Saturday, August 30, 2014

We've Made Some Changes to this Website

We have made some recent changes to update this website. Most visitors will be automatically re-directed to the new site. If you are not automatically redirected, you can go directly  to:

That's the new site for  and also for

We have added audio to match the daily (Mon. - Fri.) blog posts. Also, we have added a new section "Author Interviews" which features audio interview with some of the top economic and business authors.

Feel free to email me at if you have any questions, concerns, comments, or suggestions.

Thank you,
Sinclair Noe

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - A Few Old Sayings

A Few Old Sayings
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 29 = 17,106
SPX + 2 = 2000.02 (record)
NAS + 13 = 4570
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.40%
OIL + .55 = 93.90
GOLD - .70 = 1280.90
SILV - .08 = 19.38

The S&P 500 notched its 30th record of the year and closed above 2000 for the first time ever. The Dow also rose but fell short of its record closing high after setting an all-time intraday high earlier in the session.

There are a few old sayings about the market that seem to fit. The first is, “the trend is you friend”; we have seen a few minor pullbacks since the bottom in 2009, but since the start of 2013 there has been a strong and steady uptrend. “A trend in place is more likely to continue than it is to reverse, until it reverses” and today marked a continuation of the trend, not a reversal.

Why is the market going up? Who knows? There are plenty of problems around the world. The US economy looks sluggish, but “stocks climb a wall of worry to march into bullish territory”; that’s a phrase that’s been thrown around for more than 60 years, but was made popular by Joe Granville in the 1980s.  Another financial proverb claims “Worry is interest paid on trouble before it falls due.” And the opposite of the “wall of worry” is “Bear markets slide down a slope of hope.”

And then there is the very, very old saying “buy low, sell high.” Any idiot off the street could repeat this phrase to you as if they had the secret recipe for investing success. Honestly, it’s good advice, because the overwhelming top indicator for investors and traders is price. You can’t spend volume or moving averages or stochastics or relative strength, and eventually, inevitably the trend will change.

If you want to look at a chart of an uptrend, just look at the S&P 500. If you want to see a chart of a downtrend look at the past four months’ worth of charts for wheat and corn and soybeans. As we near the end of summer, farmers are preparing for record crops in the Midwest. Wheat crops are forecast at a record 273 million bushels, up from 235 million last year; this year’s  soybean harvest is also expected to be a record, and corn will be a near record. But there is a problem. In many areas, such as the Dakotas, where agriculture has been a mainstay, the energy boom has taken over, and most of that oil travels by rail, and that means grain shipments have been held up, right as we head to harvest.

Reports the railroads filed with the federal government show that for the week that ended Aug. 22, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, North Dakota’s largest railroad, had a backlog of 1,336 rail cars waiting to ship grain and other products. Another railroad, Canadian Pacific, had a backlog of nearly 1,000 cars. Agriculture Department officials estimate that Canadian Pacific would not be able to fulfill nearly 30,000 requests from farmers and others for rail cars before October.

We have a couple of reports on home prices. The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s home price index shows house prices rose just 0.8% in the second quarter of 2014. This is the twelfth consecutive quarterly price increase for the FHFA index, but it also shows a slowdown. The FHFA index is based on home sales prices from conforming mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Home prices are up 5.2% from the second quarter a year ago. Arizona ranked 5th in annual appreciation.

In another indicator of a housing slowdown, the S&P/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index gained just 6.2% in the 12 months ending June 2014, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites gained 8.1%. That’s a dramatic shift from the double-digit, year-over-year price increases that had become the norm in the second half of 2013 and the first part of this year. All three indices saw their rates slow significantly from last month. To be clear, home prices are not dropping, simply rising at a slower rate.

The 20-city composite rose 1% in June. Phoenix posted a 0.6% gain for June, and a 6.9% gain from June of last year. Nationally, prices are still 17% below their peak. In Phoenix, the peak was measured to June 2006; from that point prices dropped 56%, and although prices have recovered, we are still 35% below peak prices.  

The takeaway from the housing reports is that price gains are slowing, and home supply has increased with higher prices and more people renting; consumers are slowly losing their ability to finance large purchases as home price appreciation continues to outpace wages. Absent a big increase in wages, you might expect home prices to remain flat or even decrease a bit in coming months.

Orders for durable goods jumped 22.6% in July; that is a record move, but much of the increase is because Boeing saw a jump in signed contracts for the 777X; it will take years before those planes are flying. Along with Boeing, automakers also turned in a strong performance. Demand for cars and small trucks climbed by 10.2%. Orders excluding the transportation sector, however, fell 0.8% with widespread weakness. Orders for primary metals, machinery, computers and defense goods all declined. Another key measurement of business investment, a category known core capital goods, dropped 0.5% in July. Orders for durable goods are volatile, and can jump around from month to month. While business investment has fallen in three of the past four months, it’s increased by an annual pace of 9% so far this year.

The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index jumped to 92.4 in August, the highest level since October 2007, from a revised 90.3 in July. Confidence has now increased for four straight months, and consumers remain quite positive about the short-term outlooks for the economy and labor market, even as the future expectations index declined from 91.9 to 90.9.

It’s official, minus the approval of regulators; Burger King will buy Tim Hortons for $11.4 billion and move the corporate headquarters to Canada, except they will keep corporate offices in Miami; and even though the deal would make sense without the tax dodging; it is a tax inversion deal. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is providing $3 billion in financing for the acquisition. Berkshire will earn 9% annual interest by taking a preferred equity stake.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says investigators have found no conclusive proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a VA hospital in Phoenix. That may be technically accurate, or not, but a troubled health care system in which veterans waited months for appointments while employees falsified records to cover up the delays, certainly did not serve those veterans with the care they deserved. The inspector general's final report has not yet been issued.

The VA is preparing a whole host of fixes for its healthcare system. Congress approved $17 billion to expand health care resources at the VA. Across the entire VA system, $400 million must be spent on staff overtime or private doctors to ensure veterans are treated quickly. As of Aug. 6, the VA had allocated $128 million in private care costs for 83,000 veterans; 8,248 VA schedulers across the country have been trained in appropriate ways of scheduling patients, including 764 Phoenix workers; an internal investigation board will be created to identify managers at the Phoenix hospital responsible for wrongdoing and what disciplinary actions should be taken; nearly $17 million has been spent in Phoenix to send veterans to private doctors for speedier care.

Also, mental health resources have been expanded in Phoenix by filling all but three of 13 psychiatric vacancies and six of seven psychologist positions and adding four social workers. The hospital's primary care staff has been expanded by 53 doctors, nurses and other caregivers. Twenty-seven temporary examination rooms have been opened, and two new outpatient clinics are planned with an additional 30,000 square feet of space.

President Obama went to Charlotte North Carolina today to address the national convention of the American Legion; and he announced steps to expand veterans’ access to mental health care and an initiative with financial companies to lower home loan costs for military families.

The US has begun surveillance flights over Syria to gather intelligence that might lead to airstrikes against ISIS militants in Syria. Military action inside Syria has not been approved yet. Pentagon officials have been drafting potential options for the president, including airstrikes.

Here’s a thought, before we send any more troops back into Iraq, or approve any airstrikes in Syria, we should make sure the VA has figured out a way to provide the best medical care to veterans. No excuses.

Ukraine has captured 10 Russian soldiers, though it did not state how they were caught. Weapons and fighters are able to cross the porous border freely, but until now there has never been confirmation that serving Russian soldiers were active inside Ukraine, despite repeated claims from Kiev. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held one-one-one talks today in Minsk, aimed at defusing the situation, which is positive, but the Russian POWs undoubtedly makes talks a bit awkward.

After 50 days of fighting, Egypt has brokered a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel. Palestinian and Egyptian officials said the deal called for an indefinite halt to hostilities, the immediate opening of Gaza's blockaded crossings with Israel and Egypt and a widening of the territory's fishing zone in the Mediterranean.

The United Nations has produced a new study on climate change; it includes a summarization of hundreds of scientific papers and is considered to present the best scientific and economic analysis on global warming, and is designed to provide policymakers with a scientific foundation for dealing with global warming. Bloomberg says it has received a leaked copy of the report which highlights the dangers from rising temperatures including damage to crop production, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and more pervasive heatwaves. The report mentions the word “risk” more than 350 times; “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” are written 61 times; and “irreversible” comes up 48 times.

The study, called the “Synthesis Report”, says global warming already is impacting “all continents and across the oceans,” and further pollution from heat-trapping gases will raise the likelihood of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems”. And the longer we wait to address the problems the more it will cost.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014 - Tax Weasels

Tax Weasels
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 75 = 17,076
SPX + 9 = 1997.92 (record)
NAS + 18 = 4557
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.38%
OIL - .27 = 93.38
GOLD – 4.60 = 1277.20
SILV - .05 = 19.45

The S&P 500 crossed above 2000 intraday, closing off the high for the day, but still closing in record territory. We recognize it but we don’t have a big celebration. It’s just a number, a nice big round number. For reference, the S&P 500 topped 1,000 back in February 1998.

Economic data today includes:
Sales of new single family homes dropped for a second month in June. New home sales slipped 2.4%, but data from the past 3 months was revised to show 33,000 more new homes were sold than previously reported. The median sales price increased 2.9% from a year ago. At July’s sales pace it would take 6.0 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, the highest since October 2011. Tomorrow, we’ll see the latest data on existing home sales from S&P/Case-Shiller.

Separately, financial data firm Markit said its preliminary services Purchasing Managers Index dipped to 58.5 this month from 60.8 in July.A reading above 50 indicates expansion.

Last Friday ECB President Mario Draghi delivered the luncheon speech at the Jackson Hole Symposium; Draghi said the ECB had done all it could for now and the governments of the EU needed to step up. Today a survey was published from the National Association for Business Economics and the conclusions show most economists surveyed think the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy is on track but the US needs to enact structural policies in order to stimulate stronger economic growth.  The Fed’s expansionary monetary policy has been at odds with a sharply restrictive fiscal stance that saw budget deficits declining from 11% of GDP in 2009 to less than 3% this year.

Economists overwhelmingly expect the Federal Reserve to hold off raising short-term interest rates until at least 2015. But nearly a third say doing so would mean the central bank waited too long. While many economists appear at ease with the “steady-as-she-goes perspective” from the Fed, “almost 40% say the stimulus policies are no longer necessary and should be curtailed or sunset.” On other topics, business economists say immigration reform is one of their top priorities, and the US needs to let more immigrants in. Meanwhile, the economists surveyed support the idea of lifting the ban on exports of US-produced crude oil and nat gas. The industry is pushing for the right to export more fuel overseas to ease the threat of overproduction, a move that could also help reduce the US trade deficit. The White House moved this summer to loosen restrictions on crude exports, but an outright end to the ban faces higher hurdles, and would require Congressional approval.

A new academic paper from economists from the University of Chicago and the University of Maryland suggest the weakness in employment is not just a result of the Great Recession, but a longer-term structural change in the economy; the share of Americans with jobs has declined because the labor market has stagnated in recent decades; fewer startups creating new jobs; fewer people losing or leaving jobs, fewer people landing new ones. This suggests the US has been headed to higher unemployment even before the financial crisis, and even if we add jobs, we still have problems that can’t be overcome by Federal Reserve monetary policy alone. The paper says that a 1 percentage point decline in the churning of the labor market lowers the employment rate by 0.77 of a percentage point, a huge effect.

It’s Monday, and so we have some mergers to cover. The Swiss drug maker Roche agreed to buy InterMune for $8.3 billion. InterMune is based in California; it has one drug called pirfenidone to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a fatal scarring of the lungs. It is licensed to sell the drug in Europe, and hopes to get approval in the US later this year. About $87 billion in pharmaceutical acquisitions were made in the first half of this year, eclipsing the total for all of 2013.

If you are Canadian or have ever been to Canada or know Canadians, then you probably know Tim Hortons; it’s a chain of coffee and donut shops; kind of like Starbucks but the coffee is actually good. And it may be the new home of the Whopper. Burger King wants to buy Tim Hortons. If completed, the deal would mean Burger King’s corporate headquarters would move to Canada, where it would qualify for a corporate inversion, with the idea of lowering Burger King’s corporate tax bill. The actual headquarters and the executives go nowhere, but the nominal address changes so the company can avoid US tax rates. Burger King says the deal is not about the taxes, but about the coffee, and the fast food breakfast business. Coffee may be an especially important attraction for Burger King and its majority owner, the Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital. In Tim Hortons, Burger King would be getting a restaurant chain that is essentially synonymous with coffee in Canada. Yea, that’s the reason; it’s the coffee, not the taxes; or maybe they’re trying to create a new donut-burger. Yea, that’s it. They’re just trying to compete with waffle tacos and sausage pancakes.

With the 15% nominal rate in Canada, this is absolutely a move about taxes; rooted in the lie that American corporations pay the highest tax rates in the world, which is not true when you consider the effective rates rather than nominal rates. When it comes to effective rates, what corporations actually pay, the US ranks 17th out of 27 developed countries. Walgreens recently scrapped an inversion deal because of public blowback. Once one of these brands pulls off an inversion deal without blowback that actually hurts sales, it will be a run for the exits.

There are so many companies trying to weasel out of taxes that the inversion trend is the hot new thing on Wall Street, so hot that JPMorgan is backing a new online broker that has bundled up 25 companies seen as inversion targets. The basket of companies is called the Tax Inversion Targets, or TIT; I am not making this up. Count on JPMorgan to go for the most weasely product and then tack on a bit of tacky.

Late Friday, Goldman Sachs agreed to buy back $3.15 billion in mortgage bonds from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to end a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The FHFA accused Goldman of dumping low-quality mortgage bonds during the run-up to the financial crisis. Goldman is not paying a penalty, but it is estimated the bonds are worth only about $2 billion today. Last month, lawyers for the FHFA presented evidence showing that Goldman was aware of weakness in the subprime mortgage market but did not pass that info to clients buying subprime bonds, even as Goldman was shorting the bonds. Just to be clear, Goldman was selling the bonds and simultaneously betting the bonds would fail.

AP is reporting that a column of Russian tanks and armored cars crossed into Ukraine’s far southeast, which is away from the fighting that has been taking place. The markets have been worried about a Russian invasion of Ukraine; now it looks like it is happening, and the markets seem to discount it.

ISIS, has been fighting in Iraq, and even though US airstrikes are inflicting damage, they are still entrenched. Meanwhile, they have taken over a key government airbase in Syria. BBC says government forces evacuated the airbase. Syrian state television confirmed that government troops had lost control of the base. The US has not been targeting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly teamed up to launch airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya. Responsibility for the airstrikes was initially a mystery. After the first set, several American officials initially said that signs pointed to the United Arab Emirates, but clearly American intelligence was surprised.

Workers are assessing quake damage and starting to clean up after a 6.0 magnitude quake in Napa California; it was the strongest quake in the San Francisco area in 25 years. Approximately 172 people were treated for mainly minor injuries; two people had serious injuries; no deaths have been reported. Several building were badly damaged and a mobile home park caught fire. The biggest economic damage may come to wineries.

Meanwhile, a large 6.9-magnitude earthquake has struck a sparsely populated area of central Peru. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries, and authorities were still surveying the region.

Hackers again showed how powerful electronic attacks can be when they forced Sony's PlayStation Network and Blizzard's offline over the weekend. The same group responsible for shutting down the gaming platforms, which calls itself the Lizard Squad, also claimed credit for sending a bomb threat via Twitter that grounded a plane carrying Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley. The plane was traveling from Dallas to San Diego but was diverted to Phoenix. No bomb was found.

Earlier this month, the computer systems at 51 UPS stores were found to have been infected with malware that could potentially allow criminals to gain access to consumer data. The FBI says that up to 1,000 retailers could have malicious software on their sales systems, potentially exposing sensitive information to identity theft and financial fraud.

And that raises the question of why companies continue to get hacked? The most probable answer is that corporate executives just don’t want to spend the money on security because they consider it a cost without a financial benefit; at least until after the fact.

And finally, John Sperling has died at the age of 93. Back in 1978, Sperling founded the University of Phoenix. The University of Phoenix has a presence in 38 states and in Puerto Rico, and at one point touted 242,000 students, although that number has significantly dropped. Sperling became a billionaire, and he used his wealth on several philanthropic projects, including research into seawater agriculture and anti-aging medicine. He was also an outspoken critic of the government's war on drugs, advocating for treatment instead of criminalization.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014 - Be Careful Out There

DOW – 38 = 17,001
SPX – 3 = 1988
NAS + 6 = 4538
10 YR YLD un = 2.40%
OIL - .46 = 93.50
GOLD + 4.30 = 1281.60
SILV un = 19.51

All three major indices posted gains for the week, with the Dow up 2%, the S&P up 1.7% and the Nasdaq up 1.6%. It was the strongest week of gains for both the Dow and the S&P since April, and the third straight week of gains for all three indices.

There is a lot to cover before we can wrap up the week. First we go to Jackson Hole Wyoming, where the Fed has been having a friendly get together of economists. Janet Yellen kicked off the event with a speech this morning. She said what you might expect: "There is no simple recipe for appropriate policy," and she called for a "pragmatic" approach that gives officials room to evaluate data as it arrives without committing to a preset policy path. And she backed up her comments with a new tool, the Labor Market Conditions Index, which measures 19 labor market indicators, and it isn’t new data, just combining it all together, but it showed she is monitoring the data.

Yellen referenced the possibility that labor markets may be a bit tighter than they seem and that the Fed may consider having to raise interest rates sooner than expected. At the last FOMC meeting in July, the Fed was still saying there was “significant” slack in the labor market, and today she confirmed that slack remains, saying: “Five years after the end of the recession, the labor market has yet to fully recover.” Another area of slack is wage deflation. Employers cut some wages during the downturn, or eliminated raises, and they aren’t offering raises now. Yellen said: “wages could begin to rise at a noticeably more rapid pace once pent-up wage deflation has been absorbed.”

So, today Yellen didn’t say anything radically different, just a hint less dovish, or at least not as dovish as Wall Street might have hoped for.  

Just in case you were wondering, there have been some protestors at Jackson Hole; one group could be spotted wearing T-shirts printed with graphs showing wage inequality; apparently, an attorney representing the protestors got to talk with Yellen for a minute or two. Meanwhile, investment bankers were noticeably absent from this year’s symposium; the invitation list is mostly devoid of representatives from big private-sector banks. The Fed finally figured out that rubbing elbows and special access wreaks of cronyism.

The Jackson Hole Symposium featured more than Yellen. There was a variety of papers on multiple subjects. A professor from MIT presented a paper detailing how robots and computers don’t steal as many jobs as you might think. Seems the robots are not good at jobs requiring judgment and common sense. So we aren’t obsolete just yet.

Another bit of research says we are less likely to switch jobs, or there is less labor market fluidity, and the reasons are that the workforce is getting older, and there is a shift to older businesses, which means fewer startups, and more startups tend to fail, and more jobs require occupational licensing or certification.

Yet another research paper concluded that the problem of long term unemployment is not necessarily terminal. The thinking has been that if someone loses a job and is out of work for a long time they have a harder time finding work, and eventually they lose their skills and fall out of the labor pool; the idea is called hysteresis, or the idea that cyclical unemployment becomes structural. The new research says it is only a moderate problem. So, the good news is that we are not obsolete and we are adaptable.  

And then European Central Bank President Mario Draghi delivered a speech following lunch. Draghi said European central bankers and politicians each have a role to play in boosting demand and reducing joblessness. For its part the ECB is willing to take more stimulus measures if needed to keep low rates of inflation from becoming embedded in expectations of future price growth but the ECB can't do it alone and governments must join in efforts to reduce unemployment.

For Draghi, this was a bigger shift in policy; for years the ECB has been preaching that governments needed to shrink deficits and undertake economic reforms even during times of economic weakness. The austerity measures did not work; the result has been stubbornly high unemployment, stagnation, and disinflation or low-flation bordering on deflation, with a dollop of double dip recession.

Draghi admitted as much, saying the GDP data "confirm that the recovery in the euro area remains uniformly weak, with subdued wage growth even in non-stressed countries suggesting lackluster demand." And so Draghi called on combining monetary and fiscal policies to stimulate demand with efforts to make labor markets more flexible. He also proposed a significant boost in public investment.

In June, the ECB approved a stimulus package that includes record low interest rates, new 4-year loans to banks, and a step toward large scale purchases of asset backed securities, although no new QE announcement was forthcoming in today’s speech. Draghi said today: "The risks of 'doing too little'" and allowing temporary unemployment to become more entrenched "outweigh those of 'doing too much’, that is, excessive upward wage and price pressures."

So, while Draghi firmly planted an anti-austerity flag, he also felt the ECB’s June stimulus will be all that they can do, and he recognizes the real risk that monetary policy loses effectiveness, and somebody needs to wake up the government.

There is a long tradition of the Jackson Hole symposium giving a little bump to the markets; not today, and the reason had less to do with the doves and hawks on the Fed and more to do with geopolitics.

Ukraine says Russian artillery is being used against Ukraine's forces, both from across the border and from inside Ukraine. In addition, NATO said it has seen "transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery, to separatists." Moscow sent more than 130 trucks rolling across the border in what it said was a mission to deliver humanitarian aid. Ukraine called it a "direct invasion," and the US and NATO condemned it as well.

The trucks, part of a convoy of 260 vehicles, entered Ukraine without government permission after being held up at the border for a week amid fears the mission was a Kremlin ploy to help the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia claims the trucks are carrying food, water, and other humanitarian supplies. The city of Luhansk has been largely cut off for weeks and is without water and electricity as Ukraine forces fight rebels. Ukraine wanted the international Red Cross to inspect all trucks, fearful of a Trojan horse; but Russia lost patience and accused Ukraine of stalling. The Red Cross, which had planned to escort the convoy to assuage fears that it was a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so, as shelling had continued overnight.

Ukraine said they would not shell the convoy but rebel forces took advantage of that promise to drive on the roads being used by the convoy.
Meanwhile, Hamas-led gunmen in Gaza executed 18 Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel. The executions were held in a public square. I suppose that has a certain deterrent effect. The ceasefire, like others before it, did not last long. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to escalate the fight against Hamas after a four-year-old Israeli boy was killed by a mortar attack from Gaza. Shortly after his remarks, Palestinian officials said Israel had flattened a house in a Gaza City air strike, wounding at least 40 people. More than 80 rockets and mortars shot from Gaza hit Israel. Israeli forces carried out more than 25 air strikes in Gaza. Since the conflict began last month, 2,071 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have now been killed and around 400,000 of the enclave's 1.8 million people displaced. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and four civilians in Israel have been killed.

Meanwhile, the quagmire in Iraq is sucking us in ever deeper. You will recall that just 2 weeks ago, President Obama announced “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.” And it seemed to work, sort of. The Yazidis trapped on the mountain got off the mountain, most of them anyway.

And then there was the problem of ISIS controlling the Mosul Dam, and the threat of using the dam to flood the Tigris River valley, and that includes Baghdad; so there was some extra work to do there. And then there was the horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley, and yesterday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey conceded that attacks on ISIS could not be limited to Iraq but would also spread into Syria; and Secretary of State John Kerry said ISIS “must be destroyed and will be crushed”.

And now Iraq has a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. The hope was that he could forge a new coalition government. Not exactly. Sunni lawmakers quit talks on forming a new Iraqi government after gunmen killed scores of worshipers at a Sunni mosque in a province neighboring Baghdad. Today’s strike took place after three roadside bombs targeted a Shiite political gathering.

Federal authorities today urged law enforcement across the country to be alert for possible attacks inside the United States in retaliation for US airstrikes against ISIS. In a joint bulletin issued to local, state and federal law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI said that while they are “unaware of any specific, credible threats against the Homeland” and find most threats to the U.S. homeland by supporters of ISIS “not credible,” they cannot rule out attacks in the United States from sympathizers radicalized by the group’s online propaganda.

Be careful out there.

Retailers have taken a recent hit, with weak earnings reports from the likes of Wal-Mart and Sears. Today Ross Stores posted better than expected second quarter results. The S&P Retail Index gained 0.6%, which doesn’t sound like much but it was the best week since February. The heavy promotional environment has been forcing retailers to offer discounts to stay relevant even as they deal with the growing shift to online sales. The big brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying to adjust to this shifting landscape. The labor market is no doubt improving, but wage growth has been essentially stagnant, restricting households’ buying power. In a nutshell, it has been a tough backdrop for retailers. No doubt the stock-price performance of the retail sector in the S&P 500 has been one of the weakest in the index – up +0.9% vs. a gain of +8.6% for the index as a whole.

Total earnings for the 490 S&P 500 members that have reported already are up +8.1% from the same period last year, with a ‘beat ratio’ of 65.5% and a median surprise of +2.6%. Total revenues are up +4.4%, with a very impressive revenue ‘beat ratio’ of 62.2% and a median surprise of 0.8%. So, this has been a strong earnings season, with the minor exception that guidance has been a little less than satisfying.

Stock prices of small-cap stocks have been underwater this year, with the S&P 600 down -1.2% vs. a gain of +8.6% for the S&P 500 in the year-to-date period. This underwhelming stock price performance is getting confirmed by the group’s mixed results thus far in the Q2 reporting cycle. As of Friday, August 22, we have seen Q2 results from 555 S&P 600 members or 92.5% of the index’s total members. Total earnings for these 555 companies are up +12.1% from the same period last year on +9.5% higher revenues, with 48.6% beating EPS estimates and 38.2% coming ahead of top-line expectations. 

Total earnings in Q2 are on track to reach a new all-time quarterly record, surpassing the last record set in 2013 Q4. That brings a good news/bad news conundrum. Is it just a one-time bounce of the low levels of the first quarter? It’s always difficult to top a record.

The S&P 500 is trading at 18.5x forward earnings, above the historical average of about 16.5x. The Shiller cyclically adjusted P/E ratio is currently about 26x the historical average of 16x. No matter how you manipulate the numbers, stock valuations are closer to the high end than the low end, and then the question is whether those valuations are justified in view of the risks facing stocks.

The biggest risk to stocks is the Fed ending its unprecedented experiment in easy money. Stock market investors have benefitted from ZIRP, zero interest rate policy, far longer than anyone might have imagined, and maybe Draghi was right when he talked today about the risk that monetary policy can lose its effectiveness. Now, maybe the Fed can exit QE and ZIRP and the markets will achieve liftoff; I just don’t know where we’ll find the fuel for liftoff.

The second most significant risk is the geopolitical havoc occurring around the world. And most of that havoc seems to be in or near areas with oil. From the heady days of mid-2008 when it traded at nearly $150 a barrel, crude oil has had quite a rocky ride. After sliding down to the $30s and rallying back around $120, crude has settled in around the $90 to $110 range for the past two years.  Commodity traders have wondered why oil hasn’t gone higher. Geopolitical tensions abound across the world; the Middle East seemingly hasn’t been this unstable in years. There may be reasons why oil prices have moved lower, including the renaissance in oil and gas exploration and development in the US; lower demand brought about by great efficiencies and conservation; also, the big investment banks have exited the oil  trading business and the oil  marketing business, and they have not been replaced by new players. A dip in oil prices could send some smaller exploration companies to the mat. A spike in oil prices could send stock investors to the exits. Geopolitical stability is decidedly bad for stocks, particularly stocks that are trading at very high valuations.

A third risk to stocks is that earnings will not keep pace. Corporations may have squeezed about all of the cost savings they can out of their businesses. While companies continue to "beat" expectations, the truth is that they are more leveraged than they were in 2007 on the cusp of the financial crisis, and they live in fear that interest rates are going to rise and they will not be able to service their debt. Meanwhile, consumers tend to hold onto a dollar until the eagle grins.

And then there is always the possibility of a black swan event, which could pop up almost anywhere, including the financial markets where big banks are bigger than ever, and money markets are now poised to close their vaults rather than risk a run, which is  just the sort of thing that creates a run; or maybe it will be a geopolitical mis-step – a bomb that lands in the wrong place, or a crazy Russian who turns off the nat gas spigot for the Eurozone.

An expensive market is always vulnerable to bad news and sell-offs. And so it is now more important than ever to be diligent, and don’t be afraid to lock in the hard won gains of the past 5 years.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014 - Rarified Air

Rarified Air
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 60 = 17,039
SPX + 5 = 1992
NAS + 5 = 4532
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.40%
OIL + .45 = 93.90
GOLD – 15.10 = 1277.30
SILV - .04 = 19.52

The S&P 500 broke two records during today's session, climbing past its previous intraday all-time high of 1,991.39 and ending above its previous record close of 1,987.98. Both had been set on July 24.

Family Dollar has rejected a $9 billion dollar buyout offer from Dollar General, opting instead for a smaller $8.5 billion dollar offer from Dollar Tree. The thinking is that a combination of the largest dollar store – Dollar General with the #2 Family Dollar, would be unlikely to win antitrust approval.

Once upon a time, Sears was the largest retailer in the nation. Today, Sears Holdings announce it lost $975 million in the first half of the year; $573 million in the second quarter. This was the 9th consecutive quarter of losses, and the past quarter also marked the heaviest losses. Quarterly revenue dropped about 10%. The plan now is to close underperforming stores, or, in a classic example of corporate-speak “rationalizing our physical footprint.” The company successfully spun off Lands End earlier this year, to the benefit of shareholders. But its Sears Canada and Sears Automotive stores have been on the block for some time, indicating either a lack of interest on the part of buyers or an unwillingness by Sears to bend on its asking price.

Gap shares moved higher in after-hours trade after earnings topped expectations. With a few exceptions, retail earnings this quarter have been disappointing. Last week, Walmart cut its full-year earnings guidance, and a few days later, Target reported a disappointing quarter. It’s hard to get consumers to loosen their grip on the purse strings.

The National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes rose 2.4% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.15 million, the fourth consecutive month of gains and the fastest rate of gain in 10 months. More people are buying homes compared to earlier in the year, but the sales pace is still down 4.3% from one year ago. The median existing-home price for all housing types in July was $222,900, which is 4.9% above July 2013. This marks the 29th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 298,000 for the week ended Aug. 16.

The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index increased 0.9% last month after an upwardly revised 0.6% rise in June.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the BEA, has released its state by state analysis of quarterly gross domestic product. California has the biggest economy among the states, with about $2.1 trillion in GDP, followed by Texas at $1.4 trillion, and New York at $1.2 trillion. Vermont has state GDP of about $28 billion. Arizona comes in at almost $265 billion.

The latest numbers from the Census Bureau show the gap between Americans at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom is as wide as ever. Between 2000 and 2011, the gap expanded considerably. The net worth of the poorest 20% of US households fell by $5,124. At the same time, the wealthiest 20% posted a $61,379 increase in net worth. Looked at another way, the net worth of the richest 20% of families totaled $630,754 in 2011. The poorest had a negative net worth of $6,029. Altogether, the top 40% of households increased their net worth from 2000 to 2011. The bottom 60% lost ground.

Sentier Research has analyzed Census data on incomes. In June 2014, the median household income was $53,891, down from $55,589 in inflation-adjusted dollars when the economic expansion began in June 2009; that is a 3.1% drop in median income. Now, let’s clarify this report because you may have seen that the average inflation adjusted per-person disposable personal income is up 4.2% over the past 5 years. There is a difference between median and average; Bill Gates walks into a room with 80 other people and the average net worth of everyone in the room is about one billion dollars; while the median net worth is barely changed. The averages can be distorted by the strong income gains among the wealthiest; the median income numbers give a better sense of the majority of Americans.

And it’s not just the past 5 years; median income remains lower than back in January 2000; the middle income family is worse off than they were 14 years ago. The good news is that there has been some improvement in the past 3 years; since 2011, inflation adjusted household incomes are up 3.8%. We are starting to dig out of a hole, but we’re still digging.

The point is that the economic recovery has been pretty miserable for most Americans. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is holding its annual confab for the world’s most powerful financial players at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The invitation only soiree includes central bankers, investment bankers, economists, and a various assortment of other bigwigs. Tomorrow morning, Fed Chair Janet Yellen will deliver the customary opening speech. ECB President Mario Draghi will speak at lunch. This year’s theme is “Re-Evaluating Labor Market Dynamics”.

In the mountains of Wyoming, the air is thin, and around Jackson Hole, it is rarified: One banker was quoted as saying: "It seems that conditions reflect the best of all worlds - US economic growth that is neither too slow, which would put pressure on earnings - nor too fast, implying inflationary pressures which could lead to (price-to-earnings ratio) contraction and possibly accelerate the Fed's move towards higher interest rates."

Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Esther George says the time has come for the Fed to raise rates, citing improvement in the labor markets. George said: "I don't want us to be behind the curve in beginning to normalize interest rates… When you see the economy getting as close as we are to full employment, to stable inflation, it would suggest to me that the time has come to do that… I think a very natural response when you get to this point is worrying that you might derail the recovery, but then again we've seen data come in stronger than we expected."

Fed officials are convinced that the economy is gaining strength after the years of false starts, but a majority of policy makers, led by Janet Yellen, favors a slow retreat from the Fed’s efforts to encourage job creation. They note that millions of people still cannot find jobs, while inflation remains relatively weak.

The theme is the labor market, and the Fed tracks wage trends closely because they're an important inflation indicator, and they're also a reflection of how close the economy is to full capacity. Also, in a well-functioning economy, wages should be rising particularly when productivity is going up. The Fed can't really do anything to get wages up; what it can do is wait to raise interest rates until the job market is healthier and that's what they're debating now - should they wait a while longer?

The latest government data show average hourly earnings adjusted for inflation have not increased at all in the last year, even though we're told the economy is getting better and other wage measures show similar trends. The problem with Jackson Hole is somebody like Bill Gates walks into a restaurant, and all the economist believe they are billionaires.

It is shaping up to be another good year in the equity markets, not as good as last year, but not a letdown; investors have ignored the calls for a correction, and this is still a risk-on market. Typically, when risk is not given much weight, this would be a good time to hedge one’s portfolio. And the reason for “risk-on” is a Federal Reserve that keeps interest rates at historic low levels; add in the demographics of most investors who have no choice but to stick what they have into higher risk assets such as stocks; plus the corporate world that is sitting on cash and the closest idea to innovation is to buy back their own stock, thus pushing prices even higher.

In this environment, weakness in the economy and even geopolitical events are being disregarded, with both being seen as buying opportunities. Investors might not have much choice but to hang onto the bandwagon, but you also should be keenly aware of when you need to get off because the markets could switch to risk-off in the blink of an eye.

The Bank of America settlement deal was announced today. BofA agreed to pay $16.65 billion to end federal and state investigations into the sale of toxic mortgage securities during the subprime housing boom; actually, it works out to $9.65 billion that will actually be paid, plus $7 billion in soft-consumer relief; minus about $600 million in tax deductions. About $5 billion of the cash portion of the settlement is paid as a penalty to the US Treasury. Other portions will go toward compensating investors, including state pension funds. Just under $1 billion will be split among six states.

Under the out-of-court settlement, Bank of America acknowledged that Merrill Lynch told investors in subprime mortgage bonds in 2006 and 2007 that the loans generally complied with underwriting guidelines, though reviews suggested as many as 50% did not. Bank of America also acknowledged that Countrywide did not generally tell investors the extent to which it made exceptions to its own internal guidelines. The settlement also covered some post-crisis conduct, including Bank of America's admission that from 2009 to 2012 it submitted loans for government insurance under the Federal Housing Administration that did not qualify.

The statement of facts failed to identify the amount of profit the bank gained, or show how the penalty will restore losses to investor victims. No individuals were charged. Maybe we can blame robots.

Bank of America shares jumped 4.1% to $16.16; the thinking is that the worst is behind them. The bank had already set aside reserves to handle the legal problems and the thinking is that this settlement is the settlement to end all settlements. Ultimately it works out to about a half year’s profit, give or take; you know, the cost of doing business.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - Sunlight is the Best of Disinfectants

Sunlight is the Best of Disinfectants
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 59 = 16979
SPX + 4 = 1986
NAS – 1 = 4526
10 YR YLD + .02 = 2.42%
OIL + .63 = 93.49
GOLD – 3.80 = 1292.40
SILV + .04 = 19.55

No economic reports today, but the Federal Reserve released the minutes of the July 29-30 FOMC meeting. You will recall that the Fed left interest rates unchanged and continued the taper by reducing large scale asset purchases by $10 billion a month, with the plan to end purchases by October. The Fed had said in its policy statement following the July meeting that there was "significant" labor market slack, but the minutes showed many members of its policy-setting panel thought this characterization "might have to change before long."

Most Fed officials wanted further evidence the labor market and the economy were showing significant improvement before changing their view on raising rates, but they said, "Labor market conditions had moved noticeably closer to those viewed as normal in the longer run," and policymakers "generally agreed" the job market was healing faster than they had expected.

Most Fed policymakers felt any change in their view on when to start raising rates "would depend on further information on the trajectories of economic activity, the labor market and inflation." Well, we got more data yesterday showing that inflation is not a problem yet; so that leaves economic activity and the labor market. The economic trajectory has remained sluggish since the beginning of the recovery; GDP turned negative in the first quarter of this year and then showed a very strong bounce in the second quarter. Is the second quarter bounce sustainable? It seems most Fed officials think it could be. And the Fed minutes almost seem to gloss over this long-term sluggishness, or what the Center for Economic Policy Research callssecular stagnation. What is secular stagnation?

A persistent gap between actual and potential output. Because of an imbalance between saving and investment, the nominal interest rate required to maintain full employment falls to less than zero -- not just briefly, but persistently. Since the rate can't be cut to less than zero, monetary policy (as currently conceived) can't keep the economy running at full potential.

A slowdown in growth of potential output. This may happen because of demographic changes, or because innovation isn't what it used to be, or for other reasons.

An irreversible drop in the level of potential output. Even if the full-employment rate of interest is still positive and the growth in potential output hasn't slowed, the recession may have permanently cut its level -- for instance, by causing workers to leave the labor force and not come back. Even if the economy now grows as fast as it did before, it's on a lower track and won't ever converge with the path it was on pre-crash.

This all means that the Fed’s long awaited economic liftoff might not happen, at least for another 20 years or so. But the Fed doesn’t seem to be concerned with this problem, which means that if the US economy experiences secular stagnation, the condition will be self-inflicted.

That leaves the Fed with the question of the recovery in the labor market. So, it really boils down to jobs. More jobs, and specifically, the quality of the jobs. So far, the average wage is stuck at $24.25 an hour; too many jobs are part-time or temporary. If we start to see some movement on wages, and more full-time positions, that might be a sign for rate increases. One area of remaining slack is the low participation rate, the percentage of working age population that is still in the labor pool; many people got out of the pool. Last month the economy added 209,000 net new jobs. The unemployment rate moved up to 6.2% from 6.1%. The jobless rate can rise for both good reasons (more people looking for work) and bad reasons (fewer people having a job).  Even though the economy added jobs, more people joined the labor force, and that is why the unemployment rate moved higher.

There are many things that could derail the recovery in the labor market, but for now the Fed thinks things are on track, and that means a probable rate increase in the first half of 2015. Any rate increase is likely to be incremental. Right now the fed funds target rate is between zero and 0.25%. It would likely be increased by 25 basis points, with the lower range representing the rate on overnight reverse repurchase operations. In reverse repos, the Fed borrows funds overnight from banks to mop up excess cash in the financial system.

Market reaction to a slightly more hawkish Fed stance: well, the dollar index continued higher, Treasuries dropped but then settled down, precious metals were a little lower, oil was higher, stocks initially threw a little tantrum and then recovered. After all, there were no real surprises.

Elsewhere, we’ve been waiting for the Department of Justice announcement on a settlement with Bank of America. Bank of America has reportedly reached a record $17 billion settlement to resolve an investigation into its role in the sale of mortgage-backed securities before the 2008 financial crisis. The official announcement will come tomorrow. The deal works out to $10 billion in cash, and $7 billion in soft dollar consumer relief - which is really a gift to the bank involving credits for various forms of consumer aid that the bank would or should be doing anyway. So, if you have a BofA mortgage and you’ve been having trouble with a loan mod or a refinance – try again. And by the way, the bank will make money on consumer aid.

The deal requires Bank of America to acknowledge making serious misrepresentations about the quality of its residential mortgage-backed securities issued by itself and by Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch. In exchange, BofA will probably not have to actually admit wrongdoing, and they get a free “get out of jail” card.  

Usually these settlements include a statement of facts which is most notable for its absence of facts and details. That silence means the Department of Justice is essentially protecting the banks from private lawsuits by deliberately withholding evidence which could result in even further disclosure of really bad behavior and even bigger damages and other unexpected outcomes. The biggest unexpected outcome would be that the public finally says to hell with the bankster criminals and we all see through the flimsy apologists in the media and the cronies in politics.

Most people know the banksters got away with murder; and I use the word literally, not figuratively. Most people want to see bankster executives prosecuted. Most people understand that the fines in these settlements are just a slap on the wrist, cost of business paid by shareholders, and taxpayers. Yep, the fines are typically considered tax deductible.

Tomorrow, the DOJ will announce the biggest settlement ever against a bank: $17 billion. But we know, it’s really a little under $10 billion in cash, with all kinds of little gifts to the banksters to soften the blow. And we know this will do nothing to deter future wrongdoing. You can place a huge derivative bet that they’re still committing those same crimes and new ones (such as subprime auto), so the prosecution clock resets daily.

And the crazy part is that the Department of Justice and BofA think we’re all too stupid to understand the cronyism. They will portray the settlement as a get tough stance on the bankers. Hogwash, I know it, you know it.

About 100 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote his famous statement that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants" in a 1913 Harper's Weekly article. He went on to say that transparency is “justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.” Brandeis actually wrote privately about the idea of transparency 20 years earlier, writing, “about the wickedness of people shielding wrongdoers and passing them off (or at least allowing them to pass themselves off) as honest men."

About 100 years ago, the country was struggling with what was known as the Money Trust, the rough equivalent of today’s systemically important financial institutions, or too big to fail banks. Brandeis asked how the great wealth of his day had been accumulated, and he concluded: “power breeds wealth as wealth breeds power. But a main cause of these large fortunes is the huge tolls taken by those who control the avenues to capital and to investors. There has been exacted as toll literally ‘all that the traffic will bear.’”

Just a reminder, some of the mortgage problems of Bank of America date back to their acquisition of Countrywide; BofA had their own illegal mortgage problems. The guy who started Countrywide and nearly ran it into the ground is Angelo Mozillo. Until now, the harshest penalty imposed on Mozilo has been a $67 million settlement with the SEC from 2010 to resolve allegations that he misled Countrywide investors. Actually, Mozilo was forced to disgorge about $45 million from the sale of stocks, some of which may have been based on insider information; and then Bank of America paid for most of the other penalties; which is to say shareholders and consumers paid for Mozilo’s penalties.

The US attorney’s office in Los Angeles is now preparing a civil lawsuit against Mozilo and as many as 10 other former Countrywide employees. Government attorneys plan to sue Mozilo, Countrywide’s former chairman and chief executive officer, and other individuals using the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act. The law, approved by Congress in 1989 in response to savings-and-loan scandals, gives prosecutors 10 years to bring cases and has less stringent liability requirements than criminal charges.

Prosecutors dropped a criminal probe of Mozilo in early 2011. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, sued the Justice Department in June to try to obtain its records detailing investigations of Mozilo and Countrywide. The group faulted the government for failing to prosecute either Mozilo or the company “despite substantial evidence of wrongdoing.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - It’s Just a Matter of Time

It’s Just a Matter of Time
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 80 = 16,919
SPX + 9 = 1981
NAS + 19 = 4527
10 YR YLD+ .02 = 2.40%
OIL (sept) = 94.48
GOLD – 2.00 = 1296.20
SILV - .18 = 19.50

The consumer price index rose a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in July. Food prices rose 0.4%, but energy costs declined 0.3%; the first drop in energy prices since March. Consumer prices have risen an unadjusted 2% over the past 12 months, down slightly from June. Prices surged in the early spring but have since tapered off. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, the core rate has risen 1.9% in the same span, unchanged from the prior month. Almost all of the increase in consumer prices can be traced back to housing costs, or shelter prices; over the past year, shelter prices are up 2.9%.

Hourly wages have risen about 10% overall since June 2009, to $24.45 an hour. But over the same span they’ve slipped 0.3% in “real” or inflation-adjusted terms. Since the Great Recession ended five years ago, the amount of money Americans earn each hour after adjusting for  inflation has actually fallen. And that largely explains why the economy is growing so slowly.

The Federal Reserve should be in no hurry to raise interest rates because there is no serious threat from inflation, at least not now.

According to the US Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, you might not take a vacation this year. About 40% don't plan on using all of our paid time off. The share of American workers taking vacation is at historic lows. In the 1970s, about 80 percent of workers took a weeklong vacation every year. Now, that share has dropped to a little bit more than half. The declining popularity of vacation has wide-ranging effects not just on workers, but also on their employers and indeed the overall economy. Studies have found that taking fewer vacations is correlated with increased risk of heart disease; other research has shown that workers who take vacations, or even a small break during the workday, are more productive when they return. This vacation aversion is a North American phenomenon; the US is the only “advanced” economy that doesn’t require companies to give paid vacation days.

Housing starts rose to an eight-month high in July. Groundbreaking for new housing jumped 15.7% last month to a seasonally adjusted 1.09-million unit annual pace; this follows 2 straight months of declines. Groundbreaking for single-family homes, the largest part of the market, increased 8.3% in July to a seven-month high. Starts for the multi-family homes segment, such as apartments, jumped 33%.

Home Depot reported quarterly profit today. Profit rose 14% to $2.05 billion. Sales rose 5.7% to $23.8 billion. The number of transactions rose 4.2%. Home Depot said it expects same store sales to grow faster in the second half of the year, as more people take on remodeling projects. However, Home Depot maintained its full-year sales growth forecast of about 4.8%. Lowe's, the world's second-largest home improvement company, is scheduled to report results tomorrow.

Back in 2006 bust, when the housing market went bust, Phoenix was one of the first cities to get hammered with lower prices; in 2011, Phoenix was one of the first cities to snap back; prices, off by nearly 60% from peak, then rebounded sharply; home prices are up nearly 46% from the 2011 low. The number of homes in some stage of foreclosure has fallen to about 4,300 homes today from more than 50,000 four years ago.

Now, prices and sales are cooling off. Inventories of homes listed for sale have climbed to their highest level in three years while the number of houses sold in June fell 12% from a year earlier. Investors accounted for nearly 15% of homes bought in June, down from about one-quarter last year and one-third of sales in June 2012. The market is moving away from from bargain-hunting investors, who typically pay cash for distressed properties, to traditional buyers with mortgages. The Phoenix market is slowly moving back to normal, but there is still a long way to go.

Employment in Phoenix, after expanding at an average annual pace of 2.6% and 2.8% in each of the last two years, is up just 1.5% so far this year. When people don’t have a job or are not secure in their jobs, they don’t buy houses. The sluggish local economy is compounded by consumers still too battered from the bust to think about getting a loan. Some don't have sufficient equity to turn a house sale into an adequate down payment on their next purchase. Others suffered credit blemishes or income hits that make banks reluctant to lend.

Reuters reports Phoenix based PetSmart is exploring a potential sale of the company. Jana Partners, which has reported a 9.8% stake in PetSmart, has been calling on the company to pursue a sale after what it calls years of financial underperformance. There is no guarantee the review will lead to a deal and PetSmart could still determine that it would be better off on its own.

Today marks the ten year anniversary of Google. The company went public August 19, 2004 at a price of $85 a share; and it’s gone up 1,304% since then. A few stocks have done better over that time, but only a few, and of those, only Apple was in the S&P 500 10 years ago when Google went public. Today, Google’s revenue tops $65 billion, more than all but 40 US companies. Net profit margins exceed 20%, higher than all but three. Ten years ago, Google had a forward PE of 52; today, the forward PE is 20. So as share prices have constantly moved higher, valuation has constantly moved lower; which is a neat trick.

Over the past 10 years, or you could say over the past 25 years, a great deal of wealth has flowed to the tech giants of Silicon Valley; which means that the wealth has flowed away from Wall Street. And the techies have finally figured out they don’t need Wall Street bankers to make a deal. According to data from Dealogic, approximately 70% of the tech deals completed in early August have been sealed without a Wall Street bank consultant helping the buyer identify the transaction. And over the past two years, the trend has been growing, with more than half the tech deals in 2012 occurring without a banker working on behalf of the buyer. This M&A consulting shift highlights a subtle but growing divide between fee-eager bankers and the tech giants of today.

Maybe the problem is that the banks just have a hard time remembering who their clients are. Case in point: you may remember the story of Standard Chartered, the British bank, which back in 2012 paid about $667 million to settle charges that it had engaged in money laundering by making transfers for clients in Iran and other countries that were covered by American sanctions. They had to add compliance monitors. A few months later the bank’s chairman denied any wrongdoing, which was a direct violation of the settlement; and he was forced to quickly recant. Today, it seems that all of those new legal staffers and crime-fighting committees also didn’t get the memo about what they are meant to be doing. New York’s financial regulator slapped another $300 million fine on Standard Chartered for “failures to remediate anti-money laundering compliance problems as required” in its previous settlement.

Part of the bank’s 2012 agreement included hosting an independent monitor permanently installed by regulators on-site to vet anti-money laundering procedures. This monitor was back-testing the bank’s processes and found them lacking, particularly when it came to flagging suspicious dollar transfers from its Hong Kong and United Arab Emirates affiliates.

In a statement, Standard Chartered said that it “has already begun extensive remediation efforts and is committed to completing these with utmost urgency.” And this time they really, really mean it; not like last time. So, this raises the question of how many times a bank can break the law, and get away with a slap on the wrist. What does a bank have to do before they forfeit their charter?

The New York State regulator, Benjamin Lawsky, said: “If a bank fails to live up to its commitments, there should be consequences. That is particularly true in an area as serious as anti-money-laundering compliance, which is vital to helping prevent terrorism and vile human rights abuses.”

So, the penalty is nearly $1 billion in fines over the past couple of years, but actually works out to about 12% of bank profits over the same time.
You might also remember last month when Attorney General Eric Holder announced the $7 billion settlement with Citigroup for its role in packaging troubled mortgages into securities and selling them as investments in the years before the crisis, even though a bunch of Citigroup bankers knew better and did it anyway. And last November, there was a settlement with JPMorgan. And there is a chance that later this week we will see a settlement announced with Bank of America.

It all falls in line with the “too big to fail” idea known as the Holder Doctrine, which stems from a 1999 memo, when then Deputy AG Holder included the thought that big financial settlements may be preferable to criminal convictions because a criminal conviction often carries severe unintended consequences, like loss of jobs and the inability to continue as a going concern. Holder was thinking of the collapse of Arthur Anderson after the collapse of Enron. So, now Holder holds to the idea of settlement over prosecutions.  Instead of the truth, we get from the Justice Department a heavily negotiated and sanitized “statement of facts” about what supposedly went wrong.

The problem is, of course, that these settlements allow for the Wall Street bankers to get away with their bad behavior without being held the slightest bit accountable. And with no real deterrent, as Standard Chartered has just confirmed, it’s just a matter of time until they do it all over again.