Apr 262017
 
 April 26, 2017  Posted by at 2:02 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  4 Responses »
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EdgarDegas A la mer 1863

 

Something hit me this week. The maps which came out on Monday and detailed the outcome of the French elections, were telling a story, and a familiar one by now. A story of deep division. There are a number of such maps now depicting the Brexit vote in the UK, the US presidential elections, and its French counterpart.

In all three cases they leave me wondering something along the lines of: ‘Are you guys sure you want to remain in the same country with each other?’ Because to me that is not all that obvious, and I think it’ll get less so as time passes. For instance in the case of France, the ‘ideological’ differences between Macron and Le Pen are substantial to say the least, they’re worlds apart.

And if you’re worlds apart, why live in the same country? Here’s that French map:

 

 

As you see, the country is sharply divided between west (Macron) and east (Le Pen). So much so that you wonder what these people still have in common, other than their language. There’s no doubt it’s also a dividing line between the richer part of the country, and the poorer.

Thing is, that same dividing line is visible in a similar map of the November 8, 2016 US election results, in a slightly different way.

 

 

In the US it’s not east versus west, it’s coast versus interior (flyover land). But the difference is equally clear and sharp. In fact, probably what we’re looking at is that France has only one coastline, while the US has two, and in both countries people living close to the ocean are on average richer than those who live more inland.

And in both cases there is no doubt that wealth is a deciding factor in dividing the nations to the extent that they are. We see that in an ‘urban versus rural area’ comparison as well. Cities like New York, LA and Paris are strongholds for the incumbent and establishment, the parties that represent the rich.

There can be no doubt that we’ll see more of that going forward. It won’t be there in smaller countries, Holland for instance is not nearly large enough for such dynamics. But Italy very well might. It’s always had a strong north-south-divide, and its present crisis has undoubtedly deepened that chasm.

Looking at things that way, it’s also glaringly obvious that Macron is Obama (and is Renzi is Cameron etc.). A well-trained good looking mediagenic puppet with a gift of teleprompter gab, fabricated and cultivated by the ruling financial and industrial world to do their bidding. Macron, to me, looks the most artificial of the crop so far, the Obama, Rutte, Cameron, Renzi crop. There will be more, and they will get more artificial. Edward Bernays is just getting started.

Of course there is also a strong move away from established parties. It is more pronounced in France -where they were eradicated at least in the presidential elections- than in the US or UK, but that may be more of a superficial thing. Trump and Bernie Sanders are simply America’s version of France’s ‘ultra’ right wing Le Pen and ‘ultra’ left wing Melenchon. And Trump is running into problems with the remnants of the established parties as much as Macron will if he’s elected president.

Anglo countries seem to take longer diversifying away from tradition than others, but they too will get there. The various deteriorating economies will make sure of that.

 

A third map is of the UK Brexit vote. Once again, a sharp division, and once again with a ‘character’ of its own. If you ignore Scotland for a moment, what you see is blue=poor and yellow=rich. Broad strokes, I know, but I’ve been doing that with the first two maps too. There are only a few pockets of yellow=rich=remain. But yeah, fewer people live there. Same thing as in the US and France.

That the whole Brexit thing should now be negotiated by the Tories is a cynical irony the country owes to its adherence to tradition. That is how that backfires, too little flexibility. How the UK will solve its many ignored issues is anyone’s guess. Will Scotland leave the no-longer-very United Kingdom? Will voters wake up in time to not present the Tories with a free hand to make the rich-poor divide even worse?

 

 

There’s one more, and more detailed, map of France, which shows even better to what extent ‘Le Pen country’ is eerily similar to America’s flyover land. It’s almost poetic, a poem about how countries fall apart, about centers that cannot hold. It also makes me think of a locust invasion, by the way.

 

 

Every French and European body and their pet hamster is presently telling voters in France to please please not vote for Le Pen, in a move that resembles similar calls against Trump and Brexit. And who knows, it might work this time around. The anti-Le Pen frenzy is even stronger than the others, and it has Marine’s crazy father to use as a warning sign.

But as these maps show, it’s not about Le Pen, or Trump, or Nigel Farage. It’s about people being left behind in ever larger numbers, susceptible to voices other than the ones they’ve known for a long time and who never listened to them. And nothing is being done to address these people’s claims; on the contrary, things are only getting worse for them.

I saw a headline today that said ECB president Mario Draghi’s “Stimulus Could Blunt Populism as Unemployment Declines”. There’s only one possible reaction to that: what happens when he stops his stimulus?

The growing divides that all these maps bear witness to will keep growing, unless someone decides that neo-liberalism has gone too far. But the only person who could make such a decision would have to be one who neo-liberalism itself has made rich and powerful. So don’t count on that happening.

Count instead on more Trumps and Le Pens and Sanders’s. And also on more Obama’s and Macrons for the rich to deploy to protect their power and hold on to their riches. Increasingly it would seem they have to limit democracy -even further- to remain in power. So count on that happening too.

But don’t count on all these countries surviving as sovereign nations. The chasms are widening too fast and too much.

Apr 242017
 
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Pablo Picasso Self portrait 1896

 


Euro and Shares Rally After Macron Wins First Round of French Election (Ind.)
Fight Over Obamacare Could Shut Down The Government (CNN)
Trump Push For Border Wall Threatens To Cause Government Shutdown (G.)
America is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People (Parramore)
London Mayor To Subsidise ‘Naked’ Homes Solution To Housing Crisis (G.)
China Stocks Head For Worst Day Of 2017 As Regulators Tighten Grip (R.)
Chinese Billionaires Amass In The Country’s Heartland (CNBC)
Jack Ma Sees Decades of Pain as Internet Upends Old Economy (BBG)
Fear City (Naomi Klein)
IMF Warns Greece That Additional Economic Overhauls Are Needed (WSJ)
Greek Banks Aspire To Begin Online Asset Auctions In June (K.)

 

 

Not sure there’s all that much to celebrate. Looks like a torn country.

Euro and Shares Rally After Macron Wins First Round of French Election (Ind.)

The euro briefly surged to a five-month high against a basket of currencies after centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron won the first round of a hotly contested French election vote, an outcome broadly considered the most market-friendly. Immediately after the vote on Sunday, the euro surged to $1.0940, its highest level against the dollar since November last year, before retreating to around $1.0869. It rose against the pound and the Swiss franc too and stocks across Europe and Asia climbed as investors pulled out of assets considered safest to hold during times of economic uncertainty or political turmoil, like gold, Japan’s yen and core government bonds. The FTSE 100 was up 1.5% in early trading while Paris’ CAC 40 added almost 4%. Germany’s DAX rose more than 2%.

Analysts and strategists were quick to point out that the outcome lessens the risk of an anti-establishment shock, like the UK’s vote last year to quit the European Union and Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory in November. “Macron will be reassuring to markets, with his pledge to lower corporate taxes and to lighten the administrative burden on firms. He basically represents continuity,” said Octavio Marenzi, CEO of Opimas, a capital markets management consultancy. “While the markets would have preferred Trump-style deregulation, no candidate, including Macron, would dare touch such an agenda in France,” he added.

Read more …

The media can’t make up their minds on what could cause a shutdown. Obamacare….

Fight Over Obamacare Could Shut Down The Government (CNN)

The fight over Obamacare’s future is now threatening to shut down the federal government. Congress must pass a spending bill by the end of this week or the federal government will run out of money. And Democrats, whose votes are needed to approve a budget, plan to use their leverage to force Republicans to stabilize Obamacare. They want the budget deal to fund a set of Obamacare subsidies that are crucial to keeping insurers in the program. Here’s how Obamacare figures into the government spending battle. Subsidies make health care affordable for those with low-incomes: The House GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare may be shelved for now, but Republicans still hold tremendous power over Obamacare’s future.

The most pressing issue is the funding of subsidy payments to insurers known as cost-sharing reductions, or CSRs. These make health care more affordable for lower-income Obamacare enrollees by reducing their deductibles and co-pays. Those with incomes under $29,700 for a single person are eligible. The payments can cut deductibles to as low as $227, on average, instead of nearly $3,500 for the standard silver Obamacare plan. These subsidies are important to insurers, too. A little over 7 million people, or 58%, signed up for policies with cost-sharing subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges for 2017. The payments are made directly to insurers and will cost the federal government an estimated $7 billion this year.

Republicans sued Obama to block the subsidies: The subsides have been at the center of a court battle since 2014, when House Republicans sued the Obama administration to try to stop them. GOP lawmakers have argued that Congress never appropriated funds for the payments. A district court judge agreed last year, ruling the subsidies were illegal. The Obama administration filed an appeal, and the subsidies continue to be paid while GOP lawmakers and Trump officials agree on a settlement.

Read more …

… or the border wall.

Trump Push For Border Wall Threatens To Cause Government Shutdown (G.)

Looming above Washington as Congress and the White House attempt to avert a funding shutdown in only five days’ time, Donald Trump’s central campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border threatens to bring the US government to a halt this week in a national display of dysfunction. On Sunday, even White House officials expressed uncertainty about whether the president would sign a funding bill that did not include money for a wall, which Trump has promised since the first day of his presidential campaign. “We don’t know yet,” said the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, on Fox News Sunday. “We are asking for our priorities.” The president himself waded into the negotiations on Sunday, holding out two sticks and no carrot. “ObamaCare is in serious trouble,” he tweeted. “The Dems need big money to keep it going – otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought.”

“The Democrats don’t want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members,” he continued, suggesting he would accuse Democrats of being soft on international crime. But Trump also retreated from a related pledge to the American people: that he would “make Mexico pay” for the wall, which is estimated to cost billions. “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” the president tweeted, without offering a plan or timeline. Without a deal, funding for the government will run out at midnight on 28 April, Trump’s 100th day in office. The secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday he suspected the president would push for the wall. “He’ll do the right thing, for sure, but I suspect he’ll be insistent about the funding,” Kelly said.

Read more …

“..the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration – check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.”

America is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People (Parramore)

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place. In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations, and fates. In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology, and electronics, the industries which largely support its growth).

These are the 20% of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework, and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies, and count themselves as lucky to be Americans. The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80% of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to.

They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon. The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations, and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick, or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.

The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression, and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing. In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration – check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

Read more …

Yeah, sure, when things get too expensive you just lower the quality. Could it be an idea to tackle the cause of the problem instead of mere symptoms?

London Mayor To Subsidise ‘Naked’ Homes Solution To Housing Crisis (G.)

Who needs internal walls or a fitted kitchen anyway? As house prices soar ever further out of reach, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is to subsidise a new generation of ultra-basic “naked” homes wthat will sell for up to 40% less than standard new builds. The apartments will have no partition walls, no flooring and wall finishes, only basic plumbing and absolutely no decoration. The only recognisable part of a kitchen will be a sink. The upside of this spartan approach is a price tag of between £150,000 and £340,000, in reach for buyers on average incomes in a city where the average home now costs £580,000.

The no-frills concept is to be be tested with 22 apartments on three sites in Enfield, north London, where the council will allow builders to take over derelict council estate garages and car parks. Khan has awarded a £500,000 grant to what he says will be the largest custom-build development in London. If successful, a further seven sites will be built. “The idea is to strip out all of the stuff that people don’t want in the first place,” said Simon Chouffot, one of the founders of the not-for-profit developer, Naked House. “People want to do some of the custom building. We can make it affordable by people doing some of the work themselves.” The developers are a group of thirtysomethings who found themselves priced out of buying homes in London’s fast-rising property market.

“We are all from generation rent and we have been growing up with this housing crisis,” said Chouffot, 37. “I put down roots in north-east London but it was impossible to buy there. My response has been to live on a boat on the Regent’s canal. The average income in our area is about £40,000 but the average income you need to buy a property is £170,000, so there is a huge affordability gap.” He said the Enfield homes would be about 15% cheaper to build than standard new homes because of their basic design.

Read more …

A power struggle developing? Xi must tackle the debt, or risk losing.

China Stocks Head For Worst Day Of 2017 As Regulators Tighten Grip (R.)

China stocks tumbled more than 1% on Monday and looked set for their biggest loss of the year amid signs that Beijing would tolerate more market volatility as regulators clamp down on shadow banking and speculative trading. Recent signs of stability in China’s economy “have provided a good external environment and a window of opportunity to reduce leverage in the financial system, strengthen supervision and ward off risks,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Sunday. “Over the past week, interbank rates trended higher, bond and capital markets suffered from sustained corrections and some institutions faced liquidity pressure. But these have little impact to the stability of the broader environment.”

The Shanghai Composite Index slumped 1.6% to 3,123.80 points by the lunch break, after posting its biggest weekly loss so far this year last week. The blue-chip CSI300 index fell 1.3% to 3,423.11. Barring a rebound, the indexes looked set for their biggest one-day percentage loss since mid-December. Daily declines of more than 1% in the indexes have been rare for notoriously volatile Chinese markets this year. “Even the better-than-expected Q1 data could not boost the market, as investors are concerned about regulatory risks,” wrote Larry Hu, analyst at Macquarie Capital Ltd, referring to stronger-than-expected 6.9% economic growth early in the year.

In the latest of a flurry of regulatory measures, China’s insurance regulator said on Sunday it will ramp up its supervision of insurance companies to make sure they comply with tighter risk controls and threatened to investigate executives who flout rules aimed at rooting out risk-taking. The banking regulator said late on Friday that growth in Chinese wealth management products (WMPs) and interbank liabilities eased in the first quarter, suggesting authorities are making some headway in containing financial risks built up by years of debt-fuelled stimulus.

Read more …

The billionaire bubble. A communist party rules this country. In name.

Chinese Billionaires Amass In The Country’s Heartland (CNBC)

ZHENGZHOU, China — Here in China’s heartland, in the capital of its Henan province, some of the country’s most powerful leaders are meeting. But these are not the political elite that have run the country for decades, this is a new crop of leaders — all from the private sector. This city, near corn and wheat fields, is hosting an annual meeting from the China Entrepreneur Club. That’s an invite-only group composed of 55 Chinese billionaires, at last count. In other words, they’re the richest — and among the most influential — people in a country that’s already minting millionaires monthly. Unlike many of the moneyed elite from other developing countries, who accrued wealth from a privatization land-grab, almost all of China’s entrepreneurs started from scratch. And these entrepreneurs aren’t just titans of industry, but also technology, energy, finance and retail.

In many ways, they are China’s new economy. How they’ve succeeded, mostly despite the Communist government, is a major and under-appreciated part of the story of China’s transformation over the past 35 years. In fact, even before the Chinese government officially acknowledged the benefits of private companies, hundreds of thousands of businesses had already begun. A handful of those have become international giants. Huawei is now one of the largest telecommunications equipment makers in the world, but it started by importing used gear from the telephone exchange in Hong Kong. The company now known as Lenovo, the world’s top PC-maker by market share, started by selling televisions imported into China. Geely, now one of China’s biggest carmakers, started by selling parts for refrigerators.

The people behind those names are China’s first generation of entrepreneurs. The second generation came about in the 1990s, and the country’s third crop of entrepreneurs includes people like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and Tencent’s Pony Ma (no relation), who are now the focus of most of the Western world’s attention. And China is already churning out a new slew of tech titans in the making. By some measures, China’s private sector now accounts for two thirds of its economy. Entrepreneurs, not politicians, are now the ones driving the long-sought economic rebalancing away from a dependence on manufacturing and exports and more toward services and consumption.

But one of the major questions about China’s future is what the dynamic will be like between entrepreneurs and state-owned enterprises. So far, Beijing has largely treated private success benignly because the biggest stars, like Alibaba, are more valuable to the national cause without official direction or interference. Those companies are flying China’s flag, in an increasingly international capacity, more effectively than any state campaign or directive could ever hope to achieve. But the state and its companies still comprise a full third of China’s economy, and when state-owned enterprises begin to get crowded out, there will likely be tension.

Read more …

Ma has wild fantasies.

Jack Ma Sees Decades of Pain as Internet Upends Old Economy (BBG)

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma said society should prepare for decades of pain as the internet disrupts the economy. The world must change education systems and establish how to work with robots to help soften the blow caused by automation and the internet economy, Ma said in a speech to an entrepreneurship conference in Zhengzhou, China. “In the next 30 years, the world will see much more pain than happiness,” Ma said of job disruptions caused by the internet. “Social conflicts in the next three decades will have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life.” It was an unusual speech for the Alibaba co-founder, who tends to embrace his role as visionary and extol the promise of the future. He explained at the event that he had tried to warn people in the early days of e-commerce it would disrupt traditional retailers and the like, but few listened.

This time, he wants to warn against the impact of new technologies so no one will be surprised. “Fifteen years ago I gave speeches 200 or 300 times reminding everyone the Internet will impact all industries, but people didn’t listen because I was a nobody,” he said. Ma made the comments as Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce operator, spends billions of dollars to move into new businesses from film production and video streaming to finance and cloud computing. The Hangzhou-based company, considered a barometer of Chinese consumer sentiment, is looking to expand abroad since buying control of Lazada to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia, potentially setting up a clash with the likes of Amazon.com. Ma, 52, was also critical of the traditional banking industry, saying that lending must be available to more members of society. The lack of a robust credit system drives up the costs for everyone, he said.

[..] Ma was at times brutal in his criticism of companies that won’t adapt. At one point, he said cloud computing and artificial intelligence are essential for business – and if leaders don’t get that, they should find young people in their companies to explain it to them. Another time, he called for traditional industries to stop complaining about the internet’s effects on the economy. He said Alibaba critics ignore that Taobao, its main online marketplace, has created millions of jobs. [..] He also warned that longer lifespans and better artificial intelligence were likely to lead to both aging labor forces and fewer jobs. “Machines should only do what humans cannot,” he said. “Only in this way can we have the opportunities to keep machines as working partners with humans, rather than as replacements.”

Read more …

Klein interviews Kim Philipps-Fein, author of Fear City, which describes New York in the 1970s, and Trump’s role in it.

Fear City (Naomi Klein)

When i published “The Shock Doctrine” a decade ago, a few people told me that it was missing a key chapter in the evolution of the tactic I was reporting on. That tactic involved using periods of crisis to impose a radical pro-corporate agenda. They said that in the United States that story doesn’t start with Reagan in the 1980s, as I had told it, but rather in New York City in the mid-1970s. That’s when the city’s very near brush with all-out bankruptcy was used to dramatically remake the metropolis. Massive and brutal austerity, sweetheart deals for the rich, privatizations. In classic Shock Doctrine style, under cover of crisis, New York changed from being a place with some of the most generous public services in the country, engaged in some cutting-edge attempts at racial and economic integration, to the temple of nonstop commerce and gentrification that we all know and still love today.

New York’s debt crisis is an incredibly important and little understood chapter in the evolution of what Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calls market fundamentalism, a process the Trump administration is in the process of rapidly accelerating, which is why I was so happy to receive Kim Phillips-Fein’s remarkable new book, “Fear City.” In it, she meticulously documents how the remaking of New York City in the ’70s was a prelude to what would become a global ideological tidal wave, one that has left the world brutally divided between the 1% and the rest. She helps us to understand many of the forces that Trump exploited to win the White House, from economic insecurity to crumbling public infrastructure to fearmongering about black crime, all amid previously unimaginable private wealth.

Read more …

Thomsen continues to play an ugly part.

IMF Warns Greece That Additional Economic Overhauls Are Needed (WSJ)

The IMF had a sobering message for Greece this weekend: Even if the country secures debt relief from its European creditors—a question that is by no means assured with bailout talks still deadlocked—the nation still needs even more painful economic overhauls than currently planned. Seven years into an economic crisis and another near-term financial emergency looming, that is a message no Greek wants to hear and a key reason why the IMF is also urging Germany and Athens’ other European creditors to give the country hope in the form of real debt relief. The country’s “fiscal and structural reforms…pension reforms, tax reforms, are only a down payment,” said Poul Thomsen, IMF’s European department chief and Greece’s original bailout architect, on the sidelines of the fund’s semiannual meeting of finance ministers and central bankers.

To bring the country’s unemployment and income levels back to precrisis rates will take “deep structural reforms, many of which are not yet on the books,” he said. The jobless rate is currently at 22% and half of all the youth labor force are without work. “This is a long-term project,” he said. Mr. Thomsen, along with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, met with Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos over the weekend ahead of a return of the fund to Athens next week. Although bailout talks continue, the fund hasn’t been involved in emergency financing for the country in three years, and future funding from the IMF is an open question. Fund officials worry the Greece’s existing efforts are stretching the nation’s political and social limits to their breaking point.

The country has already endured a series of political crises and government changeovers over the bailout years. Another could be coming, analysts say, as the government faces debt due in the coming months that it can’t cover without additional help from outside creditors. Earlier this year, the fund said the deadlock over new bailout terms, financing and debt relief risked pushing the country out of the eurozone. Analysts say Greece’s crisis could be the thread that unravels the currency union, especially amid Britain’s rejection of the European Union and rising anti-euro parties in key upcoming elections.

Read more …

The blessings of foreclosures. The entire country is for sale. It’s a colony.

Greek Banks Aspire To Begin Online Asset Auctions In June (K.)

The country’s four systemic banks have evolved into some of the biggest property owners in Greece, obtaining ownership of assets worth over €40 billion in the past few years. The majority are properties that came under the banks’ full ownership mainly from being the collateral used by borrowers – households and enterprises – who failed to repay their debts. There also are properties used to house bank branches that were shut down, assets belonging to banks’ subsidiaries of banks, etc. According to bank officials, the acquisition of these properties has met all the legal requirements and they do not include assets stemming from nonperforming loans created during the years of crisis, originating, instead, from previous years.

Banks are examining various ways to sell them off – including the use of an online platform for investors – so as to be rid of the heavy maintenance costs, to capitalize on the assets and to obtain liquidity that can then be channeled into the economy through loans. Certain lenders are at an advanced stage in the creation of such a platform, aiming to launch the first auctions some time in June. It is estimated that if banks manage to attract foreign investors this could revitalize the Greek property market, which has contracted dramatically in recent years due to the prolonged recession. From 250,000 transactions in 2007, the market dropped to just 20,000 in 2014. Banks have already engaged in certain transactions, selling some small or large properties (such as hotels) to foreign investors.

However, more extensive activity,requires other procedures, which would also be simple and transparent. Electronic auctions appear as the best way forward, as they are open, do not require the seller’s physical presence and have low costs, while also keeping out the “vultures” that take advantage of the lack of transparency in conventional auctions. The online platforms will include all the main details of each asset, while potential buyers will be allowed to visit the properties on offer and submit their offers online on certain dates. Bank officials tell Kathimerini that one such platform in the US has sold over 200,000 properties worth $34 million to investors from more than 100 countries in the last decade.

Read more …

Apr 012017
 
 April 1, 2017  Posted by at 9:12 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  No Responses »
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Claude Monet The Pond at Montgeron 1876

 


Boaty McBoatface, or Don’t Listen To The Public -BoE’s Haldane (Tel.)
UK Households’ Savings Fall To Record Low (G.)
Multiple Bubbles Are Going To Bring America To Its Knees (Lang)
Ports In China Have Enough Iron Ore To Build 13,000 Eiffel Towers (R.)
French Banks Posted ‘Multi-Billion Euro Profits’ In Tax Havens (F24)
European Right Hopes Macron Will Save France (EUO)
Racket of Rackets (Jim Kunstler)
The Big Contraction – An Interview With Jim Kunstler
Julian Assange Waits For Ecuador’s Election To Decide His Future (G.)

 

 

Haldane is not the dumbest of central bankers. But this is crazy. See, the question is this: would Brexit have been prevented by not listening to people, or did not listening to them cause Brexit? And what’s wrong with calling a ship Boaty McBoatface? Maybe it’s an idea to listen more to people, not less? What else would you like to decide for people to protect them from their own madness?

Boaty McBoatface, or Don’t Listen To The Public -BoE’s Haldane (Tel)

The public should not have a direct say in setting interest rates because they can show “madness” when making collective decisions – just look at Boaty McBoatface, the Bank of England’s chief economist has warned. Central bankers have come under pressure to be more accountable to the public after the financial crisis and years of ultra-low interest rates, but it could be dangerous to hold a referendum on rates. It would be feasible to canvas the public online, said Andy Haldane, but could be dangerous. He pointed to the example of Boaty McBoatface, the name chosen in a public ballot for a new polar research ship last year, winning 80pc of votes cast. The National Environmental Research Council overruled the public and called the ship “Sir David Attenborough”, instead using the comedy name for a smaller submersible.

“This is an object lesson in the perils of public polling for policy purposes,” Andy Haldane, the chief economist, said in a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. “Sometimes, there is madness in crowds.” He joked: “For some, it was a shameful example of the perils of populism.” He does propose more regular surveying of the public on the economy so the Bank of England knows what people think and how they are affected by monetary policy, however. Mr Haldane also said that “Marmite-gate” – the public row between Tesco and supplier Unilever over the price of the yeast extract spread – was useful in preparing the public for a bout of price rises. “Arguably, “Marmitegate” raised public awareness of rising inflation much more effectively than any amount of central bank jawboning,” he said. “Stories, like Marmite itself, stick.”

Typically the Bank of England struggles to get its message through to the public, often because officials use long words and technical language rather than using phrases which normal people use. “Simple words can make a dramatic difference to readability. ‘Inflation and employment’ leaves the majority of the public cold. ‘Prices and jobs’ warms them up,” he said. Officials should learn from Facebook and from pop songs to learn how to speak in a way which is more clear for the general public, rather than specialist audiences of financiers, Mr Haldane said. “Facebook posts are more likely to be shared the more frequent nouns and verbs and the less frequent adverbs and adjectives,” he said. “The ratio of nouns and verbs to adverbs and adjectives in an Elvis song is 3.3. In my speeches it is 2.7.”

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Hard to believe, this. Brits are scared, they would hoard. It’s just not in their banks accounts that they do. It’s Go To The Mattresses time.

UK Households’ Savings Fall To Record Low (G.)

British households ran down their savings to a record low at the end of 2016 and disposable incomes fell in a warning sign for the economy that a squeeze in living standards is under way. The savings ratio – which estimates the amount of money households have available to save as a%age of their total disposable income – fell sharply in the fourth quarter to 3.3% from 5.3% in the third. It was the lowest since records began in 1963 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and suggested that people are increasingly dipping into their savings to maintain spending. “Today’s figures should set alarm bells ringing. The last thing our economy needs right now is another consumer debt crisis,” said the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady.

“People raiding their piggy banks and borrowing more than they can afford is what helped drive the last financial crash.” In a further sign that household finances are coming under increasing strain from rising inflation and falling wage growth, disposable incomes also fell over the quarter. Real household disposable income – which adjusts for the impact of inflation – shrank by 0.4% compared with the previous three months, the steepest drop in nearly three years. UK growth since the financial crisis has been heavily reliant on consumer spending. The ONS confirmed the wider UK economy grew by 0.7% between October and December, but economists said a weaker consumer backdrop could weigh on growth in the coming months. Growth in 2016 was unrevised at 1.8% as the ONS updated its estimates.

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And the rest of the world.

Multiple Bubbles Are Going To Bring America To Its Knees (Lang)

If you’ve been paying attention to the ongoing degradation of the American economy since the last financial crisis, you’re probably flabbergasted by the fact that our economy has managed to make it this far without imploding. I know I am. I find myself shocked with every year that passes without incident. The warning signs are there for anyone willing to see, and they are flashing red. Even cursory research into the numbers underlying our system will tell you that we’re on an unsustainable financial path. It’s simple math. And yet the system has proven far more durable than most people thought. The only reasonable explanation I can think of, is that the system is being held up by wishful thinking and willful ignorance.

If every single person knew how unsustainable our economy is, it would self-destruct within hours. People would pull their money out of the banks, the bonds, and the stock market, and buy whatever real assets they could while their money is still worth something. It would be the first of many dominoes to fall before the entire financial system collapses. But most people don’t want to think about that possibility. They want the relative peace and prosperity of the current system to continue, so they ignore the facts or try to avoid them as much as possible. They keep their money right where it is and cross their fingers instead. In other words, the only thing propping up the system is undeserved confidence.

Unfortunately, confidence can’t keep an unsustainable system running forever. Nothing can. And our particular system is brimming with economic bubbles that aren’t going to stay inflated for much longer. Most recessions are associated with the bursting of at least one kind of bubble, but there are multiple sectors of our economy that may crash at roughly the same time in the near future. [..] Our economy is awash in cheap money and financial bubbles that threaten to wipe out tens of trillions of dollars worth of savings, investments, and assets. Everyone can close their eyes and hum while they hope that everything is going to be just fine, but it won’t be.

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But the economy is fine, of course…

Ports In China Have Enough Iron Ore To Build 13,000 Eiffel Towers (R.)

With enough iron ore to construct Paris’s Eiffel Tower nearly 13,000 times over, China’s ports are bursting with stockpiles of the raw material and some of them are demolishing old buildings to create more storage space, trading sources said. China’s domestic iron ore production jumped 15.3% in January-February as a price rally last year extended into 2017, causing imported ore to pile up at the ports of the world’s top buyer. Stockpiles are at their highest in more than a decade and are affecting prices. Inventory of imported iron ore at 46 Chinese ports reached 132.45 million tonnes on March 24, SteelHome consultancy said, the highest since it began tracking the data in 2004. A third of the stocks belongs to traders and the rest is owned by China’s steel mills, SteelHome said.

That volume would make about 95 million tonnes of steel, enough to build 12,960 replicas of the 324-metre (1,063-foot) high Eiffel Tower in Paris. Global iron ore prices are now at just above $80 a tonne from a 30-month peak of $94.86 reached in February, largely due to the growing port inventory. Prices surged 81% last year, bringing relief to miners after a three-year rout. The rally stretched into 2017, inspiring marginal producers to resume business and lifting supply as China’s steel demand waned. Further falls in the price of iron ore risk shuttering Chinese capacity again. That could boost China’s reliance on top-grade exporters Vale, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

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Not going to stop as long as we don’t stop it.

French Banks Posted ‘Multi-Billion Euro Profits’ In Tax Havens (F24)

The Eurozone’s 20 biggest banks earned over a quarter of their profits in tax havens in 2015, according to a report released Monday by Oxfam. The report details how, in 2015, top Eurozone banks generated €25 billion in profits in low-tax territories like the Republic of Ireland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and the American state of Delaware. Despite the massive profits, the banks only conducted 12% of their total business and employed 7% of their workers in those countries – a clear sign of the “tricks” that banks are willing use to avoid countries with stricter tax regimes, according to Oxfam’s Manon Aubry, one of the report’s authors. In Europe, banking is now the only sector in which companies must declare country-by-country tax and profit figures, thanks to legislation passed in the wake of the financial crisis.

The anti-poverty NGO Oxfam took advantage of the new data to write its report. Several of France’s biggest banks figure prominently in the report, including BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, Société Générale and BPCE (which owns Banque Populaire and Caisse d’Epargne). French banks declared almost €2 billion in profit in Luxembourg, as much as they reported in Germany and Spain combined, despite the fact that Luxembourg’s population is only 1% that of Spain’s. Some of the most telling figures come from discrepancies between profit and other key economic measures. “Société Générale, for instance, reported 22% of its profits in tax havens,” Oxfam’s Aubry told FRANCE 24, “but only 4% of its employee pay was generated there.”

In another example, BNP Paribas declared €134 million of profit in the Cayman Islands in 2015, although it had zero employees there. However, Servane Costrel, Wealth Management Press Officer for BNP Paribas, said that these figures were “obsolete”. “Profits earned in the Cayman Islands were taxed in the United States,” Costrel told FRANCE 24 by email. “But this is a non-issue since that figure [of profits in the Cayman Islands] dropped to zero in 2016.”

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Save the right from the right. That should work. The French massively hate their own politicial system.

European Right Hopes Macron Will Save France (EUO)

Not long ago, Francois Fillon was considered the most likely winner of the French presidential election in May. But after he was charged for embezzlement over suspicions of fake parliamentary jobs for his wife and children, even his European allies seem to have lost hope. Meanwhile, the fear of seeing far-right candidate Marine Le Pen taking power is growing. “People are worried, they are wondering what is going on in France,” Joseph Daul, president of the European People’s Party (EPP), told EUobserver on the margins of the EPP congress in Malta this week. “And it goes further than that. There are already committees, at the highest level, working on the hypothesis that France leaves the euro and the EU,” he said. He declined to specify whether these working groups were in EU capitals or in the EU institutions.

Officials in Brussels have warned about the consequences for France and the EU if Le Pen were to be elected, but have said so far that that they do not want to envisage a Le Pen scenario. The National Front (FN) leader has said that she wants to “do away with the EU,” and has promised to organise a referendum on the country’s EU membership. Her possible election “has been a risk for some time,” a high level EU source said recently, pointing to the “explosion” of the two main parties, the Socialist Party (PS) of outgoing president Francois Hollande and Fillon’s Republicans. In the most recent poll published on Wednesday (29 March), Socialist Party (PS) candidate Benoit Hamon was credited with only 10% of voting intentions and Fillon with 18%. Both were far behind Le Pen (with 24%) and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron (with 25.5%).

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Pecora for health care.

Racket of Rackets (Jim Kunstler)

My suggestion for real reform of the medical racket looks to historical precedent: In 1932 (before the election of FDR, by the way), the US Senate formed a commission to look into the causes of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and recommend corrections in banking regulation to obviate future episodes like it. It is known to history as the Pecora Commission, after its chief counsel Ferdinand Pecora, an assistant Manhattan DA, who performed gallantly in his role. The commission ran for two years. Its hearings led to prison terms for many bankers and ultimately to the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932, which kept banking relatively honest and stable until its nefarious repeal in 1999 under President Bill Clinton — which led rapidly to a new age of Wall Street malfeasance, still underway.

The US Senate needs to set up an equivalent of the Pecora Commission to thoroughly expose the cost racketeering in medicine, enable the prosecution of the people driving it, and propose a Single Payer remedy for flushing it away. The Department of Justice can certainly apply the RICO anti-racketeering statutes against the big health care conglomerates and their executives personally. I don’t know why it has not done so already — except for the obvious conclusion that our elected officials have been fully complicit in the medical rackets, which is surely the case of new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, a former surgeon and congressman who trafficked in medical stocks during his years representing his suburban Atlanta district. A new commission could bypass this unprincipled clown altogether.

It is getting to the point where we have to ask ourselves if we are even capable of being a serious people anymore. Medicine is now a catastrophe every bit as pernicious as the illnesses it is supposed to treat, and a grave threat to a nation that we’re supposed to care about. What party, extant or waiting to be born, will get behind this cleanup operation?

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“..it’s unclear whether we will land back in something like the mid-nineteenth century, or go full-bore medieval, or worse.”

The Big Contraction – An Interview With Jim Kunstler

We’ve been sowing the seeds for our predicament since the end of World War II. You might even call this process “The Victory Disease.” In practical terms it represents sets of poor decisions with accelerating bad consequences. For instance, the collective decision to suburbanize the nation. This was not a conspiracy. It was consistent with my new theory of history, which is Things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time. In 1952 we had plenty of oil and the ability to make a lot of cars, which were fun, fun, fun! And we turned our war production expertise into the mass production of single family houses built on cheap land outside the cities. But the result now is that we’re stuck in a living arrangement with no future, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

Another bad choice was to offshore most of our industry. Seemed like a good idea at the time; now you have a citizenry broadly impoverished, immiserated, and politically inflamed. Of course, one must also consider the possibility that industrial society was a historic interlude with a beginning, middle, and end, and that we are closer to the end of the story than the middle. It was, after all, a pure product of the fossil fuel bonanza, which is also coming to an end (with no plausible replacement in view.) I don’t view all this as the end of the world, or of civilization, per se, but we’re certainly in for a big re-set of the terms for remaining civilized. I’ve tried to outline where this is all going in my four-book series of the “World Made By Hand” novels, set in the near future.

If we’re lucky, we can fall back to sets of less complex social and economic arrangements, but it’s unclear whether we will land back in something like the mid-nineteenth century, or go full-bore medieval, or worse. One thing we can be sure of: the situation we face is one of comprehensive discontinuity — a lot of things just stop, beginning with financial arrangements and long-distance supply lines of resources and finished goods. Then it depends whether we can respond by reorganizing life locally in this nation at a finer scale — if it even remains a unified nation. Anyway, implicit in this kind of discontinuity is the possibility for disorder. We don’t know how that will go, and how we come through it depends on the degree of disorder.

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At some point I can see this turning into a Free Mandela kind of movement.

Julian Assange Waits For Ecuador’s Election To Decide His Future (G.)

For Ecuador’s 15 million inhabitants, Sunday’s presidential election runoff will pose a fundamental question: whether to continue with a leftwing government that has reduced poverty but also brought environmental destruction and authoritarian censorship, or to take a chance on a pro-business banker who promises economic growth but is accused of siphoning money to offshore accounts. But they are not the only ones for whom the result will be critically important. Thousands of miles away, in the country’s tiny embassy in central London, Julian Assange will be watching closely to see if his four and a half years of cramped asylum could be coming to an abrupt, enforced end. Guillermo Lasso, the businessman and leading opposition candidate, has vowed that if he wins, the WikiLeaks founder’s time in the embassy will be up.

Lasso has said he would “cordially ask Señor Assange to leave within 30 days of assuming a mandate”, because his presence in the Knightsbridge embassy was a burden on Ecuadorian taxpayers. His government opponent, Lenin Moreno, has said Assange would remain welcome, albeit with conditions. “We will always be alert and ask Mr Assange to show respect in his declarations regarding our brotherly and friendly countries,” Moreno said. The most recent polling showed Moreno at least four percentage points ahead of his rival, though earlier polls had Lasso in the lead, and many analysts caution that the results are within the margin of error. Could this weekend really trigger the beginning of the end for Assange’s extraordinary central London refuge? Neither Lasso’s victory, nor precisely what he would do if he won, are certain (he later softened his position to say Assange’s status would be “reviewed”).

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Mar 162017
 
 March 16, 2017  Posted by at 2:53 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  9 Responses »
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Marc Riboud Sur les Quais de Paris 1953

 

The Dutch elections on Wednesday have provided a whole bunch of Orwellian narratives. PM Mark Rutte’s right wing VVD party, actually the ‘business’ -or should we say ‘rent-seekers’ in 2017- party, who lost some 20% of the seats they had obtained in the previous parliamentary election in November 2012, down from 41 to 33 seats, is declared the big winner. While Geert Wilders’ very right wing party, PVV, won 25% more seats -it went from 16 to 20- and is the big loser.

Moreover, Rutte’s coalition partner, labor PvdA, gave up 29 out of 38 seats to end up with just 9. That’s a loss of over 75%. Together, the coalition partners went from 79 seats in the 2012 election to 42 in 2017. That’s an almost 50% less. Not that it could prevent Rutte from proudly declaring: “We want to stick to the course we have – safe and stable and prosperous..” Makes you wonder who the ‘we’ are that he’s talking about.

That course he wants to stick to had a finance minister named Dijsselbloem, and his party just lost by over 75%. So he won’t be back. But perhaps the EU can pull another ‘Tusk’, and leave him in place in Brussels as chairman of the Eurogroup no matter what voters in his own country think of him. Still, declaring your intention to ‘stick to the course’ when your coalition has just been sawed in half, it’s quite something.

 

The only reasons Rutte’s VVD ended up being the biggest party all have to do with Wilders. The anxiety over the election all had to do with polls. Wilders is a one man party and a a one trick pony. If he would leave, his party would dissolve. And his sole ‘message’ is that Islam is bad and should vanish from first Holland and then Europe. He doesn’t really have any other political program points. Ok, there’s Brussels. Doesn’t like that either.

Perhaps that’s why he largely shunned the pre-election debates. Problem with that is, these things attract a lot of TV viewers, crucial free air-time. All in all, since he’s his own worst enemy in many respects, it’s not that much of a surprise that Wilders’ support collapsed, and that’s just if we were to take Dutch pollsters more serious than their counterparts in the US and UK.

Talking of which, according to Rutte, those are the countries where ‘the wrong kind of populism’ has won and delivered Trump and Brexit. And of course there are lots of people who agree with that. What either they, or Rutte himself, would label ‘the right kind of populism’ is unclear. Maybe Rutte himself is the right kind of populist?

 

The row with Turkey over the weekend must have helped Rutte quite a bit. Not only were his actions in the row met with approval by a large majority of the Dutch population, including just about all other party leaders, the Dutch also got to think about what WIlders would do in such a situation. And there can be no doubt that Rutte is seen as much more of a statesman than Wilders.

Not that the row is over. After Turkey announced yesterday it would return 40 Dutch cows (?!) , today Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said Europe’s politicians are “taking Europe toward an abyss”, and: “Soon religious wars will break out in Europe. That’s the way it’s going.” There can be no doubt that a shouting war like this with Wilders as one of the participants would take on a whole different shape, and a different choice of words.

What Rutte’s going to do next is form a new coalition, this time not with the left but with the center-right, and no-one will be able to tell the difference. If Dutch, and European, and global, politics have one main problem, it’s that. Left is right and right is left and winners are losers. If a guy like Dijsselbloem can squeeze Greek society dry in his capacity as Eurogroup head, while he runs as a leftist candidate in his own country, and loses hugely, anything goes.

 

All those who think they can see in the Dutch experience, a sign that Marine Le Pen’s chances in France’s presidential elections in April and May have dropped a lot, would appear to be delusional. Judging from reactions in the financial markets, many seem to be. But Le Pen is much less of a fringe figure than Wilders is, and she certainly wouldn’t shun a debate. It’s true that her Front National is a one-woman operation, bit she has a much clearer political program than Wilders does.

And she doesn’t have an opponent like Rutte, who’s become a formidable presence domestically, as anyone would be who can be PM for many years and not be put out by the curb. The man who should be Le Pen’s main adversary is not; Hollande is out by that curb and doesn’t even dare run again. His Socialist party has become a joke. The next strongest opponent should be François Fillon, but he’s all but gone now he’s been placed under formal investigation.

That leaves only Emmanual Macron, an independent without a party and without a program. In France, you can be elected president in such a situation, but your hand are tied in all sorts of ways, because you need parliament to vote for things.

..the nuances of the French political system put Macron in a spot of bother. The president derives their power from the support of a majority in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. Macron was a minister for the Socialist Party government but quit in 2016 to form his own political movement. Now he doesn’t even have a party, let alone a majority. Although the constitution of the French Fifth Republic, created by Charles De Gaulle in 1958, extended presidential powers, it did not enable the president to run the country.

There are only a few presidential powers that do not need the prime minister’s authorisation. The president can appoint a prime minister, dissolve the National Assembly, authorise a referendum and become a “temporary dictator” in exceptional circumstances imperilling the nation. They can also appoint three judges to the Constitutional Council and refer any law to this body. While all important tasks, this does not, by any stretch of the imagination, amount to running a country. The president can’t suggest laws, pass them through parliament and then implement them without the prime minister.

The role of a president is best defined as a “referee”. Presidential powers give the ability to oversee operations and act when the smooth running of institutions is impeded. So a president is able to step in if a grave situation arises or to unlock a standoff between the prime minister and parliament, such as by announcing a referendum on a disputed issue or by dismissing the National Assembly.

So, why does everyone see the president as the key figure? In a nutshell, it’s because the constitution has never been truly applied. There lies the devilish beauty of French politics. A country known since the 1789 revolution for its inability to foster strong majorities in parliament has succeeded, from 1962, in providing solid majorities.

Perhaps those who believe that what happened in Holland is also likely to happen in France are swayed by the notion that both are part of the EU. But they are very different countries and cultures, and different political systems. And Le Pen is no Wilders. She doesn’t say crazy things anymore, she’s cleansed the public image of her party by getting rid of her father, and she keeps any remaining extremists out of view.

There is still plenty suspicion in France about her, and about her party, but there are also a lot of people who agree with a lot of what she says. The perhaps most noteworthy statement she’s made recently is that she would step down if she loses the referendum about membership of the EU she intends to launch if elected president. That should keep Brussels on their toes. Marine means what she says. And a lot of French people may get to like her for that. In a political landscape in which the competition keeps shooting itself in the foot.

Another thing about Le Pen is that her political program contains quite a few bits and bolts that could be labeled leftist; a 35-hour work week, retirement at 60, lower energy prices. It’s just that she wants to reserve these things for the French. Foreigners, especially, Muslims, are not invited. And she is very much opposed to neo-liberalism and globalization:

They’ve made an ideology out of it. An economic globalism which rejects all limits, all regulation of globalization, and which consequently weakens the immune defences of the nation state, dispossessing it of its constituent elements: borders, national currency, the authority of its laws and management of the economy, thus enabling another globalism to be born and to grow: Islamist fundamentalism..

Le Pen’s popularity does not come from an overwhelming innate racism in France -though such a thing certainly exists-. It comes instead from the formidable failure that the country’s immigration policy has been for many decades. At the outskirts of major cities ghetto’s have been allowed to form in which those that come from former French colonies, especially in Africa, feel trapped with no way out. The French tend to feel superior to all other people, and the political system has let the situation slip completely out of hand.

Now France, and Europe is general, will have to deal with this mess. So far, the main European reaction is to turn Greece into a prison camp for a new wave of refugees and migrants. That can of course only make things worse. And it doesn’t solve any of the existing problems. Which makes the rise of Marine Le Pen inevitable.

And Wilders too; he’s the no. 2 party in Holland, because his party won 33% more seats than in 2012 to go from 15 to 20. That 33% gain, versus Rutte’s 20% loss, makes Wilders a loser in the eyes of many ‘relieved’ observers.

Winners are losers, and as is evident in Le Pen’s social policies for the French, in European coalition governments that contain Labor and right wing parties, and in the course of the Democratic party in the US, left is definitely the same as right.

Orwell always wins. Next problem: the actual left are not represented by anyone anymore.


MarcRiboud Sur les Quais de Paris 1953

 

The Dutch elections on Wednesday have provided a whole bunch of Orwellian narratives. PM Mark Rutte’s right wing VVD party, actually the ‘business’ -or should we say ‘rent-seekers’ in 2017- party, who lost some 20% of the seats they had obtained in the previous parliamentary election in November 2012, down from 41 to 33 seats, is declared the big winner. While Geert Wilders’ very right wing party, PVV, won 25% more seats -it went from 16 to 20- and is the big loser.

Moreover, Rutte’s coalition partner, labor PvdA, gave up 29 out of 38 seats to end up with just 9. That’s a loss of over 75%. Together, the coalition partners went from 79 seats in the 2012 election to 42 in 2017. That’s an almost 50% less. Not that it could prevent Rutte from proudly declaring: “We want to stick to the course we have – safe and stable and prosperous..” Makes you wonder who the ‘we’ are that he’s talking about.

That course he wants to stick to had a finance minister named Dijsselbloem, and his party just lost by over 75%. So he won’t be back. But perhaps the EU can pull another ‘Tusk’, and leave him in place in Brussels as chairman of the Eurogroup no matter what voters in his own country think of him. Still, declaring your intention to ‘stick to the course’ when your coalition has just been sawed in half, it’s quite something.

 

The only reasons Rutte’s VVD ended up being the biggest party all have to do with Wilders. The anxiety over the election all had to do with polls. Wilders is a one man party and a a one trick pony. If he would leave, his party would dissolve. And his sole ‘message’ is that Islam is bad and should vanish from first Holland and then Europe. He doesn’t really have any other political program points. Ok, there’s Brussels. Doesn’t like that either.

Perhaps that’s why he largely shunned the pre-election debates. Problem with that is, these things attract a lot of TV viewers, crucial free air-time. All in all, since he’s his own worst enemy in many respects, it’s not that much of a surprise that Wilders’ support collapsed, and that’s just if we were to take Dutch pollsters more serious than their counterparts in the US and UK.

Talking of which, according to Rutte, those are the countries where ‘the wrong kind of populism’ has won and delivered Trump and Brexit. And of course there are lots of people who agree with that. What either they, or Rutte himself, would label ‘the right kind of populism’ is unclear. Maybe Rutte himself is the right kind of populist?

 

The row with Turkey over the weekend must have helped Rutte quite a bit. Not only were his actions in the row met with approval by a large majority of the Dutch population, including just about all other party leaders, the Dutch also got to think about what WIlders would do in such a situation. And there can be no doubt that Rutte is seen as much more of a statesman than Wilders.

Not that the row is over. After Turkey announced yesterday it would return 40 Dutch cows (?!) , today Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said Europe’s politicians are “taking Europe toward an abyss”, and: “Soon religious wars will break out in Europe. That’s the way it’s going.” There can be no doubt that a shouting war like this with Wilders as one of the participants would take on a whole different shape, and a different choice of words.

What Rutte’s going to do next is form a new coalition, this time not with the left but with the center-right, and no-one will be able to tell the difference. If Dutch, and European, and global, politics have one main problem, it’s that. Left is right and right is left and winners are losers. If a guy like Dijsselbloem can squeeze Greek society dry in his capacity as Eurogroup head, while he runs as a leftist candidate in his own country, and loses hugely, anything goes.

 

All those who think they can see in the Dutch experience, a sign that Marine Le Pen’s chances in France’s presidential elections in April and May have dropped a lot, would appear to be delusional. Judging from reactions in the financial markets, many seem to be. But Le Pen is much less of a fringe figure than Wilders is, and she certainly wouldn’t shun a debate. It’s true that her Front National is a one-woman operation, bit she has a much clearer political program than Wilders does.

And she doesn’t have an opponent like Rutte, who’s become a formidable presence domestically, as anyone would be who can be PM for many years and not be put out by the curb. The man who should be Le Pen’s main adversary is not; Hollande is out by that curb and doesn’t even dare run again. His Socialist party has become a joke. The next strongest opponent should be François Fillon, but he’s all but gone now he’s been placed under formal investigation.

That leaves only Emmanual Macron, an independent without a party and without a program. In France, you can be elected president in such a situation, but your hand are tied in all sorts of ways, because you need parliament to vote for things.

..the nuances of the French political system put Macron in a spot of bother. The president derives their power from the support of a majority in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. Macron was a minister for the Socialist Party government but quit in 2016 to form his own political movement. Now he doesn’t even have a party, let alone a majority. Although the constitution of the French Fifth Republic, created by Charles De Gaulle in 1958, extended presidential powers, it did not enable the president to run the country.

There are only a few presidential powers that do not need the prime minister’s authorisation. The president can appoint a prime minister, dissolve the National Assembly, authorise a referendum and become a “temporary dictator” in exceptional circumstances imperilling the nation. They can also appoint three judges to the Constitutional Council and refer any law to this body. While all important tasks, this does not, by any stretch of the imagination, amount to running a country. The president can’t suggest laws, pass them through parliament and then implement them without the prime minister.

The role of a president is best defined as a “referee”. Presidential powers give the ability to oversee operations and act when the smooth running of institutions is impeded. So a president is able to step in if a grave situation arises or to unlock a standoff between the prime minister and parliament, such as by announcing a referendum on a disputed issue or by dismissing the National Assembly.

So, why does everyone see the president as the key figure? In a nutshell, it’s because the constitution has never been truly applied. There lies the devilish beauty of French politics. A country known since the 1789 revolution for its inability to foster strong majorities in parliament has succeeded, from 1962, in providing solid majorities.

Perhaps those who believe that what happened in Holland is also likely to happen in France are swayed by the notion that both are part of the EU. But they are very different countries and cultures, and different political systems. And Le Pen is no Wilders. She doesn’t say crazy things anymore, she’s cleansed the public image of her party by getting rid of her father, and she keeps any remaining extremists out of view.

There is still plenty suspicion in France about her, and about her party, but there are also a lot of people who agree with a lot of what she says. The perhaps most noteworthy statement she’s made recently is that she would step down if she loses the referendum about membership of the EU she intends to launch if elected president. That should keep Brussels on their toes. Marine means what she says. And a lot of French people may get to like her for that. In a political landscape in which the competition keeps shooting itself in the foot.

Another thing about Le Pen is that her political program contains quite a few bits and bolts that could be labeled leftist; a 35-hour work week, retirement at 60, lower energy prices. It’s just that she wants to reserve these things for the French. Foreigners, especially, Muslims, are not invited. And she is very much opposed to neo-liberalism and globalization:

They’ve made an ideology out of it. An economic globalism which rejects all limits, all regulation of globalization, and which consequently weakens the immune defences of the nation state, dispossessing it of its constituent elements: borders, national currency, the authority of its laws and management of the economy, thus enabling another globalism to be born and to grow: Islamist fundamentalism..

Le Pen’s popularity does not come from an overwhelming innate racism in France -though such a thing certainly exists-. It comes instead from the formidable failure that the country’s immigration policy has been for many decades. At the outskirts of major cities ghetto’s have been allowed to form in which those that come from former French colonies, especially in Africa, feel trapped with no way out. The French tend to feel superior to all other people, and the political system has let the situation slip completely out of hand.

Now France, and Europe is general, will have to deal with this mess. So far, the main European reaction is to turn Greece into a prison camp for a new wave of refugees and migrants. That can of course only make things worse. And it doesn’t solve any of the existing problems. Which makes the rise of Marine Le Pen inevitable.

And Wilders too; he’s the no. 2 party in Holland, because his party won 33% more seats than in 2012 to go from 15 to 20. That 33% gain, versus Rutte’s 20% loss, makes Wilders a loser in the eyes of many ‘relieved’ observers.

Winners are losers, and as is evident in Le Pen’s social policies for the French, in European coalition governments that contain Labor and right wing parties, and in the course of the Democratic party in the US, left is definitely the same as right.

Orwell always wins. Next problem: the actual left are not represented by anyone anymore.

 

 

Feb 162017
 
 February 16, 2017  Posted by at 10:31 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »
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Pablo Picasso Femme 1930

 

 

Great read from Ed. “..while Brazil and Greece faced the same type of downturn in dollar terms — about 45% in GDP per person — Brazilian living standards only deteriorated about 2%, compared to 26% in Greece.” Good part on Dutch elections too.

Europe’s Delusional Economic Policies (Edward Harrison)

This chart encapsulates the narrative in Matt’s post – namely that Greece has underperformed other emerging market crisis countries on post-crisis growth. Here’s how Matt put it: Greece had a very different post-crisis experience: it never recovered. By contrast, all the other countries were well past their pre-crisis peak after this much time had elapsed. On average, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, and Turkey have outperformed Greece by more than 40 percentage points after nine years. The reasonable question is why. Matt answers that in the paragraph before, saying: “But unlike those countries, Greece lacked the ability to use the exchange rate as a shock absorber. So while Brazil and Greece faced the same type of downturn in dollar terms — about 45% in GDP per person — Brazilian living standards only deteriorated about 2%, compared to 26% in Greece. The net effect is that Greece had a relatively typical crisis in dollars but an unprecedently painful one in the terms that matter most”.

My view is that what we are seeing, therefore, is the difference monetary sovereignty can make in post-crisis recovery because the currency does a lot of the heavy lifting. And this is true for developed economies as well. For example, we saw the UK and Sweden recover after a housing bubble and EMU turmoil in the early 1990s in part because of currency depreciations. But of course, Greece doesn’t have its own currency so the currency can’t depreciate. Greece must use the internal devaluation route, which makes its labor, goods and services cheaper through a deflationary path – and that is very destructive to demand, to growth, and to credit. This, in my view, accounts for much of Greece’s underperformance relative to emerging market crisis countries.

In response to my tweet on Greece, Danish economist Lars Christensen pointed out to me that he had compared Greece to Turkey in 2015 and Greece came out poorly too. And his post noted that: “14 years later Turkey is still in many ways politically dysfunctional – in fact it has gotten worse in recent years – there has been rumours of plans of military coups, there has been major corruption scandals even involving the Prime Minister (now president Erdogan) and the governing AKParty and lately the civil war in Syria has created a massive inflow of refugees and increased tensions with Turkish Kurdish population.” Translation: it’s not about reforms, people. It’s about growth. And the euro – and the policies tied to membership – is anti-growth, particularly for a country like Greece that is forced to hit an unrealistic 3.5% primary surplus indefinitely. And there will be no debt forgiveness either, as the IMF has said is necessary.

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The WaPo takes a break from its political campaign and shows it still has at least one person left who can write an actual -and execellent- report.

Austerity Was A Bigger Disaster Than We Thought (WaPo)

We now take a break from your regularly scheduled scandals to bring you some not-so-breaking news: austerity was as big a disaster as its biggest critics said it was. That, at least, is what economists Christopher House and Linda Tesar of the University of Michigan and Christïan Proebsting of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne found when they looked at Europe’s budget-cutting experience the last eight years. It turns out that cutting spending right after the worst crisis in 80 years only led to a lower GDP and, in the most extreme cases, higher debt-to-GDP ratios. That’s right: trying to reduce debt levels sometimes increased debt burdens. Other than that, how was the policy, Mrs. Lincoln? But let’s back up a minute. This isn’t something that’s always true. In fact, it almost never used to be.

Cutting spending, you see, shouldn’t be a problem as long as you can cut interest rates too. That’s because lower borrowing costs can stimulate the economy just as much as lower government spending slows it down. What happens, though, if interest rates are already zero, or, even worse, you’re part of a currency union that means you can’t devalue your way out of trouble? Well, nothing good. House, Tesar and Proebsting calculated how much each European economy grew — or, more to the point, shrank — between the time they started cutting their budgets in 2010 and the end of 2014, and then compared it with what actually realistic models say would have happened if they hadn’t done austerity or adopted the euro.

According to this, the hardest-hit countries of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain would have contracted by only 1% instead of the 18% they did if they hadn’t slashed spending; by only 7% if they’d kept their drachmas, pounds, liras, escudos, pesetas and the ability to devalue that went along with them if they hadn’t become a part of the common currency and outsourced those decisions to Frankfurt; and only would have seen their debt-to-GDP ratios rise by eight percentage points instead of the 16 they did if they hadn’t tried to get their budgets closer to being balanced. In short, austerity hurt what it was supposed to help, and helped hurt the economy even more than a once-in-three-generations crisis already had.

[..] the euro really has been a doomsday device for turning recessions into depressions. It’s not just that it caused the crisis by keeping money too loose for Greece and the rest of them during the boom and too tight for them during the bust. It’s also that it forced a lot of this austerity on them. Think about it like this. Countries that can print their own money never have to default on their debts — they can always inflate them away instead — but ones that can’t, because, say, they share a common currency, might have to. Just the possibility of that, though, can be enough to make it a reality. If markets are worried that you might not be able to pay back your debts, they’ll make you pay a higher interest rate on them — which might make it so that you really can’t. In other words, the euro can cause a self-fulfilling prophecy where countries can’t afford to spend any more even though spending any less will only make everything worse.

That’s actually a pretty good description of what happened until the ECB belatedly announced that it would do “whatever it takes” to put an end to this in 2012. Which was enough to get investors to stop pushing austerity, but, alas, not politicians. It’s a good reminder that you should never doubt that a small group of committed ideologues can destroy the economy. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. That’s true whether you’re talking about the European politicians who pushed for the creation of the euro itself – they ignored the economists who warned them that it might turn out just as badly as it has – or the ones who pushed for austerity a few decades later. After all, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that trying to balance your budget when interest rates were zero would end badly.

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What’s lacking in Europe is self-reflection. Maybe that’s because it has no flexibility in its policies. But that still doesn’t make Malloch wrong.

‘The European Project Has Failed’ – Trump EU Envoy Pick Malloch (Exp.)

Donald Trump’s likely EU ambassador has launched a blistering attack on the “undemocratic” bloc and its “elitist” leaders.In comments that will terrify Brussels, Ted Malloch said the EU had become “bloated” by bureaucracy and “anti-Americanism”. And he called for member states to hold their own Brexit-style referendums – which could spark the break-up of the union. It comes after Mr Trump hailed Brexit as a “blessing to the world” and said the UK would be far stronger outside the bloc. Mr Malloch, who is the President’s pick to become Washington’s envoy to Brussels, made the comments in The Parliament magazine.

He said: “Put the EU to a referendum vote in every member country. “It is time for greater scepticism and realism about the European Union and its not so hidden agenda and ever closer union.” He added: “The failure of the European integration project should by now be self-apparent to everyone. “This is simply not something Churchill or Roosevelt would countenance. “The European Union has become undemocratic and bloated by both bureaucracy and rampant anti-Americanism.” He said: “We want democracy and accountability, while the EU is intrinsically undemocratic and unaccountable. “So should the US continue to promote such a damaged European model, which is alien to our own traditions? Is it not working against US interests to do so?”

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It may be an option considered fleetingly, but that’s it.

Greece ‘May Ditch Euro In Favour Of The Dollar’ – Malloch (Ind.)

The man tipped to be Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union has said that Greece is contemplating leaving the euro in favour of the US dollar. According to the transcript of a translated interview with Greek local online news site ekathimerini.com, Professor Ted Malloch claimed Greek economists are looking into taking on the US banknotes if the country turns its back on the European single currency in a move that he said would “freak out” Germany. He said: “I know some Greek economists who have even gone to leading think tanks in the US to discuss this topic and the question of dollarisation. “Such a topic of course freaks out the Germans because they really don’t want to hear such ideas.”

Mr Malloch added that a “Grexit” would be the best options for Greek people as the current situation is “unsustainable”. Mr Malloch, a strident Brexiteer, has indicated he is no fan of Brussels on several occasions. Earlier this month, in an interview with Bloomberg, Mr Malloch said that he didn’t want to speak on behalf of the Greek people but “I think there is probably – from an economist’s perspective – a very strong reason for Greece moving away from the euro.” Last month, Mr Malloch said the euro “could collapse” in the next 18 months. “The one thing I would do in 2017 is short the euro,” he said. “I think it is a currency that is not only in demise but has a real problem and could in fact collapse in the coming year, year and a half,” he added.

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‘He will die in jail’:

US Intelligence Community Ready To ‘Go Nuclear’ On Trump (RawS)

U.S. national security officials are reportedly ready to “go nuclear” after President Donald Trump’s latest attack on the intelligence community. In a series of tweets on Tuesday and Wednesday, Trump insisted that the “real scandal” was not that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied about his contact with Russia. Instead, the president blasted what he said were “un-American” leaks that led to Flynn’s ousting.On Wednesday, former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler provided some insight into the reaction of national security officials. “Now we go nuclear,” he wrote on Twitter. “[Intelligence community] war going to new levels. Just got an [email from] senior [intelligence community] friend, it began: ‘He will die in jail.’” “US intelligence is not the problem here,” Schindler added in another tweet. “The President’s collusion with Russian intelligence is. Many details, but the essence is simple.”

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No matter where you stand, this must be of concern. A state within the state is not what the founders had in mind.

Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns (WSJ)

U.S. intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. The officials’ decision to keep information from Mr. Trump underscores the deep mistrust that has developed between the intelligence community and the president over his team’s contacts with the Russian government, as well as the enmity he has shown toward U.S. spy agencies. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump accused the agencies of leaking information to undermine him. In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said.

Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government. A White House official said: “There is nothing that leads us to believe that this is an accurate account of what is actually happening.” A spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence said: “Any suggestion that the U.S. intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true.” Intelligence officials have in the past not told a president or members of Congress about the ins and outs of how they ply their trade. At times, they have decided that secrecy is essential for protecting a source, and that all a president needs to know is what that source revealed and what the intelligence community thinks is important about it.

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Fewer reserve requirements means less Treasury appetite.

How Trump Could Trigger A Massive Wave Of Selling In The Treasury Market (CNBC)

Since the financial crisis, banks have been stockpiling Treasurys because they qualify as “safe” assets that count toward required regulatory capital levels. U.S. commercial banks now hold $2.4 trillion in government debt and agency securities, more than double the total from nine years ago, according to the St. Louis Fed. But House Republicans – with the support of the administration – are pushing to roll back parts of the Dodd-Frank regulations that were put in place after the 2008 financial crisis. That means banks could get a reprieve from those capital level requirements, and they could reduce their Treasury holdings as a result. In a report, RBC managing director and banking analyst Gerard Cassidy calculates the 24 largest bank holding companies already hold $100 billion in excess capital, with Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase having the highest dollar amount.

As regulation eases, the capital that was once used as a large cushion against a future recession could be funneled into stock buybacks. Those Treasury-heavy portfolios “will certainly be the source of cash to use to buy back stock,” Cassidy wrote in an e-mail to CNBC. Banks have already been slowly selling off the debt, which causes yields to rise. Between the middle of 2013 and 2014, Bank of America’s holdings of U.S. Treasurys grew from $2.9 billion to $58 billion. At the end of 2016, that figure had dropped to $48 billion, according to the bank’s earnings. Wells Fargo’s $26 billion Treasury balance in September is down nearly 30% from a year ago. Not all banks break out the specific balance, but the totals as of the third quarter of 2016 range from $23 billion (Morgan Stanley) to $111 billion (Citigroup).

But banks are just one source of possible selling en masse. China is a creditor of a different magnitude: The country held $1.05 trillion in Treasurys as of November, down by $215 billion from a year earlier. It dumped $41 billion in U.S. debt in October alone, a move that relinquished its ranking as the largest foreign creditor to the United States. One reason for the country selling U.S. debt previously was its need to raise cash to prop up its currency, the yuan, after years of seeking to devalue it to make its exports more attractive. Its intervention in the currency markets led President Donald Trump, while campaigning, to label China a currency manipulator and threaten a 45% tariff on products made in China but sold in the United States.

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Interesting phenomenon, but the writers have a hard time explaining.

Houses as ATMs No Longer (NYFed)

Housing equity is the primary form of collateral that households use for borrowing. This makes it a potentially important source of consumption funding, especially for younger households. In a previous post we showed that owner’s equity in residential real estate has finally, thanks to increasing home prices, rebounded to and essentially re-attained its 2005 peak level. Yet in spite of a gain of more than $7 trillion in housing equity since 2012, so far homeowners haven’t been tapping this equity at anything like the pace we witnessed during the housing boom that ended in 2006. In this post, we analyze the changes in equity withdrawal.

The blue line in the chart below shows total owner’s equity in real estate from the Flow of Funds—this is the same series as in our previous post. It shows a dramatic rebound in aggregate home equity over the last several years. The red line shows the combination of two ways that households can withdraw equity—assuming they have some—without selling the house: they can originate a junior lien against the property or they can refinance using a cash-out refinancing of an existing first-lien mortgage. The series in the chart, which we have shown in an earlier post on household debt, captures both of these, while excluding the equity withdrawal associated with selling a home.

The first observation that’s striking about the chart is the dramatic change in borrower behavior with respect to home equity. During the boom between 2000 and 2006, household equity and its extraction were both rising rapidly. From 2003 to 2007, homeowners were extracting more than $350 billion per year, resources that were available for use in a variety of purposes from home improvement to consumption. The second major point of the chart is the effect of the housing and financial crises. Beginning in 2008, equity extraction began to decline quickly and was hovering around zero by 2010, where it remained through 2012. The virtual elimination of equity withdrawal was a big contributor to the household deleveraging that ultimately shaved more than $1.5 trillion from household debt. It also likely contributed to the sharp decline of consumption during the Great Recession and its subsequent sluggish recovery.

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Looks dangerous. Fighting bubbles with bigger bubbles is always a bad idea.

Fed Frets about $2 Trillion Commercial Real Estate Bubble (WS)

Boom and bust: that’s the material CRE is made of. We had seven years of boom, and now the Fed is worried about the bust. Yellen didn’t mention CRE in her prepared testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. But it featured in the twice-yearly report that the Fed delivered to Congress in support of Yellen’s testimony. And it wasn’t the first time that it was mentioned in these twice-yearly reports – but the fifth time in a row. In its February report two years ago, the Fed first pointed at “valuation pressures” in CRE. And warnings about CRE have appeared since then in every report, twice a year, with growing sharpness, including in the report issued in June 2016, which warned that “valuations in the CRE sector appear increasingly vulnerable to negative shocks….”

Other Fed governors have also warned about the CRE boom and a potential bust, particularly Boston Fed governor Eric Rosengren, who was gazing with amazement at a stunning crane forest in his own city. What concerns the Fed about CRE aren’t the valuations per se, but the fact that the sector is highly leveraged, and that when prices collapse, which they tend to do, the collateral value gets crushed, and banks are left to twist in the wind. That’s what happened during the Financial Crisis. Just how badly can prices get crushed? The national averages hide the drama that happens on the ground in particular cities. But even these national averages still show enough drama, as per data from the Green Street Commercial Property Price Index. The index shows that overall prices across the major markets in the nation plunged nearly 40% during the Great Recession and have since more than doubled:

So that’s why the Fed is fretting about it. This time around, the Fed report said: “Commercial real estate (CRE) valuations, which have been an area of growing concern over the past year, rose further, with property prices continuing to climb and capitalization rates decreasing to historically low levels.” Then the report discusses the debt that nurtured this boom to these heights. This debt has ballooned to $1.98 trillion, and is now 14% higher than during the crazy peak of the prior bubble that collapsed with such spectacular results:

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All of a sudden Hamon has 38%?! Oh wait, the numbers don’t add up at all. More countries should discuss their colonial past- and present.

France’s Colonial Past Muscles Into Presidential Race (AFP)

French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron drew a storm of criticism Wednesday after calling France’s colonisation of Algeria a “crime against humanity”. In a TV interview in Algiers this week, the centrist said French actions in Algeria, which achieved independence in 1962 after eight years of war, were “genuinely barbaric, and constitute a part of our past that we have to confront by apologising”. His visit also included a stop at the Martyrs’ Memorial in Algiers, saying he wanted to promote a “reconciliation of memories” between the two countries. His rivals on the right for the French presidency – due to be decided in a first round election in April and a run-off between the two top candidates in May – pounced on the comments.

Les Republicans candidate Francois Fillon on Wednesday denounced what he called “this hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic”. Wallerand de Saint-Just, an official in Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party, accused Macron of “shooting France in the back”, while Gerald Darmanin, an ally of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, tweeted “Shame on Emmanuel Macron for insulting France while abroad”. It was the not the first time Macron, who currently leads the polls for the two rounds of voting in April and May, has touched on the livewire issue. “Yes, there was torture in Algeria, but there was also the emergence of a state, or wealth, of a middle class,” he told the magazine Le Point in October.

“This is the reality of colonialism. There are elements of civilisation and elements of barbarism.” And Fillon has been tripped up by his own comments on French colonialism. In August, he drew claims of trying to sanitise history, claiming that “France is not guilty of having wanted to share its culture with the peoples of Africa”. Macron remains the frontrunner in the presidential race, with 39% of those surveyed in the latest survey by pollsters Ipsos giving him a favourable opinion. In the poll released by the magazine Le Point on Wednesday, Macron was followed by Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, with 38%, while Fillon tumbled 18 percentage points to 25%, just behind Le Pen, on 26%.

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One step away from a formal investigation. Does he really want it that bad?

French Prosecutor Keeps Fillon Fake Work Probe Open (R.)

France’s financial prosecutor announced on Thursday that an investigation into fake work allegations surrounding presidential candidate Francois Fillon would remain open, in a new blow to the ex-prime minister’s campaign. A three week-old scandal over hundreds of thousands of euros in taxpayers’ money which his wife was paid for work she may not have done has cost conservative Fillon his status as favorite to win the French presidency in May. “It is my duty to affirm that the numerous elements collected (by investigators) do not, at this stage, permit the case to be dropped,” prosecutor Eliane Houlette said in a statement, after receiving an initial police report on the subject.

The prosecutor did not announce any further steps, but among the choices before it are dropping the case, taking it further by appointing an investigating magistrate, or sending it straight to trial. Fillon, 62, has said he would step down should he be put under formal investigation, but his camp has also challenged the legitimacy of the probe. The first round of the election is less than 10 weeks away.

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