Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - Big Bank Complexity, Debate Drinking Games, Food Supplies Not a Game

Big Bank Complexity, Debate Drinking Games, Food Supplies Not a Game
-by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 127 = 13,551
SPX + 14 = 1454
NAS + 36 = 3101
10 YR YLD +.06 = 1.72%
OIL + .11 = 91.96
GOLD + 10.90 = 1749.30
SILV + .26 = 33.06
PLAT + 5.00 = 1650.00

(audio at MoneyRadio.com)

Today was the biggest gain for the stock markets since early September. What was behind the move? Was it a debate day rally? Was it a Vikram Pandit exit? Was it great earnings reports from some such company? Who knows? It's rarely any one item that moves the market significantly. It is more likely that trading has reached a certain level or a particular moment in time, and the news events catch up with the charts.

Yesterday, the earnings news centered around Citigroup which reported something I still can't figure out; lots of debt that is counted as profit. Today, Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citi, is gone. Pandit says he left voluntarily; others think he was forced out in a disagreement with the board of directors. The strange part is that Citi has seen a rebound of about 22% in the past 12 months. Pandit has been on the job for about 5 years; he took the job as the credit crisis was about to send the economy into the abyss; now, he walks away when the company has learned to turn debt into profit and appears to be finding stable ground. Citi shares have dropped 90% under Pandit, net of stock splits. The market cap under Pandit declined from about $150 billion to around $100 billion, but the stock price has dropped 90% due to the dilution of shares; lots and lots more shares.

Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor was on CNBC this morning and he talked about Citgroup, saying: "Think about a Citibank - myriad, complex businesses, each of which is difficult to understand, each of which has different risk matrices. And then compound that by an infinite amount of geography, languages, different regulations, different customs and different markets. It's a lot of complexity to have in any one organization, regardless of how well-run it is.”

Ross went on to say that banks have become “too complex to manage” and will probably return to a simpler business model. "The fact that customers need investment banking services doesn't mean they need to be provided by commercial banks," he said. "I think those are two different questions. I'm not aware that there was great lack of investment banking services available prior to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. I think they're going to simplify themselves, and I think that's to the better." Seems a whole bunch of people now consider the idea of repealing Glass-Steagall is a bad idea.

You might think banking is simple, not complex. You get money from the Federal Reserve, you turn around and put it into US Treasury bonds and you collect the difference. Any dolt can do that. Of course, the board of directors of a major bank demand a little more in the way of performance. You could get into the derivatives business but Jamie Dimon and the London Whale have demonstrated that even the smartest kids on the block can screw up the derivatives trades. So, you might settle into getting free money from the Fed and then loaning it out to actual customers to buy things like houses; but it turns out this can be troublesome.

The New York Attorney General is going after JPMorgan and Wells Fargo for originating mortgages back in the bubble days that were clearly written just because someone could fog a mirror. So, instead of originating mortgages to deserving borrowers, the banks responded like deer in the headlights; they froze almost all mortgage lending. Yes, I know that mortgage rates are at historic lows, but they could be lower. The banks have widened the spread, collecting bigger profits but not passing through the near zero rates granted by the Fed, and at the same time, the big banks are turning down deserving customers.

Now, federal regulators are considering giving mortgage lenders protection from certain lawsuits to encourage lending to well-qualified borrowers. The potential move, which would be a partial victory for mortgage lenders, is part of a broader effort to write new rules for the housing market in the wake of the mortgage meltdown. The proposal for the first time would establish a basic national standard for loans, known as a "qualified mortgage." And if the banks do the actual work of due diligence, they will be rewarded with a legal shield for these high quality or qualified loans. Apparently bailouts and free money from the Fed and wider spreads aren't enough to motivate banks to do the job of banking; they are demanding a “Get out of jail free” card.

News that Spain may be finally willing to request help from its European partners, probably in the form of a precautionary credit line. Despite Greece's talks with its international creditors continuing their stop-start progress, shares across Europe closed sharply higher. We'll see. Spain's many reasons for foot-dragging – which officials claim have more to do with making sure Germany and others will back the bailout than with domestic regional elections – also involve the IMF, whose influence they are welcoming.

The IMF's involvement might be more significant than the actual credit line that Spain would have to request in order to trigger the ECB's bond-buying; some Spanish officials seem convinced that the credit line itself would not have to be used, as the ECB's intervention would mean that Spain could then cheaply fund itself on the markets.
Why welcome the IMF, which is often painted as the beast that squeezes the life out of bailed-out countries? Because it is now showing greater realism than deficit hawks in Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt about the impact of excessive austerity. In simple terms, the IMF may help ease the deficit targets.
George Soros, of Quantum Fund and Soros Fund fame says the crisis “is pushing the EU into a lasting depression, and it is entirely self-created. There is a real danger of the euro destroying the European Union.” He added: “The way to escape it is for Germany to accept … greater commitment to helping not only its interests but the interests of the debtor countries, and playing the role of the benevolent hegemon.”
In Greece, the Prime Minister expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached that would end once and for all speculation that the country will leave the euro zone and put an end to drachma phobia; but several executives at the same conference indicated they saw little sign of progress in reducing government regulations to encourage entrepreneurship, or in fixing the banking system so that companies can obtain credit; and there was still a chance that Greece would have to leave the euro zone.

Higher gas costs drove up US consumer prices in September for the second straight month. Outside energy, there was little sign of inflation. The Labor Department announced the consumer price index rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent last month, matching the August increase. In the past 12 months, prices have increased 2 percent. That's in line with the Fed's inflation target. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, prices rose just 0.1 percent. In the past year, so-called core prices have increased 2 percent.

Sheila Bair the former Chair of the FDIC has 5 questions for the candidates in tonight's debate. Here are the questions:

The economy has taken center stage in the drama of the 2012 Presidential race. Yet, neither candidate's campaign script acknowledges the connection between our current economic woes and the financial crisis which caused them. Five years after the bubble, financial reform remains a work in progress. So, these are pretty good questions. They probably won't be asked, but they are good questions. Again, feel free to use this as a drinking game. If you actually hear one of these questions asked, then slam back a shot glass of single malt whiskey, and if you hear an actual answer slam down two.

I know that today is the big presidential debate but did you know that today is also World Food Day. I will celebrate by having dinner tonight. I'm lucky that way and I realize not everyone is as blessed as I am.

According to a new report from the United Nations, world grain reserves are so dangerously low that severe weather in the United States or other food-exporting countries could trigger a major hunger crisis next year, Failing harvests in the US, Ukraine and other countries this year have eroded reserves to their lowest level since 1974. As a result of record heatwaves and droughts in 2012, the US now holds in reserve a historically low 6.5% of the corn that it expects to consume in the next year. The simple math is that we are not producing as much as we are consuming.

The UN says prices of main food crops such as wheat and corn are now close to those that sparked riots in 25 countries in 2008. The latest figures released this week suggest that 870 million people are malnourished and the food crisis is growing in the Middle East and Africa. Wheat production this year is expected to be 5.2% below 2011, with yields of most other crops, except rice, also falling. According to the the Earth policy research center, the price of key staples, including wheat and rice, may double in the next 20 years, Food supplies are tightening everywhere and land is becoming the most sought-after commodity as the world shifts from an age of food abundance to one of scarcity. The geopolitics of food is fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil.

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