Sneaking Through the Backdoor
Financial Review by Sinclair Noe for 02-17-2016
DOW + 257 = 16,453
SPX + 31 = 1926
NAS + 98 = 4534
10 Y + .04 = 1.82%
OIL + 2.35 = 31.39
GOLD + 8.10 = 1209.40
Three in a row; three up days, and good moves at that. If you believe the old adage that every stock market advance is short covering, you have some evidence to back your position. The most shorted stocks among Russell 3000 members gained 6.5% over just two trading days, Friday and Tuesday, while the least shorted issues trailed the Russell’s 4.6% advance over the same period. And while it looks like last Thursday’s lows provided some support in the short-term, it is too soon to see if that support will hold. Anyone who is calling a bottom in the market is just making stuff up. I don’t know, you don’t know. What we know is the markets have been all over the map in the past 2 months, flitting from one crisis to the next. The good news is that nothing has blown up yet. The bad news is that everything is volatile.
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Venezuela announced an agreement Tuesday to freeze oil production in an effort to ease the oil glut. On Wednesday, Iran said it wouldn’t join the effort, as its production just came back online following years of sanctions, and then they changed their position, and said a production ceiling at January levels would stabilize the market; they didn’t say they would freeze their own production. Whatever. Oil bounced about 7% today. Of course any attempts to control output by oil producing countries does not have a track record of success.
Housing starts slowed in January. Groundbreaking fell 3.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of just over 1 million units. Part of the decline in starts could be attributed to the snowstorms, which blanketed the Northeast last month. With building permits ahead of groundbreaking activity, home construction is likely to pick up in the months ahead. The report comes on the heels of a survey on Tuesday showing confidence among homebuilders fell in February amid concerns over “the high cost and lack of availability of lots and labor.”
Mortgage applications increased 8.2% last week. The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed conforming mortgage decreased to 3.83%, the lowest level since April 2015. Refinance activity was higher in 2015 than in 2014, but it was still the third lowest year since 2000.
Thanks in part to increased production of utilities and manufacturing, industrial production climbed 0.9% in January. This is the first increase since July and one of the biggest monthly gains of the expansion. The strength of the report was tempered somewhat by a downward revision of 3 percentage point to December, resulting in a revised decline of 0.7%.The rise in manufacturing production reflected gains in the output of long-lasting goods such as machinery, furniture and primary metals. Motor vehicle assembly accelerated. The production of food, textiles and chemicals also rose.
Producer prices, or prices at the wholesale level, rose in January as margins for wholesale machinery and equipment increased. The producer price index edged up 0.1 percent after slipping 0.2 percent in December. In the 12 months through January, the PPI decreased 0.2 percent. Lower oil prices and a strong dollar continue to pressure wholesale prices, which is contributing to holding inflation well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target. The latest read on consumer prices is due for release on Friday.
The FOMC published the minutes from its meeting in January, where the Federal Reserve declared it still intended to raise interest rates gradually, but was “closely monitoring” market developments. Policymakers worried last month that tighter global financial conditions could hit the U.S. economy and considered changing their planned path of interest rate hikes in 2016. The word “uncertainty” was sprinkled throughout the minutes, and the Fed seemed afraid that a shock could make a mess of everything.
However, they agreed it would be premature to change their outlook for the U.S. economy, saying they would closely monitor global economic developments as well as oil and stock prices. That suggests the recent slowdown in global growth and steep stock market drops are leading the Fed to consider backing away from the signal it sent in December that it could raise rates four times this year. Yesterday, Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren said the Fed can take its time to raise interest rates if headwinds from the global economy and financial markets persist. Wall Street is generally skeptical the Fed will raise rates at all this year. Prior to the release of the minutes, prices for fed funds futures implied investors saw a roughly 40 percent chance of a hike in December and less than that for prior meetings
Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company opposed a demand from a U.S. judge to help the FBI break into an iPhone recovered from one of the San Bernardino shooters. Cook said that the demand threatened the security of Apple’s customers and had “implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” In a letter to Apple’s customers, Cook said the FBI had asked the company to build “a backdoor to the iPhone,” and “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.”
In the letter Cook writes: “We have no sympathy for terrorists.” He goes on to add: “Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us. For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe. We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”
That may not be entirely accurate. The FBI can’t raid Apple’s data centers and read your text messages. If they did, they’d be reading a whole lot of encrypted gibberish. Here’s the problem: Apple built a backdoor into the iPhone just for itself, a way for the company to load up new software that could make it easier to gain access, and now the FBI wants to take that backdoor for a spin, too.
And one more thing. Apple appears to take a different tack in dealing with data security demands from China. In January 2015, the state-run Chinese newspaper People’s Daily claimed, in a tweet, that Apple had agreed to security checks by the Chinese government. This followed a piece in the Beijing News that claimed Apple acceded to audits after a meeting between Cook and China’s top internet official, Lu Wei. China’s State Internet Information Office would reportedly be allowed to perform “security checks” on all Apple products sold on the mainland. According to the report, this was despite Cook’s assurances that the devices didn’t contain backdoors accessible by any government, including the US. We don’t know if Apple permitted a security audit, but if it did, it could have shared vital information with the Chinese government, such as its operating system’s source code, that could indirectly help government agents discover vulnerabilities on their own.
Apple is also in the news in the corporate debt market after the company sold $12 billion of bonds in the second-largest U.S. corporate debt offering so far this year. Yesterday alone, blue chip companies raised more than $23 billion in bonds.
The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles has been operating without access to email or electronic health records for more than a week, after hackers took over its computer systems and demanded $3.6 million in Bitcoins in ransom to return it. Hospital staff are working with investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI to find the intruders’ identities. Meanwhile, without access to the hospital’s computer systems, doctors and nurses are communicating by fax or in person. Medical records that show patients’ treatment history are inaccessible. New patient records are being recorded on paper, and some patients have been transferred to other hospitals. While it’s unlikely that the facility will pay millions of dollars to restore its databases and systems, it’s in desperate straits without a backup of its patient files. Unless law enforcement can break the encryption keeping the data hostage, the hospital may be forced to start from scratch.
Fairchild Semiconductor has rejected a takeover offer worth about $2.5 billion led by Chinese state-backed buyers in favor of a bid from a U.S. rival because of concerns about regulatory approval. Fairchild had said in early January that it expected the Chinese bid to be a “superior proposal” – it amounted to $21.70 a share in cash, compared with the $20 a share that Phoenix-based ON Semiconductor was offering.
U.S. and Cuban officials have signed an agreement that provides for the reopening of scheduled air services between the two nations for the first time in more than 50 years. The move is expected to set off a scramble among American carriers to win route rights to serve Havana, which will be capped at 20 round trips a day from anywhere in the US.
You know that 2015 was the hottest year on record, by a wide margin; 2016 is on track to beat it. Last month was the hottest January in 137 years of record keeping, according to data released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s the ninth consecutive month to set a new record. To be sure, some of the recent extremes are the result of a monster El Niño weather pattern that still lingers in the Pacific Ocean. The heat that’s dispersed into the atmosphere during an El Niño can linger, which means there’s a decent chance 2016 will turn out to be the third straight year to set a new temperature record. That’s never happened before.