US President Donald Trump will meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin later on Monday, ending a tumultuous European tour in which he criticised his allies. Mr Trump said he had “low expectations” ahead of the talks in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, but added that “maybe some good” would come of them. The summit comes after 12 Russians were charged with hacking in the 2016 US elections. Mr Trump says he will raise the issue, but there is no formal agenda. The two leaders will meet one-on-one, and will be joined only by their interpreters. It is the first-ever summit between Mr Putin and Mr Trump – although they have previously met on the sidelines of multilateral talks.
There have been calls in the US for Mr Trump to cancel the meeting altogether over the indictments of Russian military intelligence agents, announced on Friday. Russia denies the allegations, and says it is looking forward to the talks as a vehicle for improving relations. US National Security Adviser John Bolton has said both sides have agreed the meeting will have no set agenda. But he said he found it “hard to believe” Mr Putin did not know about the alleged election hacking and the subject would be mentioned. “That’s what one of the purposes of this meeting is, so the president can see eye to eye with President Putin and ask him about it,” he told ABC News.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline to Europe is an egregious example of unscrupulous competition and it worries Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying on Monday. Speaking shortly before Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit down together for a summit in the Finnish capital, Peskov also said discussions between the two on Syria would be difficult because of the U.S. stance on Iran, Russia’s ally and a major player in the Syrian conflict. Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Peskov as saying he hoped the Helsinki talks would represent some kind of step away from the current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations.
Donald Trump described the European Union one of his greatest “foes” in another extraordinary diplomatic intervention on Sunday, just hours before sitting down to a high-stakes summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Asked in a TV interview to name his “biggest foe globally right now”, the US president started by naming the European Union, calling the body “very difficult” before ticking off other traditional rivals like Russia and China. Hours earlier, British prime minister Theresa May revealed that Trump suggested she “sue the EU” rather than go into negotiations over Brexit. “Well I think we have a lot of foes,” Trump told CBS News at his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union but they’re a foe.”
Apparently taken aback, anchor Jeff Glor replied: “A lot of people might be surprised to hear you list the EU as a foe before China and Russia.” But Trump insisted: “EU is very difficult. I respect the leaders of those countries. But – in a trade sense, they’ve really taken advantage of us.” Trump’s controversial tour through Europe has turned postwar western relations inside out, the president sparring with Nato leaders in Brussels and blasting May’s Brexit strategy in the Sun newspaper. His remarks have reflected one of this president’s core beliefs: that America is exploited by its allies. Donald Tusk, president of the European council, tweeted: “America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.”
China ranges over the global economy like a bull elephant roams the savanna. Other grassland wildlife is sensitive to this mammoth’s slightest moves. The ferocious lion, the U.S., is no exception. China has yet to become fully aware that it is the elephant in the global economy’s boardroom. But in Washington, Trump was cognizant that he could not stand idly by after China vowed to knock the U.S. off its economic pedestal in just 17 years from now. He campaigned for the presidency by promising voters he would put “America first.” News of China’s decision to bring forward its modernization target date emerged at a bad time. It came shortly after Xi had promised Trump business deals worth $250 billion.
That pledge came in November, when Trump was visiting Beijing, and was portrayed as a salve that would help to heal the U.S.’s massive trade deficit with China. As expected, it was little more than talk. The trade gap continues to quickly widen. Alarmed by China’s ambitions and frustrated by the lack of progress in narrowing the U.S. trade deficit, Trump went on the offensive in the spring. There are good reasons for China coming under U.S. trade fire. It has been the biggest beneficiary of the global trade system since it became a member of the World Trade Organization at the end of 2001. All the while, it has imposed strict foreign ownership limits in each industrial sector, forced foreign companies that enter China to transfer technologies and has set up various other barriers to its markets.
Backed by huge amounts of government funds, Chinese companies have made splashy acquisitions of U.S. and European companies that own key technologies, especially in the auto and information technology sectors. Chinese companies can quickly obtain technologies by acquiring or taking equity investments in U.S. and European companies. In the U.S. and Europe, any company can acquire any other company as long as it can obtain the necessary funds. But it is difficult for U.S. and European companies to acquire Chinese companies. Chinese authorities have numerous regulations at their disposal to block any such attempt.
When Xi bared China’s sharp claws, declaring China would overtake the U.S. economically by 2035, he did so for the benefit of a domestic audience and to aid his fierce power struggle with the political factions that had run China for decades. China is now beginning to realize the high price it is having to pay for Xi’s declaration.
“It is absolutely unreal how the world pays so much respect to mediocrity or even incompetence when it comes to running the financial system. Central banks and their heads have created this monster balloon which is now waiting to be popped. They have given the world the impression that they have been instrumental in saving the world economy. The central bank chiefs that managed to retire before the balloon burst can count themselves lucky. In my view, the luck is now in the process of running out for the present ones. These chiefs believe so much in their own ability as saviors of the world that they don’t understand that all they are doing is creating a much bigger monster by printing and printing and printing.
[..] When the monster, ‘everything’ bubble pops, so will the paper markets in gold, silver, and other precious metals. The size of this market is at least 100-times bigger than the physical market. The rise of this market is very much linked to manipulation of the precious metals by central banks, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), and bullion banks. When the paper metals markets pop, there will be no gold (or silver) offered at any price. This is the time when overnight or over a weekend the price will go from $1,250 to $10,000 or even $100,000. This might sound totally unreal to some, but this will be the most likely consequence of the monster bubble popping and everyone in markets running for the exit.
Most people believe that the status quo can go on forever and that central banks will continue their ridiculous game of pretending that air is real money that can create wealth. The few people who believe that there is a serious risk that the system will not survive in its present form, and that their assets — be it cash, bonds, or stocks — could decline substantially in value, must seriously consider insurance.
The next decline in financial markets is likely to start in late 2018 or early 2019. And this will not be an ordinary decline or normal correction. Instead, it will be the beginning of the biggest global bear market in history. And this time central banks and governments will fail in their attempts to save the system. They will, however, certainly print a lot of money and try to reduce interest rates. But as global bond markets collapse, rates will go up rapidly. This means that bonds and stocks will both crash along with most assets.
Lyndon Johnson, who was majority leader in the US Senate before he became his country’s president, once declared that the most important talent in politics is “the ability to count”. There aren’t enough people who can count around Mrs May. The fatal flaw in her plan is that there is no majority for it in the House of Commons. The Brexit ultras are crying treachery and promising havoc. They both express and feed the furies of Tory activists. The Brextremists don’t have an alternative plan, other than to crash out of the EU without any deal at all, a catastrophic outcome that some of them actually wish for, but that hasn’t stopped them before and won’t curb them now.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and his cabal can muster the 48 signatures of Tory MPs that they need to trigger a confidence vote in Mrs May. They do not sound confident that they have the numbers – they require 159 – to oust her from the premiership. What the ultras can do is make the government’s life even more hellish by prosecuting a “guerrilla war” in parliament. Even if Mrs May could get the EU to accept her plan, 60-plus Conservative MPs are opponents of her version of a Brexit deal. That number will climb if, as is inevitable, she has to make further concessions in Brussels to secure an agreement. There are more than enough Brextremist rebels to block the prime minister in the Commons unless she can get some assistance from the opposition.
She needs the help of Labour MPs and she is not going to get it. Jeremy Corbyn won’t give her any succour. He is more interested in bringing down the Tories than helping them to solve a mad riddle of their own making. The Labour leadership calculates that defeating Mrs May in Brexit votes is their best chance of collapsing the government and precipitating an early general election. But Number 10 clearly harboured hopes that centrist Labour MPs might embrace her plan as the least worst version of Brexit that they are likely to get in the circumstances.
Theresa May faces a concerted rebellion from the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative party on Monday, as MPs unhappy with her Chequers compromise prepare to mount a show of strength by voting for their amendments on the customs bill. The party’s European Research Group says it will reject any last attempts at compromise by Number 10 as they hope to force May to change course over Brexit or risk a no-confidence vote before the summer break by demonstrating the depth of their support. A special ERG whipping operation, using the WhatsApp messaging service, has been created by Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister who resigned from the government last week, although ERG insiders would not put a number on how many they expected to rebel in the Commons.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the ERG, told the BBC “we’ll have an idea of the numbers at 10pm on Monday evening” while one ERG insider added that they were “intensely relaxed” about the number of rebels they had signed up. Last week, members of the hard Brexit group put down four amendments to the taxation (cross-border trade) bill due to be debated on Monday evening, aimed at halting the customs plan announced by May at Chequers nine days ago. The level of support they attract will draw intense focus, particularly if the number significantly exceeds the 48 required to call for a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership of the Conservative party.
Britain’s housing market saw a glut of new property offered for sale this month, keeping a lid on prices at a time when sales typically suffer from a seasonal lull, property website Rightmove said on Monday. Real estate agents now have the highest amount of stock since September 2015, Rightmove said. “While an increase in seller numbers is a welcome sign of more liquidity in a generally stock-starved market, it has unfortunately come at a quieter time of year,” Rightmove director Miles Shipside said. The number of homes advertised by Rightmove, Britain’s largest property website, is 8.6 percent higher than the same month a year ago, but the number of sales is virtually unchanged from a year earlier, down 0.2 percent.
Average asking prices for new sellers are down 0.1 percent since June, typical for the time of year, Rightmove added. But in a sign that previous sellers had priced their property too high, a third of stock being advertised had seen at least one price reduction, the highest proportion for the time of year since 2011. Other industry data has shown British house price growth has slowed sharply since the June 2016 Brexit vote, though with marked regional variation. The slowdown is most marked in London and neighbouring areas, where demand has been hit by higher tax on expensive property and reduced demand from foreign investors. In other parts of Britain, prices are still rising moderately.
The European Union on Monday called on the United States, China and Russia to work together to avoid trade “conflict and chaos” to prevent it spiralling into violent confrontation. “It is the common duty of Europe and China, but also America and Russia, not to destroy (the global trade order) but to improve it, not to start trade wars which turned into hot conflicts so often in our history,” EU Council President Donald Tusk said in Beijing. “There is still time to prevent conflict and chaos.” Tusk spoke after meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as part of an annual EU-China summit that opened against the backdrop of the growing China-US economic confrontation and wider global trade discord.
The EU — the world’s biggest single market with 28 countries and 500 million people — is trying to buttress alliances in the face of the protectionism unleashed by US President Donald Trump’s “America First” administration. The meeting between Chinese and European officials in Beijing, which also included European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, comes as Trump prepared to hold talks in Helsinki with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The world needed trade reform, rather than confrontation, Tusk said. “This is why I am calling on our Chinese hosts, but also on Presidents Trump and Putin, to jointly start this process from a thorough reform of the WTO.”
Tuesday is a red-letter day for international law: from then on, political and military leaders who order the invasion of foreign countries will be guilty of the crime of aggression, and may be punishable at the international criminal court in The Hague. Had this been an offence back in 2003, Tony Blair would have been bang to rights, together with senior numbers of his cabinet and some British military commanders. But if that were the case, of course, they would not have gone ahead; George W Bush would have been without his willing UK accomplices. The judgment at Nuremberg declared that “to initiate a war of aggression … is the supreme international crime”.
But this concept never entered UK law (as the misguided crowdfunded effort to prosecute Blair discovered last year). International acceptance of it stalled until states could agree on an up-to-date definition. The crime was included in the ICC jurisdiction back in 1998, but was suspended until its elements could be decided (in 2010) then ratified by at least 30 states (in 2016). At last it is finally being “activated”. In the meantime, Iraq and Ukraine have been invaded and other countries threatened, while Donald Trump attacked Syria last year. Now, the very existence of the crime of aggression offers some prospect of deterrence, and some degree of certainty in identifying the criminals.
Rembrandt van Rijn The Storm on the Sea of Galilee 1633
On March 18, 1990, the painting was stolen by thieves disguised as police officers. They broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, MA, and stole this painting, along with 12 other works. The paintings have never been recovered, and it is considered the biggest art theft in history. The empty frames still hang in their original location.
This is an article written by Dr. D, who last month wrote a series at the Automatic Earth entitled Bitcoin Doesn’t Exist.
It shouldn’t surprise you that bitcoin plays a cameo in his Modest -but actually quite grand- Plan as well.
Dr. D: With all the talk about the bubble market, people are once again saying Donald Trump is a fool, he should never have taken credit for a Dow that’s about to collapse. In addition, how does he think he can get away with claiming we have a great economy made greater? He said in the election the economy was terrible and the Dow was a bubble, that’s why he won.
But hold on: you have to remember, they’re politicians; they may be dishonest but they’re not stupid. Let’s try a scenario to see what they’re thinking:
We have a situation in the U.S. where 100 million people are out of the workforce, the real economy is on life-support, debt is crushing, and monetary velocity is at an all-time low. The Fed’s every effort at market-rigging, lowering rates and pumping in money, bailing out the banks and giving unearned interest for Fed deposits have run up both the housing market and the stock market, neither of which is their legal mandate. If either one goes higher, they’ll pop as workers, particularly millennials, have no income to buy houses, and stocks are levitating on just 5 insider-paid FAANG stocks.
It’s untenable. However, if either falls, the collateral that upholds the whole system will fail, margins will be called, the housing market will fall, and there will be an instant Depression… You know, more than the 100 million out of work Depression we already have. A Depression that makes Congressmen and government workers lose their profits and 401k’s instead of just turning students to open prostitution, and mass opioid death, and starving people in Oklahoma – you know, a Depression that finally hurts someone who matters.
Since this is self-evident and unsustainable, isn’t Trump just stepping in it by pushing all the same policies as Obama? Not necessarily. Look at what matters to him. A tax plan, and barely, not one he liked, but look at what he settled for: return of foreign profits abroad. Why? Large as it is – and it’s already creating long-withheld bonuses – that’s not enough to turn the dial. But that’s a card he wanted. Tax policy and a high stock market. What else?
Well, we have a crippling high debt, easily 100% even 200% of GDP. With that weight, nothing can move, no way to win. Pensions also are nearly dead, along with insurance companies; the high Dow is all that’s saving them from bankruptcy. What else? Well he was interested in health reform but was willing to let it remain for now. He wrote deferrals but not pardons for 5 banks showing he’d like to keep them functioning for the moment. He wanted to increase the military.
Certainly the only other promise was to create jobs and economies again, in a way saying the few protected industries: Finance, Health Care, and Military would have to become a smaller % of GDP, so those dollars could be returned back to Main Street. But we just said those three aren’t happening.
So. What if instead of pulling money from intractable lobbying groups he got new investment money from abroad? We saw this initially with Carrier and Ford and more recently with Japan. But it’s not enough and he knows all this; they all do. How do you solve the problem? How do you get more?
Calling all 1st year econ students: how do you attract capital to your country? With higher rates. As the US 10-year breaks out above 2.6% you’d have to think that’s attractive. Attractive investing in a bankrupt nation that’s barely moving? It does if you’re a company that must maintain legal investment ratios and you’re getting 0% in Japan, and negative rates in Europe, both with economies as bad or worse.
But aren’t rising rates bad? The Fed model raises rates to clamp down on the economy. Money will leave the stock market and go to bonds. Housing prices will fall as the monthly cost increases. Cats and Dogs living together….except it isn’t true.
Let’s go down the list:
1. Trump starts with plausible seed corn, a billboard sign: a tax cut and a few trillion overseas to start economic motion.
2. If the Fed raises rates, that will draw in trillions of world capital Trump wants, enough to turn the dial and really matter.
3. Enough money flowing into the U.S. will create demand for the US$, and the US$ will rise. This part has to work. Be flashy, attract attention. Go big or go home.
4. The US$ rising will attract foreign buyers into U.S. investment and together the stock market will counterintuitively rise.
5. The Fed will detect overheating and raise rates again and again in a reinforcing cycle, drawing capital to only the U.S. and suffocating the world.
6. The massive investment re-industrializes the U.S. to some extent while the high US$ gives some relief to Main Street.
7. Foreign buying, better jobs, and low exchange rates hold off the housing collapse, while all the mortgage bonds are also sold overseas.
8. Emerging markets are hammered by the high US$ and fail, driving ever-more capital to safe havens like the US.
9. Ultimately, the U.S. does what all reserve currencies do and fails LAST.
See why they think they can get away with this? The U.S. can still ravage the world, and Trump can, in fact, call it his “success.” …Just like all the Presidents since Nixon.
But this is history, and it never ends there.
10. The whole world, strangled by the US and its dollar have no choice but to reject the US system entirely in private contracts and move to an alternative.
11. We now have at least three alternatives: the CIPS/Yuan banking bloc, gold, and cryptocurrencies. They aren’t exclusive: the most likely outcome is a gold-backed trading note priced in Yuan on a blockchain, perhaps in the Shanghai Exchange.
12. Being entirely too high the US$ ultimately cripples the U.S. as well, but the alternative currency the world creates becomes the lifeboat to escape. Let’s be simple and say it’s Bitcoin (it won’t be): Bitcoin hits John McAfee’s $1 million. What do you call it when a currency rapidly becomes worth 1/10th, 1/100th, 1/1,000,000th of the standard? Isn’t that hyperinflation?
13. The U.S., like every nation since Adam Smith, defaults on its $20T in $ debt – and all its internal consumer, corporate, and pension debt – using “hyperinflation” of the dollar. New twist is that, instead of gold, it hyperinflates vs. cryptos or the new world exchange standard as planned in 1971 and publicized in 1988.
14. The reset occurs, no one dies (in the U.S.), supply chains are maintained, oil flows, and the economy stops being a feral, diabolical means of theft and control and returns to being a fair, voluntary exchange. For now.
That’s not to say they’ll succeed, but this is why they think they can go this way and win at it. What does the Trump world look like?
1. Stock market rose, like he said.
2. Manufacturing returns, reindustrializing a hollow nation and allowing the country to catch up to the stock prices, like he said.
3. Unemployment drops, like he said.
4. Crime is reduced and the cities are improved, like he said.
5. This helps win the black vote, snatching the rest of the Democratic base and locking them out for years, like Bannon said.
6. Economic growth normalizes the banking/medical oversize, like he wanted.
7. Free, untracked money for bribes and illegal cover end and law and order returns with fair exchange, like he said.
8. The U.S. is unwelcome overseas, and the breaking of bonds re-sets the multipolar world, where the U.S. is just one trading nation among many, like he said.
9. Without the money of empire the military returns home, like he said.
10. The world is pretty mad at us and that renewed military came in handy. That’s okay, they’ll be consoled that the economy now works and the U.S. can no longer start wars and act terribly.
What does the world look like after? A lot more like it was before 1945. You know, back when we were great and before we got terrible.
Again, not to say this WILL happen, but you can see that it CAN happen, and they are now in control of most of the levers required. From their rhetoric, you can see the glass darkly that this is what they find a priority, a possibility, and therefore a doorway out. In addition, downsizing and re-establishing honesty will not allow their opponents to wiggle out and reverse it.
Why wasn’t this done before? My guess is that a) previous planners thought with a little more effort they could take over the world, as seen in the Arab Spring plan that would culminate in the capture of Iran, the only remaining oilfields on the planet, and b) given the world’s first entirely fiat financial system, it was too complex and disruptive to return to a gold standard.
Without a lighting fast crypto base, banking and trade would fail and millions would die. Only when the one was burned out and the other made available could this move be attempted. Watch and see.
This is going to be an exciting year for monetary policy. In fact, it already is, thanks to Europe and Japan. Investors were taken aback last week when the Bank of Japan bought fewer bonds and the ECB revealed – shock, horror – its language would have to evolve with the euro region’s economy. Both developments, and the reaction, were welcome. They say a lot about the strength of global growth and how it still surprises many people. First to Japan: Investors were wrong to interpret the reduced purchases as a sign that a policy shift is imminent. They were, however, right about the long-term direction of policy. It isn’t going to get looser. Will it remain accommodative as far as the eye can see? Yes.
With Japan’s economic sunny patch extending and inflation headed in the right direction – if still way too low – it’s not a stretch to see Governor Haruhiko Kuroda or his successor ease up a little on the stimulus. Just not right now. That was Jan. 9. Two days later, the fever struck in Europe. The proximate cause was the release of minutes from the ECB’s December meeting and the implication contained therein that communications would have to reflect a stronger growth terrain and improving, albeit still low, inflation. The euro jumped and German bond yields climbed. It feels like we just got through a big change from the ECB: the taper of bond purchases to 30 billion euros a month until September. (Remember when officials hated the word “taper”?) Now, here were policymakers flagging further revisions.
What’s the thread linking these two happenings? Despite all the data and pronouncements about a robust global economy and a synchronized upswing, people are still taken aback by signs that (a) it’s a reality and (b) policy is bound to react. I’m not saying policy is going to change overnight. But if you start with a global framework – we are in a global marketplace, are we not? – key to that framework really ought to be the direction of policy. Ask yourself: Are monetary chieftains going to make policy more easy or less easy, assuming the upswing in growth is sustainable? The answer has to be “less.”
The credit-driven bubble has a different dynamic than a narrative-bubble. If professional investors and brokers can borrow money at 3%, invest in stocks earning 5%, and leverage 3-to-1, they can earn 6% returns on equity plus healthy capital gains that can boost the total return to 10% or higher. Even greater returns are possible using off-balance sheet derivatives. Credit bubbles don’t need a narrative or a good story. They just need easy money. A narrative bubble bursts when the story changes. It’s exactly like The Emperor’s New Clothes where loyal subjects go along with the pretense that the emperor is finely dressed until a little boy shouts out that the emperor is actually naked. Psychology and behavior change in an instant.
When investors realized in 2000 that Pets.com was not the next Amazon but just a sock-puppet mascot with negative cash flow, the stock crashed 98% in 9 months from IPO to bankruptcy. The sock-puppet had no clothes. A credit bubble bursts when the credit dries up. The Fed won’t raise interest rates just to pop a bubble — they would rather clean up the mess afterwards that try to guess when a bubble exists in the first place. But the Fed will raise rates for other reasons, including the illusory Phillips Curve that assumes a tradeoff between low unemployment and high inflation, currency wars, inflation or to move away from the zero bound before the next recession. It doesn’t matter. Higher rates are a case of “taking away the punch bowl” and can cause a credit bubble to burst.
The other leading cause of bursting credit bubbles is rising credit losses. Higher credit losses can emerge in junk bonds (1989), emerging markets (1998), or commercial real estate (2008). Credit crack-ups in one sector lead to tightening credit conditions in all sectors and lead in turn to recessions and stock market corrections. What type of bubble are we in now? What signs should investors look for to gauge when this bubble will burst? My starting hypothesis is that we are in a credit bubble, not a narrative bubble. There is no dominant story similar to the Nifty Fifty or dot.com days. Investors do look at traditional valuation metrics rather than invented substitutes contained in corporate press releases and Wall Street research. But even traditional valuation metrics can turn on a dime when the credit spigot is turned off.
South Korean policymakers joined the global chorus of virtual-coin critics on Thursday, saying Seoul is considering shutting down domestic virtual currency exchanges as the new breed of market exposes users to speculative frenzy and crime. The country’s tough stance comes as policymakers from the United States to Germany struggle to come up with stricter regulation against money laundering and other crimes. Responding to questions in parliament, South Korea’s chief of the Financial Services Commission said: “(The government) is considering both shutting down all local virtual currency exchanges or just the ones who have been violating the law.” Separately, Bank of Korea Governor Lee Ju-yeol told a news conference that “cryptocurrency is not a legal currency and is not being used as such as of now.”
Regulators around the world are still debating how to address risks posed by cryptocurrencies, as bitcoin, the world’s most popular virtual currency, soared more than 1,700% last year. Prices have plummeted since South Korea announced last week it may ban domestic cryptocurrency exchanges. On Wednesday, bitcoin slid 18%. According to Bithumb, South Korea’s second-largest virtual currency exchange, the nation’s bitcoin trading price stood at 15,697,000 won ($14,690.69) as of 0314 GMT on Thursday. On the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp exchange, bitcoin was traded at $11,750. [..] On Thursday, the BOK governor said the central bank had begun looking into the market’s impact on the economy. “We have started looking at virtual currency from a long-term standpoint, as central banks could start issuing digital currencies in the future. This sort of research has begun at the Bank of International Settlements and we are part of that research.”
Donald Trump unveiled the winners of his much-touted “Fake News Awards” late Wednesday, escalating his already persistent attacks on a number of major US media outlets. The awards dropped hours after a senator from Trump’s own Republican party hurled a stinging rebuke at the president, accusing the US leader of undermining the free press with Stalinist language. The brash Republican president announced the ten “honorees” using his preferred medium of Twitter, linking to a list published on the Republican Party’s website that crashed minutes after his big reveal. The “winners” of the spoof awards included top networks and newspapers CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, all of which have been regular targets of Trump’s ire.
Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who writes a regular opinion column for The New York Times, nabbed the number one spot. The administration said he merited the award for writing “on the day of President Trump’s historic, landslide victory that the economy would never recover.” Following the former reality star’s stunning rise to power, Krugman had written that Trump’s inexperience on economic policy and unpredictability risked further damaging the weak global economy. The list also pointed to a reporting error from ABC’s veteran reporter Brian Ross, who was suspended for four weeks without pay after he was forced to correct a bombshell report on ex-Trump aide Michael Flynn.
[..] 11. And last, but not least: “RUSSIA COLLUSION!” Russian collusion is perhaps the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people. THERE IS NO COLLUSION!
President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the United States was considering a big “fine” as part of a probe into China’s alleged theft of intellectual property, the clearest indication yet that his administration will take retaliatory trade action against China. In an interview with Reuters, Trump and his economic adviser Gary Cohn said China had forced U.S. companies to transfer their intellectual property to China as a cost of doing business there. The United States has started a trade investigation into the issue, and Cohn said the United States Trade Representative would be making recommendations about it soon. “We have a very big intellectual property potential fine going, which is going to come out soon,” Trump said in the interview.
While Trump did not specify what he meant by a “fine” against China, the 1974 trade law that authorized an investigation into China’s alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property allows him to impose retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods or other trade sanctions until China changes its policies. Trump said the damages could be high, without elaborating on how the numbers were reached or how the costs would be imposed. “We’re talking about big damages. We’re talking about numbers that you haven’t even thought about,” Trump said.
U.S. businesses say they lose hundreds of billions of dollars in technology and millions of jobs to Chinese firms which have stolen ideas and software or forced them to turn over intellectual property as part of the price of doing business in China. The president said he wanted the United States to have a good relationship with China, but Beijing needed to treat the United States fairly. Trump said he would be announcing some kind of action against China over trade and said he would discuss the issue during his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress on Jan. 30. Asked about the potential for a trade war depending on U.S. action over steel, aluminum and solar panels, Trump said he hoped a trade war would not ensue. “I don’t think so, I hope not. But if there is, there is,” he said.
After tightening the Communist Party’s grip on state-owned enterprises, President Xi Jinping’s administration is signaling an increasing presence in private companies. Xi has called state enterprises the “backbone” of China’s socialist economy. But most of the giants were founded before the boom in technology-driven industries over the past two decades. That’s created a large swathe of the economy that’s largely private – think tech and consumer champions like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, along with innovators in sectors from finance to automation. Now, SOEs are on track to take stakes in private companies. “China wants to maintain state control over every aspect of the national economy, and it needs to keep up with the changes in the economic structure,” said Chen Li at Credit Suisse.
“How can it overlook the most important industries to the future economy?” Much of the overhaul of state-owned enterprises under Xi has focused on a consolidation in the hundreds of sprawling units across the country, such as those that have reshaped the shipping and train-making industries. But a lesser-noticed part of the broad “mixed ownership” initiative features SOEs being encouraged to take stakes in private companies. This part of the initiative has yet to gather pace, though equity strategists anticipate moves to come. They would showcase how China continues to develop its own path toward developed-nation status – not entirely state dominated, but with more control by political authorities than in countries like France that have nurtured state champions.
The head of the Beijing agency that oversees China’s SOEs, Xiao Yaqing, reiterated the push in a People’s Daily article on state enterprise reforms Dec. 13. The private stakes will be acquired through various means, he and other top officials have said. The mechanism has already been applied in the case of the state’s crackdown on financier Xiao Jianhua’s Tomorrow Holding empire. The government ordered the holding company to divest from many of its financial assets, people with knowledge of the matter said this month. State-owned Citic Guoan Group Co. bought a $1.4 billion stake in Hengtou Securities – known as Hengtai on the mainland – with a large part of the purchase coming from Tomorrow Group. Investors applauded the move, in a sign of what could happen when the state invests elsewhere. Hengtou has jumped more than 20% this year after announcing the stake sale.
Apple said it will bring hundreds of billions of overseas dollars back to the U.S., pay about $38 billion in taxes on the money and invest tens of billions on domestic jobs, manufacturing and data centers in the coming years. The iPhone maker plans capital expenditures of $30 billion in the U.S. over five years and will create 20,000 new jobs at existing sites and a new campus it intends to open, the Cupertino, California-based company said Wednesday in a statement. “We are focusing our investments in areas where we can have a direct impact on job creation and job preparedness,” Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said in the statement, which alluded to unspecified plans by the company to accelerate education programs.
In its December approval of the most extensive tax-code revisions since 1986, Congress scrapped the previous international tax system for corporations — an unusual arrangement that allowed companies to defer U.S. income taxes on foreign earnings until they returned the income to the U.S. That “deferral” provision led companies to stockpile an estimated $3.1 trillion offshore. By switching to a new system that’s designed to focus on domestic economic activity, congressional tax writers also imposed a two-tiered levy on that accumulated foreign income: Cash will be taxed at 15.5%, less liquid assets at 8%. Companies can pay over eight years. Apple has the largest offshore cash reserves of any U.S. company, with about $252 billion in at the end of September, the most recently reported fiscal quarter.
The company, which opened a new headquarters in Cupertino last year, said it also plans to open another site in the U.S. focused initially on employees who provide technical support to Apple product users. Apple said it will announce the location of the new campus at a later date. The company already has a sprawling campus in Austin, Texas, for supply chain and technical support employees.
Apple announced a series of plans Wednesday that were celebrated as promises to hire thousands of workers and bring home billions of dollars in cash. Well, not necessarily. Apple said in its release that the company planned to “create over 20,000 new jobs through hiring at existing campuses and opening a new one.” The key word there is “create,” which Apple really likes to use when discussing jobs: The company even has a portion of its website dedicated to “job creation” that claims it is “responsible for 2 million jobs” in the United States, most of which are jobs “attributable to the App Store ecosystem.” Apple currently employs 84,000 people in the U.S., it said Wednesday, while an October filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission said that it has a total of 132,000 full-time employees worldwide, suggesting that about a third of its employees work abroad.
A quarter of the 2 million jobs Apple claims responsibility for are positions through Apple’s U.S.-based suppliers. “From the people who manufacture components for our products to the people who distribute and deliver them, Apple directly or indirectly supports hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs,” Apple says on the page. [..] Many also took Apple’s promise to pay $38 billion in repatriation taxes as a promise that Apple would bring home more than a quarter-trillion dollars it currently has overseas. However, Apple does not have to bring home that money, and much of it is tied up in long-term investments that would make it unlikely. The company has to pay taxes on overseas earnings whether it brings the money back to the United States or not, so paying the tax does not mean the money is coming home.
In a statement that was recently read during the “Organising Resistance to Internet Censorship” webinar, sponsored by the World Socialist Web Site, Assange warned of how “digital super states” like Facebook and Google have been working to “re-establish discourse control”, giving authority over how ideas and information are shared back to those in power. Assange went on to say that the manipulative attempts of world power structures to regain control of discourse in the information age has been “operating at a scale, speed, and increasingly at a subtlety, that appears likely to eclipse human counter-measures.”
What this means is that using increasingly more advanced forms of artificial intelligence, power structures are becoming more and more capable of controlling the ideas and information that people are able to access and share with one another, hide information which goes against the interests of those power structures and elevate narratives which support those interests, all of course while maintaining the illusion of freedom and lively debate. In an appearance via video link at musician and activist M.I.A.’s Meltdown Festival last June, the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief expounded in far more detail about his thoughts on the potential for artificial intelligence to be used for controlling online information and discourse in a way human intelligence can’t hope to keep up with.
Pointing out how AI can already outmaneuver even the greatest chess players in the world, he describes how programs which can operate with exponentially more tactical intelligence than the human intellect can manipulate the field of available information so effectively and subtly that people won’t even know they are being manipulated. People will be living in a world that they think they understand and know about, but they’ll unknowingly be viewing only establishment-approved information. “When you have AI programs harvesting all the search queries and YouTube videos someone uploads it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns, twenty to thirty moves ahead,” Assange said. “This starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception.”
The closely tracked Australian household debt-to-income ratio has now reached the 200% level, and analysts at UBS are concerned about rising pressures among borrowers. The increase was because of the Australian Bureau of Statistics revision to include self-managed superannuation debt. That resulted in a 3% rise in household debt from “extremely elevated levels”, and pushed the ratio to income to 199.7%, “one of the highest in the world,” according to UBS. “With subdued growth in household income expected to continue, this implies household leverage is likely to rise further in the near term,” it said. “As a result we expect total household debt to disposable income to peak around 205% before the slow deleveraging process begins.”
High household debt levels will constrain further borrowing and weigh on prospects for earnings growth at the big banks, analysts Jonathan Mott and Rachel Bentvelzen said as they downgraded their forecasts for housing credit growth. House prices, which have begun to decline in Sydney, are expected to slide further as a result of tighter lending standards, the retreat of foreign buyers, lending limits imposed by regulators and concerns about proposed changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax that have been tabled by the Opposition. “Sentiment for investment into the housing market is waning, with the ‘fear of missing out’ euphoria fading quickly, especially in Sydney,” the analysts said in a note to clients.
The president of the European Central Bank has been told by the EU’s watchdog he should drop his membership of a secretive club of corporate bankers, after claims the group had been given an inside seat from which it could influence key policies. Following a year-long investigation, Mario Draghi was informed on Wednesday by the European ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, that his close relationship with the Washington-based G30 group threatened the reputation of the bank, despite his assurances to the contrary. Members of the exclusive club, of which only two of the current 33 are women, are chosen by an anonymous board of trustees, it emerged during the ombudsman’s investigation. Only the identity of the chair of the trustees, Jacob A Frenkel, the chairman of JPMorgan Chase, has been made public.
O’Reilly noted the group’s secrecy and lack of transparency over the content of its meetings. She additionally called for a ban on all future presidents of the ECB taking up membership of the club, previously named the Consultative Group on International Economic and Monetary Affairs. The ruling followed a complaint by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a Brussels-based NGO, which claimed Draghi’s close relationship to G30 was in contravention of the ECB’s ethical code. During his presidency of the ECB, Draghi, an Italian economist who previously worked at Goldman Sachs, has attended four G30 meetings, in 2012, 2013 and twice in 2015.
O’Reilly said there was a danger that the bank’s independence could be perceived to have been compromised by Draghi’s involvement with the group, whose members include a number of central bank governors, private sector bankers and academics. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is a member. But O’Reilly said there was no evidence of sensitive information being shared. The ombudsman said: “The ECB takes decisions that directly affect the lives of millions of citizens. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, and in consideration of the additional powers given to the ECB in recent years to supervise member state banks in the public interest, it is important to demonstrate to that public that there is a clear separation between the ECB as supervisor and the finance industry which is affected by its decisions.”
Budget carriers continued to push global air traffic to new record levels last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said on Wednesday. Scheduled air services carried “a new record” of 4.1 billion passengers in 2017, an increase of 7.1% over the previous year, ICAO said, citing preliminary data. The figure compares with 6% growth in 2016. “The sustainability of the tremendous growth in international civil air traffic is demonstrated by the continuous improvements to its safety, security, efficiency and environmental footprint,” ICAO Council president Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said in a statement from the Montreal-based agency.
Early this month, two industry studies showed that last year was the safest for civil aviation since plane crash statistics were first compiled in 1946. A total of 10 crashes of civil passenger and cargo planes claimed 44 lives, said the Aviation Safety Network. A separate report from the To70 agency said no major airline crashed a plane in 2017. ICAO, a United Nations agency, said Wednesday that low-cost carriers flew an estimated 1.2 billion passengers or about 30% of the global total last year. The budget airline sector “consistently grew at a faster pace compared to the world average growth, and its market share continued to increase, specifically in emerging economies,” ICAO said.
Popping frozen peas into the microwave for a couple of minutes may seem utterly harmless, but Europe’s stock of these quick-cook ovens emit as much carbon as nearly 7m cars, a new study has found. And the problem is growing: with costs falling and kitchen appliances becoming “status” items, owners are throwing away microwaves after an average of eight years, pushing rising sales. A study by the University of Manchester worked out the emissions of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change – at every stage of microwaves, from manufacture to waste disposal. “It is electricity consumption by microwaves that has the biggest impact on the environment,” say the authors.
“Efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. For example, electricity consumption by microwaves can be reduced by adjusting the time of cooking to the type of food.” Each year more microwaves are sold than any other type of oven in the EU: annual sales are expected to reach 135m by the end of the decade. David Reay, professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that the damage done by microwaves is still a fraction of that done by cars. “Yes, there are a lot of microwaves in the EU, and yes they use electricity,” he said.
“But their emissions are dwarfed by those from cars – there are around 30m cars in the UK alone and these emit way more than all the emissions from microwaves in the EU. Latest data show that passenger cars in the UK emitted 69m tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2015. This is ten times the amount this new microwave oven study estimates for annual emissions for all the microwave ovens in the whole of the EU.” The energy used by microwaves is lower than any other form of cooking. uSwitch, the price comparison website, lists microwaves as the most energy efficient, followed by a hob and finally an oven, advising readers to buy a microwave if they don’t have one. However, they urge owners to switch them off at the wall after use, to avoid powering the clock.
Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, according to an investigation by the Guardian which reveals how top chains keep details of their plastic footprint secret. As concern over the scale of unnecessary plastic waste grows, the Guardian asked Britain’s eight leading supermarkets to explain how much plastic packaging they sell to consumers and whether they would commit to a plastic-free aisle in their stores. The chains have to declare the amount of plastic they put on the market annually under an EU directive. But the information is kept secret, and Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Asda and Lidl all refused the Guardian’s request, with most saying the information was “commercially sensitive”. None committed to setting up plastic-free aisles – something the prime minister called for last week.
Only two supermarkets, Aldi and the Co-op, were open about the amount of plastic packaging they put on to the market. Using their data, and other publicly available market share information, environmental consultants Eunomia estimated that the top supermarkets are creating a plastic waste problem of more than 800,000 tonnes each year – well over half of all annual UK household plastic waste of 1.5m tonnes. The 800,000 tonnes of waste from food and beverage products would fill enough large 10-yard skips to extend from London to Sydney, or cover the whole of Greater London to a depth of 2.5cm. The revelations will add to mounting public concern about the damage that plastic does to the natural world. The Guardian has already revealed the vertiginous growth in plastic production, and the heavy environmental toll it exacts.
Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, said the figures could be higher. “The data reported for plastic packaging put on the market as a whole is an underestimate in our view,” said Hogg. Supermarkets in the UK keep their plastic footprint secret with a confidentiality agreement signed with the agencies involved in the British recycling compliance scheme. It means the amount of plastic packaging created by each supermarket and the money they pay towards its recycling is kept out of the public domain. One leading supermarket manager is calling for the whole system to be made more transparent and targeted to make the irresponsible producers pay more. Iain Ferguson, head of sustainability at the Co-op, said Britain should adopt the French system of “bonus-malus”, where supermarkets are taxed more for using material which is not easily recyclable and less for sustainable and recyclable packaging.
In the past few weeks Richard Eckersley has noticed a change in the type of people who come into his shop. The former Manchester United footballer, who turned his back on the game to set up the the UK’s first “zero waste” store on Totnes high street in Devon, says it is no longer only committed environmentalists who pop in, looking for a cleaner way to shop. “We thought January might be a bit quieter but it has been crazy,” says Eckersley, who set up the Earth.Food.Love shop with his wife Nicola in March. “A lot of new people are coming in – people who have not necessarily been involved in green issues before … it really feels like this [concern about plastic waste] is starting to break out of the environmental bubble.”
Last week Theresa May put cutting plastic pollution at the heart of the government’s 25-year environmental plan, and although critics said it was short on detail she did call for supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles to offer customers more choice. But Eckersley says many consumers are already way ahead of politicians. He and his wife have helped people who are planning to set up similar stores in Wales, Birmingham and Bristol. “We are getting calls every week from around the country from people wanting to set up something similar in their towns … it feels like this has really tapped into something that is growing all the time.” More than 200 miles away, Ingrid Caldironi shares the enthusiasm. She set up the plastic-free Bulk Market in east London last year. It has proven so popular that it is now moving to bigger, permanent premises at the end of the month.
“We have had an amazing response, especially in the last couple of months,” she says. Eckersley and Caldironi are at the vanguard of a burgeoning anti-plastics movement in the UK that has been fuelled by newspaper investigations including the Guardian’s Bottling It series, the Blue Planet television series and a general alarm at the damage plastic is doing to the natural environment. But their enthusiasm is not shared by big supermarkets, which have thus far shown little inclination to reduce their plastic waste. “For a nation of shopkeepers we are lagging behind in this race,” says Sian Sutherland, founder of the campaign A Plastic Planet which led the calls for plastic-free aisles. “The most exciting thing is that politicians and industry are no longer claiming that we can recycle our way out of the plastic problem,” she added. “Banning the use of indestructible plastic packaging for food and drink products is the only answer.”
It’s done. Bannon 1 – 0 Kushner. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate pact and that he will seek to renegotiate the international agreement in a way that treats American workers better. “So we are getting out, but we will start to negotiate and we will see if we can make a deal, and if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine,” Trump said Thursday, citing terms that he says benefit China’s economy at the expense of the U.S. “In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or really an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses” and its taxpayers, Trump said.
As Bloomberg reports, Trump’s announcement, delivered to cabinet members, supporters and conservative activists in the White House Rose Garden, spurns pleas from corporate executives, world leaders and even Pope Francis who warned the move imperils a global fight against climate change. As we noted earlier, we should prepare for the establishment to begin its mourning and fearmongering of the disaster about to befall the world. Pulling out means the U.S. joins Russia, Iran, North Korea and a string of Third World countries in not putting the agreement into action. Just two countries are not in the deal at all – one of them war-torn Syria, the other Nicaragua. The Hill notes that many Republicans on Capitol Hill are likely to support pulling out of the Paris deal – 20 leading Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Trump to do just that last week.
Withdrawing from Paris would greatly please conservative groups, which have orchestrated an all-out push in opposition to the pact. “Without any impact on global temperatures, Paris is the open door for egregious regulation, cronyism, and government spending that would be disastrous for the American economy as it is proving to be for those in Europe,” said Nick Loris, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It is time for the U.S. to say ‘au revoir’ to the Paris agreement,” he said.
And use to NOT have their leader appear on TV. I’m thinking a decision by the new (American?!) campaign team installed after the Snap announcement. “Stay away from the camera, it can only do you harm!” Boris PM by July 1?
The Conservatives raised more than 10 times as much as Labour last week, partly thanks to a donation of over £1m from the theatre producer behind The Book of Mormon and The Phantom of the Opera. John Gore, whose company has produced a string of hit musicals, gave £1.05m as part of the £3.77m received by the Conservatives in the third week of the election campaign. In the same time, Labour received only £331,499. The Electoral Commission only publishes details of donations over £7,500, so the smaller donors who make up most of Labour’s fundraising are not identified. Almost all Labour’s larger donations came from unions, including £159,500 from Unite. The new figures show the Conservatives have received £15.2m since the start of 2017, while Labour has received £8.1m.
The large donations came as the poll lead held by the Conservatives and Theresa May appeared to fall following controversies around her social care policy. In the week starting 17 May, the Liberal Democrats received £310,500, of which £230,000 came from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and £25,000 came from the former BBC director general Greg Dyke. The Women’s Equality party received £71,552, with Edwina Snow, the Duke of Westminster’s sister who is married to the historian Dan Snow, giving £50,000. Ukip’s donations fell dramatically to £16,300 from £35,000 the previous week. Political parties can spend £30,000 for every seat they contest during the regulated period. There are 650 seats around the country, meaning that parties can spend up to £19.5m during the regulated period in the run-up to the election.
Befitting a surprise election, the manifestos from the main parties contained surprises. Labour is shaking off decades of shyness about nationalisation and tax increases for the rich and for the first time in decades has a policy agenda that is not Tory-lite. The Conservatives, meanwhile, say they are rejecting “the cult of selfish individualism” and “belief in untrammelled free markets”, while adopting the quasi-Marxist idea of an energy price cap. Despite these significant shifts, myths about the economy refuse to go away and hamper a more productive debate. They concern how the government manages public finances – “tax and spend”, if you will.
The first is that there is an inherent virtue in balancing the books. Conservatives still cling to the idea of eliminating the budget deficit, even if it is with a 10-year delay (2025, as opposed to George Osborne’s original goal of 2015). The budget-balancing myth is so powerful that Labour feels it has to cost its new spending pledges down to the last penny, lest it be accused of fiscal irresponsibility. However, as Keynes and his followers told us, whether a balanced budget is a good or a bad thing depends on the circumstances. In an overheating economy, deficit spending would be a serious folly. However, in today’s UK economy, whose underlying stagnation has been masked only by the release of excess liquidity on an oceanic scale, some deficit spending may be good – necessary, even.
The second myth is that the UK welfare state is especially large. Conservatives believe that it is bloated out of all proportion and needs to be drastically cut. Even the Labour party partly buys into this idea. Its extra spending pledge on this front is presented as an attempt to reverse the worst of the Tory cuts, rather than as an attempt to expand provision to rebuild the foundation for a decent society. The reality is the UK welfare state is not large at all. As of 2016, the British welfare state (measured by public social spending) was, at 21.5% of GDP, barely three-quarters of welfare spending in comparably rich countries in Europe – France’s is 31.5% and Denmark’s is 28.7%, for example. The UK welfare state is barely larger than the OECD average (21%), which includes a dozen or so countries such as Mexico, Chile, Turkey and Estonia, which are much poorer and/or have less need for public welfare provision. They have younger populations and stronger extended family networks.
The third myth is that welfare spending is consumption – that it is a drain on the nation’s productive resources and thus has to be minimised. This myth is what Conservative supporters subscribe to when they say that, despite their negative impact, we have to accept cuts in such things as disability benefit, unemployment benefit, child care and free school meals, because we “can’t afford them”. This myth even tints, although doesn’t define, Labour’s view on the welfare state. For example, Labour argues for an expansion of welfare spending, but promises to finance it with current revenue, thereby implicitly admitting that the money that goes into it is consumption that does not add to future output.
The banker at the other end of the phone line was furious, recalled Shanghai lawyer Wang Chaoyu. A pile of steel pledged as collateral for a loan of almost $3 million from his bank, China CITIC, had vanished from a warehouse on the outskirts of the city. Just several months earlier, in mid-2013, Wang and the banker had visited the warehouse and verified that the steel was there. “The first time I went, I saw the steel,” recalled Wang, an attorney at Beijing DHH Law Firm, which represents the Shanghai branch of CITIC. “Afterwards, the banker got in contact with me and said, ‘The pledged assets are no longer there.’” The trouble had begun in 2012, after CITIC loaned the money to Shanghai Hanning Iron and Steel, a privately held steel trader. Hanning failed to meet payments, according to a mediation agreement reviewed by Reuters, and CITIC took ownership of the steel.
It was when CITIC moved to retrieve the collateral that the banker visited the warehouse and discovered that the 291-tonne pile of steel was no longer there, Wang said. The bank is still in court trying to recoup its losses. The missing collateral is a setback for CITIC. But it is indicative of a much wider problem that could endanger the health of China’s financial system – fraudulent or “ghost” collateral. When bank auditors in China go looking, they too often find that collateral recorded on the books simply isn’t there. In some cases, collateral that has been pledged simply doesn’t exist. In others, it disappears as borrowers in financial distress sell the assets. There are also instances in which the same collateral has been pledged to multiple lenders. One lawyer said he discovered that the same pile of steel was used to secure loans from 10 different lenders.
With the mainland facing its slowest growth in over a quarter of a century, defaults are mounting as borrowers struggle to repay their loans. The danger of fraudulent collateral in this situation, say economists, is that it exacerbates the problem of bad debt for China’s banks, increasing the risk of financial turmoil. As growth slows, lenders can expect more nasty surprises, said Xin Qingquan at Chongqing University. More instances of fake collateral will arise, he said. [..] There are no official statistics or estimates of the problem. But fraudulent collateral is “a huge issue,” said Violet Ho, co-head of Greater China Investigations and Disputes Practice at Kroll, which conducts corporate investigations on the mainland. “Often you also see that the paperwork around collateral may be dodgy, and the bank loan officer knows, the intermediary knows, and the goods owner knows – so it’s essentially a Ponzi scheme.”
[..]Bad loans are mounting fast. Officially, just 1.74% of commercial bank loans were classified as non-performing at the end of March. But some analysts say lenders often mask the true level of bad debt and so the figure is likely much higher. Fitch Ratings said in a report last September that it had estimated non-performing loans in China’s financial system could be as high as 15% to 21%. This in a banking sector that has undergone a massive credit expansion. The value of outstanding bank loans ballooned to $17.2 trillion at the end of April from $5.8 trillion at the end of 2009, according to data from China’s central bank. In September last year, the Bank for International Settlements warned that excessive credit growth in China meant there was a growing risk of a banking crisis in the next three years.
The Bank of Japan’s assets apparently exceeded 500 trillion yen ($4.49 trillion) as of the end of May, growing to rival the country’s economy as the central bank continues its debt purchases under an ultraeasy monetary policy. The bank’s total assets stood at 498.15 trillion yen as of May 20. By the time the month ended Wednesday, its holdings of Japanese government bonds had increased by another 2.24 trillion yen. Assuming that the BOJ had not significantly reduced its non-JGB assets, its balance sheet almost certainly crossed over the 500 trillion yen mark into uncharted territory. The BOJ’s balance sheet began expanding at a rapid clip after Governor Haruhiko Kuroda launched unprecedented quantitative and qualitative easing in April 2013. At around 93%, the scale of the Japanese central bank’s assets in proportion to GDP has no close match. Latest data shows that the U.S. Fed held roughly $4.5 trillion in assets, which is equivalent to 23% of the country’s GDP.
The ECB’s balance sheet, at about €4.2 trillion ($4.71 trillion) is larger than the BOJ’s, but it still sits at around 28% of the eurozone GDP. The BOJ in September shifted its policy focus from QE to controlling the yield curve, but the bank is still snapping up JGBs to keep long-term rates at around zero. The central bank has stood firm on its pledge to continue expanding its balance sheet to boost currency supply until Japan’s consumer price inflation is steadily above 2%. This suggests that the BOJ’s balance sheet will continue expanding past the 500 trillion yen mark. This prospect makes some financial experts uneasy. Once the inflation target is finally met, and the BOJ starts raising interest rates, the bank will have to pay more in interest to financial institutions’ reserve deposits than it will earn from its low-yielding JGB holdings.
Between 20% and 25% of the nation’s shopping malls will close in the next five years, according to a new report from Credit Suisse that predicts e-commerce will continue to pull shoppers away from bricks-and-mortar retailers. For many, the Wall Street firm’s finding may come as no surprise. Long-standing retailers are dying off as shoppers’ habits shift online. Credit Suisse expects apparel sales to represent 35% of all e-commerce by 2030, up from 17% today. Traditional mall anchors, such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears, have announced numerous store closings in recent months. Clothiers including American Apparel and BCBG Max Azria have filed for bankruptcy. Bebe has closed all of its stores.
The report estimates that around 8,640 stores will close by the end of the year. Retail industry experts say Credit Suisse may have underestimated the scope of the upheaval. “It’s more in the 30% range,” Ron Friedman, a retail expert at accounting and advisory firm Marcum said of the share of malls that he predicts will close in the next five years. “There are a lot of malls that know they’re in big trouble.” By ignoring new shopping centers being built, the research note took an overly simplistic view of the changing landscape of shopping centers, said analyst David Marcotte, senior vice president with Kantar Retail. “There are still malls being built,” Marcotte said. “Predominantly outlet malls and lifestyle malls.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Do I think Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild investment banker whose “ambition was always two steps ahead of his experience”, is the second coming of Charles de Gaulle? Do I think Donald freakin’ Trump is a modern day Andrew Jackson? Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha … good one! But here’s what I do think: • Something old and powerful is happening in the real world to crush the status quo political systems of every Western democracy. • Something predictably sad is happening in the political world to replace the old guard candidates with self-absorbed plutocrats like Trump and pretty boy bankers like Macron. • Something new and powerful is happening in the investment world to divorce political risk and volatility from market risk and volatility. The old force repeating itself in the real world is nicely summed up by these two charts, the most important charts I know. They’re specific to the U.S., but applicable everywhere in the West.
First, the Central Banker’s Bubble since March 2009 and the launch of QE1 has inflated U.S. household wealth far beyond what the nominal growth rate of the U.S. economy would otherwise support. This is a classic bubble in every sense of the word, with the primary difference from prior vast bubbles being its concentration and focus in financial assets — stocks and bonds — which are held primarily by the rich. Who wins the Academy Award for creation of wealth inequality in a supporting role? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the U.S. Federal Reserve.
And as the second chart shows, this central bank largesse has sharply accelerated the massive shift in wealth to the Rich from the Rest, a shift which began in the 1980s with the Reagan Revolution. We are now back to where we were in the 1930s, where the household wealth of the bottom 90% of U.S. wage earners is equal to the household wealth of the top one-tenth of 1% of U.S. wage earners.
So look … I’m not saying that the current level or dynamics of wealth inequality is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m just saying that it IS. And I understand that there are insurance programs today, like social security and pension funds, which are not reflected in this chart and didn’t exist in the 1930s, the last time you saw this sort of wealth inequality. I understand that there are a lot more people in the United States today than in the 1930s. I understand that there are all sorts of important differences in the nature of wealth distribution between today and the 1930s. I get all that. What I’m saying, though, is that just like in the 1930s, there is a political price to be paid for this level of wealth inequality. That price is political polarization and electoral rejection of status quo parties.
[..] downgrades of bonds issued by local governments raise the interest rates those governments must pay on holders of its debt, thereby costing those communities up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the report, which was released Wednesday by the non-profit Roosevelt Institute’s ReFund America Project and focused on recent downgrades by Moody’s in relatively impoverished, predominantly-black localities. The more recent report [..] took a granular look at a few communities whose budgets were impacted by downgrades, which drive the prices of bonds down while raising the interest rate at which the government has to pay its bondholders. New Jersey was set to lose $258 million annually as a result of a Moody’s ratings drop, the report calculated, using the spread between interest rates on bonds with different Moody’s credit ratings and the amount of debt affected by the downgrade.
Moody’s announced a downgrade of the New Jersey’s $37 billion in publicly-issued debt to A3, six levels below the agency’s top rating of Aaa, in late March. The agency attributed the downgrade to “significant pension underfunding, including growth in the state’s large long-term liabilities, a persistent structural imbalance and weak fund balances,” as well as a tax cut that would decrease revenues by $1.1 billion over the next four years. New Jersey’s city of Newark — which is 52.4% African American and 33.8% Hispanic, compared to 12.6% and 16.3%, respectively, on the national level, according to U.S. Census data — was slated to lose an estimated $10 million annually as a result of a Moody’s downgrade, the report calculated. Newark’s median household income was just over $33,000, compared to nearly $54,000 nationwide, as of 2015.
That year, Moody’s downgraded Newark’s $374 million in general obligation unlimited tax bonds to Baa3, one level above junk bond status. The rating change, Moody’s said in the press release, reflected “the city’s further weakened financial position since last year,” along with its “reliance on market access for cash flow, history of aggressively structured budgets typically adopted late in the year and uncertainty around continued financial support from the state of New Jersey.” Further west, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) also stood to suffer tremendously from a Moody’s rating drop. The report authors calculated that the school system would lose out on $290 million annually from a September 2016 Moody’s downgrade to B3, five ranks below the highest junk bond rating. Nearly 40% of students are African American, 46.5% are Hispanic and 80.2% are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to October 2016 CPS data.
Illinois had its bond rating downgraded to one step above junk by Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, the lowest ranking on record for a U.S. state, as the long-running political stalemate over the budget shows no signs of ending. S&P warned that Illinois will likely lose its investment-grade status, an unprecedented step for a state, around July 1 if leaders haven’t agreed on a budget that chips away at the government’s chronic deficits. Moody’s followed S&P’s downgrade Thursday, citing Illinois’s underfunded pensions and the record backlog of bills that are equivalent to about 40% of its operating budget. “Legislative gridlock has sidetracked efforts not only to address pension needs but also to achieve fiscal balance,” Ted Hampton, Moody’s analyst, said in a statement.
“During the past year of fruitless negotiations and partisan wrangling, fundamental credit challenges have intensified enough to warrant a downgrade, regardless of whether a fiscal compromise is reached.” Illinois hasn’t had a full year budget in place for the past two years amid a clash between the Democrat-run legislature and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. That’s left the fifth most-populous state with a record $14.5 billion of unpaid bills, ravaged entities like universities and social service providers that rely on state aid and undermined Illinois’s standing in the bond market, where investors have demanded higher premiums for the risk of owning its debt. Moody’s called Illinois “an outlier among states” after suffering eight downgrades in as many years.
“The rating actions largely reflect the severe deterioration of Illinois’ fiscal condition, a byproduct of its stalemated budget negotiations,” S&P analyst Gabriel Petek said in a statement. “The unrelenting political brinkmanship now poses a threat to the timely payment of the state’s core priority payments.” Illinois’s 10-year bonds yield 4.4%, 2.5 percentage points more than those on top-rated debt. That spread – a measure of the perceived risk – is the highest since at least January 2013 and more than any of the other 19 states tracked by Bloomberg.
Uber reported yesterday that its NET LOSS totaled more than $700 million last quarter, despite pulling in a whopping $3.4 billion in revenue. (This means they spent at least $4.1 billion!) That’s the latest in a string of massive, 9-figure quarterly losses for the company. The only question I have is– how much cocaine are these people buying? Seriously, it’s REALLY HARD to spend so many billions of dollars. You could have over 100,000 employees (‘real’ employees, not Uber drivers) and pay them $150,000 EACH and still not blow through that much money in a single quarter. Even if you think about Research & Development, Uber still managed to burn through almost as much cash as NASA’s $4.8 billion budget last quarter. The real irony is that this company is worth $70 BILLION. And Uber is far from alone. Netflix is also worth $70 billion; and like Uber, they can’t make money.
Over the last twelve months Netflix burned through over $1.7 billion in cash, and they made up for it by going deeper into debt. The list goes on and on– Snapchat debuted with a $30 billion valuation after its IPO, only to subsequently report that they had lost $2.2 billion in the previous quarter. Telecom company Sprint is still somehow worth more than $30 billion despite having over $40 billion in debt and burning through more than $6 billion over the last three years. And then there’s Twitter, a rudderless, profitless company that is still worth over $13 billion. This is pure insanity. If companies that burn through obscene piles of cash and have no clear path to profitability are worth tens of billions of dollars, it seems like any business that’s cashflow positive should be worth TRILLIONS. None of this makes any sense, and investing in this environment is nothing more than gambling. Sure, it’s always possible these companies’ stock prices increase even more. Maybe Netflix and Twitter quadruple despite continuing losses and debt accumulation. Maybe Bitcoin surges to $50,000 next month. And maybe the Dallas Cowboys finally offer me the starting quarterback position next season.
Sometime this year, world public and private plus unfunded pensions will surpass $300 trillion. That is not even counting the $100 trillion in US government unfunded liabilities. Oops. These obligations cannot be paid. A time is coming when the market and voters will realize this. Will voters decide to tax “the rich” more? Will they increase their VAT rates and further slow growth? Will they reduce benefits? No matter what they decide, hard choices will bring political turmoil. And that, of course, will mean market turmoil. We are coming to a period I call “the Great Reset.” As it hits, we will have to deal, one way or another, with the largest twin bubbles in the history of the world. One of those bubbles is global debt, especially government debt. The other is the even larger bubble of government promises.
The other is the even larger bubble of government promises. History shows it is more than likely that the US will have a recession in the next few years. When it does come, it will likely blow the US government deficit up to $2 trillion a year. Obama took eight years to run up a $10 trillion debt after the 2008 recession. It might take just five years after the next recession to run up the next $10 trillion. Here is a chart my staff at Mauldin Economics created in late 2016 using Congressional Budget Office data. It shows what will happen in the next recession if revenues drop by the same percentage as they did in the last recession (without even counting likely higher expenditures this time).
And you can add the $1.3 trillion deficit in this chart to the more than $500 billion in off-budget debt—and add a higher interest rate expense as interest rates rise. The catalyst could be a European recession that spills over into the US. Or it might be one triggered by US monetary and fiscal mistakes. Or a funding crisis in China, or an emerging-market meltdown. Whatever the cause, the next recession will be just as global as the last one. And there will be more buildup of debt and more political and economic chaos.
The price of raw ivory in Asia has fallen dramatically since the Chinese government announced plans to ban its domestic legal ivory trade, according to new research seen by the Guardian. Poaching, however, is not dropping in parallel. Undercover investigators from the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) have been visiting traders in Hanoi over the last three years. In 2015 they were being offered raw ivory for an average of US$1322/kg in 2015, but by October 2016 that price had dropped to $750/kg, and by February this year prices were as much as 50% lower overall, at $660/kg. Traders complain that the ivory business has become very “difficult and unprofitable”, and are saying they want to get rid of their stock, according to the unpublished report seen by the Guardian. Worryingly, however, others are stockpiling waiting for prices to go up again.
Of all the ivory industries across Asia, it is Vietnam that has increased its production of illegal ivory items the fastest in the last decade, according to Save the Elephants. Vietnam now has one of the largest illegal ivory markets in the world, with the majority of tusks being brought in from Africa. Although historically ivory carving is not considered a prestigious art form in Vietnam, as it is in China, the number of carvers has increased greatly. The demand for the worked pieces comes mostly from mainland China. Until recently, the chances of being arrested at the border slim due to inefficient law enforcement. But the prices for raw ivory are now declining as the Chinese market slows; this is partly due to China’s economic slowdown, and also to the announcement that the country will close down its domestic ivory trade.
China’s ivory factories were officially shut down by 31 March 2017, and all the retail outlets will be closed by the end of the year. Other countries have been taking similarly positive action on ivory, although the UK lags behind. Theresa May quietly dropped the conservative commitment to ban ivory from her manifesto, but voters have picked it up and there has been fury across social media. “All the traders we are speaking to are talking about what’s going on in China. It’s definitely having a significant impact on the trade,” said Sarah Stoner, senior intel analyst at the WJC. “A trader in one of the neighbouring countries who talked to our undercover investigators said he didn’t want to go to China anymore – it was so difficult in China now, and friends of his were arrested and sitting in jail. He seemed quite concerned about the situation,” said Pauline Verheji, WJC’S senior legal investigator.
Audi’s emissions scandal flared up again on Thursday after the German government accused the carmaker of cheating emissions tests with its top-end models, the first time Audi has been accused of such wrongdoing in its home country. The German Transport Ministry said it has asked Volkswagen’s luxury division to recall around 24,000 A7 and A8 models built between 2009 and 2013, about half of which were sold in Germany. VW Chief Executive Matthias Mueller was summoned to the Berlin-based ministry on Thursday, a ministry spokesman said, without elaborating. The affected Audi models with so-called Euro-5 emission standards emit about twice the legal limit of nitrogen oxides when the steering wheel is turned more than 15 degrees, the ministry said.
It is also the first time that Audi’s top-of-the-line A8 saloon has been implicated in emissions cheating. VW has said to date that the emissions-control software found in its rigged EA 189 diesel engine does not violate European law. The 80,000 3.0-liter vehicles affected by VW’s emissions cheating scandal in the United States included Audi A6, A7 and Q7 models as well as Porsche and VW brand cars. The ministry said it has issued a June 12 deadline for Audi to come up with a comprehensive plan to refit the cars. Ingolstadt-based Audi issued a recall for the 24,000 affected models late on Thursday, some 14,000 of which are registered in Germany, and said software updates will start in July. It will continue to cooperate with Germany’s KBA motor vehicle authority, Audi said.
Just a few hours after Megyn Kelly announced on NBC’s Today show that she would be interviewing Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg tomorrow at the International Economic Forum, Showtime released the first trailer and extended clip for The Putin Interviews, a sit-down with the Russian president conducted by the film-maker Oliver Stone for a four-part special that premieres on 12 June. Promoted as “the most detailed portrait of Putin ever granted to a Western interviewer”, The Putin Interviews spawned from several encounters over two years between Stone, director of politically oriented films including JFK and Nixon, and Putin. The interviews are to air as four one-hour installments, landing just a week after Kelly’s discussion with Putin, the centerpiece of her news magazine show on NBC, which premieres on Sunday night.
In the extended clip released on Thursday, Stone and Putin can be seen driving in a car with an English translator in the backseat, discussing topics such as Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and Russian intelligence. “As an ex-KGB agent, you must have hated what Snowden did with every fiber of your being,” Stone asks in the clip. “Snowden is not a traitor,” Putin replies. “He did not betray the interests of his country. Nor did he transfer any information to any other country which would have been pernicious to his own country or to his own people. The only thing Snowden does, he does publicly.”
Two weeks before a critical Eurogroup summit, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble launched a broadside at Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, claiming that the leftist premier has not shifted the burden of austerity away from poorer Greeks as he had pledged. In his comments, Schaeuble also maintained that party influence on the Greek public administration has increased rather than decreased during Tsipras’s time in power, noting that ruling party officials have been appointed to the country’s privatization fund. Greek government sources responded tersely to Schaeuble’s criticism. “The responsibility of Schaeuble in managing the Greek crisis has been recorded historically,” one source said. “There is no point in his ascribing it to others.”
Meanwhike Germany’s Die Welt reported that the ECB had similar views on the need for Greek debt relief to the IMF, and indicated that Schaeuble might be facing pressure to make unpopular decisions ahead of elections scheduled to take place in Germany in September. Tsipras, for his part, apparently sought to lower expectations in comments on Thursday. During a visit to the Interior Ministry, he said the government’s goal was “fulfilling the country’s commitments” linked to Greece’s third international bailout. He dodged reporters’ questions about whether he expected to leave a European Union leaders’ summit on June 22 wearing a tie – something he has pledged to do only when Greece secures debt relief. “The important thing is that I don’t leave with further burdens,” Tsipras said.
Aides close to Tsipras will be closely following a Euro Working Group meeting scheduled for June 8 for indications about what kind of deal creditors are likely to put on the table at the Eurogroup summit planned for June 15. If the solution that is in the works is deemed to be too politically toxic, it is likely that Tsipras will undertake another round of telephone diplomacy with key EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. He spoke to several prominent EU leaders earlier this week to underline the Greek government’s conviction that it has honored its promises to creditors and it is their turn to reciprocate with debt relief.
Doctors may soon have a new weapon in the long-running war between antibiotics and bacteria. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a drug that’s tens of thousands of times more effective in lab tests against dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Starting with the discovery of penicillin in 1928, scientists and doctors have been finding and making molecules that weaken or kill bacteria in a range of different ways to help humans survive infections. And as soon as humans started employing these antibiotics, bacteria began evolving to beat those attacks. That has started to become a huge problem. So-called superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can ward off some of our most potent antibiotics, making infections by these bacteria extremely hard to treat.
Not only that, but their existence poses a strategic challenge as well, forcing doctors to think hard about when and where they use certain antibiotics, lest bacteria develop resistance to them and render them less effective. Vancomycin is one antibiotic that has stayed effective even as others have been been brought down by resistant bacteria. That’s because of the way vancomycin works: by latching onto one of the building blocks bacteria use to build their cell walls, like the microscopic equivalent of a bully stealing your shovel in the sandbox and not giving it back. (In this analogy, we’re on the bully’s side.) By interfering with such a critical cellular process in such a fundamental way, vancomycin makes it hard for bacteria to develop a simple mutation to defeat the antibiotic. That makes vancomycin one of our last lines of defense for treating infections like MRSA that others can’t.
It’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) added the drug to its list of essential medicines. Naturally, some bacteria have found ways to fight vancomycin, the most common being to substitute a different cell wall building block that the antibiotic can’t latch onto. Taking vancomycin out of doctors’ quivers would be a big blow. Which is why the WHO also lists vancomycin-resistant bacteria at number four and five on its list of the most threatening antibiotic-resistant microbes. So. To try to make sure vancomycin can beat those resistant bacteria, and stay effective for the next few decades—a reasonable lifetime for an antibiotic—chemists Dale Boger, Nicholas Isley and Akinori Okano at the Scripps Research Institute in California opened up the hood to make a few adjustments to the molecule.
After swapping out one part and bolting on a couple others, the group’s souped-up vancomycin was about 25,000 times more potent against resistant bacteria, and it had better endurance. They describe their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The major change was to the region of the molecule that grabs those cell wall building blocks, which are called D-alanyl-D-alanine. Resistant bacteria have learned to substitute the very similar D-alanyl-D-lactate, which your standard vancomycin can’t bind to very well, limiting its effectiveness. The researchers changed an oxygen atom for two atoms of hydrogen, making a new version of vancomycin that could hang onto either building block.
The Automatic Earth has been warning of deflation since its inception. There is no other possible outcome once deleveraging starts. And deleveraging has been postponed, and postponed only, through QE programs. Which are a bottomless pit.
In May 2011 this analyst changed his mind about the impact of the monetary love being spread around the world by developed world central bankers. He stopped forecasting higher inflation and instead foresaw the return of deflation. Fresh from the battering in the deflationary storm of 2007-2009 investors did not want to hear that such monetary love would be in vain. They counted on central bankers then, just as they are counting on them now, to restore a level of nominal GDP growth that can prevent the severe burning of another painful deleveraging through default. Central bankers, the argument goes, need to boost financial asset prices to achieve higher nominal growth and that higher growth, when finally achieved, will be good for asset prices anyway.
So while their love may be for higher nominal GDP growth, the goodwill this spreads to asset prices should be priced in if it succeeds in creating inflation. However, a list of some prices that have been falling from last year – gold, steel, iron ore, copper, crude, coffee, cocoa, live cattle, hogs, orange juice, wheat, sugar, cotton, natural gas, silver, platinum, palladium, aluminium and tin – must raise questions as to whether there is reflation or whether this monetary love is in vain. This analyst is told that such major decline in prices across a broad spectrum of commodities and products represents a supply shock and not the failure of central banks to spur demand! Such supply side synchronicity is highly unlikely. This is nothing less than a failure to reflate and it is due to the growing crisis in Emerging Markets.
It was in a report called The Great Reset, in May 2011, that this analyst suggested the world was more likely to move towards deflation rather than higher inflation. There were many reasons for this change of mind, but key to it was a realisation that EM external surpluses had peaked. That sounds like a rather esoteric reason to change from an inflationist to deflationist stance, and it was not one that was of any concern to investors. However, the end of a long period (1998-2011) when external surpluses, combined with exchange-rate intervention policies, forced EM to create more domestic high-powered money, while simultaneously depressing the yields on US Treasuries, seemed both important and deflationary. Crucially, The Great Reset predicted this decline in EM external surpluses would produce tighter monetary policy in both EM and the developed world despite the efforts of central bankers to prevent it.
The bizarre attempt to have me indicted me on… treason charges, allegedly for conspiring to push Greece out of the Eurozone, reflects something much broader. It reflects a determined effort to de-legitimise our five-month long (25th January to 5th July 2015) negotiation with a troika incensed that we had the audacity to dispute the wisdom and efficacy of its failed program for Greece. The aim of my self-styled persecutors is to characterise our defiant negotiating stance as an aberration, an error or, even better from the perspective of Greece’s troika-friendly oligarchic establishment, as a ‘crime’ against Greece’s national interest. My dastardly ‘crime’ was that, expressing the collective will of our government, I personified the sins of:
• Facing down the Eurogroup’s leaders as an equal that has the right to say ‘NO’ and to present powerful analytical reasons for rebuffing the catastrophic illogicality of huge loans to an insolvent state in condirion of self-defeating austerity
• Demonstrating that one can be a committed Europeanist, strive to keep one’s nation in the Eurozone, and, at the very same time, reject Eurogroup policies which damage Europe, deconstruct the euro and, crucially, trap one’s country in austerity-driven debt-bondage
• Planning for contingencies that leading Eurogroup colleagues, and high ranking troika officials, were threatening me with in face-to-face discussions
• Unveiling how previous Greek governments turned crucial government departments, such as the General Secretariat of Public Revenues and the Hellenic Statistical Office, into departments effectively controlled by the troika and reliably pressed into the service of undermining the elected government.
It is amply clear that the Greek government has a duty to recover national and democratic sovereignty over all departments of state, and in particular those of the Finance Ministry. If it does not, it will continue to forfeit the instruments of policy making that voters expect it to utilise in pursuit of the mandate they bestowed upon it. In my ministerial endeavours, my team and I devised innovative methods for developing the Finance Ministry’s tools to deal efficiently with the troika-induced liquidity crunch while recouping executive powers previously usurped by the troika with the consent of previous governments.
Instead of indicting, and persecuting, those who, to this day, function within the public sector as the troika’s minions and lieutenants (while receiving their substantial salaries from the long-suffering Greek taxpayers), politicians and parties whom the electorate condemned for their efforts to turn Greece into a protectorate are now persecuting me, aided and abetted by the oligarchs’ media. I wear their accusations as badges of honour. The proud and honest negotiation that the SYRIZA government conducted from the first day we were elected has already changed Europe’s public debates for the better. The debate about the democratic deficit afflicting the Eurozone is now unstoppable. Alas, the troika’s domestic cheerleaders do not seem able to bear this historic success. Their efforts to criminalise it will crash of the same shoals that wrecked their blatant propaganda campaign against the ‘No’ vote in the 5th July referendum: the great majority of the fearless Greek people.
“So we now have a Europe where the political temperature is rising to boiling point: where the EMU elites are refusing to shift course; and where mischievous lawyers are concocting criminal charges against anybody daring to explore a way out of the trap.”
It has come to this. The first finance minister of a eurozone country to draw up contingency plans for a possible euro exit is under investigation for treason. Greece’s chief prosecutor is examining criminal charges against a five-man “working group” in the country’s finance ministry for the sin of designing a “Plan B”, a parallel system of euro liquidity and bank payments that could – in extremis – lead to a return of the drachma. It is hard to see how a monetary union held together by judicial power, coercion and fear in this way can have a future in any of Europe’s ancient nation states. The criminalisation of any Grexit debate shuts off the option of an orderly return to the drachma, even though there is a high probability – some say a near certainty – that the latest EMU loan package for Greece will prove unworkable and precipitate the country’s exit from the single currency within a year.
As a matter of practical statecraft, this is sheer madness. The Greek newspaper Kathimerini – the voice of the oligarchy – reported that the charges would include “breach of duty, violation of currency laws and belonging to a criminal organisation”, as well as violating data privacy by hacking into the Greek tax base. The prosecutor appears to have latched onto a legal suit by a private lawyer accusing Yanis Varoufakis of treason. It is nothing less than an attempt to destroy the mercurial former finance minister, lest he return as an avenging political force. The Greek “Plan B” was approved from the outset by prime minister Alexis Tsipras. It was designed originally to create an alternative source of euro liquidity if the ECB cut off emergency funding for the Greek banking system.
The ECB did in fact do exactly that – arguably violating the ECB’s Treaty to uphold financial stability, and acting ultra vires in a purely political move as the enforcer of the creditors – when the Syriza government threw down the gauntlet with an anti-austerity referendum. Mr Varoufakis insists that his plan was based on California’s IOU scheme in 2009 to cover tax rebates and to pay contractors when liquidity dried up after the Lehman crisis. His purpose was to reflate the economy within the eurozone, not to leave it. Yet it had a double function, and there lies the alleged treason. “At the drop of a hat it could be converted to a new drachma,” he said.
Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed leader of Spain’s Podemos movement, has drawn his own conclusions after watching Europe’s first radical-Left government in modern times brought to its knees by liquidity asphyxiation, and then further crushed by internal forces within Greece. He accused Germany of imposing a Carthaginian settlement as punishment for daring to call a referendum, and warned that the “limits of democracy in Europe” are now brutally clear. The lesson to be learned is that if Podemos is elected in Spain it must expect a trial of strength (“medir fuerzas”) and make sure it takes power in the fullest sense. You can interpret this how you will, but there is a hint of Leninist defiance in these words, a warning that Podemos may feel compelled to launch pre-emptive strikes against the entreched positions of the Spanish establisment, in the media, the judiciary, the security forces and the commanding heights of the economy.
The fate of Syriza has clearly tainted the radical-Left brand. The EMU creditor powers have shown all too clearly that if you buck the system, your country will pay a bitter price. It is hard to explain to Spanish voters – or indeed to anybody – how Mr Tsipras could accept a package of draconian demands rejected by the Greek people in a landslide vote just a week earlier. Podemos has lost its electoral lead and has dropped to 17pc in the polls, trailing the Socialists by a wide margin. But it would be premature to conclude that this is the end of the story. The deeper message – still entering the collective consciousness – is that no Leftist government can pursue sovereign policies within the constraints of EMU.
What makes matters confusing, is that the core allegation made by Varoufakis, namely that the Troika controls Greece tax revenues and had to be sabotaged, was strictly denied: European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva on Tuesday described as “false and unfounded” Varoufakis’s claims that Greece’s General Secretariat for Public Revenues is controlled by the country’s creditors. In other words, if Andreeva is right, then Varoufakis’ transgression of threatening to hijack the Greek tax system was merely hot air, and the former finmin is guilty of nothing more than self-aggrandizement.
On the other hand, if Greece does find it has a legal basis to criminally charge Varoufakis with treason merely for preparing for a Plan B, then it brings up an interesting question: if Varoufakis was a criminal merely for preparing for existing the Euro, then comparable treason charges should also be lobbed against none other than Varoufakis’ nemesis – Eurogroup president and Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Recall from the November 28 post that “Netherlands, Germany Have Euro Disaster Plan – Possible Return to Guilder and Mark”, to wit:
The Dutch finance ministry prepared for a scenario in which the Netherlands could return to its former currency – the guilder. They hosted meetings with a team of legal, economic and foreign affairs experts to discuss the possibility of returning to the Dutch guilder in early 2012. At the time the Euro was in crisis, Greece was on the verge of leaving or being pushed out of the Euro and the debt crisis was hitting Spain and Italy hard. The Greek prime minister Georgios Papandreou and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi had resigned and there were concerns that the eurozone debt crisis was spinning out of control – leading to contagion and the risk of a systemic collapse.
A TV documentary broke the story last Tuesday. The rumours were confirmed on Thursday by the current Dutch minister of finance, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, and the current President of the Eurogroup of finance ministers in a television interview which was covered by EU Observer and Bloomberg. “It is true that [the ministry of] finance and the then government had also prepared themselves for the worst scenario”, said Dijsselbloem.
This is precisely what Varoufakis was doing too.
“Government leaders, including the Dutch government, have always said: we want to keep that eurozone together. But [the Dutch government] also looked at: what if that fails. And it prepared for that.” While Dijsselbloem said there was no need to be “secretive” about the plans now, such discussions were shrouded in secrecy at the time to avoid spreading panic on the financial markets.
Again, precisely like in the Greek scenario. In fact, if throwing people in jail, may round up Wolfi Schauble as well:
Jan Kees de Jager, finance minister from February 2010 to November 2012, acknowledged that a team of legal experts, economists and foreign affairs specialists often met at his ministry on Fridays to discuss possible scenarios. “The fact that in Europe multiple scenarios were discussed was something some countries found rather scary. They did not do that at all, strikingly enough”, said De Jager in the TV documentary. “We were one of the few countries, together with Germany. We even had a team together that discussed scenarios, Germany-Netherlands.”
When the EU Observer requested confirmation from Germany, the German ministry of finance did not officially deny that it had drawn up similar plans, stating simply: “We and our partners in the euro zone, including the Netherlands, were and still are determined to do everything possible to prevent a breakup of the eurozone.” [..] This is quite a revelation. At that time the German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble had said that the Euro could survive without Greece. Whether it could survive without the Dutch is another matter entirely.
Fast forward 3 years when Greece, too, was making preparations for “preventing the breakup of the eurozone” in doing precisely what Schauble wanted as recently as three weeks ago: implementing a parallel currency which would enable Greece to take its “temporary” sabbatical from the Eurozone. So one wonders: where are the legal suits accusing Dijsselbloem and Schauble of the same “treason” that Varoufakis may have to vigorously defend himself in a kangaroo court designed to be nothing but a spectacle showing what happens to anyone in Europe who dares to give Germany the finger, either literally or metaphorically.
From blaming him for the renewed collapse of the Greek economy to accusing him of illegally plotting Greece’s exit from the eurozone, it has become fashionable to disparage Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s former finance minister. While I have never met or spoken to him, I believe that he is getting a bad rap (and increasingly so). In the process, attention is being diverted away from the issues that are central to Greece’s ability to recover and prosper – whether it stays in the eurozone or decides to leave. That is why it is important to take note of the ideas that Varoufakis continues to espouse. Greeks and others may fault him for pursuing his agenda with too little politesse while in office. But the essence of that agenda was – and remains – largely correct.
Following an impressive election victory by his Syriza party in January, Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, appointed Varoufakis to lead the delicate negotiations with the country’s creditors. His mandate was to recast the relationship in two important ways: render its terms more amenable to economic growth and job creation; and restore balance and dignity to the treatment of Greece by its European partners and the IMF. These objectives reflected Greece’s frustrating and disappointing experience under two previous bailout packages administered by “the institutions”. In pursuing them, Varoufakis felt empowered by the scale of Syriza’s electoral win and compelled by economic logic to press three issues that many economists believe must be addressed if sustained growth is to be restored: less and more intelligent austerity; structural reforms that better meet social objectives; and debt reduction.
These issues remain as relevant today, with Varoufakis out of government, as they were when he was tirelessly advocating for them during visits to European capitals and in tense late-night negotiations in Brussels. Indeed, many observers view the agreement on a third bailout programme that Greece reached with its creditors – barely a week after Varoufakis resigned – as simply more of the same. At best, the deal will bring a respite – one that is likely to prove both short and shallow. [..] Now that he is out of office, Varoufakis is being blamed for much more than failing to adapt his approach to political reality. Some hold him responsible for the renewed collapse of the Greek economy, the unprecedented shuttering of the banking system, and the imposition of stifling capital controls.
Others are calling for criminal investigations, characterising the work he led on a plan B (whereby Greece would introduce a new payments system either in parallel or instead of the euro) as tantamount to treason. But, love him or hate him (and, it seems, very few people who have encountered him feel indifferent), Varoufakis was never the arbiter of Greece’s fate. Yes, he should have adopted a more conciliatory style and shown greater appreciation for the norms of European negotiations; and, yes, he overestimated Greece’s bargaining power, wrongly assuming that pressing the threat of Grexit would compel his European partners to reconsider their long-entrenched positions. But, relative to the macro situation, these are minor issues.
Yanis Varoufakis has few friends in official circles these days. Greece’s outspoken former finance minister has long been loathed by his erstwhile eurozone counterparts, on whom he counterproductively impressed their mediocrity. Since he has been jettisoned by his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and criticised Greece’s capitulation to Germany’s iniquitous demands, his former Syriza colleagues are losing patience with him too. He is becoming the perfect fall guy for having devised a daring escape plan in the event that Greece’s creditors shut down its banking system and severed its international economic ties – as they eventually did. While Varoufakis’s plan to create a parallel payments system based on the country’s tax register was certainly unorthodox, it was completely understandable.
Until the recent revelations, Varoufakis was being criticised for standing up to Greece’s eurozone creditors without preparing a Plan B in case negotiations failed. As many experts and commentators, including me, advised, the Greek government needed to prepare for a parallel currency to provide liquidity to the economy in case eurozone authorities turned off the taps. That way it could credibly threaten to default on its debts while remaining in the eurozone – and thus, it hoped, convince its creditors to offer the debt relief that the depressed Greek economy desperately needed to recover.
But now it turns out Varoufakis did have a plan B, he is being attacked for that too. Some criticise the supposed recklessness and duplicity of preparing for a parallel currency that could have become a new drachma, given the government’s official commitment to staying in the euro. But that is disingenuous. Governments should and do prepare for all sorts of eventualities. The Bank of England is right to prepare for the possibility of Brexit, which may happen even though it is not government policy. One hopes that Whitehall has plans for dealing with a nuclear winter or a catastrophic epidemic. Varoufakis was right to prepare for how to cope with an outcome that wasn’t just possible, but likely.
Others object that the plan wouldn’t have worked. But why not? In principle, the idea of setting up a parallel payments system involving people’s tax numbers is ingenious. Since the value of the parallel currency would derive from the fact that the Greek government accepted it as payment for overdue, current and future taxes, it makes a lot of sense. Given that it takes time to print and distribute banknotes, starting with a purely electronic system is also sensible.
Surely now every finance minister in Europe is going to be continually asked whether they, like the Greeks, have put in place a contingency plan for an alternative currency. It will be a very hard question to answer. If they say no, then they look irresponsible — after all, one of the key tasks of any government is to prepare for all kinds of terrible things that might happen. If they say yes, however, then they undermine their membership in the single currency. It is lose-lose — but that does not mean it is not going to happen. The Irish? They will certainly be expected to have a plan in place, given the underlying strength of their economy, and what happened to them last time around. The Spanish? With the rise of their own anti-austerity parties, they will certainly need to prepare for all eventualities.
The same is true of the Italians and the Portuguese. Once the questions start, they will be impossible to stop. The trouble is, that is now how a currency is mean to work. No one ever asks the governor of Virginia what plans he has put in place should the state decide to pull out of the dollar. No one asks the leader of Manchester Council whether they have prepared for leaving the sterling zone, or the leaders of Osaka whether they might replace the yen. It would be like asking whether they planned to colonize Mars — – the question would be too far-fetched to even be put. It simply wouldn’t happen. That is because properly functioning currency systems are permanent.
The Greeks and the German have changed that. Varoufakis’s legacy is, in truth, a reversible euro. A country might be a member, but only for the moment, and only so long as it works. It will always have a Plan B stored away somewhere, just in case. And yet, that is not a currency. It is fixed-exchange-rate system. The problem is that fixed-currency systems don’t often survive an economic shock. The euro is staggering on for now. But the chances of it surviving the next big wave or turmoil in the markets have just been dramatically reduced.
A short trip to Bulgaria is the only thing Greeks have to do to circumvent capital controls, German weekly Der Spiegel says. “Strict controls which actually had to save Greece’s banks from collapse, are leading to a mass exodus to the poorest EU member state,” it reports in a Tuesday article. Up to €14,000 are successfully transferred to Bulgaria every week despite capital controls. Something not only “normal citizens” do (with thousands having opened bank accounts there), but also companies which open branch offices or move their headquarters to the country, Der Spiegel argues. This is partly owned to the fact that one is allowed to have €2000 daily (or €14,000 weekly) transferred from their account for a trip abroad.
A bank employee in Bulgaria is quoted as saying that for Greek citizens it is quite easy to have accounts set up in her bank in either leva (the Bulgarian currency, BGN) or euro – all it takes is an ID document and wait for two hours. “We have many foreign clients. Of course, Greeks too,” she told the author of the article. Greeks are fearing that a return to the drachma might cost much of their wealth. “In the months when Greece’s crisis peaked they have withdrawn around EUR 45 B from their bank accounts. Now they are bringing the money abroad.” For companies, low corporate and personal taxes in Bulgaria turn out attractive, being at 10% compared to Greece’s 29% of corporate tax. The latter rate was introduced to comply with the demands of international lenders.
Lower minimum wage and levels of red tape add to Bulgaria’s appeal, and Greek entrepreneurs are able to set up a Bulgaria-based subsidiary normally in just a week. As a result, there were 11 500 entities with Greek participation in Bulgaria, 2500 more than the year before. Krasen Stanchev, an economist with the Institute for Market Economy, is quoted as saying that some EUR 4.5-5 B have been invested by Greek companies into Bulgaria since the crisis began. “Until a few years ago Greece was still a beacon of hope and a role model for other countries in the Balkans. We were a developed economy, integrated into the West, part of the center of Europe… Now even Albania looks more attractive,” an entrepreneur is quoted as saying.
Panagiotis Koutras, a cattle herder and farmer, recalls how he sold clover for animal feed worth 2,000 euros to a farmer who did not have cash and paid him in wheat. Another farmer offered his heavy equipment to cover €4,000 of a €6,000 bill for products Koutras had supplied him. Kostas Zavlagas, who produces cotton, wheat, and clover recounted how he gave bales of hay and machine parts to another farmer who did not have cash to pay him. “He is going to pay me back in some sort of product when he is able to, maybe in cheese,” says 47-year-old Zavlagas. “It’s representative of the daily issues that farmers face and why they turn to barter trading to resolve them.”
Still, for the country’s tax inspectors, the practice raises questions about whether it is fuelling endemic tax dodging since it is difficult to monitor whether receipts are issued to ensure value-added-tax is paid. “Barter is not illegal as long as the relevant legal documents are issued for every transaction,” said Christos Kyriazopoulos, research director at the finance ministry’s anti-corruption unit. “But we are closely monitoring the phenomenon, it’s something that we have our eyes on.” Many Greeks are reluctant to encourage the use of barter or to talk about it openly, fearing it symbolizes a society moving in reverse after seven years of economic crisis.
“Of course, a barter economy is something that we shouldn’t aspire to and should be a thing of the past – the last time we had it on a large scale was when we were under occupation,” says Stamatis of the Mermix platform, referring to Nazi German rule during World War Two. “But aren’t capital controls a financial form of occupation?”
Alexis Tsipras will on Thursday face an unprecedented challenge to his authority, as the central committee of his governing Syriza party meets to discuss the prime minister’s plan to hold a snap election as soon as Greece signs up to a €86bn third bailout. After abandoning its earlier vows of unity, Left Platform, an anti-bailout faction of the party led by Panayotis Lafazanis, the former energy minister, appeared to be preparing for a showdown that could split Syriza and deprive Mr Tsipras of his parliamentary majority. The development was a reminder of the threats facing Greece’s prime minister as he tries to finalise a bailout deal with international creditors that is deeply unpopular within his own leftwing party.
Mr Tsipras has so far succeeded at winning parliamentary support for two packages of reforms connected to the bailout even as he has expressed his own misgivings about them. In the process, he appears to have energised Mr Lafazanis, a former Communist party official who has advocated a return to the drachma. The prime minister is expected to propose an extraordinary party congress for September, provided his government can meet its own tight deadline of August 12 to strike a deal with creditors. The central committee meeting also coincides with the arrival in Athens of Delia Valesescu, the IMF’s new head of mission. The IMF is part of the so-called “quadriga” of bailout monitors that also includes the EC, the ECB and, for the first time, the European Stability Mechanism, the EU’s own bailout fund.
Earlier this week technical experts from the EU and IMF gained access to the national accounting office at the finance ministry for the first time since Syriza came to power in January, reflecting a more accommodating attitude towards the creditors since Yanis Varoufakis, the combative finance minister, stepped down earlier this month. Mr Tsipras’s newfound willingness to negotiate tough economic reforms with the deeply unpopular bailout monitors in order to keep Greece in the euro has left Mr Lafazanis sounding disappointed and increasingly angry.
Delia Velculescu, the Romanian economist chosen to lead the International Monetary Fund’s negotiating team in Greece, was dubbed the “iron lady” during the fraught talks over Cyprus’s bailout. Given the poor relationship between Athens and its creditors, her toughness will be tested anew in the coming days. Velculescu arrives in Athens on Thursday amid uncertainty over the IMF’s willingness to throw its weight behind a third bailout for the stricken eurozone state. Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, hopes to negotiate a deal before 20 August, but the IMF will subject any agreement to rigorous examination. The IMF has indicated that it regards Greece’s debt burden as unsustainable, and any new deal must include debt relief.
It is far from clear whether Athens’ eurozone creditors are ready to offer this. Velculescu will have to decide what role the Washington-based lender is willing to play in any new rescue – and what should be expected of Greece in return. Velculescu is not well known in her native Romania, having left for the US to attend university and later joined the IMF. “Inside Romanian financial institutions, she’s known due to her position at the IMF, but among journalists and the general public she is mostly unknown,” said Cristian Pantazi, editor-in-chief of Hotnews, an online Romanian news agency. “People who do know her here characterise her as a very serious and dedicated professional.”
Velculescu holds a masters and PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and has been at the IMF since 2002. She co-authored an earlier IMF review of the Greek economy in 2009, and this, coupled with her time in Cyprus as the IMF’s chief representative between 2012 and 2014, has led to her securing a prominent role in trying to resolve the ongoing crisis in Greece. [..] it was the Cyprus bailout in 2013 that made her name. It was the Cypriot media who portrayed Velculescu as an “iron lady” who was very tough and demanding in terms of fiscal consolidation and the requirements she made on the country. However, those who dealt with her during Cyprus’s bailout talks have a different viewpoint.
“She had a reputation for being tough, but I didn’t experience the toughness in my dealings with her,” said Marios Clerides, general manager at the Cooperative Central Bank in Cyprus. “She and the troika came across as resolved rather than aggressive,” he added. “She has quite a negative reputation in Cyprus,” said Alexander Apostolides, an economics historian at the European University Cyprus, who was a presidential adviser during the negotiations. “We are a male-dominated society and the fact that she was a woman caused some issues,” he said, but added that in his experience she was “a person willing to listen to other ideas and alternatives, more ready than others to hear other approaches”.
Minsky has been programmed almost exclusively by Dr Russell Standish, and $10,000 will buy 100 hours of Russell’s programming time. About A$230,000 has been spent on it so far-with US$128,000 coming from an initial INET grant (when the US$ was worth less than the A$), US$78,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, and sundry other amounts from supporters like Bruce Ramsay, who runs the Ending Overlending page that is linked to from this blog. This funding enabled Russell to build the basic functionality Minsky needed, along with a lot of innovative smarts that set it apart from its much more established rivals in system dynamics programs like Matlab’s Simulink, Vensim, Stella and Vissim that cost thousands of dollars a copy and have been around for decades.
For example, Minsky is the only system dynamics program that lets you use Greek characters and symbols, superscripts and subscripts; it runs plots dynamically while a simulation is running (which only Vissim also does in the system dynamics product space), it s the only program that lets you insert variables and operators by typing directly onto the canvas rather than having to use the mouse and toolbox palettes; and of course it s the only program that supports double-entry bookkeeping to allow complex inter-related financial accounts to be simulated dynamically. But the program is still incomplete.
Some basic things like an IF/THEN/ELSE block are missing; some aspects of grouping don’t work properly yet, you can’t save part of a Minsky file as a toolkit, and so on. I’m putting $10,000 of my own cash in to get these things done now and there are many other features that should be added. These range from simple things like adding shortcut keys for Save As to the final ambitions I have for the program enabling it to model multiple sectors and multiple economies at once. If we can raise another $30,000 or so, we can also address one of the main complaints that I hear about Minsky: to quote my good friend Tom Ferguson, INET’s Research Director, from our dinner together in London last month, “Why is Minsky so hard to use?”
He had the dishevelled air of a bon vivant, someone who enjoyed his food and cared little for appearances. When he showed up in the tiny hillside village of Gaucin at the beginning of the year, driving an old car and asking for directions, no one knew who he was, or cared. But he eased into village life, gossiping with the locals in the bars, mostly about who owned what in the area. He had done his homework on Owners Direct and Airbnb, two home-rental websites, and had a list of a hundred houses that were being rented out to holidaymakers. Next he began asking about villagers who were working part-time for cash as cleaners, gardeners or handymen, some of them officially claiming to be unemployed. Soon the word spread: the taxman had come to town.
The inspectors have come to villages like Gaucin to tackle the Spanish government’s difficulties in collecting revenue, in the face of economic problems that have driven much of the country’s business activity into the shadows. Spain’s economy has been growing lately, creating 411,000 net jobs in the second quarter according to figures released on July 23rd by the national statistics agency. But while unemployment fell 1.4 %age points, it is still an agonising 22.4%, having remained above 20% for five years. As elsewhere in southern Europe, this prolonged stagnation has encouraged workers and businesses to dodge taxes by shifting to the black market.
While northern European countries now promote electronic transactions, shopkeepers and housecleaners in Spain are happy to accept cash in order to dodge value-added tax of 21%. The grey economy is estimated to make up between a fifth and a quarter of Spain’s GDP. The government’s tax crackdown has netted almost €35 billion extra for the state’s coffers in the past three years. But the tax agency (or Agencia Tributaria) sees scope to improve that take. It plans to step up surveillance of social media and e-commerce sites, as well as of businesses such as hotels and restaurants which it suspects of keeping two sets of accounts to under-report income. Members of the public are encouraged to blow the whistle, and to report any payments of €2,500 or more in cash. Tax inspectors are offered financial incentives to meet ambitious targets.
UKIPs Nigel Farage on the EU referendum campaign, and moving it forward as all the other Eurosceptics are lazy bastards, and the immigration mess on Dover-Calais route with illegal immigrants smuggling themselves onto Eurotunnel trains.
Albert Freeman Effect of gasoline shortage in Washington, DC 1942
Europe had hundreds of inspectors check 130 banks for a year in that stress test. Who do you think picked up the tab for that? And what did Europe’s taxpayers get in return? As I’m looking right now, they got falling stocks and 3 Italian banks in which trading was halted. What was the ECB’s goal with the tests again?
Oh right, to restore confidence in the markets … Well, with WTI oil falling fast below $80, I think we can now confidently say the Boys of Brussels are either not up to the job, or they’re letting the whole caboodle rapidly drift south on purpose. Probably a bit of both.
But don’t forget that if things continue on this present path, the next thing out of Draghi et al will be about the survival of the eurozone and likely the euro itself. Which means an outcome as awful as the one we’re seeing right now may be intended to be the final straw to break the Germans’ back, and make them give up their resistance to full blown outhouse paper purchases.
Meanwhile, the ECB bought a grand total of €1.7 billion in covered bonds last week, so at that pace it will take only 587 more weeks to get to the $1 trillion in purchases they aim for. Solid plan.
Sure, oil will rebound above $80 at some point today, the blows must be softened, and European stocks will cut losses on their plunge protection services, but if there was any idea of fooling the financial markets wit the tests, that went off the rails. Still, the people in the street, aka consumers, are still plenty fooled, and maybe that was all Brussels ever wanted. After all, Draghi is Goldman, so whaddaya know, right?
But I wanted to get back to some things I noticed late last week, about US housing. Though the call to not buy a home – at least one with a substantial loan attached – is a global one. Conditions in which you would own such a home, and pay for the loan, are set to change in radical ways, and the risks of the home becoming a trap are simply too high.
More importantly, you would be paying far too much. Fannie and Freddie and the rest of the US real estate five families will loosen requirements again soon, but they don’t do that because they want to do you a favor, they do it because they are looking to smoke out the last remaining greatest fools and suckers left out there. Don’t be one.
Leave the housing industry in your country alone, for five years or so, and allow for prices to come down to a level where homes become affordable again to young people. If the industry doesn’t get to that level, it has no future anyway. If the baby boomer generation can’t sell to their children at prices the latter can afford, US housing is dead. Already, a third of sales are cash only to investment companies, and that’s not a healthy development at all. Don’t go gently into that dark night.
Alexis Leondis and Clea Benson at Bloomberg had some major lamenting last Friday on how regulations stifle the US real estate business. And I’m thinking for once Washington bureaucracy has some positive side effects, but the authors don’t agree.
For me, US and many European housing industries have gone so far off track from, pick a date, 1997 to 2007, that it needs a major correction, something the industry itself, governments and central banks have only tried as hard and as expensively as they could muster, to prevent. We know that every bubble ends at a level below where it started, and housing is nowhere near that bottom yet.
Yes, builders and contractors and lenders and servicers and owners and borrowers will all be hit hard, but what’s the use of keeping up a virtual good face it that means killing off the future of the entire industry? Besides, don’t young people everywhere deserve a shot at a future, building a family etc., without having to bend over backwards just to be allowed to live somewhere?
And I don’t just mean the happy few kids, I want the 50% unemployed youth in southern Europe to be part of this as well, and the 25% or so in the US. You can’t just put out those kinds of numbers of people by the curb and expect to have a working society, let alone housing industry. Nor should you want to. Here’s that Bloomberg thing:
Clem Ziroli Jr.’s mortgage firm, which has seen its costs soar to comply with new regulations, used to make about three loans a day. This year Ziroli said he’s lucky if one gets done. His First Mortgage Corp., which mostly loans to borrowers with lower FICO credit scores and thick, complicated files, must devote triple the time to ensure paperwork conforms to rules created after the housing crash.
Question no 1: what’s wrong with doing ‘only’ one mortgage a day? Is Mr. Ziroli modeling himself after Angelo Mozilo?
To ease the burden, Ziroli hired three executives a few months ago to also focus on lending to safe borrowers with simpler applications. “The biggest thing people are suffering from is the cost to manufacture a loan,” said Ziroli, president of the Ontario, California-based firm and a 22-year industry veteran. “If you have a high credit score, it’s easier. For deserving borrowers with lower scores, the cost for mistakes is prohibitive and is causing lenders to not want to make those loans.”
[..] Federal rules put in place after the 2008 financial crisis attempt to prevent such reckless lending. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in January began implementing the qualified mortgage rule, a 52-page document mandating that lenders must take detailed steps to prove that borrowers have the ability to repay their mortgages. The measure also cracks down on risky loan features such as balloon payments and large fees by leaving lenders exposed to legal liability if they issue such loans.
So far, nothing that upsets me. Lenders have to be more careful about loans they issue, and that costs them a bit more, but not so much that they go out of business. So is that the problem, or is the problem that until 2007 they had thrown all caution to the wind? I think I have an idea.
“The industry as a whole did a terrible job of self-policing and they should not be shocked that there’s now more oversight than there was before,” Gordon said. The CFPB has issued eight rules since 2011 governing everything from appraisals to compensation for loan officers. Six regulators including the Federal Reserve jointly issued a 553-page document this week containing instructions for when lenders must retain a stake in mortgages that they package for sale to investors. [..]
The higher costs and concerns about buybacks are driving the decline in mortgages for home purchases. It will slow to $635 billion this year, a 13% drop from 2013, according to MBA estimates. Banks have constrained home lending to many borrowers deemed creditworthy by mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Applicants approved for mortgages to purchase homes had an average FICO credit score of 755 in August, according to Ellie Mae, a company that makes software used to process mortgage applications. In contrast, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines allow for credit scores as low as 620 for fixed-rate mortgages in some cases. Lenders reported a 30% median increase in compliance costs this year from 2013 …
That’s a steep fall alright, but don’t let’s forget we came from a time of complete lunacy. And that banks are more cautious than the government agencies should perhaps tell you something about the latter. But what’s the real worry? Looks to me like a pretty normal comedown from an abnormally exultant high. Which cost everyone dearly.
Banks are passing some of the costs of compliance to borrowers. Initial fees and charges paid by consumers on agency fixed-rate purchase loans have increased 10% to 1.21% as of August compared with a year earlier [..] Smaller lenders may be hurt the most by compliance costs, said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication. They have fewer resources to maintain records and train employees, which is essential to protecting lenders in the new regulatory environment, he said. “There’s no question in this newer market it’s harder for smaller lenders to survive,” Cecala said.
These lenders, which have smaller balance sheets, generally can’t hold the loans on their books and have to sell them to government agencies or investors. At 1st Priority Mortgage, based outside of Buffalo, New York, one investor who buys the company’s loans requires employees to fill out a seven-page form verifying compliance with qualified mortgage standards. Other investors each require different forms, said 1st Priority’s President Brooke Anderson Tompkins.
That last bit is typical of Washington ineptitude, but as I said, for once that works out well, and besides, US screw ups on the ebola file have far more serious implications.
Then, the same day, Barry Ritholtz whined about his own difficulties in getting a mortgage. Which of course, he got anyway, because Barry’s a Wall Street man, investor man, analyst etc. Just like Ben Bernanke got his loan refinanced after some much talked about ‘trouble’. Pardon me, but I’m much more interested in the people who don’t get things done, like anything at all.
I remember Barry as an astute guy at his Big Picture blog back when the crisis hit 7 years ago, and would have liked to see quite a bit more self-criticism, but there you go. Here’s the crux of Barry’s whine:
Under normal circumstances, approving my mortgage application should be a no-brainer: High income, no debt, good credit score. The missus also makes a good income, has an almost-perfect credit score and has been working for the same business for 28 years. But these are not normal circumstances. Let me jump to the end: Yes, we got our mortgage. We put 20% down, bought a house that appraised for more than the purchase price and got a 3.25% rate on a mortgage that resets after seven years. We moved in last month. But the process was surreal. Indeed, it was such a bizarre experience that I started hunting for explanations from people in the industry about why mortgage lending has gone astray.
I spoke to numerous experts, many of whom spoke only on background. Today’s column is about what I learned. By just about any measure, credit is tighter today than it has been in decades. Although former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s inability to refinance a mortgage is merely anecdotal, consider instead the gauge CoreLogic developed. It used 1998 as a baseline and considered six quantitative measurements to evaluate how loose or easy mortgage lending is. By those metrics, this is the tightest credit market for mortgage lending in at least 16 years.
The absurdities of my experience are worthy of its own rant, but rather than do that, I wanted to focus on what went wrong. The factors that led to the financial crisis were many …
Do read the rest at the link. My take on this is that when Barry says “credit is tighter today than it has been in decades” and “this is the tightest credit market for mortgage lending in at least 16 years”, I’m thinking not long ago he would have agreed that’s a good thing. We can argue about why this has come to pass, and blame regulation, not banks, but we all agreed in 2007 that too loose lending was a problem (both Barry and the Automatic Earth warned back then that the crisis would come, before it did a year later).
And anyway, I’m not here to show compassion with Ritholtz, I’m here because of all the other people, the young who see their dreams of a decent future cut off cold because of unemployment, low wages etc., and the old who see their pensions evaporate like so much smoke. And for both young and old, a further correction and demise of real estate will, largely – though not in every case – be a blessing. So, you’re wrong, Barry, it should hurt at least this much for you and everyone else to get a loan, if only because the pendulum was that far off its equilibrium in the other direction for so long.
Which is why I’m much more partial to what David Weidner said at MarketWatch on Thursday:
After an extended drought of credit available to consumers, it’s going to get easier to buy a home. The Federal Housing Finance Agency this week polished off a new set of guidelines that will allow government backing of loans that it had shunned since the mortgage crisis. And in a surprise move, the guidelines include a provision to consider some mortgages without down payments.
The FHFA and the Obama administration are both worried about the amount of credit available to the average American. It’s an epidemic problem. About a third of housing sales were to cash buyers in the first quarter, according to the National Association of Realtors. As I’ve written before, this is extraordinarily high, indicative of a housing market that favors the wealthy. So by lowering the standards of what types of loans are acceptable to the big mortgage giants, it’s obvious that the FHFA’s effort is about encouraging banks to provide more loans. The government is essentially saying: “Go ahead and lend; we’ll hold the paper.”
But in trying to ease credit and turn a mythic housing recovery into a real one, the FHFA may be overreaching. That’s because you know exactly who’s going to be taking out those loans: people who can’t afford them. And because there will always be some people who believe that because they can borrow, they can afford these loans, you know how this new policy is going to play out.
Consider a study issued Oct. 13 by mortgage data provider HSH.com. It found that 80% of homeowners had a regret about their purchase. Surprisingly, most of the regrets weren’t about costs. They were about the size of the home, the neighbors, the schools and other gripes. Then again, this was a post-foreclosure wave survey of 2,000 homeowners. The more than 4 million borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure since the crisis probably weren’t asked and would have different regrets.
So, while the FHFA is certainly opening the door to another mortgage problem, it’s not ultimately the one to blame. That falls to the home buyer who bites off too much. [..] borrowers can no longer depend on banks and regulators to measure creditworthiness.
Historically, it was difficult to get a home loan. And down payments weren’t an option. They were the price of admission to the lending officer’s desk. But a series of government programs, low interest rates and tax breaks along with loosening standards at banks eroded this institutional test. So today it’s incumbent on the borrower to ask himself if he can afford the American Dream.
For many, the answer is probably “no.” [..] The FHFA will, in the end, encourage more lending. And this will translate into more credit for people who have been denied. But that policy isn’t the one that matters. It’s my policy, your policy, based on what we truly can afford that does.
Before the US, and the UK, Netherlands, Ireland, Spain and many other countries can ever have a healthy housing industry again, that industry will first have to come crashing down to levels indeed not seen in decades. Hurtful for some, beneficial for many others.
So it’s not such a bad thing if regulators choke that market, and people can’t buy properties they can only ‘afford’ is they can borrow 90%+ of the purchase price. After decades of insanity, the only way to get back to health is a severely strict diet and fitness regime. The one ultimate goal must be to make homes affordable to young people, the future of every single community and nation.
Reading through these kinds of articles, I don’t get the idea that anyone at all is aware of that, or even thinking about it. Our societies face a major economic – and therefore overall – reset, and housing is a big part of that, simply because it’s a huge percentage of the real economy. And pumping it up in artificial ways is a short term ‘policy’ that can only end in tears. It’s not exactly rocket science. If you can make a cup of coffee, you can figure this one out.