Jack Delano Jewish stores in Colchester, Connecticut 1940
“..the Wall Street brokers’ explanation for AMZN’s $250 billion of bottled air is actually proof positive that the casino has become unhinged.”
Right. Amazon is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Like millions of others, I use it practically every day. And it was nice to see that it made a profit -thin as it was at 0.4% of sales- in the second quarter. But the instantaneous re-rating of its market cap by $40 billion in the seconds after its earnings release had nothing to do with Amazon or the considerable entrepreneurial prowess of Jeff Bezos and his army of disrupters. It was more in the nature of financial rigor mortis – the final spasm of the robo-traders and the fast money crowd chasing one of the greatest bubbles still standing in the casino. And, yes, Amazon’s $250 billion market cap is an out and out bubble. Notwithstanding all the “good things it brings to life” daily, it is not the present day incarnation of General Electric of the 1950s, and for one blindingly obvious reason.
It has never made a profit beyond occasional quarterly chump change. And, what’s more, Bezos -arguably the most maniacal empire builder since Genghis Khan- apparently has no plan to ever make one. To be sure, in these waning days of the third great central bank enabled bubble of this century, GAAP net income is a decidedly quaint concept. In the casino it’s all about beanstalks which grow to the sky and sell-side gobbledygook. Here’s how one of Silicon Valley’s most unabashed circus barkers, Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster, explains it: “Next Steps For AWS… SaaS Applications? We believe AWS has an opportunity to move up the cloud stack to applications and leverage its existing base of AWS IaaS/PaaS 1M + users. AWS dipped its toes into the SaaS pool earlier this year when it expanded its offerings to include an email management program and we believe it will continue to extend its expertise to other offerings. We do not believe that this optionality is baked into investors’ outlook for AWS.”
Got that? Instead, better try this. AMZN’s operating free cash flow in Q2 was $621 million -representing an annualized run rate right in line with its LTM figure of $2.35 billion. So that means there was no cash flow acceleration this quarter, and that AMZN is being valued at, well, 109X free cash flow! Moreover, neither its Q2 or LTM figure is some kind of downside aberration. The fact is, Amazon is one of the greatest cash burn machines ever invented. It’s not a start-up; it’s 25 years old. And it has never, ever generated any material free cash flow – notwithstanding its $96 billion of LTM sales. During CY 2014, for example, free cash flow was just $1.8 billion and it clocked in at an equally thin $1.2 billion the year before that.
In fact, beginning with net revenues of just $8.5 billion in 2005 it has since ramped its sales by 12X, meaning that during the last ten and one-half years it has booked $431 billion in sales. But its cumulative operating free cash flow over that same period was just $6 billion or 1.4% of its turnover. So, no, Amazon is not a profit-making enterprise in any meaningful sense of the word and its stock price measures nothing more than the raging speculative juices in the casino. In an honest free market, real investors would never give a quarter trillion dollar valuation to a business that refuses to make a profit, never pays a dividend and is a one-percenter at best in the free cash flow department -that is, in the very thing that capitalist enterprises are born to produce. Indeed, the Wall Street brokers’ explanation for AMZN’s $250 billion of bottled air is actually proof positive that the casino has become unhinged.
We may hope so.
A pre-revolutionary fervour is sweeping Europe. “The atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience”. These were the words of European council president Donald Tusk, 48 hours after Greece’s paymasters imposed the most punishing bail-out measures ever forced on a debtor nation in the eurozone’s 15-year history. A former Polish prime minister and a politician not prone to hyperbole, Tusk’s comments revealed Brussels’ fears of a bubbling rebellion across the continent. “When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions” said Tusk. “I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion”.
His unease reflects a widespread conviction that Europe’s elites had no choice but to make an example out of Greece. Alexis Tsipras was forced to submit to a deal that punished his government’s insolence, so the argument goes, and destroy the fantasy that a “new eurozone” could be forged for the economies of the southern Mediterranean. Having emerged from the talks, Tusk declared victory, dismissing the “radical leftist illusion that you can build some alternative to this traditional European vision of the economy.” Syriza’s unprecedented rise to power in January marked a watershed in post-crisis Europe, hitherto dominated by conservative-leaning governments from Portugal to Finland.
The first radical-Left regime in Europe’s post-war history, Syriza vowed to tear up the Troika’s austerity contract, forge a Mediterranean alliance against the dominant creditor-bloc, and transform the terms of Greece’s euro membership. Seven months later, these dreams are in tatters. A tortuous 30-hour weekend in Brussels led to Tsipras capitulating to austerity terms more egregious than any negotiated by Greece’s previous centre-right and Socialist governments. Greek assets will now be sequestered into a private fund to pay off debts, external monitors will return to the country, and everything from the price of milk and bakery bread will be subject to Brussels’ scrutiny. “Syriza was the big Leftist experiment and it has gone disastrously wrong in a short period of time,” says Luke March, author of Radical Left Parties in Europe and lecturer at Edinburgh University.
“The Left elsewhere are now being forced to take stock and say “we are not Greece””. But the shadow of 1968 – a year when Europe was gripped by mass discontent, student rebellions, and labour strikes – looms over Europe’s institutions. Over the course of the next 10 months, the entire complexion of the European south could be transformed. General elections in Portugal, Spain and Ireland are poised to bring anti-austerity, Left leaning parties to power. It is the wildfire of political contagion that spooks Europe’s federalists. Greece’s humiliation, rather than cowing the revolutionary Left, is set to embolden the southern calls for mass debt relief and cease the enforcement of the euro’s contractionary dogma.
“..it seems all too likely that the ‘logic’ of Eurozone finance is a function of Thucydides’ description of primal human barbarity. Here the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”
Strangely, one of the most disturbing aspects of Varoufakis’ stint as a Finance Minister concerns the fact that he is an economist. One thing we now readily assume is that economics is the language of power. This gives academic economists a status somewhat like a theologian in relation to the practical priestcraft of public office. However, there are very few professors of economics that actually get into office as politicians, just as you seldom get institutionally savvy bishops or mega-church leaders who are serious theologians. When an economist becomes a politician, this is going to be interesting.
In a few short months, Varoufakis completely exploded the idea that economics is the language of power. What we saw when an actual economist landed in the middle of the Eurozone crisis is that the most basic truths about economic reality have nothing to do with power. The idea that asphyxiating Greek banks and killing the Greek state is good for its economy makes no economic sense at all. The idea that continuing to pursue a savagely contractionary austerity agenda will make it possible to generate sustained state surpluses large enough to repay impossible debt burdens, defies any sort of economic rationality. The conviction that it is somehow both moral and necessary to fiscally execute the Greek polity or eject Greece in order to preserve the financial integrity of the Eurozone, is not a stance grounded in economic science.
Yet these agenda commitments are, obviously, immovable Eurogroup dogmas. When Varoufakis patiently, logically and persuasively sought to point out the economic problems with the sacred Eurozone dogmas, this got him into trouble for “lecturing” his peers. Somehow, the economic irrationality of what the Eurogroup must do was obvious to the Eurogroup, and they could not for the life of them see why Varoufakis didn’t understand this. So Varoufakis became branded as “combative” and “recalcitrant” due to his refusal to be on the same page as all the other European finance ministers, when all along it was the Eurogroup who would not talk about obvious economic realities with Varoufakis. Varoufakis’ failed attempt to negotiate even a modicum of constructive economic and political sanity with Brussels strongly suggests that the governing principles of financial power in Europe are not grounded in economic science or democratic politics.
Indeed, it seems all too likely that the ‘logic’ of Eurozone finance is a function of Thucydides’ description of primal human barbarity. Here the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must. The complete lack of impact which Varoufakis’ economic arguments achieved leads one to fear that when it comes to economics and politics, we are being conned: the main purpose of economic speak in politics is obfuscation. If that is indeed the case, then having someone point out the obvious elephant in the room – the economic impossibility of the prevailing dogmas governing high finance and domestic politics – is just too much. It looks like our ruling elites do not want a real economist meddling with power.
A story that seems to surprise many people. But V already told it ages ago. Only thing new is that it started in December.
Former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has claimed that he was authorized by Alexis Tsipras last December to look into a parallel payment system that would operate using wiretapped tax registration numbers (AFMs) and could eventually work as a parallel banking system, Kathimerini has learned. In a teleconference call with members of international hedge funds that was allegedly coordinated by former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, Varoufakis claimed to have been given the okay by Tsipras last December – a month before general elections that brought SYRIZA to power – to plan a payment system that could operate in euros but which could be changed into drachmas “overnight” if necessary, Kathimerini understands.
Varoufakis worked with a small team to prepare the plan, which would have required a staff of 1,000 to implement but did not get the final go-ahead from Tsipras to proceed, he said. The call took place on July 16, more than a week after Varoufakis left his post as finance minister. The plan would involve hijacking the AFMs of taxpayers and corporations by hacking into the General Secretariat of Public Revenues website, Varoufakis told his interlocutors. This would allow the creation of a parallel system that could operate if banks were forced to close and which would allow payments to be made between third parties and the state and could eventually lead to the creation of a parallel banking system, he said.
As the general secretariat is a system that is monitored by Greece’s creditors and is therefore difficult to access, Varoufakis said he assigned a childhood friend of his, an information technology expert who became a professor at Columbia University, to hack into the system. A week after Varouakis took over the ministry, he said the friend telephoned him and said he had “control” of the hardware but not the software “which belongs to the troika.” [..] The work was more or less complete: We did have a Plan B but the difficulty was to go from the five people who were planning it to the 1,000 people that would have to implement it. For that I would have to receive another authorisation which never came.”
“..The Germans say there is to be no debt write-off and that the IMF must be part of the program. But the IMF cannot participate in a program in which debt levels are unsustainable”
As the Greek crisis proceeds to its next stage, Germany, Greece and the triumvirate of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission (now better known as the troika) have all faced serious criticism. While there is plenty of blame to share, we shouldn’t lose sight of what is really going on. I’ve been watching this Greek tragedy closely for five years, engaged with those on all sides. Having spent the last week in Athens talking to ordinary citizens, young and old, as well as current and past officials, I’ve come to the view that this is about far more than just Greece and the euro. Some of the basic laws demanded by the troika deal with taxes and expenditures and the balance between the two, and some deal with the rules and regulations affecting specific markets.
What is striking about the new program (called “the third memorandum”) is that on both scores it makes no sense either for Greece or for its creditors. As I read the details, I had a sense of déjà vu. As chief economist of the World Bank in the late 1990s, I saw firsthand in East Asia the devastating effects of the programs imposed on the countries that had turned to the IMF for help. This resulted not just from austerity but also from so-called structural reforms, where too often the IMF was duped into imposing demands that favored one special interest relative to others. There were hundreds of conditions, some little, some big, many irrelevant, some good, some outright wrong, and most missing the big changes that were really required. Back in 1998 in Indonesia, I saw how the IMF. ruined that country’s banking system.
I recall the picture of Michel Camdessus, the managing director of the IMF at the time, standing over President Suharto as Indonesia surrendered its economic sovereignty. At a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997, I warned that there would be bloodshed in the streets within six months; the riots broke out five months later in Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesia. Both before and after the crisis in East Asia, and those in Africa and in Latin America (most recently, in Argentina), these programs failed, turning downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions. I had thought that the lesson from these failures had been well learned, so it came as a surprise that Europe, beginning a half-decade ago, would impose this same stiff and ineffective program on one of its own.
Whether or not the program is well implemented, it will lead to unsustainable levels of debt, just as a similar approach did in Argentina: The macro-policies demanded by the troika will lead to a deeper Greek depression. That’s why the IMF’s current managing director, Christine Lagarde, said that there needs to be what is euphemistically called “debt restructuring” – that is, in one way or another, a write-off of a significant portion of the debt. The troika program is thus incoherent: The Germans say there is to be no debt write-off and that the IMF must be part of the program. But the IMF cannot participate in a program in which debt levels are unsustainable, and Greece’s debts are unsustainable.
Geez, I’m even quoting Brad DeLong now?
Back in the early days of the ongoing economic crisis, I had a line in my talks that sometimes got applause, usually got a laugh, and always gave people a reason for optimism. Given the experience of Europe and the United States in the 1930s, I would say, policymakers would not make the same mistakes as their predecessors did during the Great Depression. This time, we would make new, different, and, one hoped, lesser mistakes. Unfortunately, that prediction turned out to be wrong. Not only have policymakers in the eurozone insisted on repeating the blunders of the 1930s; they are poised to repeat them in a more brutal, more exaggerated, and more extended fashion. I did not see that coming.
When the Greek debt crisis erupted in 2010, it seemed to me that the lessons of history were so obvious that the path to a resolution would be straightforward. The logic was clear. Had Greece not been a member of the eurozone, its best option would have been to default, restructure its debt, and depreciate its currency. But, because the European Union did not want Greece to exit the eurozone (which would have been a major setback for Europe as a political project), Greece would be offered enough aid, support, debt forgiveness, and assistance with payments to offset any advantages it might gain by exiting the monetary union. Instead, Greece’s creditors chose to tighten the screws.
As a result, Greece is likely much worse off today than it would have been had it abandoned the euro in 2010. Iceland, which was hit by a financial crisis in 2008, provides the counterfactual. Whereas Greece remains mired in depression, Iceland – which is not in the eurozone – has essentially recovered. To be sure, as the American economist Barry Eichengreen argued in 2007, technical considerations make exiting the eurozone difficult, expensive, and dangerous. But that is just one side of the ledger. Using Iceland as our measuring stick, the cost to Greece of not exiting the eurozone is equivalent to 75% of a year’s GDP – and counting.
It is hard for me to believe that if Greece had abandoned the euro in 2010, the economic fallout would have amounted to even a quarter of that. Furthermore, it seems equally improbable that the immediate impact of exiting the eurozone today would be larger than the long-run costs of remaining, given the insistence of Greece’s creditors on austerity. That insistence reflects the attachment of policymakers in the EU – especially in Germany – to a conceptual framework that has led them consistently to underestimate the gravity of the situation and recommend policies that make matters worse.
Tsipras can’t afford to lose her.
Greece’s charismatic head of parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, is one of the most dynamic and outspoken members of the country’s ruling Syriza party. This week, she sent shockwaves through the party by refusing to approve a financial reform bill proposed by her supposed Syriza ally, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras – for the second time. Konstantopoulou considers measures proposed by Tsipras as part of an agreement with Greece’s European lenders to unlock fresh loans for the country a “violent attack on democracy,” she wrote in a letter to Tsipras and Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos. Konstantopoulou’s adamant opposition to the newest austerity reforms is resonating with Greeks who feel the Europe-imposed reforms are excruciatingly harsh.
Konstantopoulou, 38, is the daughter of renowned lawyer Nikos Konstantopoulos, who led of one of Syriza’s largest factions, and well-known journalist Lina Alexiou. She studied law at the University of Athens, La Sorbonne in Paris and Columbia University in New York before becoming a lawyer in Greece in 2003, focusing on international criminal law and human rights. Konstantopoulou first ran for Syriza in 2009 and was elected to the Greek parliament in 2012. She was elected head of the parliament in 2015, the youngest person to hold the position. As parliament chief, her forthright remarks and dedication to formal legal procedure have gained her passionate praise as well as fierce opposition. Her forceful interventions have annoyed some politicians, especially those in opposition parties.
Stavros Theodorakis, leader of To Potami (The River), for example, has called her arrogant and has demanded her resignation. Others have praised her fiery energy, saying her forceful defense of her convictions is invigorating. Despite Konstantopoulou’s rising favor, she remains far less popular than other Syriza politicians, especially Tsipras. Her blunt rejection of the prime minister’s reforms has raised speculation she may leave the party and go her own way, according to Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini. Konstantopoulou denies that scenario. After a one-hour meeting with Tsipras on Thursday, she told reporters that both share “an understanding built on camaraderie and honesty, along with the common wish to protect the rights of the people as well as the unity of Syriza, which some would want to see shattered.”
NY Times ed staff changing its tack.
When they introduced the euro in 1999, European leaders said the common currency would be irreversible and would lead to greater economic and political integration among their countries. That pledge of permanence, long doubted by euro-skeptics, seems ever less credible. While the eurozone may have temporarily avoided a Greek exit, it is hard to see how a deal that requires more spending cuts, higher taxes and only vague promises of debt relief can restore the crippled economy enough to keep Greece in the currency union. On Thursday, the Greek Parliament passed a second set of reforms required by the country’s creditors. Other changes, like higher taxes on farmers, are expected later in the year.
The combative finance minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble, has further undermined confidence in the euro’s cohesion by saying that Greece would be better off leaving the common currency for a five-year “timeout.” As a practical matter, an exit from the currency union would almost certainly be permanent, since readmission involves a grueling process. The eurozone requires new members to keep inflation below 2% and to have a maximum fiscal deficit of 3% of GDP and a public debt that is no more than 60% of GDP. The plight of the Greeks has made countries that do not use the euro, like Poland and Hungary, far less eager to join the currency union, which has come to mean a loss of sovereignty and a commitment to austerity, regardless of economic reality.
Of course, the euro was never entirely about economics. European leaders believed the single currency was a big step toward creating an irrevocable alliance among countries on the continent. But many experts warned that it could make its members less stable unless it was followed by a tighter political and budgetary union. Since that did not happen, the currency union was left fully vulnerable to economic crises and to the will of Europe’s more powerful economies. All those fears have played out in Greece, even as the threat of exits from the euro hangs over other weakened countries, like Italy, Portugal and Spain. Senior leaders in Germany, Finland and Slovakia who have publicly suggested a Greek exit seem to think it would scare weaker economies into accepting more austerity.
That may not be necessary; some radical parties in those countries are already openly talking about leaving the euro. The question now is what is the cost of leaving? Can a modern economy withstand the immediate damage of an abrupt currency change if the benefits of devaluation and regaining full control over fiscal and monetary policies could be limited and could take years to realize?
Not enough 5-star hotel rooms?
Talks between Greece and its international creditors over a new bailout package will be delayed by a couple of days because of organisational issues, a finance ministry official said on Saturday. The meetings with officials from the EC, ECB and IMF were supposed to start on Monday after being delayed for issues including the location of talks and security last week. A finance ministry official, who declined to be named, said talks between the technical teams of the lenders will start on Tuesday, while the mission chiefs will arrive in Athens with a delay of a couple of days for technical reasons. “The reasons for the delay are neither political, nor diplomatic ones,” the official added.
Greeks have viewed inspections visits by the lenders in Athens as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and six months of acrimonious negotiations with EU partners took place in Brussels at the government’s request. Another finance ministry official denied earlier on Saturday that the government was trying to keep the lenders’ team away from government departments and had no problem with them visiting the General Accounting Office.. Asked if the government would now allow EU, IMF and ECB mission chiefs to visit Athens for talks on a new loan, State Minister Alekos Flabouraris said: “If the agreement says that they should visit a ministry, we have to accept that.”
The confusion around the expected start to the talks on Friday underlined the challenges ahead if negotiations are to be wrapped up in time for a bailout worth up to €86 billion to be approved in parliament by Aug. 20, as Greece intends. Already, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is struggling to contain a rebellion in his left-wing Syriza party that made his government dependent on votes from pro-European opposition parties to get the tough bailout terms approved in parliament. One of Tsipras’ closest aides said that the understanding with the opposition parties could not last long and a clear solution was needed, underlining widespread expectations that new elections may come as soon as September or October. “The country cannot go on with a minority government for long. We need clear, strong solutions,” State Minister Nikos Pappas told the weekly Ependysi in an interview published on Saturday.
Apart from the terms of a new loan, Greece and its lenders are also expected to discuss the sustainability of its debt, which is around 170% of GDP. Greece has repeatedly asked for a debt relief and the IMF has said this is needed for the Greek accord to be viable. [..] Tsipras, who is by far the most popular politician in Greece according to opinion polls, has said his priority is to secure the bailout package before dealing with the political fallout from the Syriza party rebellion.
“..the decision to pursue a new IMF program means euro zone leaders may have to open talks on granting Greece significant debt relief much earlier than originally anticipated..”
Talks to agree a new €86bn bailout for Greece ran into trouble on Friday after Athens raised hurdles for negotiators in the Greek capital, forcing them to postpone their arrival amid renewed acrimony. Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, agreed last week to “fully normalize” talks with creditors on the ground in Athens after resisting their presence for months — a key demand made by euro zone leaders when they agreed to reopen rescue talks after coming close to pushing Greece out of the euro zone. But three senior officials from Greece’s bailout monitors said Athens had instead demanded restrictions on negotiators, including on whom creditors could meet and what topics were to be discussed in the talks.
Two of the officials said Greek authorities had also insisted negotiators no longer use the Athens Hilton as their base — a hotel close to central Syntagma Square and a short drive to the finance ministry — instead proposing hotels far from the capital’s government quarter. “It is fundamentally more of the same,” said a senior official from one of the bailout monitors,colloquially known as the “troika” after the three institutions originally involved in the talks, the EC, ECB and IMF. “They don’t want to engage with the troika.” Greek officials insisted the renewed stand-off was only a temporary delay and that talks would resume over the weekend or Monday at the latest.
George Stathakis, economy minister, said he was confident the negotiations would be finished by mid-August, when Athens needs the bailout cash to pay off a €3.2bn bond held by the ECB. Mr Stathakis said Greece and its creditors had already found common ground on many of the main issues,including fiscal targets, stabilizing the banking sector, liberalization of product markets and professions, labor market reforms and privatizations of state assets. “We have three weeks,and I’m confident that it’s enough for the existing agenda,” Mr Stathakis told the Financial Times. “We agree in certain areas. In others, there are different views and some distance needs to be covered. But the last European summit gave a framework that indicates which directions to follow, and that’s why I think three weeks will be enough.”
Still, one creditor official said negotiating teams were “sitting on their suitcases” and had no plans to go to Athens until the logistical issues were resolved. Adding another potential complication, the Greek government on Friday lodged a formal request with the IMF to begin discussions on a new, third bailout program. The request came after officials at the IMF determined that the current Greek program, which still has about €16.5bn to disburse and was due to expire in March, had become outdated. Those negotiations between Athens and the IMF could take months. But the decision to pursue a new IMF program means euro zone leaders may have to open talks on granting Greece significant debt relief much earlier than originally anticipated, since the IMF will not sign on to a new program unless euro zone lenders agree to restructure their bailout loans.
Syriza differences are being magnified by the press.
Even as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras grapples with serious divisions within SYRIZA, government officials are bracing for the launch of face-to-face negotiations with representatives of the country’s creditors which are expected to begin next week. The government is hoping to seal a deal with creditors by mid-August and certainly before August 20 when a €3.2 billion debt repayment to the ECB is to come due. Greece does not have the money to repay the debt and is hoping for a deal to be reached, allowing the partial disbursement of some funding, either from a new program or from residual funding from the recapitalization of Greek banks. But sources indicate that creditors are less optimistic about a deal being finalized so soon.
As a result officials are said to be considering the possibility of a second bridge loan to Greece, which would allow it to cover the ECB debt and other obligations, before an agreement on a third bailout is finalized. Although officials from countries that have taken a hard line opposite Greece, including Germany and some north European states, reportedly want Athens to commit to more prior actions, European Economy and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici has indicated that this will not be necessary. Creditors are expected to seek additional measures at some point, however, to plug a widening fiscal gap.
Tsipras is also struggling to keep a lid on dissent within SYRIZA as a bloc of around 30 of the party’s 149 MPs object to his compromise with creditors, which foresees more austerity. The premier has indicated that a party congress should be held in September to refocus SYRIZA. Early elections, which are considered inevitable in view of the upheaval within the party, are expected to take place immediately after the congress, either later in September or in October or even November. In comments on Saturday, State Minister Nikos Pappas acknowledged that the country cannot continue indefinitely with a minority government, referring to the mass defections by SYRIZA MPs in recent parliamentary votes. A meeting of SYRIZA’s political secretariat is due on Monday.
As long as small depositors are left alone, fine by me.
National Bank of Greece bondholders are nervous that they will suffer heavy losses if authorities decide to siphon off all of the bank’s healthy assets leaving a “bad bank” to deal with their claims, a source close to a creditor group said. A group of senior bondholders in NBG sent a letter to European institutions last week saying they were concerned about measures that may be taken to revitalise the Greek banking sector after months of economic upheaval. After drawn-out negotiations, Greece is close to clinching a third bailout deal but has kept in place the capital controls it used to prevent a bank run last month.
The investors, who hold a significant portion of a €750 million NBG senior bond issued last year, are worried the bank may be split into a good bank and a bad bank as was the case for Portugal’s Banco Espirito Santo last year. Portugal separated out and pumped money into the healthy part of the bank creating a new entity “Novo Banco”, while remaining BES shareholders and subordinated bondholders were left with near worthless investments in the remaining bad bank. NBG bondholders are concerned that such a split in Greece could require a level of recapitalisation that would also see senior bondholders left behind in the bad bank.
Under current Greek law, junior bondholders should contribute to a bail-in, while new legislation passed on Wednesday will also force senior bondholders to contribute from January 1 2016. Recapitalisations of Greek banks may be needed before then, however, leaving the option of a bad bank solution on the table. ECB governing council member Christian Noyer said an initial injection of capital for Greek banks would be preferable before stress tests in the autumn.
To talk to Le Pen?
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne will take Britain’s case for European Union reform to Paris on Sunday, seeking support from his French counterpart for a deal the Conservative government can put before voters in a promised in-out referendum. British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate ties with the European Union ahead of a vote on the country’s continuing membership by the end of 2017. Osborne’s trip to Paris, the first in a series of visits to European capitals, will seek to build on Cameron’s meetings with all 27 leaders of the bloc earlier this year, the government said. He will argue that with public support for reform rising across the EU, now is the time to deliver lasting change. “The referendum in Britain is an opportunity to make the case for reform across the EU,” he will say, according to excepts of his speech.
“I want to see a new settlement for Europe, one that makes it a more competitive and dynamic continent to ensure it delivers prosperity and security for all of the people within it, not just for those in Britain.” Cameron’s promise of a referendum was made before national elections in May to neutralise a threat from the anti-EU UK Independence Party and to pacify Euro sceptics in his own party. The possibility that Britain could leave the European Union as a result of the tactic has worried allies such as the United States and opposition parties in Britain. U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that a Britain within the European union gave Washington much greater confidence in the strength of the transatlantic union. Some lawmakers were angered by his intervention in the debate, saying he was lecturing Britain.
What a refreshing MO.
Caught between the demands of billionaires, pro-bankruptcy activists and more than three million people plagued by unemployment, poverty and government debt, who would you choose? As Puerto Rico confronts the quagmire of its $72bn financial crisis, it has come up with an answer: humouring a few very wealthy people. The island has for three years courted some of Wall Street’s richest citizens, from solitary investors to hedge fund elites. Last year it sold at auction hundreds of millions of its debt to various funds, displeasing many who believe the “vulture funds” only want a quick profit off Puerto Rico as it desperately tries to repay debt with high local taxes and austerity cuts.
Hedge fund manager John Paulson, best known for making billions off the 2008 subprime loan market crash, led the charge last year when he declared the island “the Singapore of the Caribbean”. His fund bought more than $100m of Puerto Rico’s junk-rated bonds last year. The most visible effect has been a rush to buy property akin to the buying spree by two billionaires in Detroit as that city filed for bankruptcy. Detroit’s woes are often held up for comparison to Puerto Rico’s but the island lacks the statehood or permission from Congress it would need to file for bankruptcy and follow Michigan’s decision to declare Motor City bust. While funds have inched away from Puerto Rico’s debt debacle, Paulson has bought into land.
In 2014 he spent more than $260m to buy three of the island’s largest resort properties, and announced plans to develop $500m-worth of “residences and resort amenities” to add to the existing beachfront condos and golf courses. He has a fellow cheerleader in billionaire Nicholas Prouty, who has invested more than $550m into turning San Juan’s marina into a bastion of the elite that includes an exclusive club and slips for “megayachts of 200 feet or larger”. As in Detroit, ultra-high-end developments abut scores of empty buildings, either for sale or abandoned by owners searching for work. With unemployment more than twice the US national average, the island’s median household income is nearly $7,000 less than that in Detroit, and less than half the US average.
Puerto Rico is spiraling out of control and the Federal government will not break the fall. Island leaders may not have the will, popular support, or financial tools to pay down the $72 billion debt. So it is no surprise that calls for a federal financial control board intensified after Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla announced that Puerto Rico’s debt is unpayable. Establishing a control board may be the easy way out for a wary Congress but it is not as simple as it seems and could backfire. A federal financial control board for Puerto Rico was first proposed a year ago by supporters of Doral Bank in its dispute with the Puerto Rican government over a $230 million tax refund. Most of Doral’s supporters are affiliated with the conservative Koch brothers.
They include Republican Reps. Jeff Duncan (SC), Scott Garrett (NJ), Darrell Issa (CA) and Matt Salmon (AZ) who received Koch Industries PAC contributions and who prior to Doral had never been involved with Puerto Rico. Last month, Duncan recommended to his House colleagues that a control board be established. The 60 Plus Association, another Koch funding recipient, is lobbying for a control board. While frustrated Puerto Ricans are increasingly talking about the need for a control board, the majority of the Island opposes it with good reason. First, Puerto Ricans feel that given the right tools, they can fix the fiscal crisis on their own. Right now the most important tool is access to Chapter 9 federal bankruptcy. From 1933 until 1984, Puerto Rico could allow its municipalities and public corporations to declare bankruptcy in the same way as the 50 states.
In 1984 Congress amended the bankruptcy code and excluded Puerto Rico for reasons unknown. Most agree that overall losses to investors will be higher if Puerto Rico is not given access to Federal bankruptcy and defaults. To avoid this scenario Puerto Rico passed its own bankruptcy law which was challenged by bondholders of electricity provider PREPA which owes $9 billion. The law was recently struck down in Federal court. The Puerto Rican government may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The same group of creditors is fighting bankruptcy legislation introduced in Congress. Issa, who sits in the subcommittee reviewing the bill, opposes it. The conservative Heritage Foundation calls it a bailout even though it supported Chapter 9 for Detroit.
Second, Puerto Ricans are distrustful of any financial control board established by a national government that has denied it political representation for 117 years. The distrust is heightened by knowledge that the chief supporters of a control board are members of the conservative Koch brothers’ network and creditors whose objective is to make money off Puerto Rico rather than enable Puerto Rico to remake itself.
It’s not easy being Rahm.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration said it will appeal a Cook County judge’s decision Friday that ruled unconstitutional a state law reducing municipal worker pension benefits in exchange for a city guarantee to fix their underfunded retirement systems. The 35-page ruling by Judge Rita Novak, slapping down the city’s arguments point by point, could have wide-ranging effects if upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court. Her decision appeared to also discredit efforts at the state and Cook County levels to try to curb pension benefits to rein in growing costs that threaten funding for government services. The issue of underfunded pensions, and how to restore their financial health, is crucial for the city and its taxpayers.
The city workers and laborers funds at issue in Friday’s ruling are more than $8 billion short of what’s needed to meet obligations – and are at risk of going broke within 13 years – after many years of low investment returns fueled by recession and inadequate funding. Without reducing benefits paid to retired workers, or requiring current workers to pay more, taxpayers could eventually be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars more in annual payments to those city funds — before the even worse-funded police and fire retirement accounts are factored into the taxing equation. Friday’s ruling also could further harm the city’s rapidly diminishing credit rating. Even before the decision, Moody’s Investors Service had downgraded the city’s debt rating to junk status based on pension concerns.
And after Novak’s ruling, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service warned that it would lower the rating on city debt within the next six months without a fix. Novak’s ruling was not unexpected because of a decision in May by the Illinois Supreme Court on a similar pension case. The state’s high court unanimously struck down a law changing state pensions, saying the Illinois Constitution’s protection against “diminished or impaired” pension benefits for public workers and current retirees was absolute. City officials had argued that an agreement reached with 28 of 31 labor unions to alter retirement benefits out of the municipal and laborers pension funds – two of the city’s four pension plans – was different from the plan struck down by the Supreme Court.
Color me stunned.
Foreign criminals are using the London housing market to launder billions of pounds, pushing up house prices for domestic buyers, a senior police officer has warned. Donald Toon, the director of economic crime at the National Crime Agency, spoke after a spike in receipts from a tax on homes bought up by companies, trusts and investment funds rather than individuals. Such corporations, usually based in offshore tax havens, are sometimes used by buyers keen to hide ownership of assets from their own countries’ tax authorities. The secrecy they offer can equally be used to squirrel away ill-gotten gains. Toon told the Times: “I believe the London property market has been skewed by laundered money. Prices are being artificially driven up by overseas criminals who want to sequester their assets here in the UK.”
He spoke after provisional tax receipts showed the Treasury had made £142m from the annual tax on enveloped dwellings in just the first three months of the financial year. The tax, introduced last year, is payable every year by companies that own a UK residential property valued above a certain amount. The City of Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea accounted for 82% of the revenue, but inflation at the top of the market is thought to ripple down to cheaper properties as wealthy buyers are pushed down the housing chain. Toon’s comments come amid increasing concern that billions of pounds of corruptly gained money has been laundered by criminals and foreign officials buying upmarket London properties through anonymous offshore front companies.
Experts say that London, with its myriad links to tax haven crown dependencies, is arguably the global capital of money laundering. This month a Channel 4 investigation found that estate agents in Britain’s wealthiest postcodes are willing to turn a blind eye to apparent money laundering by corrupt foreign buyers. In the documentary, titled From Russia With Cash, two undercover reporters posed as an unscrupulous Russian government official called Boris in London to purchase an upmarket property for his mistress. The couple viewed five properties ranging in price from £3m to £15m, on the market with five estate agents in Kensington, Chelsea and Notting Hill.
Despite being made aware they are dealing with apparently laundered money, the estate agents agreed to continue with a potential purchase. In several instances the estate agents recommended law firms to help a buyer hide his identity. The agents suggested that secretive purchases of multimillion-pound houses were common in the capital. One claimed that 80% or more of his transactions were with international, overseas-based buyers and “50 or 60%” of them were conducted in “various stages of anonymity … whether it be through a company or an offshore trust”.
Blowing up one country at a time.
In the spring of 2013, Song Dal Sun, head of securities investment at Seoul-based Hanwha Life Insurance, sat down to a presentation by a Goldman Sachs banker. The young Goldman salesman, who had flown in from Hong Kong, made a pitch for bonds to be issued by 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a state-owned company closely tied to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. It was enticing. The 10-year, dollar-denominated bonds offered an interest rate of 4.4%, about 100 basis points higher than other A-minus-rated bonds were yielding at the time, he recalls. But Song, a veteran of 25 years in finance, sensed something was amiss. With such an attractive yield, 1MDB could easily sell the notes directly to institutional investors through a global offering.
Instead, Goldman Sachs was privately selling 1MDB notes worth $3 billion backed by the Malaysian government. “Does it mean ‘explicit guarantee’?” he recalls asking the Goldman salesman, whom he declined to name. “I didn’t get a straight answer,” Song says. “I decided not to buy them.” The bond sale that Song passed up is part of a scandal that has all but sunk 1MDB, rattled investors, and set back Malaysia’s quest to become a developed nation. Najib, who also serves as Malaysia’s finance minister, sits on 1MDB’s advisory board as chairman. The scandal’s aftershocks have rocked his office, his government, and the political party he leads, United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO.
A state investment company trumpeted as a cornerstone of Najib’s economic policy after he became prime minister in April 2009, 1MDB is now mired in debts of at least $11 billion. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a one-time political mentor who’s turned on Najib, says “vast amounts of money” have “disappeared” from 1MDB funds. 1MDB has denied the claim and said all of its debts are accounted for. From the moment in 2009 when Najib took over a sovereign wealth fund set up by the Malaysian state of oil-rich Terengganu and turned it into a development fund owned by the federal government, 1MDB has been controversial. Since the beginning of this year—with coverage driven by the Sarawak Report, a blog, and The Edge, a local business weekly—the scandal has moved closer and closer to the heart of government, sparking calls for Najib’s ouster and recalling Malaysia’s long struggle with corruption and economic disappointment.
“..a bacterial disease nicknamed “olive ebola”..”
Salads have rarely been so expensively dressed after a combination of drought and disease pushed the price of olive oil up 10% so far this year, amid warnings from suppliers that harvests are the worst they have seen. The Italian government has declared a “state of calamity” in the provinces of Lecce and Brindisi on the heel of the country, where olive groves are being attacked by a bacterial disease nicknamed “olive ebola”. Up to 1m centuries-old olive trees could be felled in one of the most picturesque tourist spots of Italy in an attempt to contain the problem. The cost of the raw material has been increasing for two years as crops have been hit by drought in Spain, the world’s biggest producer of the oil, and the bacterial disease Xylella fastidiosa, which is destroying trees in Italy.
Analysts are expecting prices to remain high in coming months as demand is increasing. Retailers and distributors wanted to buy 12% more olive oil than exporters were able to deliver last month, according to industry insiders. Buyers in Latin America have turned to Europe in the wake of poor harvests over the Atlantic, while eastern Europeans have also been using increasing amounts of olive oil. The next harvest from southern Europe is not expected until September, but fears of a third poor harvest in a row in Spain and Italy continue to push up wholesale prices of remaining stocks over the summer. The other two large olive oil producers, Greece and Tunisia, had good yield and production, but not enough to compensate for Spain and Italy.
In the UK, heavy price competition between retailers, led by the rise of discounters Aldi and Lidl, has helped keep prices relatively low for shoppers. But this year, retailers and processors have been forced to pass on increases as the cost of the raw material from Italy has hit a 10-year high. The average retail price of a litre of extra virgin olive oil has risen from £6.32 in December to £6.95 this month, according to data from trade journal the Grocer.
The way people produce and eat food is changing in major ways, presenting both risks and opportunities for those invested in the sustenance sector. Historically, much of our protein has come from animals, but producing just one pound of meat means feeding an animal up to 16 pounds of grains and other crops. The caloric conversion is weak, too: According to a recent report produced in collaboration with the World Bank, even the most efficient sources of meat convert only around 11% of gross feed energy into human food. As global population and per capita meat consumption have grown, this inefficient system has become overburdened. In 1950, the total number of farm animals in the U.S. was somewhere near 100 million; by 2007, that number was roughly 9.5 billion.
To accommodate the enormous demand, nearly all of those animals were moved from farms to factories. According to Agriculture Department data, during the same period that the number of farm animals increased by 9,400%, the number of farmers producing those animals decreased by 60%. So many more animals being reared by so few farmers has come with consequences for consumers, animals, producers, and investors. Take pig production. Over the past several decades, the vast majority of breeding pigs have been moved into “gestation crates,” which are tiny cages that confine animals so tightly they can’t even turn around. The cages are iron maidens for sows. Not surprisingly, some consumers have responded with anger. “Cruel and senseless” is what the New York Times called the cages. “Torture on the farm,” reported the American Conservative magazine.
This outcry has led major food companies to demand changes. More than 60 of the world’s largest food retailers – McDonald’s, Nestlé, Burger King, Oscar Mayer, Safeway, Kroger, Costco, and dozens more – have announced plans to eliminate gestation crates from their pork-supply chains. Addressing animal welfare in corporate-responsibility programs is becoming the norm. “Active concern about how we treat the world around us has moved from the left of center to the mainstream, and savvy businesses are playing a part,” noted an editorial in Nation’s Restaurant News. “The growing number of animal-welfare-related commitments made by companies large and small reflect well-thought-out business –strategies.”
“11,000 years before the generally recognised advent of organised cultivation..”
Israeli archaeologists have uncovered dramatic evidence of what they believe are the earliest known attempts at agriculture, 11,000 years before the generally recognised advent of organised cultivation. The study examined more than 150,000 examples of plant remains recovered from an unusually well preserved hunter-gatherer settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Previously, scientists had believed that organised agriculture in the Middle East, including animal husbandry and crop cultivation, had begun in the late Holocene period – around 12,000 BC – and later spread west through Europe. The new research is based on excavations at a site known as Ohalo II, which was discovered in 1989 when the water level in the sea of Galilee dropped because of drought and excessive water extraction.
Occupied by a community of hunter-gatherers at the height of the last ice age 23,000 years ago, it revealed evidence of six brush huts with hearths as well as stone tools and animal and plant remains. A series of fortuitous coincidences led to the site’s preservation. The huts had been built over shallow bowls dug by the occupants and later burned. On top of that a deposit of sandy silt had accumulated before the rising lake had left it under 4 metres of water. The study looked for evidence of early types of invasive weeds – or “proto-weeds” – that flourished in conditions created by human cultivation. According to the researchers, the community at Ohalo II was already exploiting the precursors to domesticated plant types that would become a staple in early agriculture, including emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape and olive.
Significantly, however, they discovered the presence of two types of weeds in current crop fields: corn cleavers and darnel. Microscopic examination of the edges of stone blades from the site also found material that may have been transferred during the cutting and harvesting of cereal plants. Prof Ehud Weiss, head of the archaeological botany lab at the Department of Land of Israel Studies, told the Guardian: “We know what happened ecologically: that these wild plants, some time in history, became weeds. Why? The simple answer is that because humans changed the environment and created new ecological niches, that made it more comfortable for species that would become weeds, meaning they only have to compete with one species.”
According to Weiss, the mixture of “proto-weeds” and grains that would become domesticated mirrors plant findings from later agricultural communities. The site also revealed evidence of rudimentary breadmaking from starch granules found on scorched stones, and that the community may have been largely sedentary, with evidence of consumption of birds throughout the year, including migrating species. “This botanical find is really opening new windows to the past,” Weiss said. “You have to remember Ohalo is a unique preservation. Between Ohalo and the beginning of the Neolithic we have a blank. And when the early Neolithic arrives people start [agriculture again] from scratch.