Aug 232017
 
 August 23, 2017  Posted by at 9:17 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


William Merritt Chase Back Of A Nude 1888

 

Banks Earn Record Profits in Q2, Savers Sacrificed: FDIC (WS)
The Silent Crisis in US Housing Finance (Whalen)
The New Economic Science Of Capitalism’s Slow-Burn Energy Collapse (Ahmed)
Switch to Renewables Won’t End the Geopolitics of Energy (BBG)
No U.S.-Russia Cyber Unit Without Trump Notifying Congress (R.)
The Imperial Collapse Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight (Krieger)
The Confederate General Who Was Erased (Dailey)
EU Opens Probe Into Bayer Takeover Of Monsanto (AFP)
Schaeuble Wants To Allow Eurozone Countries To Tap ESM For Investments (R.)
Fears Of Tensions As Refugee Arrivals in Greece Rise Again (K.)

 

 

And who are you going to turn to to protest this? Not your politicians, they’re in on it.

Banks Earn Record Profits in Q2, Savers Sacrificed: FDIC (WS)

Savers have been shanghaied into doing an enormous job, in small increments, day after day, for nine years: Recapitalizing the collapsed US banking system and making it immensely profitable again, leading to high core-capital ratios, record bonuses, big-fat dividends, and massive share-buybacks. And the FDIC, in its Quarterly Banking Profile released today, shows how. The total number of FDIC-insured commercial banks and savings institutions fell by 271 to 5,787 by the end of the second quarter. Of them, 5,338 were community banks. Most of this shrinkage was due to consolidation. But there were a handful of bank failures: in 2016, five banks failed. So far this year, six banks failed. The remaining banks get a bigger slice of the pie.

Here’s the good news: Almost everything in the report is good news! That is, unless you’re a saver whose income stream has been confiscated in order to make this good news possible. FDIC-insured banks and savings institutions booked a combined net income of $48.3 billion in the second quarter 2017, a post-crisis high. That’s up by $4.7 billion, or 10.7%, from a year ago (chart via FDIC):

This $4.7-billion increase in earnings was caused by a jump in net interest income of $10.3 billion (9.1%). Net interest income is the difference between a bank’s revenues generated by interest-bearing assets, such as loans, and the costs of its liabilities, mainly deposits but also bonds and the like. Currently banks borrow money from depositors at near zero cost. And it’s a lot of money. At the end of Q2, all commercial banks held $11.2 trillion in domestic deposits. Of that, $9.1 trillion were savings deposits. This is money that banks owe savers. A lot of nearly free money. [..] One of the most important performance metrics for banks is Return On Assets. In Q2, for all FDIC-insured banks combined, the Average ROA reached 1.14%, the highest since Q2 2007. Yes, thank you hallelujah dear savers (chart via FDIC):

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Nothing to do with inflation (we know because money velocity is way down), but with trapping people into debt: “Even adjusted for inflation, the median home price in 1940 would only have been $30,600 in 2000 dollars”.

The Silent Crisis in US Housing Finance (Whalen)

The big picture on housing reflected in the mainstream media is one of caution, as illustrated in The Wall Street Journal. Borodovsky & Ramkumar ask the obvious question: Are US homes overvalued? Short answer: Yes. Send your cards and letters to Janet Yellen c/o the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington. As we’ve discussed in several forums over the past few years, home valuations are one of the clearest indicators of inflation in the US economy. While members of the tenured world of economics somehow rationalize understating or ignoring the fact of double digit increases in home prices along the country’s affluent periphery, sure looks like asset price inflation to us. In fact, since WWII home prices in the US have gone up four times the official inflation rate.

“Houses weren’t always this expensive,” notes CNBC. “In 1940, the median home value in the U.S. was just $2,938. In 1980, it was $47,200, and by 2000, it had risen to $119,600. Even adjusted for inflation, the median home price in 1940 would only have been $30,600 in 2000 dollars, according to data from the U.S. Census.” Inflation, just to review, is defined as too many dollars chasing too few goods, in this case bona fide investment opportunities. A combination of slow household formation and low levels of new home construction are seen as the proximate cause of the housing price squeeze, but higher prices also limit the level of existing home sales. Many long-time residents of high priced markets like CA and NY cannot move without leaving the community entirely. So they get a home equity line or reverse mortgage, and shelter in place, thereby reducing the stock of available homes.

Two key indicators that especially worry us in the world of credit is the falling cost of defaults and the widening gap between asset pricing and cash flow. Credit metrics for bank-owned single-family and multifamily loans are showing very low default rates. More, loss-given default (LGD) remains in negative territory for the latter, suggesting a steady supply of greater fools ready to buy busted multifamily property developments above par value. We can’t wait for the FDIC quarterly data for Q2 2017 to be released next week as we expect these credit metrics to skew even further. Single-family exposures are likewise showing very low default rates and LGDs at 30-year lows, again suggesting a significant asset price bubble in 1-4 family homes. The fact that many of these properties are well under water in terms of what the property could fetch as a rental also seasons our view that we are in the midst of a Fed-induced investment mania.

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Nice and interesting, but don’t present it as something new. At best all the scientists et al quoted have only recently found out. And as the Automatic Earth has said forever, don’t say the 2007/8 crisis was caused by energy issues. The financial world didn’t need any help causing it.

The New Economic Science Of Capitalism’s Slow-Burn Energy Collapse (Ahmed)

Recent studies suggest that the EROI of fossil fuels has steadily declined since the early 20th century, meaning that as we’re depleting our higher quality resources, we’re using more and more energy just to get new energy out. This means that the costs of energy production are increasing while the quality of the energy we’re producing is declining. But unlike previous studies, the authors of the new paper [..] have removed any uncertainty that might have remained about the matter. Court and Fizaine find that the EROI values of global oil and gas production reached their maximum peaks in the 1930s and 40s. Global oil production hit peak EROI at 50:1; while global gas production hit peak EROI at 150:1. Since then, the EROI values of oil and gas-the overall energy we’re able to extract from these resources for every unit of energy we put in- is inexorably declining.

Even coal, the only fossil fuel resource whose EROI has not yet maxed out, is forecast to undergo an EROI peak sometime between 2020 and 2045. This means that while coal might still have signficant production potential in some parts of the world, rising costs of production are making it increasingly uneconomical. Axiom: Aggregating this data together reveals that the world’s fossil fuels overall experienced their maximum cumulative EROI of approximately 44:1 in the early 1960s.

Since then, the total value of energy we’re able to extract from the world’s fossil fuel resource base has undergone a protracted, continuous and irreversible decline. At this rate of decline, by 2100, we are projected to extract the same value of EROI from fossil fuels as we were in the 1800s. Several other studies suggest that this ongoing decline in the overall value of the energy extracted from global fossil fuels has played a fundamental role in the slowdown of global economic growth in recent years. In this sense, the 2008 financial crash did not represent a singular event, but rather one key event in an unfolding process. [..] Going back to the new EROI analysis by French economists, Victor Court and Florian Fizaine, the EROI of oil is forecast to reduce to 15:1 by 2018. It will continue to decline to around 10:1 by 2035. They broadly forecast the same pattern for gas and coal: Overall, their data suggests that the EROI of all fossil fuels will hit 15:1 by 2060, and decline further to 10:1 by 2080.

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Whole new resources wars lie ahead.

Switch to Renewables Won’t End the Geopolitics of Energy (BBG)

Yes, there are many reasons to be enthusiastic about a shift toward renewables. Unfortunately, an escape from energy geopolitics is not likely to be among them. [..] Among the most interesting of possible trends we highlight is the idea that a more renewable-heavy future will likely bring with it new forms of the “resource curse” – the phenomenon that political and economic development in many resource-wealthy countries seems stymied when compared to resource-poor ones. In many resource-rich nations, economic growth is actually slower and political institutions are more likely to be repressive and nondemocratic. In the world of fossil fuels, this curse has generally applied to big producers of oil and gas.

In a world heavier on renewables, the curse will probably not be so relevant for producers of power; solar, wind and geothermal energy are more likely to be generated and consumed within the borders of a country than to become profitable exports and generators of huge windfall cash flows. Rather, we may see this curse surface in countries rich in the materials required to produce the components that make renewable energy possible. Many of these resources are rare-earth metals and other commodities deep underground. For example, indium and cobalt – neither is technically a rare-earth metal, but they are still relatively hard to come by – are essential for making solar panels and batteries.

China provides approximately half of the indium consumed globally today, whereas the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the source of more than half the world’s cobalt. The big producers of lithium, another material essential for the production of batteries, are Argentina, Australia, Chile and China. Yet Bolivia’s large untapped reserves of lithium could catapult it into this league in the future. Tellurium is not a rare-earth mineral, but it is another key component of solar panels. The U.S. has imported most of this material from Canada, but relies to some extent on Belgium, China and the Philippines. By some estimates, China supplies as much as 95% of all the rare-earth elements in the global market. Given Beijing’s dominant position, the world should expect repeats of the 2010 episode when China halted the sale of rare earths to Japan – where they are vital for the production of solar panels and batteries – in the wake of a maritime dispute.

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Whatever anyone thinks of this, do note that one political freely body voting itself the powers of another is scary.

No U.S.-Russia Cyber Unit Without Trump Notifying Congress (R.)

U.S. President Donald Trump would be required to notify U.S. lawmakers before creating a joint U.S.-Russia cyber security unit – an idea that has drawn criticism across the political spectrum – under legislation advancing in Congress. The proposal, if it became law, would be the latest in a series of maneuvers by Congress that either limit the president’s authority on Russia matters or rebuke his desire to warm relations with Moscow. A provision contained within the annual Intelligence Authorization Act and passed by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee 14-1 would require the Trump administration to provide Congress with a report describing what intelligence would be shared with Russia, any counterintelligence concerns and how those concerns would be addressed.

The bill, which grants congressional approval for clandestine operations carried out by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, passed the Senate Intelligence Committee in July, but its text was only recently made public because it involves sensitive intelligence operations. Trump last month said on Twitter that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed establishing “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to address issues like the risk of cyber meddling in elections. Trump quickly backpedaled on the idea, which was criticized by Democrats, senior Republicans and the National Security Agency director. [..] Trump wants to improve relations with Russia, a desire that has been hamstrung by the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Republican Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

U.S. congressional panels and a special counsel are investigating the interference and possible collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign. Moscow has denied any meddling and Trump has denied any collusion. Previously, Congress tied the president’s hands on Russia by passing a bill that Trump cannot ease the sanctions against Russia unless he seeks congressional approval. In August, the Senate blocked Trump from being able to make recess appointments while lawmakers were on break, fearing the president would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his handling of the Russian probe. Lawmakers have also introduced legislation to stop Trump from having the ability to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to determine whether there was collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow.

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Amen.

The Imperial Collapse Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight (Krieger)

If you haven’t watched Trump’s Afghanistan speech by now you really should. It’s not good enough to read anyone else’s summary, you need to hear it for yourselves. It’s only 25 minutes long. As I started listening, I sensed myself getting angry. It was the same empty, bullshit propaganda I’ve been hearing from U.S. Presidents my entire life. This broken record of disingenuousness has become simply unbearable, and even worse, I know it’s going to work on millions upon millions of Americans. We refuse to think for ourselves, and we refuse to admit the obvious. There will be hell to pay for this ignorance and denial. [..] towards the end of the speech, Trump says the following:

“In every generation we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed. We prevailed because we know who we are and what we are fighting for.”

Unfortunately, here’s the cold hard truth: We have no idea who we are, and we have no idea what we are fighting for. We’ve become the very evil he claims to be fighting against as the nation morphed into a pernicious, destructive, and immoral empire. This is the heart of the problem — we are constantly lying to ourselves. Of course, we’ll never set things on the right track if we can’t diagnose the disease in the first place. We’ve torched our national treasure and goodwill by running around the world trying to push everybody around, and simultaneously institutionalized a corrupt and predatory neo-feudal society at home. We’ve ignored our own people in a foolish and self-destructive quest to maintain and grow empire and the results will not be pretty.

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Good story. The world is not black and white, there are simply people who don’t want to see color.

The Confederate General Who Was Erased (Dailey)

A native Virginian, a railroad magnate, a slaveholder, and an ardent secessionist, Mahone served in the Confederate army throughout the war. He was one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s most able commanders, distinguishing himself particularly in the summer of 1864 at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg. After the war, Robert E. Lee recalled that, when contemplating a successor, he thought that Mahone “had developed the highest qualities for organization and command.” General William Mahone has not been forgotten entirely. Rather, he has been selectively remembered. There is a Mahone Monument, for example, erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, at the Crater Battlefield in Petersburg, and Civil War scholars have treated Mahone’s military career with respect.

There is an able biography. The problems posed by William Mahone for many Virginians in the past — and what makes it worthwhile for us to think about him in the present — lie in his postwar career. Senator William Mahone was one of the most maligned political leaders in post-Civil War America. He was also one of the most capable. Compared to the Roman traitor Cataline (by Virginia Democrats), to Moses (by African American congressman John Mercer Langston), and to Napoleon (by himself), Mahone organized and led the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation South. Mahone’s Readjuster Party, an independent coalition of black and white Republicans and white Democrats that was named for its policy of downwardly “readjusting” Virginia’s state debt, governed the state from 1879 to 1883.

During this period, a Readjuster governor occupied the statehouse, two Readjusters represented Virginia in the United States Senate, and Readjusters represented six of Virginia’s ten congressional districts. Under Mahone’s leadership, his coalition controlled the state legislature and the courts, and held and distributed the state’s many coveted federal offices. A black-majority party, the Readjusters legitimated and promoted African American citizenship and political power by supporting black suffrage, office-holding, and jury service. To a degree previously unseen in Virginia, and unmatched anywhere else in the nineteenth-century South, the Readjusters became an institutional force for the protection and advancement of black rights and interests.

At the state level, the Readjusters separated payment of the school tax from the suffrage, thereby enfranchising thousands of Virginia’s poorest voters. They restored and reinvigorated public education in the state, and they lowered real estate and personal property taxes. They banned the chain gang and the whipping post. At the municipal level, Readjuster governments paved streets, added sidewalks, and modernized water systems.

The Readjusters lost power in 1883 through a Democratic campaign of violence, electoral fraud, and appeals to white solidarity. While Democrats suppressed progressive politics in the state, other groups of elite white Virginians worked fast to eradicate the memory of Virginia’s experiment in interracial democracy. These were mutually reinforcing projects. Convinced that black enfranchisement was “the greatest curse that ever befell this country,” members of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), founded in 1889, equated the Readjuster’ rule with “mobocracy” and called for radical pruning of the electorate. After 1900, William Mahone was characterized by whites in Virginia as a demagogic race traitor with autocratic tendencies. This representation was so powerful that as late as the 1940s the worst charge that could be brought against an anti-Democratic opposition candidate was that he had been associated with Mahone and the Readjusters.

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Monopolizing food should be fought for reasons much more profound than legal or economic ones.

EU Opens Probe Into Bayer Takeover Of Monsanto (AFP)

The European Commission said Tuesday that it was opening an in-depth investigation into the proposed $66 billion (56-billion-euro) takeover of US seed and pesticide supplier Monsanto by Germany’s Bayer, citing concerns it could reduce competition in key products for farmers. “Seeds and pesticide products are essential for farmers and ultimately consumers,” said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “We need to ensure effective competition so that farmers can have access to innovative products, better quality and also purchase products at competitive prices.” In its own statement, Leverkusen-based Bayer said it “believes that the proposed combination will be highly beneficial for farmers and consumers.” The firm “will continue to work closely and constructively with the European Commission” and still aims to receive approval for the deal by the end of the year, it added.

After a months-long pursuit in which it raised its offer price several times, Bayer won over Monsanto’s management in September for the deal, which would create the world’s largest integrated pesticides and seeds company. If the tie-up goes ahead, the new company would have some 140,000 employees around the world with combined annual revenues from agriculture alone of about €23 billion. But the deal has drawn criticism from environmental groups because of Monsanto’s long history of promoting genetically modified crops. “There’s not much to investigate. One monster corporation controlling our food is a bad idea for farmers and citizens everywhere,” said Nick Flynn of the Avaaz advocacy group. “Over a million people are hoping Commissioner Vestager comes back with a long-term rejection of Monsanto and Bayer’s marriage from hell.”

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Trojan.

Schaeuble Wants To Allow Eurozone Countries To Tap ESM For Investments (R.)

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is working on a proposal that would allow southern eurozone countries to tap into the single currency bloc’s bailout fund to boost investments during recessions, a newspaper said on Wednesday. If the unsourced report in the mass-selling German daily Bild is confirmed, the plan would mark a major change of policy for Schaeuble who had until recently always opposed transfers from richer eurozone countries to poorer members like Greece. Germany is the biggest contributer to the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s bailout fund. Bild said Schaeuble intended to make the proposal after Germany’s Sept.24 election, which his conservatives led by Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to win. In exchange for more flexible access to the ESM, Schaeuble wants the fund to have more say over national debt and budgets.

Bild added that the proposal was a goodwill gesture toward French President Emmanuel Macron who has vowed to work with Merkel on a roadmap for closer eurozone integration. Schaeuble said earlier this year that he shared Macron’s view that financial transfers from richer to poorer states are necessary within the eurozone. A joint eurozone budget and a common finance minister are among ideas for deeper European Union integration around the single currency after Britain leaves the EU in 2019. Completing a banking union has also been proposed. Schaeuble is loathed in many southern eurozone countries and especially in Greece, for insisting on tough austerity measures in exchange for bailout funds during the bloc’s debt crisis that started seven years ago.

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Time for Greece to get scared again.

Fears Of Tensions As Refugee Arrivals in Greece Rise Again (K.)

Authorities on the islands of the eastern Aegean were unnerved on Tuesday by the arrival of 397 undocumented migrants in just one day, though it remained unclear whether a recent spike in newcomers is the beginning of a new, stronger influx from neighboring Turkey. The 397 new arrivals – 225 on Chios, 61 on Samos, 93 on Leros and 18 on Kos – came on the heels of 643 who landed on the islands over the weekend. August has seen the people smugglers intensify their operations, with more than 2,400 migrants landing on Greek shores following journeys aboard smuggling vessels from Turkey. The renewed influx is putting further pressure on already overcrowded migrant reception facilities on the islands, with authorities acknowledging that a key problem is the slow rate at which hundreds of asylum applications are being processed.

“There has been a noticeable increase in refugee and migrant arrivals over the past few days, which underlines the need for asylum services to be boosted immediately so that the the process is completed more quickly and the islands can be decongested,” the regional governor for the northern Aegean, Christina Kalogirou, told Kathimerini. Most migrants who see their inital asylum claims rejected lodge appeals, which drags out the process even longer, Kalogirou said, adding that the presence of hundreds of migrants in crowded venues for months on end leads to “aggravated situations, tension and even outbreaks of violence.”

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Dec 262014
 
 December 26, 2014  Posted by at 12:27 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  


Marion Post Wolcott “Center of town. Woodstock, Vermont. Snowy night” 1940

SF Fed Warns US Stock Values Will Be Cut In Half In Next Decade (Zero Hedge)
Dipping Into Auto Equity Devastates Many US Borrowers (NY Times)
First Oil, Now US Natural Gas Plunges Off The Chart (WolfStreet)
China Eases Again, Sets Non-Bank Deposit Reserve To Zero (Zero Hedge)
Russia Says Ruble Crisis Over As Reserves Dive, Inflation Climbs (Reuters)
Reuters Objectively Sees Russia’s Options as Losing or Losing Badly (Beversdorf)
Japan No A Longer Nation Of Savers, For First Time Ever (MarketWatch)
Japan’s Savings Rate Turns Negative, Wages Fall in Abe Challenge (Bloomberg)
Japan Struggles to Escape Recession as Production Drops (Bloomberg)
Greece to the Eurozone’s Rescue (Bruegel)
Is George Osborne A Closet Keynesian? (Project Syndicate)
Ukraine Peace Talks Focus on Prisoner Swap Before New Year Break (Bloomberg)
Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Agency Could Be Led By US Citizen (TASS)
Correcting Scrooge’s Economics (Mises Inst.)
Waiting for the Sunrise (John Michael Greer)
World War I’s Christmas Truce, 100 Years Ago (Klein)
CDC Reports Potential Ebola Exposure In Atlanta Lab (WaPo)
Sierra Leone Declares Three-Day Lockdown In North To Contain Ebola (BBC)

More virtual wealth destruction.

SF Fed Warns US Stock Values Will Be Cut In Half In Next Decade (Zero Hedge)

When “the retirement of the baby boomers is expected to severely cut U.S. stock values in the near future,” is the ominous initial sentence from no lesser maintainer-of-the-status-quo than the San Francisco Fed’s research department, one begins to recognize the Federal Reserve’s overall need to hyper-inflate asset prices at whatever cost for fear of the ‘wealth’ destruction looming. As the following study reports, projected declines in stock values – based on the latest demographic and valuation data – have become even more severe. Our current estimate suggests that the P/E ratio of the U.S. equity market could be halved by 2025 relative to its 2013 level. Excerpted from FRBSF’s Global Aging: More Headwinds for U.S. Stocks? (Liu, Spiegel, & Wang)…

Demographic patterns have a strong historical relationship with equity values in the United States (Liu and Spiegel 2011). In particular, the ratio of those people who are the prime age to invest in stocks to those who are the prime age to sell has historically served as a strong predictor of U.S. equity values as measured by price/earnings (P/E) ratios.

Research suggests one reason for this close relationship is a person’s life-cycle pattern of investing. An individual’s financial needs and attitudes toward risk change over the years. As retirement approaches, individuals become less willing to tolerate investment risks, so they begin to sell off stocks. Thus, the aging of the baby boomers and the broader shift of age distribution in the population should have a negative effect on capital markets (Abel 2001). In theory, global demographic changes may further impact U.S. equity values. For example, Krueger and Ludwig (2007) demonstrate that U.S. returns can import the adverse impact of population aging in other countries.

Since the study by Liu and Spiegel (2011), U.S. stock values have increased markedly. Between 2010, which is the end of their sample, and 2013, the S&P 500 Index has increased by 47% and the P/E ratio has increased from around 15 to nearly 17. However, the bearish predictions in Liu and Spiegel (2011), which were based solely on projected aging of the U.S. population, have worsened. Indeed, extending the Liu-Spiegel model’s sample through 2013 suggests that the P/E ratio will decline even more, from about 17 in 2013 to 8.23 in 2025, before recovering to 9.14 in 2030.

Following Liu and Spiegel (2011), we use Bloomberg’s P/E ratio for the United States, which is the ratio of the end-of-year S&P 500 Index levels and the average earnings per share over the previous 12 months. We measure the age distribution using the ratio of “middle-age” people between 40 and 49 years—the group most likely to buy stocks—to those in the “old-age” group from 60 to 69 years—the prime age to sell. We call this measure the M/O ratio.

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Incredible that such things are allowed to exist in a supposedly civilized nation.

Dipping Into Auto Equity Devastates Many US Borrowers (NY Times)

The rusting 1994 Oldsmobile sitting in a driveway just outside St. Louis was an unlikely cash machine. That was until the car’s owner, a 30-year-old hospital lab technician, saw a television commercial describing how to get cash from just such a car, in the form of a short-term loan. The lab technician, Caroline O’Connor, who needed about $1,000 to cover her rent and electricity bills, believed she had found a financial lifeline. “It was a relief,” she said. “I did not have to beg everyone for the money.” Her loan carried an annual interest rate of 171%. More than two years and $992.78 in debt later, her car was repossessed. “These companies put people in a hole that they can’t get out of,” Ms. O’Connor said. The automobile is at the center of the biggest boom in subprime lending since the mortgage crisis. The market for loans to buy used cars is growing rapidly.

And similar to how a red-hot mortgage market once coaxed millions of borrowers into recklessly tapping the equity in their homes, the new boom is also leading people to take out risky lines of credit known as title loans. They are, roughly speaking, the home equity loans of subprime auto. In these loans, which can last as long as two years or as little as a month, borrowers turn over the title of their cars in exchange for cash — typically a%age of the cars’ estimated resale values. “Turn your car title into holiday cash,” TitleMax, a large title lender, declares in a recent television commercial, showing a Christmas stocking overflowing with money. More than 1.1 million households in the United States used auto title loans in 2013, according to a survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — the first time the agency has included the loans in its annual survey.

Title loans are becoming an increasingly prevalent form of high-cost, short-term credit in subprime finance, as regulators in a number of states crack down on payday loans. For many borrowers, title loans, also sometimes known as motor-vehicle equity lines of credit or title pawns, are having ruinous financial consequences, causing owners to lose their vehicles and plunging them further into debt. A review by The New York Times of more than three dozen loan agreements found that after factoring in various fees, the effective interest rates ranged from nearly 80% to more than 500%. While some loans come with terms of 30 days, many borrowers, unable to pay the full loan and interest payments, say that they are forced to renew the loans at the end of each month, incurring a new round of fees.

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“None of the fancy charts natural gas drillers have shown to investors work at these prices.”

First Oil, Now US Natural Gas Plunges Off The Chart (WolfStreet)

Friday, natural gas futures plunged 6%. Monday morning, when folks were thinking about the beautiful Santa Rally, NG futures plunged nearly 10% to $3.12 per million Btu, the lowest since January 10, 2013. But the crazy day had just begun. NG bounced off and jumped nearly 4%, only to give up much of it later. Tuesday morning, as I’m finishing this up, NG continues to decline, now at $3.11/mmBtu. Down 30% from a month ago. NG demand peaks when the heating season starts. It’s a bet on the weather. Our gurus forecast warmer than normal temperatures across the country, so prices plunged. Or shorts piled into the pre-holiday session with exaggerated effect to make a quick buck. Here is what this 30-day, 30% plunge looks like (each bar = 5 hours):

Whatever the cause, NG has traded below the cost of production of many wells for years. That lofty $4.40/mmBtu on the left side in the chart above is still below the cost of production for many wells. The price simply fell from bad to terrible. To make the equation work, drillers have shifted from shale formations that produce mostly “dry” natural gas to formations that also produce a lot of liquids, such as oil, natural gasoline, propane, butane, or ethane that were fetching a much higher price. Thus, they’d be immune to the low price of NG. They pitched this strategy to investors to attract ever more money and keep the fracking treadmill going.

Much of this new money was in form of junk debt. Now energy companies account for over 15% of the Barclays U.S. Corporate High-Yield Bond Index – up from less than 5% in 2005. But there is no respite for the American oil patch. The price of oil has plunged 50% since June, the price of propane is down 50% since its recent high in mid-September, and natural gasoline is down 32% since recent high in mid-November. None of the fancy charts natural gas drillers have shown to investors work at these prices.

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“.. shadow banking is being tamed ..”

China Eases Again, Sets Non-Bank Deposit Reserve To Zero (Zero Hedge)

Four years ago, on Christmas Day in 2010, China shocked the world when, unexpectedly, hiked its lending and deposits rates by 0.25% in order to battle inflation – only its second such hike in the prior 3 years. Since then things for the global economy haven’t done exactly as expected, and certainly not for China, which as the following chart of constantly downward-revised IMF growth forecasts, has seen its growth rate tumble from double digits to just hanging on to 7%, and dropping fast.

Fast forward to last night, when in another Christmas surprise, China once again decided to adjust the cost of money, only this time instead of hiking it eased, and in an effort to shore up the world’s second-largest economy, China Business News reported that: PBOC WAIVES RESERVE REQUIREMENT FOR NON-BANK DEPOSIT. As WSJ adds, at a meeting with big financial institutions on Wednesday, the People’s Bank of China told participants that they will soon be able to add deposits from nonbank financial institutions to their calculations of their loan-to-deposit ratios, according to the executives. The move would add considerably to the banks’ deposits and allow them to lend more. Why is this a major development? Because as we reported over a month ago, “China’s Shadow Banking Grinds To A Halt As Bad Debt Surges Most In A Decade” in which we explained:

As the following chart shows the main reason for China’s relentless slowdown in its growth pace, which only two years ago was expected to rebound back into the double digits soon (at least according to the IMF), is the ongoing contraction in credit formation, which rising at 13.2% for new loans and 15.4% for TSF outstanding, was the lowest credit expansion recorded in China also since 2005.

So what is the main culprit for the contraction in China’s all important credit formation? In two words: shadow banking. As Bank of America summarizes “shadow banking is being tamed” because “the changing structure of TSF suggests that Beijing’s efforts in controlling some types of shadow banking have made some achievements. Two major drivers for the steep decline of TSF from Sept to Oct were the falling of non-discounted bills (down RMB241bn) and falling trust loans (down RMB22bn). By contrast, new corporate bonds were at RMB242bn, a sharp rise from RMB151bn in Sept.”

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Tad optimistic?!

Russia Says Ruble Crisis Over As Reserves Dive, Inflation Climbs (Reuters)

Russia said on Thursday its currency crisis was over even though its forex reserves have plunged and annual inflation has climbed above 10%, adding to the problems facing the government as it fights its worst economic crisis since 1998. The ruble plunged to all-time lows last week on heavy falls in the price of oil, the backbone of the Russian economy, and Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis that made it near impossible for Russian firms to borrow on Western markets. But it has since rebounded sharply after authorities took steps to halt its slide and bring down inflation, which after years of stability threatens President Vladimir Putin’s reputation for ensuring the country’s prosperity. Those measures included a hike in interest rates to 17% from 10.5%, curbs on grain exports and informal capital controls.

“The key rate was raised in order to stabilise the situation on the currency market. … That period has already, in our opinion, passed. The ruble is now strengthening,” Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told the upper house of parliament on Thursday. He added that interest rates would be lowered if the situation remained stable. Standard & Poor’s said this week it could downgrade Russia to junk as soon as January due to a rapid deterioration in “monetary flexibility”. Keen to avert a downgrade, Russia said it had started talks with ratings agencies to explain the government’s actions. Siluanov said the budget deficit next year would be “significantly more” than the 0.6% of gross domestic product originally planned. The ruble slumped to 80 per dollar in mid-December from an average of 30-35 in the first half of 2014. It has strengthened in the last few days to trade as strong as 52 per dollar on Thursday, in part thanks to government pressure on exporters to sell hard currency.

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“Sometimes this is done without violence when the Alpha simply knows he is no longer top dog and he moves on. Often times it ends is horrible violence.”

Reuters Objectively Sees Russia’s Options as Losing or Losing Badly (Beversdorf)

Clearly Russia’s future has very little to do with the Western world and so they have no motive to start wars with the West. There is nothing to gain by doing so. However, they have every motive to defend themselves against Western aggression. And so if you see Russian aggression with the West it can only be defensive in nature. Nations (other than North Korea) do not act in a way that is to the detriment of its political class. Because warring with the West presents no possible upside but significant downside for Russia and her leaders, they will actually be willing to do everything in their power to prevent such a scenario. However, as we discussed above, the Western Alliance has only one option to secure its global control and that is to contain China and the only way to contain China is via Russian energy.

Thus, the Western Alliance has every reason to war with Russia. Behaviour (for rational minds) is always logical and so we can use logic to come to the truth about behaviour by looking at the logical results of actions. If an action seems to be detrimental to a particular subject nation’s political class, then the action would be illogical and thus will not be taken. If an action is the only course of survival for a nation, or more pertinently its political class, then you can be damn certain that action will be taken. Looking at the Russian conflict then from a logical context, it really becomes not up for debate that the Western Alliance must be the aggressor.

But so ok, we are doing what we need to in order to secure our dominance and perhaps there are working class folks that may agree with such a policy. Sounds simple enough according to John Lloyd. As he lays out, the two options for Putin and Russia are to either lose or lose badly. But when John pulls his head out his ass or decides to speak with some integrity rather than selling himself out as a politician’s town crier he will admit that things won’t be so simple. China’s future growth is dependent on Russian energy, and so on Russia itself. As such, China will never allow the Western Alliance to crush Russia as China understands the end objective is not a containment of Russia but China itself.

I made the point in the previous article that China will not only step in economically, which we’ve already seen by example with the signed energy deals and now explicitly stating they will back the Russian economy but, if comes to it, China will be prepared to step in militarily, they have no choice. That is a very scary WWIII proposition and one might wonder why in the hell are we headed in that direction? It is obviously not something citizens of any involved countries would want. Again the reason goes back to that very natural process of Alpha selection. It requires a final fight of the Alpha dog, the one in which he loses his reign of power to a new more impressive Alpha dog. Sometimes this is done without violence when the Alpha simply knows he is no longer top dog and he moves on. Often times it ends is horrible violence.

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A major shift. Japan’s model has been held up by savers investing in sovereign bonds.

Japan No A Longer Nation Of Savers, For First Time Ever (MarketWatch)

Japan, long held up as a model of thrift and a “nation of savers,” is no longer saving, according to data cited Friday in the Nikkei Asian Review. For the fiscal year that ended in March, Japan’s household savings rate dropped to negative 1.3%, according to Cabinet Office statistics released Thursday. The result represented “the first time the ratio entered negative territory since the government started compiling comparable data in fiscal 1955,” the Nikkei reported. Part of the drop was likely due to a spending binge ahead of the nationwide consumption-tax hike on April 1, but the report also cited a broad drawdown of savings by Japan’s elderly.

The figure has special significance for Japan, as much of the government’s huge debt is funded by the nation’s own savers. “If fewer people buy government bonds, it would feed latent upward pressures for long-term interest rates,” the report quoted Goldman Sachs Japan’s Masahiro Nishikawa as saying. On the other hand, any threat to low interest rates seemed distant Friday, with several reports noting that the yield on the benchmark 10-year Japanese government bond TMBMKJP-10Y, -3.96% had hit its lowest level in history the previous day, amid extended ultra-easy policy from the central bank.

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“The savings rate in the year through March was minus 1.3%, the first negative reading in data back to 1955 ..”

Japan’s Savings Rate Turns Negative, Wages Fall in Abe Challenge (Bloomberg)

Japanese drew down savings for the first time on record while wages adjusted for inflation dropped the most in almost five years, highlighting challenges for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he tries to revive the world’s third-largest economy. The savings rate in the year through March was minus 1.3%, the first negative reading in data back to 1955, the Cabinet Office said. Real earnings fell 4.3% in November from a year earlier, a 17th straight decline and the steepest tumble since December 2009, the labor ministry said today. A higher sales tax combined with the central bank’s record easing are driving up living costs, squeezing household budgets and damping consumption. Abe’s task is to convince companies to agree to higher wages in next spring’s labor talks to sustain a recovery.

“Households are suffering from a decline in real income,” said Hiromichi Shirakawa, an economist at Credit Suisse. Abe is trying to generate a virtuous cycle in the economy, where higher incomes fuel consumer spending, which in turn prompts companies to boost investment and wages. Last week he secured a pledge from business leaders to do their best to boost pay next year. The government will aim for wages to increase faster than inflation next year, Economy Minister Akira Amari said last week. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said yesterday he’d watch the spring wage talks “with strong interest.” The savings rate, which the Cabinet Office calculates by dividing savings by the sum of disposable income and pension payments, peaked at 23.1% in fiscal 1975.

As Japan’s population ages, its growing ranks of elderly are tapping their savings, according to the Cabinet Office. Consumers also ran down savings to make purchases ahead of a sales tax-increase in April, the first since 1997. The shrinking workforce is intensifying a labor shortage that Kuroda has said will prompt an increasing number of companies to boost pay to secure workers. Today’s data showed there were 1.12 jobs available for every person seeking a position, the most since 1992. The jobless rate, at 3.5%, remained at lows unseen since 1997.

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Kuroda makes things worse, fast.

Japan Struggles to Escape Recession as Production Drops (Bloomberg)

Japan’s inflation slowed for a fourth month in November, and industrial production and retail sales unexpectedly dropped, pointing to further weakness in an economy Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to revive from recession. Output fell 0.6% in November from a month earlier, the trade ministry said today, against a median estimate of a 0.8% increase in a Bloomberg News survey of economists. Retail sales slid 0.3%, while consumer prices excluding fresh food rose 2.7% from a year earlier. Real wages fell the most since 2009. With little sign of a rebound in domestic demand, the world’s third-largest economy may rely on exports to avert a third straight quarterly contraction in the final three months of the year.

Today’s reports add pressure on Abe, whose government tomorrow will unveil a stimulus package, and who pledged growth-inducing structural changes after winning re-election this month. “Companies have to see a recovery in domestic consumption before boosting production,” said Minoru Nogimori, an economist at Nomura Holdings Inc., noting any rebound in the economy in the fourth quarter “will be far from strong.” With oil prices weighing on inflation, the BOJ is likely to boost stimulus again, probably around October, he said. [..] Stripped of the effect of April’s sales-tax increase, core consumer prices – the Bank of Japan’s key measure – rose 0.7%, moving further away from the BOJ’s 2% goal. Tumbling oil prices could push Japan’s inflation as low as 0.5% by the middle of next year, according to economists.

BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said yesterday that over the longer term, cheaper oil will support the economy and spur consumer prices. Energy prices dropped 1.2% from a month earlier, according to today’s data. The price of Dubai crude oil – a benchmark for Middle East supply to Asia – has lost about a half of its value in the past year. Japan’s gasoline prices declined the most in almost six years last week. “Japan, a commodity-importing country, gains a large advantage from the decline in crude oil prices,” Kuroda said in a speech to business leaders yesterday in Tokyo. The decline “will lead to an increase in underlying prices from a somewhat longer-term perspective,” he said.

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“Today, the only right way forward is for the troika to allow Greece to repay its official creditors in, say, 100 years.”

Greece to the Eurozone’s Rescue (Bruegel)

The European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre Moscovici’s unnecessary—and unseemly—visit to Athens served to spotlight Europe’s corrosive politics. Mr. Moscovici chose to all but endorse Antonio Samaras, the beleaguered Greek Prime Minister, who promises to play by the European Union’s dysfunctional rules. And the Commissioner described as “suicidal” the positions held by the opposition party Syrzia, which may well lead the next government and correctly deems the EU’s rules to be intolerant. His boss, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, weighed in by expressing his preference for Greece to be led by “known” faces. Greece should not have been a member of the eurozone. But after the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl ensured Italy’s inclusion in May 1998, Spain and Portugal were waived in. So, the inevitable Greek entry came in 2002.

By then, any vestige of economic good sense in the euro’s construction had been abandoned in the name of peace and friendship, a cause that Moscovici and Juncker presumably seek to promote. From October 2009, when Greek authorities acknowledged that they had lied about their fiscal accounts, to May 2010, the claim was that the problem would go away without external help. When eventually the troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—put together a large bailout fund, the manifestly untenable claim was that Greece would repay its private creditors in full. In July 2011, the repayment terms on the troika’s debt were eased, but it was too little too late. Large losses were eventually imposed on private Greek creditors but not before harsh austerity caused an extraordinary slump in growth and lasting misery.

Pretty much every time there was a choice between the right and wrong decision, the wrong one was taken. Today, the only right way forward is for the troika to allow Greece to repay its official creditors in, say, 100 years. This will effectively mean debt forgiveness but the cosmetics may help German leaders tell their citizens that they will be repaid. But, of course, the system fights back all rational thinking. Ireland and Portugal will yelp that they also deserve more relief on their troika borrowings. More fundamentally, the forgiveness will directly contravene the Lisbon Treaty’s no-bailout provision, which prevents one member state from paying another’s debts. That would call into question the constitutionality of the European Stability Mechanism, which was approved by the European Court of Justice on the basis that the loans from the facility would be repaid with an “appropriate margin.”

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“There is a school of thought that holds that commitment, not achievement, gives a policy credibility.”

Is George Osborne A Closet Keynesian? (Project Syndicate)

There is a growing apprehension among Britain’s financial pundits that chancellor George Osborne is not nearly as determined to cut public spending as he pretends to be. He sets himself deadlines to balance the books, but when the date arrives, with the books still unbalanced, he simply sets another. Consider some fiscal arithmetic. When Osborne became chancellor in 2010, the budget deficit – spending minus revenue – was £153bn, or 10.2% of GDP. He promised that by 2015 the deficit would stand at only £37bn, or 2.1% of GDP – equivalent to balancing current spending and revenue. Instead, the deficit for 2014-2015 is expected to be £97bn. The conclusion of Osborne’s balancing act has been postponed until the 2019-2020 budget. Osborne talks about the need to cut spending, but his actions say otherwise.

Though he vowed to reduce spending by more than £100bn by now, he has cut less than half of that, simply extending his five-year rolling programme of cuts for another few years. As a result, Osborne, the poster child for British austerity, is starting to look like a closet Keynesian. There is a school of thought that holds that commitment, not achievement, gives a policy credibility. For example, the Bank of England is committed to achieve 2% inflation “in the medium term”. Annual inflation has not been 2% at any time in the last six years, but it is possible that the BoE’s commitment has had some effect in lowering interest rates. Osborne’s defenders might make the same argument for his fiscal policy. A credible policy of fiscal consolidation, they might say, will have the same exhilarating effect on confidence as fiscal consolidation itself.

Economists call this the “signalling effect”. If you announce that you intend to balance the books over five years and pencil in a lot of spending cuts, consumers, relieved of their fears of future tax increases, will start spending more freely. This will cause national income to rise, and, with luck, the budget deficit will start shrinking, more or less according to plan, without requiring any, or much, retrenchment. In its emphasis on the importance of the signal, economics enters postmodernist territory. The signal – in this case the promise to balance the books – creates the reality. People start behaving as though the books were balanced, ignoring the fact that they are not. When one believes the narrative, one acts in ways that make it come true.

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Can the west screw this up too?

Ukraine Peace Talks Focus on Prisoner Swap Before New Year Break (Bloomberg)

Envoys to Ukraine peace talks are discussing an exchange of prisoners before the New Year, according to a separatist leader, as Russia criticized the country for having “NATO ambitions.” The talks may continue for about two days and no agreements have been reached yet, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told the pro-Russian rebels’ news website. Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent representatives to Minsk, Belarus, yesterday to hold the first of two planned rounds of talks. The participants, including separatist negotiators, left the venue without commenting to reporters.

“The main task at the moment is to stop the violence,” Alexei Panin, deputy director of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow-based research group, said by phone. A two-week truce has tempered the bloodshed in a conflict that has killed more than 4,700 people since April in fighting between government forces and separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The talks cleared the last objections to a swap of 150 prisoners for 225, Zakharchenko said. Ukraine’s Security Service reiterated commitment to an “all-for-all” exchange, RIA Novosti reported.

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The insanity continues.

Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Agency Could Be Led By US Citizen (TASS)

A former US federal prosecutor Bohdan Vitvitsky, who has Ukrainian roots, could be appointed as the director of Ukraine’s newly-created Anti-Corruption Bureau, local media reported on Friday. Officials from the Ukrainian presidential administration are currently in talks with Vitvitsky, who has not yet made a final decision saying that he “still has no guarantees that the position is independent.” Another candidate for the top post is former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the reports say. The candidacy has been proposed by a member of a tender commission, Yury Butusov. The ex-Georgian leader, who is now on the run and has recently failed to receive a US working visa, has not yet taken a decision, saying that he is waiting for “a more specific proposal.” Saakashvili will have to take Ukraine’s citizenship and in line with an anti-corruption law to settle the issues over closing criminal cases against him in his home country, including on abuse of power.

In October, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a package of anti-corruption laws, including on creating the National Anti-Corruption Bureau in Ukraine. The agency will be charged with exposing, preventing and investigating corruption cases in the country. Poroshenko also suggested that a foreigner could lead the newly-created agency. Foreigners have been already appointed as ministers in the Ukrainian government. President Poroshenko earlier signed a law on granting Ukrainian citizenship to US national Natalya Yaresko, Lithuanian Aivaras Abromavichus and Georgian Alexander Kvitashvili, who head the country’s finance, health and economic development ministries, respectively. Ukraine’s Opposition Bloc and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party are against the work of foreigners in the Ukrainian government, saying that Kiev wants to absolve itself of the responsibility for what is happening in the country.

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“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.” To this Fred replies, “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Correcting Scrooge’s Economics (Mises Inst.)

As Charles Dickens himself admits, Ebenezer Scrooge is a thoroughly peaceful man, guilty of no true crime, who has robbed no one. Therefore, we must conclude that his wealth is a sign of his ability to please at least some people, and as Michael Levin notes: “Dickens doesn’t mention Scrooge’s satisfied customers, but there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so rich.” But as he is a person with bad manners and a disagreeable personality, many have conflated Scrooge’s personality traits with his business practices, although the two are unrelated phenomena. As a miser and businessman, Scrooge provides numerous valuable services to the community including, as Walter Block has shown, driving down prices and making liquidity available to those who, unlike the wrongly maligned misers, have been either unwilling or unable to save in comparable amounts.

His business prowess notwithstanding, however, a closer look at Scrooge’s economics suggests some significant blind spots in several areas. Scrooge, as displayed in many of his comments and observations, misunderstands some key economics concepts. Indeed, Scrooge’s ignorance in these areas may contribute to his bad habit of assuming that others are taking advantage of him, or are too foolish or lazy to attain what Scrooge has. As Carl Menger demonstrated long ago, value is subjective and different persons value goods differently depending on the person’s goals in life. Does the person want to raise a family? Perhaps he wishes to be an independent scholar who devotes all his time to reading and research. Perhaps he wishes to be a hermit who prays most of the day. Money prices reflect these goals, and a hermit will value a video game console differently from a gamer. But of course not everything can be calculated in terms of money prices. A like or dislike of Christmas, for example, cannot be calculated this way.

Scrooge, who is apparently not a Christmas enthusiast, greatly values money, and likes to have plenty of it handy. But why? If we accept the analysis of Scrooge’s former fiancée, (a fairly reliable source on that period in his life) she suggests that Scrooge “fear[s] the world too much” and that all his other hopes “have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach.” So here we see the real root of Scrooge’s fondness of money. In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises explained that human action stems from a desire to “remove unease” about one’s present situation. With Scrooge we see (if his fiancée is to be believed) that the thought of being destitute is a source of constant unease for him. Thus, he desires to build as much wealth as possible in the hope of being beyond the possibility of poverty.

As Scrooge’s primary goals is poverty avoidance, this colors how he views all economic action. His peers tend to not recognize this in him, either dismissing his as simply “odious,” as Mrs. Cratchit does, or as unhappy. In fact, as Levin demonstrates, Scrooge appears rather content with his situation at this point, although, unfortunately — just as Scrooge’s colleagues and family members do not appreciate his ranking of values — Scrooge does not seem to appreciate that others might value money for different reasons. This is demonstrated in an early exchange with Scrooge’s nephew. When wished a merry Christmas by his nephew Fred, Scrooge retorts “What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.” To this Fred replies, “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

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“.. political and business interests responded to the peak by redefining what counts as crude oil, pouring just about any flammable liquid they could find into the world’s fuel tank ..”

Waiting for the Sunrise (John Michael Greer)

… the coming of 2015 marks a full decade since production of conventional petroleum worldwide hit its all-time peak and began to decline. Those who were around in the early days of the peak oil scene, as I was, will doubtless recall how often and eagerly the more optimistic members of that scene insisted that once the peak arrived, political and business interests everywhere would be forced to come to terms with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Once that harsh but necessary awakening took place, they argued, the transition to sustainable societies capable of living within the Earth’s annual budget of sunlight would finally get under way.

Of course that’s not what happened. Instead, political and business interests responded to the peak by redefining what counts as crude oil, pouring just about any flammable liquid they could find into the world’s fuel tank—ethanol, vegetable oil, natural gas liquids, “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) from tar sands, you name it—while scraping the bottom of the barrel for petroleum via hydrofracturing, ultradeep offshore wells, and other extreme extraction methods. All of those require much higher inputs of fossil fuel energy per barrel produced than conventional crude does, so that a growing fraction of the world’s fossil fuel supply has had to be burned just to produce more fossil fuel. Did any whisper of this far from minor difficulty find its way into the cheery charts of “all liquids” and the extravagantly rose-colored projections of future production?

Did, for example, any of the official agencies tasked with tracking fossil fuel production consider subtracting an estimate for barrels of oil equivalent used in extraction from the production figures, so that we would have at least a rough idea of the world’s net petroleum production? Surely you jest. The need to redirect an appreciable fraction of the world’s fossil fuel supply into fossil fuel production, in turn, had significant economic costs. Those were shown by the simultaneous presence of prolonged economic dysfunction and sky-high oil prices: a combination, please note, that last appeared during the energy crises of the 1970s, and should have served as a warning sign that something similar was afoot. Instead of paying attention, political and business interests around the world treated the abrupt fraying of the economy as a puzzling anomaly to be drowned in a vat of cheap credit—when, that is, they didn’t treat it as a public relations problem that could be solved by proclaiming a recovery that didn’t happen to exist.

Economic imbalances accordingly spun out of control; paper wealth flowed away from those who actually produce goods and service into the hands of those who manipulate fiscal abstractions; the global economy was whipsawed by convulsive fiscal crisis in 2009 and 2009, and shows every sign of plunging into a comparable round of turmoil right now.

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Another story on the theme, after yesterday’s long one.

World War I’s Christmas Truce, 100 Years Ago (Klein)

Five months into World War I, the Christmas spirit took hold in the most unlikely of places—the bloody Western Front. In a series of spontaneous ceasefires, soldiers laid down their arms to sing carols, exchange gifts and even play soccer with the enemy. On the centennial of the Christmas Truce of 1914, look back at the sudden outbreak of peace that brought a brief moment of cheer to a grim war. Charles Brewer never expected to be spending Christmas Eve nearly knee-deep in the mud of northern France. Stationed on the front lines, the 19-year-old British lieutenant with the Bedfordshire Regiment of the 2nd Battalion shivered in a trench with his fellow soldiers. After Great Britain entered World War I in August 1914, many of them had expected that they would make quick work of the enemy and be home in time for Christmas.

Nearly five months and 1 million lives later, however, the Great War had bogged down in intractable trench warfare with no end in sight. Although disappointed to be far from home on Christmas Eve, Brewer at least took solace in the fact that the perpetual rain, which made moving through the trenches as much of a slog as the war itself, had finally abated on the moonlit night. All was jarringly quiet on the Western Front when a British sentry suddenly spied a glistening light on the German parapet, less than 100 yards away. Warned that it might be a trap, Brewer slowly raised his head over the soaked sandbags protecting his position and through the maze of barbed wire saw a sparkling Christmas tree.

As the lieutenant gazed down the line of the German trenches, a whole string of small conifers glimmered like beads on a necklace. Brewer then noticed the rising of a faint sound that he had never before heard on the battlefield – a Christmas carol. The German words to “Stille Nacht” were not familiar, but the tune—“Silent Night”—certainly was. When the German soldiers finished singing, their foes broke out in cheers. Used to returning fire, the British now replied in song with the English version of the carol.

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Better be careful.

CDC Reports Potential Ebola Exposure In Atlanta Lab (WaPo)

Researchers studying Ebola in a highly secure laboratory mistakenly allowed potentially lethal samples of the virus to be handled in a much less secure laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, agency officials said Wednesday. One technician in the second laboratory may have been exposed to the virus and about a dozen other people have been assessed after entering the facility unaware that potentially hazardous samples of Ebola had been handled there. The technician has no symptoms of illness and is being monitored for 21 days. Agency officials said it is unlikely that any of the others who entered the lab face potential exposure. Some entered the lab after it had been decontaminated.

Officials said there is no possible exposure outside the secure laboratory at CDC and no exposure or risk to the public. “At this time, we know of only the one potential exposure,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a telephone interview. The mistake took place Monday afternoon. It was discovered by laboratory scientists Tuesday and within an hour reported to agency leaders. The error, which is under internal investigation, was reported to Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell and to a program that has oversight over pathogens such as Ebola and anthrax.

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Nothing has been solved.

Sierra Leone Declares Three-Day Lockdown In North To Contain Ebola (BBC)

Sierra Leone has declared lockdown of at least three days in the north of the country to try to contain the Ebola epidemic. Shops, markets and non-Ebola related travel services will be shut down, officials said. Sierra Leone has already banned many public Christmas celebrations. More than 7,500 people have died from the outbreak in West Africa so far, the Word Health Organization (WHO) says, with Sierra Leone the worst hit. Sierra Leone has the highest number of Ebola cases in West Africa, with more than 9,000 cases and more than 2,400 deaths since the start of the outbreak. The other countries at the centre of the outbreak are Liberia and Guinea.

Alie Kamara, resident minister for the Northern Region, told AFP news agency that most public gatherings would be cancelled. “Muslims and Christians are not allowed to hold services in mosques and churches throughout the lockdown except for Christians on Christmas Day”, he said. No unauthorised vehicles would be allowed to operate “except those officially assigned to Ebola-related assignments” he added. The lockdown would operate for at least three days but this could be extended if deemed necessary, officials said. Sierra Leone has been in a state of emergency since July. The outbreak began a year ago in the West African country of Guinea, but only gained international attention in early 2014.

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