Jan 052018
 
 January 5, 2018  Posted by at 10:30 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  8 Responses »
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GordonParks Place de la Concorde, Paris, France 1950

 

UPDATE: There still seems to be a problem with our Paypal widget/account that makes donating -both for our fund for homless and refugees in Greece, and for the Automatic Earth itself- hard for some people. What happens is that for some a message pops up that says “This recipient does not accept payments denominated in USD”. This is nonsense, we do. We notified Paypal weeks ago.

We have no idea how many people have simply given up on donating, but we can suggest a workaround (works like a charm):

Through Paypal.com, you can simply donate to an email address. In our case that is recedinghorizons *at* gmail *com*. Use that, and your donations will arrive where they belong. Sorry for the inconvenience.

 

 

 

Global Debt Hits Record $233 Trillion (BBG)
The Tsunami Of Wealth Didn’t Trickle Down. It Surged Upward – Buffett (CNBC)
Apple Says All Macs, iPhones and iPads Exposed to Chip Security Flaws (BBG)
2018 Economy Goes Cold – Inflation Hot – Danielle DiMartino Booth (USAW)
Inflation Risk May Shake Global Markets (BBG)
Economists Think Inflation Will Rise Sharply in 2018: They’re Wrong (Mish)
China Won’t Be Prioritizing Growth This Year – Andy Xie (CNBC)
‘Melt-Up’ Coinage Could Signal Last Hurrah For US Stock Market (G.)
US on The Cusp of Enjoying ‘Energy Superpower’ Status (CNBC)
A Good German Idea for 2018 (Varoufakis)
Monsanto Forecasts Profit Increase as Farmers Plant More Soy (BBG)
Greek State To Start Its Own E-auctions (K.)
Work To Improve Greek Island Centers For Refugees Moving Slowly (K.)
Oceanic ‘Dead Zones’ Quadruple In Volume In 50 Years (Ind.)
Iguanas Rain From Trees As Animals Struggle With US Cold Snap (G.)

 

 

Private debt is the one to watch. Up rapidly in Canada, France, Hong Kong, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey. And Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Holland.

Global Debt Hits Record $233 Trillion (BBG)

Global debt rose to a record $233 trillion in the third quarter of 2017, more than $16 trillion higher from end-2016, according to an analysis by the Institute of International Finance. Private non-financial sector debt hit all-time highs in Canada, France, Hong Kong, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey. At the same time, though, the ratio of debt-to-GDP fell for the fourth consecutive quarter as economic growth accelerated. The ratio is now around 318%, 3 percentage points below a high set in the third quarter of 2016, according to the IIF. “A combination of factors including synchronized above-potential global growth, rising inflation (China, Turkey), and efforts to prevent a destabilizing build-up of debt (China, Canada) have all contributed to the decline,” IIF analysts wrote in a note. Yet the debt pile could act as a brake on central banks trying to raise interest rates, given worries about the debt servicing capacity of highly indebted firms and government, the IIF analysts wrote.

Read more …

Warren in praise of technology. Blind and boring. “This game of economic miracles is in its early innings. Americans will benefit from far more and better ‘stuff’ in the future.”

The Tsunami Of Wealth Didn’t Trickle Down. It Surged Upward – Buffett (CNBC)

Warren Buffett knows first hand the power of American capitalism. As the third richest person in the world, with a net worth of more than $86 billion, the octogenarian investor has personally benefited from it. And yet, in a piece penned for Time magazine, published Thursday, Buffett says there is a problem with that economic system, which made him a king: Many individuals suffer even as those at the top prosper wildly. He points to the Forbes 400, which lists the wealthiest Americans. “Between the first computation in 1982 and today, the wealth of the 400 increased 29-fold — from $93 billion to $2.7 trillion — while many millions of hardworking citizens remained stuck on an economic treadmill. During this period, the tsunami of wealth didn’t trickle down. It surged upward.”

America’s capitalist economy requires its winners not ignore the system’s faults, says Buffett. The market system has “left many people hopelessly behind, particularly as it has become ever more specialized. These devastating side effects can be ameliorated: a rich family takes care of all its children, not just those with talents valued by the marketplace,” writes Buffett. He also notes that, in particular, those workers replaced by technological advancements will be left behind. “This game of economic miracles is in its early innings. Americans will benefit from far more and better ‘stuff’ in the future. The challenge will be to have this bounty deliver a better life to the disrupted as well as to the disrupters,” Buffett writes. “And on this matter, many Americans are justifiably worried.”

In the long term, those technological advancements are a boon for the economy. But in the short term, they cause unemployment and anxiety for those who lose their jobs to automation and are left unemployed. To demonstrate his point, Buffett points to 1776, when the United States declared its independence, and the evolution of farming technology. “Replicating those early days would require that 80% or so of today’s workers be employed on farms simply to provide the food and cotton we need. So why does it take only 2% of today’s workers to do this job? Give the credit to those who brought us tractors, planters, cotton gins, combines, fertilizer, irrigation and a host of other productivity improvements,” writes Buffett.

“We know today that the staggering productivity gains in farming were a blessing. They freed nearly 80% of the nation’s workforce to redeploy their efforts into new industries that have changed our way of life.” Indeed, despite the warnings, Buffett is optimistic. “In 1776, America set off to unleash human potential by combining market economics, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. This foundation was an act of genius that in only 241 years converted our original villages and prairies into $96 trillion of wealth,” he says.

Read more …

Don’t be fooled: this is not a flaw, it’s a feature. It’ll be interesting to see how companies aim to fix a pretty much hardware feature with a software patch.

Apple Says All Macs, iPhones and iPads Exposed to Chip Security Flaws (BBG)

Apple said all Mac computers and iOS devices, like iPhones and iPads, are affected by chip security flaws unearthed this week, but the company stressed there are no known exploits impacting users. The company said recent software updates for iPads, iPhones, iPod touches, Mac desktops and laptops, and the Apple TV set-top-box mitigate one of the vulnerabilities known as Meltdown. The Apple Watch, which runs a derivative of the iPhone’s operating system is not affected, according to the company. Despite concern that fixes may slow down devices, Apple said its steps to address the Meltdown issue haven’t dented performance.

The company will release an update to its Safari web browser in coming days to defend against another form of the security flaw known as Spectre. These steps could slow the speed of the browser by less than 2.5 percent, Apple said in a statement posted on its website. Intel on Wednesday confirmed a report stating that its semiconductors contain a vulnerability based around a chip-processing technique called speculative execution. Intel said its chips, which power Macs and devices from other manufacturers, contain the flaw as well as processors based on ARM Holdings architecture, which is used in iOS devices and Android smartphones.

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Danielle DiMartino Booth seems like a smart person. But “We can have deflation and inflation at the same time.” is utter nonsense. If only because defining inflation without referencing money velocity is a useless exercise.

2018 Economy Goes Cold – Inflation Hot – Danielle DiMartino Booth (USAW)

“We have seen 24 consecutive back-to-back months when credit card spending has outpaced incomes. That tells you households are struggling to get by. This is not Yves Saint Laurent handbags and Jimmy Choo shoes. These are families who are using their credit cards to take care of the necessities, to fill up the gas tank, to buy groceries and fill up their refrigerator… We have seen month after month of subprime automobile delinquencies, and we are starting to see a big tic up in FHA mortgage delinquencies as well. …We are at almost 10% (delinquencies) of FHA mortgage loans. Underlying this sugar high that we will see from all of these hurricanes and rebuilding efforts and wildfires, underneath that, still waters run deep and the economy is not doing well. We are a consumption driven economy that is weakening underneath. The sugar high will absolutely wear off in 2018.”

What about the bond market in 2018? Booth says, “We have gone from $150 trillion (in global debt) in 2007 to $220 trillion and counting today. If you delude yourself into thinking a rising rate environment can be good when we have tacked on $70 trillion of debt in the last decade, you are fooling yourself. It is an accident waiting to happen, and anyone who doesn’t think that it will take the stock market down with it is more optimistic than I am by a country mile.” Booth says, along with a “bond market debacle,” the world will see inflation right along with it. Booth explains, “Look at lumber prices, look at the cost of packaging, plastics, raw materials, the producer price index… is at a six year high right now. It’s called the mother of all margin squeezes.

Companies are suffering. We have inflation. We have very real inflation, and it is hitting corporate America between the eyes. We have seen inflation happening, and we continue to see it happening… Rental inflation is off the scale…Inflation is up for 2018, and it has been up. We can have deflation and inflation at the same time. If all of this debt that has built up, especially for households, if they are allocating more of their income to servicing debt, then they have fewer dollars to spend on other things. So, you are going to have deflation and inflation at the same time.” What does the regular guy on the street do? Booth says, “Figure out a way to have exposure to precious metals. Put your bubble vision on mute. You do not have to be invested in the market. That is a fallacy. Take what you have and pay down your debts.”

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This whole discussion is vapid. Central banks have been trying in vain for over a decade to push up inflation, and now, overnight, they have not just succeeded, but overdone it?

Inflation Risk May Shake Global Markets (BBG)

Investors devoted to the idea that inflation will stay subdued should be worried. Worldwide data have recently made clear that producer-price increases have picked up steam. That’s led bond buyers to begin wagering that consumer inflation could be soon to follow, with U.S. breakeven rates above 2 percent in many tenors for the first time since March. The shift represents a sea change for investors who have grown complacent about the threat of rising prices over the past few years, when inflation was subdued by modest economic growth rates, suppressed wages and shifts in technology and demographics. While few are betting on runaway increases anytime soon, even a modest uptick in prices could have an outsize impact on sentiment and change the prevailing narrative.

“There is this idea that inflation is dead,” said Peter Boockvar, the chief financial officer at Fairfield, New Jersey-based Bleakley Financial Group. “But what we are beginning to see – such as in the purchasing managers index surveys – is a lot of talk about inflation pressures. For the markets, inflation is an under appreciated risk in 2018.’ The latest sign of prices pressures came Wednesday. U.S. manufacturing expanded in December at the fastest pace in three months, as gains in orders and production capped the strongest year for factories since 2004, the Institute for Supply Management said. The index of prices paid rose to 69 from 65.5 the month before.

Factories across the globe have warned they are finding it increasingly hard to keep up with demand, potentially forcing them to raise prices as the world economy looks set to enjoy its strongest year since 2011. Purchasing Managers Indexes published Tuesday from countries including China, Germany, France, Canada and the U.K. all pointed to deeper supply constraints.

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Mish is one of the few who still understand the issue. Yes, it’s about definitions. But that doesn’t mean any definition is as as good as the next one.

Economists Think Inflation Will Rise Sharply in 2018: They’re Wrong (Mish)

Reason Number Five – Money Velocity This reason I found in a Tweet by LizAnn Sonders.

Money Velocity Rebuttal: A three month average vs a six month average offset by 21 months seems like a lot of curve fitting. Here is a Tweet Reply by Martin Pelletier that makes sense to me.

By the way, let’s look at what we are talking about here in actual terms instead of percentage increases.

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Beijing telegraphing lower growth.

China Won’t Be Prioritizing Growth This Year – Andy Xie (CNBC)

China’s fears of a financial crisis will spur Beijing to keep the country’s growth target in check, a widely followed China expert said Friday. “Their top priority is to prevent a financial crisis, so the government is looking for any pockets (of risk) that might be a trigger,” independent economist Andy Xie told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” Chinese authorities have been cracking down on money fleeing the country and warning on “gray rhinos,” which are risks that could potentially be solved but have been unaddressed so far. “The government does not view growth as the top priority right now — we have to take the government’s word at face value. The government is worried about financial risk,” Xie added.

China will keep its target for economic growth at “around 6.5%” in 2018, unchanged from last year, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing unnamed policy sources. The world’s second-largest economy has been fighting debt for years, but with little success so far as it balances economic stability against fallout from a sharp deceleration. There have also been difficulties with the political buy-in for the debt crackdown. That’s been especially true down the Communist Party pecking order as many local governments still need to hit growth targets. “It takes time to filter down the ranks. Most government officials still don’t believe in the new direction,” said Xie.

However, unlike officials in previous administrations, Xie said current ones are likely to be changed if they don’t agree with the current economic direction, so the government will have more power to push through its agenda. Policies are working toward that direction, with higher interbank interest rates that will remain at elevated levels for the foreseeable future, Xie added. China is also looking to further slow money supply growth in 2018 after it already slowed to the all-time low around 9% in November 2017. With China likely headed toward a money supply growth rate of 7 to 8% in the next few years, it will be a “very different situation” for the economy, said Xie.

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A bit more on Jeremy Grantham: “Keep an eye on what the TVs at lunchtime eateries are showing..”

‘Melt-Up’ Coinage Could Signal Last Hurrah For US Stock Market (G.)

Welcome to the world of “melt-up”, a phrase we could be hearing a lot in coming months. It describes the idea that the US stock market, despite currently looking absurdly expensive by traditional yardsticks, could be set for one last euphoric hurrah before the inevitable crash happens. There are a couple of reasons why the “melt-up” theory may not be as wacky as it sounds. First, it comes from Jeremy Grantham, an investor who has rightly earned a reputation for knowing how to read financial bubbles. He dodged the end-of-the-century dotcom bubble and the 2007-09 blowup in the US housing market – two of the best calls anybody could have made in the past 20 years. Grantham’s default setting, as you would expect, tends to be bearish, or at least cautious. If he’s talking melt-up, that’s newsworthy.

Besides, GMO, the Boston-based fund management group he founded, manages $75bn of assets – he’s a player. A second reason is that Grantham is certainly not arguing that shares are cheap. “We can be as certain as we ever get in stock market analysis that the current price is exceptionally high,” he states. Instead, his melt-up thinking is driven by a “mish-mash of statistical and psychological factors based on previous eras”. On the statistical side, he points out that the global economy is in sync, profit margins are fat and president Trump’s corporate tax cuts could make them even fatter and “perhaps provide the oomph to keep stock prices rising”. Then there’s the fact that the current strength in the stock market is fairly broad-based. In past bubbles, the end was nigh when gains were concentrated in an increasingly small collection of “winners”.

The likes of Apple are roaring this time, but the same divergence has not occurred – yet. For “touchy-feely” evidence of excess about to appear, Grantham looks at media coverage. US newspapers and TV stations are getting interested in financial markets (with bitcoin, “a true, crazy mini-bubble of its own”, to the fore) but not yet with the wild obsession of the frenzied dotcom years. “Keep an eye on what the TVs at lunchtime eateries are showing,” he says.

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So much for OPEC cuts.

US on The Cusp of Enjoying ‘Energy Superpower’ Status (CNBC)

The U.S. is well-placed to join the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia as one of the world’s leading energy powerhouses, an analyst said Thursday. “There is a big shift in market structure taking place and I think, so far, it really hasn’t got the attention it deserves. The U.S. is emerging as, not only a military and economic superpower, but as an energy superpower,” Martin Fraenkel, president at S&P Global Platts, told CNBC. “We are expecting that by 2020, the U.S. is going to be one of the top 10 oil exporters in the world,” he added. In recent years, America’s unprecedented oil and gas boom has been driven by one factor above all others — and that’s shale.

The so-called shale revolution could help to alleviate Washington’s reliance on foreign oil, including from turbulent Middle Eastern states, while also helping to export to more countries around the world. In November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected a dramatic increase in shale production could transform the U.S. into the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas by the mid-2020s. The same forecast also predicted that the U.S. would likely notch another milestone a couple of years later. The Paris-based organization said that by the late-2020s, the U.S. would begin to ship more oil to foreign markets than it imports. “This is a big, big shift in the dynamics of energy markets and, in my view, will be a shift in geopolitical markets as well,” Fraenkel said.

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Not sure Germany and France are too likely to philosophize their dominance away.

A Good German Idea for 2018 (Varoufakis)

No god is necessary, no moralizing is required, to demonstrate our duty to tell the truth. Practical reasoning is all it takes: A world where everyone lies is one in which human rationality, which depends entirely on language, dies. So it is our rational duty to tell the truth, regardless of the benefits lying might bring in practice. Applied to market societies, Kant’s idea yields fascinating conclusions. Strategic reductions in price to undercut a competitor pass the test of rational duty (as long as prices do not fall below costs). After all, producing maximum quantities at minimum prices is the holy grail of any economy. But strategic reductions of wages to ever lower levels (the Uberization of society) cannot be rational, because the result would be a catastrophic collapse, owing to disappearing aggregate demand.

Turning to Europe, Kant’s principle implies important duties for governments and polities. And Germany and France would be held to be in dereliction of their duties to a functioning Europe. If Germany’s current-account surpluses, currently running at 9% of GDP, were universalized, with every member state’s government, private sector, and households net savers, the euro would shoot through the roof, destroying most of Europe’s manufacturing. Equally, universalized Greco-Latin deficits would turn Europe into a basket case.

The trick, and our rational duty, is to embrace policies and to build institutions that are consistent with balanced trade and financial flows. Put differently, authentic German rectitude cannot be achieved without a form of redistribution that is bound to clash with the interests of, say, a French or a Greek oligarchy too lazy to come to terms with its own unsustainability. A critic of this German idea for reforming Europe might credibly ask why anyone should do their rational duty, rather than remain on the time-honored path of narrow self-interest? The only sound answer is: because there is no truly rational alternative. Or, rather, the alternatives are all cant.

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We’re running out of time to block Monsanto.

Monsanto Forecasts Profit Increase as Farmers Plant More Soy (BBG)

Everything’s pointing to another year of growth for U.S. seed giant Monsanto. Pretax earnings in the fiscal year through August are expected to increase, the company said Thursday is its first-quarter earnings statement. Commodity prices have stabilized from the free-fall of recent years, with corn prices starting 2018 at the same price they began 2017. Like last year, farmers are expected to buy the most expensive, newest hybrid seeds, and companies won’t have to slash prices to keep customers. Prices “are challenging for growers, but when the environment is stable, they can figure out how to operate in that environment,” Brett Wong at Piper Jaffray & Co., said by phone. “The industry has stabilized and there’s good demand for new products.”

While the company isn’t providing detailed guidance for full-year earnings, as its $66 billion takeover by Germany’s Bayer is still pending, Monsanto will be helped by growth in its soybean business. U.S. farmers are planting the crop more than ever, devoting as many acres to the oilseed as they will to corn. Adoption of Xtend, the company’s new herbicide system for soy, is expected to double in acreage this year. South American farmers are also buying more of the company’s Intacta-branded soybean seeds, which are resistant to caterpillars, and at higher prices, Christopher Perrella, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, said in a note last month. Recent U.S. tax reform legislation will have a positive impact on Monsanto’s effective tax rate in fiscal 2019, the company said. Early estimates are that the rate for the current financial year shouldn’t be more than 30%, and could be lower.

Monsanto expects the Bayer deal to close in early 2018, with about half of regulatory approvals secured so far. It also said its digital agriculture platform, Climate FieldView, was on 35 million paid acres last year, and expects the total to grow to 50 million acres. Roundup, Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide, is also making a comeback. The price of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller, is rebounding faster than expected as Chinese producers of generic brands cut output due to environmental restrictions, Don Carson, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group, said in a note. The increase for gross profit in 2018 for the company’s unit that produces glyphosate will exceed $1 billion for the first time in three years, according to Carson.

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The Greek state is in a very bad position to auction off properties.

Greek State To Start Its Own E-auctions (K.)

The Greek state is planning to launch its own online auctions – to be conducted according to properties’ market value – with a legislative intervention that will bring the country in line with its commitments to international creditors. The Finance Ministry is expected to presents lawmakers with the relevant clause by the end of the month – along with dozens of other pending prior actions – so that the state’s online auctions can begin in February or early March at the latest. In any case, as of the first quarter of the new year homes, land plots, stores and corporate buildings owned by state debtors will go under the hammer at market rates, which tend to be far below the taxable ones, known as “objective values,” as dictated by the law.

Ministry officials say the state will use the same platform as the one used by banks or other private creditors, arguing that there is no reason to create a separate system. It is noted that the state did not conduct a single auction in 2017, while in 2016 there were just 11 conventional auctions – all requested by the debtors themselves so they could pay off their arrears to tax authorities. However, one ministry official expressed concerns about the impending state auctions, arguing that the state comes low in the ranking of creditors – as others take precedent – and that tax authorities have a slew of other procedures for collecting debts, such as the ongoing repayment programs and the most recent out-of-court settlement plan for debts of up to 50,000 euros.

He added that after the above clause is ratified, the government will have to decide on the policy the state will follow in the auctions. Each of its 4 million debtors will have to be judged separately and according to their property assets, as “owning a house in Kolonos is very different to having one in Kolonaki,” he said, referring to one poor and one affluent Athens neighborhood. The official also expressed reservations over the result of the state’s initiative to push for auctions where several other creditors are likely to secure more benefits by ranking higher on the creditor list.

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Playing off one group of people against the next.

Work To Improve Greek Island Centers For Refugees Moving Slowly (K.)

Efforts to improve living conditions at reception centers for migrants on the islands of the eastern Aegean are progressing slowly amid continuing resistance from locals toward expanding facilities to accommodate hundreds of new arrivals from neighboring Turkey. On Tuesday alone, 196 undocumented migrants reached Aegean islands from Turkey, being sent to reception centers that are already cramped. On Lesvos and Chios, the facilities are hosting more than double the number of people they were designed to hold: 7,520 and 2,063 respectively. Hundreds of migrants have been transferred from the island facilities to less crowded camps on the mainland but, as the pace of arrivals is faster than that of the transfers and conditions remain substandard at the island camps.

The general secretary for migration policy, Miltiades Klapas, traveled to Chios on Wednesday to inspect progress in the erection of prefabricated buildings around the island’s main reception center to host scores of asylum seekers sleeping in tents. A total of 50 structures were sent to the island before the holidays but, by Wednesday, only eight had been set up. Works to upgrade the electricity and drainage systems for the accommodation are also dragging. A key reason for the delays is the continuing objection of local authorities to the presence of thousands of undocumented migrants on the island. The municipality of Chios has appealed to the Greek justice system, seeking the evacuation of the Vial reception center.

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Ten-fold in coastal regions.

Oceanic ‘Dead Zones’ Quadruple In Volume In 50 Years (Ind.)

The volume of water in the world’s oceans that is totally devoid of oxygen has more than quadrupled over the past 50 years, according to a new study. Over the past half century, the open ocean has lost around 2% of its dissolved oxygen, vital for sustaining fish and other marine life. There has also been a ten-fold increase in low oxygen sites, known as “dead zones”, in coastal regions during this period. Oxygen saturation is a major limiting factor that affects ocean productivity, as well as the diversity of creatures living in it and its natural geochemical cycling. The new study, published in the journal Science, represents the most comprehensive view yet of ocean oxygen depletion.

Pollution and climate change both play significant roles in depleting the ocean’s oxygen levels and the authors emphasise the role humans must play in addressing these issues. “Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said lead author Dr Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.” [..] In dead zones oxygen levels tend to be so low that any animals living there suffocate and die. As a result, marine creatures avoid these areas, resulting in their habitats shrinking. Even in areas where oxygen depletion is less severe, smaller decreases in oxygen levels can impact animals in various non-lethal ways such as stunting their growth and hindering reproduction.

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Just for the headline.

Iguanas Rain From Trees As Animals Struggle With US Cold Snap (G.)

As New Englanders bundle up and hunker down to ride out the “bomb cyclone” that is currently hammering the eastern United States with freezing temperatures, heavy winds and snow, they can take comfort in one thing: at least it’s not raining iguanas. That’s the situation in Florida, where unusually cold temperatures have sent the green lizards tumbling from their perches on trees – a result of the cold-blooded creatures basically shutting down when it gets too chilly. The iguanas are likely not dead, experts say, but merely stunned and will reanimate when they warm up. Iguanas aren’t the only species struggling to cope with the cold snap. In Texas, the temperature in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico has dipped low enough to cold-stun sea turtles, causing them to float to the surface where they are vulnerable to predators.

The National Park Service had rescued 41 live but freezing turtles by midday Tuesday. Meanwhile on Massuchusetts’ Cape Cod, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy has reported the strandings of three thresher sharks. Two of the sharks were likely suffering from “cold shock”, the group said, while the third had frozen solid. “A true sharkcicle!” the group wrote on Facebook. Even animals that seem particularly well-suited to frigid temperatures are feeling the chill. The Calgary Zoo announced Sunday that it was moving its king penguins inside amid -13F (-25C) temperatures. King penguins are native to the subantarctic islands surrounding Antarctica. And a group of snowmobilers in Canada rescued a bull moose buried in 6ft of snow.

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May 302015
 
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Arnold Genthe San Francisco, “Grant Avenue at Sacramento Street.” 1930

Big Banks Run Everything: Austerity, The IMF (Salon)
Investors Helpless Against Wall Street’s Secret Brainwashing Machine (Farrell)
US Economy Shrank 0.7% in First Quarter as Trade Gap Jumped (Bloomberg)
Margin Debt Breaks Out: Hits New Record 50% Higher Than Last Bubble Peak (ZH)
No Recovery Has Seen This Many Dips Since The 1950s (MarketWatch)
The Desperate Plight of a Declining Superpower (Michael T. Klare)
The Curious Optimism Of The Godfather Of Inequality (Independent)
If You Ain’t Cheating, You Ain’t Trying – How Forex Has Changed (EconIntersect)
Greece Open To Compromise To Seal Deal This Week: Interior Minister (Reuters)
Greece Might Sidestep June 5 IMF Payment Deadline (Reuters)
Varoufakis’s Great Game (Hans-Werner SInn)
Chinese Stock Market’s Wile E. Coyote Moment (Pesek)
Stop Calling China a Currency Manipulator (Pesek)
French Far-Right Calls For In/Out EU Referendum (EUObserver)
Italy Rescues 3,300 Migrants In Mediterranean In One Day (BBC)
Germany Passes Japan To Have World’s Lowest Birth Rate (BBC)
More Charges Expected In FIFA Case (NY Times)

Very, very, good by Patrick Smith. Please read the whole thing.

Big Banks Run Everything: Austerity, The IMF (Salon)

Fascinating to watch the IMF as it fronts for the U.S. Treasury and international lenders in the Greek and Ukrainian debt crises. In the former, the fund pins the Syriza government to the wall because it dares to represent its electorate. In the latter, it stands by the Poroshenko government because it has no intention of representing anybody other than banks, corporations and the global strategy set. “Fascinating” is one word for this and it holds. “Greed in action” is three but they do a better job. Coincidentally enough, both the Greek and Ukrainian cases now near their respective denouements. Miss this and you miss a singularly plain display of power, the way it works and what it works for in the early 21st century.

Athens has debt payments of €1.6 billion due in June and must make them if it is to receive a further tranche of European and IMF funding. This is essential if Greece is to recover—not from the 2008 financial crash and its economic fallout, which was long ago absorbed, but from the recovery program the fund and the EU imposed in 2012. That is textbook neoliberalism, naturally, and the results are before us. PM Alexis Tsipras calls it “a humanitarian crisis,” and I have heard no one dare counter him on the point. The Kiev government owes international bondholders $35 billion, and $23 billion of it is also due in June. Slightly different situation here: Ukraine, too, needs to shake loose I.M.F. and European funds to revive an economy even worse than Greece’s, but this is not about ameliorating any kind of social crisis.

It is about inducing one, in effect, so the neoliberalization process can be completed and working people in Ukraine are made properly, structurally desperate. It is highly unlikely you will read about these two crises in the same news report—this would be asking too much of media committed to conveying disembodied data without context so that readers and viewers cannot understand what they are (not) being told. Let us, then, treat Greece and Ukraine together. It is where the fascination comes in.

Read more …

Behavioral economics.

Investors Helpless Against Wall Street’s Secret Brainwashing Machine (Farrell)

Yes, the new behavioral economics is Wall Street’s secret mind-control brainwashing machine. Call it behavioral economics, psychology of investing, the new science of irrationality, it is Wall Street’s most powerful weapon because you can’t see it. They even try to make you think they’re helping you. Bull. Behavioral economists used to be guardians of America’s 95 million Main Street investors, with an aura of integrity, professionals with a fiduciary responsibility. No more. They’re the investors’ enemy, working for Wall Street banks, for Washington politicians, operating in the shadows, like the NSA, developing tools and technologies to secretly control data, manipulate the brains of savers, voters, taxpayers and investors.

Don’t believe me? At first, I couldn’t believe the con game. Back in 2002 when Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences we were hopeful. He disproved Wall Street’s oldest fraud, the myth of the “rational investor.” We cheered. Kahneman’s research that proved investors were never rational .. are in fact irrational .. always have been irrational .. and we always will be irrational. At first we assumed humans can change – we can still educate ourselves to be more rational. We even assumed Wall Street’s behavioral economists would help us become “less irrational.”

Fat chance. Since then, behavioral economists have been capitalizing on their newfound power to get personally richer: Getting research grants, speaking fees, university professorships and, of course, consulting contracts with Wall Street banks, Corporate America and Washington politicians. What did we get? In recent years many of their books resemble high school level self-help “Psych 101” books with cute titles like “Freakonomics,” “Nudge,” “Sway,” “Animal Spirits,” “Blink,” “Blunder,” “Beyond Greed & Fear,” “Predictable Irrational,” all cleverly packaged for mass-market consumption, all with implied promise that their book will make you less irrational, ready to beat the Wall Street casino.

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And they all just go and claim Q2 will be grand. But wasn’t this supposed to be a recovery? Yeah, yeah, snow, I know.

US Economy Shrank 0.7% in First Quarter as Trade Gap Jumped (Bloomberg)

The world’s largest economy hit a bigger ditch in the first quarter than initially estimated, held back by harsh winter weather, a strong dollar and delays at ports. GDP in the U.S. shrank at a 0.7% annualized rate, revised from a previously reported 0.2% gain, according to Commerce Department figures issued Friday in Washington. The median forecast of 84 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 0.9% drop. By contrast, the report also showed incomes climbed, fueling the debate on whether GDP is being underestimated. A swelling trade gap subtracted the most from growth in 30 years as the appreciating dollar caused exports to slump while imports rose following the resolution of labor disputes at West Coast ports.

Federal Reserve officials are among those who believe the setback in growth will be temporary, helping explain why they are considering raising interest rates this year. “The numbers show the economy literally collapsed last quarter, but we know there were a lot of special factors,” Jim O’Sullivan at High Frequency Economics said before the report. O’Sullivan was the top forecaster of GDP in the past two years, according to Bloomberg data. “There’s a good chance we’ll see a second-quarter bounce back.” Economists’ forecasts ranged from a decline of 1.2% to an increase of 0.2%. The GDP estimate is the second of three for the quarter, with the third release scheduled for June, when more information becomes available. The economy grew at a 2.2% pace from October through December.

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And the rise of margin debt in China must be worse and bigger.

Margin Debt Breaks Out: Hits New Record 50% Higher Than Last Bubble Peak (ZH)

For a few months in mid/late 2014 there was some concern among those who still don’t get that in this New Paranormal market the only real buyers are central banks, that while the stock market kept on rising, and rising, NYSE margin debt was flat, and in fact the total amount of purchases on margin at the end of 2014 was nearly the same to those in January. Meanwhile the S&P 500 had soared to recorder highs. A few things here: first, as we explained one year ago, in a world in which levered purchases take place via such shadow banking conduits as repo and primary broker arrangements, margin debt has become an anachronism from a bygone generation in which there wasn’t $2.5 trillion in Fed reserves supporting the market, and is now almost entirely meaningless.

But for those who still cling on to margin debt as indicative of anything, the latest NYSE report should provide some comfort: finally the long-awaited breakout in participation has arrived, and after stagnating for over a year, investors – mostly retail – are once again scrambling to buy stocks on margin, i.e., using debt, and as of April 30, the amount of margin debt just hit a new all time high of $507 billion, $30 billion more than the month before, and nearly 50% higher than the last bubble peak reached in October 2007.

It’s not just margin debt that hit a record high. Investor net worth, which is the inverse, or investor cash and credit balances less total margin debt, just dropped to ($227 ) billion, a new record low, meaning not only is the amount of investors leverage at an all time high, but investor net worth is also at an all time low.

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Because this is not a revovery.

No Recovery Has Seen This Many Dips Since The 1950s (MarketWatch)

The U.S. economy has fallen into negative territory three times since the current recovery began in mid-2009, a dubious feat that last occurred more than a half a century ago. What’s to blame for the most up-and-down recovery since the mid-1950s? Serious flaws in how GDPis calculated is one prime suspect. The government’s GDP report appears to have underestimated growth in the first quarter for decades, a problem that has become even more acute. At the same time GDP probably has overstated growth in the second and third quarters, so the underlying U.S. growth rate is probably the same. “The evidence of a seasonal quirk in the first-quarter GDP growth figures is pretty overwhelming,” said Paul Ashworth at Capital Economics. The second culprit – and evident ring leader – is the U.S. economy itself.

Bad policy, back luck or whatever you call it, the economy is no longer growing as fast as it used to. So any time there’s a temporary dip in economic activity because of poor weather, spiking oil prices or some other major event, it’s no surprise that GDP might show a contraction. The U.S. has grown at a mediocre 2.2% annual pace since the first full year of recovery in 2010. That’s just two-thirds as fast as the economy has grown since the government began keeping track in early 1930s. The less the economy grows, the easier it is for quarterly GDP to slip into the red from time to time, especially if some sort of “shock” occurs. The first-quarter suffered from several of them: unusually harsh weather, a dockworker’s strike, a soaring dollar that undercut U.S. exports and a drop in business investment tied to plunging oil prices.

Of course, such shocks are nothing new, and the economy in the past has shown more resistance to them. The U.S. did not experience a single negative quarter, for example, during the last three major economic expansions: the early 2000s, the 1990s and the 1980s. You have to go a lot further back to the weak 1973-75 expansion to find another episode of a quarterly contraction in a recovery phase. Another one occurred in the short-lived 1958-1960 recovery. The last U.S. recovery to include three negative quarters like the current one was from 1954 to 1957. Yet there is one big difference compared to today: the economy back then expanded by leaps and bounds. The U.S. grew at a 3.8% rate during the “Eisenhower recovery” following the end of the Korean War. And the fastest quarter of growth nearly reached 12% — more than twice as strong as the best quarter in the latest recovery.

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Only little children and psychopaths dream of superpower.

The Desperate Plight of a Declining Superpower (Michael T. Klare)

Take a look around the world and it’s hard not to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, aspiring powers are flexing their muscles, ignoring Washington’s dictates, or actively combating them. Russia refuses to curtail its support for armed separatists in Ukraine; China refuses to abandon its base-building endeavors in the South China Sea; Saudi Arabia refuses to endorse the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran; the Islamic State movement (ISIS) refuses to capitulate in the face of U.S. airpower. What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of such defiance?

This is no small matter. For decades, being a superpower has been the defining characteristic of American identity. The embrace of global supremacy began after World War II when the United States assumed responsibility for resisting Soviet expansionism around the world; it persisted through the Cold War era and only grew after the implosion of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. assumed sole responsibility for combating a whole new array of international threats. As General Colin Powell famously exclaimed in the final days of the Soviet era, “We have to put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here,’ no matter what the Soviets do, even if they evacuate from Eastern Europe.”

Strategically, in the Cold War years, Washington’s power brokers assumed that there would always be two superpowers perpetually battling for world dominance. In the wake of the utterly unexpected Soviet collapse, American strategists began to envision a world of just one, of a “sole superpower” (aka Rome on the Potomac). In line with this new outlook, the administration of George H.W. Bush soon adopted a long-range plan intended to preserve that status indefinitely. Known as the Defense Planning Guidance for Fiscal Years 1994-99, it declared: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”

H.W.’s son, then the governor of Texas, articulated a similar vision of a globally encompassing Pax Americana when campaigning for president in 1999. If elected, he told military cadets at the Citadel in Charleston, his top goal would be “to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity – given few nations in history – to extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project America’s peaceful influence not just across the world, but across the years.”

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A simple moral question.

The Curious Optimism Of The Godfather Of Inequality (Independent)

Before Piketty, there was Atkinson. The subject of inequality is now, perhaps indelibly, associated with the young French economist who burst into the public arena last year and became an unlikely bestselling author across the Anglophone world. But Thomas Piketty himself drew heavily on the work of a British economist – a debt the Frenchman readily admits. “Tony Atkinson is the godfather of historical studies of income and wealth,” he enthused last year. It’s no exaggeration. Sir Anthony Atkinson has been researching inequality since the 1960s and published his first major book on the subject in 1978, when Mr Piketty was still at primary school. The Atkinson index of inequality is named after him. Some scholars expect him to be awarded the Nobel economics prize at some stage.

And now the 70-year-old London School of Economics professor has produced another tome on the subject, Inequality: What can be done?. Yet for all the book’s scholarly virtues and for all the esteem in which Sir Anthony is held within the profession, it seems unlikely it will sell as many copies as Mr Piketty’s blockbuster Capital in the 21st Century. Lightning, after all, rarely strikes twice in the same spot. When I meet Sir Anthony to discuss his latest work, I ask whether it rankles to see another, much more junior colleague become the celebrated face of the subject. Sitting in his rather spartan office just off Lincoln Inn’s Fields, he smiles at the suggestion: “Not at all. He [Piketty] is an amazing character. He’s very inventive. I think he’s managed to present the issue in a way that’s attracted a lot of attention.”

Nevertheless, Sir Anthony stresses that, much as he shares Mr Piketty’s concerns about the level of income inequality across much of the developed world, his own book has a different emphasis. “I think what I would have done differently is discuss more what we can do about it [inequality],” he says. He certainly doesn’t duck the challenge of coming up with constructive policy ideas. The final chapter of his book is overflowing with ideas on how to reduce inequality back to where it stood before what he calls the great “inequality turn” of the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s government entered office.

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“..the foreign exchange market seems to be designed to create opportunities for bad behaviour.”

If You Ain’t Cheating, You Ain’t Trying – How Forex Has Changed (EconIntersect)

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” were the words of one trader working in the foreign exchange market. They belie an attitude that was widespread among traders in this market between 2009 and 2013. Cheating was simply a normal part of a trader’s day job. In fact, not cheating would be to shirk your duties. Widespread cheating in the foreign exchange market has turned out to be very costly indeed. In the past six months, six large banks around the world have paid out US$10 billion in fines over the manipulation of the global foreign exchange market. There have also been fines levied against banks for manipulating other over-the-counter markets such as LIBOR, the ISDAfix and the gold market.

In addition there have been fines for other bad behaviour by banks like money laundering, their role in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, violating sanctions, manipulation of the electricity market, assisting tax evasion, and mis-selling payment protection insurance. This brings the total amount of fines which banks have paid since 2008 to over US$160 billion. To put this in context, this is more than what the UK government spent on education last year. As the cost of misbehaviour mounts, banks are under increasing pressure to clean up their act. Despite widespread public cynicism, much has already changed within the banking sector. Banks have beefed up their risk function and increased oversight of traders.

They have also changed the “tone from the top”. Senior managers of the boom years who promoted a hard-driving, risk-taking culture have largely been replaced by bankers who talk more about ethics, careful risk management and serving the customer. A new legal regime has been put in place to hold senior bank employees personally responsible for wrong-doings on their watch. Banks are required to hold more equity on their balance sheets. There have been new laws which change the way bankers are paid, to emphasise long-term performance rather than short-term risk taking. Riskier trading and investment banking operations are being ring fenced from their more staid retail banks.

All these changes might be making bankers safer, but will they do anything to make the markets which they operate within any less likely to reward bad behaviour? We usually assume a market like foreign exchange emerges from millions of individual decisions. Changing this might sound impossible. But each of these decisions are made within a particular set of constraints. These constraints are the product of deliberate policy design choices. Changing behaviour in a market like foreign exchange involves looking carefully at the design of the market and asking whether this actually does the job it is supposed to do. As it currently stands, the foreign exchange market seems to be designed to create opportunities for bad behaviour..

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Depends what the other side demands…

Greece Open To Compromise To Seal Deal This Week: Interior Minister (Reuters)

Greece’s government is confident of reaching a deal with its creditors this week and is open to pushing back parts of its anti-austerity program to make that happen, the country’s interior minister said Saturday. Greece and its EU/IMF creditors have been locked in talks for months on a cash-for-reforms deal and pressure is growing for a deal, since Athens risks default without aid from a bailout program that expires on June 30. “We believe that we can and we must have a solution and a deal within the week,” Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis, who is not involved in Greece’s talks with the lenders, told Skai television. “Some parts of our program could be pushed back by six months or maybe by a year, so that there is some balance,” he said.

He did not elaborate on what parts of the ruling Syriza party’s anti-austerity program could be pushed back, but the comments suggested a greater willingness to compromise on pre-election pledges. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stormed to power in January on promises to cancel austerity, including restoring the minimum wage level and collective bargaining rights. The government earlier this week said it hoped for a deal by Sunday, though international lenders have been less optimistic, citing Greece’s resistance to labor and pension reforms that are conditions for more aid. Voutsis said Athens and its partners agreed on some issues, such as achieving low primary budget surpluses in the first two years.

But they still disagreed on a sales tax, with Greece pushing so any VAT hikes will not burden lower incomes. “A powerful majority in the political negotiations has showed respect for the fact that there can’t be further austerity strategies for the Greek issue, the Greek problem and the Greek people,” he said. [..] In an interview with Realnews newspaper published on Saturday, Economy Minister George Stathakis said Athens had no alternative plan. “The idea of a Plan B doesn’t exist. Our country needs to stay in the eurozone but on a better organized aid program,” he said. Stathakis was confident a deal will be reached. “Otherwise, mainly Greece but the European Union as well will step into unchartered waters and no-one wants that.”

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Or it may not. Keep ’em guessing.

Greece Might Sidestep June 5 IMF Payment Deadline (Reuters)

Cash-strapped Greece could avoid paying back the IMF on June 5 and win more time to negotiate a funding deal without defaulting if it lumps together all IMF repayments due in June and pays them at the end of the month, officials said on Tuesday. Greece has to repay the IMF €300 million on June 5, the first of four instalments due in June that total €1.6 billion. Cut off from markets, Athens has said it will not be able to make the June 5 payment without new loans from the euro zone, which insists it can only lend Greece more if the country agrees to reforms that would make its debt sustainable. “There is the possibility of putting together several payments that Greece would need to make to the IMF in the course of June and then just make one payment,” a senior euro zone official close to the talks with Athens said.

A second official close to the talks also acknowledged that possibility. “That’s basically a technical treasury exercise and they could tell the IMF that this is how they want to do it and the IMF would probably have to be OK with that,” the first official said. But the officials noted that Greece could only use such a trick if there was a credible prospect of a funding deal that could be communicated to markets and its citizens. Otherwise, the missed payment could trigger market panic and a bank run in Greece. “So they would get a few extra weeks. But unless there is some perspective how they would deal with this full payment, it would be a risky thing for the Greeks to do. And the consequences would be unpredictable,” said the first official. “People could want to withdraw their savings and who knows what Greece would have to do.”

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Target2 steps into the spotlight.

Varoufakis’s Great Game (Hans-Werner SInn)

Game theorists know that a Plan A is never enough. One must also develop and put forward a credible Plan B – the implied threat that drives forward negotiations on Plan A. Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, knows this very well. As the Greek government’s anointed “heavy,” he is working Plan B (a potential exit from the eurozone), while PM Alexis Tsipras makes himself available for Plan A (an extension on Greece’s loan agreement, and a renegotiation of the terms of its bailout). In a sense, they are playing the classic game of “good cop/bad cop” – and, so far, to great effect. Plan B comprises two key elements.

First, there is simple provocation, aimed at riling up Greek citizens and thus escalating tensions between the country and its creditors. Greece’s citizens must believe that they are escaping grave injustice if they are to continue to trust their government during the difficult period that would follow an exit from the eurozone. Second, the Greek government is driving up the costs of Plan B for the other side, by allowing capital flight by its citizens. If it so chose, the government could contain this trend with a more conciliatory approach, or stop it outright with the introduction of capital controls. But doing so would weaken its negotiating position, and that is not an option. Capital flight does not mean that capital is moving abroad in net terms, but rather that private capital is being turned into public capital.

Basically, Greek citizens take out loans from local banks, funded largely by the Greek central bank, which acquires funds through the European Central Bank’s emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) scheme. They then transfer the money to other countries to purchase foreign assets (or redeem their debts), draining liquidity from their country’s banks. Other eurozone central banks are thus forced to create new money to fulfill the payment orders for the Greek citizens, effectively giving the Greek central bank an overdraft credit, as measured by the so-called TARGET liabilities. In January and February, Greece’s TARGET debts increased by almost €1 billion per day, owing to capital flight by Greek citizens and foreign investors.

At the end of April, those debts amounted to €99 billion. A Greek exit would not damage the accounts that its citizens have set up in other eurozone countries – let alone cause Greeks to lose the assets they have purchased with those accounts. But it would leave those countries’ central banks stuck with Greek citizens’ euro-denominated TARGET claims vis-à-vis Greece’s central bank, which would have assets denominated only in a restored drachma. Given the new currency’s inevitable devaluation, together with the fact that the Greek government does not have to backstop its central bank’s debt, a default depriving the other central banks of their claims would be all but certain.

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The pinnacle question: “How do you deflate a giant bubble without enraging the masses or losing control of the economy?”

Chinese Stock Market’s Wile E. Coyote Moment (Pesek)

Shanghai’s stock market just experienced a Wile E. Coyote moment. For weeks, investors had been chasing higher and higher returns. On Wednesday, however, they suddenly looked down to find their road had disappeared. The realization came courtesy of China’s central bank, which had decided to drain cash from the financial system, and jittery brokerages, which had just tightened lending restrictions. That one-two punch didn’t just send Chinese stocks down 6.5%, the most in four months. It also raised existential questions about one of modern history’s greatest asset bubbles. And it is a bubble. The 127% gain in the Shanghai Composite Index over the past year defies financial gravity.

It’s been driven not by optimism about China’s economic fundamentals or corporate earnings, but record growth in margin debt. Such lending — fueled by speculation that the People’s Bank of China will soon cut interest rates and reduce lenders’ reserve requirements — exceeded $322 billion as of May 27, five times the level of a year earlier. And that’s just the official tally: China’s shadow banking system is estimated to have created $20 trillion of credit since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008. What makes China’s bubble unique is the government’s direct role in creating it, feeding it and now managing it. Last August, for example, as the Chinese stock market threatened to sag, state-run media started prodding the Chinese public to pile their life savings into shares.

During a single week in August 2014, Xinhua News Agency put out eight features espousing the wisdom and patriotism of owning equities. Beijing also reduced trading fees and allowed individuals to open as many as 20 accounts. The implicit message was that the Communist Party could and would protect stock investments, if need be. The plan succeeded beyond Beijing’s wildest expectations, leaving it with an epic challenge: How do you deflate a giant bubble without enraging the masses or losing control of the economy?

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“Convertible or not, the yuan is too big to ignore.”

Stop Calling China a Currency Manipulator (Pesek)

Christine Lagarde’s people say China’s currency is no longer undervalued. Jacob Lew’s argue it still is. There’s a lot at stake in the debate: The yuan can’t gain status as a global currency reserve if China is thought to be manipulating its value. So who should we believe, the head of the IMF or the U.S. Treasury Secretary? It’s worth asking Ben Bernanke. Now that the former Fed chairman is in the private sector, he can say what he really thinks — and, as he pointed out in a recent speech in Seoul, it’s not wise to ignore political factors when managing the rise of the Chinese economy. Bernanke argued that if Washington had heeded IMF requests to allow China to play a larger role in global institutions, Beijing wouldn’t now be creating the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which threatens to undermine the existing global financial system.

It’s worth extending Bernanke’s point to the yuan debate. Japan’s yen is down 30% since late 2012 (hitting a 12-year low this week) while the yuan has risen during the same period. So the IMF has good reason to contradict America’s assessment and bolster China’s case for reserve currency status. But there are two further reasons why the IMF must stand firm, no matter what U.S. officials and lawmakers say. First, China might go it alone. As Bernanke points out, the West is playing hardball with Beijing at its own risk. The AIIB is already diminishing the relevance of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. What’s to keep Beijing, flush with $3.7 trillion of reserves, from now opening its own bailout fund for governments facing balance-of-payments shortfalls? China proposed a similar idea during the region’s 1997 economic crisis.

Although the idea died a quick death at that time amid fears the IMF and U.S. Treasury would lose influence, it might attract more interest now – especially if China promises to demand less austerity from needy countries like Greece. “If the IMF were to sidestep the explicitly stated desire of China’s government,” says Eswar Prasad of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, “it would create more bad blood in an already contentious relationship regarding currency matters.” He worries it would “crystallize emerging market policymakers’ concerns that the IMF remains an institution run by and for the benefit of advanced economies.” That would encourage nations to rally around Beijing’s alternative lending institutions, and could deal a fatal blow to the post-World War II global financial architecture.

Second, Chinese economic reform is accelerating. Bernanke is right that the yuan has a ways to go before it can become a major reserve player. But a new Swift study shows the yuan is Asia’s most-active currency for payments to China and Hong Kong and number five globally. Convertible or not, the yuan is too big to ignore. In that sense, its inclusion in the IMF’s special drawing rights system – along with the dollar, euro, yen and pound – is a matter of when, not if.

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France steps out, it’s over.

French Far-Right Calls For In/Out EU Referendum (EUObserver)

France’s far-right National Front party has called for an in/out referendum on the EU at the same time as the UK holds its vote. Florian Philippot, an MEP and the party’s deputy head, wrote on Thursday (28 May) that president Francois Hollande should “follow the British example” and “follow the calendar outlined by our neighbours across The Channel”. “The time has come to ask everybody in Europe Yes or No – if they want sovereignty to decide on their own future”. He added that British PM David Cameron, who is currently on a tour of European capitals to sound out feeling on a renegotiation of EU powers, “with this referendum … has put himself in a powerful position to demand real reforms”.

He also said that if Hollande declines to do it, the National Front will put an in/out EU vote “at the heart” of its 2017 presidential election campaign. Speaking on BFM-TV earlier in the week, Philippot noted that his party wants a “referendum republic”, in which average people can trigger a popular vote on any subject if they file more than 500,000 signatures. He cited Switzerland as a model and listed French membership in Nato, in the Schengen passport-free area, and the EU-US free trade treaty as other potential votes. For its part, French daily Le Figaro, in an Ifop poll published on Friday, said 62% of French people would vote No to the EU constitution again if they were asked the same question as 10 years ago.

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“It represents an almost 30-fold increase on the same period last year..” How dare Europe still not have a comprehensive answer to this?

Italy Rescues 3,300 Migrants In Mediterranean In One Day (BBC)

Italy helped rescue a total of more than 3,300 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean on Friday, the country’s coastguard has said. In one operation, 17 bodies were found on three boats. Another 217 people who were on board were rescued.
The coastguard said distress calls were made from 17 different boats on Friday. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says at least 1,826 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean so far in 2015. It represents an almost 30-fold increase on the same period last year, the IOM says. The Corriere della Serra newspaper said (in Italian) that most of the rescues on Friday took place close to the Libyan coast.

Irish, German and Belgian ships took part in the rescue, the newspaper said. The UN estimates that at least 40,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean between the start of the year and late April. The rise has been attributed to chaos in Libya – the staging post for most crossings – as well as milder weather. Many migrants are trying to escape conflict or poverty in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia. On Thursday, the charity Medecins sans Frontieres reported that a 98-year-old Syrian man had been rescued from a boat, having travelled by sea from Egypt for 13 days. He was taken to Augusta in Sicily.

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Fear? Fear of what?

Germany Passes Japan To Have World’s Lowest Birth Rate (BBC)

A study says Germany’s birth rate has slumped to the lowest in the world, prompting fears labour market shortages will damage the economy. Germany has dropped below Japan to have not just the lowest birth rate across Europe but also globally, according to the report by Germany-based analysts. Its authors warned of the effects of a shrinking working-age population. They said women’s participation in the workforce would be key to the country’s economic future. In Germany, an average of 8.2 children were born per 1,000 inhabitants over the past five years, according to the study by German auditing firm BDO with the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI). It said Japan saw 8.4 children born per 1,000 inhabitants over the same time period.

In Europe, Portugal and Italy came in second and third with an average of 9.0 and 9.3 children, respectively. France and the UK both had an average of 12.7 births per 1,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile, the highest birth rates were in Africa, with Niger at the top of the list with 50 births per 1,000 people. Germany’s falling birth rate means the percentage of people of working age in the country – between 20 and 65 – would drop from 61% to 54% by 2030, Henning Voepel, director of the HWWI, said in a statement (in German). Arno Probst, a BDO board member, said employers in Germany faced higher wage costs as a result. “Without strong labour markets, Germany cannot maintain its economic edge in the long run,” he added. Experts disagree over the reasons for Germany’s low birth rate, as well as the ways to tackle the situation.

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Just the first round.

More Charges Expected In FIFA Case (NY Times)

Chuck Blazer was a powerful figure in international soccer, and he enjoyed the trappings that came with the role: two apartments at Trump Tower in Manhattan, expensive cars, luxury properties in Miami and the Bahamas. But for all of Mr. Blazer’s lavish living, he did not file personal income tax returns. And in August 2011, Steve Berryman, an IRS agent in Los Angeles, opened a criminal investigation. Thousands of miles away in New York, two FBI agents, Jared Randall and John Penza, were working on an investigation of their own, one that had spun off an unrelated Russian organized-crime case in December 2010. The agents on opposite sides of the country were looking at some of the same people.

In December 2011, news reports revealed that the FBI was asking questions about FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, and the California investigators called New York. The two agencies joined forces, setting in motion the sprawling international case that led to the arrests of top soccer officials this week. The investigation, which involved coordination with police agencies and diplomats in 33 countries, was described by law enforcement officials as one of the most complicated international white-collar cases in recent memory. Fourteen people have been indicted in bribery and kickback schemes linked to corruption in the highest echelons of FIFA. And United States authorities say more charges are all but certain.

“I’m fairly confident that we will have another round of indictments,” said Richard Weber, the chief of the I.R.S. unit in charge of criminal investigations. The American government’s aggressive move shocked the soccer world and led to questions about whether the United States had set out on a mission to topple the leadership of FIFA, which has long been troubled by allegations of corruption. But officials at the Justice Department, the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. said the impetus was criminal activity and organized crime that just happened to occur in the soccer world. “I don’t think there was ever a decision or a declaration that we would go after soccer,” Mr. Weber said. “We were going after corruption.” He added, “One thing led to another, led to another and another.”

Still, investigators quickly realized the potential scope of their case. By the time the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. teamed up, an undercover sting operation by the British newspaper The Sunday Times had revealed corruption in FIFA’s highest ranks. Reporters around the globe followed with articles about whether soccer’s top officials could be bought. “We always knew it was going to be a very large case,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said.

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