Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 - GDP, Fed, Vultures, and Banksters

GDP, Fed, Vultures, and Banksters
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 31 = 16,880
SPX + 0.12 = 1970
NAS + 20 = 4462
10 YR YLD + .09 = 2.55%
OIL - .72 = 100.25
GOLD – 4.30 = 1295.50
SILV + .06 = 20.72

Last week we told you that this week would be very busy. Well, here we are; today we had a big report on second quarter GDP and the Fed wrapped up a policy session, and that’s just the beginning. 

This morning, the Commerce Department reported the gross domestic product grew at a 4% pace in the second quarter. Boom. And first quarter GDP was revised from negative 2.9% to negative 2.1%; but any way you look at it, this was a massive turnaround.

The government also published revisions to prior GDP data going back to 1999, which showed the economy performing much stronger in the second half of 2013, growing at a 4% pace, the strongest 6 months since late 2003. This was the first estimate of second quarter GDP, and the first revision will be released August 28.

Inventories added 1.66 percentage points to this GDP report. Stockpiles were rebuilt at a $93.4 billion annualized pace after a $35.2 billion gain in the first three months of the year. That could mean companies will keep tighter control on the number of goods on hand this quarter, which could cut into economic growth. Or it might mean companies are optimistic about sales.

Consumer spending rose at a 2.5% pace last quarter, which also topped expectations, and more than double the 1.2% advance in the first quarter of 2014, in part due to less spending on healthcare. Purchases of durable goods, including autos, furniture and appliances and recreational vehicles, jumped at a 14% annualized rate, the fastest since the third quarter of 2009. Despite the pick-up in consumer spending, Americans saved more in the second quarter. The saving rate increased to 5.3% from 4.9% in the first quarter as incomes rose, which bodes well for future spending.

Corporate spending on structures, equipment and intellectual property such as software increased at a 5.5% annualized rate after rising at a 1.6% pace in the prior three months. In addition to consumer spending and business investment, growth got a boost from the biggest gain in state and local government expenditures in five years. Congress is still debating spending for infrastructure improvements such as roads and bridges, and if they can’t work out differences that could prove a stumbling block later in the year. A widening trade gap subtracted 0.6% from growth. Excluding inventories and trade, so-called final sales to domestic purchasers climbed at a 2.8% rate, the biggest increase since the third quarter of 2011.

Still, the big swing from negative 2.1% contraction to positive 4% growth seems like a very big swing, almost freakish. We know that the first quarter was hit by bad weather and the polar vortex …, still. So, we can smooth out the numbers by looking at the full year growth rate; over the past 12 months the economy expanded at a 2.4% rate, pretty much in line with the past 3 years; in fact, 2.4% growth would be decent in normal times, but the economy is still in recovery mode, and 2.4% is not enough to achieve “liftoff”. The economy is headed in the right direction, it is gathering momentum, but it is still operating below potential. By the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates, the level of output reported for the second quarter is still $770 billion below the nation’s current economic potential, or 4.2% below. That implies that the nation still has plenty of room to grow if a faster expansion ever kicks in.

The economy is far from perfect, we have a long way to go, but today’s report indicates progress, real, honest to goodness progress.

A price index in the GDP report rose at a 2.3% rate in the second quarter, the quickest in three years, after advancing at a 1.4% pace in the prior period. A core price measure that strips out food and energy costs increased at a 2.0% pace, the fastest since the first quarter of 2012. The inflation picture should lend support to the Fed hawks who want to hike interest rates sooner rather than later, but for now the Fed is standing pat.

The Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee reaffirmed it was in  no rush to raise interest rates, even as it upgraded its assessment of the economy and expressed a level of comfort that inflation was moving up closer to its target, and the taper is  still on track. The Fed has kept overnight rates near zero since December 2008 and has more than quadrupled its balance sheet to $4.4 trillion through a series of bond purchase programs. The Fed announced, as expected, that it would reduce its monthly bond purchases to $25 billion per month, but it gave no indication that recent signs of stronger economic growth had changed its previously announced plan to hold short-term interest rates near zero well into 2015.

The Fed acknowledged both faster economic growth and a decline in the unemployment rate, but expressed concern about remaining slack in the labor market. The Fed’s statement said: "Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further… However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources."

Some Fed officials see evidence that the economy is settling into a pattern of slower growth, and that monetary policy has substantially exhausted its power to improve the situation. They want the Fed to retreat more quickly from its stimulus campaign, fearing higher inflation, or that it will encourage bubbles in financial assets. Fed chairwoman, Janet Yellen, and her allies have taken a more cautious view, arguing that the decline in the unemployment rate appears to overstate the improvement in the labor market, because it counts only people who are looking for work. Yellen expects some people who had been discouraged about their job prospects will return to the labor force as the economy continues to improve, and she has pointed to weak wage growth as evidence that it remains easy to find workers.

More optimism for the economy came in a report from ADP, the payroll processing company; private employers added 218,000 jobs last month, which was down from 281,000 in June. It was the fourth straight month of job gains above 200,000. While ADP’s numbers offered reason to be hopeful, the company’s figures cover only private businesses and often do not track with the government’s jobs report, which will be released Friday.

The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s says Argentina has defaulted after it failed to make a $539 million interest payment due on its discount bonds. The downgrade came late this afternoon as representatives for Argentina and New York hedge funds sought to reach a last-minute agreement on Argentina’s debt. Yet after more than five hours of mediated talks, neither side appeared closer to a deal. Standard & Poor’s lowered its rating on the country’s debt to “selective default”, noting that Argentina had a 30-day grace period following the June 30 scheduled interest payment date to make payment.

This story goes back to 2001, when Argentina defaulted on tens of billions of dollars of sovereign bonds. It later exchanged those bonds for discounted ones with most of its bondholders, but a small group of traders, mainly hedge funds, led by Paul Singer’s Elliott Management refused to take the new bonds, even though they had purchased the discounted bonds after the default, at pennies on the dollar, they demanded full payment, and they have not backed down, and they took it to court in the US.

In 2012 a US federal judge ruled that Argentina could not make payments to bondholders who had agreed to discounted bonds, without paying the holdouts. Argentina appealed and took its case to the United States Supreme Court which rejected the appeal last month. Argentina had until the end of the day to pay the holdouts or risk defaulting for a second time in 13 years.

A federal judge has ordered Bank of America’s Countrywide unit to pay $1.27 billion in penalties for defective mortgage loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2008. US District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan issued the civil penalty against BofA in the first mortgage-fraud case brought by the federal government to go to trial. A jury in Manhattan found Countrywide liable. The judge determined that Fannie and Freddie had paid Countrywide nearly $3 billion for HSSL loans, but determined that 57% of the loans were of acceptable quality. HSSL refers to a Countrywide loan program called the High Speed Swim Lane, which basically fast-tracked almost any loan; it was also known as a “Hustle” loan.

In today’s decision, Judge Rakoff wrote: “While the HSSL process lasted only nine months, it was from start to finish the vehicle for a brazen fraud by the defendants, driven by hunger for profits and oblivious to the harms thereby visited, not just on the immediate victims but also on the financial system as a whole.”

Separately, Bank of America is reportedly nearing a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve an investigation into its sale of mortgage backed bonds centered on faulty loans the company inherited from Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, which it purchased in 2008. The discussions include how much money will be paid in cash and how much in consumer relief. Potential terms have ranged from $13 billion to $17 billion. The DOJ has been trying to work out a settlement for some time, and was reportedly dissatisfied with a $13 billion deal that included $5 billion in consumer relief. The consumer relief portion of these settlements has typically been an easy out for the banks. The amount of any settlement would come on top of the $9.5 billion the bank agreed to pay in March to resolve Federal Housing Finance Agency claims.

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