After getting pummeled all year by the euro, the dollar is having a moment. In Wall Street parlance, it may be more than just a dead-cat bounce, as politics, economic fundamentals and technicals have converged to give the greenback a boost. The U.S. currency surged in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory before suffering a long descent that lasted from December until last month. That’s when the political viability of U.S. fiscal policy reform in the shape of – as yet to be detailed – tax cuts (and maybe even tax reform) became increasingly likely. Although equity markets have reflected optimism all year that tax cuts would come, the dollar has conveyed doubt along with gold and bonds. The Bloomberg Dollar Index is up more than 4% from its low for the year on Sept. 8, partially rebounding from the more than 10% drop since the end of December.
There could be more to come in the short term if tax cuts happen, because the legislation is likely to contain a provision that would allow U.S. companies to repatriate significant foreign profits and further bolster the economy. That could spark more inflation and put U.S. monetary policy on a more aggressive path. In terms of the euro, the political situation in Europe has been a distraction. After the election of the far-right Alternative for Germany party to the Bundestag on Sept. 24, the independence movement in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia has devolved into a political rat’s nest. Uncertainty, regionalism and the risk of escalating discord in Spain are adding to the political dissonance – a stark contrast to the apparent acceptance of U.S. Senate Republicans of higher national debt levels in exchange for tax cuts.
It’s going to take more than the biggest stock slump in world history to convince analysts that PetroChina has finally hit bottom. Ten years after PetroChina peaked on its first day of trading in Shanghai, the state-owned energy producer has lost about $800 billion of market value – a sum large enough to buy every listed company in Italy, or circle the Earth 31 times with $100 bills. In current dollar terms, it’s the world’s biggest-ever wipeout of shareholder wealth. And it may only get worse. If the average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg proves right, PetroChina’s Shanghai shares will sink 16% to an all-time low in the next 12 months.
The stock has been pummeled by some of China’s biggest economic policy shifts of the past decade, including the government’s move away from a commodity-intensive development model and its attempts to clamp down on speculative manias of the sort that turned PetroChina into the world’s first trillion-dollar company in 2007. Throw in oil’s 44% drop over the last 10 years and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious plans to promote electric vehicles, and it’s easy to see why analysts are still bearish. It doesn’t help that PetroChina shares trade at 36 times estimated 12-month earnings, a 53% premium versus global peers. “It’s going to be tough times ahead for PetroChina,” said Toshihiko Takamoto, a Singapore-based money manager at Asset Management One, which oversees about $800 million in Asia. “Why would anyone want to buy the stock when it’s trading for more than 30 times earnings?”
Qin Han, chief fixed-income analyst at Guotai Junan Securities, doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the rout in Chinese bonds. “Considering the pace of the slump, which is very fast, it’s fair to say we are likely in a bond disaster,” Qin said. Shorter-tenor notes led the selloff in government debt on Monday, making the yield curve inversion the steepest since at least 2006, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Concern that rising borrowing costs and inflation will erode returns have weighed on the debt market in the past month, with one top-performing macro fund manager saying he was shorting Chinese bonds.
The yield on five-year government bonds surged nine basis points to 3.97% as of 1:29 p.m. in Shanghai, while the cost on 10-year notes jumped six basis points to 3.9%, with the spread reaching eight basis points earlier Monday. The yield gap will widen further, and the cost on debt due in a decade will likely reach 4% “very soon,” said Qin. “The yield will become even more inverted as fragile sentiment prevails,” he said. “Yes, this is overselling, but it’s not the time to buy yet as the overselling could last longer.”
It used to be that when America sneezed, the world caught a cold. This time around, it’s the risk of a sickly China that poses a bigger threat. The world’s second-largest economy is now trying to ward off the sniffles. While output is still growing at a pace that sees GDP double every decade, the problem remains that much of that has been fueled by a massive buildup of credit. Total borrowing climbed to about 260% of the economy’s size by the end of 2016, up from 162% in 2008, and will hit close to 320% by 2021 according to Bloomberg Intelligence estimates. Economy-wide debt levels are on track to rank among “the highest in the world,” according to Tom Orlik, BI’s Chief Asia Economist. That path may be what prompted outgoing People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan to warn of the risk of a plunge in asset values following a debt binge, or a “Minsky Moment,” earlier this month.
Given that China is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to contribute more than a third of global growth this year, controlling China’s debt matters far beyond its borders. There are two key components of China’s credit clampdown, each posing challenges to policy makers. First is wringing out bets on property prices. As President Xi Jinping put it in a keynote policy speech to the Communist Party leadership on Oct. 18: Housing is for living in, not for speculation. The latest data show that in some areas, prices are still surging in many cities despite a raft of measures to make it harder for investors to buy real estate with borrowed money. Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, saw home values soar almost 15% in September from a year before. It will be up to regulators to come up with measures that deliver on Xi’s mandate without tipping housing into a downward spiral.
Property crashes in the U.S., Japan and U.K. over the past three decades amply illustrated how damaging they can be to economies. The second key challenge is progress in aligning borrowing costs with borrowers’ ability to repay — rather than with their relationship with the state. China’s financial system has long let companies that are state owned or are seen to be implementing state initiatives get funding more cheaply than others. That’s thanks to the assumption the government would step in if needed to back them up. To help encourage capital to be deployed more efficiently – and to prevent firms that are effectively insolvent keep going thanks to continued funding – policy makers have begun to gradually take away implicit support.
Investors in Chinese company bonds have so far avoided the brunt of a debt selloff that’s driven 10-year sovereign yields to the highest in three years. Their luck may be about to run out. Now that the Communist Party Congress is over, China’s bond holders may be about to get hit by “daggers falling from the sky,” said Huachuang Securities Co., referring to aggressive deleveraging policies. Plus, accelerating inflation and the risk that China’s central bank may follow the Federal Reserve in raising borrowing costs are casting a shadow over the entire bond market. That all means that the situation that’s existed for most of 2017 – sovereign yields rising, and corporate debt remaining relatively resilient – is at risk of cracking. As appetite for bonds of any kind dwindles and authorities roll out measures that target higher-risk investments, company securities are in the line of fire.
“It’s very likely we will see a significant increase in corporate yields in the coming year,” said David Qu, a market economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking in Shanghai. “The trigger could be tougher regulations or a default. A majority of non-bank financial institutions’ debt holdings are corporate bonds, so their selloff can lead to severe consequences. Banks are underestimating authorities’ intentions to tighten regulations.” Signs of a turnaround are already beginning to show, with the yield on three-year AAA notes – the most common grading for Chinese corporate debt – rising 21 basis points this month to the highest level since early June. The spread between those notes and government debt has climbed in October and was last at 116 basis points, though it’s still a long way from this year’s peak of 150 basis points in April.
Losses accelerated earlier this month after People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan voiced concern about high borrowing levels and signaled that growth could beat expectations. If concerns on regulation intensify and risks of a debt repayment failure appear, the market may go through a major correction in the near term, Huachuang analysts including Qu Qing wrote in a note last week.
Chinese stocks fell the most since early August, breaking the calm that persisted through the recent Communist Party Congress, as government bonds extended a monthly rout amid concern the government will step up efforts to reduce leverage in the financial sector. The Shanghai Composite Index dropped as much as 1.7% on Monday, and was 0.8% lower at 11:27 a.m. local time. Small-cap shares bore the brunt of the selling, with the ChiNext gauge tumbling as much as 2.5%. Equity indexes in Hong Kong pared gains. The 10-year yield climbed five basis points to 3.90%, a three-year high. While China’s equity market was subdued for most of this month amid state efforts to limit volatility during the twice-a-decade Party gathering, sovereign yields have been climbing.
There’s more than 1 trillion yuan ($150 billion) of funding provided by the central bank that matures this week, the most since February. “Pessimism in the bond market is spilling over to the stocks,” said Hao Hong, chief China strategist at Bocom International Holdings Co. in Hong Kong. “Surging yields of the government bonds are resulting in worsened sentiment and higher funding costs for companies, of which smaller ones will suffer most as they rely more heavily on the market rather than bank loans for financing.” There are also early signs economic data may weaken, after solid figures for most of this year buoyed equities. Chinese shares held steady during the week-long Congress amid speculation the “National Team,” as state-backed funds are referred to, would step in to avoid any large swings.
A leading U.S. regulator wants to make it easier for Wells Fargo to pay employees when they leave, loosening a restriction in place since a phony accounts scandal hit the bank last year, according to people familiar with the matter. The initiative comes as President Donald Trump is trying to lighten rules on Wall Street and the bank regulator, Keith Noreika, acting Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), must weigh whether to vet new Wells Fargo executives. If Noreika’s approach prevails, the OCC could go easier on Wells Fargo and any other large banks sanctioned in the future. Since Noreika took control of the OCC in May, he has advocated easing up on sanctions imposed on Wells Fargo in the wake of the scandal over abusive sales practices, according to current and former officials.
Wells Fargo reached a $190 million settlement in September 2016 after admitting that its sales staff opened as many as 2.1 million accounts without customers’ consent. Since then the estimate has climbed to as many as 3.5 million. As part of the deal with regulators, incoming Wells Fargo executives can face a vetting from the OCC while severance payouts must be cleared by the OCC and a sister agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But Noreika wants officials to work faster when they review severance pay and the agency can choose to waive its check on incoming executives. Hundreds of Wells Fargo employees have had their severance payouts frozen when they left as regulators tried to determine what role those employees might have had in the scandal.
Despite years of painful austerity, the UK’s level of public spending is today no lower as a share of national income than it was after 11 years of a Labour government in 2008, according to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The major report from the UK’s leading economic think tank shows that deep cuts have left the NHS, schools and prisons in a “fragile state”, and have merely returned public spending to pre-financial crisis levels. The document presents a challenge to claims that Conservative-driven austerity saved the public finances following years of Labour overspending. The think tank’s report goes on to conclude that in the light of the data, Chancellor Philip Hammond’s plan to abolish the UK’s deficit by the mid-2020s is “no longer sensible”.
With his critical Budget approaching in November, it challenges him to admit the target looks “increasingly unlikely” in the light of a worsening economic outlook, exacerbated by Britain’s “terrible” productivity and uncertainty over Brexit. The IFS analysis of public spending levels appears in its pre-Budget look at the Chancellor’s options published on Monday. It found public spending as a share of national income was at a similar level both now and shortly before the financial crash, an event David Cameron and George Osborne claimed Labour overspending left the country ill-prepared for. In 2007-08, public spending as a share of GDP was 39%, it peaked in 2009-10 at 45.1% and is forecast to be 39.6% this year, according to the IFS.
The main justification for austerity has been the need to reduce and eventually abolish the deficit, a target that the IFS refers to as “ever-receding”. The IFS argues Mr Hammond’s critical budget speech next month, will be given against a backdrop of a worsening economic outlook that demands austerity goals are rethought. [..] The IFS report said: “It looks like [Mr Hammond] will face a substantial deterioration in the projected state of the public finances. “He will know that seven years of ‘austerity’ have left many public services in a fragile state. And, in the known unknowns surrounding both the shape and impact of Brexit, he faces even greater than usual levels of economic uncertainty.”
Unprecedented plans to combat human trafficking and terrorism across the Sahel and into Libya will face a major credibility test on Monday when the UN decides whether to back a new proposed five-nation joint security force across the region. The 5,000-strong army costing $400m in the first year is designed to end growing insecurity, a driving force of migration, and combat endemic people-smuggling that has since 2014 seen 30,000 killed in the Sahara and an estimated 10,000 drowned in the central Mediterranean. The joint G5 force, due to be fully operational next spring and working across five Sahel states, has the strong backing of France and Italy, but is suffering a massive shortfall in funds, doubts about its mandate and claims that the Sahel region needs better coordinated development aid, and fewer security responses, to combat migration.
The Trump administration, opposed to multilateral initiatives, has so far refused to let the UN back the G5 Sahel force with cash. The force commanders claim they need €423m in its first year, but so far only €108m has been raised, almost half from the EU. The British say they support the force in principle, but have offered no funds as yet. Western diplomats hope the US will provide substantial bilateral funding for the operation, even if they refuse to channel their contribution multilaterally through the UN. France, with the support of the UN secretary general, António Guterres, and regional African leaders, has been pouring diplomatic resources into persuading a sceptical Trump administration that the UN should financially back the force.
The Greek islanders in the eastern Aegean who have helped thousands of refugees under adverse conditions are “heroes,” according to the European Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans. In an interview with Sunday’s Kathimerini ahead of his visit to Greece on Monday, Timmermans said that, despite being under immense pressure, the mayors and residents of the islands are doing everything in their power to help refugees.Timmermans, who has described the situation on the islands as “unacceptable,” expressed concern over the difficulty the Greek government has in absorbing EU funds – around €1 billion – for infrastructure to shelter some 50,000 refugees.
“We are faced with a series of problems,” he said, adding that that the Commission’s experience “has shown that it’s hard to get the support we provide in the spot where it is needed most.” Timmermans, who was one of the main architects of last year’s deal between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, said that people whose asylum applications have been processed should be returned to Turkey as stipulated in the agreement. But with just 1,600 returns having taken place since 2016, Timmermans said that “this doesn’t happen enough.” He refrained from placing blame on either Greece or Turkey but insisted that the system must not be changed. Migrants, he said, must stay on the islands, despite the difficulties, because their transfer to the mainland would send a wrong message and create a new wave of arrivals.
Barely a day goes by when proponents of greater taxation, universal income and other initiatives aimed at addressing systematic inequality are not accused of inciting the “politics of envy”. Doing so is an effective way of closing down debate; envy is, after all, among the deadliest of the “deadly sins”. Yet politicians inclined to dismiss inequality in this way may do so at their peril. For the evidence of our hunting and gathering ancestors suggests we are hard-wired to respond viscerally to inequality. In the 1960s, the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen” of the Kalahari desert became famous for turning established views of social evolution on their head. But their contribution to our understanding of the human story is far more important than simply making us rethink our past.
Until then, it had been widely believed that hunter gatherers endured a near-constant battle against starvation. But when a young Canadian anthropologist, Richard B Lee, conducted a series of simple economic input-output analyses of the Ju/’hoansi as they went about their daily lives, he found not only did they make a good living from hunting and gathering, but they did so on the basis of only 15 hours’ work per week. On the strength of this, anthropologists redubbed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society”. I started working with Ju/’hoansi in the early 1990s. By then, more than a half-century of land dispossession meant that, other than in a few remote areas, they formed a highly marginalised underclass eking out a living on the dismal fringes of an ever-expanding global economy. I have been documenting their often traumatic encounters with modernity ever since.
The importance of understanding how hunter-gatherers made such a good living has only recently come to light, thanks to a sequence of genomic studies and archaeological discoveries. These show that the broader Bushmen population (referred to collectively as Khoisan) are far older than we had ever imagined, and have been hunting and gathering continuously in southern Africa for well over 150,000 years. If the success of a civilisation is judged by its endurance over time, this means the Khoisan are by far the most successful, stable and sustainable civilisation in human history.
[..] most properties in the UK still belong to households. Families, by and large, don’t need to sell. So what would falling property prices mean for them? First, many pension funds and investment bonds rely on UK property to generate income for their beneficiaries. Second, we have what economists call the wealth effect. Economists have long associated consumers’ perceived real estate wealth with spending behaviour: if you believe your house is worth a lot, you feel financially secure. And then you allow yourself to save less and spend more. Just consider the rising number of people who plan to subsidise their retirement with wealth generated by their homes. If their assumed valuations start to look shaky, these people will spend less to build up their savings. The pain would be felt by many: about 64% of households in England are owner-occupiers.
The wealth effect is important in most developed economies but even more so in the UK which relies on ever-rising levels of consumer spending for its growth. A 10% fall in the value of dwellings in the UK would correspond to a loss of wealth equivalent to more than the value of all the cars exported from the UK in a decade. The climate of economic uncertainty, reduced consumption and falling real estate values brings an additional problem for the UK. Britain has long had a trade deficit, but it has also benefited from positive foreign direct investment. The current account itself has been in the red for nearly 20 years now but the hundreds of billions of inward foreign investment channelled to UK property over the same period meant that this deficit remained manageable – just about.
According to the Bank of England, overseas companies have accounted for roughly half of all UK commercial real estate transactions since 2013. If international investors expect prices to fall in any sustained way, the inflow of money would stop and many would sell up. Why buy or hold an asset just at the start of what might be a long decline? This would not only put pressure on real estate prices but would affect UK GDP, reduce government revenues and worsen the UK current account position. The credit rating of the UK would come under more pressure, and trillions of UK government debt would cost more to refinance. Then the UK government deficit would deteriorate further, taxes might rise to cover for this and the domino effect would be in full cry, spreading to all sectors of the economy, similar to events in Greece.
With a 2% gain in September, the S&P 500 Index has set a record: positive returns in each of the first 10 months of the year. There’s never been a full calendar year when this has happened every month. Going back to November 2016, the index has ripped off 12 consecutive monthly gains. The S&P hasn’t had a down quarter since the third quarter of 2015, a streak of eight in a row without a loss. Since the start of 2013, 18 of the past 19 quarters have been positive. And it’s not like stocks are melting up either. They are going up slowly as volatility is slowly going down. Not only have stocks been consistently profitable recently, but they have done so with remarkably low volatility. This year, there has yet to be a 2% move up or down on the S&P 500.
For a frame of reference, in 2009, there were 55 separate 2% up or down days and there were 35 in 2011. The annualized volatility of daily returns on stocks since 1928 has been 18.7%. For 2017, that number is 7%, a little more than one-third of the long-term average. The average absolute daily price change this year on the S&P 500 is just 31 basis points. If the year ended right now, that would be the lowest daily price change on record since 1965. The worst peak-to-trough drawdown is just 2.8% this year. Over the past 100 years, the average intrayear drawdown in stocks has been around 16%. The shallowest calendar-year peak-to-trough drawdown was in 1995, when the worst loss in stocks was just 3.3% for the year.
So investors in U.S. stocks have had double-digit gains three-quarters of the way through the year, with increases every month, nonexistent volatility, and nothing even approaching a 5% correction. It’s looking like a record-breaking year in terms of a calm market. As far as investing in stocks goes, this year has been about as good as it gets – so far. It’s worth remembering that stocks are cyclical, even if those cycles don’t run on set schedules. The following shows the historical drawdown profile of the S&P 500 going back to just before the Great Depression:
Influential bond investor Bill Gross of Janus Henderson Investors said on Monday that financial markets are artificially compressed and capitalism distorted because of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy. “I think we have fake markets,” Gross said at a Janus Henderson event. Investors should brace for higher Treasury bond yields as the Fed begins to unwind its quantitative easing program but yields will edge up “only gradually,” he said. Gross, who oversees the $2.1 billion Janus Henderson Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, said the Fed’s loose monetary policy had resulted in investors chasing yield and thus producing tight corporate spreads everywhere around the globe.
“Even China and South Korea – perfect examples of the risk trade – are at very narrow (corporate spread) levels. There is no real advantage in the global marketplace. Everything is so tight, it is hard to pick a winner from a group that is fake.” Gross reiterated his warning that Fed Chair Janet Yellen and other global policy makers should not rely on historical models such as the Taylor Rule and the Phillips curve “in an era of extraordinary monetary policy.” Economists John Taylor and A.W. Phillips devised models for guiding interest-rate policy based, respectively, on inflation and the unemployment rate. Those models disregard the importance of private credit in the economy, according to Gross.
Financial markets may be underpricing global risks, leaving them vulnerable to a major correction, according to European Central Bank Governing Council member Klaas Knot warned. As global stocks surge, measures of volatility suggest unprecedented calm even as crises around the world – including the Catalan separatists in Spain, Turkey’s diplomatic row with the U.S., North Korea’s missile tests and the danger of a hard Brexit – make political headlines. “It increasingly feels uncomfortable to have low volatility in the markets on the one hand while on the other hand there are risks in the global economy,” said Knot, who is also the president of the Dutch Central Bank.
Similarly, a sooner-than-expected normalization of U.S. monetary policy – where financial markets see a slower pace of rate hikes than what the Federal Reserve communicates – would quickly turn investor sentiment, the DNB wrote in a report on financial stability which Knot presented in Amsterdam on Monday. That makes the “risk of sharp market corrections real,” it said. Still, Knot said there’s “no one within the context of the ECB already talking about an increase of interest rates. Rates will “stay low for a long time.” In the run-up to the next policy decision on Oct. 26, ECB officials are showing differing preferences for the way forward with quantitative easing, which is set to run at €60 billion a month and total almost €2.3 trillion by the end of December.
Executive Board member Peter Praet, who crafts the policy proposals, said last week that calm markets may allow the final stages of the bond-buying plan to be dragged out. “The program has achieved what realistically could be expected from it,” Knot said about QE, adding that it supported growth, reduced investment costs and ended deflationary risks.
In the latest twist ahead of tomorrow’s much anticipated “next step” announcement to be made by the Catalan secessionists, which is still to be formalized, Spain’s EFE newswire reports that Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont has reportedly drafted a declaration of “gradual independence”, that will be “gradually effective” and which will plan to start a constituent process. The declaration, which will cap what El Periodico dubbed “the most critical moment for Catalonia” will allegedly insist on Catalonia’s wish to negotiate with central government and the need for mediation, although in an indication that Puigdemont may be back tracking from his hard-line “binary” stance, EFE adds that the Declaration won’t lead to parliamentary vote, and as such may be non-binding. The news is the latest development in a fast-paced day, in which as we reported earlier this morning, the ruling People’s Party issued a thinly veiled death threat to the President of Catalonia.
“Let’s hope that nothing is declared tomorrow because perhaps the person who makes the decalartion will end up like the person who made the declaration 83 years ago.” Additionally, perhaps as a Plan B, Catalan secessionists opened a second-front in their campaign against the government in Madrid, urging the opposition Socialists to forge a coalition to oust Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Bloomberg reported and added that while the Socialists have so far refused to sign up to the plan, the Catalan groups pushing it have already persuaded the populist Podemos party to back and accept a Socialist-only government. Should the Socialists get on board, the alliance would have 172 seats in the 350-strong chamber and would look to add the Basque Nationalists to form a majority. Rajoy heads a minority administration with 134 deputies and can be toppled with a no-confidence motion.
Meanwhile, as reported overnight, Catalan secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont faced increased pressure on Monday to abandon plans to declare independence from Spain, with France and Germany expressing support for the country’s unity. The Madrid government, grappling with Spain’s biggest political crisis since an attempted military coup in 1981, said it would respond immediately to any such unilateral declaration.
Dear Catalans, I must confess that I feel rather like St. Paul must have felt when he wrote to the Corinthians – the need to address an entire region is a grave affair. But the matter I must address today is of great importance to our community of nations: Enough is enough. We need to get a few things cleared up before this regrettable idea of independence goes any further. There are a number of things that have been rather opaque since we set up the EU. This was deliberate – there was simply no reason for you to know until now. There should never have been any need to disclose this information, and indeed there wouldn’t have been, were it not for those tiresome Brits setting such a terrible example for everyone last year. We must resolve this matter quickly so that we can all get back to the business of being one big happy family again. Here’s what you need to know: We ‘own’ Spain, and Spain ‘owns’ you.
Since you have seen reason to doubt the binding nature of this arrangement, perhaps I should explain to you how it works: Catalonia is a wholly owned subsidiary of Spain – this is all covered in the constitution, and is totally binding, although you may not have realised that when you voted upon it. 1) It was democratic you see – one simply must read the small print, but of course one never does, does one? 2) Spain is a subsidiary of the EU – this is all covered by EU treaty, which of course is also binding, as has been explained on a number of occasions by our Head of European Political Operations, dear Jean-Claude. The following points may be difficult for you to understand, because we’ve never had to explain the structure beyond this point.
3) The EU is not owned by anyone, but of course ‘ownership’ and ‘control’ are really the same thing, but without all the legal drudgery that has become so tiresome of late. 4) The EU is controlled by the monetary system that we put in place. I am not referring to the euro, which is simply the local mechanism for this region. I am referring to the banking system, which over-arches everything. The banks are the organisations that loan the money into existence in the first place. You didn’t know that did you? Don’t worry, very few people do…and that’s worked very well until now. This is how it works: a) Governments don’t actually buy anything with taxes. They spend money that the banks loan to them by buying their IOUs, AKA sovereign bonds. b) When governments eventually get round to collecting taxes they use them to cancel some of their IOUs, plus they pay interest on all of them – naturally.
c) Since all politicians inevitably make promises that they can’t afford in order to get elected – a practice that we encourage by funding both sides – there is never enough taxation collected to fully redeem the IOUs, and there never will be. Why not? Because of the 8th wonder of the world – compound interest! Governments across the globe are paying the banks interest on interest on interest on money that they could have just printed for themselves in the first place!
Since his election, Macron’s popularity has plunged faster than any French president in history. Attempts to explain this decline have focused on his pompous approach to governance—literally professing to want to govern like Jupiter. But there is a deeper cause. He has misdiagnosed the origins of the French economic malaise, and therefore his Jovian economic thunderbolts will do more harm than good. It’s easy to show the blatant errors in the president’s perspective by merely looking at the data. Macron’s economic agenda cites an excessively large public sector as the fundamental cause of France’s malaise, and the main ‘Evidence for the Prosecution’ is the towering level of government debt: as of March 2017, this was 111% of GDP, almost twice the 60% of GDP maximum allowed by the Maastricht Treaty.
But private liabilities are worse still: 187% of GDP. So, why does Macron, in common with politicians of almost all stripes, not worry about this far higher level of debt? The reason is that, given he was schooled in mainstream economics for his Master’s degree at ENA (École Nationale d’administration), Macron accepts the argument that private debt doesn’t matter. It’s just a “pure redistribution”, to quote Ben Bernanke, which “absent implausibly large differences in marginal spending propensities” between savers and lenders, “should have no significant macroeconomic effects.” This comforting belief is sharply contradicted by the data for countries which, like France, have a private debt ratio well in excess of 100% of GDP. If Bernanke’s assumption were correct, there would be little or no correlation between credit (the annual change in private debt) and unemployment.
However, in his home country of the USA, the relationship between credit and unemployment since 1990 is minus 0.91: meaning rising credit reduces unemployment, and falling credit increases it. In France’s case, the correlation is lower but still substantial at minus 0.62, when according to mainstream economics, it should be close to zero. So credit matters, not merely because savers are much less likely to consume than debtors, but because bank credit creates new money. Since this new cash is spent by the borrowers, it adds to aggregate demand. And falling credit over time—which France has generally been experiencing since the early 1970s—therefore implies rising unemployment.
Kobe Steel unleashed an industrial scandal that reverberated across Asia’s second-largest economy after saying its staff falsified data related to strength and durability of some aluminum and copper products used in aircraft, cars and maybe even a space rocket. The Japanese company’s stock ended 22% lower in Tokyo as customers including Toyota, Honda and Subaru said they had used materials from Kobe Steel that were subject to falsification. Boeing, which gets some parts from Subaru, said there’s nothing to date that raises any safety concerns. Rival aluminum makers gained. Kobe Steel’s admission raises fresh concern about the integrity of Japanese manufacturers, and follows Takata misleading automakers about the safety of its air bags, and last week’s recall by Nissan of cars after regulators discovered unauthorized inspectors approved vehicle quality.
Kobe Steel said on Sunday the products were delivered to more than 200 companies but didn’t disclose customer names, with the falsification intended to make the metals look as if they met client quality standards. Chief Executive Officer Hiroya Kawasaki is now leading a committee to probe quality issues. The fabrication of figures was found at all four of Kobe Steel’s local aluminum plants in conduct that was systematic, and for some items the practice dated back some 10 years ago, Executive Vice President Naoto Umehara said on Sunday. Toyota said it has found Kobe Steel materials, for which the supplier falsified data, in hoods, doors and peripheral areas. “We are rapidly working to identify which vehicle models might be subject to this situation and what components were used,” Toyota spokesman Takashi Ogawa said. “We recognize that this breach of compliance principles on the part of a supplier is a grave issue.”
Kobe Steel said it discovered the falsification in inspections on products shipped from September 2016 to August 2017, adding there haven’t been any reports of safety issues. The products account for 4% of shipments of aluminum and copper parts as well as castings and forgings. “The incident is serious,” said Takeshi Irisawa at Tachibana Securities. “At the moment, the impact is unclear but if this leads to recalls, the cost would be huge. There’s a possibility that the company would have to shoulder the cost of a recall in addition to the cost for replacement.”
Theresa May has warned the British public to prepare for crashing out of the EU with no deal, setting out emergency plans to avoid border meltdown for businesses and travellers. As hopes of an agreement appeared to fade at home and abroad, the Prime Minister – for the first time – set out detailed “steps to minimise disruption” on Brexit day in 2019. They included plans for huge inland lorry parks to cope with the lengthy new customs checks that will be needed – to avoid ports becoming traffic-choked. The move came as Ms May admitted she expected the deadlocked negotiations to drag on for another year before any possible breakthrough. At Westminster, Brexiteer Tories exploited the Prime Minister’s weakness – after last week’s attempted coup – to demand that Chancellor Philip Hammond, and other voices of compromise, be sidelined.
Bernard Jenkin attacked the EU for “refusing to discuss the long term relationship between the EU and the UK”, asking the Prime Minister: “When does she call time?” Meanwhile, in Brussels, Ms May’s insistence that she would make no further compromises in the talks – she told the EU “the ball’s in their court” – was firmly rebuffed. “There has been, so far, no solution found on step one, which is the divorce proceedings, so the ball is entirely in the UK’s court for the rest to happen,” said Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s chief spokesman. Laying bare the impasse, Brexit Secretary David Davis did not attend the first day of the resumed talks, although he is expected to be in Brussels on Tuesday.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister continued to insist that “real and tangible progress” towards an agreement had been made since her high-profile speech in Florence last month. But she also made clear that new policy papers on trade and customs were intended to show Britain could operate as an “independent trading nation” – even if no trade deal was reached.
Delegates to the recent Labour Party conference in Brighton seemed not to notice a video playing. The world’s third biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, supplier to Saudi Arabia, was promoting guns, bombs, missiles, naval ships and fighter aircraft. It seemed a perfidious symbol of a party in which millions of Britons now invest their political hopes. Once the preserve of Tony Blair, it is now led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose career has been very different and is rare in British establishment politics. Addressing the conference, the campaigner Naomi Klein described the rise of Corbyn as “part of a global phenomenon. We saw it in Bernie Sanders’ historic campaign in the US primaries, powered by millennials who know that safe centrist politics offers them no kind of safe future.”
In fact, at the end of the US primary elections last year, Sanders led his followers into the arms of Hillary Clinton, a liberal warmonger from a long tradition in the Democratic Party. As President Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton presided over the invasion of Libya in 2011, which led to a stampede of refugees to Europe. She gloated at the gruesome murder of Libya’s president. Two years earlier, Clinton signed off on a coup that overthrew the democratically elected president of Honduras. That she has been invited to Wales on 14 October to be given an honorary doctorate by the University of Swansea because she is “synonymous with human rights” is unfathomable. Like Clinton, Sanders is a cold-warrior and “anti-communist” obsessive with a proprietorial view of the world beyond the United States.
He supported Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s illegal assault on Yugoslavia in 1998 and the invasions of Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, as well as Barack Obama’s campaign of terrorism by drone. He backs the provocation of Russia and agrees that the whistleblower Edward Snowden should stand trial. He has called the late Hugo Chavez – a social democrat who won multiple elections – “a dead communist dictator”. While Sanders is a familiar American liberal politician, Corbyn may be a phenomenon, with his indefatigable support for the victims of American and British imperial adventures and for popular resistance movements. [..] And yet, now Corbyn is closer to power than he might have ever imagined, his foreign policy remains a secret. By secret, I mean there has been rhetoric and little else. “We must put our values at the heart of our foreign policy,” he said at the Labour conference. But what are these “values”?
Saudi Arabia has been quietly planning to build its own military empire and over the last week, it’s announced how it plans to do so. With Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s help. Despite increasing criticism over the United States’ military sales to Saudi Arabia, the US State Department has paved the way for the potential purchase of controversial — and expensive — military equipment. On Saturday, the US State Department announced the approval to sell Saudi Arabia 44 THAAD anti-missile defence systems, 360 interceptor missiles, 16 mobile fire-control and communication stations and seven THAAD radars at an estimated price tag of $US15 billion, according to a press release from the Pentagon’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency.
The sale, supplied by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon – also includes 43 trucks, generators, electrical power units, communications equipment, tools, test and maintenance equipment and “personnel training and training equipment”. The department said the sale of the equipment to the Saudi people would help provide a balance to a relatively unstable environment in the Gulf and to help the US forces enlarge its allied grip on the region. “THAAD’s exo-atmospheric, hit-to-kill capability will add an upper-tier to Saudi Arabia’s layered missile defence architecture.” Meanwhile, King Salman of Saudi Arabia has entered into a preliminary agreement to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system, he announced in Moscow last week. The king has been visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in talks over oil and Syria, Saudi’s al Arabiya television reported. It is the first visit of a Saudi monarch to visit Mr Putin. It is expected the sale will beef-up security in the nuclear-hungry Middle East.
The US sale has not yet “concluded”, it confirmed. US Congress has 30 days to object. The THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – missile system is used to defend against incoming missile attacks and “is one of the most capable defensive missile batteries in the US arsenal and comes equipped with an advanced radar system”, according to AFP. “This sale furthers US national security and foreign policy interests, and supports the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian and other regional threats,” the State Department said in a statement.
Consumption was India’s big story. Its 1.3 billion population was expected to guzzle everything from iron to iPhones, driving global growth and cheering investors such as Apple and Goldman Sachs. For a while everything seemed smooth. Indians were the world’s most confident consumers and the $2 trillion economy was the fastest-growing big market. Then, last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi voided 86% of currency in circulation, worsening a slowdown that had started earlier in the year. Climbing global oil prices and a tightening Federal Reserve could also complicate domestic policy making. “There are a number of uncertainties which are clouding the short-term outlook of the Indian economy,” said Kaushik Das, Mumbai-based chief economist at Deutsche Bank. “Risk of policy error remains high.”
Indians fell off the top of Mastercard’s Asia Consumer Confidence Index in the first half of 2017, and a report from the nation’s central bank last week confirmed the bleak outlook. About 27% of Indians surveyed said incomes have fallen, pushing overall sentiment into the “pessimistic zone.” Employment “has been the biggest cause of worry,” the Reserve Bank of India said. Government data show food price deflation, hurting rural incomes, and supply of new houses in India’s top eight cities falling 33% January-September, hit by a demand slowdown. Convincing Indians to consume would first require assuring them they’ll have a job. It won’t be easy for Modi to do so. Manufacturing jobs are forecast to fall about 30% this year and broader surveys show the hiring outlook is near a 12-year low. There was an absolute decline in employment between March 2014 and 2016, “perhaps happening for the first time in independent India”.
Amazon battled states for years to avoid having to collect sales taxes. Walmart was on the other side of the fight, along with state revenue offices. Walmart had to add sales taxes to all its sales in California, whether online or brick-and-mortar, which at the time ranged from 7.25% to 9.75% depending on location. For shoppers, that price difference was reason enough to switch to Amazon. It was in essence a massive taxpayer subsidy for Amazon. But Amazon lost that battle and started charging sales taxes in California in September, 2012. State after state followed. By early 2017, Amazon was charging sales taxes in all 45 states that have state-wide sales taxes and in Washington DC.
Still, even in 2016, online retailers dodged paying $17.2 billion in sales taxes on out-of-state sales, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For them, it’s a massive price advantage that other retailers didn’t get. The fight over sales taxes is based on a Supreme Court case of 1992 – Quill Corp. v. North Dakota – that barred states from forcing companies to collect sales taxes if they didn’t have physical facilities in those states, such as stores or warehouses. For Amazon, this got increasingly complicated as it is building out its distribution network, with warehouses and facilities around the country. So now Amazon is collecting sales taxes. Problem solved? Nope.
Amazon only collects sales taxes on sales of inventory that it owns (first-party sales). But Amazon is also a platform that sells merchandise owned by other sellers (third-party sales). About half of the goods sold on the Amazon platform fall into this category. Amazon leaves sales tax collections to the 2 million merchants on its platform. But they claim that it’s not their job to collect sales taxes, and most of them don’t collect them. Hence, third-party sales still get the taxpayer subsidy. Amazon isn’t the only out-of-state retailer or platform. It’s just the biggest one. eBay and many others are impacted by it too. Legally, this remains murky. But states and brick-and-mortar retailers are fighting to get the subsidy scrapped. “It’s a fairness issue,” Minnesota Senator Roger Chamberlain told Bloomberg. “Right now, there’s an unlevel playing field that disadvantages brick-and-mortar stores.”
I took advantage of the calm before the storm, to pay a visit on Saturday to my hometown, Trumpville, a.k.a. Manhattan. My college buddy had a son who was acting in an off-Broadway play (closing night, so don’t bother asking). The city I knew as a kid — which, frankly, I never liked very much — seemed as lost and far away as Peter Stuyvesant’s quaint Dutch colonial outpost did to me in 1962. That lost city of my childhood was one in which a boy could breeze right into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a weekday afternoon — my school was one block away from it — without the least hindrance. The place was free. There was no “donation” shakedown at the entrance. And hardly anyone was there. Do you know why? Answer: because most of the adults on the island were at work. It was a mostly middle-class city back then.
I know. It’s hard to believe, given the more recent developments in American life — the salient one being the extreme and perverse financialization of the economy. That is actually what you see manifested on-the-ground (and up-in-the-air) when you visit New York these days. To be specific, what I saw sitting on a bench along the High Line — a walking trail built on an old railroad trestle through the former Meatpacking District into Chelsea — was all the wealth of the flyover states funneled into a few square miles of land on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. As I watched the endless stream of tourists and hipsters stride by in their selfie raptures, I pictured the various downtowns of the Midwest I’ve visited over the years — St Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Detroit, Akron, Dayton, Cleveland, Louisville, Tulsa, and many more — and remembered the incredible desolation of their centers.
There was no one there, certainly no tourists or hipsters, really no activity to speak of. They were ghost cities. The net effect of financialization has been the asset-stripping of every other place in America for the benefit of a very few cities on the coasts, and especially the financial engineers within them. Thus, the ironic rise of New Yorker Trump as the avatar and supposed savior of all those people “out there” in their dying hometowns and beyond. And their tremendously bitter enmity against the “blue” coastal elites, of which Trump is a nonpareil exemplar. History is a trickster.
Reading the news on America should scare everyone, and every day, but it doesn’t. We’re immune, largely. Take this morning. The US Republican party can’t get its healthcare plan through the Senate. And they apparently don’t want to be seen working with the Democrats on a plan either. Or is that the other way around? You’d think if these people realize they were elected to represent the interests of their voters, they could get together and hammer out a single payer plan that is cheaper than anything they’ve managed so far. But they’re all in the pockets of so many sponsors and lobbyists they can’t really move anymore, or risk growing a conscience. Or a pair.
What we’re witnessing is the demise of the American political system, in real time. We just don’t know it. Actually, we’re witnessing the downfall of the entire western system. And it turns out the media are an integral part of that system. The reason we’re seeing it happen now is that although the narratives and memes emanating from both politics and the press point to economic recovery and a future full of hope and technological solutions to all our problems, people are not buying the memes anymore. And the people are right.
Tyler Durden ran a Credit Suisse graph overnight that should give everyone a heart attack, or something in that order. It shows that nobody’s buying stocks anymore, other than the companies who issue them. They use ultra-cheap leveraged loans to make it look like they’re doing fine. Instead of using the money/credit to invest in, well, anything, really. You can be a successful US/European company these days just by purchasing your own shares. How long for, you ask?
As CS’ strategist Andrew Garthwaite writes, “one of the major features of the US equity market since the low in 2009 is that the US corporate sector has bought 18% of market cap, while institutions have sold 7% of market cap.” What this means is that since the financial crisis, there has been only one buyer of stock: the companies themselves, who have engaged in the greatest debt-funded buyback spree in history.
Why this rush by companies to buyback their own stock, and in the process artificially boost their Earning per Share? There is one very simple reason: as Reuters explained some time ago, “Stock buybacks enrich the bosses even when business sags.” And since bond investor are rushing over themselves to fund these buyback plans with “yielding” paper at a time when central banks have eliminated risk, who is to fault them.
More concerning than the unprecedented coordinated buybacks, however, is not only the relentless selling by institutions, but the persistent unwillingness by “households” to put any new money into the market which suggests that the financial crisis has left an entire generation of investors scarred with “crash” PTSD, and no matter what the market does, they will simply not put any further capital at risk.
In other words, the system doesn’t only keep zombies alive, making it impossible for anyone to see who’s healthy or not, no, the system itself has become a zombie. The article mentions Blackrock’s Larry Fink talking about ‘cash on the sidelines’, but puhlease… Central banks have injected another $2 trillion into the zombie system this year alone, and that gives you that graph. Basically no-one supposedly on the sideline has a penny left.
So that’s your stock markets. Let’s call it bubble no.1. Another effect of ultra low rates has been the surge in housing bubbles across the western world and into China. But not everything looks as rosy as the voices claim who wish to insist there is no bubble in [inject favorite location] because of [inject rich Chinese]. You’d better get lots of those Chinese swimming in monopoly money over to your location, because your own younger people will not be buying. Says none other than the New York Fed.
College tuition hikes and the resulting increase in student debt burdens in recent years have caused a significant drop in homeownership among young Americans, according to new research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The study is the first to quantify the impact of the recent and significant rise in college-related borrowing—student debt has doubled since 2009 to more than $1.4 trillion—on the decline in homeownership among Americans ages 28 to 30. The news has negative implications for local economies where debt loads have swelled and workers’ paychecks aren’t big enough to counter the impact. Homebuying typically leads to additional spending—on furniture, and gardening equipment, and repairs—so the drop is likely affecting the economy in other ways.
As much as 35% of the decline in young American homeownership from 2007 to 2015 is due to higher student debt loads, the researchers estimate. The study looked at all 28- to 30-year-olds, regardless of whether they pursued higher education, suggesting that the fall in homeownership among college-goers is likely even greater (close to half of young Americans never attend college). Had tuition stayed at 2001 levels, the New York Fed paper suggests, about 360,000 additional young Americans would’ve owned a home in 2015, bringing the total to roughly 2.9 million 28- to 30-year-old homeowners. The estimate doesn’t include younger or older millennials, who presumably have also been affected by rising tuition and greater student debt levels.
Young Americans -and Brits, Dutch etc.- get out of school with much higher debt levels than previous generations, but land in jobs that pay them much less. Ergo, at current price levels they can’t afford anything other than perhaps a tiny house. Which is fine in and of itself, but who’s going to buy the existent McMansions? Nobody but the Chinese. How many of them would you like to move in? And that’s not all. Another fine report from Lance Roberts, with more excellent graphs, puts the finger where it hurts, and then twists it around in the wound a bit more:
Over the last 30-years, a big driver of home prices has been the unabated decline of interest rates. When declining interest rates were combined with lax lending standards – home prices soared off the chart. No money down, ultra low interest rates and easy qualification gave individuals the ability to buy much more home for their money. The problem, however, is shown below. There is a LIMIT to how much the monthly payment can consume of a families disposable personal income.
In 1968 the average American family maintained a mortgage payment, as a percent of real disposable personal income (DPI), of about 7%. Back then, in order to buy a home, you were required to have skin in the game with a 20% down payment. Today, assuming that an individual puts down 20% for a house, their mortgage payment would consume more than 23% of real DPI. In reality, since many of the mortgages done over the last decade required little or no money down, that number is actually substantially higher. You get the point. With real disposable incomes stagnant, a rise in interest rates and inflation makes that 23% of the budget much harder to sustain.
In 1968 Americans paid 7% of their disposable income for a house. Today that’s 23%. That’s as scary as that first graph above on the stock markets. It’s hard to say where the eventual peak will be, but it should be clear that it can’t be too far off. And Yellen and Draghi and Carney are talking about raising those rates.
What Lance is warning for, as should be obvious, is that if rates would go up at this particular point in time, even a lot less people could afford a home. If you ask me, that would not be so bad, since they grossly overpay right now, they pay full-throttle bubble prices, but the effect could be monstrous. Because not only would a lot of people be left with a lot of mortgage debt, and we’d go through the whole jingle mail circus again, yada yada, but the economy’s main source of ‘money’ would come under great pressure.
Don’t let’s forget that by far most of our ‘money’ is created when private banks issue loans to their customers with nothing but thin air and keyboard strokes. Mortgages are the largest of these loans. Sink the housing industry and what do you think will happen to the money supply? And since inflation is money velocity x money supply, what would become of central banks’ inflation targets? May I make a bold suggestion? Get someone a lot smarter than Janet Yellen into the Fed, on the double. Or, alternatively, audit and close the whole house of shame.
We’ve had bubbles 1, 2 and 3. Stocks, student debt and housing. Which, it turns out, interact, and a lot. An interaction that leads seamlessly to bubble 4: subprime car loans. Mind you, don’t stare too much at the size of the bubbles, of course stocks and housing are much bigger issues, but focus instead on how they work together. As for the subprime car loans, and the subprime used car loans, it’s the similarity to the subprime housing that stands out. Like we learned nothing. Like the US has no regulators at all.
It’s classic subprime: hasty loans, rapid defaults, and, at times, outright fraud. Only this isn’t the U.S. housing market circa 2007. It’s the U.S. auto industry circa 2017. A decade after the mortgage debacle, the financial industry has embraced another type of subprime debt: auto loans. And, like last time, the risks are spreading as they’re bundled into securities for investors worldwide. Subprime car loans have been around for ages, and no one is suggesting they’ll unleash the next crisis.
But since the Great Recession, business has exploded. In 2009, $2.5 billion of new subprime auto bonds were sold. In 2016, $26 billion were, topping average pre-crisis levels, according to Wells Fargo. Few things capture this phenomenon like the partnership between Fiat Chrysler and Banco Santander. [..] Santander recently vetted incomes on fewer than one out of every 10 loans packaged into $1 billion of bonds, according to Moody’s.
If it’s alright with you, we’ll deal with the other main bubble, no.5 if you will, another time. Yeah, that would be bonds. Sovereign, corporate, junk, you name it. The 4 bubbles we’ve seen so far are more than enough to create a huge crisis in America. Don’t want to scare you too much all at once. Just you read the news again tomorrow. There’ll be more. And the US Senate is not going to do a thing about it. They’re too busy not getting enough votes for other things.
We are constantly looking for new stocks by running stock screens, endlessly reading (blogs, research, magazines, newspapers), looking at holdings of investors we respect, talking to our large network of professional investors, attending conferences, scouring through ideas published on value investor networks, and finally, looking with frustration at our large (and growing) watch list of companies we’d like to buy at a significant margin of safety. The median stock on our watch list has to decline by about 35–40% to be an attractive buy. But maybe we’re too subjective. Instead of just asking you to take our word for it, in this letter, we’ll show you a few charts that not only demonstrate our point, but also show the magnitude of the stock market’s overvaluation and, more importantly, put it into historical context.
Each chart examines stock market valuation from a slightly differently perspective, but each arrives at the same conclusion: the average stock is overvalued somewhere between tremendously and enormously. If you don’t know whether “enormously” is greater than “tremendously” or vice versa, don’t worry, we don’t know either. But this is our point exactly: When an asset class is significantly overvalued and continues to get overvalued, quantifying its overvaluation brings little value. Let’s demonstrate this point by looking at a few charts. The first chart shows price-to-earnings of the S&P 500 in relation to its historical average. The average stock today is trading at 73% above its historical average valuation. There are only two other times in history that stocks were more expensive than they are today: just before the Great Depression hit and in the 1999 run-up to the dot-com bubble burst.
We know how the history played in both cases—consequently stocks declined, a lot. Based on over a century of history, we are fairly sure that, this time too, stock valuations will at some point mean revert and stock markets will decline. After all, price-to-earnings behaves like a pendulum that swings around the mean, and today that pendulum has swung far above the mean. What we don’t know is how this journey will look in the interim. Before the inevitable decline, will price-to-earnings revisit the pre-Great Depression level of 95% above average, or will it maybe say hello to the pre-dot-com crash level of 164% above average? Or will another injection of QE steroids send stocks valuations to new, never-before-seen highs? Nobody knows. One chart is not enough. Let’s take a look at another one called the Buffett Indicator. Think of this chart as a price-to-sales ratio for the whole economy, that is, the market value of all equities divided by GDP. The higher the price-to-sales ratio, the more expensive stocks are.
Total Household Wealth is exactly what it sounds like– the total net worth of every person in the United States, from Bill Gates down to the youngest newborn baby. So when you add up all the 330+ million folks in the Land of the Free and tally up their combined net worth, the total is $94 trillion. The thing is that the VAST majority of that wealth, especially the incredible growth over the last 8 years, has been from increases in just two asset classes: real estate and the stock market. In fact, stocks and real estate alone account for roughly 2/3 of the wealth increase since 2009. I’ll come back to that in a moment. Now, simultaneously, we see plenty of other interesting data, also published by the Federal Reserve and US federal government. Both the Fed and Census Bureau, for example, tell us that over 80% of businesses in the US are “nonemployer” companies, i.e. businesses which only employ one person (the owner), and often provide his/her primary source of income.
Yet according to the Federal Reserve, only 35% of these small businesses are profitable. Most are operating at a loss. In other words, only 35% of the companies which make up 80% of American businesses are profitable. You’re probably already doing the arithmetic– this means that a whopping 72% of all US businesses are NOT profitable. That hardly sounds like record wealth to me. Shifting gears, there’s the little factoid that an astounding 40% of young Americans are living with their parents– the highest%age in the last 75 years. And who can blame them considering student debt in the Land of the Free also hit a record $1.4 trillion three months ago, more than double the amount since the Great Recession. Speaking of record debt, US credit card debt passed a record $1 trillion, and total US consumer credit hit a record $3.8 trillion last month. Again, all of this hardly seems like ‘wealth’ to me.
Then there’s the issue of wages, which have remained essentially flat since the 2009 Great Recession if you adjust for inflation. According to the US Department of Labor, inflation-adjusted wages, aka “real hourly compensation” in the US fell an annualized 0.9% last quarter, and fell a dismal 5.6% in the previous quarter. Adjusted for inflation, the average American isn’t making any more money. Once again, this is a pitiful excuse for ‘wealth.’ American businesses aren’t more productive either. The same Labor Department report shows that productivity in the Land of the Free was flat in the first quarter of this year. And productivity actually declined in 2016– something that hasn’t happened in at least the last 50 years. Not to mention total economic growth in the Land of the Free has been pretty pitiful, logging a pathetic 1.6% last year. And GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017 was just 1.2% on an annualized basis. The US economy has exceed hasn’t surpassed 3% growth in more than 10-years.
[..] fast forwarding just over three months later, where are we now? To answer that question, overnight UBS released its much anticipated update on the current state of the global credit impulse, and it’s nothing short of a disaster. As Kapteyn writes in what may have been the most eagerly awaited report in recent UBS history, “we have been inundated with questions about the chart below, first published in March. Yes, the global credit impulse is still falling. And yes, it matters because the correlation of this global credit impulse with global domestic demand is 0.61.” But it’s what follows next that should send shivers down the spine of anyone still clutching to the failed “recovery” narrative:
From peak to trough the deceleration in global credit growth is now approaching that during the global financial crisis (-6% of global GDP), even if the dispersion of the decline is much narrower. Currently 55% of the countries in our sample have experienced a -0.3 standard deviation deterioration in their credit impulse (median over 12 months) compared to 77% of countries in Dec ’09 when the median decline was -1.4 stdev.” Here is what the stunning collapse in the credit impulse looks like as of today:
While we urge all readers to get in touch with their friendly UBS sales coverage for the full report, here is a quick primer from UBS on what the current data is telling us, not so much about China where the credit impulse slowdown was discussed previously, but about the world’s biggest economy. From UBS: The credit impulse in the US has also turned down, seemingly on the back of a sharp drop in demand for C&I loans. The slowdown is more visible in the bank loan data than the Flow of Funds data we are using to calculate the credit impulse (the FoF is 3x as broad and includes non-bank credit as well). But the slowdown is nonetheless at odds with confidence being expressed about investment and future borrowing plans.
The US credit impulse was running at 0.7% GDP back in September 2016 and by March had fallen to -0.53% GDP (recovering somewhat in April based on bank loan data). Why does this matter? Because as UBS shows in the chart below, in the US the correlation between activity and the impulse is very strong, and the lack of credit growth could constrain an acceleration in GDP from weak Q1 levels (the credit impulse suggests domestic demand growth should be close to 1% rather than the 2+% which consensus is currently tracking).
The U.S. Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise its benchmark interest rate this week due to a tightening labor market and may also provide more detail on its plans to shrink the mammoth bond portfolio it amassed to nurse the economic recovery. The central bank is scheduled to release its decision at 2 p.m EDT on Wednesday at the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting. Fed Chair Janet Yellen is due to hold a press conference at 2:30 pm EDT. “The expectation of a rate hike…is widely held, and has been reinforced by the most recent round of Fed communications,” said Michael Feroli, an economist with J.P. Morgan. Economists polled by Reuters overwhelmingly see the Fed raising its benchmark rate to a target range of 1.00 to 1.25% this week.
The Fed embarked on its first tightening cycle in more than a decade in December 2015. A quarter%age point interest rate rise on Wednesday would be the second nudge upwards this year following a similar move in March. Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen to a 16-year low of 4.3% and economic growth appears to have reaccelerated following a lackluster first quarter. However, other indicators of the economy’s health have been more mixed. The Fed’s preferred measure of underlying inflation has retreated to 1.5% from 1.8% earlier in 2017 and investors are growing increasingly doubtful policymakers will be able to stick to their anticipated pace of tightening of three interest rate rises this year and next.
Firms that clear euro-denominated derivatives may be forced to relocate to the European Union from London after Brexit under EU proposals to be rolled out on Tuesday, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Under the European Commission’s plans for overhauling supervision of clearinghouses that are based outside the bloc, firms deemed systemically important to the EU financial system could be required to accept direct oversight by the bloc’s authorities, the person said, asking not to be named because the proposals aren’t yet public. Firms could also be forced to move their euro clearing operations to a location inside the EU, the person said.
This so-called location requirement has spurred warnings from the industry of skyrocketing costs, and has helped to turn clearing into a political football as the EU and U.K. prepare for divorce negotiations. In a June 8 letter to Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s financial-services policy chief, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association said a survey of data from 11 banks showed that requiring euro-denominated interest-rate derivatives to be cleared by an EU-based clearinghouse would boost initial margin by as much as 20%. The proposals to be published on Tuesday are largely in line with initial plans floated last month by the commission, the EU’s executive arm.
Today, there are two forms of central bank money. One of the forms is common knowledge – banknotes and coins. The other, bank reserves at Norges Bank, is less well known. The sum total of banknotes and coins and bank reserves at Norges Bank is about NOK 85 billion. But the total money supply is much larger than this. Customer deposits in banks are also money. These deposits, referred to as deposit money, total more than NOK 2 trillion in Norway. This money is created by banks, not by Norges Bank. Chart 1 shows the money supply and the supply of banknotes and coins in Norway since 1960. In Norway, the money supply mainly comprises deposit money in banks. In the early 1960s, banknotes and coins accounted for a fifth of the money supply. Current accounts and cheques were already becoming commonplace.
Since then, banks’ deposit money has increased dramatically, and today, banknotes and coins make up less than 2.5% of the money supply. In other words, virtually all the money we use has been created by banks. So how do banks create money? The answer to that question comes as quite a surprise to most people. When you borrow from a bank, the bank credits your bank account. The deposit – the money – is created by the bank the moment it issues the loan. The bank does not transfer the money from someone else’s bank account or from a vault full of money. The money lent to you by the bank has been created by the bank itself – out of nothing: fiat – let it become. The money created by the bank does not disappear when it leaves your account. If you use it to make a payment, it is just transferred to the recipient’s account.
The money is only removed from circulation when someone uses their deposits to repay a bank, as when we make a loan repayment. The money supply is therefore only reduced when banks’ claims on the rest of the economy decrease. Banks also fund lending by raising loans themselves instead of creating money in the form of deposits. In order to reduce risk, banks also use other forms of investment in addition to lending. Nevertheless, the money supply is growing at almost at the same pace as total bank credit. To sum up: banks create money out of nothing and withdraw it when loans are repaid. Growth in total bank credit is normally matched by growth in the money supply. This does not sound encouraging. Is money an illusion? Why is today’s privately issued deposit money often perceived to be as safe as money issued by the central bank?
Call it the biggest bovine airlift in history. The showdown between Qatar and its neighbors has disrupted trade, split families and threatened to alter long-standing geopolitical alliances. It’s also prompted one Qatari businessman to fly 4,000 cows to the Gulf desert in an act of resistance and opportunity to fill the void left by a collapse in the supply of fresh milk. It will take as many as 60 flights for Qatar Airways to deliver the 590-kilogram beasts that Moutaz Al Khayyat, chairman of Power International Holding, bought in Australia and the U.S. “This is the time to work for Qatar,” he said. Led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar stands accused of supporting Islamic militants, charges the sheikhdom has repeatedly denied.
The isolation that started on June 5 has forced the world’s richest country by capita to open new trade routes to import food, building materials and equipment for its natural gas industry. The central bank said domestic and international transactions were running normally. Turkish dairy goods have been flown in, and Iranian fruit and vegetables are on the way. There’s also a campaign to buy home-grown produce. Signs with colors of the Qatari flag have been placed next to dairy products in stores. One sign dangling from the ceiling said: “Together for the support of local products.” “It’s a message of defiance, that we don’t need others,” said Umm Issa, 40, a government employee perusing the shelves of a supermarket before taking a carton of Turkish milk to try. “Our government has made sure we have no shortages and we are grateful for that. We have no fear. No one will die of hunger.”
As our politicos creep deeper into a legalistic wilderness hunting for phantoms of Russian collusion, nobody pays attention to the most dangerous force in American life: the unraveling financialization of the economy. Financialization is what happens when the people-in-charge “create” colossal sums of “money” out of nothing — by issuing loans, a.k.a. debt — and then cream off stupendous profits from the asset bubbles, interest rate arbitrages, and other opportunities for swindling that the artificial wealth presents. It was a kind of magic trick that produced monuments of concentrated personal wealth for a few and left the rest of the population drowning in obligations from a stolen future. The future is now upon us. Financialization expressed itself in other interesting ways, for instance the amazing renovation of New York City (Brooklyn especially).
It didn’t happen just because Generation X was repulsed by the boring suburbs it grew up in and longed for a life of artisanal cocktails. It happened because financialization concentrated immense wealth geographically in the very few places where its activities took place — not just New York but San Francisco, Washington, and Boston — and could support luxuries like craft food and brews. Quite a bit of that wealth was extracted from asset-stripping the rest of America where financialization was absent, kind of a national distress sale of the fly-over places and the people in them. That dynamic, of course, produced the phenomenon of President Donald Trump, the distilled essence of all the economic distress “out there” and the rage it entailed.
The people of Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin were left holding a big bag of nothing and they certainly noticed what had been done to them, though they had no idea what to do about it, except maybe try to escape the moment-by-moment pain of their ruined lives with powerful drugs. And then, a champion presented himself, and promised to bring back the dimly remembered wonder years of post-war well-being — even though the world had changed utterly — and the poor suckers fell for it. Not to mention the fact that his opponent — the avaricious Hillary, with her hundreds of millions in ill-gotten wealth — was a very avatar of the financialization that had turned their lives to shit. And then the woman called them “a basket of deplorables” for noticing what had happened to them.
The Global Seed Vault, built in the Arctic as an impregnable deep freeze for the world’s most precious food seeds, is to undergo a multi-million dollar upgrade after water from melting permafrost flooded its access tunnel. No seeds were damaged but the incident undermined the original belief that the vault would be a “failsafe” facility, securing the world’s food supply forever. Now the Norwegian government, which owns the vault, has committed $4.4m (NOK37m) to improvements. The vault is buried 130m inside a mountain in the Svalbard archipelago and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. The vault was opened in 2008, sunk deep into the permafrost, and was expected to provide protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters” and “to stand the test of time”.
But the vault’s planners had not anticipated the extreme warm weather seen recently at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year. “The background to the technical improvements is that the permafrost has not established itself as planned,” said a government statement. “A group will investigate potential solutions to counter the increased water volumes resulting from a wetter and warmer climate on Svalbard.” One option could be to replace the access tunnel, which slopes down towards the vault’s main door, carrying water towards the seeds. A new upward sloping tunnel would take water away from the vault.
A former Svalbard coal miner, Arne Kristoffersen, told the Guardian most coal mines on the islands had upward sloping entrance tunnels: “For me it is obvious to build an entrance tunnel upwards, so the water can run out. I am really surprised they made such a stupid construction.” Hege Njaa Aschim, the Norwegian government’s spokeswoman for the vault, said: “The construction was planned like that because it was practical as a way to go inside and it should not be a problem because of the permafrost keeping it safe. But we see now, when the permafrost is not established, maybe we should do something else with the tunnel, so that is why we have this project now.”
The European Union’s executive will decide on Tuesday to open legal cases against three eastern members for failing to take in asylum-seekers to relieve states on the front lines of the bloc’s migration crisis, sources said. The European Commission would agree at a regular meeting to send so-called letters of formal notice to Poland and Hungary, three diplomats and EU officials told Reuters. Two others said the Czech Republic was also on the list. This would mark a sharp escalation of the internal EU disputes over migration. Such letters are the first step in the so-called infringement procedures the Commission can open against EU states for failing to meet their legal obligations. The eastern allies Poland and Hungary have vowed not to budge. Their staunch opposition to accepting asylum-seekers, and criticism of Brussels for trying to enforce the scheme, are popular among their nationalist-minded, eurosceptic voters.
Speaking in Hungary’s parliament earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said: “We will not give in to blackmail from Brussels and we reject the mandatory relocation quota.” A spokeswoman in Brussels did not confirm or deny the executive would go ahead with the legal cases, but referred to an interview that Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker gave to the German weekly Der Spiegel last week. “Those that do not take part have to assume that they will be faced with infringement procedures,” he was quoted as saying. Poland and Hungary have refused to take in a single person under a plan agreed in 2015 to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece, which had been overwhelmed by mass influx of people from the Middle East and Africa. Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak was quoted as saying on Monday by the state news agency PAP: “We believe that the relocation methods attract more waves of immigration to Europe, they are ineffective.”
The ECB is unlikely to include Greek bonds in its asset-purchase program for the foreseeable future, a person familiar with the matter said, as European creditors aren’t prepared to offer substantially easier repayment terms on bailout loans to improve the nation’s debt outlook. Euro-area finance ministers will meet in Luxembourg on June 15 to discuss debt-relief measures that the ECB has said are needed before it will consider purchasing Greek bonds. The so-called Eurogroup is expected to complete a review of Athens’s rescue program that would allow for the disbursement of at least €7.4 billion in aid needed for a similar amount of bond repayments in July. An agreement among the ministers will likely allow the IMF – whose participation in the rescue program is a requirement for many nations – to commit in principle to a conditional loan, said the person.
But the extent and wording of debt-relief commitments probably won’t convince the Governing Council of the ECB to buy Greek bonds. And while the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is relying on quantitative easing to aid Greece’s return to the public debt market, the ECB won’t factor fiscal consequences into its policy-making decisions and excessive emphasis on QE inclusion would be misguided, according to the person. [..] The ECB’s quantitative easing is scheduled to continue until December 2017, with economists saying purchases will be gradually tapered throughout 2018. This would leave little time for purchases of Greek bonds before the program’s end.
Meanwhile, France, which is trying to bridge differences on the debt issue, has proposed automatically reducing loan repayments when Greece misses growth targets, according to two people with knowledge of the talks. European officials see the proposal as a step in the right direction but doubt it will be enough to convince the ECB to include Greece in its bond purchase program if the IMF maintains its position that the country’s debt is unsustainable. Other euro-area member states so far have opposed France’s proposal, the people said.
A deal on debt relief for Greece is “not far,” France’s new finance minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday ahead of crunch eurozone talks on the issue on Thursday. “I am optimistic that we will have a good solution. We are not far from agreement,” Le Maire said ahead of a meeting with Greek PM Alexis Tsipras. “We are really doing our best to find an agreement,” he had said earlier after seeing his Greek counterpart Euclid Tsakalotos. “It’s difficult. It’s complicated,” he said. At the June 15 meeting, Le Maire said he planned to propose a “mechanism” of “flexibility” to lessen Greek debt repayment based on its economic growth. “It’s a mechanism which should allow us to revise certain (debt) parameters based on Greek growth,” he told reporters.
The issue of debt relief for Greece has sharply divided its international creditors, the EU and the IMF, for months in the latest round of talks. The impasse has held up a tranche of bailout cash which Greece needs to repay loans in July, and Athens says its fragile recovery has also been impaired. Tsipras has said he will ask EU leaders to resolve the issue at the end of June if no solution is forthcoming on Thursday. “Piling drama on the problem helps no one,” he said on Monday. The Europeans expect Greece’s economy to grow strongly and its government to bring in large surpluses in revenue in the coming years, allowing it to pay down its debts. But the IMF is less optimistic, arguing there must be further relief for Athens before it can label its debt sustainable and justify loaning Greece any more cash.
New French President Emmanuel Macron last month called Tsipras after his election, saying he was in favour of “finding a deal soon to alleviate the weight of Greece’s debt over time.” Macron’s position puts him at odds with Germany where Greek debt relief – following three different bailouts with public money for the country since 2010 – is seen as a vote loser ahead of general elections in September. Macron explained his thinking about Greece in an interview to the Mediapart website two days before his election. “I am in principle in favour of a concerted restructuring of Greek debt and in keeping Greece in the eurozone. Why? Because the current system is unsustainable,” he said.
A woman died and 10 people were hurt on Monday when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios and the Aegean coast of western Turkey, officials said. The middle-aged victim had been trapped for around seven hours in the ruins of her home in the Lesbos village of Vrisa, the area that bore the brunt of the strong quake and where several homes collapsed. “Our fellow citizen who was trapped in the house that collapsed in Vrisa was pulled out dead,” Lesbos mayor Spyros Galinos said in a tweet. The earthquake also struck the Aegean coast of western Turkey after 1200 GMT.
Video footage shot by a Vrisa resident on a cellphone showed masonry from several single and two-level homes clogging the streets. “It’s a difficult situation, we are facing a disaster,” Christiana Kalogirou, governor of the north Aegean region, told Greek state TV station ERT, adding: “Some 10 people are injured.” “The army is bringing in tents so people can spend the night,” she said, adding that the south of Lesbos had taken the brunt of the quake. The tremor, felt as far as Athens and Izmir in Turkey, damaged at least three churches and shops in south Lesbos, local owners said, while rock slides blocked some roads.
The last time Robert Shiller heard stock-market investors talk like this in 2000, it didn’t end well for the bulls. Back then, the Nobel Prize-winning economist says, traders were captivated by a “new era story” of technological transformation: The Internet had re-defined American business and made traditional gauges of equity-market value obsolete. Today, the game changer everyone’s buzzing about is political: Donald Trump and his bold plans to slash regulations, cut taxes and turbocharge economic growth with a trillion-dollar infrastructure boom. “They’re both revolutionary eras,” says Shiller, who’s famous for his warnings about the dot-com mania and housing-market excesses that led to the global financial crisis. “This time a ‘Great Leader’ has appeared. The idea is, everything is different.”
For Shiller, the power of a new-era narrative helps answer one of the most hotly debated questions on Wall Street as stocks set one high after another this year: Why are traders so fixated on the upsides of a Trump presidency when the downside risks seem just as big? For all his pro-business promises, the former reality TV star’s confrontational foreign policy and haphazard management style have bred uncertainty – the one thing investors are supposed to hate most. Charts illustrating the conundrum have been making the rounds on trading floors. One, called “the most worrying chart we know” by SocGen at the end of last year, shows a surging index of global economic policy uncertainty severing its historical link with credit spreads, which have declined in recent months along with other measures of investor fear. The VIX index, a popular gauge of anxiety in the U.S. stock market, has dropped more than 30 percent since Trump’s election.
[..] For Hersh Shefrin, a finance professor at Santa Clara University and author of a 2007 book on the role of psychology in markets, the rally is just another example of investors’ remarkable penchant for tunnel vision. Shefrin has a favorite analogy to illustrate his point: the great tulip-mania of 17th century Holland. Even the most casual students of financial history are familiar with the frenzy, during which a rare tulip bulb was worth enough money to buy a mansion. What often gets overlooked, though, is that the mania happened during an outbreak of bubonic plague. “People were dying left and right,” Shefrin says. “So here you have financial markets sending signals completely at odds with the social mood of the time, with the degree of fear at the time.”
Shiller says when markets are as buoyant as they are now, resisting the urge to pile in is hard regardless of what else might be happening in society. “I was tempted to do it, too,” he says. “Trump keeps talking about a new spirit for America and so you could (A) believe that or (B) you could believe that other investors believe that.” On whether stocks are nearing a top, Shiller can’t say with any certainty. He’s loathe to make short-term forecasts. Despite the well-timed publication of his book “Irrational Exuberance” just as the dot-com bubble peaked in early 2000, the Yale University economist had warned (with caveats) that shares might be overvalued as early as 1996. Investors who bought and held an S&P 500 fund in the middle of that year made about 8 percent annually over the next decade, while those who invested at the start of 2000 lost money. The index sank 49 percent from its high in March 2000 through a bottom in October 2002.
This is the most dangerous and overvalued stock market on record — worse than 2007, worse than 2000, even worse than 1929. Or so warns Wall Street soothsayer John Hussman in his scariest jeremiad yet. “Presently, we observe the broadest market valuation extreme in history,” writes the chairman of the cautious Hussman Funds investment group, “with the steepest median valuations on record, and the most reliable capitalization-weighted measures within a few percent of their 2000 peaks.” On top of such warning signs as “extreme valuations, bullish sentiment, and consumer confidence,” he adds, “market action has deteriorated in interest-sensitive sectors… As of Friday, more than one-third of stocks are already below their 200-day moving averages.” Don’t be fooled by the booming headline indexes.
More NYSE stocks hit new 52-week lows last week than new 52-week highs, he notes. In a nutshell: Run. OK, so, it is always easy to criticize. Husssman, a professional economist and well-known Wall Street figure, has been here before. He’s been warning about stock-market valuations for several years. He’s in that camp that the permabulls, wrongly, call “permabears.” He’s been wrong — or, perhaps, just very early — many times. But he was, notably, also correct and prescient about both the 2000 and 2008 crashes before they happened, when few others were. Opinions, of course, are free. But facts are sacred. And more than a few are suggesting caution. According to the World Bank, the total U.S. stock market is now valued at more than 150% of annual GDP. That is way above historic norms, and about the same as it was at the market extreme of 2000.
Wall Street speculators are zeroing in on the next U.S. credit crisis: the mall. It’s no secret many mall complexes have been struggling for years as Americans do more of their shopping online. But now, they’re catching the eye of hedge-fund types who think some may soon buckle under their debts, much the way many homeowners did nearly a decade ago. Like the run-up to the housing debacle, a small but growing group of firms are positioning to profit from a collapse that could spur a wave of defaults. Their target: securities backed not by subprime mortgages, but by loans taken out by beleaguered mall and shopping center operators. With bad news piling up for anchor chains like Macy’s and J.C. Penney, bearish bets against commercial mortgage-backed securities are growing.
In recent weeks, firms such as Alder Hill Management – an outfit started by protégés of hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper – have ramped up wagers against the bonds, which have held up far better than the shares of beaten-down retailers. By one measure, short positions on two of the riskiest slices of CMBS surged to $5.3 billion last month – a 50% jump from a year ago. “Loss severities on mall loans have been meaningfully higher than other areas,” said Michael Yannell at Gapstow Capital, which invests in hedge funds that specialize in structured credit. Nobody is suggesting there’s a bubble brewing in retail-backed mortgages that is anywhere as big as subprime home loans, or that the scope of the potential fallout is comparable.
After all, the bearish bets are just a tiny fraction of the $365 billion CMBS market. And there’s also no guarantee the positions, which can be costly to maintain, will pay off any time soon. Many malls may continue to limp along, earning just enough from tenants to pay their loans. But more and more, bears are convinced the inevitable death of retail will lead to big losses as defaults start piling up. The trade itself is similar to those that Michael Burry and Steve Eisman made against the housing market before the financial crisis, made famous by the book and movie “The Big Short.” Often called credit protection, buyers of the contracts are paid for CMBS losses that occur when malls and shopping centers fall behind on their loans. In return, they pay monthly premiums to the seller (usually a bank) as long as they hold the position. This year, traders bought a net $985 million contracts that target the two riskiest types of CMBS. That’s more than five times the purchases in the prior three months.
The Federal Reserve, which has struggled to stoke inflation since the financial crisis and up until now raised rates less frequently than it and markets expected, may be about to hit the accelerator on rate hikes. On Wednesday, the U.S. central bank is almost universally expected to raise its benchmark interest rates, a move that just a few weeks ago was viewed by the markets as unlikely. And with inflation showing signs of perking up, Fed policymakers may signal there could be more than the three rate rises they have forecast for this year. “They do not have as much room to be patient as they did before,” said Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, who expects Fed policymakers to lift their rate forecasts this week.
Policymakers have their eyes on achieving full employment and 2-percent inflation. The faster the economy approaches those goals, Duy said, the quicker the Fed will want to tighten policy to avoid getting behind the curve. “That’s an acceleration in the dots,” he said, referring to forecasts published by the Fed that show policymakers’ individual rate-hike forecasts as dots on a chart. The economy already appears closer to its goals than the Fed had expected in December, the last time it released forecasts. The jobless rate, at 4.7%, is below what policymakers see as the long-run norm, and inflation, at 1.7%, is already in the range they had expected by year end. As Fed policymakers prepare to raise rates this week for the second time in three months, the inflation terrain they face looks steeper than it has been since the financial crisis when one of the central bank’s policy aims was to generate inflation.
There are signs of more inflation globally, the dollar is pushing down less on U.S. prices, domestic inflation expectations have picked up and Friday’s closely watched monthly jobs report showed wages rising 2.8% year-on-year in February, with payrolls rising a sturdy 235,000. The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the so-called core PCE price index, recorded its biggest monthly increase in five years in January and was up 1.7% year-on-year after a similar gain in December. Most Fed policymakers say such data gives them increasing confidence that inflation will eventually reach the Fed’s goal after years of undershooting.
As of October 24, the U.S. Treasury was flush with $435 billion of cash. That was because the department’s bureaucrats had been issuing debt hand-over-fist and piling up a cash hoard, apparently, for the period after March 15, 2017 when President Hillary Clinton would need to coax another debt ceiling increase out of Congress. Needless to say, Hillary was unexpectedly (and thankfully) retired to Chappaqua, New York. But the less discussed surprise is that the U.S. Treasury’s cash hoard has virtually disappeared in the run-up to the March 15 expiration of the debt ceiling holiday. That’s right. As of the Daily Treasury Statement (DTS) for March 7, the cash balance was down to just $88 billion — meaning that $347 billion of cash has flown out the door since October 24.
And I find that on March 8 alone the Treasury consumed another $22 billion of cash — bringing the balance down to $66 billion! To be sure, there has been no heist at the Treasury Building — other than the normal larceny that is the stock-in-trade of the Imperial City. What’s different this time around is that the bureaucrats have apparently decided to sabotage what they undoubtedly believe to be the usurper in the White House. To this end, they’ve been draining Trump’s bank account rather than borrowing the money to pay Uncle Sam’s monumental bills. This has especially been the case since the January 20 inauguration. The net Federal debt on March 7 was $19.802 trillion — up $237 billion since January 20th. But that’s not the half of it. During that same 47 day period, the Treasury bureaucrats took the opportunity to pay-down $57 billion of maturing treasury bills and notes by tapping its cash hoard.
In all, they drained $294 billion from the Donald’s bank account during that brief period — or about $6.4 billion per day. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to conclude that even Putin’s alleged world class hackers couldn’t have accomplished such a feat. At this point I could don my tin foil hat because this massive cash drain was clearly deliberate. Last year, for example, during the same 47 day period, the operating deficit was even slightly larger — $253 billion. But the Treasury funded that mainly by new borrowings of $157 billion, which covered 62% of the shortfall. Its cash balance was still $223 billion on March 7. Again, that cash balance is just $66 billion right now. Moreover, the Trump Administration has only a few business days until its credit card expires on March 15 — so it’s also way too late for an eleventh hour borrowing spree to replenish its depleted cash account. (Besides that, I’m predicting a very dangerous market event will start on the 15th.)
We see health as a basic human right. Every society should provide medical care for its citizens at the level it can afford. And, while the United States has made some progress in improving access to care, the results do not justify the costs. So, while we agree with President Trump’s statement that the U.S. health care system should be cheaper, better and universal, the question is how to get there. In this post, we start by setting the stage: where matters stand today and why they are unacceptable. This leads us to the real question: where can and should we go? As economists, we are genuinely partial to market-based solutions that allow individuals to make tradeoffs between quality and price, while competition pushes suppliers to contain costs.
But, in the case of health care, we are skeptical that such a solution can be made workable. This leads us to propose a gradual lowering of the age at which people become eligible for Medicare, while promoting supplier competition. Before getting to the details of our proposal, we begin with striking evidence of the inefficiency of the U.S. health care system. The following chart (from OurWorldInData.org) displays life expectancy at birth on the vertical axis against real health expenditure per capita on the horizontal axis. The point is that the U.S. line in red lies well below the cost-performance frontier established by a range of advanced economies (and some emerging economies, too). Put differently, the United States spends more per person but gets less for its money.
Life Expectancy and Health Expenditure per capita, 1970-2014
It really doesn’t matter how you measure U.S. health care outlays, you will come away with the same conclusion: the U.S. system is extremely inefficient compared to that of other countries. Today, for example, health expenditures account for more than 17% of U.S. GDP. This is more than twice the average of the share in the 42 other countries shown in the figure, and more than 40% higher than the next highest (which happens to be Sweden at 12%).
According to a press release released Friday by the office of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Rand Paul has introduced their bill, the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan legislation (H.R.608 and S.532) aims to prohibit any federal agency from using taxpayer dollars to provide weapons, cash, intelligence, or any support to al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups. It would also prohibit the government from funneling money and weapons through other countries that are directly or indirectly supporting terrorists.
Gabbard said: “For years, the U.S. government has been supporting armed militant groups working directly with and often under the command of terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda in their fight to overthrow the Syrian government. Rather than spending trillions of dollars on regime change wars in the Middle East, we should be focused on defeating terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, and using our resources to invest in rebuilding our communities here at home.” [..] “The fact that American taxpayer dollars are being used to strengthen the very terrorist groups we should be focused on defeating should alarm every Member of Congress and every American. We call on our colleagues and the Administration to join us in passing this legislation.
Rand Paul provided much-needed support for the bill, stating: “One of the unintended consequences of nation-building and open-ended intervention is American funds and weapons benefiting those who hate us. This legislation will strengthen our foreign policy, enhance our national security, and safeguard our resources.” The legislation is currently co-sponsored by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI); Scott Perry (R-PA); Peter Welch (D-VT; Tom Garrett (R-VA); Thomas Massie (R-KY); Barbara Lee (D-CA); Walter Jones (R-NC); Ted Yoho (R-FL); and Paul Gosar (R-AZ). It is endorsed by Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Veterans for Peace, and the U.S. Peace Council.
One of Trump’s campaign narratives that resonated deeply with his voter base was an anti-radical Islam agenda, which separated him from Clinton’s campaign as he vowed to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS-controlled oil fields. However, his voter base may or may not be somewhat disillusioned now given that he just approved an arms sale to Saudi Arabia that was so controversial it was even blocked by Obama, a president who made a literal killing from arms sales to the oil-rich kingdom (ISIS adheres to Saudi Arabia’s twisted form of Wahhabist philosophy). In the context of recent events, whether or not the Trump administration will get fully behind Gabbard’s bill remains to be seen. But considering the Trump administration is directly sending American troops to fight in Syrian territory, perhaps the various rebel groups on the ground have outlived their usefulness and the bill will be allowed to proceed unimpeded.
“The first hurdle for the lawsuits will be proving “standing,” which means finding someone who has been harmed by the policy. With so many exemptions, legal experts have said it might be hard to find individuals who would have a right to sue..”
A group of states renewed their effort on Monday to block President Donald Trump’s revised temporary ban on refugees and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, arguing that his executive order is the same as the first one that was halted by federal courts. Court papers filed by the state of Washington and joined by California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon asked a judge to stop the March 6 order from taking effect on Thursday. An amended complaint said the order was similar to the original Jan. 27 directive because it “will cause severe and immediate harms to the States, including our residents, our colleges and universities, our healthcare providers, and our businesses.” A Department of Justice spokeswoman said it was reviewing the complaint and would respond to the court.
A more sweeping ban implemented hastily in January caused chaos and protests at airports. The March order by contrast gave 10 days’ notice to travelers and immigration officials. Last month, U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle halted the first travel ban after Washington state sued, claiming the order was discriminatory and violated the U.S. Constitution. Robart’s order was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Trump revised his order to overcome some of the legal hurdles by including exemptions for legal permanent residents and existing visa holders and taking Iraq off the list of countries covered. The new order still halts citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days but has explicit waivers for various categories of immigrants with ties to the country.
[..] The first hurdle for the lawsuits will be proving “standing,” which means finding someone who has been harmed by the policy. With so many exemptions, legal experts have said it might be hard to find individuals who would have a right to sue, in the eyes of a court. To overcome this challenge, the states filed more than 70 declarations of people affected by the order including tech businesses Amazon and Expedia, which said that restricting travel hurts their revenues and their ability to recruit employees. Universities and medical centers that rely on foreign doctors also weighed in, as did religious organizations and individual residents, including U.S. citizens, with stories about separated families.
A research note from Goldman Sachs highlights how large, complex and opaque China’s credit market has become over the last decade. In a report called Mapping China’s Credit, analysts Kenneth Ho and Claire Cui write that the rise in China’s total debt started with a RMB 4 trillion ($AU770 billion) stimulus package in 2009 to counter the global financial crisis. Since late 2008, debt to GDP (excluding financial debt) has risen from 158% to 262%. Including financial debt bumps the figure up to 289%. The rise in China’s debt to GDP follows a similar increase in America, where last week bond fund manager Bill Gross discussed the risks associated with the US debt to GDP ratio, which sits at around 350%. The analysts note they’re struggling to break down and make sense of the country’s credit market.
“Given the development of the shadow banking sector, and the introduction of a number of retail investment channels such as wealth management products, it has become much more difﬁcult to analyse and monitor China’s credit growth,” they say. In 2006, 85% of China’s credit was supplied by bank loans (offset by deposits). According to Ho and Cui’s estimates, the share of credit from bank loans has reduced to 53%. In its place, approximately 31% of debt is now supplied through bond and securities markets, and 16% through the shadow banking sector (more on that later). Ho and Cui write that as China’s debt pool has grown, larger state-related companies have seen a significant increase in leverage through traditional loans from state-affiliated banks. In addition, however, a decrease in domestic interest rates has encouraged smaller companies and individual investors to shift savings away from bank deposits.
Let’s take a breather from more consequential money matters at hand midweek to consider the tending moods of our time and place — while a blizzard howls outside the window, and nervous Federal Reserve officials pace the grim halls of the Eccles Building. It is clear by now that we have four corners of American politics these days: the utterly lost and delusional Democratic party; the feckless Republicans; the permanent Deep State of bureaucratic foot-soldiers and errand boys; and Trump, the Golem-King of the Coming Greatness. Wherefore, and what the fuck, you might ask. The Democrats reduced themselves to a gang of sadistic neo-Maoists seeking to eradicate anything that resembles free expression across the land in the name of social justice.
Coercion has been their coin of the realm, and especially in the realm of ideas where “diversity” means stepping on your opponent’s neck until he pretends to agree with your Newspeak brand of grad school neologisms and “inclusion” means welcome if you’re just like us. I say Maoists because just like Mao’s “Red Guard” of rampaging students in 1966, their mission is to “correct” the thinking of those who might dare to oppose the established leader. Only in this case, that established leader happened to lose the sure-thing election and the party finds itself unbelievably out-of-power and suddenly purposeless, like a termite mound without a queen, the workers and soldiers fleeing the power center in an hysteria of lost identity.
They regrouped briefly after the election debacle to fight an imaginary adversary, Russia, the phantom ghost-bear, who supposedly stepped on their termite mound and killed the queen, but, strangely, no actual evidence was ever found of the ghost-bear’s paw-print. And ever since that fact was starkly revealed by former NSA chief James Clapper on NBC’s Meet the Press, the Russia hallucination has vanished from page one of the party’s media outlets — though, in an interesting last gasp of striving correctitude, Monday’s New York Times features a front page story detailing Georgetown University’s hateful traffic in the slave trade two centuries ago. That should suffice to shut the wicked place down for once and for all!
It looks set to be a week packed with big financial milestones. In the US, the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, putting the country on a path towards getting back to a normal price for money. In the Netherlands, a tense election may deal the fragile eurozone another blow. In this country, Theresa May could finally trigger Article 50, starting the process of taking the UK out of the European Union. The most significant event, however, as is so often the case, may well be something that hardly anyone is paying attention to. On Sunday, Iceland ended capital controls, finally returning its economy to normal after a catastrophic banking collapse back in 2008 and 2009. Why does that matter? Because Iceland was the one country that defied the global consensus and did not bail out its bankers.
True, there was shock to the system. But it was relatively short, and once the pain was dealt with, the country has bounced back stronger than ever. There is, surely, a lesson in that. It might well be better just to let banks go to the wall. Next time around, we should follow Iceland’s example. The crash of 2008 hit every country in the world. And yet none was quite so completely destroyed as Iceland. A tiny country, home to just 323,000 people, with cod fishing and tourism as its two major industries, it deregulated its finance sector and went on a wild lending spree. Its banks started bulking up in a way that might have made Royal Bank of Scotland’s Fred Goodwin start to wonder if his foot wasn’t pressed too hard on the accelerator. When confidence collapsed, those banks were done for.
In every other country in the world, the conventional wisdom dictated the financiers had to be bailed out. The alternative was catastrophe. Cash machines would stop working, trade would grind to a halt, and output would collapse. It would be the 1930s all over again. The state had no option but to dig deep, and pay whatever it took to keep the financial sector alive. But Iceland did not have that option. Its banks had run up debts of $86bn, an impossible sum for an economy with a GDP of $13bn in 2009. Even Gordon Brown, in full “saving the world’” mode, might have baulked at taking on liabilities of that scale. Iceland did the only thing it could do under the circumstances. It let its banks go bust: as British depositors quickly found out to their cost.
Chancellor Angela Merkel derided as “clearly absurd” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s accusation that Germany supports terrorism, as Ankara announced retaliatory measures against the Dutch government amid escalating tensions with Europe. After Erdogan excoriated Merkel’s government for “openly giving support to terrorist organizations” on Monday, the Turkish government announced it would block the Dutch ambassador from re-entering the country. Erdogan has blasted European leaders, including accusing Germany of using “Nazi practices,” after a string of rallies by Turkish ministers on European soil were canceled. “The chancellor has no intention of participating in a competition of provocations” with Erdogan, her chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in an emailed statement on Monday. “She’s not going to join in with that. The accusations are clearly absurd.”
Erdogan is seeking votes from Turkish expatriates in a referendum next month on constitutional changes that would make the presidency his country’s highest authority. He has lashed out at the EU and risked deepening tensions, particularly with Merkel. In an interview on Monday, he said Merkel’s government “mercilessly” supported groups such as the Kurdish PKK group, which has waged a separatist war with the Turkish military for more than three decades. “I don’t want to put all EU countries in the same basket, but some of them can’t stand Turkey’s rise, primarily Germany,” Erdogan told A Haber television. The standoff came to a head over the weekend when the Dutch government prevented Turkish ministers from participating in referendum campaign rallies. Some 3 million Turks outside their country can vote, though fewer than half of them did so in the last general election in 2015.
Merkel struck an unusually strident tone earlier this month, slamming Erdogan for trivializing World War II-era crimes by using a Nazi comparison to censure Germany for canceling ministers’ appearances. Such a tone “can’t be justified,” Merkel said March 6 after Erdogan’s previous outburst. European leaders have been vocal in their disapproval of the referendum, saying the executive-centered system that Erdogan is planning to introduce will concentrate power in the president’s hands at the expense of democracy in a NATO member state and EU membership applicant.
Theresa May’s Brexit bill has cleared all its hurdles in the Houses of Parliament, opening the way for the prime minister to trigger article 50 by the end of March. Peers accepted the supremacy of the House of Commons late on Monday night after MPs overturned amendments aimed at guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and giving parliament a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal. The decision came after a short period of so-called “ping pong” when the legislation bounced between the two houses of parliament as a result of disagreement over the issues. The outcome means the government has achieved its ambition of passing a “straightforward” two-line bill that is confined simply to the question of whether ministers can trigger article 50 and start the formal Brexit process.
It had been widely predicted in recent days that May would fire the starting gun on Tuesday, immediately after the vote, but sources quashed speculation of quick action and instead suggested she will wait until the final week of March. MPs voted down the amendment on EU nationals’ rights by 335 to 287, a majority of 48, with peers later accepting the decision by 274 to 135. The second amendment on whether to hold a meaningful final vote on any deal after the conclusion of Brexit talks was voted down by 331 to 286, a majority of 45, in the Commons. The Lords then accepted that decision by 274 to 118, with Labour leader Lady Smith telling the Guardian that continuing to oppose the government would be playing politics because MPs would not be persuaded to change their minds.
“If I thought there was a foot in the door or a glimmer of hope that we could change this bill, I would fight it tooth and nail, but it doesn’t seem to be the case,” she said. But the decision led to tensions between Labour and the Lib Dems, whose leader, Tim Farron, hit out at the main opposition. “Labour had the chance to block Theresa May’s hard Brexit, but chose to sit on their hands. Tonight there will be families fearful that they are going to be torn apart and feeling they are no longer welcome in Britain. Shame on the government for using people as chips in a casino, and shame on Labour for letting them,” he said.
Theresa May has faced down Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence, accusing the SNP leader of “tunnel vision” and rejecting her timetable for a second vote. The prime minister said that the Scottish leader’s plan to hold a second referendum between the autumn of 2018 and spring 2019 represented the “worst possible timing,” setting the Conservative government on a collision course with the administration in Holyrood. The first minister’s intervention had been timed a day ahead of when May had been predicted to trigger article 50, but No 10 later indicated that it would not serve notice to leave the EU until the end of the month. The confirmation of the later date, in the aftermath of the speech, fuelled speculation the prime minister had been unnerved by Sturgeon.
Buoyed by three successive opinion polls putting support for independence at nearly 50/50, Sturgeon said that she had been left with little choice than to offer the Scottish people, who voted to remain in the EU, a choice at the end of the negotiations of a “hard Brexit” or living in an independent Scotland. “The UK government has not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement. Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence,” the first minister said, claiming that any pretence of a partnership of equal nations was all but dead. Downing Street denied that it had ever planned to fire the starting gun on Brexit this week, but critics pointed out that ministers had failed to deny the widespread suggestion in media reports over the weekend. The Guardian understands that May will now wait until the final week of March to begin the process, avoiding a clash with the Dutch elections and the anniversary of the Rome Treaty, and giving the government time to seek consensus in different parts of the country.
Supermarkets in Quebec will now be able to donate their unsold produce, meat and baked goods to local food banks in a program – described as the first of its kind in Canada – that also aims to keep millions of kilograms of fresh food out of landfills. The Supermarket Recovery Program launched in 2013 as a two-year pilot project. Developed by the Montreal-based food bank Moisson Montréal, the goal was to tackle the twin issues of rising food bank usage in the province and the staggering amount of edible food being regularly sent to landfills. Provincial officials said the pilot – which last year saw 177 supermarkets donate more than 2.5m kg of food that would have otherwise been discarded – would now begin expanding across the province.
“The idea behind it is: ‘Hey, we’ve got enough food in Quebec to feed everybody, let’s not be throwing things out,’” Sam Watts, of Montreal’s Welcome Hall Mission, which offers several programs for people in need, told Global News on Friday. “Let’s be recuperating what we can recuperate and let’s make sure we get it to people who need it.” Recent years have seen food bank usage surge across Canada, with children making up just over a third of the 900,000 people who rely on the country’s food banks each month. In Quebec, the number of users has soared by nearly 35% since 2008, to about 172,000 people per month.
The program’s main challenge was in developing a system that would allow products such as meat and frozen foods to be easily collected from grocers and quickly redistributed, said Watts. “There is enough food in the province of Quebec to feed everybody who needs food. Our challenge has always been around management and distribution,” he added. “Supermarkets couldn’t accommodate individual food banks coming to them one by one by one.” More than 600 grocery stores across the province are expected to take part in the program, diverting as many as 8m kg of food per year.
The austerity measures introduced by the government are forcing thousands of taxpayers to hand over inherited property to the state as they are unable to cover the taxation it would entail. The number of state properties grew further last year due to thousands of confiscations that reached a new high. According to data presented recently by Alpha Astika Akinita, real estate confiscations increased by 73 percent last year from 2015, reaching up to 10,500 properties. The fate of those properties remains unknown as the state’s auction programs are fairly limited. For instance, one auction program for 24 properties is currently ongoing. The precise number of properties that the state has amassed is unknown, though it is certain they are depreciating by the day, which will make finding buyers more difficult.
Financial hardship has forced many Greeks to concede their real estate assets to the state in order to pay taxes or other obligations. Thousands of taxpayers are unable to pay the inheritance tax, while others who cannot enter the 12-tranche payment program are forced to concede their properties to the state. Worse, the law dictates that any difference between the obligations due and the value of the asset conceded should not be returned to the taxpayer. The government had announced it would change that law, but nothing has happened to date. Property market professionals estimate that the upsurge in forfeiture of inherited property will continue unabated in the near future as the factors that have generated the phenomenon, such as high unemployment, the Single Property Tax (ENFIA) etc, remain in place.
The stock-market rally presents a difficult choice for some individual investors: Miss out or risk getting in at the top. The scars of the financial crisis have left many wary, even as the second-longest bull run in S&P 500 history has added more than $14 trillion in value to the index since it bottomed in March 2009, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. Yet there are signs that caution is dissipating. Investors have poured money into stocks through mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in 2017, with global equity funds posting record net inflows in the week ended March 1 based on data going back to 2000, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Inflows continued the following week, even as the rally slowed. The S&P 500 shed 0.4% in the week ended Friday.
The investors’ positioning suggests burgeoning optimism, with TD Ameritrade clients increasing their net exposure to stocks in February, buying bank shares and popular stocks such as Amazon.com and sending the retail brokerage’s Investor Movement Index to a fresh high in data going back to 2010. The index tracks investors’ exposure to stocks and bonds to gauge their sentiment. “People went toe in the water, knee in the water and now many are probably above the waist for the first time,” said JJ Kinahan at TD Ameritrade. That brings individual investors increasingly in line with Wall Street professionals. A February survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch found optimism about the global economy improving while investors were holding above-average levels of cash, leaving room for them to drive stocks still higher.
Bullishness among Wall Street newsletter writers reached 63.1%—the highest level since 1987—a week ago in a survey by Investors Intelligence, before falling to 57.7% this past week. Overall investor sentiment is strong right now for the U.S. stock market, said Ann Gugle, principal at Alpha Financial Advisors. She pointed to a typical growth-and-income portfolio with 70% in stocks and 30% in bonds and alternatives. The 70% allocation to stocks, she said, would ordinarily be evenly split between U.S. and international stocks, but for the past three years it has shifted about 40% to U.S. stocks and 30% international.
However, when you look under the surface of the market-cap-weighted indexes at median valuations they are currently far more extreme than they were back then. As my friend John Hussman puts it, this is now “the most broadly overvalued moment in market history.”
U.S. subprime auto lenders are losing money on car loans at the highest rate since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis as more borrowers fall behind on payments, according to S&P Global Ratings. Losses for the loans, annualized, were 9.1% in January from 8.5% in December and 7.9% in the first month of last year, S&P data released on Thursday show, based on car loans bundled into bonds. The rate is the worst since January 2010 and is largely driven by worsening recoveries after borrowers default, S&P said. Those losses are rising in part because when lenders repossess cars from defaulted borrowers and sell them, they are getting back less money. A flood of used cars has hit the market after manufacturers offered generous lease terms.
Recoveries on subprime loans fell to 34.8% in January, the worst since early 2010, S&P data show. With losses increasing, investors in bonds backed by car loans are demanding higher returns, as reflected by yields, on their securities. That increases borrowing costs for finance companies, with those that depend on asset-backed securities the most getting hit hardest. American Credit Acceptance, one of nearly two dozen subprime lenders to securitize their loans in recent years, had one of the highest cost of funds last year with yields on its securitizations as high as 4.6%, even as the two-year swap rate benchmark hovered around 1%, according to a report from Wells Fargo. The company relies heavily on asset-backed securities for funding.
[..] something more concerning emerges when looking at the annual change in the rolling 12 month total. It is here that we find that, like last month, in the LTM period ended Feb 28, total federal revenues, tracked as government receipts on the Treasury’s statement, were $3.275 trillion. This amount was 1.1% lower than the $3.31 trillion reported one year ago, and is the third consecutive month of annual receipt declines. This was the biggest drop since the summer of 2008. At the same time, government spending rose 3.8%. Why is this important? Because as the chart below shows, every time since at least 1970 when government receipts have turned negative on an annual basis, the US was on the cusp of, or already in, a recession. Indicatively, the last time government receipts turned negative was in July of 2008.
One potential mitigating factor this time is that much of the collapse in receipts is due to a double digit % plunge in corporate income tax, which begs the question what are real corporate earnings? While we hear that EPS are rising, at least for IRS purposes, corporate America is in a recession. How about that far more important indicator of overall US economic health, and biggest contributor to government revenue, individual income taxes? As of February, the YTD number was $611bn fractionally higher than the same period a year ago, and declining. Finally should Trump proceed to cut tax rates without offsetting sources of government revenue, a recession – at least based on this indicator – is assured.
The speculation over whether Trump would or would not fire the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, who earlier reportedly said he would not resign on his own, came to a close a 2:29pm ET when Preet Bharara, tweeting from his private Twitter account, announced he had been fired. “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.” Bharara’s dismissal ended an “extraordinary” showdown in which a political appointee who was named by Mr. Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, declined an order to submit a resignation. “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life,” Mr. Bharara wrote on his personal Twitter feed, which he set up in the last two weeks.
Bharara was among 46 holdover Obama appointees who were called by the acting deputy attorney general on Friday and told to immediately submit resignations and plan to clear out of their offices. But Bharara, who was called to Trump Tower for a meeting with the incoming president in late November 2016, declined to do so. As reported previously, Bharara said he was asked by Trump to remain in his current post at the meeting. Bharara met with Trump at Trump Tower, and then addressed reporters afterward. Before the firing, one of New York’s top elected Republicans voiced support for Bharara on Saturday.
The Southern District of New York, which Bharara has overseen since 2009, encompasses Manhattan, Trump’s home before he was elected president, as well as the Bronx, Westchester, and other counties north of New York City. Last weekend, Trump accused Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in Manhattan, an allegation which various Congressmen have said they will launch a probe into. And now the speculation will begin in earnest why just three months after Bharara, who at the time was conducting a corruption investigation into NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as into aides of NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo, told the press that Trump had asked him to “stay on” he is being fired and whether this may indicate that the NYSD has perhaps opened a probe into Trump himself as some have speculated.
Millennials have a reputation for being entitled, self-absorbed and lazy, but a new book argues that their parents are actually a bigger danger to society. In “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Boomers Betrayed America,” Bruce Cannon Gibney traces many of our nation’s most pressing issues, including climate change and the rising cost of education, back to baby boomers’ idiosyncrasies and enormous political power. Raised in an era of seemingly unending economic prosperity with relatively permissive parents, and the first generation to grow up with a television, baby boomers developed an appetite for consumption and a lack of empathy for future generations that has resulted in unfortunate policy decisions, argues Gibney, who is in his early 40s. (That makes him Generation X.) “These things conditioned the boomers into some pretty unhelpful behaviors and the behaviors as a whole seem sociopathic,” he said.
The book comes as Americans of all ages are sorting through a new political reality, which Gibney argues that boomers delivered to us through years of grooming candidates to focus on their political priorities such as, preferential tax treatment and entitlement programs, and then voting for them in overwhelming numbers. Though these circumstances are new, making the argument that a generation – particularly boomers – are to blame for society’s ills is part of a storied tradition, said Jennifer Deal, the senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership. “There are a lot of people who like to blame the baby boomers for stuff and this has been going on for as far as I can tell since the late 60s,” Deal said. Indeed, a 1969 article in Fortune magazine warned that the group of then-20-somethings taking over the workplace were prone to job-hopping and having their egos bruised.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is. There’s no shortage of articles describing millennials similarly. Both are indicative of a natural human tendency to want to explain the world and other people through the lens of group mentalities, said Deal. “Everybody can think of someone older or someone younger who has done something annoying,” she said. “Everybody likes a good scapegoat.” Still, Gibney, a venture capitalist, argues there is something inherently different about the boomers from the generations that preceded them and those that followed: a sense of entitlement that comes from growing up in a time of economic prosperity.
Turkey told the Netherlands on Sunday that it would retaliate in the “harshest ways” after Turkish ministers were barred from speaking in Rotterdam in a row over Ankara’s political campaigning among Turkish emigres. President Tayyip Erdogan had branded its fellow NATO member a “Nazi remnant” and the dispute escalated into a diplomatic incident on Saturday evening, when Turkey’s family minister was prevented by police from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. Hundreds of protesters waving Turkish flags gathered outside, demanding to see the minister. Dutch police used dogs and water cannon early on Sunday to disperse the crowd, which threw bottles and stones. Several demonstrators were beaten by police with batons, a Reuters witness said. They carried out charges on horseback, while officers advanced on foot with shields and armored vans.
Less than a day after Dutch authorities prevented Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from flying to Rotterdam, Turkey’s family minister, Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, said on Twitter she was being escorted back to Germany. “The world must take a stance in the name of democracy against this fascist act! This behavior against a female minister can never be accepted,” she said. The Rotterdam mayor confirmed she was being escorted by police to the German border. Kaya later boarded a private plane from the German town of Cologne to return to Istanbul, mass-circulating newspaper Hurriyet said on Sunday. The Dutch government, which stands to lose heavily to the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders in elections next week, said it considered the visits undesirable and “the Netherlands could not cooperate in the public political campaigning of Turkish ministers in the Netherlands.”
The government said it saw the potential to import divisions into its own Turkish minority, which has both pro- and anti-Erdogan camps. Dutch politicians across the spectrum said they supported Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s decision to ban the visits. In a statement issued early on Sunday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey had told Dutch authorities it would retaliate in the “harshest ways” and “respond in kind to this unacceptable behavior”. Turkey’s foreign ministry said it did not want the Dutch ambassador to Ankara to return from leave “for some time”. Turkish authorities sealed off the Dutch embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul in apparent retaliation and hundreds gathered there for protests at the Dutch action.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was attending secret intelligence briefings with then-candidate Donald Trump while he was being paid more than half a million dollars to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government, federal records show. Flynn stopped lobbying after he became national security advisor, but he then played a role in formulating policy toward Turkey, working for a president who has promised to curb the role of lobbyists in Washington. White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Friday defended the Trump administration’s handling of the matter, even as he acknowledged to reporters that the White House was aware of the potential that Flynn might need to register as a foreign agent.
When his firm was hired by a Turkish businessman last year, Flynn did not register as a foreign lobbyist, and only did so a few days ago under pressure from the Justice Department, the businessman told The Associated Press this week. [..] Flynn was fired last month after it was determined he misled Vice President Mike Pence about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. His security clearance was suspended. When NBC News spoke to Alptekin in November, he said he had no affiliation with the Turkish government and that his hiring of Flynn’s company, the Flynn Intel Group, had nothing to do with the Turkish government. But documents filed this week by Flynn with the Department of Justice paint a different picture. The documents say Alptekin “introduced officials of the Republic of Turkey to Flynn Intel Group officials at a meeting on September 19, 2016, in New York.”
In the documents, the Flynn Intel Group asserts that it changed its filings to register as a foreign lobbyist “to eliminate any potential doubt.” “Although the Flynn Intel Group was engaged by a private firm, Inovo BV, and not by a foreign government, because of the subject matter of the engagement, Flynn Intel Group’s work for Inovo could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey,” the filing said. The firm was paid a total of $530,000 as part of a $600,000 contract that ended the day after the election, when Flynn stepped away from his private work, the documents say. During the summer and fall, Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was sitting in on classified intelligence briefings given to Trump.
Only 38 people turned up at screen 7 of Berlin s Alhambra cinema on Thursday night to watch a powerful Turkish president make a pitch for why he deserves even more power. But those who came were impressed. Reis (the Turkish word for chief), a biopic in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan is played by soap opera star Reha Beyoglu, premiered in Istanbul last month. It is now touring cinemas among Europe s Turkish diaspora communities in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on 16 April, a vote that could boost Erdogan’s powers and allow him to remain president until 2029. The film shows the co-founder of Turkey s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) growing up in Istanbul’s working class Kasimpasa neighbourhood to become a man of prodigal talent and saintly self-denial, scoring the last-minute winner in a five-a-side football match with an overhead kick and getting up in the middle of the night to rescue a puppy that has fallen down a well.
His supporters are willing to use blunter means to defend their chief against Turkey s cosmopolitan elite. In the film s final scene, showing one of Erdogan’s guards punching an assailant in the face, the Berlin audience watching the film with German subtitles broke into spontaneous applause. The dialogue was widely understood to be a reference to last July s averted coup: Who are you? asks the assailant. The people, the guard replies. Smoking cigarettes on the pavement outside the cinema, a group of four Turkish-Germans in their late teens said Reis had only affirmed their decision to vote yes in the referendum. A strong Erdogan is good for a strong Turkey, said Ahmet, 19.
Tensions between the German and Turkish governments, triggered by the arrest of Die Welt s correspondent Deniz Yucel and culminating in Erdogan accusing Germany of Nazi practices over banned rallies in German cities, had merely strengthened his allegiance, said 20-year-old Mehmet. To be honest, when America, Germany and France tell me to vote no in the referendum, then I am going to vote yes. Both said no German party represented their interests: We are just foreigners to them. The heightened fervour of support for Erdogan even among younger members of Germany s population with Turkish roots, a community of about 3 million, of which roughly half are entitled to vote in April has scandalised the country’s public and media.
German politicians allege that the AKP is trying to influence the diaspora vote not just through public rallies but by covertly pressurising and threatening its opponents in Germany via religious and business networks. In January, Turkish-German footballer Hakan Calhanoglu was publicly criticised by his club Bayer Leverkusen for posting a video on social media in which he declared his allegiance with the evet (yes) camp. You are part of our country, Angela Merkel, the chancellor, appealed to the Turkish-speaking community on Thursday. We want to do everything to make sure that domestic Turkish conflicts aren’t brought into our coexistence. This is a matter of the heart for us.
The cavernous halls of Athens’ central civil court are usually silent and sombre. But every Wednesday, between 4pm and 5pm, they are anything but. For it is then that activists converge on the building, bent on stopping the auctions of properties seized by banks to settle bad debts. They do this with rowdy conviction, chanting “not a single home in the hands of a banker,” unfurling banners deploring “vulture crows”, and often physically preventing notaries and other court officials from sitting at the judge’s presiding bench. “Poor people can’t afford lawyers, rich people can,” says Ilias Papadopoulos, a 33-year-old tax accountant who feels so strongly that he has been turning up at the court to orchestrate the protests with his eye surgeon brother, Leonidas, for the past three years.
“We are here to protect the little man who has been hit by unemployment, hit by poverty and cannot keep up with mortgage payments. Banks have already been recapitalised. Now they want to suck the blood of the people.” The tall, bearded brothers were founding members of Den Plirono, an activist group that emerged in the early years of Greece’s economic crisis in opposition over road tolls. The organisation, which sees itself as a people’s movement, then moved into the power business – restoring the disconnected electricity supplies of more than 5,000 Greeks who could not afford to pay their bills. Auctions are their latest cause. “Solidarity is the only answer,” Papadopoulos insists. “Rich people have political influence. They can negotiate their loans and are never in danger of actually losing the roof over their heads.”
The protests have been highly effective. In law courts across Greece, similar scenes have ensured that auctions have been thwarted. Activists estimate that only a fraction of auctions of 800 homes and small business enterprises due to go under the hammer since January have actually taken place. Under pressure to strengthen the country’s fragile banking system, Athens’ leftist-led government has agreed to move ahead with around 25,000 auctions this year and next. In recent weeks they have more than doubled, testimony, activists say, to the relaxation of laws protecting defaulters. “There is not a Greek who does not owe to the banks, social security funds or tax office,” says Evangelia Haralambus, a lawyer representing several debtors.
“Do you know what it is like to wake up every morning knowing that you can’t make ends meet, that you might lose your home? It makes you sick.” [..] “We see our country as a country under occupation. It is inadmissible what has happened to Greece,” she splutters. “These vulture crows, homing in on the properties of the poor, are all part of the larger plan to control us.” [..] Fears are mounting that if the banks fail to recover losses, a Cypriot-style bail-in could follow and the government has announced that it will pushed ahead with electronic auctions. But the prospect of mass auctions at a click of a button has only incensed critics further. “It will create huge tensions and destabilise Greek society,” said Papadopoulos, claiming that laws protecting the poor had been increasingly whittled down. “They will have to evict people from their homes and that won’t be easy. The people will react in unforeseeable ways.”
As central banks in Europe and Japan gear up to further expand quantitative-easing policies, market participants have issued a flurry of stark warnings about the potentially-negative unintended consequences, from the hit to pension funds to the risk of fueling market bubbles. But the more-prosaic prognostication — that further easing simply won’t stimulate slowing economies by reviving enfeebled corporate investment — may be the hardest-hitting retort from the perspective of central banks in the U.K., euro-area and Japan. While a clutch of reasons for moribund business investment in advanced economies have been advanced, central banks would do well to wake up to another typically over-looked cause, according to a new report from Citigroup.
Corporate investment faces a financing hurdle as the weighted-average cost of capital for companies (known as WACC) remains elevated thanks to the stubbornly high cost of equity, Hans Lorenzen, Citi credit analyst, said in a report published this week. The report pleads with central banks to forgo further asset purchases, citing diminishing returns from such stimulus programs and their questionable efficacy more generally. Corporates aren’t feeling the financing benefits offered by the global fall in real long-term interest rates thanks to a historically-high equity risk premium — which, in simple terms, is the excess return the stock market is expected to earn over a perceived risk-free rate, Lorenzen said.
Although companies typically aren’t dependent on equity issuance to fund investment programs – relying instead on fixed-income markets – the equity risk premium is an important factor influencing investment decisions made by company boards. The higher the cost of equity, the higher the theoretical overall cost of capital for corporates. In other words, investments that don’t on paper appear to make returns materially greater than the company’s WACC will face financing challenges.
The ECB is expected to extend its trillion-euro bond-buying program beyond March 2017 and announce to expand the universe of eligibile bonds as part of its seemingly never-ending struggle to kickstart the euro zone’s economy. The central bank and its President Mario Draghi has been trying to push inflation back to its goal of below but close to 2 percent with a plethora of measures and instruments ranging from negative deposit rates to spur lending, a QE program that has been buying €80 billion ($89 billion) in bonds every month and interest rates close to zero – but without a breakthrough success. Analysts believe the ECB’s governing council has its work cut out when it meets to decide on monetary policy Thursday.
The headline rate of inflation remained unchanged at 0.2% in August. Core, or underlying inflation, which excludes energy, goods, alcohol and tobacco, fell from 0.9% in July to 0.8%, according to Eurostat. The eurozone economy slowed slightly in August as Germany’s services sector faltered, according to surveys of purchasing managers, expanding at the weakest pace in 19 months. Amid the factors for the cooling of the economy is the UK’s decision to leave the EU which may have dampened the currency area’s modest recovery. “We think the ECB will expand the duration of its QE programme from March 2017 currently to September 2017,” Nick Kounis at ABN Amro writes. “The ECB will most likely also need to announce changes to its QE programme to increase the universe of eligible assets as it will not be able to meet even its current targets under the current structure.”
Central banks have become some of the biggest investors in bond markets. Now some in the financial markets think stocks should benefit more from their largess. Some economists say the ECB, which meets Thursday to decide if it should expand its current bond-buying program, should invest in equities. The reason: It is running out of bonds to buy. A move by the ECB into equities would have big implications for Europe’s stock markets, which have been rocked by a series of shocks this year, from volatility in China to Britain’s vote to leave the EU. The prospect of billions of euros flowing into equities could prop up prices, much as ECB bond purchases have done for debt securities. The signaling effect from the ECB’s unlimited money-printing power may also limit downturns in equities.
Stock purchases don’t appear to be on the near-term agenda. But ECB officials haven’t ruled them out, and the idea could gain steam if they continue to undershoot their 2% inflation target. Some central banks already invest in equities. Switzerland’s central bank has accumulated over $100 billion worth of stocks, including large holdings in blue-chip U.S. companies such as Apple and Coca-Cola. If the ECB decides to raise its stimulus by extending its current bond program, as many analysts expect, fresh questions will be raised about how it will continue to find enough bonds to buy. The bank is already purchasing €80 billion a month of corporate and public-sector bonds to reduce interest rates across the eurozone. Its holdings of public-sector debt reached €1 trillion last week, the ECB said Monday.
Investors are now paying for the privilege of lending their money to companies, a fresh sign of how aggressive central-bank policy is upending conventional patterns in finance. German consumer-products company Henkel AG and French drugmaker Sanofi each sold no-interest bonds at a premium to their face value Tuesday. That means investors are paying more for the bonds than they will get back when the bonds mature in the next few years. A number of governments already have been able to issue bonds at negative yields this year. But it is a rare feat for companies, which also ask investors to bear credit risk.
Yields on corporate debt have plunged in recent months as investors have pushed up prices in the scramble for returns. Roughly €706 billion of eurozone investment-grade corporate bonds traded at negative yields as of Sept. 5, or over 30% of the entire market, according to trading platform Tradeweb, up from roughly 5% of the market in early January. [..] Tuesday’s deals, however, are among just a handful of corporate offerings that have actually been sold at negative yields. They include offerings of euro-denominated bonds earlier this year by units of British oil giant BP and German auto maker BMW, according to Dealogic. Germany’s state rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, also has issued euro-denominated bonds at negative yields.
The ECB launched its corporate bond-buying program in early June and had bought over €20 billion of corporate bonds as of Sep. 2. Most of its purchases came in secondary markets, where investors buy and sell already issued bonds. The central bank meets Thursday and will decide if it should expand its current bond-buying program. The purchases have helped set off a burst of issuance following the traditional summer lull in local capital markets. Last month was the busiest August on record for new issuance of euro-denominated, investment grade corporate debt, according to Dealogic.
There is a lasting and stable connection in data between changes in the interest rate and changes in the unemployment rate. Past data suggest that if the Fed were to raise the interest rate at its next meeting, unemployment would increase and output growth would slow. It is fear of that outcome that causes central bank doves to be reluctant to raise the interest rate. But although an interest rate increase has preceded a slowdown by approximately three months in past data, there is a connection at longer horizons between inflation and the T-bill rate. That connection, sometimes called the Fisher relationship after the American economist Irving Fisher, arises from the fact that, risk-adjusted, T-bills and equities should pay the same rate of return.
The one-year real return on a T-bill is the difference between the interest rate and the expected one-year inflation rate. The one-year real return on holding the S&P 500 is the gain you can expect to make from buying the market today and selling it one year later. Economic theory suggests that the gap between those two expected returns arises from the fact that equities are riskier than T-bills, and importantly, the gap cannot be too big. Therein lies the policy maker’s conundrum. To hit an inflation target of 2%, the T-bill rate must be 2% higher than the underlying risk adjusted real rate: policy makers call this rate r*. There is some evidence that r* is currently very low currently, possibly zero or even negative. But if the Fed were to raise the policy rate to 2% at the next meeting, they are terrified that they might trigger a recession.
Let’s examine that argument. The fact that a rate rise caused a slowdown in past data does not mean that a rate rise will cause a slowdown in future data. This time really is different. It is different because in 2008 the Fed expanded its policy options. Before 2008 the interest rate set by the Fed was the Federal Funds Rate (FFR). That is the overnight rate at which commercial banks can borrow or lend to each other. Before 2008, there was a large and active Fed funds market used by commercial banks to meet reserve requirements. Commercial banks are required to hold roughly 10% of their balance sheets in the form of reserves. In the past, because reserves did not pay interest, banks kept them to a minimum. Excess reserves for much of the post-war period were essentially zero. Firms and households hold cash because they need liquid assets to facilitate trade. But cash is costly to hold because a firm must forgo investment opportunities. In the parlance of economic theory, we say that the FFR is the opportunity cost of holding money.
China is eating up a larger chunk of the world’s shrinking trade pie. Brushing off rising wages, a shrinking workforce and intensifying competition from lower cost nations from Vietnam to Mexico, China’s global export share climbed to 14.6% last year from 12.9% a year earlier. That’s the highest proportion of world exports ever in IMF data going back to 1980. Yet even as its export share climbs globally, manufacturing’s slice of China’s economy is waning as services and consumption emerge as the new growth drivers. For the global economy, a slide in China’s exports this year isn’t proving any respite as an even sharper slump in its imports erodes a pillar of demand.
Those trends are likely to be replicated in August data due Thursday. Exports are estimated to fall 4% from a year earlier and imports are seen dropping 5.4%, leaving a trade surplus of $58.85 billion, according to a survey of economists by Bloomberg News as of late Tuesday. While China’s advantage in low-end manufacturing has been seized upon by Donald Trump’s populist campaign for the U.S. presidency, the shift into higher value-added products from robots to computers is also pitting China against developed-market competitors from South Korea to Germany. A weaker yuan risks exacerbating global trade tensions, which became a hot button issue at the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou over cheap steel shipments.
“All the talk we have heard over the last few years about China losing its global competitive advantage is nonsense,” said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital Investors in Sydney. “This will all further fuel increasing trade tensions as already evident in the U.K. with the Brexit vote and in the U.S. with the support for Trump’s populist protectionist platform.”
Amid all the buzz about China’s hosting the G-20 summit in Hangzhou – all the accords, arguments and alleged snubs – another symbolically significant event was largely obscured. Last week, the World Bank issued bonds denominated in Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs, in China’s interbank market. Beginning in October, the yuan will be included in the basket of currencies used to set the SDRs’ value. To China, this symbolizes its status as a rising power. I’d argue that it instead symbolizes why China is struggling to become a global financial center. Beijing conceived of SDRs as something of a compromise. It would like the global monetary system to be less reliant on the U.S. dollar and more favorable toward its own currency.
Yet it continues to impose capital controls, which limit the yuan’s usage overseas, and it doesn’t want to let the yuan’s value float freely, which would be a prerequisite to its becoming a true reserve currency. China saw SDRs as a way to split the difference, to create a competitor to the dollar and maintain a fixed exchange rate at the same time. The problem is that there’s almost no conceivable reason to use them. SDRs were created as a synthetic reserve asset by the IMF decades ago, under the Bretton Woods system. No country uses them for normal business, and no government is likely to issue bonds denominated in them except for political reasons, as the World Bank is doing. Companies won’t use them either. If a firm wants to borrow to build a plant in Japan, it will issue a bond in yen so it can repay in yen.
If its customers are global, surely an ambitious investment bank would be willing to build a customized currency portfolio index that would match its needs. Rather than using the SDR’s weighting of currencies, the company could sell a bond in a synthetic index of anything: a 25% split between dollars, euros, yen and reals, say. No customer pays in SDRs; why bind yourself to repaying debts in them? The reason China is pushing SDRs is that it hopes to gain the prestige of a global currency without facing the financial pressure to let the yuan float freely or to loosen capital controls. It wants the benefits of global leadership, in other words, but would prefer to avoid the drawbacks. This is precisely the attitude that’s hindering China’s rise as a global financial center.
Wall Street traders and fund managers returning from the summer break are likely to focus on the obvious: a series of central-bank meetings in coming weeks and the imminent U.S. election. They also should be paying close attention to some unusual behavior in the market, where the changing relationship between bonds and stocks may be a sign of trouble ahead. A generation of traders have grown up with the idea that stock prices and bond yields tend to rise and fall together, as what is good for stocks is bad for bonds (pushing the price down and yield up), and vice versa. This summer, the relationship seems to have broken down in the U.S. Share prices and bond yields moved in the same direction in just 11 of the past 30 trading days, close to the lowest since the start of 2007.
This is far from unprecedented. But since Lehman Brothers failed in 2008, such a swing in the relationship has been unusual and suggests prices are being driven by something other than the balance of hope and fear about the economy. It has tended to coincide with times of deep discontent in markets, notably the 2013 “taper tantrum,” when bond yields briefly surged after Federal Reserve officials signaled they would soon end stimulus, and last year’s brief bubble in German bunds. The simplest explanation is that expectations of interest rates being lower for longer—some central bankers have suggested lower forever—pushes the price of everything up, and yields down.
When the focus is on the discount rate used to value all assets, bond and stock prices rise and fall together, creating the inverse relationship between bond yields and shares. Such a focus on monetary policy isn’t healthy. It leaves markets more exposed to sudden shocks, both from changes in policy and from an economy to which less attention is being paid. “It’s a somewhat mercurial thing, but there are big shifts [in correlations], and being on the right side of those big shifts is important,” said Philip Saunders at Investec Asset Management. “You do see some brutal price action at these correlation inflection points.”
Some cracks could be starting to appear in the picture of an otherwise resilient U.S. economy. An abrupt drop in the Institute for Supply Management’s services gauge on Tuesday to a six-year low is the latest in a string of unexpectedly weak data for August. Other less-than-stellar figures include an ISM factory survey showing a contraction in manufacturing; a cooling of hiring; automobile sales falling short of forecasts; and an index of consumer sentiment at a four-month low. While there is hardly any evidence that growth is falling off a cliff, the run of disappointing figures make it tougher to argue that the underlying momentum of the world’s largest economy is holding up.
It also potentially complicates the task of Federal Reserve policy makers, who are debating whether to raise interest rates as soon as this month; traders’ bets on a September move faded further after the report on service industries, which make up almost 90% of the economy. “The latest set of ISM numbers is shockingly weak,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc. in New York. “It certainly gives the doves at the Fed more ammunition. It makes the Fed’s conversation at the September meeting that much more contentious.” The ISM’s non-manufacturing index slumped to 51.4, the lowest since February 2010, from 55.5 in July, the Tempe, Arizona-based group reported. The figure was lower than the most pessimistic projection in a Bloomberg survey.
The ISM measures of orders and business activity skidded by the most since 2008, when the U.S. was in a recession. Readings above 50 indicate expansion. Stocks fell, bonds climbed and the dollar weakened against most of its major peers after the data were released.
New Zealand has the world’s most frenetic property market, with prices in Auckland now outstripping London, and possibly dashing the hopes of British buyers hoping to escape Brexit. In a global ranking of house price growth by estate agents Knight Frank, New Zealand was second to Turkey, but once the impact of inflation was stripped out it came top with 11% annual growth. Canada was the only other country to see price growth of 10% or more over the past year. It also recorded the fastest price rises of any country over the past three months. Meanwhile once white-hot property markets in the far east are cooling fast. Taiwan saw price falls of 9.4% over the past year, putting it at the bottom of Knight Frank’s ranking. Hong Kong and Singapore have also seen significant reductions in house prices.
Auckland is at the centre of an extraordinary property boom, with separate data revealing that the city’s average house price last month hit NZ$1m (£550,000) for the first time. The country’s QV house price index found that the typical Auckland home was valued at NZ$1,013,632 in August, an increase of 15.9% over the year. That’s just under £560,000 and higher than the average London property price of £472,384 according to data. Spiralling prices – up NZ$20,000 a month over the past quarter – and the falling pound are likely to deter Britons hoping to emigrate.
The EU’s ethics watchdog is to look into the former European commission president José Manuel Barroso’s new job with Goldman Sachs, which includes advising the investment bank and its clients on Brexit. In a letter to Barroso’s successor, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, said Barroso’s appointment as non-executive chairman of Goldman raised widespread concerns. She cited “understandable international attention given the importance of his former role and the global power, influence, and history of the bank with which he is now connected”. Her intervention comes after EU staff launched a petition calling on EU institutions to take “strong exemplary measures” against Barroso including the loss of his pension while he works for Goldman.
The petition now has more than 120,000 signatures. O’Reilly told Juncker that public unease will be exacerbated by the fact that Barroso is to advise Goldman Sachs on Britain’s exit from the EU. She warned of the danger of a breach of ethics in his interaction with former colleagues, including the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, a former special adviser to Barroso. O’Reilly said new guidance was needed to ensure that EU staff were “not affected by any possible failure on Mr Barroso’s part to comply with his duty to act with integrity”. Barroso joined Goldman less than two years after leaving office at the European commission, but after the 18-month cooling-off period stipulated by European rules.
Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contractor, became the most wanted fugitive in the world after leaking a cache of classified documents to the media detailing extensive cyber spying networks by the U.S. government on its own citizens and governments around the world. To escape the long arm of American justice, the man responsible for the largest national security breach in U.S. history retained a Canadian lawyer in Hong Kong who hatched a plan that included a visit to the UN sub-office where the North Carolina native applied for refugee status to avoid extradition to the U.S.
Fearing the media would surround and follow Snowden — making it easier for the Hong Kong authorities to arrest the one-time CIA analyst on behalf of the U.S. — his lawyers made him virtually disappear for two weeks from June 10 to June 23, 2013, before he emerged on an Aeroflot airplane bound for Moscow, where he remains stranded today in self-imposed exile. “That morning, I had minutes to figure out how to get him to the UN, away from the media, and out of harm’s way with the weight of the U.S. government bearing down on him. I did what I had to do, and could do, to help him,” Robert Tibbo, the whistleblower’s lead lawyer in Hong Kong told the Post in a wide-ranging interview, the first detailing the chaotic days of Snowden’s escape three years ago. “They wanted the data and they wanted to shut him down. Our greatest fear was that Ed would be found.”
The covert scheme to dodge U.S. attempts to arrest Snowden could have been ripped from the pages of a spy thriller. The fugitive was disguised in a dark hat and glasses and transported by car at night by two lawyers to safe houses on the crowded and impoverished fringes of Hong Kong. Snowden hunkered down in small, cluttered, dingy rooms where as many as four people shared less than 150 square feet. Batteries were removed from cellphones when they gathered, burner phones were used to place calls, SIM cards were exchanged and sophisticated computer encryption was used to communicate when face-to-face meetings were not possible. Snowden rarely ventured out, and only at night where he could easily be lost among the many other asylum seekers. “Nobody would dream that a man of such high profile would be placed among the most reviled people in Hong Kong,” recalled Tibbo, a Canadian-born and educated barrister who has practiced law for 15 years. “We put him in a place where no one would look.”
Government officials on Tuesday determined which reception centers for migrants across the country are to close and where new, improved facilities are to open but did not determine a time-frame, even as authorities on the Aegean islands warn of dangerously cramped and tense conditions in local camps. More than 12,500 migrants are currently living in reception centers on five Aegean islands – Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos – and hundreds more are arriving every day from neighboring Turkey. Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesvos, which is hosting 5,484 migrants, wrote to Alternate Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas on Tuesday to express his concern about the “extremely dangerous conditions” on the island.
He asked the minister for the immediate transfer of migrants from Lesvos to other facilities on the mainland “to avert far worse developments.” However, decongesting facilities on the islands is part of the government’s broader overhaul of a network of reception centers spread across the country. An aide close to Mouzalas determined on Tuesday which camps in northern Greece will close and which will be improved but did not say when this would happen. Among the facilities that are to close are those in Sindos and Oraiokastro, near Thessaloniki, and in Nea Kavala, near Kilkis. Reception centers in Diavata and Vassilika, also in northern Greece, are to be upgraded.
A new reception center for minors is to start operating at the Amygdaleza facility, north of the capital, next Monday. Meanwhile, sources said on Tuesday that child refugees will start attending Greek schools at the end of this month. The 22,000 child refugees currently in Greece will be inducted into the school system in groups. Those aged between 4 and 7 will attend kindergartens to be set up within migrant reception centers. Children aged 7 to 15 will join classes at public schools near the reception centers where they are staying. And unaccompanied minors aged 14 to 18 will be able to join vocational training classes if they so desire.
Work is about to begin on “a big, new wall” in Calais as the latest attempt to prevent refugees and migrants jumping aboard lorries heading for the Channel port, the UK’s immigration minister has confirmed. Robert Goodwill told MPs on Tuesday that the four-metre high wall was part of a £17m package of joint Anglo-French security measures to tighten precautions at the port. “People are still getting through,” he said. “We have done the fences. Now we are doing the wall,” the new immigration minister told the Commons home affairs committee. Building on the 1km-long wall along the ferry port’s main dual-carriageway approach road, known as the Rocade, is due to start this month.
The £1.9m wall will be built in two sections on either side of the road to protect lorries and other vehicles from migrants who have used rocks, shopping trolleys and even tree trunks to try to stop vehicles before climbing aboard. It will be made of smooth concrete in an attempt to make it more difficult to scale, with plants and flowers on one side to reduce its visual impact on the local area. It is due to be completed by the end of the year. The plan has already attracted criticism from local residents who have started calling it “the great wall of Calais”.
Children now make up more than half of the world’s refugees, according to a Unicef report, despite the fact they account for less than a third of the global population. Just two countries – Syria and Afghanistan – comprise half of all child refugees under protection by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while roughly three-quarters of the world’s child refugees come from just 10 countries. New and on-going global conflicts over the last five years have forced the number of child refugees to jump by 75% to 8 million, the report warns, putting these children at high risk of human smuggling, trafficking and other forms of abuse.
The Unicef report – which pulls together the latest global data regarding migration and analyses the effect it has on children – shows that globally some 50 million children have either migrated to another country or been forcibly displaced internally; of these, 28 million have been forced to flee by conflict. It also calls on the international community for urgent action to protect child migrants; end detention for children seeking refugee status or migrating; keep families together; and provide much-needed education and health services for children migrants. “Though many communities and people around the world have welcomed refugee and migrant children, xenophobia, discrimination, and exclusion pose serious threats to their lives and futures,” said Unicef’s executive director, Anthony Lake.
“But if young refugees are accepted and protected today, if they have the chance to learn and grow, and to develop their potential, they can be a source of stability and economic progress.”
European Council president Donald Tusk has warned that a UK vote to leave the EU could threaten “Western political civilisation”. Mr Tusk said a vote to leave the EU would boost anti-European forces. “As a historian I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety,” he told the German newspaper Bild. UKIP MP Douglas Carswell said the Remain campaign was “falling apart”. He tweeted: “Why hasn’t Western civilisation come to an end already seeing as how most countries are self governing?” The UK votes on whether to remain in the EU or leave on 23 June. Mr Tusk said everyone in the EU would lose out economically if Britain left.
“Every family knows that a divorce is traumatic for everyone,” he said. “Everyone in the EU, but especially the Brits themselves, would lose out economically.” In the interview he also said Turkey would not become a member of the European Union “in its current state”. Leave campaigners have regularly accused Remain of scaremongering after repeated warnings from high-profile figures against leaving the EU. Employment Minister Priti Patel said: “This is extraordinary language from the EU president, and serves only to reveal his own desperation. “The only thing that is destroying civilisations is the euro, which has ruined economies and led to youth unemployment soaring to nearly 50% in southern Europe.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte today (13 June) admitted a referendum called by eurosceptic groups on whether to back closer ties between Ukraine and the EU had been “disastrous” after voters soundly rejected the pact. “I’m totally against referenda, and I’m totally, totally, totally against referenda on multilateral agreements, because it makes no sense as we have seen with the Dutch referendum,” Rutte told a conference of European MPs. “The referendum led to disastrous results,” he added. His comments were his toughest since the 6 April Dutch referendum, which had been closely watched by eurosceptic groups in Britain, who hailed the results as a blow to EU unity.
Although the Dutch referendum only scraped past the 30% voter turnout to be valid, over 60% of those who cast ballots rejected the EU-Ukraine cooperation accord. The Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is the only country in the 28-nation bloc which has still not ratified the deal. Even though April’s vote is non-binding Rutte’s coalition government is now left with a dilemma of how to proceed. Although Rutte did not mention the June 23 referendum when British voters will choose whether to leave the EU, Britain’s eurosceptic parties have seized upon the Dutch results as supporting their own campaign to leave the European Union.
Cheaper oil prices since 2014 have probably been of little net benefit to the global economy and may even have been a drag on growth, according to the ECB. “While most of the oil-price decline in 2014 could be explained by the significant increase in the supply of oil, more recently the lower price has reflected weaker global demand,” the ECB said on Monday in an article from its Economic Bulletin. “Although the low oil price may still support domestic demand through rising real incomes in net oil-importing countries, it would not necessarily offset the broader effects of weaker global demand.”
The analysis strikes at the ECB’s debate over whether it should be adding monetary stimulus to the euro-area economy as lower heating and fuel bills give consumers more spending power. President Mario Draghi has argued that as well as depressing inflation — the ECB’s main challenge – a drop in energy prices can be a sign of subdued economic activity that needs to be countered. “Assuming that, for example, 60% of the oil price decline since mid-2014 has been supply driven and the remainder demand driven, the models suggest that the combined impact of these two shocks on world activity would be close to zero, or even slightly negative,” the ECB report showed.
U.S. consumers have long had an impressive propensity to get into debt. Lately, though, one lender has been playing a much bigger role in enabling them: Uncle Sam. Total U.S. consumer credit – which includes credit cards, auto loans and student debt, but not mortgages – stood at $3.54 trillion at the end of March, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve. That’s the most on record, both in dollar terms and as a share of GDP. What’s really unusual, though, is the source of the money: The federal government accounted for almost 28% of the total. That’s up from less than 5% before the 2007-2009 recession, thanks in large part to the government’s efforts to promote education by making hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans directly, rather than going through banks. Here’s how that looks:
To some extent, the government’s growing role makes sense. Amid a deep economic slump and slow recovery, it was best equipped to satisfy the demand for credit among Americans looking to improve their job prospects through education. Without the government’s involvement, consumer credit as a share of gross domestic product would still be well below the pre-recession level (all else equal). Here’s how that looks:
That said, the government assist has helped push total student debt to a record $1.3 trillion, much of which has been spent on rising tuition costs or on courses that didn’t do much to improve people’s earning potential. Because student debt is extremely difficult to discharge through bankruptcy, it will weigh on the borrowers – and on the U.S. economy – for many years to come.
Bankers seeking to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate with a flurry of tactless messages probably had little idea that the impact of their actions would be felt all the way to the Federal Reserve target rate. But—like bubbles from a bottle of Bollinger champagne—the effects of the Libor scandal are still emanating across money markets many years later. In 2014, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) asked U.S. regulators to look into creating a replacement for Libor—one that would prove more immune to the subjective, scandalous, scurrilous whims of traders. The Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC), as the resulting body is known, last month suggested two potential replacements for the much-maligned Libor.
While the new reference rate would be important simply by dint of underpinning trillions of dollars worth of derivatives contracts, its significance could go much further. Fresh research from Credit Suisse Securities USA LLC suggests the chosen rate could also become the new target rate for the Federal Reserve, replacing the federal funds rate that has dominated money markets for decades but has been neutered by recent regulation and asset purchase programs. “The question of alternative reference rates and alternative policy rates are [sic] intertwined: ideally, they would be the same,” writes Zoltan Pozsar, director of U.S. economics at the Swiss bank. “So it is likely that the rate the ARRC will ultimately choose will also be the Fed’s new target rate. But there are problems with both alternatives.”
Five years ago, when Eric Ries was working on the book that would become his best-selling entrepreneurship manifesto “The Lean Startup,” he floated a provocative idea in the epilogue: Someone should build a new, “long-term” stock exchange. Its reforms, he wrote, would amend the frantic quarterly cycle to encourage investors and companies to make better decisions for the years ahead. When he showed a draft around, many readers gave him the same piece of advice: Kill that crazy part about the exchange. “It ruined my credibility for everything that had come before,” Ries said he was told. Now Ries is laying the groundwork to prove his early skeptics wrong.
To bring the Long-Term Stock Exchange to life, he’s assembled a team of about 20 engineers, finance executives and attorneys and raised a seed round from more than 30 investors, including venture capitalist Marc Andreessen; technology evangelist Tim O’Reilly; and Aneesh Chopra, the former chief technology officer of the United States. Ries has started early discussions with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, but launching the LTSE could take several years. Wannabe exchanges typically go through months of informal talks with the SEC before filing a draft application, which LTSE plans to do this year. Regulators can then take months to decide whether to approve or delay applications. If all goes according to plan, the LTSE could be the stock exchange that fixes what Ries sees as the plague of today’s public markets: short-term thinking that squashes rational economic decisions.
It’s the same stigma that’s driving more of Silicon Valley’s multi-billion-dollar unicorn startups to say they’re not even thinking of an IPO. “Everyone’s being told, ‘Don’t go public,'” Ries said. “The most common conventional wisdom now is that going public will mean the end of your ability to innovate.” [..] A company that wants to list its stock on Ries’s exchange will have to choose from a menu of LTSE-approved compensation plans designed to make sure executive pay is not tied to short-term stock performance. Ries complains that it’s common to see CEOs or top management getting quarterly or annual bonuses tied to certain metrics like earnings per share, which pushes them to goose the numbers. Ries wants to encourage companies to adopt stock packages that continue vesting even after executives have left the company, which will push them to make healthy long-term moves.
Chinese stocks are at an odd crossroads this week: A key decision by index provider Morgan Stanley Capital International could make them a bigger part of international investors’ portfolios, even as a regulatory clampdown drives local traders away. Average daily trading turnover of shares on China’s two main markets, in Shanghai and Shenzhen—so-called A-shares—plunged last month to less than one-third of its level at its peak in June 2015. The amount of money that investors are borrowing from brokers to trade, known as margin debt, has dropped to its lowest level since December 2014.
And despite a 3.2% drop on Monday, the Shanghai stock market has just passed one of its least-eventful months ever, having moved less than 1% either way on all but two trading days in the past three weeks. Observers attribute the calm to heavy-handed intervention by Chinese officials who have tried to tame the country’s roller-coaster stock markets with support from state funds, curbs on some trading and direct hints to investors. All of that presents a forbidding backdrop for global investors ahead of MSCI’s decision, due Tuesday evening in New York, on whether to include mainland-listed shares in a key index tracked by international fund managers.
I have argued for years, and in my last post on this blog, that a big part of the story we have seen in Europe over the past eight years is a result of social engineering. This has involved a major offensive by the European authorities, taking advantage of an economic crisis, to transform Europe into a different kind of society, with a smaller social safety net, lower median wages, and – whether intended or not – increasing inequality as a result. In recent weeks France has faced strikes and protests as the battle has come to their terrain, over a new, sweeping labor law. Among other provisions, the law would weaken workers’ protections regarding overtime pay, the length of the work week, and job security. But most damaging of all are the provisions that would structurally weaken unions and undermine their bargaining power.
These would push collective bargaining away from the sectoral level, and toward the level of individual companies, thus making it more difficult for unions to establish industry standards for wages, hours and working conditions. Such structural “reforms” have been promoted by the European authorities (including the IMF) for years, and the ostensible rationale is to reduce unemployment. Economist Thomas Piketty succinctly sums up the major flaw in that argument: In the labor law you find the same mixture of lack of preparation and cynicism. If unemployment hasn’t stopped climbing since 2008, with an additional 1.5 million unemployed workers (and 2.1 million category A jobseekers in mid 2008, 2.8 million in mid 2012, 3.5 million in mid 2016) it’s not because the [current] labor law has suddenly become more rigid.
It’s because France and the Eurozone have provoked, through excessive austerity, an absurd slowdown of activity from 2011 to 2013, contrary to the U.S. and to the rest of the world, thereby transforming the financial crisis that came from the other side of the Atlantic into an interminable European recession. In a recent discussion, economist Yanis Varoufakis recounts a conversation that he had with his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble. It was at the height of the conflict between Greece and the European authorities last summer: “I had many interesting conversations with the Finance Minister of Germany, Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble. At some point, when I showed him this ultimatum, and I said to him… “Would you sign this? Just, let’s take off our hats as Finance Ministers for a moment. I’ve been in politics for five months. You’ve been in politics for 40 years.
You keep barking in my ear that I should sign it. Stop telling me what to do. As human beings, you know that my people, now, are suffering a Great Depression. We have children at school that faint as a result of malnutrition. Can you just do me the favor and advise me on what to do? Don’t tell me what to do. As somebody with 40 years, a Europeanist, somebody who comes from a democratic country, just Wolfgang to Yanis, not Finance Minister to Finance Minister.” And to his credit, he looked out of the window for a while. .. and he turned around and he said, “As a patriot I wouldn’t.” Of course the next question was, “so why are you forcing me to do it?” He said, “Don’t you understand?! I did this in the Baltics, in Portugal, in Ireland, you know, we have discipline to look after. And I want to take the Troika to Paris.” The Troika has arrived.
[..] if you want to prevent wealth flowing from productive people to the elite, you have to restructure the economy. You have to stop believing £24m annual paydays are the result of an accident. You have to make property speculation a crime and pursue policies that can suppress boom and bust, whether it is in the property market, the stock market or any other market. And you have to tax assets, not just income. Executive pay is structured around share options, not just salaries and bonuses, because it is more “tax efficient”. A tax on shares held; a tax on the value of property designed to stop it rising faster than GDP – these are the measures that would actually work. Plus, make a positive case for rent controls.
If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can become the first advanced-country government to suppress the causes of obscene executive pay, it will reap a massive first-mover advantage. The property market will stabilise; housing will become affordable as billionaires – foreign and domestic – take their money elsewhere. The stock market then will move in line with the real economy, not the fantasy economy created by a shortage of housing and a glut of money. Finally, the overpaid elite will drag their sorrows through the world to another jurisdiction. Personally, I cannot wait to see them go.
On Wednesday, two very different men will have to explain themselves. Both appear in London, to a room full of authority figures – but their finances and their status place them at opposite ends of our power structure. Yet put them together and a picture emerges of the skewedness of today’s Britain. For the Rev Paul Nicolson, the venue will be a magistrate’s court in London. His “crime” is refusing to pay his council tax, in protest against David Cameron’s effective scrapping of council tax benefit, part of his swingeing cuts to social security. In order to pay for a financial crisis they didn’t cause, millions of families already on low incomes are sinking deeper into poverty. In order to pay bills they can’t afford, neighbours of the retired vicar are going without food.
The 84-year-old faces jail this week, for the sake of £2,831. Meanwhile, a chauffeur will drive Philip Green to parliament, where he’ll be quizzed by MPs over his part in the collapse of BHS. A business nearly as old as the Queen will die within a few weeks, leaving 11,000 workers out of a job and 22,000 members of its pension scheme facing a poorer retirement. There the similarities peter out. Nicolson was summoned to court; Green wasn’t going to bother showing up at Westminster. When the multibillionaire was invited by Frank Field to make up BHS’s £600m pension black hole, he demanded the MP resign as chair of the work and pensions select committee.
But then, Green is used to cherry-picking which rules he plays by. Take this example: he buys Arcadia, the company that owns Topshop, then arranges for it to give his wife a dividend of £1.2bn. Since Tina Green is, conveniently, a resident of Monaco, the tax savings on that one payment alone are worth an estimated £300m. That would fund the building of 10 large secondary schools – or two-thirds of the annual cut to council tax benefits.
International development aid is based on the Robin Hood principle: take from the rich and give to the poor. National development agencies, multilateral organizations, and NGOs currently transfer more than $135 billion a year from rich countries to poor countries with this idea in mind. A more formal term for the Robin Hood principle is “cosmopolitan prioritarianism,” an ethical rule that says we should think of everyone in the world in the same way, no matter where they live, and then focus help where it helps the most. Those who have less have priority over those who have more. This philosophy implicitly or explicitly guides the aid for economic development, aid for health, and aid for humanitarian emergencies.
On its face, cosmopolitan prioritarianism makes sense. People in poor countries have needs that are more pressing, and price levels are much lower in poor countries, so that a dollar or euro goes twice or three times further than it does at home. Spending at home is not only more expensive, but it also goes to those who are already well off (at least relatively, judged by global standards), and so does less good. I have thought about and tried to measure global poverty for many years, and this guide has always seemed broadly right. But I currently find myself feeling increasingly unsure about it. Both facts and ethics pose problems. Huge strides have undoubtedly been made in reducing global poverty, more through growth and globalization than through aid from abroad.
The number of poor people has fallen in the past 40 years from more than two billion to just under one billion – a remarkable feat, given the increase in world population and the long-term slowing of global economic growth, especially since 2008. While impressive and wholly welcome, poverty reduction has not come without a cost. The globalization that has rescued so many in poor countries has harmed some people in rich countries, as factories and jobs migrated to where labor is cheaper. This seemed to be an ethically acceptable price to pay, because those who were losing were already so much wealthier (and healthier) than those who were gaining.
Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange warns more information will be published about Hillary Clinton, enough to indict her if the US government is courageous enough to do so, in what he predicts will be “a very big year” for the whistleblowing website. Expressing concerns in an ITV interview about the Democratic presidential candidate, who he claims is monitoring him, Assange described Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump as an “unpredictable phenomenon”, but predictably, given their divergent political views, didn’t say if he preferred the billionaire to be president.
“We have emails relating to Hillary Clinton which are pending publication,” Assange told Peston on Sunday when asked if more of her leaked electronic communications would be published. About 32,000 emails from her private server have been leaked by Wikileaks so far, but Assange would not confirm the number of emails or when they are expected to be published. Speaking via video link from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Assange said that there was enough information in the emails to indict Clinton, but that was unlikely to happen under the current Attorney General, Obama appointee Loretta Lynch. He does think “the FBI can push for concessions from the new Clinton government in exchange for its lack of indictment.”
The Bramble Cay melomys has become extinct, Australian scientists say (/span)
Human-caused climate change appears to have driven the Great Barrier Reef’s only endemic mammal species into the history books, with the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that lives on a tiny island in the eastern Torres Strait, being completely wiped-out from its only known location. It is also the first recorded extinction of a mammal anywhere in the world thought to be primarily due to human-caused climate change. An expert says this extinction is likely just the tip of the iceberg, with climate change exerting increasing pressures on species everywhere. The rodent, also called the mosaic-tailed rat, was only known to live on Bramble Cay a small coral cay, just 340m long and 150m wide off the north coast of Queensland, Australia, which sits at most 3m above sea level.
It had the most isolated and restricted range of any Australian mammal, and was considered the only mammal species endemic to the Great Barrier Reef. When its existence was first recorded by Europeans in 1845, it was seen in high density on the island, with sailors reporting they shot the “large rats” with bows and arrows. In 1978, it was estimated there were several hundred on the small island. But the melomys were last seen in 2009, and after an extensive search for the animal in 2014, a report has recommended its status be changed from “endangered” to “extinct”.
Led by Ian Gynther from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, and in partnership with the University of Queensland, the survey laid 150 traps on the island for six nights, and involved extensive measurements of the island and its vegetation. In their report, co-authored by Natalie Waller and Luke Leung from the University of Queensland, the researchers concluded the “root cause” of the extinction was sea-level rise. As a result of rising seas, the island was inundated on multiple occasions, they said, killing the animals and also destroying their habitat.
According to a British diplomat, Chancellor Angela Merkel is ready to give visa-free travel in the Schengen zone to 75 million Turkish citizens despite the failure to meet key EU conditions. In starkly undiplomatic language, British Ambassador to Germany Sir Sebastian Wood has said that Chancellor Merkel’s officials are ready to strike a “compromise formulation” on the Turkish terrorism law which was a sticking point to the proposed EU-Turkey migrant deal. The Turkish leader, President Erdogan, recently said that telling his country to soften its counter-terror laws was tantamount to asking it to give up its struggle against terrorism. In saying so he was threatening to scupper the deal which is designed to give Turks visa-free travel to Europe in return for stemming the flow of illegal migrants to the continent.
At first the EU said it would not give in to Turkish pressure, but now The Daily Telegraph reports that a leaked diplomatic telegram (‘DipTel’) written last month by Sir Sebastian suggests otherwise. In the May 13 memo, Sir Sebastian said President Erdogan’s pursuit of German satirist Jan Böhmermann “only strengthened the view that he is an authoritarian bully who is trying to blackmail Europe.” He also wrote, regarding the migrant deal: “Despite the tough public line, there are straws in the wind to suggest that in extremis the Germans would compromise further to preserve the EU-Turkey deal. “Merkel has begun to paint the deal in humanitarian terms, (pointing out that since it came into force, only 9 people have drowned), to pre-empt human rights opposition. Officials here have shown some interest, behind the scenes, about possible compromise formulations on the anti-terror law.”
Greece aims to register 1,400 people a day in its new asylum access system in a bid to expedite asylum applications by refugees, to relocate them to other EU member-states or reunite them with their families. The operation, which began last Wednesday, seeks to deal with the some 48,000 migrants – many with expired papers – who got stranded on the Greek mainland after the Balkan route into Europe was closed. So far, 1,200 people have been “pre-registered” – as the process has been dubbed – in Athens and Thessaloniki. Pre-registration will grant refugees and migrants the legal right to stay in Greece for one year and access to basic services.
According to the head of Greece’s asylum service, Maria Stavropoulou, “pre-registration” will be “a first step either for relocation to other member-states, or for family reunification, or to apply for international protection in Greece.” Once they are registered, refugees receive an asylum applicant’s card which means they will get an interview in the next few months with the asylum service. The program will last for two months and aims to pre-register all applicants that arrived in Greece from January 1 2015 until March 19, 2016, the day before the treaty between the EU and Turkey to stem their flow went into effect. The process is open to three different groups: those with the right to move to EU countries where they have relatives as part of the family reunion program, those that will be part of the resettlement program (Syrians and Iraqis), and those who want to apply for asylum in Greece.
“..no matter how hard the Fed works to prop and boost the market, nearly half of Americans no longer have any faith left in what has become clear to most is just a tool to push some crooked, crony-capitalist policy, but mostly to make the richest even richer.”
Three recurring laments heard in the corridors of the Marriner Eccles building are why, with stocks at record highs after levitating in more or less a straight line for the past 7 years, i) has the economic recovery not been stronger, ii) has inflation not been higher, and iii) have consumer spending and sentiment never really recovered. A just released Gallup survey may have the answer. According to a poll of over 1,000 American adults, even with the Dow Jones industrial average near its record high, only slightly more than half of Americans (52%) say they currently have money in the stock market, matching the lowest ownership rate in Gallup’s 19-year trend.
The current figure is down slightly from 2014 and 2015, and continues a secular decline that started in 2007. But most troubling is that the generation which is expected to take over the stock ownership reins when the Baby Boomers start selling their equity holders, middle-class adults, especially those younger than 35, are the least likely to invest. As Gallup notes, “although Americans in all income groups are less likely to have stock investments now than before the Great Recession, middle-class Americans have been the most likely to flee the market” Gallup’s conclusion: “Fewer Americans – particularly those in middle-income families – are benefiting from the recent gains in stock values than would have been the case a decade ago.”
Which is the worst possible news for Janet Yellen, because no matter how hard the Fed works to prop and boost the market, nearly half of Americans no longer have any faith left in what has become clear to most is just a tool to push some crooked, crony-capitalist policy, but mostly to make the richest even richer.
As equities climb around the world, Chinese traders aren’t celebrating. The Shanghai Composite Index has fallen 4.6% this week, the worst performance among 93 global benchmark gauges tracked by Bloomberg and the steepest decline since January. It’s not just the stock market. The yuan is trading around its lowest level against a basket of currencies since November 2014, while yields on corporate debt have risen for 10 of the past 12 days. Concern is mounting over rising credit defaults, while traders are also paring bets for more stimulus amid signs of stabilizing growth, according to Dai Ming at Hengsheng in Shanghai. A sudden 4.5% plunge by the benchmark equity gauge on Wednesday revived memories of January’s stomach-churning turmoil, when shares sank 23% over the course of the month. “People are still very skeptical, and with good reason,” said Hao Hong at Bocom International in Hong Kong.
International concern about the health of China’s economy has been fading from view as data showed an improving picture and volatility in its stock and currency markets waned. Wednesday’s equity tumble in Shanghai caused barely a ripple among global shares as international traders focused on surging commodity prices – spurred partly by expectations of higher Chinese demand. Questions are being asked about how long the Communist Party can keep pumping money into the economy to prop up growth. New credit topped $1 trillion in the first quarter, helping GDP to expand 6.7% – still the slowest pace in seven years. Much of that money flowed into the property market, spurring concerns of a bubble. “There’s still a lot of doubt over the sustainability of the turnaround in the Chinese macro numbers,” said Adrian Zuercher UBS’s wealth management unit. “It’s a very stimulus-driven rebound that we now see.”
Chinese exporters have found a silver lining in weak global demand by seizing market share from their competitors – good news for China but an expansion that is aggravating trade tensions. China’s proportion of global exports rose to 13.8% last year from 12.3% in 2014, data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Employment shows, the highest share any country has enjoyed since the United States in 1968. The success belies widespread predictions rising costs for Chinese labor and a currency that has increased nearly 20% against the dollar in the last decade would cause China to lose market share to cheaper competitors. Instead, China’s manufacturing infrastructure built during the country’s industrial rise of recent decades is keeping exports humming and providing the basis for firms to produce higher-value products.
“China cannot be replaced,” said Fredrik Guitman, formerly China general manager for a Danish maker of silver products, adding that reliable delivery times were more important than price. “If they say 45 days, it will be 45 days.” Still, even as Chinese firms compete in more sophisticated product lines, they are unloading overstocked inventory from entrenched industrial overcapacity in sectors like steel, an irritant in global trading relationships. The United States and seven other countries this week called for urgent action to address a steel supply glut that many blame on China. At the same time, China’s imports from other countries fell sharply – down over 14% in 2015 – leading some economists to suggest China was deploying an “import substitution” strategy that is pushing foreign brands out of its domestic markets.
On Wednesday, Beijing rolled out fresh measures to support machinery exports, including tax rebates, and encouraged banks to lend more to exporters. Machinery and mechanical appliances make up the biggest portion of China’s exports. Such policies may not be welcomed in the United States, where Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has called for 45% tariffs on Chinese imports – a message that appears to resonate with American voters. The risk is that the Chinese firms successfully moving up the value chain will see their overseas profits destroyed by a trade war if Trump’s ideas find place in policy.
China is on a collision course with the world’s leading powers over excess steel output after it refused to sign up to an emergency global plan to cut capacity and eliminate subsidies. The clash comes as fresh data confirms fears that China is still cranking up production and even reopening shuttered plants supposedly due for closure, despite the massive glut on the world market. Chinese mills produced a record 70.65m tonnes in March, 51pc of global output and five times as much as the whole EU. “Just words from China are no longer good enough. It is now clear to everybody that the Chinese have no intention at all of changing the structure of their steel industry,” said Axel Eggert, head of the European steel federation Eurofer. “They refused even to accept basic principles. They don’t recognise the problem, and they are not looking for a compromise,” he said.
The world’s steel-making powers, led by the US, Japan and the EU, agreed to joint steps to tackle the crisis at special OECD summit in Brussels on Monday, but China’s name was conspicuously absent when the final document was released later. This renders the plan meaningless since China’s excesses capacity alone is 400m tonnes, greater than the entire production of Europe and North America. Officials were shocked by the tone of the encounter with the Chinese delegation. “It was eye-opening,” said one source. “The scale of the emergency in the sector means it is now life or death for many companies,” said Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU trade commissioner. Brussels has been slow to roll out anti-dumping sanctions, partly due to pressure from Britain and other states courting China for their own political reasons.
While the US has imposed penalties of 266pc on Chinese cold-rolled steel, the EU has acted more slowly and stopped at 13pc. But the mood is shifting. Mrs Malmstrom said there is no doubt that the surge in Chinese exports is the reason why steel prices have crashed by 40pc this year, insisting that it is imperative to “act quickly” before the crisis asphyxiates European industry. “The situation is putting hundreds of thousands of jobs in the EU at risk. It’s also undermining a strategic sector with importance for the wider economy,” she said. Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, said Europe can no longer tolerate the flood of Chinese supply. “You do not respect the rules of world trade. Your steel output is subsidised, and the excess capacity is dumped below cost. It is destroying our productive capacity, and it is unacceptable,” he said.
Anger is also rising on Capitol Hill, with mounting calls from the US Congress for a much tougher stand, a theme echoed daily on the presidential campaign trail. “The American steel industry faces the greatest import crisis in modern history,” said Tim Murphy, head of the Congressional steel caucus. “We’re at the tipping point, with US mills averaging only 70pc of capacity utilisation, a level that is simply not sustainable. We are in real danger of losing this industry and becoming dependent on foreign countries. We can’t let that happen.”
The yen dropped the most in seven weeks after people familiar with the matter said that the Bank of Japan may consider helping financial institutions to lend by offering a negative rate on some loans. Japan’s currency slid against all except one of its 16 major counterparts after the people said a discussion on this may happen in conjunction with any decision to make a deeper cut to the current negative rate on reserves. The people asked not to be named as the matter is private. The BOJ meets April 27-28 to decide on its next policy move. “We thought they would be doing more quantitative easing but it looks like they may be doing more on the negative interest-rate front,” said Joseph Capurso at Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
That’s driving the move lower in the Japanese currency and “if delivered, you’ll get a temporary but significant spike up in dollar-yen. The yen dropped 0.8% to 110.30 per dollar as of 7:06 a.m. in London, the biggest decline since March 1. Japan’s currency weakened 0.9% to 124.68 per euro. Twenty three of 41 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg predict the BOJ will expand stimulus next week. Nineteen forecast the central bank will increase purchases of exchange-traded funds, eight expect a boost in bond buying and eight project the BOJ will lower its negative rate, the survey conducted April 15-21 shows.
Commonwealth Bank recommended buying the dollar against the yen through two-week options to take advantage of the diverging monetary policies of the Fed and the BOJ. National Australia Bank Ltd. said in a report it favors purchasing dollars at current levels before the BOJ meeting, targeting an appreciation to 113 yen. The Federal Open Market Committee meeting April 26-27 will also be closely watched for guidance on how soon U.S. policy makers will raise the benchmark rate after an increase at the end of last year. Traders have increased the odds of a Fed move by December to 63% from about 50% at the end of last week, according to data compiled by Bloomberg based on fed fund futures.
Mario Draghi has two stubborn adversaries – low inflation everywhere, and low regard in Germany. He’s now extending his offensive on both fronts. A recovery in credit, and output proving resilient to global shocks, are buttressing the European Central Bank’s argument that the range of stimulus measures it bolstered only last month is working. On Thursday, the ECB president used that evidence to make ground against German critics who say he’s on the wrong track. After more than four years at the helm of the central bank, Draghi is still fielding persistent attacks from the ECB’s host country, where a public perception of him as a profligate Italian whose low interest rates are killing retirement savings has become part of the political furniture.
At a press conference in Frankfurt, he fumed that the more critics undermine his stimulus, the more of it he’ll have to do. “Impatience in the markets and in politics can come up like a geyser sometimes, but the ECB has to continue to be as steady as a rock,” said Torsten Slok at Deutsche Bank in New York. “The more it shows up in the data, the easier it is for them to say that their policies are working. The ECB is defending itself and making sure the arguments are solid.” The backdrop to Thursday’s policy meeting, where the Governing Council kept its interest rates on hold after cutting them to record lows in March, was colored by a row stepped up by Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble.
Draghi deployed a volley of arguments against the finance minister’s charge that ECB policies are contributing to the rise of anti-euro populism, and the broader assumption that savers are being penalized, adding that Schaeuble either “didn’t mean what he said or didn’t say what he meant.” “In fact real rates today are higher than they were about 20-30 years ago,” Draghi said. “But I’m aware that to explain real interest rates to savers may be difficult.” Draghi has been dogged by sniping in Germany since taking office, with the popular press often using his nationality as shorthand for a tendency to allow high inflation. In fact, he’s had the opposite problem, with price gains too far below the 2% goal for more than three years.
The assets of the Netherlands’ four biggest pension funds have fallen again, making it more likely that millions of people will face pension cuts next year. By law, a pension fund must have a coverage ratio of 105%, meaning its assets outweigh its obligations by 5%. However, that of the massive civil service fund ABP has now gone down to 90.4%, a drop of seven%age points since the end of 2015. Health service fund Zorg & Welzijn and the two engineering funds also have a coverage ratio of around 90%. ‘Our financial position remains worrying,’ said ABP chairwoman Corien Wortmann-Kool. ‘We are heading to the danger zone and that means there is a real risk of a pension cut in 2017.’ ABP is one of the biggest pension funds in the world. The heads of the other three funds have made similar statements. If the pension funds have a coverage ratio of below 90% at the end of the year, they will have to cut pensions.
If you’re waiting for international policy makers to pull a rabbit out of the hat and solve the euro problem, stop holding your breath. After a generally a desultory meeting of the IMF in Washington last week, the prevailing pessimism about the future of the euro came grimly to the fore in one of the many meetings held on the sidelines of the semiannual IMF gathering. Two dozen policy makers convened by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF), a private London-based group, met this week to discuss the future of the European Union’s joint currency. The off-the-record discussion involved an international array of current and former government officials, central bankers, and private-sector financiers.
The verdicts ranged from “deeply pessimistic” to “not ready to give up” – perhaps the most optimistic assessment at the meeting – and the group in its assembled wisdom concluded that there are no realistic solutions and the only course of action they could see is “muddling through.” They rehearsed all the usual analysis of what went wrong – an attempted common currency without the underpinning of joint fiscal policy, a banking union, and most importantly, a political union with an institutional infrastructure for making decisions. Without this follow-through on the original plan for “an ever closer union,” the EU has stumbled along a path of “incompetence,” with individual countries acting only in their own interests.
Even the ECB, the only EU-wide institution that has shown itself capable of taking action in this environment, came in for criticism because its successive moves to ease the stress in the system left the political leaders off the hook in coming to terms with the underlying issues. And yet, participants noted, the European public seems reluctant to give up the euro. Not even Greece, which has suffered terribly in the straitjacket of a common currency with Germany, is willing to give it up. So the answer is muddling through. And muddling through is one thing Europeans excel at, even though it has brought mixed results. Europe, after all, muddled through the arms buildup in the early 20th century to World War I. It muddled through to the banking collapse of 1931 (which contributed more to the Great Depression in the U.S. than the 1929 stock market crash).
Then it muddled through into fascism and World War II. Rebuilding from the rubble of that conflict led to a relatively brief period of constructive behavior as the continent, shielded by the U.S. defense umbrella, built new democracies and an ever-widening free trade zone. As U.S. influence — and interest — waned, Europe began again to resort to muddling through as a way of coping with stress. It muddled through the crisis in Bosnia and genocidal conflict at its very doorstep, until the U.S. intervened and sorted things out. It muddled through into a joint currency that enabled its strongest member to execute a beggar-thy-neighbor mercantilist trade policy that penalized countries without the size or drive of Germany, slashing their standard of living and reducing whole swaths of the populations to penury. Then it muddled through into a refugee crisis that threatens the very fabric and identity of individual nations, giving rise to a xenophobic backlash that harkens back to the days of Depression and fascism less than a century ago.
Federal regulators are lining up to consider a new rule to rein in Wall Street’s executive compensation nearly a decade after the financial crisis. The National Credit Union Administration plans to meet Thursday, giving Wall Street banks, investors and others the first glimpse of the regulators’ latest effort to overhaul Wall Street pay rules for top executives. Next week, two other regulators are scheduled to consider the revised plan, according to a government notice posted Wednesday. The rule would require banks to retain much of an executive’s bonus beyond the three years already adopted by many firms, people familiar with the matter said. The board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., led by Chairman Martin Gruenberg, will meet Tuesday to vet the compensation proposal.
The FDIC board also includes Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency will likely consider the proposal separately later the same day, according to a person familiar with the matter. On Thursday, the NCUA will release documents, including a roughly 250-page preamble to the joint rule, when the board meets at 10 a.m. EDT. It will also unveil rules specifically drafted for a handful of federally insured credit unions with $1 billion or more in assets, including the Navy Federal Credit Union and State Employees Credit Union. Six agencies have joint responsibility for rewriting the original government plan on Wall Street pay: the FDIC, the OCC, the NCUA, the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
All six are required to sign off on the draft measure before it can be released to the industry and the public for comment. Representatives from the Fed and SEC declined to comment on the timing of their meetings to consider the proposal. The FHFA plans to consider the proposal soon, according to a person familiar with the matter. The effort to complete the rule, which has been under way for five years, got a nudge from President Barack Obama last month at a White House meeting of top financial regulators. The president urged regulators to wrap up the executive compensation rule before he leaves office early next year. It is unclear whether the agencies will be able to coordinate their efforts and get the rule completed by then.
A decade ago, Goldman Sachs reported that its return on common shareholder equity had hit a dazzling 39.8%. It symbolised a gilded age: back in 2006, as markets boomed, the power — and profits — of big banks seemed unstoppable. How times change. This week, American banks unveiled downbeat results, with revenues for the biggest five tumbling 16% year-on-year. But Goldman was even weaker: net income was 56% lower, while return on equity, a key measure of profitability, was 6.4%, below even the sector average in 2015 of 10.3%. A bank which was once so adept at sucking out profits that it was called a “vampire squid” (by Rolling Stone magazine) is thus producing returns more commonly associated with a utility. The phrase “flattened slug” might seem appropriate.
Is this just a temporary downturn? Financiers certainly hope so. After all, they point out, this week’s results did feature some upbeat (ish) points. None of America’s banks actually blew up in the first quarter of the year, even though markets gyrated in dramatic ways; the post-crisis reforms have improved risk controls and reserves. Meanwhile, banking in America looks healthier than in Europe, where the reform process has been slower. Overall credit quality at American banks, outside the energy sector, does not seem alarming. Net interest margins are now increasing a touch, after several years of decline, because the Federal Reserve has raised rates. The last quarter’s results might have been depressed by temporary geopolitical woes, such as business uncertainty about Brexit, the American elections, oil prices and the Chinese economy.
Once this angst fades away later this year, returns may rebound; analysts expect the Goldman ROE, for example, to move towards 10% later this year. “The market feels a little fragile,” says Harvey Schwartz, its chief financial officer. “[But] it feels like that is behind us.” Perhaps. But even if this “optimism” is justified, nobody should ignore the cognitive shift. After all, a decade ago, an ROE of 10% was considered a disaster, not a relief, at Goldman Sachs. So perhaps the most important lesson from this week is this: if American regulators had hoped to make the banks look truly dull — not dazzling — in this post-crisis era, they are now succeeding better than anyone might have thought.
“If there is a haircut on bank deposits it will be the end and, so far, that is the only measure they haven’t taken. If Greece defaults it will be impossible to find oil, impossible to find medicines. And this time round everything seems possible.”
The Hilton hotel in Athens makes the perfect backdrop for high-intensity talks. Its ambience is subdued, its corridors hushed, its meeting rooms an oasis of tranquility. When Greece, in one of its many stand-offs with the international creditors keeping it afloat, finally won the right to conduct negotiations outside the confines of government offices, it seemed only natural that they should be held at the hotel. However, in recent weeks the talks have assumed an increasingly nervous edge. An economic review that should have been completed months ago has been beset by wrangling as Alexis Tsipras’s leftist-led government has argued with lenders over the terms of a bailout agreed last summer.
The €86bn rescue programme agreed in July 2015 – the debt-stricken country’s third in six years – followed months of high-octane drama that saw Athens being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy and euro exit. Now, less than a year later – and with a crucial meeting of eurozone finance ministers lined up for Friday – a sense of crisis has returned to Greece. With politicians indulging in the angry rhetoric that put Athens on a collision course with lenders last year, investors have begun to worry. Yields on government bonds have risen, protesters have taken to the streets, and “Grexit” – the catch-all word that so conjured up Greece’s battle with economic meltdown – is being murmured again.
Against a backdrop of maturing debt – the country must repay €5bn to the ECB and IMF in June and July – commentators have begun to talk in terms of fatal miscalculation. “History is made of accidents which were not the result of some secret plan, but a string of errors, human weaknesses and obsessions,” wrote Alexis Papahelas in the conservative daily Kathimerini. “Lets hope we will avoid that.” On the street, the uncertainty has not only had a deadening effect on an economy already battered by years of withering austerity; it has also created mounting anxiety among a populace that has seen per capita GDP levels drop by 28%, unemployment nudge 30%, more than one in four businesses close and poverty afflict one in three.
After defying the doomsayers, there are fears Europe’s most indebted country could now be heading towards a disorderly default. “There is no one I know who isn’t worried,” says Yannis Tsandris, a private sector retiree whose pension has been cut by almost a third. “If there is a haircut on bank deposits it will be the end and, so far, that is the only measure they haven’t taken. If Greece defaults it will be impossible to find oil, impossible to find medicines. And this time round everything seems possible.”
The story of Brazil’s political crisis, and the rapidly changing global perception of it, begins with its national media. The country’s dominant broadcast and print outlets are owned by a tiny handful of Brazil’s richest families, and are steadfastly conservative. For decades, those media outlets have been used to agitate for the Brazilian rich, ensuring that severe wealth inequality (and the political inequality that results) remains firmly in place. Indeed, most of today’s largest media outlets – that appear respectable to outsiders – supported the 1964 military coup that ushered in two decades of rightwing dictatorship and further enriched the nation’s oligarchs. This key historical event still casts a shadow over the country’s identity and politics.
Those corporations – led by the multiple media arms of the Globo organisation – heralded that coup as a noble blow against a corrupt, democratically elected liberal government. Sound familiar? For more than a year, those same media outlets have peddled a self-serving narrative: an angry citizenry, driven by fury over government corruption, rising against and demanding the overthrow of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, and her Workers’ party (PT). The world saw endless images of huge crowds of protesters in the streets, always an inspiring sight. But what most outside Brazil did not see was that the country’s plutocratic media had spent months inciting those protests (while pretending merely to “cover” them). The protesters were not remotely representative of Brazil’s population.
They were, instead, disproportionately white and wealthy: the very same people who have opposed the PT and its anti-poverty programmes for two decades. Slowly, the outside world has begun to see past the pleasing, two-dimensional caricature manufactured by its domestic press, and to recognise who will be empowered once Rousseff is removed. It has now become clear that corruption is not the cause of the effort to oust Brazil’s twice-elected president; rather, corruption is merely the pretext. Rousseff’s moderately leftwing party first gained the presidency in 2002, when her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, won a resounding victory.
Due largely to his popularity and charisma, and bolstered by Brazil’s booming economic growth under his presidency, the PT has won four straight presidential elections – including Rousseff’s 2010 election victory and then, just 18 months ago, her re-election with 54 million votes. The country’s elite class and their media organs have failed, over and over, in their efforts to defeat the party at the ballot box. But plutocrats are not known for gently accepting defeat, nor for playing by the rules. What they have been unable to achieve democratically, they are now attempting to achieve anti-democratically: by having a bizarre mix of politicians – evangelical extremists, far-right supporters of a return to military rule, non-ideological backroom operatives – simply remove her from office.
Diesel cars are producing many times more health-damaging pollutants than claimed by laboratory tests, with some emitting up to 12 times the EU maximum when tested on the road, according to a government investigation undertaken following the Volkswagen scandal. A Department for Transport (DfT) study of cars made by manufacturers such as Ford, Renault and Vauxhall found there was a vast difference in nitrogen oxide emissions measured in the laboratory and under normal driving conditions. Not a single car among 37 models tested against the two most recent nitrogen oxide emissions standards met the EU lab limit in real-world testing, with the average emissions being more than five times as high. However, the DfT said it had found no vehicles outside the VW group with systems in place to deliberately rig emissions figures.
Robert Goodwill, the junior transport minister, said: “Unlike the Volkswagen situation, there have been no laws broken. This has been done within the rules.” The minister denied that the findings meant the current emissions testing regime was a farce. “But certainly I am disappointed that the cars that we are driving on our roads are not as clean as we thought they might be. It’s up to manufacturers now to rise to the real-world tests and the tough standards we’re introducing,” he said. The DfT exercise was ordered after it emerged that Volkswagen had allegedly used technology to cheat emissions tests. It measured Nox, or nitrogen oxide emissions. Nitrogen oxide helps to form ozone smog that can badly affect people with chest conditions such as asthma.
The tests were carried out by a team led by Ricardo Martinez-Botas, professor of mechanical engineering at Imperial College London. Among the vehicles tested were 19 models that meet the latest Euro 6 limit of 80mg/km NOx emissions in laboratory tests. Euro 6 was introduced for all new cars sold after September last year. When driven in a real-world simulation of urban, rural and motorway travel, the average was nearer to 500mg/km, with some cars getting close to 1,100mg/km. Among the new models tested that are meant to comply with the Euro 6 standard were the Ford Focus, which had a real-world emission about eight times above the EU limit, the Renault Megane, whose emissions were more than 10 times higher, and the Vauxhall Insignia, almost 10 times higher.
The scandal engulfing Mitsubishi Motors has deepened, sending its shares to a new low after US authorities said they had requested information from the Japanese automotive group. Mitsubishi admitted this week that it manipulated test data to overstate the fuel efficiency of 625,000 cars and there are fears that more models may be involved. Government officials raided one of its offices on Thursday. The scandal has wiped around 40% off Mitsubishi’s market value, amounting to losses of $3.2bn over three days. The shares fell nearly 14% on Friday, following declines of 20% on Thursday, when they were suspended, and 15% on Wednesday. An official at the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Reuters that the regulator had asked Mitsubishi for information on vehicles sold in the US.
Japanese government officials said Mitsubishi could be responsible for reimbursing consumers and the government if investigations conclude that the vehicles were not as fuel-efficient as claimed. Transport minister Keiichi Ishii told a news conference on Friday: “This is a serious problem that could lead to the loss of trust in our country’s auto industry.” He said he wanted Mitsubishi to examine the possibility of buying back affected cars. Internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi said the government would also ask the carmaker to pay for any subsidies granted to consumers if its cars are found to fail fuel economy standards, Jiji news agency reported. Japanese media reported that Mitsubishi had submitted misleading mileage data on its i-MiEV electric car, which is also sold overseas. The previously disclosed models whose fuel economy readings Mitsubishi has admitted to manipulating are only sold in Japan – four of its mini-cars, two of which it manufactured for Nissan.
The estate agent Carter Jonas established its reputation running the estates of the Marquess of Lincolnshire. “Some of the biggest property owners in the country are our loyal clients,” boasts its website. And, in a recent poll of these landowning clients, 67% of them said that Britain should stay in the EU. So why all this Euro-enthusiasm in the Tory heartlands and among the landed gentry? “Should the UK vote to leave the EU, the CAP subsidies will likely be reduced,” Tim Jones, head of Carter Jonas’s rural division, explained. Thank you, Tim, for putting it so clearly. We understand. A massive 38% of the entire 2014-20 EU budget is allocated as subsidies for European farmers. It is far and away the biggest item of euro expenditure, about €50bn a year.
If these billions were being used to prop up a heavy industry – steel, for example – then the neoliberals would be up in arms, complaining like mad that if an industry can’t cope with a free market then it should be left to die. Creative destruction, they call it. But, for some reason, when it comes to agriculture, different rules apply. Farms are not called “uneconomic” in the same way that pits and factories are. So every British household coughs up about £250 a year and hands it over to the EU, which hands it over to people like the Duke of Westminster – already worth £7bn himself. In 2011, the duke received £748,716 in EU subsidies for his various estates. So, too, Saudi Prince Bandar (he of the dodgy al-Yamamah arms deal), who pocketed £273,905 of EU money for his estate in Oxfordshire.
The common agricultural policy is socialism for the rich. It’s a mechanism to buttress the aristocracy – who own a third of the land in this country – from the chill winds of economic liberalism. So why are we hearing so little about all of this in the current debate over Europe? Because the right doesn’t want to worry its landowning friends and the left has somehow persuaded itself that the EU is a progressive force – so it suits no one’s purpose to raise this issue. Yet it’s a huge deal. For the European Union has become a huge and largely invisible way of redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, subsidising lord so-and so’s grouse moor, while redundancies are handed out to workers at Port Talbot (whose jobs the government can’t help subsidise because of EU rules).
But even more problematic is the way our massively subsidised agricultural sector negatively affects farmers in the developing world. “Trade not aid” has been David Cameron’s repeated mantra for dealing with poverty in the developing world. But not only does the CAP subsidy to European farmers make it impossible for the unsubsidised African farmer to compete fairly in European markets, but it also creates situations where food is overproduced in Europe – remember butter mountains, milk lakes etc.
Angela Merkel is facing dual pressure to both raise freedom of speech issues and patch up fraying diplomatic relations with Turkey during a visit to Gaziantep province on Saturday. The issue of visa-free travel, one of the key elements of the month-old deal between the European Union and Turkey, is expected to be at the top of the agenda as the German chancellor visits the country alongside the European Council president, Donald Tusk, and European commission vice-president Frans Timmermans. On Tuesday, Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, threatened to pull out of the deal if no progress was made on the visa arrangement.
But in Germany, Merkel is under growing pressure to show more spine in her dealings with the Turkish government, after giving in to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s request for the comedian Jan Böhmermann to be prosecuted for reading out a poem that insulted the president. In the run-up to Merkel’s Gaziantep trip, the secretary general of the Social Democrats, a junior party in the governing coalition, has called on Merkel to send out a “strong message on the issue of freedom of speech”. “Without this basic right, democracy does not work – the Turkish government too has to recognise that,” Katarina Barley told the newspaper Bild.
Coming on the anniversary of the foundation of Turkey’s parliament, and a day before many people commemorate the start of the Armenian genocide, secularists and minorities in Turkey too will hope for a signal against Turkey’s authoritarian turn from the German chancellor. The German government has so far refrained from providing details of the chancellor’s schedule during her trip. In recent days Merkel has been struggling to limit the damage caused by the Böhmermann affair. Even though the comedian is unlikely to face more than a financial penalty, the incident has taken its toll on the chancellor’s authority in the public eye, with her personal approval ratings dropping by over 10 percentage points in a recent poll.
In another poll, 66% of the German public said they disapproved of the chancellor’s decision to authorise criminal proceedings against the comedian. The justice minister Heiko Maas announced on Thursday that he would present a draft bill to abolish the law on “insulting a foreign head of state” that lies at the centre of the Böhmermann affair before the end of this week. Merkel had originally promised to abolish the law by January 2018. Were the relevant paragraph of the penal code scrapped before Böhmermann goes on trial, the chancellor would look even more exposed. Diplomatic ties between Germany and Turkey were further strained when the journalist Volker Schwenck of the public broadcaster ARD was detained at Istanbul airport on Tuesday morning and denied entry to the country. Schwenck had previously reported from rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
China’s stocks tumbled to the lowest levels in 13 months amid concern capital outflows may accelerate as the economy slows and after some of the nation’s most-accurate forecasters predicted further declines for equities. The Shanghai Composite Index plunged 5.2% to 2,784.88 at 2:24 p.m., heading for the lowest close since December 2014, as turnover shrank. Industrial and technology companies led declines. China Shipbuilding Industry and Hundsun Technologies slumped more than 8%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng China Enterprises Index decreased 3.2%.
Huang Weimin, whose Chinese stock-index futures wagers returned more than 6,200% last year, says the Shanghai gauge could drop another 15% in the first half as slowing economic growth and a weaker yuan fuel capital outflows. Outflows jumped in December, with the estimated 2015 total reaching a record $1 trillion, more than seven times higher than the whole of 2014 based on Bloomberg Intelligence data dating back to 2006. “The pressure for capital outflow and yuan’s devaluation is still quite big,” said Dai Ming, a fund manager at Hengsheng Asset Management in Shanghai, adding that he’s cutting equity holdings. “We haven’t seen signs of a pick-up in the economy and the first and second quarters could be challenging.”
China shares fell sharply Tuesday afternoon, as oil prices sunk lower, pulling down energy shares across the region. The Shanghai Composite Index was last down more than 4%, at 2815.65, on track for a fresh low since Dec. 2014. The benchmark is now off roughly 45% since its June peak. While most of the region started in the red, China shares notably deepened their losses around one hour before the 3 p.m. local market close. Investors have been wary that the government may be stepping back from heavy intervention in the stock market, after state-owned funds had been tasked last summer with buying shares. Late last year, coordinated buying had often come in the afternoon hours, sending shares surging.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the energy sector plunged 5.2%, dragging down the Hang Seng Index by 1.9%. The Hang Seng China Enterprises Index of Chinese firms trading in Hong Kong dropped 2.8% at 7948.28. That benchmark hit a closing low of 7835 last Thursday, and currently trades at its lowest levels since 2009. The Nikkei Stock Average fell 2.4%, with Tokyo-listed oil developer Inpex Corp. down 4.3%, South Korea’s Kospi was down 1.2%. Markets in Australia and India are closed for holidays. The same concerns that have haunted stocks this year remain: Oil prices are trading near multiyear lows, and investors are worried about a slowing China and plans by the U.S.Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. But increasingly, the oil market is driving the action.
“The volatility [in oil] is not helping restore confidence back in the market,” said Robert Levine, head of Asian sales and trading at brokerage CLSA. “It’s not easy to put on new bets.” Brent crude oil gave up gains earlier in Asia to trade down 3.2% at $29.53 a barrel. In the U.S., prices had fallen 5.7% on Monday to $30.34 a barrel. Brent oil has now fallen more than 20% this year.
The yuan traded in Hong Kong resumed declines as risk aversion crept back into global markets, spurred by a drop in oil and lingering concern about the health of China’s economy. Brent crude headed lower for a second day, causing Asian currencies and stocks to give up gains that were triggered by optimism central banks in Japan and Europe will add to monetary stimulus. Sentiment on the yuan is still fragile and any major shocks to confidence, along with policy uncertainties could significantly compound outflows, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economists led by MK Tang wrote in a note Tuesday. “The yuan is pressured as oil slumped, while the outlook for the global and Chinese economy isn’t strong,” said Banny Lam at Agricultural Bank of China International in Hong Kong.
“The yuan will remain relatively stable due to the possible lack of news or major support from policy makers as the Lunar New Year is approaching.” The offshore yuan fell 0.09% to 6.6152 a dollar as of 11:09 a.m. local time, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The onshore exchange rate was steady at 6.5796, according to China Foreign Exchange Trade System prices. The People’s Bank of China set its daily fixing in Shanghai little changed from Monday at 6.5548. Outflows from China increased to $158.7 billion in December, the most since September and were $1 trillion last year, according to estimates from Bloomberg Intelligence. That’s more than seven times the amount of cash that left in 2014.
China is willing and able to withstand temporary fluctuations in the exchange rate to gain independence of its monetary policy, Mei Xinyu, a researcher at China’s Ministry of Commerce, wrote in a commentary on the front page of the overseas edition of the People’s Daily Tuesday. The official Xinhua News Agency published a commentary on Saturday saying speculators entering short positions are expected to “suffer huge losses” as Chinese policy makers will take measures to stabilize the yuan. The PBOC has intervened repeatedly in the currency markets at home and abroad to damp depreciation pressure since it devalued the yuan in August. Meddling in the offshore yuan soaked up liquidity in Hong Kong this month and sent interbank lending rates to record highs, making selling short the currency costlier.
The authorities have also tightened capital controls to stem outflows, with measures including suspending foreign banks from conducting some cross-border business until March and imposing reserve-requirement ratios on yuan deposited onshore by overseas financial institutions since Monday. “Capital outflows will continue” as bets for further yuan depreciation still persist and investor confidence has been hit by policy risks, said Ken Cheung, a Hong Kong-based strategist at Mizuho Bank Ltd. “China won’t tolerate sharper yuan declines because its collapse would reinforce outflows, jeopardize China’s real economy, trigger a currency war and drag on the pace of internationalization.”
U.S. stocks halted a two-day rebound, with losses piling up in the last hour of trading as crude oil resumed a selloff that has rocked financial markets this year. Commodity-linked currencies slid as investors sought refuge in haven assets from gold to Treasuries. Energy and mining shares pushed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s retreat to 1.6% as U.S. crude tumbled back below $31 a barrel, winding back a sizable chunk of Friday’s gains. Sentiment was better in emerging markets, where stocks headed for their steepest two-day advance since September on bets central banks will bolster stimulus to soothe the market turbulence. While the ruble weakened against all but one of its 31 major peers and Canada’s dollar sank, gold jumped. 10-year Treasury yields dropped five basis points.
Even after it staged a recovery late last week, crude is still nearing a 20% decline this year as brimming U.S. stockpiles and the prospect of additional Iranian exports fuel anxiety over a global glut. The slump in energy prices has also amplified concern over world growth and disinflation, as it also points to weaker industrial demand. With energy and commodity companies sliding, a measure of the correlation between global stocks and oil prices over the past 120 days has climbed to 0.5, the highest level since 2013. “Obviously investors are working through some potentially difficult issues in their minds about the state of the world economy,” said John Carey at Pioneer Investment Management. “It might might be a while before we emerge from this period of uncertainty. I’ve noticed that pattern of end-of-day volatility and wonder if there are programs that kick in at the end of the day that contribute to that.”
The S&P 500 fell to 1,877.07 as of 4 p.m. in New York, following a 2% rebound on Friday. Equities are on track for their worst January since 2009 amid concern China’s slowdown will weigh on global growth, with plunging oil prices exacerbating that angst. The U.S. benchmark sank to a 21-month low last week before rallying.
Oil and stock markets have moved in lockstep this year, a rare coupling that highlights fears about global economic growth. As oil prices tumbled early in 2016, global equities recorded one of their worst-ever starts for a new year. On Monday, oil and stocks were lower again. The S&P 500 index was down 0.7% in midday New York trading, and Brent crude futures, the global benchmark, were down $1.37 a barrel, or 4.3%, to $30.81. That followed a joint rebound on Friday. The correlation between daily moves in the price of Brent and the S&P 500 stock index is at levels not seen in the past 26 years. January isn’t over yet, but over the past 20 trading days—an average month—the correlation is 0.97, higher than any calendar month since 1990, according to data from both benchmarks examined by The Wall Street Journal.
A correlation of 1 would mean oil and stock prices move by the same proportion in the same direction, while a correlation of minus 1 would mean they move proportionally in opposite directions. The unusually strong link between the two markets partly reflects a common theme driving both: fears that a slowing Chinese economy could tip the global economy into recession. But as traders and investors in each market look at the other for clues as to how bad things are, they have exacerbated the overall bearish mood. The recent pattern marks a shift in the dynamics of oil’s 19-month collapse. Traders who long worried that the oil market was suffering from oversupply are now growing concerned that demand may be weakening as well.
“There is a vicious-cycle mentality among investors,” said François Savary, chief investment officer at Prime Partners, a Swiss investment firm managing $2.6 billion of assets. “It has become self-sustaining.” Even in the oil-rich Middle East, the mood has changed. In Dubai, businessman Ramesh Manglani never used to look at the oil price when investing in equity, despite the influence of energy in the region and its companies. “Everything’s changed since last year,” Mr. Manglani said, after investing in stocks for nearly a decade. “First thing in the morning we now check oil prices and Asian markets.”
One year ago, analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch drew a parallel between the subprime mortgage crash and the disorderly fall in the price of oil. Led by Chris Flanagan, a veteran of the securitization space, the team drew attention to Markit’s ABX Index, better known as the mother of all synthetic subprime credit indexes. Created in January 2006 and consisting of a basket of credit default swaps (CDS) tied to the welfare of subprime mortgages, it allowed a bevy of investors to bet on the future direction of riskier home loans and helped inflate the massive amounts of leverage tied to the U.S. housing bubble.
More recently it played a starring role in the film version of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short—when protagonists Christian Bale, Steve Carell, et al. are tracking their bets against the U.S. housing market, they are tracking the ABX. Fast-forward to today and the BofAML analysts provide an update to their previous thesis, which was that the downward spiral in the price of oil was shaping up to look a lot like the negative trend that engulfed the subprime space circa the year 2007. Here’s what they say:
“The pattern of the decline in the price of oil that began in mid-2014 is remarkably similar to the 2007-2009 pattern of the price decline of ABX, the credit derivative index that referenced subprime mortgages and, ultimately, the U.S. housing market (Chart 1). The ABX history suggests that oil will see more declines in the next couple of months and find a floor somewhere in the low 20s in the March-April time frame. Both the duration of the decline (1.5+ years) and the scale of the decline (100 neighborhood starting price down to the sub-30 neighborhood) are similar. Given that both housing and oil prices were fueled to spectacular heights in the two periods by massive credit expansion, it’s probably more than just coincidence that the respective “bubble” bursting patterns are so similar.
Consider how things tend to work. Denial on what constitutes fair value is a big component of bubbles, on the part of both market participants and policymakers. When perceived “bubbles” burst, markets take their time in steadily shredding views of the perception of fundamental value, as prices move lower and lower. Along the way, many will cite “technical factors” as the cause of the decline, which in some way suggests the price decline may not be real when in fact it is all too real. In the end, the technicals drive the fundamentals, as credit flees and borrowers go bust, and a feedback loop lower kicks in. Lower prices beget accelerated selling, as asset owners need to raise cash. It could be margin calls or it could be producer selling needs, it doesn’t really matter: the selling becomes inevitable and turns into forced selling.”
The point here is not that oil is necessarily the new subprime crisis per se but that the recent action in the price of crude resembles nothing if not the bursting of a bubble and the sudden realization that the asset has been overvalued for too long. More worrying for oil investors will be BofAML’s idea of forced selling. As Flanagan notes: “The systemic margin call of 2008 seems to be back for now, albeit to a far lesser degree.”
Chinese officials readily admit that communication has not been their strong point when it comes to dealing with international investors. The question of how China manages the renminbi is critical for global trade and commodity prices; the market turmoil following recent changes in the currency regime was exacerbated by Beijing’s failure to explain its intentions. Policymakers have now made it explicit that they have no wish to engineer a big devaluation. However, they are much less forthcoming about how they plan to reconcile a desire for currency stability with the realities of capital flight and a slowing economy. Greater clarity would be a help to investors, who struggle at present to interpret cryptic press releases and gauge the extent of central bank intervention in markets. However, improving communication by the People’s Bank of China is not an easy matter.
In a system where even the central bank governor cannot speak with complete authority — given political constraints and resistance to its reformist policies in other parts of the Chinese state — it would constitute a revolution. Moreover, central bank guidance is most effective when the policy is clear and it is relatively straightforward to work out how it will evolve in response to changes in economic data. At present, the reality in China is that the PBoC has no clear course of action and wants to leave itself flexibility. No amount of clarification wouldhelp to varnish the underlying problem: capital flight. The corruption clampdown and a lack of investment opportunities at home are driving Chinese people to take their money out of the country, just as the prospect of higher US interest rates is prompting companies to pay off dollar debt.
Fear of a devaluation has fuelled the outflows. Far from seeking a weaker renminbi, the central bank has been forced to spend a big chunk of its reserves to prop it up. Given this continuing pressure, Chinese policymakers have few attractive options. Even with a $3.3tn stockpile, they cannot continue to run down foreign exchange reserves indefinitely, nor would the government countenance it. Raising interest rates to make domestic investments more attractive would be unlikely to slow outflows while worsening the already painful slowdown in the real economy. Letting the renminbi find its own level — while intellectually coherent — risks enormous market dislocation in the short term and would be a huge shock to the global economy. Few policymakers either within China or outside are likely to contemplate such a course.
When the financier George Soros attacked the British pound in 1992 and famously “broke the Bank of England” he was trading on a conviction that the currency was misaligned. Britain devalued after squandering its reserves in a vain defense. Mr. Soros walked off with $1 billion or more. To the surprise of many, though, the U.K. economy soon picked up once the pound found its proper level. China’s raging battles with currency speculators are unlikely to end as happily for the country. That’s because turmoil in the currency markets reflects a much more perilous imbalance than an overvalued yuan: China is now lopsidedly dependent on ever larger inputs of local bank credit to keep sputtering growth from declining further.
The country is already littered with “zombie” factories, empty apartment blocks that form ghostly suburbs, mothballed power stations and other infrastructure that nobody needs. But yet more wasteful projects are in the pipeline, even as the government talks about cutting industrial overcapacity. “That’s the misalignment—everything else is noise,” says Rodney Jones, the Beijing-based principal of Wigram Capital Advisors, who was a partner at Soros Fund Management during the 1990s. If debt keeps piling up at the current rate, China faces an eventual financial crisis, perhaps leading to years of subpar growth, mirroring the fate of Japan after its bubble burst in the early 1990s.
Mr. Jones argues that global equity markets haven’t property adjusted to this risk, even after a 16% decline in U.S. dollar terms from their May peak. “The world will have to learn to live without demand from China,” he says. “It’ll come as a shock.” A sharp devaluation won’t fix these distortions, and might even make matters worse if, as likely, it were to trigger financial mayhem in China’s trading partners. An alternative—further clamping cross-border currency controls—would be a humiliating retreat from Beijing’s policy of making the yuan more international.
China’s capital outflows jumped in December, with the estimated 2015 total reaching $1 trillion, underscoring the scale of the battle facing policy makers trying to hold up the yuan amid slower economic growth and slumping stocks. Outflows increased to $158.7 billion in December, the second-highest monthly outflow of the year after September’s $194.3 billion, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence. The total for the year soared more than seven times from $134.3 billion in the whole of 2014 to a record for Bloomberg Intelligence data dating back to 2006. December’s outflows increased by almost $50 billion from a month earlier after the central bank unnerved markets by saying it would refocus the yuan’s moves against a wider basket of currencies rather than the dollar.
In addition to capital exiting the economy, exporters are holding funds in dollars instead of converting them to yuan, said Tom Orlik, Bloomberg’s chief Asia economist in Beijing. “The immediate trigger for a pickup in capital outflows toward the end of the year was the People’s Bank of China’s poor communication over its shift in currency policy,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics Ltd. in London, who previously worked on China issues at the U.K. Treasury. “Outflows are likely to remain strong because the People’s Bank still has not been able to generate confidence among investors that it knows what it’s doing or that it’s able to achieve its policy objectives.” China’s cross-border capital flow risks are controllable and the nations’ foreign exchange reserves are ample to help it defend against external shocks, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange said on its website Jan. 21.
China’s foreign exchange reserves are seen tumbling $300 billion this year to the $3 trillion level some analysts say risks undermining confidence in the central bank’s ability to defend the currency, according to a Bloomberg News survey. Policy makers have been burning through reserves to reduce yuan volatility as the currency lost its status as a one-way bet on appreciation amid the slowest economic growth in a quarter century and an unexpected devaluation in August. The stockpile of reserves plunged $513 billion last year to $3.33 trillion, the first annual drop since 1992. Outflows spiked in September and December after currency policy changes caught markets by surprise, said Williams.
China’s business confidence and recruitment activity slipped to record lows in January, a survey showed, adding to signs of weakness in the world’s second-largest economy that could prod policymakers to roll out more support measures. The Sales Managers’ Index, compiled by London-based World Economics, fell to 51.0 in January from 51.7 in December. “The Headline SMI index fell slightly in January, but continues to suggest ongoing, albeit modest growth in economic activity,” World Economics Chief Executive Ed Jones said.
The index has averaged 51.4 since the second half of last year, indicating China’s economic activity is still growing steadily, albeit at a much slower rate than a year ago. The Sales Managers’ Index covers all private sectors of the economy. It is designed to reflect overall economic growth, bringing together the average movement of Confidence, Market Expansion, Product Sales, Prices Charged and Staffing Indices. The staffing index fell to 50.3 in January, near the 50 no-change mark, from 50.8 in December, hitting its lowest since the survey began, as businesses have become more hesitant to recruit as economic activity weakens, the survey showed.
Nearly seven years after the Great Recession, millions of Americans are stuck in a financial rut. Home ownership rates are at an historic low, renters are burdened by rising rents and — even though unemployment has fallen considerably in recent years — the percentage of underemployed Americans is twice those who are unemployed, according to the “2016 Assets & Opportunity Scorecard” released Monday by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. focused on expanding opportunity for low-income households. It assessed the 50 states and the District of Columbia on 61 measurements spanning financial assets and income, businesses and jobs, housing, health care and education. It also ranked these states on 69 policies that promote financial security.
Building up even a small amount of savings is a challenge. In fact, 44% of households are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they have less than three months of savings to live above the poverty level if they suffer a loss of income, the report notes, echoing the findings in several recent surveys on American savings. “Housing expense reduces income to pay for food, doctors and child care, leaving bills that can’t be paid on time and forcing consumers to take on high-cost, short-term loans,” it adds. (Over half of renters spend more than 30% of their gross income on rent, the traditional measure of affordability, according to data released last year by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.) Among the other key highlights, home ownership rates are hovering at just under 64% in the final quarter of 2015, still near the lowest level in three decades.
And while the national unemployment rate has fallen to 5% in December 2015, down from a recent high of 10% in October 2009, the underemployment rate was nearly 9.9% in December 2015, showing that people are still struggling to find full-time employment. “What’s more, one-in-four jobs are in a low-wage occupation,” the report adds. (On a more positive note, the government recently said more than 11 million people had signed up for the Affordable Care Act, including 4 million under the age of 35.)
Americans are still struggling to regain their pre-recession wealth and the scorecard estimates that this is far worse for people of color. Households of color are 2.1 times more likely to live below the federal poverty level and 1.7 times more likely to lack liquid savings, it says. “Those who once enjoyed a modicum of financial stability have settled into a new normal of ongoing financial vulnerability, while the struggles of those who were financially insecure before the recession have only deepened,” the authors write. “The number of households below the poverty line has barely budged and millions of low- and moderate-income people live paycheck to paycheck.”
Does anyone remember the national debt? Judging from the presidential campaign so far, perhaps we should put the debt’s image on a milk carton somewhere. In the last Republican debate, there was precisely one question on the debt — and the candidates answered it by talking about their tax plans. That was far too typical. According to the FiveThirtyEight website, “the deficit” was mentioned an average of two times in the first five televised Republican debates (including the “undercard” debates) by all the candidates — and the moderators — combined. And “the national debt” was brought up an average of 6.5 times. This compares to an average of 3.2 “deficit” mentions and 10.9 “debt” mentions in the 20 GOP debates during the 2012 campaign.
But while the candidates have been wrangling over such vital issues as fantasy sports betting or Ted Cruz’s citizenship status, our growing sea of red ink has quietly risen toward $19 trillion. One might think our impending national bankruptcy might be worth a bit more attention. In his State of the Union address, President Obama took a bow for reducing our annual budget deficit by two-thirds during his time in office. He’s correct. Since its high of $1.4 trillion in 2009, the deficit had dropped to just $439 billion last year, although the president failed to mention that his policies, including the 2009 stimulus bill, helped drive the deficit to those record levels, and policies that he opposed, such as sequestration, helped bring it down.
But the respite is just temporary. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s newest estimates, released yesterday, the deficit is already rising again, and will exceed $544 billion this year. By 2022, just six years from now, we will once again be experiencing trillion-dollar deficits every year. And even with lower deficits, the national debt is still rising. By 2025, our debt will top $27 trillion. Yet, Congress is not only kicking the can down the road, it is making the problem worse. Just last year, Congress put in place spending that will raise the debt by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget called 2015 “a banner year for fiscal irresponsibility.” And none of this includes the more than $69 trillion in unfunded liabilities being run up by Medicare and Social Security. But out on the campaign trail? Crickets.
The total value of all developed real estate on the globe reached US$217 trillion in 2015, according to calculations by international real estate adviser, Savills. The analysis, published today for the first time, measures the entire developed property universe including commercial and residential property as well as forestry and agricultural land. The value of global property in 2015 amounted to 2.7 times the world’s GDP, making up roughly 60% of mainstream global assets and representing an important store of national, corporate and individual wealth. Residential property accounted for 75% of the total value of global property.
Yolande Barnes, head of Savills world research, comments: “To give this figure context, the total value of all the gold ever mined is approximately US$6 trillion, which pales in comparison to the total value of developed property by a factor of 36 to 1. “The value of global real estate exceeds – by almost a third – the total value of all globally traded equities and securitised debt instruments put together and this highlights the important role that real estate plays in economies worldwide. Real estate is the pre-eminent asset class which will be most impacted by global monetary conditions and investment activity and which, in turn, has the power to most impact national and international economies.” In recent years, quantitative easing and resulting low interest rates have suppressed real estate yields and fuelled high levels of asset appreciation globally.
Investment activity and capital growth has swept around the major real estate markets of the world and led to asset price inflation in many instances. Overall, the biggest and most important component of global real estate value is the homes that people live in, totalling US$162 trillion. The sector has the largest spread of ownership with approximately 2.5 billion households and is most closely tied with the fortunes of ordinary people. Residential real estate value is broadly distributed in line with the size of affluent populations: China accounts for nearly a quarter of the total value, containing nearly a fifth of the world’s population. Yet the weight of value lies with the West, over a fifth (21%) of the world’s total residential asset value is in North America despite the fact that only 5% of the population lives there.
First-time homebuyers are finally jumping into the U.S. property market. Need proof? Look at the mortgage market’s fastest-growing segment: loans with low down payments insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Originations of FHA-backed mortgages, used predominately by first-time buyers, were up 54% in September from a year earlier, according to the most recent data from CoreLogic. By December, the FHA insured 22% of all loan originations, up from 17% a year earlier, according to data compiled by Ellie Mae. “The FHA will be a contributing factor to homeownership rising again in America,” said David Lykken, president and founder of Transformational Mortgage Solutions in Austin, Texas. “We’re seeing the return of first-time buyers.”
President Barack Obama’s administration, in January 2015, reduced mortgage-insurance premiums for FHA loans. That lowered the cost of getting a home loan and brought in at least 75,000 new borrowers with credit scores of less than 680, according to a November report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rate of FHA lending, which had been in decline through most of 2014, tripled the month after the insurance premium was cut, according to CoreLogic. The FHA estimates that borrowers save $900 a year on average as a result of the lower premium. The move made FHA-backed mortgages more competitive with other loans that have low-down-payment options, said Guy Cecala, publisher of the newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance.
While mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have an option for borrowers to put down as little as 3%, they require private insurance with risk-adjusted premiums based on credit scores, debt-to-income ratios and other factors. “It still costs more to get a 3%-down loan with Fannie and Freddie if you have a lower FICO score,” Cecala said. The homeownership rate in the third quarter was 63.7%, up from 63.4% in the previous three months and the first quarterly rise in two years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is scheduled to release fourth-quarter data next week. “Last year’s decision to lower premiums was designed to open the door to those previously priced out of homeownership,” HUD Secretary Julian Castro said in an email. “We’ve seen positive results with new buyers entering the market and making the American dream of homeownership a reality.”
The Town’n Country grocery in Oriental, North Carolina, a local fixture for 44 years, closed its doors in October after a Wal-Mart store opened for business. Now, three months later — and less than two years after Wal-Mart arrived — the retail giant is pulling up stakes, leaving the community with no grocery store and no pharmacy. Though mom-and-pop stores have steadily disappeared across the American landscape over the past three decades as the mega chain methodically expanded, there was at least always a Wal-Mart left behind to replace them. Now the Wal-Marts are disappearing, too. “I was devastated when I found out. We had a pharmacy and a perfectly satisfactory grocery store. Maybe Wal-Mart sold apples for a nickel less,” said Barb Venturi, mayor pro tem for Oriental, with a population of about 900.
“If you take into account what no longer having a grocery store does to property values here, it is a significant impact for us.” Oriental is hardly alone. Wal-Mart said on Jan. 15 it would be closing all 102 of its smaller Express stores, many in isolated towns, to focus on its supercenters and mid-sized Neighborhood Markets. The move, which will begin by the end of the month, was a relatively quick about-face. As recently as 2014, Wal-Mart was touting the solid performance of its smaller stores and announced plans to open an additional 90. That’s a big problem for small towns, often with proportionately large elderly populations. For the older folks of Oriental – a retirement and summer vacation town along the inter-coastal waterway – the next-nearest grocery and pharmacy is a 50-minute round-trip drive.
Wal-Mart says it is sensitive to the dislocations its business decisions are causing. “In towns impacted by store closures, we have had hundreds of conversations with elected officials and community leaders to discuss relevant issues and we are working with communities on how we can be helpful,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick. Wal-Mart has been under increasing pressure lately as sales in the U.S. have failed to keep up with rising labor costs. It’s also been spending more on its Web operations. In October, the company announced that profit this year would be down as much as 12%. The outlook contributed to a share decline of 29% during the past 12 months. “It is more important now than ever to review our portfolio and close the stores and clubs that should be closed,” Wal-Mart’s Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a statement on the company’s website.
For the first new refinery in the U.S. in seven years, the idea was simple: Buy cheap oil from shale producers, then score a quick profit by selling it right back to them as more expensive diesel needed to power their trucks and drilling rigs. Now the shale bust is threatening to ruin a renaissance in small refineries, known as teapots, before it even begins. When Dakota Prairie Refining was building its plant in 2014, it could buy some of the cheapest oil in America and sell among the most expensive diesel in America. But the oil bust obliterated its local diesel market, along with the fat premium the fuel used to fetch, as its potential customers shut down operations.
In the fall of 2014, when tiny Dakota Prairie was getting ready to open its processing plant in Dickinson, North Dakota, diesel fuel near the state’s Bakken oil fields sold for $100 a barrel more than the oil produced there. Now it’s selling for just $16 a barrel more. “The last thing you want to be doing right now is running a refinery that makes a lot of diesel and very little gasoline,” said Robert Campbell at Energy Aspects. It’s a “double whammy,” he said, as the diesel market weakens worldwide and demand in their specific local market plunges. Dakota Prairie lacks the pipelines and storage units a larger refiner uses to sell to customers farther away, and it’s not equipped to make vehicle-ready gasoline instead of diesel. “These guys don’t have alternative markets, and they don’t have a lot of competitiveness to export, so they’re pretty stuck,” Campbell said.
While the Washington snowstorm dominated news coverage this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was operating behind the scenes to rush through the Senate what may be the most massive transfer of power from the Legislative to the Executive branch in our history. The senior Senator from Kentucky is scheming, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, to bypass normal Senate procedure to fast-track legislation to grant the president the authority to wage unlimited war for as long as he or his successors may wish. The legislation makes the unconstitutional Iraq War authorization of 2002 look like a walk in the park. It will allow this president and future presidents to wage war against ISIS without restrictions on time, geographic scope, or the use of ground troops. It is a completely open-ended authorization for the president to use the military as he wishes for as long as he (or she) wishes.
Even President Obama has expressed concern over how willing Congress is to hand him unlimited power to wage war. President Obama has already far surpassed even his predecessor, George W. Bush, in taking the country to war without even the fig leaf of an authorization. In 2011 the president invaded Libya, overthrew its government, and oversaw the assassination of its leader, without even bothering to ask for Congressional approval. Instead of impeachment, which he deserved for the disastrous Libya invasion, Congress said nothing. House Republicans only managed to bring the subject up when they thought they might gain political points exploiting the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
It is becoming more clear that Washington plans to expand its war in the Middle East. Last week the media reported that the US military had taken over an air base in eastern Syria, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the US would send in the 101st Airborne Division to retake Mosul in Iraq and to attack ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. Then on Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden said that if the upcoming peace talks in Geneva are not successful, the US is prepared for a massive military intervention in Syria. Such an action would likely place the US military face to face with the Russian military, whose assistance was requested by the Syrian government. In contrast, we must remember that the US military is operating in Syria in violation of international law.
The number of children under five who are overweight or obese has risen to 41 million, from 31 million in 1990, according to figures released by a World Health Organisation commission. The statistics, published by the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, mean that 6.1% of under-fives were overweight or obese in 2014, compared with 4.8% in 1990. The number of overweight children in lower middle-income countries more than doubled over the same period, from 7.5 million to 15.5 million. In 2014, 48% of all overweight and obese children aged under five lived in Asia, and 25% in Africa. The expert panel, commissioned by the WHO, said progress in tackling the problem had been “slow and inconsistent” and called for increased political commitment, saying there was a “moral responsibility” to act on behalf of children.
Peter Gluckman, a co-chair of the commission, said childhood obesity had become “an exploding nightmare” in the developing world. He added: “It’s not the kids’ fault. You can’t blame a two-year-old child for being fat and lazy and eating too much.” The report’s authors said that addressing the problem must start before the child is conceived and continue into pregnancy, through to infancy, childhood and adolescence. They pointed out that where a mother entering pregnancy is obese or has diabetes, the child is predisposed “to increased fat deposits associated with metabolic disease and obesity”. Many children are growing up in environments encouraging weight gain and obesity, they observed. “The behavioural and biological responses of a child to the obesogenic environment can be shaped by processes even before birth, placing an even greater number of children on the pathway to becoming obese when faced with an unhealthy diet and low physical activity,” they said.
The trend for increasingly extreme and frequent weather matching climate change forecasts has been put into stark perspective by the latest data while the economic impact of one of the strongest El Nino’s on record is acting as a red warning light of worse to come, if the world does not act fast enough to cut the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Drawing on consolidated analysis of the world’s major meteorological agencies, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has confirmed that the global average surface temperature in 2015 broke all previous records by a wide margin. For the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1°C above the pre-industrial era.
The WMO says that the fifteen of the 16 hottest years on record have all been this century, with 2015 being significantly warmer than the record-level temperatures seen in 2014. Underlining the long-term trend, 2011-15 is the warmest five-year period on record. The news comes as Asia is experiencing unusually cold weather and the United States a major blizzard, a sobering reminder that climate change is about extreme impacts from all kinds of weather as the weather systems we have taken for granted for so long shift into more chaotic patterns under the influence of the greenhouse effect.
No single weather event can be attributed to climate change but the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is increasing as predicted as global average temperatures rise, and this will have severe economic implications. For example, a warmer world means fewer days of snowfall, but heavier snowfall on those days when it does snow. This is because snow requires moist air, and a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture.
The European Union edged closer on Monday to accepting that its Schengen open-borders area may be suspended for up to two years if it fails in the next few weeks to curb the influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Shorter-term dispensations for border controls end in May. EU migration ministers meeting in Amsterdam decided they may be extended for two years – an unprecedented extension – because the migrant crisis probably will not be brought under control by then, according to the Dutch migration minister, who chaired the meeting. Some ministers made clear such a – theoretically temporary – move would cut off Greece, where more than 40,000 people have arrived by sea from Turkey this year, despite a deal with Ankara two months ago to hold back an exodus of Syrian refugees.
More than 60 have drowned on the crossing since Jan. 1. Greek officials noted that closing routes northward, even if physically possible, would not solve the problem. But electoral pressure on governments, including in the EU’s leading power Germany, to stem the flow and resist efforts to spread asylum seekers across the bloc are making free-travel rules untenable. “We are running out of time,” said EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. He urged states to implement agreed measures for managing movements of migrants across the continent — or else face the collapse of the 30-year-old Schengen zone.
But the Dutch minister, Klaas Dijkhoff, said time has effectively already run out to preserve the passport-free regime. The system has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to make chaotic treks from Greece and Italy to Germany and Sweden over the past year. “The ‘or else’ is already happening,” he said. “A year ago, we all warned that if we don’t come up with a solution, then Schengen will be under pressure. It already is.” Under pressure from domestic opinion, several governments have already reintroduced controls at their borders with fellow EU states. Those controls should be better coordinated, said Dijkhoff, whose government last year floated the idea of a “mini-Schengen”, which critics saw as a way for Germany and its northern neighbours to bar the influx from the Mediterranean.
Greece has hit back at European proposals for tightened security on its northern border with Macedonia, describing the latest plans to staunch the flow of refugees into Europe as a dangerous experiment that would traumatise the country. The proposals to dispatch joint police forces along Macedonia s border with Greece first outlined in a letter sent by Miro Cerar, prime minister of Slovenia, to fellow EU leaders last week have gained political momentum ahead of a meeting of EU interior ministers in Amsterdam on Monday. The plan seeks to shift the frontline of Europe’s refugee control efforts to the northern part of Greece, where the government is already straining to manage the influx with limited resources.
A Slovenian government statement on Friday claimed the proposal would allow an end to internal Schengen border controls and said it had received strong backing from central European countries, including Hungary and Poland, while positive signals had been received from Brussels. EU officials were in Macedonia on Friday to assess conditions on the ground ahead of Monday s talks. A letter from Jean Claude Juncker to Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, seen by the Financial Times, shows that the European Commission has outlined its backing for the plan.
“I welcome your suggestion that all EU member states should provide assistance to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia authorities to support controls on the border with Greece through the secondment of police/law enforcement officers, and the provision of equipment”, the commission president wrote. Mr Juncker reiterated that EU countries have the right to block entry to people who do not want to apply for asylum in that country in order to apply elsewhere in Europe. “Member states should indeed refuse entry at the external border to third-country nationals who do not satisfy the entry conditions, including third-country nationals who have not made an asylum application despite having had the opportunity to do so”.
But Ioannis Mouzalas, Greece’s minister for migration, said ringfencing Greece from the Schengen zone would not stop asylum seekers making their way to northern Europe, adding that Athens had not been consulted on the plan in advance. Instead, Mr Mouzalas called for greater assistance for Turkey to help it reduce the numbers crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece. More than 2,000 asylum seekers arrive from Turkey each day before making the journey overland to the EU through the western Balkans. “It’s not easy to trap [asylum seekers] and we do not intend to become a cemetery of souls here. We cannot understand what kind of policy it is that a country would close its borders with Greece,” he said on Sunday evening. “We do not have time to experiment with things that will only worsen the trauma.”