Marc Riboud Zazou, painter of the EIffel Tower 1953
Central bankers have never done more damage to the world economy than in the past 10 years. One may argue this is because they never had the power to do that. If their predecessors had had that power, who knows? Still, the global economy has never been more interconnected than it is today, due mostly to the advance of globalism, neoliberalism and perhaps even more, technology.
Ironically, all three of these factors are unremittingly praised as forces for good. But living standards for many millions of people in the west have come down and/or are laden with uncertainty, while millions of Chinese now have higher living standards. People in the west have been told to see this as a positive development; after all, it allows them to buy products cheaper than if they had been made in domestic industries.
But along with their manufacturing jobs, their entire way of life has mostly disappeared as well. Or, rather, it is being hidden behind a veil of debt. Still, we can no longer credibly deny that some three-quarters of Americans have a hard time paying their bills, and that is very different from the 1950s and 60s. In western Europe, this is somewhat less pronounced, or perhaps it’s just lagging, but with globalism and neoliberalism still the ruling economic religions, there’s no going back.
What happened? Well, we don’t make stuff anymore. That’s what. We have to buy our stuff from others. Increasingly, we lack the skills to make stuff too. We have become dependent on nations half a planet away just to survive. Nations that are only interested in selling their stuff to us if we can pay for it. And who see their domestic wage demands go up, and will -have to- charge ever higher prices for their products.
And we have no choice but to pay. But we can only pay with what we can borrow. As nations, as companies, and as individuals. We need to borrow because as nations, as companies, and as individuals we don’t make stuff anymore. It’s a vicious circle that globalization has blessed us with. And from which, we are told, we can escape only if we achieve growth. Which we can’t, because we don’t make anything.
So we rely on central bankers to manage the crisis. Because we’re told they know how to manage it. They don’t. But they do pretend to know. Still, if you read between the lines, they do admit to their ignorance. Janet Yellen a few weeks ago fessed up to the fact that she has no idea why inflation is weak. Mario Draghi has said more or less the same. Why don’t they know? Because the models don’t fit. And the models are all they have.
Economic models are more important in central banking than common sense. The Fed has some 1000 PhDs under contract. But Yellen, their boss, still claims that ‘perhaps’ the models are wrong, with it comes to inflation, and to wage growth. They have no idea why wages don’t grow. Because the models say they should. Because everybody has a job. 1000 very well paid PhDs. And that’s all they have. They say the lack of wage growth is a mystery.
I say that those for whom this is a mystery are not fit for their jobs. If you export millions of jobs to Asia, take workers’ negotiating powers away and push them into crappy jobs with no benefits, only one outcome is possible. And that doesn’t include inflation or wage growth. Instead, the only possible outcome is continuing erosion of economies.
The globalist mantra says we will fill up the lost space in our economies with ‘better’ jobs, service sector, knowledge sector. But reality does not follow the mantra. Most new jobs are definitely not ‘better’. And as we wait tables or greet customers at Wal-Mart, we see robots take over what production capacity is left, and delivery services erase what’s left of our brick and mortar stores. Yes, that means even less ‘quality’ jobs.
Meanwhile, the Chinese who now have taken over our jobs, have only been able to do that amidst insane amounts of pollution. And as if that’s not bad enough, they have recently, just to keep their magical new production paradise running, been forced to borrow as much as we have been -and are-, at state level, at local government level, and now as individuals as well.
In China, credit functions like opioids do in America. Millions of people who had never been in touch with the stuff would have been fine if they never had, but now they are hooked. The local governments were already, which has created a shadow banking system that will threaten Beijing soon, but for the citizens it’s a relatively new phenomenon.
And if you see them saying things like: “if you don’t buy a flat today, you will never be able to afford it” and “..a person without a flat has no future in Shenzhen.”, you know they have it bad. These are people who’ve only ever seen property prices go up, and who’ve never thought of any place as a ghost city, and who have few other ways to park what money they make working the jobs imported from the US and Europe.
They undoubtedly think their wages will keep growing too, just like the ‘value’ of their flats. They’ve never seen either go down. But if we need to borrow in order to afford the products they make in order to pay off what they borrowed in order to buy their flats, everyone’s in trouble.
And then globalization itself is in trouble. The very beneficiaries, the owners of globalization will be. Though not before they have taken away most of the fruits of our labor. What are you going to do with your billions when the societies you knew when you grew up are eradicated by the very process that allowed you to make those billions? It stops somewhere. If those 1000 PhDs want to study a model, they should try that one.
Globalization causes many problems. Jobs disappearing from societies just so their citizens can buy the same products a few pennies cheaper when they come from China is a big one. But the main problem with globalization is financial: money continually vanishes from societies, who have to get ever deeper in debt just to stand still. Globalization, like any type of centralization, does that: it takes money away from the ‘periphery’.
The Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Starbucks model has already taken away untold jobs, stores and money from our societies, but we ain’t seen nothing yet. The advent of the internet will put that model on steroids. But why would you let a bunch of Silicon Valley venture capitalists run things like Uber or Airbnb in your location, when you can do it yourself just as well, and use the profits to enhance your community instead of letting them make you poorer?
I see UK’s Jeremy Corbyn had that same thought, and good on him. Britain may become the first major victim of the dark side of centralization, by leaving the organization that enables it -the EU-, and Corbyn’s idea of a local cooperative to replace Uber is the kind of thinking it will need. Because how can you make up for all that money, and all that production capacity, leaving where you live? You can’t run fast enough, and you don’t have to.
This is the Roman Empire’s centralization conundrum all over. Though the Romans never pushed their peripheries to stop producing essentials; they instead demanded a share of them. Their problem was, towards the end of the empire, the share they demanded -forcefully- became ever larger. Until the periphery turned on them -also forcefully-.
The world’s central bankers’ club is set to get new leadership soon. Yellen may well be gone, so will Japan’s Kuroda and China’s Zhou; the ECB’s -and Goldman’s- Mario Draghi will go a bit later. But there is no sign that the economic religions they adhere to will be replaced, it’ll be centralization all the way, and if that fails, more centralization.
The endgame of that process is painfully obvious way in advance. Centralization feeds central forces, be they governmental, military or commercial, with the fruits of labor of local populations. That is a process that will always, inevitably, run into a wall, because too much of those fruits are taken out. Too much of it will flow to the center, be it Silicon Valley or Wall Street or Rome. Same difference.
There are things that you can safely centralize (peace negotiations), but they don’t include essentials like food, housing, transport, water, clothing. They are too costly at the local level to allow them to be centralized. Or everybody everywhere will end up paying through the nose just to survive.
A new scientific study led by the China University of Petroleum in Beijing, funded by the Chinese government, concludes that China is about to experience a peak in its total oil production as early as next year. Without finding an alternative source of ‘new abundant energy resources’ , the study warns, the 2018 peak in China’s combined conventional and unconventional oil will undermine continuing economic growth and ‘challenge the sustainable development of Chinese society’. This also has major implications for the prospect of a 2018 oil squeeze – as China scales its domestic oil peak, rising demand will impact world oil markets in a way most forecasters aren’t anticipating, contributing to a potential supply squeeze. That could happen in 2018 proper, or in the early years that follow.
There are various scenarios that follow from here – China could: shift to reducing its massive demand for energy, a tall order in itself given population growth projections and rising consumption; accelerate a renewable energy transition; or militarise the South China Sea for more deepwater oil and gas. Right now, China appears to be incoherently pursuing all three strategies, with varying rates of success. But one thing is clear – China’s decisions on how it addresses its coming post-peak future will impact regional and global political and energy security for the foreseeable future. The study was published on 19 September by Springer’s peer-reviewed Petroleum Science journal, which is supported by China’s three major oil corporations, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China Petroleum Corporation (Sinopec), and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC).
Since 1978, China has experienced an average annual economic growth rate of 9.8%, and is now the world’s second largest economy after the United States. The new study points out, however, that this economic growth has been enabled by “high energy consumption.” In the same period of meteoric economic growth, China’s total energy consumption has grown on average by 5.8% annually, mostly from fossil fuels. In 2014, oil, gas and coal accounted for fully 90% of China’s total energy consumption, with the remainder supplied from renewable energy sources. After 2018, however, China’s oil production is predicted to begin declining, and the widening supply-demand gap could endanger both China’s energy security and continued economic growth.
A number of markets show not only elevated valuations, but also irrational behavior on the part of investors, including a suspension of traditional valuation models, an increase in trading volumes or “flipping” in the hopes of quick gains, and financial engineering. Potential bubbles can be found in emerging-market debt, technology stocks, U.S. high yield bonds, some sovereign debt, cryptocurrencies, properties — even art and collectibles. It is becoming clearer to economists and central bankers that even though we may be experiencing a long phase of growth, stretching the cycle with monetary stimulus inspired by crisis-era toolkits may be bringing several collateral effects. These include not only asset bubbles, but also a worsening of wealth inequality and a misallocation of resources.
Persistent low interest rates in the past have helped to roll forward an increasing amount of private and public debt to future generations, but this is no longer working. Economic fundamentals are different from the post-war period. Technology is deflationary. Demographics are no longer a tailwind, as there are fewer young people able to carry a higher debt burden in the future. The generation of so-called millennials is the first that will likely be poorer than their parents in the post-war period. Productivity is low as the economy suffers from hysteresis: a financial boom-bust cycle that can leave large swathes of the workforce out of the job market. The longer the debt cycle, the longer companies and workers develop business and skills in leverage-heavy sectors (e.g. finance, real estate, energy), the deeper the scars when the bust comes.
Often the misallocation is so large that low rates are necessary to keep people in their jobs: Zombie companies that would otherwise fail continue to be in business, refinancing at near-zero interest rates in bond markets.
Although the Chinese will head back to work and school on Monday, their country is expected to remain in a holding pattern ahead of a pivotal Communist Party Congress set to start later this month. “Commentators and markets rightly assume that the authorities are consumed by this transition and that all other policy matters are on the back-burner or in lock-down until after the Congress,” Freya Beamish, Pantheon Macroeconomics’ chief Asia economist, wrote in a recent note. The once-in-five-years meeting will usher in leadership changes that are likely to see incumbent President Xi Jinping extend his term and consolidate power. The coming years of Xi rule will be critical for the world’s second-largest economy as it grapples with the fallout from three decades of unbridled growth.
As Xi — the most powerful Chinese leader in decades — embarks on a new era, the meeting will review “faulty” outcomes from the economic reforms and review if China needs a new direction, said independent economist, Andy Xie. China undertook a series of market reforms in the last three decades that propelled the Communist country to the spot of the world’s second largest economy. Market watchers, however, are concerned about the nation’s debt-fueled growth, industrial overcapacity and capital outflows that may potentially spur a global economic crisis. The Communist Party has been working to steer outbound merger and acquisition activities over the last year, but major initiatives have slowed ahead of the Congress. That push is likely to pick up again in the fourth quarter, said Chunshek Chan, Dealogic’s global M&A research head.
No matter the macroeconomic concerns, the only thing on Beijing’s mind at this time is consolidating power in the country, Xie said: “It’s much more important now to strengthen the control of the Communist Party than anything else.” “The key is to have the Communist Party as a coherent organization to control everything in the society — that seems to be the case. The people at the top worry about the stability. Stability is always number one in China,” added Xie.
At first, bitcoin was a way to make payments without banks. Now, with more than $100 billion stashed in digital currencies, banks are debating whether and how to get in on the action. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted Tuesday that his firm is examining the cryptocurrency. Other global investment banks are looking into facilitating trades of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, according to industry consultants. Bitcoin has surged more than 300 percent this year, drawing the attention of hedge funds and wealthy individuals. “They’re clearly receiving interest from their clients, both from retail investors and on the institutional side,” said Axel Pierron, managing director of bank consultant Opimas. “It’s highly volatile, it’s highly illiquid when you need to trade large volumes, so they see the opportunity for a new asset class which would require the capability of a broker-dealer.”
But bitcoin presents Wall Street with a conundrum: How do banks that are required by law to prevent money-laundering handle a currency that’s not issued by a government and that keeps its users anonymous? The debate has played out in the open recently, with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink saying that bitcoin was mostly used by criminals, while Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman took a more measured stance, saying it was “more than just a fad.” On Wednesday, UBS Chairman Axel Weber, a former president of Germany’s central bank, said he was skeptical about bitcoin’s future because “it’s not secured by underlying assets.” There’s even tension within some banks. On the same day Dimon trashed bitcoin, calling it a “fraud,” his firm’s private bank hosted a panel stocked with cryptocurrency investors.
Handling bitcoin would invite scrutiny from every major U.S. regulator, according to Joshua Satten, director of emerging technologies at Sapient Consulting. “From the perspective of the U.S. Treasury, do you classify it as an asset class or a currency?” Satten said. “If banks are starting to manage and hold bitcoin for their clients, you would have the OCC and the FDIC looking at how they classify the assets on their balance sheet and how they state the assets for the portfolio of a client.” And banks need to avoid antagonizing governments that are increasingly concerned about this area. For instance, China is cracking down by shutting cryptocurrency exchanges. Then there’s the risk that stems from its high volatility and lack of correlation to other major assets. “What are they going to do if bitcoin drops for a given client and they’ve given that client a ton of leverage on margin, and that client only has assets in bitcoin?” Satten said.
A group of HSBC currency traders in London and New York feverishly jumped ahead of a $3.5 billion client order after they were tipped off using the code words “my watch is off,” a U.S. prosecutor told a federal judge. The buying frenzy was launched after Mark Johnson, HSBC’s former global head of foreign exchange who the bank chose to lead the transaction, alerted the traders via phone call that was recorded, the prosecutor said Thursday in Brooklyn, New York. Johnson is on trial for fraud. After the trial recessed for the day, prosecutor Carol Sipperly told U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis that the government wants the jury to hear the recordings on Friday, in which Johnson can be heard tipping off a trader in Hong Kong, a signal that she said eventually reached others on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prosecutors say Johnson and Stuart Scott, the bank’s former head of currency trading in Europe, along with these other traders, bought pounds before the transaction, collectively making the bank $8 million in illicit profit. Sipperly said the call involved Johnson, who was in New York that day, speaking to Scott who was in London, just before the Dec. 7, 2011, transaction for its client, Cairn Energy. “We actually have Mark Johnson telling Stuart Scott ‘Tell Ed my watch will be off,’” she said. “We have communications where the word ‘watch’ is used, and then within seconds, 20 seconds of ‘my watch is off,’ we have all that trading that’s been described. The word is instrumental in getting the information to the traders when it comes to their early front-running trades.”
The U.S. and other international trade heavyweights have dashed Prime Minister Theresa May’s hopes of a smooth Brexit by rejecting one of her core plans for reintegrating into global trade networks. Washington’s slap-down of Britain is the second big trade reality check for May in less than a fortnight. Only last week, the U.K.’s increasingly fragile position in trade disputes was exposed by the country’s inability to prevent new, ultra-high tariffs from the U.S. that could hit thousands of jobs in a plane factory in Northern Ireland. In a fast-developing second trade spat, Washington has teamed up with Brazil, Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, Uruguay and Thailand to reject Britain’s proposed import arrangements for crucial agricultural goods such as meat, sugar and grains after Brexit.
The fact that the U.K.’s opponents include the U.S., Canada and New Zealand is a significant setback because Britain is trying to style its former colonies as natural strategic and commercial allies after it has quit the EU. Since August, Britain and the EU have repeatedly insisted that they had reached an agreement on the terms under which Britain would buy in food from around the world after Brexit. Brussels currently negotiates all these quotas and tariffs on behalf of Britain and the 27 other EU countries jointly, but London will need to take independent control of these policies from March 2019. That creates a dilemma over how to divide up the EU’s current quota arrangements with other countries — agreed at the World Trade Organization — between the U.K. and the remaining 27. These tariff-rate quotas allow countries outside the EU to export certain goods into the bloc with reduced duties, but only up to a maximum limit.
The argument from Britain and the EU is that the rest of the world will be “no worse off” after Brexit — a key legal defense in trade disputes — if the EU’s quotas are simply reduced, and Britain takes a share of them. British Trade Minister Liam Fox told POLITICO in an interview that Britain had agreed to take a portion of the EU’s quotas based on the U.K.’s average consumption over the last three years. America and the six other big food exporters, however, wrote an unusually sharply worded letter of complaint dated September 26 to the U.K. and EU representatives at the World Trade Organization over the terms of such an arrangement. “We cannot accept such an agreement,” reads the letter, seen by POLITICO. The seven countries dispute the legal defense that the proposed post-Brexit arrangement would leave them “no worse off.”
TransCanada had applied to build Energy East three years ago, seeking to open access for Western Canadian oil producers to the Atlantic Ocean for exports to Europe. It faced intense opposition in Quebec, where Premier Philippe Couillard said the C$15.7 billion ($12.5 billion) line posed a significant risk to its freshwater resources. Quebec has long required that TransCanada meet seven conditions before allowing construction of the pipeline. Among other demands, Quebec insisted that the project be subject to an environmental assessment and that TransCanada must guarantee an emergency plan in case of a spill, consult with communities including aboriginal groups along the route and ensure the project doesn’t reduce the province’s gas supply. Last month, TransCanada asked Canadian regulators for a 30-day suspension on its applications for the Energy East and Eastern Mainline projects, adding to doubt about the future of two major pipelines that the nation’s energy producers had hoped for.
The latest delay meant the writing was on the wall, Quebec Energy and Natural Resources Minister Pierre Arcand said Thursday. “We’re not the promoters of the project. The promoter made a commercial decision,” Arcand told reporters at the provincial legislature. “When they decided to suspend the project about one month ago, I thought we were inevitably going to go toward this decision.” Energy East “was supposed to cross more than 700 bodies of water,” Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel said separately in Quebec City. “This is a project that raised a lot of questions. We were still in the process of getting answers to our questions” from the company, he said. TransCanada’s decision “is great news,” Jean-Francois Lisée, head of the separatist Parti Quebecois, the official opposition in the provincial legislature, said in Quebec City. “Quebec’s territorial integrity is no longer threatened.”
Fracking for shale gas will begin in the UK within weeks, the company undertaking it for the first time has announced. Third Energy said it plans to complete five fracks in North Yorkshire before the end of 2017. The controversial technique involves injecting liquid into underground rock at high pressures in order to create cracks that release trapped gas. This is then collected and used to generate electricity. Fracking has been vocally opposed by environmental campaigners but permits to use the technique have been approved by government ministers. Alan Linn, Third Energy’s technical director, said the final sign-off needed for fracking to begin was ‘imminent’.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy convenes his cabinet on Friday as the financial and political squeeze on the separatist government in Catalonia tightens. After a week of political drama that rocked financial markets, Rajoy will meet with his ministers in Madrid as events 600 kilometers (370 miles) to the northeast in the Catalan capital Barcelona threaten to spiral still further out of control. The region’s president, Carles Puigdemont, risks economic damage and European isolation if he pushes ahead with plans to declare Catalan independence based on a referendum that breached Spain’s constitution. CaixaBank, the symbol of the region’s financial strength, may follow Banc Sabadell in abandoning Catalonia when its board meets Friday.
For his part, Rajoy and his minority government will be loathe to risk a repeat of Sunday’s scenes of police beating peaceful voters that drew international condemnation and inflamed the separatist cause. With options to quell an increasingly bitter constitutional dispute fast running out, events may come to a head on Monday. That’s when Puigdemont had sought to evaluate the result of the independence vote at a session of the regional parliament – until it was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court. That means Rajoy may again have to send in the police to enforce a court ruling, and Puigdemont must decide if he’s ready to again defy the law. “There will be some formula for the Catalan Parliament to convene and hold its meeting as planned,” Jordi Sanchez, who heads the most powerful group among the separatists, known as the Catalan National Assembly, said in an interview in Barcelona. “There will be a plenary session.”
As anti-independence organizers plan rallies for this weekend in Madrid and in Barcelona, Catalan separatist are seeking to avoid an immediate declaration of independence. There’s a divide in the movement’s leadership, with most leaders keen to delay that leap into the unknown to create more time for a negotiated settlement, according to two people familiar with their plans. Puigdemont’s mainstream separatist group is concerned that a move toward independence would send the economy into a tailspin, the people said. But following Sunday’s illegal referendum on secession – which the regional government said won the support of 90%t of 2.3 million voters – hardliners from the anarchist party CUP are demanding a quick break with Spain.
Uber’s iPhone app has a secret backdoor to powerful Apple features, allowing the ride-hailing service to potentially record a user’s screen and access other personal information without their knowledge. The existence of Uber’s access to special iPhone functions is not disclosed in any consumer-facing information included with Uber’s app, despite giving the company direct access to features so powerful that Apple almost always keeps them off limits to outside companies. Although there is no evidence that Uber used this access to take advantage of the iPhone features, the revelation of the app’s access to privileged Apple code raises important questions for a company already under investigation for a variety of controversial business practices.
Uber told Business Insider the code was not currently being used and was essentially a vestige from an earlier version of its Apple Watch app, but it set off alarm bells among experts. “Granting such a sensitive entitlement to a third-party is unprecedented as far as I can tell, no other app developers have been able to convince Apple to grant them entitlements they’ve needed to let their apps utilize certain privileged system functionality,” Will Strafach, a security researcher who discovered the situation, told Business Insider. [..] Apple became an Uber investor through its investment in Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing. In 2016, Didi merged with Uber’s Chinese subsidiary.
Tropical Storm Nate has killed at least 22 people in Central America as it battered the region with heavy rain while heading toward Mexico’s Caribbean resorts and the US Gulf Coast where it could strike as a hurricane this weekend. Several offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were evacuated and others had shut production ahead of the storm. In Nicaragua, at least 11 people died, seven others were reported missing and thousands had to evacuate homes because of flooding, according to the country’s vice president, Rosario Murillo. Emergency officials in Costa Rica reported that at least eight people were had been killed, including two children. Another 17 people were missing, while more than 7,000 had to take refuge from Nate in shelters.
Two youths also drowned in Honduras due to the sudden swell in a river, while a man was killed in a mud slide in El Salvador and another person was missing, emergency services said. “Sometimes we think we think we can cross a river and the hardest thing to understand is that we must wait,” Nicaragua’s Murillo told state radio, warning people to avoid dangerous waters. “It’s better to be late than not to get there at all.“ Costa Rica’s government declared a state of emergency, closing schools and all other non-essential services. Highways in the country were closed due to mud slides and power outages were also reported in parts of country, where more than 3,500 police were deployed. The National Hurricane Centre said Nate could produce as much as 51 cm (20 inches) in some areas of Nicaragua, where schools were also closed. Nate is predicted to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane by the time it hits the US Gulf Coast on Sunday, NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
Three-quarters of the honey produced around the world contains nerve agent pesticides that can harm bees and pose a potential health hazard to humans, a study has shown. Scientists who tested 198 honey samples from every continent except Antarctica discovered that 75% were laced with at least one of the neonicotinoid chemicals. More than two-fifths contained two or more varieties of the pesticides and 10% held residues from four or five. Environmental campaigners responded by demanding a “complete and permanent” ban preventing any further use of neonicotinoids on farm crops in Europe. Experts called the findings “alarming”, “sobering” and a “serious environmental concern” while stressing that the pesticide residue levels found in honey generally fell well below the safe limits for human consumption.
However, one leading British scientist warned that it was impossible to predict what the long term effects of consuming honey containing tiny amounts of the chemicals might be. Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, said: “Beyond doubt … anyone regularly eating honey is likely to be getting a small dose of mixed neurotoxins. “In terms of acute toxicity, this certainly won’t kill them and is unlikely to do measurable harm. What we don’t know is whether there are long-term, chronic effects from life-time exposure to a cocktail of these and other pesticides in our honey and most other foods.”
[..] The new research published in the journal Science could not have come at a more sensitive time in Europe. EC policymakers are right now discussing whether to make the ban permanent and more wide ranging. A total ban would have a huge impact on cereal growers in the UK. For the study, an international team of European researchers tested almost 200 honey samples from around the world for residues left by five different neonicotinoids. [..] While in most cases the levels were well below the EU safety limits for human consumption, there were exceptions. Honey from both Germany and Poland exceeded maximum residue levels (MRLs) for combined neonicotinoids while samples from Japan reached 45% of the limits.
The tiny Pacific island nation of Niue on Friday announced the creation of a huge marine sanctuary, saying it wanted to stop overfishing and preserve the environment for future generations. While Niue’s landmass is only 260 square kilometres (100 square miles), its remote location about 2,400 kilometres northeast of New Zealand means it lays claim to vast tracts of ocean. The government said that 40% of its exclusive economic zone, about 127,000 square kilometres representing an area roughly the size of Greece, would be set aside for the marine sanctuary. Premier Toke Talagi said his government wanted to stop the depletion of fish stocks and give the ocean space to heal to protect the environment for the next generation.
“This commitment is not a sacrifice, it is an investment in the certainty and stability of our children’s future,” he said. “We simply cannot be the generation of leaders who have taken more than they have given to this planet and left behind a debt that our children cannot pay.” Known locally as “The Rock”, Niue was settled by Polynesian seafarers more than 1,000 years ago and the palm-dotted island’s name in the local language means “behold, the coconut”. The British explorer captain James Cook tried to land there three times in 1774 but was deterred by fearsome warriors, eventually giving up to set sail for more welcoming shores and naming Niue “Savage Island”.
Janet Yellen still has faith, but she’s open to converting. In a wide-ranging speech on inflation, the Fed chair wrestled with an issue that’s flummoxing policy makers everywhere: Why is inflation not only low, but in some instances going south? At this point in an expansion that’s lasted the better part of a decade and has returned jobless levels to pre-recession levels, leading economic models would ordinarily tell us to expect inflation to rise. Kudos to her for admitting the uncertainty. The question is one of the pre-eminent themes of the modern economic era. It’s perhaps fitting she air the issues not in a political environment like Congress or the Federal Open Market Committee, which calls for decisions, but in what might be her last address to the National Association for Business Economics.
Yellen conceded that some assumptions about how the modern economy works could be wrong. She is not operating on the premise that they are wrong, but she is prepared to entertain the prospect. She did so in a very rational way, and she urged no sharp about-turns in policy. If officials’ understanding of the link between inflation and the labor market and, more broadly, inflation itself, ends up being flawed, then there is an obligation to recalibrate policy. Neither Yellen nor the FOMC are there yet. And to be clear, the committee still believes inflation will again start to edge up and stabilize around the Fed’s 2% target. Under that scenario, a bit more tightening of policy is required. Not a ton, and the steps should be gradual. As they have been.
If the scenario proves off, then think again. As Yellen said in her remarks, a couple of things could be at work in explaining the bad behavior of inflation. For one, it’s not necessarily that the model linking low unemployment with wages and inflation is wrong; it may be that in the post-recession world the jobless level at which inflation kicks in could be lower. (The jobless rate in the U.S. now is 4.4%.) But it’s also plausible that policy makers misunderstand inflation on a more fundamental level. “Our framework for understanding inflation dynamics could be misspecified in some fundamental way, perhaps because our econometric models overlook some factor that will restrain inflation in coming years despite solid labor market conditions,” Yellen said.
Hurricane Maria was the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years. It left the entire island without electricity, which may take six months to restore. It toppled trees, shattered windows, tore off roofs and turned streets into rivers throughout the island. President Trump declared that “Puerto Rico was absolutely obliterated” and issued a federal disaster declaration. But the United States needs to do more. It needs to suspend the Jones Act in Puerto Rico. After World War I, America was worried about German U-boats, which had sunk nearly 5,000 ships during the war. Congress enacted the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a.k.a. the Jones Act, to ensure that the country maintained a shipbuilding industry and seafaring labor force. Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another.
In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens. Almost a century later, there are no U-boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Jones Act has outlived its original intent, yet it is strangling the island’s economy. Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. The foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville, Fla., where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where — again — all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer. Thanks to the law, the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act.
Moreover, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13% higher than in 325 urban areas elsewhere in the United States, even though per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $18,000, close to half that of Mississippi, the poorest of all 50 states. This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market. The island is the fifth-largest market in the world for American products, and there are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else on the planet. A 2012 report by two University of Puerto Rico economists found that the Jones Act caused a $17 billion loss to the island’s economy from 1990 through 2010. Other studies have estimated the Jones Act’s damage to Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska to be $2.8 billion to $9.8 billion per year. According to all these reports, if the Jones Act did not exist, then neither would the public debt of Puerto Rico.
[..] Food costs twice as much in Puerto Rico as in Florida. Jones Act relief will save many Puerto Ricans — especially children and seniors — from potential starvation. Jones Act relief will also enable islanders to find medicine, especially Canadian pharmaceuticals, at lifesaving rates. And it will give islanders access to international oil markets — crucial for running its electric grid — devoid of a 30% Jones Act markup. And suspending or repealing the law is crucial to the arduous rebuilding process ahead. In one town alone, 70,000 people were evacuated because of a failing dam. Jones Act relief will enable residents to buy materials, rebuild their homes and prevent an explosion of homelessness.
From a broad view, the U.S. housing market looks very healthy. Demand is high, employment and wages are growing, and mortgage rates are low. But the nation’s housing market is assuredly unhealthy; in fact, it is increasingly mismatched with today’s buyers. While the big numbers don’t lie, they don’t tell the real truth about the affordability and availability of U.S. housing for the bulk of would-be buyers. First, several reports out this week point to both continued heat in home values as well as pushback from homebuyers. Prices remain nearly 6% higher than they were a year ago, nationally, with some local markets seeing double-digit annual price gains. Those prices are being driven by a severe lack of supply at the low end of the market, which is where the most demand exists. That means lower-priced homes are seeing bigger price gains than higher-priced homes because of the competition.
At the same time, sales are falling, again, because there are too few homes on the low end, and the homes that are available are very expensive. “It sets up a situation in which the housing market looks largely healthy from a 50,000-foot view, but on the ground, the situation is much different, especially for younger, first-time buyers and/or buyers of more modest means,” wrote Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow in a response to the latest home-price data. “Supply is low in general, but half of what is available to buy is priced in the top one-third of the market.” Supply on the low end is tight because during the housing crash investors large and small bought hundreds of thousands of foreclosed properties and turned them into rentals. There are currently 8 million more renter-occupied homes than there were in 2007, the peak of the housing boom, according to the U.S. Census.
Investors could take the opportunity of high prices and high demand to sell these properties, but today’s high rents offer them better returns. Low supply of homes for sale might also seem like a great opportunity for the nation’s homebuilders. Yes, they went through an epic housing crash, but they have since consolidated market share and righted their balance sheets. Homebuilders are simply not building enough inexpensive houses that the market needs. [..] Just 2% of newly built homes sold in August were priced under $150,000, and just 14% priced under $200,000. Compare that with the existing home market, where more than half of homes sold in August were priced under $250,000.
According to the Caixin website, citing data from the research arm of 5I5J Group, the average price of existing homes in Beijing fell 5%, continuing the slide that began in the June quarter. The fall corresponded with a sharp reduction in property sales which tumbled 73.7% from the same quarter a year earlier. According to survey, turnover alone fell 43.7% in the quarter to 2.06 million units based on measurements using online contracts, the lowest quarterly total since 2015. The sharp decline in turnover and prices follows a series of measures introduced by Beijing’s municipal government to quash speculative activity in the city’s property market. Since October last year, it has raised borrowing costs and minimum downpayment requirements for mortgages for second homes.
It has also introduced requirements for non-local buyers to provide tax or social security payment records for at least 60 consecutive months and increased scrutiny on “strategic divorces” as ways to squeeze speculation out of the market, said Caixin. “In the spirit of central government’s directive that ‘homes are for living in, not speculating on,’ the real estate market in Beijing will continue to be under tight control, thus the existing home market in Beijing is likely to remain tepid in the near term,” Hu Jinghui, vice president of 5I5J Group’s research arm, told Caixin. The measures introduced in Beijing mirror similar efforts from authorities in other large cities to curb rapid price growth seen since the middle of 2015. Previously limited to large tier-one cities initially, restrictions on both buyers and sellers have been rolled out across an increasing number of centres in recent months, including in smaller cities, in an attempt to limit speculators from moving from one market to another.
The China-driven surge in commodity prices could soon come to an end, according to a private survey of Chinese businesses. Contrary to “markets’ unremitting faith in the Chinese government campaign to combat” oversupply in metals, “firms are saying quite the opposite. For the sixth quarter in a row, coal, aluminum, steel, and copper each saw capacity rise on net,” according to the China Beige Book’s early brief of third-quarter data released Tuesday. “Sector-wide growth took a dive across the board—revenue, profits, output, export orders, volumes, hiring, capex, borrowing, wages, and sales prices,” the report said. The China Beige Book is a quarterly survey of Chinese companies in an attempt to present a more accurate picture of growth. Many question the accuracy of most Chinese government data, since officials may have incentive to inflate or deflate the figures they report in order to show compliance with central policy.
“There has been for the past year and a half a desire to not think too much about China,” Leland Miller, chief executive officer of China Beige Book, told CNBC. “I think you’re at a point right now where there’s been a complacency on the part of the Chinese economy that is lending itself to unrealistic expectations about the economy that are not going to be met.” Copper prices have rallied more than 25% this year to a three-year high on bets for stronger global growth, primarily out of the world’s second-largest economy, China. But the metal has since come off those levels to trade about 16.5% higher for the year. Morgan Stanley echoed some of the China Beige Book’s concern in a Monday report.
“So in fact, the strongest price performances of 2017 (aluminium, zinc, lead, copper, nickel, alumina, iron ore) are based on either China’s reform-based supply shocks or global currency trades – not a sustained improvement in demand growth,” equity strategist Tom Price and a team of analysts said. They have negative price forecasts on aluminum, copper, iron ore and steel. In its third-quarter survey of 3,300 firms and 160 bankers across 34 industries, the China Beige Book also found that companies borrowed at the second-highest rate in four years, contrary to widespread beliefs that China is reducing its use of credit to fuel growth. “Most of the year when the Chinese government has been talking about deleveraging that has not been evidenced in China Beige Book data,” Miller said. “At least part of the time corporations have had even easier access to capital and even when conditions have been tightening it has not contributed to deleveraging or slower deleveraging.”
The Chinese government underlined that patriotism is a core element of entrepreneurship, with official media saying it had for the first time defined what enterprise means for the world’s second-biggest economy. The joint statement issued late Monday by the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the State Council urged entrepreneurs to advance patriotism and professionalism, as well as innovation and social responsibility. It called for stronger party guidance of entrepreneurs and for them to endorse party leaders. It also promised to create a environment where they can thrive. The guideline “has defined the core meaning of Chinese entrepreneurship under the new era,” with being patriotic and professional core components, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It’s the first edict “of its kind that focused on entrepreneurial spirit” and is intended “to spur market vitality,” Xinhua said.
The call for patriotic entrepreneurs underscores the trend of emphasizing the national missions of both private and state-run businesses under President Xi Jinping, who has sought to shore up the state sector and build “national champions.” It reflects internal concern about capital outflows and acquisitions, which have put downward pressure on the yuan in recent years. “Key elements of the document relate to the phenomenon of Chinese firms going on massive overseas shopping sprees,” said Han Meng, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Economics in Beijing. “If not reined in, this could hurt China’s economic base. Patriotic entrepreneurs are those who can do more to benefit the domestic economy and society.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has set out his plans for a “profound transformation” of the EU with deeper political integration to win back the support of disgruntled citizens, but suggested a bloc moving forward at differing speeds could become somewhere the UK may “one day find its place again”. Macron, a staunchly pro-European centrist who came to power in May after beating the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, pleaded for the EU to return to its founders’ “visionary” ideas, which were born out of the disaster of two world wars. In what was hailed on Tuesday as one of the most pro-European speeches by an EU leader in years, he spoke up for common EU policies on defence, asylum and tax, called for the formation of European universities, and promised to play Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
He said time was running out for the EU to reinvent itself to counter the rise of far-right nationalism and “give Europe back to its citizens”. With Brexit looming, Macron warned the rest of Europe against the dangers of anti-immigrant nationalism and fragmentation. “We thought the past would not come back … We thought we had learned the lessons,” he told a crowd of European students at Sorbonne University in Paris. Days after a far-right party entered the German parliament for the first time in 70 years, Macron said an isolationist attitude had resurfaced “because of blindness … because we forgot to defend Europe. The Europe that we know is too slow, too weak, too ineffective”.
Uber is testing out a new conciliatory tone in London, where officials said they wouldn’t renew the ride-hailing service’s operating license. It’s going to have ample opportunity to see if that approach will work in the U.S. San Francisco’s city attorney is investigating whether Uber Technologies Inc. is a public nuisance. In New York, officials are mulling ways to tighten controls on ride-hailing, including requiring a quarter of all trips come with wheelchair-accessible vehicles. And Seattle has passed an ordinance to make it easier for Uber drivers to unionize. “Uber is at a turning point with big-city governments,” Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy for the TransitCenter, said of Uber and other ride-sharing companies. “London’s action to threaten to withdraw their license really could turn the corner in a more normal regulatory situation for Uber.”
London officials said Friday the city would not renew Uber’s operating license, which is set to expire Sept. 30, because it isn’t “fit and proper to hold a private hire operator license.” The city cited a failure to do sufficient background checks on drivers, report crimes and a program called “Greyball” used to avoid regulators. In response, newly minted Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi released an open letter Monday apologizing “for the mistakes we’ve made” and acknowledging that the company “got things wrong along the way” during its rapid growth. London is a critical global market for Uber, which could encourage the company to make regulatory concessions to remain on the streets, Orcutt said. That stands in contrast with the company’s sharp-elbowed approach under co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick.
Uber ruffled feathers in city halls in several major U.S. cities that struggled to corral the company during its growth. It raised the ire of local officials and incumbent taxi drivers by compiling a track record of skirting traditional taxi-industry regulations and refusing to share trip data and other records sought by city officials. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in July requested court orders for Uber and competitor Lyft Inc. to hand over years worth of records after the companies refused to comply with an earlier subpoena for the records. Herrera’s office is investigating whether the companies and their estimated 45,000 drivers in the city are creating a public nuisance, a finding that could subject the companies to civil monetary penalties and expose them to court injunctions restricting their operations in the city.
New York-based Paulson & Co, led by longtime gold bull John Paulson, called on Tuesday for the world’s biggest investors in gold-mining stocks to form a coalition to tackle miners’ “dreadful” performance. Speaking at the Denver Gold Forum, the industry’s top annual event, Paulson & Co partner Marcelo Kim launched the blistering attack on the sector, saying the hedge fund was looking for fellow founding members for a body to speak out on issues including high executive pay, cozy board appointments and value-destroying mergers and acquisitions. “If we don’t do anything to change, then as investors we will continually be disappointed with shareholder returns and the industry will slowly dig itself into a hole of irrelevance and oblivion,” Kim told a packed room of delegates.
The “shareholders’ gold council” would focus solely on the gold sector, issuing vote recommendations to shareholders on issues including company takeovers and chief executive officer pay, Kim said. He said that fellow large sector investor, Tocqueville, had endorsed the council idea. Average total shareholder returns from gold mining investments, including world No.1 producer Barrick, are a negative 65% since 2010 over a period when the CEOs of 13 of the largest companies have cumulatively received $550 million in pay, Kim said. In that time, the gold price rose by 20% and the price of oil, a major input cost for miners, fell by 28%, he said. Since 2010, the industry has written off $85 billion due to overpaying for acquisitions and massive cost overruns on mine builds, he said.
Amongst large producers, the weakest performer was Canadian miner Eldorado, which had destroyed shareholder value through M&A, he said. Eldorado could not immediately be reached for comment. Not all gold miners had performed poorly, Kim said, singling out Africa-focused Randgold as a role model. Shareholders have no one to blame but themselves for rubber stamping mergers, CEO pay packages and board appointments, Kim said, adding that there was little industry engagement with company boards or activism.
Over the course of an eight-hour workday, the average employee works for about three hours — two hours and 53 minutes, to be more precise. The rest of the time, according to a 2016 survey of 1,989 UK office workers, people spend on a combination of reading the news, browsing social media, eating food, socializing about non-work topics, taking smoke breaks, and searching for new jobs (presumably, to pick up the same habits in a different office). The research has been clear for awhile that long workdays hardly get the best from people. Some research has found people can only concentrate for about 20 minutes at a time. One study found people struggled to stay on task for more than 10 seconds.
Toward the end of the day, performance begins to flatline or even worsen, K. Anders Ericsson, an expert on the psychology of work, said. “If you’re pushing people well beyond that time they can really concentrate maximally, you’re very likely to get them to acquire some bad habits,” Ericsson told Business Insider in 2016. Ericsson is the foremost expert on the topic of building expertise. He’s made a career out of studying the most successful people on Earth, and figuring out what exactly helps them rise so high. Turns out the mantra “practice makes perfect” is true, but only if people engage in a certain kind of practice known as “deliberate practice.” Experts don’t spend hours upon hours honing their craft, Ericsson has found. They spend a few hours at a time purposefully trying to improve, and then they stop.
Police will be deployed at polling stations to prevent people from voting in the Catalan independence referendum, the Spanish government has confirmed. Although the Catalonia regional government has insisted the unilateral poll will go ahead on Sunday, the Spanish government has vowed to stop the vote, which it says is a clear violation of the constitution. Spain’s constitutional court has suspended the legislation underpinning the referendum while it rules on its legality. A spokesman for the Spanish government’s Catalan delegation said on Tuesday that the region’s prosecutor had ordered the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s police force, to take control of polling booths and identify those in charge. “The order has been conveyed and it will be executed with all normality,” he said.
The Spanish government said the steps it had taken over the past week, including raiding Catalan government offices, arresting 14 officials and seizing almost 10m ballot papers, meant the vote could not take place. “Today we can affirm that there will be no effective referendum in Catalonia,” the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, told reporters on Tuesday. “All the referendum’s logistics have been dismantled.” In an order to police issued on Monday, the prosecutor’s office said it would take the names of anyone participating in the vote and confiscate relevant documents. Anyone in possession of the keys or entrance codes to a polling booth could be considered a collaborator to crimes of disobedience, misuse of office and misappropriation of funds, the order said.
However, despite the words and actions of the Spanish government, not to mention the deployment of thousands of extra police officers to Catalonia, the regional government is adamant that the referendum cannot be stopped. Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, has accused the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, of acting “beyond the limits of a respectable democracy” in his efforts to prevent the referendum. He has also compared the Spanish government’s behaviour to the repression of the Franco era and said it is only serving to drive more Catalans towards independence.
A petition banned by the Indonesian government, but bearing the signatures of 1.8 million West Papuans – more than 70% of the contested province’s population – has been presented to the United Nations, with a demand for a free vote on independence. Exiled West Papuan independence campaigner Benny Wenda presented the bound petition to the UN’s decolonisation committee, the body that monitors the progress of former colonies – known as non-self-governing territories – towards independence. The petition was banned in the provinces of Papua and West Papua by the Indonesian government, and blocked online across the country, so petition sheets had to be “smuggled from one end of Papua to the other”, Wenda told the Guardian from New York.
Independence campaigners have been jailed and allegedly tortured in Papua for opposing the rule of Indonesia, which has controlled Papua (now Papua and West Papua) since 1963. Those signing the petition risked arrest and jail. “The people have risked their lives, some have been beaten up, some are in prison. In 50 years, we have never done this before, and we had to organise this in secret,” Wenda said. “People were willing to carry it between villages, to smuggle it from one end of Papua to the other, because this petition is very significant for us in our struggle for freedom.”
The mostly submerged continent of Zealandia may have been much closer to land level than previously thought, providing pathways for animals and plants to cross continents from 80m years ago, an expedition has revealed. Zealandia, a for the most part underwater landmass in the South Pacific, was declared the Earth’s newest continent this year in a paper in the journal of the Geological Society of America. It includes Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand. On Wednesday researchers shared findings from their two-month-long expedition, one of the first extensive surveys of the region, announcing fossil discoveries and evidence of large-scale tectonic movements.
“The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia was dramatically different in the past,” said Prof Gerald Dickens of Rice University. Researchers drilled more than 860 metres below the sea floor in six different sites across Zealandia. The sediment cores collected showed evidence of tectonic and ecological change across millions of years. “The cores acted as time machines for us, allowing us to reach further and further back in time,” said Stephen Pekar, a researcher on board the scientific drilling vessel, in August. “As one scientist put it: ‘We are rewriting the geologic and tectonic history of Zealandia at this drill site.’”
The 5 million sq km continent, roughly the size of the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have separated from Australia and Antarctica, as part of Gondwana, about 80m years ago. On Wednesday Prof Rupert Sutherland from New Zealand’s Victoria University said the expedition had discovered “big geographic changes”. “[The research] has big implications for understanding big scientific questions, such as how did plants and animals disperse and evolve in the South Pacific? The discovery of past land and shallow seas now provides an explanation: there were pathways for animals and plants to move along.”
It wasn’t always this way. We never used to get a giant, speculative bubble every seven to eight years. We really didn’t. In 2000, we had the dot-com bubble. In 2007, we had the housing bubble. In 2017, we have the everything bubble. I did not coin the term “the everything bubble.” I do not know who did. Apologies (and much respect) to the person I stole it from. Why do we call it the everything bubble? Well, there is a bubble in a bunch of asset classes simultaneously. And the infographic below that my colleagues at Mauldin Economics created paints the picture best. I don’t usually predict downturns, but this time I bet my reputation that a downturn is coming. And soon.
The U.S. federal government just passed a record $20 trillion in publicly held debt. That’s bigger than the entire economy of every country in the European Union, combined. The debt will only grow higher unless President Trump and the U.S. Congress can agree to unprecedented spending cuts combined with tax increases. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon. Most people think that an eye-popping $20+ trillion debt is insurmountable, and in fact, it is the largest in the world by far. But when you look at another fiscal measure—the ratio of debt-to-GDP—the U.S. is not in the worst situation. Our visualization allows you to quickly see how the U.S. government’s debt compares to other countries around the world. The size of the country correlates to the size of the debt. The U.S. and Japan stand out because they have the highest debts in the world ($20.17T and $11.59T, respectively).
Other countries, like Germany and Brazil, appear much smaller because their debts are comparatively tiny ($2.45T and $1.45T, respectively). We then color-coded each country according to its debt-to-GDP ratio. Green countries have a healthy margin, but dark red and fuchsia countries have debts that are even bigger than their entire economies. The debt-to-GDP ratio is a critical metric for evaluating a country’s fiscal health. It makes a lot of sense for the American government to have a higher debt than a much smaller country, like Germany. That’s why it’s important to consider the GDP of each country, a number which represents the sum of all transactions occurring in the economy. Once you understand the public debt as a percentage of GDP, you get a level playing field for countries on different economic scales. When you think about it like this, the U.S. isn’t even among the ten worst sovereign debts in the world.
Top 10 countries with the Worst Debt-to-GDP Ratios
1. Japan (245% at $11.59B)
2. Greece (173% at $338B)
3. Italy (138% at $138B)
4. Portugal (133% at $274B)
5. Belgium (111% at $111B)
6. Spain (106% at $106B)
7. Canada (106% at $106B)
8. Ireland (105% at $105B)
9. France (98% at $98B)
10. Brazil (82% at $82B)
The thing that always struck me is how much the morality of debt—that anyone in debt has only themselves to blame, that deadbeats are contemptible—stubbornly refuses to die. Even now, when the situation is largely engineered by government policy, the first impulse of pundits and other popular moralists is invariably to assume the real problem must, somehow, be a bunch of lazy freeloaders, living beyond their means. As a result, by the standards of public discourse that exist today—that is, the sort of things it’s considered acceptable coming from the mouth of a politician or TV commentator or government economist—it’s not really legitimate to worry about rising levels of household debt simply because it causes misery or deprivation, if it means millions of actual flesh and blood human beings will be living lives of fear, anxiety, and constant humiliation.
Illustration Rachel Bolton
It’s only really legitimate to worry about rising levels of household debt insofar as it might be likely to cause another financial crisis. (Such a crisis, after all, might well affect the lives of the rich and upper reaches of the professional and managerial classes, that is, the kind of lives that policy-makers feel they have to take account of.) And even then, it must be posed as a moral problem caused by irresponsible self-indulgence—as one Daily Mail headline recently put it: “Your neighbour’s shiny new SUV is about to crash the economy!” Yet the two impulses are clearly in tension. To look at debt in macro-economic terms does make it easier to see it as a structural problem, as the result of self-conscious policy decisions. As a result, everyone seems to want to minimise the problem. Here are the numbers that they published in 2017, which a friend of mine who works in the City translated into handy tabular form:
The attentive reader will note that the image is symmetrical. Up to around 2014, at least, the top and bottom half exactly mirror one another. This is exactly as things should be: it’s an “accounting identity”, as in a ledger sheet, debits and credits have to add up. The remarkable thing is that after 2014, they don’t, and in the projected future, the top and bottom are actually quite different. When I first saw this diagram I was startled and confused. Was I missing something? Was there something about the math I didn’t understand? I passed the image on to two different economists and asked just that: isn’t there something wrong with the numbers here?
A version of the ugly duckling. Behind Trump’s words on athletes and the anthem. Many people like the athletes, but some 75% of Americans think they should respect the flag. Trump thought this through.
As a young boy, I enjoyed my family’s bantam chickens that laid very small eggs and hatched very small chicks. Theirs was a small and miniature world. One day one of my bantams started sitting on eggs to hatch its chicks. Something happened to her eggs but she continued to sit, so I decided to put a duck egg under her. Duck eggs are at least three times bigger than bantam eggs and take a few days longer to hatch, but she dutifully sat on the egg several days longer. She hatched the duckling and, as you can imagine, it thought that his world was normal and that the bantam hen was his mother. The duckling eventually grew into a full sized mallard duck, probably five or six times the size of its bantam mother. The full-grown duck would follow its hen mother around as would normal chicks. It was a funny sight to watch.
But I remember thinking, even as a small boy, that the duck’s entire reality was that the bantam hen was his mother and that was the way the world worked. He had no need to consider anything else. This is the world of the American people today. Their perceptions of reality control them and they who control their perceptions control the American people. Our perception of America has always been that she is the mother country and ordained by God, good and just and a beacon of freedom. This is hammered into our psyches from our early days. From pre-school up, we are taught to worship the state. I don’t know if it is still done, but in the public (non)education system, for many years, schoolchildren across the South — and elsewhere, I suppose — recited the Pledge of Allegiance each morning.
Political rallies and government meetings are still often begun with a recitation of the pledge. People say it with patriotic fervor, with their hands placed dutifully on their hearts. Sporting events, political rallies and other public venues are often kicked off with the playing and/or singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Before the song begins, people are instructed to rise, men to remove their hats,and people place their hands over their hearts. They don’t realize its value as a propaganda tool. We have come to equate the flag, the pledge and the national anthem with patriotism, and patriotism with government, country and support for government, support for foreign wars and veterans. Anything less is “un-American.”
As I was driving to work yesterday morning on the Schuylkill Expressway a commercial comes on the radio from a plastic surgeon advertising for anyone looking for a better set of boobs. I had never heard a plastic surgeon commercial before, so I thought that was unusual. But, that wasn’t the best part. This plastic surgeon was offering no money down 18 month interest free financing on your new boobs. I wonder if they are moving boobs with subprime debt the same way the auto companies have used subprime debt to move cars. Of course, when a deadbeat defaults on an auto loan the car is easily repossessed. What happens when a bimbo defaults on her boob loan? How narrow minded of me. What happens when some dude who wants to be a bimbo defaults on his/her loan? I guess it was just a matter of time before breast enhancement met debt enhancement in this warped world of materialism, narcissism, financialization, and delusions.
Now that revolving credit has reached a new all-time high of $1 trillion and total consumer debt outstanding has exceeded it’s 2008 peak at $12.8 trillion, the Fed has completed its job of helping the average American again in-debt themselves up to their eyeballs. This is considered a success story in this twisted, perverted, bizarro world we call America today. The solution to an epic debt induced global financial catastrophe caused by Federal Reserve easy money, Wall Street fraud, and Washington DC corruption has been to increase global debt by 50% since 2007, with virtually all of it created by central bankers and the governments they control. In what demented Ivy League educated academic mind would piling $68 trillion more debt on the backs of taxpayers as a cure for a disease caused by the initial $149 trillion of debt be considered rational and sustainable? It’s like having pancreatic cancer and trying to cure it with a self inflicted gunshot.
In late November 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put in place a fait accompli. But he didn’t recognize it at the time. For he was blinded by his myopic prejudices. Bernanke, a self-fancied Great Depression history buff with the highest academic credentials, gazed back 80 years, observed several credit market parallels, and then made a preconceived diagnosis. After that, he picked up his copy of A Monetary History of the United States by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, turned to the chapter on the Great Depression, and got to work expanding the Fed’s balance sheet. Now here is something all those “Great Depression experts” always neglect to mention: the Fed’s holdings of government securities expanded my more than 400% between late 1929 and early 1933.
Friedman’s often repeated assertion that the Fed “didn’t pump enough” in the early 1930s – which is held up as the gospel truth by nearly everyone – is simply untrue. It is true that the money supply collapsed anyway – but not because the Fed didn’t try to pump it up. Many contingent circumstances mitigated against money supply expansion: too many banks went bankrupt, taking all their uncovered deposit money to money heaven, as there was no FDIC insurance; only 50% of all banks were even members of the Federal Reserve system; no-one wanted to borrow or lend in view of the massive economic contraction and the Hoover administration’s ill-conceived interventionism. We can also tentatively conclude that the economy’s pool of real funding was under great pressure, which was exacerbated as a result of the trade war triggered by the protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff enacted in June 1930.
The collapse in international trade and investment meant that the pool of savings of the rest of the globe was no longer accessible. Bernanke’s dirty deed commenced with the purchase of $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities, using digital monetary credits conjured up from thin air. By March 2009, he’d run up the Fed’s balance sheet from $900 billion to $1.75 trillion. Then, over the next five years, he ballooned it out to $4.5 trillion. All the while, Bernanke flattered his ego with platitudes that he was preventing Great Depression II. Did it ever occur to him he was merely postponing a much-needed financial liquidation and rebalancing? Did he comprehend that his actions were distorting the economy further and setting it up for an even greater bust?
Perhaps Bernanke understood exactly what he was doing. As many readers have insisted over the years, the Fed works for the big banks and big money interests. Not Main Street. Regardless, the Fed recognizes that the optics of its $4.5 trillion balance sheet have become a bit skewed. The Great Recession officially ended over eight years ago. Why is the Fed’s balance sheet still extremely bloated?
US broad true money supply TMS-2 and assets held by the Federal Reserve
By our back of the napkin calculation, starting with October’s initial $10 billion reduction, then incrementally increasing the reduction by $10 billion each quarter until hitting $50 billion per month, and then contracting by $50 billion a month from there, it will take 78-months for the Fed to get its balance sheet back to $900 billion (i.e., where it was before Bernanke’s act of depravity). Thus, in roughly six and a half years, or in March 2024, monetary policy will be back to normal. If you recall, the Soviets operated under five-year plans for the development of the national economy of the USSR. Now, Yellen, an ardent central planner and control freak, has charted the Fed’s 78-month plan for the national monetary policy of the United States. Have you ever heard of something so ridiculous?
However, while the Soviets were zealous believers in their plans, we suspect the Fed will be as committed to the cause as a fat person to a New Year’s Day diet. In truth, the Fed will never, ever reduce its balance sheet to $900 billion. They won’t even get close; they are well past the point of no return. In the early 1930s the Soviet planners under Stalin had a great idea: why not fulfill the 5 year plan in four years? This showed that nothing was impossible for the “new Soviet man” and two plus two was henceforth five. As Marxists will explain, this is in perfect keeping with the rules of polylogism. Even the laws of mathematics must bend to proletarian logic. For starters, financial markets will not allow the Fed to execute its 78-month tightening program according to plan. At some point, credit markets will have a severe reaction.
This would ripple through stock markets and nearly all assets that are propped up by cheap credit. What’s more, if this doesn’t panic the Fed from its master 78-month monetary policy plan, the economy will. No doubt, at some point within the next 78-months the U.S. economy will shrink. What will the Fed do then? Will they continue to tighten in the face of a contracting economy? No way. They will ease, and then they will ease some more. They won’t stop until it is near impossible for an honest person to work hard, save their money, and pay their way in life. Many fine fellows were already pickled over by the Fed in the last easing cycle and lost their way. More are bound to follow.
Guess who’s lying in wait… it will be found out that a creature long held to be extinct was merely hibernating in its cave, sharpening its claws.
China’s latest push to revive its bloated state-owned sector is set to pick up pace this year, with bankers and investors expecting possible spin-offs and asset sales to follow a key Communist Party Congress in October. But the effort is likely to only involve a limited role for private money, even as Beijing has been promoting it as crucial for reforming state-owned enterprises (SOEs), according to people familiar with China’s plans. Beijing would likely lean on cash-rich SOEs like China Life Insurance and Citic Group to bail out the largest of the struggling companies, the people said. They cited China Life stepping in to help China Unicom raise $12 billion last month. A limited role for private capital would raise questions about the depth of any overhaul of the SOEs.
China hopes to speed up the reforms in order to meet ambitious economic growth targets and manage its corporate debt burden. “The current model allows winners, companies doing better, to partially own those doing worse,” said Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief Asia Pacific economist at Natixis. “In other words, this is a reshuffling of profit, loss among SOEs to a large extent.” China Life is in talks with China Three Gorges New Energy, a unit of the country’s top hydropower developer, according to sources familiar with the matter. China’s state-run companies dominate the country’s key industries, from banking to insurance, energy, and telecoms. They retain an edge over their private rivals in investing both locally and overseas, in part thanks to easier financing.
But they also produce lower returns than their private counterparts and account for the biggest proportion of the bad loans on the books of the country’s banks. The fund raising by Unicom, a state-owned telecoms group, had sparked hopes for the mixed ownership effort, as outlined in a 2015 government plan. The partial privatization of Unicom in August, involving 14 investors, including the tech giants Alibaba and Tencent, was welcomed by markets. But, as Beijing balanced the need for cash with the need for control, China Life ended up with a 10.6 percent stake in the company, nearly a third of the total sold. New investors, including China Life, were given three of 15 board seats.
A number of second-tier cities in China have rolled out property speculation curbs in an effort to cool home property sales, according to the official Xinhua News Agency and documents published by some municipal governments. The city of Shijiazhuang, southwest of Beijing, has banned investors from selling newly bought homes for up to five years, while Changsha in Hunan province banned homeowners from buying a second property for up to three years from the time of their first home purchase, Xinhua said. Changsha has also limited property sales to non local residents to one unit per person. The city of Chongqing, as well as Nancang in the southern province of Jiangxi, meanwhile, banned transactions of new and second-hand homes for two years after purchase.
The various measures took effect last week. Additionally, Xian in Shaanxi province has asked real estate developers from Monday to report home prices to local price-monitoring departments before sale and reiterated its pledge to crack down on property price manipulation and speculation. The latest property clampdowns follow moves in June by two Chinese cities, Xian in Shaanxi and Zhenzhou in Henan province, to cool their property markets. Average new home prices in China’s 70 major cities rose 0.2 percent in August from a month ago, data from the statistics bureau showed.
In his wonderful book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt traces the origins of the Renaissance back to the rediscovery of a 2,000-year-old poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). The book is a riveting explanation of how a huge cultural shift can ultimately spring from faint stirrings in the undergrowth. Professor Greenblatt is probably not interested in the giant corporations that now dominate our world, but I am, and in the spirit of The Swerve I’ve been looking for signs that big changes might be on the way. You don’t have to dig very deep to find them. Some are pretty obvious. In 2014, for example, the European Court of Justice decided that EU citizens had the so-called “right to be forgotten” and that Google would have to comply if it wanted to continue to do business in Europe.
In May this year, the European commission fined Facebook €110m for “providing misleading information” about its takeover of WhatsApp. And in June the commission levied a whopping €2.4bn fine on Google for abusing its monopoly in search. Since the European commission is the only regulator in the world that seems to have the muscle and inclination to take on the internet giants, these developments were relatively predictable. What’s more interesting are various straws in the wind that show how digital behemoths are losing their shine. Many of these relate to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and to the dawning of a realisation that Google and Facebook in particular may have played some role in these political earthquakes.
This was not because the leadership of the two companies actively sought these outcomes, but because people began to realise that the infrastructure they had built for their core business of extracting users’ data and selling it to companies for ad-targeting purposes could be – and was – “weaponised” by political actors in order to achieve political goals. Public concern about these discoveries was not exactly mollified by the responses of the companies’ bosses – which were variously dismissive, evasive (“it’s just the algorithms – nothing to do with us”), disingenuous, inept and politically naive. They had to be like that, because a franker response would reveal that taking responsibility for what happens on their platforms would vaporise the business model that has made them so rich and powerful.
In the mind of many Uber supporters, the Transport for London (TfL) decision – coming a few days before Khan’s appearance at the Labour party conference – revealed an organisation in thrall to established labour interests. Sources told the Observer that the decision was communicated to Uber only two minutes before it was announced and that there had been only one meeting in the last year between the company and the senior team at TfL who insisted that the licence renewal could not be discussed. “TfL has once again caved into pressure from unions who never miss an opportunity to rip off passengers,” said Alex Wild, research director at the rightwing pressure group Taxpayers’ Alliance. The pushback against the laissez-faire philosophy of the US west coast’s tech community is being waged on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the US, calls to regulate technology companies have made strange bedfellows of Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren and ex-White House aide and Breitbart chief Steve Bannon. Last week the former chief strategist to Donald Trump reiterated his view that firms such as Facebook and Google should be regulated like “public utilities”. Meanwhile progressives such as Warren warn of the monopolistic behaviour of Google, Amazon, and Apple while pushing for a renewed debate over antitrust laws. “Silicon Valley is going from being heroes to villains,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s been brewing for quite a while, but there’s a big shift happening.” But, still, the speed of this shift has surprised many. “In our wildest dreams we didn’t think TfL would refuse the licence,” said Maria Ludkin, legal director at the GMB union. “We thought they’d attach conditions to make sure Uber would improve passenger and driver safety.”
[..] Ironically, while many drivers like Abdul have leapt to Uber’s defence, it was the company’s treatment of them that drew attention to the aggressive corporate culture which brought about its downfall in the capital. Last October, following a case brought by the GMB that has wide-ranging implications for all companies in the gig economy, an employment tribunal ruled that Uber’s UK drivers should be classed as workers rather than as self-employed. “We’d had an epidemic of companies saying their people are self-employed when in fact, when you examine their rights and responsibilities, the way they’re acting each day, it’s pretty clear they’re either fully employed or are workers entitled to sickness pay, etc,” Ludkin said. “We brought the Uber case because we had so many drivers coming to us. We looked at their contracts and thought it was a ludicrous idea that 30,000 of them were self-employed, which was Uber’s position.”
French far-left opposition party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon drew tens of thousands to a rally on Saturday against President Emmanuel Macron’s labor reforms, aiming to reinforce his credentials as Macron’s strongest political opponent. Trade union protests against Macron’s plan to make hiring and firing easier and give companies more power over working conditions seem to be losing steam, but Melenchon said his “France Unbowed” party was calling on unions to join them and together “keep up the fight”. “The battle is not over, it is only starting,” Melenchon told the crowd gathered on the Place de la Republique where the rally against what Melenchon has called “a social coup d‘etat” ended.
In a warning to Macron, who has said he will not bow to street pressure, Melenchon said: “It is the street that defeated the kings, it is the street that defeated the Nazis,” while the crowd chanted “Resistance! Resistance!” It remains to be seen whether Melenchon and his party have the capacity to mobilize the kind of street resistance which forced the last two presidents to dilute their own attempts to loosen the labor code. Melenchon tweeted that over 150,000 demonstrators had turned up while police put the number at 30,000. A campaign rally in March, weeks before the presidential election, drew some 130,000 people, party officials had said.
Police in Spain’s rebel region of Catalonia rejected giving more control to the central government in defiance of authorities in Madrid who are trying to suppress an independence referendum on Oct. 1. The SAP union, the largest trade group for the 17,000-member Mossos d’Esquadra regional force, said it would resist hours after prosecutors Saturday ordered that it accept central-government coordination. The rejection echoed comments by Catalan separatist authorities. “We don’t accept this interference of the state, jumping over all existing coordination mechanisms,” the region’s Interior Department chief Joaquim Forn said in brief televised comments. “The Mossos won’t renounce exercising their functions in loyalty to the Catalan people.”
The disobedience may fuel speculation the Mossos aren’t committed to work with the national Civil Guard in Spain’s largest regional economy. The standoff came a day after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government acknowledged it’s sending more reinforcements to help control street demonstrations and carry out a separate court order to halt the vote. Officials in Madrid have quietly rented cruise ships including the Rhapsody and moored them in Catalan ports as temporary housing for riot police and other security officials being sent to the region in what El Correo newspaper said may ultimately exceed the number of Mossos by the referendum date.
You don’t even have to leave the airport to see that Hurricane Maria has laid waste to Puerto Rico’s power grid. On Friday, the San Juan airport was abandoned. No electricity meant no air conditioning, and no air conditioning meant hot and muggy air wafting through the terminals. Ceilings were leaking. Floors were wet. Only the military, relying on its own sight and radar systems, was landing planes. The airport is one of the first places crews will restore power – whenever they can get to it. Hundreds are still waiting for the all-clear to move in and start the arduous task of resurrecting Puerto Rico’s grid. The devastation that Maria exacted on Puerto Rico’s aging and grossly neglected electricity system when it slammed ashore as a Category 4 storm two days ago is unprecedented – not just for the island but for all of the U.S.
100% of the system run by the Puerto Rico Power Authority is offline, because Maria damaged every part of it. The territory is facing weeks, if not months, without service as utility workers repair power plants and lines that were already falling apart. “I have seen a lot damage in the 32 years that I have been in this business, and from this particular perspective, it’s about as large a scale damage as I have ever seen,” said Wendul G. Hagler II, a brigadier general in the National Guard, which is assisting in the response. No federal agency dared on Friday to estimate how long it’ll take to re-energize Puerto Rico. If it’s any indication of how far they’ve gotten, the island’s power authority known as Prepa is only now starting to assess the damage.
“We are only a couple of days in from the storm – there could be lots of issues and confusion at the beginning of something like this,” said Kenneth Buell, a director at the U.S. Energy Department who is helping lead the federal response in Puerto Rico. “We are in the phase where we have people queued up and lining up resources.” What Buell does know is Puerto Rico’s power plants seem inexplicably clustered along the island’s south coast, a hard-to-reach region that was left completely exposed to all of Maria’s wrath. A chain of high-voltage lines thrown across the island’s mountainous middle connect those plants to the cities in the north.
Puerto Rico’s rich hydropower resources have also taken a hit. On Friday, the National Weather Service pleaded for people to evacuate an area in the northwest corner of the island after a dam burst. “All areas surrounding the Guajataca River should evacuate NOW. Their lives are in DANGER!,” the service said on Twitter. And that’s not to mention the state of Puerto Rico’s grid before the storm. Government-owned Prepa, operating under court protection from creditors, has more than $8 billion in debt but little to show for it. Even before the storm, outages were common, and the median plant age is 44 years, more than twice the industry average.
The U.S. Treasury has been up against its debt ceiling since March 15 when the ceiling was re-imposed. Since then, there has been no net new issuance from the Treasury. The Treasury has run down its cash balances and borrowed internally from its own resources, which are not subject to the ceiling. This period has been very helpful to the financial markets. With the federal government not selling any net new supply of securities—just rolling the maturing stuff over—the markets have been flush with cash that would otherwise have been absorbed by the government. This hit of extra liquidity is about to disappear and then some. President Trump has made a three-month debt ceiling deal with the Democrats which means that the Treasury can resume borrowing without restrictions through December.
This increase in the debt ceiling is needed to reliquify the federal government (which is down to $38 billion in cash) and repay the internal funds the Treasury raided since the debt ceiling was imposed back in March. The Treasury needs to borrow a substantial amount of money. There hasn’t been a material increase in the Treasury’s borrowing schedule yet, but it is coming. The Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee (TBAC), a group of senior Wall Street executives, has advised the Treasury to issue $501 billion in net new supply in the fourth quarter, virtually all in November and December, and the Treasury almost always follows the TBAC script. That’s an outrageous amount of money. The cash the Treasury needs is not sitting somewhere in primary dealer bank accounts; it’s invested in the financial markets. Securities will have to be sold to accommodate this new issuance.
This is not new. A borrowing spike happens every time we have an increase in the debt ceiling as the chart demonstrates. Note that this chart reflects an estimate of net new issuance needed to return to last year’s cash on hand and was produced before TBAC had issued its recommendations. TBAC is proposing to move more slowly. Nonetheless, past funding spikes are clearly demarcated and the next one is going to be big. While Treasury supply will increase, the trend of demand for Treasuries has been going the other way. Bid coverage at auctions has been declining in recent months and the largest banks have been reducing their inventories of Treasury securities. Falling demand in the face of increasing supply is a recipe for a bear market in bonds. Bond yields will rise and that will put pressure on stocks as well.
The Federal Reserve has given the market extraordinary support over the past eight years by financing most new Treasury supply. Even after it stopped outright QE in November of 2014, the Fed continued to buy $25–$45 billion per month in maturing Mortgage Backed Securities from the primary dealers. That cashed up the dealers and helped finance their purchases of new Treasuries. But now, the Fed intends to join the Treasury as a net seller of Treasuries (and MBS) as it starts to reduce its balance sheet this fall. Once the Fed stops buying that paper, the dealers will have a lot less cash and that means a lot more selling.
There’s a mystery hidden on the balance sheets of Corporate America: These companies have a record amount of cash and they’re more deeply indebted than ever before.This seems paradoxical and kind of silly. Why raise money from bond investors when you already have the liquid assets on hand? As Bloomberg News reported Thursday, non-financial companies’ liquid assets, which include foreign deposits, currency as well as money-market and mutual fund shares, reached a record of almost $2.3 trillion in the second quarter. That’s an increase of nearly 60% since mid-2009. This cash cushion also appears sort of comforting; companies can do whatever they want. They’re rich. But in reality, it is neither silly nor overly comforting.
First of all, a disproportionate amount of the cash is held by the biggest companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and General Electric, and it is mostly held in overseas accounts. These corporations can’t bring that cash back without incurring steep tax bills, so they’ve been keeping it offshore. When they need money, they simply raise dollars by borrowing from the bond market at record-low rates. Indeed, the amount of bonds issued by these companies has surged, rising 66% from mid-2009 to $5.24 trillion of bonds outstanding as of the end of June, Federal Reserve data show. That isn’t necessarily a recipe for default because a large chunk of this is an exercise in financial engineering aimed at avoiding onerous taxes. But it has consequences.
First, it limits the benefit to the economy if and when those tax policies are changed because much of the money has already been released through the bond market. And second, to the extent that companies have cash, they’re not using enough of it for exciting projects. There hasn’t been a tremendous wave of innovation or salary increases. Instead, companies have repurchased billions of dollars of their own shares, which is great for the stock market but doesn’t do a whole lot to bolster economic growth.
The borrowing and spending binge by Canadian households, businesses and governments (all levels) continues unabated. Growing the debt in the economy significantly faster than the economy itself grows seems to have developed into a way of life in Canada. At the end of June, 2017 the total debt outstanding in Canada was $7.51 trillion. At the end of June, 2016 it was $7.13 trillion. In the 1 year period from the end of June, 2016 to the end of June, 2017 it increased by $375 billion. This is an increase of 5.2%. The approximate beginning of the global financial crisis was June, 2007. At the end of June, 2007 the total debt outstanding in Canada was $3.99 trillion. In the last 10 years it has increased by $3.52 trillion. This is an increase of 88.3%. At the end of June, 2017 the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors was $5.32 trillion.
At the end of June, 2016 the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors was $5.04 trillion. In the 1 year period from the end of June, 2016 to the end of June, 2017 it increased by $278 billion. This is an increase of 5.5%. At the end of June, 2007 the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors was $2.84 trillion. In the last 10 years it has increased by $2.47 trillion. This is an increase of 86.9%. At the end of June, 2017 the annual GDP at market prices in Canada was $2.12 trillion, and in the preceding 1 year it grew by 6.3%, – ie: the size of the economy grew by $133.9 billion. In the 1 year period from the end of June, 2016 to the end of June, 2017 the total debt outstanding in Canada increased by $375 billion. For each $1.00 the economy grew in this 1 year period (using the GDP at market prices metric) the total debt outstanding increased by $2.80.
Looking at just the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors in Canada: In the 1 year period from the end of June, 2016 to the end of June, 2017 the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors increased by $278 billion. For each $1.00 the economy grew in this 1 year period (using the gdp at market prices metric) the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors increased by $2.08. At the end of June, 2017 the total debt outstanding in Canada was 3.5 times greater than our annual gdp at market prices, and looking at just the total debt outstanding of domestic non-financial sectors, that was 2.5 times greater than our annual gdp at market prices. [..] In the 1 year period from the end of June, 2016 to the end of June, 2017 the total debt outstanding in Canada increased by $375 billion. For each $1.00 the economy grew in this 1 year period the total debt outstanding increased by $5.48.
My chart highlights how for DECADES the income required to buy a median priced house – using popular programs & rates for each era – remained mostly flat (red line) and WELL BELOW the level of household income (black line). How could house prices rise so much for decades but income required to buy (red) them remain flattish? Because of the accompanying falling rates/easing credit guideline cycle. In fact, during Bubble 1.0 house prices soared but exotic loans legitimately made them more affordable than ever, as shown.
But in ’12, as trillions in unorthodox capital, credit & liquidity began to drive massive speculation (just like Bubble 1.0) income required to buy began to surge, with prices, shooting above median HH income (boxed in yellow). Meaningful sales growth with this affordability backdrop is impossible. …This is the point in this inflationary cycle at which affordability detached from end-user fundamentals. Now, in ’17, end-user purchase power & house prices have never been more diverged from the multi-decade trend line and a mean reversion – via surging wages, new era exotic loans, plunging rates, and/or falling house prices, as speculation ebbs – is inevitable.
Every form of credit/debt is denominated in a currency. A Japanese bond is denominated in yen, for example. The bond is purchased with yen, the interest is paid in yen, and the coupon paid at maturity is in yen. What gets tricky is debt denominated in some other currency. Let’s say I take out a loan denominated in quatloos. The current exchange rates between USD and quatloos is 1 to 1: parity. So far so good. I convert 100 USD to 100 quatloos every month to make the principal and interest payment of 100 quatloos. Then some sort of kerfuffle occurs in the FX markets, and suddenly it takes 2 USD to buy 1 quatloo. Oops: my loan payments just doubled. Where it once only cost 100 USD to service my loan denominated in quatloos, now it takes $200 to make my payment in quatloos. Ouch. Notice the difference between payments, reserves and debt: payments/flows are transitory, reserves and debt are not.
What happens in flows is transitory: supply and demand for currencies in this moment fluctuate, but flows are so enormous–trillions of units of currency every day–that flows don’t affect the value or any currency much. FX markets typically move in increments of 1/100 of a percentage point. So flows don’t matter much. De-dollarization of flows is pretty much a non-issue. What matters is demand for currencies that is enduring: reserves and debt.The same 100 quatloos can be used hundreds of times daily in payment flows; buyers and sellers only need the quatloos for a few seconds to complete the conversion and payment. But those needing quatloos for reserves or to pay long-term debts need quatloos to hold. The 100 quatloos held in reserve essentially disappear from the available supply of quatloos.
Another source of confusion is trade flows. If the U.S. buys more stuff from China than China buys from the U.S., goods flow from China to the U.S. and U.S. dollars flow to China. As China’s trade surplus continues, the USD just keep piling up. What to do with all these billions of USD? One option is to buy U.S. Treasury bonds (debt denominated in dollars), as that is a vast, liquid market with plenty of demand and supply. Another is to buy some other USD-denominated assets, such as apartment buildings in Seattle. This is the source of the petro-dollar trade. All the oil/gas that’s imported into the U.S. is matched by a flow of USD to the oil-exporting nations, who then have to do something with the steadily increasing pile of USD.
The USD is still the dominant reserve currency, despite decades of diversification. Global reserves (allocated and unallocated) are over $12 trillion. Note that China’s RMB doesn’t even show up in allocated reserves–it’s a non-player because it’s pegged to the USD. Why hold RMB when the peg can be changed at will? It’s lower risk to just hold USD. While total global debt denominated in USD is about $50 trillion, the majority of this is domestic, i.e. within the U.S. economy. $11 trillion has been issued to non-banks outside the U.S., including developed and emerging market debt:
China has moved to limit North Korea’s oil supply and will stop buying textiles from the politically isolated nation, it said on Saturday. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner, and one of its only sources of hard currency. The ban on textiles trade will hurt Pyongyang’s income, while China’s oil exports are the country’s main source of petroleum products. The tougher stance follows North Korea’s latest nuclear test this month. The United Nations agreed fresh sanctions – including the textiles and petroleum restrictions – in response. A statement from China’s commerce ministry said restrictions on refined petroleum products would apply from 1 October, and on liquefied natural gas immediately.
A limited amount, allowed under the UN resolution, would still be exported to North Korea. The current volume of trade between the two countries – and how much the new limits reduce it by – is not yet clear. But the ban on textiles – Pyongyang’s second-biggest export – is expected to cost the country more than $700m a year. China and Russia had initially opposed a proposal from the United States to completely ban oil exports, but later agreed to the reduced measures. North Korea has little energy production of its own, but does refine some petroleum products from crude oil it imports – which is not included in the new ban. The AFP news agency reports that petrol prices in Pyongyang have risen by about 20% in the past two months.
Russia’s central bank has been forced to rescue two major lenders in less than a month, intensifying concerns among global investors that a systemic banking crisis could be in the offing. The Russian government’s latest rescue of a major bank was confirmed on Thursday, when the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) said it had nationalized the country’s 12th largest lender in terms of assets, B&N Bank. Last month, the CBR stepped in to launch one of the largest bank rescues in Russia’s history when Otkritie Bank required a bailout to help plug a $7 billion hole in its balance sheet. Russia’s central bank moved to dismiss intensifying concerns that a brewing systemic crisis could be forthcoming on Thursday, as it said its second major bank nationalization in three weeks had prevented a “domino effect” in the country’s ailing banking sector.
“We realized that it’s better to isolate a bit more so that the domino effect does not arise, and according to the results of this work the domino effect is excluded, there is no risk of this,” Vasily Pozdyshev, deputy governor at the CBR, told a press conference as reported by state media. B&N Bank requires an estimated capitalization of around $4.3 billion to $6 billion, according to Pozdyshev, an amount approximately equivalent to 25% of the lender’s balance sheet. The failure of two major lenders in relatively quick succession has fueled anxiety over the health of Russia’s banking sector, which has been hampered by an economic slowdown and Western sanctions in recent years.
In 2014, Russian regulators were jolted into action after a dramatic slump in oil prices as well as tough international sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and Russia’s perceived role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine. The CBR has been attempting to clean up the banking sector since 2013, shutting down scores of banks that it believed represented a risk to the system. Russia’s central bank has reportedly now closed more than a third of the country’s banks – approximately 300 lenders – in the last three years as it sought to eradicate undercapitalized institutions.
The UK’s credit rating has been cut over concerns about the UK’s public finances and fears Brexit could damage the country’s economic growth. Moody’s, one of the major ratings agencies, downgraded the UK to an Aa2 rating from Aa1. It said leaving the European Union was creating economic uncertainty at a time when the UK’s debt reduction plans were already off course. Downing Street said the firm’s Brexit assessments were “outdated”. The other major agencies, Fitch and S&P, changed their ratings in 2016, with S&P cutting it two notches from AAA to AA, and Fitch lowering it from AA+ to AA.
Moody’s said the government had “yielded to pressure and raised spending in several areas” including health and social care. It says revenues were unlikely to compensate for the higher spending. The agency said because the government had not secured a majority in the snap election it “further obscures the future direction of economic policy”. It also said Brexit would dominate legislative priorities, so there could be limited capacity to address “substantial” challenges. It added “any free trade agreement will likely take years to negotiate, prolonging the current uncertainty for business”. Moody’s has also changed the UK’s long-term issuer and debt ratings to “stable” from “negative”.
Transport for London has announced it will not renew ride-sharing app Uber’s licence, because it had identified a “lack of corporate responsibility” in the company. The statement highlighted four major areas of concern: the company’s approach to reporting criminal offences, the obtaining of medical certificates, its compliance with Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks on employees, and its use of controversial Greyball software to “block regulatory… access to the app”. The company has recently been dogged by a number of corporate scandals in the UK and its international operations, which ultimately led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick in June. Uber has repeatedly come under fire for its handling of allegations of sexual assault by its drivers against passengers.
Freedom of Information data obtained by The Sun last year showed that the Metropolitan Police investigated 32 drivers for rape or sexual assault of a passenger between May 2015 and May 2016. In August, Metropolitan Police Inspector Neil Billany wrote to TfL about his concern that the company was failing to properly investigate allegations against its drivers. He revealed the company had continued to employ a driver after he was accused of sexual assault. According to Inspector Billany, the same driver went on to assault another female passenger before he was removed. The letter said: “By not reporting to police promptly, Uber are allowing situations to develop that clearly affect the safety and security of the public.”
The statement by London’s transport body also expresses concern about “its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London”. In March it emerged that Uber had been secretly using a tool called Greyball to deceive law enforcement officials in a number of US cities where the company flouted state regulations. Greyball used personal data of individuals it believed were connected to local government and ensured that its drivers would not pick them up if they requested a ride on the app. It was used in Portland, Oregon, Philadelphia, Boston, and Las Vegas, as well as France, Australia, China, South Korea and Italy. Uber denies ever using the software in the UK.
Uber isn’t the only sharing economy app that has become part of daily life in the capital. Since 2008, over four million people have stayed in an Airbnb in London. The company, which links guests up with empty rooms or homes in the capital, recently came under fire in the US for not properly screening a host who attempted to sexually assault a woman (a spokesman for Airbnb later told The Independent that a background check had been done on the host and that there had been no prior convictions). The legal ruling over Uber could now bring the responsibilities of other companies such as Airbnb into the limelight. The rapid proliferation of these types of “gig economy” companies over the past few years has meant that many of them have forgotten their basic responsibilities toward their customers.
As The Independent’s Josie Cox has written, they forgot that the sharing economy business model was based on trust – we had to have confidence that the strangers we were sharing cars with were safe, and they couldn’t provide that. For too long, Uber tried to evade its role as anything more than a provider of tech. But we were never just sharing software; we were sharing our lives. Uber tried to get away with pretending it was a neutral software platform for far too long – all it did was link people together, and its responsibilities went as far as fixing glitches. But it was always a private taxi hire firm. It was a company with employees, who it should have been paying properly from that start, and customers, who it should have been protecting.
“We’re only two days past the Hurricane Maria’s direct hit on Puerto Rico and there is no phone communication across the island, so we barely know what has happened. We’re weeks past Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and news of the consequences from those two events has strangely fallen out of the news media. Where have the people gone who lost everything? The news blackout is as complete and strange as the darkness that has descended on Puerto Rico.”
Ricardo Ramos, the director of the beleaguered, government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN Thursday that the island’s power infrastructure had been basically “destroyed” and will take months to come back “Basically destroyed.” That’s about as basic as it gets civilization-wise. Residents, Mr. Ramos said, would need to change the way they cook and cool off. For entertainment, old-school would be the best approach, he said. “It’s a good time for dads to buy a ball and a glove and change the way you entertain your children.” Meaning, I guess, no more playing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard on-screen because you’ll be living it — though one wonders where will the money come from to buy the ball and glove? Few Puerto Ricans will be going to work with the power off.
And the island’s public finances were in disarray sufficient to drive it into federal court last May to set in motion a legal receivership that amounted to bankruptcy in all but name. The commonwealth, a US territory, was in default for $74 billion in bonded debt, plus another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations. So, Puerto Rico already faced a crisis pre-Hurricane Maria, with its dodgy electric grid and crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, water and sewage systems. Bankruptcy put it in a poor position to issue new bonds for public works which are generally paid for with public borrowing. Who, exactly, would buy the new bonds? I hear readers whispering, “the Federal Reserve.” Which is a pretty good clue to understanding the circle-jerk that American finance has become.
Some sort of bailout is unavoidable, though President Trump tweeted “No Bailout for Puerto Rico” after the May bankruptcy proceeding. Things have changed and the shelf-life of Trumpian tweets is famously brief. But the crisis may actually strain the ability of the federal government to pretend it can cover the cost of every calamity that strikes the nation — at least not without casting doubt on the soundness of the dollar. And not a few bonafide states are also whirling around the bankruptcy drain: Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky. Constitutionally states are not permitted to declare bankruptcy, though counties and municipalities can. Congress would have to change the law to allow it. But states can default on their bonds and other obligations. Surely there would be some kind of fiscal and political hell to pay if they go that route.
Nobody really knows what might happen in a state as big and complex as Illinois, which has been paying its way for decades by borrowing from the future. Suddenly, the future is here and nobody has a plan for it. The case for the federal government is not so different. It, too, only manages to pay its bondholders via bookkeeping hocuspocus, and its colossal unfunded obligations for social security and Medicare make Illinois’ predicament look like a skipped car payment. In the meantime — and it looks like it’s going to be a long meantime – Puerto Rico is back in the 18th Century, minus the practical skills and simpler furnishings for living that way of life, and with a population many times beyond the carrying capacity of the island in that era.
Madrid’s crackdown on Catalonia is already having one major consequence, presumably unintended: many Catalans who were until recently staunchly opposed to the idea of national independence are now reconsidering their options. A case in point: At last night’s demonstration, spread across multiple locations in Barcelona, were two friends of mine, one who is fanatically apolitical and the other who is a strong Catalan nationalist but who believes that independence would be a political and financial disaster for the region. It was their first ever political demonstration. If there is a vote on Oct-1, they will probably vote to secede. The middle ground they and hundreds of thousands of others once occupied was obliterated yesterday when a judge in Barcelona ordered Spain’s militarized police force, the Civil Guard, to round up over a dozen Catalan officials in dawn raids.
Many of them now face crushing daily fines of up to €12,000. The Civil Guard also staged raids on key administrative buildings in Barcelona. The sight of balaclava-clad officers of the Civil Guard, one of the most potent symbols of the not-yet forgotten Franco dictatorship, crossing the threshold of the seats of Catalonia’s (very limited) power and arresting local officials, was too much for the local population to bear. Within minutes almost all of the buildings were surrounded by crowds of flag-draped pro-independence protesters. The focal point of the day’s demonstrations was the Economic Council of Catalonia, whose second-in-command and technical coordinator of the referendum, Josep Maria Jové, was among those detained. He has now been charged with sedition and could face between 10-15 years in prison. Before that, he faces fines of €12,000 a day.
[..] yesterday’s police operation significantly — perhaps even irreversibly — weakens Catalonia’s plans to hold a referendum on October 1, as even the region’s vice-president Oriol Junqueras concedes. But that doesn’t mean Spain has won. As the editor of El Diario, Ignacio Escolar, presciently notes, yesterday’s raids may have been a resounding success for law enforcement, but they were an unmitigated political disaster that has merely intensified the divisions between Spain and Catalonia and between Catalans themselves. Each time Prime Minister Rajoy or one of his ministers speak of the importance of defending democracy while the Civil Guard seizes posters and banners related to the October 1 vote and judges rule public debates on the Catalan question illegal and then fine their participants, a fresh clutch of Catalan separatists is born.
In the days to come they will be swarming the streets, waving their flags, clutching their red carnations and singing their songs. For the moment, the mood is still one of hopeful, resolute indignation. But the mood of masses is prone to change quickly, and it’s not going to take much to ignite the anger.
One of the most hyped “events” of American television, The Vietnam War, has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, “They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam war in an entirely new way”. In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism”, Burns’ “entirely new” Vietnam war is presented as “epic, historic work”. Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam. Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans”.
Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives. I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings”. The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.
There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans – it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences. In the series’ press release in Britain – the BBC will show it – there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. “We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying. How very post-modern. All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century: from The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter to Rambo and, in so doing, has legitimised subsequent wars of aggression. The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy”. Cue Bob Dylan: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”
I thought about the “decency” and “good faith” when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off Napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as “termites”. In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers “killings”). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an “American tragedy” (Newsweek ). In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American “free fire zones”. Mass homicide. This was not news.
There are many voices saying crazy things in this North Korea thing, and I’m not even watching CNN. But this is the craziest thing of all: how to make money off a nuclear attack. These people are mentally blind.
Financial markets haven’t really reacted much to the escalation in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, and some observers explain that it’s largely because in the worst-case scenario it’s impossible to guess the appropriate price for things like stocks and bonds. “It’s hard to price a potentially extinction event (at least for much of the Korean peninsula),” is how Timothy Ash, a senior strategist at Bluebay Asset Management in London, puts it. It’s a point also made by Mark Mobius, the Templeton Emerging Markets Group executive chairman and apostle for emerging-market investing. He said in a May interview about the prospect of a North Korean nuclear conflict: “there’s nothing you can do about it – if something breaks out, we’re all finished anyway.” Maybe that’s why the worst day this year for the Kospi index of South Korean stocks was July 28, which was all about a global tech-stock retreat and nothing to do with geopolitics.
After deleveraging in the aftermath of the last U.S. recession, Americans have once again taken on record debt loads that risk holding back the world’s largest economy. Household debt outstanding – everything from mortgages to credit cards to car loans – reached $12.7 trillion in the first quarter, surpassing the previous peak in 2008 before the effects of the housing market collapse took its toll, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data show. To put the borrowing in perspective, it’s more than the size of China’s economy or almost four times that of Germany’s. People are borrowing more not necessarily because they’re confident about their financial prospects. They’re doing it for necessities like education or transportation and, in many cases, just to get by.
On the surface, liabilities at an all-time high aren’t alarming when the assets side of ledger is taken into account. Household net worth stands at a record $94.8 trillion, thanks to rebounding home values and soaring stock portfolios. But that increase has primarily benefited the nation’s wealthiest, said Lance Roberts, chief investment strategist at Clarity Financial in Houston and editor of the Real Investment Advice newsletter. “When you look at net worth, it’s heavily skewed by the top 10%,” Roberts said. “The average family of four is living paycheck to paycheck.” For most Americans, whose median household income, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was at its peak in 1999, borrowing has been the answer to maintaining their standard of living. The increase in debt helps explain why the economy’s main source of fuel is providing less of boost than in the past.
Personal spending growth has averaged 2.4% since the recession ended in 2009, less than the 3% of the previous expansion and 4.3% from 1982-90. A look at worker pay presents a more dire backdrop for discretionary spending for those without a lot of assets. While the difference between income from wages and household debt has improved since the last recession, it’s been leveling off and remains at a depressed level. The improvement also reflects less mortgage debt because of increased home foreclosures, rather than a pickup in earnings. “This increase in leverage has sapped our ability to spend,” Roberts said. “I think we’re stuck.”
A series of articles on today’s new marvels, Tesla, Uber, Amazon, Airbnb. They all fall to bits, one by one.
Tesla is a highly destructive company. All it takes is a basic understanding of thermodynamics. Strip-mining, cutting down forests, throwing the Congo into even deeper misery, just so you can fool yourself into thinking you’re clean.
Tesla proponents love to remind people how their vehicles are “carbon free” (in spite of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s own carbon profligate lifestyle): Fact: the Tesla Model S is an environmentally friendly, zero emissions electric vehicle that won’t pollute the air like gas-powered cars. Carbon emissions from a gas car’s tailpipe has a dangerous impact on global warming…. In addition, Tesla CEO Elon Musk explains that, “combustion cars emit toxic gases. According to an MIT study, there are 53,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone from auto emissions.” But in reminding people about how they don’t burn fossil fuels, they make sure to omit and/or obfuscate all the other emissions-laden factors that go into production of Tesla automobiles, including the oft-unspoken costs of the vehicles to the taxpayer and to other auto manufacturers.
Start with the power source for the Tesla; their electric power plant uses lithium-ion batteries to store the electricity required to run the car. And while a good amount of lithium is produced at salt lake brines that use chemical processes to extract the requisite lithium… …a large (and growing) amount of lithium is sourced from hard-rock mining, which is also referred to as strip mining: This type of mining involves not just all the carbon used to extract the lithium from mines, it “strips” the land of its forests, which is far more environmentally (and carbon) detrimental. And while it is likely impossible to know exactly where Tesla sources its materials from, a closer examination on Tesla’s impact on the mining industry should paint a crystal clear picture:
Should the concept capture the imagination of Americans who are increasingly conscious of reducing their carbon footprint demand for these crucial elements could skyrocket in addition to the already robust global demand for lithium, nickel and copper. Major mining companies are already “future proofing” their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry. You can’t make this stuff up – Tesla and other renewable energy industries are going to save the world by mining its natural resources to excess, without regard for the environmental impact and carbon emissions generated in the process. You shouldn’t be surprised to seldom hear this mentioned by Elon Musk, or the liberal crowd that champions electric vehicles.
Uber, which has lost $3 billion last year and has gotten itself into a thicket of intractable issues and scandals that cost founder and CEO Travis Kalanick his job, is now facing a subprime auto-leasing crisis. Two years ago when these folks launched the subprime auto leasing program to put their badly paid drivers into new vehicles they couldn’t otherwise afford, they apparently didn’t do the math. In July 2015, when the “Xchange Leasing” program was announced, the company gushed: “We’re excited about how these new solutions meet drivers’ unique needs, and offer more and better choices and greater flexibility than ever before.” The leasing program would be “administered by an Uber subsidiary and designed to fit with the flexibility that drivers value most,” it said. This is how it would work:
Unlike most multi-year leases that have high fees for early termination, drivers who participate in Xchange for at least 30 days will be able to return the car with only two weeks notice, and limited additional costs. The program allows for unlimited mileage and the option to lease a used car, with routine maintenance also included. It wasn’t supposed to be a money maker – nothing at Uber is. But hey. And the company invested $600 million in the business, “people familiar with the matter” told the Wall Street Journal. This type of lease was offered to drivers with subprime credit ratings or no credit ratings who barely earned enough money to get by and make the payments, if they stuck around long enough. It allowed drivers to drive new cars. When it didn’t work out for them, they could return the cars after 30 days with two weeks’ notice.
The only penalty for the early return is that Uber keeps the $250 deposit. And these leases came with “unlimited miles.” No one in the car business would ever conceive of such a thing. But Uber is different. It defies the laws of economics. Or so it thought at the time. Now, the 14-member executive committee that is running the show looked at the math and was horrified. “According to people familiar with the matter,” cited by The Journal, executives had briefed the committee in July: “The Xchange Leasing division had been estimating modest losses of around $500 per auto on average, these people said. But managers recently informed Uber executives that the losses were actually about $9,000 per car — about half the sticker price of a typical leased vehicle.”
Maybe Amazon has figured out that you’re not the only one who isn’t buying groceries online. Maybe it has figured out, despite all the money it has thrown at it, that selling groceries online is a very tough nut to crack. And no one has cracked it yet. Numerous companies have been trying. Safeway started an online store and delivery service during the dotcom bubble and has made practically no headway. A plethora of startups, brick-and-mortar retailers, and online retailers have tried it, including the biggest gorillas of all — Walmart, Amazon, and Google. Google is trying it in conjunction with Costco and others. It just isn’t catching on. And this has baffled many smart minds. Online sales in other products are skyrocketing and wiping out the businesses of brick-and-mortar retailers along the way. But groceries?
That’s one of the reasons Amazon is eager to shell out $14.7 billion to buy Whole Foods, its biggest acquisition ever, dwarfing its prior biggest acquisition, Zappos, an online shoe seller, for $850 million. Amazon cannot figure out either how to sell groceries online though it has tried for years. Now it’s looking for a new model — namely the old model in revised form? This is why everyone who’s online wants to get a piece of the grocery pie: The pie is big. Monthly sales at grocery stores in June seasonally adjusted were $53 billion. For the year 2016, sales amounted to $625 billion: But it’s going to be very tough for online retailers to muscle into this brick-and-mortar space, according to Gallup, based on its annual Consumption Habits survey, conducted in July. Consumers just aren’t doing it:
Only 9% of US households say they order groceries online at least once a month, either for pickup or delivery. Only 4% do so at least once a week. By contrast, someone in nearly all households (98%) goes to brick-and-mortar grocery stores at least once a month, and 83% go at least once a week. Gallup summarizes the quandary: At this point, online grocery shopping appears to be an adjunct to retail shopping rather than a replacement, as most shoppers whose families purchase groceries online once or twice a month or more say they still visit a store to buy groceries at least once a week. But there are some differences by age group – and maybe that’s where Amazon sees some distant hope: Of the 18-29 year olds, 15% shop for groceries on line at least once a month. For 30-49 year olds, this drops to 12%. For 50-64 year olds, it drops to 10%. For those 65 and older, it essentially fades out (2%).
Amazon paid just €16.5m (£15m) in tax on European revenues of €21.6bn (£19.5bn) reported through Luxembourg in 2016. The figures, published in Amazon’s latest annual accounts for its European online retail business, are likely to reignite the debate about US tech companies using complex crossborder arrangements to minimise the tax they pay across the continent. Separately, Amazon UK Services – the company’s warehouse and logistics operation that employs almost two-thirds of its 24,000 UK staff – more than halved its declared UK corporation tax bill from £15.8m to £7.4m year-on-year in 2016. The cut came despite turnover at the UK business, which handles the packing and delivery of parcels and functions such as customer service, rising from £946m to £1.46bn.
Ana Arendar, Oxfam’s head of inequality, said: “Despite some action by ministers and companies, widespread corporate tax avoidance continues to cost both rich and poor countries billions every year that could pay for schools and lifesaving healthcare. “We urgently need comprehensive public country-by-country reporting for multinationals to ensure they pay their fair share of tax – the UK government should implement this by the end of 2019 – unilaterally if necessary.” Amazon Europe, which is based in Luxembourg and aggregates the billions of pounds of sales the retailer makes from individual countries across the continent, reported a pre-tax profit of €59.6m last year. As a result the company, which clocked up €21.6bn in sales across Europe last year, had a tax bill of just €16.5m.
EU finance ministers will discuss how to force home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb to pay their fair share of taxes and in the right tax domains next month after the French minister for the economy described the current situation as “unacceptable”. The European commission announced on Thursday that a joint proposal from France and Germany would be discussed at a meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, on 16 September. Brussels will also advise on how best to deal with the so-called sharing economy, in which Airbnb is a major player. It was revealed this week that Airbnb paid less than €100,000 (£90,336) in French taxes last year, despite the country being the room-booking firm’s second-biggest market after the US.
In response, the French economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, informed the national assembly that the EU’s Franco-German axis would be proposing a pan-European clampdown. “These digital platforms make tens of millions of sales and the French treasury gets a few tens of thousands,” the minister said, adding that the current setup was “unacceptable”. Le Maire further claimed in parliament that an ongoing consultation being led by the commission and the OECD to address the tax question were “taking too much time, it’s all too complicated”. Many digital platforms operating in the EU have a base in Ireland, including Airbnb, where they can exploit a low corporation tax regime. Le Maire said: “Everybody has to pay a fair contribution.”
I[..] Paris city council has already voted to make it mandatory from 1 December to obtain a registration number from the town hall before posting an advertisement for a short-term rental on its website. The ruling potentially makes it harder for property owners using Airbnb to exceed the 120 days a year legal rental limit for a main residence, and easier for the authorities to collect local taxes. In Barcelona, where tensions have been rising for years over the surge in visitors, the impact of sites such as Airbnb on the local housing market has led to anti-tourist protests. In Mallorca and San Sebastián, an anti-tourism march is being planned for 17 August to coincide with Semana Grande, a major festival of Basque culture.
In Ibiza, the authorities are placing a cap on the number of beds for tourists. Owners will also be banned from renting their homes, or rooms within them, via websites such as Airbnb and Homeaway unless they obtain a licence. Owners face fines of up to €400,000 if they break the law. The websites face the same fine for letting people advertise without a valid licence number.
Donald Trump signaled he could soon declare a state of emergency in an attempt to deal with America’s opioid overdose crisis. A commission reporting to the president said recently that declaring a state of emergency was its “first and most urgent recommendation”. But Trump, in his first remarks on the subject, appeared to set his face against treating the epidemic as a health emergency – calling instead for tougher prison sentences and “strong, strong law enforcement”. However, returning to the issue on Thursday, Trump seemed to have changed his tone. “We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency,” he said, adding the administration is “drawing documents now to so attest”. “It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had,” Trump said at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort, where he is on a “working vacation”.
The president can declare a state of emergency two legal ways: he could use the Stafford Act, or the Public Health Service Act, which is specific to health emergencies and can be declared by the health secretary. “When I was growing up they had the LSD, and they had certain generations of drugs,” Trump said. “There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years. And I have to say this in all fairness, this is a worldwide problem, not just a United States problem. This is happening worldwide.” In fact, while drug overdoses happen all over the world, the US leads by a significant margin. Though the nation has just 4% of the world’s population, the US also has 27% of the world’s drug overdose deaths, according to the UN’s 2017 World Drug Report. For example, for every million Americans between 15 and 64 years old, 245 people per year die of drug overdoses. In Mexico, 4 people per million die of drug overdoses.
Being an irrational optimist, there’s an innocent side of my scratched journalistic hide that still believes in education and wisdom and compassion. There are still honourable Israelis who demand a state for the Palestinians; there are well-educated Saudis who object to the crazed Wahhabism upon which their kingdom is founded; there are millions of Americans, from sea to shining sea, who do not believe that Iran is their enemy nor Saudi Arabia their friend. But the problem today in both East and West is that our governments are not our friends. They are our oppressors or masters, suppressors of the truth and allies of the unjust.
Netanyahu wants to close down Al Jazeera’s office in Jerusalem. Crown Prince Mohammad wants to close down Al Jazeera’s office in Qatar. Bush actually did bomb Al Jazeera’s offices in Kabul and Baghdad. Theresa May decided to hide a government report on funding “terrorism”, lest it upset the Saudis – which is precisely the same reason Blair closed down a UK police enquiry into alleged BAE-Saudi bribery 10 years earlier. And we wonder why we go to war in the Middle East. And we wonder why Sunni Isis exists, un-bombed by Israel, funded by Sunni Gulf Arabs, its fellow Sunni Salafists cosseted by our wretched presidents and prime ministers. I guess we better keep an eye on Al Jazeera – while it’s still around.
Ben Bernanke, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress in March 2007 that subprime was contained. He will rightfully be remembered in infamy for that, but that wasn’t the most egregious example of being wrong. Even putting it in those terms risks understating the problem and why it stubbornly lingers. Being really wrong is claiming that IOER will establish a floor for money market rates, and then finding out it actually doesn’t. No, what policymakers did especially in the early crisis period was altogether worse; they demonstrated conclusively that though they shared this world with the rest of us, they inhabited and continue to inhabit a totally different planet. Given the anniversary date and our human affinity for round numbers (ten years or a lost decade), there is a desire to revisit some of the worst of the list which happened just before August 9, 2007. My favorite has always been Bill Dudley, as I recounted last at the ninth anniversary of nothing being done:
As far as the issue of material nonpublic information that shows worse problems than are in the newspapers, I’m not sure exactly how to characterize that because I guess I wouldn’t know how to characterize how bad the newspapers think these problems are. [Laughter] We’ve done quite a bit of work trying to identify some of the funding questions surrounding Bear Stearns, Countrywide, and some of the commercial paper programs. There is some strain, but so far it looks as though nothing is really imminent in those areas.” [emphasis added]
He spoke those words, recorded for posterity, on August 7, 2007, at the regular FOMC policy meeting. As noted earlier today, both Countrywide and the whole commercial paper market would be decimated really within hours from his “inspiring” confidence. What really stands out is for Dudley to have been the one who said them, because as head of the Open Market Desk he had to be technically proficient in a way that the others could avoid (and why so often in its history policy discussions especially about these great things would often flow through whomever was the Open Market Desk chief at that moment in time). He proved still to be an empty suit like the rest, but he was always that much less of one. So if the best the Fed had to offer was so thoroughly unaware, is it any wonder what happened then and continues to happen now?
One day after Dudley’s private embarrassment, one Bank of England governor and future chief perhaps joined his level in the Hall of Fame of Famous Last Words. Meryn King remarked on August 8, 2007: “So far what we have seen is not a threat to the financial system. It’s not an international financial crisis.” He said these words at the behest of the ECB in front of the assembled press ostensibly to impart calm. Also noted earlier today, it was the European Central Bank that made the first crisis move the very next day in a record liquidity injection.
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To bring readers fully up to speed, the 21st century has been a flaming dud. In practically every way. Despite more new technology than ever… more PhDs… more researchers… more patents… more earnest strivers than ever before sweating to move things ahead… and despite more “stimulus” from the Fed ($3.6 trillion) than ever in history…U.S. GDP growth rates are only half of those of the last century. And household incomes, after you factor in inflation, are flat. In fact, by some calculations – using non-fiddled measures of inflation – growth has been negative for the whole 21st century. Meanwhile, there are more people tending bar or waiting tables… and fewer people with full-time breadwinner jobs. And productivity and personal savings rates have collapsed.
And those are only the measurable trends. Political and social developments have been similarly dud-ish – including the longest, losingest war in U.S. history… the biggest government deficits… the most vulgar public life… the least personal freedom… and, in our hometown, Baltimore, a record murder rate. What went wrong? Herewith, a hypothesis. It suggests three “causes,” all three linked by a single shared element: time.
[..] Fake money causes people to waste time and money. And central bank policies discourage savings by lowering interest rates… even pushing them into negative territory. Instead of saving them for the future… resources are consumed today. These mistakes accumulate as debt… which then forces people to spend more time servicing the mistakes of the past. Meanwhile, the internet gives people a new way to waste time. At home. At work. On the high plains. Or in the lowlife back alleys. People spend their precious time on idle distractions and entertainments. That leaves fewer people doing the real work that progress requires – saving, investing, and working for the future. Time is always the ultimate constraint. You can substitute one resource for another. You can switch from oil to solar… or copper to aluminum. But there’s no swapping out time. There’s nothing like it. Get on the wrong side of time, and you are out of luck.
The Rosenau Palace in southern Germany has published a lonely hearts ad on behalf of its resident black swan. Ground keepers believe the bird’s former companion was eaten by a fox. The department that oversees state-owned palaces, gardens and lakes in the southern state of Bavaria sent out its rather unusual appeal to the public on Thursday. “The sex of the animal isn’t important,” a message on the department’s website read. “Ideally it should be more than three years old, but this isn’t an absolute must.” The department has been on the lookout for a match since May, when one of the two black swans that lived in the palace grounds disappeared. Palace gardeners later found bones and feathers in one of the park’s bushes. “He was probably eaten by a fox,” the department concluded.
Rosenau garden department head Steffen Schubert has been sending out enquiries every day to try and locate a candidate – without success. Finding a replacement isn’t just about sparing the surviving swan from loneliness, he says. “Swans have a special significance in the history of Rosenau Palace and park,” he said. Black swans were reportedly first introduced to the palace grounds by Britain’s Queen Victoria as a symbol of mourning following the premature death of her husband Prince Albert, who was born at Rosenau Palace in 1819. The royals visited the palace together in 1845, five years after they were married. In her memoirs, the queen wrote: “If I were not who I am, this would be my real home.” The palace, near the town of Coburg in northern Bavaria, is home to Swan Lake and Prince’s Pond.
In its statement, the department said the new swan would have a good life, with a 2-hectare lake and a newly built “swan house” at its disposal. In the chillier months, the birds also have winter quarters with water access and are fed every day. The department said it would go itself to pick up the bird if a member of the public was willing to donate a swan to the grounds. “We hope our swan does not have to be alone for too long,” a spokeswoman for the palace management told German news agency DPA.
So how much did it end up taking after ECB President Mario Draghi memorably said five years ago he’d do “whatever it takes” to save the euro? About €1.2 trillion ($1.4 trillion). That’s the amount that the ECB’s balance sheet has expanded in the half-decade since Draghi made those remarks at a conference in London (an ironic location from today’s post-Brexit perspective.) Deutsche Bank analysts including Luke Templeman go on to note there’s several things that have changed by that magnitude – €1.2 trillion – in the past five years, in an eerie Da Vinci Code-like confluence:
• The euro region’s gross domestic product has risen about €1.2 trillion
• The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has also climbed the equivalent of roughly €1.2 trillion
• The combined market cap of the FANG stocks – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet – has jumped about the equivalent of €1.2 trillion
Templeman and his colleagues warn against making too much of the symmetry. After all, for the U.S. numbers to be related, it would suggest “every bond the Federal Reserve bought drove people to spend more time on these websites.”
President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said the United States would have to cut 755 diplomatic staff in Russia and warned of a prolonged gridlock in its ties after the US Congress backed new sanctions against the Kremlin. Putin added bluntly that Russia was able to raise the stakes with America even further, although he hoped this would be unnecessary. A US State Department official denounced the move as a “regrettable and uncalled for act,” adding that Washington was now weighing a potential response. On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry demanded Washington cut its diplomatic presence in Russia by September 1 to 455 people – the same number Moscow has in the US.
“More than a thousand people – diplomats and technical personnel – were working and are still working” at the US embassy and consulates, Putin said in an interview with Rossia-24 television. The US State Department would not confirm the number of US officials serving at the mission. Putin added that an upturn in Russia’s relations with Washington could not be expected “any time soon.” “We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better,” he said. “But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it’s not for any time soon.” Putin warned that Russia could further ratchet up the pressure, but he hoped this would not be needed.
The undeniable improvement in living standards over the last 150 years is seen as evidence of progress. Improvements in diet, health, safe water, hygiene and education have been central to increased life spans and incomes. The lifting of billions of people globally out of poverty is a considerable achievement. But many of these individuals earn between $2 and $10 dollars a day. Their position is fragile, exposed to the vicissitudes of health, employment, economic conditions and political and societal stability. As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Economic progress also has come at a cost. Growth and wealth is increasingly based on borrowed money, used to purchase something today against the uncertain promise of paying it back in the future.
Debt levels are now unsustainable. Growth has been at the expense of existentially threatening environmental changes which are difficult to reverse. Higher living standards rely on the profligate use of under-priced, finite resources, especially water and energy, which have been utilised without concern about conservation for future use. Current growth, short-term profits and higher living standards for some are pursued at the expense of costs which are not evident immediately but will emerge later. Society has borrowed from and pushes problems into the future. The acquisition of material goods defines progress. The concept of leisure as shopping and consumption as the primary economic engine now dominate. Altering Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the Angry Brigade, an English anarchist group, described it as: “If you are not being born, you are busy buying”.
[19th-century Thomas Carlyle], who distrusted the “mechanical age”, would have been puzzled at the unalloyed modern worship of technology. Much of our current problems, environmental damage and pollution, are the unintended consequences of technology, especially the internal combustion engine and exploitation of fossil fuels. The invention of the motor vehicle was also the invention of the car crash. Technology applied to war continues to create human suffering. Mankind’s romance with technology increasingly is born of a desperate need for economic growth and a painless, cheap fix to problems such as reducing in greenhouse gas without decreasing living standards.
[..] Pre-occupation with narcissistic self-fulfilment and escapist entertainment is consistent with Carlyle’s concern about the loss of social cohesiveness, spirituality and community. His fear of a pervasive “philosophy of simply looking on, of doing nothing, of laissez-faire … a total disappearance of all general interest, a universal despair of truth and humanity, and in consequence a universal isolation of men in their own ‘brute individuality” … a war of all against all … intolerable oppression and wretchedness” seems modern.
In China, taxi rides aren’t just a form of transportation any more. They’ve also become useful for bond buyers doing due diligence. Dining out at restaurants is also helpful. It’s all part of a boom in field trips by market participants coming to grips with a new reality in China: the potential for bond defaults. After decades when authorities effectively provided blanket assistance to keep troubled companies from going under, the Communist leadership’s focus on shuttering unproductive assets has upended the market. A total of 45 onshore corporate bonds have defaulted since the start of last year, a surge from the eight recorded in 2014 and 2015 – which themselves were the first since the market was established in the 1980s. While China has the world’s third-largest bond market, corporate financial transparency can be limited, forcing investors to get creative.
“If you just sit in the office, you would never know if an issuer has actually closed business,” said Xu Hua at Colight Asset Management in Shanghai. “When you go to the local places, be sure to have a chat with taxi drivers or restaurant customers after talking to the issuer – ask them if they have friends working for the company. Has their friends’ pay been cut or raised this year? Has the company delayed paying salaries? What’s the local reputation?” Recent incidents have showcased concerns about corporate governance and disclosure standards. The onshore bonds of two China Hongqiao units slumped in March after the world’s biggest aluminum maker said full-year results may be delayed because of issues raised by its auditor. Bondholders of China Shanshui Cement are still trying to recoup most of their money – at one point the company said it couldn’t repay interest without a company seal.
Rideshare companies – mostly Uber, but now also Lyft elbowing into the scene – are changing the way business travelers look at ground transportation. In the process, these worker bees, who’re spending their company’s money, are not only crushing the taxi business but also that end of the rental car business. The collapse of business travel spending on taxis and rental cars is just stunning. And there is no turning back. Uber’s and Lyft’s combined share of the ground transportation market in terms of expense account spending in the second quarter has soared to 63%, with Uber hogging 55% and Lyft getting 8%. The share of taxis has plunged to 8%, now equal with Lyft for the first time, according to Certify, which provides cloud-based expense management software.
Uber hit that point in Q1 2015, when expense account spending on Uber matched spending on taxis for the first time, each with 25% of the market; rental cars still dominated with a 50% share. But that was an eternity ago. Note that the share of rental cars and taxis has declined at roughly the same rate. Uber’s growth in the business travel ground transportation market has continued despite its constant drumbeat of intricate debacles in the news, but the rate of growth has slowed. And Lyft’s rate of growth has surged. The chart above shows this surge in the growth rate of Lyft, which caused its share to jump from 3% a year ago to 8% now.
US Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday raised the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defence system in Estonia, one of three NATO Baltic states worried by Russian expansionism, Prime Minister Juri Ratas said. “We spoke about it today, but we didn’t talk about a date or time,” Ratas told state broadcaster ERR after Pence began a visit to the tiny frontline state. The Patriot is a mobile, ground-based system designed to intercept incoming missiles and warplanes. “We talked about the upcoming (Russian military) manoeuvres near the Estonian border… and how Estonia, the United States and NATO should monitor them and exchange information,” Ratas said.
Relations between Moscow and Tallinn have been fraught since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, joining both the EU and NATO in 2004 – a move that Russia says boosted its own fears of encirclement by the West. Concern in Estonia and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania surged after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and stepped up military exercises. Pence, in remarks to journalists in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, spoke in strong but general terms about US support for eastern European countries. On Monday, he heads to Georgia – a non-NATO member that is also worried about Russia – and then to Montenegro, which became NATO’s 29th member on June 5. “President (Donald) Trump sent me to Europe with a very simple message. And that is that America first doesn’t mean America alone,” Pence said.
Some European countries, namely Italy, Germany, France and the UK, are facing the so-called “substitution of nations,” where the national ethnical majority is disappearing physically and biologically, and is being substituted by migrants, according to a recent report. Sputnik Italy discussed the issue with Daniele Scalea, the author of the report. The recent report of the Italian-based Machiavelli Center of Political and Strategic Studies, “How immigration is changing Italian demographics” has revealed that a number of European countries are facing the “biological and physical extinction” of their national ethnicities. Ethnic majorities in such countries as Italy, Germany, France and the UK, are gradually turning into ethnic minorities, while being “substituted” by incoming migrants. Sputnik Italy discussed the issue with Daniele Scalea, an analyst at the center and the author of the report.
Migration is drastically changing the habitual course of life in Italy, he told Sputnik. The reason for the influx of African migrants into Europe is not wars or catastrophes, but an explosive demographic increase on the African continent, from 9% to 25% of the global population throughout the last century. While Europe, which accounted for over a fifth of the entire world population in 1950 (22%), is expected to make up just 7% of the world population in the year 2050, the%age of the African population will make a sweeping rise from 9% to 40%. Italy’s fertility rate is less than half of what it was in 1964, the analyst explained in his report. It has dropped from 2.7 children per woman to just 1.5 children per woman currently, a figure well below the replacement level for zero population growth of roughly 2.1 children per woman.
As of the first half of this year, Italy had over 5 million foreigners living as residents, a remarkable 25% growth relative to 2012 and a whopping 270% since 2002. At that time, foreigners made up just 2.38% of the population while 15 years later the figure has nearly trebled to 8.33% of the population. Moreover, even the children being born in Italy are overrepresented by immigrants, whose birthrate is considerably higher than native Italians, the study revealed. It is “unsurprising,” therefore, that Italian regions with the highest fertility rates are no longer in the south, as was usual the case, but in the Italian north and in the Lazio region, where there is a higher concentration of immigrants. If current trends continue, by 2065, first- and second-generation immigrants will exceed 22 million persons, or more than 40% of Italy’s total population.
By comparison, it was only in the not far-off 2001 that the percentage of foreigners living in Italy crossed the low threshold of 1%, which reveals the speed and magnitude of demographic change occurring in Italy, a phenomenon “without precedent” in Italy’s history, the study asserts.
Greece’s hard times aren’t over. A return to the bond market last week, the pledge of 8.5 billion euros ($9.5 billion) in new loans from euro-area creditors, the possibility of more money from the International Monetary Fund and a S&P Global Ratings outlook upgrade have coalesced to bolster investor sentiment that Greece has turned a corner. Trouble is, much depends on the country implementing reforms — dozens of the 140 measures agreed to are in various stages of application and more than 100 additional actions are needed to access the remaining 26.9 billion euros in funds before the current bailout program ends in August 2018. While the evidence of belt-tightening is everywhere in Greece, from falling incomes to rising poverty, the country has less to show in terms of structural overhauls.
Creditor demands for more measures threaten to become politically explosive as Greek citizens and businesses count the cost of the financial crisis that has thrown their lives into turmoil over the last seven years. Over the years, creditors have imposed reforms that have affected the daily lives of Greeks, from requiring receipts for tax breaks and e-prescriptions for patients to prevent abuse to pension payout cuts of as much as 50%. While Greece’s record of implementing reforms hasn’t won it any kudos, it is now hitting against even more challenging structural measures aimed at profoundly changing entrenched habits. The real problem is with reforms like fixing the tax system and the judiciary that require “long implementation,” said Gerassimos Moschonas, an associate professor of comparative politics at Panteion University in Athens. Belt-tightening measures have had a dramatic effect on life, making further long-lasting reforms difficult, he said.
“The income of an average household has decreased at least 40% during the crisis, poverty risk has increased 35.6%, pension cuts are enormous and there is over-taxation,” he said. Since Greece became the epicenter of the European debt crisis in 2010, the country has agreed to austerity measures to restructure its economy, which has shrunk by more than a quarter over the period. In exchange, euro-area creditors and the IMF have provided more than 260 billion euros in bailout funds to keep Greece afloat. “Progress with structural reforms has fallen far short of what is needed to allow Greece to succeed in the euro zone, but the program foresees some intensification of efforts,” the IMF said in its report on July 20.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government is struggling to squeeze pensions even more, allow Sunday openings for stores – which could threaten the livelihoods of small mom-and-pop shops that dot the country – consider further taxes and change labor laws that would make it even harder for employees to go on a strike. “There’s no serious implementation,” of difficult structural reforms, said Moschonas. “The Greek state has failed” to put them in place even after they were voted in parliament because of a lack of political will and the absence of technical expertise, he said.
Athens, like most urban centres, has been hardest hit by a crisis that has seen the country’s economic output contract by a devastating 26%. A study by the DiaNeosis thinktank found that 15% of the population, or 1,647,703 people, in 2015 earned below the extreme poverty threshold. In 2009 that number did not exceed 2.2%. The net wealth of Greek households fell by a precipitous 40% in the same period, according to the Bank of Greece. Unemployment, austerity’s most pernicious effect, hovers around 22%, by far the highest in the EU, despite a 5% drop in the last two years. Although the worst is over in terms of fiscal adjustment, few believe Greece will be able to escape a fourth bailout even if Athens regains market access when its current EU-IMF sponsored programme ends in August next year.
“It is very difficult to see the country being able to make a clean exit [from international stewardship] and raise the sort of money it needs to refinance its debt,” said Kyriakos Pierrakakis, director of research at DiaNeosis. “It will almost certainly need a new financial credit line, a bailout light, and that will come with new conditions.” In such circumstances, faith in government claims that the country has turned the corner – based as much on last week’s market foray as completion of a landmark compliance review and disbursement of €8.5bn in bailout funds – is in short supply. “Greeks can’t see any light at the end of any tunnel,” said Christodoulaki, shaking her head in disbelief. “They won’t believe anything at this point until they see it for real in front of their eyes.”
Across town in the communist party stronghold of Kaisariani, municipal authorities are already preparing for winter. In the giant 1960s concrete town hall, the social services department has lined up fundraising events, including concerts and theatre performances, to finance food donations that local stores and supermarkets can no longer afford to make. “Needs have grown exponentially,” said Marilena Christodoulou, her office wall adorned with the slogan “poverty is not a crime”.
Jean-Paul Sartre once famously stated that “a lost battle is a battle one thinks one has lost.” The tragic reality in Greece today, most Greeks, beaten down by the crisis and by the effects of what can be described as savage globalization, are plagued by feelings of collective guilt, self-loathing, hopelessness, feelings of inferiority, and apathy. The “inferiority” of Greece and the Greek people, and their “guilt,” are accepted as “facts of life.” It is, therefore, no surprise to see Greece ranked fourth worldwide in Bloomberg’s misery index for 2017. When one believes they have lost a battle, that means that they also recognize some other entity as the victor. In the case of Greece, that victor could be recognized as the EU and countries considered by average Greeks as “superior” and “civilized.” Writing in 1377, North African historian and historiographer Ibn Khaldun provides us with insights which could help explain Greece’s “xenomania” and nationwide Stockholm Syndrome today:
“The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive mark, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs. The reason for this is that the soul always sees perfection in the person who is superior to it and to whom it is subservient. It considers him perfect, either because the respect it has for him impresses it, or because it erroneously assumes that its own subservience to him is not due to the nature of defeat but to the perfection of the victor. If that erroneous assumption fixes itself in the soul, it becomes a firm belief. The soul, then, adopts all the manners of the victor and assimilates itself to him. This, then, is imitation.” It is, unfortunately, this very imitation that one observes in crisis-stricken Greece today. A society where the majority whines and complains, or simply gets up and leaves, but does not demand.
A nation that is demoralized; defeated; consumed by hopelessness; devoid of pride, self-respect, and self-confidence; paralyzed by fear; hampered by ignorance; and gripped by feelings of inferiority, cannot deliver change. This situation, of course, suits the powers that be magnificently. A society of self-loathers, a nation that is defeated and demoralized, will not pose a threat to those responsible for that oppression, while other “civilized” countries reap the ancillary benefits of the crisis, as the economic beneficiaries of the mass exodus and “brain drain” from Greece. This is savage globalization in action. In other words, Greece is a prime candidate for, in the words of Oscar López Rivera, the kickstarting of a decolonization process. His words may have been intended for Puerto Rico, but they are similarly applicable to Greece. But will the people of Greece heed Oscar’s words?
Slave traders today make a return on their investment 25-30 times higher than their 18th- and 19th-century counterparts. Siddharth Kara, a slavery economist and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Business School, has calculated that the average profit a victim generates for their exploiters is $3,978 (£3,030) a year. Sex trafficking is so disproportionately lucrative compared to other forms of slavery that the average profit for each victim is $36,000. In his book Modern Slavery, to be published in October, Kara estimates that sex trafficking accounts for 50% of the total illegal profits of modern slavery, despite sex trafficking victims accounting for only 5% of modern slaves. Kara based his calculations, shared exclusively with the Guardian, on data drawn from 51 countries over a 15-year period, and from detailed interviews with more than 5,000 individuals who have been victims of slavery.
The first move to eradicate slavery was made in 1833, when the British parliament abolished it, 26 years after outlawing the trade in slaves. Nonetheless, at least twice as many people are trapped in some form of slavery today as were traded throughout the 350-plus years of the transatlantic slavery industry. Experts believe roughly 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves by professional traders between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today, the UN’s International Labour Organisation believes at least 21 million people worldwide are in some form of modern slavery. “It turns out that slavery today is more profitable than I could have imagined,” Kara said. “Profits on a per slave basis can range from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars a year, with total annual slavery profits estimated to be as high as $150bn.”
Let’s start with two obvious points about the whole Russia fiasco… Namely, there is no “there, there.” First off, the president has the power to declassify secret documents at will. But in this instance he could also do that without compromising intelligence community (IC) “sources and methods” in the slightest. That’s because after Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013, the whole world was put on notice — and most especially Washington’s adversaries — that it collects every single electronic digit that passes through the worldwide web and related communications grids. Washington essentially has universal and omniscient SIGINT (signals intelligence). Acknowledging that fact by publishing the Russia-Trump intercepts would provide new knowledge to exactly no one. Nor would it jeopardize the lives of any American spy or agent (HUMINT).
It would just document the unconstitutional interference in the election process that had been committed by the U.S. intelligence agencies and political operatives in the Obama White House. That pales compared to whatever noise comes out of Langley (CIA) and Ft. Meade (NSA). And I do mean noise. Yes, I can hear the boxes on the CNN screen harrumphing that declassifying the “evidence” would amount to obstruction of justice! That is, since Trump’s “crime” is a given (i.e. his occupancy of the Oval Office), anything that gets in the way of his conviction and removal therefrom amounts to “obstruction.” Given that he is up against a Deep State/Democratic/Neoconservative/mainstream media prosecution, the Donald has no chance of survival short of an aggressive offensive of the type I just described. But that’s not happening because the man is clueless about what he is doing in the White House.
And he’s being advised by a cacophonous coterie of amateurs and nincompoops. So he has no action plan except to impulsively reach for his Twitter account. That became more than evident — and more than pathetic, too — when he tweeted out an attack on his own Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein. At least Nixon fired Elliot Richardson (his Attorney General) and Bill Ruckelshaus (Deputy AG): “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.” Alone with his Twitter account, clueless advisors and pulsating rage, the Donald is instead laying the groundwork for his own demise. Were this not the White House, this would normally be the point at which they send in the men in white coats with a straight jacket.
[..] Even Senator John Thune, an ostensible Swamp-hating conservative, had nothing but praise for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, that he would fairly and thoroughly get to the bottom of the matter. No he won’t! Mueller is a card-carrying member of the Deep State who was there at the founding of today’s surveillance monster as FBI Director following 9/11. Since the whole $75 billion apparatus that eventually emerged was based on an exaggerated threat of global Islamic terrorism, Russia had to be demonized into order to keep the game going — a transition that Mueller fully subscribed to.
RT: Australia halted its cooperation. How significant is this development? Why did they do it? Ron Paul: I think that is good. Maybe wise enough, I wish we could do the same thing – just come home. It just makes no sense; there’s a mess over there. So many people are involved, the neighborhood ought to take care of it, and we have gone too far away from our home. It has been going on for too long, and it all started when Obama in 2011 said: “Assad has to go.” And now as the conditions deteriorate …it looks like Assad and his allies are winning, and the US don’t want them to take Raqqa. This just goes on and on. I think it is really still the same thing that Obama set up – “Get rid of Assad” and there is a lot of frustration because Assad is still around and now it is getting very dangerous, it is dangerous on both sides.
One thing that I am concerned about – because I’ve seen it happen so often over the years, are false flags. Some accidents happen. Even if it is an honest accident or it is deliberate by one side or the other to blame somebody. And before they stop and think about it, then there is more escalation. When our planes are flying over there and into airspace where we shouldn’t be, and we are setting up boundaries and say “don’t cross these lines or you will be crossing our territory.” We have no right to do this. We should mind our own business; we shouldn’t be over there, when we go over there and decide that we are going to take over, it is an act of aggression, and I am positively opposed to that. And I think most Americans are too if they get all the information they need.
Most Americans’ idea of happiness involves lounging by the water or on a beach somewhere. But it turns out, human happiness can flourish even in freezing climates far from the equator. To wit, the Social Progress Imperative, a US-based nonprofit, released the results of its annual Social Progress Index report, which purports to rank countries based on the overall wellbeing of their citizens. Four Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway claimed the top spots, while the US placed 18th out of 128, leaving it in what the SPI defines as the “second-tier” of countries based on citizens’ wellbeing, according to Bloomberg. Luckily, being “second-tier” doesn’t seem that bad, according to a definition found in the report. “Second-tier countries demonstrate “high social progress” on core issues, such as nutrition, water, and sanitation.
However, they lag the first-tier, “very high social progress” nations when it comes to social unity and civic issues. That more or less reflects the U.S. performance. (There are six tiers in the study.)” “We want to measure a country’s health and wellness achieved, not how much effort is expended, nor how much the country spends on healthcare,” the report states. In a nod to the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as his efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, the report noted that the US received its lowest marks in the categories of “tolerance and inclusion” and “health and wellness.” America’s “tolerance” score has been sliding since 2014, around the time that several high-profile shootings of unarmed black men ignited the “Black Lives Matter” movement, sparking a national conversation about the prevalence of racism in US society.
The United States is growing older and more ethnically diverse, a trend that could put strains on government programs from Medicare to education, the Census Bureau reported Thursday. Every ethnic and racial group grew between 2015 and 2016, but the number of whites increased at the slowest rate — less than one hundredth of 1% or 5,000 people, the Census estimate shows. That’s a fraction of the rates of growth for non-white Hispanics, Asians and people who said they are multi-racial, according to the government’s annual estimates of population. President Donald Trump’s core support in the racially divisive 2016 election came from white voters, and polls showed that it was especially strong among those who said they felt left behind in an increasingly racially diverse country.
In fact, the Census Bureau projects whites will remain in the majority in the U.S. until after 2040. “Even then, (whites) will still represent the nation’s largest plurality of people, and even then they will still inherit the structural advantages and legacies that benefit people on the basis of having white skin,” said Justin Gest, author of “The New Minority,” a book about the 2016 election. The Census Bureau reported that the median age of Americans — the age at which half are older and half are younger — rose nationally from just over 35 years to nearly 38 years in the years between 2000 and 2016, driven by the aging of the “baby boom” generation. The number of residents age 65 and older grew from 35 million to 49.2 million during those 16 years, jumping from 12% of the total population to 15%.
That’s a costly leap for taxpayers as those residents move to Medicare, government health care for seniors and younger people with disabilities, which accounted for $1 out of every $7 in federal spending last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. By 2027, it will cost $1 out of every $6 of federal money spent. Net Medicare spending is expected to nearly double over the next decade, from $592 billion to $1.2 trillion, the KFF reported.
Not surprisingly, the financial press has been all ago about the drama of Travis Kalanick’s forced departure from Uber’s CEO position yesterday, and has focused on getting salacious insider details of his ouster. That means journalists largely ignored what ought to be the real story, which is whether Uber has any future. I anticipate that Hubert Horan will offer a longer-form treatment of this topic. Hubert had already documented, in considerable detail in his ten-part series, how Uber has no conceivable path to profitability. Its business model has been based on a massive internal contradiction: using a ginormous war chest to try to achieve a near-monopoly position in a low-margin, mature business that is fragmented geographically and locally.
Monopolies and oligopolies are sustainable only when certain factors are operative: the ability to attain a superior cost position through scale economies, which include network effects, or barriers to entry, such as regulations, very high skill levels, or high minimum investment requirements. Neither of these apply in the local car ride business. Even if Uber were able to drive literally every competing cab operator in the world out of business due to its ability to continue its predatory pricing, once Uber raised prices to a level where it achieved profits, new entrants (or revived old entrants) would come in. Uber will thus never be able to charge the premium prices (in excess of the level for a traditional taxi operator to be profitable) for the very long period necessary for Uber to merely be able to recoup the billions of dollars it has burned, mainly in subsidizing the cost of rides, let alone to achieve an adequate return on capital.
And that’s before you get to the fact that systematically much higher prices would mean fewer fares. The developments of the last few months mean Uber’s decay path is sure to accelerate. I’ve been following the business press for over 30 years. I can’t think of a single case where even an established, profitable business with an established franchise has had so many top level positions vacant, and for such bad reasons. As reader vidimi quipped, “With no CEO, CFO, COO, and CIO, uber is coming very close to becoming a self-driving company.” And that’s not even a full list. World-class communications expert Rachel Whetstone, who is recognized as a key force in rebuilding the Tories’ brand in the UK, quit in April.
The heads of engineering departed for failing to disclose a previous sexual investigation; the head of product and growth was forced out over a sexual impropriety at a company function. And in a scandal that will have a much longer tail, Uber’s former head of its Waymo driverless car unit, Anthony Levandowski, has had his case involving alleged theft of intellectual property from Google referred to the Department of Justice. Kalanick was deeply involved in Levandowski sudden exodus. It seems implausible that Kalanick didn’t know Levandowski was making off with Google files. If the case does lead to a criminal prosecution, it is hard to see how Kalanick could escape scrutiny as a potential criminal co-conspirator.
Oil prices could be poised to fall below $40 a barrel before too long, according to an analyst at Energy Aspects, as the commodity appeared set to post its largest price slide in the first half of the year for the past two decades. “This is like a falling knife right now, I genuinely haven’t seen sentiment this bad ever,” Amrita Sen, the co-founder and chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC on Wednesday. “We have had clients emailing saying they have been trading this for 20 or 30 years and they have never seen something like this,” she added. Oil prices have tumbled more than 20% his year, marking its worst performance for the first six months of the year since 1997 and putting the commodity in bear market territory.
The ongoing decline in prices appears to have stemmed from investors discounting evidence of robust compliance by OPEC and non-OPEC producers with a deal to curtail a global supply overhang. Prices took a fresh leg lower in the previous session – dipping 2% – as new signs of rising output from Nigeria and Libya, the two OPEC members exempt from a deal to cut production. Output from the 14-member exporter group ticked higher in May due to rising production in Nigeria, Libya and Iraq, raising concerns about OPEC’s effort to shrink global stockpiles of crude oil. OPEC and other producers have committed to keeping 1.8 million barrels a day off the market through March. Libya’s oil production rose more than 50,000 barrels per day to 885,000 bpd. Meanwhile, exports of Nigeria’s benchmark Bonny Light crude oil are set to rise by 62,000 barrels per day in August.
With the anointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the Saudi throne, any doubts over the continuation of policies that have shaken up the Middle East have gone. Western diplomats already referred to the 31-year-old as “Mr. Everything,” because of his control over most aspects of domestic, foreign and defense affairs. His elevation ends a behind-the-scenes struggle for power and answers the question of what would happen to his plans for Saudi Arabia when King Salman, now 81, dies or steps aside. The most ambitious of these, Vision 2030, seeks to recalibrate the economy to end the country’s near-total dependence on oil revenue. But internationally, there are also ramifications. Last month, the prince again raised the stakes in the regional rivalry with Iran, saying that dialog was “impossible” as they fight a proxy war in Yemen.
He also led a multi-nation effort to isolate neighboring Qatar, causing a rift among fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. That also looks set to turn into another long and potentially fruitless test of wills as Iran and Turkey come to Qatar’s aid. “The switch offers him the legitimacy and consensus of becoming the next king and that will validate his vision, his plans and his policies,” said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “There were a lot of question marks about the future of Saudi Arabia and the transition. Now this debate has ended.” Widely known as MBS, he was made crown prince just after dawn in Riyadh, displacing his older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also stripped of his post as interior minister in charge of domestic security forces and counter-terrorism policy.
The move was neither a shock nor a coup, and it means he could be running the kingdom for decades to come. What’s more, his tough approach to the intractable problems of the Middle East would appear to mesh well with U.S. President Donald Trump, who visited Saudi Arabia last month. Trump called the new crown prince Wednesday to offer congratulations on his elevation, the White House said in a statement. Trump and the prince “committed to close cooperation to advance our shared goals of security, stability, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond,” according to the statement. The problem is what comes next. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State questioned Saudi Arabia’s justification at striking out at Qatar by cutting it off from diplomatic and transport links.
The bombing campaign in Yemen aimed at destroying the rebel Houthi forces that Saudi Arabia sees as proxies for Iran, meanwhile, appears to have no end in sight. Two years later, it has become bogged down, bloody and increasingly unpopular. “On the foreign policy side he’s also embroiled Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Qatar without an exit strategy,” said James Dorsey at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. These aren’t changes of direction for Saudi Arabia, but “what he has done is to stretch up a notch and put some very sharp edges on it, and at this point those are backfiring.”
Canadian home sales fell the most in five years last month. That didn’t stop an increase in prices, which were up 18% nationwide from a year earlier. When you consider that most houses are leveraged assets, this represents huge gains for homeowners. While leverage can help boost performance on the way up, it becomes very dangerous on the way down. Leverage can turn even the best investments into poor ones when things go wrong, as losses are amplified. Equity can get wiped out pretty quickly on an overleveraged asset. Canadian real estate has been on fire for years. The housing price data there has made the U.S. real estate market during the boom of the mid-2000s look mild. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas puts out a global housing price index for more than 20 countries every quarter. Using this data, I looked at the real house price index data for Canada and compared it with the same data in the U.S. going back to 1975. Here’s this relationship from 1975 through the end of 2005:
Although there were some divergences in the early and late 1980s, both housing markets essentially ended up in the same place after 30 years. Now let’s add in the most recent data to see how things have unfolded since:
An enormous divergence occurred in 2006, when U.S. housing prices really began to soften, while Canadian price barely skipped a beat. This makes any differences in the past look like blips. The rise in Canadian real estate prices has been relentless. The U.S. housing market peaked in late 2006. Since then, based on this index, U.S. housing prices are still down almost 13% from their peak through the end of 2016. In that same time frame, Canadian housing prices are up 56%. From the 2006 peak, it took until late 2012 for real estate in the U.S. to bottom. We’ve since witnessed a 19% recovery from what was a 27% decline nationwide, on average. While the U.S. real estate downturn lasted almost six years, Canada’s housing market experienced just a 7% drawdown that lasted less than a year. And house prices in Canada reclaimed those losses in about a year and a half. Canadian housing has also outpaced its neighbors to the south since the 2012 bottom in U.S. real estate, with a 30% gain in that time.
Two miles south of the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower is a large complex of sleek new apartments that some of those displaced by last week’s inferno will soon be able to call home. Kensington Row’s manicured lawns, clipped trees and burbling fountains are a haven from the rumbling traffic of two busy London thoroughfares, and its spacious, air-conditioned foyers a relief from June’s oppressive heatwave. Four unfinished blocks house the 68 flats purchased by the Corporation of London for families who lost their homes in Grenfell Tower. Workmen had been instructed not to talk to the media, but one said there was now a rush to complete the building work. “It’s a brilliant idea,” he said of the resettlement plan. Among those exercising dogs and small children, the views were more mixed. “It’s so unfair,” said Maria, who was reading the news in the Evening Standard with two neighbours.
She bought her flat two years ago for a sum she was unwilling to disclose. “We paid a lot of money to live here, and we worked hard for it. Now these people are going to come along, and they won’t even be paying the service charge.” Nick, who pays £2,500 a month rent for a one-bedroom flat in the complex, also expressed doubts about the plan. “Who are the real tenants of Grenfell Tower?” he asked. “It seems as though a lot of flats there were sublet. Now the people whose names are on the tenancies will get rehoused here, and then they’ll rent the flats out on the private market. And the people who were actually living unofficially in the tower at the time of the fire won’t get rehoused. “I’m very sad that people have lost their homes, but there are a lot of people here who have bought flats and will now see the values drop. It will degrade things. And it opens up a can of worms in the housing market.”
Bad loans are rapidly becoming the latest hot commodity in China as more domestic and foreign investors rush into the market and bid up prices. Non-performing loan prices have risen more than 30% this year, according to distressed investor Belos Capital Asia. The average selling price of NPLs has climbed to around 50 cents on the dollar in the past two years, from 30 cents, said Victor Jong, a partner in the deals and business recovery services unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Shanghai. Such a high level is “very rare” in international markets, Jong said. “There are just too many buyers grabbing a limited supply of NPLs,” said Hanson Wong, CEO of Belos Capital in Hong Kong. “At these prices, it’s pretty hard for these NPLs to be profitable.” Distressed investors are increasing as Chinese authorities encourage market-oriented ways to resolve lenders’ mounting piles of non-performing debt amid slowing economic growth.
A jump in valuations of real estate, which often act as underlying assets for secured loans, has boosted the debt’s recovery prospects. Combined with a surge in money supply, this has lifted bad-loan prices even in some less-developed regions of China, according to domestic distressed debt investor Bald Eagle Asset Management. Foreign investors including Oaktree Capital, Lone Star, Goldman Sachs and PAG have bought China NPLs in the current cycle that began in 2014, according to a March report from PwC. Non-performing loans at the country’s lenders jumped 61% in the past two years to 1.58 trillion yuan ($231 billion) at the end of March. In the previous NPL cleanup in China, between 2001 and 2008, secured debt was typically sold at 20 cents on the dollar, and unsecured creditors got back only 5 cents, said Wang Yingyi, a partner at Bald Eagle in Beijing.
The loans portfolio put up for sale by Eurobank is attracting strong investment interest but low offers as the lender begins the process for the transfer of nonperforming loans. This is a portfolio valued at €2.8 billion which has attracted the interest of about 20 investment funds in the data room, illustrating the strong leverage the NPL market commands, partly due to the banks’ commitment to reducing their bad loans by 40% by the end of 2019. The portfolio that Eurobank is selling includes debt from consumer loans and credit cards that have gone unpaid for years, most for at least a decade – i.e. since before the financial crisis broke.
Eurobank has made all the necessary moves for the collection of part of the €2.8 billion, without getting a great response. Therefore the prices in the market are expected to be particularly low for the portfolio, with estimates speaking of just 5% of the original value. Market professionals note that Eurobank’s effort to recover part of the dues just before the opening of the portfolio’s sale, offering debtors a haircut of up to 95% without any significant results, means that the price will likely drop below 5% too.
As the European Union’s cohesion faces being sorely test by the upcoming Brexit negotiations and other challenges, Greeks appear increasingly skeptical about the benefits and prospects of the EU, according to a new study by London-based international policy institute Chatham House and research company Kantar. 74% of Greeks are worried about the outlook for the EU, according to the survey which was carried out on a sample of 1,000 people in 10 European countries: Britain, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland.
The Greek figure was almost double the research average of 38%. Greeks were also significantly more downbeat than their counterparts, with 60% declaring themselves to be pessimistic compared to a research average of 40%. An even larger proportion of Greeks, 80%, said they believed more members of the bloc would follow Britain’s lead and decide to break away from the Union in the next 10 years. Predictably, following seven years of belt-tightening imposed by foreign creditors, a significant proportion of Greeks (67%) said that austerity was the EU’s biggest failure. 73% of Greeks believe that the decision of Britain to leave the EU will weaken the Union.
The tourism sector is showing genuine signs of growth this year that suggest it will be the main driver of the Greek recovery, as it will help state revenues, the private economy, the country’s current accounts and employment. The government is for the first time speaking of 30 million arrivals in 2017. Bank of Greece data show that in the first four months of the year travel receipts increased by 2.4% or 23 million euros year-on-year, reaching 997 million euros. This increase was thanks to the 3.2% rise in arrivals and not average spending per trip, which posted a 0.8% decline. This means the 4.8% drop in travel receipts during the first quarter was offset in April, when arrivals rose 12% and receipts 11.3% annually. This positive picture is expected to have continued in May.
Retail sector representatives are looking forward to cashing in on the increase in arrivals, to offset the losses resulting from Greek households’ ever shrinking disposable incomes. Based on the bookings picture, turnover in retail commerce could rise by up to 5% this year. Addressing a conference organized by the Panhellenic Exporters Federation, Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura said that the data of the first five months point to an increase in arrivals, revenues, nights stayed and occupancy rates. They also show an increase in bookings for the summer ranging between 15 and 70%, depending on area, which led to her conclusion that Greece will have more then 30 million tourists this year after welcoming 28 million in 2016 and 26 million in 2015. The growth in tourism is also reflected in employment and commerce. The number of unemployed registered last month dropped by 56,820 people from April to 913,518, mainly thanks to the rise in seasonal employment in tourism and commerce.
It’s done. Bannon 1 – 0 Kushner. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate pact and that he will seek to renegotiate the international agreement in a way that treats American workers better. “So we are getting out, but we will start to negotiate and we will see if we can make a deal, and if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine,” Trump said Thursday, citing terms that he says benefit China’s economy at the expense of the U.S. “In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or really an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses” and its taxpayers, Trump said.
As Bloomberg reports, Trump’s announcement, delivered to cabinet members, supporters and conservative activists in the White House Rose Garden, spurns pleas from corporate executives, world leaders and even Pope Francis who warned the move imperils a global fight against climate change. As we noted earlier, we should prepare for the establishment to begin its mourning and fearmongering of the disaster about to befall the world. Pulling out means the U.S. joins Russia, Iran, North Korea and a string of Third World countries in not putting the agreement into action. Just two countries are not in the deal at all – one of them war-torn Syria, the other Nicaragua. The Hill notes that many Republicans on Capitol Hill are likely to support pulling out of the Paris deal – 20 leading Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Trump to do just that last week.
Withdrawing from Paris would greatly please conservative groups, which have orchestrated an all-out push in opposition to the pact. “Without any impact on global temperatures, Paris is the open door for egregious regulation, cronyism, and government spending that would be disastrous for the American economy as it is proving to be for those in Europe,” said Nick Loris, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It is time for the U.S. to say ‘au revoir’ to the Paris agreement,” he said.
And use to NOT have their leader appear on TV. I’m thinking a decision by the new (American?!) campaign team installed after the Snap announcement. “Stay away from the camera, it can only do you harm!” Boris PM by July 1?
The Conservatives raised more than 10 times as much as Labour last week, partly thanks to a donation of over £1m from the theatre producer behind The Book of Mormon and The Phantom of the Opera. John Gore, whose company has produced a string of hit musicals, gave £1.05m as part of the £3.77m received by the Conservatives in the third week of the election campaign. In the same time, Labour received only £331,499. The Electoral Commission only publishes details of donations over £7,500, so the smaller donors who make up most of Labour’s fundraising are not identified. Almost all Labour’s larger donations came from unions, including £159,500 from Unite. The new figures show the Conservatives have received £15.2m since the start of 2017, while Labour has received £8.1m.
The large donations came as the poll lead held by the Conservatives and Theresa May appeared to fall following controversies around her social care policy. In the week starting 17 May, the Liberal Democrats received £310,500, of which £230,000 came from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and £25,000 came from the former BBC director general Greg Dyke. The Women’s Equality party received £71,552, with Edwina Snow, the Duke of Westminster’s sister who is married to the historian Dan Snow, giving £50,000. Ukip’s donations fell dramatically to £16,300 from £35,000 the previous week. Political parties can spend £30,000 for every seat they contest during the regulated period. There are 650 seats around the country, meaning that parties can spend up to £19.5m during the regulated period in the run-up to the election.
Befitting a surprise election, the manifestos from the main parties contained surprises. Labour is shaking off decades of shyness about nationalisation and tax increases for the rich and for the first time in decades has a policy agenda that is not Tory-lite. The Conservatives, meanwhile, say they are rejecting “the cult of selfish individualism” and “belief in untrammelled free markets”, while adopting the quasi-Marxist idea of an energy price cap. Despite these significant shifts, myths about the economy refuse to go away and hamper a more productive debate. They concern how the government manages public finances – “tax and spend”, if you will.
The first is that there is an inherent virtue in balancing the books. Conservatives still cling to the idea of eliminating the budget deficit, even if it is with a 10-year delay (2025, as opposed to George Osborne’s original goal of 2015). The budget-balancing myth is so powerful that Labour feels it has to cost its new spending pledges down to the last penny, lest it be accused of fiscal irresponsibility. However, as Keynes and his followers told us, whether a balanced budget is a good or a bad thing depends on the circumstances. In an overheating economy, deficit spending would be a serious folly. However, in today’s UK economy, whose underlying stagnation has been masked only by the release of excess liquidity on an oceanic scale, some deficit spending may be good – necessary, even.
The second myth is that the UK welfare state is especially large. Conservatives believe that it is bloated out of all proportion and needs to be drastically cut. Even the Labour party partly buys into this idea. Its extra spending pledge on this front is presented as an attempt to reverse the worst of the Tory cuts, rather than as an attempt to expand provision to rebuild the foundation for a decent society. The reality is the UK welfare state is not large at all. As of 2016, the British welfare state (measured by public social spending) was, at 21.5% of GDP, barely three-quarters of welfare spending in comparably rich countries in Europe – France’s is 31.5% and Denmark’s is 28.7%, for example. The UK welfare state is barely larger than the OECD average (21%), which includes a dozen or so countries such as Mexico, Chile, Turkey and Estonia, which are much poorer and/or have less need for public welfare provision. They have younger populations and stronger extended family networks.
The third myth is that welfare spending is consumption – that it is a drain on the nation’s productive resources and thus has to be minimised. This myth is what Conservative supporters subscribe to when they say that, despite their negative impact, we have to accept cuts in such things as disability benefit, unemployment benefit, child care and free school meals, because we “can’t afford them”. This myth even tints, although doesn’t define, Labour’s view on the welfare state. For example, Labour argues for an expansion of welfare spending, but promises to finance it with current revenue, thereby implicitly admitting that the money that goes into it is consumption that does not add to future output.
The banker at the other end of the phone line was furious, recalled Shanghai lawyer Wang Chaoyu. A pile of steel pledged as collateral for a loan of almost $3 million from his bank, China CITIC, had vanished from a warehouse on the outskirts of the city. Just several months earlier, in mid-2013, Wang and the banker had visited the warehouse and verified that the steel was there. “The first time I went, I saw the steel,” recalled Wang, an attorney at Beijing DHH Law Firm, which represents the Shanghai branch of CITIC. “Afterwards, the banker got in contact with me and said, ‘The pledged assets are no longer there.’” The trouble had begun in 2012, after CITIC loaned the money to Shanghai Hanning Iron and Steel, a privately held steel trader. Hanning failed to meet payments, according to a mediation agreement reviewed by Reuters, and CITIC took ownership of the steel.
It was when CITIC moved to retrieve the collateral that the banker visited the warehouse and discovered that the 291-tonne pile of steel was no longer there, Wang said. The bank is still in court trying to recoup its losses. The missing collateral is a setback for CITIC. But it is indicative of a much wider problem that could endanger the health of China’s financial system – fraudulent or “ghost” collateral. When bank auditors in China go looking, they too often find that collateral recorded on the books simply isn’t there. In some cases, collateral that has been pledged simply doesn’t exist. In others, it disappears as borrowers in financial distress sell the assets. There are also instances in which the same collateral has been pledged to multiple lenders. One lawyer said he discovered that the same pile of steel was used to secure loans from 10 different lenders.
With the mainland facing its slowest growth in over a quarter of a century, defaults are mounting as borrowers struggle to repay their loans. The danger of fraudulent collateral in this situation, say economists, is that it exacerbates the problem of bad debt for China’s banks, increasing the risk of financial turmoil. As growth slows, lenders can expect more nasty surprises, said Xin Qingquan at Chongqing University. More instances of fake collateral will arise, he said. [..] There are no official statistics or estimates of the problem. But fraudulent collateral is “a huge issue,” said Violet Ho, co-head of Greater China Investigations and Disputes Practice at Kroll, which conducts corporate investigations on the mainland. “Often you also see that the paperwork around collateral may be dodgy, and the bank loan officer knows, the intermediary knows, and the goods owner knows – so it’s essentially a Ponzi scheme.”
[..]Bad loans are mounting fast. Officially, just 1.74% of commercial bank loans were classified as non-performing at the end of March. But some analysts say lenders often mask the true level of bad debt and so the figure is likely much higher. Fitch Ratings said in a report last September that it had estimated non-performing loans in China’s financial system could be as high as 15% to 21%. This in a banking sector that has undergone a massive credit expansion. The value of outstanding bank loans ballooned to $17.2 trillion at the end of April from $5.8 trillion at the end of 2009, according to data from China’s central bank. In September last year, the Bank for International Settlements warned that excessive credit growth in China meant there was a growing risk of a banking crisis in the next three years.
The Bank of Japan’s assets apparently exceeded 500 trillion yen ($4.49 trillion) as of the end of May, growing to rival the country’s economy as the central bank continues its debt purchases under an ultraeasy monetary policy. The bank’s total assets stood at 498.15 trillion yen as of May 20. By the time the month ended Wednesday, its holdings of Japanese government bonds had increased by another 2.24 trillion yen. Assuming that the BOJ had not significantly reduced its non-JGB assets, its balance sheet almost certainly crossed over the 500 trillion yen mark into uncharted territory. The BOJ’s balance sheet began expanding at a rapid clip after Governor Haruhiko Kuroda launched unprecedented quantitative and qualitative easing in April 2013. At around 93%, the scale of the Japanese central bank’s assets in proportion to GDP has no close match. Latest data shows that the U.S. Fed held roughly $4.5 trillion in assets, which is equivalent to 23% of the country’s GDP.
The ECB’s balance sheet, at about €4.2 trillion ($4.71 trillion) is larger than the BOJ’s, but it still sits at around 28% of the eurozone GDP. The BOJ in September shifted its policy focus from QE to controlling the yield curve, but the bank is still snapping up JGBs to keep long-term rates at around zero. The central bank has stood firm on its pledge to continue expanding its balance sheet to boost currency supply until Japan’s consumer price inflation is steadily above 2%. This suggests that the BOJ’s balance sheet will continue expanding past the 500 trillion yen mark. This prospect makes some financial experts uneasy. Once the inflation target is finally met, and the BOJ starts raising interest rates, the bank will have to pay more in interest to financial institutions’ reserve deposits than it will earn from its low-yielding JGB holdings.
Between 20% and 25% of the nation’s shopping malls will close in the next five years, according to a new report from Credit Suisse that predicts e-commerce will continue to pull shoppers away from bricks-and-mortar retailers. For many, the Wall Street firm’s finding may come as no surprise. Long-standing retailers are dying off as shoppers’ habits shift online. Credit Suisse expects apparel sales to represent 35% of all e-commerce by 2030, up from 17% today. Traditional mall anchors, such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears, have announced numerous store closings in recent months. Clothiers including American Apparel and BCBG Max Azria have filed for bankruptcy. Bebe has closed all of its stores.
The report estimates that around 8,640 stores will close by the end of the year. Retail industry experts say Credit Suisse may have underestimated the scope of the upheaval. “It’s more in the 30% range,” Ron Friedman, a retail expert at accounting and advisory firm Marcum said of the share of malls that he predicts will close in the next five years. “There are a lot of malls that know they’re in big trouble.” By ignoring new shopping centers being built, the research note took an overly simplistic view of the changing landscape of shopping centers, said analyst David Marcotte, senior vice president with Kantar Retail. “There are still malls being built,” Marcotte said. “Predominantly outlet malls and lifestyle malls.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Do I think Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild investment banker whose “ambition was always two steps ahead of his experience”, is the second coming of Charles de Gaulle? Do I think Donald freakin’ Trump is a modern day Andrew Jackson? Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha … good one! But here’s what I do think: • Something old and powerful is happening in the real world to crush the status quo political systems of every Western democracy. • Something predictably sad is happening in the political world to replace the old guard candidates with self-absorbed plutocrats like Trump and pretty boy bankers like Macron. • Something new and powerful is happening in the investment world to divorce political risk and volatility from market risk and volatility. The old force repeating itself in the real world is nicely summed up by these two charts, the most important charts I know. They’re specific to the U.S., but applicable everywhere in the West.
First, the Central Banker’s Bubble since March 2009 and the launch of QE1 has inflated U.S. household wealth far beyond what the nominal growth rate of the U.S. economy would otherwise support. This is a classic bubble in every sense of the word, with the primary difference from prior vast bubbles being its concentration and focus in financial assets — stocks and bonds — which are held primarily by the rich. Who wins the Academy Award for creation of wealth inequality in a supporting role? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the U.S. Federal Reserve.
And as the second chart shows, this central bank largesse has sharply accelerated the massive shift in wealth to the Rich from the Rest, a shift which began in the 1980s with the Reagan Revolution. We are now back to where we were in the 1930s, where the household wealth of the bottom 90% of U.S. wage earners is equal to the household wealth of the top one-tenth of 1% of U.S. wage earners.
So look … I’m not saying that the current level or dynamics of wealth inequality is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m just saying that it IS. And I understand that there are insurance programs today, like social security and pension funds, which are not reflected in this chart and didn’t exist in the 1930s, the last time you saw this sort of wealth inequality. I understand that there are a lot more people in the United States today than in the 1930s. I understand that there are all sorts of important differences in the nature of wealth distribution between today and the 1930s. I get all that. What I’m saying, though, is that just like in the 1930s, there is a political price to be paid for this level of wealth inequality. That price is political polarization and electoral rejection of status quo parties.
[..] downgrades of bonds issued by local governments raise the interest rates those governments must pay on holders of its debt, thereby costing those communities up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the report, which was released Wednesday by the non-profit Roosevelt Institute’s ReFund America Project and focused on recent downgrades by Moody’s in relatively impoverished, predominantly-black localities. The more recent report [..] took a granular look at a few communities whose budgets were impacted by downgrades, which drive the prices of bonds down while raising the interest rate at which the government has to pay its bondholders. New Jersey was set to lose $258 million annually as a result of a Moody’s ratings drop, the report calculated, using the spread between interest rates on bonds with different Moody’s credit ratings and the amount of debt affected by the downgrade.
Moody’s announced a downgrade of the New Jersey’s $37 billion in publicly-issued debt to A3, six levels below the agency’s top rating of Aaa, in late March. The agency attributed the downgrade to “significant pension underfunding, including growth in the state’s large long-term liabilities, a persistent structural imbalance and weak fund balances,” as well as a tax cut that would decrease revenues by $1.1 billion over the next four years. New Jersey’s city of Newark — which is 52.4% African American and 33.8% Hispanic, compared to 12.6% and 16.3%, respectively, on the national level, according to U.S. Census data — was slated to lose an estimated $10 million annually as a result of a Moody’s downgrade, the report calculated. Newark’s median household income was just over $33,000, compared to nearly $54,000 nationwide, as of 2015.
That year, Moody’s downgraded Newark’s $374 million in general obligation unlimited tax bonds to Baa3, one level above junk bond status. The rating change, Moody’s said in the press release, reflected “the city’s further weakened financial position since last year,” along with its “reliance on market access for cash flow, history of aggressively structured budgets typically adopted late in the year and uncertainty around continued financial support from the state of New Jersey.” Further west, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) also stood to suffer tremendously from a Moody’s rating drop. The report authors calculated that the school system would lose out on $290 million annually from a September 2016 Moody’s downgrade to B3, five ranks below the highest junk bond rating. Nearly 40% of students are African American, 46.5% are Hispanic and 80.2% are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to October 2016 CPS data.
Illinois had its bond rating downgraded to one step above junk by Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, the lowest ranking on record for a U.S. state, as the long-running political stalemate over the budget shows no signs of ending. S&P warned that Illinois will likely lose its investment-grade status, an unprecedented step for a state, around July 1 if leaders haven’t agreed on a budget that chips away at the government’s chronic deficits. Moody’s followed S&P’s downgrade Thursday, citing Illinois’s underfunded pensions and the record backlog of bills that are equivalent to about 40% of its operating budget. “Legislative gridlock has sidetracked efforts not only to address pension needs but also to achieve fiscal balance,” Ted Hampton, Moody’s analyst, said in a statement.
“During the past year of fruitless negotiations and partisan wrangling, fundamental credit challenges have intensified enough to warrant a downgrade, regardless of whether a fiscal compromise is reached.” Illinois hasn’t had a full year budget in place for the past two years amid a clash between the Democrat-run legislature and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. That’s left the fifth most-populous state with a record $14.5 billion of unpaid bills, ravaged entities like universities and social service providers that rely on state aid and undermined Illinois’s standing in the bond market, where investors have demanded higher premiums for the risk of owning its debt. Moody’s called Illinois “an outlier among states” after suffering eight downgrades in as many years.
“The rating actions largely reflect the severe deterioration of Illinois’ fiscal condition, a byproduct of its stalemated budget negotiations,” S&P analyst Gabriel Petek said in a statement. “The unrelenting political brinkmanship now poses a threat to the timely payment of the state’s core priority payments.” Illinois’s 10-year bonds yield 4.4%, 2.5 percentage points more than those on top-rated debt. That spread – a measure of the perceived risk – is the highest since at least January 2013 and more than any of the other 19 states tracked by Bloomberg.
Uber reported yesterday that its NET LOSS totaled more than $700 million last quarter, despite pulling in a whopping $3.4 billion in revenue. (This means they spent at least $4.1 billion!) That’s the latest in a string of massive, 9-figure quarterly losses for the company. The only question I have is– how much cocaine are these people buying? Seriously, it’s REALLY HARD to spend so many billions of dollars. You could have over 100,000 employees (‘real’ employees, not Uber drivers) and pay them $150,000 EACH and still not blow through that much money in a single quarter. Even if you think about Research & Development, Uber still managed to burn through almost as much cash as NASA’s $4.8 billion budget last quarter. The real irony is that this company is worth $70 BILLION. And Uber is far from alone. Netflix is also worth $70 billion; and like Uber, they can’t make money.
Over the last twelve months Netflix burned through over $1.7 billion in cash, and they made up for it by going deeper into debt. The list goes on and on– Snapchat debuted with a $30 billion valuation after its IPO, only to subsequently report that they had lost $2.2 billion in the previous quarter. Telecom company Sprint is still somehow worth more than $30 billion despite having over $40 billion in debt and burning through more than $6 billion over the last three years. And then there’s Twitter, a rudderless, profitless company that is still worth over $13 billion. This is pure insanity. If companies that burn through obscene piles of cash and have no clear path to profitability are worth tens of billions of dollars, it seems like any business that’s cashflow positive should be worth TRILLIONS. None of this makes any sense, and investing in this environment is nothing more than gambling. Sure, it’s always possible these companies’ stock prices increase even more. Maybe Netflix and Twitter quadruple despite continuing losses and debt accumulation. Maybe Bitcoin surges to $50,000 next month. And maybe the Dallas Cowboys finally offer me the starting quarterback position next season.
Sometime this year, world public and private plus unfunded pensions will surpass $300 trillion. That is not even counting the $100 trillion in US government unfunded liabilities. Oops. These obligations cannot be paid. A time is coming when the market and voters will realize this. Will voters decide to tax “the rich” more? Will they increase their VAT rates and further slow growth? Will they reduce benefits? No matter what they decide, hard choices will bring political turmoil. And that, of course, will mean market turmoil. We are coming to a period I call “the Great Reset.” As it hits, we will have to deal, one way or another, with the largest twin bubbles in the history of the world. One of those bubbles is global debt, especially government debt. The other is the even larger bubble of government promises.
The other is the even larger bubble of government promises. History shows it is more than likely that the US will have a recession in the next few years. When it does come, it will likely blow the US government deficit up to $2 trillion a year. Obama took eight years to run up a $10 trillion debt after the 2008 recession. It might take just five years after the next recession to run up the next $10 trillion. Here is a chart my staff at Mauldin Economics created in late 2016 using Congressional Budget Office data. It shows what will happen in the next recession if revenues drop by the same percentage as they did in the last recession (without even counting likely higher expenditures this time).
And you can add the $1.3 trillion deficit in this chart to the more than $500 billion in off-budget debt—and add a higher interest rate expense as interest rates rise. The catalyst could be a European recession that spills over into the US. Or it might be one triggered by US monetary and fiscal mistakes. Or a funding crisis in China, or an emerging-market meltdown. Whatever the cause, the next recession will be just as global as the last one. And there will be more buildup of debt and more political and economic chaos.
The price of raw ivory in Asia has fallen dramatically since the Chinese government announced plans to ban its domestic legal ivory trade, according to new research seen by the Guardian. Poaching, however, is not dropping in parallel. Undercover investigators from the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) have been visiting traders in Hanoi over the last three years. In 2015 they were being offered raw ivory for an average of US$1322/kg in 2015, but by October 2016 that price had dropped to $750/kg, and by February this year prices were as much as 50% lower overall, at $660/kg. Traders complain that the ivory business has become very “difficult and unprofitable”, and are saying they want to get rid of their stock, according to the unpublished report seen by the Guardian. Worryingly, however, others are stockpiling waiting for prices to go up again.
Of all the ivory industries across Asia, it is Vietnam that has increased its production of illegal ivory items the fastest in the last decade, according to Save the Elephants. Vietnam now has one of the largest illegal ivory markets in the world, with the majority of tusks being brought in from Africa. Although historically ivory carving is not considered a prestigious art form in Vietnam, as it is in China, the number of carvers has increased greatly. The demand for the worked pieces comes mostly from mainland China. Until recently, the chances of being arrested at the border slim due to inefficient law enforcement. But the prices for raw ivory are now declining as the Chinese market slows; this is partly due to China’s economic slowdown, and also to the announcement that the country will close down its domestic ivory trade.
China’s ivory factories were officially shut down by 31 March 2017, and all the retail outlets will be closed by the end of the year. Other countries have been taking similarly positive action on ivory, although the UK lags behind. Theresa May quietly dropped the conservative commitment to ban ivory from her manifesto, but voters have picked it up and there has been fury across social media. “All the traders we are speaking to are talking about what’s going on in China. It’s definitely having a significant impact on the trade,” said Sarah Stoner, senior intel analyst at the WJC. “A trader in one of the neighbouring countries who talked to our undercover investigators said he didn’t want to go to China anymore – it was so difficult in China now, and friends of his were arrested and sitting in jail. He seemed quite concerned about the situation,” said Pauline Verheji, WJC’S senior legal investigator.
Audi’s emissions scandal flared up again on Thursday after the German government accused the carmaker of cheating emissions tests with its top-end models, the first time Audi has been accused of such wrongdoing in its home country. The German Transport Ministry said it has asked Volkswagen’s luxury division to recall around 24,000 A7 and A8 models built between 2009 and 2013, about half of which were sold in Germany. VW Chief Executive Matthias Mueller was summoned to the Berlin-based ministry on Thursday, a ministry spokesman said, without elaborating. The affected Audi models with so-called Euro-5 emission standards emit about twice the legal limit of nitrogen oxides when the steering wheel is turned more than 15 degrees, the ministry said.
It is also the first time that Audi’s top-of-the-line A8 saloon has been implicated in emissions cheating. VW has said to date that the emissions-control software found in its rigged EA 189 diesel engine does not violate European law. The 80,000 3.0-liter vehicles affected by VW’s emissions cheating scandal in the United States included Audi A6, A7 and Q7 models as well as Porsche and VW brand cars. The ministry said it has issued a June 12 deadline for Audi to come up with a comprehensive plan to refit the cars. Ingolstadt-based Audi issued a recall for the 24,000 affected models late on Thursday, some 14,000 of which are registered in Germany, and said software updates will start in July. It will continue to cooperate with Germany’s KBA motor vehicle authority, Audi said.
Just a few hours after Megyn Kelly announced on NBC’s Today show that she would be interviewing Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg tomorrow at the International Economic Forum, Showtime released the first trailer and extended clip for The Putin Interviews, a sit-down with the Russian president conducted by the film-maker Oliver Stone for a four-part special that premieres on 12 June. Promoted as “the most detailed portrait of Putin ever granted to a Western interviewer”, The Putin Interviews spawned from several encounters over two years between Stone, director of politically oriented films including JFK and Nixon, and Putin. The interviews are to air as four one-hour installments, landing just a week after Kelly’s discussion with Putin, the centerpiece of her news magazine show on NBC, which premieres on Sunday night.
In the extended clip released on Thursday, Stone and Putin can be seen driving in a car with an English translator in the backseat, discussing topics such as Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and Russian intelligence. “As an ex-KGB agent, you must have hated what Snowden did with every fiber of your being,” Stone asks in the clip. “Snowden is not a traitor,” Putin replies. “He did not betray the interests of his country. Nor did he transfer any information to any other country which would have been pernicious to his own country or to his own people. The only thing Snowden does, he does publicly.”
Two weeks before a critical Eurogroup summit, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble launched a broadside at Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, claiming that the leftist premier has not shifted the burden of austerity away from poorer Greeks as he had pledged. In his comments, Schaeuble also maintained that party influence on the Greek public administration has increased rather than decreased during Tsipras’s time in power, noting that ruling party officials have been appointed to the country’s privatization fund. Greek government sources responded tersely to Schaeuble’s criticism. “The responsibility of Schaeuble in managing the Greek crisis has been recorded historically,” one source said. “There is no point in his ascribing it to others.”
Meanwhike Germany’s Die Welt reported that the ECB had similar views on the need for Greek debt relief to the IMF, and indicated that Schaeuble might be facing pressure to make unpopular decisions ahead of elections scheduled to take place in Germany in September. Tsipras, for his part, apparently sought to lower expectations in comments on Thursday. During a visit to the Interior Ministry, he said the government’s goal was “fulfilling the country’s commitments” linked to Greece’s third international bailout. He dodged reporters’ questions about whether he expected to leave a European Union leaders’ summit on June 22 wearing a tie – something he has pledged to do only when Greece secures debt relief. “The important thing is that I don’t leave with further burdens,” Tsipras said.
Aides close to Tsipras will be closely following a Euro Working Group meeting scheduled for June 8 for indications about what kind of deal creditors are likely to put on the table at the Eurogroup summit planned for June 15. If the solution that is in the works is deemed to be too politically toxic, it is likely that Tsipras will undertake another round of telephone diplomacy with key EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. He spoke to several prominent EU leaders earlier this week to underline the Greek government’s conviction that it has honored its promises to creditors and it is their turn to reciprocate with debt relief.
Doctors may soon have a new weapon in the long-running war between antibiotics and bacteria. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a drug that’s tens of thousands of times more effective in lab tests against dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Starting with the discovery of penicillin in 1928, scientists and doctors have been finding and making molecules that weaken or kill bacteria in a range of different ways to help humans survive infections. And as soon as humans started employing these antibiotics, bacteria began evolving to beat those attacks. That has started to become a huge problem. So-called superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can ward off some of our most potent antibiotics, making infections by these bacteria extremely hard to treat.
Not only that, but their existence poses a strategic challenge as well, forcing doctors to think hard about when and where they use certain antibiotics, lest bacteria develop resistance to them and render them less effective. Vancomycin is one antibiotic that has stayed effective even as others have been been brought down by resistant bacteria. That’s because of the way vancomycin works: by latching onto one of the building blocks bacteria use to build their cell walls, like the microscopic equivalent of a bully stealing your shovel in the sandbox and not giving it back. (In this analogy, we’re on the bully’s side.) By interfering with such a critical cellular process in such a fundamental way, vancomycin makes it hard for bacteria to develop a simple mutation to defeat the antibiotic. That makes vancomycin one of our last lines of defense for treating infections like MRSA that others can’t.
It’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) added the drug to its list of essential medicines. Naturally, some bacteria have found ways to fight vancomycin, the most common being to substitute a different cell wall building block that the antibiotic can’t latch onto. Taking vancomycin out of doctors’ quivers would be a big blow. Which is why the WHO also lists vancomycin-resistant bacteria at number four and five on its list of the most threatening antibiotic-resistant microbes. So. To try to make sure vancomycin can beat those resistant bacteria, and stay effective for the next few decades—a reasonable lifetime for an antibiotic—chemists Dale Boger, Nicholas Isley and Akinori Okano at the Scripps Research Institute in California opened up the hood to make a few adjustments to the molecule.
After swapping out one part and bolting on a couple others, the group’s souped-up vancomycin was about 25,000 times more potent against resistant bacteria, and it had better endurance. They describe their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The major change was to the region of the molecule that grabs those cell wall building blocks, which are called D-alanyl-D-alanine. Resistant bacteria have learned to substitute the very similar D-alanyl-D-lactate, which your standard vancomycin can’t bind to very well, limiting its effectiveness. The researchers changed an oxygen atom for two atoms of hydrogen, making a new version of vancomycin that could hang onto either building block.