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Thursday, April 18, 2013 – Elvis and Other Ongoing Investigations

Elvis and Other Ongoing Investigations
by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 81 = 14,537
SPX – 10 = 1541
NAS – 38 = 3166
10 YR YLD – .02 = 1.69%
OIL + 1.68 = 88.36
GOLD + 14.60 = 1393.10
SILV – .03 = 23.38
Emergency teams went house to house through mounds of debris in a devastated four-block area of West, Texas; that’s the name of the town – West; it’s near Waco. An explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled a big part of the town and there are 15 dead and perhaps 160 injured. Officials said there was no initial indication that the blast was anything but an industrial accident, but it is an ongoing investigation. Maybe someone will look into the wisdom behind building a fertilizer plant right next to a residential area and even a nursing home.
Meanwhile, an interfaith service was held in Boston today to mourn the victims of the bombing. It was actually a very good service. Several dignitaries spoke, including President Obama, who promised that the perpetrators will face justice. But it is an ongoing investigation. The FBI has released pictures of a couple of guys carrying large backpacks; they think they might be suspects in the bombings.
Meanwhile, the FBI has arrested a man in Mississippi for mailing letters laced with the poison ricin. The suspect is an Elvis impersonator. I can’t make this stuff up.
We’re seeing economic growth cool off a little bit after a strong start to the year. The index of leading economic indicators declined 0.1% in March. The LEI looks forward about 3 to 6 months; the biggest challenges seem to be weak consumer demand and slow income growth.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Fed’s factory index declined, reflecting a drop in orders that prompted managers to cut back on hiring and inventories.. Manufacturing activity in the region is still growing, it’s just sluggish growth.
This week, the IMF released new economic forecasts lowering its estimates for global growth, while also citing diminished risks of a severe financial disruption in Europe or sharp fiscal policy adjustment in the United States. Today, at the spring meeting of the World Bank and the IMF in Washington, Christine Lagarde, the director of the IMF gave her blessing to recent actions taken by the Bank of Japan to help bolster growth. She also said the European Central Bank had more room to aid a recovery in Europe.
But it was cautious support for more easing. The IMF still believes unconventional monetary policies meant to prop up economic growth around the world are still needed now, but they also raise the risk of creating new bubbles that would jeopardize financial stability. Policy reforms are needed before any problems created by central bank stimulus start to arise.
At a separate news conference, Jim Yong Kim, the head of the World Bank, called for eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 and for fostering income growth for the bottom 40 percent in every country.
Meanwhile, the argument for austerity has suffered a devastating blow. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two economists, of the University of Maryland and Harvard respectively, wrote a paper, “Growth in the Time of Debt” that has been used by everyone from Paul Ryan to Olli Rehn of the European Commission to justify austerity policies. The authors purported to show that once a country’s gross debt to GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90 percent, economic growth slows dramatically. Debt, in other words, seemed very scary and bad. Cut budgets now or crash your economy. Problem is that their math didn’t add up, and some other economists went back and checked the math, and Rogoff and Reinhart now say there was a problem with the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet; maybe some other problems they haven’t taken credit for yet.
When properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2%, not -0.1% as published in Reinhart and Rogoff. It kind of changes the whole debate.
The House of Representatives has passed legislation designed to help companies and the government share information on cyber threats, though concerns linger about the amount of protection the bill offers for private information. US authorities have recently elevated the exposure to Internet hacks and theft of digital data to the list of top threats to national security and the economy. This is the second go-around for the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act after it passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate after President Obama threatened to veto it over privacy concerns. The White House repeated its veto threat if further civil liberties protections are not added. Some lawmakers and privacy activists worry that the legislation would allow the government to monitor citizens’ private information and companies to misuse it.
Too late.

Every time you mindlessly give a sales clerk your zip code at checkout, you’re giving data companies and retailers the ability to track everything from your body type to your bad habits.

That five-digit zip code is one of the key items data brokers use to link a wealth of public records to what you buy. They can figure out whether you’re getting married (or divorced), selling your home, smoke cigarettes, sending a kid off to college or about to have one.
Such information is the cornerstone of a multi-billion dollar industry that enables retailers to target consumers with advertising and coupons. Yet, data privacy experts are concerned about the level at which consumers are being tracked without their knowledge — and what would happen if that data got into the wrong hands.
Acxiom, one of the biggest data brokers in the business, claims to have a database that holds information — including one’s age, marital status, education level, political leanings, hobbies and income level — on 190 million individuals.Major competitors, like Datalogix and CoreLogic, tout similarly vast databases.
In most cases, all that is needed to match the information these data brokers compile with what you buy is your full name — obtained when you swipe a credit card — and a zip code.
Once a retailer identifies you, it can track and analyze your spending behaviors and background in order to predict what you might buy next. In the data world, this is often called predictive analysis or predictive modeling. Some retailers sell this information back to the data brokers which then sell it to other companies — including retailers, banks, credit card issuers, airlines, hotels, auto manufacturers and many, many more — in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
Currently, data brokers are required by federal law to maintain the privacy of a consumer’s data only if it is used for credit, employment, insurance or housing. But there are some gray areas. Medical records and prescription purchases are off limits, but data brokers are allowed to track purchases of over-the-counter drugs and other related medical items, as well as web searches and medical surveys that consumers fill out online
I hope you’ve heard some of the talk about the foreclosure settlement fiasco. The quick rundown is that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve tried to take over an investigation into foreclosure abuses by the big banks and mortgage servicing companies. They looked into abuses such as foreclosing on active duty military, forged foreclosure documents, robo-signing, foreclosing on the wrong houses, foreclosing on people who were paying their mortgages on time, and other little problems. But it was too much work for the regulators, so they told the banks to hire outside consultants to review the mortgage files one by one. But it was too much work for the outside consultants, even though they were paid $2 billion to do the review. So, after two years, the regulators just decided to guess; they said there were probably 4.4 million homeowners who had been abused and they should be paid $3.6 billion. Some would be paid up to $125,000 for the big messes, but most homeowners would get a check for $300 or less.
The first round of the settlement checks was mailed last week; 1.4 million checks for abused homeowners, or maybe not abused; nobody is really certain because they never finished reviewing the files; but they sent the checks anyway. And now the checks are bouncing. Not all of them; just a few. The company hired to distribute the checks says it has corrected the problem.
Meanwhile, the journal, Science reports that NASA scientists have discovered two planets which they think could support life. The planets are very, very far away; 1,000 light years; part of a five planet solar system. The host star — the equivalent of Earth’s sun — takes the name Kepler-62, where the individual planets are designated by letters thereafter. The planets are the right size and the right distance from the host star, and the scientists think they might have polar caps and water and all the other stuff of life; although probably no Elvis impersonators.
When former Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger signed an executive order in 2007 creating the first-in-the-nation rule ordering reduced carbon emissions for cars and trucks, the oil industry seemed to be on board. Chevron helped write the rules. Chevron’s biofuels chief spoke at the signing ceremony and pledged to develop biofuel replacements to gasoline. Two years ago, California started phasing in the mandate aimed at global warming. Now Chevron is leading a lobbying campaign to undercut the mandate they helped to write.
Chevron, the second largest US oil company quietly shelved most of its biofuels work in 2010; they just didn’t see enough profit potential. The oil companies can make a profit making advanced biofuels, they just can’t make as much profit as they would like.
ExxonMobil, the largest US oil company, has also retreated from a biofuels effort. It cut funding for research into making fuel from algae. Now ExxonMobil and Chevron are pressing California to postpone the low-carbon standard, and they are lobbying to stop other states from following California. The Big 2 oil giants acknowledge that carbon emissions contribute to global warming but they claim the mandate would push up prices at the pump, and the technology isn’t currently available and would be expensive to produce.
Back in 2007, Chevron committed to a plant to extract biofuels from forest-based biomass; pretty much using the parts of the tree that don’t get cut into lumber. The researchers developed a process, known as solvent liquefaction, that could produce fuel on a commercial scale at a cost of about $2.18 per gallon, back when crude oil was around $70 a barrel. The plants were expected to generate profits around 5 to 10%, but that’s not quite the profit margins for oil and gas exploration, so they shut down the venture three years ago.
So, the big oil companies have shifted from research to lobbying against low-carbon fuels, including a lobbying group called Fueling California, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chevron.
This year, 30 bills to kill or weaken renewable rules have been considered in 16 states. None have passed so far. California is the front line, and the state is outgunned. Chevron had its second most profitable year in 2012, posting net income of $26 billion on $222 billion in sales, the vast majority from petroleum. California’s revenue in fiscal year 2012 was $87 billion.
Emission controls enacted in California since 1966 have been models for federal car-pollution and miles-per-gallon rules. The state’s 32 million vehicles consume 15 billion gallons of gasoline each year, and emit 160 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, 36 percent of all such emissions in California. The state began to phase in the low-carbon standard in 2011. When it’s fully in effect in 2020, greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation fuels are supposed to be 10 percent less than they were in 2010. Right now, the state is on track to achieve the goal, but the Air Resources Board, Chevron, and ExxonMobil won’t disclose how the companies are complying with the rule. It could just be that Californians are driving less, or driving more fuel efficient and cleaner burning autos.
Some of the main arguments against the California low-carbon standard have been that it could raise the state’s already high gasoline prices, force refiners out of business and even harm the economy by requiring the importation of more foreign oil. But it turns out that California’s railroad infrastructure, including planned West Coast terminals, will increase the logistical capacity to transport oil to California from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. That creates a sidebar play for energy by looking at the railroad companies, but it also means that the 2020 standards aren’t a death knell for California refineries. The oil from the Bakken field is cheaper than the average barrel price in the US, and Bakken crude has been given a relatively low carbon intensity rating. The use of Bakken crude in California should exert downward pressure on gasoline prices in California, and Bakken crude is considered clean enough to help the state reach its 2020 low carbon emissions standard.

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute recently hosted a forum on Climate Change. California is uniquely vulnerable to rising sea levels. It’s estimated that the past decade was 2 degrees warmer than it had been historically, and it was the hottest the Southwestern US has ever experienced. It’s estimated the temperatures could rise 6 to 9 degrees over the next 50 years, if we do nothing.

And that looks like the current path, or at least the current path is next to nothing. This probably isn’t the way things were expected to turn out in 2007; the idea of slightly less dirty fossil fuels is not nearly as good as truly clean alternatives, but until the economics change, that’s what we’ll be stuck with. And that leaves the question of what we’ve learned. We’ve learned that the big oil companies will break their promises in the pursuit of higher profit margins, and this should be remembered as new standards are considered or as new oil fields, such as the Monterrey Shale fields are explored.
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