Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014 - Dog Days

Dog Days
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 16 = 16,569
SPX + 5 = 1936
NAS + 30 = 4401
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.42%
OIL + .20 = 97.85
GOLD – 1.20 = 1308.90
SILV + .10 = 20.11

It was actually a quiet day on Wall Street; not much economic data today; we’re winding down earnings reporting season. It is a Monday, so there was some M&A action, but for the most part a slow day; we used to call them the dog days of summer. On a day like this, you can claim whatever you want for whatever market movement there is.

NATO sees a "high probability" of a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine as some 20,000 Russian troops massed on the nearby border. Kiev had the number at 45,000 Russian troops. The Kremlin announced it had sent a convoy of humanitarian aid to Ukraine under the auspices of the International Red Cross. Western governments are generally opposing, in advance, any Russian aid missions, which they fear could serve as a pretext for a military incursion to support pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian Army in the country’s southeast. The European Commission issued a statement warning “against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian.”

Ukraine, the United States and European nations have repeatedly warned Russia against mounting a stealth invasion under the disguise of humanitarian aid, and have looked on with growing alarm as Russian officials have spoken in ever-stronger terms about the humanitarian plight of eastern Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, the US continues its bombing-slash-humanitarian mission in Iraq. The United States launched a fourth round of airstrikes Sunday against militant vehicles and mortars firing on Irbil as part of efforts to blunt the militants' advance and protect American personnel near the Kurdish capital. Reinvigorated by American airstrikes, Kurdish forces retook two towns from Sunni militants. U.S. warplanes and drones have also attacked militants firing on minority Yazidis around Sinjar, which is in the far west of the country near the Syrian border. The US has begun providing weapons to Kurdish forces; the move to directly aid the Kurds underscores the level of  concern about the ISIS militants' gains in the north.

Iraq's president named a new prime minister to end Nuri al-Maliki's eight year rule, but Maliki refused to go after deploying militias and special forces on the streets of Baghdad. But Maliki's Dawa Party declared his replacement illegal, and Maliki's son-in-law said he would overturn it in court. Washington delivered a stern warning to Maliki not to "stir the waters" by using force to cling to power. Maliki himself said nothing about the decision to replace him.

Maliki's opponents accuse him of  keeping key security posts in his own hands instead of sharing them with other groups, alienating Sunnis in particular by ordering the arrest of their political leaders. Islamic State fighters were able to exploit that resentment to win support from other Sunni armed groups. Maliki's Shi'ite State of Law bloc emerged as the biggest group in parliament in the April election, but does not have enough seats to rule without support from Sunnis, Kurds and other Shi'ite blocs, nearly all of which demand he go. Maliki also appears to have alienated his supporters in Iran. Obama says a more inclusive government in Baghdad is a pre-condition for more aggressive US military support against ISIS.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed indirect talks mediated by Egypt today, as a 72 hour ceasefire appears to be holding, at least for the first few hours.

So, we still have geopolitical hotspots, but for today, they are smoldering rather than exploding; although that could change in a heartbeat.

Stanley Fischer, who took over as vice chairman of the Fed in June, deliver a speech in Stockholm today.  Fisher says economists and policy makers had been repeatedly disappointed as the expected level of growth failed to materialize: “Year after year, we have had to explain from midyear on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back.”

Fischer said it was difficult to determine how much of the slackness was because of cyclical factors and how much represented a more fundamental, structural change in advanced economies. He warned of 3 headwinds to growth: a weak housing market, cuts in federal government spending and weaker global growth that reduced demand for American exports. Fischer also questioned whether the recent weak growth is a temporary problem or a more long-term structural problem. 

A new report from the US Conference of Mayors looks at the weakness of earnings in the recovery. Jobs growth in the US since the 2008 recession has been undermined by lower wages, with workers earning an average 23% less than earnings from jobs which were lost. The average annual salary in sectors where jobs were lost - particularly manufacturing and construction - during the 2008-9 financial crisis was $61,637; Job gains through the second quarter of 2014 in comparative sectors showed average wages of $47,171, implying $93 billion in lower wage income. The report also showed that 73% of metro areas had households earning average salaries of less than $35,000 a year. American workers, on average, earned $24.45 an hour in July, up only a penny from June. Over the last year, wages have grown just 2%, in keeping with where they have been stuck since late 2009. The study also found a continuing accumulation of wealth among the top 20% of the nation's earners. From 2005 to 2012, the highest income bracket was responsible more than 60% of all income gains in the country.

The pipeline group Kinder Morgan, the biggest of the master limited partnerships, announced yesterday that it would acquire its three associated companies and reorganize as one corporation based in Houston. The new Kinder Morgan will have an estimated enterprise value of about $140 billion, $100 billion of market value and $40 billion of debt, making it the third-biggest energy company in the United States, after Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Kinder Morgan, which encompasses a huge network of oil and gas pipelines across North America, will acquire its two related M.L.P.s ‒ Kinder Morgan Energy Partners and El Paso Pipeline Partners ‒ and a third related company, Kinder Morgan Management, for $71 billion. Kinder Morgan will pay a premium for each company and use mostly stock to finance the purchases, allowing shareholders of the three targets to essentially continue their ownership.

Under the existing structure, Kinder Morgan’s related companies were obliged to pay out a majority of their profits to investors, including significant payments to Kinder Morgan itself. The distributions had grown so large in recent years that Kinder Morgan was lending money back to the related companies so they could fund growth. It was a profitable arrangement, but became overly complex and ultimately constricted the combined companies’ growth. The move is expected to free up cash for the company to invest in new capital expenditures needed to accommodate new reserves of natural gas being tapped across North America. It’s also expected the move will allow Kinder Morgan to become more acquisitive.

Last week, Bank of America reportedly agreed to a settlement deal with the Department of Justice for $16 billion, with $9 billion in cash fines, and $7 billion in soft dollar relief to borrowers. We still haven’t heard confirmation; but that would break the record for the largest bank settlement in history, set less than a year ago by a $13 billion agreement between Justice and JPMorgan Chase.

The numbers that accompany these deal announcements always seem impressive. But how large are they, really? That depends on your point of view. Bankers fraudulently inflated a housing bubble. They became extremely wealthy as a result, but the housing market lost $6.3 trillion in value when the bubble burst. It had only recovered 44% of that lost value by of the end of 2013. That's more than $3 trillion still missing from American households. As of the first quarter of this year,  9.1 million residences - 17% of mortgaged homes - were still "seriously underwater," which means that homeowners owed at least 25% more on the home than it was worth.

And homeowners weren't the only ones hurt by banker misdeeds. When the bubble burst, it took the economy with it. Unemployment and underemployment remain at record levels, even as the stock market surges and corporations enjoy record profits. Payments on those 9.1 million underwater mortgages are a form of wealth transfer from Main Street to Wall Street, as homeowners continue to overpay the bankers who inflated those mortgages in the first place - or risk losing their homes to them. If this added burden harms their credit score, they'll pay banks more for other forms of borrowing as well.

And yet, these settlements do not require banks to provide principal relief for these underwater homeowners. They don't ask banks to return homes that they wrongfully took from their owners. They don't ask banks to forfeit every penny of earnings received through forgery or perjury. They don't even ask them to restore the credit ratings of defrauded customers. What's more, there's very little reason to believe that these large sums will be paid in full. Much of the "consumer relief" in past deals has turned out to be nothing more than gamesmanship with numbers. Banks modify loans in ways that are advantageous to them, offer deals they almost certainly would've offered anyway, and then count them against their "settlement" obligations. What's more, it hasn't been announced whether this deal will be tax-deductible. If so, Americans will get shortchanged at the federal level, too.

Bank of America is a repeat offender with six violations since November 2011, but there have been no criminal prosecutions of big-bank executives, an omission that Federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff lamented in a recent speech. Rakoff called the lack of prosecutions from the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission "technically and morally suspect" and characterized the excuses they've given for failing to prosecute as "hollow" and "lame."

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