Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - It’s Just a Matter of Time

It’s Just a Matter of Time
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 80 = 16,919
SPX + 9 = 1981
NAS + 19 = 4527
10 YR YLD+ .02 = 2.40%
OIL (sept) = 94.48
GOLD – 2.00 = 1296.20
SILV - .18 = 19.50

The consumer price index rose a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in July. Food prices rose 0.4%, but energy costs declined 0.3%; the first drop in energy prices since March. Consumer prices have risen an unadjusted 2% over the past 12 months, down slightly from June. Prices surged in the early spring but have since tapered off. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, the core rate has risen 1.9% in the same span, unchanged from the prior month. Almost all of the increase in consumer prices can be traced back to housing costs, or shelter prices; over the past year, shelter prices are up 2.9%.

Hourly wages have risen about 10% overall since June 2009, to $24.45 an hour. But over the same span they’ve slipped 0.3% in “real” or inflation-adjusted terms. Since the Great Recession ended five years ago, the amount of money Americans earn each hour after adjusting for  inflation has actually fallen. And that largely explains why the economy is growing so slowly.

The Federal Reserve should be in no hurry to raise interest rates because there is no serious threat from inflation, at least not now.

According to the US Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, you might not take a vacation this year. About 40% don't plan on using all of our paid time off. The share of American workers taking vacation is at historic lows. In the 1970s, about 80 percent of workers took a weeklong vacation every year. Now, that share has dropped to a little bit more than half. The declining popularity of vacation has wide-ranging effects not just on workers, but also on their employers and indeed the overall economy. Studies have found that taking fewer vacations is correlated with increased risk of heart disease; other research has shown that workers who take vacations, or even a small break during the workday, are more productive when they return. This vacation aversion is a North American phenomenon; the US is the only “advanced” economy that doesn’t require companies to give paid vacation days.

Housing starts rose to an eight-month high in July. Groundbreaking for new housing jumped 15.7% last month to a seasonally adjusted 1.09-million unit annual pace; this follows 2 straight months of declines. Groundbreaking for single-family homes, the largest part of the market, increased 8.3% in July to a seven-month high. Starts for the multi-family homes segment, such as apartments, jumped 33%.

Home Depot reported quarterly profit today. Profit rose 14% to $2.05 billion. Sales rose 5.7% to $23.8 billion. The number of transactions rose 4.2%. Home Depot said it expects same store sales to grow faster in the second half of the year, as more people take on remodeling projects. However, Home Depot maintained its full-year sales growth forecast of about 4.8%. Lowe's, the world's second-largest home improvement company, is scheduled to report results tomorrow.

Back in 2006 bust, when the housing market went bust, Phoenix was one of the first cities to get hammered with lower prices; in 2011, Phoenix was one of the first cities to snap back; prices, off by nearly 60% from peak, then rebounded sharply; home prices are up nearly 46% from the 2011 low. The number of homes in some stage of foreclosure has fallen to about 4,300 homes today from more than 50,000 four years ago.

Now, prices and sales are cooling off. Inventories of homes listed for sale have climbed to their highest level in three years while the number of houses sold in June fell 12% from a year earlier. Investors accounted for nearly 15% of homes bought in June, down from about one-quarter last year and one-third of sales in June 2012. The market is moving away from from bargain-hunting investors, who typically pay cash for distressed properties, to traditional buyers with mortgages. The Phoenix market is slowly moving back to normal, but there is still a long way to go.

Employment in Phoenix, after expanding at an average annual pace of 2.6% and 2.8% in each of the last two years, is up just 1.5% so far this year. When people don’t have a job or are not secure in their jobs, they don’t buy houses. The sluggish local economy is compounded by consumers still too battered from the bust to think about getting a loan. Some don't have sufficient equity to turn a house sale into an adequate down payment on their next purchase. Others suffered credit blemishes or income hits that make banks reluctant to lend.

Reuters reports Phoenix based PetSmart is exploring a potential sale of the company. Jana Partners, which has reported a 9.8% stake in PetSmart, has been calling on the company to pursue a sale after what it calls years of financial underperformance. There is no guarantee the review will lead to a deal and PetSmart could still determine that it would be better off on its own.

Today marks the ten year anniversary of Google. The company went public August 19, 2004 at a price of $85 a share; and it’s gone up 1,304% since then. A few stocks have done better over that time, but only a few, and of those, only Apple was in the S&P 500 10 years ago when Google went public. Today, Google’s revenue tops $65 billion, more than all but 40 US companies. Net profit margins exceed 20%, higher than all but three. Ten years ago, Google had a forward PE of 52; today, the forward PE is 20. So as share prices have constantly moved higher, valuation has constantly moved lower; which is a neat trick.

Over the past 10 years, or you could say over the past 25 years, a great deal of wealth has flowed to the tech giants of Silicon Valley; which means that the wealth has flowed away from Wall Street. And the techies have finally figured out they don’t need Wall Street bankers to make a deal. According to data from Dealogic, approximately 70% of the tech deals completed in early August have been sealed without a Wall Street bank consultant helping the buyer identify the transaction. And over the past two years, the trend has been growing, with more than half the tech deals in 2012 occurring without a banker working on behalf of the buyer. This M&A consulting shift highlights a subtle but growing divide between fee-eager bankers and the tech giants of today.

Maybe the problem is that the banks just have a hard time remembering who their clients are. Case in point: you may remember the story of Standard Chartered, the British bank, which back in 2012 paid about $667 million to settle charges that it had engaged in money laundering by making transfers for clients in Iran and other countries that were covered by American sanctions. They had to add compliance monitors. A few months later the bank’s chairman denied any wrongdoing, which was a direct violation of the settlement; and he was forced to quickly recant. Today, it seems that all of those new legal staffers and crime-fighting committees also didn’t get the memo about what they are meant to be doing. New York’s financial regulator slapped another $300 million fine on Standard Chartered for “failures to remediate anti-money laundering compliance problems as required” in its previous settlement.

Part of the bank’s 2012 agreement included hosting an independent monitor permanently installed by regulators on-site to vet anti-money laundering procedures. This monitor was back-testing the bank’s processes and found them lacking, particularly when it came to flagging suspicious dollar transfers from its Hong Kong and United Arab Emirates affiliates.

In a statement, Standard Chartered said that it “has already begun extensive remediation efforts and is committed to completing these with utmost urgency.” And this time they really, really mean it; not like last time. So, this raises the question of how many times a bank can break the law, and get away with a slap on the wrist. What does a bank have to do before they forfeit their charter?

The New York State regulator, Benjamin Lawsky, said: “If a bank fails to live up to its commitments, there should be consequences. That is particularly true in an area as serious as anti-money-laundering compliance, which is vital to helping prevent terrorism and vile human rights abuses.”

So, the penalty is nearly $1 billion in fines over the past couple of years, but actually works out to about 12% of bank profits over the same time.
You might also remember last month when Attorney General Eric Holder announced the $7 billion settlement with Citigroup for its role in packaging troubled mortgages into securities and selling them as investments in the years before the crisis, even though a bunch of Citigroup bankers knew better and did it anyway. And last November, there was a settlement with JPMorgan. And there is a chance that later this week we will see a settlement announced with Bank of America.

It all falls in line with the “too big to fail” idea known as the Holder Doctrine, which stems from a 1999 memo, when then Deputy AG Holder included the thought that big financial settlements may be preferable to criminal convictions because a criminal conviction often carries severe unintended consequences, like loss of jobs and the inability to continue as a going concern. Holder was thinking of the collapse of Arthur Anderson after the collapse of Enron. So, now Holder holds to the idea of settlement over prosecutions.  Instead of the truth, we get from the Justice Department a heavily negotiated and sanitized “statement of facts” about what supposedly went wrong.

The problem is, of course, that these settlements allow for the Wall Street bankers to get away with their bad behavior without being held the slightest bit accountable. And with no real deterrent, as Standard Chartered has just confirmed, it’s just a matter of time until they do it all over again. 

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