The Day the Net Died (Maybe)
by Sinclair Noe
DOW + 115 = 16,373
SPX + 19 = 1838
NAS + 69 = 4183
10 YR YLD + .04 = 2.87%
OIL + .83 = 92.63
GOLD – 7.40 = 1246.00
SILV – .15 = 20.36
A US appeals court has rejected federal rules that required Internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. The Federal Communications Commission’s open Internet rules, also known as net neutrality rules, required Internet service providers to give consumers equal access to all lawful content without restrictions or varying charges. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the regulation, which was passed in late 2010 and challenged in court by Verizon Communications. The decision that could allow mobile carriers and other broadband providers to charge content providers for faster access to websites and products, or block content, or slow down access.
One argument is that a video and Internet provider would have an incentive to bog down a video streaming service such as Netflix in favor of its own sites. Or it could charge a toll to those who want their content delivered at a higher speed, which media watchdogs say would stifle innovation and favor big and powerful companies.
The issue of companies playing favorites with their own content came to the forefront when Comcast announced plans to acquire NBCUniversal in 2009. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and Internet distributor, said in a statement that the court ruling would not change the company’s policies. At the time of the acquisition, the Comcast agreed to abide by the FCC’s open Internet rules for 7 years, even if the courts changed them. After 7 years, the gloves would likely come off.
There is big money at stake, as we were reminded today. Charter Communications wants to buy Time Warner Cable in a deal valued at more than $37 billion. Time Warner Cable’s board has rejected the offer.
The FCC had classified broadband providers as information service providers as opposed to telecommunications service providers, like telephone companies, and that distinction created a legal hurdle for the FCC’s authority over them. This was the second time the court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules. The FCC now could appeal the ruling to the full appeals court or to the US Supreme Court, something FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he is considering as he looked at “all available options” to ensure Internet networks remained free and open.
The regulators could also try to reclassify broadband providers so they fall in the same category as traditional phone companies, a step that would give the FCC more oversight power. With the agency taking its regulatory authority from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it could go back to Congress and ask for new authority to regulate broadband. But the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has tried multiple times to repeal the FCC’s net-neutrality rules, and any legislation giving the FCC new authority over broadband providers would have little chance with lawmakers there.
One simple way, at least on its face, to get around the prohibition on applying common carrier rules to broadband would be for the FCC to reclassify broadband, subject to the common carrier rules that traditional voice service is subject to.
There will be serious push back from the phone and cable companies and their lobbyists. They will make threats, recycle all of their debunked myths about the Internet, they will claim that the internet belongs to them, and promise we can trust them not to do any of the bad things they’ve fought so hard to do.
Economic data today; the commerce department reported better-than-expected retail sales for December, up 0.2% versus estimates of 0.0%. Core sales, excluding the more volatile food and auto sectors, were up 0.7% for the biggest gain in almost a year. November sales numbers were revised slightly lower. These core sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, and the increase suggested consumption accelerated in the fourth quarter from the third quarter’s 2 percent annual pace.
A second report from the Commerce Department showing retail inventories, excluding autos, increased 0.6 percent in November after increasing 0.3 percent in October. The economy grew at a 4.1 percent rate in the third quarter, which was the fastest pace in almost two years. Fourth-quarter GDP growth estimates range as high as a 3.9 percent rate.
It’s earnings reporting season and this week features the big banks; today featured JPMorgan and Wells Fargo. Wells reported an 11% jump in profits, thanks in large part to cost cutting, which is to say they fired people. Wells Fargo says their mortgage business is doing just about what it would be expected to do at this point in the economic cycle. The nation’s biggest mortgage lender, Wells Fargo, said its mortgage volume tumbled to $50 billion in the quarter, down 60 percent from $125 billion a year ago. The second-biggest lender, JPMorgan Chase, said its mortgage originations, that includes new home purchases and refinancings, fell 54 percent to $23.3 billion from $51.2 billion a year ago.
A jump in interest rates has had a big impact on the housing market. That should be a warning sign for a Federal Reserve seemingly bound and determined to withdraw stimulus from a still-shaky economy. Higher rates have hurt demand. The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage has jumped to 4.5 percent from a record low of 3.3 percent in early 2013. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and others argued they weren’t kicking the props out from under the bond market, but that’s sort of what happened: Bond prices fell, and interest rates jumped. Of course, rates are still relatively low, and the housing market is not exactly in a panic, though sales are slowing.
The specifics of bank earnings are increasingly unimportant because nobody believes the numbers anymore; the numbers are massaged and manipulated to such a degree that they are of no value. Wells Fargo closed near an all time high. Still, the reports are fun reading, even if much is fictional.
JPMorgan met earnings expectations if you overlook the legal costs, and Wall Street seemed willing too overlook the legal costs today. Investment banking fee revenue dropped 3 percent. The bank had $1.1 billion of legal expenses in the fourth quarter, about $850 million of which was linked to a recent settlement for failing to report its suspicions of fraud at its client Bernard Madoff’s fund.
The bank agreed to some $20 billion of legal settlements in 2013; almost equal to a typical year’s profit. CEO Jamie Dimon indicated some investigations into JPMorgan are just beginning, so the idea is that they just treat the legal problems as the cost of doing business.
One bit of info from JPMorgan today, a key lending metric, the ratio of the bank’s loans-to-deposits, hit a new low. In 2013, JPMorgan on average lent out just 57% of its deposits. That’s down from 61% a year ago and the lowest that ratio has been in at least a decade. Back in 2004, JPMorgan’s loan-to-deposit percentage was as high as 88%. It’s also down at rivals. But not as much. The industry average is just under 70%.Traditionally, banks have lent out 80 to 90% of their deposits.
So, why isn’t JPMorgan making loans? One reason is that they can make as much money, about $300 million by just buying short term, low interest rate Treasury bonds. Dimon should send a thank you note to Bernanke. The other possible explanation is that there isn’t much demand for loans. Either way, this would seem to be an indicator of sluggish growth.
The bank earnings season actually kicked off on Friday when the Federal Reserve released a statement saying it made an estimated $79 billion in net interest income, driven by its $90 billion in interest income on its portfolio of Treasuries, mortgage bonds, and other securities. The Fed sent $77 billion to the US Treasury. The Federal Reserve, after operational costs, is earning double the profits of Exxon Mobil ($44 billion) and Apple ($41 billion), and those two companies are doing a combined $600 billion in global revenues. The Fed doesn’t have to drill oil wells or hire Chinese kids to glue together phones, they basically print money, buy mostly risk-free bond investments and do a little research to determine what the interest payments are going to be. The Fed has built up a $4 trillion dollar portfolio, and they have sent more than $350 billion to the Treasury since 2009. By the way, the Fed sent $88 billion to the Treasury in 2012, so they were down last year. No, I don’t know what that indicates.
Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services revised its outlook on California’s credit ratings to positive from stable, citing the governor’s budget plan. S&P foresees raising the state’s rating one notch within two years, if California follows the $107 billion budget Brown proposed last week. S&P said it is also encouraged by the proposal’s emphasis on repaying debt and building reserves. While Brown did not suggest specific action for making the teachers’ underfunded retirement system whole, he did highlight that the pension “is in need of a long-term funding strategy.”
In a letter issued through the Economic Policy Institute, including seven Nobel Laureates, argue that the government should hike the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then peg future increases to inflation.
The effect of a minimum wage hike is one of the most hotly debated issues in economic research. Some argue that a boost in the wage floor would hurt low wage earners because employers would be hesitant to hire if they had to pay their workers more. In the letter, the economists, argue that the “weight” of the evidence indicates past minimum wage hikes haven’t hurt the job market.
However, the letter reads: “Research suggests that a minimum-wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth, and providing some help on the jobs front.”