Friday, May 30, 2014

Friday, May 30, 2014 - Record Highs, Bonds, Coal Mines

Record Highs, Bonds, Coal Mines
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 18 = 16,717
SPX + 3 = 1923 (another record)
NAS – 5 = 4242 (not a record)
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.45%
OIL - .71 =  102.87
GOLD – 4.60 = 1252.30
SILV - .23 = 18.91

For the week, the Dow rose 0.7%, the S&P 500 gained 1.2% and the Nasdaq added 1.4%. For the month of May, the Dow gained 0.8%, the S&P 500 rose 2.1% and the Nasdaq climbed 3.1%. Meanwhile, if you are looking for action, the bond market is the place; the yield on the 10 year note has dropped from 2.65% to 2.45% this month.

Nearly everyone is looking for an explanation as to why longer-term interest rates continue to fall in the face of reduced Fed support and what is being hyped as better economic data. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Federal Reserve has been propping up Treasury bond prices, and suppressing yields, for the past several years by buying large quantities of bonds each month in an effort to increase investment and consumption, and force investors into riskier assets. To some extent, the Fed’s QE purchases have worked; ultra-low interest rates have supported housing price increases and have led to skyrocketing stock prices.  Household net worth has increased by $25 trillion from the financial-crisis lows in the first quarter of 2009.  However, these gains in net worth have overwhelmingly accrued to the well-to-do while low- to moderate-income folks continue to suffer from poor employment opportunities, stagnant incomes, inadequate retirement savings, and rising costs for everything from food and energy to health care and education.  In other words, the economy hasn’t really improved but the Fed may have created financial asset bubbles.

Last December the Fed began winding down its large scale asset purchases by tapering, or incrementally reducing the amount of purchases over a scheduled period of a year or so. Back in December the Fed was buying $85 billion a month in mortgage backed securities and treasuries; they have now cut that to just $45 billion a month, and by the end of the year they anticipate they will end the large scale asset purchases. This means that demand for treasuries and MBS has, or should have dropped significantly. If there is less demand and the supply stays the same, then prices should fall and bond yields should be moving higher. The exact opposite has been happening; long term bond prices have increased and bond yields have been falling; and the timing of this increase in prices and drop in yields coincides with the start of the Fed taper.

Is there something wrong with the supply/demand equation? Is there invisible demand out there? Well, treasuries are considered a safe haven investment, and if we saw volatility in the stock market, we might expect a move to the safe haven of treasuries. Right now the CBOE Volatility Index known as the VIX, is down. As the 10-year yield touches the 2.4% level, its lowest in nearly a year, the VIX is hovering around 11.5, near its lowest levels since before the financial crisis.

The VIX measures volatility in the US market, so maybe we need to broaden out horizons. Europe is experiencing low-flation, and in some Euro countries the low-flation has turned to deflation; as a consequence, the rates in Europe are very low: German 10 year bonds yield 1.36%, France yields 1.75%, Spain 10 year notes yield 2.86%. In a global market there is something wrong with pricing. Why is the US bond yield higher than the French bond yield? That does not compute.

Of course, one explanation is that foreign investors are looking for a place to park money and if you can get a better yield on US treasuries compared to French bonds, it just makes sense that you wouldn’t buy the French bonds; add in the idea that buying US treasuries serves as an effective hedge against home currency depreciation and treasuries should be attracting money that might be held in emerging market economies.

In general, if economic growth is expected to accelerate, interest rates should rise as well.  The reason for this is fairly straightforward.  Increased demand for goods and services should lead to price increases.  Inflation is one component of "nominal" interest rates.  The other component is called the "real" rate of interest, and it is determined by the demand for money.  As economic growth accelerates, the demand for money should increase as people become more confident in making spending and investment decisions.  Therefore, higher inflation expectations and higher demand for money should lead to higher interest rates in a strengthening economy; but they haven't. Perhaps the weak economy of the Eurozone is holding back rates in the US, or maybe the US economy isn’t as strong as we imagine.

Another consideration has us going back to the supply-demand equation; if supply dries up faster than demand dries up, then that would push prices higher. Remember that the federal deficit has been trimmed to the lowest levels in about 13 years and that means the government isn’t issuing as much new debt. And the housing market has slowed and that means there should be less in the way of mortgage backed securities.

That was certainly the case for the first quarter; the US economy shrank. And there are no real signs of inflation in the US, or at least we didn’t see inflation for quite some time. That may be changing; the April CPI and PPI showed a minor pop in prices; the low interest rate environment has boosted financial asset prices, so stocks and housing prices have moved higher; food prices are also higher but they tend to be overlooked as a weather related aberration, although I doubt that is temporary; the labor market is still weak and despite the unemployment rate dropping to 6.3% there is tremendous slack and little participation and there doesn’t seem to be any wage inflation. The Fed might claim the economy is getting stronger and the Fed might not consider deflation to be a problem, but the bond market seems to be saying the recovery is sick. At least for the Main Street economy.

Further proof today showing American shoppers dialed it back in April. Household purchases fell 0.1%, the first decrease in a year, and following a 1% gain in March; that was the bounce back from the pent up demand of the frozen winter. After adjusting the figure to account for inflation, the news was worse; spending dropped by the most since September 2009 as income growth cooled. Incomes advanced just 0.3% in April, and without pay gains, consumers lack confidence. Consumer sentiment dropped from 84.1 in April to 81.9 in May. What we’re seeing is the failure of trickledown. The stock market may be strong, the well-off may be better off, but it doesn’t trickle down. The economy is never going to recovery without broad based demand, and that will only happen when the labor market gets strong, until then, the Fed is pushing on a string with QE and the Zero Interest Rate Policy.

There are many possible reasons behind the move in bonds, but a big part still has to do with the economy, even with all the subplots of the international markets and the inflation-deflation debate, we get back to the idea that the economy is weak, and the recovery is uneven. The first quarter GDP contraction was certainly weather related but that doesn’t mean the economy will bounce like a quarter on a trampoline. Second quarter GDP should be positive but probably not sizzling hot. I don’t buy that story, and apparently the bond market isn’t buying it either.

Next week’s economic calendar includes the ISM surveys of business activity in the manufacturing and services sector. What will be important to the outlook is what the surveys say about employment, export prospects and inventories. On Wednesday the Fed will release its Beige Book of regional economic reports. The next Fed FOMC meeting is June 17-18. Next Friday is the monthly jobs report; the unemployment rate, the headline number is at 6.3%, but that’s based on a participation rate at 62.8%. If the participation rate moves higher, look for the unemployment rate to jump.

Another big event next week, President Obama on Monday will unveil a plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants and promote cap-and-trade, undertaking the most significant action on climate change in American history. The proposed regulations could cut carbon pollution by as much as 25% from about 1,600 power plants in operation today. Power plants are the country's single biggest source of carbon pollution; responsible for up to 40% of the country's emissions.

The rules, which were drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency and are under review by the White House, are expected to put America on course to meet its international climate goal, and put US diplomats in a better position to leverage climate commitments from big polluters such as China and India. The plan is certain to result in political backlash with critics making doomsday claims about the costs of cutting carbon. Coal mining companies, power plant operators and others are already lining up for legal challenges to the executive action, claiming the approach oversteps the EPA’s authority.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014 - First Quarter GDP and Extreme Weather

First Quarter GDP and Extreme Weather
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 65 = 16,698
SPX + 10 = 1920
NAS + 22 = 4247
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.44%
OIL + .79 = 103.51
GOLD – 2.70 = 1256.90
SILV + .02 = 19.14

The economy was worse than expected in the first quarter. The first estimate of first quarter gross domestic product showed 0.1% growth. Today, we got the second estimate and it showed 1.0% contraction. We figured the second estimate would show contraction but most estimates were calling for just 0.1% to 0.6% contraction. The newly revised estimate incorporates additional economic data released in recent weeks. Higher-than-expected imports and slower-than-expected inventory growth dragged the economy into negative territory.

US based corporations posted slightly lower, after tax, seasonally adjusted, first quarter profits of $1.88 trillion for the quarter, down from $1.905 trillion in the fourth quarter; but those numbers were not adjusted for inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments; we know corporations are still holding bloated inventories. A big buildup in private inventories boosted economic growth in the third quarter of 2013, but left a hangover that weighed on growth in the first quarter of 2014. Inventories subtracted 1.62 percentage points from GDP growth, compared with an initial estimate of 0.57 percentage point subtracted from growth.

Business investment declined at a 1.6% pace, revised from an initially estimated decline at a 2.1% pace. Spending on structures fell at a 7.5% pace and spending on equipment fell at a 3.1% rate. Investments in intellectual property, like research and development, rose at a 5.1% pace.

Consumer spending grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter, revised up from an initial estimate of growth at a 3% pace. Spending on services, like health care and household heating, grew at a 4.3% pace while spending on physical goods rose at a more modest 0.7% pace.

The housing market was a drag in the first quarter and the revisions didn’t create much change; residential fixed investment contracted at a 5% pace, a little better than the original estimate of a 5.7% decline, and that subtracted 0.16% from GDP.

Exports fell at a 6% pace in the first three months of the year, not as bad as the initial estimate of 7.6%, but imports, which are subtracted from the GDP calculation, rose at a 0.7% pace, compared with the initial estimate that they declined at a 1.4% pace. Net exports subtracted 0.95 percentage point from GDP growth.

Total government spending subtracted 0.15 percentage point from GDP for the quarter, compared with an initial estimate of 0.09 percentage point subtracted from growth. Federal spending added to GDP, state and local government spending subtracted slightly from GDP.

So, it was a nasty GDP revision but don’t worry, be happy because it was weather related and the winter storms and polar vortexes have passed; gray skies have cleared up, put on a happy face. One headline today tries to tell us: “Why the GDP Drop Is Good for the US Economic Outlook”; the thinking is that there is pent-up demand; consumers and businesses will brush off their cabin fever and rush out to buy and sell. Another headline tries to maintain perspective by reminding us that: “The US Economy Had a Hiccup, Not a Heart Attack”; which is almost a valid point; this wasn’t a heart attack, but it wasn’t a hiccup either. That article says, “This isn’t a recession or even the beginning of a recession though.” True, but this is how recessions start, with economic contraction, but this isn’t a recession.

The economy changes slowly, even though economic numbers jump up and down, and the numbers can be tricky. For example, in October 2008, the numbers on the economy showed GDP had dropped 0.3%, not nearly as bad as today’s number. Back in 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the politicians said we faced a global financial meltdown.

Back in May 2007, the markets looked a lot like they do today, very low volatility, troubling signs for housing stocks, and a stock sector rotation that suggested the bull market was long in the tooth. That bull market ran for 5 more months. Whether investors knew it or not, they were incurring a large risk for only a few percent reward.

The numbers don’t always reflect the scene on the street. Maybe they do, but more than likely, this is not the start of a new recession. This is how recessions start and the strange part is how most economists are just glossing over this as if it were nothing but a hiccup, when it actually represents billions of dollars; one percent of a $17 trillion dollar economy; some hiccup.

The blame is squarely placed on the weather without acknowledging that the weather is undergoing massive change, not just the polar vortex of winter, but let’s look at the wildfires of spring, and the drought of summer. The “weather effect” is not likely a one and done. The United States is currently engulfed in one of the worst droughts in recent memory. More than 30% of the country experienced at least moderate drought as of last week's data. In seven states drought conditions were so severe that each had more than half of its land area in severe drought. Severe drought is characterized by crop loss, frequent water shortages, and mandatory water use restrictions.

While large portions of the seven states suffer from severe drought, in some parts of these states drought conditions are even worse. In six of the seven states with the highest levels of drought, more than 30% of each state was in extreme drought as of last week, a more severe level of drought characterized by major crop and pasture losses, as well as widespread water shortages. Additionally, in California and Oklahoma, 25% and 30% of the states, respectively, suffered from exceptional drought, the highest severity classification. Under exceptional drought, crop and pasture loss is widespread, and shortages of well and reservoir water can lead to water emergencies.

Drought has had a major impact on important crops such as winter wheat. Just 29% of the entire US wheat crop is rated good to excellent; very poor to poor ratings are 78% in Oklahoma, 67% in Texas and 59% in Kansas. And even though much of Texas received rain in the past week, it may be a case of too little, too late. With the crop now heading out, there's not much hope for any recovery as we move deeper into the season. That likely means higher prices for your daily bread. Pasture land across the West is in generally poor shape; that likely means higher beef prices, which you’ve probably already noticed.

In the Southwest, concerns are less-focused on agriculture and more on reservoir levels. In Arizona, reservoir levels were just two-thirds of their usual average. In New Mexico, reservoir stores were only slightly more than half of their normal levels. And Nevada is the worst of all, with reservoir levels about one-third of normal.

The situation in California may well be the most problematic of any state. The entire state is suffering from severe drought, and 75% of all land area was under extreme drought. Restrictions on agricultural water use has forced many California farmers to leave fields fallow. At the current usage rate, California has less than two years of water remaining. And we know California is responsible for about half the nation’s fruit and vegetable supply.

This past February, US food prices jumped 0.4% — the largest one-month increase since September 2011. Then they jumped another 0.4% in March. Then another 0.4% in April. Fruit and vegetable prices rose even faster, at a 0.7% clip in April. The US Department of Agriculture says the California drought doesn’t seem to have affected vegetable prices so far this year and the agency isn’t predicting a catastrophic spike in food prices just yet. The USDA projects that food price inflation will be between 2.5% and 3.5% in 2014. That's higher than the rise last year, but it's in line with the long-term average of 2.8%.

There are a couple of reasons why we might not get hit in the wallet this year: farmers are shifting water use from some crops to others, cutting back on some crops, like corn and alfalfa that might be available from other places. This strategy is tricky; for example, California dairy farms depend on alfalfa for feed; if they have to import feed, it could increase dairy prices in the short term. Also, farmers are pumping groundwater. The problem is the aquifers are being depleted, even sinking in some cases, and losing their original capacity. In the short term, we adapt; but if the drought continues, next year could be a bear.

Commodity markets already have weathered record cold in the US that sent natural-gas futures to five-year highs and severe drought in Brazil that has nearly doubled coffee prices. Now meteorologists are predicting even more abnormal weather, thanks to the return of El Nino, a rapid and prolonged warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, which disrupts normal weather patterns and would exacerbate the extreme climatic events already affecting many markets this year. Meteorological agencies say there is a 60% to 70% chance of El Nino occurring by the end of 2014, and a more than 50% chance it will arrive earlier, by this summer.

It's a significant event in commodities markets because El Nino affects weather patterns virtually everywhere. Past occurrences brought dry weather to West Africa, damaging the region's cocoa crop, and wet weather to Brazil, delaying the coffee and sugar harvests. India typically sees less rain in its monsoon during an El Nino year, which can mean smaller grain and cotton crops. In the US, El NiƱo could bring much needed rain to the southwest and California. If it comes.

But El Nino is not necessarily good news for commodity prices on a global scale; it tends to help soybean crops but harm corn, wheat and rice crops. And also remember that El Nino refers to an extreme weather event. When El Nino hit in 1997 it claimed an estimated 2,100 lives and caused $33 billion damage to properties.

No matter which way you look, the forecast calls for extreme weather, and that means the first quarter GDP wasn’t just a hiccup.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - Reflecting the Economy

Reflecting the Economy
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 42 = 16,633
SPX – 2 = 1909
NAS – 11 = 4225
10 YR YLD - .08 = 2.43%
OIL – 1.03 = 103.08
GOLD = 4.70 = 1259.60
SILV - .01 = 19.13

The major stock market indices were lower, but it wasn’t a big move, and we’ve been 4 up days, so today’s pullback was nothing but a pause. What was interesting today was the move in the bond market. The yield on the 10 year treasury dropped all the way to 2.43%; that’s the lowest rate in almost a year. The 10 year treasury has dropped 22 basis points this month, meaning treasuries are on track for the best month since January. Now, remember that the Federal Reserve is supposed to be tapering, cutting back on large scale purchases of treasury bonds.  

What’s fueling the move? It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. Europe is facing some sort of monetary stimulus package from the ECB next week; meanwhile, a report showed German unemployment rose and that pushed yields on the 10 year bund to 1.28%; that trade then spilled over to the US markets, toss in end of month window dressing and there was likely a short squeeze. There are some big short positions on treasuries right now; more shorts than longs.

At the end of the day, the bond market is supposed to reflect the economy; not an exact image but rather a mirror image. And the US economy is probably not as strong as expected. Tomorrow, we’ll get a revised look at first quarter GDP. The initial estimate on GDP showed just 0.1% growth; a pathetic rate blamed on bad weather; the revision is expected to show the economy contracted by 0.6%, maybe worse. Since the recession ended in June 2009, US GDP growth has dipped into the red only once: the first quarter of 2011, when economic output contracted at a 1.3% rate. It appears likely to happen again. The economy was repeatedly disrupted by cold and snowy weather in the first quarter and much of the activity that did not take place then is occurring now during the warmer spring months. Wall Street expects second-quarter growth to snap back with a 3.8% gain.

But where will the springtime burst of growth come from? Exports? Not to Europe and not to emerging markets. The initial GDP report said net exports subtracted 0.83 percentage point from the GDP growth rate in the first quarter. It may be a bigger drag on growth in Thursday’s update. Construction? A bit, yes, but we continue to see the housing market looking soft. Construction lending is seeing a slow, steady recovery, but it remains 66% below its boom-era peak of $631 billion in outstanding loans in early 2008. Companies restocking their shelves? Not likely. Inventories subtracted 0.57 percentage point from GDP growth, according to the first estimate, and that could grow with this week’s revision; inventories remain high and consumer spending sluggish. Corporate profits? Yes sir that is an area of strength but it’s also a two-edged sword.

The Commerce Department is starting to release a new report on corporate profits. Pretax profits adjusted for depreciation and the value of inventories climbed 1.9% in the fourth quarter to a record $2.13 trillion on a annualized basis. Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP stood at 10.2% in the fourth quarter, just a touch below a record high. Corporate profits are now higher than they’ve ever been before.

Here’s the problem; whenever profit margins reach a high, they tend to peak and then rollover, with the stock market and the economy dragging behind in like manner. It’s tough to keep pumping out record profits, in part because profit margins often depend on cost cutting, not just revenue; there are limits to how much fat a company can trim and there are limits to how much a company can increase sales while simultaneously cutting back on R&D and capital expenditures. Right now, stocks are priced to reflect very high corporate profits. Any disappointment would shake that pricing structure and translate into big stock market losses.

Like any individual indicator, this is not an absolute. Corporate profit margins can remain at elevated levels anywhere from a single quarter to multiple years and don’t typically present an imminent warning threat to the stock market or economy until forming a major peak and sudden decline. Profit margins peak on average before the stock market by more than a year and before recessions by more than two years. It doesn’t work out this way all the time; in the early 70’s profits peaked with the market, and in the early 80’s profits peaked after the stock market, and it is possible that the lag time stretches out so far as to make the indicator more or less worthless.

The point is that there are other factors that must be considered. Think of profits as one measurement of the business cycle. So, despite the Fed taper, there is increasing likelihood that interest rates will remain low and possibly decline a bit; if rates decline, stocks are likely to move up with bonds, as we’ve seen can happen; and if falling long-term yields flatten the yield curve, that would increase the risk of a market crash. In a low-yield, low inflation environment, there is a good opportunity to grow profits and so those crashes tend to be preceded by periods of very strong returns. So the current bull market is likely to remain in place until inflation picks up or low-flation/deflation drags down profits.

Falling yields tend to be somewhat more bullish than bearish, but it’s a poor indicator for how the stock market will react. Falling yields are good especially when we are in a bull market, but they can be dangerous if they should drive down the yield curve spread to an unusually low level and then there is the lag effect I mentioned earlier. When the long end of the yield curve comes down that is good for stocks for a while; it can even result in parabolic increases in the short term, but it also indicates bad news for the broader economy, and eventually the bill comes due.

Yesterday we talked about the proposed new EPA regulations on coal fired power plants. Today we’ll talk about the backlash to those proposals; which, by the way, have not been officially proposed yet. It’s anticipated that the new EPA guidelines will try to reduce the percentage of US electricity generated by coal to 14% by 2030 from about 37% right now. Coal is the single biggest source of electricity generation in the US and has been for more than 60 years. The amount of electricity generated by natural gas would rise to 46% by 2030 from about 30% now under the EPA plan. That would make it the biggest generator of the nation’s electricity.

Meanwhile, opponents of the plan say it will increase the cost of electricity and cost jobs. The US Chamber of Commerce released a study showing it would cost the economy $50 billion a year and destroy a quarter million jobs. Sometimes they just pull numbers out of the air; these reports tend to overlook the externalities associated with a dirty fuel like coal, and also overlook the positive impact of cleaner fuels. Anyway, the mudslinging has started.

And a follow-up on the Detroit bankruptcy story. A task force has issued the most detailed study yet of blight in Detroit and recommended that the city spend at least $850 million to quickly tear down about 40,000 dilapidated buildings, demolish or restore tens of thousands more, and clear thousands of trash-packed lots. It also said that the hulking remains of factories that dot Detroit, crumbling reminders of the city’s manufacturing prowess, must be salvaged or demolished, which could cost as much as $1 billion more.

If carried out, the recommendations by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force would drastically alter the face of the nation’s largest bankrupt city. They would also cost significantly more than the approximately $450 million that the city already plans to spend on blight, raising questions about the feasibility of the vast cleanup effort, which is part of its larger campaign to emerge from bankruptcy by fall and begin remaking itself.

The blight study, which is perhaps the most elaborate survey of decay conducted in any large America city, found that 30% of buildings, or 78,506 of them, scattered across the city’s 139 square miles, are dilapidated or heading that way. It found that 114,000 parcels — about 30% of the city’s total — are vacant. And it found that more than 90% of publicly held parcels are blighted. The report also made several recommendations for preventing blight in the future, including changes to property tax and foreclosure laws, and heavy fines for scrap metal theft.

The basic plan is to clean up the city, but nobody really knows how to go about the task. Do you clean up by tearing down or do you clean up by building or rebuilding? For years, some have contemplated consolidating some of the city’s neighborhoods to allow the city to provide services to a smaller area, more suited to its shrunken population; Detroit has gone from 1.8 million to about 800,000. And if they don’t get this right this time, it will likely revert to farmland. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - Currently Trending Here

Currently Trending Here
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 69 = 16,675
SPX + 11 = 1911
NAS + 51 = 4237
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.52%
OIL - .24 – 104.11
GOLD – 29.20 = 1264.30
SILV - .40 = 19.14

The S&P 500 Index closed at another record high. The Dow Industrial Average is just a little below the May 13 record of 16,715. The Russell 2000 index of small and mid-caps confirmed the uptrend. The Russell had been lagging and there was a concern that small caps might drag the blue chips lower. While the Russell is still down about 2% year to date, on Friday it moved above its 200 day moving average.

Any time the market is trending, it makes sense to look for divergences, or any indicator that might signal a change in trend, but the most important thing to watch is still the trend itself; in other words the market scorecard is measured in price. And right now the trend is up.

Let’s start with some economic news. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices continued to show gains in prices for existing home sales; the 10-city composite was up 0.8% and the 20-city composite was up 0.9% month over month; and respective year over year gains of 12.6% and 12.4%. Nineteen of the 20 cities showed positive returns in March; New York was the only city to decline. As of March 2014, average home prices across the United States are back to their mid-2004 levels. Measured from the 2006 peaks, home prices are down 19%.

Mortgage rates started rising in May 2013 as the market speculated about when the Federal Reserve would start pulling back on its large scale asset purchase program, at the same time inventories of new and existing homes dropped, pushing prices higher and affordability was pushed down. One positive for home sales is that mortgage rates have recently dropped with the average 30 year fixed at 4.14% and the average 15 year fixed mortgage at 3.25% the lowest levels since last October.

The Conference Board said its consumer-confidence index rose to 83 in May from a downwardly revised 81.7 in April. The survey shows 20% of respondents expect their incomes will improve in the next 6 months; that doesn’t sound like much but it’s the highest reading since 2007. Other key elements of the survey: A net 18.2% said jobs were hard to get vs. being plentiful, compared with 19.8% in April and 26.5% in May 2013. Those who plan to buy a home within six months fell to 4.9% in May, the lowest since July 2012; that compares with a percentage of 5.6% in April. Those who plan to buy major appliances within six months fell to 45.1%, the lowest since September 2011.

Durable goods orders increased 0.8% in April. Durable goods are products designed to last 3 years or longer; so this is a broad category that includes everything from toasters to cars to nuclear submarines. In April, the Navy inked a $17.6 billion contract for 10 nuclear-powered attack submarines; and while that will be money that will circulate through the economy over several years, it skewed the report. Non-defense capital goods orders fell 1.2%. Business are placing fewer orders while working through a stockpile of goods amassed in the second half of 2013. Last month, durable goods inventories rose 0.1% after increasing 0.2% in March.

The Memorial Day holiday signals the unofficial start of summer and the summer driving season, and that usually equates to higher gasoline prices at the pump. Usually, but not always. According to the Energy Information Administration, prices at the pump are going to fall from today’s levels. This forecast is based on increased crude-oil production and declining global demand.  Rising oil production has boosted US crude-oil inventories to some 398 million barrels. That’s the highest level since way back in 1931. Demand is down, in large part because of better fuel efficiency forced by government MPG mandates. Demand has been declining since 2007. In many areas, gas prices are the lowest since 2011. Each penny decline in gasoline puts $1 billion back into people’s pockets.

Speaking in Portugal today, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi warned that prices in the countries in the euro zone's stressed periphery were falling too sharply, due to the combination of belt-tightening and a high exchange rate. He also cited evidence of a debt trap in stressed countries: the cost of finance for many companies has risen since the crisis, while falling prices mean they can't generate the profits to service their debts. Draghi said that the share of viable small businesses that can't get a loan is only around 1% in Germany or Austria, but around 25% in Spain and 33% in Portugal; Draghi called this imbalance a “credit gap” and blames it for up to a third of the economic slack in the crisis economies and acting as a brake on economic recovery. And so Draghi says the ECB will take action June 5th to ward off deflation and support economic recovery; what precisely will be done is still a matter of speculation.

It is widely anticipated the ECB will cut interest rates combined with an attempt to boost credit to small and medium sized businesses by providing long-term funding to banks provided they deploy that capital to expand business credit. The main lending rate will likely be cut from 0.25% to 0.1% or so. Meanwhile, the deposit rate paid to banks on overnight deposits will likely be cut from zero to a negative 0.1% or so, in effect charging the banks for funds they leave with the central bank.

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a report on the data brokerage industry. The nine data brokers examined in the FTC report were Acxiom, CoreLogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf and Recorded Future. Data brokers analyze data collected about consumers to make automated assumptions about them. Consumers are placed in data-driven social and demographic groups for marketing purposes. The commission says that the same data that identifies a motorcycle enthusiast could both get him a discount on a biking magazine and make it easier to charge him more for car insurance. Another way to look at this is that the consumer is not the customer, rather the consumer is the product.

And yes, the data brokers know whether you drive a motorcycle, or smoke cigarettes, or if you are overweight, and how many bathrooms you have in your home, and if you travel or just like to read magazines about travel; that’s all in addition to the basics like name, address, social security number, age, and the bluntly termed “ability to afford products”.

According to the FTC, the firms have done a great job of finding data to crunch. One firm has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions; another one adds 3 billion new records to its databases each month. While the report doesn’t address credit scores, the framework of the debate is much the same. What really worries the FTC is the impossibly opaque way the data is collected and managed. The data brokers gather their data from other data brokers rather than directly from an original source.

This is where the commission thinks the government should get involved. It suggests a law that would mandate the creation of a centralized portal where data brokers explain themselves, disclose their sources, and give people the opportunity to opt out; or for more sensitive data, require consumers to opt in before data could be sold. The commission hints it might call for some version of the idea that people have a right to have some things be forgotten, but they don’t actually recommend that data brokers cull their data, even when that data may be very old and inaccurate. And there is talk, but nothing concrete, about giving consumers access to their own data, and the ability to call for some of that data to be corrected or deleted.

President Obama today outlined a plan to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and withdraw the rest by the end of 2016. Under his plan, 9,800 US troops would remain behind into next year. By the end of 2015, that number would be reduced by roughly half. By the end of 2016, the U.S. presence would be cut to a normal embassy presence. The United States now has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan.

At some point in the next week, President Obama is expected to announce Environmental Protection Agency mandated cuts intended to reduce carbon pollution by regulating carbon dioxide emissions from about 600 existing coal fired power plants. Obama could not get Congress to take action to address climate change during his first term, so he changed his tack and is using his executive authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to issue the EPA regulation.

As currently drafted, the rule would cut greenhouse-gas emissions from the utility sector by 25%, the individuals said, but the baseline for that reduction has not been finalized. The EPA plan resembles proposals made by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which would allow states and companies to employ a variety of measures, including new renewable-energy and energy efficiency projects “outside the fence,” or away from the power plant site, to meet their carbon- reduction target.

Usually when the EPA regulates pollutants under the Clean Air Act, the agency sets an emission limit for each facility. By contrast, under a “mass-based system,” which the EPA is poised to adopt, states would have to meet an overall target for greenhouse-gas emissions and ensure that power plants either make those reductions at their facilities or finance efforts to achieve them in other ways, such as conservation or “green” generation or possibly through some variation of the cap and trade system.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday, May 23, 2014 - Always Double Check Your Spreadsheets

Always Double Check Your Spreadsheets
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 63 = 16,606
SPX + 8 = 1900
NAS + 31 = 4185
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.54%
OIL + .67 = 104.41
GOLD - .80 = 1293.90
SILV - .01 = 19.58

The S&P 500 Index closed at a record high of 1900.53. It was a record high close but not a record high considering intraday pricing. The S&P hit an intraday high of 1902 on May 13, however it closed on that day at 1897. Today, the intraday high was 1901, but I’ve always considered the close to be a more significant number than the intraday high. Since the start of the year we’ve been on a roller coaster ride in the markets, but as of today the Dow is up 0.2% year to date, the Nasdaq is up 0.2% for the year, and the S&P is up 2.8% since the start of the year.

If you are a regular, you might wonder why we aren’t celebrating a record high. The first answer is that 1900 is just a number with no special significance; the second answer is that we only celebrate when the Dow Industrial Average hits a record high, and the last record high close on the Dow was May 13 at 16,715. We don’t celebrate S&P records, and like so many things, the reasoning is entrenched in archaic traditional dogma.

An example would be Memorial Day, which started after the Civil War as a way to commemorate the soldiers who died while in military service. The holiday was originally known as Decoration Day, a day to place flowers or other such decoration on the graves of the fallen soldiers. It seems like some sort of twisted ritual when today we have such little respect for our soldiers that we can’t even provide timely health care in a VA hospital. Maybe this Memorial Day we can all contact our elected representative.

You can send an email by going to, or the main phone number for Congress is 202-225-3121. I hope you could contact at least one of your elected officials and tell them to take immediate action to straighten out the problems at the VA before we lose another soldier. I really don’t care if you are republican or democrat or something else; this is not a red or blue issue, it’s a red, white, and blue issue.

In economic news, the Commerce Department reports sales of new single family homes rose 6.4% to a seasonally adjusted rate of 433,000 units in April. The rise ended two straight months of declines. The inventory of new houses on the market increased 0.5% to 192,000 units, the highest level since November 2010. Nevertheless, the stock of new houses on the market remains more than 50% below its pre-recession level.  At April's sales pace it would take 5.3 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, down from 5.6 months in March. With inventories rising, the median price of a new home fell 1.3% to $275,800 from April last year.

According to Freddie Mac, rates on fixed 30-year mortgages fell to an average of 4.14% this week, a near seven-month low. And mortgage rates almost certainly play a very big role in the housing market and according to a new report from Deutsche Bank they explain the current weakness in the housing market. 

Last year rates spiked as the markets threw a taper tantrum, a strong reaction to the possibility the Fed would exit QE. Mortgage rates bumped up one percentage point, not a huge move, but on a percentage basis, it was more than 30%. Sharp spikes in mortgage rates tend to produce “extended periods of weakness in housing” that last several quarters historically. The current cycle hasn’t disappointed on that front. But they also find that most housing indicators have actually fared better in the recent episode relative to the historical experience.

With the caveat that all real estate markets are local, most indications of housing supply show that markets have returned to pre-crisis and even pre-housing boom levels. Housing demand is improving gradually, though household formation levels have disappointed many analysts so far.

This week Russian President Putin traveled to China to ink a deal to sell natural gas to the China over the next 30 years. Meanwhile negotiators from the US and the Eurozone very quietly began their fifth round of negotiations on the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, also known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Text from the private negotiations has leaked out, but nothing is official yet. Big Oil and Gas is looking at the situation in Europe and seeing a big opportunity, and so they are trying to remove restrictions on the export of energy goods.

For example, any request for an export license to ship natural gas from the US to the EU would be approved “automatically”, even if it means increased gas prices for US consumers, increased dependency of imports to the US, or potential environmental damage. While it would lock in more business for Big Oil, it’s hard to see how this helps the goal of US energy independence or the broader public interest.

The EU’s ideas for free trade in energy with the US would also be a frontal assault on the possibility for governments to impose a “public service obligation,” requiring utility companies to deliver natural gas at certain prices to consumers, for example. Any such public service obligation should be “clearly defined and of limited duration” and also not be “more burdensome than necessary.” In other words, if we have a cold spell in the US and local utilities need natural gas, we could be forced to ship it to Europe, even if for a limited duration.

Sunday brings a presidential election in Ukraine. Putin says he will honor the results, saying Russia will "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" in the election and will work with the new leadership.  but the results may be a tricky thing; we still don’t know if they will actually be able to handle balloting in eastern Ukraine. And if there is not a clear majority winner, there would be a runoff election in June.

Have you read the new book on economics, “Capital in the Twenty First Century”, written by French economist Thomas Piketty? It’s a big, thick book and a bestseller that has started multiple and running debates. Piketty's book claims that inequality will return to the heights seen in earlier centuries (think the Gilded Age or the French Revolution) unless governments intervene. The best-selling book has been embraced by liberals as a call to action against inequality, and attacked by conservatives as a call for socialism and wealth redistribution. And so a couple of journalists for the Financial Times, Chris Giles and Ferdinando Giugliano did some fact checking and they claim some of the facts are less than factual.

Giles noted what he described as fundamental problems with some of Piketty's numbers on wealth inequality. Giles wrote: "I discovered that his estimates of wealth inequality -- the centrepiece of Capital in the 21st Century -- are undercut by a series of problems and errors. Some issues concern sourcing and definitional problems. Some numbers appear simply to be constructed out of thin air."

Giles also said that the spreadsheets Piketty provided as source material for his book have "transcription errors from the original sources and incorrect formulas. It also appears that some of the data are cherry-picked or constructed without an original source."

In his detailed response, Piketty did not confirm or deny that there were any big errors in his data, but said his raw data sources had to be adjusted in some cases to paint a smoother picture, or to fill in gaps. Piketty wrote:  “I have no doubt that my historical data series can be improved and will be improved in the future, but I would be very surprised if any of the substantive conclusion about the long-run evolution of wealth distributions was much affected by these improvements." Piketty also pointed out that subsequent studies have backed up many of his conclusions, including the idea that wealth has become more concentrated in the US in recent decades.

Next week’s economic calendar includes a look at housing prices from Case-Shiller/S&P; the year-over-year increase in prices in 20 major cities has slowed from the recent peak of 13.7% in November 2013, and the trend likely continued in March.

Next Friday, we’ll get a report on personal income; wider coverage as a result of the ACA meant Medicaid benefits accounted for 20% of all personal income gains in the first three months of the year, therefore income excluding Medicaid benefits is probably a more accurate way to look at the data.

The Conference Board will release its confidence survey Tuesday and the University of Michigan sentiment report is set for Friday; an important subset will be how households view job availability.

On Thursday, we’ll see the Commerce Department’s revised estimates of first quarter GDP; you will recall the first estimate showed growth at just at annual rate of 0.1%, which was really bad; the revised estimate could turn ugly, even negative, like maybe down 0.9%. The second quarter GDP is expected to bounce back, but the hole is getting deeper.

Happy Memorial Day Holiday.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - A Heckuva Business Model

A Heckuva Business Model
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 10 = 16,543
SPX + 4 = 1892
NAS + 22 = 4154
10 YR YLD + .02 = 2.55%
OIL - .31 = 103.76
GOLD + 1.80 = 1294.70
SILV + .10 = 19.59

Yesterday we told you Russia and China had signed a 30 year, $400 billion dollar deal for Russia to deliver natural gas to China. Today, both countries vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution seeking to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes. In the short-term, the Russia-China gas deal won’t have a big impact. The deal will not be in place until 2018 and even then will only see Russia selling a fraction of its gas exports to China every year, exports to the EU could still well be two to four times the size.

The economic links between Russia and Europe will continue to be significant and they will continue to be reliant on each other when it comes to energy; the former to sell the latter to buy, but this link gives an advantage to Russia, especially when the weather turns cold. At least symbolically the deal highlights Russia’s desire to move away from links with Europe. Combine this with Europe’s desire to increase energy security and the relations between the two sides could become increasingly cold and distant. Although, some countries due to geographical proximity, such as Bulgaria or Hungary; or due to long standing economic links, such as Germany - will surely continue to have good relationships with Russia. The entire Ukraine crisis has brought the return of a Cold War, and the gas deal sets up an East and West Economic Bloc.

It also raises questions over future tie ups between Russia and China. Areas such as payments systems, broader financial markets, transportation and machinery have all been touted as sectors for potential cooperation between the two countries. Again while a long term issue, such ties up may concern the West since Russia and China are currently reliant on their exports in many of these areas. Both the EU and US will need to figure a clearer policy for how to deal with such changes.

Unrest continues in Ukraine. BBC reports at least 11 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during an attack on a government checkpoint in eastern Ukraine. The attackers were described as heavily armed terrorists. Russia has claimed that it was pulling back troops from the Ukrainian border, but that has not been confirmed by satellite photos.

Thailand’s army chief went on television today to announce a military coup, after two attempts to negotiate an end to political impasse failed. The country’s Constitution was “temporarily suspended,” and the military said it terminated the caretaker government but said it expected the nation’s Senate, courts and independent organizations to function normally. The military imposed a nationwide curfew, and ordered all street protesters to leave their rallying sites.

In economic news, the National Association of Realtors reports existing home sales increased 1.3% to an annual rate of 4.65 million units, marking only the second gain in sales in nine months. Sales remain down 15% from a peak of 5.38 million units hit in July. Compared to April last year, sales fell 6.8%.The inventory of unsold homes on the market increased 6.5% from a year-ago to 2.29 million in April. That was the highest level since August 2012. The median home price rose 5.2%, the slowest pace since March 2012.

In this cycle we’ve had enormous price increases before we had the demand, which was a function of institutional buying of homes, which pushed prices higher. One thing we should have learned about housing is that when prices start rising, there is a herd mentality that kicks in. It wasn’t just institutional buying, it was a combination of events that swirled around institutional buying. The institutional buyer bought up distressed properties, resulting in fewer distressed inventory, add in people who were locked into their homes by negative equity or low equity;  and for many would-be buyers, it’s just tough to get a decent mortgage, or any mortgage at all.

This doesn’t mean banks aren’t lending – they are; it turns out that banks are ready, willing, and able to lend to small businesses, but you might not like the deal. Typical interest rates are about 125%.  Subprime business lending, the industry prefers to be called “alternative”, has swelled to more than $3 billion a year; that’s twice the volume of small loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. Wall Street banks are helping the industry expand by lending originators money. They’re starting to package the loans into securities that can be sold to investors, just as they did for subprime-mortgage lenders. It’s a heckuva business model.

Manufacturing activity picked up in May; Markit's "flash" US manufacturing purchasing managers index rose to 56.2 from 55.4 in April.

New applications for unemployment benefits rose sharply in mid-May, reversing a big drop earlier in the month that put initial claims at a seven-year low. The number of people who applied for new benefits climbed by 28,000 to 326,000 in the week ended May 17. That number might grow in the coming weeks thanks to HP.

Hewlett Packard announced earnings after the close, sales fell, revenue fell, but profits were higher, and they will cut an additional 11,000 jobs, bringing the total for outstanding job cuts to 16,000.  It’s a heckuva business model.

Yesterday, William Dudley, the president of the New York Fed gave a speech to the Regional Economic Press Briefing in New York, and he said: “There have been significant and long-lasting changes to the nature of work. As a result, many middle-skilled workers displaced during the recession are likely to find that their old jobs will never come back. Furthermore, workers are increasingly facing higher skill requirements in order to land a good job. These dynamics in the labor market present a host of challenges for the region to address. However one thing is clear: workers will need more education, training and skills to take full advantage of the types of job opportunities being created in our region, as well as across the nation.”

No doubt education is important. More education and skills will not stop your fall but it might slow it down. And a point that Mr. Dudley failed to grasp, or at least communicate is that a significant percentage of corporate profits have relied upon the widespread loss of worker economic share over the past few decades.

If you have bought or sold on eBay in the past few months, change your password and monitor your financial information. The company says hackers attacked between late February and early March with login credentials obtained from "a small number" of employees. They then accessed a database containing all user records and copied "a large part" of those credentials.

The hackers stole email addresses, encrypted passwords, birth dates, mailing addresses and other information, though no financial data, nor PayPal databases were compromised. The eBay breach would be larger than the one Target Corp disclosed in December, which included some 40 million payment card numbers and another 70 million customer records. Why are we just hearing about the eBay hack now? That is a very good question and so far eBay hasn’t provided a good answer.

We’ve noted many times that bankers have a get out of jail card. This week, Credit Suisse entered a criminal guilty plea in New York for its role in an ongoing tax evasion scheme, but that was a corporate entity, and no actual human bankers went to jail; in fact, the CEO and Chairman get to keep their jobs; but today we note that the handcuffs have been slapped on a banker, the former head of investment banking for JPMorgan Chase, in China.

You may recall the recent allegations against JPMorgan in China. Jamie Dimon had a clever little business development strategy to hire the children of Chinese politicians, to win support for JPMorgan banking activities in China; it’s a heckuva business model, except apparently the SEC’s antibribery unit thinks this might be bribery and thus a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; except the SEC was not behind today’s arrest, and we all know that US law enforcement and regulators would never actually arrest a banker. However, finding jobs for the children of China’s elite in exchange for bank underwriting is apparently illegal in China, too.  And in China they have this strange custom of arresting people who break the law, even if work for JPMorgan.

In case you missed it, this week’s criminal settlement with Credit Suisse marked a turning point for law enforcement in dealing with the big banks. The Department of Justice says it proves they will go after the big banks and slap them with felonies convictions, even though they get misdemeanor punishment. Well, the proof is in the putting.

And now we have a new case that will show whether there is really any crackdown on wrongdoing, specifically money laundering; regulators are investigating Charles Schwab Corp and Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch brokerage over whether the brokerages missed red flags that could indicate attempts to move money illicitly or to feed proceeds from illegal activities into the financial system. The SEC is probing Schwab and Merrill Lynch for violations of anti-money laundering rules that require the brokerages to know their customers.

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen began urging regulators two years ago to make sure financial institutions are identifying the true beneficial owners of their accounts. Cohen's exhortations came amid concerns that bad actors, such as drug cartel members and terrorists, are growing more creative in their attempts to secretly transfer tainted funds.

The SEC's investigation so far has found Charles Schwab and Merrill did not pay close enough attention to their clients' true identities, and accepted shell companies and individuals with fake addresses as clients. In both cases, some of the accounts, whose ownership the brokerages did not adequately investigate, were eventually linked to drug cartels. The investigation is not yet complete, and the only thing we know with certainty is that it’s a heckuva business model.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - Congratulations Graduates, Yada, Yada, Yada

Congratulations Graduates, Yada, Yada, Yada
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 158 = 16,533
SPX + 15 = 1888
NAS + 34 = 4131
10 YR + .02 = 2.53%
OIL – .33 = 103.74
GOLD – 2.40 = 1292.90
SIL  un = 19.49

Earnings season is winding down; about 96% of S&P 500 companies have reported results, with profit growth this quarter of 5.5% and revenue up 2.8%. While more companies have topped earnings expectations than usual, fewer have beat on the revenue side. This has been an ongoing theme for corporate profits; bottom line growth without corresponding sales. If this formula sounds unsustainable, it is, unless there is some other factor pumping up the markets.

Follow-up from yesterday: China has signed a 30-year deal to buy Russian natural gas worth about $400 billion. The gas deal gives Moscow an economic boost at a time when Washington and the European Union have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on dozens of Russian officials and several companies over Ukraine. It allows Russia to diversify its markets for gas, which now goes mostly to Europe; essentially opening the door to Asia’s gas market and potentially closing the door on the petro-dollar.

The Federal Reserve today released the minutes of the most recent FOMC meeting. Fed policymakers considered several approaches to tightening monetary policy, but decided to remain flexible; which is another way of saying QE is a big experiment and they are just hoping nothing explodes in their face. By making no decisions, the Fed is making it difficult for Wall Street to be spooked by tightening talk, at least for now.

In the minutes, the Fed made no decisions on which tools to use. One great advantage of extending the debate about how to tighten is that it keeps the question of when stuck in background. If the Fed laid out a detailed exit strategy the markets would start to trade the strategy and essentially kill it in its tracks.

The minutes show the Fed still thinks the first quarter slowdown was weather related, and things will pick up, any day now. Fed officials still see slack in the labor force, but there wasn’t consensus on how much slack or what to do about it. Inflation is picking up just a little, but is regarded as stable and not a problem.

After the minutes were published, we heard from several Fed officials, starting with Janet Yellen delivering a commencement address to NYU grads. Yellen delivered what you might expect, and nothing to do with monetary policy: graduates, she said, should “tend the fires of curiosity,” listen to others, show grit in the face of failure, and the courage of her hero Ben Bernanke (yada, yada, yada).

Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President John Williams said he’s inclined to delay any action that would allow the central bank’s balance sheet to get smaller until after the Fed has lifted interest rates for the first time. Williams  believes the Fed needs to take into account the troubles it had last year when it first floated plans to wind down its bond-buying policy, and make sure markets understand what the central bank does with its bond holdings is entirely different than what it does with short-term rates.

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota said the Fed is still failing to deliver on its employment and inflation goals. Kocherlakota says the current unemployment rate of 6.3% overstates the nature of the improvement. He said the labor market is not healthy but he didn’t call for additional levels of stimulus, but he did say it was possible for the Fed to switch to a system where instead of targeting a specific level of inflation, it could shift to a regime where it allowed inflation to rise above target to make up for past shortfalls.

One area of agreement in the FOMC minutes is that officials are concerned about weakness in the housing market; citing factors like higher home prices, construction bottlenecks from a shortage of labor and harsh winter weather, as well as tight credit.

Former White House advisor Larry Summers thinks student debt is slowing the housing market, which in turn is slowing the broader economy. Since 2003, student loan balances have nearly quadrupled to $1.2 trillion, during a period when mortgage debt rose “only” 65% to $8.2 trillion and credit card debt actually declined by 4.2% to $660 billion. The burden of servicing that ever growing student loan debt is eating into other forms of borrowing and spending, such as the purchase of a home. And so the proportion of first-time buyers has been shrinking for years.

Over 70% of the students who are sitting through a commencement speech this spring have student loans. They will start their career, if any, with about $33,000 in debt. Even when adjusted for inflation, it’s about twice as much as 20 years ago. Back then, only 43% of students graduated with student loans. And as education costs have jumped, the idea of working your way through school just doesn’t work anymore.

One of the reasons why education costs have jumped is because of austerity. States cut back on funding for state universities; the schools raised tuition and they discovered they could charge whatever they want, or get away with, because the students just borrow the money. Once upon a time state governments held the reins of university budgets and they would tighten their grip occasionally; no more; and through the student loan programs, designed with whatever intentions, the government is simply aiding and abetting colleges in extracting ever more money from the future lives of their students.

And so for the Class of 2014, you now face the prospect of rising interest rates, a mountain of student loan debt, almost no chance of buying a home in the foreseeable future, and the prospects for a good job in your chosen field are not looking good. Congratulations, don’t despair, just have the grit and courage of Ben Bernanke (yada, yada, yada) and you’ll work your way out of your parents’ basement in 10 or 15 years.

Earlier this week, the Oregon Legislature approved a plan that could pave the way for college students to finance their education by selling equity stakes in their future income. It’s an interesting idea. With both unsubsidized and subsidized Federal loan rates now at 6.8%, and Grad PLUS rates even higher, the student loan burden that comes with an undergraduate degree, let alone further education can be daunting. Unfortunately, Federal loans are often the only option that a student has to pay for school nowadays.

Equity financing would allow these students to avoid debt in exchange for a portion of their future income for a set number of years. Proponents of the Oregon plan claim that 3% per year for 20 years would be enough to keep the program afloat. One concern is that students who expect to be high earners will not participate if it could mean they end up paying more in tuition when all is said and done. Equity financing would be costly for a medical student. A cap on repayment could help solve such a problem. The cap would still have to be higher than the average tuition rate charged by the school. Meanwhile, a equity financing might be a sweet deal for a student taking classes that don’t lead to a big paycheck; it might even encourage them to pursue higher education without regard to finance.

The best that can be said for the plan is that it is a tax on future earnings, the worst is that it is a newfangled name for indentured servitude.

So, back to the housing market for a moment; you have a massive number of young adults living at home with very little financial means for purchasing a home. The recent argument was that as economies grew, this wealth would eventually lift the standard of living for all. There is new economic research showing that this isn’t always the case especially when a rentier class emerges. In fact, this wealth gap is being fully visualized through real estate. Some analysts have been scratching their heads wondering how housing prices could go up while homeownership is actually falling.

How do you have soaring home prices with household incomes dropping? The fact that investors are dominating in the housing market shows how large and powerful these big pools of money have become. The financial sector rarely had an interest in being actual property owners until the housing market imploded. But in the first quarter of this year, cash sales from investors reached an all-time high; that isn’t Mom and Pop buying a crib with cash and it certainly isn’t the first time buyer a few years removed from college.

Since 2005, we have increased the number of rental households by roughly 7 million (a 21 percent increase). Interestingly enough, we have a foreclosure graveyard of 7 million over this same period. Owner occupied housing has actually fallen over this period. We are looking at close to one decade of data and we have fewer individual homeowners today than we did in 2004.

In previous recoveries, you would also see home building picking steam up but that hasn’t happened. In better days, we would see more than 2 million housing starts per year. In this recovery, we’ve been doing our best to close in on 1 million.

And when the Fed last year floated the idea of taper, the markets responded with a taper tantrum, and rates increased, modestly, but an increase; and that was enough to slam the brakes on regular home buyers last year. Mortgage apps are now near an all-time generational low. Regular buyers are becoming a minority. Many of the “pent up demand” argument assumes first, that younger buyers have the means to buy. Second, it also assumes homes are affordable based on their income (which they are not). And so we have cash investors, spurred on by strong stock returns, but what happens if or when the inevitable stock market correction comes along?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 - Protected Species

Protected Species
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 137 = 16,374
SPX -12 = 1872
NAS – 28 = 4096
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.51%
OIL + .87 = 102.98
GOLD + 1.70 = 1295.30
SILV + .05 = 19.49

Today is Tuesday and that means that General Motors has announced another recall; this time 2.6 million more cars. Last week, GM recalled 3 million vehicles. So far this year, GM has announced 29 recalls affecting more than 15 million cars globally. The list of recalled vehicles is long. It’s easier to list the vehicles that haven’t been recalled; they have recalled 58 versions of Chevrolet and GMC pickups.

Last week the Dow hit a record high; since then it has been floundering. For the fourth straight session, the Nasdaq Composite has posted more 52-week lows than 52-week highs; 55 lows versus 38 highs. The Russell 2000 Index of small and mid-cap stocks hit a high on March 4th and since then it has dropped almost 10%.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been moving steadily lower despite winding down of large scale asset purchases under the Fed’s quantitative easing, and the talk about raising interest rates at some point down the road. With yields on the 10-yr Treasury note dipping down around 2.5%, that means somebody is buying Treasuries, but if not the Fed, then who?

Well, it’s certainly not Russia. Putin sold off more than $100 billion in Treasuries in March; he was probably expecting Treasury prices to tumble, but that didn’t happen. The most likely buyer is Belgium; from November of last year through January 2014, Belgium bought approximately $142 billion in US Treasuries, which is quite a bit considering the Belgian GDP is about $480 billion; so their bond buys were equal to about 30% of GDP.

As a member of the Eurozone, Belgium can’t just print new money. So, something is rotten. Or maybe the Fed has opened up a branch office in Antwerp.

Anyway, Putin is in China today to talk up the virtues of Russian natural gas. Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a start of a two-day meeting on Asian security with leaders from Iran and Central Asia. Putin is hoping to extend his country's dealings with Asia and diversify markets for its gas, which now goes mostly to Europe. Russia has been negotiating for more than a decade on a proposed 30-year deal to supply gas to China. Officials said they hoped to complete work in time to sign a contract while Putin is in Shanghai, but they have not yet announced a signed agreement. Putin told Chinese reporters ahead of his visit that China-Russia cooperation had reached an all-time high.

Russia is worried about its European gas market, seeing lackluster European demand and political efforts, intensified since the Ukrainian crisis, to diversify away from Russian gas constraining future sales to the West. At the same time, the shale gas phenomenon, with possible US and Canadian liquid natural gas exports to come, has Moscow concerned about what prices it can hope to attain from the European market. Developing new, potentially lucrative markets in the east seems to be the answer to Russia’s European gas concerns.

China also feels a new impetus for a deal. Despite a slowing of the domestic economy, future demand for energy, the key to both growth and political stability, will be robust. Efforts to develop China’s domestic shale resources are promising, but are unlikely to produce consequential volumes until the next decade. Meanwhile, China has been meeting growing energy consumption with coal powered plants, and they are literally choking on that decision, as the air quality has been nearly destroyed.

Tomorrow we will get the minutes of the last Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. Today we had Fed heads giving speeches. William Dudley, the president of the New York Fed is saying the Fed will take its time raising interest rates.  Noting both market and Fed expectations that the first hike will come some time near the middle of 2015, Dudley said, “if the economy is stronger than expected, causing the excess slack in the labor market to be absorbed sooner and inflation to rise more quickly than forecasted, then lift-off is likely to be pulled forward in time. If, instead, economic growth disappoints, inflation stays unusually low and the labor market continues to exhibit evidence of considerable excess slack, then lift-off will likely be pushed back in time.”

As for the over $4 trillion worth of bonds on its balance sheet, Dudley expects them to be reduced via “automatic pilot”; in other words, as Treasury securities mature and mortgages are repaid. Dudley offered his two cents on why the housing sector’s contribution to the economy has “stalled out” over the past few quarters.  While he said some decline in activity was to be expected following the jump in mortgage rates last year, “the extent of the slowdown has surprised me given that the recent pace of housing starts, roughly 1 million per year, is far below what is consistent with the economy’s underlying demographics.”

Dudley said mortgage credit is still unavailable to borrowers with lower credit scores. Also, student debt has delayed the entry of new first-time home buyers; that could make it harder even for existing homeowners to sell their homes and trade up, slowing the traditional turnover of the housing market. Dudley said he expects the housing recovery to continue, “the pace will likely be slow, especially relative to past economic recoveries.”

The online real estate site, Zillow reports 18.8% of US homeowners with a mortgage, or 9.7 million households, were underwater on their mortgages at the end of the first quarter. That's an improvement from the end of last year when this figure was 19.4%, and it's a large improvement from a peak of 31.4% in 2012, but it shows that negative equity is still an issue in the housing market.

What's more, there is an additional 10 million households that have 20% or less equity in their homes. For those homeowners, it would be difficult to sell without coming up with some money to cover the broker fees, closing costs and the down payment for the next home.

European Union regulators have charged banks JPMorgan, HSBC and Credit Agricole with colluding to manipulate the price of financial products linked to interest rates.

The European Commission's regulator said the banks will now have a chance to respond to the preliminary findings. If the Commission ultimately concludes they have broken the law, it can impose a fine of up to 10% of their annual revenue. In December 2013, the Commission levied fines totaling $1.4 billion on Barclays, Deutsche Bank, RBS and Societe Generale as part of the same case, which covers financial derivatives linked to a benchmark interest rate called Euribor in the period 2005-2008. Barclays escaped fines for having notified the Commission of the existence of the cartel, and the others were granted a reduction in their fine for cooperating in a settlement.

Late yesterday, Credit Suisse entered a guilty plea for conspiring to help US customers evade taxes, the first such guilty plea by a major financial institution in years. Today Credit Suisse shares rose almost 1%. Apparently a felony conviction is a good thing. And why not? Top bank executives will get to keep their jobs, the bank can pin the whole thing on a handful of underlings, and it won't have to give up a list of client names to the government. Credit Suisse will have to let an independent monitor keep an eye on it, but that's a minor inconvenience at worst. The guilty plea could cost the bank some clients here and there, but investors and analysts are betting there won't be much impact. The most painful part of the deal, the $2.6 billion in fines, is manageable, less than one quarter's revenue.

For the most part, the mainstream media is dutifully accepting the spin of the Department of Justice, that this case is significant by virtue of being the first plea of this sort made by a bank in over two decades. The fact that those intervening years saw regulators generally take a very hands off approach to banks, and that we had a global financial crisis with no measures of this sort taken against the perps somehow escapes mention.

Let me return to one critical issue: why no individuals were prosecuted or even fined. This case, like so many we have discussed, seems ideally made for at least a civil action under Sarbanes Oxley against the CEO and CFO, since they must certify the adequacy of internal controls. The most charitable coloration you can put on what looks an awful lot like obstruction of justice (although Credit Suisse was not charged with that) was that it was a failure of internal controls. And Sarbanes Oxley is designed so that a civil action can easily tee up a criminal case on the same control deficiencies.

Credit Suisse was in many ways the perfect major financial institution from which to demand a guilty plea. Although its investment banking and wealth management operations are global, the commercial banking operation in the United States is largely confined to its New York branch. It does not own a subsidiary in this country providing bank services to local customers, so it really only had to negotiate with the New York authorities and the federal government to resolve the case. That meant the effort to mitigate potential collateral consequences of a guilty plea was confined to just a few agencies. So, if you think the Credit Suisse case will become the template to go after American banks, well, yeah, that’s not going to happen. The banking class remains a protected species.