Jan 312016
 
 January 31, 2016  Posted by at 10:07 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »
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Edwin Rosskam Shoeshine, 47th Street, Chicago’s main Negro business street 1941

A Chinese Banker Explains Why There Is No Way Out (ZH)
China GDP Growth 4.3%, Or Lower, Chinese Professor Says (WSJ)
Yuan Vs. Yen: How China Figures Into Japan’s Negative Rates (WSJ)
IPO Market Comes to a Standstill (WSJ)
Greece’s Lenders To Start Bailout Review On Monday (Reuters)
Milk Collapse Brings a 45% Pay Cut to England’s Dairy Farmers (BBG)
‘Peak Stuff’ And The Search For Happiness (Guardian)
Merkel Says Refugees Must Return Home Once War Is Over (Reuters)
10,000 Refugee Children Are Missing, Says Europol (Observer)
Aegean Sea Refugee Crossings Rise 35 Fold Year-On-Year In January (Guardian)
Greeks Worry Threatened Closure Of EU Border ‘Definition Of Dystopia’ (Guar.)
Europe’s Immigration Bind: Morals vs Votes (Guardian)
39 Greece-Bound Refugees Drown Off Turkish Coast (AP)

“It’s not difficult to issue more loans, but let’s say in a years time when the loan is due, if the borrower defaults, then I won’t just see a pay cut, I’ll be fired, and still be responsible for loan recovery.”

A Chinese Banker Explains Why There Is No Way Out (ZH)

Friday’s adoption of NIRP by Japan, which send the US Dollar soaring, has only made any upcoming future Chinese devaluation even more likely. But whether China devalued or not, one thing is certain: it is next to impossible for China – under the current socio economic and financial regime – to stop the relentless growth in NPLs, which even by conservative estimates at in the trillion(s), accounting for at least 10% of China’s GDP. Sure enough, a cursory skimming of news from China reveals that even Chinese bankers now “admit the NPL situation is dire, but will keep on lending” anyway. As the Chiecon blog notes, NPL “ratios might be closer to 10%… supported by revelations in this article, where Chinese bankers complain of missing performance targets, spiraling bad loans, and end of year pay cuts.”

“Right now, we’ve nowhere to issue new loans” said Mr. Zhang, a general manager in charge of new loans at one of the listed commercial bank branches. Zhang believes NPL ratios have yet to peak, with SME loans the worst hit area. Ironically this has forced Zhang to direct lending back to the LGFVs, property developers and conglomerates, industries which the Chinese government had previously instructed banks to restrict lending to, based on oversupply and credit risk fears.

But the main reason why China is now trapped, and on one hand is desperate to stabilize its economy and stop growing its levereage at nosebleed levels, while on the other hand it is under pressure to issue more loans while at the same time it is unwilling to write off bad loans, can be found in the following very simple explanation offered by Mr. Zhou, a junior banker at a Chinese commercial bank.

“If I don’t issue more loans, then my salary isn’t enough to repay the mortgage, and car loan. It’s not difficult to issue more loans, but let’s say in a years time when the loan is due, if the borrower defaults, then I won’t just see a pay cut, I’ll be fired, and still be responsible for loan recovery.”

And that, in under 60 words, explains why China finds itself in a no way out situation, and why despite all its recurring posturing, all its promises for reform, all its bluster for deleveraging, China’s ruling elite will never be able to achieve an internal devaluation, and why despite its recurring threats to crush, gut and destroy all the evil Yuan shorts, ultimately it will have no choice but to pursue an external devaluation of its economy by way of devaluing its currency presumably some time before its foreign reserves run out (which at a $185 billion a month burn rate may not last for even one year). However, before it does, it will make sure that it also crushes every Yuan short, doing precisely what the Fed has done with equity shorts in the US over the past 7 years.

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While still ‘assuming the official agriculture and service sector growth figures are correct’.

China GDP Growth 4.3%, Or Lower, Chinese Professor Says (WSJ)

As growth in the world’s second-largest economy slows, the spotlight has intensified over the accuracy of China’s growth figures. This week, Xu Dianqing, an economics professor at Beijing Normal University and the University of Western Ontario, joined the debate with an estimate that China’s GDP growth rate might just be between 4.3% and 5.2%. China’s official growth rate in 2015 was 6.9%, the slowest pace in more than two decades, allowing the government to hit its target of around 7%. But longstanding questions over China’s statistical methodology have spurred a cottage industry in alternate growth indicators. Many of these analyze other measures believed to be less subject to political pressure in estimating actual growth, including indices compiled by economists at Capital Economics, Barclays Bank, the Conference Board and Oxford Economics.

Most peg China’s annual growth in the 4% to 6% range. Mr. Xu told reporters at a briefing this week that the focus of his concern is the growth rate for China’s manufacturing sector, which according to official figures grew 6.0% last year and accounts for 40.5% of the economy. A closer look at underlying indicators, however, including thermal power generation, railway freight volume, and output from the iron ore, plate glass, cement and steel industries released monthly by the National Bureau of Statistics paint a different picture, he said. Of some 60 major industrial products, nearly half saw output contract in the January to November period, while railway cargo volume fell 11.9% for all of last year, according to official sources.

Given weaker industrial output in China and more than three years of industrial deflation, a 6% expansion for manufacturing in 2015 is questionable “no matter how the number is counted,” said Mr. Xu, who added that he believes it’s more probable that industry and construction grew at most by 2% last year and perhaps not at all. That translates into economic growth that tops out at 5.2% last year and perhaps something in the 4s, assuming the official agriculture and service sector growth figures are correct, he said. Mr. Xu said it’s unlikely that the service sector– sometimes cited as an explanation for growth rate discrepancies – did better than reported by authorities.

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Twins.

Yuan Vs. Yen: How China Figures Into Japan’s Negative Rates (WSJ)

Japan’s move to negative interest rates is the latest step in a dangerous dance between the world’s second and third largest economies. The problem is currencies. China’s moves to bring down the value of the yuan have rattled markets this year, sparking a flight from risky assets that has sent investors into safer havens like the yen. The stronger yen in turn has threatened to tip Japan’s economy back into deflation, which the central bank has struggled to vanquish. The rising yen has also put more pressure on corporate profits and helped push Japanese stocks into bear market territory last week. So when the Bank of Japan announced its plan to lower interest rates below zero for the first time Friday, it makes sense that Governor Haruhiko Kuroda named just one country among the risks facing its economy China.

Now it’s China s turn to sweat. The yen fell as much as 2.1% after the announcement, which will make Chinese exports more expensive relative to Japanese products. The two countries, and most of their neighbors, are struggling against a tide of money outflows and weak trade. While governments in the rest of Asia have far more room to stimulate their economies than Japan does, a decline in the yen could spur them to try to push down their own currencies. Were China to follow and the central bank has already allowed the yuan to fall it would ignite another round of fear, which could push up the yen and force the Bank of Japan to act again. So far, the yen’s ups and downs have left it about where it was a year ago, so the risk of a cycle of competitive devaluation is limited.

In addition, the drop in the yen would have been a bigger problem for China when the yuan was pegged to the dollar. The government’s recent switch to a basket of currencies that includes the yen means the move up won’t be as big. But it still will push the currency in the wrong direction for the slowing economy. There’s another reason China does’ t want the yen to fall. Right now, thousands of Chinese are planning their Lunar New Year’s holidays in Japan early next month, hoping to take advantage of the cheap yen. During the October Golden Week, China’s other big travel week of the year, Chinese tourists descended on Japan, spending more than $830 million on shopping, according to the state-run China Daily.

China is suffering an epic capital flight in which hundreds of billions of dollars are leaving the country. A weaker yen will send more Chinese into Tokyo’s department stores and further drain China’s currency reserves. The economic fates of China and Japan are closely connected. Until their economies get on stronger footing, moves to boost growth in one country could hurt the other and risk retaliation. As the world economy stays weak, the interaction between China and Japan could play an increasingly important role both in Asia and globally.

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Zero.

IPO Market Comes to a Standstill (WSJ)

A frigid January for initial public offerings is pointing to a hard winter for fledgling biotechnology firms and other private companies. There were no U.S. IPOs in January, the first such month since the eurozone crisis in September 2011, according to data provider Dealogic. Investors and analysts attribute the dearth to the global stock-market rout of the first two weeks of the year, which signaled a broad retreat from risk by investors. If sustained, the reversal threatens to send ripples through global financial markets. Many analysts and traders view a healthy IPO sector as a necessary precondition for a sustainable advance in the broad stock indexes, as dozens of private companies have built their plans around raising cash in the public markets.

In recent years, markets were “wide open and companies that wanted to raise capital could,” said Eddie Yoon, portfolio manager of the Fidelity Select Health Care Portfolio, with $9 billion in assets. But now some companies, both public and private, could face being shut out for an extended period, as many investors seek to reduce risk by focusing on firms with histories of steady profitability and revenue growth. Several new share offerings by already-public biotech companies have floundered this year, not only pricing at steep discounts, but also falling even further the session after pricing. So far this year, new-share offerings by biotech companies have dropped 15% from the time of the announcement of the deal to the end of trading after the sale, according to data from Dealogic. “If the market does reopen, it will be for higher quality companies,” said Mr. Yoon.

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France wants debt relief?!

Greece’s Lenders To Start Bailout Review On Monday (Reuters)

Greece’s official lenders will start a review on Monday of what progress the country has made in implementing the economic reforms agreed under its third bailout, a necessary step towards debt relief talks, a finance ministry official said on Saturday. Greece’s international lenders are the IMF and the euro zone bailout fund. The reforms that Greece has to implement in exchange for loans are also reviewed by the ECB and the European Commission. “The first phase will last a few days as there will be a break at the end of next week, after which the institutions will return to conclude the negotiations,” the official said, declining to be named. Athens is keen for a speedy completion of the review, which was expected to begin late last year, and hopes a positive outcome will help boost economic confidence and liquidity.

To secure a positive result from the review Athens needs to pass legislation on pension reforms to render its social security system viable, set up a new privatization fund and come up with measures to attain primary budget surpluses for 2016-2018. A successful conclusion of the performance review will open the way for debt relief talks. The head of the bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), has ruled out a haircut for Greece’s debt but extending debt maturities and deferring interest are options that could be used to make it more manageable. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin told Kathimerini debt relief talks must start soon to help restore Greece’s financial stability. “France’s view is that the sooner the first review is completed, the faster we will be able to tackle the issue of debt sustainability and this will be better for everyone – for Greece as well as the entire euro zone,” Sapin told the paper.

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Stories from NZ have been bad for a while now.

Milk Collapse Brings a 45% Pay Cut to England’s Dairy Farmers (BBG)

England’s dairy farmers will see income fall by almost half this year, evidence that the global milk crisis is far from over. Earnings will average 46,500 pounds ($66,500) per farm in England for the 2015-16 season that started in March, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said in a report Thursday. That figure, which includes European Union aid payments, is 45 percent below the prior season and the lowest in 9 years. Dairy farmers across Europe are struggling with a collapse in prices after a global oversupply of milk was compounded by slowing demand in China and Russia’s ban on EU dairy in retaliation for sanctions.

Protests over low prices broke out in France this week as more than 100 farmers, many of them livestock breeders, blocked roads and used tractors and burning tires to stop access to the port city La Rochelle. “There’s too much milk in the world,” said Robbie Turner, head of European markets at Rice Dairy International, a risk management advisory firm in London. “There are people who are hard for cash,” and prices are likely to remain low for at least the next six months, he said. On Thursday, Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy exporter, cut its milk price forecast to a nine-year low. The Auckland-based company doesn’t expect a sharp recovery in Chinese demand any time soon.

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Luckily we’re maxed out.

‘Peak Stuff’ And The Search For Happiness (Guardian)

On Monday, Walmart will start paying a minimum of $10 an hour to its 1.4 million skilled staff in America – in conventional economists’ terms, a ludicrous and unnecessary transfer of income from capital to labour. But, facing the same retail environment as Apple and Ikea, Walmart wants to motivate its frontline staff into being more engaged and innovative. Consumers want some help in understanding and interpreting their particularities, help in answering the question of what, in a profound sense, their spending is for. When you have enough, what need is being served by having more?

Economists are not equipped to address such phenomena. Faltering growth in consumer demand in all western countries is understood wholly in traditional economic terms: the story is that consumers are indebted and uncertain, they lack confidence and want to rebuild their savings. Rightwing, anti-state economists, so influential in the Republican and Conservative parties, peddle tax cuts as the universal panacea. Like Pavlov’s dog, consumers will flock back to the shops once they are emboldened by a tax cut. Obviously, there would be some increase in spending, but far less than there used to be. More fundamental forces are holding back spending .

There is a quest for meaning, aided and abetted by the knowledge and information revolutions, that is not answered by traditionally scale-produced goods and services. Economist Tomas Sedlacek, who has won an international following for his book Economics of Good and Evil, insists that contemporary societies have become slaves to a defunct economistic view of the world. When western societies were poorer, it was reasonable for economics to focus on how to produce more stuff – that was what societies wanted. Now, the question is Aristotelian: how to live a happy life – or “humanomics”, as Sedlacek calls it. Aristotle was clear: happiness results from deploying our human intelligence to act creatively on nature. To inquire and successfully to quest for understanding is the root of happiness.

Yet most people today, says Sedlacek, work in jobs they do not much like, to buy goods they do not much value – the opposite of any idea of the good life, Aristotelian or otherwise. What we want is purpose and a sense of continual self-betterment, which is not served by buying another iPhone, wardrobe or a kitchen. Yet purpose and betterment need a social context: purpose is a shared endeavour and self-betterment is to act on the world better with others. An individualistic society such as our own makes it much harder to find others with whom to make common cause.

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Well, stop the war then.

Merkel Says Refugees Must Return Home Once War Is Over (Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried on Saturday to placate the increasingly vocal critics of her open-door policy for refugees by insisting that most refugees from Syria and Iraq would go home once the conflicts there had ended. Despite appearing increasingly isolated, Merkel has resisted pressure from some conservatives to cap the influx of refugees, or to close Germany’s borders. Support for her conservative bloc has slipped as concerns mount about how Germany will integrate the 1.1 million migrants who arrived last year, while crime and security are also in the spotlight after a wave of assaults on women in Cologne at New Year by men of north African and Arab appearance.

The influx has played into the hands of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose support is now in the double digits, and whose leader was quoted on Saturday saying that migrants entering illegally should, if necessary, be shot. Merkel said it was important to stress that most refugees had only been allowed to stay for a limited period. “We need … to say to people that this is a temporary residential status and we expect that, once there is peace in Syria again, once IS has been defeated in Iraq, that you go back to your home country with the knowledge that you have gained,” she told a regional meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Merkel said 70 percent of the refugees who fled to Germany from former Yugoslavia in the 1990s had returned. Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, has threatened to take the government to court if the flow of asylum seekers is not cut. Merkel urged other European countries to offer more help “because the numbers need to be reduced even further and must not start to rise again, especially in spring”. Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the European Union’s border agency Frontex, said a U.N. estimate that up to a million migrants could try to come to Europe via the eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans next year was realistic. “It would be a big achievement if we could keep the number … stable,” he told the magazine Der Spiegel.

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Europe doesn’t care for kids.

10,000 Refugee Children Are Missing, Says Europol (Observer)

At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe, according to the EU’s criminal intelligence agency. Many are feared to have fallen into the hands of organised trafficking syndicates. In the first attempt by law enforcement agencies to quantify one of the most worrying aspects of the migrant crisis, Europol’s chief of staff told the Observer that thousands of vulnerable minors had vanished after registering with state authorities. Brian Donald said 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, while another 1,000 were unaccounted for in Sweden. He warned that a sophisticated pan-European “criminal infrastructure” was now targeting refugees.

“It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children. Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with.” The plight of unaccompanied child refugees has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in the migrant crisis. Last week it was announced that Britain would accept more unaccompanied minors from Syria and other conflict zones. According to Save the Children, an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied children entered Europe last year. Europol, which has a 900-strong force of intelligence analysts and police liaison officers, believes 27% of the million arrivals in Europe last year were minors.

“Whether they are registered or not, we’re talking about 270,000 children. Not all of those are unaccompanied, but we also have evidence that a large proportion might be,” said Donald, indicating that the 10,000 figure is likely to be a conservative estimate of the actual number of unaccompanied minors who have disappeared since entering Europe. In October, officials in Trelleborg, southern Sweden, revealed that some 1,000 unaccompanied refugee children who had arrived in the port town over the previous month had gone missing. On Tuesday a separate report, again from Sweden, warned that many unaccompanied refugees vanished and that there was “very little information about what happens after the disappearance”.

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But they think they can stop it.

Aegean Sea Refugee Crossings Rise 35 Fold Year-On-Year In January (Guardian)

More than 52,000 refugees and migrants crossed the eastern Mediterranean to reach Europe in the first four weeks of January, more than 35 times as many as attempted the crossing in the same period last year. The daily average number of people making the crossing is nearly equivalent to the total number for the whole month of January as recently as two years ago, according to the International Organisation for Migration. More than 250 people have died attempting to make the crossing this month, including at least 39 who drowned in the Aegean Sea on Saturday morning after their boat capsized between Turkey and Greece. Turkish coastguards rescued 75 others from the sea near the resort of Ayvacik on Saturday, according to the Anadolou news agency.

They had been trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. The eastern route into Europe, via Greece, has overtaken the previously popular central Mediterranean route from north Africa over the past year. Refugees have continued to use the route all winter, despite rough seas and strong winds. “An estimated 52,055 migrants and refugees have arrived in the Greek islands since the beginning of the year,” the IOM said. “This is close to the total recorded in the relatively safe month of July 2015, when warm weather and calm seas allowed 54,899 to make the journey.” Turkey, which is hosting at least 2.5 million refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, has become the main launchpad for migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty.

Ankara struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the flow of refugees, in return for €3bn (£2.3bn) in financial assistance to help improve the refugees’ conditions. This week the IOM reported that a survey of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece showed 90% were from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. People of those nationalities are allowed to leave Greece and enter Macedonia en route to western Europe as asylum seekers. But on Wednesday the Idomeni border crossing from Greece to Macedonia remained closed from midday to midnight. Macedonian officials blamed congestion at the border with Serbia.

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“Why is Greece guilty? Because it doesn’t let them drown?”

Greeks Worry Threatened Closure Of EU Border ‘Definition Of Dystopia’ (Guar.)

With Brussels contemplating drastic measures to stem the flow, calls are mounting to seal the Greek-Macedonian border, raising fears of hundreds of thousands being stranded in Greece, the country now perceived to be the continent’s weakest link. The prospect of migrants being trapped in a member state that financially is also Europe’s most fragile may once have seemed extreme, even absurd. Its economy ravaged by six years of internationally mandated austerity and record levels of unemployment, Greece’s coping strategies are markedly strained. But as EU policymakers seek ever more desperate ways to deal with what has become the largest mass movement of people since the second world war, it is an action plan being actively worked on by mandarins at the highest level.

Like so much else in the great existential crisis facing Europe, a proposed policy that was once seen as bizarre now looks like it could become real. Last week Athens was also given a three-month ultimatum to improve the way it processes arrivals and polices its borders – at nearly 8,700 miles the longest in Europe – or face suspension from the passport-free Schengen zone. Closure of the Greek-Macedonian frontier would effectively cut it out of that fraternity. Those who have watched Greece’s rollercoaster struggle to keep insolvency at bay are united in their conviction that the move would be catastrophic. “It would place a timebomb under the foundations of Greece,” says Aliki Mouriki at the National Centre of Social Research. “Hundreds of thousands of refugees trapped in a country that is bankrupt, that has serious administrative and organisational weaknesses, with a state that is unable to provide for their basic needs?”

The question hangs in the air while she searches for the right word. “What we would witness,” she adds, “would be the definition of dystopia.” Like the mayors who have been forced to deal with the emergency on Greece’s eastern Aegean isles, federal politicians believe Turkey is the root of the problem. “With all due respect for a country that is hosting 2 million refugees, it is Turkey that must do something to stop the organised crime, the smugglers working along its coast,” Yannis Mouzalas, the minister for migration policy, told the Observer. “These flows are not Greece’s fault even if, it is true, we have been slow to set up hotspots and screening was not always what it should have been,” he said. “It is Turkey that turns a blind eye to them coming here. It is Turkey that must stop them. Why is Greece guilty? Because it doesn’t let them drown?”

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Morals? Europe?

Europe’s Immigration Bind: Morals vs Votes (Guardian)

The dream of free movement within the EU has also spawned paranoia about the movement of people into the EU. The quid pro quo for Schengen has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of “defending Europe against an enemy”. Many of the policies enacted over the past year give a sense of a continent at war. In June, an emergency EU meeting came up with a 10-point plan that included the use of military force “to capture and destroy” the boats used to smuggle migrants.

Soon afterwards, Hungary and other east European countries began erecting razor-wire fences. Germany, Austria, France, Sweden and Denmark suspended Schengen rules and reintroduced border controls. In November, the EU struck a deal with Turkey, promising it up to $3.3bn in return for clamping down on its borders. This month, Denmark passed a law allowing it to seize valuables from asylum seekers to pay for their upkeep. Despite the sense that the crisis is unprecedented, there is nothing new in it or the incoherence of the EU’s response. People have been trying to enter the EU, and dying in the attempt, for a quarter of a century and more.

Until 1991, Spain had an open border with North Africa. Migrant workers would come to Spain for seasonal work and then return home. In 1986, the newly democratic Spain joined the EU. As part of its obligations as a EU member, it had to close its North African borders. Four years after it did, it was admitted into the Schengen group. The closing of the borders did not stop migrant workers trying to enter Spain. Instead, they took to small boats to cross the Mediterranean. On 19 May 1991, the first bodies of clandestine migrants were washed ashore. Since then, it is estimated that more than 20,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean while trying to enter Europe.

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Every day.

39 Greece-Bound Refugees Drown Off Turkish Coast (AP)

Turkey’s state-run news agency says at least 39 people, including five children, have drowned in the Aegean Sea after their Greece-bound boat capsized off the Turkish coast. Anadolu Agency says coast guards rescued 75 others from the sea Saturday near the resort of Ayvacik en route to the Greek island of Lesbos. The agency has identified the survivors as natives of Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar. The International Organization for Migration says 218 people have died this year while trying to cross by sea from Turkey to Greece. Turkey is hosting an estimated 2.5 million refugees from Syria. In November, Turkey agreed to fight smuggling networks and stem the flow of migrants into Europe. In return, the EU has pledged €3 billion to help improve the refugees’ conditions.

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Aug 152015
 
 August 15, 2015  Posted by at 11:02 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on Debt Rattle August 15 2015
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Lewis Wickes Hine 12-year-old newsie, Hyman Alpert, been selling 3 years, New Haven CT 1909

A. Gary Shilling: “Oil Is Headed For $10 To $20 A Barrel” (Bloomberg)
US Credit Traders Send Warning Signal to Rest of World Markets (Bloomberg)
The Great China Ponzi – An Economic And Financial Trainwreck (David Stockman)
China Says Plunge Protection Team Will Prop Up Stocks “For Years To Come” (ZH)
Hundreds Of Chinese Cities In Precarious Financial State (NY Times)
Euro Ministers Give Blessing To Greek Bailout, Wooing IMF On Debt (Reuters)
EU Aims To Lure Greek Deposits Back To Banks With Bail-In Shield (Bloomberg)
Greek PM Alexis Tsipras Faces Biggest Party Revolt Yet (Reuters)
Germany’s Hypocrisy Over Greece Water Privatisation (Guardian)
Germany Proves Russia’s Most Loyal Gas Customer as Price Plunges (Bloomberg)
Eurozone Economy Sputters As China Risks Loom (Reuters)
How the IMF Failed Greece (Subramanian)
Market Liquidity Is Not “Invariably Beneficial” (Perry Mehrling)
Misery On The Farm: Milk Price Slump Raises Spectre Of Ruin (NZ Herald)
Economics Jargon Promotes A Deficit In Understanding (James Gingell)
European Entrepreneurs Launch StartupBoat To Address Refugee Crisis (TC)

“The oil market is still clearly oversupplied and “it will get more so as refiners go into maintenance..”

A. Gary Shilling: “Oil Is Headed For $10 To $20 A Barrel” (Bloomberg)

If crude’s slump back to a six-year low looks bad, it’s even worse when you reflect that summer is supposed to be peak season for oil. U.S. crude futures have lost 30% since the start of June, set for the biggest drop since the West Texas Intermediate crude contract started trading in 1983. That beats the summer plunges during the global financial crisis of 2008, the Asian economic slump in 1998 and the global supply glut of 1986. It even surpasses the decline of 2011, when prices fell as much as 21% over the summer as the U.S. and other large oil-importing nations released 60 million barrels of oil from emergency stockpiles to make up for the disruption of Libyan exports during the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.

WTI, the U.S. benchmark, fell to a six-year low of $41.35 a barrel Friday. It may slide further, according to Citigroup Inc. “Summer is when refineries are all running hard, so actual demand for crude is as good as it gets,” Seth Kleinman at Citigroup said. OPEC’s biggest members are pumping near record levels to defend their market share and U.S. production is withstanding the collapse in prices and drilling. The oil market is still clearly oversupplied and “it will get more so as refiners go into maintenance,” Kleinman said. Oil demand usually climbs in the summer as U.S. vacation driving boosts purchases of gasoline and Middle Eastern nations turn up air-conditioning.

Crude has sunk this year even U.S. gasoline demand expanded, stimulated by a growing economy and low prices. Total gasoline supplied to the U.S. market rose to an eight-year high of 9.7 million barrels a day last month, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. Crude could fall to $10 a barrel as OPEC engages in a “price war” with rival producers, testing who will cut output first, Gary Shilling, president of A. Gary Shilling Co., said in an interview on Bloomberg Television on Friday. “OPEC is basically saying we’re not going to cut production, we’re going to see who can stand lower prices longest,” Shilling said. “Oil is headed for $10 to $20 a barrel.”

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“..conditions in the high grade credit market are currently very unusual.”

US Credit Traders Send Warning Signal to Rest of World Markets (Bloomberg)

Credit traders have an uncanny knack for sounding alarm bells well before stocks realize there’s a problem. This time may be no different. Investors yanked $1.1 billion from U.S. investment-grade bond funds last week, the biggest withdrawal since 2013, according to data compiled by Wells Fargo. Dollar-denominated company bonds of all ratings have lost 2.3% since the end of January, even as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 5.7%. “Credit is the warning signal that everyone’s been looking for,” said Jim Bianco. “That is something that’s been a very good leading indicator for the past 15 years.”

Bond buyers are less interested in piling into notes that yield a historically low 3.4% at a time when companies are increasingly using the proceeds for acquisitions, share buybacks and dividend payments. Also, the Federal Reserve is moving to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006, possibly as soon as next month, ending an era of unprecedented easy-money policies that have suppressed borrowing costs. All of this has corporate-bond investors concerned enough that they’re demanding 1.64 percentage points above benchmark government rates to own investment-grade notes, the highest since July 2013, Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data show.

That’s also the biggest premium relative to a measure of equity volatility since March 6, 2008, 10 days before Bear Stearns was forced to sell itself to JPMorgan, according to Bank of America analysts in an Aug. 13 report. “Unlike the credit market, the equity market well into 2008 was very complacent about the subprime crisis that led to a full blown financial crisis,” the analysts wrote. “While we are not predicting another financial crisis, we believe it is important to keep highlighting to investors across asset classes that conditions in the high grade credit market are currently very unusual.” So if you’re very excited about buying stocks right now, just beware of the credit traders out there who are sending some pretty big warning signs.

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Great take down by Stockman.

The Great China Ponzi – An Economic And Financial Trainwreck (David Stockman)

There is an economic and financial trainwreck rumbling through the world economy. Namely, the Great China Ponzi. In all of economic history there has never been anything like it. It is only a matter of time before it ends in a spectacular collapse, leaving the global financial bubble of the last two decades in shambles. But here’s the Wall Street meme that is stupendously wrong and that engenders blind complacency with respect to the impending upheaval. To wit, the same folks who brought you the myth of the BRICs miracle would now have you believe that China is undergoing a difficult but doable transition – from an economy driven by booming exports and monumental fixed asset investment to one based on steady as she goes US-style consumption and services.

There may well be some bumps and grinds along the way, we are cautioned, such as the recent stock market and currency turmoil. But do not be troubled – the great locomotive of the world economy will come out the other side better and stronger. That’s because the wise, pragmatic and powerful leaders and economic managers who deftly guide China’s version of capitalism have the capacity to make it all happen. No they don’t! China is not a clone-in-the-making of America’s $18 trillion consume till you drop economy – even if that model were stable and sustainable, which it is not. China is actually sui generis – a historical freak accident that has no destination other than a crash landing. It’s leaders are neither wise nor deft economic managers.

In fact, they are a bunch of communist party political hacks who have an iron grip on state power because China is a crude dictatorship. But their grasp of the fundamentals of economic law and sound finance can not even be described as negligible; it’s non-existent. Indeed, their reputation for savvy and successful economic management is an unadulterated Wall Street myth. The truth is, the 25 year growth boom in China is just a giant, credit-driven Ponzi. Any fool can run a central bank printing press until it glows white hot. At the end of the day, that’s all the Beijing suzerains of red capitalism have actually done. They have not created any of the rudiments of viable capitalism. There are no honest financial markets, no genuinely solvent banks, no market driven allocation of capital and no financial discipline which comes from the right to fail as well as succeed.

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“..China acted as is if forced lending to a state-run stock buying entity represented real, organic growth in demand for credit.”

China Says Plunge Protection Team Will Prop Up Stocks “For Years To Come” (ZH)

Perhaps it’s a case of something getting lost in translation (so to speak), but Chinese authorities have a remarkable propensity for saying absurd things in a very straightforward way as though there were nothing at all odd or amusing about them. For example, here’s what the CSRC said on Friday about the future for China Securities Finance (aka the plunge protection team): “For a number of years to come, the China Securities Finance Corp. will not exit (the market).” For anyone who hasn’t followed the story, Beijing transformed CSF into a trillion-yuan state-controlled margin lender after a harrowing unwind in the half dozen or so backdoor leverage channels that helped inflate Chinese equities earlier this year caused stocks to plunge 30% in the space of just three weeks.

CSF has since become something of an international joke, as the vehicle, along with an absurd effort to halt trading in nearly three quarters of the country’s stocks, came to symbolize the epitome of market manipulation – and that’s saying something in a world where everyone is used to rigged markets. And because Beijing wanted to get the most manipulative bang for their plunge protection buck (err… yuan) the PBoC went on to count loans made to CSF by banks towards total loan growth in July. In other words, China acted as is if forced lending to a state-run stock buying entity represented real, organic growth in demand for credit. Now, apparently, the practice of using CSF to “stabilize” stocks and artificially prop up loan “demand” will become standard procedure. Here’s more from AFP:

China’s market regulator on Friday vowed to stabilise the volatile stock market for a “number of years”, saying a state-backed company tasked with buying shares will have an enduring role. “For a number of years to come, the China Securities Finance Corp. will not exit (the market). Its function to stabilise the market will not change,” the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) said in a statement on its official microblog. The China Securities Finance Corp. (CSF) has played a crucial role in Beijing’s stock market rescue, which was launched after Shanghai’s benchmark crashed 30% in three weeks from mid-June.

The regulator’s comments were the first time it has given any indication of how long it would intervene to support equities. Authorities gave the CSF huge funding to buy shares and subsequent speculation the government was preparing to withdraw from the stock market has spooked investors. The statement added the CSF will only enter the market during times of volatility. “When the market drastically fluctuates and may trigger systemic risk, it will continue to play a role to stabilise the market in many ways,” said the statement, which quoted CSRC spokesman Deng Ge.

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From last weekend, but an important additional headache for Beijing. How are they going to control hundreds of cities heavily indebted to shadow banks?

Hundreds Of Chinese Cities In Precarious Financial State (NY Times)

Although the country escaped the worst of the global financial crisis six years ago, it did so on the back of a borrowing binge by local governments, which spent heavily on new but often unprofitable infrastructure projects. Now, many local governments are mired in debt. In Weifang, a city known for seafood processing and an annual kite-flying festival, rapid urbanization over the last decade has saddled the local government with debts totaling 88.4 billion renminbi, or $14.2 billion, as of June 2013, the most recent data available. Since 2007, China’s overall local government debt has risen at an annual rate of 27%. It now totals almost $3 trillion, according to estimates from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Companies, too, have gorged on cheap credit in recent years. Altogether, China’s total debt stands at 282% of its gross domestic product — a high level that raises the risk of a financial crisis should borrowers prove unable to repay and a wave of defaults ensue. It has created a conundrum for the country. China’s leaders want to wean the country from this debt-fueled growth model. But they also need to continue stimulating the economy, particularly at a time when growth is slowing. Part of Beijing’s solution has been to help local governments lower their borrowing costs through refinancing. Local government-controlled companies that are struggling to pay bonds are being encouraged to exchange them for new loans at lower interest rates from state-run banks.

China’s Ministry of Finance recently expanded this local government debt refinancing program to 3 trillion renminbi, or nearly $500 billion, up from 1 trillion renminbi just a few months ago. China has also begun a national campaign to encourage private investment in local infrastructure projects. In May, the nation’s top economic planning agency released a list of more than 1,000 projects worth 2 trillion renminbi that local governments across the country are seeking to finance with outside investment. Analysts estimate that is on top of roughly 1,500 other projects worth 3 trillion renminbi that had been previously announced by the local authorities.

A decade ago, the MTR Corporation, the Hong Kong subway operator, was an investor in Beijing’s fourth metro line. Beijing had won the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics and was expanding its transport network at a blinding pace. By the time it opened in 2009, passenger flows on the new line were much higher and revenue much lower than either party had forecast. This prompted huge subsidy payments from the Beijing government to the MTR, which did not sit well with local officials. So city officials simply rewrote the contract. The new terms reduced subsidy payments to the MTR, and were on balance more favorable to the city government. MTR, as the minority shareholder, had little room to object.

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Still far from over.

Euro Ministers Give Blessing To Greek Bailout, Wooing IMF On Debt (Reuters)

Finance ministers from the eurozone gave their final blessing to lending Greece up to €86 billion after the parliament in Athens agreed to stiff conditions overnight. After six hours of talks in Brussels, ministers said in a statement: “The Eurogroup considers that the necessary elements are now in place to launch the relevant national procedures required for the approval of the ESM financial assistance.” Assuming final approval next week by the German and some other national parliaments, an initial tranche of €26 billion would be approved by the European Stability Mechanism next Wednesday. Of that, €10 billion would be reserved to recapitalise Greek banks ravaged by economic turmoil and the imposition of capital controls in June, and €13 billion would be in Athens on Thursday to meet pressing debt payment obligations.

Some issues still need to be ironed out following a deal struck with Greece on Tuesday by the EC, ECB and IMF. They include keeping the IMF involved in overseeing the new eurozone programme while delaying satisfying the Fund’s calls for debt relief for Greece until a review in October. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, who took part in the meeting by telephone, said in a statement that the Fund believed Europe would need to provide “significant” debt relief as a complement to reforms Athens is taking to put Greece’s finances on a sustainable path. “I remain firmly of the view that Greece’s debt has become unsustainable and that Greece cannot restore debt sustainability solely through actions on its own,” she said.

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There’s no way back now for Brussels. They can’t un-promise to leave depositors’ money alone. Big move for Greek banks.

EU Aims To Lure Greek Deposits Back To Banks With Bail-In Shield (Bloomberg)

Euro-area finance ministers shielded Greek bank depositors from any losses resulting from the restructuring of the nation’s financial system, as part of Friday’s deal on an€ 86 billion bailout. Senior bank bondholders will be in the crosshairs if Greek lenders tap into any of the financial stability funds set aside in the new bailout. Euro-area finance ministers agreed to a deal that would next week place €10 billion in Greece’s bank recapitalization fund, with another €15 billion available if needed. “Bail-in of depositors will be explicitly excluded” from EU rules to make private investors share the cost of fixing troubled banks, Eurogroup President and Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem told reporters after the six-hour meeting in Brussels.

By shielding all depositors, the euro area will protect small and medium-sized enterprises who have more than 100,000 euros in their accounts and aren’t covered by government deposit insurance, Dijsselbloem said. This prevents “a blow to the Greek economy” that ministers wanted to avoid, he said. Instead, the focus will turn to bond investors. “When so much money must be invested in banks, in the first place, banks must take part of the risks,” Dijsselbloem said. Alpha Bank AE’s €400 million of 3.375 percent notes due 2017 traded at 70.5 cents on the euro Friday to yield 25.4 percent. Those securities are up from a low this year of 27.5 cents in July.

At the start of the new aid program, the bank funds will be placed in a designated account at the European Stability Mechanism, the currency bloc’s firewall fund. Bank supervisors can tap the money as required once Greece’s banks have gone through stress tests and an asset-quality review. After Greece’s lenders are recapitalized, the subsequent bank holdings will be transferred to the nation’s planned privatization fund, which will then be able to sell off the stakes and use the proceeds to pay back bailout funds. By shielding deposits, account holders won’t have “anything to worry about,” Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos told reporters. “The process of reversing the negative effects of capital controls will start very quickly and will speedily return the banks to where they were before and hopefully on a far firmer footing.”

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I still think he knows he needs this.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras Faces Biggest Party Revolt Yet (Reuters)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faced the widest rebellion yet from his leftist lawmakers as parliament approved a new bailout programme on Friday, forcing him to consider a confidence vote that could pave the way for early elections. After lawmakers bickered for much of the night on procedural matters, Tsipras comfortably won the vote on the country’s third financial rescue by foreign creditors in five years thanks to support from pro-euro opposition parties. That cleared the way for euro zone finance ministers to approve the deal. This they did on Friday evening, albeit with stringent conditions. The vote laid bare the anger within Tsipras’s leftist Syriza party at the austerity measures and reforms which he accepted in exchange for the bailout loans.

Altogether 43 lawmakers – or nearly a third of Syriza deputies – voted against or abstained. The unexpectedly large contingent of dissenters, including former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, heaped pressure on Tsipras to clear the rebels swiftly from his party and call early elections in the hope of locking in popular support. Tsipras remains hugely popular in Greece for trying to stand up to Germany’s insistence on austerity before relenting under the threat of a euro zone exit. He would be expected to win again if snap polls were held now, given an opposition that is in disarray. “I do not regret my decision to compromise,” Tsipras said in parliament as he defended the bailout from euro zone and IMF creditors. “We undertook the responsibility to stay alive over choosing suicide.”

But the vote left the government with support from within its own coalition below the threshold of 120 votes in the 300-seat chamber, the minimum needed to command a majority and survive a confidence vote if others abstain. In response, government officials said Tsipras was expected to call a confidence vote in parliament after Greece makes a debt payment to the ECB on Aug. 20 – a move that could trigger the government’s collapse and snap elections. Still, some of those who rebelled on Friday could still opt to support the government in a confidence vote, as could other pro-European parties such as the centrist Potami and the centre-left PASOK, leaving the final outcome unclear.

Friday’s vote was only the latest in a series of events highlighting the rift within Syriza, which stormed to power this year on a pledge to end austerity once and for all, before Tsipras accepted the new bailout to avoid a banking collapse. The leader of Syriza’s far-left rebel faction, former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, took a step toward breaking away from the party by calling for a new anti-bailout movement. “Syriza accepted a new, third bailout – austerity that goes against its programme and pledges,” Lafazanis told Efimerida Ton Syntakton newspaper, adding that this “will open the way for a mutation of Syriza with an uncertain ending”. Syriza would be weakened by the departure of the faction led by Lafazanis.

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“It’s clear that the model of privatisation of water has failed all around the world..”

Germany’s Hypocrisy Over Greece Water Privatisation (Guardian)

Greek activists are warning that the privatisation of state water companies would be a backward step for the country. Under the terms of the bailout agreement approved by the Greek parliament today, Greece has pledged to support an existing programme of privatisation, which includes large chunks of the water utilities of Greece’s two largest cities – Athens and Thessaloniki. There is an ongoing debate about water privatisation and the role of business. Across Europe a wave of austerity-driven privatisation proposals have led to protests in Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. At the same time, some of northern Europe’s largest cities, including Paris and Berlin, are buying back utilities they sold just last decade.

President of the Thessaloniki water company trade union George Argovtopoulos said a move to a for-profit model would raise prices for consumers and degrade services. “It’s not any more a democracy or equality in the European Union. It’s a kind of business,” he said, adding that austerity measures that require water privatisation smacked of a “do as I say, but not as I do” approach from Germany. “We know that in Berlin, just two years ago they remunicipalised the water there, although they paid just under €600m to Veolia [to buy back its stake]. It’s clear that the model of privatisation of water has failed all around the world,” he said.

Deputy finance minister Jens Spahn told German breakfast television on Tuesday that sell offs of the electricity and rail sectors had benefited Germans. “Privatisation isn’t just about raising money, it’s about changing parts of the economy,” he said. The new bailout requires Greece to sell off €50bn worth of public assets. Manuel Schiffler, a former project manager for the World Bank and author of the book Water, Politics and Money, said privatisation only made sense where there was a need to improve efficiency. In the case of Thessaloniki in particular, he said, the water system was already quite well run. “I think it’s a privatisation for the wrong reasons. It’s only for fiscal reasons and not in order to improve the services provided by the utility,” he said.

Maude Barlow, the chair of Food & Water Watch said that years of experimentation with privatisation in developing countries had shown: “The best answer to bad government is good government. Don’t hold out for privatisation. It’s not a perfect system and I know Greece has it’s problems, but privatising their water systems is not a good answer to the crisis there.”

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“Germany was the only nation among Gazprom’s key clients that increased Russian gas purchases in the first half.”

Germany Proves Russia’s Most Loyal Gas Customer as Price Plunges (Bloomberg)

Russia boosted natural gas supplies to Germany by almost 50% in the second quarter as prices plunged, while the world’s largest natural gas exporter struggled with weaker demand from its former Soviet allies. Gazprom’s deliveries to Germany jumped to 11.7 billion cubic meters compared with 7.8 billion a year earlier, the highest quarterly level since at least 2010, according to data on the Moscow-based exporter’s website. Gazprom’s average gas price at the German border fell 36% this year as crude plunged. The European Union, which gets about 30% of its gas from Russia, may be Gazprom’s only growing market this year, the government in Moscow said last month. Gazprom has boosted fuel sales to the 28-nation bloc since the end of May as Brent crude slumped 21%.

Most of the company’s gas contracts are linked to the price of oil. “Germany has been a loyal customer for Russia for years,” said Alexander Kornilov, an oil and gas analyst at Alfa Bank in Moscow. “Such relationships stay in place, though volumes depend on a price – business is business.” Gazprom’s price to Germany fell to $6.68 per million British thermal units in July, the lowest level since December 2009, according to the IMF. Germany is importing almost all of its gas from Russia now, energy broker Marex Spectron said in a July 29 note. Germany was the only nation among Gazprom’s key clients that increased Russian gas purchases in the first half.

The company’s total shipments of the fuel fell 10% to 222.8 billion cubic meters through June, mainly because of lower sales in Italy, Turkey, Central Europe, Ukraine and Russia, Gazprom said in its earnings report under Russian accounting standards on Friday. Gazprom cut its 2015 output forecast for at least the third time this year, reducing its outlook to 444.6 billion cubic meters, according to the report. That’s only 0.1% higher than last year’s record-low output. Russia’s Economy Ministry predicted last month the gas company would cut output to 414 billion cubic meters for 2015.

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Beware France.

Eurozone Economy Sputters As China Risks Loom (Reuters)

Germany enjoyed robust if unspectacular growth in the second quarter while the French economy stagnated, leaving policymakers looking at a fragile euro zone recovery and risks from volatile Chinese markets. The German economy, Europe’s largest, grew by 0.4% on the quarter – a slight acceleration from 0.3% in the first three months of the year but below expectations for a 0.5% expansion as weak investment acted as a drag. In France, a jump in exports was not strong enough to offset the impact of weak consumer spending and changes in inventories and growth came to a standstill after a strong first quarter.

The readouts from the euro zone’s two largest economies came a day after the minutes of the ECB’s last meeting showed it was concerned that volatility in Chinese markets may have more impact than expected on the euro zone. China has seen a run of weak economic data. The ECB described the recovery in the 19-country euro zone as moderate and gradual, a trend it called “disappointing”, and said an increase in U.S. interest rates might slow the upturn. Private sector economists are also concerned that Germany, Europe’s powerhouse economy, is not growing faster despite favorable conditions.

“The fact that record low interest rates, low energy prices and the weak euro have not led to a stronger expansion in our view shows that the German economy has simply reached the end of its long positive virtuous circle of structural reforms and growth,” said Carsten Brzeski at ING. “Normally, such a cocktail of strong external steroids should have given wings to the economy. This is not the case.” Germany’s Federal Statistics Office said weakness in investment and a marked drop in inventories weighed on growth in the second quarter, while the weaker euro helped support exports.

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“.. the emergence of a new institution: a truly International Monetary Fund, in place of today’s Euro-Atlantic Monetary Fund.”

How the IMF Failed Greece (Subramanian)

The reason why an assisted Grexit was never offered seems clear: Greece’s European creditors were vehemently opposed to the idea. But it is not clear that the IMF should have placed great weight on these concerns. Back in 2010, creditor countries were concerned about contagion to the rest of the eurozone. If Grexit had succeeded, the entire monetary union would have come under threat, because investors would have wondered whether some of the eurozone’s other highly indebted countries would have followed Greece’s lead. But this risk is actually another argument in favor of providing Greece with the option of leaving. There is something deeply unappealing about yoking countries together when being unyoked is more advantageous.

More recently, creditor countries have been concerned about the financial costs to member governments that have lent to Greece. But Latin America in the 1980s showed that creditor countries stand a better chance of being repaid (in expected-value terms) when the debtor countries are actually able to grow. In short, the IMF should not have made Europe’s concerns, about contagion or debt repayment, decisive in its decision-making. Instead, it should have publicly pushed for the third option, which would have been a watershed, for it would have signaled that the IMF will not be driven by its powerful members to acquiesce in bad policies. Indeed, it would have afforded the Fund an opportunity to atone for its complicity in the creditor-driven, austerity-addled misery to which Greeks have been subject for the last five years.

Above all, it would have enabled the IMF to move beyond being the instrument of status quo powers – the United States and Europe. From an Asian perspective, by defying its European shareholders, the IMF would have gone a long way toward heralding the emergence of a new institution: a truly International Monetary Fund, in place of today’s Euro-Atlantic Monetary Fund. All is not lost. If the current strategy fails, the third option – assisted Grexit – remains available. The IMF should plan for it. The Greek people deserve some real choices in the near future.

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“..economics quite regularly adopts the simplifying assumption that all markets are fully liquid, so that supply always exactly equals demand and markets always clear.”

Market Liquidity Is Not “Invariably Beneficial” (Perry Mehrling)

The recently released PwC “Global Financial Markets Liquidity Study”, sounds a warning. Financial regulation, while perhaps well-intentioned, has gone too far. Banks may be safer but markets are more fragile. At the moment, this fragility is masked by the massive liquidity operations of world central banks. But it will soon be revealed as, led by the Fed, central banks attempt to exit. Now, before it is too late, additional regulatory measures under consideration should be halted (Ch. 5). And existing regulations should be urgently revisited with an eye to achieving better balance between two social goods, financial stability and market liquidity, rather than the current focus on stability at the expense of liquidity (Ch. 3).

The bulk of the report consists of market-by-market empirical documentation of the reduction in market liquidity in past years (Ch. 4). Pretty much all markets have been affected, even sovereign bond markets, but especially markets that were already not so liquid. “There is clear evidence of a reduction in financial markets liquidity, particularly for less liquid areas of the financial markets, such as small and high-yield bond issues, longer-term FX forwards and interest rate derivatives. However, even relatively more liquid markets are experiencing declining depth, for example US and European sovereign and corporate bonds” (p. 104) “Bifurcation”, meaning widening difference between vanilla markets now supported by central clearing and everything else, is a repeated watchword, as well as “liquidity fragmentation” across different jurisdictions.

Both are taken to be obvious bads. But are they? The central analytical frame of the report is that market liquidity is always and everywhere a good thing, and that more of it is always and everywhere better than less. “We consider market liquidity to be invariably beneficial” (p. 8, 17). “We consider market liquidity to be beneficial in both normal times and times of stress. For this study we therefore work on the premise that market liquidity is invariably beneficial” (p. 23). Accept this premise, and everything else follows. But why accept the premise? To be sure, economics quite regularly adopts the simplifying assumption that all markets are fully liquid, so that supply always exactly equals demand and markets always clear. (On page 17, the report cites the venerable Varian microeconomics text as authority.)

It’s a good assumption if you are concerned about something other than market liquidity. It is a terrible assumption, and a terrible premise, if you are concerned exactly about market liquidity. In fact, the idealization of full liquidity in every market is logically impossible in a world where market liquidity is provided by profit-seeking market makers. In such an ideal world, market-making profit would be zero, so no market-maker would be willing to participate! The idealization thus makes most sense as a world where liquidity is provided for free by government. It is thus quite inappropriate as a measure of how far current reality falls short of optimum.

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The stop to Europe’s milk quota reverbs around the world. New Zealand is THE obvious victim.

Misery On The Farm: Milk Price Slump Raises Spectre Of Ruin (NZ Herald)

“There’s nothing more depressing than knowing when those big tankers come on to your farm you are paying Fonterra to take your milk away.” Depression is not a word New Zealanders associate with dairy farming, but Farmers of NZ operations director Bill Guest is stating the obvious. Fonterra’s price signal for the coming year of $3.85 per kg of milksolids is nearly $2/kg short of what the average dairy farmer needs to cover costs. On an average-size farm with annual costs of around $900,000, that’s an operating deficit of $260,000, Dairy NZ estimates. For most, that spells increased borrowing but that option won’t be there for the heavily indebted. “I would say people with $1 million of debt are not going to survive,” Guest says.

There will scarcely be a profitable dairy farm in New Zealand this year in cashflow terms and the effects of farmer belt-tightening will ripple through service industries and provincial towns and on to the Government’s coffers. The Government may play down the effects – Finance Minister Bill English says the dairy sector accounts for only 20% of exports; Dairy NZ says it’s 29% – but some analysts predict a $1.5 billion fall in GDP. That’s similar to the effect of the one-in-50-year drought that hit rural New Zealand in 2013. Right now, though, all the weight is being borne by dairy farmers as banks ponder the balance sheet implications of another year of low incomes and associated declines in stock and land values.

It’s the lowest farmgate price since 2002, and some analysts say Fonterra will struggle to make the $3.85 forecast. Dairy NZ is estimating $3.65. Last year’s payments were well below recent norms, although the blow was cushioned by deferred payments from the record 2013/14 price. But in July, for the first time, farmers received no retrospective payments – meaning no income until milking gears up. While only a few dairy farms are now on the block, many more farmers are expected to attempt an “orderly exit” from the industry in the coming months – before they are forced out.

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“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Economics Jargon Promotes A Deficit In Understanding (James Gingell)

Whether it’s discussion of debt, or the argument for austerity, it’s hard to find good economics communication, where the language is rinsed free of jargon. Take this as an example, from an excited Telegraph journalist describing the Greek financial crisis: “Late on Wednesday night, the governing council of the ECB decided that it would no longer accept Greek sovereign debt as collateral for its loans. Greece’s junk-rated bonds had been the subject of a “waiver”, where the central bank accepted sovereign and bank debt as security in return for cheap ECB funding.” I’m a fairly intelligent man. I am deeply interested in foreign affairs. Yet I have only the vaguest sense of what the above means.

Does “sovereign debt” or “junk-rated bonds” or, in this context, “collateral” mean much to the average person? Have any of these phrases truly entered the public consciousness? I would argue not. A recent survey of 1,500 University of Manchester students would agree with me. Only 40% of them could even properly define GDP. Politicians aren’t much better. Here’s George Osborne presenting his latest budget: “While we move from deficit to surplus, this [new fiscal] charter commits us to keeping debt falling as a share of GDP each and every year – and to achieving that budget surplus by 2019-20 … Only when the OBR judge that we have real GDP growth of less than 1% a year, as measured on a rolling four-quarter basis, will that surplus no longer be required.” Eh?

You could argue that because the Telegraph example featured in its finance pages, some of its technical language could be forgiven on the basis of audience suitability. But Osborne’s budget announcement was to the country. The whole country. The whole country whose lives his decisions profoundly influence. Yet he makes no attempt whatsoever to remove the jargon in order to effectively relay what is essentially a generation-defining message. It’s simply not good enough. So why does he, and many of his establishment peers, do this? Some of the answer can be found in the old Einsteinian cliche: “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Economics is clearly very difficult and solving its problems is an extremely demanding task, particularly for someone with no formal training like our dear chancellor. In Osborne’s defence, it seems to me that if the answers were obvious, then more people would agree on them. But because he – like many of his colleagues in Westminster – doesn’t really understand what he is talking about, he simply can’t describe his economic policies in simple enough terms. And into this vacuum of insight George pumps his jargon, which gives him an air of understanding that is just about convincing enough to maintain power. The other part of the explanation is that politicians deliberately use jargon to diffuse our ire and frustrations.

They pitch their speeches and briefings at a level most of us will never understand in order to limit public scrutiny. Their reasoning is thus: if we can’t understand what they’re talking about then how can we possibly begin to question them? Advertisers do the same thing when they use pseudoscience to market their products. They say things like “the pentapeptides in our anti-ageing cream are the active ingredient” or “our makeup remover contains micellar water to give you a fresher look”. Although this is complete drivel, the advertisers know that many of us are happy to accept the claims as fact because we don’t have the capacity to challenge them.

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Again: what the EU should be doing. It’s about morals, because it’s about human lives.

European Entrepreneurs Launch StartupBoat To Address Refugee Crisis (TC)

While many in Europe are sunning themselves on beaches, a group of young tech entrepreneurs and investors have grouped together to address the crisis of refugees, many from Syria, which have come to European shores in wave after wave this Summer. The initiative was started by Paula Schwarz, an entrepreneur based in Berlin, who’s family owns a house on the the Greek island of Samos where thousands of refugees have landed in the last few weeks. Up to 800 people land in Samos every day, according to the island’s mayor Michaelis Angelopoulos. Schwarz brought together people from startups from Germany, Greece and South Africa to tackle the refugee crisis with a typical startup approach, forming a group called Startupboat, to come up with new ideas.

The idea was to conduct research on the status quo of political refugees on Samos Island and “develop tools to improve the status quo of irregular migrants on Greek islands” Web site, Twitter, Facebook). She put out the call to her network and was joined by 20 others, including venture capitalist David Rosskamp, formerly with Earlybird Capital in Berlin and Franziska Petersen, the German client manager for Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland. Rosskamp told me: “People were from Facebook, Saving Global (and formerly Index Ventures), Wings University, other VC funds, Academia, the Lufthansa Innovation Hub, McKinsey and Entrepreneurs from Greece, Berlin and South Africa. We wanted to understand the situation and human tragedy, show civil engagement and think about local help.

On top of this, we feel that the European public is clearly missing a transparent discussion of the issue. Most refugees here are from Syria, they are well educated and could actually be ‘us’.” “We are on Samos as the island is seeing close to 800 refugees per day. They arrive through Turkey and are taken out of the water by the Coast Guards or strand on remote rocks somewhere on the island. From here, their journey through Europe begins. We have followed their odyssey over the island and have organized ad hoc support, including the involvement of local authorities and press to raise awareness and dialogue. We have also set up information websites for both migrants and the Samos public. He says the StartupBoat group is a private initiative. “We saw what was happening on the European borders and got together a set of people equally concerned.”

But the ideas morphed into action as the people — normally used to chatting about business models and innovation — toured the refugee camps and realized they had to do something practical as well. They’ve now launched a website called First-contact. This explains to refugees arriving on Samos what do to do when they arrive, as many of the refugees have cell phones and can go online, according to Schwarz. They’ve ben supplying them with food, speaking to officials and organizing an “awareness walk” through the capital (led by the mayor of the island). [..] Christian Umbach, one of Startupboat’s members who works for Lufthansa Innovation Hub in Berlin, believes the EU should address the issue head on, and also lobby to stop the war in Syria. Quoted in an article in Handelsblatt, Umbach said: “After meeting these people, you start to understand that they don’t come here because they want to benefit economically from us,” he said. “They come here because they are under fire and bomb attacks at home.”

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Apr 052015
 
 April 5, 2015  Posted by at 11:01 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  6 Responses »
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Underwood&Underwood Chicago framed by Gothic stonework high in the Tribune Tower 1952

For the second time in three years, I’m fortunate enough to spend some time in New Zealand (or Aotearoa). In 2012, it was all mostly a pretty crazy touring schedule, but this time is a bit quieter. Still get to meet tons of people though, in between the relentless Automatic Earth publishing schedule. And of course people want to ask, once they know what I do, how I think their country is doing.

My answer is I think New Zealand is much better off than most other countries, but not because they’re presently richer (disappointing for many). They’re better off because of the potential here. Which isn’t being used much at all right now. In fact, New Zealand does about everything wrong on a political and macro-economic scale. More about that below.

I’ve been going through some numbers today, and lots of articles, and I think I have an idea what’s going on. Thank you to my new best friend Grant here in Northland (is it Kerikeri or Kaikohe?) for providing much of the reading material and the initial spark.

To begin with, official government data. We love those, don’t we, wherever we turn our inquisitive heads. Because no government would ever not be fully open and truthful. This is from Stuff.co.nz, March 19 2015:

New Zealand GDP grew 3.3% last year

New Zealand’s economy grew 3.3% last year, the fastest since 2007 before the global financial crisis, Statistics NZ said. Most forecasts expect the economy to keep growing this year and next, although slightly more slowly than in the past year. For the three months ended December 31, GDP grew 0.8%, in line with Reserve Bank and other forecasts. That was led by shop sales and accommodation.

That sounds great compared to most other nations. But then we find out where the alleged growth has come from (I say alleged because other data cast a serious doubt on the ‘official’ numbers):

The economy grew a revised 0.9% in the September quarter, down from 1% reported earlier. Retail and accommodation increased 2.3% in the December 2014 quarter, buoyed by a 15% increase in international tourist spending, as reported on Wednesday. New Zealand household spending also increased 0.6%. [..]

“Spending by Chinese, US, and UK visitors all increased in 2014, though Australians spent less.” Australia is New Zealand’s biggest tourism market, but the New Zealand dollar has been high against the Australian currency, trading at A96.5c on Thursday. The exchange rate was under A80c at the start of 2013. Total visitor spending last year hit $7.4 billion, up 13% on the previous year. [..]

(Note: $1 US = $1.3156 NZ today.)

Increased banking activity was reflected in a 1.1% rise in financial services this quarter, while housing investment rose 5.2%.

[..] The figures also showed the first fall in real incomes since the middle of 2012. The inflation-adjusted purchasing power of disposable income was down 0.5% in the December quarter.

We’ll get back to housing in a bit. And by all means, keep those last few numbers in mind: while the economy ostensibly grew by 3.3%, disposable income was down. That’s what you call a warning sign.

But let’s focus first on tourism and especially on China. While overall tourist spending rose 15% in 2014, as part of a later quote in this article we will even see that “tourism from China was up 40% in the first two months of this year from a year ago..”

Still, that cannot make up for that other big trade with China, exports, in particular of New Zealand’s biggest industry, dairy, and the second biggest, timber. There things are not looking nearly as rosy. And after reading the next piece, I’m wondering how the economy could possibly have grown by 3.3%. More from Stuff.co.nz, dated March 25:

Dairy Slump Hits New Zealand Exports To China

New Zealand posted a small trade surplus of just $50 million in February with dairy exports down heavily, especially to China, New Zealand’s top export market. Some economists had expected a monthly surplus of about $350 million. The trade shortfall for the year ended February 2015 was a deficit of $2.2 billion. Exports to China have boomed in the past few years, but melted down last year as dairy product prices plunged. Total exports to China in February were down more than 36% on the same month last year.

China remains New Zealand’s biggest export market, worth almost $9b in the past year, just slightly ahead of Australia. But the trend for exports to China has been falling for the past year, and is down 45% from the peak in late 2013. In fact, it has returned to levels seen in 2012. [..] Total exports were worth $3.9b for the month, just barely ahead of monthly imports which were also about $3.9b.

So sure, the 3.3% was over 2014, and this piece concerns this year. But it also says ‘the trend for exports to China has been falling for the past year,’ and ‘..The trade shortfall for the year ended February 2015 was a deficit of $2.2 billion..’ and that can only leave me wondering again what real GDP growth was. This is from RadioNZ, April 3:

Export Drop Rattles Companies

Confidence among manufacturers and exporters has taken a hit with export sales in February down 27% compared with a year ago. A survey found net confidence – which includes measures of cash flow, profitability, investment, staff and sales – fell into negative territory for the first time since April 2013. Net confidence was minus 13, down from 21 in January. The sample of Manufacturers and Exporters Association members covered companies with combined annual sales of $178 million, with 68% of those from exports. Association president Tom Thomson said currency volatility was the biggest issue for exporters, with the big jump in the US dollar forcing up the price of some raw materials.

Now I’m wondering which raw materials this fine man has in mind. See, I can imagine currency volatility being a bit of a drag, but not too much for New Zealand manufacturers, because as far as I can see the country’s exporters don’t seem to import much in the way of raw materials. The main exports, as I said, are dairy and timber, with a bit of meat thrown in, none of which require raw materials imports, and what the US dollar drives up in there would help New Zealand more than hurt it. That the New Zealand dollar itself has gained vs various other currencies, while true, is a whole other story.

New Zealand’s dairy industry has been thrown together since the start of the century in co-op Fonterra, good for 30% of global dairy exports – most dairy farmers are shareholders (mind you, no country the size of New Zealand should ever even think of exporting 30% of the world’s anything, of course, unless it’s something unique on the planet and it comes in small quantities). Fonterra’s by far biggest clients are the lactose-intolerant Chinese, who import about all the milkpowder – for their babies – they can lay their hands on, following a domestic tainted milk scandal a few years back. Still, to establish your biggest industry around one single client is obviously a very risky venture. And now there’s the added problem of dropping prices. The New Zealand Herald, April 2:

World Dairy Prices Slide 10.8% On Supply Concerns

International dairy prices continued to reverse gains made early this year at this morning’s GlobalDairyTrade (GDT) auction, putting downward pressure on Fonterra’s $4.70 a kg farmgate milk price forecast and raising concerns about next season’s likely payout. The GDT price index fell by 10.8% compared with the last sale a fortnight ago, when prices dropped by 8.8%. Big falls were recorded for the key products of wholemilk powder – down 13.3% to US$2,538 a tonne, skim milk powder – down 9.9% to US$2,467/tonne.

That 10.8% price drop occurred in just 2 weeks. There can be no doubt that if your economy depends so much on one sector and one client, you’re vulnerable. Probably as much as oil producers, who saw their prices drop more, but who mostly have higher profit margins. What hasn’t helped New Zealand dairy farmers is the Russian ban on EU milk products; these will now have to be sold on world markets. What won’t help either is the recent lifting of EU milk quotas, which will bring a huge flood of additional milk on the market. A market that is already drowning in milk. RadioNZ, April 2:

World ‘Awash With Milk’

The Government is blaming a slump in milk prices on the world market being awash with milk. But New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said National’s economic policies and the high value of the New Zealand dollar were not helping dairy farmers. In the Global Dairy Trade auction prices dropped 10.8% overnight to $US2746 a tonne, the second fall in a fortnight. Mr Peters said he predicted the fall and it was a sign of rural areas lagging behind. “I’ve been saying it for a long long time – what you’ve got is a fixation with Auckland, hollowing out the provincial economies and sucking all the attention and money to Auckland and that is not going to go on any longer.”

Mr Peters said New Zealand had a free market system that no other country followed and he would legislate to control the exchange rate, similar to Singapore’s system. “The one country that’s not devaluing at the moment is New Zealand – every other economy has. [..] Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce firmly rejected that idea. “Well, with the greatest respect to Winston I am old enough, and so is he, to remember the last time we tried to set the exchange rate in this country and it wasn’t that successful…

“What he is basically saying is that he would legislate, presumably, to put the exchange rate at a level it won’t naturally go and that means effectively increasing costs for the consumer and decreasing costs for exporters.” [..] Meanwhile, the Fonterra Shareholders Council said some frustrated farmers were considering leaving the co-operative due to the price slump.

For more than a few farmers, the situation has already proved too much. NZ Herald, Jan 11:

Stress Too Much For Farmers

At least four farmers have taken their lives since Fonterra cut its milk payout forecast for the coming season. On December 10, the dairy giant dropped its payout forecast for 2014-15 to an eight-year low of $4.70 a kilogram of milk solids. That’s nearly half the $8.40 paid in the 2013-14 season and is estimated to mean an income drop for farmers of $6.6 billion. Federated Farmers dairy industry group vice-chairman Kevin Robinson confirmed to the Herald on Sunday that it was aware of the December deaths. “There’s been discussion through Federated Farmers email about them,” he said.

Several industry experts blame high levels of rural debt for increased stress on farmers. In total, 14 farmers have taken their lives in the past six months, Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean said. The most recent four deaths were also confirmed by Te Aroha farmer Sue McKay, the administrator of a private Facebook-based support group. She added: “I also know some local hospitals have a number of farmers in them from attempted suicide. If there’s three in one ward alone, there will be more in other hospitals.”

Whole milk powder prices were down 11% in the month and 52% lower than a year earlier. Cheese also dropped 5% over the month.

But New Zealand also has a whole different side. If anything could explain the 3.3% GDP growth number for 2014, I’m guessing it must be this: a real estate bubble that would put most of Charles Ponzi’s heirs to shame. Not 10 years ago, mind you, Americans, but today. Will they never learn, you ask? No, they will have to have their faces pushed squarely through the stucco walls. And they’ll probably still have hope for a recovery when they come out at the other side. NZ Herald, April 5:

Hot Properties: Auckland Valuations Out Of Date Within Months

Council valuations are already out of date, with homes selling in Auckland’s overheated property market on average for more than 15% above their figure of six months ago. And previously unfashionable suburbs have recorded some of the biggest spikes as desperate buyers look for their first home. Mt Roskill made the biggest jump in the Real Estate Institute figures, which are based on Auckland sales in February and compared against capital valuations made in July last year. The valuations, which do not involve a property inspection or include chattels, were made public on October 1.

Even suburbs among the 10 with lowest rises, such as Remuera and Te Atatu Peninsula, were up 13%. Properties sold by Bayleys Real Estate last month included a West Harbour home bought for $700,000 more than its capital valuation of $900,000 and a Glendowie home with a capital value of $1.13m that sold for $1.575m. An Avondale home sold for $590,000 — $130,000 above valuation.

REINZ chief executive Colleen Milne wasn’t surprised because city fringe suburbs were now out of reach for many. The hot market made it hard for capital values to keep up, Milne said. “There has been a 19.9% median movement in Auckland in the last 18 months. I thought the CVs seemed to be quite appropriate at the time, but the whole thing is just supply and demand — we have a lack of houses,” she told the Herald on Sunday.

A ‘19.9% median movement in Auckland in the last 18 months’ is about 13.25% per year, a doubling time of just over 7 years. Auckland apartment prices in the Trade.me graph below, which covers February 2014-February 2015, would double every 3-4 years.

It must be an Anglo-Saxon disease. You can see it in London, in Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Toronto. The new normal way to make your failing economy look ‘healthy’ is to sell assets to any rich foreigner or investment fund who comes knocking, no matter what the consequences, short term or long term. In all these cities, young people can forget about buying a home, that allegedly government supported dream.

And everyone but the rich are pushed out ever further into the boondock burbs. It’s a ‘policy’ that kills cities, of necessity. Cities need people, real people, all people, poor and rich and old and young, that have grown up where they live, they love where they live, they are interested in making it look good and feel good. This is an ongoing and organic process, because cities are alive, and yes, you can kill them. But that’s for another story.

Back to New Zealand’s reality for the vast majority of people, who will never be able to fork over 100s of 1000s of dollars for a house. People like the workers in the timber industry, who see slowing Chinese demand translated into job cuts both for those who cut the trees and those who transport them.

Again, a dumb idea to base a whole industry around one client, but the men and women who did the job were just glad they had work. And now they don’t anymore. Jobs that in all likelihood will never come back again. China won’t have another debt-financed growth spurt, and there are no other candidates waiting on the horizon.

And that’s all a big shame. New Zealand is not poor, but it’s by no means as rich as Australia or Canada or Germany or the US. What it does have is the potential to be largely self-sufficient. A potential that is being squandered in order to play with the big boys of globalized trade.

New Zealand has only 4.5 million citizens, one third of which live in Auckland. It has vast tracts of productive land that are now used to feed export oriented cows and American pines, neither of which are even native. It could have a great shoe industry, plenty of leather, and a textile industry, plenty of wool. But New Zealand, like everyone else, imports such basic needs from China. While having scores of unemployed people. When will that light go off?

The country’s prime minister since 2008, John Key, used to work at Merrill Lynch and the New York Fed, and that sort of background guarantees valiant efforts to sell anything in the country that’s not bolted down, and take an axe to what is. It also guarantees zero initiative to become self-sufficient.

But then there are many tragic countries and societies in the world who all suffer from the same maladie. I’ll leave you with some reflections by the man who I’m told is New Zealand’s best business writer, Bernard Hickey in the NZ Herald:

New Zealand’s Economic Winds Of Change

Chaos theory calls it the butterfly effect. It’s the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could cause a tornado in Texas. The New Zealand economy has plenty of its own butterflies changing the weather for GDP growth, jobs, interest rates, inflation and house prices. [..] One of the flappiest at the moment is the global iron ore price.

It’s barely noticed here but it’s an indicator of growing trouble inside our largest trading partner, China, and it is knocking our second-largest partner, Australia, for six. It fell to a 10-year low of almost US$50 a tonne this week and is down from a peak of more than US$170 a tonne in early 2011.

China embarked on an infrastructure spree after the global financial crisis. Over the three years to 2013, China poured 6.4 gigatonnes of concrete, which was more than was poured in the US in the entire 20th century. All that concrete needed reinforcing with steel and China didn’t have enough iron ore and coking coal to make it. That building boom created a glut of apartments and debt, which China now needs to digest. [..]

.. iron ore production in Australia has only now ramped up to its peak levels. Weak demand met high supply to produce a price slump. This all may seem irrelevant to New Zealand, but it’s not. The Australian dollar has fallen in response to the iron ore crash, while New Zealand’s dollar has remained strong because our economy is humming along, thanks to building surges in Christchurch and Auckland and plenty of spending and investment.

That divergence between the Australasian economies drove the New Zealand dollar to a record high of well over AUD$98 this week. Dollar parity would make all those winter holidays on the Australia Gold Coast and trips to shows in Sydney and Melbourne cheaper and generate a fierce headwind for manufacturing exporters and tourism businesses here that sell to Australians.

President Xi has reinforced the contrasting effects of the changes in China on Australia and New Zealand by encouraging consumers and investors to spend more of China’s big trade surpluses overseas. Tourism from China was up 40% in the first two months of this year from a year ago, and there remains plenty of demand from investors in China for New Zealand assets.

The dark side of this tornado in New Zealand after the flapping of the butterfly’s wings in China was felt in Nelson this week. The region’s biggest logging trucking firm, Waimea Contract Carriers, was put into voluntary administration owing $14m, partly because of a slump in log exports to China in the past six months.

That’s because New Zealand’s logs are now mostly shipped to China to be timber boxing for the concrete being poured in its new “ghost” cities. The Chinese iron ore butterfly has flapped and now we’re seeing Gold Coast winter breaks become cheaper and logging contracts rarer.

Apr 022015
 
 April 2, 2015  Posted by at 9:39 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »
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Marion Post Wolcott Negro woman carrying laundry between Durham and Mebane, NC 1939

The Committee To Destroy The World (Michael Lewitt)
Our Current Illusion Of Prosperity (Mises Inst.)
Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think (Scientific American)
Burning Down The House: Land, Water & Food (Eastwood)
The Warren Effect: Here Is A Bluff That Needs To Be Called (Esquire)
Companies Go All-In Before Rate Hike, Issue Record Debt In Q1 (Zero Hedge)
Shanghai Traders Make Trillion-Yuan Stock Bet With Borrowed Cash (Bloomberg)
Greek Defiance Mounts As Alexis Tsipras Turns To Russia And China (AEP)
Greece Threatens Default As Fresh Reform Bid Falters (Telegraph)
China’s Fuel Demand to Peak Sooner Than Oil Giants Expect (Bloomberg)
The Saudis Are Losing Their Lock on Asian Oil Sales (Bloomberg)
Reckoning Arrives for Cash-Strapped Oil Firms Amid Bank Squeeze (Bloomberg)
Appalachia Miners Wiped Out by Coal Glut That They Can’t Reverse (Bloomberg)
World Dairy Prices Slide 10.8% On Supply Concerns (NZ Herald)
CFTC Charges Kraft, Mondelez With Manipulating Wheat Futures (MarketWatch)
Brazil’s Richest Man May Reap $5.6 Billion in Kraft-Heinz Merger
The Cuban Money Crisis (Bloomberg)
California Orders Mandatory Water Cuts Of 25% Amid Record Drought (WSJ)

Absolute must read. And then a second time.

The Committee To Destroy The World (Michael Lewitt)

Last month, the world mourned the death of beloved actor Leonard Nimoy. Mr. Nimoy, of course, was renowned for his portrayal of the iconic character Mr. Spock on the 1960s television series Star Trek. One of the most memorable Star Trek inventions was the transporter that allowed human beings to be beamed through space and time like light and energy. Investors expecting central bankers to solve the world’s economic problems might as well believe that Janet Yellen is capable of beaming them straight into the Marriner S. Eccles Building in Washington, D.C. Their failure to acknowledge that the Fed is failing to generate sustainable economic growth while contributing to income inequality and crushing debt burdens is inexplicable.

Central banks that purport to be promoting financial stability are actually undermining it – with the able assistance of regulators who have drained liquidity from the world’s most important markets. Negative interest rates on $3 trillion of European debt are an obvious sign of policy failure, yet the policy elite stands mute. Actually that’s not correct – the cognoscenti is cheering on Mario Draghi as he destroys the European bond markets just as they celebrated Janet Yellen’s demolition of the Treasury market. Negative interest rates are not some curiosity; they represent a symptom of policy failure and a violation of the very tenets of capitalist economics. The same is true of persistent near-zero interest rates in the United States and Japan.

Zero gravity renders it impossible for fiduciaries to generate positive returns for their clients, insurance companies to issue policies, and savers to entrust their money to banks. They are a byproduct of failed economic policies, not some clever device to defeat deflation and stimulate economic growth. They are mathematically doomed to fail regardless of what economists, who are merely failed monetary philosophers practicing a soft social science, purport to tell us. The fact that European and American central banks are following the path of Japan with virtually no objection represents one of the most profound intellectual failures in the history of economic policy history.[..]

Christopher Whalen, one of the best bank analysts on Wall Street, argued that global banks face trillions of bad off-balance sheet debts that must eventually be resolved (i.e. written off) and are dragging on economic growth. These debts include everything from loans by German banks to Greece to home equity loans in the U.S. for homes that are underwater on their first mortgage. Banks and governments refuse to restructure (i.e. write off) these bad debts because doing so would trigger capital losses for banks and governments. As Mr. Whalen explains, “the Fed and ECB have decided to address the issue of debt by slowly confiscating value from investors via negative rates, this because the fiscal authorities in the respective industrial nations cannot or will not address the problem directly.”

But in addition to avoiding the bad debt problem, these policies are causing further economic damage by depressing growth and starving savers. Per Mr. Whalen: “ZIRP and QE as practiced by the Fed and ECB are not boosting, but instead depressing, private sector economic activity. By using bank reserves to acquire government and agency securities, the FOMC has actually been retarding private economic growth, even while pushing up the prices of financial assets around the world.”

Read more …

“Massive layoffs in the energy sector are now a certainty. Few realize that most of the gains in employment in the US since 2008 have been in shale states. Yet the carnage is not over.”

Our Current Illusion Of Prosperity (Mises Inst.)

President Obama and Fed Chair Janet Yellen have been crowing about improving economic conditions in the US. Unemployment is down to 5.5% and growth in 2014 hit 2.2%. Journalists and economists point to this improvement as proof that quantitative easing was effective. Unfortunately, this latest boom is artificial and has been built by adding debt on top of debt. Total household debt increased 2.5% in 2014 — the highest level since 2010. Mortgage loans increased 1.5%, student loans 6.6% while auto loans increased a hefty 9.6%. The improving auto sales are built mostly on a bubble of sub-prime borrowers. Auto sales have been brisk because of a surge in loans to individuals with credit scores below 620. Since 2010, such loans have increased over 100% and have gone from 20% of originations in 2009 to 27% in 2013.

Yet, auto loans to individuals with strong credit scores, above 760, have barely budged over the last year. Subprime consumer borrowing climbed $189 billion in the first eleven months of 2014. Excluding home mortgages, this accounted for 41% of total consumer lending. This is exactly the kind of lending that got us into trouble less than a decade ago, and for many consumers, this will only end in tears. But we need to ask ourselves: is the current boom built on sound foundations? In other words, do we have sharp increases in productivity or real wage growth? Productivity increased less than 1% on average in the last three years and real wages have flat lined or declined for decades. From mid-2007 to mid-2014, real wages declined 4.9% for workers with a high school degree, dropped 2.5% for workers with a college degree and rose just 0.2% for workers with an advanced degree.

Is the boom being built on broad base investment in plant and equipment? The current average age of working plants and equipment in the US is one of the oldest on record. Meanwhile, it is now clear that the shale boom was an illusion of prosperity. Oil prices have dipped below $50 with some analysts calling for $20 oil by the end of the year. This is a drop from over $100 from last year. Many shale outfits need oil above $65 just to break even. Massive layoffs in the energy sector are now a certainty. Few realize that most of the gains in employment in the US since 2008 have been in shale states. Yet the carnage is not over. Induced by low interest, investment banks loaned over $1 trillion to the energy industry. The impact on the financial sector is still to be felt.

Read more …

Do read.

Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think (Scientific American)

In a candid conversation with Frank Rich last fall, Chris Rock said, “Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” The findings of three studies, published over the last several years in Perspectives on Psychological Science, suggest that Rock is right. We have no idea how unequal our society has become. In their 2011 paper, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely analyzed beliefs about wealth inequality. They asked more than 5,000 Americans to guess the%age of wealth (i.e., savings, property, stocks, etc., minus debts) owned by each fifth of the population. Next, they asked people to construct their ideal distributions. Imagine a pizza of all the wealth in the United States. What%age of that pizza belongs to the top 20% of Americans?

How big of a slice does the bottom 40% have? In an ideal world, how much should they have? The average American believes that the richest fifth own 59% of the wealth and that the bottom 40% own 9%. The reality is strikingly different. The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%. The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined. We don’t want to live like this. In our ideal distribution, the top quintile owns 32% and the bottom two quintiles own 25%. As the journalist Chrystia Freeland put it, “Americans actually live in Russia, although they think they live in Sweden. And they would like to live on a kibbutz.” Norton and Ariely found a surprising level of consensus: everyone — even Republicans and the wealthy—wants a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.

This all might ring a bell. An infographic video of the study went viral and has been watched more than 16 million times. In a study published last year, Norton and Sorapop Kiatpongsan used a similar approach to assess perceptions of income inequality. They asked about 55,000 people from 40 countries to estimate how much corporate CEOs and unskilled workers earned. Then they asked people how much CEOs and workers should earn. The median American estimated that the CEO-to-worker pay-ratio was 30-to-1, and that ideally, it’d be 7-to-1. The reality? 354-to-1. Fifty years ago, it was 20-to-1. Again, the patterns were the same for all subgroups, regardless of age, education, political affiliation, or opinion on inequality and pay. “In sum,” the researchers concluded, “respondents underestimate actual pay gaps, and their ideal pay gaps are even further from reality than those underestimates.”

Read more …

Can man stop himself?

Burning Down The House: Land, Water & Food (Eastwood)

I’m sure when Talking Heads wrote “Burning Down The House” that they didn’t exactly have financial collapse and environmental degradation in mind. Although with a verse like “Hold tight wait till the party’s over. Hold tight we’re in for nasty weather. There has got to be a way. Burning down the house” it’s hard not to see that song as strangely prophetic. What we are now doing to the planet and to human society is exactly that – burning down the house while we are still living in it. Everyone needs fuel, especially during a bitter winter, but only a mad man starts deconstructing the house in order to burn bits of it in the stove or fireplace. Almost as mad as that is stealing bits of other people’s houses to burn, but that at least is not soiling your own doorstep – well not at first.

In a world of limited resources and limited space we’ve now reached the point where raiding our neighbours’ houses is the same thing as raiding our own house, because the net effect is the same – disaster on an unprecedented level. Of course it’s easier to live in denial and keep on cannibalising the world’s vital resources at an ever-increasing rate and pretend that it’s business as usual, but in reality it is anything but that. The alarm bells from commentators from all sectors: science, economics, religion etc. are getting louder and more frequent, better argued and with the raw data to back it up, but we are still not listening. Of course, the alarm bell was being rung fifty or more years ago by people such as Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1957, the now retiring Lester Brown and the late Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring).

Nobody really listened that well back then, although governments paid lip-service to these troublesome do-gooders. Now we know that what they said was entirely true, that we are headed for disaster and yet will still only get the tired old lip-service, as before or Koch Brother inspired denial. The evidence is clearly there that we are depleting all of our resources far too quickly, especially the land we use to produce food and draw raw materials from. In part a consequence of this, the fresh water supplies that are even more vital are also being depleted way too fast. Devastation of the land, especially deforestation exacerbates water loss and soil erosion. Couple this with increased damming of rivers, pollutant run-off into rivers, fracking and mining and you’ve a recipe for a water crisis, which will, in turn, lead to a food crisis.

Read more …

Amen.

The Warren Effect: Here Is A Bluff That Needs To Be Called (Esquire)

Let us be quite definite about this. Any Democratic politician who thinks this is a bad situation – or, worse, will not stand by a Democratic colleague in this situation – is not worth the hankie to blow Joe Lieberman’s nose.

Representatives from Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party’s tone toward Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said this week. Bank officials said the idea of withholding donations was not discussed at a meeting of the four banks in Washington but it has been raised in one-on-one conversations between representatives of some of them. However, there was no agreement on coordinating any action, and each bank is making its own decision, they said.

My god, what a prodigious bluff. Also, my god, what towering arrogance? These guys own half the world and have enough money to buy the other half, and they’re threatening the party still most likely to control the White House because they don’t like the Senator Professor’s tone? Her tone? Sherrod Brown’s tone? These are guys who should be worried about the tone of the guard who’s calling them down to breakfast at Danbury and they’re concerned about the tenderness of their Savile Row’d fee-fees? Honkies, please.

The tensions are a sign that the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – the bank bailouts and the fights over financial reforms to rein in Wall Street – are still a factor in the 2016 elections. Citigroup has decided to withhold donations for now to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee over concerns that Senate Democrats could give Warren and lawmakers who share her views more power, sources inside the bank told Reuters.

Tensions? These are the guys who should have spent the last six years going door to door apologizing to every American for blowing up the world economy and then buying up the splinters. That is, they should have been going door-to-door to apologize to all those Americans who still have doors they can call their own. Call this. Do it now. Tell them their money is no good here any more. Give these brigands the 86 the way any respectable saloonkeeper gives the heave to a chronic deadbeat who’s run up an unpayable tab. Show the country in simple (and not necessarily civil) words what these people really are.

Demonstrate, speech by speech, that they have no loyalty to the political entity that is the United States of America, that they are stateless gombeen bastards who would sell this country’s democracy off like a subprime mortgage to put another ten bucks into their pockets. They are threatening the people whom they still should be thanking for saving them from themselves. And Senator Professor Warren is only their most conspicuous target. Don’t kid yourselves, this is a message they’re sending to every politician, up and down the line, national and local. Don’t cross us. We own you. There is only one response for a democratic people to make to this ongoing gross obscenity. Bring it, motherfkers. Bring your lunch. And your lawyers.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Companies Go All-In Before Rate Hike, Issue Record Debt In Q1 (Zero Hedge)

It should come as no surprise that Q1 was a banner quarter for corporate debt issuance as struggling oil producers tapped HY markets to stay afloat, companies scrambled to max out the stock-buyback-via-balance-sheet re-leveraging play before a certain “diminutive” superwoman in the Eccles Building decides to do the unthinkable and actually hike rates, and there was M&A. As we discussed last week, rising stock prices have tipped investors’ asset allocation towards equities even as money continues to flow into bonds, meaning that yet more money must be funneled into fixed income for rebalancing purposes, which ironically drives demand for the very same debt that US corporates are using to fund the very same buy backs that are driving equity outperformance in the first place. Put more simply: the bubble machine is in hyperdrive. Not only did Q1 mark a record quarter for issuance, March supply also hit a record at $143 billion, tying the total put up in May of 2008. Here’s more from BofAML:

1Q set records for both supply and trading volumes in high grade, as new issue supply volumes reached $348bn, up from the previous record of $310bn in 1Q- 2014, whereas trading volumes averaged 15.6bn per day, up from the previous record of $14.3bn during the same quarter last year… Issuance in March totaled $143bn and it tied with May 2008 and September of 2013 for the highest monthly supply on record going back to at least 1998. September of 2013 was the month when the record $49bn VZ deal was priced… Supply in March was supported by low interest rates (encouraging opportunistic issuance on the supply side and supporting investor demand by diminishing interest rate risk concerns) and a busy M&A-related calendar. Some of these trends will continue in April, although investors are becoming more concerned about the Fed hiking cycle…

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The China casino.

Shanghai Traders Make Trillion-Yuan Stock Bet With Borrowed Cash (Bloomberg)

Shanghai traders now have more than 1 trillion yuan ($161 billion) of borrowed cash riding on the world’s highest-flying stock market. The outstanding balance of margin debt on the Shanghai Stock Exchange surpassed the trillion-yuan mark for the first time on Wednesday, a nearly fourfold jump from just 12 months ago. The city’s benchmark index has surged 86% during that time, more than any of the world’s major stock gauges. While the extra buying power that comes from leverage has fueled the Shanghai Composite Index’s rally, it’s also sending equity volatility to five-year highs and may accelerate losses if a market reversal forces traders to sell.

Margin debt has increased even after regulators suspended three of the nation’s biggest brokers from adding new accounts in January and said securities firms shouldn’t lend to investors with less than 500,000 yuan. “It’s like a two-edged sword,” said Wu Kan, a money manager at Dragon Life Insurance Co. in Shanghai, which oversees about $3.3 billion. “When the market starts a correction or falls, it will increase the magnitude of declines.” In a margin trade, investors use their own money for just a portion of their stock purchase, borrowing the rest from a brokerage. The loans are backed by the investors’ equity holdings, meaning that they may be compelled to sell when prices fall to repay their debt.

Chinese investors have been piling into the stock market after the central bank cut interest rates twice since November and authorities from the China Securities Regulatory Commission to central bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan endorsed the flow of funds into equities. Traders have opened 2.8 million new stock accounts in just the past two weeks, almost on par with Chicago’s entire population. The outstanding balance of the margin debt on China’s smaller exchange in Shenzhen was 493.8 billion yuan on March 31. That puts the combined figure for China’s two main bourses at the equivalent of about $241 billion. In the U.S., which has a stock market almost four times the size of China’s, margin debt on the New York Stock Exchange was about $465 billion at the end of February.

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Strong effort by Ambrose. He manages to look behind the obvious veil: “When Warren Buffett suggests that Europe might emerge stronger after a salutary purge of its weak link in Greece, he confirms his own rule that you should never dabble in matters beyond your ken.”

Greek Defiance Mounts As Alexis Tsipras Turns To Russia And China (AEP)

Two months of EU bluster and reproof have failed to cow Greece. It is becoming clear that Europe’s creditor powers have misjudged the nature of the Greek crisis and can no longer avoid facing the Morton’s Fork in front of them. Any deal that goes far enough to assuage Greece’s justly-aggrieved people must automatically blow apart the austerity settlement already fraying in the rest of southern Europe. The necessary concessions would embolden populist defiance in Spain, Portugal and Italy, and bring German euroscepticism to the boil. Emotional consent for monetary union is ebbing dangerously in Bavaria and most of eastern Germany, even if formulaic surveys do not fully catch the strength of the undercurrents. This week’s resignation of Bavarian MP Peter Gauweiler over Greece’s bail-out extension can, of course, be over-played. He has long been a foe of EMU.

But his protest is unquestionably a warning shot for Angela Merkel’s political family. Mr Gauweiler was made vice-chairman of Bavaria’s Social Christians (CSU) in 2013 for the express purpose of shoring up the party’s eurosceptic wing and heading off threats from the anti-euro Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). Yet if the EMU powers persist mechanically with their stale demands – even reverting to terms that the previous pro-EMU government in Athens rejected in December – they risk setting off a political chain-reaction that can only eviscerate the EU Project as a motivating ideology in Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s chief, understands the risk perfectly, warning anybody who will listen that Grexit would lead to an “irreparable loss of global prestige for the whole EU” and crystallize Europe’s final fall from grace.

When Warren Buffett suggests that Europe might emerge stronger after a salutary purge of its weak link in Greece, he confirms his own rule that you should never dabble in matters beyond your ken. Alexis Tsipras leads the first radical-Leftist government elected in Europe since the Second World War. His Syriza movement is, in a sense, totemic for the European Left, even if sympathisers despair over its chaotic twists and turns. As such, it is a litmus test of whether progressives can pursue anything resembling an autonomous economic policy within EMU. There are faint echoes of what happened to the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, a litmus test for the Latin American Left in its day. His experiment in land reform was famously snuffed out by a CIA coup in 1954, with lasting consequences. It was the moment of epiphany for Che Guevara, then working as a volunteer doctor in the country.

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Believe it or not, this thing will have to reach a conclusion soon.

Greece Threatens Default As Fresh Reform Bid Falters (Telegraph)

The Greek government has threatened to default on its loans to the International Monetary Fund, as Athens continued its battle to convince creditors for a fresh injection of bail-out cash. Greece’s interior minister told Germany’s Spiegel magazine, his country would not respect a looming €450m loan repayment to the fund on April 9, without a release of much-needed bail-out funds. “If no money is flowing on April 9, we will first determine the salaries and pensions paid here in Greece and then ask our partners abroad to achieve consensus that we will not pay €450 million to the IMF on time,” said Nikos Voutzis. The cash-strapped government has struggled to keep up with its wage and pensions obligations having agreed a bail-out extension on February 20.

Athens insists it has enough money to last it until the middle of April, but a final agreement on any deal is unlikely to be secured before the end of the month. A Greek government spokesperson later denied the reports of a deliberate default, saying the country still hoped for a “positive outcome” to its debt negotiations. The comments came as the eurozone’s working group discussed a new 26-page plan of reforms from Athens on Wednesday. Aiming to generate an estimated €6bn in 2015, Athens has pledged a range of revenue-raising measures including cracking down on tax evasion, carrying out an audit on overseas bank transfers, and introducing a “luxury tax”. The document also warned brinkmanship on the part of the eurozone meant the “viability” of the currency union was now “in question.”

“It is necessary now, without further delay to turn a corner on the mistakes of the past and to forge a new relationship between member states, a relationship based on solidarity, resolve, mutual respect,” said the proposal. The Leftist government has continually fallen short of creditor demands, who hold the purse strings on €7.2bn in bail-out cash the government requires over the next three months. However, the latest blueprint is unlikely to satisfy lenders as it lacks details on labour market liberalisation or pensions reforms. Previous privatisations of the country’s assets were also described as a “spectacular” failure, generating far less in revenues for the state than first envisaged..

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Wrong on purpose?

China’s Fuel Demand to Peak Sooner Than Oil Giants Expect (Bloomberg)

China’s biggest oil refiner is signaling the nation is headed to its peak in diesel and gasoline consumption far sooner than most Western energy companies and analysts are forecasting. If correct, the projections by China Petroleum & Chemical, or Sinopec, a state-controlled enterprise with public shareholders in Hong Kong, pose a big challenge to the world’s largest oil companies. They’re counting on demand from China and other developing countries to keep their businesses growing as energy consumption falls in more advanced economies. “Plenty of people are talking about the peak in Chinese coal, but not many are talking about the peak in Chinese diesel demand, or Chinese oil generally,” said Mark C. Lewis at Kepler Cheuvreux. “It is shocking.”

Sinopec has offered a view of the country that should serve as a reality check to any oil bull. For diesel, the fuel that most closely tracks economic growth, the peak in China’s demand is just two years away, in 2017, according to Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu, who gave his outlook on a little reported March 23 conference call. The high point in gasoline sales is likely to come in about a decade, he said, and the company is already preparing for the day when selling fuel is what he called a “non-core” activity. That forecast, from a company whose 30,000 gas stations and 23,000 convenience stores arguably give it a better view on the market than anyone else, runs counter to the narrative heard regularly from oil drillers from the U.S. and Europe that Chinese demand for their product will increase for decades to come.

“From 2010 to 2040, transportation energy needs in OECD32 countries are projected to fall about 10% while in the rest of the world these needs are expected to double,” Exxon Mobil said in a December report on its view of the future. “China and India will together account for about half of the global increase.” Exxon expects most of that growth to be driven by commercial transportation for heavy-duty vehicles, specifically ships, trucks, planes and trains that run on diesel and similar fuels. BP’s latest public projection for China, released in February, sounds a similar note. “Energy consumed in transport grows by 98%. Oil remains the dominant fuel but loses market share, dropping from 90% to 83% in 2035.”

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“Asian-Pacific refiners are forecast to add 5.4 million barrels a day of capacity in the next five years..”

The Saudis Are Losing Their Lock on Asian Oil Sales (Bloomberg)

Ships carrying oil from Mexico docked in South Korea this year for the first time in more than two decades as the global fight for market share intensifies. Latin American producers are providing increasing amounts of heavy crude to bargain-hungry Asian refiners in a challenge to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter and the region’s dominant supplier. “By diversifying, more Asian refiners will be able to reduce the clout that Saudi Arabia has on the market,” said Suresh Sivanandam, a refining and chemical analyst with Wood Mackenzie Ltd. in Singapore. “They will be getting more bargaining power for sure.”

The U.S., enjoying a surge of light oil from shale formations, has raised imports of heavy grades from Canada, displacing crude from nations such as Mexico and Venezuela. That’s boosting South American deliveries to Asia even after Saudi Arabia cut prices for March oil sales to the region, its largest market, to the lowest in at least 14 years. The shale boom also has transformed the flow of oil to Asia. South Korea received its first shipment of Alaskan crude in at least eight years as output from Texas and North Dakota displaces oil that fed U.S. refineries for years. The country was one of the first to receive a cargo of the ultralight U.S. crude known as condensate after export rules were eased.

Petrobras and partner operators are also shipping to Asia and were scheduled to load nine tankers bound for the region in March, according to Energy Aspects, as Latin American oil’s discount to Middle East benchmark Dubai widens to almost double the average of the past year. Asian-Pacific refiners are forecast to add 5.4 million barrels a day of capacity in the next five years, according to Gaffney, Cline & Associates, a petroleum consultant.

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“April is a crucial month for the industry because it’s when lenders are due to recalculate the value of properties that energy companies staked as loan collateral.” Calculations until now are stil based on $90 oil.

Reckoning Arrives for Cash-Strapped Oil Firms Amid Bank Squeeze (Bloomberg)

Lenders are preparing to cut the credit lines to a group of junk-rated shale oil companies by as much as 30% in the coming days, dealing another blow as they struggle with a slump in crude prices, according to people familiar with the matter.
Sabine Oil & Gas became one of the first companies to warn investors that it faces a cash shortage from a reduced credit line, saying Tuesday that it raises “substantial doubt” about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern. About 10 firms are having trouble finding backup financing, said the people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the information hasn’t been announced. April is a crucial month for the industry because it’s when lenders are due to recalculate the value of properties that energy companies staked as loan collateral.

With those assets in decline along with oil prices, banks are preparing to cut the amount they’re willing to lend. And that will only squeeze companies’ ability to produce more oil. “If they can’t drill, they can’t make money,” said Kristen Campana at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP’s finance and financial restructuring groups. “It’s a downward spiral.” Sabine, the Houston-based exploration and production company that merged with Forest Oil Corp. last year, told investors Tuesday that it’s at risk of defaulting on $2 billion of loans and other debt if its banks don’t grant a waiver. Publicly traded firms are required to disclose such news to investors within four business days, under U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules.

Some of the companies facing liquidity shortfalls will also disclose that they have fully drawn down their revolving credit lines like Sabine, according to one of the people. The credit discussions are ongoing and a number of banks may opt to be more lenient, giving companies more time to prepare for bigger cuts later in the year, the people said. Credit lines for some of the companies may be reduced by as little as 10%, they said. The companies are among speculative-grade energy producers that were able to load up on cheap debt as crude prices climbed above $100 a barrel. The borrowing limits are tied to reserves, the amount of oil and gas a company has in the ground that can profitably be extracted based on its land holdings. With oil prices plunging below $50 from last year’s peak of $107 in June, some are now fighting to survive.

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Commodities have been overvalued for a long time, due to crazy expectations for China growth.

Appalachia Miners Wiped Out by Coal Glut That They Can’t Reverse (Bloomberg)

Douglas Blackburn has been crawling in and out of the coal mines of Central Appalachia since he was a boy accompanying his father and grandfather some 50 years ago. The only time that Blackburn, now a coal industry consultant, remembers things being this bad was in the 1990s. Back then, he estimates, almost 40% of the region’s mines went bankrupt. “It’s a similar situation,” said Blackburn, who owns Blackacre, a Richmond, Va consulting firm. Now, like then, the principal problem is sinking coal prices. They’ve dropped 33% over the past four years to levels that have made most mining companies across the Appalachia mountain region unprofitable. To make matters worse, there’s little chance of a quick rebound in prices. That’s because idling a mine to cut output and stem losses isn’t an option for many companies.

The cost of doing so – even on a temporary basis – has become so prohibitive that it can put a miner out of business fast, Blackburn and other industry analysts say. So companies keep pulling coal out of the ground, opting to take a small, steady loss rather than one big writedown, in the hope that prices will bounce back. That, of course, is only adding to the supply glut in the U.S., the world’s second-biggest producer, and driving prices down further. It’s become, in essence, a trap for miners. “You have this really perverse situation where they keep producing,” James Stevenson at IHS said in a telephone interview. “You’re just shoveling coal into this market that’s oversupplied.” Companies will dig up at least 17 million tons more coal than power plants need this year, Morgan Stanley estimates. Coal is burned at the plants to generate electricity. That’s creating the latest fossil fuel glut in the U.S., joining oil and natural gas.

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I was just sent this. Don’t know enough about it, I must admit. The article suggests that prices are still 11% higher than 3 months ago. That would seem to mean they rose 20% or so in 2015. It doesn’t make much sense to me right now.

World Dairy Prices Slide 10.8% On Supply Concerns (NZ Herald)

International dairy prices continued to reverse gains made early this year at this morning’s GlobalDairyTrade (GDT) auction, putting downward pressure on Fonterra’s $4.70 a kg farmgate milk price forecast and raising concerns about next season’s likely payout. The GDT price index fell by 10.8% compared with the last sale a fortnight ago, when prices dropped by 8.8%. Big falls were recorded for the key products of wholemilk powder – down 13.3% to US$2,538 a tonne, skim milk powder – down 9.9% to US$2,467/tonne. Wholemilk prices are now just 11% higher than than they were by the end of 2014. ANZ rural economist Con Williams said that with milk powder making up the bulk of New Zealand’s product mix, the GDT result suggested a payout of $4.50-4.70 a kg this year.

The largest price falls at the auction were generally seen in the longer-dated contracts, up to 6 months out – into the new season. “While these prices remain higher than those for the end of this season, the curve has flattened, suggesting less price recovery is now anticipated – not boding well for next year’s payout,” Williams said. The fall comes as the New Zealand season enters its final phase, with about 80% of production now out of the way. Most of the price weakness was put down to better-than-expected supply, with the effects of this year’s drought being offset by rain in many parts of the country.

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Warren!

CFTC Charges Kraft, Mondelez With Manipulating Wheat Futures (MarketWatch)

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission on Wednesday charged Kraft Foods and Mondelez Global with manipulating wheat futures and cash wheat prices. The CFTC says that, in response to high cash wheat prices in summer 2011, the two companies developed and executed in early December 2011 a strategy to buy $90 million of wheat futures they didn’t intend on receiving. The companies expected the market would react to their “enormous” long position in futures by lowering cash prices, the CFTC said. They later earned more than $5.4 million in profits, according to the CFTC’s complaint. The agency says litigation is continuing against the companies and it is seeking disgorgement and civil monetary penalties.

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“3G, co-founded by Lemann, eliminated more than 7,000 Heinz jobs in 20 months..”

Brazil’s Richest Man May Reap $5.6 Billion in Kraft-Heinz Merger

Brazil’s richest man Jorge Paulo Lemann may add more than $5 billion to his personal fortune after ketchup maker H.J. Heinz merges with Kraft Foods. Heinz, controlled by Lemann’s 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, agreed last week to buy the macaroni-and-cheese maker Kraft in a cash-and-stock deal. Heinz’s 51% of the combined company will be worth about $45 billion, valuing Lemann’s stake at about $9.6 billion, said Kevin Dreyer, a portfolio manager at Gabelli Equity. Lemann has invested about $4 billion through 3G Capital, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“A combination of synergies from the deal and the sprinkling of the magic 3G dust is giving Kraft a higher valuation than it would otherwise have,” Dreyer said in a phone interview from New York. “3G has a track record of drastically expanding margins. There’s an expectation they’ll achieve the number they put in and then some.” 3G, co-founded by Lemann, eliminated more than 7,000 Heinz jobs in 20 months after taking the company over with Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett defended the job reductions his partners at 3G have taken when they buy businesses during a March 31 interview on CNBC.

The share price of Kraft, which surged 36% the day of the deal, can be used to estimate the future value of closely held Heinz, Dreyer said. His calculation takes into account the ketchup maker’s special dividend payment and assumes a market capitalization of about $87 billion for the new company. 3G owns 48% of Heinz, co-founder Alex Behring told reporters March 25. The buyout firm contributed $4.25 billion to Heinz in 2013 and another $4.8 billion in the Kraft deal. Lemann hasn’t disclosed his personal stake in Heinz. His investments in publicly traded companies show he tends to have a larger stake than Brazilian 3G partners Marcel Telles and Carlos Alberto Sicupira..

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Multiple currencies. Looks inevitable for Greece too.

The Cuban Money Crisis (Bloomberg)

The currency crisis starts about 75 feet into Cuba. I land in the late afternoon and, after clearing customs, step into the busy arrivals hall of Havana’s airport looking for help. I ask a woman in a gray, military-like uniform where I can change money. Follow me, she says. But she doesn’t turn left, toward the airport’s exchange kiosk. Called cadecas, these government-run currency shops are the only legal way, along with banks, to swap your foreign money for Cuba s tourist tender, the CUC. Instead, my guide turns right and only comes clean when we reach a quiet area at the top of an escalator. The official rate is 87 for a hundred, she whispers, meaning CUCs to dollars. I’m giving you 90. So it’s a good deal for you.

I want to convert $500, and she doesn’t blink an eye. Go in the men’s room and count your money out, she instructs. I’ll do the same in the ladies room. The bathroom is crowded, with not one but two staff and the usual traffic of an airport in the evening. There s no toilet paper. In an unlit stall I try counting to 25 while laying $20 bills on my knees. There’s an urgent knock, and under the door I see high heels. I’m still counting, I say. She’s back two minutes later and pushes her way into my stall. We trade stacks, count, and the tryst is over. For my $500, I get 450 CUCs, the currency that’s been required for the purchase of almost anything important in Cuba since 1994. CUCs aren’t paid to Cubans; islanders receive their wages in a different currency, the grubby national peso that features Che Guevara’s face, among others, but is worth just 1/25th as much as a CUC.

Issued in shades of citrus and berry, the CUC dollarized, tourist-friendly money has for 21 years been the key to a better life in Cuba, as well as a stinging reminder of the difference between the haves and the have-nots. But that’s about to change: Cuba is going to kill the CUC. Described as a matter of fairness by President Raul Castro, the end of the two-currency system is also the key to overhauling the uniquely incompetent and centrally planned chaos machine that is the Cuban economy.

Even in Cuba there are markets, and the effects of Castro’s October announcement of a five-step plan for phasing out the CUC are already rippling out to every wallet in the country. The government has issued notifications and price conversion charts, and introduced new, larger bills to supplement the low-value national peso. Over the next year, the CUC will be invalidated what Cuban economists call Day Zero and then, in steps four and five, the regular Cuban peso will become exchangeable and be floated against a basket of five currencies: the yuan, the euro, the U.S. dollar, and two others to be named later.

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But still in complete denial: “..the governor’s action won’t mean mandatory rationing for households.”

California Orders Mandatory Water Cuts Of 25% Amid Record Drought (WSJ)

California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered unprecedented mandatory water cuts across the Golden State after the latest measurements show the state’s mountain snowpack – which accounts for roughly a third of California’s water supply – has shrunk to a record low of 5% of normal for this time of year. The Democratic governor took the action on Wednesday after accompanying state surveyors into the Sierra Nevada mountains to manually verify electronic readings that show an average snow water equivalent of 1.4 inches, the lowest ever recorded on April 1. “Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” the governor said. “This historic drought demands unprecedented action.”

Gov. Brown directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions of 25%. Details on how the cuts would be implemented weren’t immediately released, although the governor said in his order that reductions would fall hardest in water districts that haven’t adequately followed his voluntary calls for conservation last year. According to monthly surveys of water use, conservation levels have varied widely around the state. In general, reductions have been lower in Southern California than the rest of the state, in part because of the region’s concentration of estate-sized lots homes and golf courses. A spokesman for the state water control board, which has already ordered limits in outdoor lawn watering, said the governor’s action won’t mean mandatory rationing for households.

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