May 102018
 
 May 10, 2018  Posted by at 9:24 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Paul Gauguin Road in Tahiti 1891

 

Beware of the Coming Economic Debt Bomb (Tanous)
Argentina Looks To Be Headed For Another Economic Storm (CNBC)
At Last, A Reason To Celebrate: House Prices Are Falling (G.)
RBS Reaches $4.9 Billion Deal To Settle US Mortgage Bond Probe (R.)
The Deep State First (Stockman)
Turkey Detains Dozens Of Air Force Personnel Over Gulen Links (R.)
Did Putin Green-Light Tonight’s Massive Israeli Strikes On Syria? (ZH)
Trump Welcomes Home Three Americans Released By North Korea (G.)
Democrats’ Lead Is Slipping In Generic Ballot Poll (Hill)
Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy?
Bullshit Jobs: Why They Exist And Why You Might Have One (Vox)

 

 

“..over half of all personal income taxes will be required just to service the national debt.”

Beware of the Coming Economic Debt Bomb (Tanous)

In 2009, the year President Obama took office, the national debt held by the public was $7.27 trillion. At the end of fiscal 2016, that had soared to approximately $14 trillion. Given that our marketable debt doubled from 2009 to 2016, it’s remarkable that the annual cost of the interest on the debt rose far less, from $185 billion to $223 billion. The long march of rising rates that began recently is a dramatic reversal after nearly 40-years of declining interest rates. The new trend portends a return to more historic rates. You may be asking: what are the historic rates? We calculate that the average rate paid on the federal debt over the last 30 years was close to 5%. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has just raised its estimate that debt held by the public will rise to $17.8 trillion in 2020.

Some economists believe that the figure will be much higher. For our exercise though, let’s stick with the CBO estimate. We are postulating that the interest rate on our national debt may return to the long-term, 30-year average of 5%. Note, too, that Treasury debt rolls over every 3 to 4 years so the maturing bonds at low interest rates will be refinanced at the then current higher rates. Let’s do the math together. Take the CBO estimate of debt held by the public of $17.8 trillion in 2020, a 5% average interest on that amount comes to annual debt service of $891 billion, an unfathomable amount. (In 2017, interest on the debt held by the public was $458.5 billion, itself a scary number.)

In its current report, the CBO added: “It also reflects significant growth in interest costs, which are projected to grow more quickly than any other major component of the budget.” Here’s the danger: • According to CBO, individual income taxes produced $1.6 trillion in revenue in fiscal year 2017. • Under this 2020 scenario, over half of all personal income taxes will be required just to service the national debt. • Annual debt service in 2020 will exceed our newly increased defense budget of $700 billion in FY 2018. • Annual debt service would exceed our Social Security obligations.

Read more …

[The IMF] “..admitted shortly after the intervention that its support to keep the peso’s peg against the dollar prolonged the crisis in the country.”

Argentina Looks To Be Headed For Another Economic Storm (CNBC)

Argentina has started talks with the IMF seeking financial rescue once again, as inflation soars and the currency sinks. Buenos Aires looks to be going through another economic nightmare, with prices rising rapidly while the Argentine peso drops. The central bank announced last week another increase in rates to 40% — as the 12-month inflation rate hit 25.4%, above its 15% target. At the same time, since the start of the year, the peso is down by more than 20% against the U.S. dollar. [..] Asking for help from the Fund is a contentious issue for the country. Back in 2001, Argentina defaulted on $132 billion of foreign debt. The Washington-based institution, which was helping the country at the time, admitted shortly after the intervention that its support to keep the peso’s peg against the dollar prolonged the crisis in the country.

Following Macri’s announcement Tuesday, several people protested against a new IMF intervention, still traumatized by the economic collapse at the start of the century, Reuters reported. “The IMF has a terrible reputation among Argentinians, and so this is a big political gamble for the government,” Fiona Mackie, regional director for Latin America at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC via email. “At present, though, (the government) clearly sees the need to regain the confidence of markets as more pressing, and is hoping that its program of adjustment gets back on track in time for the presidential election late next year,” she added.

Read more …

“The Germans are right. Ever-rising house prices are a curse. They are bad for social mobility. They are bad for young people. And they are bad for the economy. ”

At Last, A Reason To Celebrate: House Prices Are Falling (G.)

The housing market is dead. Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, the Halifax, says that prices fell in April by 3.1%, the biggest monthly drop in almost eight years. Newspapers bury this disastrous news way back in their editions for fear that it will spread gloom and despondency. We need to wean ourselves off this way of thinking. Falling house prices are not disastrous, and only in a country with such a perverted relationship with bricks and mortar could they be seen as such. In Germany, they scratch their heads in bemusement when they hear Britons boast of how the value of their house has soared. The Germans are right. Ever-rising house prices are a curse. They are bad for social mobility. They are bad for young people. And they are bad for the economy.

The billions that are spent pushing up property prices could be more productively invested elsewhere. Imagine for a second that the next time you went to the train station the rail operating company had unexpectedly cut fares by 5%. Or that when doing your weekly shop you discovered that the supermarket had slashed your normal bill by £10. Would you think this was an unwelcome development? Daft question. Of course you would be happy, because your money would go further. Conversely, you would be less than chuffed to find more of your pay being spent on getting to work or putting food on the table. That’s why there are no headlines in the papers screaming “Boom-boom Britain: joy for commuters as rail fares rise by 10% for third year in a row”, or “Good news for families as supermarkets add £10 a week to the average shop”.

The papers stand up for their readers when they think they are being gouged by train companies and supermarkets. They stick up for buyers rather than sellers. But different rules apply to property. If the average house price had risen rather than fallen by £7,000 in April, that would have been front-page news and hailed as a sign that all was well with the economy. The papers tend to side with owner-occupiers rather than the buyers of property getting the rough end of the deal. This fetishisation of rising house prices is relatively recent. For the first 25 years after the second world war, a combination of mass housebuilding and strict controls on credit meant that the cost of property rose only modestly.

But since 1970, financial deregulation, much lower levels of housebuilding and a tax system heavily weighted in favour of owner-occupation have meant demand for housing in parts of the country has tended to outstrip supply. There have been four big house-price booms – the early 1970s, the late 80s, the mid 00s and the mid 10s. None of them have ended well.

Read more …

No criminal charges.

RBS Reaches $4.9 Billion Deal To Settle US Mortgage Bond Probe (R.)

The British state-backed bank said that $3.46 billion of the proposed civil settlement will be covered by existing provisions and the bank will take a $1.44 billion incremental charge in 2018’s second quarter to cover the rest. The accord would resolve a major issue that has weighed on the company’s share price and complicated the UK government’s plan to sell down its more than 70 percent stake in the bank. RBS Chief Executive Ross McEwan called the deal a “milestone.” “Removing the uncertainty over the scale of this settlement means that the investment case for this bank is much clearer,” he said in a statement.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts, which led the probe, confirmed it had reached an agreement in principle with RBS that would resolve potential civil claims related to mortgage-backed securities that were issued from 2005 to 2008. “Further details remain to be negotiated, however, before a formal agreement can be reached,” the office said. The implosion of markets for risky residential mortgage-backed securities and related derivatives contributed to the 2008 global financial crisis and prompted a series of investigations by authorities including the Justice Department. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts had also been conducting a criminal investigation into RBS and former employees who were involved in structuring and selling the securities.

But the settlement that RBS and the office disclosed on Thursday was only civil in nature, signaling no criminal charges were likely to result. RBS previously agreed in July 2017 to pay $5.5 billion to resolve a lawsuit by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, claiming it misled the U.S. mortgage giants into buying mortgage-backed securities. It resolved similar claims by the National Credit Union Administration related to mortgage-backed securities RBS sold to credit unions that later failed for $1.1 billion in 2016.

Read more …

“The mere threat of a military attack from the White House is madness because it arises from blatant lies that have absolutely nothing to do with US national security..”

The Deep State First (Stockman)

At his so-called Cabinet meeting this morning, the Donald basically threatened Iran with annihilation if it does what 15 other signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) do every day: Namely, increase production of industrial grade nuclear fuel (3.5%-5.0% purity) at its enrichment plant at Natanz—which, in any event, is crawling with IAEA inspectors. Moreover, it really doesn’t matter whether Trump was play-acting in the style of Art of the Deal or that the JPAOC could be improved. The mere threat of a military attack from the White House is madness because it arises from blatant lies that have absolutely nothing to do with US national security. Nor, for that matter, the security of any other country in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The real purpose of the Donald’s missile-rattling is nothing more than helping Bibi Netanyahu keep his coalition of right wing religious and settler parties (Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu and the Jewish Home) together, thereby maintaining his slim 61-vote majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu’s malefic political glue is the utterly false claim that Iran is an “existential threat” to Israel because it is hell-bent on getting the bomb. But that’s where the whopper comes in. It amounts to the ridiculous postulate that Iran is so fiendishly evil that if it is involved in the nuclear fuel cycle in any way, shape or form – presumably even just operating a uranium mine – it is only a matter of months before it will have a bomb.

As a matter of record, of course, Netanyahu has been saying this since the early 1990s and he has always been wrong because there were never any facts or logic to support his blatant fear-mongering.

Read more …

Madman,

Turkey Detains Dozens Of Air Force Personnel Over Gulen Links (R.)

Turkish police detained 65 suspects on Thursday in an operation targeting air force personnel accused of links to the U.S.-based preacher whom Ankara says orchestrated an attempted coup in 2016, state-run Anadolu news agency said. Prosecutors issued arrest warrants for a total 96 people, of which 91 were from the air force, and police were still seeking the remaining suspects in an operation focused on the western city of Izmir and spread across 15 provinces, it said. The suspects were said to have ties to the cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose network is accused of being behind the failed putsch in July 2016, during which 250 people were killed. Gulen has denied involvement.

In a separate operation, an Ankara prosecutor on Thursday issued detention warrants for 93 employees of a private tutoring center that was previously closed down on suspicion of links to Gulen’s network, Anadolu said. Turkish authorities have detained 160,000 people and dismissed nearly the same number of civil servants since the failed military intervention, the U.N. human rights office said in March. Among those detained, more than 50,000 have been formally charged and kept in jail during their trials.

Read more …

Hmmm…

Did Putin Green-Light Tonight’s Massive Israeli Strikes On Syria? (ZH)

Just off a 10-hour visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and less than a day after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he doesn’t expect Russia to act against Israeli forces as they continue exchanging fire with Syria. It appears the meeting wrapped up at the very moments a major escalation began along the Golan Heights, with both Syria and Israel trading blame for an initial attack which quickly escalated into Israeli cruise missile launches and shelling on targets in southern Syria and notably, on Damascus itself. The question remains, did Putin give Netanyahu the green light for tonight’s events?

If it wasn’t clear over the past weeks and months of unprovoked Israeli strikes on Syria—ostensibly to roll back Iranian troop presence—then it should be very clear by now that Syria, Israel, and Iran are now in a state of war and all signs point to a continued intensification of the conflict. And crucially, there’s currently no sign that Russia came to the aid of its close ally as rockets rained down on Damascus overnight. Russia has routinely looked the other way while Israel has conducted, by its own admission, over one hundred major strikes on Syria—most of which have come after Russian intervention on behalf of Assad in 2015. As Reuters reported late in the day Wednesday, Netanyahu told reporters just before departing Moscow: “Given what is happening in Syria at this very moment, there is a need to ensure the continuation of military coordination between the Russian military and the Israel Defence Forces.”

The Russians and Israelis coordinate their actions through a direct military hotline intended to avoid accidental clashes which could lead to escalation between the two countries. A reportedly “upbeat” Netanyahu further said, “”In previous meetings, given statements that were putatively attributed to – or were made by – the Russian side, it was meant to have limited our freedom of action or harm other interests and that didn’t happen, and I have no basis to think that this time will be different.” Thus it appears Israel may have been given a green light by Putin to engage targets in Syria, however, at this point it is unclear what limitations or restrictions Putin may have issued, if any at all.

Read more …

Victory.

Trump Welcomes Home Three Americans Released By North Korea (G.)

Three Americans released by North Korea have landed in the US under cover of darkness, with Donald Trump waiting on the tarmac to greet their plane. The three men emerged from a US government plane, flashing peace signs high above their heads. A huge US flag hung between two fire trucks served as a backdrop against the night sky. “I want to thank Kim Jong-un,” Trump said. “I think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world.” “We didn’t think this was going to happen, and it did. It was very important to all of us,” he said, referring to the prisoner release. “The true honour will be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.” The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, flew to Pyongyang for a surprise one-day visit on Wednesday, when he met the North Korean leader and secured the release of the three men.

Read more …

What do Democrats stand for?

Democrats’ Lead Is Slipping In Generic Ballot Poll (Hill)

The lead held by Democrats over Republicans on generic ballot polls ahead of the 2018 midterm elections is beginning to slip, a new CNN poll suggests. Overall, 31% of respondents in a poll released Wednesday told CNN that they believe the country would be better off with Democrats in control of Congress, while 30% said Republicans should hold the reins. However, the largest proportion of respondents, at 34%, said it makes no difference to them who is in charge. Among registered voters asked whether they would vote Democratic or Republican in their congressional district if the elections were held today, Democrats had a three-point advantage, at 44% to 41%, which is within the poll’s margin of error.

Democrats have seen a steady decline in their advantage over Republicans in recent months, according to CNN polling, falling from a 16-point advantage in February to a 6-point one in March, to just a 3-point lead this week, roughly six months away from the midterm elections. An ABC News/Washington Post poll similarly found last month that Democrats’ lead over Republicans among registered voters was only 4 points, at 47% to 43%, down from a 12-point lead the poll found Democrats held in January. Democrats still have an edge in enthusiasm, according to CNN. Among respondents who said they are excited to vote in November, more plan to vote Democratic than Republican, at 53% to 41%.

But enthusiasm does seem to be growing among GOP voters. According to the CNN poll, 44% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting, which is a jump from 36% in March. [..] President Trump’s own job approval has increased recently, with his approval rating at 41% in the CNN poll and his approval over his handling of the economy at 52%.

Read more …

On Polanyi.

Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy?

In a sweeping, angry new book, “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton), the journalist, editor, and Brandeis professor Robert Kuttner champions Polanyi as a neglected prophet. Like Polanyi, he believes that free markets can be crueller than citizens will tolerate, inflicting a distress that he thinks is making us newly vulnerable to the fascist solution. In Kuttner’s description, however, today’s political impasse is different from that of the nineteen-thirties. It is being caused not by a stalemate between leftist governments and a reactionary business sector but by leftists in government who have reneged on their principles.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Kuttner contends, America’s Democrats, Britain’s Labour Party, and many of Europe’s social democrats have consistently tacked rightward, relinquishing concern for ordinary workers and embracing the power of markets; they have sided with corporations and investors so many times that, by now, workers no longer feel represented by them. When strongmen arrived promising jobs and a shared sense of purpose, working-class voters were ready for the message.

[..] Polanyi starts “The Great Transformation” by giving capitalism its due. For all but eighteen months of the century prior to the First World War, he writes, a web of international trade and investment kept peace among Europe’s great powers. Money crossed borders easily, thanks to the gold standard, a promise by each nation’s central bank to sell gold at a fixed price in its own currency. This both harmonized trade between countries and stabilized relative currency values. If a nation started to sell more goods than it bought, gold streamed in, expanding the money supply, heating up the economy, and raising prices high enough to discourage foreign buyers—at which point, in a correction so smooth it almost seemed natural, exports sank back down to pre-boom levels.

The trouble was that the system could be gratuitously cruel. If a country went into a recession or its currency weakened, the only remedy was to attract foreign money by forcing prices down, cutting government spending, or raising interest rates—which, in effect, meant throwing people out of work. “No private suffering, no restriction of sovereignty, was deemed too great a sacrifice for the recovery of monetary integrity,” Polanyi wrote. The system was sustainable politically only as long as those whose lives it ruined didn’t have a say. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the right to vote spread. In the twenties and thirties, governments began trying to protect citizens’ jobs from shifts in international prices by raising tariffs, so that, in the system’s final years, it hardened national borders instead of opening them, and engendered what Polanyi called a “new crustacean type of nation,” which turned away from international trade, making first one world war, and then another, inevitable.

Read more …

More Graeber. Most jobs are bullshit.

Bullshit Jobs: Why They Exist And Why You Might Have One (Vox)

Corporate lawyers. Most corporate lawyers secretly believe that if there were no longer any corporate lawyers, the world would probably be a better place. The same is true of public relations consultants, telemarketers, brand managers, and countless administrative specialists who are paid to sit around, answer phones, and pretend to be useful. A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all. And that’s how you know a job is bullshit: If we suddenly eliminated teachers or garbage collectors or construction workers or law enforcement or whatever, it would really matter. We’d notice the absence.

But if bullshit jobs go away, we’re no worse off. [..] We’re all taught that people want something for nothing, which makes it easy to shame poor people and denigrate the welfare system, because everyone is lazy at heart and just wants to mooch off other people. But the truth is that a lot of people are being handed a lot of money to do nothing. This is true for most of these middle-management positions I’m talking about, and the people doing these jobs are completely unhappy because they know their work is bullshit. I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.

[..] You expect this outcome with a Soviet-style system, where you have to have full employment so you make up jobs whether a need exists or not. But this shouldn’t happen in a free market system. I think one of the reasons is there’s huge political pressure to create jobs coming from all directions. We accept the idea that rich people are job creators, and the more jobs we have, the better. It doesn’t matter if those jobs do something useful; we just assume that more jobs is better no matter what. We’ve created a whole class of flunkies that essentially exist to improve the lives of actual rich people. Rich people throw money at people who are paid to sit around, add to their glory, and learn to see the world from the perspective of the executive class.

Read more …

Jan 012018
 


Happy New Year Bill Watterson

 

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US Dollar Refuses to Die as Top Global Reserve Currency (WS)
The Rise And Fall Of The Eurodollar (ZH)
Behind Korea, Iran & Russia Tensions: The Lurking Financial War (Crooke)
Polanyi Best Explains Trump, Brexit And The Failure Of Neoliberalism (Prime)
UK Government Relies On Rising Household Debt To Hit Targets – Labour (G.)
‘Desperate Times’ For Overcrowded British Hospitals (PA)
China’s Growth Engine Stutters As Factories Slow Down (G.)
Greece Dismisses Turkey’s Threats Over Asylum Row (GR)
Greece: Turkish Soldiers Won’t Be Extradited Regardless Of Asylum Process (K.)
UK ‘Faces Build-Up Of Plastic Waste’ (BBC)

 

 

The graphs seem to say it all: the demise of the dollar (and petrodollar, eurodollar -dollars held outside US-) has been greatly exaggerated.

US Dollar Refuses to Die as Top Global Reserve Currency (WS)

Over the decades, there have been a number of efforts to deflate the dollar’s hegemony as a global reserve currency, which it has maintained since World War II. Some of these efforts – such as the creation of the euro – have made a visible dent into the dollar’s status. Other efforts have essentially passed unnoticed. Now there’s a new contender: the Chinese yuan. On December 31, the IMF released its report on the Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER) for Q3 2017. So how has the US dollar fared as the top world reserve currency, now that the Chinese yuan has also been anointed as one, and that the euro has emerged from its debt crisis? First things, first. The IMF doesn’t really disclose all that much. The COFER data for the individual countries – the level of their reserve currencies and how they allocate them – is “strictly confidential,” it says.

So what we get to look at is the global allocation by currency. Total global foreign exchange reserves rose to $11.3 billion in Q3 2017, within the range of the past three years, between $10.7 trillion (Q4 2016) and $11.8 trillion (Q3, 2014). But something is happening to “allocated reserves.” Not all central banks disclose to the IMF how their foreign exchange reserves are allocated. In Q3 2017, 14.6% of the reserves hadn’t been allocated. But this number is plunging. In Q3 2014, just three years ago, it was still 41.2%. This means that more and more central banks report to the IMF their allocation of foreign exchange reserves, and the COFER is getting broader.

So of the 85.4% of the officially “allocated” reserve currencies in Q3 2017: • US dollar: 63.5% share, down from 64.6% in Q3 2014. • Euro: 20% share, down from 22.6% in Q3 2014. • Yen: 4.5% share, up from 3.6% in Q3 2014. • Pound Sterling: 4.5% share, up from 3.75% in Q3 2014. The Australian and Canadian dollars had a share of 1.8% and 2.0% respectively. • The Chinese yuan – that thin red sliver in the chart below – had a share of 1.1%, up from 1.08% in the prior three quarters, and up from zero before then. • The Swiss franc, the hair-fine black line in the chart below, has a share of 0.2%. • And a number of “other” currencies have a combined share of 2.4%.

The Chinese yuan made its entry after IMF boss Christine Lagarde and the IMF staff declared in mid-November 2015 that they were gung-ho about adding it to the IMF’s currency basket, the Special Drawing Rights (SDR), which is an important step toward becoming a major global reserve currency. At the end of November 2015, it was approved by the board. And it took effect in October 2016. Sure enough, in Q4 2016, the Chinese yuan started showing up in the COFER data as a global reserve currency with a share of 1.08%. But rather than soaring, it didn’t move at all over the first two quarters in 2017. And in Q3, it ticked up to a still minuscule 1.1%. Central banks do not appear to be overeager to hold this currency in large amounts. The chart below shows the changes since Q3 2014. The black line at the top is the US dollar – its hegemony unbroken.

Read more …

Russia experienced dollar shortages with oil prices still at $95 a barrel. It can’t do without dollars. Maybe sometime in the future, but that may well be a long time away.

The Rise And Fall Of The Eurodollar (ZH)

Gromen, who largely sat out this segment, offers a few thoughts toward the end that add to the picture of weakness defining the contemporary eurodollar system. Looking back to the summer of 2014, Gromen posits that the largest oil exporters were able to maintain current account surpluses because they’d already started settling an increasing percentage of their oil sales in dollars.

“It’s interesting, Jeff and Mark (this is Luke of course) when you look back to September – and we put this in our slide deck (which we can touch on later) – but if you look back at the actual timing of events it’s kind of interesting. And it’s, to me it hints to motive. So I’d love to get your thought on it, Jeff or Mark, of – if you go back to August of 2014, actually back even to May of ‘14, you had the Holy Grail gas and energy deal signed between China and Russia. It was rumored that that deal was going to be done in non-dollars, but no proof of that. It was later proven to be the case. In August of 2014, Putin announced that they wanted to start moving away from the dollar in oil trade, because the dollar’s monopoly in the global energy trade was damaging their economy.

And, what’s kind of interesting – and we wrote about this at the time – at this point oil is still $100 a barrel. And then, all of a sudden, by late September, with oil still $96 a barrel, $95 a barrel, Russia’s having dollar shortages. Russia was still – and they weren’t the only ones – Venezuela, Ecuador, a couple of others – you have three major oil exporters that are running still current account surpluses in the low- to mid-single digits at this point, starting to run into dollar shortages. And it was, I think, an underappreciated point at the time that, basically, if you’re an oil exporter you’re only selling in dollars, you’re running a current account surplus.

And so, if you’re only selling in dollars, in theory, there’s only two explanations for that, for those dollar shortages that began to pop up well before the price of oil crashed. Which was (#1) Russia and other places got dramatically more corrupt in the three months versus the three months before. Or they were starting to sell energy at an accelerating rate in non-dollar terms. And, as a result, you were seeing – where you were getting $100 before, now you were getting whatever, $90, $80, whatever the mix was. And at that point, then you started to see some of the devaluations etc. I guess I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.”

Read more …

Alastair Crooke also looks at the dollar demise.

Behind Korea, Iran & Russia Tensions: The Lurking Financial War (Crooke)

What have the tensions between the US and North Korea, Iran and Russia in common? Answer: It is that they are components to a wider financial war. Russia and Iran (together with China) happen to be the three key players shaping a huge (almost half the global population) alternative currency zone. The North Korean issue is important as it potentially may precipitate the US – depending on events – towards a more aggressive policy toward China (whether out of anger at Chinese hesitations over Korea, or as part and parcel of the US Administration’s desire to clip China’s trading wings). The US has embarked on a project to restore America’s economic primacy through suppressing its main trade competitors (through quasi-protectionism), and in the military context to ensure America’s continued political dominance.

The US ‘America First’ National Security Strategy made it plain: China and Russia are America’s ‘revisionist’ adversaries, and the US must and intends to win in this competition. The sub-text is that potential main rivals must be reminded of their ‘place’ in the global order. This part is clear and quite explicit, but what is left unsaid is that America is staking all on the dollar’s global, reserve currency status being maintained, for without it, President Trump’s aims are unlikely to be delivered. The dollar status is crucial – precisely because of what has occurred in the wake of the Great Financial crisis – the explosion of further debt. But here is a paradox: how is it that a Presidential Candidate who promised less military belligerence, less foreign intervention, and no western cultural-identity imposition, has, in the space of one year, become, as President, a hawk in respect to Korea and Iran.

What changed in his thinking? The course being pursued by both states was well-known, and has offered no sudden surprise (though North Korea’s progress may have proved quantitatively more rapid than, perhaps, US Intelligence was expecting: i.e. instead of 2020 – 2021, North Korea may have achieved its weapons objective in 2018 – some two years or so earlier that estimated)? But essentially Korea’s desire to be accepted as a nuclear weapon state is nothing new. It is ‘the Federal debt’, and a pending ‘debt ceiling’ that is crucial. There is little doubt that the US military is not what it used to be, and the Republican Party possesses a wing that is quite fundamentalist about limiting debt (Freedom Caucus). A serious military crisis is possibly the only way Trump is likely to get a huge ramp-up of military expenditure past Congress’ fiscal hawks.

President Trump – the Tax Bill saga tells us — is going to be a big spender as part of MAGA (Make America Great Again). The increase in proposed US defence spending alone, more or less equates to the whole annual Russian defence spending. US Federal debt is already above $20 Trillion, and accelerating fast: the borrowing requirement is ballooning and interest payments to service this additional borrowing, normally would be expected to rise. But Trump is also explicitly a low interest rate, expanding balance-sheet, sort of guy. So, how does one finance a truly ballooning budget deficit, whilst keeping interest rates low, or at zero? Well a fear-driven rush by foreigners into ‘risk free’ US Treasuries (i.e. military crisis again), historically serves to keep rates low – and dollars plentiful — as ‘overseas dollars’ return ‘home’ to Wall Street.

Read more …

No sure why economists et al have such a hard time understanding why limitless liberalization must by definition backfire.

Polanyi Best Explains Trump, Brexit And The Failure Of Neoliberalism (Prime)

It’s good to see the latest (21 December) New York Review of Books give space to a review – by Robert Kuttner of American Prospect– of a biography of “Karl Polanyi: a Life on the Left” by Gareth Dale. For as we have been arguing for a long time, it was Polanyi who better than any other historian/analyst got to the heart of the contradictions of free market globalised liberalism, and saw that it was such economic liberalism, pushed too far, that is likely to lead to authoritarian, or even fascist, outcomes. As Kuttner puts it, “Global capitalism has escaped the bounds of the postwar mixed economy that had reconciled dynamism with security through the regulation of finance, the empowerment of labor, a welfare state, and elements of public ownership”.

The outcome is extreme inequality and instability. However, as Kuttner reminds, “We have been here before. During the period between the two world wars, free-market liberals governing Britain, France, and the US tried to restore the pre–World War I laissez-faire system. They resurrected the gold standard and put war debts and reparations ahead of economic recovery. It was an era of free trade and rampant speculation, with no controls on private capital. The result was a decade of economic insecurity ending in depression, a weakening of parliamentary democracy, and fascist backlash. Right up until the German election of July 1932, when the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the pre-Hitler governing coalition was practicing the economic austerity commended by Germany’s creditors.”

It was these extremist policies of free market liberalism that Polanyi dissected in his most famous work, “The Great Transformation”, published in 1944. The worst consequences were in Germany and other continental European states, but declining imperial Britain was still the heart of ultra-liberal ideology. I am currently reading David Kynaston’s rambling History of the Bank of England, which sets out the disgraceful pressure that Governor Montagu Norman and the City of London put on elected governments to return to the Gold Standard (at the pre-war rate) and impose harsh austerity, with terrible economic consequences. [..] “[T]he simple proposition that all factors of production must have free markets implies in practice that the whole of society must be subordinated to the needs of the market system.” We see Polanyi’s key insight – in the essays and in the later book – as encapsulated in these passages:

“The real nature of the dangers thus become apparent which are inseparable from the market-utopia. For the sake of society the market mechanism must be restricted. But this cannot be done without grave peril to economic life and therefore to society as a whole. We are caught up on the horns of a dilemma: – either to continue on the paths of a utopia bound for destruction, or to halt on this path and risk the throwing out of gear of this marvellous but extremely artificial system.” “A self-regulating market-system is a utopia. No society could stand its devastating effects once it got really going. Hardly had laissez-faire started when the State and voluntary organizations intervened to protect society through factory laws, Trade Union and Church action from the mechanism of the market.”

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All western countries do. It’s why interest rates are so low.

UK Government Relies On Rising Household Debt To Hit Targets – Labour (G.)

John McDonnell has accused the government of relying on millions of British families going further into debt in order to meet Treasury targets. The shadow chancellor said families were set to borrow £445bn by the end of the parliament. He also highlighted official figures showing the ratio between household debt and income had reached a five-year high, with forecasts suggesting it will hit 150% by 2022. That means families will have amassed debts worth a year and a half’s income – which Labour warned could result in people falling into financial difficulties. McDonnell is planning for the Labour party to focus heavily on the question of household debt as part of its new year strategy. “The alarming increase in household debt at a time when wages are not keeping up with prices is creating the perfect storm for our economy,” McDonnell told the Guardian.

“There needs to be more done to protect working households from extortionate rates of interest, and also ensure that their earnings are not being squeezed just so Philip Hammond can pretend to meet his own targets, which he has so far failed to meet.” The Labour frontbencher said his party had already promised to cap interest on insecure lending, but would be unveiling a string of further interventions in 2018 about how to protect households from burgeoning debt. He has described the situation as a “personal debt crisis” with levels of unsecured borrowing predicted to hit a record of £19,000 per household by the end of this parliament. Analysis from Labour shows unsecured debt is on course to exceed £15,000 per household next year and could go on to exceed £19,000 per household by 2022 if it follows the current trajectory.

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They had an excellent health care service. Those days are gone. The poor have become expendable.

‘Desperate Times’ For Overcrowded British Hospitals (PA)

Pressures on the NHS have “escalated rapidly” over the festive period, with hospitals experiencing significant bed shortages, a leading doctor has warned. Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine (SAM), said many hospitals reported more than 99% capacity in the week before Christmas. He said services are being placed under significant strain as they enter the new year and called for non-urgent operations to be postponed until at least the end of January. Doctors have described corridors overflowing with patients and used social media in a bid to find extra staff to cope with demand. Portsmouth hospitals NHS trust, in Hampshire, tweeted on Sunday: “The hospital is extremely busy at the moment and we are asking any medical or nursing staff available for a shift tonight or tomorrow to make contact.”

Epsom and St Helier University hospitals trust, in London, also appealed for staff to work on New Year’s Eve “due to sickness and high volumes of patients”. Dr Richard Fawcett, from the Royal Stoke University hospital, wrote on Saturday that it had run out corridor space in A&E after ambulances were diverted from County hospital, Stafford. NHS England said hospitals were “generally coping”, with overall bed occupancy levels down from 95% in the lead-up to Christmas to about 93%. Scriven said: “Since the bank holiday, things have escalated rapidly and we are on the cusp of a major issue at least as bad as last year when it was described by the Red Cross as a humanitarian crisis. “There is an awful lot of respiratory illness causing a lot of severe symptoms in the old and young and 10- to 12-hour delays in emergency departments are now not uncommon – along with patients being placed on inappropriate wards.”

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Good story for 2018.

China’s Growth Engine Stutters As Factories Slow Down (G.)

Growth in China’s manufacturing sector slowed in December as a punishing crackdown on air pollution and a cooling property market start to weigh on the world’s second-largest economy. The data supports the view that the Chinese economy is beginning to gradually lose steam after growing by a forecast-beating 6.9% in the first nine months of the year. However, signs of a sharper slowdown – a major fear among global investors – have yet to materialise. The official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) released on Sunday dipped to 51.6 in December, down from 51.8 in November and in line with forecasts from economists in a Reuters poll. The 50-point level divides growth from contraction on a monthly basis. The figures showed that China’s full-year 2017 economic growth would be at about 6.9% and 6.5% for 2018, according to the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, which compiles the data.

Boosted by hefty government infrastructure spending, a resilient property market and unexpected strength in exports, China’s manufacturing and industrial firms have driven solid economic growth this year, with their strong appetite for raw materials boosting global commodity prices. However, a slowdown has started to take hold in the last few months due to a wide-ranging combination of government measures, from a crackdown on smog in some heavily industrialised provinces to continued curbs on the housing market, which are weighing on property investment. Chinese steelmakers in 28 cities have been ordered to curb output between mid-November and mid-March, while a campaign to promote cleaner energy by converting coal to natural gas has also hampered manufacturing activity in some cities, leading to shortages and price rises.

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Any politician seen as giving in to Turkish strong-arming faces a huge problem at home. Long history and all that.

Greece Dismisses Turkey’s Threats Over Asylum Row (GR)

Greece dismissed Turkish angry threats on Sunday over its decision to grant asylum to a soldier who Ankara accuses of involvement in the abortive coup against President Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. Turkey said on Saturday the decision by a Greek asylum board undermined relations between the two countries. The soldier was one of eight who fled after the July 15 coup attempt. It also accused Athens of harbouring “coup plotters”, a charge Greece denies. Turkey also threatened that the incident would affect bilateral relations over a host of issues from ethnically split Cyprus to sovereignty over airspace. The asylum board rejected the applications by the other seven soldiers, and the Greek government has appealed the decision to grant the soldier asylum and sought its annulment.

The government announcement that it will appeal the decision has caused a minor political storm, with opposition parties accusing the PM of hypocrisy and of bowing to Turkish threats. the row began when the government added to its appeal release that the country’s judiciary is independent. “Our faith in democratic principles and practices is not a weakness, but a source of strength,” the Greek foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday. “Democracies do not threaten, or can be threatened,” the foreign ministry said. “On the contrary, they work responsibly and methodically to promote understanding and entrench stability and good neighbourly relations. Greece will continue this path and hopes its neighbours will do the same.” The eight soldiers had flown by helicopter to Greece in the early hours of July 16, 2016, as the attempted coup against Erdogan crumbled. They have denied any involvement in the attempt.

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Erdogan is not going to like this one.

Greece: Turkish Soldiers Won’t Be Extradited Regardless Of Asylum Process (K.)

Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos has said the eight Turkish soldiers wanted by Ankara in connection with a failed coup attempt in 2016 “will not be extradited regardless of the outcome of their asylum applications.” In a message posted on social media late Sunday, Tzanakopoulos said the asylum claims submitted by the soldiers concerns their granting of refugee status. “This is a completely different from their non-extradition,” he said. Turkey said on Saturday the decision by a Greek asylum board to grant asylum to one of the eight soldiers undermined relations between the two countries. It also accused Athens of harboring “coup plotters.”

On Sunday, Tzanakopoulos said it was up to the Greek justice system to decide if the suspect in question is entitled to refugee protection, “in light of the enormous political significance of the issue which directly impacts on relations with the neighboring country.” “The political position of the Greek government is nevertheless clear,” Tzanakopoulos said. “Those suspected of being involved in Turkey’s coup are not welcome.”

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It’s not as if this is a British issue. Just refuse to use all the packaging etc.

UK ‘Faces Build-Up Of Plastic Waste’ (BBC)

The UK’s recycling industry says it doesn’t know how to cope with a Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste. Britain has been shipping up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling in China every year, but now the trade has been stopped. At the moment the UK cannot deal with much of that waste, says the UK Recycling Association. Its chief executive, Simon Ellin, told the BBC he had no idea how the problem would be solved in the short term. “It’s a huge blow for us… a game-changer for our industry,” he said. “We’ve relied on China so long for our waste… 55% of paper, 25% plus of plastics. “We simply don’t have the markets in the UK. It’s going to mean big changes in our industry.”

China has introduced the ban from this month on “foreign garbage” as part of a move to upgrade its industries. Other Asian nations will take some of the plastic, but there will still be a lot left. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has admitted that he was slow to spot the problem coming. The UK organisation Recoup, which recycles plastics, said the imports ban would lead to stock-piling of plastic waste and a move towards incineration and landfill. Peter Fleming, from the Local Government Association, told the BBC: “Clearly there’s a part to play for incineration but not all parts of the country have incinerators.

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