Friday, April 26, 2013 – The Fix is In

The Fix is In
by Sinclair Noe
DOW + 11= 14,712
SPX – 2 = 1582
NAS – 10 = 3279
10 YR YLD – .05 = 1.66%
OIL – .86 = 92.78
GOLD – 5.30 = 1463.90
SILV – .36 = 24.14
The initial guesstimate of first quarter gross domestic product shows the economy growing at a 2.5% pace. Consumer spending increased by 3.2%, the strongest increase in consumer spending in 2 years. Defense spending fell at an annual rate of 11.5 percent in the first quarter, on the heels of a 22.1 percent decline in the last three months of 2012.
This is the initial report on GDP and it is subject to revisions. The initial fourth quarter GDP number came in at a negative 0.1% and was revised up to 0.4%; the first quarter estimate of 2.5% is well below expectations, and it certainly isn’t showing enough strength to indicate a solid recovery.
Personal disposable income, today’s report shows, actually fell by $140 billion in total from the fourth quarter. Reversion of the payroll tax to its normal rates at the beginning of 2013 will continue to drag on the disposable income of middle-class consumers throughout the year. Business investment in productive equipment and IT — a driver of productivity, innovation, and employment — slowed markedly to 3% growth in the first quarter, relative to nearly 12% in the prior quarter. Residential investment maintained strong growth, however, expanding 13% as housing markets in many areas of the country seem to be turning up. exports grew 2.9% in the first quarter. Imports grew even faster at 5.4%, much of that due to an increase in oil prices.
The quick and easy is that cuts in government spending is acting as a drag on economic growth. Government spending fell at an annual rate of 8.4 percent, after a decrease of 14.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 — with both declines happening before the March start of the sequester. Fiscal policy is not enough to get the economy to cruising speed, and monetary policy has only been effective at delivering below-target inflation.
The sequester cuts haven’t yet hit the economy, at least it wasn’t reflected in the first quarter GDP numbers; the sequester has hit; maybe you haven’t felt it yet, unless you were in an airport the past week. Washington politicians are frequent fliers; they are feeling the sequester.
The original theory was that the specter of sequestration would be so threatening that Republicans and Democrats would agree to a budget deal rather than permit it to happen. That theory was wrong. The follow-up theory was that the actual pain caused by sequestration would be so great that it would, in a matter of months, push the two sides to agree to a deal. That theory was wrong. The reality is that the pain of the sequester doesn’t matter if it hits the general public, but if it inconveniences politicians; then they will change the parts they don’t like.
Today, the Congress decided that the part of the sequester that resulted in furloughs for air traffic controllers, which resulted in delays at airports; they decided that was just too painful, so they are coming up with the money to prevent the air traffic controller furloughs.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich correctly observed that most of the pain of the sequester is invisible.
Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, is bracing for a cut of about $51m in its $685m of annual federal research grants and contracts. The public schools of Syracuse, New York, will lose over $1m. The Housing Authority of Joliet, Illinois, will take a hit of nearly $900,000. Northrop Grumman Information Systems just issued layoff notices to 26 employees at its plant in Lawton, Oklahoma. Unemployment benefits are being cut in Pennsylvania and Utah.

Taken together, these cuts are significant. But they’re so localized, they don’t feel as if they’re the result of a change in national policy.
A second reason the consequences of the sequester haven’t been obvious to most Americans is that a large percentage of the cuts are in programs directed at the poor – and America’s poor are often invisible.
The Salt Lake Community Action Program, for example, recently closed a food pantry in Murray, Utah, serving more than 1,000 needy people every month. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium is closing a center that gives alcohol and drug treatment to Native Alaskans. Some 1,700 poor families in and around Sacramento, California are likely to lose housing vouchers that pay part of their rents. More than 180 students are likely to be dropped from a Head Start program run by the Cincinnati-Hamilton County (Ohio) Community Action Agency.
All across America, food pantries and community centers catering to the poor are laying off staff, reducing services, or closing. But most Americans don’t know anything about this because the poor live in different places than the middle class. Poverty has become ever more concentrated geographically in America.
A final reason much of the sequester is invisible is that many employees are being “furloughed” rather than fired. “Furlough” is a euphemism for working shorter workweeks and taking pay cuts.
Two thousand civilian employees at the Army Research Lab in Maryland, for example, are being subject to one-day-per-week furloughs starting this week, resulting in a 20% drop in pay. The Hancock Field Air National Guard Base is furloughing 280 workers. Many federal courts are now closed on Fridays.
Furloughs arguably spread the pain. Mass layoffs would be far harder to swallow.
For all these reasons, the sequester hasn’t been particularly visible.
But the politicians couldn’t deal with flight delays. Sequestration will continue because there is no more pain to push for overturning the whole policy. Well, there’s no more pain for the politicians; there’s going to be plenty of problems for people who don’t have political clout. Air travelers get bailed out; cancer patients; food pantries, schools – all that other stuff is still grounded.
The jobless rate in Spain is now 27.2% for the first quarter; the highest since they have been recording unemployment there going back to the 1970’s. In France, more than 3.2 million are unemployed, the highest jobless rate since 1997.
So, things are kind of lousy but there is a little bit of growth in the US economy, thank goodness we’re not in Spain, or Greece, or Cyprus, or heaven forbid – Syria; it’s okay, we’ll just kind of slog along.
It would be great if we lived in a world where there were enough air traffic controllers for all the planes in the sky, and money for cancer research, and money for food pantries, and enough economic growth to create jobs for all the people who want to work. That would be great, but that’s not the world we live in. The reason is not because we can’t live in prosperity and abundance; the reason is because the banksters are skimming; they are siphoning off profits, at the expense of well, everybody else.
Now, let’s move our attention to a story that has been building slowly and received almost no attention in the mainstream media. I’ll provide a couple of links. (go to Eatthebankers.com) and click here (Matt Taibbi) and here (Bloomberg Businessweek)
First, let’s get in the way back machine. Remember the Libor rate rigging scandal? Libor is the London Interbank Offered Rate, it’s where 18 of the big banks get together each day and submit interest rates that the banks would be charged if borrowing from other banks. They take the numbers and average them together, and Libor is then used as the benchmark interest rate for almost everything that uses an interest rate. The Libor is used to calculate how much interest you pay on a credit card, a mortgage, a car loan, financial products, bonds, and derivatives; all together, about $500 trillion dollars worth of financial instruments. And the whole thing was rigged.
The banksters were submitting false numbers to try to look better during the financial crisis and they were also front-running trades based upon the rates, and sometimes they were getting the people who submitted the numbers to submit fake numbers to manipulate trades based on the Libor interest rate.
Yet despite so many instances of at least attempted manipulation, the banks mostly skated. Barclays got off with a relatively minor fine in the $450 million range, UBS was stuck with $1.5 billion in penalties, and RBS was forced to give up $615 million. Apart from a few low-level flunkies overseas, no individual involved in this scam that impacted nearly everyone in the industrialized world was even threatened with criminal prosecution.

Two of America’s top law-enforcement officials, Attorney General Eric Holder and former Justice Department Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer, confessed that it’s dangerous to prosecute offending banks because they are simply too big. Making arrests, they say, might lead to “collateral consequences” in the economy.

The relatively small sums of money extracted in these settlements did not go toward reparations for the cities, towns and other victims who lost money due to Libor manipulation. Instead, it flowed mindlessly into government coffers.
So, the government won’t prosecute, but some private investors did, and in March a case went before federal judge Naomi Buchwald in the Southern District of New York and the judge basically said there was no collusion by the banks because the banks weren’t competing against one another. So the judge dismissed most of the claim against the banks.
But the case did open up another investigation because if the banks were rigging $500 trillion in interest rates, maybe they were rigging other markets as well.  So, regulators have subpoenaed as many as 15 banks and about a dozen current and former brokers at ICAP, a London based brokerage, with trading desks in New Jersey. ICAP is short for Intercapital. ICAP’s website says they are the world’s leading voice and electronic interdealer broker and provider of post trade risk and information services. Among other things, the company collects the data submitted by 13 banks to set ISDAfix prices. ISDA is the International Swaps and Derivatives Association; and the ISDAfix is the benchmark for interest rate swaps, which is about a $379 trillion dollar market.
In their simplest form, swaps are used by investors to exchange a fixed interest rate for a floating one, or vice versa. They affect everything from pension annuities to commercial real estate investments, to more complex derivatives.
And now regulators, including the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, are trying to determine if they’re colluding to manipulate quotes.
The ISDAfix works the same way as the Libor did. Banks submit rates and an average is compiled every day. About 15 banks and about a dozen brokers set the rates on a $379 trillion dollar market. An April16 report by the International Organization of Securities Commissions found that benchmark setting is a process with “opportunities for abusive conduct,” through submission of “false and misleading data” or attempts to buy off the people who physically enter submissions.
In other words, the ICAP brokers may have been gathering the information and then holding on, delaying publication of the rates to allow the banksters to slip in a trade ahead of the public.
It’s not like these guys would have to cheat in really big and obvious ways; just a tiny fraction of a percent of a $379 trillion dollar market is enough to pay, one-one hundredth of one percent would be enough to pay for air-traffic controllers, cancer centers, Head Start, food pantries – you know – everything in the sequester.
But wait, there’s more.
Given what we have seen in Libor, we’d be foolish to assume that other benchmarks aren’t venues that deserve review, and that means more than just Libor and ISDAfix. So, what other markets carry the same potential for manipulation?
In all the over-the-counter markets, you don’t really have pricing except by a bunch of guys getting together and setting prices.
That includes the markets for gold, where prices are set by five banks in London every morning and afternoon (it’s called the AM and PM fix); and silver, whose price is set by just three banks; as well as benchmark rates in numerous other commodities – jet fuel, diesel, electric power, coal, you name it.
The problem in each of these markets is the same: We all have to rely upon the honesty of companies like Barclays (already caught and fined $453 million for rigging Libor) or JPMorgan Chase (paid a $228 million settlement for rigging municipal-bond auctions) or UBS (fined a collective $1.66 billion for both muni-bond rigging and Libor manipulation) to faithfully report the real prices of things like interest rates, swaps, currencies and commodities.
All of these benchmarks based on voluntary reporting are now being looked at by regulators around the world. And after they’re done investigating, they will be too afraid to do anything because the banks are to big to jail. And so the banksters will continue to skim off the top of everything, and that means that the rest of us will just kind of slog along.

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