Jun 192017
 
 June 19, 2017  Posted by at 9:45 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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Kandinsky Capricious Line 1924

 

Britain’s Brexit jam is Brussels’ Too (Pol.eu)
EU Leaders Fear Fragile State Of Tories Will Lead To Brutal Brexit (G.)
Pain Without Gain: The Truth About British Austerity (G.)
France Gives Macron Big Majority With Little Enthusiasm (EUO)
German Politicians Hammer the ECB, But Only to Get Votes (DQ)
Central Bank Liquidity Is The ‘IV Drip’ Of The Rally (CNBC)
Mueller Has “Not Yet” Decided Whether To Investigate Trump (ZH)
Cold War Deja Vu Deepens as New Russia Sanctions Anger Europe (BBG)
Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road (Grant)
Australia Has The World’s Most Costly Energy Bills (MB)
Australia’s Haunted Housing Market (BW)
Greece Blocks EU Statement On China Human Rights At UN (R.)
Greece Cracks Down On Voucher Misuse By Employers (EurActiv)
Greek Summer Calm Before The Storm (K.)

 

 

The Brexit talks start today. They should not. Theresa May can start, but she won’t be there to finish them.

Britain’s Brexit jam is Brussels’ Too (Pol.eu)

As Brexit talks start Monday, Britain’s back is hard against a wall. And nobody, not even in Brussels, wanted it that way. Elections in the U.K. were supposed to give Prime Minister Theresa May a stronger hand against the EU and naysayers back home. Instead, her negotiating team will hobble into the talks with May in peril, still working to finalize a power-sharing agreement to allow her to form a minority government. The EU’s stance on major Brexit issues has been ironclad for months, backed by the 27 nations in a disciplined display of unity. Second-guessing about May’s approach has intensified since her election setback, so much so that there have been calls for the EU to avert potential disaster by laying out clear paths for the U.K.’s exit.

The view in Brussels, however, is there is no way to help May short of making clear that Britain is welcome to change its mind — a point reiterated by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, among others. While no one realistically expects such a total reversal, there is unease over the lack of clarity on the U.K.’s goals. “Clearly the Brits are not ready yet and it’s a pity,” a senior Commission official said. “Everybody has sympathy for [May] now because she put herself in an impossible situation,” the official said. “How we can help her? Where she is now, nobody can help her. What she said to the backbenchers, in a way made sense, ‘I put you in this mess. I will take you out of this mess.’ But who else can do anything for her? It’s just hell.”

“And all the questions,” the official added, “Withdrawal? No withdrawal? Now? Later? It’s for them to consider. What can Brussels say?” The EU has published and transmitted to the U.K. its position papers on the two issues Brussels insists take precedence: citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. May’s aides said she wanted to make a “big, generous” offer on citizens’ rights, but so far the U.K. has not published any similar documents laying out its positions.

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Brussels wants an orderly destruction of Britain, not a messy one.

EU Leaders Fear Fragile State Of Tories Will Lead To Brutal Brexit (G.)

European leaders fear that Theresa May’s government is too fragile to negotiate viable terms on which to leave the union, meaning the discussions that officially begin on Monday could end in a “brutal Brexit” – under which talks collapse without any deal. As officials began gathering in Brussels on Sunday night, the long-awaited start of negotiations was overshadowed by political chaos back in Westminster, where chancellor Philip Hammond warned that failing to strike a deal would be “a very, very bad outcome”. The EU side fears that, in reality, the British government will struggle to maintain any position without falling apart in the coming months, because, without support from the Democratic Unionist party, May’s negotiating hand is limited. There are also concerns that any DUP backing to give May a majority in the House of Commons would come with strings attached.

Hammond has been urged to publish the cost of any deals made with the DUP to prop up the government. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has raised concerns over reports that the DUP wants to end airport tax on visitors to Northern Ireland, which generated about £90m in 2015/16, according to HMRC estimates. The abolition of air passenger duty is one of the DUP’s key demands, as it pits Northern Ireland unfavourably against the Republic of Ireland, where the duty has been abolished. As well as concern over any terms agreed with the DUP, May will have to assuage fears from Ireland’s new taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, when she meets him in Downing Street on Monday, that Brexit will not infringe on the rights of people in Ireland. The taoiseach will also raise the impact of any Tory-DUP deal on power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

The prime minister has said she is confident of getting the Queen’s speech through the Commons, regardless of whether a deal is reached with the DUP by the time of the state opening of parliament on Wednesday. British Brexit negotiators are hoping to shore up confidence in their hardline approach to the start of talks by making early progress on the vexed question of citizens’ rights. [..] Pierre Vimont, a veteran French diplomat, now at the Carnegie Europe thinktank, said lack of clarity did not matter for the opening, which was more about “a first glimpse into their overall attitude and position” and setting the tone. “It will be atmospherics and the way both sides show a genuine commitment to work ahead. I think that will be the most important. “But the British delegation will need to rather quickly put its house in order and to have a clear idea of where it wants to go.”

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We’ve seen that truth in Grenfell Tower.

Pain Without Gain: The Truth About British Austerity (G.)

There are few people in the developed world who still cling to the maxim that “home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt”. hese days we can’t afford to take the same view as Helmer, the husband in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, one of literature’s most cautious budgeters. It’s a nice idea to be free of debt and just spend what you earn. But when a home costs many times the average annual income and life’s running costs often exceed the monthly income, borrowing is not something that can be avoided. The government knows this only too well. This week sees publication of the public borrowing total for May and it is not expected to make pleasant reading.

Together with April’s shocker, when government borrowing was higher than the same month last year, the first two months of this financial year are forecast to show the borrowing requirement for the year is on track to be higher, not lower than last year. When David Cameron and George Osborne were in Downing Street, bringing down the deficit was the main aim of domestic policy. Until just last year, the plan was to cut the deficit to zero by 2020 and start bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio from this year. The EU referendum vote and Theresa May’s arrival at No 10 changed all that. Once she adopted a hard-Brexit stance, the economy began to turn. Her chancellor, Philip Hammond, was forced to loosen the purse strings. It meant that both of the main political parties went into the election with plans for the deficit to remain at about 2.5%.

Independent forecasts for GDP growth over the next five years are below this figure, meaning that far from cutting the overall debt-to-GDP ratio, both parties were content to push it towards 90% – higher than any government has experienced in 50 years. That’s why so many headlines after the election have declared austerity dead and why the deficit was the dog that didn’t bark when the electorate went to the polls. The pressure on the deficit has only worsened since then. It has become clear to many of May’s advisers and close colleagues that the Tory party might not survive a second election this year without stealing some of Labour’s clothes. There is the possibility she will sanction scrapping, or dramatically reducing tuition fees, to nullify one of Labour’s most popular pledges.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, hinted that the cap on nurses’ pay might be relaxed, while local authority spending may need to increase after the Grenfell Tower fire. Meanwhile, household debts are on the increase. Credit card, car loan and student debt, and borrowing using that most pernicious of loans, the second mortgage, have all risen sharply in the last couple of years. Making matters worse, the proportion of savings in the economy is at rock-bottom levels. It all adds up to an economy running on empty, with everyone, including ministers, borrowing extra each year just to keep the wheels turning.

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Macron won, but his majority is nowhere near as big as predicted. He was expected to get well over 400 seats, and ended up with 308. See the graphs. Next, he’ll be up against the unions. He’s promised to fire 120,000 public workers. Good luck.

France Gives Macron Big Majority With Little Enthusiasm (EUO)

French president Emmanuel Macron won a three-fifth majority in the lower house in the second round of the legislative elections on Sunday (18 June), but less than half of voters cast a ballot. Macron’s political movement, La Republique en Marche (LRM, The Republic on the Move) won 308 seats in the National Assembly, out of 577, after obtaining 43.06% of the vote. Its centrist ally, the Modem party, got 40 seats (6%). While not as big as expected after the first round, LRM’s majority left other parties behind and completed Macron’s destruction of the old political landscape. The conservative Republicans party will be the main opposition faction, with 113 seats (22.2%), down from 192 in the outgoing assembly.

The party leader, Francois Baroin, said he was happy that the Republicans will be “big enough” to “make its differences with LRM heard”. The Socialist Party (PS), which had been the main party with 270 MPs, was left with 29 seats (5.68%). Several ministers who served under former socialist president Francois Hollande lost out to newcomers. The PS leader, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, who was himself eliminated in the first round, resigned from his position. Some 431 new MPs will enter the assembly and a record 224 of the MPs will be women.

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The ECB has $4.73 trillion in assets. It buys anythng but Greece.

German Politicians Hammer the ECB, But Only to Get Votes (DQ)

These days it’s easy to tell when general elections are approaching in Germany: members of the ruling government begin bewailing, in perfect unison, the ECB’s ultra-loose monetary policy. Leading the charge this time was Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who on Tuesday urged the ECB to change its policy “in a timely manner”, warning that very low interest rates had caused problems in “some parts of the world.” Werner Bahlsen, the head of the economic council of Merkel’s CDU conservatives, was next to take the baton. “The ongoing purchase of government bonds has already cost the European project a great deal of credibility and has damaged it,” he said. “The ECB can only regain trust with the return to a sound monetary policy.” As Schaeuble and Balhsen well know, that is not likely to occur any time soon.

Indeed, like all other Eurozone finance ministers, Schaeuble is benefiting handsomely from the record-low borrowing costs made possible by the ECB’s negative interest rate policy. But by attacking ECB policy he and his peers can make it seem that they take voters’ concerns about low interest rates seriously, while knowing perfectly well that the things they say have very little effect on what the ECB actually does. In short, they are telling their voters what they want to hear. A survey by the CDU’s economic council showed that less than a quarter of its roughly 12,000 members had confidence in the ECB’s current course. 76% said they backed Bundesbank head Jens Weidmann’s monetary policy stance. Herr Weidmann said on Thursday that the ECB is at risk of coming under political pressure because any hint of policy tightening could push yields higher and blow a hole in national budgets.

It’s a probably a bit late in proceedings for such worries, what with the ECB now boasting the largest balance sheet of any central bank on Planet Earth. At last count, it had €4.22 trillion ($4.73 trillion) in assets, which equates to 39% of Eurozone GDP. Many of those assets are sovereign bonds of Eurozone economies like Italy, Spain and Portugal. The ECB’s binge-buying of sovereign and corporate bonds has spawned a mass culture of financial dependence across Europe. In the case of Italy, the sheer scale of the government’s dependence on the ECB for cheap funding is staggering: since 2008, 88% of government debt net issuance has been acquired by the ECB and Italian Banks. At current government debt net issuance rates and announced QE levels, the ECB will have been responsible for financing 100% of Italy’s deficits from 2014 to 2019.

It’s not just governments that are dependent on the ECB’s largesse: so, too, are the banks. In total, European banks have approximately €760 billion of funding from long-term lending schemes, the bulk of which comes from the four rounds of the most recent program launched in March 2016. As of the end of April 2017, Italian banks were holding just over €250 billion of the total long-term loans — almost a third of the total. Spain had €173 billion, while French banks had €115 billion and German lenders €95 billion. As the FT reports, the funding appears to play much less of a role in stimulating economic activity through lending, and a much larger role in mitigating the pain that low interest rates — and poor asset quality — can inflict on banks.

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Propping up zombies.

Central Bank Liquidity Is The ‘IV Drip’ Of The Rally (CNBC)

If it weren’t for liquidity right now, the stock market rally could be ripping apart, according to BMO Private Bank’s chief investment officer. “Any sense that this IV drip of liquidity coming into the market is slowing down at all is going to cause some issues,” Jack Ablin said on CNBC’s “Futures Now.” He emphasized that investors have been encouraged to take on risk due to the trillions of dollars being pumped into the financial system by central banks. Ablin’s comments came a day after the Federal Reserve decided to lift short-term interest rate by a quarter%age point. Even though the rate hike was expected, Ablin admits there was some concern tied to the Fed’s statement.

The Fed put in some new wording, saying that it “expects to begin implementing a balance sheet normalization program this year, provided that the economy evolves broadly as anticipated.” That part left Ablin “a little bit taken aback with the timing,” he said. However, “I think the good news here is, ‘Look, this is a potentially contrived crisis.’ This could be the taper tantrum all over again where [The Fed says] ‘OK, look, we don’t want to cause major upset here. We will continue to pump if equity risk taking takes a hit.'” Ablin said he’s “somewhat optimistic” that the rally will continue. He prefers developed and emerging markets over U.S. stocks, arguing that places like Europe could see bigger gains than in the United States because the economy has been surprising experts to the upside.

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This story gets insaner by the day.

Mueller Has “Not Yet” Decided Whether To Investigate Trump (ZH)

In the biggest political story of the past week, one which was timed to coincide with Donald Trump’s Birthday, the WaPo reported citing anonymous sources, that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice. Just a few hours later on Thursday night, the DOJ’s Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Russia probe due to Jeff Sessions recusal, released a stunning announcement which urged Americans to be “skeptical about anonymous allegations” in the media, which many interpreted as being issued in response to the WaPo report. “Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country — let alone the branch or agency of government — with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated. Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations.”

Then on Sunday, the plot thickened further when according to ABC, special counsel Robert Mueller has not yet decided whether to investigate President Trump as part of the Russia probe, suggesting the WaPo report that a probe had already started was inaccurate. “Now, my sources are telling me he’s begun some preliminary planning,” Pierre Thomas, the ABC News senior justice correspondent, said of Mueller on ABC’s “This Week” although he too, like the WaPo, was referring to anonymous sources, so who knows who is telling the truth. “Plans to talk to some people in the administration. But he’s not yet made that momentous decision to go for a full-scale investigation.”On Friday, Trump responded to the Washington Post story by tweeting: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.” But also on Sunday Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow insisted the president was not literally confirming the investigation but was just referring to the story.

“Let me be clear: the president is not under investigation as James Comey stated in his testimony, that the president was not the target of investigation on three different occasions,” Sekulow said Sunday. “The president is not a subject or target of an investigation.” “Now Mueller faces a huge decision,” Thomas told “This Week” host Martha Raddatz. “Does he believe the president, who says there’s no wrongdoing here, or does he go after the president in the way James Comey wants him to do?” And so, yet another blockbuster media report has been cast into doubt as a result of more “he said, he said” innuendo, which will be resolved only if Mueller steps up and discloses on the record whether he is indeed investiating Trump for obstruction, or any other reason. That however is unlikely to happen, and so the daily ping-ponging media innuendos will continue indefinitely.

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“These two countries are in a very deep hole,” he said. Congress needs to “stop digging.”

Cold War Deja Vu Deepens as New Russia Sanctions Anger Europe (BBG)

Russia on Sunday accused the U.S. of returning to “almost forgotten Cold War rhetoric,” after President Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate some sanctions on Cuba. It could have dropped “forgotten.” There’s been a lively debate among historians and diplomats for years over whether the souring of relations between the U.S. and Russia amounts to a new Cold War, and lately the case has been getting stronger by the day. Trump’s restoration on Friday of some of the Cold War restrictions on Cuba his predecessor, Barack Obama, eased just months ago was only one example. Earlier in the week, the U.S. Senate approved a bill to entrench and toughen sanctions on Russia that includes several vivid flashbacks to before the fall of the Berlin wall.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel added her voice on Friday to rising European condemnation of a proposal in the Senate draft that would penalize companies investing in new Russian energy pipelines. Nord Stream 2, a project to double the supply of Russian natural gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea, would be especially vulnerable. President Ronald Reagan used similar sanctions in an attempt to thwart the joint German-Soviet construction of a natural gas pipeline in the early 1980s, only to drop them amid intense opposition from Europe. Again, Germany led the pushback. The Senate bill would also codify a raft of existing sanctions against Russia, so that Trump would need Congressional approval to lift them. That happened in 1974, too, and the measures proved hard to kill.

The legislation wasn’t repealed until a decade after their target, the U.S.S.R., had ceased to exist. The sense of Cold-War deja vu has been building for some time, according to Robert Legvold, a professor at Columbia University and author of “Return of the Cold War.” There’s a renewed arms race, nuclear saber rattling, the buzzing of ships and planes, proxy wars and disputes over whether missile defense systems count as offense or defense. If the trend continues, said Legvold, it will prevent the strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia that’s needed to prevent approaching security challenges from spinning out of control: The rise of China, the race to exploit resources in the Arctic, international terrorism and, above all, a world with nine nuclear powers that’s more complex and unstable than in the 20th century. “These two countries are in a very deep hole,” he said. Congress needs to “stop digging.”

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It’s hard to agree on gold. Always has been.

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road (Grant)

It’s no work at all to make modern money. Since the start of the 2008 financial crisis, the world’s central bankers have materialized the equivalent of $12.25 trillion. Just tap, tap, tap on a computer keypad. “One Nation Under Gold” is a brief against the kind of money you have to dig out of the ground. And you do have to dig. The value of all the gold that’s ever been mined (and which mostly still exists in the form of baubles, coins and ingots), according to the World Gold Council, is a mere $7.4 trillion. Gold anchored the various metallic monetary systems that existed from the 18th century to 1971. They were imperfect, all right, just as James Ledbetter bends over backward to demonstrate. The question is whether the gold standard was any more imperfect than the system in place today.

[..] As if to clinch the case against gold—and, necessarily, the case for the modern-day status quo—Mr. Ledbetter writes: “Of forty economists teaching at America’s most prestigious universities—including many who’ve advised or worked in Republican administrations—exactly zero responded favorably to a gold-standard question asked in 2012.” Perhaps so, but “zero” or thereabouts likewise describes the number of established economists who in 2005, ’06 and ’07 anticipated the coming of the biggest financial event of their professional lives. The economists mean no harm. But if, in unison, they arrive at the conclusion that tomorrow is Monday, a prudent person would check the calendar.

Mr. Ledbetter makes a great deal of today’s gold-standard advocates, more, I think, than those lonely idealists would claim for themselves (or ourselves, as I am one of them). The price of gold peaked as long ago as 2011 (at $1,900, versus $1,250 today), while so-called crypto-currencies like bitcoin have emerged as the favorite alternative to government-issued money. It’s not so obvious that, as Mr. Ledbetter puts it, “we cannot get enough of the metal.” On the contrary, to judge by ultra-low interest rates and sky-high stock prices, we cannot—for now—get enough of our celebrity central bankers.

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Pretty far out.

Australia Has The World’s Most Costly Energy Bills (MB)

In reality, there are three main components of household bills. Whether households actual ultimately pocket these savings will depend on what happens with all three. The first, is the wholesale cost. That’s the cost of actually generating the electricity, be it burning lumps of coal, a gas-fired electricity plant, solar panels, wind turbines or whatever clever ways we may come up with in the future to produce electricity. Today, 77 per cent of Australian electricity comes from mostly brown and black coal, 10 per cent from gas, and 13 per cent from renewable sources. For a long time, this part of the system, of producing the electricity and getting it into the grid, has been going pretty well. Australians have enjoyed a reliable and low-cost supply of wholesale energy.

Basically, we burned ship loads of cheap coal, and to hell with the environment. This is the part of the system that is now utterly falling apart and is in most need of repair – which we’ll get to. The second major component of household electricity bills is the cost of transmission and distribution. The costs involved in building poles and wires and actually getting electricity to your wall sockets makes up about 40 per cent of your total bill. This part of the electricity price equation has been broken for decades, and is the main reason power bills have nearly doubled over the last decade. Power lines are natural monopolies. Traditionally they were all government owned. Jeff Kennett privatised Victorian networks, but until very recently, distribution networks in other states, such as NSW and Queensland, have remained government owned, with regulated pricing.

And basically, they stuffed that up for consumers by deciding to let the networks earn a guaranteed rate of return, based on their costs. That is, the more they spent, the more they earned. …The third and final component of a household’s bill is the margin added by electricity retailers. In theory, anyone can set up a business retailing electricity and there are many suppliers. In reality, pricing structures are so complex consumers do not exercise their power to switch providers, and retail margins remain higher than otherwise.

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Moving towards a very deep black hole.

Australia’s Haunted Housing Market (BW)

Forget all the headlines about the undimmed pace of house price inflation – up 19% in Sydney during March, pushing the median house price in the city to A$1.15 million ($875,000) according to Domain, a property-listings website. House prices, after all, aren’t so much a guide to the state of the housing market as to the 1% or so of homes that bought or sold in a typical year. Even there, they’re less an indicator of supply and demand for housing than of how supply and demand for mortgage credit interact with real estate fundamentals. Splurge on mortgage credit, and even an overbuilt housing market can enjoy price appreciation; cut back on home loans, and the opposite may be the case. That’s why it’s worth looking at the state of rents. Right now, they’re growing at the slowest pace in more than two decades, according to calculations based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

This hasn’t completely escaped notice. Philip Lowe, who took over as Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia in September, has included the same boilerplate reference (with minor cosmetic modifications) in each of the eight monetary policy decision statements he’s put out so far: In the eastern capital cities, a considerable additional supply of apartments is scheduled to come on stream over the next couple of years. Rent increases are the slowest for two decades. As Lowe indicates, the reason for the slowdown in rents isn’t hard to discern. For most of Australia’s recent history, building has struggled to keep pace with household formation. Supply of new homes has kept close to demand, and as a result rents have tended to grow more or less in line with incomes.

Compare the Housing Institute of Australia’s forecasts of housing starts and the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ forecasts of household formation, and the glut really comes into focus: The surplus of homes that Australian cities have built over the past five years, based on those numbers, is equivalent to a whole year’s worth of excess supply. That’s a worrying development for those hoping that Australia’s house price boom is sustainable, especially given the way that the country’s regulators look to be finally attempting to raise credit standards after years of laxity. Still, if Australia manages to deflate the housing bubble without seriously damaging its economy, the heroes and villains will be quite different from the popular perception. While governments and regulators spent years adding to the problem with tax breaks and hostility to macroprudential regulation, it may well be property investors and foreigners who helped ease the crisis.

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The EU should look at its own human rights record.

Greece Blocks EU Statement On China Human Rights At UN (R.)

Greece has blocked a EU statement at the UNs criticizing China’s human rights record, a decision EU diplomats said undermined efforts to confront Beijing’s crackdown on activists and dissidents. The EU, which seeks to promote free speech and end capital punishment around the world, was due to make its statement last week at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, but failed to win the necessary agreement from all 28 EU states. It marked the first time the EU had failed to make its statement at the U.N.’s top rights body, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. A Greek foreign ministry official said Athens blocked the statement, calling it “unconstructive criticism of China” and said separate EU talks with China outside the U.N. were a better avenue for discussions. An EU official confirmed the statement had been blocked.

“Greece’s position is that unproductive and in many cases, selective criticism against specific countries does not facilitate the promotion of human rights in these states, nor the development of their relation with the EU,” a Greek foreign ministry spokesperson said on Sunday. Presented three times a year, the statement gives the EU a way to highlight abuses by states around the world on issues that other countries are unwilling to raise. The impasse is the latest blow to the EU’s credentials as a defender of human rights, three diplomats said, and raises questions about the economically powerful EU’s “soft power” that relies on inspiring countries to follow its example by outlawing the death penalty and upholding press freedoms. It also underscores the EU’s awkward ties with China, its second-largest trade partner, diplomats said.

[..] Hungary, another large recipient of Chinese investment, has repeatedly blocked EU statements criticizing China’s rights record under communist President Xi Jinping, diplomats said. One EU diplomat expressed frustration that Greece’s decision to block the statement came at the same time the IMF and EU governments agreed to release funds under Greece’s emergency financial bailout last week in Luxembourg. “It was dishonorable, to say the least,” the diplomat said. The Greek foreign ministry spokesperson said that “during the formulation of the common statement there were also other countries that expressed similar reservations” and that Greece participates on an equal footing in setting up the EU’s common foreign policy.

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Many will claim this is employers seeking illicit profits. But for many it’s the only way not to be forced to fire people, to keep them fed.

Greece Cracks Down On Voucher Misuse By Employers (EurActiv)

The growing trend of distributing vouchers to employees to avoid taxes has raised eyebrows in the Greek government, which has moved to crack down on unprecedented levels of tax evasion in the cash-strapped country. The government says vouchers are allowed only as an extra benefit and not as part of a taxable salary. But according to Greek media reports, more than 200,000 workers, mostly newcomers, receive up to 25% in their salary via vouchers, which they use in supermarkets to buy food. The total amount, according to the reports, reaches €300 million annually. Up to a specific amount, the vouchers are tax-free for businesses, which are also exempt from employer security contributions. A source at the Greek labour ministry told EURACTIV.com that replacing any part of the legal wage of employees with vouchers is illegal.

“Vouchers are only allowed as an extra benefit and in no case can they be a substitution for legally defined earnings,” the source noted, adding that all complaints filed with the Labour Inspectorate are being investigated. As of June, companies are required to pay salaries only to bank accounts in order to put a stop to the practice of avoiding paying salaries altogether or paying only a fragment. “The Labor Inspectorate (SEPE) is in constant collaboration with Greece’s Financial and Crime Unit (SDOE), the financial police and the Independent Public Revenue Authority to address all forms of labour market violations and the coordination of their audit work,” the source said. Vouchers are coupons companies distribute to their employees to improve work, health and safety by supporting proper nutrition.

The rationale behind vouchers is that they process will enhance satisfaction and boost productivity levels while improving the employee living standards. For the government, the proper use of vouchers should also result in more tax revenues. The labour market in Greece has been in turmoil after 7 years of austerity-driven bailout programmes. There are cases of employers who have taken advantage of the “flexible” labour relations to impose unusual working conditions. For many, the use of vouchers is seen as a means to improve the atmosphere at work. Sotiris Zarianopoulos, a non-attached MEP from the Greek Communist Party (KKE), has recently asked the European Commission about these practices. The Greek lawmaker noted that this is only a part of a “jungle labour market” created by EU policies and implemented by the leftist Syriza government.

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On the verge of heading back to Greece, I’m wary of what comes after the calm.

Greek Summer Calm Before The Storm (K.)

Even though Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hailed last week’s Eurogroup deal as step in the right direction, Greece still has many rivers to cross as the agreement secured in Luxembourg fell far short of the goals set by the government. First and foremost, Tsipras will have to deal with dissent emanating from SYRIZA MPs that had agreed to vote through a batch of tough legislation last month with the understanding that, in exchange, Greece will be granted debt relief and access to the ECB’s quantitative easing program. However, contrary to the government’s aims at the Eurogroup, debt relief talks were deferred to 2018, while Greece’s inclusion in the QE seems highly unlikely before that.

Although analysts believe that dissenters may not raise the ante during the summer – due to the tourist season and relief provided by the release of a bailout tranche – the government is expected to come under new pressure in the fall when Tsipras drafts the 2018 budget, which must stipulate a primary surplus of 3.5%. Given the huge difficulties to achieve this target, Athens will find it hard to convince representatives of the country’s creditors that it will able to achieve this target without the need for yet more measures. The Greek PM will also struggle in the fall to clear the hurdles leading to the completion of the country’s third bailout review, which will also involve the IMF. The review’s focus will be on streamlining the Greek public sector, from which SYRIZA has drawn a large chunk of votes in the past and would not like to rock the boat.

Another sticking point could be Tsipras’s promise to bring back growth, when forecasts for 2017 see an anemic rate of 1.5 to 1.8%. According to reports, the left-led coalition is banking on elections taking place in June 2018 at the earliest so that it avoids having to implement pension cuts in 2019, as it had agreed with creditors and passed into law. On the other had, some reports suggest that Tsipras may seek to spring an election surprise this fall or by the end of the year. This, however, will hinge on whether Greece will be given specifics by creditors about what sort of debt relief it can expect after the German elections in September, and on the degree of difficulty it will have to draft the 2018 budget.

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Apr 262016
 
 April 26, 2016  Posted by at 9:04 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »
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Harris&Ewing Inauguration of air mail service, Washington, DC 1918

Japan Government Weighs Shopping Vouchers, Promotions To Boost Consumption (R.)
How Long Can the Bank of Japan Wait on Easing? (WSJ)
China Clamps Down On Commodities Frenzy (FT)
Goldman Says China’s Iron Speculation ‘Concerns Us the Most’ (BBG)
“China Is Hoarding Crude At The Fastest Pace On Record” (ZH)
China Expected To See $538 Billion Capital Exodus In 2016 (R.)
Obama Says TTiP Should Be Signed By The ‘End Of The Year’ (Ind.)
German Scorn Could Kill the TTiP (BBG)
ECB Pushes For Eurozone Deposit Protection, At Odds With Germany (R.)
The Euro’s Next Existential Crisis Might Arrive on Friday (BBG)
Saudi Prince Vows Thatcherite Revolution And Escape From Oil (AEP)
Saudi Arabia Puts Aramco Valuation Above $2 Trillion (BBG)
How America’s Rich Betrayed Their Fellow Citizens (Gaughan)
Syrian Food Crisis Deepens As War Chokes Farming (Reuters)
Merkel’s Refugee Strategy – A Brown Nose Becomes the Chancellor (Rose)
UK Government, Tories Vote Against Accepting 3,000 Child Refugees (G.)

And why not?! If Abenomics’ 4th arrow is shopping vouchers, will the 5th be spoon feeding?

Japan Government Weighs Shopping Vouchers, Promotions To Boost Consumption (R.)

Japan’s government might issue spending vouchers and promote national discount-sales events similar to Black Friday in the United States to boost its lackluster consumer spending and accelerate GDP growth. The government could decide the details as soon as next month as it finalizes the policies for its annual growth strategy, which could potentially help the Bank of Japan in its struggle to accelerate inflation. Authorities will also take steps to increase inbound tourism, raise the national minimum wage and encourage more IT investment, according to a draft approved on Monday by the government’s top advisory panel. The focus of this year’s growth strategy is meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s target of raising nominal GDP to 600 trillion yen ($5.40 trillion).

However, some economists have said sluggish growth in real wages and Japan’s shrinking workforce make it difficult to reach this target. At the end of 2015, nominal GDP was around 500 trillion yen. Consumer spending accounts for around 60% of Japan’s economy, and there is renewed focus on the household sector as consumption has struggled to gain momentum recently. There is also lingering speculation that Abe will cancel a nationwide sales tax increase scheduled for 2017 and focus more on fiscal spending to raise GDP and rebuild areas damaged by an earthquake in southern Japan earlier this month. Previously, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has issued shopping vouchers, which economists say tends to only temporarily lift consumer spending and the broader economy.

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These people are lost because they have no idea what inflation is: “..that could considerably affect the mindset” of the public and rejuvenate inflation expectations..”

How Long Can the Bank of Japan Wait on Easing? (WSJ)

Officials and market participants agree that the Bank of Japan ought to do more to beat deflation, but they are split about whether it has to do so this week. Economic data offer plenty of reasons for easing at the central bank’s two-day meeting, which concludes Thursday. The economy is at risk of shrinking in second quarter because of big earthquakes that shook southern Japan recently. Inflation—including energy—is stuck near zero, while inflation expectations are by some measures the weakest in three years. Wage growth has slowed and the yen has strengthened. All of that runs counter to Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda’s three-year-old campaign to deliver 2% inflation and put Japan on a steady growth path.

His latest gambit, a Jan. 29 decision to introduce negative interest rates on some commercial bank deposits at the central bank, hasn’t delivered results so far. Officials recognize the challenge. At least five of the BOJ’s nine policy-setting board members think that at the coming meeting, the bank should push back its forecast date for achieving its 2% inflation target, according to people close to the bank. The current forecast calls for 2% to be reached between April 2017 and September 2017. The target date has already been pushed back three times in the past year. “Risks to prices remain skewed to the downside,” one of the people said. The yen remains 8% higher than in late January, despite a modest pullback over the past week. That spells trouble for exporters that are already struggling with a global economic slowdown.

It also saps inflation by making imports cheaper. In an interview earlier this month with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kuroda said about the yen: “If excessive appreciation continues, that could affect not just actual inflation but even the trend in inflation.” Private economists’ expectations for additional easing are the strongest in months. “We expect aggressive easing from the BOJ this week,” said Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities chief Japan economist Robert Feldman. Among other steps, Mr. Feldman believes the BOJ will cut its rate on excess commercial-bank deposits to at least minus 0.2% and perhaps to minus 0.3% from minus 0.1%. Others question that timing. Etsuro Honda, an economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, suggested this week in an interview that he wanted the BOJ to hold fire for now.

That is partly because global financial market turbulence has subsided, and partly because Mr. Honda hopes further BOJ easing could come as part of a coordinated action. Mr. Abe is looking into expanded government spending later this year and a possible delay in a sales-tax increase set to take effect in April 2017. “I know it’s hard to implement all three at the same time, but if we could do so with a relatively close timing…that could considerably affect the mindset” of the public and rejuvenate inflation expectations, Mr. Honda said. He said the prime minister’s Abenomics policy was in a “new phase” in which monetary policy alone was no longer sufficient to affect expectations.

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It would be bad enough if it were ‘only’ commodities. But the actual scariest part is this: “Almost half of the world’s most active commodity derivatives are now traded on Chinese exchanges.”

China Clamps Down On Commodities Frenzy (FT)

China moved to clamp down on excessive speculation in commodities on Monday after weeks of frenzied trading boosted prices and ignited fears of another bubble in its domestic markets. Activity on China’s largest commodity exchanges has surged in recent days with turnover in key steel contracts exceeding the combined volume of the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges on one day last week. Investors around the world have zeroed in on the latest trading binge as the prices of many commodities have risen sharply, with iron ore gaining almost a third in just two weeks. Cash has started to flow into raw materials in part because Chinese officials imposed curbs on equities trading last year. “China’s latest speculative spike has stunned global markets,” said Tom Price, a Morgan Stanley analyst.

Shanghai steel futures have risen more than 50% this year and more than a fifth this month. Iron ore traded on the Dalian Commodity Exchange hit its highest level since September 2014 last week. The surge led the country’s largest commodity trading venues — the Shanghai Futures Exchange, Dalian Commodity Exchange and Zhengzhou Commodities Exchange — to curb activity by lifting transaction costs, margins and daily trading limits on some contracts. Pricing power for the world’s most important raw materials has shifted east during a decade of economic growth that has transformed China into the largest importer of almost every major commodity. Almost half of the world’s most active commodity derivatives are now traded on Chinese exchanges.

Analysts said the trigger for increased speculative interest in commodities was a credit surge engineered by Chinese policymakers this year to prop up the economy and its currency. This led to a pick-up in construction activity and stoked investor appetite for ways to bet on the Chinese economy. Beijing imposed draconian rules on equities last year as fears of a slowing economy triggered a sell-off that threatened stability. “The Chinese speculative community seems to have decided the big credit figures that came out two weeks ago were a green light to get levered up,” Michael Coleman, co-founder of RCMA Asset Management in Singapore, “They don’t want to buy the stock market because of all the curbs that are in place and seem to have taken the view that commodities are really cheap.”

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“There have been two days in the past month where futures volumes have been greater than the total amount of iron ore that China actually imported for the whole of 2015..”

Goldman Says China’s Iron Speculation ‘Concerns Us the Most’ (BBG)

Goldman Sachs has expressed its concern about the surge in speculative trading in iron ore futures in China, saying that daily volumes are now so large that they sometimes exceed annual imports. The increase in futures trading in the world’s largest importer was among factors that have lifted prices, according to a report from analysts Matthew Ross and Jie Ma received on Tuesday. Iron ore volumes traded on the Dalian Commodity Exchange are up more than 400% from a year ago, they said. “While increased fixed-asset investment in China, a bring-forward of steel production (ahead of a government curtailment) and mining disruptions help to explain the strong rally in the iron ore price, the one driver that concerns us the most is the increased speculation in the Chinese iron ore futures market,” they wrote.

Iron ore has rallied in 2016, buttressed by the explosion in speculative trading in China’s commodity futures markets as mills boosted monthly output to a record. The spike in raw materials trading in China has stunned global markets, according to Morgan Stanley, which cited the jump in local activity in iron ore as well as steel. The increase has prompted exchange authorities in Asia’s top economy including Dalian to tighten rules on the trading of some contracts. “There have been two days in the past month where futures volumes have been greater than the total amount of iron ore that China actually imported for the whole of 2015 (950 million tons),” the Goldman analysts wrote. To slow trading activity, the Dalian exchange has announced it would be increasing margin requirements and transaction costs on iron ore futures, they said.

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How much capital flees the country in these deals?

“China Is Hoarding Crude At The Fastest Pace On Record” (ZH)

In the aftermath of China’s gargantuan, record new loan injection in Q1, which saw a whopping $1 trillion in new bank and shadow loans created in the first three months of the year, many were wondering where much of this newly created cash was ending up. We now know where most of it went: soaring imports of crude oil. We know this because as the chart below shows, Chinese crude imports via Qingdao port in Shandong province surged to record 9.86 million metric tons last month based on data from General Administration of Customs. As Energy Aspects pointed out in a report last week, “Imports through Qingdao surged to another record as teapot utilization picked up, leading to rising congestion at the Shandong ports.”

And sure enough, this kind of record surge in imports should promptly lead to another tanker “parking lot” by China’s most important port. This is precisely what happened when according to reports, some 21 crude oil tankers with ~33.6 million bbls of capacity signaled from around Qingdao last Monday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. 12 of those vessels, with about 18 million bbls, were also there 10 days earlier, data show. As Bloomberg adds, port management had met to discuss measures to ease congestion, citing an official at Qingdao port’s general office, however for now it appears to not be doing a great job. Incidentally, putting Qingdao oil traffic in context, last year the port handled 69.9 million metric tons overseas oil shipments, or ~21% of nation’s total crude imports, more than any other Chinese port.

So what caused this surge in demand? The answer is China’s “teapot” refineries. According to Oilchem.net, the operating rate at small refineries in eastern Shandong province rose to 51.84% of capacity as of the week ended Apr. 22. The utilization rates climbed as various teapot refiners completed maintenance and restarted production. How much of a boost in oil demand did teapot refineries represent? Well, the current operating run rates is averaging 50.42% this tear compared to just 37.72% a year ago, Bloomberg calculated. Notably, this may be just the beginning of China’s. As Bloomberg adds today, China, the world’s second-biggest crude consumer, may be poised for another increase in imports after the number of supertankers bound for the Asian country’s ports rose to a 16-month high amid signs it’s stockpiling.

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How about we double that number?

China Expected To See $538 Billion Capital Exodus In 2016 (R.)

Global investors are expected to pull $538 billion out of China’s slowing economy in 2016, the Institute of International Finance (IIF) estimated on Monday, although the pace of outflows has dropped. That number would be down a fifth from the $674 billion pulled out last year, the industry association said, but could accelerate again if fears re-emerge of a “disorderly” drop in the yuan, or the renminbi, as the currency is also known. Capital exodus from China can influence emerging markets more generally, partly because of its sheer size and partly because sustained outflows can trigger more exchange rate volatility, which could then feed a fresh wave of outflows. “A sharp drop in the renminbi would likely spark a renewed sell-off of global risk assets and trigger a flight of portfolio capital from emerging markets,” the IIF said in a new report.

“Moreover, a sharp depreciation of the renminbi could lead to a round of competitive devaluation in other emerging markets, particularly in those with close trade linkages to China.” For now, though, outflows are slowing. Roughly $35 billion was pulled out in March, bringing the total since the start of the year to around $175 billion, well below the pace seen in the second half of 2015. The IIF cited progress Chinese authorities had made in easing worries about the yuan’s direction. They have emphasized there is more focus on its value against a basket of currencies, rather than just the U.S. dollar. One “important unknown”, however, is the threshold of currency reserves below which Chinese authorities would start to worry. They might then either allow the yuan to fall again or markedly tighten capital controls.

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He sees failure on the horizon. Does it matter? Reality is that it won’t be ratified before the end of his term, so it’s all up for grabs no matter what.

Obama Says TTiP Should Be Signed By The ‘End Of The Year’ (Ind.)

US President Barack Obama has said that the controversial Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should be signed “by the end of the year”. During a visit to an industrial trade fair in Hannover on Sunday, Obama warned that TTIP must be signed before it is derailed by political events, in what was likely a reference to the US election. “We’ve now been negotiating TTIP for three years. We have made important progress. But time is not on our side,” Obama said in the speech. “If we don’t complete negotiations this year, then upcoming political transitions – in the US and Europe – could mean this agreement won’t be finished for quite some time.” TTIP is the biggest transatlantic trade deal in history. Opponents say it would give corporations the power to sue governments when they pass regulation that could hit that corporation’s profits.

UNs figures have shown that that US companies have made billions of dollars by suing other governments nearly 130 times in the past 15 years under similar free-trade agreements. Details of the cases are often secret, but notorious precedents include Philip Morris suing Australia and Uruguay for putting health warnings on cigarette packets. Obama has described national laws and protections as “regulatory and bureaucratic irritants and blockages to trade.” In Hanover, he used a speech alongside the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to make a renewed push for the treaty to be signed. “Angela and I agree that the US and EU need to keep moving forward with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that we will be able to have completed ratification of a deal by the end of the year, but I do anticipate that we can have completed the agreement.”

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The Germans have turned really antagonistic.

German Scorn Could Kill the TTiP (BBG)

In Hannover on Sunday, Barack Obama sought to convince a hostile German public of the merits of a transatlantic free-trade deal. Pitching EU membership in Britain was a walk in the park by comparison. It’s hard to overstate the level of opposition to the new deal in Germany. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is more unpopular in Germany these days than President Obama in a room full of Tory euroskeptics. Ask an American what they think about investor-state dispute settlement provisions and you are likely to get a blank face. Ask a German, and there’s a good chance you’ll get an earful. That wasn’t always the case. Two years ago, when negotiations for a new transatlantic trade deal were announced (it was Germany that pushed for an agreement then, by the way), more than half of Germans favored the deal.

A survey released last week showed only one in five Germans want it now. To Germans, TTIP reflects a capitalism that is too finance-driven, dominated by large multinationals, cavalier about privacy and not as serious about product standards. A new round of negotiations – the 13th, for anyone keeping track – started in New York Monday for a pact that would liberalize trade affecting 40% of the global economy. The key to a deal, as Obama’s Hannover visit suggested, rests with Germany. That a global exporting powerhouse and Europe’s biggest economy has become such a reluctant partner ought to be at least as worrying as the prospect of losing Britain’s voice in the EU. It’s unusual even in these highly charged times for a trade agreement to receive the kind of attention that TTIP has in parts of Europe.

But TTIP isn’t a typical free-trade agreement. For one thing, it’s much bigger than anything attempted before. It would create the world’s largest free market of some 800 million people. According to U.S. chamber of commerce estimates, it would add €119 billion to Europe’s economy and €95 billion to the U.S. economy, creating thousands of jobs in the process. But the real difference is qualitative. While tariffs are already low between the two economies (they would be reduced further under TTIP), the main thrust of the agreement is the removal of non-tariff barriers in agriculture, services, procurement and other areas. It is this large-scale regulatory liberalization that many Europeans, and principally Germans, find dangerous. Americans, too, are losing their appetite for free trade agreements, but their reasons are rather more prosaic.

Among Americans opposed to the deal, half say they are worried about job losses and lower wages. Only 17% of Germans had those concerns. Germans, instead, are focused on what they see as inferior American standards (something that will strike many Americans as ironic after the Volkswagen emission scandal), concerns about privacy and also lack of transparency in the negotiations. These sentiments took American negotiators by surprise. America is the destination of over 8% of German exports; some 600,000 German jobs directly or indirectly depend on that trade, according to a 2013 study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. German trust for America’s business standards has been low for a while – there was near hysteria over chlorine-washed U.S. chickens, even though a German body declared them perfectly safe – but many figured France would present bigger obstacles to clinching an agreement.

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These centralization attempts are dead in the water, and it’s hard to see what it would take to get them out of there.

ECB Pushes For Eurozone Deposit Protection, At Odds With Germany (R.)

The ECB backed plans on Monday for a common means to protect savers, setting it on course for another collision with Germany over a scheme Berlin has so far blocked. After the financial crash, the ECB took charge of bank supervision across the 19 countries in the euro zone as part of wider reforms known as ‘banking union’ to make the sector safer. A parallel plan for pan-euro zone deposit protection, however, has yet to get off the ground, chiefly due to opposition from Germany, which does not want to be on the hook for bank failures elsewhere. On Monday, the ECB appealed for the introduction of common deposit protection as set out in plans from the EU’s executive European Commission. It would eventually replace the current country-by-country patchwork and help stop a repeat of the bank runs seen during the financial crisis.

In a legal opinion to European ministers signed by its President Mario Draghi, the ECB argued that “establishing a common safety net for depositors at the European level is the logical complement” to ECB supervision. “A European Deposit Insurance Scheme is the necessary third pillar to complete the Banking Union,” the letter said. The first ‘pillar’ is banking supervision and the second is resolution, a scheme for winding banks down. The call again puts the ECB at odds with Germany, where politicians including Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble have stepped up criticism of its cheap money policy. Schaeuble was even reported as blaming the ECB’s stance in part for the rise of the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD). Although influential, the ECB’s opinion is not binding and may be ignored by the ministers. Before it becomes law, such saver protection would require approval from euro zone countries, including Germany – unlikely for now.

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“Surely Portugal can’t be a kind of simultaneously dead-and-alive-Schrodingers-cat?”

The Euro’s Next Existential Crisis Might Arrive on Friday (BBG)

The euro’s future still looks far from secure. The ECB is defending its independence amid an attack on its negative interest-rate policies by Germany. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted last week that “the European project has lost parts of its attractiveness.” Greece is still wrangling over the terms of its next bailout payment. And at the end of this week, a geeky decision in a corner of the bond market could send the bloc back into crisis mode. A credit-rating agency called Dominion Bond Rating Service is scheduled to complete its review of Portugal’s financial fitness on Friday. Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch all view Portugal as undeserving of investment-grade status; put another way, Portugal is deemed a risky, junk-rated borrower. DBRS, though, has maintained its country classification at investment grade.

So long as at least one of the four rating agencies judges Portugal to be worthy, its government debt remains eligible to participate in the ECB’s bond-buying program. But if the country drops to sub-investment grade at all four, the ECB’s own rules forbid it from buying any more Portuguese government securities – purchases which have ballooned to almost €15 billion in the program’s one-year lifetime. So if DBRS lowers the nation’s grade – a distinct possibility, given the weakness of the Portuguese economy and the fact that the judgments of three other assayers of creditworthiness are all worse than DBRS’s – it could trigger a renewed crisis in the euro area. The ECB’s purchases are arguably responsible for keeping Portugal’s 10-year borrowing cost at an average of a bit less than 3% in the past six months.

Compare that with Greece, which doesn’t qualify for ECB assistance and has had an average yield of almost 9% since October, and it becomes clear how valuable ECB eligibility is – and how financially damaging it might be for Portugal if it was shut out after a downgrade. Surely Portugal can’t be a kind of simultaneously dead-and-alive-Schrodingers-cat? Surely it either is or isn’t investment grade, and therefore either should or shouldn’t qualify for the ECB program? Unfortunately, rating assessments are fraught with subjectivity and bias, as the world learned to its cost during the credit crisis. Where one analyst sees a life-threatening debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio, another may see indebtedness that’s merely troubling.

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Yeah, that’ll happen. Saudi as a tourism destination. Come watch the beheadings!

Saudi Prince Vows Thatcherite Revolution And Escape From Oil (AEP)

Saudi Arabia has launched a radical ‘Thatcherite’ shake-up to an avert economic crisis and prepare the kingdom for the post-carbon world, stunning analysts with claims that it could break reliance on oil within just four years. Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, vowed to build a $3 trillion wealth fund and break onto the world stage as an investment superpower, the spearhead of an historic package of measures intended to bring the deformed economy kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. “We have an addiction to oil. This is dangerous. I think that by 2020 we can live without it,” he told Al Arabiya television. It is an extraordinary claim for a government that has historically relied on oil exports for 90pc of its income and has yet to achieve much success in building alternative industries.

Gulf veterans say his words should be understood as poetic licence. Prince Mohammad, a 31 year-old tornado determined to smash the status quo, has amassed immense power over the economy and defence that belies his title as deputy crown prince, filling the cabinet with modern technocrats and startling his sinecure cousins from the Al Saud family with the unfamiliar prospect of hard work. The plan known as “Vision2030” aims to slash $80bn of wasteful spending each year and impose some degree of order on the kingdom’s chaotic finances with a consumption tax and fresh levies. Water prices have already risen tenfold as subsidies are paired back, though this prompted a protest storm on Twitter and is a warning of how hard it will be to dismantle the cradle-to-grave welfare system that keeps a lid on dissent.

Petrol has jumped 50pc, but it still costs just 16 pence a litre. Female participation in the workforce will rise from 22pc to 30pc. The share of non-oil exports is to jump from 16pc to 50pc. The country is to build its own defence industry. “We have the third or fourth-largest military spending in the world, yet our army is ranked in the twenties,” he said. “When I enter a Saudi military base, the floor is tiled with marble, and the finishing is five stars. Enter a base in the US, you can see the pipes in the ceiling. It’s made of cement. It is practical,” he said.

The reform blueprint is inspired by a McKinsey study – Beyond Oil – that laid out how the country can double GDP over the next fifteen years and reinvent itself with a $4 trillion of investment across eight industries, from electrical manufacturing, to cars, healthcare, metals, steel, aluminium smelting, solar power, and most surprisingly tourism. McKinsey warned that half-hearted reform risks disaster, and bankruptcy. There is some logic to the Vision2030 plan given Saudi Arabia’s access to cheap energy. Delivery is another matter. “We have seen these sorts of transition plans before and they never come to much,” said Patrick Dennis from Oxford Economics. “I don’t think they can pull this off. The riyal peg is grossly overvalued and that makes it even harder. We think market pressures will become overwhelming if there is little evidence of real reform by 2018.”


Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest production costs in the world


But Saudi Arabia needs $100 oil to balance the budget. That is its Achilles Heel

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Pie in the sky.

Saudi Arabia Puts Aramco Valuation Above $2 Trillion (BBG)

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he expects the value of Saudi Arabian Oil Co. to exceed $2 trillion as the kingdom prepares to sell part of the company in what could be the world’s largest initial public offering. The valuation of the oil producer known as Saudi Aramco hasn’t been completed, Prince Mohammed said in an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television. The government plans to turn Aramco into a holding company and will sell less than 5% of that entity, he said. Aramco units may be offered for sale at a second stage, he said. Prince Mohammed is leading the biggest economic shakeup since the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932, with measures that represent a radical shift for a country built on petrodollars.

Saudi Aramco’s sale is a key part of the “Saudi 2030 Vision” announced Monday to overhaul the economy and reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil, he said. It will help increase transparency, he said. “If Saudi Aramco is listed then it must announce its statements and it will do that every quarter,” he said. “It will be under the supervision of all Saudi banks, all analysts, all Saudi thinkers. Even more all international banks and research and planning centers in the world will monitor it intensively.” Aramco’s crude reserves of about 260 billion barrels are almost 10 times those of Exxon Mobil. Its daily production of more than 10 million barrels is more than the domestic output of every U.S. oil company combined.

“In 2020, I think we will be able to live without oil,” Prince Mohammed said. “We will need it but we can live without it.” Saudi Arabia has “huge” mining assets it can use to create jobs, according to the prince. The country has 6% of global uranium reserves, which is “another oil that we have not exploited,” he said. Saudi Arabia uses only 3 to 5% of its mining resources such as gold, silver and phosphate, he said.

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“Romney defended his sons by declaring that they served their country by “helping me get elected”.

How America’s Rich Betrayed Their Fellow Citizens (Gaughan)

[..] No single location encapsulates the worldview of “old money” families better than Harvard’s Memorial church, which stands in the center of Harvard Yard. The church’s walls list the Harvard students, alumni and faculty members who have perished in America’s wars since 1917. The numbers are breathtaking. During the world wars, thousands of Harvard students and alumni served in the US military. In all, about 400 died in WWI and nearly 700 in WWII. The ranks of Harvard fatalities included Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt, and Joseph Kennedy Jr, the older brother of John F Kennedy. Harvard’s military death toll is particularly staggering when one considers that in the early 20th century, Harvard’s student body was drawn primarily from America’s richest and most well-connected families.

Those families could have pulled strings to ensure their sons stayed out of combat. But they did not, as powerfully demonstrated by the list of names at Memorial church and similar memorials across the Ivy League. During the world wars, the upper classes did their part to defend the nation. Things could not be more different today. Only a small number of Harvard alumni serve in the military, and until recently, the university barred the military’s officer training programs from campus. Harvard is not unique. Military experience is rare among America’s political and economic elite. None of the current presidential candidates has served in the military, and only 18% of members of Congress are veterans, the lowest %age in generations.

As the children of elites have opted out of military service, middle-class and working-class families have taken up the slack, providing the vast majority of the nation’s service members. Mitt Romney, an immensely wealthy Harvard graduate, revealed the cavalier attitude of the rich toward military service during the 2008 presidential campaign. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars raged, critics pointed out that none of Romney’s five sons had served in the military. In response, Romney defended his sons by declaring that they served their country by “helping me get elected”. The fact that Romney viewed working on a relative’s political campaign as the patriotic equivalent of battlefield service revealed just how tone-deaf many in America’s upper classes have become.

The military is only one example of how disconnected wealthy Americans are from their country. The extraordinarily low rate of charitable giving among the rich offers more evidence. Even though we live in a time of entrenched income inequality, poor Americans actually give a higher%age of their income to charity than the rich do. The lack of generosity among America’s upper classes shows no signs of abating. Although the overall wealth of the upper classes is growing, levels of charitable giving continue to fall among the rich.

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No, the refugee flow will not stop.

Syrian Food Crisis Deepens As War Chokes Farming (Reuters)

Syria’s war has destroyed agricultural infrastructure and fractured the state system that provides farmers with seeds and buys their crops, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a country struggling to produce enough grain to feed its people. The country’s shortage of its main staple wheat is worsening. The area of land sown with the cereal – used to make bread – and with barley has fallen again this year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told Reuters. The northeast province of Hasaka, which accounts for almost half the country’s wheat production has seen heavy fighting between the Kurdish YPG militia, backed by the US-led air strikes, and Islamic State militants.

Farming infrastructure, including irrigation canals and grain depots, has been destroyed, according to the FAO. It said the storage facilities of the state seeds body across the country had also been damaged, so it had distributed just a tenth of the 450,000 tonnes of seeds that farmers needed to cultivate their land this season. Farmers are also struggling to get their produce to market so it can be sold and distributed to the population. The conflict has led to the number of state collection centers falling to 22 in 2015, from 31 the year before and about 140 before civil war broke out between government forces and rebels five years ago, according to the General Organisation for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob), the state agency that runs them.

Many of those lost have been damaged or destroyed. The breakdown of the agricultural system means Syria could struggle to feed itself for many years after any end to the fighting, and need a significant level of international aid, the FAO says. It has had a major impact on plantings; the area of land sown with wheat and barley for the 2015-2016 season stood at 2.16 million hectares, down from 2.38 million hectares the previous season and 3.125 million in 2010 before the war, and only around two-thirds of the area targeted by the government, said the FAO.

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Caveat: Merkel has not ‘raised charges’ against Böhmermann. Other than that, it’s about time more people speak out against her.

Merkel’s Refugee Strategy – A Brown Nose Becomes the Chancellor (Rose)

It is a visit most Germans would like to forget – quickly. Their Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Turkey last Saturday, dropped in at what is termed a “sanitised” refugee camp for a well-orchestrated public relations exercise, and then held a press conference, effusing over Turkey’s exemplary treatment of refugees. It was “Brown Nose Tour The Second” to Turkey for Ms Merkel (the last in October, just before Turkish elections, in a veiled endorsement of Turkey’s dictator Recip Erdogan in return for a deal to stop the flow of refugees from Turkey to Greece). This spectacle was much more than a display of hypocrisy. Ms Merkel’s newest kowtow to Erdogan, following her recent decision to raise charges against the German satirist Jan Böhmermann for libelling Erdogan, demonstrated to the German people that they are not the generous, enlightened people they thought they were and the EU has nothing to do with Beethoven’s ode of joy, its unofficial anthem.

Still Ms Merkel hopes her brown nose may yet revive her failing political fortune. Ms Merkel has every reason to be thankful to Erdogan. Since the two completed their deal on 20 March the number of refugees crossing from Turkey has steadily declined. In the past five weeks a mere 113 refugees have purportedly been transferred from Turkey to the EU. That is not even 20 per week. Ms Merkel’s visit is however just one element in a vastly larger development. It is just eight months ago that the Germans were celebrating their Willkommenskultur, solidarity with refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. At the forefront was Ms Merkel, nicking Barack Obama’s 2008 election motto “Yes we can!” (Wir schaffen das). Currently Willkommenskultur is being redefined in Germany: Bringing Arab and African dictators and war criminals out of the cold to support the EU’s anti-refugee policy.

The motivation for this generous gesture by Germany’s Chancellor and the German government is to dump Willkommenskultur I. Willkommenskultur II will furnish authoritarian leaders and warlords with cash, weapons, equipment to secure borders and other assistance to keep refugees from reaching Europe as well as repatriating those that manage to survive the journey and enter EU territory. This has become an integral aspect of Ms Merkel’s present policy of closing EU borders and deportation.

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Wow. Just wow. Voting against defenseless children. What does that say about a person (294 of them, actually)?

UK Government, Tories Vote Against Accepting 3,000 Child Refugees (G.)

A high-profile campaign for the UK to accept 3,000 child refugees stranded in Europe has failed after the government narrowly won a vote in the House of Commons rejecting the plan. MPs voted against the proposals by 294 to 276 on Monday after the Home Office persuaded most potential Tory rebels that it was doing enough to help child refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. The amendment to the immigration bill would have forced the government to accept 3,000 unaccompanied refugee minors, mostly from Syria, who have made their way to mainland Europe. It originated in the House of Lords after being introduced by Alf Dubs, a Labour peer who was a beneficiary of the Kindertransport, the government-backed programme that took child refugees from Germany in the run-up to WWII.

Following the vote, Labour vowed to continue its efforts to make the government change its mind, tabling a new amendment in the House of Lords asking it to accept a specified number of child refugees from Europe after consultation with local councils. The Home Office successfully saw off the Dubs amendment in the Commons after arguing it would act as an incentive for refugees to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe. James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, said the government could not support a policy that would “inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children alone ahead and in the hands of traffickers, putting their lives at risk by attempting treacherous sea crossings to Europe which would be the worst of all outcomes”.

The amendment was backed by Labour, the SNP and Liberal Democrats. Keir Starmer, a shadow Home Office minister, said “history would judge” MPs for voting against the plan, saying it was the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war. “It is the challenge of our times and whether we rise to it or not will be the measure of us,” Starmer said. “We have the clear evidence of thousands of vulnerable children and we now need to act. This is the moment to do something about it, by voting with us this evening.”

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