Financial Review

Tax Weasels

Tax Weasels
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 75 = 17,076
SPX + 9 = 1997.92 (record)
NAS + 18 = 4557
10 YR YLD – .02 = 2.38%
OIL – .27 = 93.38
GOLD – 4.60 = 1277.20
SILV – .05 = 19.45

The S&P 500 crossed above 2000 intraday, closing off the high for the day, but still closing in record territory. We recognize it but we don’t have a big celebration. It’s just a number, a nice big round number. For reference, the S&P 500 topped 1,000 back in February 1998.

Economic data today includes:
Sales of new single family homes dropped for a second month in June. New home sales slipped 2.4%, but data from the past 3 months was revised to show 33,000 more new homes were sold than previously reported. The median sales price increased 2.9% from a year ago. At July’s sales pace it would take 6.0 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, the highest since October 2011. Tomorrow, we’ll see the latest data on existing home sales from S&P/Case-Shiller.

Separately, financial data firm Markit said its preliminary services Purchasing Managers Index dipped to 58.5 this month from 60.8 in July.A reading above 50 indicates expansion.

Last Friday ECB President Mario Draghi delivered the luncheon speech at the Jackson Hole Symposium; Draghi said the ECB had done all it could for now and the governments of the EU needed to step up. Today a survey was published from the National Association for Business Economics and the conclusions show most economists surveyed think the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy is on track but the US needs to enact structural policies in order to stimulate stronger economic growth. The Fed’s expansionary monetary policy has been at odds with a sharply restrictive fiscal stance that saw budget deficits declining from 11% of GDP in 2009 to less than 3% this year.

Economists overwhelmingly expect the Federal Reserve to hold off raising short-term interest rates until at least 2015. But nearly a third say doing so would mean the central bank waited too long. While many economists appear at ease with the “steady-as-she-goes perspective” from the Fed, “almost 40% say the stimulus policies are no longer necessary and should be curtailed or sunset.” On other topics, business economists say immigration reform is one of their top priorities, and the US needs to let more immigrants in. Meanwhile, the economists surveyed support the idea of lifting the ban on exports of US-produced crude oil and nat gas. The industry is pushing for the right to export more fuel overseas to ease the threat of overproduction, a move that could also help reduce the US trade deficit. The White House moved this summer to loosen restrictions on crude exports, but an outright end to the ban faces higher hurdles, and would require Congressional approval.

A new academic paper from economists from the University of Chicago and the University of Maryland suggest the weakness in employment is not just a result of the Great Recession, but a longer-term structural change in the economy; the share of Americans with jobs has declined because the labor market has stagnated in recent decades; fewer startups creating new jobs; fewer people losing or leaving jobs, fewer people landing new ones. This suggests the US has been headed to higher unemployment even before the financial crisis, and even if we add jobs, we still have problems that can’t be overcome by Federal Reserve monetary policy alone. The paper says that a 1 percentage point decline in the churning of the labor market lowers the employment rate by 0.77 of a percentage point, a huge effect.

It’s Monday, and so we have some mergers to cover. The Swiss drug maker Roche agreed to buy InterMune for $8.3 billion. InterMune is based in California; it has one drug called pirfenidone to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a fatal scarring of the lungs. It is licensed to sell the drug in Europe, and hopes to get approval in the US later this year. About $87 billion in pharmaceutical acquisitions were made in the first half of this year, eclipsing the total for all of 2013.

If you are Canadian or have ever been to Canada or know Canadians, then you probably know Tim Hortons; it’s a chain of coffee and donut shops; kind of like Starbucks but the coffee is actually good. And it may be the new home of the Whopper. Burger King wants to buy Tim Hortons. If completed, the deal would mean Burger King’s corporate headquarters would move to Canada, where it would qualify for a corporate inversion, with the idea of lowering Burger King’s corporate tax bill. The actual headquarters and the executives go nowhere, but the nominal address changes so the company can avoid US tax rates. Burger King says the deal is not about the taxes, but about the coffee, and the fast food breakfast business. Coffee may be an especially important attraction for Burger King and its majority owner, the Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital. In Tim Hortons, Burger King would be getting a restaurant chain that is essentially synonymous with coffee in Canada. Yea, that’s the reason; it’s the coffee, not the taxes; or maybe they’re trying to create a new donut-burger. Yea, that’s it. They’re just trying to compete with waffle tacos and sausage pancakes.

With the 15% nominal rate in Canada, this is absolutely a move about taxes; rooted in the lie that American corporations pay the highest tax rates in the world, which is not true when you consider the effective rates rather than nominal rates. When it comes to effective rates, what corporations actually pay, the US ranks 17th out of 27 developed countries. Walgreens recently scrapped an inversion deal because of public blowback. Once one of these brands pulls off an inversion deal without blowback that actually hurts sales, it will be a run for the exits.

There are so many companies trying to weasel out of taxes that the inversion trend is the hot new thing on Wall Street, so hot that JPMorgan is backing a new online broker that has bundled up 25 companies seen as inversion targets. The basket of companies is called the Tax Inversion Targets, or TIT; I am not making this up. Count on JPMorgan to go for the most weasely product and then tack on a bit of tacky.

Late Friday, Goldman Sachs agreed to buy back $3.15 billion in mortgage bonds from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to end a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The FHFA accused Goldman of dumping low-quality mortgage bonds during the run-up to the financial crisis. Goldman is not paying a penalty, but it is estimated the bonds are worth only about $2 billion today. Last month, lawyers for the FHFA presented evidence showing that Goldman was aware of weakness in the subprime mortgage market but did not pass that info to clients buying subprime bonds, even as Goldman was shorting the bonds. Just to be clear, Goldman was selling the bonds and simultaneously betting the bonds would fail.

AP is reporting that a column of Russian tanks and armored cars crossed into Ukraine’s far southeast, which is away from the fighting that has been taking place. The markets have been worried about a Russian invasion of Ukraine; now it looks like it is happening, and the markets seem to discount it.

ISIS, has been fighting in Iraq, and even though US airstrikes are inflicting damage, they are still entrenched. Meanwhile, they have taken over a key government airbase in Syria. BBC says government forces evacuated the airbase. Syrian state television confirmed that government troops had lost control of the base. The US has not been targeting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly teamed up to launch airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya. Responsibility for the airstrikes was initially a mystery. After the first set, several American officials initially said that signs pointed to the United Arab Emirates, but clearly American intelligence was surprised.

Workers are assessing quake damage and starting to clean up after a 6.0 magnitude quake in Napa California; it was the strongest quake in the San Francisco area in 25 years. Approximately 172 people were treated for mainly minor injuries; two people had serious injuries; no deaths have been reported. Several building were badly damaged and a mobile home park caught fire. The biggest economic damage may come to wineries.

Meanwhile, a large 6.9-magnitude earthquake has struck a sparsely populated area of central Peru. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries, and authorities were still surveying the region.

Hackers again showed how powerful electronic attacks can be when they forced Sony’s PlayStation Network and Blizzard’s offline over the weekend. The same group responsible for shutting down the gaming platforms, which calls itself the Lizard Squad, also claimed credit for sending a bomb threat via Twitter that grounded a plane carrying Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley. The plane was traveling from Dallas to San Diego but was diverted to Phoenix. No bomb was found.

Earlier this month, the computer systems at 51 UPS stores were found to have been infected with malware that could potentially allow criminals to gain access to consumer data. The FBI says that up to 1,000 retailers could have malicious software on their sales systems, potentially exposing sensitive information to identity theft and financial fraud.

And that raises the question of why companies continue to get hacked? The most probable answer is that corporate executives just don’t want to spend the money on security because they consider it a cost without a financial benefit; at least until after the fact.

And finally, John Sperling has died at the age of 93. Back in 1978, Sperling founded the University of Phoenix. The University of Phoenix has a presence in 38 states and in Puerto Rico, and at one point touted 242,000 students, although that number has significantly dropped. Sperling became a billionaire, and he used his wealth on several philanthropic projects, including research into seawater agriculture and anti-aging medicine. He was also an outspoken critic of the government’s war on drugs, advocating for treatment instead of criminalization.

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