Jun 092019
 
 June 9, 2019  Posted by at 9:52 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »


Georges Seurat A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte 1884

 

Angst and Madness at the End of Empire (Orphan)
Theresa May: The Total Decay Of Political Integrity And Vision (Ind.)
Boris Johnson Threatens To Withhold $50 Billion Brexit Payment (R.)
US Auto Loans Hit Record (CNBC)
Used-Car Wholesale Prices Surge (WS)
ECB Policymakers Open To Cut Rates If Growth Weakens (R.)
China Banking Regulator Says Small Bank Risks Manageable (R.)
IMF Warns Of Giant Tech Firms’ Dominance (BBC)
Amazon Gets Booted by FedEx (WS)
The End Of The Arctic As We Know It (G.)

 

 

“..those expensive bases of aggression around the world will begin to cost more than they bring in profit.”

Angst and Madness at the End of Empire (Orphan)

[..] the angst of the American bourgeoisie is demonstrated more by what it doesn’t speak about than what it does. It is a disquiet which is at once terrified of the collapse that looms ahead and horrified at the idea of losing the status quo arrangement, even though that status quo is benefiting fewer and fewer people. It stands simultaneously aghast and paralyzed before the obvious madness of its rulers, and yet continually grasps at failed “lesser evilism” as a solution. And it largely still buys into the noxious mythology of it being the “greatest country on earth.” The corporate elite, having stripped down civic education over decades, robbed them of their political agency and resistance and replaced it with a sanitized history and demoralizing optimism, or “positive thinking,” which places all blame for their collective state and its inadequacies on the individual.

That it has been so lauded by Wall Street should cause anyone to wonder why it has been so internalized by the disenfranchised masses. To be sure, this arrangement is rapidly meeting its end. Banking and corporate corruption, never really having been dealt with in the last “Great Recession” or its notorious state funded “bailout,” has only become more blind and reckless. The membrane of the bubble created after that fiasco, born in avarice, is thinning in plain sight. It is about to burst again, and this time it will be far more catastrophic. The endless imperialistic wars that the US has engaged in for the last decades are also creating a financial strain.

Coupled with climate breakdown those expensive bases of aggression around the world will begin to cost more than they bring in profit. In the US itself biblical floods are wiping clean the soil graded for agriculture throughout the Midwest and causing tremendous economic hardship for scores of rural and commercial farmers. Droughts offer a grim alternative to this increasingly chaotic climate pattern. Food prices will undoubtedly rise in the future thanks to a capitalist system which creates artificial shortages and surpluses.

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“..our so called leaders are devoid of principle, immune to responsibility and seem only to prioritise their own interests, power and most importantly private profit above all. Theresa May is exhibit one. ”

Theresa May: The Total Decay Of Political Integrity And Vision (Ind.)

As an NHS doctor, making a diagnosis is quite an important part of my job. Central to it in fact. One has to process and put together information while providing care to your patients. Attention to detail is critical. For many of us working within the NHS therefore, it has been abundantly clear that the diagnosis for Theresa May has been terminal for some time. But where did it all go wrong? Was it always destined to end like this? What could have been done? Watching her face crumple and tears fall as she defended her claim to have “tackled Britain’s burning injustices”, as well as saying she had proudly served the country she loved, surely only the coldest of hearts could not have pity for a woman who had done her very best at the worst of times?

Well let me answer in the only way I know how: honestly, Theresa May is a mere symptom of the problem. The diagnosis is much greater and much more devastating than this one tragic figure. What we appear to be all bearing witness to is the total decay of political integrity and vision. We now live in a world where our so called leaders are devoid of principle, immune to responsibility and seem only to prioritise their own interests, power and most importantly private profit above all. Theresa May is exhibit one.

The woman who has supposedly tackled “burning injustices” has consciously implemented measures to ensure inequality has soared, overseen childhood and old-age poverty skyrocket, had life expectancy fall under her watch, ordered the Home Office to send out racist, xenophobic anti-immigration “Go Home” vans, and who oversaw a “hostile environment” policy that led to the deportation of many of the Windrush generation.

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Hollowness echoes with the people.

Boris Johnson Threatens To Withhold $50 Billion Brexit Payment (R.)

Boris Johnson, the leading candidate to succeed Theresa May as Britain’s next prime minister, said he would withhold a previously agreed 39 billion pound ($50 billion) Brexit payment until the European Union gives Britain better exit terms. The EU has repeatedly said it will not reopen discussion of the Brexit transition deal it reached with May last year, which British lawmakers have rejected three times, prompting May to announce her resignation earlier this month. May stepped down as leader of the governing Conservatives on Friday. Johnson, a former foreign secretary in May’s cabinet, is popular with ordinary Conservative Party members, who will decide between the two candidates who come top in a series of votes by Conservative lawmakers over the coming weeks.


“I always thought it was extraordinary that we should agree to write that entire cheque before having a final deal. In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant,” Johnson told the Sunday Times. Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31. If Parliament does not approve a deal – and the government does not ask the EU for another delay – there risks being major economic disruption from a disorderly departure. The 39 billion pounds represents outstanding British liabilities to the EU, which would be paid over a number of years according to the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May. Johnson also said border arrangements with Ireland should be settled only as part of a long-term agreement, rejecting a “backstop” which would avoid checks on Northern Ireland’s border but which Conservative lawmakers fear is a backdoor way of requiring Britain to continue to follow EU rules after Brexit.

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Record loans for clunkers.

US Auto Loans Hit Record (CNBC)

People buying a new vehicle are borrowing more and paying more each month for their auto loan. Experian, which tracks millions of auto loans each month, said the average amount borrowed to buy a new vehicle hit a record $32,187 in the first quarter. The average used-vehicle loan also hit a record, $20,137. “We have not seen a slowdown in loan demand. In fact, volume for new and used loans is up from previous years,” said Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive financial solutions for Experian. With sales of new vehicles moderating slightly after the four best years the industry has ever seen in the U.S., dealers and auto executives are watching whether consumers will be more resistant to the steady increase in new car prices.


That is not happening. In fact, the average amount borrowed topped $32,000 for the first time ever. As a result, the average monthly payment for a new vehicle continued to climb to a new high of $554 and to a record $391 for used vehicles, according to Experian. While new car sales and loans are still strong, people with the best credit scores are increasingly buying a used model instead of new. Experian says 61.8% of those with a prime credit rating and 44.7% of those with a super prime credit rating took out loans to buy a used vehicle in the first quarter. Those are the highest percentages Experian has ever recorded for prime and super prime used vehicle borrowing.

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There’s something very ironic hidden in here.

Used-Car Wholesale Prices Surge (WS)

Prices of used vehicle that were sold in May at wholesale auctions rose 4.0% compared to May last year, according to Manheim, the largest auto-auction house in the US, running about 8 million vehicles through its venues a year. The chart of the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index, which is adjusted for mix, mileage, and seasonality, shows the two price surges from end of March 2017 and March 2018 that were subsequently only partially unwound. And the 2019 selling season is beginning likewise. The last time there was such an extended period of year-over-year price gains was from the trough of the Financial Crisis. After prices had collapsed in 2008, they started bouncing off sharply in January 2009.

By the time the “Cash for Clunkers” program started officially on July 1, 2009, used vehicle prices had already recovered to their prior pre-crisis levels (see chart below). But “cash for clunkers” boosted prices further. Congress had appropriated $1 billion that was supposed to last through November. But by July 30, it was gone. Congress appropriated another $2 billion, which was soon gone too. Car buyers were handed this $3 billion to trade in their “clunkers” and buy a new vehicle. Cash for clunkers was designed to boost new-vehicle sales. The engines of these trade-ins under the program were destroyed and the vehicle was then towed to the salvage yard for parts.


As a side effect, the program destroyed a portion of the most affordable vehicles – another devastating blow to lower-income car buyers in subsequent years. Not only were the most affordable vehicles gone; but by removing this supply from the market, Cash for Clunkers caused the prices up the entire scale of used cars to surge. This included my three-year-old car. Its book value rose month after month, even as the car got older and accumulated miles, something I’d never seen before, and I’d spent many years in the car business.

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So Europeans can buy clunkers too?!

ECB Policymakers Open To Cut Rates If Growth Weakens (R.)

European Central Bank policymakers are open to cutting the ECB’s policy rate again if economic growth weakens in the remainder of the year and a strong euro hurts a bloc already bearing the brunt of a global trade war, two sources said. The ECB said on Thursday that its interest rates would stay “at their present levels” until mid-2020 but President Mario Draghi added rate setters had started a discussion about a possible cut or fresh bond purchases to stimulate inflation. The apparently mixed message failed to convince some investors, who saw it as too tenuous a commitment to more stimulus. This sent the euro rallying to a 2-1/2 month high of $1.1347 against the U.S. dollar.


But two sources familiar to the ECB’s policy discussions said a rate cut was firmly in play if the bloc’s economy was to stagnate again after expanding by 0.4% in the first quarter of the year. “If inflation and growth slow, then a rate cut is warranted,” said one of the sources, who requested anonymity because the ECB’s deliberations are confidential. The ECB’s deposit rate is already 40 basis points below zero and the bloc’s top-rated governments, such as Germany’s, can borrow at negative rates for up to a decade. In this context, countering the euro’s strength, rather than lowering already rock-bottom borrowing costs, would be the main reason for a further cut to that deposit rate, one of the sources said.

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What else are they going to say?

China Banking Regulator Says Small Bank Risks Manageable (R.)

China’s banking regulator says risks at small and mid-sized banks are manageable, a central bank publication reported on Sunday, in the latest move to soothe investors’ concerns after the government took over a troubled regional lender last month. The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) took control of Inner Mongolia’s Baoshang Bank due to “serious” credit risks on May 24, rattling Chinese markets and prompting the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to inject cash into the banking system. While authorities said it was a standalone case, the seizure comes as Beijing is urging banks to boost lending to help cushion an economic slowdown, fuelling concerns about rising debt and more bad loans.


“At present, small and mid-sized banks are operating smoothly, liquidity is relatively ample, and overall risks are fully manageable,” the CBIRC said in a Q&A interview with the Financial News. The regulator also said big banks are willing to continue interbank business with small banks to safeguard the stability of financial markets. Some small banks rely heavily on short-term borrowing from the interbank market, leaving other banks at risk if they run into trouble. A Reuters analysis showed at least 18 smaller institutions have not published up-to-date financial reports, and in some of those cases senior regulatory officials have been appointed for bank management oversight.

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Can I add a warning about IMF dominance?

IMF Warns Of Giant Tech Firms’ Dominance (BBC)

Giant technology companies might cause significant disruption to the world’s financial system, the head of the International Monetary Fund has warned. Christine Lagarde said just a few firms with big data access and artificial intelligence could run the global payment and settlement arrangements. Her warning came as the G20 finance ministers met in Japan. The summit is also discussing the need to close tax loopholes for internet giants like Facebook and Google. One of the options being considered is to tax such companies where they make their profits – rather than where they base their headquarters.


“A significant disruption to the financial landscape is likely to come from the big tech firms,” Ms Lagarde said in Japan’s south-western city of Fukuoka. She said such firms “will use their enormous customer bases and deep pockets to offer financial products based on big data and artificial intelligence”.”This presents a unique systemic challenge to financial stability and efficiency,” she added. She cited China as a most recent example. “Over the last five years, technology growth in China has been extremely successful and allowed millions of new entrants to benefit from access to financial products and the creation of high-quality jobs,” Ms Lagarde said. “But it has also led to two firms controlling more than 90% of the mobile payments market.”

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Can Bezos buy FedEx?

Amazon Gets Booted by FedEx (WS)

Amazon is aggressively butting in on freight carriers with its own planes, trucks, and delivery infrastructure, and is at the same time aggressively pushing for faster and cheaper service from freight carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and the US Postal Service. And FedEx has had it with Amazon, announcing today that it was dumping Amazon as customer of its FedEx Express division. “FedEx has made the strategic decision to not renew the FedEx Express U.S. domestic contract with Amazon.com, Inc. as we focus on serving the broader e-commerce market,” it said in a surprise statement. The current contract ends June 30.


Its other units that do business with Amazon and its international services with Amazon are not impacted by this decision, FedEx said. FedEx is not overly dependent on Amazon – unlike some other freight companies that now have come to grief under Amazon’s boots, including New England Motor Freight, a less-than-truckload carrier that “stunned” the transportation world when it filed for bankruptcy in February. Interestingly, FedEx chose to address this point explicitly in the statement: “Amazon.com is not FedEx’s largest customer. The percentage of total FedEx revenue attributable to Amazon.com represented less than 1.3 percent of total FedEx revenue for the 12-month period ended December 31, 2018.”

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“It will go when stratification breaks down completely and the Atlantic takes over the whole region.”

The End Of The Arctic As We Know It (G.)

If the Arctic were a patient, doctors would be alarmed by its vital signs. As well as hot flushes, asthma and contamination (the researchers are following up on studies that suggest the Fram strait has one of the highest levels of microplastics in the world), the ocean has also been diagnosed with a weakening of its immune system. For centuries, the Arctic’s distinctive character has been shaped by a layer of cold, relatively fresh water just below the surface, produced by melting ice and glaciers. This has insulated the sea ice from the warmer, denser, saltier waters of the Atlantic currents that flow in the depth. But this stratification is collapsing as temperatures rise.

The oceanic shift was outlined in a landmark study published last year in Science, which found that the water density and temperature of the Fram strait and Barents Sea were increasingly like those of the Atlantic, while further east, Russia’s Laptev sea was starting to resemble what the Barents used to be. “The polar front is shifting,” the lead author, Dr Sigrid Lind, of the Institute of Marine Science and the University of Bergen, told the Guardian this year. “The Arctic as we know it is about to become history. It will go when stratification breaks down completely and the Atlantic takes over the whole region.”


This has not happened for more than 12,000 years, but the shift is well under way. First to succumb, according to Lind, will be the Barents Sea, which will have no fresh water by 2040, then the Kara sea. The consequences will be far-reaching. The food chain is already affected. Atlantic species of cod, herring and mackerel are moving northwards. For the next 20 to 30 years this could boost fishing catches, but forecasts by Norway suggest boom will turn to bust later as the waters grow too warm for fish larvae.


Photograph: Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

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Aug 172017
 
 August 17, 2017  Posted by at 9:02 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »


Laura Gilpin The Rio Grande 1947

 

The ‘Wall Of Worry’ That Stocks Have Climbed To Rally 271% Since 2009 (MW)
Global Negative-Yielding Debt Surges To Highest Since October (ZH)
The Fed Is Asking Questions, Not Providing Answers (BBG)
Fed Starts to Wonder If Cornerstone Inflation Model Still Works (BBG)
Goldman Sachs Is Infiltrating The Fed In Ways Most People Haven’t Noticed (BI)
Chinese Takeovers Of US Companies Plummet This Year (CNBC)
The World’s Most Ridiculous Constitutional Crisis (BBG)
Hell Hath No Fury Like An Australian Retiree Scorned (BBG)
Americans Are Rapidly Descending Into Madness (Krieger)
A Primer On Bitcoin: The Ultimate Fiat Currency (Lebowitz)
Spain Rescues 600 Migrants, Refugees In Busiest Day as 120 Drown (BBC)

 

 

Stocks have been disconnected from reality. But that can’t last.

The ‘Wall Of Worry’ That Stocks Have Climbed To Rally 271% Since 2009 (MW)

This may be the most sedated stock-market rally of our times. Even as tensions heightened between the U.S. and North Korea and violence broke out on the streets of Charlottesville, Va., stocks took the alarming news in stride, continuing to scale the “wall of worry” in defiance of doomsday predictions of an imminent selloff. “It seems like every day the headlines outside of the market get more and more frightening,” said Michael Batnick, director of research at Ritholtz Wealth Management, who illustrated the resilience of the market in the chart below. As the graph shows, since stocks bottomed in March 2009, the S&P 500 index has soared 271% to multiple records, meandering higher through the European debt crisis, Brexit, and the U.S. presidential election.

Batnick had originally published the chart in March but updated it Wednesday given the recent developments. “This year has been the perfect reminder that political volatility does not necessarily translate into the stock market, with this being the quietest year since 1965,” he said. The S&P 500’s daily trading range averaged 0.32% in the first half of the year, the narrowest in over half a century, underscoring the gap between market volatility and the political upheaval that has marked Trump’s presidency so far, according to Batnick.

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We can all figure what could happen if you throw $20 trillion or so into non-functional markets. Can we figure what happens when they start to function again?

Global Negative-Yielding Debt Surges To Highest Since October (ZH)

The market value of bonds yielding less than zero percent has jumped by a quarter over the past month to $8.68 trillion, the highest since October… which is odd given the mainstream narrative that everything is awesome and global growth is heading for escape velocity?

“probably nothing”

As Bloomberg notes, slower-than-forecast inflation data and haven demand on geopolitical risk have revived bond bulls around the world. With global borrowing costs already so low, central banks should be prepared to cut interest rates deep into negative territory in the next economic downturn, warn economists including Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff.

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Oh well, it’ summer after all.

The Fed Is Asking Questions, Not Providing Answers (BBG)

The Federal Reserve is either lucky or clever. By signaling that it won’t touch interest rates again until December, it’s bought itself time to have a longer – and much needed – conversation about inflation. Good. There are very legitimate doubts that traditional models explain what’s happening or, rather, what’s not happening. Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s July meeting show a growing debate about inflation and why it’s retreating, instead of advancing, in the face of 4.3% unemployment. The central bank is puzzled that prices have been soft for several months. In the absence of any real inflation pressure, the Fed might be reasonably expected to take a break from raising rates while it got a handle on what’s happening. By acting in March and June and hinting that September will be about balance sheet reduction, the Fed gave itself some wiggle room.

Policy makers basically have until December to either see inflation head back toward their 2% target or figure out how to respond if it doesn’t behave. There’s a meeting scheduled for late October, but the Fed’s historical aversion to moving in the absence of new forecasts and a press conference effectively rules out a surprise then. Delaying until December gives officials at least four more months of inflation data. Most still see it returning to its target, in keeping with traditional economic models. And to be fair, as I have written, this isn’t exclusively an American phenomenon. Inflation is weak in Europe and Japan despite a pronounced pickup in growth. (It’s above target in the U.K.; Brexit complicates that particular picture.) But the U.S. is still the world’s largest economy, and the Fed is still the world’s de facto central bank.

The country’s financial markets dwarf others despite frequent predictions of decline. How this inflation mystery ends will matter greatly. What if the book doesn’t have an end? The minutes show some self-doubt starting to creep in alongside the confidence of the majority: Most participants indicated that they expected inflation to pick up over the next couple of years from its current low level and to stabilize around the Committee’s 2% objective over the medium term. Many participants, however, saw some likelihood that inflation might remain below 2% for longer than they currently expected, and several indicated that the risks to the inflation outlook could be tilted to the downside. The account of the July conclave even suggested some heretical questioning of the link between very low unemployment and wages and inflation. The majority are still wedded to the traditional models.

Until we start to see a convincing swing back to the Fed’s target of 2%, we will probably see more of this public questioning of assumptions. Something less contentious was skepticism about the prospects for large-scale fiscal stimulus, the domain of Congress and the White House. A few participants at the Fed meeting doubted it would happen and, if it did, they suspected the boost would be less than might have once been anticipated. That observation went unchallenged. Stay tuned for the last day of August. That’s when the Commerce Department publishes closely watched inflation figures. Enjoy the debate.

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Over 1000 utterly useless PhD economists work for the Fed. The world doesn’t behave like my models do!

Fed Starts to Wonder If Cornerstone Inflation Model Still Works (BBG)

Federal Reserve officials are looking under the hood of their most basic inflation models and starting to ask if something is wrong. Minutes from the July 25-26 Federal Open Market Committee meeting showed a revealing debate over why the economy isn’t producing more inflation in a time of easy financial conditions, tight labor markets and solid economic growth. The central bank has missed its 2% price goal for most of the past five years. Still, a majority of FOMC participants favor further rate increases. The July minutes showed an intensifying debate over whether that is the right policy response. “These minutes to me were troubling,” said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies in New York. “They don’t have their confidence in their policy decisions; and they don’t have confidence that they can provide the right kind of guidance.”

The FOMC tried hard to avoid that kind of message. In several passages, the minutes asserted that “most” officials were sticking with a forecast that higher inflation would eventually show up. However, the debate over resource slack models and whether standard data sources were telling them the whole story also showed convictions about their forecast are fraying. Price indexes have shown unusual inertia even as the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen, matching a 16-year low of 4.3% in July. The U.S. consumer price index rose 1.7% for the 12 months ending July, while the Fed’s preferred measure, which is tied to consumption, rose 1.4% in June. Another gauge calculated by the Dallas Fed, which trims index outliers to highlight the underlying price trend, rose 1.7% for the 12 months ending June.

That was the same as May, which was down from 1.74% in April. The minutes said “a few” officials described resource slack models as “not particularly useful” while “most” thought the framework was valid. The committee also pondered a number of theories as to why inflation wasn’t responding to tightening labor resources, such as “the possibility that slack may be better measured by labor market indicators other than unemployment.” “It is a battle between data and theory,” said Ethan Harris, head of global economic research at Bank of America in New York.

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A silent coup.

Goldman Sachs Is Infiltrating The Fed In Ways Most People Haven’t Noticed (BI)

Since when do underlings get to chime in on who their next boss should be? That’s just what William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, did in an interview with AP this week. His fairly strong recommendation of Gary Cohn, Donald Trump’s economic advisor and apparent favorite, was especially egregious since Cohn is former president at Goldman Sachs, where Dudley essentially spent most of his career as chief economist and partner. The Fed’s chairperson is appointed by the president of the United States. Dudley should stick to monetary policy and regulating big banks. As a matter of central bank independence and integrity, he has no business opining on future candidates.

As Bloomberg’s veteran Fed watcher, Rich Miller, put it: “It’s rare for Fed officials like Dudley to comment publicly on such personnel matters because they usually want to avoid doing anything that might be seen as undermining the central bank’s political independence.” “AP: On a personal level, Gary Cohn has been mentioned as potentially a Fed Chair if Yellen were not to be reappointed or declined. Did you work with Gary Cohn at Goldman Sachs? What is your impression of him as a potential Federal Reserve Chair? DUDLEY: I don’t want to evaluate the various candidates for the Federal Reserve, except to say that I think Gary is a reasonable candidate. He knows a lot about financial markets. He knows lots about the financial system. I don’t think you have to have a PhD in Economics, which I have, to be a Chair of the Fed or Governor or a President of one of the Federal Reserve Banks. I think it’s important to have a committee that has diversity. That has different backgrounds and perspectives. So I think Gary’s a reasonable candidate.

[..] Despite the clear conflict, he apparently sees nothing wrong with recommending Cohn while saying nothing to praise his current boss, Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who is also supposedly in the running for reappointment (but not really, it’s just another Trump reality TV suspense stunt). Dudley then coyly declines to discuss other names being floated for the post. Dudley has crossed a line, although it’s not a new one for his institution. The New York Fed was home to one of the financial crises most blatant conflicts of interest, and it’s all related to how Dudley was hired to head it in the first place.

This is what happened: Stephen Friedman was chairman of the New York Fed at the height of the crisis — but at the same time he was a member of Goldman Sachs’ board of directors. He also held a significant financial stake in the megabank, even as he was involved in the bank bailout negotiations. Yes, really (The New York Fed is supposed to play a pivotal role in regulating Wall Street). And here’s the kicker: The Fed’s board granted Friedman a waiver to buy Goldman stock just as prices had hit bottom and the central bank was stepping in to make all the banks, including Goldman, whole on their misguided bets on housing and related assets. Friedman was eventually pressured to step down, but that’s about it. In his role as NY Fed board chair, Friedman got to pick its next president. Who did he run with? Bill Dudley.

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it’s about foreign reserves.

Chinese Takeovers Of US Companies Plummet This Year (CNBC)

As the Trump administration looks to take a tougher stance against Beijing, Chinese investments in the U.S. have more than halved this year, according to Dealogic. “Amid growing regulatory scrutiny of China outbound M&A targeting the U.S., volume has seen a 65% year-on-year decline in 2017 year-to-date,” Nicholas Farfan and Karl But of Dealogic Research said in an Aug. 8 note. “In comparison, such deals peaked at $65.2 billion last year, with high-profile deals including HNA’s acquisition of 25% of Hilton Worldwide.” “With tightening restrictions, Chinese buyers may look to stop pursuing or shelve potential acquisitions in the U.S.,” the note said. The pressure and uncertainty are coming from both countries. On Beijing’s side, authorities are reportedly targeting some of the largest Chinese dealmakers to try to keep capital from fleeing the country and contributing to yuan weakness.

On the American side, reports indicate the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is looking to use national security concerns to prevent more Chinese purchases of U.S. firms, especially in technology. Anecdotally, Gregory Husisian, chair of the export controls and national security group at law firm Foley & Lardner, noted that an increasing number of clients are concerned about working with Chinese buyers due to the potential for regulatory intervention. The dealmaking industry could also suffer some significant business setbacks. The Dealogic analysts estimate about $9.7 billion in pending Chinese deals to buy U.S. firms could fall under regulatory scrutiny, potentially putting $75 million in advisor fees at risk.

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Baffling. They really don’t seem to know their own laws. Which might be a problem if you’re in government?!

The World’s Most Ridiculous Constitutional Crisis (BBG)

Australia’s parliament is in the grip of the world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis. The situation threatens the country’s democratic process, which is reason enough for politicians and courts to work to unpick it. More importantly, though, it raises questions the rest of the world would do well to ponder. Over the past month, five members of Australia’s 226-member parliament have admitted that they may have unwittingly held dual citizenship – a condition that, under Australia’s 1900 constitution, disqualifies them from political office in Canberra. The latest blow on Monday ensnared Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, putting into jeopardy the government’s one-seat majority in the governing House of Representatives. Joyce’s father was born in New Zealand in 1924. As a result, Kiwis officially consider him one of their own.

Journalists and political staffers have launched a hunt to see who will fall next. The country’s justice minister Michael Keenan took to social media Thursday to confirm he renounced his British citizenship 13 years ago, after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that he may have been a dual citizen. In total, 13 senators and 11 House members were born overseas, equivalent to about 17% and 7.3% of the respective chambers. More may be caught, like Joyce, as a result of their parentage. With both chambers finely-balanced between parties – and renouncing foreign citizenship, in many cases, a long and complex process – the crisis could hamstring the government’s ability to pass legislation. Australia has one of highest proportions of foreign-born residents among democratic countries. Nearly half of permanent residents are first- or second-generation migrants, with about 28% born overseas and 21% having at least one foreign-born parent.

About 4.6% were, like me, born in the U.K.; another 2.6% in China, Hong Kong and Macau, plus 2.2% from New Zealand and 1.9% from India. More than 27% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. That’s a vast population whose ability to serve in parliament is potentially restricted. There are so many different regulations around the world that it’s not always obvious to individuals which countries might claim them as citizens. Larissa Waters, a Greens senator who was born in Winnipeg but has lived in Australia since infancy, quit last month after discovering that a Canadian law that entered into force when she was seven days old meant Canada still considered her a citizen. A week later, Australia’s then-Resources Minister Matthew Canavan was caught out after discovering his mother had once sought Italian citizenship for herself and for him. “Until last week I had no suspicion I could be an Italian citizen,” he wrote on Twitter. “I was not born in Italy and have never been to Italy.”

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Your pension has left the building. Those are its foorprints over there.

Hell Hath No Fury Like An Australian Retiree Scorned (BBG)

Hell hath no fury like an Australian retiree scorned.Shares in the country’s giant phone company Telstra fell as much as 12% after it announced annual results Thursday, wiping off some A$6.2 billion ($4.9 billion) of value. The reason for this massive hissy fit was a cut to Telstra’s historically lavish dividend policy. Investors who’ve been scraping by on payouts equivalent to about 100% of underlying earnings will in future have to subsist on a mere 70% to 90%. Why should Telstra shareholders be so sensitive about dividends, especially as net income came in ahead of analyst estimates at A$3.89 billion? The answer lies in the nature of Australia’s equity market, and in particular the 1.1 million retirees managing their own investments via self-managed superannuation funds.

Helped by years of tax breaks and laws mandating that companies fund their employees’ retirement savings, Australia’s gray army has built up a A$648 billion piggy bank. The A$340 billion they have in equities and investment funds is equivalent to a fifth of the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index, and their might is such that some analysts, such as Credit Suisse’s Hasan Tevfik, argue they’ve distorted the investment priorities of the wider market. Retirees’ love of a household-name stock that provides a steady income without the fuss of buying or selling helps explain the Australian share market’s obsession with dividend yield. There’s certainly something unusual in the water: Of the 42 companies in developed markets with dividend yields above 5% and market capitalizations above $10 billion, 11 are Australian, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In some ways, this trend is a favorable one. Australia’s big four retail banks and Macquarie, which all meet the key criteria of familiarity and generous payouts, trade on some of the highest price-book multiples in the world. As a result, when they want to raise equity capital – as they all did in 2015, to the tune of an aggregate A$18.5 billion – it works out rather cheap. Still, Telstra’s experience is a lesson that playing footsie on dividends can be a dance with the devil. Its desire to hold back just a thin slice of earnings alongside a 70% to 90% payout ratio would be considered reasonable in most markets. Chinese companies are notoriously stingy, as Gadfly’s Shuli Ren wrote this week. Among major equity indexes, only the U.K. boasts ratios on a par with Australia’s; the Shanghai Composite rarely turns more than a third of earnings into dividends.

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No kidding. Conversation is impossible just when it’s most needed.

Americans Are Rapidly Descending Into Madness (Krieger)

I don’t live in an echo chamber, partly because there aren’t enough people out there who think like me, but also because I constantly and intentionally attempt to challenge my worldview by reading stuff from all over the political map. I ingest as much as I can from a wide variety of intelligent sources, picking and choosing what makes sense to me, and then synthesizing it the best I can. Though I’m certainly grounded in certain key principles, my perspective on specific issues remains malleable as I take in additional information and perspectives. I try to accept and acknowledge my own ignorance and view life as a journey of constant mental, emotionally and spiritual growth. If I’m not growing my capacity in all of those realms until the day I die, I’m doing it wrong. Life should be seen as a battle against one’s own ignorance, as opposed to an obsession with the ignorance of others.

You can’t legislate morality, nor can you legislate wisdom. The only way the world will improve on a long-term sustainable basis is if more of us get wise. That’s a personal journey and it’s our individual duty to accept it. While I’m only in control of my own behavior, this doesn’t mean that the behavior of others is irrelevant to my life. Unfortunately, what I see happening to the population of America right now seems very troublesome and foreboding. What I’m witnessing across the board is hordes of people increasingly separating themselves into weird, unthinking cults. Something appears to have snapped in our collective consciousness, and many individuals I used to respect (on both sides of the political spectrum) are becoming disturbingly polarized and hysterical. People are rapidly morphing into radicalized mental patients.

What’s worse, this environment is providing a backdrop for the most destructive people of my lifetime – neoconservatives and neo liberals – to preen around on corporate media as “the voices of reason.” This is one of the most perverse and dangerous side-effects of the current political climate. If in your disgust with Trump, you’re willing to run into the cold embrace of these destroyers of the middle class and the Middle East, you’ll get what you deserve. In contrast, if we really want to deal with our very real and very systemic problems, the last thing we need is a population-level mental breakdown that leads to a longing for the criminally destructive political status quo, yet that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

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Every single Bitcoin transaction uses as much energy as 15 UK households do daily. Whatever you think about crypto, that is a problem no matter what.

A Primer On Bitcoin: The Ultimate Fiat Currency (Lebowitz)

Cryptocurrency is an independent, digital currency that uses cryptology to maintain privacy of transactions and control the creation of the respective currency. While not recognized as legal tender, cryptocurrencies are becoming more popular for legal and illegal transactions alike. Bitcoin (BTC), developed in 2009, is the most popular of the cryptocurrencies. It accounts for over half the value of the more than 750 cryptocurrencies outstanding. In this article we refer to cryptocurrencies generally as BTC, but keep in mind there are differences among the many offerings. Also consider that, while BTC may appear to be the currency of choice, Netscape and AOL shareholders can tell you that early market leadership does not always translate into future market dominance.

Before explaining how BTC is created, acquired, stored, used and valued, it is vital to understand blockchain technology, the innovation that spawned BTC. [..] Blockchain is an open database or book of records that can store any kind of data. A blockchain database, unlike all other databases, is stored real time and is accessible for anyone to view its complete history of data. The term block refers to a grouping of transactions, while chain refers to the linkages of the blocks. When a BTC transaction is completed BTC “miners” work to solve the cryptology algorithm that will enable them to link it to the chain of historical transactions. As a reward for being the first to solve the calculation, the miner receives “newly minted” BTC. As the chain grows, the effort needed to solve and verify the algorithms increase in complexity and demand greater computing power. As an aside consider the following statement by Bitcoin Watch (courtesy Goldman Sachs):

“BTC worldwide computational output is currently over 350 exaflops – 350,000 petaflops – or more than 1400 times the combined capacity of the top 500 supercomputers in the world.”

Needless to say, a tremendous amount of computing resources and energy are being used by BTC miners, and it is still in its infancy. Could these resources be better employed in other industries, and if so, how much productivity growth is BTC leeching from the economy? The takeaway is that blockchain is an open, real-time database that provides anonymity to its users. It is not controlled or regulated (yet) by any government. BTC miners, driven by the incentive to earn BTC, and fees at times, verify and authenticate the database. Blockchain technology is incredibly powerful and will likely revolutionize data management regardless of whether cryptocurrencies thrive or disappear.

New Bitcoins are created as payment to BTC miners that solve the aforementioned calculations that verify transaction data and link it to the blockchain. This ingenious reward system incentivizes miners to compete to perform these calculations, enabling the blockchain to exist. Currently there are approximately 16 million bitcoins outstanding out of a proposed limit of 21 million. As the blockchain grows, the calculations required to mine BTC and add to the chain become more complex, making each bitcoin harder and more costly to earn than the prior one.

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The value of life, all life. must trump all else. Or else.

Spain Rescues 600 Migrants, Refugees In Busiest Day as 120 Drown (BBC)

Spain’s coastguard says it has rescued 600 migrants crossing from Morocco in a 24-hour period amid a spike in the number of migrant arrivals. The rescued migrants were in 15 vessels including toy paddleboats and a jet ski and included 35 children and a baby. The UN says more than 9,000 people have arrived in Spain so far this year – three times as many as the previous year. More than 120 people are believed to have drowned attempting the crossing. The increase in crossings means Spain could overtake Greece this year in the number of migrants arriving by sea, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said earlier this month.

Most are sailing across the 12km (seven-mile) Strait of Gibraltar and many are choosing cheap, child-sized paddle boats without motors that allow them to bypass people smuggling networks and their fees. Some migrants are using social media to contact the Spanish authorities and inform them of their location once they are in territorial waters, the BBC’s Gavin Lee in the Spanish city of Tarifa says. However, a much larger number – nearly 100,000 – have crossed from Libya to Italy since the start of the year. The IOM says 2,242 people have died on that route. In June, about 5,000 people were rescued in one day in the Mediterranean off Libya, Italian coastguards said.

Read more …

Jan 152015
 
 January 15, 2015  Posted by at 4:17 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »


DPC Broadway at night from Times Square 1911

Jeff Cox at CNCB wrote a reasonable piece yesterday, but chose a 180º wrong headline for it. And that matters for understanding the topic he addresses: what is happening in the financial markets. Cox claims that “Market Madness Started With End Of Fed’s QE”, but it’s the other way around. We’ve had six years+ of madness precisely because of QE, and during that whole time people had ever less idea what anything was really worth, and price discovery, an essential element of any functioning economy, disappeared entirely.

What we see now is the recovery of price discovery, and therefore the functioning economy, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that it doesn’t come in a smooth transition. Six years is a long time. Moreover, it was never just QE that distorted the markets, there was – and is – the ultra-low interest rate policy developed nations’ central banks adhere to like it was the gospel, and there’s always been the narrative of economic recovery just around the corner that the politico/media system incessantly drowned the world in.

That the QE madness ended with the decapitation of the price of oil seems only fitting. Our economies need oil the way people – and animals – need water. If its price falls the way it has, that’s a sure sign something is profoundly amiss. At this point, we don’t yet know the half of it. It’ll take time for price discovery to work its way through, and for people to recognize what things are really worth. For now there’s really only one that’s certain: everything is overvalued, including you.

As the zombie money injected by QE is drained from the system, deflation is the magic word. And that doesn’t mean falling prices, they will never be anything other than a lagging indicator. For a system as bloated as the one we have at present, deflation depends on two factor: the size of the money/credit supply and the velocity at which the money is spent.

The end of Fed QE shrank the former – and no, other central banks won’t make up for the difference -, while the huge decrease in personal wealth – and wages- across the west (the average American family lost 40% of their wealth since 2008) slowed down the velocity of money. Sure, US car sales are looking good on the surface, but they’re fake, since as David Stockman writes today: “consumers borrowed every dime they spent on auto purchases (and took home a few billion extra in spare change).”

Economic growth in developed nations is just a narrative, kept – zombie – alive by media and things like those subprime car loans. We can all imagine why European countries would be at risk, in various forms and stages, but the US seems to be doing good (5% ‘official’ GDP growth last quarter), right? Well, not according to Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup, who writes this week that “.. for the first time in 35 years, American business deaths now outnumber business births”, and: “This economy is never truly coming back unless we reverse the birth and death trends of American businesses.”

The rich world is not doing as well as the narrative – mostly successfully so far – tries to convince you it is. Not nearly as well. The price of oil should be a flashing red flag with loud sirens for everyone. And it’s not just oil. Everything gets repriced. A 12-year low in commodities, dating back to late 2002, is not a laughing matter.

Commodities Tumble to 12-Year Low as US Futures Slide

Commodities (BCOM) tumbled to a 12-year low, led by copper’s biggest decline in almost six years, as slowing global growth curbs demand. [..] Commodity prices are tumbling as a supply glut collides with waning demand, reducing earnings prospects for producers and increasing the appeal of government bonds as inflation slows. The World Bank cut its global growth outlook, citing weak expansions in Europe and China, the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials. Data today is projected to show a gain in U.S. oil inventories.

“Oversupply and falling demand are dragging down commodities beyond oil,” said Ayako Sera at Sumitomo Mitsui. “There are a lot of uncertainties and it’s hard to see a reversal in sentiment for the time being. As an investor it’s hard to proactively take on risk at the moment.” [..] “The news everywhere is doom and gloom,” said David Lennox at Fat Prophets in Sydney. “Prices are going to keep sinking.”

Note that the leading word is demand, not supply. And that in one fell swoop takes us beyond developed nations and into emerging markets. But first, let’s let Jeff Cox have his say:

Market Madness Started With End Of Fed’s QE

For nearly six years running, the U.S. stock market has withstood a myriad of body blows [..]Now, though, comes a shock that has Wall Street reeling: The Black Swan-like collapse in oil prices that has provided a stern test of whether equity markets can survive nearly free of Fed hand-holding. So far, with volatility spiking, traditional correlations breaking down and the bad-news-is-good-news theme no longer in play, the early results are not particularly reassuring. “Stuff happens when QE ends,” said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group.

[..] the increase in volatility and its effect on prices across the capital market spectrum was closely tied to the Fed ending the third round of QE in October. That month marked a momentary collapse in bond yields on Oct. 15, a day that also saw the Dow Jones industrial average plunge some 460 points at one juncture before slicing its losses.

In second place for monthly volatility was December, as investors pondered the meaning of “patient” in a Fed statement on when it planned to raise rates and waited for a Santa Claus rally that failed to materialize. January has proven to be an even bumpier month as investors evaluate an oil plunge that has raised questions about longer-term effects on corporate bottom lines and business investment.

Then came Wednesday’s disappointing retail sales numbers, all of which raised concerns about whether Wall Street is capable of negotiating its way through rough times with only zero-bound short-term interest rates as a backstop. “The assumption that low energy prices were unambiguously good was called into question with December retail sales,” said Art Hogan at Wunderlich Securities. “I think it’s all connected, but I’d be hard-pressed to tie it just to monetary policy.”

Should the Fed try to reinstitute QE in the face of more volatility, “their credibility would be shot.” Michael Pento predicted in an October analysis that the end of the Fed’s QE would see “inflated asset prices deflate back to normalized levels,” and believes now that the process is well under way and is likely to continue.

QE works “much better for equity prices than it does for economic growth,” Pento said. “You had a huge separation where markets went based on the Fed’s $1.7 trillion QE(3) program and where GDP growth was on a global basis. Now you’re seeing those two reconcile.” “Copper’s down over 20%. You’re looking at global yields in the toilet and oil prices down over 50%,” he added. “If you add all those things together, it adds up to global slow growth and the bursting of the commodity bubble that we saw courtesy of central banks.”

“The fuel for the fire over the last several years has been stock repurchases, and that has been fueled for the most part by the zero interest rate environment. As long as that continues, there’s still some room for the stock market to continue higher,” said Brian LaRose, a strategist at United-ICAP. “The path of least resistance is still to the upside.”

There are some good points in that article, but, as I said, the headline is upside down, and also, emerging markets are missing. I talked about their importance to the global economy a month ago in The Biggest Economic Story Going Into 2015 Is Not Oil and again last week in Price Discovery and Emerging Markets, but I think they warrant a lot more attention than they presently get. People simply don’t seem to have enough insight into either the importance of emerging markets – they’re half the global economy -, nor the state they’re in. Bill Pesek at Bloomberg has this:

For China, Even Good Numbers Don’t Add Up

.. China will have to loosen monetary policy soon in order to ensure that GDP growth stays above last year’s target of 7.5% (it’s currently around 7.3%). That’s worrisome because of a different number entirely: 251. That, in percentage terms, is Standard Chartered’s working estimate for China’s debt-to-GDP ratio. Already worryingly high compared to where Japan was 25 years ago when its own bubble burst, the number will only rise further with additional stimulus. The more China gins up growth in 2015, the more irresponsible lending it will have to service in the decade ahead.

The math simply doesn’t work out. Even if China could somehow return to the heady days of 10%-plus GDP growth, its debt mountain would by then be nearly unmanageable. “We’ve got the biggest debt bubble that the world has ever seen and credit is continuing to grow twice as fast” as output, Charlene Chu, a former Fitch Ratings analyst, said. Those who believe China can somehow grow its way out of this problem are fooling themselves.

“Mathematically, that’s impossible when something is twice as big as something else and growing twice as fast,” as Chu noted. It took Japan more than a decade after its bubble burst in 1990 to create the Resolution and Collection Corporation, modeled after America’s Resolution Trust Corporation, to dispose of bad loans. China can’t afford to wait that long to head off a full-blown crisis.[..] Yet for all the official talk about curbing borrowing and adjusting to a “new normal” of lower growth, Xi’s government still hasn’t shown the stomach necessary to bring China’s debt problems out into the open and deal with them.

Even one of the first defaults on an offshore bond by a Chinese developer last week ended happily. Kaisa missed a $23 million interest payment, but quickly received a waiver from HSBC. Since all property companies won’t get last-minute reprieves, these kind of maneuvers just delay a reckoning. Chu, now with Autonomous Research in Hong Kong, put Chinese bank assets at around $28 trillion the end of 2014, a huge increase from $9 trillion in 2008. As any 12-step program participant can attest, sobriety requires first admitting the magnitude of one’s problem – and publicly.

Whereas nations elsewhere in Asia would seem to have even larger immediate issues. It’s about the rise of the US dollar. Well, on connecting with the fact that they borrowed themselves silly in dollar denominated terms as Fed QE was happening. But that’s the thing: they’re now coming back to normalcy, albeit with a severe hangover. It’s not as of normalcy just ended.

Plunging Oil Prices, Rising Debt Leaves Asia Staring at Deflation

Asia’s rapid accumulation of debt in recent years is holding back central banks from easing monetary policy to fight the risk of deflation, endangering private investment needed to boost faltering growth, according to Morgan Stanley. Debt to GDP ratio in the region excluding Japan rose to 203% in 2013 from 147% in 2007, with most of the increase coming from companies, [..] The ratio is close to or has exceeded 200% in seven of 10 nations including China and South Korea. Deflation risk is spreading from Europe to Asia as oil prices plunge..

“When real rates are high, only the public sector or government-linked companies will take on leverage,” the Morgan Stanley economists wrote. The key concern with an approach of keeping real rates at elevated levels is that the private sector will remain hesitant to take up new investment..

India, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines all held their benchmark rates last month. The Asian Development Bank in December cut the region’s economic growth forecasts for 2014 and 2015. Oil’s decline to the lowest in more than 5 1/2 years has hurt crude-exporting Asian nations like Malaysia while benefiting others like the Philippines and Indonesia.

China could tighten rules to allow faster recognition of non-performing debt in the corporate sector, Morgan Stanley said. While this could lead to a period of sharper slowdown in credit and GDP growth, it will reduce risks and open up the door for aggressive monetary as well as fiscal easing [..]

Troubled times ahead indeed. But it still simply the world reverting to normal. To functioning economies – though that doesn’t mean they’ll be doing well – and to price discovery. To get there, though, we need for trillions of dollars in zombie money to go up in thin air. It’ll be musical chairs with not nearly as many chairs as contestants.

And then the Fed can add to the damage. Which I keep thinking they will. It’ll be murder on emerging markets, and on most Americans, but Wall Street banks should be faring just fine, thank you. The Fed has been ‘leading’ its own narrative for months now, with various figures coming out of the woodwork with pro or con rate hike messages. It’s all staged, and here’s Yellen (a contradictory story will again come in a few days from some regional Fed head):

She’s No Greenspan: Yellen Signals She Won’t Babysit Markets in Turmoil

Janet Yellen is leaving the Greenspan “put” behind as she charts the first interest-rate increase since 2006 amid growing financial-market volatility. The Federal Reserve chair has signaled she wants to place the economic outlook at the center of policy making, while looking past short-term market fluctuations.

To succeed, she must wean investors from the notion, which gained currency under predecessor Alan Greenspan, that the Fed will bail them out if their bets go bad – just as a put option protects against a drop in stock prices. “The succession of Fed puts over the years has led to a wide range of distortions in financial markets,” said Lawrence Goodman at the Center for Financial Stability. “There have been swollen asset values followed by sharp declines. This is a very good time for the Fed to move away.”

So much for the stock market. But should we really be worrying about that when we know it’s all been a six-year headfake anyway? Isn’t it better to have price discovery back than to have so-called ‘investors’ trip on Bernanke blue pills? Oh well, never mind, oil made that decision for us.

Jan 152015
 
 January 15, 2015  Posted by at 11:30 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »


Unknown Marin-Dell dairy truck, San Francisco Mar 1 1945

US Retail Sales Down Sharply, Likely Cuts to Growth Forecasts Ahead (Bloomberg)
US Retail Sales Drop Most Since June 2012 – It’s Not Gas Prices (Zero Hedge)
The December Retail Report: “Disappointing” Isn’t The Half Of It (Stockman)
Swiss Franc Jumps 30% As Central Bank Abandons Ceiling Versus Euro (Reuters)
What, Us Worry? Economists Stay Upbeat as Markets See Trouble (Bloomberg)
Here’s Why Wall Street Is Wrong About Oil Stocks (MarketWatch)
Increased US Output Bolsters Oil Glut Fears Sending Prices Back Down (Bloomberg)
US Oil Output Advances To Record Even as Prices Decline (Bloomberg)
Iraq to Double Exports of Kirkuk Crude Amid Oil Surplus (Bloomberg)
Big Oil Cuts Back As Analysts Slash Forecasts (CNBC)
Gravy Train Derails for Oil Patch Workers Laid Off in Downturn (Bloomberg)
Oil Price Crash Threatens The Future Of The North Sea Oilfields (Guardian)
Qatar, Shell Scrap $6.5 Billion Project After Oil’s Drop (Bloomberg)
Europe’s Imperial Court Is A Threat To All Our Democracies (AEP)
ECB Stimulus Already Priced Into Market (CNBC)
Deflation Risk Renders Czech Koruna’s Euro Cap Irrelevant (Bloomberg)
Germany Gets Walloped By Its Own Austerity (Bloomberg)
Weak Capex Spending Spells Trouble For Japan (CNBC)
Market Madness Started With End Of Fed’s QE (CNBC)
Russia to Shift Ukraine Gas Transit to Turkey as EU Cries Foul (Bloomberg)
Russia to Dip Into Wealth Fund as Ruble Crisis Pressures Economy (Bloomberg)
China’s Credit Growth Surges; Shadow Banking Stages a Comeback (Bloomberg)
Asian Central Banks Should Focus On Deflation Not Inflation (Bloomberg)
Specter Of Fascist Past Haunts European Nationalism (Reuters)
Rate Of Sea-Level Rise ‘Far Steeper’ (BBC)

What on earth happened to holiday sales?

US Retail Sales Down Sharply, Likely Cuts to Growth Forecasts Ahead (Bloomberg)

The optimism surrounding the outlook for U.S. consumers was taken down a notch as retail sales slumped in December by the most in almost a year, prompting some economists to lower spending and growth forecasts. The 0.9% decline in purchases followed a 0.4% advance in November that was smaller than previously estimated, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. Last month’s decrease extended beyond any single group as receipts fell in nine of 13 major retail categories. While disappointing, the drop followed large-enough gains at the start of the quarter that signaled consumer spending accelerated from the previous three months as the job market strengthened and gasoline prices plunged. Continued improvement in hiring that sparks more wage growth will be needed to ensure customers at retailers such as Family Dollar Stores also thrive.

“Maybe the optimism a month ago got a little too heated,” said Guy Berger, U.S. economist at RBS. “It’s a weak number but it follows some really strong ones and I don’t think it changes my general feeling on how the economy and consumers are doing.” Treasury yields and stocks fell as a deepening commodities rout and the drop in sales spurred concern global growth is slowing. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index retreated 0.6% to 2,011.27 at the close in New York. The 30-year Treasury bond yielded 2.47% after declining earlier to a record-low 2.39%. Electronics merchants, clothing outlets, department stores and auto dealers were among those posting sales declines in December, today’s report showed. Cheaper fuel helped push receipts at gasoline stations down by the most in six years. T

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But but but indeed.

US Retail Sales Drop Most Since June 2012 – It’s Not Gas Prices (Zero Hedge)

But but but… US retail advanced sales dropped a stunning 0.9% MoM (massively missing expectations of a 0.1% drop). The last time we saw a bigger monthly drop was June 2012. Want to blame lower gas prices – think again… Retail Sales ex Autos and Gas also fell 0.3% (missing an exuberantly hopeful expectation of +0.5% MoM) and the all-important ‘Control Group’ saw sales fall 0.4% (missing expectations of a 0.4% surge). Boom goes the narrative. Advance Retail Sales massively missed For Dec…

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“.. no economy can thrive for long – especially one already at “peak debt” – based on consumer “spending” that is 100% dependent upon borrowed funds.”

The December Retail Report: “Disappointing” Isn’t The Half Of It (Stockman)

Today’s 0.9% decline in December retail sales apparently came as a shock to bubblevision’s talking heads. After all, we have had this giant “oil tax cut”, and, besides, the US economy has “decoupled” from the stormy waters abroad and is finally on its way to “escape velocity”. The Wall Street touts and Keynesian economic doctors have been saying that for months now – while averring that all the Fed’s massive money printing is finally beginning to bear fruit. So today’s retail report is a real stumpe – –even if you embrace Wall Street’s sudden skepticism about government economic reports and ignore the purported “noise” in the seasonally maladjusted numbers for December. All right then. Forget the December monthly numbers. Why not look at the unadjusted numbers in the full year retail spending report for 2014 compared to the prior year.

Recall that the swoon from last winter’s polar vortex overlapped both years, and was supposed to be a temporary effect anyway – a mere shift of consumer spending to a few months down the road when spring arrived on schedule. On an all-in basis, total retail sales in 2014 rose by $210 billion or a respectable 4.0%. But 58% of that gain was attributable to two categories – auto sales and bars&restaurants – which accounted for only 28% of retail sales in 2013. And therein lies a telling tale. New and used motor vehicle sale alone jumped by $86 billion in CY2014 or nearly 9%. Then again, during the most recent 12 months auto loans outstanding soared by $89 billion. Roughly speaking, therefore, consumers borrowed every dime they spent on auto purchases and took home a few billion extra in spare change.

The point here is that no economy can thrive for long – especially one already at “peak debt” – based on consumer “spending” that is 100% dependent upon borrowed funds. Yet that has been the essence of the retail sales rebound since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. Auto sales, which have been heavily financed by borrowing, are up by about 70%; the balance of non-auto retail sales, where consumer credit outstanding is still below the pre-crisis peak, has gained only 22%. Stated differently, the only credit channel of monetary policy transmission which is still working is auto credit. Yet as indicated earlier this week, that actually amounts to a proverbial “accident” waiting to happen. On the margin, the boom in auto loans, which are now nearing $1 trillion in outstandings, is on its last leg. The latest surge of growth has been in “subprime” credit based on the foolish assumption that vehicle prices never come down; and that the junk car loan boom led by fly-by-night lenders is nothing to worry about since loans are “collateralized”.

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Wow!

Swiss Franc Jumps 30% As Central Bank Abandons Ceiling Versus Euro (Reuters)

Switzerland’s franc soared by almost 30% in value against the euro on Thursday after the Swiss National Bank abandoned its three-year old cap at 1.20 francs per euro. In a chaotic few minutes on markets after the SNB’s announcement, the franc broke past parity against the euro to trade at 0.8052 francs per euro before trimming those gains to stand at 88.00 francs. It also gained 25% against the dollar to trade at 74 francs per dollar.

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Huh? ” ..looking at economic data, “we’re certainly not seeing anything that’s unnerving us.”

What, Us Worry? Economists Stay Upbeat as Markets See Trouble (Bloomberg)

The U.S. consumer, that dynamo of the global economy, just took a step back. Relax. It’s not that bad, economists say. News Wednesday that U.S. retail sales unexpectedly declined in December reverberated through financial markets, but few economists read the report as a sign of trouble for the nation’s economy. In fact, many economists say the U.S. economy is doing just fine. So why did the markets react the way they did? The answer, in part, is that the report added to a wall of worry confronting investors. Topping the 2015 angst-list are the plunge in oil and other commodities, as well as slowdowns in China and Europe.

“It feels like a global recession when you look at the markets,” said David Hensley, director of global economics for JPMorgan. But looking at economic data, “we’re certainly not seeing anything that’s unnerving us.” For the moment, the 0.9% decline in December retail sales reported by the Commerce Department has pushed back market expectations for when the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates. It also has bond investors betting that inflation will stay low. Forecasts change all the time. But before anyone panics over one economic number, here are four reasons to stay optimistic about the U.S. economy, which is still in the driver’s seat of global growth.

• December sales figures aside, U.S. consumers aren’t running scared. Yes, last month’s decline was the biggest in a year. But consumer spending probably rose at an annual rate of more than 4% during the fourth quarter as a whole, according to Ted Wieseman at Morgan Stanley. The first quarter of this year is looking just as good, Wieseman wrote in a note today to clients.

• The U.S. jobs market is perking up. Less than a week ago, investors were cheering news of another big rise in U.S. payrolls. In all, the economy added about 3 million jobs last year. “The U.S. is doing great relative to the rest of the developed world,” said Jim O’Sullivan at High Frequency Economics.

• The plunge in oil and other commodities is mostly good news for consumers. Cheaper oil means cheaper fuel. And most economists say that’s good for global growth. The plunge in oil, for example, largely reflects an increase in supply, from shale and the like, rather than a decrease in demand. U.S. production of crude oil rose to 9.19 million barrels a day last week, the highest in Energy Information Administration weekly estimates going back to 1983.

• Bond yields are hitting new lows, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire world is about to sink into a deflationary spiral in which prices, wages and output fall in tandem. In fact, many economists predict wages in the U.S. will finally start rising this year. “It’s just a matter of time before wage growth picks up,” said Mohamed El-Erian.

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“The Street’s estimates are based on a price of roughly $75 a barrel for oil ..”

Here’s Why Wall Street Is Wrong About Oil Stocks (MarketWatch)

Most Wall Street analysts are basing their 2015 earnings estimates for oil companies on a questionable number: the price of oil itself. Exxon Mobil, which has, by far, the largest market value of any oil producer, illustrates this point perfectly. The consensus among sell-side analysts polled by FactSet is for the company to earn $5.18 a share this year, down 40% from an estimated $7.27 in 2014. The expected decline in earnings springs from the crash in oil prices amid slowing demand, increased U.S. supply and OPEC’s strategy of defending its market share by refusing to cut production. But Oppenheimer analyst Fadel Gheit, who’s based in New York, has diverged wildly from his peers, predicting a 2015 EPS estimate of only $2.65 for Exxon Mobil.

“The Street’s estimates are based on a price of roughly $75 a barrel for oil,” which is where the analysts think oil will end up after recovering from its drop. Oppenheimer’s estimates are updated every Friday, based on current oil prices, not on where the firm’s analysts think the price may eventually settle. Gheit’s estimates from Friday were based on prices of $51.68 a barrel for West Texas crude and $55.20 for Brent crude. Based on the consensus 2015 estimate and Tuesday’s closing stock price of $90, Exxon Mobil would trade for 17.4 times this year’s earnings. That’s not an outrageously high valuation. However, based on Gheit’s estimate, which in turn is based on what’s actually going on in the oil market, the stock would trade for about twice as much: 34 times earnings.

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What do they expect?

Increased US Output Bolsters Oil Glut Fears Sending Prices Back Down (Bloomberg)

Oil resumed its decline after the biggest gain since June 2012 as U.S. crude production increased, bolstering speculation a global supply glut that spurred last year’s price collapse may persist. Futures dropped as much as 1.3% in New York. U.S. output surged to 9.19 million barrels a day last week, the fastest pace in weekly records dating back to January 1983, the Energy Information Administration reported yesterday. Crude may fall below a six-month forecast of $39 a barrel and rallies could be thwarted by the speed at which lost shale production can recover, according to Goldman Sachs. Oil slumped almost 50% last year, the most since the 2008 financial crisis, as OPEC resisted cutting output even amid the U.S. shale boom, exacerbating a surplus estimated by Kuwait at 1.8 million barrels a day.

Prices rose yesterday as a relative strength index rebounded after more than two weeks below 30, a level that typically signals the market is oversold. “You tend to arrive at points every now and then in major trends like this where you just see a little bit of short covering and profit taking,” Ric Spooner at CMC Markets in Sydney, said. “Supply is still the general theme.” Oil is leading this week’s slide in commodities after a decade-long bull market led companies to boost production and a stronger dollar diminished their allure to investors. The Bloomberg Commodity Index of 22 energy, agriculture and metal products decreased to the lowest level since November 2002 on Jan. 13, extending a 17% loss last year.

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“.. output rose in November as the number of new wells coming online fell by 73%.”

US Oil Output Advances To Record Even as Prices Decline (Bloomberg)

Drillers that unlocked the shale oil boom in the U.S. are finding it hard to shut off the nozzle. U.S. crude production rose even as prices slumped to the lowest in more than five years and the number of rigs targeting oil decreased. In North Dakota’s prolific Bakken shale formation, output rose in November as the number of new wells coming online fell by 73%. The increases illustrate how improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology may prop up U.S. crude production even as companies cut spending, idle rigs and lay off thousands of workers with oil prices down more than 50% since June. “We have an oversupply of crude,” Michael Hiley, head of energy OTC at LPS Partners said yesterday.

“Production keeps going up. There is not a great correlation between the rig count and production because drilling has gotten more efficient over the last several years.” Output climbed to 9.19 million barrels a day last week, the most in Energy Information Administration weekly estimates going back to 1983. Strong production helped push crude inventories to a seasonal record, EIA data showed. Crude has slumped 9% in 2015 after declining 46% in 2014 as shale oil lifted U.S. supply and OPEC maintained production. Last week, U.S. oil rigs declined by the most since 1991. Producers including Continental and ConocoPhillips say they will cut spending.

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“.. in the coming few weeks,”

Iraq to Double Exports of Kirkuk Crude Amid Oil Surplus (Bloomberg)

Iraq will double exports within weeks from its northern Kirkuk oil fields and continue boosting output further south amid a global market glut that’s pushed prices to their lowest level in more than five and a half years. Crude shipments will rise to 300,000 barrels a day from the Kirkuk oil hub, where authorities are also upgrading pipelines between fields, Fouad Hussein, at Kirkuk provincial council’s oil and gas committee, said. “There is a need to install a new pipeline network” to increase exports from the area, Hussein said. Kirkuk, which currently exports about 150,000 barrels a day, will boost shipments to 250,000 barrels a day and then to 300,000 “in the coming few weeks,” he said. Iraq, holder of the world’s fifth-largest crude reserves, is rebuilding its energy industry after decades of wars and economic sanctions.

The country exported 2.94 million barrels a day in December, the most since the 1980s, Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said Jan. 2. The exports, pumped mostly from fields in southern Iraq, included 5.579 million barrels from Kirkuk in that month, he said. [..] State-owned Missan Oil plans to boost its production to 1 million barrels a day in 2017 from an average output of 257,000 barrels a day in 2014, according to Director-General Adnan Sajet. Output exceeded 93 million barrels in 2014, up 10 million barrels from the previous year, he said yesterday. Iraq’s government also awarded a contract to an unspecified international company to more than double the capacity of the southern Basra oil refinery to 300,000 barrels a day, according to an e-mailed statement from the office of Deputy Prime Minister Rowsch Nuri Shaways. The refinery can currently process about 140,000 barrels a day.

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“U.K.-based Tullow Oil has painted a bleak outlook for the years ahead. The firm announced earnings Thursday, with write offs of $2.3 billion ..” “Premier Oil also announced an estimated $300-million impairment charge for the second half of this year ..”

Big Oil Cuts Back As Analysts Slash Forecasts (CNBC)

The ongoing rout in oil markets is putting high-profile industry names on the back foot, with Shell announcing major changes to operations this week – and BP expected to follow suit. BP is expected to announce significant job cuts across the 20 oil fields in owns in the North Sea – just off the coast of the U.K. – on Thursday, according to media reports. It currently employs 4,000 workers in the area. Meanwhile, Anglo–Dutch multinational Royal Dutch Shell announced that it had decided to shelve the construction of a new petrochemicals complex in Qatar, was due to be a tie-up with the country’s state-owned oil firm.

In the exploration sector – the first to be hit by falling oil prices – U.K.-based Tullow Oil has painted a bleak outlook for the years ahead. The firm announced earnings Thursday, with write offs of $2.3 billion, and warned there had been “major steps taken to strengthen the business to adapt to current market conditions.” Rival exploration firm Premier Oil also announced an estimated $300-million impairment charge for the second half of this year on Wednesday, with delays and cost-cutting plans expected in the development of some of its new oil fields. Weak global demand and booming U.S. shale oil production are seen as two key reasons behind the price plunge, as well as OPEC’s reluctance to cut its output. Both WTI and Brent crude prices have crashed by around 60% since mid-June last year and oil stocks have been crushed, underperforming the wider benchmarks.

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“As of November, oil and gas companies employed 543,000 people across the U.S., a number that’s more than doubled from a decade ago ..”

Gravy Train Derails for Oil Patch Workers Laid Off in Downturn (Bloomberg)

The first thing oilfield geophysicist Emmanuel Osakwe noticed when he arrived back at work before 8 a.m. last month after a short vacation was all the darkened offices. By that time of morning, the West Houston building of his oilfield services company was usually bustling with workers. A couple hours later, after a surprise call from Human Resources, Osakwe was adding to the emptiness: one of thousands of energy industry workers getting their pink slips as crude prices have plunged to less than $50 a barrel. “For the oil and gas industry, it’s scary,” Osakwe said in an interview after he was laid off last month from a unit of Halliburton, which he joined in September 2013. “I was blind to the ups and downs associated with the industry.”

It’s hard to blame him. The oil industry has been on a tear for most of the past decade, with just a brief timeout for the financial crisis. As of November, oil and gas companies employed 543,000 people across the U.S., a number that’s more than doubled from a decade ago, according to data kept by Rigzone, an employment company servicing the energy industry. Stunned by the sudden plunge in the price of oil, energy companies have increasingly resorted to layoffs to cut costs since Christmas, shocking a new generation of workers, like Osakwe, unfamiliar with the industry’s historic boom and bust cycles. Workers who entered the holiday season confident they had secure employment in one of the country’s safest havens now find themselves in shrinking workplaces with dimming prospects. [..]

There’s no firm number yet on how many oil industry workers are losing their jobs, or how many more cuts might be coming. Halliburton said last month it was laying off 1,000 staff in the Eastern Hemisphere alone as it adapted to a shrinking business. Suncor, a Canadian oil company, said this week it will cut 1,000 jobs in 2015, a day after Shell said it would cut 300 in the region. Other companies have announced layoffs, but many are making the cuts without public fanfare. The effects are being felt beyond the oil companies as cutbacks trickle down to suppliers and other companies that thrived along with $100 oil. The biggest drilling states – Texas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado – are expected to feel the most pain. The Dallas Federal Reserve estimates 140,000 jobs directly and indirectly tied to energy will be lost in Texas in 2015 because of low oil prices.

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“North Sea oilfields could be shut down if the oil price fell by just a few more dollars ..”

Oil Price Crash Threatens The Future Of The North Sea Oilfields (Guardian)

The potential impact of the oil price slump on Scotland was underlined as a leading energy expert warned on Wednesday that North Sea oilfields could be shut down if the oil price fell by just a few more dollars. The rising sense of crisis about the plummeting price – which has fallen 60% in the last six months – prompted the Scottish government to promise an emergency taskforce to try to preserve jobs in the offshore energy sector. Meanwhile, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England warned that the Scottish economy was heading for a “negative shock”. The oil industry consultancy Wood Mackenzie said that at the current price for Brent blend, of $46 a barrel, some UK production was already failing to break even, and further falls could endanger output.

Robert Plummer, a research analyst with the firm, said that at $50 a barrel oil production was costing more than its value in 17 countries, including the US and UK. Plummer told Scottish Energy News: “Once the oil price reaches these levels producers have a sometimes complex decision to continue producing, losing money on every barrel produced, or to halt production, which will reduce supply.” Concern about cutbacks was heightened Wednesday when Shell announced it was scrapping a $6.4bn (£4.2bn) energy project in the Middle East because it was no longer commercial, with oil prices falling to six-year lows. Plummer said that if oil prices fell to $40, a small but significant part of global supply would become “cash negative”, although some operators would choose to keep producing oil at a loss rather than stop production.

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So many projects will be shelved.

Qatar, Shell Scrap $6.5 Billion Project After Oil’s Drop (Bloomberg)

Qatar Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell called off plans to build a $6.5 billion petrochemical plant in the emirate, saying the project is no longer commercially feasible amid the upheaval in global energy markets. The companies formed a partnership for the al-Karaana project in 2011 and planned to operate it as a joint venture, with state-run QP owning 80% and Shell the remaining 20%. They decided not to proceed after evaluating quotations from bidders for engineering and construction work, the companies said yesterday in a joint statement. The expected capital cost of the petrochemical complex planned in Ras Laffan industrial city “has rendered it commercially unfeasible, particularly in the current economic climate prevailing in the energy industry,” they said.

Al-Karaana is the second petrochemical project in Qatar to be canceled in recent months due to unfavorable economics. Industries Qatar, the state-controlled petrochemical and steel producer, halted plans to build a $6 billion plant in September. Qatar, an OPEC member and the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, is seeking like other energy producers in the Persian Gulf to diversify its economy away from oil and gas exports and building factories to make petrochemicals, aluminum and steel. “The region is beginning to reduce its capital expenditure for petrochemical and hydrocarbon expansion, and that is expected given that oil prices have plunged,” John Sfakianakis, Middle East director at Ashmore Group Plc, said in a phone interview.

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“This would be a fundamental transformation of the EU from a treaty organisation, which depends on the democratic assent of the sovereign states, into a supranational entity.”

Europe’s Imperial Court Is A Threat To All Our Democracies (AEP)

The European Court of Justice has declared legal supremacy over the sovereign state of Germany, and therefore of Britain, France, Denmark and Poland as well. The ECJ’s advocate-general has not only brushed aside the careful findings of the German constitutional court on a matter of highest importance, he has gone so far as to claim that Germany is obliged to submit to the final decision. “We cannot possibly accept this and they know it,” said one German jurist close to the case. The matter at hand is whether the European Central Bank broke the law with its back-stop plan for Italian and Spanish debt (OMT) in 2012. The teleological ECJ – always eager to further the cause of EU integration – did come up with the politically-correct answer as expected. The ECB is in the clear.

The opinion is a green light for quantitative easing next week, legally never in doubt. The European Court did defer to the Verfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe on a few points. The ECB must not get mixed up with the EU bail-out fund (ESM) or take part in Troika rescue operations. But these details are not the deeper import of the case. The opinion is a vaulting assertion of EU primacy. If the Karlsruhe accepts this, the implication is that Germany will no longer be a fully self-governing sovereign state. The advocate-general knows he is risking a showdown but views this fight as unavoidable. “It seems to me an all but impossible task to preserve this Union, as we know it today, if it is to be made subject to an absolute reservation, ill-defined and virtually at the discretion of each of the Member States,” he said.

In this he is right. “This Union” – meaning the Union to which EU integrationists aspire – is currently blocked by the German court, the last safeguard of our nation states against encroachment. This is why the battle is historic.”His opinion is a direct affront to the German court. It asserts that the EU court has the final say in defining and creating the EU’s own powers, without any national check,” said Gunnar Beck, a German legal theorist at the University of London. “This would be a fundamental transformation of the EU from a treaty organisation, which depends on the democratic assent of the sovereign states, into a supranational entity.” Germany’s judges have never accepted the ECJ’s outlandish claims to primacy.

Their ruling on the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 warned in thunderous terms that the court reserves the right to strike down any EU law that breaches the German Grundgesetz or Basic Law. They went further in their verdict on the Lisbon Treaty in July 2009, shooting down imperial conceits. The EU is merely a treaty club. The historic states are the “masters of the Treaties” and not the other way round. They set limits to EU integration. Whole areas of policy “must forever remain German”. If the drift of EU affairs erodes German democracy – including the Bundestag’s fiscal sovereignty – the country must “refuse further participation in the European Union”.

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“In the U.S., 18% of bank assets are stuck at the Fed, dead money. So it’s not really a good move for Europe that’s going to cause stimulus.”

ECB Stimulus Already Priced Into Market (CNBC)

The markets have already priced in the quantitative easing that the European Central Bank is expected to do next week and he doesn’t think it will be very powerful, David Malpass, president of Encima Global, told CNBC Wednesday. Therefore, he believes the markets are entering a phase of global rebalancing. “People will get tired of just being in the U.S. and will take a look at some of the emerging markets, oil, the euro and so on,” Malpass said in an interview with “Closing Bell.” David Hale, chairman of David Hale Global Economics, agrees the market has been discounting the anticipated QE for several weeks.

“Bond yields in Europe are at record low levels. Leaving aside the last few days, stock markets have been resilient. So I do think the expectation of this happening is now broadly in the market because of both comments by [ECB President Mario] Draghi and other members of the monetary policy council.” The European Central Bank meets next Thursday, and Draghi has said the bank is ready to start full-blown quantitative easing. Hale expects a “decent” amount of QE but said he doesn’t think it will work well enough to be stimulative. “The bond yields are already low, and remember the ECB is going to finance all those bond purchases with bank financing,” he said. “In the U.S., 18% of bank assets are stuck at the Fed, dead money. So it’s not really a good move for Europe that’s going to cause stimulus.”

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Sort of like Switzerland. Only, the koruna will plummet, not rise.

Deflation Risk Renders Czech Koruna’s Euro Cap Irrelevant (Bloomberg)

Currency traders are taking aim at the Czech Republic amid speculation that policy makers will have little choice but to weaken the koruna as it seeks to avert deflation. A measure of volatility jumped this month by the most among 31 major peers as the koruna fell to a six-year low of 28.5 per euro. The exchange rate is so far away from the 27-per-euro cap imposed by the central bank more than a year ago when inflation was the bigger threat that Goldman Sachs says it’s now “odds on” that the ceiling gets adjusted to 30 per euro. “I expect the koruna to tumble much further,” Bernd Berg, director of emerging-market strategy at SocGen, said. “The economy is on the brink of deflation. This has increased the likelihood of a dovish monetary-policy reaction.”

While neighboring Poland and Hungary have room to cut interest rates to curb deflation, the Czech Republic’s options are limited because its borrowing costs are already close to zero at 0.05%. Central-bank Governor Miroslav Singer entered the debate yesterday, seeking to play down the prospect of a lower currency limit by saying it may only become necessary if there were a “long-term increase in deflation pressures.” Singer’s comments in a blog on the Czech National Bank’s website helped the koruna rally late in the trading day, though it’s still 1.5% lower against the euro this year, the biggest loss among 31 major currencies after Russia’s ruble.

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“.. their business environment is getting worse, they’re reluctant to invest, and no matter how much cheap money the European Central Bank tries to steer their way, they’re not interested in borrowing to expand.”

Germany Gets Walloped By Its Own Austerity (Bloomberg)

The euro region is suffering from austerity fatigue, exemplified by polls showing Greece on the verge of dumping its government for one with less enthusiasm for spending cuts. Germany has been the principal architect of fiscal rectitude and the main opponent to any relaxation of deficit rules. What’s happening in the heartland of German industry, however, suggests it’s not just Germany’s neighbors who are threatened by its economic intransigence. The backbone of the German economy is formed by about 3.7 million small- and medium-sized enterprises, defined as those with annual sales no greater than 50 million euros ($60 million) and known as the Mittelstand. It turns out their business environment is getting worse, they’re reluctant to invest, and no matter how much cheap money the European Central Bank tries to steer their way, they’re not interested in borrowing to expand.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion of a report published by the German Savings Banks Association yesterday. The association polled more than 330 of the country’s 416 savings banks in October, and examined more than a quarter of a million SME balance sheets. For German companies that did invest last year, only 19.7% cited “expansion” as their motivation, down from 27.5% in 2013 and the lowest outcome since 2010. More than half of the companies instead were replacing old machinery. Investment itself remains stagnant, stuck at about 340 billion euros or 11.7% of gross domestic product. For small and medium-sized enterprises, this weakness of investment was not due to a lack of external financing or insufficient equity. The continuing economic difficulties experienced by many partner countries in the Monetary Union as well as geopolitical crises have reinforced the wait-and-see attitude of many enterprises.

Only 16% of the business managers at the banks said their customers’ businesses got better in 2014, less than half the number who said a year earlier that they were seeing improvements. Some 18% said things had gotten worse, versus just 4.6% in 2013. Companies in the west of Germany, which are typically the most dependent on exports, were worse hit than those in the eastern federal states, the association said. In response, companies are retrenching. Some 46% of the bank respondents said they provided less investment financing for their customers last year, with just 16% upping their credit allocations. By contrast, more than 64% of companies expanded their equity bases, adding to 59% in both 2012 and 2013.

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What goes for Germany goes for Japan: “Many Japanese corporations don’t want to invest because they don’t think they can make any money in Japan ..”

Weak Capex Spending Spells Trouble For Japan (CNBC)

The majority of Japanese companies appear unwilling to spend, latest government data showed on Wednesday, adding to doubts over the economy’s ability to recover amid slowing growth across the world, particularly in China. Core machinery orders, a leading indicator of capex spending, grew 1.3% on-month in November, a reversal from October’s 6.4% decline, but well below expectations for a 5.0% rise in a Reuters poll. Year-on-year, machinery orders dropped 14.6%, below the Reuters poll estimate of a 5.8% decline. At the same time, the Cabinet Office cut its assessment of machinery orders, citing signs that the economic recovery is stalling, Reuters reported.

“Many Japanese corporations don’t want to invest because they don’t think they can make any money in Japan,” said Taro Saito, director of economic research at NLI Research Institute. “The trend to hoard cash rather than invest is not good for the wider Japanese economy.” Still, he reckons capital spending is on a modest recovery trend now that the second consumption tax hike initially scheduled for October 2015 was shelved until April 2017. The first hike from 5% to 8% in April 2014 was too brutal, he said. Japan’s economy contracted in the two quarters following April’s tax hike, tipping the country into a technical recession.

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We are just leaving the madness. “The fuel for the fire over the last several years has been stock repurchases, and that has been fueled for the most part by the zero interest rate environment.”

Market Madness Started With End Of Fed’s QE (CNBC)

For nearly six years running, the U.S. stock market has withstood a myriad of body blows, from a stuttering economic recovery to a debt crisis in Europe to massive political instability in Washington. Underpinning each move higher was the knowledge that the Federal Reserve would keep the printing presses running, with aggressive quantitative easing programs that sent market confidence high and asset prices soaring. Now, though, comes a shock that has Wall Street reeling: The Black Swan-like collapse in oil prices that has provided a stern test of whether equity markets can survive nearly free of Fed hand-holding. So far, with volatility spiking, traditional correlations breaking down and the bad-news-is-good-news theme no longer in play, the early results are not particularly reassuring. “Stuff happens when QE ends,” said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group.

“It’s no coincidence that the market started going into a higher volatility mode, it’s no coincidence that the decline in commodity prices accelerated, it’s no coincidence that the yield curve started flattening when QE ended.” Indeed, the increase in volatility and its effect on prices across the capital market spectrum was closely tied to the Fed ending the third round of QE in October. That month marked a momentary collapse in bond yields on Oct. 15, a day that also saw the Dow Jones industrial average plunge some 460 points at one juncture before slicing its losses. The day, and the general tenor of markets as the Fed ended QE amid a global Ebola and economic growth scare, helped make October the most volatile month of 2014.

In second place for monthly volatility was December, according to a Tabb Group analysis, as investors pondered the meaning of “patient” in a Fed statement on when it planned to raise rates and waited for a Santa Claus rally that failed to materialize. January has proven to be an even bumpier month as investors evaluate an oil plunge that sent a gallon of gasoline below $2 in some locations but has raised question about longer-term effects on corporate bottom lines and business investment. Then came Wednesday’s disappointing retail sales numbers, all of which raised concerns about whether Wall Street is capable of negotiating its way through rough times with only zero-bound short-term interest rates as a backstop. “The assumption that low energy prices were unambiguously good was called into question with December retail sales,” said Art Hogan at Wunderlich Securities. “I think it’s all connected, but I’d be hard-pressed to tie it just to monetary policy.”

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Threat to the EU.

Russia to Shift Ukraine Gas Transit to Turkey as EU Cries Foul (Bloomberg)

Russia plans to shift all its natural gas flows crossing Ukraine to a route via Turkey, a surprise move that the European Union’s energy chief said would hurt its reputation as a supplier. The decision makes no economic sense, Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president for energy union, told reporters today after talks with Russian government officials and the head of gas exporter, Gazprom, in Moscow. Gazprom, the world’s biggest natural gas supplier, plans to send 63 billion cubic meters through a proposed link under the Black Sea to Turkey, fully replacing shipments via Ukraine, Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller said during the discussions. About 40% of Russia’s gas exports to Europe and Turkey travel through Ukraine’s Soviet-era network.

Russia, which supplies about 30% of Europe’s gas, dropped a planned link through Bulgaria bypassing Ukraine amid EU opposition last year. Russia’s relations with the EU have reached a post-Cold War low over President Vladimir Putin’s support for separatists in Ukraine. Sefcovic said he was “very surprised” by Miller’s comment, adding that relying on a Turkish route, without Ukraine, won’t fit with the EU’s gas system. Gazprom plans to deliver the fuel to Turkey’s border with Greece and “it’s up to the EU to decide what to do” with it further, according to Sefcovic. “We don’t work like this,” he said. “The trading system and trading habits – how we do it today – are different.”

Sefcovic said he arrived in the Russian capital to discuss supplies to south-eastern EU countries after Putin scrapped the proposed $45 billion South Stream pipeline. The region, even if Turkey is included, doesn’t need the volumes Gazprom is planning for a new link, he said. Ukraine makes sense as a transit country given its location in Europe and the “very clear specified places of deliveries” in Gazprom’s current long-term contracts with EU customers, Sefcovic said. “I believe we can find a better solution,” Sefcovic said.

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They’ll be fine.

Russia to Dip Into Wealth Fund as Ruble Crisis Pressures Economy (Bloomberg)

Russia will unseal its $88 billion Reserve Fund and use it to acquire rubles, the government’s latest effort to stem the country’s worst currency crisis in almost 17 years and limit its effects on the ailing economy. “Together with the central bank, we are selling a part of our foreign-currency reserves,” Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in Moscow today. “We’ll get rubles and place them in deposits for banks, giving liquidity to the economy.” Russian officials are running out of options to stem the ruble’s plunge as oil prices below $50 a barrel and sanctions imposed over the conflict in Ukraine push the country to the brink of recession. Policy makers have already raised interest rates by the most since 1998 and introduced a 1 trillion-ruble ($15 billion) bank recapitalization plan. The risk for policy makers is that using the reserves to fight the ruble’s slide will worsen its standing with investors.

Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said today there’s a “fairly high” risk that the country’s credit rating will be cut below investment grade for the the first time in a decade. “This should be viewed just as the continuation of the desire to present a united front in dealing with events in the foreign-currency market,” Ivan Tchakarov, chief economist at Citigroup in Moscow, said. Russia may convert the equivalent of as much as 500 billion rubles from one of the government’s two sovereign wealth funds to support the national currency, Siluanov said, calling the ruble “undervalued.” The Finance Ministry last month started selling foreign currency remaining on the Treasury’s accounts. The entire 500 billion rubles or part of the amount will be converted in January-February through the central bank, according to Deputy Finance Minister Alexey Moiseev. The Bank of Russia will determine the timing and method of the operation.

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“Some of the jump in shadow-banking credit might have been related to the anticipation of new restrictions on borrowing by local-government financing vehicles”

China’s Credit Growth Surges; Shadow Banking Stages a Comeback (Bloomberg)

China’s shadow banking industry staged a comeback in December as equity investors and local governments contributed to a surge in credit, underscoring challenges for a central bank trying to revive growth without exacerbating risks. Aggregate financing was 1.69 trillion yuan ($273 billion), the People’s Bank of China said in Beijing today, topping the 1.2 trillion yuan median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. While new yuan loans missed economists’ forecasts, shadow lending rose to the highest in monthly records that began in 2012. With economic growth headed below 7%, the central bank cut interest rates for the first time in two years in November. While manufacturing and factory-gate deflation have worsened, the main stock market index surged about 30% since the rate reduction was announced on Nov. 21.

“This highlights the dilemma for the PBOC: the real economy is still weak, and loan demand is weak, but speculative activity is rampant in the stock market, and local governments need funding,” said Shen Jianguang, Hong Kong-based chief Asia economist at Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. “I believe the PBOC will further postpone rate and RRR cuts, and instead will resort to targeted measures of injecting liquidity.” New yuan loans, which measure new lending minus loans repaid, were 697.3 billion yuan, missing the median estimate of 880 billion yuan. The M2 gauge of money supply rose 12.2% from a year earlier, compared with the median estimate of 12.5%. December’s entrusted loans increased to about 458 billion yuan, according to PBOC data compiled by Bloomberg — the most on record for the company-to-company credits that are brokered by banks.

Trust loans increased to 210 billion yuan, the most since March 2013. The contrast between new yuan loans and aggregate financing “shows that financial liquidity is not sufficient to support economic activity,” said Lu Ting, Bank of America Corp.’s head of Greater China economics in Hong Kong. “IPOs have been active, and shadow banking is reviving.” The outstanding balance of margin-trading loans on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges rose to a then-record 1.02 trillion yuan on Dec. 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That was up from 757 billion yuan on Nov. 21. Some of the jump in shadow-banking credit might have been related to the anticipation of new restrictions on borrowing by local-government financing vehicles.

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“.. Raghuram Rajan shocked India today by unexpectedly slashing the benchmark repurchase rate to 7.75% from 8%.”

Asian Central Banks Should Focus On Deflation Not Inflation (Bloomberg)

After months of preaching monetary discipline to fend off inflation, Raghuram Rajan shocked India today by unexpectedly slashing the benchmark repurchase rate to 7.75% from 8%. Close observers shouldn’t have been surprised. India’s central banker, who famously predicted the 2008 global crisis, warned in an op-ed just yesterday that several of the world’s major economies were “flirting with deflation,” with dire implications for emerging markets like his. The threat of global “secular stagnation” – combined with lower prices in India – no doubt prompted him to act. The question is why Rajan’s peers across the region don’t appear to appreciate the danger. Just today, South Korea’s central bank courted its own deflationary funk by holding benchmark interest rates steady at 2%, even as consumer prices advance at the slowest pace since 1999.

While energy costs in Indonesia are rising due to the lifting of fuel subsidies, economist Daniel Wilson of ANZ warns that prices overall are set to slow or fall: “Disinflation synchronisation is in sight and it will be severe,” he says. From Beijing to Bangkok, Asian central banks seem too blinded by longstanding inflation fears to recognize the trends inexorably pushing prices downward. In a world of plunging commodity prices and weakening global demand, Asian economies that have traditionally depended on exports are going to have to do all they can to gin up growth. Since most of the tools available to governments – increasing spending, lowering trade barriers, loosening labor markets – can’t have an immediate impact, the burden falls on central banks to act. That’s the only sure way to ease strains in credit markets, relieve hard-pressed borrowers and boost investments.

So why aren’t they? An overly doctrinaire fear of inflation explains much of the reluctance. Take the Philippines, where consumer prices are rising just 2.7% and the economy is growing 5.3%. On Dec. 12, central bank Governor Amando Tetangco said cheaper oil gave him “some scope” to leave interest rates unchanged. Since then, Brent crude has fallen to about $48 a barrel, the World Bank has downgraded its 2015 global growth forecast to 3% from 3.4% and Europe has neared a new crisis. Last week, the Philippines government sold $2 billion of 25-year debt at a record-low yield of 3.95%. Markets aren’t always right, but it sure seems time for Tetangco to move the benchmark rate below 4%.

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“.. whether Le Pen’s stances – and those of other nationalist leaders in Europe – qualify as fascist is questionable.” Well, better be careful then?!

Specter Of Fascist Past Haunts European Nationalism (Reuters)

When up to a dozen world leaders and roughly 1.5 million people gathered in Paris on Sunday to mourn the murder of 10 editors and cartoonists of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and seven other people by three French-born Islamic radicals, they wanted to demonstrate that Europe will always embrace liberal and tolerant values. But the more telling event may turn out to be a counter-rally that took place at a 17th-century town hall in Beaucaire, France, that was led by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front. In Beaucaire, the crowd ended Le Pen’s rally by singing the French national anthem and chanting, “This is our home.” Le Pen is at the forefront of a European-wide nationalist resurgence – one that wants to evict from their homelands people they view as Muslim subversives.

She and other far-right nationalists are seizing on some legitimate worries about Islamic militancy – 10,000 soldiers are now deployed in France as a safety measure – in order to label all Muslims as hostile to traditional European cultural and religious values. Le Pen herself has likened their presence to the Nazi occupation of France. Le Pen herself espouses an authoritarian program that calls for a moratorium on immigration, a restoration of the death penalty and a “French first” policy on welfare benefits and employment. Long after World War Two, fascism is a specter that still haunts the continent. But whether Le Pen’s stances – and those of other nationalist leaders in Europe – qualify as fascist is questionable. The borderline between the kind of populism they espouse and the outright fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, when Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini espoused doctrines of racial superiority, is a slippery one.

Scholars continue to debate whether Mussolini was even fascist – or simply an opportunistic nationalist. The real aim of today’s would-be authoritarians – politicians who appeal to the public’s desire for an iron hand – is to present themselves as legitimate leaders who are saying what the public really thinks but is afraid to say. And these far-right leaders are indeed increasingly popular. The card they are playing is populism presented as an aggrieved nationalism. They depict Europeans as victims of rapacious Muslim immigrants. Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party and others aim to come across as reasonable and socially acceptable, while sounding dog whistles to their followers about immigrant social parasites who are either stealing jobs from “real” Europeans or living off welfare.

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“This new acceleration is about 25% higher than previous estimates ..”

Rate Of Sea-Level Rise ‘Far Steeper’ (BBC)

The rate at which the global oceans have risen in the past two decades is more significant than previously recognised, say US-based scientists. Their reassessment of tide gauge data from 1900-1990 found that the world’s seas went up more slowly than earlier estimates – by about 1.2mm per year. But this makes the 3mm per year tracked by satellites since 1990 a much bigger trend change as a consequence. It could mean some projections for future rises having to be revisited. “Our estimates from 1993 to 2010 agree with [the prior] estimates from modern tide gauges and satellite altimetry, within the bounds of uncertainty. But that means that the acceleration into the last two decades is far worse than previously thought,” said Dr Carling Hay from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“This new acceleration is about 25% higher than previous estimates,” she told BBC News. Dr Hay and colleagues report their re-analysis in this week’s edition of the journal Nature. Tide gauges have been in operation in some places for hundreds of years, but pulling their data into a coherent narrative of worldwide sea-level change is fiendishly difficult. Historically, their deployment has been sparse, predominantly at mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, and only at coastal sites. In other words, the instrument record is extremely patchy. What is more, the data needs careful handling because it hides all kinds of “contamination”. Scientists must account for effects that mask the true signal – such as tectonic movements that might force the local land upwards – and those that exaggerate it – such as groundwater extraction, which will make the land dip.

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