the No. 1 U.S. automaker. Wells sees this as a way to gain more of the used car loan business at GM dealerships. The aggressive push by car companies is beginning to raise questions among industry analysts and consultants about whether it is sustainable. If interest rates rise, the automakers could find the incentives too costly unless they are prepared to take a hit to profits—with any pullback in the deals being offered customers running the risk of hurting demand. And, if used car prices weaken, the financing units could be hit with losses on vehicles coming back from leases and repossessions.

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And now Asia borrows too. Hey, their savings are gone, remember?

Are Asian Households Over Their Head In Debt? (CNBC)

Household debt in Asia is growing quickly, spurring concerns that consumers may struggle to pay their bills as interest rates show signs of heading higher. “In the last several years, consumer debt has surged across the region, financing not only purchases of new, flashy condos, but also of cars, motorcycles, and everything else the heart desires,” Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC, said in a note Friday. Singapore and Thailand have seen credit growth exceeding that of the U.S. during its boom, while Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Korea have seen a bigger increase than in the U.K. during the 2001-2007 runup to the financial crisis, he said, noting academic studies suggest the pace of increase matters more in generating financial risks than the absolute level.

In what may be a sign that Singapore’s credit surge is weighing on consumers, pawnshops are on the rise in the city-state. Pledges at Singapore’s pawnshops rose to 4 million in 2012 from 2.7 million in 2007, while loans surged around 344% over the same period to 7.1 billion Singapore dollars in 2012, according to a report last month from OSK-DMG. “The trend is likely to continue due to a few factors such as the availability of cheap credit fuelled by easy monetary policies from central bankers in advanced economies since the global financial crisis,” analysts Jarick Seet and Terence Wong said in the report, starting coverage of the pawnbroker sector at Overweight. While the 2010 opening of the city-state’s casinos is likely a key driver for pawnshops’ growth, Seet and Wong also believe that the government’s clampdown on unsecured lending and credit cards means more borrowers are facing difficulties with debt payments and are turning to their local pawnbrokers.

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Chinese Switch From Cash To Credit To Buy Cars (CNBC)

In a country where owning a car has long been a symbol of luxury and success, around 85% of Chinese car buyers still buy cars with cash. But people like Chinese accountant Grace Mi and her peers in their 20s and 30s are changing the car financing game and are the ones catching the attention of global carmakers looking to boost revenue and defend margins in an increasingly competitive market. These young people are willing to buy big-ticket items like a car on credit – a behavior unheard of some 15 years ago in China – and have led carmakers to boost their financing units in the mainland. The push by automakers to steer more people to buy on credit comes as part of their broader efforts to make up for sliding margins on new-car sales in China where more companies are cutting prices to entice buyers.[..]

Around 70% of car buyers in the United States and other developed countries take out loans, according to a Deloitte report in 2012 and the reason global carmakers are trying to seize on the rise in auto financing in China is because the sector is highly profitable. The financing unit of Ford Motor contributed nearly a quarter of the Deerborn, Michigan-based company’s overall profit last year while rival GM saw 12% of its profit come from its finance unit. “China’s car market remains primarily a cash market, but it is starting to move to credit,” John Lawler, head of Ford’s operations in China, told Reuters in an interview. “It’s a demographic and generational phenomenon. Those people who finance cars are primarily younger buyers.”

China’s central bank gave the sector a boost in early June when it cut the amount of money auto financing firms need to set aside as reserves in a bid to stimulate the economy which is showing signs of slowing. Global carmakers have been funding their financial units’ expansion by selling off their loans in the form of asset-backed securities to beef up their operations in China. That frees up money they can use to lend to Chinese consumers. So far this year, the financing units of Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, Nissan and Toyota have each issued around 800 million yuan ($128.85 million) of asset-backed securities.

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Good counterweight to the happy happy China numbers coming out today.

China Beige Book, Manufacturing PMI Paint Opposing Pictures Of Economy (ZH)

S&P 500 futures are jumping exuberantly as Japan and China PMIs print above expectations and back in expansion territory (Japan best in 3 months, China best in 7 months). This is China’s best 2-month PMI rise since Oct 2010 (which makes perfect sense amid the collapsing housing market and CCFD ponzi probe) – which provides the perfect propaganda meme that targeted RRR cuts workl. However, while stocks don;t care to scratch the surface, there are 2 glaring similarities that could become a problem. Both China and Japan saw employment drop (Japan’s first in 11 months) and furthermore both China and Japan saw input prices rise and output prices decline – not exactly the margin expansion dream everyone is hoping for… and all this as China’s Beige Book shows the slowdown deepening on weak investment.

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“The banks still haven’t looked under the hood.” Wow! They’ve been looking for weeks now, and they still haven’t found their stuff? That’s scary. Every bank involved has had their guys in Qingdao for a month. They can’t find a thing?

Qingdao Fraud Probe Leaves China’s Warehouse Sector Under Scrutiny (Reuters)

Shaken by a fraud investigation into metal financing in the world’s seventh-busiest port, banks and trading houses have been made painfully aware of the risks they face storing commodities in China’s sprawling warehouse sector. The probe at Qingdao port centers around a private metals trading firm suspected of duplicating warehouse certificates in order to use a metal cargo multiple times to raise financing. Some banks have asked clients to shift metal, used as collateral for loans, to more regulated London Metal Exchange (LME) warehouses outside China or those owned and operated by a single warehouse firm to limit their exposure. “The banks still haven’t looked under the hood,” said an executive at a bank involved in commodity financing in China, referring to China’s warehousing sector.

At the heart of the issue is China’s roaring commodity financing business, which has helped drive up stockpiles of commodities at ports to record levels, stored in warehouses not always regulated to the same extent as elsewhere. Though many global firms are involved in the warehouse industry in China, there has been outsourcing to local firms to cut overheads and avoid dealing with complex local regulations. Using commodities as collateral in financing in China is common practice and not illegal, but issuing receipts to repeatedly mortgage an asset is fraud and could leave more than one creditor holding claims to the same collateral. Illustrating how difficult it may be to unravel competing claims, China’s CITIC Resources said that a court had been unable to secure more than 100,000 tonnes of alumina stored at Qingdao port. Traders said there was a risk the metal could have been already claimed before part of Qingdao Port was sealed off, adding that at least two trading houses had moved metal out as soon as news of the scandal broke.

In Qingdao, sources with knowledge of the probe said authorities were looking at whether the firm under focus, Decheng Mining, had secured multiple warehouse receipts because an affiliate managed logistics at the port’s Dagang bonded zone. “Warehouse receipts are not title documents, they are documents of entitlement. But they are being used as title documents for sales and purchase and transfer of ownership,” said a person at a warehouse company with operations in Qingdao. “Everywhere else outside of China, a warehouse receipt is cut for one party.” [..]A warehouse operator and a banker said agreements with clients meant there could be limited liability for a cargo, capping a payment at around $100,000, depending on specific terms and conditions. For example, a shipment of 10,000 tonnes of copper would be worth about $68 million at current prices.

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Hussman, always good for a solid perpective.

This Time is Different, Yet with the Same Ending (Hussman)

There is one critical feature of the market advance of recent years that differs from prior bull market advances, and while it’s related to quantitative easing, the distinction is not quite as simple as that. In the market advances that culminated in the 1929, 1972, 1987, 2000 and 2007 pre-crash peaks, a combined syndrome of overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions emerged in each instance. These syndromes can be defined in numerous and largely overlapping ways, but in general, once these syndromes appeared, steep market losses typically followed in fairly short order. In instances where they didn’t, the syndrome was usually a one-off outlier driven by a short spike in bullishness. Still, in no case did one observe repeated, increasingly severe overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndromes persisting entirely uncorrected and without consequence.

The fact that there have been no historical exceptions to this pattern prior to the recent half-cycle has posed quite a challenge for us in recent years. It forced us to adapt by imposing restrictions (based on factors such as market action across a range of risk-sensitive instruments) to mute our defensiveness even in conditions where historically-informed measures of prospective market return/risk are blazing red. We don’t get to re-live the recent cycle in a way that shows the effectiveness of any of that, but I expect it to be evident enough over the completion of the present cycle and the ones that follow, even in the event quantitative easing becomes a more frequent policy (though the unwinding challenges appear likely to make the whole episode regrettable).

The Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing has produced a historically prolonged period of speculative yield-seeking by investors starved for safe return. The problem with simply concluding that quantitative easing can do this forever is that even speculative assets have to compete with zero. When a safe zero return is above the medium or long-term return that one can estimate for a very risky asset, the rationale for continuing to hold the risky asset becomes purely dependent on expectations of immediate short-term price gains. If speculative momentum starts to break, participants often try to get out the door simultaneously – especially if there is some material event that increases general aversion to risk. That’s the dynamic that produces market crashes.

I’m not saying a market crash is imminent, but it is a risk because very reliable valuation methods (that have remained reliable even in the recurring bubbles since the late-1990’s) presently estimate negative prospective nominal total returns for the S&P 500 on every horizon of 7 years or less, and an annual total return of about 1.9% over the coming decade.

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France is the new Greece.

French Manufacturing, Services Reveal Risk for Europe’s Recovery (Bloomberg)

French manufacturing and services contracted for a second month in June, highlighting the euro area’s struggle to sustain its economic recovery. A Purchasing Managers Index for both industries in the region’s second-largest economy decreased to 48.0 from 49.3 in May, Markit Economics said today in London. Economists had forecast an unchanged reading, according to a Bloomberg News survey. A reading of 50 or higher signals expansion. The French economy has fared worse than that of the euro area for the past three quarters and added to concern of policy makers at the European Central Bank, who unveiled unprecedented stimulus earlier this month to rekindle growth and boost prices in the 18-nation region.

The International Monetary Fund gave a bleak assessment of the euro economy last week, noting that output is still below pre-crisis levels, unemployment “unacceptably high” and inflation “worryingly low.” “There remained little sign of any turnaround in the performance of France’s economy at the end of the second quarter,” said Paul Smith, senior economist at Markit. “On these trends, the economic underperformance of France seems set to persist well into” the second half of the year, he said.

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The Chinese buy up America with freshly printed Monopoly money. What’s not to like about that?

Ni Hao, Y’all: US Hinterlands Woo Chinese Firms (AP)

Burdened with Alabama’s highest unemployment rate, long abandoned by textile mills and furniture plants, Wilcox County desperately needs jobs. They’re coming, and from a most unlikely place: Henan Province, China, 7,600 miles away. Henan’s Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group opened a plant here last month. It will employ more than 300 in a county known less for job opportunities than for lakes filled with bass, pine forests rich with wild turkey and boar and muddy roads best negotiated in four-wheel-drive trucks. “Jobs that pay $15 an hour are few and far between,” says Dottie Gaston, an official in nearby Thomasville.

What’s happening in Pine Hill is starting to happen across America. After decades of siphoning jobs from the United States, China is creating some. Chinese companies invested a record $14 billion in the United States last year, according to the Rhodium Group research firm. Collectively, they employ more than 70,000 Americans, up from virtually none a decade ago. Powerful forces — narrowing wage gaps, tumbling U.S. energy prices, the vagaries of currency markets — are pulling Chinese companies across the Pacific. Mayors and economic development officials have lined up to welcome Chinese investors. Southern states, touting low labor and land costs, have been especially aggressive. In the case of the Pine Hill plant, tax breaks, some Southern hospitality and a tray of homemade banana pudding helped, too. “Get off the plane and the mayor is waiting for you,” says Hong Kong billionaire Ronnie Chan.

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The US Healthcare System: Most Expensive Yet Worst In The Developed World (ZH)

One month ago we showed that when it comes to the cost of basic (and not so basic) health insurance, the US is by far the most expensive country in the world and certainly among its “wealthy-nation”peers (in a world in which indebtedness is somehow equivalent to wealth), which in the context of the irreversible socialization of American healthcare, was in line with expectations. It would be logical then to think that as a result of this premium – the biggest in the world – the quality of the healthcare offered in the US among the best, if not the best, in the world. Unfortunately, that would be wrong and, in fact, the reality is the complete opposite: as a recent study by the Commonweath Fund, looking at how the US healthcare system compares internationally, finds, “the U.S. fails to achieve better health outcomes than the other countries, and as shown in the earlier editions, the U.S. is last or near last on dimensions of access, efficiency, and equity.” In other words: most expensive, yet worst in the developed world.

From the report: “The United States health care system is the most expensive in the world, but this report and prior editions consistently show the U.S. underperforms relative to other countries on most dimensions of performance. Among the 11 nations studied in this report—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the U.S. ranks last, as it did in the 2010, 2007, 2006, and 2004 editions of Mirror, Mirror. Most troubling, the U.S. fails to achieve better health outcomes than the other countries, and as shown in the earlier editions, the U.S. is last or near last on dimensions of access, efficiency, and equity. In this edition of Mirror, Mirror, the United Kingdom ranks first, followed closely by Switzerland.”

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Anyone surprised?

Poverty Hits Twice As Many British Households As 30 Years Ago (Guardian)

The number of British households falling below minimum living standards has more than doubled in the past 30 years, despite the size of the economy increasing twofold, a study on poverty and deprivation in the UK claims . According to the study, 33% of households endure below-par living standards – defined as going without three or more “basic necessities of life”, such as being able to adequately feed and clothe themselves and their children, and to heat and insure their homes. In the early 1980s, the comparable figure was 14%.

The research, billed as the most detailed study ever of poverty in the UK, claims that almost 18 million Britons live in inadequate housing conditions and that 12 million are too poor to take part in all the basic social activities – such as entertaining friends or attending all the family occasions they would wish to. It suggests that one in three people cannot afford to heat their homes properly, while 4 million adults and children are not able to eat healthily. Having someone in the household in work does not prevent British families from facing tough living conditions, according to the research, undertaken by the Poverty and Social Exclusion project (PSE). It found that many households that were struggling had at least one adult in work. Experts who produced the research, which will be discussed at a conference in London on Thursday, are calling on the government to take action to counter the problems they have pinpointed.

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Scary as all hell.

Out Of Control Ebola Outbreak Just ‘Tip Of The Iceberg’ (NBC)

An “out of control” outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that’s being called the deadliest ever is far from over and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, experts predict. And health workers who have been fighting the outbreak, which spans three countries and has killed more than 300 people, say they are certain many cases are going unreported as they see gruesome infections, dangerous myths and people fleeing the virus, potentially spreading it further. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Robert Garry, a microbiology professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine who’s been leading relief and investigation efforts in Sierra Leone for the Viral Hemorraghic Fever Consortium. Dr. Mwayabo Kazadi, from the health unit for Catholic Relief Services, agreed that many cases could go uncounted and undiagnosed in the region, where Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia come together. “When you don’t have a proper health system in place, it is pretty difficult,” Kazadi said.

Garry says team members arrived in at least one village to find it deserted, and the body of an Ebola victim left unattended in a house. It’s not hard to imagine what happened, but it makes it impossible to track down people who might have been infected and get them to hospitals for what care can be provided, and to prevent them from infecting others. A Doctors Without Borders official said Friday that the outbreak was out of control. And the numbers make it clear this is the biggest outbreak yet of Ebola since the virus was first identified in 1976. The virus, which causes a particularly nasty form of hemorrhagic fever, has killed 337 people out of 528 infected. “This is the biggest outbreak we have ever actually seen of Ebola,” Kazadi said. “It’s the biggest both in numbers and in terms of geography,” Garry agreed.

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