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


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

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

What on earth happened to holiday sales?

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

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

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

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But but but indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What do they expect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“.. in the coming few weeks,”

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

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

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

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

Big Oil Cuts Back As Analysts Slash Forecasts (CNBC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So many projects will be shelved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECB Stimulus Already Priced Into Market (CNBC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany Gets Walloped By Its Own Austerity (Bloomberg)

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

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

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

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

Weak Capex Spending Spells Trouble For Japan (CNBC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Threat to the EU.

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

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

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

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

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They’ll be fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specter Of Fascist Past Haunts European Nationalism (Reuters)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec 192014
 
 December 19, 2014  Posted by at 11:21 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


John Vachon Trucks loaded with mattresses at San Angelo, Texas Nov 1939

Oil Crash Exposes New Risks for U.S. Shale Drillers (Bloomberg)
North Sea Oil Industry ‘Close To Collapse’ (BBC)
North Sea Oilfields ‘Near Collapse’ After Price Nosedive (Telegraph)
Exxon Mobil Shows Why U.S. Oil Output Rises as Prices Plunge (Bloomberg)
Central Banks Are Now Uncorking The Delirium Phase (David Stockman)
Dow’s 421-Point Leap Is Biggest Gain In 3 Years (MarketWatch)
Already Crummy US Economy Takes a Sudden Hit (WolfStreet)
The Fed Delivers the Message that Our Economy is Dead (Beversdorf)
Emerging Markets In Danger (Erico Matias Tavares)
China’s Short-Term Borrowing Costs Surge as Demand for Money Grows (WSJ)
PBOC Offers Loans to Banks as Money Rate Jumps Most in 11 Months (Bloomberg)
Russia May Seek China Help To Deal With Crisis (SCMP)
Draghi Counts Cost of Outflanking Germany in Stimulus Battle (Bloomberg)
Federal Reserve Delays Parts Of Volcker Rule Until 2017 (BBC)
“Neoconica” – America For The New Millennium (Thad Beversdorf)
Bombs Away! Obama Signs Bill For Lethal Aid To Ukraine (Daniel McAdams)
US TV Shows American Torturers, But Not Their Victims (Glenn Greenwald)
Pope Francis Scores on Diplomatic Stage With U.S.-Cuba Agreement (Bloomberg)
Can You Live A Normal Life With Half A Brain? (BBC)

“It’s just the nature of the business. You’re not going to go drill holes in the ground if you think prices are going down.”

Oil Crash Exposes New Risks for U.S. Shale Drillers (Bloomberg)

Tumbling oil prices have exposed a weakness in the insurance that some U.S. shale drillers bought to protect themselves against a crash. At least six companies, including Pioneer Natural Resources and Noble Energy, used a strategy known as a three-way collar that doesn’t guarantee a minimum price if crude falls below a certain level, according to company filings. While three-ways can be cheaper than other hedges, they can leave drillers exposed to steep declines. “Producers are inherently bullish,” said Mike Corley, the founder of Mercatus Energy Advisors, a Houston-based firm that advises companies on hedging strategies. “It’s just the nature of the business. You’re not going to go drill holes in the ground if you think prices are going down.”

The three-way hedges risk exacerbating a cash squeeze for companies trying to cope with the biggest plunge in oil prices this decade. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, dropped 50% since June amid a worldwide glut. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided Nov. 27 to hold production steady as the 12-member group competes for market share against U.S. shale drillers that have pushed domestic output to the highest since at least 1983. Shares of oil companies are also dropping, with a 49% decline in the 76-member Bloomberg Intelligence North America E&P Valuation Peers index from this year’s peak in June. The drilling had been driven by high oil prices and low-cost financing. Companies spent $1.30 for every dollar earned selling oil and gas in the third quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on 56 of the U.S.-listed companies in the E&P index.

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450,000 people work in Britain’s oil industry.

North Sea Oil Industry ‘Close To Collapse’ (BBC)

The UK’s oil industry is in “crisis” as prices drop, a senior industry leader has told the BBC. Oil companies and service providers are cutting staff and investment to save money. Robin Allan, chairman of the independent explorers’ association Brindex, told the BBC that the industry was “close to collapse”. Almost no new projects in the North Sea are profitable with oil below $60 a barrel, he claims. “It’s almost impossible to make money at these oil prices”, Mr Allan, who is a director of Premier Oil in addition to chairing Brindex, told the BBC. “It’s a huge crisis.” “This has happened before, and the industry adapts, but the adaptation is one of slashing people, slashing projects and reducing costs wherever possible, and that’s painful for our staff, painful for companies and painful for the country. “It’s close to collapse. In terms of new investments – there will be none, everyone is retreating, people are being laid off at most companies this week and in the coming weeks. Budgets for 2015 are being cut by everyone.”

Mr Allan said many of the job cuts across the industry would not have been publicly announced. Oil workers are often employed as contractors, which are easier for employers to cut. His remarks echo comments made by the veteran oil man and government adviser Sir Ian Wood, who last week predicted a wave of job losses in the North Sea over the next 18 months. The US-based oil giant ConocoPhillips is cutting 230 out of 1,650 jobs in the UK. This month it announced a 20% reduction in its worldwide capital expenditure budget, in response to falling oil prices. Other big oil firms are expected to make similar cuts to their drilling and exploration budgets. Research from the investment bank Goldman Sachs predicted that they would need to cut capital expenditure by 30% to restore their profitability at current prices. Service providers to the industry have also been hit. Texas-based oilfield services company Schlumberger cut back its UK-based fleet of geological survey ships in December, taking an $800m loss and cutting an unspecified number of jobs.

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“The prolongation of the downward trend of the oil price in world markets is a political conspiracy going to extremes.”

North Sea Oilfields ‘Near Collapse’ After Price Nosedive (Telegraph)

The North Sea oil industry is “close to collapse”, an expert has warned, as a slump in prices piles pressure on drillers to cut back investing in the region. Robin Allan, chairman of the independent explorers’ association Brindex, told the BBC that it is “almost impossible to make money” with the oil price below $60 per barrel. “It’s a huge crisis. This has happened before, and the industry adapts, but the adaptation is one of slashing people, slashing projects and reducing costs,” he said. Mr Allan’s glum outlook for oil production and exploration in the UK Continental Shelf came on a volatile day of trading for crude. Brent – a global pricing benchmark comprising crude from 15 North Sea fields – ended trading in London down 1% at around $60 per barrel after trading up by as much as 3% earlier in the session. Mr Allan’s warning comes after The Telegraph reported that £55bn worth of oil projects in the North Sea and Europe could be cancelled due to the current slide in prices, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

Concern over the ability of the North Sea to endure the current downturn has increased since OPEC decided to keep pumping at its current rate of 30m barrels per day (bpd) in late November. Opec kingpins Saudi Arabia and Iran were at odds on Thursday over the reason behind falling prices in an indication of the pain being caused to many of the cartel’s 12 members. Iran’s oil minister has said that a “political conspiracy” is to blame for the dramatic slump in remarks which could signal that the Islamic Republic will try to exert pressure on Opec to again consider cutting output. Bijan Zanganeh told the country’s state petroleum news agency: “The prolongation of the downward trend of the oil price in world markets is a political conspiracy going to extremes.”

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“Companies that are already producing oil will continue to operate those wells because the cost of drilling them is already sunk into the ground ..”

Exxon Mobil Shows Why U.S. Oil Output Rises as Prices Plunge (Bloomberg)

Crude oil production from U.S. wells is poised to approach a 42-year record next year as drillers ignore the recent decline in price pointing them in the opposite direction. U.S. energy producers plan to pump more crude in 2015 as declining equipment costs and enhanced drilling techniques more than offset the collapse in oil markets, said Troy Eckard, whose Eckard Global owns stakes in more than 260 North Dakota shale wells. Oil companies, while trimming 2015 budgets to cope with the lowest crude prices in five years, are also shifting their focus to their most-prolific, lowest-cost fields, which means extracting more oil with fewer drilling rigs, said Goldman Sachs. Global giant Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. energy company, will increase oil production next year by the biggest margin since 2010.

So far, OPEC’s month-old bet that American drillers would be crushed by cratering prices has been a bust. “Companies that are already producing oil will continue to operate those wells because the cost of drilling them is already sunk into the ground,” said Timothy Rudderow, who manages $1.5 billion as chief investment officer at Mount Lucas Management. “But I wouldn’t want to have to be making long-term production decisions with this kind of volatility.” A U.S. crude bonanza that has handed consumers the cheapest gasoline since 2009 has left oil exporters like Russia and Venezuela flirting with economic chaos. The ruble sank as much as 19% on Dec. 16 to a record low of 80 per dollar before recovering to close at 68; Russian bond and equity markets also crumbled.

In Venezuela, the oil rout is spurring concern the country is running out of dollars needed to pay debt and swaps traders are almost certain default is imminent. U.S. oil production is set to reach 9.42 million barrels a day in May, which would be the highest monthly average since November 1972, according to the Energy Department’s statistical arm. Output from shale formations, deep-water fields, the Alaskan wilderness and land-based wells in pockets of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania that have been trickling out crude for decades already have pushed demand for imported oil to the lowest since at least 1995, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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“The essence of its action was that your money is not welcome in Switzerland ..”

Central Banks Are Now Uncorking The Delirium Phase (David Stockman)

Virtually every day there is an eruption of lunacy from one central bank or another somewhere in the world. Today it was the Swiss central bank’s turn, and it didn’t pull any punches with regard to Russian billionaires seeking a safe haven from the ruble-rubble in Moscow or investors from all around its borders fleeing Mario Draghi’s impending euro-trashing campaign. The essence of its action was that your money is not welcome in Switzerland; and if you do bring it, we will extract a rental payment from your deposits. For the time being, that levy amounts to a negative 25 bps on deposits with the Swiss Central bank – a maneuver that is designed to drive Swiss Libor into the realm of negative interest rates as well. But the more significant implication is that the Swiss are prepared to print endless amounts of their own currency to enforce this utterly unnatural edict on savers and depositors within its borders.

Yes, the once and former pillar of monetary rectitude, the SNB, has gone all-in for money printing. Indeed, it now aims to become the BOJ on steroids – a monetary Godzilla. So its current plunge into the netherworld of negative interest rates is nothing new. It’s just the next step in its long-standing campaign to put a floor under the Swiss Franc at 120. That means effectively that it stands ready to print enough francs to purchase any and all euros (and other currencies) on offer without limit. And print it has. During the last 80 months, the SNB’s balance sheet has soared from 100B CHF to 530B CHF – a 5X explosion that would make Bernanke envious. Better still, a balance sheet which stood at 20% of Swiss GDP in early 2008 – now towers at a world record 80% of the alpine nation’s total output. Kuroda-san, with a balance sheet at 50% of Japan’s GDP, can only pine for the efficiency of the SNB’s printing presses.

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Are they all going to sell in January?

Dow’s 421-Point Leap Is Biggest Gain In 3 Years (MarketWatch)

A surging U.S. stock market rallied to its best two-day gains in three years Thursday. The monster rally, which kicked off Wednesday after Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen assured the markets that the central bank would be patient about lifting interest rate, burst into an all-out bull run late in Thursday trading. The move caps a two-day charge higher, bringing the Dow back to within shouting distance of 18,0000, after rocky trading days. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 421 points, or 2.4%, to 17,778.15, its biggest one-day gain in three years, a day after the Federal Reserve said it “can be patient” about the timing of its first rate hike, signalling increases will be slow and steady. It was the first time in more than six years since the Dow recorded back-to-back days of gains exceeding 200 points.

The S&P 500 jumped 48.34 points, or 2.4%, to 2,061.23, it’s biggest one-day gain in nearly two years. It is also the first time since Aug 2002 that the benchmark index posted two consecutive days of gains greater than 2%, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. The Nasdaq Composite jumped 104 points, or 2.2%, to 4,748, as technology companies recorded big gains. Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. market strategist at RBC Capital Markets, attributed today’s rally to halo effect from the Fed’s announcement on Wednesday. “The Fed told equity investors what we already assumed and believed,” Golub said. “There was fear that if there was going to be any change in the stance, it would be towards hawkishness, but the statement dispelled that, so stock markets rallied,” the RBC strategist added.

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Can we have some polar vortex please?

Already Crummy US Economy Takes a Sudden Hit (WolfStreet)

The Fed yesterday, in a fit of its typical though inexplicable optimism, raised its projection for economic growth. In September, it had projected that the US economy would grow between 2.0% and 2.2% in 2014. Now it raised its “central tendency” to a growth of 2.3% to 2.4%. That type of measly economic growth is far below the ever elusive escape velocity that Wall Street keeps promising without fail every year to justify sky-high stock valuations. But now reality is once again mucking up our already not very rosy scenarios. The service sector, the dominant force in the US economy, has taken another hit. Markit’s Services PMI Business Activity index slumped in December to 53.6, down from 56.2 in November. It’s now nearly 3 percentage points below the average over the last two years (56.4). And it is barely above the terrible growth rate in February (53.3), for which the polar vortex that had covered much of the nation was amply blamed.

Here is a chart of the shrinking services PMI. The peak was in June. From that point of maximum exuberance, it has been one heck of a downhill ride. Note the sudden no-polar-vortex plunge from November to December.

This time, there were no polar vortices to blame. But there were plenty of business reasons. Incoming new work was the lowest in nine months, with some survey respondents indicating that “the economic outlook had weighted on client demand at the end of the year.” The rate of job creation dropped to the lowest since April, with some respondents citing softer new business as reason. The Composite PMI, which combines the Services PMI and the Manufacturing PMI, dropped sharply from 56.1 in November to 53.8 in December. It has been on the same trajectory as the Services PMI, with the peak in June, followed by a downhill ride that culminated in a sudden plunge in December that left it below February’s polar-vortex low!

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“.. if you read some of Stanley Fischer’s early work on the rational expectation model you find that the key to fixing the lack of long term effectiveness to monetary policy is by confusing the working man. The idea being, people will act rationally with the information they are provided and so what typically happens is that people change their behaviour which counters the impact of the policy being implemented.

The Fed Delivers the Message that Our Economy is Dead (Beversdorf)

I used to get a kick out of the cute little children waiting for the Fed Chair to come and deliver presents or coal. So giddy and excited from the anticipation of not knowing who Janet thinks were good boys and girls. Who’s going to be rewarded and who disappointed? And I don’t know how many people asked me today what the Fed will do. My answer was “The same [email protected]#*ing thing they always do, nothing. So stop asking”. You see, if you read some of Stanley Fischer’s early work on the rational expectation model you find that the key to fixing the lack of long term effectiveness to monetary policy is by confusing the working man. The idea being, people will act rationally with the information they are provided and so what typically happens is that people change their behaviour which counters the impact of the policy being implemented.

The solution is to keep us guessing. And so what they have done for essentially every meeting is nothing. However, they use the media to talk about all the things they just might do. And the pundits on television go on and on about all the things that might happen and what the follow on implications will be given those alternatives and then the moment comes and ahhh nothing, damn they fooled me again! I really thought this time was it gosh golly dang it!. I guess it was just that this or that was just slightly out of place otherwise they said they were totally gonna do this or that. So close, but ultimately they are right. Yep they made the right choice based on all the variables. They are just swell. At this point, I just get annoyed with the ridiculous foolishness of people. We’ve got to start using our own brains. The Fed stopped using any benchmarks because while the benchmarks were improving, the economy wasn’t and isn’t.

And so they were being railroaded by the transparency that benchmarks provide. And now it is just a black box of various indicators that will be analyzed in real time to form justifiable actions, far too complex for you and I but trust them that there is a definite method and it’s very quantifiable at that, they just can’t tell us what it is because it would just confuse everyone. Does anyone really not get it?? I mean I was under the impression that the pundits on television were just acting for the sake of good drama. Is that not the case? Are people really still confused by what’s happening in the market and broader economy? It’s been 6 years of the absolute same bullshit. How could anyone not clearly understand exactly what is behind the action or non action of the Fed??? Come on people wake up. Take a deep breath, grab some coffee, do whatever you need to do but please wake the hell up.

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They’re all addicted to Fed QE. But that’s gone, and there’s no alternative available.

Emerging Markets In Danger (Erico Matias Tavares)

There are some signs of trouble in emerging markets. And the money at risk now is bigger than ever. The yield spread between high grade emerging markets and US AAA-rated corporate debt has jumped, almost doubling in less than three weeks to the highest level since mid-2012.


MSCI Emerging Markets Index and Yield Spread between High Grade Emerging Markets and US AAA Corporates: 14 March 2003 – Today. Source: US Federal Reserve.

This means that the best credit names in emerging markets have to pay a bigger premium over their US counterparts to get funding. When this spread spikes up and continues above its 200-day moving average for a sustained period of time, it is typically a bad sign for equity valuations in emerging markets, as shown in the graph above. One swallow does not a summer make, but it is worthwhile keeping an eye on this indicator.

As yields go up the value of these emerging market bonds goes down, resulting in losses for the investors holding them. The surge of the US dollar in recent months could magnify these losses: if the bonds are denominated in local currency they will be worth a lot less to US investors; otherwise, the borrowers will now have to work a lot harder to repay those US dollar debts, increasing their credit risk. Any losses could end up being very significant this time around, as demand for emerging markets bonds has literally exploded in recent years.


Average Annual Gross Debt Issuance ($ billions, percent): 2000 – Today. Source: Dealogic, US Treasury. Note: Data include private placements and publicly-issued bonds. 2014 data are through August 2014 and annualized.

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The craze in China stocks makes money scarce…

China’s Short-Term Borrowing Costs Surge as Demand for Money Grows (WSJ)

Short-term borrowing costs in China soared Thursday as demand for cash surged due to a number of new stock offerings and the year-end shopping spree. A recent ruling that bans the use of lower-grade corporate bonds as collateral for loans, once a key source of funding for many institutional investors, has also intensified the scramble for funds. The cash squeeze is putting the country’s financial system under renewed stress, though so far it hasn’t spread to other sectors such as stocks or the bond markets. The money markets in China have grown dramatically in recent years, with smaller banks especially vulnerable to the higher borrowing costs as they’re most reliant on the interbank market for cash.

The weighted average of seven-day repurchase agreements, or repo, a benchmark for short-term funding costs in China’s money market, rose to 5.27% from 3.89% Wednesday and 3.53% at the beginning of this week. However, the level remains well below the 12% peak that it touched at the height of the unprecedented cash crunch that China suffered in the summer of 2013. “The u%oming IPOs is the most important reason behind today’s funding squeeze. The usual year-end thirst for cash also is also playing a part,” said Wang Ming, a partner at Shanghai Yaozhi Asset Management Co. A dozen companies, including broker Guosen Securities and budget carrier Spring Airlines, are raising a total of $2.2 billion over the next few weeks from domestic stock listings. They are set to take orders for their offerings between Dec. 18 and Dec. 23.

Investors’ enthusiasm about the new IPOs was even more evident in the smaller funding market on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the bigger of China’s two exchanges. The weighted average of the seven-day repo on the Shanghai market, where investors use exchange-listed bonds as collateral for short-term borrowing, soared to 12.20% from 10.60% Wednesday. It stood at 6.80% Monday. Such one-off factors aside, the recent strong rally in China’s stock market and a fresh move by Beijing to rein in growing risk in the corporate bond market are having a more lasting impact on the supply of funds, Mr. Wang said. China’s securities clearing house last week banned the use of lower-grade bonds, mostly issued by cash-strapped local governments and small firms, as collateral for short-term borrowing between investors.

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And banks feel the pinch.

PBOC Offers Loans to Banks as Money Rate Jumps Most in 11 Months (Bloomberg)

China’s central bank offered short-term loans to commercial lenders as the benchmark money-market rate jumped the most in 11 months. The amount of money made available by the People’s Bank of China wasn’t clear, according to people familiar with the matter. Policy makers are adding funds to the financial system to address a cash crunch as subscriptions for the biggest new share sales of the year lock up funds. Twelve initial public offerings from today through Dec. 25 will draw orders of as much as 3 trillion yuan ($483 billion), Shenyin & Wanguo Securities Co. estimated. The seven-day repurchase rate, a gauge of interbank funding availability in the banking system, surged 139 basis points, or 1.39%age points, to a 10-month high of 5.28% as of 4:39 p.m. in Shanghai, according to a weighted average compiled by the National Interbank Funding Center. The increase was the biggest since Jan. 20.

“The IPOs are affecting the market, leading to cautious sentiment with fewer institutions willing to lend,” said Li Haitao, a Shanghai-based analyst at China Guangfa Bank Co. “Quite a few traders found it very difficult to meet their funding needs yesterday.” Lenders paid 4.65% for 60 billion yuan of three-month treasury deposits auctioned today by the PBOC, the most they’ve paid since January for such funds. The central bank also rolled over this week at least some of the 500 billion yuan of three-month loans granted to lenders in September, a government official said yesterday, declining to be identified as the details haven’t been made public. “Banks have to prepare for quarter-end regulatory checks, including loan-to-deposit requirements, and hoard cash to meet year-end demand,” said Wang Ming, chief operations officer at Shanghai Yaozhi Asset Management LLP, which oversees 2 billion yuan of fixed-income investments. “With all these factors affecting the market, it’s no surprise it’s suffering more than during previous IPOs.”

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Eastern links will get much stronger as a result of western policies vs Russia.

Russia May Seek China Help To Deal With Crisis (SCMP)

Russia could fall back on its 150 billion yuan (HK$189.8 billion) currency swap agreement with China if the rouble continues to plunge. If the swap deal is activated for this purpose, it would mark the first time China is called upon to use its currency to bail out another currency in crisis. The deal was signed by the two central banks in October, when Premier Li Keqiang visited Russia. “Russia badly needs liquidity support and the swap line could be an ideal tool,” said Bank of Communications chief economist Lian Ping. The swap allows the central banks to directly buy yuan and rouble in the two currencies, rather than via the US dollar. Two bankers close to the People’s Bank of China said it was meant to reduce the role of the US dollar if China and Russia need to help each other overcome a liquidity squeeze.

China has currency swap deals with more than 20 monetary authorities around the world. Swaps are generally used to settle trade. “The yuan-rouble swap deal was not just a financial matter,” said Wang Feng, chairman of Shanghai-based private equity group Yinshu Capital. “It has political implications as it is a sign of mutual trust.” The rouble has lost more than 50% against the US dollar this year, pushing Russia to the brink of a currency crisis, though measures announced by the central bank helped it recover some ground yesterday. Li Lifan, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the swap would not be enough for Russia even if it is used in its entirety. “The PBOC might agree to extend something like 15 billion yuan initially as a way of showing China’s commitment to Russia.”

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How to blow up the EU.

Draghi Counts Cost of Outflanking Germany in Stimulus Battle (Bloomberg)

As Mario Draghi prepares to push the European Central Bank into quantitative easing, he’s counting the cost of alienating its home nation. With the ECB president signaling that he’ll override German-led concerns on government bond purchases if needed, his institution is under attack in the country whose DNA inspired it. The outrage reflects concern that the Frankfurt-based central bank, which is modeled on the Bundesbank, is taking risks that its forerunner would never tolerate. The Italian is now pursuing a charm offensive in the euro area’s biggest and most populous economy before the Governing Council’s Jan. 22 meeting to soften the blow as he presses on with stimulus. His challenge is to outflank the Bundesbank without risking a spillover into national politics serious enough to threaten German support for the single currency.

“The ECB has built up enough credibility on its own,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London. “That the Bundesbank may object to sovereign-bond purchases is largely taken for granted by markets. Tacit support from Berlin would neutralize Bundesbank objections in the German public debate.” The momentum toward QE is building, with more than 90% of economists in Bloomberg’s monthly survey predicting it’ll start in 2015. Euro-area inflation was 0.3% in November, compared with the ECB’s goal of just under 2%, and is poised to turn negative because of a slump in oil prices.

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“The rule prevents federally-insured banks from using their own money when investing in certain risky assets.”

Federal Reserve Delays Parts Of Volcker Rule Until 2017 (BBC)

The US Federal Reserve has given Wall Street banks even more time to comply with parts of the Volcker Rule, a key provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The rule prevents federally-insured banks from using their own money when investing in certain risky assets. The Fed had already announced banks would have until 2017 to deal with one type of trading product. It will now grant an extension to other types of funds. Initially, the Fed had said banks would have until 21 July 2017 to stop trading in collateralised loan obligations, which essentially move the risk of investments in loans off their balance sheet. The new extension applies to other types of “legacy covered funds”, according to a release on the Fed’s website, which include “having certain relationships with a hedge fund or private equity fund”.

The Volcker rule is named after former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker and it limits the ownership stake banks can have in risky funds to a maximum of 3%. Part of the rule, which bans proprietary trading, is still scheduled to go into effect on 1 July 2015. This is the second big victory for banks, who have spent nearly four years arguing that the regulations stipulated in the 1,600-page Dodd-Frank bill are too onerous. Last week, a coalition of big banks, led by Citigroup, succeeding in convincing Congress to repeal a provision that required banks to put their riskier investments into separate holding companies that would not be insured by the US government.

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An exhaustive overview, with tons of graphs, of all aspects of the true state of the union, from obesity to poverty to incarceration rates. Don’t miss it.

“Neoconica” – America For The New Millennium (Thad Beversdorf)

I recently wrote an piece on the comprehensive breakdown of America. In it I laid out, from an analytical perspective, the things that are leading America to an economic collapse. But it might be interesting to take a look at a broader view of American life today. Policy and economic discussions are useful but in them we can lose the tangibility of what it all comes back to, which is the well being of Americans. Whether or not the national budget is 190% of GDP and whether interest rates will rise or not are important issues but only so far as they will impact the quality of life of the people. And so let s have a look at the lives of the American people. Have the policies over the past 15 to 50 years led to substantial improvements in the day to day real lives of Americans? Let’s have a look. And while we ve seen a couple of these more economic charts think about them in context of the other charts or other sides of life.

The above charts inform us that the bottom 80% of income households are making less than they did in the early 1980s, and remember the number of two income households today is far greater than it was in 1980 making this a staggering reality. However the top 20% and especially the top 1% have seen incredible income gains since the early 1980s. Total net worth for the bottom 80% of Americans has also been crushed. Since 2001 median net worth for the bottom 80% is down some 30% and this is during a period where stocks have reached all time highs. How could this be you ask?? Well this is not happenstance or simple unexplainable market forces. Those things do not exist in today s world. These results are by design.

I get frustrated hearing, even from the most intelligent of people that the Fed is doing its best and that given enough time this will work out for everyone. And that everyone is better off today than they used to be because this is America and that s just the way America works. But when we let the empirical data drive our perspective rather than our blind loyalty we see a very different story. The data tells a story of a political class that has been implementing programs and policies that are making the working class sick. We are given all sorts of medicines in the form of social programs and infinite debt to mask the symptoms but when we look at the actual medical test results we are not getting any better. In fact, our condition continues to worsen. Yet so many of us continue to listen to our political and economic shamans. We have such faith. And it is that faith that people like Ayn Rand recognized would be the death of America. So let’s continue on our journey through the life of the working class American today.

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“The solution for these three Members was to ensure that no other Members were present. It would have been difficult for other Members to object anyway, as no one else in the House had even seen the bill!”

Bombs Away! Obama Signs Bill For Lethal Aid To Ukraine (Daniel McAdams)

President Obama made good today on his promise to sign the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which had passed Congress last week. Dubbed by former Rep. Dennis Kucinich the bill that “reignited the Cold War while no one was looking,” the Act imposes new sanctions on the Russian defense and energy industries, authorizes $350 million in lethal military assistance to the US-backed government in Kiev, urges that government to resume its deadly military operations against the Russian-speaking areas of east Ukraine seeking to break away from Kiev’s rule, and authorizes millions of dollars to fund increased US government propaganda broadcasts to the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Just days before Christmas, this bill is a massive gift to the US defense industry from which Ukraine will be required to purchase its lethal wish list. Perhaps as disturbing as the bill itself is the shocking process by which it passed the US House of Representatives. Three Members of the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), planned to be on the House Floor after the business of the day (passage of the massive omnibus spending bill) was completed and Members had left the Floor. Under a parliamentary move called “unanimous consent” the normal rules of the House can be suspended provided not a single other Member objects. The solution for these three Members was to ensure that no other Members were present. It would have been difficult for other Members to object anyway, as no one else in the House had even seen the bill!

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“Even in the worst of times, ‘we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.’”

US TV Shows American Torturers, But Not Their Victims (Glenn Greenwald)

Ever since the torture report was released last week, U.S. television outlets have endlessly featured American torturers and torture proponents. But there was one group that was almost never heard from: the victims of their torture, not even the ones recognized by the U.S. Government itself as innocent, not even the family members of the ones they tortured to death. Whether by design (most likely) or effect, this inexcusable omission radically distorts coverage. Whenever America is forced to confront its heinous acts, the central strategy is to disappear the victims, render them invisible. That’s what robs them of their humanity: it’s the process of dehumanization.

That, in turn, is what enables American elites first to support atrocities, and then, when forced to reckon with them, tell themselves that – despite some isolated and well-intentioned bad acts – they are still really good, elevated, noble, admirable people. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this morning found that a large majority of Americans believe torture is justified even when you call it “torture.” Not having to think about actual human victims makes it easy to justify any sort of crime. That’s the process by which the reliably repellent Tom Friedman seized on the torture report to celebrate America’s unique greatness.

“We are a beacon of opportunity and freedom, and also [..] these foreigners know in their bones that we do things differently from other big powers in history,” the beloved-by-DC columnist wrote after reading about forced rectal feeding and freezing detainees to death. For the opinion-making class, even America’s savage torture is proof of its superiority and inherent Goodness: “this act of self-examination is not only what keeps our society as a whole healthy, it’s what keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with and immigrate to.” Friedman, who himself unleashed one of the most (literally) psychotic defenses of the Iraq War, ended his torture discussion by approvingly quoting John McCain on America’s enduring moral superiority: “Even in the worst of times, ‘we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.’”

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“The Vatican is historically a place of politics and not just religion and has been for hundreds of years, with many popes starting their careers as diplomats for the Holy See ..”

Pope Francis Scores on Diplomatic Stage With U.S.-Cuba Agreement (Bloomberg)

After misfires in the Middle East and South Korea, Pope Francis is finding his place on the stage of world diplomacy — by taking the initiative. The pontiff who has made his name mostly by opening up debate in the Catholic Church about divorce and homosexuality yesterday achieved his first geopolitical success: The Argentine-born pope played a key role in brokering the accord between the U.S. and Cuba to move toward normal relations. After Pope Francis and President Barack Obama discussed Cuba during a Vatican meeting in March, the pontiff wrote directly to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro urging them to conclude a prisoner exchange, according to an Obama administration official. It was the first such letter the president had received from the pope, the official said.

“The role of Pope Francis has been decisive,” said Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin on Vatican Radio today. “He was the one who took the initiative of writing to the two presidents to invite them to overcome the problems between the two countries and find an agreement.” Francis, 78, had greater success with Cuba than in his other political ventures because it was an obsolescent standoff waiting for a solution and because of his Latin American roots, said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “The Cuba situation simply made no sense to anyone anymore,” said Moreau-Defarges.

While the Vatican diplomatic corps exchanges representatives with 179 countries and popes have been sending emissaries since the 4th century, modern-day pontiffs haven’t always been politically involved. Benedict XVI, Francis’ German predecessor, focused more on doctrinal issues. His predecessor, John Paul II, pope from 1978 to 2005, spoke out frequently against military force and dictatorship and is credited with hastening the collapse of communism in his native Poland. “The Vatican is historically a place of politics and not just religion and has been for hundreds of years, with many popes starting their careers as diplomats for the Holy See,” said Federico Niglia, a history professor at Luiss University in Rome. “What’s somewhat unusual is Francis acting in person beyond diplomatic circles, which has close parallels to the style of predecessor John Paul II.”

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Brain structures are fascinating, with built-in resilience, redundancy.

Can You Live A Normal Life With Half A Brain? (BBC)

How much of our brain do we actually need? A number of stories have appeared in the news in recent months about people with chunks of their brains missing or damaged. These cases tell a story about the mind that goes deeper than their initial shock factor. It isn’t just that we don’t understand how the brain works, but that we may be thinking about it in the entirely wrong way. Earlier this year, a case was reported of a woman who is missing her cerebellum, a distinct structure found at the back of the brain. By some estimates the human cerebellum contains half the brain cells you have. This isn’t just brain damage – the whole structure is absent. Yet this woman lives a normal life; she graduated from school, got married and had a kid following an uneventful pregnancy and birth. A pretty standard biography for a 24-year-old. The woman wasn’t completely unaffected – she had suffered from uncertain, clumsy, movements her whole life.

But the surprise is how she moves at all, missing a part of the brain that is so fundamental it evolved with the first vertebrates. The sharks that swam when dinosaurs walked the Earth had cerebellums. This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum. Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour. This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum.

Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour. Part of the problem may be our way of thinking. It is natural to see the brain as a piece of naturally selected technology, and in human technology there is often a one-to-one mapping between structure and function. If I have a toaster, the heat is provided by the heating element, the time is controlled by the timer and the popping up is driven by a spring. The case of the missing cerebellum reveals there is no such simple scheme for the brain. Although we love to talk about the brain region for vision, for hunger or for love, there are no such brain regions, because the brain isn’t technology where any function is governed by just one part.

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