Eugene Delacroix Greece expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi 1826
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, famous for his imbibition capacity and uttering -not necessarily in that order- the legendary words “when it becomes serious, you have to lie”, presented his State of the Union today. Which is of pretty much limited interest because, as Yanis Varoufakis’ book ‘Adults in the Room’ once again confirmed, Juncker is nothing but ventriloquist Angela Merkel’s sock puppet.
But of course he had lofty words galore, about how great Europe is doing, and how that provides a window for more Europe, in multiple dimensions. Juncker envisions a European Minister of Finance (Dutch PM Rutte immediately scorned the idea), and he wants to enlarge the EU by inviting more countries in, like Albania, Montenegro and Serbia (but not Turkey!).
Juncker had negative things to say about Britain and Brexit, about Poland, Prague and Hungary who don’t want to obey the decree about letting in migrants and refugees, and obviously about Donald Trump: Brussels apparently wants ‘to make our planet great again’.
What the likes of Jean-Claude don’t seem to be willing to contemplate, let alone understand or acknowledge, is that the EU is a union of sovereign countries. The meaning of ‘sovereignty’ fully escapes much of the pro-EU crowd. And if they keep that up, it will break the union into pieces.
The European Court of Justice has ruled that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary must accept their migrant ‘quota’, as decided in Brussels, and that, too, constitutes an infringement on these countries’ sovereignty. And don’t forget, sovereignty is not something that can be divided into separate parts, some of which can be upheld while others are discarded. A country is either sovereign or it is not.
The single euro currency is already shirking awfully close to violating sovereignty, if not passing over an invisible line, and a European Finance Minister would certainly constitute such a violation. At some point, the politicians in all these countries will have to tell their voters that they’re about to surrender -more of- their sovereignty and become citizens of Merkel Land. But they don’t want to do that, because as soon as people would realize this, the pitchforks would come out and the union would be history.
The EU will be able to muddle on for a while longer, but Europe is not at all doing great economically (however, to maintain the illusion ECB head Draghi buys €60 billion a month in ‘assets’), and when the next crisis comes people will demand their sovereignty back. It really is that simple. And what will the negotiations look like to make that happen? 27 times Brexit?
The real Europe is not the one Juncker paints a portrait of. The real Europe is Greece. That’s where you can see the economic reality as well as the political one. Greece has no sovereignty left to speak of, despite the fact that it is guaranteed it in EU law. Europe’s political reality is about raw power. About the rich waterboarding the poor, to the point that they are turned from sovereign citizens of their countries into lost souls in debt prisons.
This week, another chapter has been added to the dismal annals of the Greek adventures in the European Union. It’s like the Odyssee, I kid you not. Like the previous chapters, this one will not solve the Greek crisis, or even alleviate it, but instead it will deepen it further, and not a little bit. This chapter concerns the forced auctioning of -real estate- properties.
Not to Greeks, 90% of whom can’t afford to buy anything at all, let alone property, but to foreigners, often institutional investors. At the same time, bad loans, including mortgage loans, will be offloaded for pennies on the dollar to that same class of ‘investors’. Once the Troika is done with this chapter, Greece will have seen capital destruction the likes of which the world has seldom if ever witnessed.
People in the country have a hard time understanding the impact:
Ilias Ziogas, head of property consultancy company NAI Hellas and one of the founding members of the Chartered Surveyors Association, said that the property market is certain to suffer further as a result of the auctions: “The impact on prices will be clearly negative, not because the price of a property will be far lower at the auction than a nearby property, but because it will diminish demand for the neighboring property.”
[..]Giorgos Litsas, head of the GLP Values chartered surveyor company, which cooperates with PQH [..] told Kathimerini that the only way is down for market rates. “I believe that unless there is an unlikely coordination among the parties involved – i.e. the state (tax authorities, social security funds etc.), the banks and the clearing firms – in order to prevent too many properties coming onto the market at the same time, rates will go down by at least 10%.”
He noted that “we estimate the stock of unsold properties of all types comes to 270,000-280,000, in a market with no more than 15,000 transactions per year. Therefore the rise in supply will send prices tumbling.” Yiannis Xylas, founder of Geoaxis surveyors, added, “I fear the auctions will create an oversupply of properties without the corresponding demand, which translates into an immediate drop in rates that may be rapid if one adds the portfolios of bad loans secured on properties that will be sold to foreign funds at a fraction of their price.”
A 10% drop? Excuse me? Even in the center of Athens, rental prices for apartments that are not yet absorbed by Airbnb have plummeted. With so many people making just a few hundred euro a month that is inevitable. You can rent a decent place for €200 a month, and if you keep looking I’m sure you can find one for €100. An 80% drop?! But property prices would only go down by 10% in a market that has 20 times more unsold properties than it sells in a year?
The Troika creditors found they had to deal with attempts to prevent the wholesale fire sale of Greek properties. They now think they’ve found the solution. First, they will force the government to lower official valuations concerning the so-called “primary residence protection”, which protected homes valued at below €300,000 from foreclosure. Second, they will bypass the associations of notaries who refused to cooperate in ‘physical’ auctions, as well as protesters, by doing the fire sale electronically:
Environment and Energy Minister Giorgos Stathakis confirmed the development in statements to a local television station, announcing the relevant justice ministry is ready to begin electronic auctions in the middle of next week.At the same time, Stathakis noted that a law protecting a debtor’s primary residence from creditors will be expanded until the end of 2018. According to reports, the e-auctions will take place every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday over a four-hour period, i.e. from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Some 5,000 foreclosed commercial properties will be up for sale by the end of the year, which translates into 1,250 properties per month, on average.
Currently, the primary residence protection against foreclosure extends to properties valued (by the State tax bureau) at under €300,000, a very high threshold that shields the “lion’s share” of mortgaged residential real estate in the country, if judged by current commercial property values in Greece. Creditors and local lenders have called for a decrease in the protection threshold, a prospect that is very likely.
The development is also expected to generate another round of acrimonious political skirmishing, given that both leftist SYRIZA, and its junior coalition partner, the rightist-populist Independent Greeks party, rode to power in January 2015 on a election campaign platform that included an almost universal protection of residential property from bank foreclosures and auctions.
Associations representing notaries – professionals who in Greece are law school graduates specializing in drawing up contracts and maintaining registries of deeds, property transactions, wills etc. – had also blocked old-style auctions from taking place in district courts by ordering their members not to take part. The e-auction process aims to bypass this opposition, as well as disruptions and occupations of courtrooms by anti-austerity protesters.
The claim is that Greek banks must be made healthy again by removing bad loans from their books. The question is if selling both properties and bad loans to foreign institutional investors for pennies on the buck is a healthy way to achieve that. But yeah, if 50% of your outstanding loans are bad, you have a problem. Still, at the same time, the problem with that is that many if not most of those loans have turned sour because of the neverending carrousel of austerity measures unleashed upon the country. It’s a proverbial chicken and egg issue.
If Brussels were serious about Greek sovereignty, it would make sure that Greek homes were to remain in Greek hands. You can’t be sovereign if foreigners own most of your real estate. By bleeding the country dry, and forcing the sale of Greek property to Germans, Americans, Russians and Arabs, the Troika infringes upon Greek sovereignty in ways that will scare the heebees out of other EU nations.
It’s not for nothing that the entire Italian opposition is talking about a parallel currency next to the euro. That is about sovereignty.
Auctions of foreclosed properties to settle bad debts are seen as key to returning Greek banks to health by helping reduce the burden of non-performing loans. These currently stand at roughly €110 billion, or 50% of the banks’ total loans. Under pressure from its lenders, in the summer of 2016 the Greek government passed measures allowing the sale of delinquent mortgages and small business loans to international funds, a move seen by many as yet another betrayal by the SYRIZA-led government.
Greek banks won’t return to health, they’ll simply shrink the same way the people do who can’t afford to rent a home or eat decent food. Austerity kills entire societies, including banks. If Mario Draghi would decide tomorrow morning to include Greece in his €60 billion a month QE bond-buying program, and Greece could use that money to stop squeezing pensions and wages, and no longer raise taxes and unemployment, both the people AND the banks could return to health. It would take a number of years, but still.
Whatever you call what happens to Greece, and what’s been happening for nearly 10 years now, whether you call it fiscal waterboarding or Shock Doctrine, it is definitely not something that has a place in a union of sovereign nations bound together in mutual respect and dignity. And that will ensure the demise of that union.
Another aspect of the fire sale is the valuation of the properties austerity has caused to crumble (so many buildings in Athens are empty and falling apart, it’s deeply tragic, at times it feels like the entire city is dying). The press calls it a hard task, but that doesn’t quite cover it.
It’s not just about mortgages, many Greeks simply give up their properties because they can’t afford the taxes on them. People that inherit property refuse to accept their inheritance, even if it’s been in their families for generations, and it’s where they grew up. In that sense, it may be good to lower valuations to more realistic levels. But tax revenues will plunge along with the valuations, and the government is already stretched silly. Add a new tax, then?
The government is facing a daunting task in adjusting the so-called objective values (the property rates used for tax purposes) to market levels by the end of the year, as its bailout agreement dictates. The huge slump in transactions and the forced sales of properties due to their owners’ debts do not lead to any safe conclusions for the values per area. One in four sales are conducted with prices that lag the objective value by 60-70%, and the prices of 2008 by 70-80%. The Finance Ministry must overcome all the obstacles to bring to Parliament all the necessary adjustments and regulations.
Moreover, once the objective values are brought in line with market rates, the government will have to maintain the same amount of revenues from the Single Property Tax (ENFIA) either by raising the tax’s rates or by introducing a new tax in the form of the old Large Property Tax.
Furthermore, once the objective values are reduced by 40-50% to match the going prices, banks may see problems with their capital adequacy, as lenders will incur losses by having to revise the collateral they get. Mortgage loans in Greece amount to €59.44 billion, of which 42%, or €25.4 billion are nonperforming.
Yeah, there’s the health of the banks again. And the government. And the people. A wholesale fire sale is the worst possible thing that could happen at this point in time. Greece needs help, stimulus, hope, not more austerity and fire sales. Juncker and his Berlin ventriloquist have this all upside down and backwards, squared. The one thing the EU cannot afford itself to do, is the one thing it engages in.
They may as well pack in the whole thing today, and go home. Actually, that would be by far the best option, because more of this will inevitably lead to the very thing Europe prides itself in preventing for the past 70 years: battle, struggle, war, fighting in the streets, and worse. If the EU cannot show it exists for the good and benefit of its people, it no longer has a reason to exist.
Saving the banks in the richer countries by waterboarding an entire other country is not just the worst thing they could have thought of, it’s entirely unnecessary too. The EU and ECB could easily have saved Greece from 90% of what it has gone through, and will go through going forward, at virtually no cost at all. But yes, German, French, Dutch banks would likely have had to cut the bonuses of their bankers, and their vulture funds couldn’t have snapped up the real estate quite that cheaply.
Summarized: the EU is a disgrace, morally, politically, economically. I know that French President Macron on the one side, and Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25 movement on the other, talk about reforming the EU. But the EU is the mob, and you don’t reform the mob. You dismantle their organization and then you lock them up.
The French election, won just now by Emmanuel Macron, put several segments of the French population opposite one another in a pretty fierce contest. And that contest will continue. Because Macron won’t be able to lift the French economy out of its doldrums any more than Le Pen could have, or than Trump can life the US, and the new president will have the honor of presiding over a further and deepening downturn. The French political dividing line was aptly described by Simon Kuper recently:
The ultra-nationalist writer Charles Maurras believed there were “two Frances”. The one he loved was the “pays réel”, the real country: a rural France of church clocks, traditions and native people fused with their ancestral soil. Maurras loathed the “pays légal”, the legal country: the secular republic, which he thought was run by functionaries conspiring for alien interests.
Maurras was born in 1868 and died in 1952. But if he returned on Sunday to witness the French presidential run-off, he would instantly recognise both candidates. He would cast Emmanuel Macron as the incarnation of the “legal France” and Marine Le Pen as embodying the “real” one.
Maurras may have been a questionable character, but that description is not half bad. Once enough people in the country understand the failure of ‘legal’ France, they will want ‘real’ France back. That will be true in countries all over Europe; to a large extent it already is. Marine Le Pen summed up the key issue really well a few days ago when she said of the country post election: “France will be led by a woman, me or Mrs. Merkel.”
There is only one reason the French people would ever tolerate Germany having an outsized influence in their politics and economics: that they feel they benefit from it financially. And yes, if you put it that way, it’s already quite something that they haven’t revolted more and earlier.
The generous unemployment benefits are undoubtedly part of that. But those can’t last. And since the Germans owe their influence in Paris to the EU, it’s obvious how the French will feel they can stop that influence. And then the EU will turn out to be not a peacemaker, but the opposite.
Still, as much as France is divided, and as serious as that division is, the country is a shining beacon of unity compared to the UK, where the dividing lines are as manifold as they are laced with toxins. The snap election PM Theresa May called, in just over a month, can do nothing to resolve any of it. That means the EU can do what they want in the Brexit negotiations. Which will therefore be an unparalleled disaster for May and the UK.
The EU can and will ‘have its way’ with the UK for one simple reason: the United Kingdom is anything but United. It makes no difference what the EU does to the UK, the British won’t blame them for it. They will blame each other instead. No matter what happens these days, the British always know in advance who’s to blame, and it’s never themselves; it’s always another group of Brits.
The Tories are deeply divided between pro- and anti-Brexit forces. Labour is divided along those same lines, and adds pro- and anti-Corbyn sentiments for good measure. Other parties don’t really matter much, but they have similar dividing lines as well.
Anti-Corbyn Labour MPs have convinced themselves they know better than pro-Corbyn party members. They’ve kept claiming for so long that Corbyn is unelectable it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’ll be lucky not to face the fate of their former brethren in François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste, who ended up with just 6% of the vote in the 1st round of the French elections.
PM Theresa May called the snap election for June 8 to hide some of the divisions behind, to make them appear less relevant, or even to profit from them and grab more power. But the very fact that Brexit was voted in, already makes the election nigh irrelevant.
Whoever wins, and it looks certain to be May herself. will open themselves to being scapegoated in a big way. Which won’t keep them from seeking victory, because the loser can expect the same fate. The trenches have been dug, and deeply. Governable? Don’t count on it. It feels more like 40 years later we’re back to Johnny Rotten ‘singing’ Anarchy in the UK.
If May threatens to leave the EU ‘cold’ and trigger a ‘Hard Brexit’, she will simultaneously trigger a whole lot more, and much wider, divisions in the country (or is that countries?!), and that’s even without mentioning an entire minefield of legal, and potentially constitutional, issues. The latter especially because Britain doesn’t have an actual -written- constitution.
For Brussels, it’s easy pickings, and pick they will. This week, they casually raised the UK’s cost of leaving the EU to €100 billion, from estimates varying from €40 billion to €60 billion before. Paddy Power and its equally powerful bookie ilk soon won’t be taking any bets below, say, €150 billion. In that regard, and many others, the EU will do to the UK what it is doing to Greece.
The only way to stand up against that is to show a common front. But there will be no such thing in the Divided Kingdom, not for a long time. Everyone has their favorite scapegoat, for some it’s Nigel Farage, for others David Cameron, George Osborne, Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May. And nobody is going to leave their blame trenches. They’re the only places they feel somewhat comfortable, less scared, in.
Theresa May, if the polls are to be believed -and given the divisions we might for once-, will have to sit down and negotiate with the multi-headed Hydra that is the EU, ‘strengthened’ by a major election victory, but she will find it the ultimate Pyrrhic victory, because Brussels will have a ball playing her divided ‘nation’.
Scotland can probably easily be seduced with the carrot of EU membership, but more importantly, Juncker and his people can cast doubt on the entire Brexit vote, and they will have many interested takers.
The Brexit negotiations will take at least 2 years. But it could be 3 or 4 years, who knows? May has no power over that duration, unless she walks. She won’t. And as things are drawn out, Juncker et al have all the time and opportunities they want to tell both May and the British public that Brussels has no intention of punishing them, but will have to do so anyway.
After all, Brexit is a threat to the entire European project, and all the leaders of the 27 remaining nations, as well as the vast majority of their domestic opposition parties, are behind that project, no questions asked. And the many thousands of people working their very well-paid jobs in Brussels and Strasbourg are not too critical either.
All in all, the British need to wake up and smell the roses as long as there are any left, and before they have been replaced with less savory odors. Or they will have to seriously wonder whether the Kingdom, united or not, can outlive the Queen, aka the London Bridge.
“London Bridge is Down” was recently revealed as the secret UK government code for the moment the Queen dies.
President Donald Trump said he’s actively considering a breakup of giant Wall Street banks, giving a push to efforts to revive a Depression-era law separating consumer and investment banking. “I’m looking at that right now,” Trump said of breaking up banks in a 30-minute Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News. “There’s some people that want to go back to the old system, right? So we’re going to look at that.” Trump also said he’s open to increasing the U.S. gas tax to fund infrastructure development, in a further sign that policies unpopular with the Republican establishment are under consideration in the White House. He described higher gas taxes as acceptable to truckers – “I have one friend who’s a big trucker,” he said – as long as the proceeds are dedicated to improving U.S. highways.
During the presidential campaign, Trump called for a “21st century” version of the 1933 Glass-Steagall law that required the separation of consumer and investment banking. The 2016 Republican Party platform also backed restoring the legal barrier, which was repealed in 1999 under a financial deregulation signed by then-President Bill Clinton. A handful of lawmakers blame the repeal for contributing to the 2008 financial crisis, an argument that Wall Street flatly rejects. Trump couldn’t unilaterally restore the law; Congress would have to pass a new version. Trump officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, have offered support for bringing back some version of Glass-Steagall, though they’ve offered scant details on an updated approach. Both Mnuchin and Cohn are former bankers who worked for Goldman Sachs.
Two things happened last week that were a reminder of just how vital real estate has become to Canada’s economy. On Friday, Statistics Canada released GDP data that showed February was a banner month for sectors linked to housing. The real estate industry, residential construction, financial and legal services generated a combined 0.5% increase in output, the biggest one-month gain since 2014. Without those, the overall economy would have contracted slightly in February. A day earlier, the Ontario government released a budget that projects land transfer taxes will surpass C$3 billion ($2 billion) in the current fiscal year, from C$1.8 billion three years ago. For the province, it’s the difference between a balanced budget and a deficit.
Measures of housing’s contribution to the economy are imprecise, but estimates largely put the direct contribution in excess of 20%. It’s much more than that once you add all the indirect effects, with benefits spread widely from lawyer fees to government revenue and increased retail purchases through so-called wealth effects as rising home equity values prompt households to ramp up consumption. The big worry is that Canada has moved from a reliance on oil to a reliance on real estate. The influence of housing on the economy is so pervasive that it won’t take much of a slowdown to act as a major drag on the economy, said Mark Chandler, head of fixed-income research at RBC Capital Markets in Toronto.
“You don’t need a collapse in house prices, you don’t need housing starts to be cut in half for weaker real estate sector to have a significant effect on GDP and incomes,” Chandler said. RBC’s ballpark estimate is that a 10% decline in national home prices would knock a full percentage point off growth. A Toronto Dominion Bank report from 2015 found the housing wealth effect has been responsible for about one-fifth of all growth in consumption since 2001. “A lot of the strength we have seen in consumption is housing related,” said Brian DePratto, the economist who wrote the 2015 report. If you strip out the direct and indirect impact from housing on the economy, “you are talking about a much lower trend pace of growth.”
The world is suddenly paying attention to Home Capital, the tiny Canadian mortgage lender that’s on the ropes. The stock is plunging, it faces a run on deposits and regulators are probing management’s disclosure of fraudulent mortgages. Its troubles are raising questions: Is this an isolated case of a struggling mortgage company, or early signs of cracks forming in Canada’s red-hot housing market?
1. How did Home Capital get into trouble? It started in 2014 when the company, formed 31 years ago by Gerald Soloway, failed to screen a pile of questionable mortgages brought in by outside brokers. Some 45 brokers falsified income information on borrowers, prompting Home Capital to cut ties with them, leading to a drop in new business. This eventually led to an investigation by the Ontario Securities Commission, which said on April 19 that Home Capital had misled investors by not disclosing the fraud until five months after they became aware of the problem.
2. Will Home Capital fail? There are plenty of signs of stress. The stock has plunged almost 75% this year, cutting its market value to about C$515 million, from C$3.5 billion in 2014. Most pressing is the run on deposits. Customers pulled C$1.5 billion from high-interest savings accounts in four weeks, cutting the balances to C$500 million. The company has another C$13 billion in GICS. As these 30- and 60-day deposits come due, more withdrawals may follow. Without a deposit base, Home Capital can’t fund new mortgages. Home Capital hired investment bankers for a possible sale, though there is likely as much interest in the loan book as the company itself. Commercial banks may be interested, precluding any need for a government bailout. Financial regulators say they are watching closely.
3. Will this fallout spread to other lenders? Possibly. Home Capital competes with other companies in the so-called alternative mortgage space. They cater to small-business owners, new immigrants and other people who can’t get mortgages from the big commercial banks. It’s a niche segment but growing, accounting for almost 13% of the market. Unlike in the U.S. housing crash when loan defaults soared, there is little evidence of faulty loans so far. Home Capital’s delinquency rate, for example, was just 0.20% as of February. Still, shares of rivals First National and Equitable have been dragged lower by the Home Capital woes as investors fear contagion.
Beijing sends a lot of signals, but it cannot make good on them without risking the economy, and everybody knows it. It’s all based on the idea that a centralized economy can be forced into a smooth descent, but that’s just a fallacy.
China’s level of leverage is rising at an “alarming pace”, particularly in the finance sector, a senior central bank official said in a commentary, amid growing concern by the country’s senior leaders over financial security. The official Xinhua news agency on Monday cited Xu Zhong, head of the People’s Bank of China’s research bureau, as saying the country needed to deleverage at a “proper pace” to reduce financial sector debt and avoid systemic financial risk. “China’s overall leverage level is reasonable but is rising at an alarming pace, especially in the financial sector,” Xu said. The original commentary was published in business journal Caijing Magazine. Xu said high levels of stimulus spending from government paired with poor corporate management and financial supervision were key factors causing rising levels of leverage, Xinhua said.
He added the government should stick to “prudent and neutral” monetary policy, reduce emphasis on economic growth targets, and improve corporate governance so authorities did not have to step in so frequently to help companies out. “Financial security is achieved via reforms, not bail-outs,” Xinhua reported Xu as saying. Last week President Xi Jinping called for increased efforts to ward off systemic risks and help maintain financial security. Analysts say financial risk and asset bubbles pose a threat to the world’s second-largest economy if not handed well. Former Chinese finance minister Lou Jiwei also said last month that high leverage was the biggest risk facing China’s economy because debt has piled up despite government efforts to deleverage. The Bank for International Settlements warned last year that excessive credit growth in China is signaling an increasing risk of a banking crisis in the next three years.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed several banks as part of a criminal investigation into possible manipulation of the U.S. Treasuries market, according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice Department issued subpoenas last month to banks including UBS, BNP Paribas and the Royal Bank of Scotland seeking information on the $14 trillion market, said two people, who asked not to be named because the investigation is confidential. U.S. authorities have been examining the U.S. Treasuries market for roughly two years. In November 2015, Goldman Sachs disclosed that U.S. authorities had sought information related to its trading of when-issued securities, which are among the least transparent instruments in the world’s largest debt market. When-issued securities act as placeholders for bills, notes or bonds before they’re auctioned. The instruments change hands over the counter, with lifespans of just days. There’s scant public information on trading volumes or the market’s biggest players.
[..] The Justice Department in late 2015 asked about when-issued securities as part of broader requests for documents it sent to most or all of the roughly two dozen primary dealers in U.S. Treasuries, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News at the time. UBS, BNP Paribas and RBS are primary dealers in U.S. Treasuries. Authorities haven’t accused any of the banks of wrongdoing. Trading of these instruments is also the subject of several lawsuits against primary dealers filed since July 2015. In them investors allege that traders at global banks colluded to artificially inflate the price of the when-issued securities, which allow the banks to sell U.S. debt before they own it. Then they bought the debt at auctions for an artificially suppressed price, unfairly profiting at investors’ expense, the lawsuits contend. The banks are scheduled to file motions to dismiss those lawsuits once the lead counsel for the plaintiffs is chosen.
As industry spending and debt servicing rage out of control, health care is ranked as the No. 1 US “systemic recession risk” in a new report. The sums at stake are staggering: Spending in the sector accounted for $3.3 trillion in 2015, and is 18% of the US economy today. The industry generates 16% of private sector jobs nationwide, up from 10% in 1990. US health care spending is forecast to grow by an average 5.6% annually in the coming decade, according to a report by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a projection based on no changes out of Washington and in the Affordable Care Care through 2025. Meanwhile, national spending on health care is forecast to outpace US GDP growth by 1.2%. CMS has estimated that spending will comprise 19.9% of GDP by 2025, up from 17.8% in 2015.
“There’s no question that rising health care costs are hurting our overall economy,” said New York-based financial adviser Michael Mondiello. “With consumer spending accounting for some 70% of economic activity, the more we spend on health care, the less we have to purchase other things like a vacation or to save for retirement.” [..] The first murmurs of early trouble may have been detected. “Companies in the health care sector are starting to lay people off,” said John Burns, CEO of John Burns Real Estate Consulting.. [..] “Health care companies borrowed too much money, and have grown their debt faster than their revenue, so you have to have a pullback.”
[..] In a report published by Burns, health care is identified as the largest systemic risk to the economy, of the three sectors Burns examined, which also included technology and automotive. The conventional wisdom points to US demographic trends, and an aging population, as supportive of the long-term strength, but the report shows industry growth has surpassed what is sustainable:
• Health care company debt is up 308% since 2009.
• The number of hospitals in health systems has expanded by 26% since 1999.
• The yearly medical costs for a family of four have jumped 189% since 2002, from $9,000 to $26,000.
“It could be like a Lehman Brothers scenario, where a couple of big health care companies take the economy down,” Burns told The Post.
To offer a sense of the market return/risk profile that has typically been associated with exhaustion gaps at overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes, the chart below shows the maximum gain and maximum loss in the market as measured from each instance to the subsequent bear market low. Multiple exhaustion gaps in the same market cycle are depicted separately. I recognize that my regular comments about the likelihood of the S&P 500 losing half or more of its value over the completion of this cycle may seem preposterous. A review of market history may help to understand these expectations, which are consistent with both the valuation evidence later in this comment, and with the outcomes that have typically completed prior speculative market cycles.
Two caveats are important here. First, given the simplicity of the conditions that define an exhaustion gap above, and their reliance on daily market behavior, it’s not clear that investors should wait for such gaps in future market cycles if other danger signs are already present. The best way to view these exhaustion gaps, I think, is that they represent points, late in a bull market cycle, where investors become overwhelmed by fear of missing out (FOMO), leaving a lopsided equilibrium where the remaining pool of potential buyers evaporates and the pool of potential sellers becomes saturated. Conversely, it seems likely that simple daily signals like the exhaustion gaps above could be misleading in the future, if more robust measures still indicate persistent risk-seeking among investors.
As a reminder of where market valuations stand, based on what actually works across market cycles, the chart below presents several of the most historically reliable equity valuation measures we track. We can form expectations about the likely range of market losses over the completion of this cycle by asking what amount of retreat would be required to bring these measures to either: a) the highest level of valuation reached at any previous bear market low, or b) the historical norm of each measure. Emphatically, these estimates do not assume that valuations will move below their historical norms at the next bear market low (as they did, in fact, as recently as the 2009 low). The smallest expected loss estimate comes in at -45.6%, while the largest loss estimate (taking each measure to its respective historical norm) is -62.1%. The average range of estimated market losses is -47.7% to -60.1%, while the median range is -45.6% to -62.0%.
It used to be the norm for presidents to retire to ordinary life after their stint in the White House — just ask Harry Truman. When the Democratic president was getting ready to leave the White House in 1953, he was approached by many employers. The Los Angeles Times noted that if he was “unemployed after he leaves the White House it won’t be for lack of job offers … but [he] has accepted none of them.” One of those job offers was from a Florida real estate developer, asking him to become a “chairman, officer, or stockholder, at a figure of not less than $100,000” — the sort of position that is commonplace today for ex-politicians. Presumably, had Truman taken the position, it would have been a good deal for both parties: the president’s prestige and connections would also enrich the company.
Truman declined. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency,” he wrote of his refusal to influence-peddle. Although he had access to a small pension from his military service, Truman had little financial support after leaving office. He moved back into his family home in Independence, Mo., and insisted on being treated like anyone else. He would tell people not to call him “Mr. President,” and settled on a fairly ordinary routine once he was back in Independence. He would take a morning walk through the town square. He kept an office nearby where he would answer mail from Americans. He chose to engage with just about anyone who walked into his office — not only people who wrote him big checks, or invited him onto their private yachts and private islands.
“Many people,” he once said, “feel that a president or an ex-president is partly theirs — they are right to some extent — and that they have a right to call upon him.” Indeed, his office number was even listed in a nearby telephone directory. He eventually agreed to write a memoir for Life magazine, but it was a lengthy project that provided far from luxurious stipends. Truman’s modest life post-presidency moved Congress in 1958 to establish a pension system that provides an annual cash payout as well as expenses for an office and staff. Gerald Ford nevertheless shattered precedent when he joined the boards of corporations such as 20th Century Fox, hit the paid speech circuit, and was made an honorary director by Citigroup.
But his successor, Jimmy Carter, who grew up in a modest home in Plains, Georgia, did not follow Ford’s example. He refused to become a professional paid speaker or join corporate boards. He moved back to Plains, and was welcomed home by a crowd of neighbors and supporters. He quickly made himself busy as a nonprofit founder and a volunteer diplomat. He did make money post-presidency — but by serving ordinary people, not elites. He wrote dozens of best-selling books bought by millions of people across the world — the post-presidency equivalent of small donors. Carter explained his thinking to the Guardian in 2011, telling them that his “favorite president, and the one I admired most, was Harry Truman. When Truman left office he took the same position. He didn’t serve on corporate boards. He didn’t make speeches around the world for a lot of money.”
And suddenly the storms of early Trumptopia subside, or seem to. The surface of things turns eerily placid as the sweets of May sweep away the toils of an elongated mud season. Somebody stuffed Kim Jong Un back in his bunker with a carton of Kools and the Vin Diesel video library. France appears resigned to Hollandaise Lite in the refreshing form of boy wonder Macron. It’s been weeks since The New York Times complained about the Russians stealing Hillary’s turn as leader of the free world. We’re given to understand that Congress managed overnight to cook up a spending bill that will avert a Government shut-down until September. Rest easy America… oh, and buy every dip.
A calm surface is exactly what Black Swans like to land on, though by definition we will not know they’re out there until our reveries are broken by the sound of wings flapping. Some kind of dirty bird showed up on Canada’s thawing pond last week when that country’s biggest home loan lender suffered a 60 percent pukage of shareholder equity and had to be bailed out — not by the Canadian government directly, but by the Ontario Province’s Health Care Workers Pension Fund, a neat bit of hocus pocus that amounts to a one-year emergency loan at ten percent interest. If that’s a way for insolvent public employee pension plans to find enough “yield” to meet their obligations, then maybe that could be the magic bullet for the USA’s foundering pension funds.
The next time Citibank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and friends get a case of the Vapors, let them be bailed out by the Detroit School Bus Drivers’ Pension Fund at ten percent interest. That ought to work. And let Calpers take care of Wells Fargo. The situation across Western Civilization is as follows: virtually every major financial institution has become a check-kiting operation or a Ponzi scheme, and we’ve reached the point where they can only pretend to be rescued. Bailout or not, the Toronto-based Home Capital Group is still stuck with shit-loads of non-performing sub-prime mortgage loans — its specialty — and Canada’s spectacular real estate bubble has hardly begun to pop. The collateral is starting to turn, like dead meat in the May sunshine, and the odium will waft across the border.
“It is truly astonishing that the man who inspired (as personal secretary) and implemented (as finance minister) the policies of President François Hollande could be branded as something radically new.”
The rise of Macron is characteristic of the age of spin doctors: it illustrates both their power and their limits. It is truly astonishing that the man who inspired (as personal secretary) and implemented (as finance minister) the policies of President François Hollande could be branded as something radically new. To achieve this feat, spin doctors resorted to celebrity-building in ways previously unknown in French political life. Macron was new because he was young and handsome, and because he had never been elected before. He appeared repeatedly on the front pages of Paris Match with his wife, whose name is chanted by his supporters at his rallies. In the final weeks of the campaign Macron was so careful not to expose the true nature of his programme (which amounts to little more than the unpopular liberalism-cum-austerity implemented by Hollande) that his speeches degenerated into vacuous exercises in cliche and tautology.
The strategy worked up to a point: he qualified for the second round. Yet its limits are also clear. Last spring, France saw nationwide protests against the labour laws that Macron had largely designed. The opposition was not only to their content, but also to the manner in which they were passed: the government bypassed a parliamentary vote. During these demonstrations police used high levels of violence, yet Macron never uttered a word to calm things down. He has already announced that he would resort to governing by decree if needed, and it is easy to anticipate increased social tensions by the autumn. To those who would oppose him, Macron would answer that he is implementing the programme on which he was elected. Theoretically, Macron should defeat Le Pen hands down. The problem is that the meaning of such a result would be unclear: how many would have voted for him, and how many against her?
The EU can do what it wants with the UK, because whatever it is, the Brits will blame each other for anything that goes wrong. No need for divide and conquer, there’s a hopeless divide already; Brussels can focus on conquer.
The meeting last Wednesday started with a kiss on the cheek, gratefully immortalised by the photographers on Downing Street’s pavement. It ended with a withering putdown: “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before,” Juncker told his host. It is said that the talks started pleasantly enough. During half of an hour of chit-chat in an anteroom, before taking their place at the dinner table, May told Juncker that she didn’t want just to talk Brexit during the evening but there were other matters of world affairs to discuss. “Like what?”, Juncker asked. In fact, little else seemed to be on the prime minister’s mind. Juncker did have a topic to raise though, and the issue at hand may just explain some of the current iciness between the two leaders.
That very morning the EU should have been shuffling around its money to deal with issues such as the migration crisis, which could not have been expected a few years ago when the bloc’s budget had been set. But on Monday morning Juncker had been made aware of an email from the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels explaining that because a general election had been announced, the British government couldn’t give its support to any changes in how the EU was going to spend its cash. Juncker smelled mischief – maybe it was a way to show the EU what trouble Britain could cause if it didn’t get its way? “What on earth is all this supposed to mean?” he is said to have asked May. Perhaps you won’t be able to talk about Brexit then, he queried, when May explained the rules of purdah, under which governments in an election are to avoid binding the hands of the next administration.
[..] it was the substance of the talks that were to cause Juncker the most unease. And it was Juncker’s despair that got to his colleagues. This was the man who through the trickiest of negotiations had always seen a path through. But when presented with May’s insistence that EU citizens in the UK would be treated in the future like any other foreign national, that trade talks needed to start before the issue of Britain’s divorce bill was settled or her claim that technically the UK owed nothing at all to the union, his lack of optimism for the future became clear. “Theresa May started by stating that the UK wanted to discuss first future arrangements, then article 50 stuff,” one source with knowledge of the dinner said.
“It felt to the EU side like she does not live on planet Mars but rather in a galaxy very far away.” She was “deluded” and appeared to be “living in a parallel universe”, Juncker told the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a phone call said to have taken place just moments after the delegation left Downing Street.
Greece has reached a preliminary deal with its creditors that should pave the way for long-awaited debt relief talks, the Greek finance minister said on Tuesday. “The negotiations are concluded,” Euclid Tsakalotos told reporters, according to state agency ANA. After overnight talks, Tsakalotos said a “preliminary technical agreement” had been achieved ahead of a 22 May meeting of eurozone finance ministers, which is required to approve the deal. Tsakalotos added he was “certain” that the agreement would enable Greece to secure debt relief measures from its creditors, which he has said is vital to spearhead recovery in the country’s struggling economy. A compromise is required to unblock a tranche of loans Greece needs for debt repayments of €7bn ($7.6bn) in July.
Under pressure from its creditors – the EU, ECB and the IMF – the government agreed earlier this month to adopt another €3.6bn in cuts in 2019 and 2020. Athens conceded fresh pension and tax break cuts in return for permission to spend an equivalent sum on poverty relief measures. A government source on Tuesday said pensions are to be cut by 9% on average, ANA said. The measures are to be approved by parliament by mid-May. However, prime minister Alexis Tsipras has said he will not apply these cuts without a clear pledge later this month on debt-easing measures for Greece. Athens also hopes to be finally allowed access to the ECB’s QE asset purchase programme, to help its return to bond markets.
In 2015, Greece, an EU state member since 1981 with a population of 10,846,979 people, recorded the highest level of GGD (General Government Gross Debt to GDP ratio) in the EU-28, at 176.9%. Concerning the volume index of GDP per capita in PPS (Purchasing Parity Standards) we find Greece’s GDP per capita dropped from 4% lower than the EU-28 average in 2004 to 29% lower in 2015. However, GDP is a measure of a country’s economic activity, and therefore it should not be considered a measure of a country’s well-being. If we take the AIC (Actual Individual Consumption) per capita in PPS (Purchasing Power Standard) as a better indicator to describe the material welfare of households, Greece showed an AIC index per capitalower by some 19% than the EU-28 average in 2015. Labour productivity per hour worked expressed in US $ (which means GDP per hour worked expressed in US $) was estimated among the lowest in the EU-28, at $32 in 2015.
Curiously, Greece has the highest average hours worked per year in the EU-28, at 2,042 hours, its average hourly labour cost is among the lowest in the EU-28, at €14.5, its average annual wages at US $25,211 and unemployment rate of 24.90%. 43% of pensioners live on €660/month on average, and many Greek pensioners are also supporting unemployed children and grandchildren. [..] Unemployment is a tragedy for Greece. The highest jobless rate was recorded in 2014, at 27.8%. The current level of unemployment, the highest in the EU, is about 24%. Unemployed workers between 45 and 64 years of age (currently almost one in three unemployed, around 347,400 people, whereof 280,000 are long-term unemployed, in 2009 they were one in five, or 99,000 people)- , and young unemployed people aged 15-24 (close to 50% of the total) are the most adversely affected demographics.
According to ELSTAT (Hellenic Statistical Authority) – GSEE (General Confederation of Greek Workers), nine out of ten Greeks without job do not receive unemployment benefits and 71.8-73.8% (around 807,000 people) of all unemployed (1,124,000 people) have been out of work for more than twelve months, while only 1.5% of them receive the 700 euro/month applicable to the long-term registered unemployed. In the last quarter report for 2016, ELSTAT shows that the amount of Greeks facing long-term unemployment has risen some 146% (from 327,700 to 807,000 people) over the 6-year period. Additionally, there are 350,000 Greek families without a single member working, and unemployment has led some 300,000 highly skilled professionals and workers to leave the country.
[..] According to a study carry out by the Cologne Institute of Economic Research, poverty rate in Greece increased by 40% from 2008 to 2015, the largest increase among EU countries. A new multidimensional poverty index was used to calculate poverty, which is not based on income alone but on other factors such as the deprivation of material goods, quality of education, underemployment and, access to healthcare. In 2015, according to Eurostat, more than one in three residents of Greece experienced conditions of poverty and/or social exclusion. The percentage of those within this group had risen from 29.1% in 2008 to 35.7% in 2015, or 3.8 million people. 21.4% of the Greek population are living below the national poverty line (with an income less than 60 % of the national average), 22.2 % are severely materially deprived,
The BEA offers various measures of corporate profits, slicing and dicing them in different ways. One of them is its headline number: “Corporate profits with inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments.” It estimates “profits from current production,” based on profits before taxes, not adjusted for inflation, but with adjustments for inventory valuation (IVA) and capital consumption (CCAdj).These adjustments convert inventory withdrawals and depreciation of fixed assets (as they appear on tax returns) to the current-cost economic measures used in GDP calculations. It’s a broad measure, taking into account profits by all corporations, not just the S&P 500 companies. This measure is reflected in the first chart below.
Later, we’ll get into after-tax measures without those adjustments. They look even worse. In Q4, profits rose to $2.15 trillion seasonally adjusted annual rate. That’s what the annual profit would be after four quarters at this rate. But profits in the prior three quarters were lower. And so Q4 brought the year total to $2.085 trillion. This was down from 2015, and it was down from 2014, and it was up only 2.6% from 2013, not adjusted for inflation. This 20-year chart shows that measure. Note that the profits are not adjusted for inflation, and there was a lot of inflation over those 20 years:
Things get even more interesting when we look at after-tax profits on a quarterly basis. The chart below shows two measures: Dark blue line: Corporate Profits after tax without adjustments for inventory valuation and capital consumption (so without IVA & CCAdj). Light blue line: Corporate Profits after tax with adjustments for inventory valuation and capital consumption (so with IVA & CCAdj). Q4 profits, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, but not adjusted for inflation, were back where they’d been in Q1 2012:
By this measure, corporate profits have been in a volatile five-year stagnation. However, during that time – since Q1 2012 – the S&P 500 index has soared 70%. [..] The chart also shows that there were two prior multi-year periods of profit stagnation and even decline while the stock market experienced a massive run-up: from 1996 through 2000, leading to the dotcom crash; and from 2005 through 2008, which ended in the Financial Crisis. This peculiar phenomenon – soaring stock prices during years of flat or declining profits – is now repeating itself. The end point of the prior two episodes was a lot of bloodletting in the markets that then refocused companies – the survivors – on what they needed to do to make money. For a little while at least, it focused executives on productive activities, rather than on financial engineering, M&A, and similar lofty projects. And it showed in their profits.
Given the lack of wage growth, consumers are needing to get payments down to levels where they can afford them. Furthermore, about 1/3rd of the loans are going to individuals with credit scores averaging 550 which carry much higher rates up to 20%. In fact, since 2010, the share of sub-prime Auto ABS origination has come from deep subprime deals which have increased from just 5.1% in 2010 to 32.5% currently. That growth has been augmented by the emergence of new deep sub-prime lenders which are lenders who did not issue loans prior to 2012. While there has been much touting of the strength of the consumer in recent years, it has been a credit driven mirage.
With income growth weak, debt levels elevated and rent and health care costs chipping away at disposable incomes, in order to make payments even remotely possible, terms are often stretched to 84 months. The eventual issue is that since cars are typically turned over every 3-5 years on average, borrowers are typically upside down in their vehicle when it comes time to trade it in. Between the negative equity of their trade-in, along with title, taxes, and license fees, and a hefty dealer profit rolled into the original loan, there is going to be a substantial problem down the road. [..] Auto loans, in general, have been in a huge boom that reached $1.11 trillion in the fourth quarter 2016. As noted above, 33.5% of those loans are sub-prime, or $371.85 billion.
The economist John Maynard Keynes warned that ultra-low interest rates would backfire on central banks seeking to spur borrowing and spending, yet they seemed surprised that the current recovery is the weakest in postwar history after cutting rates to near zero, or even below in some cases. Keynes is credited with popularizing the “paradox of thrift,” which is the economic theory that posits people tend to save more during recessions as rates fall to offset the income their savings is not generating. Of course it is the case that when you save more, you spend less. Since the U.S. economy is fueled by consumption, it also stands to reason that growth suffers as a result.
It’s been two years since Swiss Re produced a report that calculated U.S. savers had foregone some $470 billion in interest income. The analysis was based on what rates would have been had the Federal Reserve followed the Taylor Rule, which would have put rates, then at zero, at 1.7%. Even as the Fed has begun to raise rates, it is clear that hundreds of billions of dollars have been squirreled away as savers play defense to counteract the Fed’s ultraloose monetary policy. Some $11.7 trillion is sitting in bank deposits, up from $7.23 trillion at the start of 2009 shortly after the Fed cut rates to near zero, central bank data show.
The WSJ was first, then all the media ran with it. But Flynn did NOT ask for immunity. At least not that we know. Both Nunes and Schiff deny it’s been discussed. Flyn’s lawyer doesn’t mention it. Smells like fake news. There’s so much wrong with the man, why make things up? Everyone’s salivating over potential problems he could cause for Trump, but we’ll get to that when it’s time.
The attorney representing President Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said late Thursday that his client would not submit to questioning in the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election without protection against possible prosecution. “No reasonable person, who has the benefit of advice from counsel, would submit to questioning in such a highly politicized, witch-hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution,” attorney Robert Kelner said in a written statement. Describing his client as the target of “unsubstantiated public demands by members of congress and other political critics that he be criminally investigated,” Kelner confirmed that there have been “discussions” regarding Flynn’s possible appearances before the House and Senate Intelligence committees now conducting formal inquires into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the American political system.
“Gen. Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” Kelner said. “Out of respect for the committees, we will not comment right now on the details of discussions between counsel for Gen. Flynn and the . . . committees.” Jack Langer, spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said a deal for immunity has not been discussed. An aide to California Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s ranking Democrat, also said there had been no discussions about an immunity deal for Flynn. Earlier this week, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., signaled that the committee was seeking testimony from Flynn. “You would think less of us if Gen. Flynn wasn’t on that list’’ of potential witnesses, Burr told reporters Wednesday.
Growth in the US increasingly brings income inequality. A striking deterioration in this trend has occurred since the 80s, when economic recoveries delivered the vast majority of income growth to the wealthiest US households. The chart illustrates that with every postwar expansion, as the economy grew, the bottom 90% of households received a smaller and smaller share of that growth. Even though their share was falling, the majority of families still captured the majority of the income growth until the 70s. Starting in the 80s, the trend reverses sharply: as the economy recovers from recessions, the lion’s share of income growth goes to the wealthiest 10% of families. Notably, the entire 2001-2007 recovery produced almost no income growth for the bottom 90% of households and, in the first years of recovery since the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, their incomes kept falling during the expansion, delivering all benefits from growth to the wealthiest 10%. A similar trend is observed when one considers the bottom 99% and top 1%% of households.
Figure 1: bottom 90% vs. top 10%, 1949-2012 expansions (incl. capital gains)
[..] Finally, Figure 6 shows how income growth has been distributed over the different business cycles (peak to peak, i.e., including both contractions and expansions). The data for the latest cycle is incomplete, as we are still in it. The graph indicates that in the current cycle, incomes for all groups are still lower than their previous peak in 2007, however the loss is disproportionately borne by the bottom 90% of households.
Figure 6: bottom 90% vs. top 10%, 1953-2015 business cycles, (incl. capital gains)
About two weeks ago, Puerto Rico’s oversight board approved Puerto Rico’s revised fiscal plan. The fiscal plan is roughly the equivalent in Puerto Rico’s case of an IMF program—it sets out Puerto Rico’s plan for fiscal adjustment. Hopefully it will make Puerto Rico’s finances a bit easier to understand.* I have been a bit slow to comment on the updated fiscal plan, but wanted to offer my own take:
1) Best I can tell, the new plan has roughly 2 percentage points of GNP in fiscal adjustment in 2018 and 2019, and then a percentage point a year in 2020 and 2021. The total consolidation is close to 6% of GNP (using a GNP of around $65 billion, and netting out the impact of replacing Act 154 revenues with new tax).
2) The board adopted a more conservative baseline. Puerto Rico’s real economy is projected to contract by between 3 and 4% in 2018 and 2019 and by 1 to 2% in 2020 and 2021. I applaud the board for recognizing that the large fiscal consolidation required in 2018 and 2019 will be painful. The risks to the growth baseline—and thus to future tax revenues—should be balanced. There though is a risk that the board may still be understating the drag from consolidation. If Puerto Rico is currently shrinking by 1.5% a year without any fiscal drag, and if the multiplier is 1.5, then growth might contract by 2 to 3% in 2020 or 2021.
3) While creditors have complained that Puerto Rico isn’t doing enough, I worry that there is still too much consolidation too fast: Puerto Rico’s output is projected to fall by another 10 percentage points over the next five years, which would make Puerto Rico’s ten year economic contraction as deep as that experienced by Greece.
Former prime minister Paul Keating – architect of some of the most profound economic reforms in the country’s history during the 1980s – has launched a surprise critique of the liberal economic philosophy he once championed, declaring it has “run into a dead end”. Mr Keating made his remarks in response to a speech delivered by the new leader of the ACTU, Sally McManus, at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday. Ms McManus declared that “neo-liberalism” had run its course, and that experiments in privatisation had failed, slamming the government over mooted penalty rate cuts, accusing many employers of adopting “wage theft” as a business model, and declaring war on growing inequality.
“We are not saying that the people who introduced some of the policies that you could name as being neo-liberal were bad people, we are saying the experiment has run its course,” Ms McManus said, in response to questions. Earlier in her speech she had declared that “the Keating years created vast wealth for Australia but it has not been shared”. While many saw her remarks as a partial slapdown of the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating years, Mr Keating told Fairfax Media he supported some of her assessments. “Liberal economics had [in the past] dramatically increased wealth around the world, as it had in Australia – for instance a 50% increase in real wages and a huge lift in personal wealth,” Mr Keating said.
“But since 2008, liberal economics has gone nowhere and to the extent that Sally McManus is saying this, she is right.” “We have a comatose world economy held together by debt and central bank money,” Mr Keating added.”Liberal economics has run into a dead end and has had no answer to the contemporary malaise.”
Australia is close to seizing the global crown for the longest streak of economic growth thanks to a mixture of policy guile and outrageous fortune. But the nation is creaking under the weight of its own success. While growth is being underpinned by population gains and resource exports to China, failure to spur productivity has meant stagnant living standards and electoral discontent; a property bubble fueled by record-low interest rates has driven household debt to levels that threaten financial stability; and a timid government facing political gridlock could lose the nation’s prized AAA rating as early as May because of spiraling budget deficits. Australia’s last recession – defined locally as two straight quarters of contraction – occurred in 1991 and was a devastating conclusion to eight years of reform designed to create an open, flexible and competitive economy. But it also proved cathartic, paving the way for a low-inflation, productivity-driven expansion.
As momentum started waning, China’s re-emergence as a pre-eminent global economic power sent demand for Australian resources skyrocketing, helping shield the nation from the worst of the global financial crisis. But the post-crisis return of the boom proved ephemeral, failing to boost government coffers and pushing the local currency higher, eroding competitiveness and driving another nail into the coffin of a fading manufacturing sector. [..] “There’s no country on Earth that’s derived more benefit from the rapid growth
and industrialization of China over the last 30-odd years than Australia,” said Saul Eslake, an independent economist who’s covered Australia for over three decades. “After the end of the mining-investment boom, high immigration is helping us avoid a statistical recession, but it’s also contributing to other problems” like soaring property prices and household debt.
[..] A record-low 1.5% cash rate designed to steer Australia from mining investment back toward services is creating problems of its own. Sydney house prices have more than doubled since 2009 and Melbourne’s have also soared, sending private debt to a record 187% of income. The RBA frets that anemic wage growth will force heavily indebted households to slash consumption, which could prove disastrous given their spending accounts for more than half of GDP. Australia’s banking regulator further tightened lending curbs Friday to try to cool investor demand for residential property that’s helped drive up prices. Data released hours later showed investor lending increased 6.7% in February from a year earlier, the fastest growth in 12 months.
[..] iron ore prices have more than halved since 2011, when the local dollar hit a post-float record of $1.10. The Aussie would hover at or above parity with the greenback for the next two years. The currency’s strength then saw off the car industry: two of the three manufacturers in 2013 said they were quitting Australia, with the last following suit the next year. While the currency would eventually retreat to the 70s, the damage had been done. Worse still, the trillion-dollar windfall from the boom had been spent, not saved, leaving no cash to plug yawning budget deficits or build much-needed infrastructure for an expanding population that would also support growth.
When the head of one of America’s largest real estate firms was shown a chart tracking the rising share of interest-only loans in Australia, he gasped in horror. As a man that has “seen many cycles”, he told an Australian bank investor that a rise in interest-only loans was a classic indicator of a dangerously over-heating market. Friday’s move by the prudential regulator to combat the rise of interest-only loans shows they tend to agree with that assessment. High but rising household debt levels, elevated property prices and ultra low interest rates has made Australian Prudential Regulation Authority Wayne Byres decidedly uneasy about the nation’s preference not to repay their loans but simply service the interest.
They have therefore told the banks that less than 30% of new mortgages can be “interest only” – which is substantially below the last reported figure of 38% of total loans. In fact, the percentage of interest-only loans has not been below 30% since 2008. And while many would dismiss comparisons between the rise of interest only lending in Australia and the teaser rate loans that lured in sub-prime borrowers in the US ahead of its 2008 housing crash, a market propped up by artificially low borrowing rates is a recipe for disaster. Australia is of course different and there have been unique forces that have fuelled our historic addiction to interest-only loans. The first is a hot-button issue – negative gearing. Since Australia’s tax code allows households to tax deduct interest payments on investor loans, the incentive is to opt for interest only loans.
It’s in the investment lending area where interest only loans are most prevalent. The banks are also aware that most interest only loans are to investors that own two or more properties and are managing their overall cash flows by servicing the interest. In fact, interest only loans reached a peak of 45% of new loans in 2014 before APRA’s 10% cap on investor lending was introduced. That coincided with a decline to an average of around 35%. The other driver behind the rise of interest only loans has been the mortgage broking industry – which intermediates about half of all loans by the big banks.
EU boss Jean-Claude Juncker this afternoon issued a jaw-dropping threat to the United States, saying he could campaign to break up the country in revenge for Donald Trump’s supportive comments about Brexit. In an extraordinary speech the EU Commission president said he would push for Ohio and Texas to split from the rest of America if the Republican president does not change his tune and become more supportive of the EU. The remarks are diplomatic dynamite at a time when relations between Washington and Brussels are already strained over Europe’s meagre contributions to NATO and the US leader’s open preference for dealing with national governments. They are by far the most outspoken intervention any senior EU figure has made about Mr Trump and are likely to dismay some European leaders who were hoping to seek a policy of rapprochement with their most important ally.
Speaking at the centre-right European People Party’s (EPP) annual conference in Malta this afternoon, the EU Commission boss did not hold back in his disdain for the White House chief’s eurosceptic views. He said: “Brexit isn’t the end. A lot of people would like it that way, even people on another continent where the newly elected US President was happy that the Brexit was taking place and has asked other countries to do the same. “If he goes on like that I am going to promote the independence of Ohio and Austin, Texas in the US.” Mr Juncker’s comments did not appear to be made in jest and were delivered in a serious tone, although one journalist did report some “chuckles” in the audience and hinted the EU boss may have been joking. The remarks came in the middle of an angry speech in which the top eurocrat railed widely against critics of the EU Commission.
[..] Mr Juncker did not criticise Britain at all during his speech, and only made reference to Brexit in relation to Mr Trump and the opportunities it presents for Europe to reform itself. However his conservative colleague Antonio Tajani, the EU Parliament president, received a rapturous ovation as he launched an impassioned defence of Europe’s “Christian values”. In a series of thinly veiled comments about immigration, a major political issue in his homeland and Malta, the Italian official said Europe should do more to defend its historic identity. He said: “We shouldn’t be ashamed of saying we’re Christian. We’re Christian, it is our history. “If we leave our identity we will have in Europe all identities but not European identities. For this we need to strengthen our identity.”
In 1992, Wynne Godley predicted that the Euro would amplify any future economic downturn into a crisis: ” If a country or region has no power to devalue, and if it is not the beneficiary of a system of fiscal equalisation, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline leading, in the end, to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation…”
[..] an article published in the financial section of Italian daily Il Sole lays out just how serious the situation has become. According to new research by Italian investment bank Mediobanca, 114 of the close to 500 banks in Italy have “Texas Ratios” of over 100%. The Texas Ratio, or TR, is calculated by dividing the total value of a bank’s non-performing loans by its tangible book value plus reserves – or as American money manager Steve Eisman put it, “all the bad stuff divided by the money you have to pay for all the bad stuff.” If the TR is over 100%, the bank doesn’t have enough money “pay for all the bad stuff.” Hence, banks tend to fail when the ratio surpasses 100%. In Italy there are 114 of them. Of them, 24 have ratios of over 200%.
Granted, many of the banks in question are small local or regional savings banks with tens or hundreds of millions of euros in assets. These are not systemically important institutions and can be resolved without causing disturbances to the broader system. But the list also includes many of Italy’s biggest banks which certainly are systemically important to Italy, some of which have Texas Ratios of over 200%. Top of the list, predictably, is Monte dei Paschi di Siena, with €169 billion in assets and a TR of 269%. Next up is Veneto Banca, with €33 billion in assets and a TR of 239%. This is the bank that, together with Banco Popolare di Vicenza (assets: €39 billion, TR: 210%), was supposed to have been saved last year by an intervention from government-sponsored, privately funded bank bailout fund Atlante, but which now urgently requires more public funds. Their combined assets place them seventh on the list of Italy’s largest banks.
Some experts, including the U.S. bank hired last year to save MPS, JP Morgan Chase, have warned that Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca will not be eligible for a bailout since they are not regarded as systemically important enough. This prompted investors to remove funds from the banks, further exacerbating their financial woes. According to sources in Rome, the two banks’ failure would send shock waves through the wider Italian financial industry. [..] almost all of Italy’s largest banking groups, with the exception of Unicredit, Intesa Sao Paolo and Mediobanca itself, have Texas Ratios well in excess of 100%. But, as Eisman recently pointed out, the two largest banks, Unicredit and Intesa Sanpaolo, have TRs of over 90%. As long as the other banks continue to languish in their current zombified state, they will continue to drag down the two bigger banks. And if either Unicredit or Intesa begin to wobble, the bets are off.
Rising temperatures on land and sea are increasingly forcing species to migrate to cooler climes, pushing disease-carrying insects into new areas, moving the pests that attack crops and shifting the pollinators that fertilise many of them, an international team of scientists has said. They warn that some movements will damage important industries, such as forestry and tourism, and that tensions are emerging between nations over shifting natural resources, such as fish stocks. The mass migration of species now underway around the planet can also amplify climate change as, for example, darker vegetation grows to replace sun-reflecting snow fields in the Arctic. “Human survival, for urban and rural communities, depends on other life on Earth,” the experts write in their analysis published in the journal Science. “Climate change is impelling a universal redistribution of life on Earth.”
This mass movement of species is the biggest for about 25,000 years, the peak of the last ice age, say the scientists, who represent more than 40 institutions around the world. [..] “Land-based species are moving polewards by an average of 17km per decade, and marine species by 72km per decade” said Prof Gretta Pecl at the University of Tasmania in Australia, who led the new analysis. There are many documented examples of individual species migrating in response to global warming and some examples of extinctions. But Pecl said: “Our study demonstrates how these changes are affecting ecosystems, human health and culture in the process.” The most direct impact on humans is the movement of insects that carry diseases, such as the mosquitoes that transmit malaria shifting to new areas as they warm and where people may have little immunity.
Another example is the northward spread in Europe and North America of the animal ticks that spread Lyme disease: the UK has seen a tenfold rise in cases since 2001 as winters become milder. Food production is also being affected as crops have to be moved to cooler areas to survive, such as coffee, which will need to be grown at higher, cooler altitudes, causing deep disruption to a global industry. The pests of crops will also move, as will their natural predators, such as insects, birds, frogs and mammals. Other resources are being affected, with a third of the land used for forestry in Europe set to become unuseable for valuable timber trees in the coming decades. Important fish stocks are migrating towards the poles in search of cooler waters, with the mackerel caught in Iceland jumping from 1,700 tonnes in 2006 to 120,000 tonnes in 2010…
The number of refugees who have fled Syria for neighbouring countries has topped five million people for the first time since the civil war began six years ago, according to the UN’s refugee agency. Half of Syria’s 22 million population has been uprooted by a conflict that has now lasted longer than the second world war, the figures released by the UNHCR show, with 6.3 million people who are still inside the country’s borders forced from their homes. The figure of five million refugees “fails to account for the 1.2 million people seeking safety in Europe”, the International Rescue Committee, an aid organisation, noted. Nearly 270,000 of these applied for asylum in Germany last year. The UN agency urged Europeans not to “put humanity on a ballot” in elections in France and Germany this year, where far-right candidates opposed to refugee arrivals could make gains.
A surge in violence in Aleppo, as government forces backed by Russian airstrikes retook Syria’s second city at the end of 2016, resulted in 47,000 people fleeing to neighbouring Turkey, it said. Camps for internally displaced people close to the Turkish border also hold those who have fled the fighting in northern Syria. The latest arrivals into Turkey mean the number of Syrians who have fled the country for neighbouring states stands at more than five million, four years after the UNHCR announced that one million people had fled. The five million figure includes refugees who have been resettled in Europe, but the UN high commissioner for refugees urged Europeans to do more to help share a burden that is still largely falling on countries bordering Syria, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, with more in Iraq and Egypt.
Turkey alone has nearly three million Syrians, the UNHCR pointed out. In Jordan, 657,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN, but the government says the true figure is 1.3 million. Tens of thousands of Syrians live in two large camps, Zaatari and Azraq, but the majority live in homes and flats, able to access the job market but competing for scarce employment.
While President Trump is expected to tout his administration’s accomplishments one month into his term during a speech before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, former Reagan Budget Director David Stockman said he doesn’t see much progress being made. “I’ve thrown in the towel because he’s not paying attention and he’s not learning anything and he’s making ridiculous statements,” Stockman told the FOX Business Network’s Neil Cavuto. During the address, Trump is expected to talk about the new budget blueprint, which Stockman said doesn’t add up. “We don’t need a $54 billion increase in defense when the budget already is ten times bigger than that of Russia. We don’t need $6 trillion of defense spending over the next decade because China is going nowhere except trying to keep their Ponzi scheme together.”
President Trump will also talk about the GOP replacement for Obamacare. Stockman said he wasn’t sold on Speaker Ryan’s plan. “If you look at the Ryan draft that came out over the weekend, it’s basically Obamacare-like. It’s not really repealing anything,” he said. “It’s basically reneging and turning the Medicaid expansion into a block grant, turning the exchanges into tax credits [and] it’s still going to cost trillions of dollars.” Last week, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, told FOX Business the administration is “focused on an aggressive timeline” to produce a tax reform plan by August, but in Stockman’s opinion, tax reform won’t happen this year. He also warned that the administration’s run up against the debt ceiling this summer could lead to a debt crisis. “I don’t think we will see the tax cuts this year at all,” he said. “There is going to be a debt ceiling crisis like never before this summer and that’s what people don’t realize. They’ve burned up all the cash that Obama left on the balance sheet for whatever reason.”
“..the question is not what could go wrong since it is guaranteed that all these liabilities will implode at some point. And when they do, it will bring misery to the world of a magnitude that no one could ever imagine.”
Central banks are designed to create debt, and since 1913 the U.S. national debt has gotten more than 6800 times larger. But of course it is not just the United States that is in this sort of predicament. At this point more than 99% of the population of the entire planet lives in a nation that has a debt-creating central bank, and as a result the whole world is drowning in debt. When people tell me that things are going to “get better” in 2017 and beyond, I find it difficult not to roll my eyes. The truth is that the only way we can even continue to maintain our current ridiculously high debt-fueled standard of living is to grow debt at a much faster pace than the economy is growing. We may be able to do that for a brief period of time, but giant financial bubbles like this always end and we will not be any exception.
Barack Obama and his team understood what was happening, and they were able to keep us out of a horrifying economic depression by stealing more than nine trillion dollars from future generations of Americans and pumping that money into the U.S. economy. As a result, the federal government is now $20 trillion in debt, and that means that the eventual crash is going to be far, far worse than it would have been if we would have lived within our means all this time. Corporations and households have been going into absolutely enormous amounts of debt as well. Corporate debt has approximately doubled since the last financial crisis, and U.S. consumers are now more than $12 trillion in debt. When you add all forms of debt together, America’s debt to GDP ratio is now about 352%. I think that the following illustration does a pretty good job of showing how absolutely insane that is…
If your brother earns $100,000 in annual income and borrowed $10,000 on his credit card, he could consume $110,000 worth of stuff. In this example, his debt to his personal GDP is just 10%. But what if he could get more credit year after year and reached a point where his total debt reached $352,000 but his income remained the same. His personal debt-to-GDP ratio would now be 352% If he could borrow at super low interest rates, maybe he could sustain the monthly loan payments. Maybe? But how much more could he possibly borrow? What lender would lend him more? And what if those low rates began to rise? How much debt can his $100,000 income cover? Essentially, he has reached the end of his own debt cycle.
The United States is certainly not alone in this regard. When you look all over the industrialized world, you see similar triple digit debt to GDP figures. When this current debt super cycle ultimately ends, it is going to create economic pain on a scale that will be unlike anything that we have ever seen before. The following comes from King World News…
“That is the inevitable consequence of 100 years of credit expansion from virtually nothing to $250 trillion, plus global unfunded liabilities of roughly $500 trillion, plus derivatives of $1.5 quadrillion. This is a staggering total of $2.25 quadrillion. Therefore, the question is not what could go wrong since it is guaranteed that all these liabilities will implode at some point. And when they do, it will bring misery to the world of a magnitude that no one could ever imagine. It is of course very difficult to forecast the end of a major cycle. As this is unlikely to be a mere 100-year cycle but possibly a 2000-year cycle. It is also impossible to forecast how long the decline will take. Will it be gradual like the Dark Ages, which took 500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire? Or will the fall be much faster this time due to the implosion of the biggest credit bubble in world history? The latter is more likely, especially since the bubble will become a lot bigger before it implodes.”
While the Commerce Department released a report on Wednesday showing a slightly bigger than expected increase in U.S. personal income in the month of January, the report also showed that personal spending rose by less than expected. The report said personal income climbed by 0.4% in January after rising by 0.3% in December. Economists had been expecting another 0.3% increase. Disposable personal income, or personal income less personal current taxes, rose by 0.3% for the second straight month. Real spending, which is adjusted to remove price changes, actually fell by 0.3% in January after rising by 0.3% in December. With income rising faster than spending, personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income ticked up to 5.5% in January from 5.4% in December. A reading on inflation said to be preferred by the Federal Reserve showed that core consumer prices were up 1.7% year-over-year in January, unchanged from the previous month.
While the key number analysts were looking for in today’s Personal Spending data was the PCE Price Index, both headline and core, which rose by 1.9% and 1.7% respectively, the latter coming in as expected, just shy of the Fed’s 2.0% inflation target, the internals on US incomes and spending were just as notable. Here, the silver lining of a rise in incomes (+0.4% MoM vs +0.3% exp) was dashed by a disappointingly slow growth in spending (+0.2% vs +0.5% prev). With incomes rising more than spending, the savings rate predictably ticked up from multi year lows, rising from 5.4% to 5.5% in January.
On the income side, the increase in personal income was almost entirely from service-producing industries wages, which increased by $22.5BN, while Goods-producing was higher by just $4 billion. Additionally, Social Security transfer benefits added another $9 billion. However, for the ‘average joe’, facing a rising cost of goods, real personal spending plunged 0.3% in January: the biggest drop since September 2009.
Finally, as a result of surging inflation, and disposable incomes suddenly unable to keep up, the real annual growth in disposable income per capita fell to just 1.5%, the weakest in over 3 years and a red flag for those calling for another renaissance for US consumers.
As President Trump struggles to staff his administration with sympathisers who will help transpose tweets into policy, the exodus of Obama appointees from the federal government and other agencies continues. For the financial world, one of the most significant departures was that of Daniel Tarullo, the Federal Reserve governor who has led its work on financial regulation for the last seven years. It would be a stretch to say that Tarullo has been universally popular in the banking community. He led the charge in arguing for much higher capital ratios, in the US and elsewhere. He was a tough negotiator, with a well-tuned instinct for spotting special pleading by financial firms. But crocodile tears will be shed in Europe to mark his resignation.
European banks, and even their regulators, were concerned by his enthusiastic advocacy of even tougher standards in Basel 3.5 (or Basel 4, as bankers like to call it), which would, if implemented in the form favoured by the US, require further substantial capital increases for Europe’s banks in particular. In his absence, these proposals’ fate is uncertain. But Tarullo has also been an enthusiastic promoter of international regulatory cooperation, with the frequent flyer miles to prove it. For some years, he has chaired the Financial Stability Board’s little-known but important Standing Committee on Supervisory and Regulatory Cooperation. His commitment to working with colleagues in international bodies such as the FSB and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, to reach global regulatory agreements enabling banks to compete on a level playing field, has never been in doubt.
Already, some of those who criticised him most vocally in the past are anxious about his departure. Who will succeed him? The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act created a vice-chair position on the Federal Reserve Board – which has never been filled – to lead the Fed’s work on regulation. Will that appointee, whom Trump now needs to select, be as committed as Tarullo to an international approach? Or will his principal task be to build a regulatory wall, protecting US banks from global rules? We do not yet know the answers to these questions, but Fed watchers were alarmed by a 31 January letter to Fed chair Janet Yellen from Representative Patrick McHenry, the vice-chairman of the House committee on financial services. McHenry did not pull his punches. “Despite the clear message delivered by President Donald Trump in prioritising America’s interest in international negotiations,” McHenry wrote, “it appears that the Federal Reserve continues negotiating international regulatory standards for financial institutions among global bureaucrats in foreign lands without transparency, accountability, or the authority to do so. This is unacceptable.”
In her reply of 10 February, Yellen firmly rebutted McHenry’s arguments. She pointed out that the Fed does indeed have the authority it needs, that the Basel agreements are not binding, and that, in any event, “strong regulatory standards enhance the stability of the US financial system” and promote the competitiveness of financial firms. But that will not be the end of the story. The battle lines are now drawn, and McHenry’s letter shows the arguments that will be deployed in Congress by some Republicans close to the president. There has always been a strand of thinking in Washington that dislikes foreign entanglements, in this and other areas. While Yellen’s arguments are correct, the Fed’s entitlement to participate in international negotiations does not oblige it to do so, and a new appointee might argue that it should not.
There’s a confusion at the heart of every presidential address to Congress. It’s supposed to be a grave occasion of solidarity around the principles of our shared republic, but it has the cheesy and disingenuous air of a campaign event. The address combines the solemnity of ceremony with mindless hyperpartisan hoopla — the shouting and booing, the symbolic gimmickry and, above all, the absurd tradition of signifying one’s agreement or displeasure by either standing to applaud or remaining seated after every phrase of the speech. The address is designed for a traditional Democratic or Republican president. He’s meant to embolden his party and browbeat the opposition, with a few light gestures at unity and consensus. His allies are supposed to look gleeful and applaud his every gesture; his opponents are supposed to sit glumly on their hands and show the nation that they, at least, aren’t engaging in this misguided hysteria.
The address is designed, in other words, for a more or less ideologically coherent speech. But Donald Trump, as everybody knows, doesn’t care about ideological coherence. His ideas don’t fall along recognizable philosophical lines, with the result that his audience of lawmakers, ready to boo or cheer in the usual ways, often seemed unsure how to respond. Once again, then, Trump succeeded in a setting where nearly everybody — including me — thought he would fail. The Democrats looked especially awkward. So much of their detestation of Trump arises not from policy differences but from horror at his gaucherie and bizarre rhetorical excesses. But none of that is relevant in a State of the Union-style address. Subtract the issues of Obamacare repeal, immigration and the president’s hard-line policies on domestic security — the latter two of which don’t lend themselves to clear ideological allegiances — and much of what Trump had to say could have been said by any Democratic president.
Even on the topic of health care, Trump offered several proposals that, taken on their own, most Democrats probably wouldn’t object to, hence making it rather difficult for them to do what they would have preferred to do, namely glower at the president’s let-them-eat-cake obstructionism. What were Democrats supposed to do when, for instance, Trump vowed “to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure”? I guess … we’ll applaud? Clap, clap? Republicans, meanwhile, found themselves applauding for something not very unlike President Obama’s stimulus plan of 2009. “To launch our national rebuilding,” Trump said, “I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs.”
I’m not sure what “financed through both public and private capital” means, but Trump’s jobs plan sounded to my ear like some socialist Five-Year Plan from the 1970s — making it all the more entertaining to watch congressional Republicans cheering like football fans who misheard the penalty call. I wonder if Tuesday night’s address was a kind of adumbration of Trump’s presidency — his adversaries deprived of half their reasons for hating him, his allies stupidly wondering what happened to their principles, the nation’s commentators once again explaining why the president succeeded when he was supposed to fail, and voters reluctantly appreciating this hyperactive agitator who — for all his problems — at least keeps things interesting.
Since the last eruption of Greece’s long-running crisis in 2015, banks in Europe’s most troubled economy have shored up capital, staunched losses and set up a plan to reduce their mountains of bad debt. Now, fresh tensions over the country’s bailout are putting that progress at risk. About 1.3% of deposits were pulled from the banks in January, while bad loans crept higher, an increase Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras blamed on borrowers using the deadlock with creditors as an excuse to avoid making their payments. Greek officials are meeting in Athens this week with representatives of the euro area and IMF to set out the policies Greece must undertake to unlock more loans. The government foresees an accord in March or early April, but the scale of pending issues raises concerns they may be politically hard to sell at home.
“The longer it takes for the impasse to be concluded, the more damaging it will be for the banks,” said Federico Santi, an analyst with Eurasia Group. The biggest lenders – Piraeus Bank, National Bank of Greece, Eurobank and Alpha Bank – made headway since 2015, when 26% of total deposits fled on concern Greece might abandon the single currency. That run was only halted when the banks were shut for three weeks, controls were placed on withdrawals and the movement of money abroad and Greece agreed to an €86 billion bailout, its third since 2010. A €14.4 billion recapitalization in November 2015 by the government-owned Hellenic Financial Stability Fund and private investors strengthened the banks’ balance sheets. The HFSF – funded through euro-area loans – remains the largest investor in all but one of the banks.
For the first time since 2010, three of the four are expected to report an annual profit when they announce results starting next week. Crucially, the banks are embarking on a three-year plan, overseen by regulators, to shrink their bad loans. [..] Until the banks begin offloading this bad debt, there’s scant chance they’ll be able to provide businesses with the credit they need to grow. “These NPLs are clogging the wheels of the entire economy,” said Paris Mantzarvas, an analyst at Athens-based Pantelakis Securities.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday he is the most popular European politician in Greece during a joint press conference with European Parliament President Antonio Tajani in Brussels, following the presentation of the Commission’s “White Paper” on the future of the EU. Asked by a journalist why he does not comment on France’s domestic politics where presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen has announced a referendum for an exit from the EU if elected, when he had intervened dynamically against the position of Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras when he announced a referendum in 2015, Juncker replied:
“You’re the only person in Europe who believes I was among those who criticized the Greek prime minister. The Greek prime minister loves me deeply, and so do Greeks. I’m the most popular European politician in Greece. You should have known that, if you have seen by relationship with the Greek prime minister, who I greatly value. Just as I have deep sympathy or even love for the Greek people.” He then pointed at Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas and said he is briefed by him on daily developments in Greece. Concerning Le Pen, Juncker said he doesn’t want to become part of her propaganda.
[..] Outlining the five options of Europe’s future, Juncker acknowledged the existential struggle the EU is facing due to crises over Brexit, migration and the eurozone. He said it was not a “definitive view” from the Commission but a way to “make clear what Europe can and cannot do.” Among others, Juncker said: “The future of Europe should not become hostage to elections, party political or short term views of success.” “However painful Brexit may be, it will not stop the EU as it moves forward into the future.” “Summit after summit we promise we will bring down the unemployment figures, particular youth unemployment … but the EU budget provides only 0.3% of European social budgets: 99.7% is with the national governments.” “We must make clear what Europe can and cannot do.” “Permanent Brussels-bashing makes no sense because there is no basis for it.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has revealed his five future “pathways” for the European Union after Brexit. His white paper looks at various options, from becoming no more than a single market to forging even closer political, social and economic ties. The 27 leaders of EU countries will discuss the plans, without Britain, at a summit in Rome later this month. The meeting will mark the EU’s 60th anniversary. Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has already responded to dismiss the idea of the EU purely being a single market.
Path one: ‘Carrying on’ – The remaining 27 members stick on the current course, continuing to focus on reforms, jobs, growth and investment. There is only “incremental progress” on strengthening the single currency. Citizens’ rights derived from EU law are upheld.
Path two: ‘Nothing but the single market’ – The single market becomes the EU’s focus. Plans to work more on migration, security or defence are shelved. The report says this could lead to more checks of people at national borders.Regulation would be reduced but this could create a “race to the bottom” as standards slip, it says. It becomes difficult to agree new common rules on the mobility of workers, so free movement of workers and services is not fully guaranteed.
Path three: ‘Those who want to do more’ – If member countries want to work more with others, they can. Willing groups of states can form coalitions on key areas, such as defence, internal security, taxation and justice. Relations with outside countries, including trade negotiations, remain managed at EU level on behalf of all member states.
Path four: ‘Doing less, more effectively’ – The EU focuses on a reduced agenda where it can deliver clear benefits: technological innovation, trade, security, immigration, borders and defence. It leaves other areas – regional development, health, employment, social policy – to member states’ own governments.EU agencies tackle counter-terrorism work, asylum claims and border control. Joint defence capacities are established. The report says all this would make a simplified, less ambitious EU.
Path five: ‘Doing much more together’ – Feeling unable to meet the today’s challenges alone or as part of the existing group, EU members agree to expand the union’s role. Members agree “to share more power, resources and decision-making across the board”. The single currency is made central to the project, and EU law has a much larger role.
Johan de Witt, the boy wonder who effectively ran the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands from 1653 to 1672, was an early believer in inbox zero. In his office in the westernmost corner of the Binnenhof, the complex of buildings in The Hague that is still the nerve center of the Dutch government, Johan worked until his desk was empty: the official letters that he had read aloud during the meeting, the envelopes from relatives, friends and other contacts, his list of decisions taken and his notes from the last meeting. He didn’t go home until everything had been dealt with. As soon as a note was finished, he scattered sand over the lines to dry the ink, and he hung it on a wall-mounted wire – many of Johan’s surviving letters have holes in them. This hanging stack, called a lias, also had the advantage that everything was arranged nicely together and finished work wasn’t in the way.
When Johan was finished, the clerks could go to work copying everything according to his strict instructions. That’s my translation of a passage from Dutch journalist-turned-historian Luc Panhuysen’s 2005 double biography of De Witt and his older brother and right-hand-man, Cornelis. The book is titled “De ware vrijheid,” which means “the true freedom,” Johan de Witt’s term for the two decades during which he managed his country on behalf of its merchant class, and the noble House of Orange had no say. The brilliant, hard-working, hyper-organized Johan used that freedom to build what in modern parlance we might call a meritocratic technocracy, bent on globalization and economic growth. For a while, it was spectacularly successful. It didn’t end well, though! The brothers were killed not far from the Binnenhof in August 1672 and cut to pieces by an angry mob, with body parts finding their way to buyers as far away as England.
In these days of populist revolts against globalizing technocratic elites, the De Witts’ story seemed like it might be worth revisiting. That, and it provided a great excuse to walk around The Hague on Tuesday with the erudite and engaging Panhuysen, who has gone on to write books about the “disaster year” of 1672 and the long-running conflict, beginning the same year, between Dutch prince (and eventual English king) William III and French King Louis XIV. “What Johan and Cornelis de Witt had to deal with was that they were regular civilian boys who at the same time had to govern and exude authority,” Panhuysen said. Political opponents could say: “God sent us the House of Orange to break us free from the Spanish. Who are these De Witt brothers?”
The De Witt boys weren’t self-made men – their father was a successful wood merchant who bought his way into government – but Johan in particular did rise to the top largely on merit. He was a brilliant mathematician, a translator and elaborator of the geometry of Rene Descartes. A government report that he wrote on annuity pricing is now seen as one of the founding documents of both actuarial science and financial economics. In 1650, at age 25, Johan was chosen as raadpensionaris – a sort of city manager – of his hometown of Dordrecht, the oldest city in Holland, which was by far the richest and most powerful of the seven Dutch provinces. In 1653, representatives of Holland’s other cities asked him to become the province’s raadpensionaris, sometimes translated as grand pensionary. After taking 10 days to think it over, he accepted.
Scientists say they have found the world’s oldest fossils, thought to have formed between 3.77bn and 4.28bn years ago. Comprised of tiny tubes and filaments made of an iron oxide known as haematite, the microfossils are believed to be the remains of bacteria that once thrived underwater around hydrothermal vents, relying on chemical reactions involving iron for their energy. If correct, these fossils offer the oldest direct evidence for life on the planet. And that, the study’s authors say, offers insights into the origins of life on Earth. “If these rocks do indeed turn out to be 4.28 [bn years old] then we are talking about the origins of life developing very soon after the oceans formed 4.4bn years ago,” said Matthew Dodd, the first author of the research from University College, London.
With iron-oxidising bacteria present even today, the findings, if correct, also highlight the success of such organisms. “They have been around for 3.8bn years at least,” said the lead author Dominic Papineau, also from UCL. The team says the new discovery supports the idea that life emerged and diversified rapidly on Earth, complementing research reported last year that claimed to find evidence of microbe-produced structures, known as stromatolites, in Greenland rocks, which formed 3.7bn years ago. However, like the oldest microfossils previously reported – samples from western Australia dating to about 3.46bn years ago – the new discovery is set to be the subject of hot debate.
The discovery of the structures, the authors add, highlights intriguing avenues for research to discover whether life existed elsewhere in the solar system, including Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Mars, which once boasted oceans. “If we look at similarly old rocks [from Mars] and we can’t find evidence of life, then this certainly may point to the fact that Earth may be a very special exception and life might just have arisen on Earth,” said Dodd. Published in the journal Nature by an international team of researchers, the new study focuses on rocks of the Nuvvuagittuq supracrustal belt in Quebec, Canada.
When I read things like this: ‘A live shark is worth over a million dollars in tourism revenue over its lifespan’, I lose all hope. It’s valuing nature in dollars that dooms it. And then you get this from the guys trying to save it.
While predatory fish are key to the Caribbean’s ecosystem and coastal economy, researchers have worryingly found that 90% have been wiped out by over-fishing. But experts say there is hope for Caribbean reefs yet, as they have identified large reefs, known as ‘supersites’, which can support huge numbers of predatory fishes. If the dwindling fish species are reintroduced, they could help repair the damage inflicted by over-fishing. ‘A live shark is worth over a million dollars in tourism revenue over its lifespan because sharks live for decades and thousands of people will travel and dive just to see them up close,’ said study coauthor and marine biologist Dr Abel Valdivia. ‘There is a massive economic incentive to restore and protect sharks and other top predators on coral reefs.’
The University of North Carolina team’s work suggests that supersites – reefs with many nooks and crannies on their surface that act as hiding places for prey – should be prioritised for protection. Other features that make a supersite are the amount of available food, size of the reef and proximity to mangroves. ‘On land, a supersite would be a national park like Yellowstone, which naturally supports an abundance of varied wildlife and has been protected by the federal government,’ said coauthor and marine biologist Professor John Bruno. The team surveyed 39 reefs across the Bahamas, Cuba, Florida, Mexico and Belize to determine how many fish had been lost.
They compared fish biomass on pristine sites to fish biomass on a typical reef. They then estimated the biomass in each location and found that 90% of predatory fish were gone due to over-fishing. What they didn’t expect to find was a ray of hope – a small number of reef locations that, if protected, could help the predatory fish populations recover. ‘Some features have a surprisingly large effect on how many predators a reef can support,’ said study coauthor Dr Courtney Ellen Cox. For example, researchers believe that the Columbia Reef within the fisheries closures of Cozumel, Mexico, could support an average of 10 times the current level of predatory fish if protected.
I’m trying, I swear, to get into the fold, but I just can’t NOT find this hilarious. On the eve of his presidency, Donald Trump tells European leaders, by not telling them diddly-squat, that he doesn’t think they matter all that much. It’s not just that his vision of the EU, and its importance, is very different from theirs, he also remembers very well what many of them have said about him in the run-up to his election for the presidency.
Europe’s leaders, with the exception of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, have been ridiculing and outright demonizing Trump ever since he declared his candidacy. They’ve said similar things about him that they say about Vladimir Putin, and in the 2016 fake news avalanche they’ve thrown the two together in various ways and for reasons they claim are obvious, with quite a few Hitler quips thrown in for good measure.
Now, for some reason they all seem to think it’s important to meet with Trump before he meets with Putin, as if his view of the world, and that of his entire government, is so unbalanced it could be decided at the toss of a coin. Trump is having none of it. After having been compared to anything that’s considered worst under the sun, who’s going to blame him?
Donald Trump feels, and largely rightly so, that the principle of innocence before being proven guilty was abandoned with much fervor by many, and certainly across the EU. The result is that now he’s simply not that into them. He’s been shown no respect at all, and he has not forgotten that. And it leads to a situation that’s brilliantly entertaining.
The EU, like the Obama/Clinton cabal, have dug in their heels and then dug some more when it comes to Putin, and by -their, not his- association also to Trump. They never thought he’d be elected, and now that he has been they don’t know what to do with themselves (how about an apology for starters?).
AP reports, even if once again you have to read between all the innuendo and opinionated humbug (grow up, AP!):
European leaders, anxious over Donald Trump’s unpredictability and kind words for the Kremlin, are scrambling to get face time with the new American president before he can meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose provocations have set the continent on edge. One leader has raised with Trump the prospect of a U.S.-EU summit early this year, and the head of NATO — the powerful military alliance Trump has deemed “obsolete” — is angling for an in-person meeting ahead of Putin as well. British Prime Minister Theresa May is working to arrange a meeting in Washington soon after Friday’s inauguration.
For European leaders, a meeting with a new American president is always a sought-after — and usually easy-to-obtain — invitation. But Trump has repeatedly defied precedent, making them deeply uncertain about their standing once he takes office. Throughout his campaign and in recent interviews, Trump has challenged the viability of the EU and NATO, while praising Putin and staking out positions more in line with Moscow than Brussels. “There are efforts on the side of the Europeans to arrange a meeting with Trump as quickly as possible,” Norbert Roettgen, the head of the German Parliament’s foreign committee and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, told AP.
In fact, eager to stage an early show of Trans-Atlantic solidarity, Donald Tusk — the former Polish prime minister who heads the EU’s Council of member state governments— invited Trump to meet with the EU early in his administration, according to a European Union official. But a senior Trump adviser essentially rebuffed the offer, telling the AP this week that such a gathering would not be a priority for the incoming president, who wants to focus on meetings with individual countries, not the 28-nation bloc.
Trump backs Britain’s exit from the European Union, casting the populist, anti-establishment movement as a precursor to his own victory. In a recent joint interview with two European newspapers, Trump said of the EU, “I don’t think it matters much for the United States.”
So far so good, but then the rhetoric starts again. Only, it does so by calling Trump’s words ‘rhetoric’:
Such rhetoric alone was enough to set off alarm bells in Europe. And Trump’s praise for Putin and promise of closer ties to Moscow have deepened the uncertainty. Trump has raised the prospect of dropping U.S. sanctions on Moscow and has appeared indifferent to Russia’s annexation of territory from Ukraine. The hacking of his opponents during the U.S. election, and Trump’s dismissal of the CIA’s warnings about Russia’s involvement, added a dose of spy drama.
Trump’s sentiments mark a dramatic shift in Republican views of Europe, just a generation after George H.W. Bush famously greeted the collapse of the Iron Curtain by calling for a “Europe whole and free.” Trump’s top national security adviser has been in close contact with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., conversations that have involved setting up a phone call between the Putin and the president-elect, transition officials have said. But Trump currently has no plans to meet with Putin, according to the senior adviser, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the transition team’s internal planning.
Why on earth would Trump NOT meet with Putin? Because of all the unsubstantiated blubber his opponents have showered over him in their attempts to derail his campaign? If anything, that would probably make him all the more determined to set up such a meeting. Moreover, there’s a lot of damage that needs to be repaired in US-Russia relations, damage done by the former administration and the press it has a love relationship with.
[..] Aides have signaled that one of Trump’s first foreign leader meetings at the White House will be with May, who became prime minister following Britain’s vote to leave the EU. The president-elect’s team is also working on early invitations to Washington for the leaders of Mexico and Canada, according to the Trump adviser. Barring other arrangements, Trump and Putin’s first meeting of the year might not come until July when the Group of 20 leaders gather in Hamburg, Germany — though Trump has yet to say whether he plans to attend international summits.
If he does, some European leaders could get an audience with him in May at a planned NATO summit and a gathering of the more elite Group of Seven in Italy. Russia had been a member of that group, but the U.S. and Europe ousted Putin after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. One of the first tests of Trump’s loyalties may well be whether he seeks to bring Russia back into that fold.
“If we start to equate democracies and non-democracies, allies and adversaries, this is setting a very dangerous precedent,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said that if Trump were to reach out to Putin ahead of the Europeans upon taking office, “it would be a real cautionary note” for long-standing U.S. allies.
Guys! You lost! You lost big. Get a grip. It’s a different world out there. Adapt accordingly or fade away. Something tells us the adaptation process will prove too much for most of Europe’s current leaders. That will necessarily mean that most won’t be leaders for long.
Europe will have to move closer to Putin as Trump does so. The war mongering posture of the past decade or so will have to go. This will be very hard to do for those leaders who have called both men everything awful in the world. Those who can’t will have to leave. Like Juncker:
Donald Trump should lay off talking about the break-up of the European Union, the bloc’s chief executive said on Wednesday, pointing out that Europeans do not push for Ohio to secede from the United States. In pointed remarks on the eve of Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president, Jean-Claude Juncker said the new administration would realize it should not damage transatlantic relations but added it remained unclear what policies Trump would now pursue.
Juncker told Germany’s BR television, according to a transcript from the Munich station, that he was sure no EU state wanted to follow Britain’s example and leave the bloc, despite Trump’s forecast this week that others would quit: “Mr. Trump should also not be indirectly encouraging them to do that,” Juncker said. “We don’t go around calling on Ohio to pull out of the United States.”
Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said he had yet to speak to Trump – contrary to what the President-elect said earlier this week. Juncker said Trump had confused him with European Council President Donald Tusk. “Trump spoke to Mr. Tusk and mixed us up,” said Juncker, taking a jab at the American billionaire’s grasp of his new role. “That’s the thing about international politics,” he said. “It’s all in the detail.”
It’s clear that in many countries, growing segments of both the population and the political sphere are thinking and talking about following Britain’s example. Juncker had better address their concerns than trying to ignore and deny them, or he will guarantee to achieve the opposite of what he wants.
That Donald Trump was elected in the first place is a surefire sign that many things were going very wrong in the world. Brexit is a sign of the exact same thing. Elections and other votes coming up in Europe will be the next in line, and it doesn’t even matter who wins them; many will be far too close for comfort for the existing order.
Meanwhile, watching the spectacle unfold from a distance, we find it impossible not to be highly amused by the former world order seeing their own words and actions backfire on them. And that has nothing to do with being pro-Trump or pro-Le Pen.
This is the EU. This is what it stands for. There are no fiancial reasons for this to happen. It’s pure malice. And it’s why it’s way past time to close up shop in Brussels. The EU is the mob. Or as I’ve been saying for a long time: the EU eats people alive.
Rising mortality rates, an increase in life-threatening infections and a shortage of staff and medical equipment are crippling Greece’s health system as the country’s dogged pursuit of austerity hammers the weakest in society. Data and anecdote, backed up by doctors and trade unions, suggest the EU’s most chaotic state is in the midst of a public health meltdown. “In the name of tough fiscal targets, people who might otherwise survive are dying,” said Michalis Giannakos who heads the Panhellenic Federation of Public Hospital Employees. “Our hospitals have become danger zones.” Figures released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recently revealed that about 10% of patients in Greece were at risk of developing potentially fatal hospital infections, with an estimated 3,000 deaths attributed to them.
The occurrence rate was dramatically higher in intensive care units and neonatal wards, the body said. Although the data referred to outbreaks between 2011 and 2012 – the last official figures available – Giannakos said the problem had only got worse. Like other medics who have worked in the Greek national health system since its establishment in 1983, the union chief blamed lack of personnel, inadequate sanitation and absence of cleaning products for the problems. Cutbacks had been exacerbated by overuse of antibiotics, he said. “For every 40 patients there is just one nurse,” he said, mentioning the case of an otherwise healthy woman who died last month after a routine leg operation in a public hospital on Zakynthos. “Cuts are such that even in intensive care units we have lost 150 beds.” “Frequently, patients are placed on beds that have not been disinfected.
Staff are so overworked they don’t have time to wash their hands and often there is no antiseptic soap anyway.” No other sector has been affected to the same extent by Greece’s economic crisis. Bloated, profligate and corrupt, for many healthcare was indicative of all that was wrong with the country and, as such, badly in need of reform. Acknowledging the shortfalls, the government announced last month that it planned to appoint more than 8,000 doctors and nurses in 2017. Since 2009, per capita spending on public health has been cut by nearly a third – more than €5bn – according to the OECD. By 2014, public expenditure had fallen to 4.7% of GDP, from a pre-crisis high of 9.9%. More than 25,000 staff have been laid off, with supplies so scarce that hospitals often run out of medicines, gloves, gauze and sheets.
The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, spent years in his previous role as Luxembourg’s prime minister secretly blocking EU efforts to tackle tax avoidance by multinational corporations, leaked documents reveal. Years’ worth of confidential German diplomatic cables provide a candid account of Luxembourg’s obstructive manoeuvres inside one of Brussels’ most secretive committees. The code of conduct group on business taxation was set up almost 19 years ago to prevent member states from being played off against one another by increasingly powerful multinational businesses, eager to shift profits across borders and avoid tax. Little has been known until now about the workings of the committee, which has been meeting since 1998, after member states agreed a code of conduct on tax policies and pledged not to engage in “harmful competition” with one another.
However, the leaked cables reveal how a small handful of countries have used their seats on the committee to frustrate concerted EU action and protect their own tax regimes. Efforts by a majority of member states to curb aggressive tax planning and to rein in predatory tax policies were regularly delayed, diluted or derailed by the actions of a few of the EU’s smallest members, frequently led by Luxembourg. The leaked papers, shared with the Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by the German radio group NDR, are highly embarrassing for Juncker, who served as Luxembourg’s prime minister from 1995 until the end of 2013. During that period he also acted as finance and treasury minister, taking a close interest in tax policy. Despite having a population of just 560,000, Luxembourg was able to resist widely supported EU tax reforms, its dissenting voice often backed only by that of the Netherlands.
The head of Germany’s Ifo economic institute believes Italians will eventually want to quit the euro currency area if their standard of living does not improve, he told German daily Tagesspiegel. “The standard of living in Italy is at the same level as in 2000. If that does not change, the Italians will at some stage say: ‘We don’t want this euro zone any more’,” Ifo chief Clemens Fuest told the newspaper. He also said that if Germany’s parliament were to approve a European rescue program for Italy, it would impose on German taxpayers risks “the size of which it does not know and cannot control.” He said German lawmakers should not agree to do this. Italy is not seeking such a rescue program. The government in Rome is focusing on underwriting the stability of its banking sector, starting with a bailout of Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
A top aide to President-elect Donald Trump said in an interview aired on Sunday that the White House may have disproportionately punished Russia by ordering the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies. Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump will be asking questions of U.S. intelligence agencies after President Barack Obama imposed sanctions last week on two Russian intelligence agencies over what he said was their involvement in hacking political groups in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Obama also ordered Russia to vacate two U.S. facilities as part of the tough sanctions on Russia.
“One of the questions that we have is why the magnitude of this? I mean you look at 35 people being expelled, two sites being closed down, the question is, is that response in proportion to the actions taken? Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t but you have to think about that,” Spicer said. Trump is to have briefings with intelligence agencies this week after he returns to New York on Sunday. On Saturday, Trump expressed continued skepticism over whether Russia was responsible for computer hacks of Democratic Party officials. “I think it’s unfair if we don’t know. It could be somebody else. I also know things that other people don’t know so we cannot be sure,” Trump said.
He said he would disclose some information on the issue on Tuesday or Wednesday, without elaborating. It is unclear if, upon taking office on Jan. 20, he would seek to roll back Obama’s actions, which mark a post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russian ties. Spicer said that after China in 2015 seized records of U.S. government employees “no action publicly was taken. Nothing, nothing was taken when millions of people had their private information, including information on security clearances that was shared. Not one thing happened.” “So there is a question about whether there’s a political retribution here versus a diplomatic response,” he added.
Gov. Cuomo vetoed a bill late Saturday that would have required the state to fund legal services for the poor in each county. Cuomo’s office in a New Year’s Eve statement released just over an hour before the bill was required to be signed or vetoed said last-minute negotiations with the Legislature to address the governor’s concerns failed to yield a deal. “Until the last possible moment, we attempted to reach an agreement with the Legislature that would have achieved the stated goal of this legislation, been fiscally responsible, and had additional safeguards to ensure accountability and transparency,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said. “Unfortunately, an agreement was unable to be reached and the Legislature was committed to a flawed bill that placed an $800 million burden on taxpayers – $600 million of which was unnecessary – with no way to pay for it and no plan to make one.”
He said the issue will be revisited in the upcoming legislative session. The bill, which had support from progressive and conservative groups, would have given the state seven years to take over complete funding of indigent legal services from towns. Dozens of groups representing public defenders, municipalities and others expressed disappointment. Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, called Cuomo’s decision to veto the bill “stunning.” “We are all shocked that the Governor vetoed a bill that would have reduced racial disparities in the criminal justice system, helped ensure equal access to justice for all New Yorkers, provided improved public defense programs for those who cannot afford an attorney, and much-needed mandate relief for counties, Gradess said. “The governor refused to accept an independent oversight mechanism on state quality standards, and now, sadly tens of thousands of low-income defendants will pay the price.”
Retailers are bracing for a fresh wave of store closures at the start of the new year. The industry is heading into 2017 with a glut of store space as shopping continues to shift online and foot traffic to malls declines, according to analysts. “If you are weaker player, it’s going to be a very tough 2017 for you, ” said RJ Hottovy, a consumer equity strategist for Morningstar. He said he’s expecting a number of retailers to file for bankruptcy next year, in addition to mass store closures. Nearly every major department store, including Macy’s, Kohl’s, Walmart, and Sears, have collectively closed hundreds of stores over the last couple years to try and stem losses from unprofitable stores and the rise of ecommerce. But the closures are far from over.
Macy’s has already said that it’s planning to close 100 stores, or about 15% of its fleet, in 2017. Sears is shuttering at least 30 Sears and Kmart stores by April, and additional closures are expected to be announced soon. CVS also said this month that it’s planning to shut down 70 locations. Mall stores like Aeropostale, which filed for bankruptcy in May, American Eagle, Chicos, Finish Line, Men’s Wearhouse, and The Children’s Place are also in the midst of multi-year plans to close stores. Many more announcements like these are expected in the coming months. The start of the year is a popular time to announce store closures. Nearly half of annual store closings announced since 2010 have occurred in the first quarter, CNBC reports.
In addition to closing stores, retailers are also looking to shrink their existing locations. “As leases come up, you’re going to see a gradual rotation into smaller-footprint stores,” Hottovy said. Despite recent closures, the US is still oversaturated with stores. The US has 23.5 square feet of retail space per person, compared with 16.4 square feet in Canada and 11.1 square feet in Australia — the next two countries with the highest retail space per capita, according to a Morningstar report from October. “Across retail overall the US has too much space and too many shops,” said Neil Saunders, CEO of the retail consulting firm Conlumino. “As shopping patterns have changed, some of those shops are also in the wrong place and are of the wrong size or configuration.”
China’s new regulations on cash transactions and overseas transfers are not capital controls, according to a central bank researcher cited by the official Xinhua News Agency. New requirements published by the People’s Bank of China Friday stoked concern that the government is imposing capital controls in a disguised form, Xinhua reported late Sunday. “It is not capital control at all,” Ma Jun, chief economist of the central bank’s research bureau, told the state-run news service. The $50,000 annual foreign exchange purchase quota for individuals is unchanged, and the rules won’t affect normal activities such as business investment and operations abroad or overseas travel and study, Ma said.
Ma’s comments follow the annual Jan. 1 reset of the $50,000 limit for individuals, which may potentially aggravate capital outflow pressures that have been intensifying after the yuan suffered its steepest annual slump in more than two decades. The PBOC said Friday it will tighten rules for banks to report cross-border customer transactions starting July 1 as part of stepped-up efforts to curb money laundering and prevent terrorism financing. Financial institutions will assume responsibility for reporting and there will be neither extra documentation nor official approval procedures for businesses and individuals, Ma said.
The Chinese government should set a more flexible target for economic growth this year to give more space for reform efforts, a central bank adviser told the official Xinhua news agency in comments published on Sunday. China’s economy grew 6.7% in the third quarter from a year earlier and looks set to achieve the government’s full-year forecast of 6.5-7%, buoyed by higher government spending, a housing boom and record bank lending. However, growing debt and concerns about property bubbles have touched off an internal debate about whether China should tolerate slower growth in 2017 to allow more room for painful reforms aimed at reducing industrial overcapacity and indebtedness.
Huang Yiping, a monetary policy committee member of the central People’s Bank of China and Peking University professor, told Xinhua that China’s GDP growth target range should be 6-7% for this year, compared with 6.5-7% in 2016. “The 6.5% target is just an average rate,” Huang said. “As long as employment is stable, a slightly wider growth target range in the short term will reduce the need for pro-growth efforts and give policy makers more room to focus on reforms.” This year’s growth target will determine the government’s monetary policy, Huang said. “Large-scale monetary loosening is unlikely, while the possibility of tightening can not be ruled out,” he added, citing inflation concerns, higher U.S. interest rates and a weakening yuan.
Home prices defied forecasts they would stagnate in 2016 to grow more than they did during the “boom” year of 2015, according to year-end figures from property research firm CoreLogic. Dwelling prices rose 15.46% in Sydney while Melbourne had a rise of 13.68%. Even the much-maligned Hobart and Canberra housing markets posted strong gains, rising 11.24% and 9.29% respectively.
The data disappointed economists hoping for a more subdued housing market in 2016. At the end of 2015, Sydney and Melbourne closed with 11.5% and 11.2% growth respectively across houses and units, according to CoreLogic. ANZ had been expecting soft price growth and had forecast a 3% price rise for NSW, a 3.2% increase for Victoria, a 2% gain in Queensland and an overall 2.8% rise the country as a whole.
Apart from all the ill-feeling about the election, one constant ‘out there’ since November 8 is the Ayn Randian rapture that infects the money scene. Wall Street and big business believe that the country has passed through a magic portal into a new age of heroic businessmen-warriors (Trump, Rex T, Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, et. al.) who will go forth creating untold wealth from super-savvy deal-making that un-does all the self-defeating malarkey of the detested Deep State technocratic regulation regime of recent years. The main signs in the sky, they say, are the virile near-penetration of the Dow Jones 20,000-point maidenhead and the rocket ride of Ole King Dollar to supremacy of the global currency-space. I hate to pound sleet on this manic parade, but, to put it gently, mob psychology is outrunning both experience and reality. Let’s offer a few hypotheses regarding this supposed coming Trumptopian nirvana.
The current narrative weaves an expectation that manufacturing industry will return to the USA complete with all the 1962-vintage societal benefits of great-paying blue collar jobs, plus an orgy of infrastructure-building. I think both ideas are flawed, even allowing for good intentions. For one thing, most of the factories are either standing in ruin or scraped off the landscape. So, it’s not like we’re going to reactivate some mothballed sleeping giant of productive capacity. New state-of-the-art factories would require an Everest of private capital investment that is simply impossible to manifest in a system that is already leveraged up to its eyeballs. Even if we tried to accomplish it via some kind of main force government central planning and financing — going full-Soviet — there is no conceivable way to raise (borrow) the “money” without altogether destroying the value of our money (inflation), and the banking system with it.
If by some magic any new industrial capacity were built, much of the work in it would be performed by robotics, not brawny men in blue shirts, and certainly not at the equivalent of the old United Auto Workers $35-an-hour assembly line wage. We have not faced the fact that the manufacturing fiesta based on fossil fuels was a one-time thing due to special historical circumstances and will not be repeated. The future of manufacturing in America is frighteningly modest. We’ll actually be lucky if we can make a few vital necessities by means of hydro-electric or direct water power, and that will be about the extent of it. Some of you may recognize this as the World Made By Hand scenario. I’ll stick by that.
Not a new topic for many, but if it is for the New Yorker, there may be more people not aware of the Mosul Dam’s inherent problems: “a multilayer foundation of anhydrite, marl, and limestone, all interspersed with gypsum—which dissolves in contact with water. Dams built on this kind of rock are subject to a phenomenon called karstification..” Oh well, may be a good read up for all.
On the morning of August 7, 2014, a team of fighters from the Islamic State, riding in pickup trucks and purloined American Humvees, swept out of the Iraqi village of Wana and headed for the Mosul Dam. Two months earlier, isis had captured Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, as part of a ruthless campaign to build a new caliphate in the Middle East. For an occupying force, the dam, twenty-five miles north of Mosul, was an appealing target: it regulates the flow of water to the city, and to millions of Iraqis who live along the Tigris. As the isis invaders approached, they could make out the dam’s four towers, standing over a wide, squat structure that looks like a brutalist mausoleum. Getting closer, they saw a retaining wall that spans the Tigris, rising three hundred and seventy feet from the riverbed and extending nearly two miles from embankment to embankment. Behind it, a reservoir eight miles long holds eleven billion cubic metres of water.
A group of Kurdish soldiers was stationed at the dam, and the isis fighters bombarded them from a distance and then moved in. When the battle was over, the area was nearly empty; most of the Iraqis who worked at the dam, a crew of nearly fifteen hundred, had fled. The fighters began to loot and destroy equipment. An isis propaganda video posted online shows a fighter carrying a flag across, and a man’s voice says, “The banner of unification flutters above the dam.” The next day, Vice-President Joe Biden telephoned Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish region, and urged him to retake the dam as quickly as possible. American officials feared that isis might try to blow it up, engulfing Mosul and a string of cities all the way to Baghdad in a colossal wave. Ten days later, after an intense struggle, Kurdish forces pushed out the isis fighters and took control of the dam.
But, in the months that followed, American officials inspected the dam and became concerned that it was on the brink of collapse. The problem wasn’t structural: the dam had been built to survive an aerial bombardment. (In fact, during the Gulf War, American jets bombed its generator, but the dam remained intact.) The problem, according to Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American civil engineer who has served as an adviser on the dam, is that “it’s just in the wrong place.” Completed in 1984, the dam sits on a foundation of soluble rock. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below. Without continuous maintenance, the rock beneath would wash away, causing the dam to sink and then break apart. But Iraq’s recent history has not been conducive to that kind of vigilance.
Three film production companies including Netflix are interested in making a warts-and-all screen dramatization of Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit campaign, according to an associate of Farage. This would be another extraordinary twist for Farage, who from the fringes of British politics achieved his life’s goal when Britons voted to leave the European Union last June, and has since befriended U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. The project would be based on “The Bad Boys of Brexit”, an account of Farage’s campaign by Arron Banks, a multi-millionaire British insurance tycoon who bankrolled the campaign, according to Andy Wigmore, a spokesman for Banks.
“We have three interested parties in the rights to the book and we will be meeting representatives from three studios including a Netflix representative on Jan. 19 in Washington DC,” Wigmore told Reuters in a text message. Farage, Banks, Wigmore and others in their circle will travel to Washington for Trump’s inauguration as president, which will take place on Jan. 20. “We have invited all of them (the studio representatives) to our pre-inaugural drinks party … We have also invited many of Trump’s team to the event,” said Wigmore.
The Sunday Telegraph newspaper earlier reported that Hollywood studio Warner Bros. was also interested, but it was unclear from Wigmore’s texts to Reuters whether those who have approached Banks included representatives of Warner Bros. The subtitle of Banks’ book is “Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign”. It is described on its publisher’s website as “an honest, uncensored and highly entertaining diary of the campaign that changed the course of history”. Asked whether Farage was likely to appear as himself in any screen adaptation of his campaign, Wigmore said: “Yes we all expect to make a Quentin Tarantino appearance”, a reference to the director’s cameo appearances in his own movies.
The growth rate of nominal GDP in the US has fallen to 2.4pc, the lowest level outside recession since the Second World War. It has been sliding relentlessly for almost two years, a warning signal that underlying deflationary forces may be tightening their grip on the US economy. Given this extraordinary backdrop, the violent spike in US and global bonds yields over the last four trading days is extremely odd. It is rare for AAA-rated safe-haven debt to fall out of favour at the same time as stock markets, and few explanations on offer make sense. We can all agree that oxygen is thinning as we enter the final phase of the economic cycle after 86 months of expansion. The MSCI world index of global equities has risen to a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 17, significantly higher than on the cusp of the Lehman crisis.
“We think that too much complacency has crept in,” says Mislav Matejka, equity strategist for JP Morgan. “After seven years of having a structural overweight stance on global equities, we believe the regime has fundamentally changed. We think that one should not be buying the dips any more, but use any rallies as selling opportunities,” he said. The correlation between bonds and equities has reached unprecedented levels, and that has the coiled the spring. The slightest rise in yields now has a potent magnifying effect across the spectrum of assets. Hence the angst over what is happening to US Treasuries. Yields on 10-year Treasuries – the benchmark borrowing cost for international finance – have jumped 19 basis points to 1.72pc since the middle of last week.
The amount of global government debt trading at rates below zero has suddenly fallen from $10 trillion to $8.3 trillion, with parallel effects for corporate bonds. You would have thought that inflation was picking up in the US and that the Fed was about to slam on the brakes, but that is not the case. The markets are pricing in a mere 15pc chance of a rate rise next week, and the figure has been falling. If anything, the US inflation scare has subsided. There were grounds for worrying earlier this year that Fed would have to act. In February, core CPI inflation was steaming ahead at a rate of 2.9pc on a three-month annualized basis. This has since dropped back to 1.8pc. Other core measures are lower.
So much for the those calm markets. Wall Street’s “fear gauge” is rearing higher as U.S. equities logged a second sharp selloff in the past three sessions, as hand-wringing over central-bank monetary policy contributes to a renaissance of volatility. The CBOE Volatility Index often used as a measure of fear in the market, rose 18% on Tuesday at 17.85—its highest level since June 28 and implying that investors are starting to dial up bets that stocks could suffer further near-term swings turbulent. The VIX has hovered around 12 since mid-July. That level usually signals quiescence, while a reading of 20 or above indicates that investors are bracing for moves sharply south
The rise in the VIX comes as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index and the Nasdaq Composite relinquished all of the sharp gains racked up 24 hours ago. Monday’s rally followed another tumble on Friday that saw the VIX jump 40%—the largest daily move since Brexit on June 23. On Tuesday, volume in an exchange-traded fund that tracks the VIX, Barclays Bank PLC iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures exceeded that of stocks on the S&P 500 for the first time ever, as Bloomberg highlights:
On Wednesday, the VIX ticked higher as the Dow and S&P 500 lost momentum to trade lower late in the session. Three straight days of swings of at least 1% for stocks, marks the first time since 1963 that the S&P 500 followed an extended period of calm—43 days—with a trio of such choppy trading days, according to Dow Jones data. That was the two-day period before and immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Dow Jones data show. “The pickup in volatility is notable, and typically characterizes pullbacks,” said Katie Stockton, chief market technician at BTIG.
The debt market is in a “dangerous situation” as central banks around the world lose their ability to stimulate growth, hedge fund giant Ray Dalio said Tuesday. As the world faces more than $11 trillion in negative-yielding debt, Dalio said central banks like the Fed, the ECB and the BOJ are facing a dilemma. “There’s only so much you can squeeze out of the debt cycle, and we’re there globally,” the head of Bridgewater Associates said at the Delivering Alpha conference presented by CNBC and Institutional Investor. “You can’t lower interest rates more.” Dalio spoke as Fed officials contemplate a rate hike at some point this year. Market-implied probability indicates that the Fed won’t hike until at least December. Its September meeting is next week. While monetary policy has been used as a fuel for growth and asset price appreciation, Dalio said its effectiveness is waning. “We are to various degrees close to pushing on a string,” he said.
To alleviate its debt problem, China should adopt appropriate macro-economic policies encompassing currency depreciation and cutting interest rates to an ultra-low-level within two to three years, believe Nomura analysts. Yang Zhao and team said in their September 14 research piece titled “China: Solving the debt problem” that they believe RMB depreciation will continue and forecast USD/CNH at 7.1 at the end of 2017. Zhao and team highlight that debt-to-GDP ratio can be lowered either through reducing the numerator or increasing the denominator.
They believe that to contain or even reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, the gap between debt growth and nominal GDP growth must shrink or turn negative. They believe lowering the ratio has to be premised on the acceptance of a slower rate of GDP growth: The Nomura analysts argue that default is the only practical way to trim the stock of outstanding debts. Instead of an outright default, per se, they suggest other approaches such as renegotiating terms, lowering interest rates, and tenure extension.
“Since increasing the denominator is unfeasible, policymakers must therefore look to lower the numerator. The only practical measures that can be taken to reduce the debt ratio are those aimed at reducing the growth of debt to below that of nominal GDP growth. “The outstanding stock of debt can only be reduced through either repayment or indeed default. One argument is that China’s corporate sector and/or local governments can, or should, simply repay their debts by selling the huge amount of assets that they have accumulated, but again, this is not a feasible solution.
The key reason behind the low level of corporate leverage despite the huge amount of debt is that asset prices have not collapsed. If the corporate sector or local governments repaid their debts by selling their assets – which are predominantly in real estate – their leverage will almost certainly spike higher due to the subsequent decline in the value of their remaining asset base. Hence, there is essentially only one practical way to reduce the stock of outstanding debts: defaults.”
The Chinese central bank’s yuan positions – which reflect the amount of foreign currency held on its balance sheet – fell to the lowest since 2011 in August, a sign that it sold dollars to support the yuan. The People’s Bank of China has been seen intervening in the market to stem the currency’s slide, with Bank of East Asia and Natixis saying that policy makers will prevent the exchange rate from slipping past 6.7 per dollar before its admission into the IMF’s basket of reserves on Oct. 1.
Pundits and policymakers everywhere are bemoaning the rise of a new, inward-looking populism. Led by the likes of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, those who’ve felt only globalization’s ill effects, not its benefits, have mounted a fierce counterattack. Border-hopping elites fret that the whole process of opening up and knitting together the world through trade, capital flows and immigration may soon go into reverse. They’re missing the point. Support for freer trade and greater openness had in fact begun to falter well before economic nationalists like Trump and Farage took center stage. The same governments that count themselves among globalization’s greatest champions have been rolling it back steadily since the global financial crisis.
Their excuses are innocent-sounding and several: to protect national industries and iconic businesses; to secure export markets and competitive advantage; and above all, to prop up employment and incomes. Despite oft-repeated warnings about avoiding the beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the 1930s, these governments allowed global trade talks – the so-called Doha Round – to stall as early as 2008. Nations including the U.S. have instead pursued narrower bilateral and regional deals where they don’t have to satisfy so many different negotiating partners and can continue to protect key sectors. If these pacts are better than nothing, they more or less foreclose the possibility of a more ambitious multilateralism.
Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2015, three times as many discriminatory trade measures were introduced as liberalizing ones. In the first 10 months of 2015 alone, the latest Global Trade Alert database recorded 539 such initiatives adopted by governments worldwide that harmed foreign traders, investors, workers or owners of intellectual property – a record. Efforts to control trade flows have grown increasingly sophisticated. Most governments no longer impose tariffs or other crude roadblocks that would violate WTO rules. Instead countries from the U.S. – with the auto bailouts – to the U.K., China, Brazil, Canada and several EU members have funneled aid to domestic industries. State procurement rules – which in China, say, forbid buying strategic and defense technology from abroad – favor domestic suppliers, as do “buy local” campaigns like the ones launched since 2009 in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.
Do you want Wall Street to get a piece of your house? On Tuesday, the noted venture capitalist Marc Andreesen announced that he’d invested in a startup called Point. Point casts itself as a solution to an intrinsic problem with home ownership: Most Americans have most of their wealth tied up in their home. There are mechanisms for “taking out” some of the equity built up as a mortgage is paid down, such as home-equity lines of credit or home-equity loans. But they require paying interest – not to mention having good credit. They also don’t help homeowners diversify their investments. Diversification was the driver behind an earlier version of what Point offers. Allan Weiss, who helped create the S&P/Case-Shiller price indexes, created a platform he calls “indexed fractional ownership.”
His idea came in part from a conversation with a neighbor who said he was looking forward to “cashing out” of an expensive home he’d owned for a long time – just before the housing market crashed. If you own a home and offer some of the equity to an investor like Point, the idea goes, you could take that money and invest it in a different asset class, like stocks. And what does Point get? If the house appreciates before it is sold, Point benefits. If the house depreciates, according to Andreessen Horowitz’s website, “Point gets paid back after the bank, but before the homeowner, in the event of a sale.” A blog post on Point’s site notes that, in addition to an initial appraisal, Point may require a “risk adjustment” that “offsets the chance that the home will depreciate before the end of the term.”
Yet Weiss and Andreessen Horowitz both envision their products gaining the critical mass to move beyond one-off agreements between investors and individual homeowners into what the latter calls a “broad basket” of homes. “It’s rethinking the fundamentals of residential real estate ownership – making single-family residential real estate a liquid, tradeable asset class,” the venture capitalists wrote.
F o r d i s s h i f t i n g a l l N o r t h A m e r i c a n s m a l l - c a r p r o d u c t i o n f r o m t h e U . S . t o M e x i c o , C E O M a r k F i e l d s t o l d i n v e s t o r s t o d a y i n D e a r b o r n . “