Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014 - The Growth Industry for the Next 20 Years

The Growth Industry for the Next 20 Years
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 16 = 16,408
SPX + 2 = 1864
NAS + 9 = 4095
10 YR YLD + .08 = 2.72%
OIL + .83 = 104.59
GOLD – 7.60 = 1295.60
SILV + .02 = 19.75

Stocks ended a holiday-shortened week with mixed results. Stock markets will be closed tomorrow in observance of Good Friday. The S&P 500 had its best week since last July. For the week, the Dow rose 2.4%, the S&P 500 added 2.7% and the Nasdaq advanced 2.4%.

With less than one-fifth of S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, about 63% have topped earnings expectations and 52% have topped revenue expectations. Of course that’s part of the dance between corporations and analysts, but it does move stock prices. For example, Goldman Sachs reported an 11% drop in quarterly profit and revenue fell 8%, but the results were better than estimates and share price was higher on the day.  Among the other earnings related movers today, Google, IBM, Mattel, and United Health were down on poor earnings news, while Morgan Stanley, GE and Pepsi moved higher.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose less than expected in the latest week and came near pre-recession levels. The Labor Department also reports weekly earnings of the typical full-time worker rose 3% in the first quarter compared to a year earlier, the fastest pace since 2008. Median earnings came in at $796, that’s the point where half of all workers made more and half made less. This means that earnings growth is now outpacing inflation in consumer prices, which increased at 1.4%. Earnings that rise faster than costs mean workers will have more money to spend on discretionary purchases, or maybe to shore up their personal finances.

This might indicate that the labor market is getting tighter, or at least working through some of the slack, as companies have to pay a bit more to retain or attract workers. Consumers that spend more, boost business profits, which means companies respond by producing more, which means more hiring and an even tighter labor market, which leads to higher worker earnings. Of course, this is just one report, and one report does not make a trend.

One of the reasons it might not be a trend is that the income is not evenly distributed. Recent Labor Department research shows that the top 20% of earners accounted for more than 80% of the rise in household income from 2008-2012. Income fell for the bottom 20%. That had a direct impact on spending. The top households increased spending by about $2,300 from 2008-2012, notably on health care, transportation and education. The 20% of households with the lowest incomes cut spending by about $150.

Top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the United States have agreed on a set of measures to ease mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine. In Geneva today, Secretary of State John Kerry said the measures include disarming pro-Russian militants occupying buildings in eastern Ukraine and the return of the buildings to their legitimate owners. A joint statement from the four powers says amnesty will be granted to protesters who surrender weapons and leave the buildings, except for those found guilty of capital crimes.

Speaking at the White House, President Obama said he hopes Russia will honor the agreement but he also said that given past practices, there are no assurances of cooperation from Moscow. He said the administration is holding talks with European allies about possible new sanctions if Russia reneges on the deal.  The agreement does not specifically require Moscow to withdraw 40,000 troops massed on its border with Ukraine, and does not reference Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula last month. It also does not obligate Moscow to hold direct talks with the interim government in Kiev. Peace monitors will be put in place and dialogue will continue, but this is a very real diplomatic move toward de-escalation. That’s good.

This has been a most unusual geopolitical act of aggression in Ukraine; it has revealed the use of sanctions as an economic weapon going up against the threat of cutting off natural gas supplies as an energy weapon.

In Russia, the economic costs have been masked by recent patriotic fervor but could soon haunt the Kremlin, as prices rise, wages stall and consumer confidence erodes; the major Russian stock market index dropped 10% in March; by some accounts, more than $70 billion in capital has fled the country so far this year; key interest rates jumped to 7% from 5.5% to combat inflation and support the ruble, a step that could slow growth; and unemployment has spiked. Beyond the whipped up patriotic fervor there isn’t much reason for Russians to feel good about their situation. The only thing positive for the Russian economy is its energy supplies.

And when Russia intervened in Crimea, they threatened to turn off the energy supply to Ukraine and Europe. The clock is ticking. Europe has about 6 months before the cold weather returns, to wean themselves from dependence on Russian nat gas.

One way to replace Russian gas is through home-grown renewable energy production. Today, the Ukrainian embassy in Washington DC hosted officials from the renewable energy industry to try and lure investment in green energy such as solar, wind, and biofuels. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

The oil industry would like to take the crisis in Ukraine and use it as an opportunity to flood the European market with fracked-in-the-USA natural gas. For this ploy to work, it's important not to look too closely at details. Like the fact that much of the gas probably won't make it to Europe because any gas fracked in the US would actually be sold on the world market to any country belonging to the World Trade Organization.

Plus, it would require massive infrastructure bailout in Ukraine and Europe; a single LNG terminal can cost $7 billion and it still requires massive infrastructure beyond the terminal. There could be a couple of very cold winters in Europe before those massive industrial projects are up and running.

Plus, there is the environmental problem of even more fracking in the US; Americans might put up with fracking in their own back yard if it results in energy independence and more jobs, but when you switch the argument to energy security for Ukraine and Europe, it becomes a tougher sell.

Plus, there is the concern about expanding fracking in light of the recent studies coming out in very plain and blunt language stating the climate is changing and fracking and burning carbon based fuels is a huge culprit. The gas industry itself, in 1981, came up with the clever pitch that natural gas was a "bridge" to a clean energy future. That was 33 years ago. That’s a long bridge.., to nowhere.

The answer is in renewable energy sources. If Russia wasn’t threatening to take away the nat gas, nobody would pay any attention to Putin. Real energy independence is also energy security, and it will be impossible to achieve as long as we rely on the oil and gas industry. So, how long would it take to become energy independent? Less than you might imagine.

It would take a big change in thinking and in political will, but we’ve done it before. During World War II, the US retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 485,000 more. In 1956 the US began building the Interstate Highway System which eventually extended more than 47,000 miles and changed commerce and society. Clean technology is the answer, and not just because fossil fuels are cooking the planet but because the clean tech is more efficient.

Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will need almost 17 trillion watts of power as the global population and living standards rise, with almost 3 trillion watts being consumed by the US. That forecast is based on the idea that we continue with the current mix of energy sources we use today, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

If, however, the planet were powered by clean technology, with no fossil fuel or biomass combustion, an intriguing savings would occur. Global power demand would only be about 11.5 trillion watts and the US demand would drop to only about 1.8 trillion watts. That means that in 2030, we would need less wattage than we need today; and that decline occurs because, in most cases, electrification is a more efficient use of energy. For example, less than 20% of the energy in gasoline is used to move a vehicle and the rest is wasted as heat, whereas 85% of electricity delivered to an electric vehicle is used to provide motion.

Of course clean technology would require massive infrastructure investment as well. The good news is that it is not money handed out by government or consumers but rather an investment that is paid back through the sale of electricity and energy, and because of the efficiencies and the advances in the technologies, it is cheaper than fossil fuel based energy. Energy will be the growth industry of the next 20 years; it is essential for a growing population and a standard of living; and as Putin’s intervention in Crimea has reminded us, it is essential for geopolitical stability.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - What is Really Plausible

What is Really Plausible
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 162 = 16,424
SPX + 19 = 1862
NAS + 52 = 4086
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.63%
OIL + .05 = 103.81
GOLD - .20 = 1303.20
SILV + .07 = 19.73

Let’s start with some earnings news and then we’ll move over to economic data.

Google posted $3.4 billion in net income, or $5.04 per share, in the three months ended March 31, compared to $3.3 billion, or $4.97 per share, in the year-ago period. Revenue rose 19% to $15.4 billion, but analysts had estimated $15.5 billion, and the shares were getting clobbered in late trades.

IBM reported its lowest quarterly revenue in five years; IBM reported revenue of $21.7 billion for the quarter, but that marks the eighth consecutive decline in quarterly revenue. The company has been restructuring its business by cutting jobs and selling its low-end server business. This is not what you would call a growth model.

Also, from the faulty business model file: Bank of America posted a $276 million loss for the most recent quarter. The financial results included a pre-tax expense of $6 billion, or approximately 40 cents a share after tax, to cover litigation costs as the bank moved to resolve mortgage-related litigation fallout from the financial crisis that began in 2007 and other issues; far worse than the $3.7 billion investors had braced for. The bank today agreed to a $584 million settlement of litigation over nine residential mortgage-backed securitizations insured by the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company. The FGIC said the securitizations were sponsored by Countrywide, which Bank of America bought in 2008.

Since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Bank of America has logged some $50 billion of expenses for settlements of lawsuits and related legal costs, before taxes. Without those charges, its income before taxes would have been about three times higher. When does it end? How do you factor this when you try to value shares of a company? The simple answers: it ain’t over yet, and don’t even try.

In economic news: China reported that its economy grew at its slowest pace in 18 months at the start of 2014, but the increase was better than expected and showed some improvement in March.

From the Census Bureau: privately owned housing starts in March increased 2.8% from February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000; single family housing starts increased 6% from the month before at an annual rate of 635,000. Building permits authorized were down 2.4% from February at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 990,000, but it’s still 11.2% higher than March of last year.

The Federal Reserve reports industrial production increased 0.7% in March, following a 1.2% advance in February; for the first quarter industrial production moved up at a 4.4% pace. The increase in industrial production, which beat economists' expectations for a 0.5% gain, reflected in part a 0.5% rise in manufacturing output. There were also hefty increases in production at mines and utilities.

The Federal Reserve has just released its April Beige Book, a collection of anecdotes on economic conditions from business contacts across each of the 12 Fed districts. Economic growth increased and consumer spending rose, at least for people who weren’t completely snowed in. The Fed seemed quite fascinated with the weather, mentioning it more than 100 times; it’s like they had never seen snow before, and they seemed amazed that it makes actual work difficult for some people.  

Transportation, manufacturing, financial services, and auto sales all improved, though the reports on residential housing markets were “varied.” The Beige Book also talks of delays to crop plantings and shipments of commodities, as well as a pig virus that hurt hog farming. Labor market conditions continued to slowly improve with minimal wage pressure, and prices were generally stable or slightly higher.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen delivered a speech to the Economic Club in New York. She said the economy is improving, it will continue to improve, and by 2016 it will be normal, and then it will all be good. Yellen said: “I find this baseline outlook quite plausible.”

Yellen laid out 3 questions that will guide the Fed policymakers: Is there still significant “slack” in the labor market? Is inflation moving back toward 2 percent? What factors may push the recovery off track?

Is there still significant “slack” in the labor market? Why yes, yes there is. The unemployment rate is at 6.7% and Yellen would prefer to see it closer to 5.2% or 5.6% and she thinks it will take about 2 more years to get there. Further slack exists in the share of the workforce working part time and the long term unemployed and the low level of participation in the workforce. Toss in almost no wage pressure.

Is inflation moving back toward 2 percent? Yellen said inflation significantly persisting below 2% was more likely than inflation moving substantially above 2%. At the moment, the Fed’s favorite measure of inflation is less than 1%, well below the Fed’s annual inflation target of 2%.Inflation is likely to gradually move back toward the central bank’s target. Yellen said that to some extent, the low rate of inflation seems to be due to factors that are likely to be temporary, including lower consumer energy prices and a drop in import prices.

What factors may push the recovery off track?  Yellen says there can be a lot of ‘twists and turns’ in the economy” and the central bank has no “fixed idea” about what will come to pass. The Fed will try to set the course and Yellen said the central bank’s new forward guidance can serve as an “automatic stabilizer” that helps investors from overreacting to “twists and turns” the economy may take.

She cited the ongoing fiscal drag on the economy. This is a recurring theme; we heard Bernanke talking about this for a long time. Allow me to translate from Fedspeak to plain language. The Federal Reserve is responsible for monetary policy; Congress handles fiscal policy. So fiscal drag means that the policies laid out by Congress have hurt the economy. The Fed has tried to stimulate the economy, much like stepping on the accelerator while the Congress has been applying the brakes. That’s a bit simplistic because there are other factors at work. The Fed is stepping on the gas, the Congress is stepping on the brakes, and we’ve got rotten, ill-behaved bratty children in the back seat, reaching over and grabbing the steering wheel and threatening to drive into a brick wall; in this example, the bratty kids in the back seat are the banksters.

Just a little reminder of a story from the Summer of 2013; when we learned that Goldman Sachs was in the aluminum business. Goldman had 27 industrial warehouses in the Detroit area, where they stored aluminum. Goldman also had an interest in the financial markets for aluminum; they bet on price movement in the commodity; and they exploited pricing regulations set up by an overseas commodities exchange, which essentially allowed them to keep aluminum in storage longer than allowed, which keeps it off the market and out of production, which jacks up prices, based upon simple supply-demand, and then they bet on those higher prices. They literally had trucks moving aluminum from one warehouse to another, all around Detroit, but they wouldn’t ship it out for production. The move cost consumers more than $5 billion over the last 3 years.

The inflated aluminum pricing is just one way that Wall Street is flexing its financial muscle and capitalizing on loosened federal regulations to sway a variety of commodities markets. The maneuvering in markets for oil, wheat, cotton, coffee and more have brought billions in profits to investment banks like Goldman, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, while forcing consumers to pay more every time they fill up a gas tank, flick on a light switch, open a beer or buy a cellphone. Federal regulators were also looking at JPMorgan and 3 other banks for rigging electricity prices.

Using special exemptions granted by the Federal Reserve and relaxed regulations approved by Congress, the banks have bought huge swaths of infrastructure used to store commodities and deliver them to consumers. After hearing of all the abuses by the banks, some people thought it might be good to rethink these policies. And about 9 months have passed, and finally 2 senators, Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, have sent a letter to the Fed, suggesting that "As a general matter, [big banks] should be prohibited from owning physical assets like warehouses, pipelines, and tankers."

Aluminum prices have continued to rise not necessarily because the commodity has become more valuable or scarce, but simply because the wait times for physical delivery have steadily grown longer. In some cases, the wait has lasted more than a year. Meanwhile, commodity traders have come up with a unique solution to banks hold physical commodities in warehouses to manipulate prices. The London Metals Exchange will give traders the ability to hedge aluminum prices, as the commodity continues to rise due to lengthy delivery times that have thrown a wrench in a number of supply chains.

Here are a few facts for your consideration: roughly one-third of everything we buy goes to interest; the interest goes to private banks; at the height of the financial crisis over 40% of US corporate profits went to the financial industry, up from 7% in 1980. The simple reality is that I we could just get those crazy banksters under control, we would have at minimum a couple of trillion extra dollars floating through the economy, and we wouldn’t have to worry (as much)  about the Fed and Congress and monetary policy versus fiscal drag, and we would all be talking about the phenomenal economic recovery. And that is not only plausible, but that’s a fact.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - Yellen in the Lions' Den

Yellen in the Lions' Den
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 89 = 16,262
SPX + 12 = 1842
NAS + 11 = 4034
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.62%
OIL - .22 = 103.83
GOLD – 24.20 = 1303.40
SILV - .41 = 19.66

Stocks were all over the place today. We started with triple digit gains for the Dow Industrials, dipped to triple digit losses, then back into positive territory for the close with the major indices closing just below their morning highs. This kind of volatility does not engender confidence; it does warrant caution.

The utilities sector gained 1.3% and finished ahead of the other groups, extending its YTD gain to 11.8%; the biotech ETF added 1%, while the broader healthcare sector advanced 1.1%.Tech stocks have been beaten up quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. The Nasdaq 100 Tech Index (NDXT) is down 7% since April 1st. The Nasdaq Composite has exhibited weakness, but not to the point of meeting the definition of a correction; it would take a slide to 3,922 to mark a 10% fall from the March 5 closing high at 4,357; a 10% pullback from the March 6 intraday high of 4,371 would be achieved at 3,934.

The Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, or CPI, increased 0.2% in March after posting a 0.1% increase in February. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core prices ticked up 0.2%.Prices rose 1.5% for the 12 months ending in March. That is up from February’s year-over-year reading of 1.1%. Core prices moved up 1.7% over the 12 months, up from 1.6% in February.

A major factor in both headline and core CPI in March was a 0.3% increase in shelter costs. On an annual basis, housing costs were up 2.7%, the fastest pace in six years. The indexes for medical care, used cars and airline fares also increased in March. Apparel prices rose for the first time this year. Household furnishings and recreation prices dipped in the month. Real or inflation-adjusted hourly wages, meanwhile, fell 0.3% in March to $10.31. Real wages have risen 0.5% over the past 12 months. So, we’re not seeing wage-push inflation.

The big difference has been housing; shelter costs account for a full third of the basket of goods and services tracked in the consumer price index. In the past year, consumer prices excluding shelter have risen just 1%, an indication that inflation pressures are subdued outside of housing.

The old rule of thumb was that rents and utilities combined should not take up more than 30% of household income. A new study by Zillow finds 90 cities where the median rent, not including utilities, was more than 30 percent of the median gross income. A study by Harvard finds that nationally, half of all renters are now spending more than 30% of their income on housing, up from 38% of renters in 2000. Part of the reason for the squeeze on renters is simple demand; between 2007 and 2013 the United States added, on net, about 6.2 million tenants, compared with 208,000 homeowners.

For many middle and lower income people, high rents choke spending on other goods and services, impeding the economic recovery. Low-income families that spend more than half their income on housing spend about a third less on food, 50% less on clothing, and 80% less on medical care compared with low-income families with affordable rents.

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen is scheduled to go to the lion’s den tomorrow, making a speech before the Economic Club in New York. Today, Yellen took the show on the road, speaking to a banking conference in Atlanta, she said current rules on how much capital banks must hold to protect against losses don't address all threats. She said the Fed's staff is considering what further measures might be needed, and such measures would likely apply to only the largest and most complex banks. Yellen said the Fed would review the likely effects of imposing stricter rules on banks. That probably plays better in Atlanta than Manhattan.

At some point Yellen must press the case of the Fed as regulator and in control of the banks rather than vice versa. Now, any threat or hint of threat at tighter control is only likely to result in the big banks moving risky behavior into less regulated areas of the financial system. These areas are often called the shadow banking system.

One area of concern for Yellen and her Fed colleagues is the short-term debt markets. So, Yellen would like to see the banks hold more capital; the idea being that it would make them less susceptible to a run. Now, when you hear that the Fed Chair is concerned about a bank run, this is not the old fashioned bank run, with customers lined up at the door of Bedford Savings and Loan and Jimmy Stewart trying to persuade his neighbors that their long-term loans will provide sufficient liquidity to short-term needs.

The problem goes to an area of regulation overlooked, or perhaps neglected by Congress and the various regulators; specifically derivatives; and after the collapse in 2008 what the regulators did was to concentrate the risk of the derivatives among four major Wall Street banks; the big banks just got bigger.

If you’ve ever stood in a teller’s line at the bank, you may have noticed the FDIC sticker, which reads, “Backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government.” Effectively, that means, if the assessments the FDIC charges the banks to meet the needs of the Deposit Insurance Fund run short, the taxpayer must prop up the fund to make insured depositors whole. On top of that promise, the National Depositor Preference statute came into being in the US in 1993, making all deposit liabilities at insured depository banks preferred over the claims of other creditors.

The serious wrinkle in the plan is that if one of the four largest banks in terms of derivative exposure was put into receivership by the FDIC, its derivative counterparties have the legal right to assert a super-priority claim on the liquid assets of the bank, jumping in front of depositors. Typically, the counterparties start grabbing their collateral before the public is even aware of the problem.

The Deposit Insurance Fund probably has about $40 billion in assets. With the Dodd-Frank prohibition against further taxpayer bailouts of banks, where would the FDIC turn to stem a run on one of the largest banks?

Under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, the FDIC, acting as a conservator or receiver for an insured depository institution, has the right to “disaffirm or repudiate any contract or lease.” But here again, Wall Street has the FDIC between a rock and a hard place. Let’s say there was a reenactment of 2008 and Citigroup was sliding toward insolvency. If the FDIC repudiated Citigroup’s derivative contracts, it would set off a panic and contagion at the other three largest banks holding trillions in derivatives, creating an even larger financial tab for the Deposit Insurance Fund to meet. Banks taking deposits of public funds are required to pledge collateral against any funds exceeding the deposit insurance limit of $250,000. But derivative claims are also secured with collateral, and they have super-priority over all other claimants, including other secured creditors. The money is gone before you get to the teller’s window.

But before you lose any sleep over the prospects of another, potentially far worse global financial meltdown, take solace that the economy is recovering. There are a few more jobs, and consumers are spending, and the housing market is improving, and the Fed has been pumping money into the economy to foster this growth of credit. Right?

Well, one of the lessons we’ve learned in the recovery is that there is a difference between credit growth and economic growth. And absent real and sustainable economic growth a gap eventually forms as credit growth expands. The more one spends on a place of shelter the less one has to spend on other things, and overall demand is reduced. Bank lending finances the purchase of existing assets, particularly with reference to real estate. Such existing asset finance does not directly stimulate investment or consumption, but it drives up asset prices, and that leads lenders and borrowers to believe that even more credit is both safe and desirable. The expansion is like a rubber band that can only stretch so far.

So, it seems the greatest danger to the current economy are the very mechanisms that are still used to “fix” the last financial crisis: money-printing and asset-purchases by major central banks around the world that unleashed a global flood of liquidity for over five years. Most of this massively huge pile of cash has landed in the laps of banks, institutional investors, hedge funds, private equity firms, and other speculators has not been used to boost lending to the private, and thus has not contributed to the recovery of the real economy. Instead, it has been poured into financial assets and has artificially goosed their valuations.

This money sloshing through the system and the persistence of zero-interest-rate policies have driven desperate investors ever further out into “all risky asset classes,” including emerging assets, junk-rated corporate credit, Eurozone peripheral debt, and equities. That buying pressure has inflated their valuations even further. And in the emerging markets, it led to an appreciation of exchange rates.

And when the rubber band breaks, there will be a derivatives bet on it. When the derivatives default, the counterparties, operating in an unregulated shadow banking world of their own design, do not have sufficient capital to pay off the derivatives bet, and so the first thing they’ll do is raid the bank vaults, and when that dries up, the short-term credit markets freeze, because none of the counterparties have faith that the other party has any more in capital reserves than they have.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014 - Blood Moon and More

Blood Moon and More
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 146 = 16,173
SPX + 14 = 1830
NAS + 22 = 4022
10 YR YLD + .02 = 2.64%
OIL - .11 = 103.63
GOLD + 8.20 = 1327.60
SILV un = 20.07

Here’s what you can expect; the Earth will eclipse the moon tonight about 10:58PM pacific time, adjust according to your time zone. The eclipse will take some time, a few hours. The moon will shift color from orange to blood red to brown, again depending on you locale and the weather. It should be interesting.

The stock markets started the day in positive territory and as trading dragged on, the major indices moved lower on the very cusp of turning red, almost as if they were being eclipsed, and then positive again, right at 3:15 PM eastern time, everything just picked up. Now, you might think the markets are rigged. You might.

A group of traders has sued CME Group Inc, accusing the operator of the world's largest derivatives exchange of selling market data to high frequency traders, cheating other investors who lacked such access. The suit says the CME and its Chicago Board of Trade unit have been giving high-frequency traders early access to buy and sell orders.  They said this deprived other investors of the transparent, real-time data on futures and interest rate contracts that they thought they were getting, and were paying for.

Volume was down from Friday; that’s a nasty trend, lighter volume on up days, heavier volume on down days.

The economic calendar includes the March Consumer Price Index tomorrow; Wednesday brings an update on housing starts and building permits, plus the Federal Reserve will release its Beige Book; Friday, the markets are closed for Good Friday.

This morning the Commerce Department reported retail sales increased 1.1% last month; February’s sales numbers were revised higher to 0.7% from a previously reported 0.3%. An important subset of the report showed retail inventories, excluding automobiles, rose 0.2% in February. You will recall that businesses accumulated too much inventory in the fourth quarter of last year, and we have seen fewer orders as the businesses work through unsold goods and try to clear their shelves. That has left the inventory to sales ratio at its highest level since September 2009. Now, it looks like the buyers are back.

A separate report from the New York Fed showed people grew more confident in the labor market last month, with younger workers in particular seeing a greater chance of finding work should they lose their current job.

Earnings reporting season continues with Citigroup posting better than expected net income under of $3.9 billion, or $1.23 per share, from $3.8 billion, or $1.23 per share. Citi Holdings, which holds the bank's portfolio of troubled assets left over from the financial crisis, posted a loss of $292 million, down from $798 million a year earlier. For all of Citigroup, adjusted revenue dropped 2% to $20.1 billion. Citi still has problems with its Mexican unit, which is accused of making fraudulent loans. Also, Citi flunked the recent Fed stress tests for capital reserves. So, here we are nearly 6 years after the financial meltdown and Citi is still cleaning up its books, still exhibiting signs of structural damage, and unable to put money to productive purpose.

The Congressional Budget office says the deficit isn’t as bad as they thought. For the fiscal year 2014 ending September 30, CBO said, the deficit would fall to $492 billion from a $514 billion February estimate - and nearly a third lower than last year's $680 billion deficit. And CBO lowered its cumulative deficit forecast for fiscal years 2015 through 2024 by $286 billion, to a mere $7.6 trillion; the reason for the lower deficits, is that subsidies for health care costs will be less than previously guesstimated.
Deficits will reach a low point of $469 billion, or 2.6% of US gross domestic product, in fiscal 2015, then gradually start to rise, topping $1 trillion again in 2023 and 2024, a level that would be near 4% of GDP.

Last week the IMF and the World Bank held their Spring Meeting in Washington DC. Here’s a snippet from a panel discussion featuring Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans and Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter.

Charles Evans said: “In the U.S. monetary policy is using the standard transmission mechanism. We’re trying to reduce financing costs. Auto rates are down and the auto sector is way back compared to where it was. Housing is better. Mortgage rates are down. And if you have the ability to refinance, or get a mortgage – it’s tougher these days because of the standards - then you can do that. So it’s the standard transmission mechanism. And we are indeed trying to get inflation up because we’re below target. What comes with that is wage increases, also up to where they ought to be. Wages are a symptom of inflation – using a lagging indicator – and they’re down around 2 to 2.25% right now. When they’re at a steady growth part of the cycle they ought to be about 3.5% - 1.5% productivity and 2% inflation target. So getting everything up – and getting inflation up to where it is supposed to be is an important part of all of this. So that benefits everybody.”

Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter responded: “Monetary policy works with asset prices. By boosting equities, raising bond prices, weakening the currency and that’s exactly how it has happened. Not very effectively, because we have poor man’s monetary policy. Which is what unconventional monetary policy is. But it’s all we have. I would have preferred to see some additional measures on the fiscal side, which could have mitigated some of the income distributional consequences…”

Over the weekend we saw the investment game plan detailed on Sunday morning talk shows. Did you catch it? The climate is changing; we can still fix it; it will require massive investment. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, keeping global warming down to a level people can live with means cutting carbon emissions to "near zero" by the end of the century, even in an increasingly industrialized world. That may be doable, but it will take "substantial investments" in everything from planting more trees to replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon power sources like solar, wind and nuclear energy. The report clearly shows that the challenges to resolve the global common problem are huge, but also this report shows that there are some steps to resolve this issue.

And the longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes, and if we wait too long, the Earth and all of us who are too miserly to invest now, will cook.

Any hope will require more than tripling the share of electricity produced by renewable sources or nuclear power, along with refining the still-evolving technology of capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground. And it will take a coordinated global effort, likely including taxes on emissions. No direct price tag was attached to that scenario, but the IPCC authors indicate it would require "substantial investments," and more delays just drive up the expected cost. The impact could amount to shaving the projected average growth of the global economy by six-hundredths of a percentage point, from about 2% per year to 1.94%, over the coming century. The total global economy was about $72 trillion in 2012, according to World Bank figures.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who in February called the issue "the greatest challenge of our generation," said Sunday's report is an economic opportunity.

Kerry said in a written statement: "So many of the technologies that will help us fight climate change are far cheaper, more readily available, and better performing than they were when the last IPCC assessment was released less than a decade ago. These technologies can cut carbon pollution while growing economic opportunity at the same time. The global energy market represents a $6 trillion opportunity, with 6 billion users around the world."

Despite more than two decades of efforts to restrain carbon emissions, not only are emissions still going up, they're going up faster than ever. Though there's been an increased emphasis on generating power from renewable sources, the use of coal has gone up in the past 10 years.

The Washington Post and the Guardian captured coveted Pulitzer Prizes for public service for their revelations about the US government's massive surveillance programs. The newspapers' stories were based on thousands of secret documents obtained from Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who is living in Russia after fleeing the United States. The Post also won a Pulitzer this year for explanatory reporting. The New York Times won two Pulitzers, both for photography. No award was handed out for feature writing. The Boston Globe won for breaking news for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Reuters won an award for its coverage on the persecution of a Muslim minority in Myanmar who in efforts to flee often fall into the hands of brutal human-trafficking networks. The prize for investigative reporting went to The Center for Public Integrity for reports on how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease. The prize for explanatory reporting went to the Washington Post for work on the prevalence of food stamps in post-recession America. The prize for local reporting went to the Tampa Bay Times for an investigation into squalid housing conditions for the city's homeless population. The prize for national reporting went to The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for his examination of how wounded combat veterans are mistreated.

I know what you’re thinking; this is a shocking development. Who knew there were still newspapers?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014 - Corrupt or Incompetent, Take Your Pick

Corrupt or Incompetent, Take Your Pick
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 143 = 16,026
SPX – 17 = 1815
NAS – 54 = 3999
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.62%
OIL - .07 = 103.33
GOLD + .30 = 1319.40
SILV - .07 = 20.06

The S&P 500 closed at its lowest level in two months. The gauge slipped 2.7% this week, the biggest loss since 2012. The Dow Industrial are down 2.4% for the week. The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 1.3% today, capping its biggest two-day retreat since 2011; and down 3.1% for the week; closing at its lowest level in 4 months. The major US indices are all back in the red year to date. Biotechs fell for the 7th week in a row; the worst run since 1998; and now down 21% from recent highs. About 7.4 billion shares changed hands on US exchanges, 5.8% higher than the three-month average.

We are entering a period that has historically been very poor for stocks. The idea is called “Sell in May” or the worst six months. According to the Ned Davis (NDR) database, had you invested $10,000 in the S&P 500 every May 1st starting in 1950 and sold October 31 of the same year, your initial position would only be worth $10,026. Put another way, by investing only from May through October, a $10,000 stake invested in 1950 would have only made $26.

The Labor Department reports the producer price index, gained 0.5% for March. Excluding the volatile categories of food and energy, core PPI prices rose 0.6% after falling 0.2% in February. The University of Michigan/ Thomson Reuters consumer sentiment rose to a preliminary April reading of 82.6, the highest reading since July, from a final March level of 80.

You’ve probably heard about the Heartbleed bug.  Heartbleed is a flaw in OpenSSL, a piece of code intended to create a secure connection between a server and Web browser; for example, between an online shop and customer. The bug allows an attacker to make the server surrender bits of information out of its memory that should not be accessible. What's more, the exploit leaves no trace. The fear is that the bug may expose credit card numbers, passwords, and more.

By some estimates the Heartbleed bug puts two-thirds of all websites at risk. Millions of smartphones and tablets running Google’s Android operating system have the Heartbleed bug. The government has issued a warning to businesses and banks to be on alert for hackers possibly stealing data.

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, made up of representatives from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators, said: “The vulnerability could allow an attacker to potentially access a server’s private cryptographic keys compromising the security of the server and its users. Attackers could potentially impersonate bank services or users, steal login credentials, access sensitive e-mail, or gain access to internal networks.”

And there’s not a lot you, as a consumer, can do until the websites fix the problem on their end. It may take some time. The Heartbleed bug has been found in the hardware connecting homes and businesses to the Internet. Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks said some of their networking products are susceptible to the encryption bug. Security experts say it might help to change passwords on sites you visit, but fixing the network equipment and software means the companies will rely on customers applying patches as they become available. Cisco said it would tell customers when software patches for its affected products are available.
Now for the scary part.

Bloomberg News reports the National Security Agency has known about the Heartbleed bug for 2 years, and rather than report it, or take steps to close it down, the NSA instead regularly used the encryption flaw to gather intelligence. Putting the Heartbleed bug in its arsenal, the NSA was able to obtain passwords and other basic data that are the building blocks of sophisticated hacking operations. The agency found the Heartbleed glitch shortly after its introduction, according to one of the people familiar with the matter, and it became a basic part of the agency’s toolkit for stealing account passwords and other common tasks.

The revelations have created a clearer picture of the two roles, sometimes contradictory, played by the US’s largest spy agency. The NSA protects the computers of the government and critical industry from cyberattacks, while gathering troves of intelligence attacking the computers of others, including terrorist organizations, nuclear smugglers and other governments.

Questions remain about whether anyone other than the US government might have exploited the flaw before the public disclosure. Sophisticated intelligence agencies in other countries are one possibility. If criminals found the flaw before a fix was published this week, they could have scooped up millions of passwords for online bank accounts, e-commerce sites, and e-mail accounts across the world.

If the reports are true, they would represent a serious breach of the NSA's mission.  There’s no excuse for leaving Americans and businesses vulnerable to breaches on this scale. They should be helping to shore up vulnerabilities, not exploiting them. The NSA has issued a statement denying prior knowledge of the Heartbleed bug; which is not a reassuring denial. This is one of the biggest breaches in the history of the internet, and the NSA, which is supposed to watch this stuff, claims they know nothing. For now, the NSA is sticking to their story that they are incompetent rather than corrupt.

Earnings reporting season is gearing up, with an epic miss from the biggest US bank. JPMorgan Chase said its first-quarter earnings fell 20%, driven by a decline in investment banking and mortgage lending. The bank reported net income of $4.9 billion for the first quarter, after stripping out payments to preferred stockholders. That was down from $6.1 billion in the same period a year earlier. On a per-share basis, the earnings amounted to $1.28, missing estimates of $1.39. Revenue, after stripping out the effect of an accounting charge for credit losses, was $23.8 billion, down 8 percent from $25.8 billion a year earlier. Revenues at the bank's fixed income trading business, part of its investment banking unit, slumped 21% to $3.8 billion. Mortgage originations plunged 68% to $6.7 billion, compared with the same period last year; the bank doesn't expect the trend to change anytime soon.

Wells Fargo posted a profit of $5.9 billion, up 14% from the same period in 2013. Still, the bank’s revenue for the quarter fell to $20.6 billion from $21.3 billion in the same period a year ago.

A federal judge has approved the city of Detroit’s latest attempt to extricate itself from some long-term derivatives contracts that have been costing it tens of millions of dollars a year, holding up a settlement as an example of “the very spirit of negotiation and compromise” that he hoped other creditors would follow. Judge Steven Rhodes of United States Bankruptcy Court ruled that Detroit could proceed with a plan to pay $85 million to UBS and Bank of America to terminate the financial contracts, known as interest-rate swaps, that were used to help finance pensions.

Under the terms of the settlement, the two banks agreed to back Detroit’s overall plan of adjustment, which is critical for the city’s push to resolve its bankruptcy by early fall. Municipal bankruptcy rules say that if one class of impaired creditors votes to approve the city’s plan of debt adjustment, the judge may be able to impose the terms forcibly on everybody else. The judge’s decision gives Detroit leverage for settlements with other creditors.

Earlier this year, Judge Rhodes had rejected a previous attempt to end the swaps that called for Detroit to pay the banks $165 million. He called that proposal “just too much money” and noted that Detroit would have a reasonable chance of success if it sued the banks outright, calling the swaps invalid and refusing to make any termination payments at all. The message was to re-engage in negotiations, and apparently it worked.

Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, and other officials have been calling for creditors to negotiate settlements quickly out of fear that Detroit’s case will become a hopeless quagmire if creditors keep fighting the city’s proposals for resolving their debts. The state law that put Detroit under emergency management is scheduled to expire in September.

Detroit entered into the swap contracts in 2005, when it tapped the municipal bond market for $1.4 billion to put into its workers’ pension funds. Much of the deal was structured with variable-rate debt, and the swaps were intended to work as a hedge, to protect Detroit if interest rates rose. But rates fell, and under those circumstances, the terms of the swaps called for Detroit to make regular payments to UBS and Bank of America. The swaps cost Detroit about $36 million a year.

The 2005 borrowing also required an unusual structure to avoid violating the city’s legal debt limit. In 2009, the debt was downgraded to junk, putting the city out of compliance with the terms of the swaps. So Detroit restructured the swap obligations, offering the two banks the tax revenue that it received from local casinos as a backstop.

When Detroit declared bankruptcy last summer, it estimated the cost of terminating its swaps at about $345 million. Days before filing its bankruptcy petition, Detroit said Bank of America and UBS had given it a break, so that it would have to pay only about $250 million to cancel the contracts. But other creditors, facing bigger relative losses, complained that the two banks were still getting way too much. They argued, among other things, that the interest-rate swaps were invalid from the beginning because the use of casino taxes for financial hedges is not allowed under state law. So, Detroit either got off cheap at $85 billion or the banks just stole $85 billion.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014 - Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 266 = 16,170
SPX – 39 = 1833 (-2.1%)
NAS – 129 = 4054 (- 3.1%)
10 YR YLD - .06 = 2.62%
OIL - .20 = 103.40
GOLD + 5.80 = 1319.10
SILV + .19 = 20.13

If you want to know why the stock market is up one day and down the next, and not just little moves but triple digit swings – I don’t know. If anybody says they know, they probably don’t. Maybe it’s the Fed, maybe it is earnings reporting season, maybe it’s a strong economy or a weak economy, or maybe the markets are just trying to imitate Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The one thing we know is that stock prices fluctuate, and over time a pattern or trend develops; right now things are wobbly.

In economic news, the Labor Department said that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits dropped to 300,000, the lowest level in nearly seven years.

The Treasury Department says the federal budget deficit for the first half of the 2014 fiscal year totaled $413 billion, down $187 billion from where it stood at this point last year, as tax revenue surged and spending sank.  In March, the Treasury collected $216 billion in taxes, up 16% from a year ago, helping reduce the deficit for March to $37 billion from $107 billion last year. 

Meanwhile, spending sank by 14%, or $40 billion; military spending has been cut, federal government jobs have been cut, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are no longer a drain but rather a contributor to the Federal coffers. Tax receipts have been increasing as the stock market improved (not necessarily today but remember last year was strong). Also, the economy has been better, not great but better. 

The budget gap last month was the smallest deficit recorded for the month of March since 2000. Over all, the deficit is expected to equal 4.1% of gross domestic product in 2014, down from nearly 10% in 2009, during the depths of the recession. It is the fastest four-year reduction in deficits since the demobilization after World War II.

California is sinking. Scientists estimate that the Central Valley accounts for about 20% of the groundwater that is pumped in the nation. It's the lifeblood of the flourishing agriculture industry, producing crops from almonds to plums, nectarines and cotton. And the water to irrigate is pumped from aquifers that are not being replenished by rainfall.

The US Geological Survey published a study that found that 1,200 square miles of the Central Valley were sinking half-an-inch per year, but the rate is not consistent everywhere. The town of El Nido, just south of Merced sank almost a foot a year between 2008 and 2010. A foot a year is not sustainable. You can’t really mitigate against a foot a year.

Farmers are digging deeper wells, and as the water is pumped out of clay aquifers, the earth above falls to fill the void, and the clay compresses. It’s called subsidence. The land sinks and the compressed clay cannot hold as much water as it once did. Once subsidence happens there is no way to undo it.

About 30% of California’s water supply comes from underground supplies, more during droughts, and about 80% of state residents rely to some degree on groundwater. Some towns, cities and farming operations depend entirely on it. And it has been a problem for a long time. Three generations ago, so much groundwater was pumped from aquifers that half the valley sank like a giant pie crust, sagging 28 feet near Mendota and inflicting damage to irrigation canals, pipelines, bridges, roads and other infrastructure.

The sinking only stopped because of 2 massive government funded irrigation projects, the federal Central Valley project and the California State Water project, which flooded the region with water from distant mountains and relieved pressure on the natural underground water supply. Now, the drought and climate change have opened up a new era of groundwater pumping. The result is the ground is sinking and the land subsidence is perhaps the worst ever seen in California.

This causes multiple problems for infrastructure. Dams and irrigation canals rely on gravity to move water, but when the ground sinks, the water doesn’t always flow as expected.  Flood safety is another concern; flood control channels might not perform as expected as levees sink. Bridges sag; well casings fail; and then there is the issue of the state’s multi-billion dollar high-speed rail line plotted to run through an area that is sinking by about a foot a year.

While the San Joaquin Valley faces the worst problems of land subsidence, other regions of California are dealing with similar problems on a smaller scale. The USGS has been studying sinking ground in the Coachella Valley for years in conjunction with the local water district. In a 2007 USGS study, researchers determined that the ground had subsided up to 4 inches in parts of La Quinta, with smaller effects in parts of Palm Desert and Indian Wells, during a year-and-a-half period from 2003 to 2005.In the Coachella Valley, the ground has sunk in some places where groundwater levels have fallen. Uneven settling has cracked the foundations of houses and fractured walls, swimming pools and roads.

After years of drought, water tables are dropping fast. Well-drilling costs are soaring. The biggest problem is the gradual, irreversible compaction of the earth that occurs when aquifers are pumped to historic lows. It doesn’t make the aquifer unusable. It just reduces the amount of water that can be stored in it, now and in the future.

The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision released its final ruling on just how much derivatives traders have to hold in reserve to pay off on defaults. International regulators are trying to safeguard trades and bring more openness to a $700 trillion market, known for its secrecy.

Swaps are what investors use to help guard against risk (at least theoretically). They’re bought by pension plans and retirement funds to protect against fluctuations in interest rates, meaning they affect most people who own annuities. They’re used by the US government to limit exposure in the mortgage market and cut home-loan costs. Investors can also hedge an investment in a company by buying a swap that will pay them if a borrower stops paying its debts. They’re called swaps because investors and banks exchange, or swap, payments over time based on how interest rates move or how the creditworthiness of companies changes.

Think of it as a form of insurance, with a few major exceptions; swaps do not require an insurable interest. For example, you can buy life insurance for your spouse and your spouse can buy life insurance on you because you have an insurable interest in each other. Your doctor can’t buy a life insurance policy on your life because your doctor does not have an insurable interest. And when you think about it that is a good way to approach insurance. Otherwise, your doctor might buy an insurance policy on your life and then bet against you; which is essentially what many people did with swaps in the financial crisis; they bought insurance on mortgage debts betting mortgages would default.

More frequently, swaps dealers sold swaps to people or entities who didn’t need the swaps or didn’t understand the swaps; for example the city of Detroit or the nation of Greece; they bet interest rates would go one way, and then they took on more debt than was prudent and when rates turned, they lost everything. Swaps made bankers billions of dollars before helping to blow up the global economy in 2008.

The other significant difference between swaps and insurance is that insurance companies must have reserves to pay claims. Swaps dealers, not so much; and so when defaults happen, the swaps contracts have a nasty history of not covering the risks they are supposed to cover. In other words, they never paid their claims.

After the crash, regulators set to work to make them less dangerous, through changes that in the process would make them less profitable. Where swaps had been one-on-one deals before, now they would be backstopped by third parties in clearinghouses that ensure everyone can pay, with the aim of avoiding emergency bailouts and panic. And the new Basel Rules now applies a minimum 20% risk weighting to money deposited at clearinghouses, which are third parties that guarantee the transactions. Note that is not a 20% in actual reserves, just a 20% risk weighting on money deposited at clearinghouses; big difference.

Today’s edition of “Banks Behaving Badly” features a hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, run by Steven A. Cohen. A judge has accepted a guilty plea from the hedge fund firm as part of a $1.2 billion criminal settlement for insider trading. In total, SAC Capital has agreed to pay $1.8 billion to resolve criminal and civil probes into insider trading. The Department of Justice said that payout is the largest insider trading settlement in history. The judge said: "These crimes clearly were motivated by greed, and these breaches of the public trust require serious penalties."

Now here is the peculiar part; if these breaches of the public trust require serious penalties why would they not include prison time? The answer is that you can avoid prison if you can pay enough money. SAC Capital has lots of money. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: "Today marks the day of reckoning for a fund that was riddled with criminal conduct." Not exactly. Today marks the day SAC Capital writes a check and continues on; that does not constitute a day of reckoning.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wednesday, April 09, 2014 - Feeding Time at the ZIRP Trough

Feeding Time at the ZIRP Trough
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 181 = 16,437
SPX + 20 = 1872
NAS + 70 = 4183
10 YR YLD un = 2.68%
OIL + 1.04 = 103.60
GOLD + 4.30 = 1313.30
SILV  - .22 = 19.95

In an otherwise light week for economic news, the big report is today’s release of the FOMC minutes from last month’s meeting. No surprises. You may recall that after the last meeting, Chairwoman Janet Yellen talked about the possibility of raising the fed funds target rate after a “considerable time”; when pressed she indicated a “considerable time” was about six months after the Fed ends it asset purchases under Quantitative Easing. That would mean late spring or summer of 2015.

Fed policymakers were unanimous in wanting to ditch the thresholds they had been using to telegraph a policy tightening; no hard and fast target of 6.5% unemployment or 2% inflation. The minutes indicate the Fed would like to see more improvement in the economy; the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. In other words, the Fed remains dovish, and they will taper but they will also keep rates low for a long time. And also, those “dots” are over-rated.

The dots are actually charts suggesting the fed funds rate would top 2% by the end of 2016. In the minutes published today, several policy-makers claim the charts overstated the shift in projections, which would suggest the Fed is not ready to tighten policy. A couple of the voting members wanted to commit to keeping rates low if inflation remains persistently below the Fed's 2-percent goal.

Wall Street loves feeding at the Zero Interest Rate Policy trough. Stocks were up. Despite the three-day selloff, the S&P 500 index managed to hold above its 50-day moving average around 1,840, a key support level. The Nasdaq Composite is in positive territory year to date.

In other economic news, Commerce Department data showed that wholesale inventories rose at a slower pace of 0.5% in February, in line with expectations, after a revised gain of 0.8% in January, which could support views that restocking did not help the economy in the first quarter. You recall that companies were overstocked on inventory in the fourth quarter; we haven’t worked our way through those full shelves, and that likely means that the economy is slogging along in the first quarter.

The IMF, the International Monetary Fund says the global economy is strengthening but emerging markets still face challenges from outflows of capital and the big threat for the global economy is super-low inflation, or low-flation.

The IMF expects the global economy to grow 3.6% this year and 3.9% in 2015, up from 3% last year. Those figures are just one-tenth of a percentage point below the IMF's previous forecasts in January. And the forecasts will likely be revised lower as more months pass; that seems to be the tendency. The IMF made no changes to its forecasts for US growth, which it estimates at 2.8% this year and 3% in 2015. Overall, the recovery seems to be broad, fairly strong and more stable.

The IMF and the World Bank will hold their spring meetings in Washington this weekend. Finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 leading economies will meet Thursday. The IMF is expected to reiterate the message that central banks should be more aggressive.

Inflation in the 18 countries that use the euro currency fell to an annual rate of 0.5% last month. Though consumers can enjoy flat prices, ultra-low inflation can stifle growth. People and companies postpone purchases knowing that prices will be little changed months later. Debts become harder to pay off. That's a particularly severe problem in Europe, where many governments remain squeezed by debts. Super-low inflation also raises the risk of deflation; a decline in wages and prices that slams the brakes on economic growth.

Another topic at the meetings is expected to be inequality. The IMF’s new interest in income distribution coincides with other, seemingly unorthodox positions coming from the fund and some of its experts since the financial crisis of 2008. It has come to support some controls on cross-border capital flows. Its research has argued in favor of fiscal stimulus, pointing out its positive impacts on economic growth.

In the latest edition of the World Economic Outlook, the fund makes the case that inflation in the United States and other developed nations should be higher to help pull the world economy out of its morass. IMF Director Christine Lagarde now argues economic policy cannot be only about promoting low inflation and robust growth. Healthy, stable economies also depend on a reasonably equitable distribution of the rewards. The study concludes a flatter distribution of income contributes more to sustainable economic growth than the quality of a country’s political institutions, its foreign debt and openness to trade, its foreign investment and whether its exchange rate is competitive.

Deep inequality breeds resentment and political instability, discouraging investment. It can lead to political polarization and gridlock, as it cleaves the political system between the interests of the haves and the have-nots. And it can make it more difficult for governments to deal with brewing crises and economic imbalances. An analysis published last year by economists in the IMF’s fiscal affairs department concluded that efforts to curb budget deficits increase inequality, especially if they take the form of spending cuts. It suggested that targeted government spending and progressive taxes could offset some of these effects.

Fears that High Frequency Traders have been rigging the stock market went mainstream last week when 60 minutes ran a story on Michael Lewis’s new book “Flash Boys”. Then the FBI announced it would investigate; my guess is that this will slowly fade away in the light of the Holder Doctrine, which basically says that the Department of Justice and other supposed law enforcement types only arrest petty criminals, and if you have enough money and provide jobs, you are entitled to a “get out of jail” card.

Anyway, the High Frequency Traders are nothing new, they've been around for a long time. The major exchanges lease high speed access. Perhaps less well known are the dark pools. So much trading is now happening away from exchanges that publicly quoted prices for stocks on exchanges may no longer properly reflect where the market is. And this problem could cost investors far more money than any shenanigans related to high frequency trading.

When the average investor, or even a big portfolio manager, tries to buy or sell shares now, the trade is often matched up with another order by a dealer in a so-called "dark pool," or another alternative to exchanges. Those whose trade never makes it to an exchange can benefit as the broker avoids paying an exchange trading fee, taking cost out of the process. Investors with large orders can also more easily disguise what they are doing, reducing the danger that others will hear what they are doing and take advantage of them. 

The rise of "off-exchange trading" is terrible for the broader market because it reduces price transparency. The problem is these venues price their transactions off of the published prices on the exchanges; and if those prices lack integrity then "dark pool" pricing will itself be skewed. Around 40% of all US stock trades, including almost all orders from "mom and pop" investors, now happen "off exchange," up from around 16% six years ago.

A brokerage has several ways to fill customers' orders. It can match buy and sell orders from its own customers, known as "internalizing," or sell its orders to another broker that can do the same. Brokers also send trades to "dark pools," which are similar to exchanges, except the fees are lower and they are anonymous, with orders going unreported until after they have been executed. And finally, they can send trades to exchanges, where they will have to pay higher fees. A major concern with off-exchange trading is that brokers who internalize trades and offer dark pools do not provide any data to the market before the trade is executed.

On a stock exchange, when an order is sent in, the price of the stock is adjusted and everyone with a data feed sees it. Dark pools only report data after a trade has occurred. At that stage, information about the trade has little influence on the price. In other words, dark pool trading is priceless, and you actually need prices to have a marketplace; price discovery is an essential element; cut that out of the equation, and you can see some serious manipulation and distortion.

And finally, in today’s edition of “Banks Behaving Badly”, Bank of America has agreed to pay nearly $800 million in fines and restitution to settle allegations of deceptive marketing and unfair billing involving credit card products. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said the bank had misled roughly 1.4 million people about the cost of two credit card payment protection products, which allow consumers to suspend minimum card payments if they lose their job or suffer a severe illness, and the amount of time they would receive benefits from them.

The bank also billed customers for identity protection products before they received them and did not provide some fraud-monitoring services consumers thought they were buying. About 1.9 million people were unfairly billed. The fines work out to about $5 million the rest in restitution. The bank says it has already issued refund payments to most customers who were affected. Bank of America neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.