Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thursday, May 15, 2014 - A Calm Port in a Stormy World

A Calm Port in a Stormy World
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 167 = 16,446
SPX – 17 = 1870
NAS – 31 = 4069
10 YR YLD - .04 = 2.50%
OIL - .81 = 101.56
GOLD – 8.90 = 1297.80
SILV - .29 = 19.56

Today, it seems there is a lot going on. Let’s start with international hotspots.

Turks are angry following a deadly mine explosion that has killed at least 300 miners and trapped possibly 100 more; thousands of workers joined a protest strike, demonstrators clashed with security forces, and the discontent threatens the government. An aide to the prime minister was photographed assaulting a protester and there are claims that Prime Minister Erdogan himself struck a teenage girl; that after he was forced to flee an angry crowd and seek safety in a nearby grocery store. Turkish trade unions held a one-day strike over safety standards in the mining industry. Security forces deployed tear gas and water canons against protesters.

Meanwhile, reports of dozens of deaths from an explosion along the border between Syria and Turkey. Also, further allegations of ongoing chemical attacks by the Syrian government. Speaking in London today, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the US, Britain, and European and Arab states are increasing efforts to support rebels fighting to overthrow President Assad. Assad still has the backing of Russia, and that makes already tense relations with Russia even more edgy.

Fears of a civil war in Ukraine are mounting. Nobody wants to jump in with troops, and so there are clandestine forays by unidentified groups or squads of soldiers. And the major powers are only explicit with sanctions. Today, Russia announced it will halt the export of rocket engines crucial to US military defense and space programs. It must be very uncomfortable on the International Space Station these days.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has been running high in Vietnam ever since Beijing deployed an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea on May 1st. There have been encounters including ramming and exchanges of water cannon between Chinese vessels operating near the rig and boats from Vietnam, which wants China out of the area. Today, Cambodia reports hundreds of Chinese nationals had poured across the border from Vietnam to escape riots.

Also, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has called for a review of how Japan interprets its pacifist constitution to allow its military to participate in conflicts beyond its borders for the first time since the end of the second world war; this in response to a growing conflict between China and Japan over islands claimed by each country; of course, it’s not just islands but the oil reserves around the islands.

Meanwhile, China issued a bunch of economic data this week, and it mostly points to a real estate slump; home sales fell 18%; housing starts were scaled back by 25%. Moody’s Analytics estimates that the building, sale and outfitting of apartments accounted for 23% of Chinese gross domestic product last year. That is higher than in the US, Spain or Ireland at the peaks of their housing bubbles. The scale of China’s building boom and the country’s reliance on infrastructure investment for growth is unprecedented. In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century, and it all seems to be on shaky ground these days. Each attempt to rein in China’s $25 trillion credit bubble seems to trigger wider tremors.

Brazil has sent army troops to Recife, the capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, after strikes lead to riots. State police walked off the job Tuesday. Schools and universities also closed down because of concerns for student safety. Today, further protests in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro drew tens of thousands to the streets. The protests are centered on cities that will host the upcoming World Cup, the quadrennial global soccer championship games. Huge anti-government protests across Brazil last year overshadowed the Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament for the World Cup. Some of the demonstrations saw clashes between activists and police, and at least six people were killed.

Many Brazilians are angry at the billions spent to host the World Cup. Protesters have said the government should focus spending instead on improving Brazil's woeful health, education, security, housing, and infrastructure systems. The World Cup starts in less than 30 days, and the whole world will be watching.

In one week, Europeans will elect a European Parliament. It’s the second biggest election in the world, after India. Voters look set to choose more assorted extremists, anti-Europeans and oddballs than ever. The Euroland economy is going nowhere, and with the razor thin exception of Germany, most countries are seeing economic contraction; that tends to lead to strange election results.

There are other hotspots around the World. The president of Yemen has declared all-out war on Al Qaeda militants and army troops are now trying to dislodge Al Qaeda from the Arabian Peninsula. Political violence returned to Bangkok Thailand, and the Thai army killed a handful of protesters and threatened more military action if the protests continue. And of course, the Nigerian crazies, Boko Haram, and the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls. And of course, all the old seething conflicts that haven’t been resolved. And don’t forget, the US is still at war in Afghanistan. I know, it’s easy to forget. Apparently, it’s even easier to forget the veterans that have served our country.

Today, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki went before the Senate Veterans Committee to explain the mess that is the VA; this following revelations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for medical care at the VA facility in Phoenix.

Since the allegations arose last month that veterans were forced to wait months for appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center and that VA officials were covering up the problem, Shinseki said he has asked the VA's inspector general to investigate. He said he has also launched an intense investigation of scheduling practices at the VA's other 151 medical centers. Shinseki said he was “mad as hell” and the various Senators all acted very indignant. Of course, it wasn’t very believable theatre.

One of the documents brought forth today was an internal VA memo, written in 2008 by a team of VA managers, listing 25 ways that VA scheduling clerks were cooking the books to make it appear that veterans waiting for medical care actually were being seen on time, when in fact they were being made to wait weeks or months.

And then, 2 years ago, the Government Accountability Office reported that VA schedulers were fudging wait times for veterans seeking outpatient care and avoiding using the electronic waitlist as required. The GAO report includes a response from Shinseki's chief of staff at the time, writing that the VA has "proactively taken steps in response to GAO's findings." Clearly that didn’t happen.

Meanwhile, Southern California is on fire. Actually nine fires are burning in the greater San Diego area and they have already destroyed more than 10,000 acres, forcing evacuation of about 125,000 residents. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency to free up resources. It’s hot, it’s dry, and it’s just the start of the fire season.

The 2014 fire season is repeating a pattern of destruction established over the past decade by a combination of high temperatures, parched vegetation and more people living in wooded areas. Fires feeding on plentiful dry grass, brush and hardwood are requiring more personnel and money to bring them under control. More than twice as many acres burned across the US through May 9 this year than during the same period in 2013.

Last week, 96% of California was considered to be under “severe” or worse drought conditions, with about 4% of the southeastern tip of the state still in “moderate” drought conditions. A year ago, only 46% of the state suffered from “severe” or worse conditions. As of today, the National Drought Mitigation Center reports severe drought conditions now engulf 100% of California.

Meanwhile, former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is trying to polish his tarnished image; he’s on a book tour peddling the notion that the Wall Street bailout was a huge success. And while it might be argued it prevented a Great Depression, it is delusional to consider it a success. It was at best an experiment that did not result in a worse catastrophe. It did little or nothing for the tens of millions of Americans who lost billions of dollars in home equity and savings, and the millions more who lost their jobs. The toll was greatest on the poor and the middle class. Nor have reforms been enacted that will help the middle class and the poor the next time Wall Street implodes.

Economic data today showed industrial production in the US unexpectedly declined in April, held back by a plunge in utilities as temperatures warmed and a broad-based decrease in manufacturing. That contrasted with a higher-than-forecast reading on the Fed Bank of New York’s gauge of regional manufacturing, which climbed to 19.01 this month, from 1.29 in April.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 297,000 last week. It was the lowest reading since May 2007.

Consumer prices recorded their largest increase in 10 months in April. The Consumer Price Index increased 0.3% last month as food prices rose for a fourth consecutive month and the cost of gasoline surged. In the 12 months through April, consumer prices rose 2.0%. Stripping out food and energy prices, the so-called core CPI rose 0.2% after advancing by the same margin in March. In the 12 months through April, the core CPI increased 1.8%, the biggest gain since August last year.

Normally you might expect higher inflation numbers to result in lower bond prices, which means bond yields would move higher; not today. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dipped below 2.5% intraday. Of course, Treasuries are considered a safe haven investment, and it seems a lot of people are looking for a calm port in a stormy world.

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