RT : What is the likelihood that the US will go through with and actually impose economic sanctions on China if it does not implement the new sanctions regime against North Korea? Jim Rogers : Sanctions are sanctions. They could do sanctions which are not very important or don’t do much damage. And then they will have good public relations which says they have sanctions, but it is meaningless. I would suspect if anything, that is what they will start with. If they put sanctions on China in a big way, it brings the whole world economy down. And in the end, it hurts America more than it hurts China because it just forces China and Russia and other countries closer together. Russia and China and other countries are already trying to come up with a new financial system. If America puts sanctions on them, they would have to do it that much faster and in the end America will lose its monopoly on the financial system, which will hurt America more than anybody.
RT : What do you think, is it an empty rhetoric and saber-rattling from Donald Trump because he said “those [UN] sanctions are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen” without specifying what he meant by that. Do you think this is just mere bluff on the part of the US, or would it really use the ‘nuclear option’? JR : If it uses a nuclear option for sanctions, it will hurt America much more than will hurt North Korea, it will hurt America much more than it will hurt China, Russia and everybody else. It will force the rest of the world to find an alternative to the US financial system. If he does that, it is going to cause a lot of turmoil in the world financial economy and in the end it is going to hurt America more than it is going to hurt anybody else. I would give you an example, if you look at Russian agriculture right now – America put sanctions on Russian agriculture trying to hurt Russia, but it has helped Russian agriculture. Russian agriculture is booming now. In the end, America has hurt itself more than it has hurt anybody else.
RT : If that happens, what would the consequences be for the global economy? Could this end up becoming a global economic crisis? JR : We are probably going to have a global economic problem, maybe even crisis, in the next couple of years. This may be one of the things that start it. There is always something which starts a crisis. If America does something like this, this could be the thing that did it. In 1929, it started when America started a huge trade war with the rest of the world and the economists said, “please, this is a mistake,” but America did that anyway. And then we had a great collapse and The Great Depression of the 1930s.
Total unfunded liabilities in state and local pensions have roughly quintupled in the last decade. You read that right – not doubled, tripled or quadrupled: quintupled. That’s nice when it happens on a slot machine, not so nice when it’s money you owe. The graph [shows] that unfunded pension liabilities for state and local governments was $2 trillion. But that assumes an average 7% compound return. What if we assume 4% compound returns? Now the admitted unfunded pension liability is $4 trillion. But what if we have a recession and the stock market goes down by the past average of more than 40%? Now you have an unfunded liability in the range of $7–8 trillion.We throw the words a trillion dollars around, not realizing how much that actually is. Combined state and local revenues for the US total around $2.6 trillion.
Following the next recession (whenever that is), the unfunded pension liabilities for state and local governments will be roughly three times the revenue they are collecting today, and that’s before a recession reduces their revenues. Can you see the taxpayer stuck between a rock and a hard place? Two immovable objects meeting? The math just doesn’t work. Pension trustees don’t face personal liability. They’re literally playing with someone else’s money. Some try very hard to be realistic and cautious. Others don’t. But even the most diligent can’t control when the next recession comes, or when the stock market will crash, leaving a gaping hole in their assets while liabilities keep right on rising. I have had meetings with trustees of various government pensions.
Many of them want to assume a more realistic discount rate, but the politicians in their state literally refuse to allow them to assume a reasonable discount rate, because owning up to reality would require them to increase their current pension funding dramatically. So they kick the can down the road. Intentionally or not, state and local officials all over the US made pension promises that future officials can’t possibly keep. Many will be out of office when the bill comes due, protected from liability by sovereign immunity. We are starting to see cities filing for bankruptcy. That small ripple will be a tsunami within 7–10 years.
U.S. stocks have risen more in the past eight years than in almost any other post-World War II time of economic growth, as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The logic here is that economic expansions fuel bull markets and so it’s reasonable to measure market recoveries after a period of macro contraction ends. Using that definition, let’s review how the S&P 500 has performed during the last ten economic recoveries. To be precise, the birth of the stock market’s bull market is dated as the first day after an NBER-defined recession has ended. The market run continues through the peak. The S&P 500 Index jumped 172% from July 2009, when the current expansion started, through Wednesday. The biggest advance was about 300% and occurred from April 1991 to March 2001, when Internet-related stocks soared.
As Capital Speculator blog’s James Picerno notes, the question before the house: Will the momentum of late endure long enough to overtake the 1991-2001 record in duration and/or magnitude? If so, the bull market in the here and now has to last another 463 trading days, which translates into a market rally that goes deep into 2019. There’s just one thing wrong… Remember – the ‘market’ is not the ‘economy’… or maybe it is in the new normal?
I provide a simple numerical explanation of how austerity works at the micro (individual person, industrial sector, or country) and the macro level (country, or group of countries in a currency union).
Dan Davies, senior research adviser at Frontline Analysts, argued there’s no point in attempting to value bitcoin as if it were just another type of security. “It’s not a security with some intrinsic value, rather it’s a currency that in the long term is governed by an exchange rate driven by trade or volume of transactions,” Davies said. The fact that a significant proportion of bitcoins is hoarded or held for investment doesn’t disqualify it from being a currency, according to Davies. But the BTC/USD BTCUSD, -3.37% exchange rate is entirely determined by speculative portfolio capital flows right now, he said, leaving it difficult to assign fair value. Viewing bitcoin as a currency makes it possible, at least in theory, to come up with a long-term exchange rate by using the quantity theory of money.
The formula is: MV = PT, where money supply multiplied by its velocity equals the price level multiplied by the transaction volume. Since both price and transaction volume is expressed in U.S. dollars, the price of bitcoin would be 1/BTCUSD, Davies said. In this case, bitcoin’s supply is fixed at 21 million and money velocity for normal currencies is usually at around 10, according to Davies. So, the long-term fundamental value of bitcoin equals the long-term value of transactions that will be carried out in bitcoin divided by 210 million (21 million bitcoins multiplied by velocity). The hardest value to plug into this formula is the transaction volume. If, for example, bitcoin was used primarily for global trade in illicit drugs, the figure would be around $120 billion, which is an estimate the U.N. used in 2014.
“I used that number a few years ago, but we would have to come up with a different estimate, as bitcoin is clearly used for things other than illicit drugs now,” Davies said. Davies declined to offer an updated number, saying he needed to do more research. But doubling that transaction volume number to $240 billion, for example, and dividing by 210 million produces a value of $1,142, around a third of the current exchange rate of $3,569. That isn’t far from an estimate that Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz Global Investors, recently suggested as a fair value for bitcoin. In an interview with CNBC, El-Erian said the fair price should be about half or a third of what it is now. El-Erian argued the currency will only survive as a peer-to-peer means of payment and governments won’t allow mass adoption.
My talk at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome was mainly a presentation of my latest book, “The Seneca Effect” (Springer 2017). In practice, of course, a book contains many more things than you can say in a 40 minute speech. So, I tried to concentrate on the idea that the behavior I call “the Seneca Curve” is very common, even universal. Below, you can see the Seneca Curve: things go up slowly but collapse rapidly, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said first some two thousand years ago. You may have heard the old Latin motto, “Natura non facit saltus” (Nature doesn’t make jumps) meaning that things change gradually, not abruptly. It may be true in many circumstances but, in practice, it is wholly normal that Nature accumulates energy potentials (as when you inflate a balloon) and then releases them all of a sudden (as when you puncture a balloon).
There are reasons why Nature behaves in this way, but the point I made at the school was not so much about why the curve is so common but how human beings are not normally aware of it. In fact, our thought is often shaped by the idea that things will continue evolving the way they have been evolving up to a certain point. Just think about economic growth, and you’ll notice how economists expect it to continue forever. It goes without saying that the economy is one of those complex systems which are most vulnerable to the Seneca collapse. So, I tried to stress that the understanding that the Seneca Curve exists and it is common is a recent discovery. Even though Seneca had understood it by intuition already almost 2000 years ago, in its modern form it is less than a century old. It was proposed for the first time by Jay Forrester in the 1960s and it was enshrined in “The Limits to Growth” study of 1972, even though the term “Seneca Effect” was not used.
During my talk, I showed this image to evidence how our ideas on the path that complex systems follow evolved over time. You see how modern the idea of “overshoot” (and the subsequent collapse) is. Malthus just didn’t have it. Despite being often accused of catastrophism, he couldn’t envisage societal collapse; he lacked the necessary intellectual tools. He was an optimist! Today, we have this concept. We know that complex systems tend not just to decline, they tend to collapse. But this perception is totally missing in the general debate. When you mention societal collapse, there are two possible reactions. The most common one is that such a thing will never happen.
Then, if you manage to convince people that it is possible, they endeavor to do everything they can to keep the system going; whatever it takes. They don’t realize that when you exceed the carrying capacity of the system, you have to come back, one way or another. And the more you try to stay above the limit, the faster and the harsher the return will be. What you have to do is to ease the collapse, follow it, not try to stop it. Otherwise, it will be worse.
Only business owners with no real estate properties will qualify for a partial write-off of corporate debts in the context of the extrajudicial settlement mechanism. This criterion excludes the owner’s main residence and the production properties, i.e. the professional properties used for the entrepreneurial activity. That was the decision that the technical experts of the country’s creditors are said to have reached with representatives of Greek banks and the Independent Authority for Public Revenue, while there was also convergence on setting the criteria for debt settlement for companies owing between €20,000 and €50,000. In this latter category of debtors, which mostly comprise small enterprises, a standardized procedure will be adopted for assessing repayment capacity and the determination of the amount that the debtor will have to pay on a regular basis.
The Greece firesale will never come anywhere near the €60 billion, but everyone keeps mentioning the number. Their entire railway system went for €45 million. Selling off an entire country is a very bad idea. Europe will find out, but too late.
“It is obvious. Our policies have changed radically, ” says Stergios Pitsiorlas, the deputy economy and development minister, whose airy office is visited daily by bankers, hedge-fund managers and industrialists jockeying for bargains. “Being leftwing doesn’t mean you are also a fool. It doesn’t mean, in the words of Lenin, that we are useful idiots. Let’s speak seriously. Those who complain that Greece is being sold off, that Greece will lose out, don’t know what they are talking about.” Tall, bearded and bespectacled, Pitsiorlas is the point man in Athens’s attempt to raise €60bn (£53bn) through privatisations – sales that, increasingly, have become the focus of international creditors keeping the debt-stricken country afloat. In what has been called the most ambitious sell-off in modern European history, assets ranging from public utilities and transport companies to marinas and hotels are up for grabs.
[..] Privatisations are central to completion of a new round of bailout negotiations with the EU and IMF. Greece’s third, €86bn, rescue programme is due to end next summer and Tsipras has made a clean exit from it, which would herald Athens’s return to the markets, an overarching goal. But hurdles lie ahead. On Friday, eurozone finance ministers warned that continued persecution of the country’s former statistics chief, Andreas Georgiou, could dent international confidence and derail chances of recovery. Officials also raised the prospect of fresh austerity should Greece fail to hit the primary surplus target of 3.5% – a prospect made likely by a huge shortfall in tax revenues. But in a week when the Italians finally took control of Greece’s state-owned train network (acquired by Italy’s own state operator for a paltry €45m) Pitsiorlas is optimistic.
He cites the takeover of Piraeus port by the Chinese shipping conglomerate Cosco as an example of what privatisations can bring: “They will make it the biggest port in Europe and that will boost other professions, create thousands of jobs, revitalise shipyards, which they are also looking at, pave the way to better trains, roads and logistic centres, and trigger development and growth.” In five years, he enthuses, Greece will be a very different place, cosmopolitan and vibrant. “There are rules which need to be observed but ultimately everything will be solved,” he insisted, referring to the obstacles Eldorado and others have encountered. “A miracle will happen. There will be huge change … but the state can’t do it alone, the private sector has to be involved.”
Beijing will suspend construction of major public projects in the city this winter in an effort to improve the capital’s notorious air quality, official media said on Sunday, citing the municipal commission of housing and urban-rural development. All construction of road and water projects, as well as demolition of housing, will be banned from Nov. 15 to March 15 within the city’s six major districts and surrounding suburbs, said the Xinhua report. The period spans the four months when heating is supplied to the city’s housing and other buildings. China is in the fourth year of a “war on pollution” designed to reverse the damage done by decades of untrammelled economic growth and allay concerns that hazardous smog and widespread water and soil contamination are causing hundreds of thousands of early deaths every year.
Beijing has promised to impose tough industrial and traffic curbs across the north of the country this winter in a bid to meet key smog targets. In the capital, it is aiming to reduce airborne particles known as PM2.5 by more than a quarter from their 2012 levels and bring average concentrations down to 60 micrograms per cubic metre. Last year the city experienced near record-high smog in January and February, which the government blamed on “unfavourable weather conditions” Some ‘major livelihood projects’ such as railways, airports and affordable housing may be continued however, providing they are approved by the commission, said the report.
The European Union said President Donald Trump’s administration is shifting its approach to a landmark global agreement on climate change, an assertion which was quickly denied by the White House. The U.S. signaled that it’s no longer seeking to withdraw from the pact and then renegotiate it, but rather wants to re-engage with the Paris Agreement from within, said EU’s climate chief Miguel Arias Canete. He spoke in an interview from Montreal, where the U.S., China, Canada and almost 30 other countries gathered to discuss the most-sweeping accord to date to protect the environment. “Our position on the Paris agreement has not changed. @POTUS has been clear, US withdrawing unless we get pro-America terms,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter.
Announcing plans to quit the pact, Trump said in June that the agreement favored other countries at the expense of U.S. workers and amounted to a “massive redistribution” of U.S. wealth. Trump’s administration last month began the formal process of exiting from the climate accord, drawing fire from allies and foes alike. EU climate commissioner Canete made the comments about a change of stance after meeting with Everett Eissenstat, deputy director of the National Economic Council and deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs. “Now we don’t see the messages that they are withdrawing from the Paris agreement radically,” Canete said, adding that the countries at Saturday’s meeting agreed not to seek a re-negotiation of the Paris deal.
Thomaston, Ga. — Not so long ago, this rural town an hour outside Atlanta was a hotbed of textile manufacturing. In the late 1990s, there were six major mills here. Their machines spun children’s clothing for Carter’s, made tire cords for B.F. Goodrich and produced bed sheets for J.C. Penney, Sears and Walmart. In all, they employed about 4,000 workers. By 2001, all of those jobs were gone. What has happened here in the 15 years since then tracks the slow comeback of manufacturing in the United States. Two textile companies have come in, investing millions in new technology and adding about 280 jobs in this town where one-third of the residents still live below the poverty line. It is becoming more affordable to produce textiles in the United States as machines become more efficient, companies say.
Major firms are more willing to pay higher prices for domestically sourced products, and rising wages in China mean there is less of an advantage to making products overseas. Last week, there was new cause for celebration when Marriott International announced that all towels in its 3,000 U.S. hotels would be manufactured by Standard Textile in plants here and in Union, S.C., a move expected to bring $23 million worth of business and 150 jobs back to the United States. The hotelier joins a number of other companies, including Walmart, Apple and General Electric, that have pushed for more U.S.-made products in recent years. But manufacturing employment here is a small fraction of what it was. Although a company such as Standard Textile once might have employed close to 1,000 people, today it has a couple of hundred workers who oversee machines that spin, scour and weave cotton.
“We’ve had to redefine who we were because we were a mill town for so long,” said Kyle Fletcher, executive director of the Thomaston-Upton Industrial Development Authority. “We lost a lot of the middle class.” The United States lost 30% of its manufacturing jobs between 1998 and 2016, according to Federal Reserve data. As of February, the country had 12.3 million workers in the sector, down from 17.6 million in April 2008. In February 2010, that figure was 11.5 million. There are hints that manufacturing is returning to the United States in small ways: The nation’s quarterly output has climbed steadily since the end of the recession, growing 35% and adding 650,000 jobs since mid-2009, according to the Fed. But the glory days are gone, Fletcher said. About one-third of Thomaston’s 9,000 residents live below the poverty line, compared with 23% in 1999. Average income has dropped more than 20% since 1999, to $14,243 from $18,193, according to U.S. Census data.
Dreams of lengthy cruises and beach life may be just that, with 20 of the world’s biggest countries facing a pension shortfall worth $78 trillion, Citi said in a report sent on Wednesday. “Social security systems, national pension plans, private sector pensions, and individual retirement accounts are unfunded or underfunded across the globe,” pensions and insurance analysts at the bank said in the report. “Government services, corporate profits, or retirement benefits themselves will have to be reduced to make any part of the system work. This poses an enormous challenge to employers, employees, and policymakers all over the world.” The total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for 20 countries belonging to the OECD – a group of largely wealthy countries — is $78 trillion, Citi said. (The countries studied include the U.K., France and Germany, plus several others in western and central Europe, the U.S., Japan, Canada, and Australia.)
The bank added that corporates also failed to consistently meet their pension obligations, with most U.S. and U.K. corporate pensions plans underfunded. Countries with large public pension systems in Europe appear to have the greatest problem. Citi noted that Germany, France, Italy, the U.K., Portugal and Spain had estimated public sector pension liabilities that topped 300% of GDP. Improvements in health care mean retirees need to string out their income for longer. Meanwhile, the increase in the retirement-age population versus the working population is straining government pension schemes. Several countries, including the U.K., France and Italy are gradually hiking retirement ages. Citi recommended that governments explicitly link the retirement age to expected longevity. It also advised that government-funded pensions should serve merely as a “safety net,” rather than the prime pension provider, and that corporate pensions should be “opt out” rather than “opt in” to encourage greater enrollment.
George Osborne’s latest Budget pretended to be many things it wasn’t. The Chancellor talked repeatedly about “borrowing falling”, yet in the next three years, borrowing on our behalf goes sharply up. He warned about “financial instability” and “storm clouds” on the economic horizon, yet he’s relying on growth assumptions that are surely too optimistic. While barely mentioning the EU referendum, the Chancellor’s determination to avoid Brexit pervaded almost every paragraph of his 63-minute Commons statement. Far from being “a Budget for the next generation” – a phrase wielded 18 times – his policies were aimed at attracting as many “Remain” voters as he could, while doing as little as possible to upset those still undecided. Rather than a “long-term Budget” (19 mentions), the package was designed for the next three months, ahead of the EU vote that will decide Osborne’s political future.
What we’ve just seen, then, was possibly the most short-term “long-term budget” in history. Bound to get the chattering classes chuntering (“G&T slimline, anyone?”), Osborne’s flab-fighting “sugar levy” was cynically tactical, broadening his appeal among non-Conservatives, while diverting attention from the statistical sleight of hand at the heart of this Budget. “Borrowing continues to fall,” the Chancellor told us. Really? It’s astonishing that, a full eight years after the financial crisis, and after a surge in growth and employment, the UK is still borrowing more than £72bn a year. Government debt stands at £1,591bn, 50pc up since Osborne took office, more than £50,000 per person in full or part-time employment. The Government is spending £46bn annually on interest payments alone – more than on defence – and that’s with interest rates at historic lows.
As the debt and rates spiral upwards, that interest bill can only rise, all at the expense of spending on services. Instead of cutting borrowing on Wednesday, the Budget fine print shows that, over the next three years, we’ll be adding another £116bn to our national debt – more than £36bn up on the borrowing projections in last November’s Autumn Statement. We’ll probably end up borrowing even more, of course, than these already gargantuan numbers, not least if growth is lower than forecast. Since last November, some £5 trillion has been wiped off global stock markets. Morgan Stanley now warns clients of a 30pc chance of global recession over the next year. Many financiers privately judge the chance of a financial collapse to be far higher. “As one of the most open economies in the world, the UK isn’t immune to global slowdowns and shocks,” Osborne told the Commons. Yet, over each of the next six years, the Budget borrowing projections rest on growth of 2pc or more. While I obviously hope that happens, it amounts to a mighty optimistic assumption.
Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into, Janet. U.S. Fed Chair Janet Yellen left rates unchanged this week, and confided after the Fed’s two-day policy meeting that, despite continuing improvement in the U.S. economy, weak global economic growth and turbulent markets had spooked the Fed into halving the number of times it expects to raise rates this year, to two from four. Yellen’s capitulation is already producing a predictable whoop of jubilation in Asian markets, as it confirms this column’s observation that the hot money crowd has succeeded in cry-bullying global central bankers into keeping the punchbowl of cheap cash full to overflowing. Stocks in Shanghai and Hong Kong rose by more than 1%, while Philippine stocks were up almost 2%.
While it’s often the case that Asian stocks move reflexively with those on Wall Street, today it’s all about the U.S. dollar, which fell 1% against the Japanese yen and about 0.7% against the Euro. Even though Tokyo stocks are up, the Fed’s move is bad news for Japan and Europe as well as their respective central bankers, Haruhiko Kuroda and Mario Draghi. As this column explained yesterday, both gentlemen are working furiously to use a negative interest-rate policy to weaken their currencies, boost inflation and revive economic growth. Hearing that Yellen won’t be riding to the rescue soon with another rate hike will come as bad news to them. But it’s excellent news for Asia’s smaller markets, since investors hunting for higher yields can no longer count on getting more bang for the buck out of Yellen.
Indonesia’s rupiah, which has risen 6% already this year, gained another 0.8% after the Fed’s announcement. Malaysia’s ringgit – what corruption scandal? – rose 1% and South Korea’s won soared by 2.5%. Don’t get too excited. While a more reluctant Fed extends the risk-on rally for Asian assets, it does not bode well for investors looking for fundamental value or an upturn in corporate profitability. For starters, the Fed is once again behind the market. Even as they’ve kicked and screamed after the Fed ended a 10-year, zero interest-rate policy by raising rates last December, sending Asian stocks down roughly 15% by mid-February, investors are starting to adjust to the reality that the U.S. economy is not sinking into recession. Jobs and inflation are improving and markets that early this year were predicting no rate hike until 2017 were yesterday betting on another hike as early as July. Yellen has surrendered after achieving victory.
The yuan’s swings are becoming a headache for the Chinese companies that should have been the biggest beneficiaries of last year’s devaluation. In rare overt comments, exporters including Midea and TCL are expressing apprehension about the nation’s exchange-rate policy. Two said the increased volatility has made it difficult to manage costs because customers are choosing to place only short-term orders, while a third said the yuan was allowed to strengthen far too much in the past few years. “Overseas clients are taking into account losses that can be caused by exchange-rate swings and are placing shorter-term orders with smaller volumes, which creates difficulty for our operations,” said Yuan Liqun, VP at Midea, China’s biggest maker of household appliances by market share.
“The fluctuations last year were relatively significant. Companies can accept a market-based yuan that moves within a reasonable range.” Exports slumped 25% in February from a year earlier and a gauge of overseas orders contracted for the 17th month in a row, while the currency’s volatility held near the highest levels since August’s shock devaluation. This illustrates the challenge facing Premier Li Keqiang as he balances the need to nudge the exchange rate lower to help an economy growing at the slowest pace in 25 years, while trying to avoid a run that would create financial instability. The currency, which has plunged 4.8% since last year’s devaluation, climbed in September and October, and dropped in the following three months before rebounding in February. It has strengthened 0.5% in March so far, almost wiping out this year’s losses. The wild swings contributed to an estimated $1 trillion in capital outflows last year.
The yuan, which Royal Bank of Canada says is currently overvalued, will face renewed selling pressure once the Federal Reserve decides to raise borrowing costs again. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists is for a drop of 4.1% by the end of the year. Its decline against the dollar in 2015 – the most in 21 years – masked a sixth straight annual gain against the exchange rates of China’s main trading partners, according to a BIS index. This shows that there is more room for depreciation, according to Fuyao Glass Industry, which makes automobile windows and whose clients include BMW and Volkswagen. “The yuan is strong, so Chinese companies can’t go abroad and most exporters are making losses,” Cho Tak Wong, chairman of Fuqing, Fujian-based Fuyao, said in an interview over the weekend. “China should allow the yuan to weaken. If the currency doesn’t depreciate, exports will be negatively influenced and export-focused firms will suffer.”
Chinese banks are starting to create a web of risk through their wealth management products (WMPs), raising concerns about the health of the financial system just as China’s economic growth has slowed to its weakest pace in 25 years. Retail investors are the majority of buyers of WMPs, which offer higher interest rates than a bank deposit. But it isn’t always clear what assets the funds are buying to finance those payouts. The industry publishes aggregated data on where WMPs tend to invest, but the disclosures of individual products can be vague. Overall, WMPs tend to invest in the industrial sector as well as industries related to local government and real estate, according to Fitch. All of these are segments of the economy suffering from overcapacity.
Most WMPs – as many as 74% – don’t carry the issuing bank’s guarantee that investors will be made whole at the end of the product’s term, which is usually less than six months, Fitch said. But even if the products fail to meet performance expectations, banks may choose to repay investors anyway to avoid the spectacle of mom and pop protesters in front of its branches – something that occurred outside a Hua Xia Bank branch near Shanghai in 2012, according to a Reuters report. When the WMP’s performance isn’t up to snuff, it can become a risk for more than just the issuing bank. “The fear is that investments are in industries that might not be generating cash so when they come due, the cash to repay investors might not be there.
There’s always pressure to roll them over,” Jack Yuan, associate director for financial institutions at Fitch, said last week. Additionally, some banks are investing in other banks’ WMPs – those investments are usually on banks’ balance sheets in a category called “investments classified as receivables,” Yuan noted. “There are a lot of interlinkages in the banking sector in terms of banks investing in other banks’ WMPs and calling on the interbank market for funding if they do go bad,” he said. “It’s going to be more and more difficult to resolve these if they do go bad.” There were around 23.5 trillion yuan ($3.60 trillion) worth of WMPs outstanding at the end of 2015, up from around 15 trillion yuan a year earlier, Fitch noted, with around 3,500 new ones offered each week.
Peabody Energy, the U.S.’s biggest coal miner, Wednesday posted a going-concern notice in a regulatory filing, warning of possible bankruptcy. A chapter 11 filing by Peabody, which operates 26 mines in the U.S. and Australia, would be the latest in a wave of bankruptcies to hit top American coal producers, including Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal and Walter Energy, as they wrestle with low energy prices, new regulations, and the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas. Punctuating Peabody’s woes, the Energy Information Administration Wednesday said that 2016 “will be the first year that natural gas-fired generation exceeds coal generation.”
The EIA said Americans would get 33% of their electricity from gas in 2016, and 32% from coal. As recently as 2008, coal fed half of U.S. electricity consumption. The weakening demand is hurting markets. Coal prices have fallen 62% since 2011, and 18% in the past year, according to the EIA. That drop is crushing companies like Peabody. The company has now lost money in nine straight quarters, and in 2015 posted a $2 billion deficit. As of Dec. 31, it had $6.3 billion in debt and $261.3 million in cash. Peabody, whose biggest mining operations are in Wyoming, has also been weighed down by its ill-timed acquisition of Australia’s Macarthur Coal for $5.1 billion in 2011. Prices have been declining ever since. Company shares, which have already lost more than 95% of their value in the past 12 months, fell 44% in midday trading.
Peabody’s share price has fallen to under $2.50 from more than $1,300 in 2008. On Wednesday, Peabody pointed to uncertainty around global coal fundamentals, economic growth concerns of some major coal-importing nations and the potential for additional regulatory requirements on coal producers as reasons for its notice. Because of operating problems and other financial problems, “we may not have sufficient liquidity to sustain operations and to continue as a going concern,” the St. Louis-based miner said in a filing with the SEC. “We may need to voluntarily seek protection under chapter 11 of the U.S. bankruptcy code.” Peabody said it had delayed an interest-rate payment on two loans, triggering a 30-day grace period. If the payments aren’t made within 30 days, an event of default would be declared.
Energy-sector bond defaults – and for some producers, bankruptcy risks – are piling up and coal liabilities aren’t the only culprit. Oil-and-gas producers, suffering with low crude prices after a shale revolution made the U.S. a viable energy producer, are smothered under their own junk bonds. Small- and medium-sized U.S.-based producers, especially those that expanded with the shale boom, are most vulnerable; any small blip in oil prices may not be high enough or fast enough to protect all producers. And just this week at least two more have warned about their near-term future. It’s a climate that’s driven some of this sector’s high-yield paper to trade at 30 cents on the dollar or less.
Peabody Energy said Wednesday it filed a “going concern” notice with regulators. Peabody has opted to exercise the 30-day grace period with respect to a $21.1 million interest payment due March 16 on its 6.50% notes due in September 2020, as well as a $50 million interest payment due March 16 on its 10% senior secured second lien notes due in March 2022. Costs and lost business to tougher coal regulation were cited. But Linn Energy – which on Tuesday filed its own “going concern” after missed interest payments now in a grace period — is primarily an oil-and-gas producer with shale interests in western U.S. states. If it files for bankruptcy protection, its $10 billion in debt would make it the largest U.S. oil company to do so since oil prices began their sharp decline in 2014.
In all, about 40 oil and gas producers have filed for bankruptcy protection globally since 2014, according to a February report from Deloitte. Crude traded to 12-year lows, below $30 a barrel, in February before a recent, mild rebound. Energy consulting firm Rystad Energy says smaller players typically need a minimum $50-a-barrel oil price to make a profit. Last week, Fitch said it’s raising its 2016 forecast for U.S. high-yield bond defaults to 6% from 4.5%, and said it expects energy and materials issuers to default on $70 billion of debt this year, including $40 billion for energy alone. The new rate of default is the highest that Fitch has ever forecast during a non-recessionary period, beating the 5.1% it forecast for 2000.
The check is not in the mail. Bludgeoned by falling energy prices, at least a dozen oil and natural gas companies have opted to cut dividends this year to preserve cash, cannibalizing payouts considered sacrosanct by many investors. The cost to shareholders: more than $7.4 billion in lost income, compared to what they would have received this year if the payouts remained the same. It’s another painful measure – along with tens of thousands of layoffs and more than $100 billion in canceled investments – of the toll taken on the industry by the worst oil and gas price slump in decades. The quarterly payments, prized by conservative shareholders as a source of steady income, are unlikely to be restored any time soon. “It really reinforces the necessity of having a margin of safety if you are buying a stock primarily for its dividend,” said Josh Peters, editor of Morningstar’s DividendInvestor newsletter.
“What we have found for some of the energy companies is that the margin of safety was either slim or nonexistent.” Kinder Morgan’s 75% dividend cut was the biggest, amounting to a $3.44 billion loss for shareholders over the course of 2016. The announcement from North America’s largest pipeline operator “came as a shock to some people and obviously was deplored by some people,” founder and Executive Chairman Richard Kinder told analysts at a Jan. 27 meeting. The move was necessary to help the Houston-based company keep its investment-grade credit rating while ensuring it has enough money to pay debts and grow, Kinder said. Since the Dec. 8 announcement, shares have risen about 20%, compared with a 3% gain for the Alerian MLP stock index, which tracks energy infrastructure companies.
Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil giant, cannot seem to get a break these days. It notched up 13 straight quarters of rising losses. It now owes over $80 billion to international investors and banks. It needs to raise $23 billion this year to stay afloat. The cost of servicing that gargantuan debt mountain continues to rise. So it tries desperately to rein in its spending, without tackling — or even discussing — its endemic culture of corruption. In recent days, Pemex received a 15 billion peso ($840 million) lifeline from three of Mexico’s homegrown development banks, Banobras, Bancomext and Nafinsa, to help the firm pay back some of its smallest providers, consisting mainly of domestic SMEs. The loan was part of an arrangement cobbled together between the banks and the Mexican government.
By today’s standards the amount involved is pretty meager, but the operation was about more than just raising funds: it was meant to restore confidence among both investors and suppliers in the firm’s ability to repay its debts. “This sends a sign of stability and confidence to the sector, which has been very nervous” payments would not be made, explained Erik Legorreta, President of the Mexican Oil Industry Association, which represents around 3,000 service providers. “Members of the industry now have the confidence and certainty that the payments will be honored.” Not everyone agrees. Last week the U.S. credit rating agency Moody’s flagged concerns that the loan will significantly increase the three banks’ combined exposure to Pemex’s debt, calculated to grow from 44% to 62%.
“The three lenders now have high concentration risks with their 20 biggest creditors,” cautioned Moody’s, which already downgraded Pemex’s debt in November to Baa1, with a negative outlook. In its report last week, the agency piled on the pressure by warning that there’s “a high likelihood” that it will downgrade Pemex’s rating another notch in the coming weeks. What this all means is that rather than restoring investor confidence in Pemex, the loan operation has merely served to reinforce investors’ fears that lending to the debt-laden oil giant is fast becoming a very dangerous risk.
Munich Re is resorting to the corporate equivalent of stuffing notes under the mattress as the world’s second-biggest reinsurer seeks to avoid paying banks to hold its cash. The German company will store at least €10 million in two currencies so it won’t have to pay for the right to access the money at short notice, Chief Executive Officer Nikolaus von Bomhardsaid at a press conference in Munich on Wednesday. “We will also observe what others are doing to avoid paying negative interest rates,” he said. Institutional investors including insurers, savings banks and pension funds are debating whether to store cash in vaults as overnight deposit rates fall deeper below zero and negative yields dent investment returns. The costs associated with insurance and logistics may outweigh the benefits of taking this step.
Munich Re’s move comes after the ECB last week cut the rate on the deposit facility, which banks use to park excess funds, to minus 0.4%. Munich Re’s strategy, if followed by others, could undermine the ECB’s policy of imposing a sub-zero deposit rate to push down market credit costs and spur lending. Cash hoarding threatens to disrupt the transmission of that policy to the real economy. Munich Re wants to test how practical it would be to store banknotes having already kept some of its gold in vaults, von Bomhard said. This comes at a time when consumers are increasingly using credit cards and electronic banking to pay for transactions. Deutsche Bank CEO John Cryan in January predicted the disappearance of physical cash within a decade. Munich Re also said on Wednesday that it expects its profit to decline this year as falling prices for its products and low interest rates weigh on investment earnings.
The Dutch parliament has voted to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia in protest against the kingdom’s humanitarian and rights violations. It sees the Netherlands become the first EU country to put in practice a motion by the European Parliament in February urging a bloc-wide Saudi arms embargo. The bill, voted through by Dutch MPs on Tuesday, quoted UN figures which suggest almost 6,000 people – half of them civilians – have been killed since Saudi-led troops entered the conflict in Yemen. It also cited the mass execution of 47 people, largely political dissidents, ordered by the Saudi judiciary on 2 January this year.
According to Reuters, the Dutch bill asks the government to implement a strict weapons embargo that includes dual-use exports which could potentially be used to violate human rights. The vote adds to the growing pressure on Britain, one of the main arms suppliers to Riyadh, to reconsider its stance. According to Campaign Against Arms Trade figures from the start of the year, the UK has sold more than £5.6 billion worth of weapons to the Saudi government under David Cameron. France is the other major European supplier of arms to the Saudi kingdom. Germany’s exports amounted to almost £140 million in the first six months of 2015, while figures for the Netherlands itself were not available.
Austria’s asylum cap to 37,500 refugees has been declared unlawful by the country’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday, March 15. While Chancellor Werner Faymann is calling on Germany to introduce its own cap, the president of Austria’s Constitutional Court, Gerhart Holzinger, stated that Austria is obliged to grand asylum to everyone that meets the legal requirements. Vienna allows 80 asylum seekers per day and allows 3,200 to transit to Germany. Meanwhile, the Austrian Defense Minister, Peter Doskozil, suggested on Tuesday that the EU should help the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – an EU candidate state – to secure its borders with Greece, an EU member state. Doskozil praised the government in Skopje for the work it has done “for the whole of the EU.” Austria’s Vice-President, Reinhold Mitterlehner, reiterated that “the Balkan route must stay closed.”
How the EU sees this: “We have a week to build a Greek state..” Insane, but true. It smells like the efficiency goal of German camps 70 years ago. If you don’t put people first, you’re going to get it wrong.
On paper the EU’s latest migration plan promises a straightforward solution to a crisis that has vexed European leaders for months. But in practice, it is anything but simple. By returning thousands of migrants to Turkey, Brussels and Berlin are hoping that others will become convinced the route is now impassable and join a formalised system instead. But its implementation poses an enormous administrative test, with little time to prepare. One of the EU’s weakest states, Greece, will be asked to play a central role. “We have a week to build a Greek state,” joked one senior EU official intimately involved with the planning. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president, acknowledged: “You don’t need to tell me that this is going to be very complicated in legal and logistical terms.” Here are five Herculean tasks ahead:
Preparing the ground — legally and literally Europe’s return plan violates Greek law. To address this, Greece must overhaul its asylum laws in a matter of days to enshrine Turkey as a “safe third country” to receive asylum seekers. The next step is harder: clearing the backlog. There are around 8,000 migrants on Greek islands, such as Lesbos and Chios. Officials say they ideally need to be moved before the so-called “X Day” -as early as Friday- when the returns policy officially begins. Yet Greek facilities are strained. Shelter is lacking on the mainland, where almost 40,000 migrants are already stranded. Mixing the groups — those who are trapped in Greece, awaiting relocation to Europe, and those who will be sent straight back to Turkey – could get ugly.
Creating a functioning asylum system in Greece “Unacceptable”, “degrading” and “unsanitary” were a few of the words used to describe Greece’s asylum system when the European Court of Human Rights banned other EU members from sending asylum seekers there in 2011. Yet the Greek system will now be the fulcrum of the EU’s deal with Turkey. Greece is the place where thousands of asylum seekers will land, be processed, housed and then returned to Turkey. This will require more manpower, particularly on the Aegean Islands. Everyone from judges -estimates range from 50 to 200- to a small army of Arabic or Pashto translators are required. “We’re far away from having the people, let alone trained people,” said one European official involved in preparations.
An asylum seeker’s claim is supposed to take a week to process, according to the EU plan. But the legal hoops are multiplying as Brussels attempts to guard against court challenges. This requires an assessment of each individual case and an interview. Applications must be dealt with fast – but not too fast. (In October, the European Commission criticised Budapest for rejecting applications in under an hour.) Most difficult is the appeals procedure, which must be heard by a judge. If Greece fails to jump through any of these legal hoops then judges in Greece, Luxembourg or Strasbourg could strike down the agreement. “That would bring the whole system to a halt,” said one senior EU official.
Managing unco-operative migrants So-called “hotspots” in Greece were first promised in September, yet these registration and sorting centres are only now taking shape. They can accommodate around 8,050 arrivals, according to the European Commission. Yet their role is about to change drastically. For a returns policy to work efficiently, hotspots must not simply register migrants but detain them. The centres will become containment facilities, according to EU plans, from which migrants who are about to be returned cannot escape. That requires more fences, more overnight shelter and more security guards. This is a horrible challenge. The UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in February found almost half to be children. Some detainees will be desperate and angry at the prospect of return, having just risked their lives on a sea journey that possibly cost their life savings. The risk of disorder is high.
The EU is preparing to scale back the number of Syrian refugees offered resettlement in Europe, as part of a controversial pact being drawn up with Turkey. The bloc’s 28 leaders will hold a summit in Brussels on Thursday, before a meeting the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu on Friday, to hammer out the final details of a plan aimed at stemming the flow of refugees and migrants coming to Europe. The EU has pledged to resettle Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, but figures that emerged on Wednesday suggested only 72,000 places would be available, with uncertainty about the bloc’s commitment beyond this number. As the UNHCR stepped up calls for a coordinated approach to manage the number of people, European diplomats were scrambling to finalise a deal with Turkey.
Under a proposed “one-for-one” scheme, for every Syrian refugee in Turkey who is resettled in Europe, a Syrian in Greece would be sent back across the Aegean. The vast majority of refugees and migrants in Greece can also expect to be sent back to Turkey. When these broad principles were agreed at an EU-Turkey summit 10 days ago, the numbers were vague but details are now emerging. Of the 72,000 places identified by the Commission for Syrian refugees, 18,000 places would be available under a voluntary resettlement scheme agreed last year. A further 54,000 places may be available “if needed” under a separate scheme designed to spread asylum seekers more evenly around the bloc, although this would require a change to EU law.
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European commission, said the EU would continue to help after these places were used up. It pointed to “a coalition of the willing”, made up of EU member states including Germany and Austria, who have pledged to resettle Syrians once irregular arrivals had stopped. “When we succeed in breaking the pattern of irregular arrivals one-for-one will not become none-for-none,” Timmermans said. But the various EU schemes to rehouse refugees are painfully slow. A plan to find homes for 160,000 refugees has led to only 937 being resettled, according to the latest data. Several countries are concerned that the Turkey deal could mean large-scale resettlement of Syrians in Europe.
A senior EU official said there “cannot be an open-ended commitment on the EU side”. The numbers discussed indicate that the EU wants to scale back help in Europe offered to refugees. Syrians in Greece will go to the back of the queue for resettlement in Europe once they are returned to Turkey. “Priority will be given to Syrians who have not previously entered the EU irregularly,” states an unpublished draft. The commission argues the plan will kill the business model of people smugglers, as potential migrants will have no incentive to come to Europe if they think they will be turned away. But the UN’s human rights chief has warned that the EU risks compromising its human rights values if it cuts corners on asylum standards.
More than 2,400 migrants and three corpses have been recovered from people smugglers’ boats off Libya since Tuesday, Italy’s coastguard said Wednesday. After several quiet weeks, the figures represent a pick-up in the flow of migrants attempting to reach Italy via Libya, a route through which around 330,000 people have made it to Europe since the start of 2014. Prior to the latest rescues, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) had reported 9,500 people landing at Italian ports since the start of the year. This compares with more than 143,000 who have reached Greek islands by crossing the Aegean Sea since January 1.
With efforts underway to close the entry route through Greece, Italian authorities are wary of a surge in the number of migrants attempting to come through Libya. So far there has been no indication of that happening. Numbers arriving from Libya have always fluctuated in line with weather conditions in the Mediterranean and other factors. Arrivals were slightly down in 2015 compared with 2014 – a trend that may be related to the political chaos in Libya which might have deterred some migrants and has made it harder for those that do make the journey to find work there while awaiting boats to Italy.
The danger lurking in the risk asset markets was succinctly captured by MarketWatch’s post on overnight action in Asia. The latter proved once again that the casino gamblers are incapable of recognizing the on-rushing train of global recession because they have become addicted to “stimulus” as a way of life:
Shares in Hong Kong led a rally across most of Asia Tuesday, on expectations for more stimulus from Chinese authorities, specifically in the property sector…….The gains follow fresh readings on China’s economy, which showed further signs of slowdown in manufacturing data released Tuesday (which) remains plagued by overcapacity, falling prices and weak demand. The dimming view casts doubt that the world’s second-largest economy can achieve its target growth of around 7% for the year. The central bank has cut interest rates six times since last November.
More stimulus from China? Now that’s a true absurdity – not because the desperate suzerains of red capitalism in Beijing won’t try it, but because it can’t possibly enhance the earnings capacity of either Chinese companies or the international equities. In fact, it is plain as day that China has reached “peak debt”. Additional borrowing there will not only prolong the Ponzi and thereby exacerbate the eventual crash, but won’t even do much in the short-run to brake the current downward economic spiral. That’s because China is so saturated with debt that still lower interest rates or further reduction of bank reserve requirements would amount to pushing on an exceedingly limp credit string. To wit, at the time of the 2008 crisis, China’s “official” GDP was about $5 trillion and its total public and private credit market debt was roughly $8 trillion.
Since then, debt has soared to $30 trillion while GDP has purportedly doubled. But that’s only when you count the massive outlays for white elephants and malinvestments which get counted as fixed asset spending. So at a minimum, China has borrowed $4.50 for every new dollar of reported GDP, and far more than that when it comes to the production of sustainable wealth. Indeed, everything is so massively overbuilt in China – from unused airports to empty malls and luxury apartments to redundant coal mines, steel plants, cement kilns, auto plants, solar farms and much, much more – that more borrowing and construction is not only absolutely pointless; it is positively destructive because it will result in an even more destructive adjustment cycle. That is, it will only add to the immense already existing downward pressure on prices, rents and profits in China, thereby insuring that even more trillions of bad debts will eventually implode.
[..] When peak debt is reached, additional credit never leaves the financial system; it just finances the final blow-off phase of leveraged speculation in the secondary markets.
Manufacturing in the U.S. unexpectedly contracted in November at the fastest pace since the last recession as elevated inventories led to cutbacks in orders and production. The Institute for Supply Management’s index dropped to 48.6, the lowest level since June 2009, from 50.1 in October, its report showed Tuesday. The November figure was weaker than the most pessimistic forecast in a Bloomberg survey. Readings less than 50 indicate contraction. The report showed factories believed their customers continued to have too many goods on hand, indicating it will take time for orders and production to stabilize.
Manufacturers, which account for almost 12% of the economy, are also battling weak global demand, an appreciating dollar and less capital spending in the energy sector. “There are some clear signs of weakness — industries that are tied to oil and gas, agriculture or are heavily dependent on exports are all clearly slowing,” Mark Vitner at Wells Fargo Securities said before the report. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the manufacturing numbers remain soft for the next five to six months.”
It’s seven years after the financial crisis and the banking industry is still in receipt of state support – support that will be available for two more years, and perhaps for longer. The Treasury and the Bank of England have decided to extend their Funding for Lending Scheme (FLS), which supplies banks with cheap money with the aim of keeping the supply of credit flowing. What ought, in theory, to be the scheme’s final outing will be very specifically targeted at lending to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is a sector which is still struggling to obtain the funding it needs at a time when lending to other sectors has largely recovered. The Bank says that things are improving, and its figures bear that out. But not quickly, and the growth in small business lending pales by comparison to the growth in consumer lending.
The expansion of the latter is starting to cause concern, with the Bank’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, fretting about personal loans. He says they’re picking up at a rate of knots. Britain has long nursed an addiction to the drug of debt that it’s never really addressed and the growth in unsecured lending is an indication of a return to bad habits. Given that Mr Haldane and his colleagues are engaged in the unenviable task of walking an economic tightrope, it’s no wonder that he’s getting twitchy. But consumers are not, as yet, shooting up with the sort of wild abandon they exhibited in the run-up to the crisis. And, as Investec’s Philip Shaw points out, it wasn’t so long ago that we were still talking about the need to make more credit available.
Workers in the UK will have the worst pensions of any major economy and the oldest official retirement age of any country, according tothe Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The typical British worker can look forward to a pension worth only 40% of their pay , once state and private pensions are combined. The Paris-based thinktank said on Tuesday that this compares with about 90% in the Netherlands and Austria and 80% in Spain and Italy. Only Mexico and Chile offer their workers a worse prospect after retirement, although Turkey is the surprise table-topper, giving its retirees an average pension equal to 105% of average wages, according to the OECD report. Britain has begun an auto-enrolment scheme that will offer millions of low-paid workers a private pension for the first time.
But with contribution rates low, the payouts will not be generous. Last week the chancellor, George Osborne, gave employers a six-month delay to planned increases in their contribution rates. Pensions expert Tom McPhail of Hargreaves Lansdown said: “This analysis makes embarrassing reading for the politicians who have been responsible for the UK’s pensions over the past 25 years. “The state pension was in steady decline for years. Even though it is improving for lower earners now, average payouts will not be rising. It is in the private sector though where the real damage has been done; the collapse in final salary pensions has not yet been replaced with well-funded alternatives.” The age at which workers qualify for a state pension in the UK will, at 68 years old, be the highest of any country in the world, equalled only by Ireland and Czech Republic.
The prize for earliest retirees goes to France and Belgium. “Workers stay the longest in the labour market in Korea, Mexico, Iceland and Japan; men exit the soonest in France and Belgium while women leave the earliest in the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Poland,” said the OECD. While many European countries offer significantly better pensions than in Britain, the cost is now close to sustainable, said the OECD. In recent years there have been frequent warnings about the “demographic timebomb” that will wreck the finances of ageing European nations. But the OECD said that changes to taxation, contribution rates and pensionable ages means that the burden of paying pensions will rise from the current level of 9% of GDP to just 10.1% by 2050.
Standard and Poor’s cut Volkswagen’s credit rating to “BBB+” from “A-” on Tuesday, shortly after the automaker reported that an emissions-cheating scandal took a serious bite out of its U.S. sales last month. The German automaker said that November U.S. sales fell almost 25% from a year ago. The company blamed the decline on stop-sale orders for diesel-powered vehicles that the government says cheated on pollution tests. The VW brand sold just under 24,000 vehicles last month compared with almost 32,000 a year ago.
S&P noted the emissions scandal also contributed to its ratings cut. The agency said it expects Volkswagen to “experience ongoing adverse credit impacts.” The U.S. is a relatively small market for Volkswagen. The VW brand sold 490,000 vehicles worldwide in October, 5% below a year ago. VW has admitted that 482,000 2-liter diesel vehicles in the U.S. contained software that turned pollution controls on for government tests and off for real-world driving. The government says another 85,000 six-cylinder diesels also had cheating software.
Thomas Piketty is out with a new argument about income inequality. It may prove more controversial than his book, which continues to generate debate in political and economic circles. The new argument, which Piketty spelled out recently in the French newspaper Le Monde, is this: Inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Islamic State attacks on Paris earlier this month — and Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality. Piketty writes that the Middle East’s political and social system has been made fragile by the high concentration of oil wealth into a few countries with relatively little population.
If you look at the region between Egypt and Iran — which includes Syria — you find several oil monarchies controlling between 60 and 70% of wealth, while housing just a bit more than 10% of the 300 million people living in that area. (Piketty does not specify which countries he’s talking about, but judging from a study he co-authored last year on Middle East inequality, it appears he means Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. By his numbers, they accounted for 16% of the region’s population in 2012 and almost 60% of its gross domestic product.) This concentration of so much wealth in countries with so small a share of the population, he says, makes the region “the most unequal on the planet.”
Within those monarchies, he continues, a small slice of people controls most of the wealth, while a large — including women and refugees — are kept in a state of “semi-slavery.” Those economic conditions, he says, have become justifications for jihadists, along with the casualties of a series of wars in the region perpetuated by Western powers. His list starts with the first Gulf War, which he says resulted in allied forces returning oil “to the emirs.” Though he does not spend much space connecting those ideas, the clear implication is that economic deprivation and the horrors of wars that benefited only a select few of the region’s residents have, mixed together, become what he calls a “powder keg” for terrorism across the region.
Piketty is particularly scathing when he blames the inequality of the region, and the persistence of oil monarchies that perpetuate it, on the West: “These are the regimes that are militarily and politically supported by Western powers, all too happy to get some crumbs to fund their [soccer] clubs or sell some weapons. No wonder our lessons in social justice and democracy find little welcome among Middle Eastern youth.” Terrorism that is rooted in inequality, Piketty continues, is best combated economically.
All totlly legal, no doubt. “..an emerald and diamond jewellery set containing a ring, earrings, bracelet, and necklace, which was valued at $780,000 [was given to] Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Three quarters of the value of all official gifts given to the US administration in 2014 came from Saudi Arabia, according to US government records. US President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, their daughters and US federal government employees received official gifts estimated to be worth a total of $3,417,559 last year. Analysis of the annual disclosure, released by the US Department of State’s Office of the Chief of Protocol, found Saudi Arabia gave the US gifts valued at around $2,566,525. It dominated the report and represented 75% of the value of all gifts received by Obama and his government employees last year.
When all other Arab countries are added to the mix the total value rises to nearly $3 million, with the Arab region accounting for 87% of the value of all gifts. The most lavish gift was an emerald and diamond jewellery set containing a ring, earrings, bracelet, and necklace, which was valued at $780,000. It was not given to Obama, his wife Michelle or his children, but Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The jewels were given to Mrs Kerry in January 2014 by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. First Lady Michelle Obama is included in the top five with two gifts of jewels from Saudi Arabia, each worth well over half a million dollars.
The president himself is further down the list, behind his children and wife, and ranked 7th with a white gold men’s watch worth $67,000. The six other Gulf states also gave lavish gifts to the Obama administration. Qatar gave Eric Holder, US Attorney General, a $24,150 gold and silver ship depicting United States and the State of Qatar flags in a case, in addition to an engraved Cartier bracelet. The UAE also gifted a gold necklace and earring set with white stones worth around $3,200 to Deborah K. Jones, Ambassador of the US to the State of Libya. The gift was presented in March 2014 on behalf of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE.
Soon after launching a brutal air and ground assault in Yemen, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began devoting significant resources to a sophisticated public relations blitz in Washington, D.C. The PR campaign is designed to maintain close ties with the U.S. even as the Saudi-led military incursion into the poorest Arab nation in the Middle East has killed nearly 6,000 people, almost half of them civilians. Elements of the charm offensive include the launch of a pro-Saudi Arabia media portal operated by high-profile Republican campaign consultants; a special English-language website devoted to putting a positive spin on the latest developments in the Yemen war; glitzy dinners with American political and business elites; and a non-stop push to sway reporters and policymakers. That has been accompanied by a spending spree on American lobbyists with ties to the Washington establishment.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy, as we’ve reported, now retains the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, the leader of one of the largest Republican Super PACs in the country, and a law firm with deep ties to the Obama administration. One of Jeb Bush’s top fundraisers, Ignacio Sanchez, is also lobbying for the Saudi Kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the U.S. has come under particular strain in recent years as the government has not only launched the brutal war in Yemen, but has embarked on a wave of repression. Following the appointment of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud to the Saudi throne in January, the Kingdom sharply increased the number of people executed — often by beheading and crucifixion — for daring to protest or criticize the government or for crimes as minor as adultery or “witchcraft.” On November 17, a Saudi court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh, a famed poet, to death for “apostasy.”
There have also been reports that Saudi Arabia continues to be a leading driver of Sunni terror networks worldwide, including in Syria and Iraq. The Saudi Arabian government is currently supplying weapons to a Syrian rebel coalition that includes the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in the region. As the New York Times has reported, private donors in Saudi Arabia have also worked as fundraisers for the Islamic State, or ISIS. And there is a renewed, bipartisan push by lawmakers to declassify the 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report, a censored section that reportedly relates to Saudi state support for al Qaeda’s operation.
Pope Francis, galvanized by a scandal over Vatican finances, has ordered the most powerful bodies in the city-state to launch an unprecedented audit of its wealth and crack down on runaway spending. At the suggestion of his economic chief, Cardinal George Pell, Francis has set up a “Working-Party for the Economic Future” which brings together the Secretariat of State, or prime minister’s office, the Vatican Bank and other agencies. Francis has told the panel “to address the financial challenges and identify how more resources can be devoted to the many good works of the Church, especially supporting the poor and vulnerable,” Danny Casey, director of Pell’s office at the Secretariat for the Economy, said in an interview.
The pope’s initiatives come as five people stand trial in the Vatican over the leak of confidential documents in two books published last month that described corruption, mismanagement and wasteful spending by church officials. Those on trial deny wrongdoing. Francis, 78, has pushed for more openness and transparency in Vatican financial and economic agencies but he has faced resistance from the Rome bureaucracy. On the flight back to Rome on Monday after a visit to Africa, Francis told reporters that the so-called Vatileaks II scandal was an indication of the mess that he’s trying to sort out.
The trial of two former Vatican employees alongside the books’ authors highlighted Church efforts “to seek out corruption, the things which aren’t right,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the Vatican. The working group, which held its first meeting last week, will study measures to cut costs and raise revenue as part of a long-term financial plan. “This will include comparing actual expenditure against budgets at a consolidated level, which is a new initiative,” Casey said.
The IMF’s decision to add China’s yuan to its reserves basket is a triumph for Beijing, but the fund’s verdict that the currency met its “freely usable” test will have little financial impact unless Beijing recruits more users. The desire of Chinese reformers to internationalize the currency has a clear economic rationale; a yuan in wide circulation overseas would reduce China’s dependence on the dollar system and on policy set in Washington. It would also make it easier for Chinese firms to invoice and borrow offshore in yuan, reducing the risk of exchange rate fluctuations and prompting China’s inefficient state-owned banks to improve their performance or lose business. Those concerned about a potential global liquidity crisis caused by overdependence on the United States might also welcome the yuan as an alternative to the dollar, as would countries locked out of dollar capital markets by sanctions.
But to serve these purposes, there needs to be a much bigger pool of yuan outside China, which requires offshore institutions – and not just in Hong Kong – to buy and hold yuan. Few believe the IMF decision alone, which economist Alicia Garcia-Herrero called a “beauty contest”, will change investor behavior much. For that, says Swiss bank UBS, Beijing needs to continue financial reforms and capital account liberalization to improve the efficiency of capital allocation in China. Foreign investors want Beijing to provide predictable and transparent legal and taxation treatment, and drop its penchant for pilot programs and quotas in favor of consistency. They also want to know they can freely sell their yuan assets, not just buy, a concern that only grew over the summer, when Beijing stepped into its stock markets to stop a sell-off.
Foreign investors aren’t making full use of the existing channels to buy Chinese assets that Beijing allows – quotas for the two Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor programs (QFII and RQFII) and the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect have yet to be used up. And for all the impressive trade statistics, much of the “offshore” yuan isn’t traveling the globe but bouncing to and fro across the internal border with Hong Kong, largely traded between Chinese companies. “The number one thing we would like to see changed is that the QFII and RQFII quotas are dropped, just as they dropped in July the quotas for central banks, sovereign wealth funds and supernationals. It’ll make it a lot easier for global institutional investors,” said Hayden Briscoe at AllianceBernstein in Hong Kong.
Why would China want the IMF to put the yuan in the SDR? It may want to engineer a bump in capital inflows, at a time when money is trying to leave China. Generating some foreign demand for yuan-denominated assets might help stabilize the Chinese currency, which is expected to depreciate a bit in the months ahead. The IMF might be motivated to help China limit the moves in its currency in order to promote global macroeconomic stability, or it might want to lure China into making sovereign loans through the fund instead of on its own. Ultimately, the yuan’s status as a reserve currency will be driven by China’s further liberalization of its capital account. The easier it becomes to move money in and out of yuan, the more asset managers will be willing to put their money in.
And if China ascends to true reserve currency status, the most important effects will be in the long term – not all of them good. True reserve currency status makes it cheaper for a government to borrow, which means that – all else equal – more borrowing will happen. That will increase net capital inflows. And as many countries have learned during the last decade, capital inflows can cause trouble. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, intuitively. How could it harm a country to allow it to borrow cheaply? If countries were rational and foresighted, they would borrow no more than is healthy. But sovereign borrowing decisions are the result of government decisions not market ones, and no one would argue that governments always make wise choices. Even the private sector, though, could be harmed by capital inflows.
As economists Gianluca Benigno, Nathan Converse, and Luca Fornaro have found, large influxes of foreign money can lead to booms and busts. They can also cause a country to shift resources out of manufacturing, where productivity growth is often high, into service-oriented industries where productivity is relatively stagnant. Over the past several decades, the U.S. dollar has been the main reserve currency, and the U.S. has experienced huge capital inflows, especially from countries such as China. Those capital inflows in turn have caused a large, persistent trade deficit. Perhaps not coincidentally, U.S. manufacturing hasn’t grown very fast since the late 1990s. In the year ahead, reserve-currency status might help cushion the country’s economic slowdown. But in the long term, it might be a poisoned chalice for China.
The EU is warning Greece it faces suspension from the Schengen passport-free travel zone unless it overhauls its response to the migration crisis by mid-December, as frustration mounts over Athens’ reluctance to accept outside support. Several European ministers and senior EU officials see the threat of pushing out Greece over “serious deficiencies” in border control as the only way left to persuade Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime minister, to deliver on his promises and take up EU offers of help. If the EU follows through on its threat, it would mark the first time a country has been suspended from Schengen since its establishment in 1985. The challenge to Athens comes amid a bigger rethink on tightening joint border control to ensure the survival of the Schengen zone.
The European Commission will this month propose a joint border force empowered to take charge of borders, potentially even against the will of frontline states such as Greece. Greece’s relatively weak administration has been overwhelmed by more than 700,000 migrants crossing its frontiers this year. Given the severity of the crisis, EU officials are vexed by Athens’s refusal to call in a special mission from Frontex, the EU border agency; its unwillingness to accept EU humanitarian aid; and its failure to revamp its system for registering refugees. EU home affairs ministers, who meet on Friday, are to make clear that more drastic measures will be considered if Greece fails to take action before a summit of EU leaders in mid-December, according to four senior European diplomats.
The suspension warning has been delivered repeatedly to Greece this week, including through a visit to Athens by Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. One Greek official strongly denied accusations of being unco-operative and said claims Mr Tsipras has failed to meet pledges made at a summit of western Balkan leaders last month were “untrue”. But another official acknowledged the foot-dragging. He said it stemmed from a legal requirement that only Greeks were allowed to patrol the country’s borders as well as sensitivity over the long-running dispute over Macedonia’s name and suspicions about Turkish designs on certain Greek islands, including Lesbos, point of entry for many migrants.
As Greece shares no land borders with Schengen , Greek officials point out it will have no impact on migrant flows. “There are no refugees leaving Greece who are flying ,” he said. EU officials acknowledge this but say the withdrawal of travel rights for Greeks is one of their few points of leverage over Mr Tsipras. Athens has recently turned down a deployment of up to 400 Frontex staff to immediately reinforce its border with Macedonia, complaining in a letter to the European Commission that their mandate was too broad and went beyond registration. Greek officials have yet to accept an invitation to invoke an emergency aid scheme – the EU civil protection mechanism — that would rush humanitarian support to islands and border areas.
Danes head to the polling stations on Thursday (3 December) for their eighth EU referendum since a majority voted Yes to join the club back in 1972. So far, they voted five time Yes and two times No, with a narrow lead for the No side this time around. A Gallup poll published on Saturday in the Berlingske Tidende daily showed 38% intend to vote No, with 34% Yes, and 23% undecided. You need to go back to the Maastricht treaty referendum over 20 years ago to find the reason for this week’s plebiscite. Maastricht was initially rejected by the Danes in 1992. In order to save the entire treaty, Denmark, at a summit in Edinburgh, was offered a handful of treaty-based opt-outs, preserving Danish sovereignty over EU-policy areas, such as the euro and justice and home affairs.
The Maastricht treaty was then approved together with the opt-outs in a re-run of the vote in 1993. EU legislation in the area of justice and home affairs has ballooned in the 20 years which followed. Today, it includes important areas such as cybercrime, trafficking, data protection, the Schengen free-travel system, refugee and asylum policy, and closer police co-operation on counter-terrorism. Bound by the old treaty opt-out, Denmark automatically stays out of all the supra-national EU justice and home affairs policies and doesn’t take part in EU Council votes in these areas. A frustrated majority in the Danish parliament, nick-named “Borgen” (The Castle), in August voted to call the referendum asking citizens to scrap the old arragement. They wanted permission from voters to opt in to the justice and home affairs policies over time, without having to consult people, each time, in a referendum.
The Yes parties identified 22 existing EU initiatives they want Denmark to join right after a Yes vote. They also promised Denmark won’t take part in 10 other EU initiatives – including the hot-button issue of asylum and immigration. The day after the referendum was announced, Gallup polled that a safe majority of 58% would vote Yes. But something happened during the campaign. First, the refugee crisis hardened public opinion. Liberal prime minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen promised there would be a new referendum before Denmark ever joins EU refugee and asylum policies. The move confused voters, who saw no reason to scrap the opt-out if Denmark was to stay out of key policies anyway. Then more terror attacks hit Paris in November.
The European People’s Party (EPP) has reiterated its opposition to EU membership for Turkey, despite the agreement that was reached on Sunday (29 November). EurActiv Germany reports. The deal that was struck with Ankara in relation to providing aid to tackle the refugee crisis and reopening accession talks has done nothing to quell the scepticism of the conservative EPP. “For us in the EPP, it is clear that we want a close partnership, but not full membership,” Manfred Weber (CSU), the EPP’s group leader, told Bavarian television on Monday (30 November). Although supporting the financial pledge made by the EU, he called the decision to allow Turks visa-free travel a “bitter pill” to swallow.
On Sunday evening (29 November), the EU and Turkey concluded talks that had been made necessary by the ongoing refugee crisis. Ankara committed itself to strengthening its land and sea borders, as well as stepping up its efforts against traffickers. In return, the EU pledged €3 billion to be used exclusively to care for refugees, to remove the visa-requirement for Turkish travellers and to re-energise accession talks. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (FDP), Vice-President of the European Parliament, criticised the reopening of accession talks, given the civil and human rights situation in Asia Minor. It is not right that the EU have thrown their “values overboard” in dealing with the refugee crisis, the liberal politician said in a radio interview. Lambsdorff accused the German Chancellor of kowtowing to Turkish President Erdogan.
Secret official documents about the searching of three trucks belonging to Turkey’s national intelligence service (MIT) have been leaked online, once again corroborating suspicions that Ankara has not been playing a clean game in Syria. According to the authenticated documents, the trucks were found to be transporting missiles, mortars and anti-aircraft ammunition. The Gendarmerie General Command, which authored the reports, alleged, “The trucks were carrying weapons and supplies to the al-Qaeda terror organization”. But Turkish readers could not see the documents in the news bulletins and newspapers that shared them, because the government immediately obtained a court injunction banning all reporting about the affair.
When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prime minister, he had said, “You cannot stop the MIT truck. You cannot search it. You don’t have the authority. These trucks were taking humanitarian assistance to Turkmens”. Since then, Erdogan and his hand-picked new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have repeated at every opportunity that the trucks were carrying assistance to Turkmens. Public prosecutor Aziz Takci, who had ordered the trucks to be searched, was removed from his post and 13 soldiers involved in the search were taken to court on charges of espionage. Their indictments call for prison terms of up to 20 years. In scores of documents leaked by a group of hackers, the Gendarmerie Command notes that rocket warheads were found in the trucks’ cargo. According to the documents that circulated on the Internet before the ban came into effect, this was the summary of the incident:
Russia is working with the UN Security Council on a document that would enforce stricter implementation of Resolution 2199, which aims to curb illegal oil trade with and by terrorist groups, Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin told RIA Novosti. The draft resolution intends to quash the financing of terrorist groups, including Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) extremists. “We are not happy with the way Resolution 2199, which was our initiative, is controlled and implemented. We want to toughen the whole procedure,” Churkin said. “We are already discussing the text with some colleagues and I must say that so far there is not a lot of contention being expressed.” US Ambassador Samantha Power said that America has “a shared objective” with Russia on this, since it is also working towards bringing the financing of terrorism to a halt.
The new document is a follow-up to Russian-sponsored Resolution 2199, which was adopted by the UN on February 12 to put a stop to illicit oil deals with terrorist structures using the UN Security Council’s sanctions toolkit. February’s resolution “has become an integral part of efforts by the UN Security Council, with Russia’s active involvement, to consolidate the international legal framework for countering the terrorist threat from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra,” Dr Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wrote for RT. “Its urgency is prompted by the considerable revenues that the terrorists are receiving from trade in hydrocarbons from seized deposits in Syria and Iraq.” More specifically, it bans all types of oil trade with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
If such transactions are discovered, they are labeled as financial aid to terrorists and result in targeted sanctions against participating individuals or companies. Back in July, the UN Security Council expressed “grave concern” over reports of oil trading with IS militant groups in Iraq and Syria. The statement came after IS seized control of oilfields in the area and was reportedly using the revenues to finance its nascent “state.” While Ambassador Churkin has proposed sanctioning states trading with IS terrorists, a retired US army general, believes that Churkin should be more specific in identifying the state actors involved in the illegal oil trade. Retired US Army Major General Paul E. Vallely, who has recently been lobbying for the Syrian rebels to cooperate with Russia against Islamic State, as well as for Washington to take a more active role in the war on IS, says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be singled out as a “negative force” for supporting Islamic State’s black market oil revenues.
While the rebels in eastern Syria where the oil fields are located “could align with certain forces that are there – the Russians, if they were so inclined to do so… the key is to destroy ISIS, and one of the initiatives that ambassador Churkin should be moving toward with the Security Council is Erdogan in Turkey,” Vallely told RT. “He [Erdogan] has been supporting ISIS since I was over there several years ago. I’ve met some of the black-marketeers along the Syrian border there in [Turkish] Hatay province, and so they’re alive and well. But Erdogan is a problem, he really is, and if I was ambassador Churkin, not only would I propose something in the Security Council for cutting off the finances, but also doing some kind of action against Erdogan. He is a very, very negative force in that area.”
Russia may freeze work on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project for several years in retaliation against Ankara for the shooting down of a Russian Air Force jet, two sources at Russian gas giant Gazprom have told Reuters. The project is to involve, initially, building a new gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey, and in subsequent phases the construction of a further line from Turkey to Greece, and then overland into Southeastern Europe. Even before the row with Ankara, the project had been delayed and reduced in scale, leading some industry insiders to doubt if it would ever happen.
Virtually out of cash and with its revenues fast deteriorating, Puerto Rico is moving toward default on $7 billion in loans owed by its public corporations to free up money to repay loans backed by the territory’s full faith and credit, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla told a Senate hearing Tuesday. The move allowed Puerto Rico to make a $355 million bond payment due today. Still, the financial gimmick, which violates the terms of some of those bond deals, only provides a short-term fix for the island’s liquidity problems. With at least $687 million in payments due on Jan. 1 and others to follow, it will only be a matter of time before Puerto Rico misses large payments on its $73 billion in outstanding debt, officials said.
“In simple terms we have begun to default on our debt in an effort to attempt to repay bonds issued with full faith and credit of the commonwealth and secure sufficient resources to protect the life, health, safety and welfare of the people of Puerto Rico,” Garcia Padilla told the Senate Judiciary Committee. If Congress does not pass legislation to allow Puerto Rico to reorganize its debts in bankruptcy, Tuesday’s financial move will just be “the beginning of a very long and chaotic process” that will harm the island’s creditors and allow a budding humanitarian crisis on the island to grow out of control, the governor said.
Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration on Tuesday to investigate 21 former U.S. officials, including former President George W. Bush, for potential criminal misconduct for their roles in the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects in detention. The other officials include former Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA Director George Tenet, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Human Rights Watch argued that details of the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program that were made public by a U.S. Senate committee in December 2014 provided enough evidence for the Obama administration to open an inquiry.
“It’s been a year since the Senate torture report, and still the Obama administration has not opened new criminal investigations into CIA torture,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Without criminal investigations, which would remove torture as a policy option, Obama’s legacy will forever be poisoned.” Representatives for Bush and Tenet declined comment. Representatives for Cheney, Ashcroft and Rice could not immediately be reached for comment. Former Bush administration officials and Republicans have argued that the CIA used “enhanced interrogation techniques” that did not constitute torture. They argue that the Senate report was biased.
“It’s a bunch of hooey,” James Mitchell, one of the architects of the interrogation program told Reuters nearly a year ago after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings. “Some of the things are just plain not true.” In a video released in conjunction with the report, “No More Excuses” “A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture,” the president of the American Bar Association calls for a renewed investigation as well. In June, the ABA sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch also saying that the details disclosed in the Senate report merited an investigation. “What we’ve asked the Justice Department to do is take a fresh look, a comprehensive look, into what has occurred to basically leave no stone unturned into investigating possible violations,” said American Bar Association President Paulette Brown.
“And if any are found to take the appropriate action as they would in any other matter.” CIA interrogators carried out the program on detainees who were captured around the world after the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks on the United States. In 2008, the Bush administration opened a criminal inquiry into whether the CIA destroyed videotapes of interrogations. After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration expanded the inquiry to include whether the interrogation program’s activity involved criminal conduct. In 2012, the Obama administration closed the criminal inquiry. Then Attorney General Eric Holder said that not enough evidence existed for criminal prosecution, including the death of two detainees.
A 4-year-old child was reported drowned in the early hours of Tuesday as she and 28 fellow passengers tried to swim to the shore of Rho, a small islet off the coast of Kastellorizo in the southeastern Aegean. The coast guard says it was able to rescue the other 28 passengers on board the craft that had set sail from Turkey as they tried to reach Europe, but the young girl drowned in the final scramble. Greek coast guard officers have rescued over 200 refugees and migrants from Greece’s seas since Monday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election and announced a delay in the second sales tax hike by 18 months after the country fell into recession. The move announced on Tuesday comes after growth numbers on Monday showed the world’s third-largest economy shrunk by an annualized 1.6% in the third quarter after a 7.3% contraction in the second quarter, shocking the markets. “I have decided not to raise the consumption tax to 10% next October and I have decided to delay a consumption tax hike for 18 months,” Abe said at a press conference. Japan has suffered since the first consumption tax hike from 5 to 8% in April.
Abe said the rise in the sales tax “acted as a heavy weight and offset a rise in consumption”. A second consumption tax hike was set for October 2015 which would have seen a 2% increase to 10%. Abe also said the lower house of parliament would be dissolved on November 21 and an election would be called in a move to strengthen his mandate for “Abenomics” – his set of economic policies. The Japanese Prime Minister admitted that it will be a “difficult election” but said he wanted the public to back his package of reforms. “There are differing opinions on the structural reforms we have proposed and I have decided that I need to hear the voice of the Japanese public on whether or not we should go forward with these reforms,” Abe said.
There are still ‘analysts’ around who actually believe this stuff: “Household sentiment should be relaxed thanks to the delay in another VAT hike, helping improve spending attitude and facilitate consumption recovery”. Spending in Japan has been down for years, nothing to do with sales taxes.
With Japan’s slump into its fourth recession since 2008 threatening the failure of the Abenomics reflation program, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is taking steps to shore up growth for the coming year. Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters yesterday in Tokyo there’s a high chance of a stimulus package. Etsuro Honda, an adviser to Abe, said a 3 trillion yen ($26 billion) program was appropriate and should go toward measures that directly help households, such as child care support. Abe, who holds a news conference later today, is also considering a postponement of an October sales-tax increase until 2017 – a move that would add 0.3 percentage point to growth in the coming fiscal year, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
At stake for the prime minister is assuring re-election in a likely snap vote next month that may serve as a referendum on his policies. “Household sentiment should be relaxed thanks to the delay in another VAT hike, helping improve spending attitude and facilitate consumption recovery,” Kazuhiko Ogata, chief Japan economist at Credit Agricole SA in Tokyo, wrote in a note to clients yesterday, referring to the sales, or value-added, tax. “If Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party wins in the election, ‘Abenomics’ would be set” to be sustained until as long as until 2018, when he would run up against term limits as LDP head, according to Ogata.
Less than two years into Abenomics – a three-pronged strategy to pull Japan out of two decades of stagnation through monetary stimulus, fiscal flexibility and structural deregulation – the program has yet to spark sustained growth. An April sales-tax rise saw the economy sink into two straight quarters of contraction, a government report showed yesterday. Abe, 60, has yet to implement growth-strategy items from labor-market liberalization to the securing of a free-trade deal within the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. Corporate-tax cut discussions have yet to see legislation enacted. In other areas, Abenomics has stirred Japan, achieving the end of 15 years of sustained deflation and spurring focus in the stock market on corporate returns on equity. The Topix index of shares has jumped 79% in the past two years.
Once again, Ambrose is out of his league. And not as sure as the title suggests, since he also says: “This is a formidable task and may ultimately fail.” The rest is not arguments, but exclusively wishful thinking. And harking back to what Japan did in 1932 is cute, but also entirely hollow.
Abenomics is alive and well. Japan’s crash into its fourth recession since 2008 is a nasty surprise for premier Shinzo Abe but it tells us almost nothing about the central thrust of his reflation blitz The mini-slump is chiefly due to a one-off fiscal shock in April. Mr Abe defied warnings from Keynesian critics and unwisely stuck to plans drawn up by a previous (DPJ) government to raise the consumption tax from 5pc to 8pc. The essence of Abenomics is monetary reflation a l’outrance to lift the country out of deflation after two Lost Decades. The unstated purpose of this “First Arrow” is to lower real interest rates and raise the growth of nominal GDP to 5pc, deemed the minimum necessary to stop Japan’s debt trajectory from spiralling out of control. This is a formidable task and may ultimately fail. Public debt is already 245pc of GDP. Debt payments are 43pc of fiscal revenues. The population is expected to fall to from 127m to 87m by 2060. Given the grim mathematics of this, the inertia of the pre-Abe era was inexcusable.
Takuji Aida from Societe Generale said the tax rise was an “unnecessary diversion from Mr Abe’s reflationary goals” but will not have a lasting effect. The contraction of Japanese GDP by 0.4pc in the third quarter – following a 1.8pc crash in the second quarter – is certainly a public relations embarrassment, but less dreadful than meets the eye. The economy expanded by 0.2pc when adjusted for inventory effects. Machinery orders rose for a fourth month in September to 2.9pc. Retail sales jumped by 2.3pc. Danske Bank’s Fleming Nielsen says Japan’s economy will be growing at a 3pc rate again this winter. Mr Abe has shrugged off the tax debacle without much political damage. He is likely to call a snap election for December, win heartily, and suspend plans for a further rise in the sales tax to 10pc next October, ditching a policy he never liked anyway.
Besides, Ambrose, the guy who thought it all up has this: ” .. there are always new taxpayers, so this is a feasible Ponzi game”. How bad can you get it when, as Ambrose himself said, ” .. the population is expected to fall to from 127m to 87m by 2060″? It’s a hopeless game.
Koichi Hamada is a special adviser to prime minister Shinzo Abe and one of his closest confidants. That makes his comments, as The Telegraph reports, even more stunningly concerning. Focusing his attention on the fact that Japan must delay the 2nd stage of its planned consumption tax hike – for fear of derailing the ‘recovery’ – Hamada unwittingly, it seems, explains the terrible reality behind the so-called “godfather” of Abenomics’ perspective on the extreme monetary policy he has unleashed… Select stunning quotes that everyone should ignore and just BTFPonziD in Japan…
“The consumption tax hike is a great big turbulence to the Japanese economy. It may have erased almost two thirds of the benefits of Abenomics,” he told the Telegraph. “At the very least, a third of this great experiment is gone.” [..] “I used to say that we should wait until the third quarter figures are out. However, by various economic indicators, the GDP figures cannot be very optimistic,” he added. [..] “We should increase the consumption tax in the intermediate future,” he said. “This first shock starting in April has been countered by a monetary counter-move. But can we risk another shock in this way?” He also said that while he fully supported the Bank of Japan’s bond buying spree, he said there would be diminishing returns from quantitative easing the longer it went on. “I completely agree with Kuroda’s direction of policy, as well as his strategy of keeping quiet and surprising the market. Of course, if you repeat the same kind of action then the impact will be weaker,” he said.
[..] Marc Faber, the famous Swiss investor, has accused Japan of “engaging in a Ponzi scheme” because the BoJ is hoovering up most of the debt that has been issued by the government. While Mr Hamada agreed that Japan had created a “mild ponzi game”, he also said it was a “feasible” one because of Japan’s huge foreign reserves. “In a Ponzi game you exhaust the lenders eventually, and of course Japanese taxpayers may revolt. But otherwise there are always new taxpayers, so this is a feasible Ponzi game, though I’m not saying it’s good.” Mr Hamada said it was important that Japanese policymakers sent a clear signal that the government was willing to do whatever it takes to smash deflation and pave the way for wage increases for millions of workers. “I’m optimistic about wages, but the uncertainty is how long it takes,” he said. Business is still in doubt about whether Abenomics will continue. If they know it will continue and the profits of export firms are really soaring, they will start to share that with their employees.”
So to sum up… as long as the BoJ keeps buying stocks and bonds in ever-greater amounts (and Japan has more taxpayers to foot the bill) then the ponzi scheme can survive in its fiscally unsustainable way… what a total farce.
The euro zone’s growth has weakened over the summer months, European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi told European lawmakers Monday, but stressed that he was willing to do more to stimulate the economy—including the purchase of government bonds. Speaking at the European Union’s Parliament, Draghi reiterated that the bank’s governing council remained “unanimous in its commitment to using additional unconventional instruments if needed.” He added: “The other unconventional measures might entail the purchase of a variety of assets, one of which is sovereign bonds.” The comments helped the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 close 0.5% higher on the day.
The central bank has already launched a slew of stimulus in an effort to boost the economy by easing credit conditions. These include cutting interest rates to record lows and announcing plans to purchase covered bonds and asset-backed securities (ABS) – and there are calls for the ECB to do more by launching a U.S. Federal Reserve-style sovereign bond-buying program. Further measures, “could include changes to the size and composition to the Eurosystem balance sheet, if warranted, to achieve price stability over the medium term,” Draghi added.
“Data released today showed that officials accelerated covered-bond buying last week, with the total settled rising by more than €3 billion – up from €2.629 billion the week before.” Ahem: the goal is $1 trillion. At this rate, that’ll take 6 years.
ECB President Mario Draghi explicitly cited government-bond buying as a policy tool officials could use to stimulate the economy if the outlook worsens. “Other unconventional measures might entail the purchase of a variety of assets, one of which is sovereign bonds,” Draghi said in Brussels today during quarterly testimony to lawmakers at the European Parliament. In opening remarks both today and after the ECB’s monthly policy decision, Draghi stopped short of mentioning government bonds when he said that officials had been tasked with the preparation of further stimulus measures. His comments today come weeks before the institution’s critical December meeting, when it will publish new forecasts that are likely to incorporate a lower outlook for the economy and inflation. Draghi will succeed in boosting the ECB’s balance sheet back toward €3 trillion ($3.74 trillion), though he’ll have to override some policy makers’ qualms on quantitative easing to do so, according to a majority of economists in Bloomberg’s monthly survey published today.
Until now, the ECB has restricted purchases of assets to covered bonds, though asset-backed securities are now on its shopping list too. Data released today showed that officials accelerated covered-bond buying last week, with the total settled rising by more than €3 billion – up from €2.629 billion the week before. As Draghi spoke, Italian and Spanish bonds rose. The ECB president began his comments in the parliament by presenting European lawmakers with a list of policy resolutions for them to pursue in 2015 as he insisted his institution alone can’t fix the economy. “2015 needs to be the year when all actors in the euro area, governments and European institutions alike, will deploy a consistent common strategy to bring our economies back on track,” Draghi said today. “Monetary policy alone will not be able to achieve this.” “Monetary policy has done a lot,” Draghi said. “It can do more if structural reforms are implemented. It can’t do everything.”
Mario Draghi will succeed in boosting the European Central Bank’s balance sheet back toward 3 trillion euros ($3.75 trillion), though he’ll have to override some policy makers’ qualms on quantitative easing to do so. That’s the majority view of economists in Bloomberg’s monthly survey, who have become more optimistic that the ECB president will meet his goal. Most predicted he’ll have to buy more than covered bonds and asset-backed securities though, and 72% said any stimulus expansion will be against the wishes of some national central-bank governors. Draghi, who has faced opposition to his most recent measures, told European lawmakers today that an expanded purchase program could include government bonds, as he insisted the ECB alone can’t fix the region’s economy. He also reiterated his pledge to be ready with further steps should the outlook worsen, and 95% of respondents in the survey said he’ll act on that promise either this year or in 2015.
“If private-sector asset purchases are insufficient, then sovereign bonds will then likely be included,” said Alan McQuaid, chief economist at Merrion Capital in Dublin. “This will be a hard sell internally.” Resistance to Draghi’s recent loosening of policy has come primarily from Germany. Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann has repeatedly warned of the risks of large-scale asset purchases, known as quantitative easing, and Executive Board member Sabine Lautenschlaeger has said the balance between cost and benefit for some non-standard tools is currently negative. Austria’s Ewald Nowotny joined Weidmann in opposing the ABS plan. That didn’t stop a fresh reference by Draghi on Nov. 6 to driving the balance sheet back toward its March 2012 level via asset purchases and targeted loans to banks. 60% of the economists surveyed said he’ll succeed, which implies that close to €1 euros of assets will be added. In last month’s survey just 39% said he’ll achieve his aim.
Industrial production in the U.S. unexpectedly dropped in October, weighed down by declines at utilities, mines and automakers that signal manufacturing started the fourth quarter on soft footing. Output fell 0.1% after a 0.8% increase in September that was smaller than previously estimated, figures from the Federal Reserve in Washington showed today. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 83 economists projected a 0.2% gain. Factory production rose 0.2%, matching the prior month’s advance that was also revised down. A pickup in manufacturing is needed to help bolster the expansion, now is its sixth year, as global growth from Europe and Japan to emerging markets cools. Rising consumer confidence and the drop in gasoline prices are brightening the outlook for holiday sales, indicating factories will get a lift in the next few months.
When CDS dries up, there will be major problems in the markets. It’s in the size: ” .. the market that shrank to less than $11 trillion from $32 trillion before the financial crisis”. So much money is evaporating it’s scary: “requiring large swaths of credit swaps to be backed by clearinghouses, which are capitalized by banks and require traders to set aside collateral, or margin, to cover losses”.
Deutsche Bank will stop trading most credit-default swaps tied to individual companies, exiting a business that new banking regulations have made costlier, according to a spokeswoman. The lender will instead focus on transactions in corporate bonds, while maintaining trading in the more active market for credit swaps tied to benchmark indexes, Michele Allison, a spokeswoman for the bank said today. The firm also will continue trading swaps tied to emerging-market borrowers and distressed companies, she said. The derivatives are used by hedge funds, banks and other institutional investors to protect against losses or to speculate on the ability of companies to repay their obligations. Deutsche Bank is exiting a part of the market that shrank to less than $11 trillion from $32 trillion before the financial crisis, data from the Bank for International Settlements show.
Dealing in credit swaps, which have been blamed for exacerbating the 2008 financial crisis, has become more expensive for lenders like Deutsche Bank as regulators across the U.S. and Europe require banks to hold more capital to back trades, reducing the returns for shareholders. “When liquidity providers leave the market, it becomes really questionable if the market is functioning efficiently,” Jochen Felsenheimer, founder of XAIA Investment said in a telephone interview. “Regulators continue to dry out the CDS market by putting more and more constraints.” Among measures that regulators have enacted since the crisis is requiring large swaths of credit swaps to be backed by clearinghouses, which are capitalized by banks and require traders to set aside collateral, or margin, to cover losses if they can’t make good on the transactions. Much of the market, where the privately negotiated trades have typically been done over phone calls and e-mails, is also being shifted to electronic systems.
In a flash, the bond market went wild. What began on Oct. 15 as another day in the U.S. Treasury market suddenly turned into the biggest yield fluctuations in a quarter century, leaving investors worrying there will be turbulence ahead. The episode exposed a collision of forces – the rise of high-frequency trading and the decline of Wall Street dealers – that are reshaping the world’s biggest and most important bond market. Money managers say the $12.4 trillion Treasury market is becoming less liquid, meaning securities can no longer be traded as quickly and easily as they used to be, thanks in part to the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program.
“The way the market is set up right now, we’ll see instances like we did on that day,” said Michael Lorizio, senior trader Manulife Asset Management, which oversees $281 billion. “There’s going to be a learning curve as to how to handle that.” The development reflects unintended consequences of new financial regulation, as well as steps the Fed has taken to breath life into the U.S. economy. The implications, however, extend far beyond Wall Street, because the Treasury market determines borrowing costs for governments, companies and consumers around the world. When the day began on Oct. 15, an unprecedented number of investors were betting that interest rates would rise and U.S. government debt would lose value. The news that morning seemed ominous. Ebola was spreading. So was war in the Middle East.
At 8:30 a.m. in Washington, the Commerce Department announced a decline in retail sales. The shift came all at once. The sentiment that the Fed would raise rates reversed. Traders who’d bet against, or shorted, Treasury bonds had to buy as many as they could as quickly as they could to limit their losses. By 9:38 a.m., 10-year Treasury yields plunged 0.34 percentage point, the most in five years. Analysts such as Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research LLC in Chicago, blame the herd mentality of electronic traders. “A lot of these guys are focused on speed,” Bianco said. “They’re all uncreative and write the same program. When the stimulus comes in a certain way, every one of them comes to the same conclusion at exactly the same moment.”
The five Wall Street banks that advised on $100 billion of takeovers announced yesterday by Halliburton and Actavis could reap as much as $316 million in fees for their work. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America will take home the lion’s share of that, with roles on both the $34.6 billion purchase of Baker Hughes Inc. by Halliburton, and the $66 billion acquisition of Allergan by Actavis. Goldman Sachs was the sole adviser to Baker Hughes, while Bank of America and Credit Suisse advised Halliburton. The three banks are set to receive as much as $143 million in total, Freeman & Co. said. Halliburton, the second-biggest oilfield services provider, agreed to buy No. 3 Baker Hughes, taking advantage of plunging crude prices to set up the biggest takeover of a U.S. energy company in three years. Actavis’s deal to acquire Allergan, meanwhile, will help the target rebuff a hostile approach from Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc.
Goldman Sachs and Bank of America were also advisers to Allergan, for which they may share as much as $92 million, according to Freeman. JPMorgan, meanwhile, may receive as much as $81 million as adviser to Actavis. Yesterday’s deals firmed up Goldman Sachs’s status as the No. 1 adviser on M&A, with almost $814 billion of total value to its credit. Morgan Stanley which didn’t have a role on either of the two large deals, ranks second with $653 billion of deals to its credit. Citigroup, which also didn’t have a role on either deal, slipped a spot in the rankings to No. 4, while Bank of America rose to third from fifth. The ranking lists, called league-tables, are used by banks when they pitch their services to clients. A strong track record can help them convince companies to hire them as advisers. “We are extremely proud of the performance and momentum of our M&A franchise and the strategic advice and solutions that we have delivered to our clients in 2014,” Citigroup spokesman Robert Julavits wrote.
Australia’s economy faces myriad headwinds that could trigger interest rate cuts from the central bank, taking borrowing rates further south from current historic lows. “Leading indicators suggest that a case can be made for further cuts: Confidence is low and consistent with weak growth, inflation expectations are falling and the unemployment rate is rising,” Credit Suisse wrote in a note Friday, arguing that rates could fall to 1.5%. Consumer confidence slumped over 12% on year in November, according to a joint survey from the Melbourne Institute and Westpac, marking the ninth straight month of pessimists outnumbering optimists – the longest slump since the global financial crisis.
Meanwhile, Australia’s official jobless rate rose to a 12-year high of 6.2%in October. Lower inflation also paves the way for rate cuts, Credit Suisse said. Headline consumer price inflation cooled to an annual 2.3% during the third-quarter, the lower end of the central bank’s 2-3% target band. Most importantly, markets have started to price in cuts, it said. The dominant view among major banks is still for the Reserve Bank of Australia to hike interest rates in 2015, but Credit Suisse says the behavior of the spread between 10-year bond yields and the cash rate is “abnormal” and doesn’t reflect that view.
The federal agency that insures pensions for about 41 million Americans saw its deficit nearly double in the latest fiscal year. The agency said the worsening finances of some multi-employer pension plans mainly caused the increased deficit. At about $62 billion for the budget year ending Sept. 30, it was the widest deficit in the 40-year history of the Pension Benefit Guaranty, which reported the data Monday. That compares with a $36 billion shortfall the previous year. Multi-employer plans are pension agreements between labor unions and a group of companies, usually in the same industry. The agency said the deficit in its multi-employer insurance program jumped to $42.4 billion from $8.3 billion in 2013. By contrast, the deficit in the single-employer program shrank to $19.3 billion from $27.4 billion.
The mentally-challenged kibitzers “out there” — in the hills and hollows of the commentary universe, cable news, the blogosphere, and the pathetic vestige of newspaperdom — are all jumping up and down in a rapture over cheap gasoline prices. Overlay on this picture the fairy tale of coming US energy independence, stir in the approach of winter in the North Dakota shale oil fields, put an early November polar vortex cherry on top, and you have quite a recipe for smashed expectations. Plummeting oil prices are a symptom of terrible mounting instabilities in the world. After years of stagnation, complacency, and official pretense, the linked matrix of systems we depend on for running our techno-industrial society is shaking itself to pieces.
American officials either don’t understand what they’re seeing, or don’t want you to know what they see. The tensions between energy, money, and economy have entered a new phase of destructive unwind. The global economy has caught the equivalent of financial Ebola: deflation, which is the recognition that debts can’t be repaid, obligations can’t be met, and contracts won’t be honored. Credit evaporates and actual business declines steeply as a result of all those things. Who wants to send a cargo ship of aluminum ore to Guangzhou if nobody shows up at the dock with a certified check to pay for it? Financial Ebola means that the connective tissues of trade start to dissolve, and pretty soon blood starts dribbling out of national economies.
One way this expresses itself is the violent rise and fall of comparative currency values. The Japanese yen and the euro go down, the dollar goes up. It happens in a few months, which is quickly in the world of money. Foolish US cheerleaders suppose that the rising dollar is like the rising score of an NFL football team on any given Sunday. “We’re numbah one!” It’s just not like that. The global economy is not some stupid football contest. When currencies change value quickly, as has happened since the past summer, big banks get into big trouble. Their revenue streams are pegged to so-called “carry trades” in which big blobs of money are borrowed in one currency and used to place bets in other currencies. When currency values change radically, carry trades blow up.
So do so-called “derivatives” such as bets on interest rate differentials. When the sums of money involved are grotesquely large, the parties involved discover that they never had any ability to pay off their losing bet. It was all pretense. In fact, the chance that the bet might go bad never figured into their calculations. The net result of all that foolish irresponsibility is that banks find themselves in a position of being unable to trust each other on virtually any transaction. When that happens, the flow of credit, a.k.a. “liquidity,” dries up and you have a bona fide financial crisis. Nobody can pay anybody else. Nobody trusts anybody. Fortunes are lost. Elephants stomp around in distress, then keel over and die, and a lot of “little people” get crushed in the dusty ground.
If there s one way to summarize Zephyr Teachout’s extraordinary book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, it is that today we are living in Benjamin Franklin’s dystopia. Her basic contention, which is not unfamiliar to most of us in sentiment if not in detail, is that the modern Supreme Court has engaged in a revolutionary reinterpretation of corruption and therefore in American political life. This outlook, written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the famous Citizens United case, understands and celebrates America as a brutal and Hobbesian competitive struggle among self-interested actors attempting to use money to gain personal benefits in the public sphere.
What makes the book so remarkable is its scope and ability to link current debates to our rich and forgotten history. Perhaps this has been done before, but if it has, I have never seen it. Liberals tend to think that questions about electoral and political corruption started in the 1970s, in the Watergate era. What Teachout shows is that these questions were foundational in the American Revolution itself, and every epoch since. They are in fact questions fundamental to the design of democracy.
Teachout starts her book by telling the story of a set of debates that took place even before the Constitution was ratified – whether American officials could take gifts from foreign kings. The French King, as a matter of diplomatic process, routinely gave diamond-encrusted snuff boxes to foreign ambassadors. Americans, adopting a radical Dutch provision banning such gifts, wrestled with the question of temptation to individual public servants versus international diplomatic norms. The gifts ban, she argues, was evidence of a particular demanding notion of corruption at the heart of American legal history. These rules, bright-line rules versus corrupt-intent rules, govern temptation and structure. They cover innocent and illicit activity, as opposed to bribery rules which are organized solely around quid pro quo corruption.
UK grocery sales have gone into decline for the first time in at least 20 years as a raging price war and the falling cost of food commodities hit Britain’s supermarkets. In good news for shoppers, the average price of a basket of everyday essentials such as milk, bread and vegetables now costs 0.4% less than it did a year ago, according to the latest figures from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel. But the figures highlight a painful few months for the UK’s biggest retailers with all of the “big four” supermarkets seeing sales fall back in the 12 weeks to 9 November. Tesco continues to be the worst performer with sales dropping by 3.7%, but Morrisons’ performance deteriorated at the fastest rate, with the slump in sales accelerating to 3.3%, from 1.3% a month ago.
Sainsbury’s trading figures also worsened, with sales down 2.5%. Asda’s sales also went into decline, for the first time in some months, although the Walmart-owned group was the only one of the big four to hold market share. Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar Worldpanel said: “The declining grocery market will be of concern to retailers as they gear up for the key Christmas trading season.” In a pattern that has continued throughout this year, the German discounters Aldi and Lidl continued to grow strongly, as did the up-market grocer Waitrose. But only Waitrose picked up the pace of growth, to 5.6%, shoring up its spot at the UK’s sixth largest supermarket. Aldi’s growth slowed to 25.5% from 29.1% last month, and more than 30% earlier this year, while Lidl’s growth slowed to 16.8% from 17.7% last month.
Supermarket chiefs need to take drastic action by shutting one in five of their stores if the financial health of the mainstream grocery chains is to recover from the damage being wreaked by altered shopping habits and the onslaught of the discounters, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs. A large closure programme is the only viable solution to bring about a return to profitable growth for the UK supermarket industry, the analysts said in a report. With 56% of Tesco’s stores bigger than 40,000 sq ft, the report concludes the market leader has the biggest problem on its hands. Profits at the three listed chains, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, have gone into reverse as weak food sales are exacerbated by the runaway growth of Aldi and Lidl. Further pressure is coming from structural changes in the market such as the growth of online and convenience store retailing.
Last week Sainsbury’s reported a first half loss of £290m as it counted the cost of pulling the plug on 40 new supermarket projects and wrote down the value of its underperforming stores. Goldman Sachs analyst Rob Joyce was gloomy about the ability of the major players to bounce back if the fight was based on price cuts alone. “We believe that any major price investments by Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Tesco can be exceeded by the discounters,” he wrote. The unhealthy industry dynamic prompted him to predict large stores would suffer like-for-like sales declines of 3% a year until 2020, unless the big chains embrace the need for major surgery. Too much focus on profitability allowed the “discounters to get too strong”, with incumbents, until recently, reliant on pushing up prices to combat falling sales?, according to the report. But even Asda, which was the first of the big four to take on the discounters with a £1bn price cuts campaign, has started to show signs of strain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned he won’t allow rebels in eastern Ukraine to be defeated by government forces as European Union ministers met to consider imposing more sanctions on the separatists. “You want the Ukrainian central authorities to annihilate everyone there, all of their political foes and opponents,” Putin said in an interview yesterday with Germany’s ARD television. “Is that what you want? We certainly don’t. And we won’t let it happen.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday the EU will keep its economic sanctions on Russia “for as long as they are needed.”
EU foreign ministers convened today in Brussels to discuss adding to sanctions that have limited access to capital markets for some Russian banks and companies and blacklisted officials involved in the conflict. New measures will likely target pro-Russian separatist leaders, the EU said. “Sanctions in themselves are not an objective, they can be an instrument if they come together with other measures,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters before the meeting. She said the EU’s three-track strategy consists of sanctions, encouragement of reforms in Ukraine and dialogue with Russia. “We are very concerned about any possible ethnic cleansings and Ukraine ending up as a neo-Nazi state,” Putin said according to an English translation of his remarks published by the Kremlin.
Shale drillers are planning on production growth with fewer rigs despite a worldwide glut that has sent crude prices to a four-year low. Companies including Devon Energy, Continental Resources and EOG Resources said they expect to pump more from their prime properties while cutting back in their least productive prospects. That puts the onus on OPEC nations, led by Saudi Arabia, to cut output if they want to stem the slide in global oil prices. “There’s a lot more production coming online this year and in the first half of 2015,” said Jason Wangler, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities. “This isn’t a machine that you can turn on and off with a switch. It’s going to take months, if not quarters, to turn it around.”
Domestic output topped 9 million barrels a day for the first time since at least 1983, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Nov. 13. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark oil contract, sank 18 cents yesterday to settle at $75.64 a barrel. Prices fell to $74.21 on Nov. 13, the lowest since 2010. “Certainly if prices fall even further than they are now, it’ll have some impact, and it may slow the growth rate of U.S. production,” said Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy in New York. “I still think, unless they fall significantly further, U.S. production is going to see dramatic increases in growth.”
Lower prices aren’t stopping U.S. shale drillers. Devon Energy, which pumped 136,000 barrels a day of crude in the third quarter, will boost output by as much as 25% next year, said John Richels, the company’s CEO, in a Nov. 5 earnings call. That rivals this year’s expansion, even though Devon will idle four of its six rigs in Oklahoma’s Mississippi Lime prospect. Continental Resources, which produced 128,000 barrels a day in the third quarter, trimmed $600 million from its 2015 drilling budget by shelving plans to add new rigs. Nonetheless, the Oklahoma City-based company said in its Nov. 6 earnings call it will increase output as much as 29%. Pioneer Natural Resources in Irving, Texas, the most active driller in West Texas’s Permian Basin, said in its Nov. 5 third-quarter call that it plans to add as much as 21%.
Dear California readers: if you drank tapwater this morning (or at any point in the past few weeks/months), you may be in luck as you no longer need to buy oil to lubricate your engine: just use your blood, and think of the cost-savings. That’s the good news. Also, the bad news, because as the California’s Department of Conservation’s Chief Deputy Director, Jason Marshall, told NBC Bay Area, California state officials allowed oil and gas companies to pump up to 3 billion gallons (call it 70 million barrels) of oil fracking-contaminated waste water into formerly clean aquifiers, aquifiers which at least on paper are supposed to be off-limits to that kind of activity, and are protected by the government’s EPA – an agency which, it appears, was richly compensated by the same oil and gas companies to look elsewhere.
And the scariest words of admission one can ever hear from a government apparatchik: “In multiple different places of the permitting process an error could have been made.” Because nothing short of a full-blown disaster prompts the use of the dreaded passive voice. And what was unsaid is that the “biggest error that was made” is that someone caught California regulators screwing over the taxpayers just so a few oil majors could save their shareholders a few billion dollars in overhead fees. And now that one government agency has been caught flaunting the rules, the other government agencies, and certainly private citizens and businesses, start screaming: after all some faith in the well-greased, pardon the pun, government apparatus has to remain:
“It’s inexcusable,” said Hollin Kretzmann, at the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “At (a) time when California is experiencing one of the worst droughts in history, we’re allowing oil companies to contaminate what could otherwise be very useful ground water resources for irrigation and for drinking. It’s possible these aquifers are now contaminated irreparably.”
More than 35 million people around the world are trapped in a modern form of slavery, according to a report highlighting the prevalence of forced labour, human trafficking, forced marriages, debt bondage and commerical sexual exploitation. The Walk Free Foundation (WFF), an Australia-based NGO that publishes the annual global slavery index, said that as a result of better data and improved methodology it had increased its estimate 23% in the past year. Five countries accounted for 61% of slavery, although it was found in all 167 countries covered by the report, including the UK. India was top of the list with about 14.29 million enslaved people, followed by China with 3.24 million, Pakistan 2.06 million, Uzbekistan 1.2 million, and Russia 1.05 million.
Mauritania had the highest proportion of its population in modern slavery, at 4%, followed by Uzbekistan with 3.97%, Haiti 2.3%, Qatar 1.36% and India 1.14%. Andrew Forrest, the chairman and founder of WFF – which is campaigning for the end of slavery within a generation – said: “There is an assumption that slavery is an issue from a bygone era. Or that it only exists in countries ravaged by war and poverty. “These findings show that modern slavery exists in every country. We are all responsible for the most appalling situations where modern slavery exists and the desperate misery it brings upon our fellow human beings.
Patients arrive at the Médecins Sans Frontières treatment centre in Sierra Leone 10 to an ambulance. The overcrowding means that by the time they get there, even those whose original symptoms may not have been Ebola will have been sufficiently exposed to catch it on the way in. Such is life in West Africa in the midst of the worst outbreak of the disease since it was first identified 38 years ago. Ebola Frontline – Panorama (BBC1) followed MSF doctor Javid Abdelmoneim – who, along with his colleagues, you can’t help but feel must be the owners of the last working consciences in the western world – on his month-long volunteer posting to the centre, treating some of the tens of thousands of people who have contracted Ebola since the epidemic began nine months ago.
Furnished with a specially adapted camera fitted to his goggles, one that can survive the chlorine sprayings and sluicings as part of the good doctor’s 20 minute decontamination procedure every time he leaves the tent full of his suffering and dying charges, we watch along with him as the disease plots its course through bodies, through families and through entire communities. People die quietly, for the most part. The loudest noise we hear is the wailing in grief of a woman who loses her sister. Their parents died before the cameras got there. Eleven-month-old Alfa is an Ebola orphan too, one of the estimated 10.3 million children directly or indirectly affected by the crisis. She dies alone, relieved of physical pain, Abdelmoneim hopes, by the morphine he gives her as her little body starts to fail, but “she looked frightened at the end”.
She is buried in a cemetery purpose-built for bodies that remain biohazards after death, one of hundreds of people marked only by patient ID numbers scrawled on paper labels attached to sticks driven into the ground. While the volunteer doctors, nurses and staff try to hold the line at the treatment centre – whose name they change to “case management centre” in recognition that all they can give is supportive, not curative care – the voiceover keeps us abreast of the rising death toll in Africa and the ponderous reactions and non-reactions of other nations to the crisis, and the delivery and non-delivery of promises and aid to the stricken regions. Last month the UN called for a twentyfold increase in help. Half of that has so far been donated. A plague on all our houses.
Jack Delano. Cars being precooled at the ice plant, San Bernardino, CA Mar 1943
Large and/or institutional investors, your pension funds, your market funds, you name them, have one glaringly obvious and immense Achilles heel that they very much prefer not to talk about. That is, they MUST invest their funds, in something, anything, they can’t NOT invest. They are trapped in the game. They have to roll over debt, investments, all the time.
In today’s markets, they can move into Treasuries, as we see bond funds (and undoubtedly others) do recently, and while that’s already a sign of unrest in the ranks, at the same time it exposes the funds. And not only because everyone knows it won’t allow them to meet the targets they must meet. Oil, gas and gold are unattractive alternatives.
The big funds can play the game, but they really shouldn’t, because they can’t win. Not in the end. Not when the chips are down. The reason is that they cannot fold. And the others at the table know this, and immediately recognize this for the fatal flaw it is. No matter how smart and sophisticated institutional investors and their fund managers may be, in ultimo they are, to put it in poker terms, the ‘designated’ fish.
It may take a long time before this plays out, and they realize it for what it is (fish don’t recognize themselves for what they are, other than, and even that’s a maybe, once they’ve been exposed as such by others), since in times of plenty there is no urgent need for the other players to catch and filet the fish.
As long as there’s enough to eat at the table, the ‘solid’ players can bide their time and let the fish fatten themselves (as long as it’s not from their money), only to gut them when times get leaner. In a way, the solid players use the fish as a way to stow away for a rainy day some of the ultra cheap QE money has made available, the money without which there would be no markets left, if only so their own actions don’t become too conspicuous.
Funds that invest for a living, and whose managers must meet, say, a 7-8% profit target, can appear to be well run and profitable for many years, provided they operate in a rich environment and no solid players decide to go after them (if these do, it’s game over in a heartbeat).
Seven years of QE et al have made this possible. As have many years of increasing debt and leverage and ever looser rules in global finance (re: the infamous murder of Glass-Steagall) before that. But. But that play is coming to a close. The ‘free’ money that’s been arriving at the table from outside sources for so many years is finally, thankfully, starting to dry up (and no, Mario Draghi won’t fill in the gaps).
I’ll quote out of context something then-poker playing law student and now-bankruptcy lawyer Ashvin Pandurangi wrote here at the Automatic Earth on February 9 2011. Out of context in the sense that Ashvin when he spoke of ‘fish’ meant speculators and the like, not institutional investors.
However, because of the fatal flaw for any player of having to play no matter what, the description of the psychology of fish versus solid players at the poker table is still spot on.
What makes poker a profitable venture for “solid” players, unlike blackjack, craps or roulette, is their opportunity to capitalize on the mental mistakes of other players, by accurately “reading” the opponent’s potential range of hole cards in any given hand (mostly from betting tendencies and style of play), and accurately calculating the “pot odds” they are being laid (money that must be put in on the present and future betting rounds as a percentage of money that could be won from the pot). The pot odds calculation allows the solid player to determine the best course of action (bet, call, raise, fold) by comparing it to the equity his/her hand carries against the opponent’s range.[..]
Institutional investors such as your pension fund may not suffer from too many ‘mental mistakes’, they may be as smart as other players, but in their place comes the worse flaw of not being able to fold. Which means the the other players have a very easy time of calculating the “pot odds” they are being laid. They just, until today, haven’t been forced to call the hands of the fish, because of the money being injected from outside.
The best feature of a true fish is that they never learn or adapt to an opponent’s style of play. They will keep calling you with weak hands even when you only show down “monsters” at the table, because they are only concerned with their own cards and they always assume you are holding even weaker than they are.
There are not many real-life players who fit exactly into this idealized style of play, but there are many who generally harbor its underlying psychology – one of permanent and irrational belief in an ability to win a hand, despite any mounting evidence to the contrary. They cannot possibly conceive of folding, because that means giving up any chance of winning, slim as it may be, and also giving up any money already invested in the pot.[..]
Your pension fund manager may not believe in his ability to win a hand, but still be forced to play it. Because (s)he must always play something, some hand. (S)he is forced into the psychology of the fish.
The fish never stop to think what your strong bets out of position imply about your hand, especially given the fact that you most likely know that they are fish. If the fish do stop to think about these factors, then they most likely dismiss the thought before it has any chance to settle, since it would be too disruptive to their goal of never folding a potential winner. While the solid players are constantly engaged in several different layers of critical psychoanalysis, the fish are forever stuck in a one-track mindset.
It’s sort to fun to play around with, and take out of context, what Ashvin wrote, and what mindsets managers at pension- and other funds may have, not just fun for me but even far more for the solid players sitting opposite those managers. Because they know they have a rich source of profits waiting from them after QE has been cancelled, in the vaults of those whose job descriptions say they must play every day no matter what hand they’re dealt.
In essence it’s all just a pretend game, and the fish in today’s investment world are probably far more aware of their own identity than the fish at a real life poker table. But it doesn’t matter. They’re still fish, and everybody knows they’re going down. And therefore so are your pensions and your other institutional investments. What are they going to do, stop playing? They can’t.
So who are the solid players in this game, you ask? Why, Wall Street, of course. They’ve had their eye on your remaining cash all along.