Financial Review

Barbarians at the Gate With Toothpaste

…Dow record close. IMF won’t get fooled again. Tax reform version 3.0. EPA fights for whale oil. P&G proxy vote fails. Walmart battles Amazon, but profits before innovation. US & South Korea military hack. Deloitte hack is getting worse. NoCal’s worst wildfire.

Financial Review by Sinclair Noe for 10-10-2017

DOW + 69 = 22,830
SPX + 5 = 2550
NAS + 7 = 6587
RUT + 4 = 1508
10 Y – .02 = 2.35%
OIL + 1.34 = 50.92
GOLD + 3.90 = 1288.50

 

The Dow and the Nasdaq opened at record high. The Dow Industrials managed to hang on for a record high close. Only two of the 11 primary S&P 500 sectors are in negative territory for the year, and for broader indexes, even mild pullbacks of 3% have basically been nonexistent for months. Volatility is near record lows. Other regions have also reported strong gains: European equities are up more than 20% this year, as are emerging markets. Basically every country—as gauged by the most popular single-country exchange-traded funds—is positive on the year.

 

The International Monetary Fund is holding a meeting in Washington. Today a reporter asked Maurice Obstfeld, the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund: “Are financial markets being irrationally exuberant?” Obstfeld’s response? “Maybe.” And he went on to add: “To some degree, asset prices are being supported by very, very low interest rates. They are supported by growth expectations that could be disappointed. Our assessment that longer-term growth rates, particularly in advanced economies, are subdued, feeds into that. So, our concern is simply that, if interest rates were to rise faster than expected or growth outcomes not validate these high asset prices, there could be abrupt repricing that could be disruptive.”

 

The IMF seems to be taking a more cautious stance – still calling for global economic growth, but issuing a warning against complacency. The IMF fears that financial markets are ignoring the risks, just as they did in the buildup to the crisis in 2007. What’s more, central banks and finance ministries have used up much of their ammunition in the past decade. There is little or no scope to cut interest rates, QE has long since been subject to the law of diminishing returns, and governments are running much bigger budget deficits.

 

Remember that tax reform plan that was released just a couple of weeks ago. We were told it was the greatest thing since Ronald Reagan invented sliced bread. Today, Trump said he plans to make changes to his tax plan within the next few weeks, while dismissing concerns that his public spat with Senator Bob Corker would scuttle an overhaul. Trump didn’t specify what kind of changes, and it’s unclear whether he now intends to release another version.

 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is trying to repeal the Clean Power Plan, declaring “The war on coal is over.” What Pruitt forgot to say is that coal lost. Nobody in their right mind wants to go back to coal – it is dirty, expensive and an environmental nightmare. The Clean Power Plan hasn’t gone into effect yet, so there is no data to show if it had an impact on emissions. The repeal effort will end up in court. Next on the EPA’s agenda – bringing back whale oil.

 

The barbarians were at the gate, demanding more profit from the sale of toothpaste and detergent. But Procter & Gamble declared victory over activist investor Nelson Peltz, saying initial figures show it won the biggest proxy battle in history. But the narrow win puts pressure on the owner of Bounty and Tide to move faster in its turnaround and regain the support of investors. P&G will file results with the Securities and Exchange Commission when the vote is finalized. Peltz’s fund Trian Partners said it plans to challenge the proxy results. With a market capitalization of $230 billion, P&G is the largest company to have fought a proxy fight and one of a few companies larger than $50 billion. In 2015, David Taylor took over as CEO and since then the company simplified its corporate structure, streamlined its portfolio, poured more money into research and development and worked to improve operations. But the proxy fight wasn’t really about how the company is run, rather it is how the shares have performed. Since Taylor took the reins, P&G’s stock has outpaced most U.S. consumer products companies, including Clorox and Colgate-Palmolive, though it underperformed against the S&P 500.

 

Walmart said it expects US online sales to jump about 40% in the next fiscal year. Walmart plans to invest heavily in e-commerce and online grocery in the coming months, with plans to double its online grocery pickup locations by the end of next year. They will redesign their website by the first quarter and it will feature Jet.com’s “smart-cart” system – which basically gives automatic discounts the more stuff you throw in the cart. Now this is where it gets interesting. Walmart is ubiquitous for its brick and mortar stores but they haven’t shown great leadership online – that’s where Amazon shines. Amazon’s is on a parallel track where they’re trying to build up the logistical capability and the brick-and-mortar capability, frankly, that Walmart already possesses. Walmart has been automating its supply chain and moving into online sales. Armed with open-source software such as the OpenStack cloud, Walmart is fighting Amazon on its high-tech turf. Amazon responds AWS, Amazon Web Services, their own cloud which controls everything. In other words, this is a battle of the retail giants. Each brings its own particular set of skills to the fight. So, where does one have an advantage?

 

Unless you follow the retail business like a hawk, you might not know that Amazon was beating Walmart every day on its “Everyday Low Price” guarantee. Walmart responded by calling in the major consumer suppliers — from diapers to clothes to TVs — with an offer they couldn’t refuse: Either cut their wholesale prices by at least 15 percent off, or Walmart would limit their presence in stores and create its own branded products to compete with them. Amazon, never afraid to cut sales margins by increasing volume, has responded by selling even more CRaP, an inside Amazon acronym for “Can’t Realize a Profit” products. Amazon will cut its own profit to get a new customer. Amazon will reinvest its last dollar in new technology – they’ll even invest money they don’t have. Also, today Walmart announced $20 billion in share buybacks. This is something I would never expect from Amazon. Share buybacks are the fallback position for management that can’t figure out the next big innovation. Either way, Walmart and Amazon are the 800-pound gorillas of retail, and this will be an ongoing battle.

 

Last year, the South Korean military’s computer network was breached by North Korean hackers. The hack was discovered in September last year. Now South Korea is reporting it was worse than previously estimated. The North Koreans stole classified wartime contingency plans jointly drawn by the United States and South Korea. It remained unclear how much the hacking has undermined the joint preparedness of the South Korean and United States militaries, with South Korean officials simply saying that they have been redressing whatever damage was caused by the cyberattack.

 

A security breach at Deloitte, a major accounting and consulting firm, may be much more serious than the company admits. Deloitte previously said on Sep. 25 that “very few clients” had been affected by a hack into its email platform, which began in fall 2016 and was uncovered in March 2017.  Yet the Guardian reported today that the affected server housed emails exchanged with about 350 clients, many of them high profile. That group includes the U.S. departments of defense, state, energy, and homeland security, along with the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Postal Service, and major companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The server also contained emails to or from unnamed global banks, airlines, car manufacturers, energy companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

 

More than a dozen wildfires burned across Northern California for the third straight day. Here’s what we know: At least 15 people have died since Sunday night, when most of the fires began. Nine deaths were in Sonoma County. More than 100 people were being treated at Napa- and Sonoma-area hospitals for fire-related injuries or health issues. About 2,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires. Wildfires were burning more than 115,000 acres in California as of Tuesday morning; firefighters are still in rescue mode, not containment mode. Fires have left more than 91,000 customers without power in the state. Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 200-mile region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) away. The causes of the fires were unknown. A large part of Santa Rosa was evacuated. Authorities imposed a sundown-to-sunrise curfew for  parts of the city. Taken as a group, the fires are already among the 10 deadliest in California history, and the death toll is expected to grow.

 

Alongside the new Pixel 2 smartphones Google unveiled last week, the company also launched a set of Bluetooth earbuds called the Pixel Buds with one standout feature: instant translation between 40 different languages using a Pixel smartphone. In a live demo on stage, the Pixel Buds were shown translating short phrases back and forth between English and Swedish using Google Translate running on a Pixel 2 smartphone. This isn’t the first time Google has tried to break the language barrier. The Google Translate app on Android and Apple’s iPhone can already perform the same trick. For non-Android’s, the Bragi Dash Pro does the same thing, using the iTranslate app on an iPhone.

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