Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014 - Hot and Dry

Hot and Dry
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 123 = 16,960
SPX – 9 = 1978
NAS – 22 = 4449
10 YR YLD - .04 = 2.47
OIL - .13 = 101.94
GOLD + 13.30 = 1308.20
SILV + .35 = 20.82

For the week, the Dow is down 0.8%, the S&P is flat and the Nasdaq is up 0.4% in its second straight weekly rise.

In economic news, durable goods orders were up 1.4% in June, but May’s numbers were revised lower to show a 1.2% decline. Shipments of core capital goods fell 1%. Core capital goods shipments are used to calculate equipment spending in the government's gross domestic product measurement. The government will release its first snapshot of second-quarter GDP next Wednesday. The economy contracted at a 2.9% rate in the first three months of the year, with business spending on equipment falling at a 2.8% rate.

Investors have been selling junk bonds. In the past week investors pulled $2.3 billion from junk bond funds. That marked the biggest outflow since June 2013, when the Fed was hinting about tapering. The high-yield market has pulled back in recent weeks, sending prices lower and yields higher. The bond market is not as liquid as it once was; trading volume is down across the board, and trading desks have been cut back, meaning a big sell-off could look more like a run on bonds.

Yesterday we told you about’s earnings report, or more specifically, a lack of earnings. Amazon has a unique business model where they manage to consistently increase sales without actually turning a profit. If it seems like this kind of model has limitations, you are correct, and today Amazon hit the wall. Yesterday’s non-earnings report went from bad to worse as Amazon announced the current quarter will result in bigger losses than the last quarter. The $126 million dollar loss will swell to a $400 million dollar loss, maybe as much as $800 million.

Breaking down the forward guidance, about $410 million of the current quarter loss will be in the form of stock compensation. What makes this even more interesting is that the company lost about $14 billion in market cap today. Jeff Bezos lost $3.5 billion from his personal fortune; Bezos may be an internet visionary, but lacks some basic math skills.

Also yesterday, Visa reported net income for the quarter ended June 30 rose 11 percent to $1.36 billion, or $2.17 a share, from $1.23 billion, or $1.88, a year earlier. Analysts had expected $2.10 a share. Visa’s losses accounted for about one-third of the decline in the Dow today. So, the earnings side was good but the company reduced its revenue forecast for the rest of the fiscal year. One reason for the reduction – Russia. After the US imposed sanctions on Russia, Putin recommended Russia create its own payment system. Visa said that tensions with Russia may affect earnings by “several pennies,” and that headwinds, in the form of lower cross-border volumes, are likely to continue in the short term in international corridors such as Ukraine, Venezuela and Argentina.

The European Union has been holding meetings in Brussels to find agreement over imposing sanctions on Russia over its behavior in Ukraine. They’ve decided to put together an outline on sanctions and get together again next week; the outline would exclude the crucial gas sector.

Following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, many Europeans are eager for their governments to do something to punish Putin for fomenting instability in the Ukraine. But the debate over economic sanctions is shining an awkward spotlight on the large and important trade relations between Russia and Europe. Russia is Europe’s gas station, and if Europe decides to stop doing business with Russia, they will have to figure out a new, and likely more expensive way to put gas in the car and to heat their homes.

According to the Energy Information Administration, oil and natural gas accounted for 70% of Russia’s export revenues in 2012; and most of those exports go to Europe; and most of Europe hasn’t figured out how to provide their own energy. Oil reserves in the North Sea are expensive to tap; fracking technology hasn’t happened for a number of reasons; and so Europe depends on Russia for about 30% of its natural gas. Many of Europe’s biggest corporations are directly involved in importing fuel from Russia, and many of Europe’s biggest industries, such as utilities, power-hungry manufacturers, car manufacturers, transportation systems, and anyone else who uses electricity – all rely on fuels imported from Russia.

If the EU were to suddenly grow a spine and just say no to Russian oil and natural gas, it would certainly inflict some short- term pain on Russia, but oil and gas are fungible and the market is global. One of Putin’s first moves was to sign a deal with China to make Russia a major supplier of natural gas. Europe does not have a quick replacement for Russia’s natural gas and winters in Europe can get very cold.

The US does not depend on Russian fuels, however there are a couple of strange side stories coming out of the sanctions. First, is the as-yet-unaddressed need to restart NASA, so we don’t have to depend on Russia for ride sharing to the space station. The other, is that Americans don’t really care much about Russia anyway; last week the US imposed a fresh round of sanctions on Russian companies, including weapons manufacturers. How did patriotic Americans respond? Well, you can no longer buy Kalashnikov AK-47s. Technically you can, you just can’t find any. The move sent American gun buyers into a frenzy, seeking to buy any and all AK-47s on any store shelf.

So, it should come as no surprise that Russia has stepped up its direct involvement in fighting between the Ukrainian military and separatist insurgents, unleashing artillery attacks from Russian territory and massing heavy weapons along the border. So, while the EU considers drafting a new outline of possible sanctions for further possible consideration; Russia may send in the troops.

About 34% of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of this week.

Things have been particularly bad in California, where more than 80% of the state is in “extreme” drought, state officials have approved drastic measures to reduce water consumption. California farmers, without water from reservoirs in the Central Valley, are left to choose which of their crops to water. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma and surrounding states are also suffering from drought conditions. East of the Mississippi, rainfall has been rising. But global warming also appears to be causing moisture to evaporate faster in places that were already dry. Researchers believe drought conditions in these places are likely to intensify in coming years.

A new study released yesterday by NASA and the University of California Irvine shows we are losing water at a shocking rate in the West. Using a satellite designed to track changes in groundwater, the research team found that the Colorado River basin—which supplies water to 40 million people in seven states—lost 15.6 cubic miles of freshwater in the last 10 years. From December 2004 to November 2013 the Colorado basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet, or almost double the volume of the nation’s largest manmade reservoir, Lake Mead. (Actually, Lake Mead is no longer the biggest reservoir in the country; a lake in North Dakota takes that honor, as Lake Mead has shrunk.) More than 75% of that loss was due to excessive groundwater pumping. It’s the first study to quantify just how big a role the overuse of groundwater plays in dwindling water resources out West.

How did this happen without anyone noticing it? The answer, basically, is that up until this study, nobody had a good way of measuring how much water is stored underground. And the researchers aren’t certain how much groundwater is left. Water above ground in the basin's rivers and lakes is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and its losses are documented. Pumping from underground aquifers is regulated by individual states and is often not well documented.

In the last seven years, Lake Mead’s dwindling has accelerated. The lake is now just barely more than 1,080 feet above sea level, slightly below its previous record low set in November 2010. Lake Mead is expected to drop another 20 feet into record territory by summer 2016. The low water level is already affecting hydroelectric power production. If the water level drops below 1050, the Hoover Dam might not be able to produce electricity.

Well before then, perhaps as soon as next April, downstream water rationing will kick in—which has never happened before. A 2007 shortage-sharing agreement sets three elevations for which water restrictions will be imposed on the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. The first shortage level, 1,075 feet, will likely come into effect in the next several months. It would require a total water use cut of 4.4%, with Arizona taking an 11% cut, Nevada a 4% cut, New Mexico 3.3% and California remaining the same.

Right now, Phoenix has officially recorded just over one inch of precipitation since the start of the year; the normal amount is just under 4 inches. The problem is that when above-ground water supplies run low - which is happening now, and it is common in California, even when there isn’t a drought - water managers use groundwater to meet public and farming needs. The study finds that so much groundwater has been used that it will be impossible to recover it naturally; overall supply of available freshwater will continue to decrease as a result.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thursday, July 24, 2014 - Bankster Logic

Bankster Logic
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 2 = 17,083
SPX + 0.97 = 1987
NAS – 1 = 4472
10 YR YLD + .05 = 2.51%
OIL - .03 = 102.04
GOLD – 10.10 = 1294.90
SILV - .54 = 20.47

An extremely flat day on Wall Street but good enough for another S&P 500 record high close.

In economic news: Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 284,000 for the week ended July 19, the lowest level since February 2006. In the past six months, unemployment has fallen much faster than expected, from 6.7 to 6.1%. The labor market is still struggling with long term unemployment and part-time jobs instead of full-time work, but it seems to be making progress.

One area not showing progress is wages. The Labor Department released its latest report on median wages; on a year-over-year basis, median earnings were up just 0.8% in the second quarter, to $780 per week, not enough to keep pace with inflation. The median wage data is a bit different than the weekly earnings data that comes out of the Labor Department’s payrolls report. That one is the average earnings, and what’s likely happening is the growth for top earners is pulling that series up more. Average earnings are up 2.1% year-on-year. The report also showed that women earned 83.5% of what men did.

The Commerce Department said new home sales dropped 8.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 406,000 units in June. It was the biggest decline since July of last year. May and April sales were revised lower. So this was a very weak new home sales report, but earlier in the week we saw a fairly strong report on existing home sales.

Let’s move over to earnings reports: can sell stuff, they just haven’t figured out how make a profit. Amazon is expanding grocery service, they introduced a new smartphone, and a set-top box for TV streaming, and they managed to increase revenue 23% to $19.34 billion from $15.7 billion in the earlier period. They also reported a loss of $126 million or 27 cents per share.

Caterpillar has the exact opposite problem; revenue fell but they posted a higher profit. Caterpillar’s revenue numbers have now fallen in six of its past eight quarters, with the quarterly year-over-year decline averaging 8.3%. In the last quarter, sales fell 3% from a year ago to $14.1 billion, while profit increased 4.1%.

Starbucks posted fiscal third-quarter profit of $512 million, or 67 cents a share, up from $417 million, or 55 cents a share a year ago. Revenue for the three months ended June 29 rose 11% to $4.1 billion from $3.7 billion.

Signaling a major turnaround in the airline industry’s fortunes, the nation’s three major legacy carriers; American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines — all posted record profits in the past quarter. Delta reported net income for the second quarter of $801 million, up 17 percent from the year-earlier period. United Airlines, which had a loss in the first quarter and has struggled with its merger with Continental Airlines, posted a $919 million second-quarter profit. Douglas Parker, the chief executive of American Airlines, said today that the airline’s second-quarter profit, excluding special charges, of $1.5 billion was its best quarterly earnings performance ever.

General Motors posted second quarter earnings of $190 million on revenue of $39.6 billion, up from $39.1 billion in the same period a year ago. The problem for GM has been recalls for safety issues, which have killed 13 people. GM set up a compensation fund with $400 million; they have also paid $2 billion this year for the recalls, and they announced pretax charges of $874 million to cover future product recalls. GM is likely to feel the financial repercussions of the millions of cars it has recalled for years to come. The company has recalled 29 million vehicles this year, many of which haven’t yet been repaired. To give a sense of the pace, GM recalled around 15 million vehicles for ignition switch related issues so far this year, and repaired around 560,000 in the second quarter. It announced a recall of more than 700,000 vehicles for a separate issue just yesterday. The surprising part is the increase in revenue, which comes in part from pricing, but also the bad press hasn’t deterred buyers.

Businesses and individuals in the US have parked about $2.6 trillion in money market funds. It is generally considered a safe place to leave money short term, or that was the thinking until 2008, when money market funds broke the buck, dropping below par value of $1 per share. Turns out, the funds weren’t guaranteed. There is no government insurance on the safety of deposits, no regulator-required capital buffer to protect against losses, no central bank ready to stand as “lender of last resort” to keep a money market fund from suffering a short-term cash crunch. Of course, the Treasury and the Fed stepped in to bail out the funds and avoid a run on the funds, which would have been catastrophic.

And so, a mere 6 years later, the government has finally managed a few reforms, but they aren’t real reforms because the bankers fought reform tooth and nail.  The new reforms do not include capital buffers, but they will allow for a floating NAV, or net asset value. So your share in a money market fund may or may not be worth one dollar. And if you try to cash out, the funds can impose extra fees to slow down a potential run. That’s about it. After 6 years. I hope you feel safe and secure in the knowledge that nothing of any substance has changed in the last 6 years.

An examination by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Deutsche Bank AG’s giant U.S. operations suffer from a litany of serious problems, including shoddy financial reporting, inadequate auditing and oversight and weak technology systems. In a letter to Deutsche Bank executives last December, a senior official with the New York Fed wrote that financial reports produced by some of the bank’s US arms “are of low quality, inaccurate and unreliable. The size and breadth of errors strongly suggest that the firm’s entire U.S. regulatory reporting structure requires wide-ranging remedial action.”

Deutsche Bank, one of Europe’s largest banks, was a forceful opponent of the Fed’s push to force foreign banks to comply with the same capital requirements as domestic banks. Officials from Deutsche Bank argued that the Fed’s requirement was too restrictive.  This year, the Fed went ahead with those tougher capital requirements for foreign banks. But it gave most of them until the middle of 2016 to comply. Yes, of course it’s theoretically possible that management could go through and fix everything that’s wrong with the firm’s US operations but, really, this is more of a tear down job.

Dark pools are where institutional investors can place large buy and sell orders without alerting the broader market. Prices and transactions are not reported; it is the furthest thing from a free and open marketplace.  Different financial institutions run a variety of dark pools. Barclays runs one of the biggest dark pools called Barclays LX. They’ve been sued by the state of New York for fraud; the suit alleges Barclays favored high frequency traders over other investors in the dark pool and they falsified marketing materials, inaccurately portraying the concentration of high-frequency traders in the market, and misrepresenting a service that purported to protect investors from predatory trading behavior.

Today, Barclays filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and this is classic bankster logic; they argued that Barclays’ customers were sophisticated enough to understand that “glossy marketing brochures” about the dark pool, did not reflect its actual composition; their customers knew better than to rely solely on the marketing materials. So, they basically admitted they were lying in their marketing material, but their clients were smart enough to know that banks are liars.

President Obama called today for Congress to end a tax loophole that allows big corporations to designate a foreign country as their official address, in order to avoid US taxes. The corporation doesn’t have to actually move their headquarters, just set up an address overseas. Obama called on members of Congress to close the loophole even if they disagree with his broader calls for changes to the tax system that would lower corporate rates and close several loopholes, including that one. The legislative effort is unlikely to succeed in Congress.

Nine inversion deals have been reached this year by companies ranging from banana distributor Chiquita Brands to Medtronic. The whole idea is to pay less taxes while still enjoying the benefits of doing business in the US. Of course, the legal change of corporate headquarters is essentially a process of renouncing citizenship, and it just seems corporations should face the loss of citizenship the same way people do, which means they should pay an exit tax. There are other ways to put an end to this inversion tax evasion scheme. And if we don’t, you can count on executives whose companies were born of American ingenuity and which make their profits from American customers (including the government) will troll international waters for opportunities in low-cost tax havens. It’s a race to the bottom.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - Another Day Another Dollar

Another Day Another Dollar
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 26 = 17,086
SPX + 3 = 1987
NAS + 17 = 4473
10 YR YLD un = 2.46%
OIL = 103.12
GOLD – 3.50 = 1305.00
SILV - .06 = 21.01

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose to an all-time high, as Apple boosted technology companies and health-care shares rallied through another busy day of earnings reports. The Dow was lower, mainly due to Boeing – we’ll get to that in a moment. Apple hit its highest level since 2012, based on earnings reported after the close yesterday.

Profits at S&P 500 members probably rose 6.2 percent in the second quarter, while sales gained 3.3 percent. Let’s knock out a few earnings reports:

Facebook posted $791 million in net income, or 30 cents a share, compared with $333 million or 13 cents a share in the second quarter of 2013; revenue totaled $2.9 billion compared to $1.8 billion in the year ago period. Mobile advertising represented 62% of its ad revenue; they have figured out Facebook on a smartphone. Facebook now claims 1.32 billion monthly users.

AT&T was once the telephone company, now it’s the second largest US mobile provider; they earned  $3.6 billion or 68 cents per share in the second quarter, down from $3.8 billion or 71 cents per share a year ago; even as revenue increase from $32.1 billion to $32.6 billion.

Biogen Idec rallied 11 percent after raising its full-year forecast, while Intuitive Surgical jumped 18 percent as results topped estimates.

At first blush, Boeing’s numbers looked good; the aerospace giant earned $2.40 per share, easily beating estimates of $2 per share; the company lifted its earnings outlook for the rest of the year. Shares dropped about 2%. Revenue growth disappointed. Commercial airline sales were up less than expected; there was a substantial charge for a military tanker. Boeing is one of the dogs of the Dow – down 7% year to date.

Delta Air Lines said its second-quarter earnings were up 17%, driven by higher passenger and operating revenue as traffic increased. Delta has said it plans to reinvest about 50% of its operating cash flow back into the business, resulting in $2 billion to $3 billion of capital expenditures annually through 2018, with $2.3 billion planned for 2014.

Another day, another General Motors recall; the only difference is that today’s recall does not involve ignition switches; it’s a problem with the seats. Today’s recalls total 717,950 vehicles covering six models; bring the total for the year to about 29 million. If you own a GM vehicle, call the dealer. The problem with ignition switches hasn’t gone away, just that today, it moved to Jeep-Chrysler, which announced nearly 800,000 vehicles will be recalled for ignition switch problems.

Another month, another downward revision from the IMF. In June, the International Monetary Fund forecast US economic growth would be about 3% to 3.5% for the rest of this year, and then they revised forecasts down to 2%. Today, the IMF said US economic growth would be about 1.7%. The IMF says lower growth expectations should contribute to continued slack in the labor market for the next three to four years, with the United States remaining below full employment until 2018.

The IMF says the Federal Reserve could keep its benchmark interest rates at zero beyond the middle of 2015, the date implied by policymaker forecasts, as long as inflation and financial stability concerns remain subdued. Future US growth could be disappointing if interest rates rise too quickly, or if there is a broader and concerted slowdown in emerging markets, or if increasing geopolitical tensions in Iraq and Ukraine prompt higher energy prices and severe financial and trade disruptions. The IMF also warned that an aging US population meant the economy would not be able to grow above 2% long term without significant reforms, including tax and immigration changes, more investment in infrastructure and job training, and the provision of childcare assistance, which could help lure more Americans into the workforce. Even without these measures, the IMF said there is "a strong case" for more government spending to support the economic recovery in the near-term, as long as there is a plan to deal with high entitlement spending later on.

Meanwhile, the IIF, the Institute of International Finance says investors have been willing to take on more risk, pushing borrowing costs down and stock prices higher, based in part on strengthening confidence in the US and global recoveries, but with perhaps too much exuberance. Investors don’t seem to be taking adequate account of the uncertainties around economic growth and monetary policy, and that points to a pull-back in markets. With uncertainty likely to increase on both fronts, a correction from current ultra-low levels of volatility could continue, accompanied by a correction in asset valuation. The IIF’s concerns echo those of some Federal Reserve officials, who said at their June meeting that low volatility levels and increased risk-taking signaled “market participants were not factoring in sufficient uncertainty about the path of the economy and monetary policy.”

Another day and the fighting continues in the Middle East. The latest count has 687 Palestinians killed in the conflict. Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv remains closed to US airlines, and many other global carriers. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to negotiate a ceasefire but it looks unlikely.
In the Netherlands, a day of mourning as the bodies of the victims were returned for identification. Most of the passengers were Dutch. Two military planes, one Dutch and the other Australian, carrying the first 40 coffins landed at Eindhoven air base. They were met by members of the Dutch royal family, the Prime Minister and hundreds of victims' relatives. In Kiev, the Ukrainian government reports two Ukrainian military jets were shot down within 20 miles of the crash scene.

The downing of a civilian jetliner might turn out to be the Lusitania moment that could draw the US and Russia into a new world war, but for now, it doesn’t seem likely. The more likely reaction will be an increase in sanctions against Russia, which the US has already done; the EU is more reticent. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, will put forward its proposals to a committee of the 28 EU member governments in Brussels tomorrow. The bloc’s foreign ministers this week called for plans for measures that could hit “access to capital markets, defense, dual-use goods, and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector.” Russia supplies 30% of the natural gas to Europe, and it is a major trade partner. Yesterday, France delivered a $1 billion dollar warship to Russia, saying the Russians had paid for it and it was scheduled for delivery. Business drives the truck, coffins are placed in the back.

Events in Gaza and Ukraine have, for the time being, taken global attention away from the Syrian civil war and the ISIS’s advance through Iraq. Last Thursday and Friday were the two bloodiest days yet in Syria’s civil war, with more than 700 people killed in fighting between the Syrian government and ISIS, the Sunni militant group. An ISIS suicide bombing killed 31 people, mainly civilians, in Baghdad yesterday. ISIS appears to be consolidating its newly acquired territories. The government in Baghdad appears to be struggling to cobble together something that would actually pass as a government. The civil wars in Syria and Iraq are growing increasingly chaotic and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for resolution.

The Gaza and Ukraine conflicts are not likely to draw greater powers into a major conflict. And one reason is because Gaza and Ukraine are not major oil producers. The conflict that represents the largest potential threat to markets is still the ISIS invasion of Iraq; there oil supply could be severed and the jockeying among regional middle powers could possibly lead to a wider scale conflagration between Sunni and Shia sponsor states.

So, one of the indicators that things are getting better or worse will be reflected in the price of energy. Think of it this way: Everything you did this morning involved energy consumption: Waking up to your smart phone (charging overnight), putting on the coffee, pouring the cold milk from the fridge, taking a shower, driving the car to work and walking into your air-conditioned office. Likewise, the rest of your day will be one big consumption of energy. Anything that disrupts that supply of energy disrupts the work you do.

Right now there is probably a $5 to $10 fear premium built into the price of oil, and that seems to be acceptable. The signal from the energy market about the demand of energy and the risk of getting enough of it is clear: Prepare for less growth, less certainty and more geopolitical risk. The market, however, maintains a steady hand: Israel will be contained more or less, Russia and Ukraine will find a solution or just fade away. The non-acceptance of Black Swans is clear for everyone to see. The market is “perfect” in its information, zero interest rates will save us and we have all been fooled into believing that the real world no longer matters. Unemployment, social inequality, wars, innocents being killed, and TV images of people fighting to live another day are not relevant. Maybe, after 13 years of war, the US is just weary of any threat.

At some point the fear premium could pop and oil prices could jump to $150 or $200 a barrel, and if that happens the IMF forecast is way too high; if that happens the economy comes to a grinding halt; if that happens, everybody in the US and Europe will wake up and scream bloody murder, but for now, it’s just another day, another dollar.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb Your Enthusiasm
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 61 = 17,113
SPX + 9 = 1983
NAS + 31 = 4456
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.46%
OIL - .17 = 104.42
GOLD – 4.70 = 1308.50
SILV + .04 = 21.07

We start with a couple of economic reports. The National Association of Realtors reports existing home sales were up 2.6% in June to a seasonally adjusted rate of 5.04 million, compared to 4.91 million in May. Sales in June were 2.6% higher than last month, but were 2.3% below the June 2013 rate. Total inventory rose 2.2% in June to 2.3 million existing homes for sale; unsold inventory is up 6.5% from a year ago.

At June’s pace of sales, there was a 5.5 month supply of homes for sale. The Realtors’ group considers a 6-month supply to be a balanced market. Higher supplies favor buyers and lower supplies favor sellers. The Federal Housing Finance Agency says home prices in May rose 0.4% from the prior month and were 5.5% above their level of May 2013. Distressed sales accounted for just 11% of sales in June, down from 15% last year, 25% in 2012, and 30% in 2011. Fewer distressed sales probably explains why there were fewer sales than June of last year.

The Consumer Price Index, or CPI, measures inflation at the retail level; the CPI increased 0.3% in June. The core CPI looks at prices excluding food and energy, which is important for people who don’t eat food or drive cars or use electricity; core CPI was up 0.1% in June. On a year over year basis, CPI is up 2.1%, and the core CPI is up 1.9%. The big driver for the increase in June was higher prices for gasoline.

In earnings reports:
Quarterly profit at McDonald's fell more than expected. Second quarter net income fell almost 1% to $1.3 billion, or $1.40 per share. Sales at McDonald’s restaurants in the US dropped for a third straight quarter.

Coca Cola’s 2Q net income dropped to $2.6 billion from $2.68 billion a year earlier.

Verizon reported second quarter earnings nearly doubled, but it was a confusing report because Verizon paid for Vodaphone shareholders in the quarter, plus they sold some of their wireless spectrum to T-Mobile; cutting through the clutter, Verizon added 1.4 million devices; Verizon added three tablets for every new smartphone. Earnings were just a smidge above expectations.

Comcast reported net income of almost $2 billion for the second quarter, with total revenue of $16.8 billion, up 3.5% from the same period last year. The revenue increase came from high speed internet service. Comcast lost cable video customers, as more people bypass cable and satellite subscriptions in favor of cheaper streaming alternatives.

Credit Suisse reported a second quarter loss of $779 million, the largest loss since 2008; reflecting the charge of $2.6 billion related to the settlement with US law enforcement for a guilty plea to conspiring to aid tax evasion in helping American customers hide money in Swiss accounts. Or another way to look at it, they were one criminal conviction away from a $1 billion quarterly profit. Credit Suisse also announced it would exit the commodities trading business.

Meanwhile, it looks like bond traders are exiting the bond trading business. Trading in US government bonds has dropped 25% in the past few weeks compared to the same time period a year ago. Since the end of the second quarter, trading in investment grade bonds has dropped 17% and trading in junk bonds has dropped 8%.

Last week, Fed Chair Janet Yellen talked about overvaluation in the biotech and social media sectors. One of the most common measures of value is the P/E, or price to earnings ratio; there are certainly other measures of value, but PE is common. Generally, a low PE can point toward value, while a high PE might indicate overvaluation, or even an unprofitable company. Currently the S&P 500 trades at 16.1 times forward 12-month consensus earnings per share. So, you might think a PE of 165 would mean a stock was extremely overvalued, ready to crash; or not. In September 2003, Apple had a PE of 165; since then it has gained about 6,000%.

After the close of trade today, Apple posted fiscal third quarter results. Revenue came in at $37.4 billion versus $38 billion expected; EPS was $1.28 versus $1.23 expected; iPhone sales were on track; iPad sales were a little weak; Mac sales were a little better than expected. Apple posted profit of $7.75 billion, up from $6.9 billion in the year-ago period. Apple announced a new iPhone 6, not yet available, but ready to swamp stores before the end of the year; it will have a bigger screen. Curb your enthusiasm.

Also after the close, Microsoft posted profit of $4.6 billion, or 55 cents a share, on revenue of $23.4 billion. During the year-ago period, the world's largest software company earned $4.97 billion, or 59 cents a share, on $19.9 billion in sales. So, sales were up, profit was a slight miss, due to the Nokia acquisition. Bing search ad revenue is up 40%, and Bing now has about 20% of the market share for search engines. Microsoft is big in the cloud, where revenue is up almost 150%, topping 4 billion.

Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman went on CNBC yesterday and promised he would deliver the death blow against Herbalife. Ackman has been shorting the stock for about a year, a $1 billion bet the company will crash. Then he delivered a 3 hour diatribe with 250 slides in his PowerPoint presentation, alleging that Herbalife is not just a multi-level marketing nutritional club, it is a pyramid scheme preying on minorities, and the biggest fraud since Enron. Ackman didn’t present a great deal of evidence. Today the stock was up 15%, for no apparent reason, other than surviving an Ackman death blow.

There were two rulings from two federal appeals court panels on Obamacare today. The question was whether the government could subsidize health insurance premiums for people in states that use the federal insurance exchange; 36 states use the federal exchange, while the other states set up their own state exchanges. This goes back to wording in the original law that says subsidies can be applied to state exchanges.

 The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that the government could not subsidize insurance for people in states that use the federal exchange. That decision could potentially cut off financial assistance for more than 4.5 million people who were found eligible for subsidized insurance in the federal exchange, or marketplace.

A couple of hours later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, upheld the subsidies, saying that a rule issued by the Internal Revenue Service was “a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion.”

For now, nothing changes, with the exception that there will be many more billable hours for the attorneys.

Bloomberg reports that regulators are ready to label Metlife a potential threat to the financial system, subjecting the insurer to oversight by the Federal Reserve. MetLife, the biggest US life insurer, could be subjected to stricter capital, leverage and liquidity requirements as a result of Fed supervision. A decision by the Financial Stability Oversight Council may come as early as July 31, and MetLife would have 30 days to request a hearing before the FSOC to contest the decision.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is now 4 years old, even though it isn’t really in effect; just 52% of the rules mandated under Dodd-Frank have been finalized by regulators; Another 23% have been proposed but they’re still working out details, and regulators haven’t even gotten around to 24% of the rules. A recent report by consumer watchdog Public Citizen called out the Securities and Exchange Commission as a particularly egregious delayer, noting that it had pushed back the deadlines for 13 of the 23 rules it was supposed to finalize this year.

City workers and retired city workers in Detroit have agreed to pension cuts to help bailout the city from bankruptcy. General retirees would get a 4.5% pension cut and lose annual inflation adjustments. They accepted the changes with 73% of ballots in favor. Support for the pension changes triggers an extraordinary $816 million bailout from the state of Michigan, foundations and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The money would prevent the sale of city-owned art and avoid deeper pension cuts.

Most people travel to or from Israel by air, and the major airport, really the only airport is Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv; last year, 14 million people went through Ben Gurion Airport, in a country with a population of 8 million.  Yesterday a rocket from Gaza landed about one mile from the airport; we don’t have further details on that rocket; it didn’t hit the airport; it was a mile away. When news spread, Delta diverted a flight to Paris. United airlines cancelled flights. The Federal Aviation Administration banned all US passenger and cargo flights to and from Tel Aviv for at least the next 24 hours. European airlines cancelled flight to Israel. The possibility of a passenger jet being shot down over a war zone is a very realistic and fresh memory.

US and United Nations diplomats are in Israel, trying to broker a ceasefire of some sort. Israel continues to pound targets across the Gaza Strip. It does not appear a ceasefire is near. If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel will be destroyed.

The European Union today threatened Russia with harsher sanctions if Russia doesn’t cooperate in the investigation of the downing of the Malaysian flight 17 and if Russia doesn’t stop sending weapons to Russian backed separatists in Ukraine. But it was just a threat, and they’ll get together later in the week to draft proposals for sanctions.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014 - A Three Legged Stool

A Three Legged Stool
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 48 = 17,051
SPX – 4 = 1973
NAS – 7 = 4424
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.47%
OIL + 1.46 = 104.59
GOLD + 1.30 = 1313.20
SILV + .04 = 21.03

First leg:
Let’s start with earnings reporting season, which kicks into full gear this week with 140 of the S&P 500 companies posting results.

Netflix reported a profit of $71 million, or $1.15 a share, on revenue of $1.34 billion. This was in line with expectations, but for Netflix, an important component is how fast they are adding subscribers; turns out – pretty fast; 1.69 million new net streamers in the second quarter; 570,000 in the US and 1.12 million international subscribers; now topping 50 million worldwide.

Allergan, the Botox company, posted better than expected 2Q profits and sales but also announced it is cutting 1,500 jobs in a restructuring.  BB&T, the southeastern financial company, posted weak 2Q results as mortgage activity lagged; this has been a theme among banks for the second quarter, but the bigger banks have been compensating with profits in investment banking and trading; smaller, regional banks find it harder to compete in that arena. Chipotle Mexican Grill, theme park operator Six Flags, oilfield services company Halliburton, Manpower Group, and chip-maker Texas Instruments all reported better than expected results.

Tomorrow we’ll get the earnings report from McDonalds; after the close we’ll get earnings from Microsoft and Apple. Wednesday’s results include Facebook. Thursday we’ll hear from General Motors and

So far, earnings season has been strong, of the S&P 500 companies that reported through the end of last week, earnings are up 7.6% from the same period last year on 4.2% higher revenues, with 65.9% beating EPS estimates and 68.2% coming out with better than expected revenue. This is better performance than we have seen at this stage in other recent reporting cycles. The +7.6% earnings growth at this stage in Q2 compares to an earnings decline of -3% for the same group of companies in Q1 On the revenue side, the +4.2% growth thus far compares to growth rates of +1.7% and +3% in Q1. The earnings and revenue beat ratios for these companies are similarly tracking better relative to Q1.

Second leg:
Israel and Hamas continue to battle in the Gaza Strip and Russian separatists continue to impede Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 investigation efforts. President Obama delivered a statement this morning on the geopolitical hotspots. Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to Cairo to discuss cease-fire negotiations with international officials. Though Obama cited Israel’s “right to defend itself” against Hamas missile strikes that now number in the thousands, he said he has instructed Kerry to prioritize de-escalation.

Obama said investigation efforts into what caused the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have been impeded by pro-Russian separatists, who have assumed control of the crash site and have begun removing evidence. “Unfortunately, the Russian-backed separatists continue to block the investigation,” Obama said of the militants. “All of which begs the question, what exactly are they trying to hide?” Obama said responsibility lies with the Russian government, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to convince the separatists to cooperate with an international investigation.

A train carrying the remains of most of the almost 300 victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane downed over Ukraine left the site on Monday, after the Malaysian Prime Minister reached a deal with the leader of pro-Russian separatists controlling the area. The aircraft's black boxes, which could hold information about the crash in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, will be given to the Malaysian authorities.

At the United Nations, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding those responsible "be held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability". It also demanded that armed groups allow "safe, secure, full and unrestricted access" to the crash site. It will be difficult to use the forensic evidence at the site to determine exactly what happened, but it is becoming increasingly obvious the plane was shot down with Russian weaponry.

Clearly Putin did not want nearly 300 civilians to die, but it happened and it probably happened because of things he set in motion. If Russia is even loosely tied to the destruction of the passenger plane, even if it was an accident, the incident could represent another escalation of Russian aggression and mark a major turning point in how Russia is perceived around the world.

British Prime Minister David Cameron will urge other European leaders to consider imposing tougher sanctions Russian oil, gas, defense, and banking sectors at an EU meeting tomorrow. However, EU diplomats made clear today that sectoral sanctions would still be extremely difficult for some of Europe's poorer nations. They are especially nervous about the energy sector, central to the Russian economy, but also to the European Union.

EU nations rely on Russia for about 30% of their gas demand and have intertwined interests based on decades of energy reliance. Russia exports around $60 billion a year in gas and the Netherlands was Russia's biggest export destination last year, mostly oil and metals. Energy sanctions would most likely derail the fragile European recovery in general and might even lead to a complete economic collapse in certain member states. Many Eurozone countries see sanctions as collective economic suicide that helps no one. What they should see is that dependence on imported fossil fuels has made them economically weak and subservient. As long as the Eurozone relies on Russian gas to heat their homes in the winter, Putin can get away with murder.

Third leg:
Financial markets have been largely whistling past geopolitical hotspots, with just the occasional jittery pullback. The simple fact is that the Federal Reserve and all other global central banks have been providing the markets with unusually accommodative monetary policy; which is to say, the central banks have been throwing easy money at the markets. And there is growing concern that the continuation of this “unconventional” and “extraordinary” state of affairs involves an entirely new set of risks.

Clearly the Fed would like to do what it can to prevent bubbles from forming while they hold off on raising rates; it’s a delicate balancing act. If the Fed raises rates too soon, it risks a downturn in the economy, just as the Fed expects the economy is ready for liftoff. If the Fed continues with its easy money policies it risks the chance of bubbles; already Fed Chair Janet Yellen has acknowledged pockets of overvaluation. Last week, during Humphrey Hawkins testimony of Capitol Hill, Yellen singled out social media stocks and biotechs.

What does Yellen know about social media and biotech valuations? Probably not a great amount, but that doesn’t devalue her perspective; there may be some kind of asset bubble taking shape in at least some corners of the financial market. And don’t think Yellen just tossed out the overvaluation comment in a flippant or offhand manner. She is well aware of Alan Greenspan’s notorious remarks about “irrational exuberance”. This was a chance for Yellen to jawbone the markets. The very fact that she’s doing so means that she probably sees good reason for speaking out.

Yellen knows she is walking a very narrow line as she tries to guide monetary policy back toward some kind of “new normal” for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis. Yellen seemed to be saying that if small corners of the market over-inflate and pop, well tough luck; it won’t change the Fed’s path toward escape velocity. You might want to buckle your seat belts and get ready for a bumpy ride.

One reason for the overvaluation has been that the Fed has pumped up markets to such a point where it has been a bad trade to try to fight the Fed, and this has removed normal checks on overvaluation. Under normal market conditions, short sellers provide the right amount of pessimism to temper the optimism that leads to a wildly overvalued stock market. Short positions help keep companies with weak earnings potential and bad management from riding the bull market herd mentality to unjustifiably high share prices. But this market is far from normal. The stock market has climbed to fresh new highs, not today, but the Dow has hit record highs 15 times this year, even with geopolitical hotspots and negative first quarter GDP.

Short sellers are in retreat. It’s hard to fight the Fed and a bull market. The proportion of shares in short positions is at its lowest level since before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with short interest on the S&P 500 index hovering around 2%.

Shorting a stock involves borrowing it from a broker at one price with the promise to return those shares after a certain period of time. The short seller will then sell the borrowed shares, and if the stock price goes down, they can buy them back, return them to the broker, and pocket the difference. When shorting, the risk is that the price goes up and you have to buy back the shares at a higher price. Shorting can be a good way to make big money fast. If a stock drops 50%, the short seller stands to make 100% on the trade; and when a stock starts to fall, it can fall fast.

Some traders like to look at the charts for short targets, and that is important; you never want to short a stock that is in a strong uptrend; you want to wait for it to turn over. You can also look at the fundamentals, and earnings season is a great time to look for really high price to earnings ratios, heavy debt burdens, downward guidance, or anything else that might raise a red flag. It’s good to remember shorting, especially if one of the three legs starts to wobble.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014 - The Fault Is Not In Our Stars

The Fault Is Not In Our Stars
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 123 = 17,100
SPX + 20 = 1978
NAS + 68 = 4432
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.48%
OIL - .31 – 102.88
GOLD – 7.30 = 1311.90
SILV - .27 = 20.99

President Obama today demanded Russia stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, calling it “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.” Obama stopped short of directly blaming Russia for the incident but warned that he was prepared to tighten economic sanctions. He echoed international calls for a rapid and credible investigation. While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the United States has been more aggressive than the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was too early to decide on further sanctions before it was known exactly what had happened to the plane. Emotions are undoubtedly running high across Europe, but whether that translates into action remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Israel says it could significantly widen a Gaza land offensive. The Israeli land advance followed 10 days of barrages against Gaza from air and sea, hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas into Israel and failed attempts to arrange a ceasefire or a truce.

How does all this play out? We don’t know. Yesterday was a terrible day, with Israel sending in ground troops to Gaza and somebody shooting down a Malaysian jetliner; it felt like an inflection point, like a moment when the narrative shifts, but for now we don’t know if that is true, or which way the winds blow.

Markets are funny; the financial markets were jittery; today, not so much. What changed? Not much. For the week, the Dow climbed 0.9 percent, the S&P 500 rose 0.5 percent and the Nasdaq gained 0.4 percent. So, volatility spiked yesterday; the VIX moved higher by 32%, but gave back 17% today. One day does not change a trend. War can change a trend, but we’re not at that point today, or maybe the markets are just ignoring reality. The market’s attention to geopolitical hotspots shifted to earnings. S&P 500 companies' profits are expected to grow 5 percent in the second quarter, according to Thomson Reuters data, down from the 8.4 percent growth forecast at the start of April. Revenue is seen up 3.2 percent.

Strong earnings from several companies kept the market in positive territory after it opened. Investors drove up shares in Google, Honeywell International, furniture company Knoll and Huntington Banchsares, among others. The Conference Board's latest index of leading indicators, designed to predict the economy's trajectory, climbed in June for the fifth consecutive month.

General Electric reported earnings today. Total revenue rose 3% to $36.2 billion, up from $35.1 billion in the year-earlier quarter. GE reported net income of $3.5 billion, a 13% increase from the year-earlier quarter. The company’s three largest industrial businesses: power and water, aviation, and oil and gas; all reported strong growth, ranging from 10% to 20%.The company also announced plans to have an initial public offer of its North American retail finance business by the end of this month; slowly but surely exiting the finance business and getting back to its industrial roots.

Beyond earnings season, Wall Street continues to be supported by Federal Reserve policy, and this week Fed Chair Janet Yellen went to Capitol Hill, and largely said it will be a while before the punchbowl is taken away. But eventually it will happen.  Since Fed chief Janet Yellen targets jobs above all else, this was bound to force capitulation by the Fed before long. It happened this week in her testimony to Congress when she said: "If the labor market continues to improve more quickly than anticipated, then increases in the federal funds rate likely would occur sooner and be more rapid than currently envisioned."

This is a policy shift. Yellen has admitted that the Fed misjudged the pace of jobs recovery. The staff did not expect unemployment to fall this low until late next year. The inflexion point has come 15 months early. Yellen added the usual caveats about "false dawns". Wages are barely rising. The jobs market is not yet drawing back the millions who dropped out of the system. The labor participation rate is still stuck at a 36-year low of 62.8%, and at the lowest ever recorded for men. Yellen said, "The recovery is not yet complete. We need to be careful to make sure the economy is on a solid trajectory before we consider raising interest rates."

You have to wonder if Yellen’s critics are making inroads. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard is concerned the Fed will overshoot on inflation. The Bank of International Settlements has warned about the Fed stoking asset bubbles.

You could make the case that Quantitative Easing has done its job, keeping growth alive as Congress and the White House pushed through draconian fiscal policy; the economy did not fall back into recession, not yet anyway. It just hasn’t been able to achieve escape velocity, or liftoff; but then that wasn’t really what QE was designed to do. It was designed to bail out the banks and avoid meltdown. The banksters are doing just fine. Time to try something new.

At some point the economy will have to stand on its own, and if it isn’t strong enough, you can bet the Fed will come up with a new idea to bail out the financial sector. When the Fed eventually takes away the punchbowl, it’s still unclear what effect it will have on the rest of the world. 

Tens of thousands of prisoners serving time for federal drug offenses will be eligible to seek early release beginning next year. The United States Sentencing Commission, which voted in April to reduce the penalties for most drug crimes, voted unanimously today to make that change retroactive. It will apply to nearly 50,000 federal inmates who are serving time under the old rules. The Sentencing Commission said the move would help ease prison overcrowding and reduce prison spending, which makes up about a third of the Justice Department’s budget. The change comes amid a bipartisan effort to roll back the harshest penalties set during the height of the drug war.

President Obama plans to sign an executive order on Monday barring discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees of companies that do federal government work. The order would also for the first time explicitly protect federal employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The order will not include a religious exemption many faith organizations had requested.

Next week’s economic calendar includes a report on inflation, the CPI, on Tuesday. Also, a report from the Labor Department on real earnings. Nominal hourly wage growth has hovered around 2% for all of this recovery, a sign that labor markets are still weak. The National Association of Realtors will report existing-home sales Tuesday, and the Commerce Department will tally up new-home sales Thursday.  Next Friday’s durable goods orders will offer details on June capital-spending activity.

This weekend, Sunday July 20th at 1:18 PM (Pacific) to be precise, we’ll mark the 45th anniversary of the first man on the moon. Maybe you remember where you were back in 1969; maybe you weren’t even here in ’69, but it was a remarkable event to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and of course Michael Collins; something that humankind had dreamed about for thousands of years, and it actually happened. It seemed that anything was possible. Apollo 11 not only achieved its mission to perform a manned lunar landing and return safely to Earth, it raised the bar of human potential.

I wonder if we could do it today. Or anything equivalent? It seems unlikely. There is so much divisiveness in the country today, and for all the advances of the past 45 years, we are rife with problems. But then, I’m old enough to remember that 1969 was full of problems: the country was at war in Asia, and there was a Cold War as well, and there were deep problems at home including race riots and campus protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were fresh in peoples’ hearts.

Maybe we don’t achieve our full potential when everything is set up for success, it is not when all the stars are in perfect alignment; maybe we outperform when our backs are to the wall. In 1962, JFK issued the challenge, saying, “We choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

For the past 45 years, we’ve heard the phrase, “Well, if we can put a man on the moon…” ” How many times have you heard that expression? If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer; or get our economy going? It’s a cliché now right? But it didn’t start out as a cliché. It started as a challenge. And 45 years ago, when I was much younger, I remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. I’m sure many people around the world share this same memory. President Nixon spoke to Neil Armstrong and his crew while they were on the moon and he said, "for one shining moment the people of the Earth are united as one." He was right. And I remember looking up at the moon that night, realizing humans were on the surface, and thinking anything is possible. This weekend I’ll look up at the moon again, and I still believe anything is possible – both success and failure. And if we don’t do those things that should be done, the fault is not in our stars, but in our selves.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2914 - Unleash the Hounds of War

Unleash the Hounds of War
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 161 = 16,976
SPX – 23 = 1958
NAS – 62 = 4363
10 YR YLD - .06 = 2.47
OIL + 2.55 = 103.75
GOLD + 18.40 = 1319.20
SILV + .37 = 21.26

A Malaysian Airlines passenger jet, Flight 17, a Boeing 777, has crashed near the Ukrainian-Russian border; all 295 passengers are dead. US intelligence officials say the jetliner was shot out of the sky by a surface to air missile; they could not confirm who fired on the plane but it is believed the missile was launched by separatists in Ukraine or by Russian forces positioned across the border from the crash site.

Yes, more than four months ago, another Malaysia Airlines plane, Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared with 239 people on board, and that plane remains lost, despite ongoing searches in the Indian Ocean. Flight 17 is believed to have had 280 passengers and 15 crew. Early reports indicate the passengers included 55 Dutch, 23 Americans, and 9 Britons.

The crash today involved a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur, but the flight went down in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for several months. The separatists denied responsibility. The separatists were quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax as saying that they had found the “black box” flight recorder. Other Russian reports said the rebels planned to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for an investigation.

Aviation authorities knew this was a dangerous area prior to today’s crash. Three months ago, the FAA prohibited US airlines and US pilots from flying over parts of Ukraine. Today several airlines re-routed flights. Ukrainian military planes have been shot down in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including earlier this week, but the crash Thursday was the first downing of a commercial airliner.

Ukraine’s recently elected president, Petro Poroshenko, called it an act of terrorism. Russian president Putin says Ukraine is responsible for the crash, apparently because they have not maintained peace in the area and have not been in control of their airspace. Shooting down a 777 at 33,000 feet would require fairly sophisticated military equipment.

Any sign or Ukrainian, Russian, or separatist involvement in the downing of a civilian airliner could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region. Already, there is a recording of an alleged phone conversation between a leader of the separatist movement in Donetsk and a Russian military intelligence officer, where the Russian officer says they have shot down a plane. No groups are claiming responsibility.

If it turns out that the separatists shot down the passenger jet, the incident almost certainly will become a tipping point in marking them as terrorists and not mere rebels. To the degree he continues to support them, Putin himself risks shifting to dangerous new diplomatic terrain and harsh new sanctions by a West united against him to a degree it has been at no time since the Cold War. He will be seen as backing an indefensible rogue element. This might convince doubters in the EU to move forward with tougher sanctions against Russia and it could lead to tougher US sanctions. Russia’s deniability of direct support for the rebels would be demolished, making Putin’s international position more difficult.

Just yesterday President Obama imposed a new round of sanctions against Russia, targeting some of the largest Russian companies in finance, energy, and the defense industries. The announcement reflected a decision by Obama to take more stringent steps than those taken by the United States’ European allies, which have far deeper economic ties to Russia. Meeting in Brussels, leaders of the European Union refused to match the American measures and instead adopted a more tempered plan that blocks new development loans to Russia and threatens to target more Russian individuals.

Washington imposed sanctions on Russia’s largest oil producer Rosneft, its second largest gas producer Novatek, its third largest bank Gazprombank, and also 8 arms manufacturers, and a few others. Yesterday, Moscow denounced the sanctions as primitive revenge for events in Ukraine and pledged to retaliate. Also yesterday, Ukraine officials accused Russian forces of shooting down a Ukrainian military jet in the Donetsk region. Obama said Wednesday that the new sanctions were largely aimed at punishing Russia for not preventing the flow of weapons into Ukraine to supply pro-Russia rebels seeking independence from Ukraine.

At this point, nobody really knows who did what and for what reason. Civilian planes have been shot down by various militaries in the past and it did not necessarily result in war, however, the conflict in Ukraine has just escalated significantly.

Meanwhile, Israel moved ground troops into Gaza today. The ground offensive includes heavy artillery and naval shelling and helicopter fire and tanks. For the past 10 days Gaza militants and Israel have been firing rockets at each other. The Gaza militants have reportedly fired more than 1,300 rockets into Israel, but Israel has a high tech defense system called the Iron Dome, and so the bombing has only resulted in one Israeli death. The Israeli rocket attack on Gaza has been much more precise, even to the point where the Israelis would phone ahead and tell civilians they had a minute or so to vacate a building before a bombing. Palestinian health officials say more than 230 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air and naval strikes.

Before dawn on Thursday, about a dozen Palestinian fighters tunneled under the border, emerging near an Israeli community. At least one was killed when Israeli aircraft bombed the group. The United Nations said Thursday that it had discovered 20 rockets hidden in a vacant school in Gaza during a regular inspection on Wednesday. Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli and American officials said intense discussions were underway on terms for a cease-fire. Israel had accepted an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire that was rejected by Hamas, which continued to fire rockets at Israel.

Palestinian residents and journalists in Gaza reported heavy artillery fire from ground troops in the north and from Israeli naval gunboats stationed near Gaza’s port, as well as a continuing air assault. Residents in the northern Gaza Strip said tanks were moving in. The Israeli strikes hit a range of targets, including a rehabilitation hospital and earlier killed four young children as they played on a roof in eastern Gaza City. At the same time, scores of rockets from Gaza continued to stream into cities all over central and southern Israel.

On Wall Street, the geopolitical problems made folks jittery. The VIX was up 3.54 to 14.54, which represents a 32% increase. We saw oil and bonds and gold jump higher in what looks  like a safe haven move.

It is still earnings season, and let’s touch on a few of the big reports today. Google reported a second-quarter profit of $3.4 billion, or $4.99 a share, compared with a profit of $3.2 billion, or $4.77 a share, for the year-earlier period. Revenue was $12.6 billion, up from $11.1 billion in the year-earlier period. Google missed expectations on earnings but beat revenue projections. Shares were down in after-hours trade.

Just the opposite for Big Blue; IBM said its second-quarter earnings climbed 28%, helped by its restructuring moves, while IBM reported its ninth consecutive quarter of lower revenue.

As expected, Microsoft announce massive layoffs today, what was unexpected was just how massive, 18,000 jobs will be cut, 15% of the workforce; 12,500 coming from newly acquired Nokia. Just after Microsoft bought Nokia, Nokia started making Android-based phones. This was a surprise since Microsoft makes its own mobile operating system — Windows Phone. The new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had no desire to continue with Android. He wants Microsoft's operating system to be the company's only mobile operating system.

A threatened strike on New York's Long Island Rail Road was averted on Thursday when the transit authority and labor unions reached a tentative contract deal.

Truckers will be back on the job Monday at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, ending a five-day strike that disrupted cargo flow. The truckers voted to end their work stoppage against three companies late Friday after the firms promised no retaliation. The truckers say they have been unfairly classified as independent contractors rather than employees, allowing the companies to avoid labor laws and charge the drivers for fuel, maintenance and other fees. The drivers walked off the job last Monday in the fourth such protest this year and dockworkers refused to cross the picket lines.

Coincident to the plane crash and the story of Russian sanctions, Bloomberg Businessweek reports today on a nearly 4 year old story dealing with a different type of attack by Russia.  Reportedly, the Russians hacked into the Nasdaq in October 2010. And this was not just some silly hackers putting a virus on your computer, this was an attack on the code of a major financial institution, a digitized weapon, orchestrated by the Russian government.

It isn’t the first time a country has launched a cyber-attack against another country. The US was probably the first, with deployment of the Stuxnet worm, which switched off the safety mechanisms at Iran’s uranium processing facility in 2010. The October alert prompted the involvement of the National Security Agency, and just into 2011, the NSA concluded there was a significant danger.

While the Nasdaq hack was successfully disrupted, it revealed how vulnerable financial exchanges are to digital assault; as well as banks, chemical refineries, water plants, and electric utilities. One official who experienced the event firsthand says he thought the attack would change everything, that it would force the US to get serious about preparing for a new era of conflict by computer. He was wrong.

In fact the investigation revealed that Nasdaq networks had been infected for quite some time, by a variety of sources. The rules of cyberwarfare are still being written, and it may be that the deployment of attack code is an act of war as destructive as the disabling of any real infrastructure. Just think of the possibilities if the Nasdaq were to really crash, completely and totally, and if everything run through the exchange was deleted.