Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday, March 14, 2014 - The Circle of Life

The Circle of Life
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 43 = 16,065
SPX – 5 = 1841
NAS – 15 = 4245
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.64%
OIL + .81 = 99.01
GOLD + 10.90 = 1383.00
SILV + .29 = 21.56

In economic news, the early-March consumer sentiment index fell to 79.9. That’s down from a final February reading of 81.6 but the latest number is within the range of numbers posted since November.

A separate report from the Labor Department shows the producer price index dropped o.1% last month. The PPI measures inflation at the wholesale level. Final demand for goods rose 0.4% in February. Final demand for services dropped 0.3%. Producer prices excluding volatile food and energy costs fell 0.2%. In the 12 months through February, producer prices increased 0.9%, the smallest one-year gain since May 2013. Inflation is not a concern. The economy is still too sluggish to generate inflation.

There are two big news stories of the day: Flight 370 and Ukraine. We don’t know anything about either. A total absence of actual information about the missing Malaysian flight is not in any way hindering 24 hour news coverage of the story. Facts have given way to fantastic fantasizing about everything from terrorism to hidden island airstrips to alien abductions. The news networks have been gathering tons of erroneous and conflicting reports which they immediately pass to their viewers. They must think we’re all morons.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov wrapped up meetings in London by announcing they have no common vision on the crisis in Ukraine. Russia will go forward with a referendum vote on Crimean sovereignty on Sunday. Monday will be a strange day as we watch the markets try to weave a narrative.

The Swiss bank UBS said it will conduct an internal review of its precious metals business amid expanding regulatory investigations into potential manipulation of interest rates and the price of commodities and currencies. European regulators began looking at other benchmark rates, including for gold and silver, as part of an outgrowth of its investigation of rigging of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, and other global interest rate benchmarks. The process of setting the benchmark price for gold in London dates to 1919. It is set twice a day by five firms that serve as market makers; those market makers are: Barclays, Societe Generale, Deusche Bank, Scotiabank, and HSBC.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority said that after an investigation of nine banks that were part of the local consortium making daily submissions to determine the Hong Kong Interbank Offered Rate, which is used as a benchmark to price corporate loans, household mortgages and other types of debt; only UBS was found to have tried to manipulate the rate, but the regulators conclude that they were not good at rigging the rate, so no fines have been levied.

Today the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp sued 16 of the world's largest banks, accusing them of cheating dozens of other now defunct banks by manipulating the Libor interest rate. The big global banks broke certain swaps contracts they had entered into with the now-closed banks by separately colluding to rig the Libor rate to which the contracts were tied. Some of the big banks have already paid fines to resolve the charges; but the big banks are also being sued by investors and other who claim they lost money due to the manipulation.

A federal judge last March dismissed many of those claims that were based on antitrust law, but has yet to rule on cases that rely on the "breach of contract" theory used by the FDIC.

The Inspector General for the Department of Justice has released a report that basically says the crackdown on mortgage fraud is a joke. In 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “mortgage fraud crimes have reached crisis proportions, but we are fighting back.” The only problem is it didn’t happen. More money was given to the FBI, but the inspector general’s report shows that the FBI considered mortgage fraud to be its lowest-ranked national criminal priority.

Holder announced in 2012 that prosecutors had charged more than 530 people over the previous year in mortgage fraud related cases, but the new report says the actual number of cases was 107. Yep, the regulators are now cooking the books.

Yesterday we reported that Wall Street bonuses grew 15% last year to more than $26.7 billion, or an average of $164,000 per employee, according to the New York Comptroller; it marked the third highest bonus payout on record. The average salary including bonuses in 2012 was $360,700, or more than five times greater than the rest of the private sector. The average Wall Street bonus is now 7 times larger than it was 30 years ago. Meanwhile the median household income has been stagnant for the past 30 years.

People who park their savings in these big banks accept a lower interest rate on deposits or loans than they require from America’s smaller banks. That’s because smaller banks are riskier places to park money. Smaller banks won’t be bailed out if they get into trouble; big banks are too big to fail. That implied government protection is like a hidden subsidy for the big banks, and it affords them a competitive advantage, and allows them to rake in more profits than smaller rivals.

How large is this hidden subsidy? Two IMF researchers have calculated it’s about eight tenths of a percentage point; and based on the total amount of money parked at the 10 biggest Wall Street banks that works out to a subsidy of about $83 billion a year. The top 5 banks account for $64 billion of the $83 billion subsidy; and that pretty much equals the top 5 banks average annual profits. Bottom line, no subsidy, no bonus pool.

Meanwhile, I almost missed this story from Tuesday. In Vermont, 15 towns have voted to support the creation of a public bank in Vermont, calling for the state legislature to establish such a bank and urging passage of legislation designed to begin its implementation. The specific proposal under consideration, Senate Bill 204, would turn an existing agency, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, into a public bank that would accept deposits and issue loans for in-state projects.

Currently, the only state in the US to maintain a public state bank is North Dakota. However, since the financial downturn of 2008, other states have looked into replicating the North Dakota model as a way to buck Wall Street while taking more control of state and local finances.

Here’s how the public bank in North Dakota works: All state revenues must be deposited with the state public bank by law.  The bank pays no bonuses, fees or commissions; does no advertising; and maintains no branches beyond the main office in Bismarck. The bank offers cheap credit lines to state and local government agencies. There are low-interest loans for designated project finance. The Bank of North Dakota underwrites municipal bonds, funds disaster relief and supports student loans. It partners with local commercial banks to increase lending across the state and pays competitive interest rates on state deposits. For the past ten years, it has been paying a dividend to the state.

An economic study on a public bank in Vermont suggests the plan would create 2,500 new jobs and increase the gross state product by more than $340 million, with no new appropriations or bonding to establish the bank.

And we wrap up with this; today is Pi Day. March 14, or expressed another way 3-14, which happen to be the first 3 digits of pi, that Greek letter that has come to be defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter; in other words the ratio of the linear distance around the edge of a circular object to its measure of a straight line going through the center of a circle connecting two points on the circumference. So, if you want to know the circumference of a circle you could just multiply the diameter times 3.14 (pi). This also happens to be the birthday of Albert Einstein, which just makes both all the more intriguing.  A year from today, the date will be 3-14-15, which happens to be the first 5 digits of pi; it’s a once in a lifetime event.

Pi is, of course, an irrational number, which means it cannot be expressed as a ratio. It’s a decimal that’s neither finite (like 2.0 or 2.2) nor repeating (like 3.3333) nor periodic (like 9.1818). It just keeps going past 3.14159 for as long as you’d like to take it. Some people have done the calculation out to more than 2 trillion decimal places, with the help of computers. And so we consider pi to be infinite.

Another way to consider this is that there is no perfect circle. Or we might say that since pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi’s infinite sequence of numbers, and if you were to convert it to ASCII text, somewhere in that infinite string of digits is the name of every person you will ever love, or even meet, plus the date, time and manner of your death, and every question and every possible answer, and all the mysteries of the universe are contained in this infinite sequence of digits, and the only way we can wrap our minds around it is to think of it as a circle.

Celebrate safely.

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