Financial Review

Friday Wrap

Financial Review by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 141 = 17,672
SPX – 11 = 2051
NAS + 7 = 4757
10 YR YLD – .08 = 1.82%
OIL – .95 = 45.36
GOLD – 8.00 = 1295.10
SILV – .02 = 18.40

For the week, the Dow rose 0.9 percent, the S&P gained 1.6 percent and the Nasdaq added 2.7 percent.

The ECB announced plans yesterday to expand asset purchases by €60B per month until at least September 2016. ECB President Mario Draghi says the new stimulus plan “should strengthen demand, increase capacity utilization and support money and credit growth.” Well, it will make somebody rich, but the benefits to the broader Euro economy are still very much up in the air. Bonds in the region rallied, with the yields on 10-year notes of Germany, Italy, Spain and France falling to all-time lows. Stocks in the region on track for their best week since 2011 but the euro currency has dropped below $1.12.

Greece’s leftist Syriza party leads the opinion polls heading into an election on Sunday. The ECB’s debt-purchasing program will not include Greece, at least not until July, and only then if a continuing review of the country’s bailout program is successfully completed. The basic bond buying plan wasn’t kind to Greece, even with the exclusion built in. The way, the ECB put together their QE scheme, rather than purchase government bonds from the most troubled economies, the ECB will buy bonds from each country in proportion to the amount of capital they hold at the central bank. The upshot is that it will be buying a lot of German debt, with its already low interest rates, and may simply convince banks to look for alternative investments in Germany rather than, say, Italy or Greece.

It’s not clear how much good bond-buying can do for Europe at this point. The idea seems to be to stimulate the Euro economy and lift it out of disinflation, but Draghi himself rejects the idea that ECB QE will result in inflation, in what must be the quote of the day he said: “There must be a statute of limitations for those who say there will be inflation.”

The United States Federal Reserve and the Bank of England both resorted to quantitative easing, or QE, back in 2009 (the Fed just finished its third and final round in November). And while the policy is often credited as one reason the US recovery has been far stronger than Europe’s, nobody knows for sure exactly how much good it did. On the one hand, our economy managed to continue expanding despite cuts to state spending and sequestration. On the other hand the recovery was really slow, and by many accounts incomplete; far better for Wall Street than Main Street.

The leading economic index rose 0.5% in December pointing to steady growth for 2015. The coincident index, which measures current conditions, edged up 0.2% in December. The lagging index increased 0.3%. The LEI is a weighted gauge of 10 indicators designed to signal business-cycle peaks and valleys.

Existing home sales rose 2.4% to 5.04 million units in December. The National Association of Realtors also revised November’s sales pace to 4.92 million. The median sales price of used homes hit $209,500 in December, up 6.0% from the year-earlier period. December’s inventory was 1.85 million existing homes for sale, a 4.4-month supply at the current sales pace. For all of 2014, existing-home sales slipped to 4.93 million units, down 3.1% from 2013, and the first annual decline in 4 years. Meanwhile, the median price reached $208,500 in 2014, the highest since 2007 and up 5.8% from the prior year.

The US economy grew at a below-trend rate in December. The Chicago Fed’s national activity index slipped to negative 0.05 from positive 0.92 in November. The three-month average stayed in positive territory but slowed to 0.39 from 0.54 in November. The index is a weighted average of 85 different economic indicators.

The flash reading of the Markit manufacturing purchasing managers’ index edged lower in January to a 53.7 from 53.9 in December, to mark the lowest reading in 12 months. While the rate of output growth moved up slightly, new business growth fell to a one-year low.

Arizona’s unemployment rate for December was 6.7%, that’s down from 6.8% in both October and November and 6.9% in September. The national unemployment rate decreased two-tenths of a percentage point to 5.6% in December. Six of the 11 major sectors in Arizona added jobs and five reported losses over the month. Arizona added 7,000 nonfarm jobs in December. Losses were primarily in state and local education, which shed 3,900 jobs but was typical in December as schools prepared for winter break. Trade, transportation and utilities added 7,600 jobs last month while professional and business services added 1,100 jobs.

Despite testing the nation’s booming energy sector, a collapse in oil prices is leaving more money in consumers’ pockets with one of gasoline’s swiftest price declines on record. Gas prices appear headed below a nationwide average of $2 a gallon in the coming days, with average pump prices at $2.04 a gallon nationwide, down more than 40% since last June. Pump prices have declined for 16 straight weeks, breaking the last record set in 2008.

The Saudi royal court announced the death of King Abdullah, who died at about the age of 90 late last night, after nearly 2 decades in power. Abdullah’s half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, has been declared king. King Salman promised in a nationally televised speech to continue the policies of his predecessors. However, Salman is 79 years old and in poor health, suffering from Alzheimer’s. He has already named his heirs. So, expect changes in the near future.

Meanwhile, a political earthquake was underway in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, Yemen. President Hadi, his prime minister and government resigned after days of virtual house arrest by Houthi militia. Hadi’s resignation leaves two forces in control of the country both of them armed to the teeth: an Iranian backed militia which gets its training from Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, posing as the defender of Sunni muslims. The US embassy in Yemen has been reduced to a bare bones staff. For now, there is a power vacuum in Yemen.

It’s earnings reporting season and with 18% of S&P 500 companies having reported, 72% have topped earnings expectations, while 54%have beaten revenue forecasts.

GE reported a 9% increase in industrial profit; that’s the business unit that sells power-generating turbines and jet engines. Fourth-quarter net income rose 61% to $5.15 billion, or 51 cents per share, from a year earlier, when results suffered from GE’s move to resolve financial obligations to Japan’s Shinsei Bank. Excluding pension-related costs, earnings of 56 cents per share were 1 cent ahead of the analysts’ average estimate. Revenue rose 4 percent to $42 billion.

McDonald’s posts smaller-than-expected drop in comparable sales and announced its lowest capital spending budget in more than five years, saying it expected to open fewer restaurants this year. Sales at US restaurants open at least 13 months fell 1.7% in the fourth quarter. McDonald’s quarterly net income fell to $1.1 billion, or $1.13 per share, from $1.40 billion, or $1.40 per share, a year earlier. Revenue fell 7.3% to $6.57 billion.

UPS had a bad Christmas in 2013 when a crush of late online orders caused it to miss thousands of deliveries. They hired 95,000 workers in 2014, or 73% more than the previous year, and spent $500 million on network improvements including software to aid drivers and building temporary sorting facilities. The good news is that customer service improved; the bad news is UPS didn’t make as much money. Preliminary earnings per share will be $4.75 in 2014, compared with previous forecasts of $4.90 to $5.00. Fourth quarter earnings per share will be $1.25. That compares with analysts’ estimates of $1.47. Going forward, UPS will reduce operating costs and implement new pricing strategies during peak season. UPS today dropped 10%.

Expedia is buying Travelocity for $280 million, increasing its share of the North American airfare and hospitality market. Travelocity Europe, meanwhile, will go to a Swiss company called Bravofly for $120 million. In other travel news, SkyMall filed for bankruptcy, sad news for those looking to buy a wine glass holder necklace or a toilet roll iPod docking station or a Siamese Slanket; you’ll have to find your tchochtkes elsewhere.

Sony will delay the official submission of its third-quarter results due to the massive cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, and has asked financial regulators to extend the filing of its report to March 31 from Feb. 16.

The first batch of GlaxoSmithKline’s experimental Ebola vaccine has been shipped to West Africa and is expected to arrive in Liberia later today. While it is currently being tested in five small Phase I safety trials in Britain, the US, Switzerland and Mali, Glaxo’s vaccine will be used in the first large-scale trials in the coming weeks. The World Health Organization said on Thursday that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa appears to be waning but still is a big problem.

You remember the famous opening lines from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

That was first published in 1859; and it stands up well today.

The time is now 11:57. It is now three minutes to midnight, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The group behind the symbolic “Doomsday Clock” announced at a news conference that the countdown to the End of it All is now just 3 minutes away; that’s 2 minutes closer than last year. It is the closest the clock has been to Doomsday since 1984.

In 1947, the specter of nuclear holocaust prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to come up with a “Doomsday Clock.” Over the years the clock has been adjusted annually between 11:43 and 11:58. And now, the scientists that set the time on the Doomsday Clock say that “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.”

They might be right. Just last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2014 was the hottest year ever. The Atomic Scientists say: World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from catastrophe,” and “Stunning governmental failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale.” Yesterday the US Senate voted to acknowledge that climate change is real, bringing it up to speed with every major world scientific body. The vote was 98 to 1 to proclaim: “To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.” But the Senate declined to acknowledge that human activity plays any role, which means that they refuse to do anything about it. Maybe we should vote on whether the Senate is a hoax.

It isn’t only climate change that has us 3 minutes shy of Armageddon. It’s the combination of climate change and some discouraging recent developments on the nuclear-proliferation front. The real point of the Doomsday Clock is to remind us that we have the power to wind it back, or hammer a nail in the clock face just before the 12:00.

Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, and you know the story of Microsoft. Forty years ago, Bill Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made a bet, just a friendly wager between friends, that personal computers would transform the way people worked and played around the world.

About 15 years ago, Gates realized that not everyone needs a new, fast computer. In Africa, for example people needed a malaria vaccine and mosquito nets, just to stay alive. Another bet was made. They predicted they could dramatically reduce inequality “by backing innovative work in health and education.” Since forming the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—and especially since leaving Microsoft in 2008 to dedicate himself full-time to the foundation’s work—Gates and his wife Melinda have emerged as two of history’s most powerful philanthropists. The Gates Foundation publishes an annual letter, summarizing the foundation’s progress and laying out its priorities for the coming year.

The Gateses think things might get better. The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s. In 1990, one in ten children around the world died before they turned 5. That’s down to one in twenty. They expect the rate of infant mortality to halve by 2030, from one child in 20 dying before turning five to one in 40.

Africa will be able to feed itself. Africa imports $50 billion of food on an annual basis. By improving yields and introducing innovations in farming, they hope to achieve food security for the continent by 2030.

With the Gates Foundation’s help, a devastating disease called guinea worm has been nearly eradicated. They also forecast the eradication of polio and perhaps three other deadly diseases. Improvements in agriculture will mean that Africa will be able to feed itself. Financial security will improve as the 2 billion people who do not have a bank account start storing money and making payments using mobile phones. The Gates letter also points out that an increase in digital schooling will help pull those in poor countries up the economic ladder, as hundreds of millions of people will be able to access online education in the coming years.

Bill and Melinda Gates conclude their annual letter by urging people to sign up to the “Global Citizen” initiative. They write: “The more global citizens there are, and the more active and effective they are, the more progress the world will make. We hope you will show your support by signing up, because we believe that people can and must work together more to make the world a more equitable place. In fact, we’re betting on it.”

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