Financial Review

Tuesday, June 03, 2014 – Always Look on the Bright Side

Always Look on the Bright Side
by Sinclair Noe

 

DOW – 21 = 16,722
SPX – 0.73 = 1924
NAS – 3 = 4234
10 YR YLD + .06 = 2.59%
OIL + .37 = 102.84
GOLD + 1.40 = 1245.90
SILV + .05 = 18.91

 

Automakers reported strong sales of new cars in May, the strongest annual sales rate since before the 2008 financial crisis. Industry sales rose 11.3%. Chrysler and GM had their best month of May in 7 years. A record number of recalls at GM since the first of the year did not crimp demand for the automaker’s new vehicles. Average transaction price for a new vehicle in May was $32,307, according to research firm Kelley Blue Book, which said average new-car prices were up $653 from a year ago, but down slightly from April.

 

The city council of Seattle Washington has voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, the highest level of any major US city. Wages would begin to rise next year, ultimately reaching $15 from Washington state’s minimum of $9.32 over three to seven years, depending on the business. Under the plan, firms with more than 500 employees nationally will be given at least three years to phase in the increase, those who provide health insurance subsidies would get four years and smaller businesses would be given seven years. US minimum wage is $7.25, although 38 states have set higher levels. The states of California, Connecticut and Maryland have recently passed laws increasing their respective wages to $10 or more in coming years.

 

Yesterday we heard the EPA proposal to cut power plant carbon emissions by 30% over the next 15 years. Even before the announcement we heard concerns about how that might affect jobs, most of it conjecture. In 2010 when the country was debating a clean energy bill aimed at cutting carbon emissions by 17%, the Congressional Budget Office predicted how destructive the law would be for American jobs. The CBO report concluded it wouldn’t be destructive at all, rather it would probably add more jobs than it killed.

 

The report found that overall, unemployment would probably increase in the short term. Workers may lose jobs by the thousands across industries that include coal mining, oil and gas extraction and transportation, the report said. And, it added, people who found new jobs by relocating or by learning new skills would probably be earning lower wages than before.

 

But the CBO report also said that, as polluting industries like coal mining shrink, industries with fewer carbon emissions would expand by as many as a half-million new jobs by 2025. States that are heavily coal-dependent will have to shift to some degree away from coal and to other, new resources; but the electricity has to come from somewhere, so there will be new facilities built to produce it.

 

In general, the debate about how environmental regulation will affect the economy is so polarized that studies end up with contradictory conclusions. In a 2012 review of more than two dozen such studies, a team of researchers at a New York University think tank found that studies commissioned by big energy companies usually found that regulations increase unemployment, while those by environmental groups found the opposite.

 

You’ve probably heard about the controversy surrounding the book Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Pikkety. A reporter from the Financial Times says some of Pikkety’s statistics are flawed. Pikkety responded by saying his research is solid. Now we have a new source to support Pikkety. According to a new report by stock market strategists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the rich are going to keep getting richer all over the world, pretty much just as French economist Thomas Piketty describes in his bestselling book.

 

And according to the folks at Merrill Lynch, this represents an opportunity for Merrill Lynch. They write: “We are aware of the controversy over Piketty’s math (see the FT Money Supply blog), but are generally comfortable with the thrust of his analysis, having read his 577-pager, looked at his (problematic) spreadsheets, and cross-checked his data with alternative, credible sources. His questionable assumptions do not detract from the power of his thesis.”

 

Merrill pointed out that it has been predicting the rise of “plutonomies — economies where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few” — for the past decade. While this might sound like a nightmare world for some of us, it is also a chance to make a bunch of money, for those mostly rich people with the means to invest in companies that most profit from the wealthy elite. This includes luxury goods makers, money managers and private banks.

 

Always look on the bright side.

 

For the past two years, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has been saying “whatever it takes”, giving the impression the ECB was ready to take on a stimulus program, jawboning the markets with the hint of bold monetary action, right around the corner. Today, a report showed Eurozone inflation at just 0.5% in May. A separate report showed the Eurozone jobless rate at 11.7% in April, ticking down from 11.8% in March, but still more than 25% in Spain and Greece. For 2 years Draghi said “whatever it takes” and for 2 years he has done nothing. On Thursday, the ECB meets to determine monetary policy and Draghi is expected to do something, and it better be something worth the wait.

 

It is widely anticipated the ECB will cut its target on loans from one-quarter percent to 0.1%, maybe down to a flat zero; and they are expected to eliminate paying banks on their deposits, cutting that into negative territory, essentially charging the banks to park cash at the central bank. And if that’s all the ECB does, it will probably be considered a huge disappointment; cutting rates won’t change borrowing conditions materially for most companies and it won’t be enough to lift the Eurozone out of the deflationary cycle.

 

 

It’s time for another edition of banks behaving badly. This is really an ongoing saga but sometimes we turn our gaze away and focus on other important issues; you might think that means the banksters haven’t been misbehaving, but the truth is their transgressions are never-ending.

Last month, Credit Suisse agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges of helping tax cheats avoid paying US taxes. Credit Suisse was fined $2.6 billion, which is a hefty fine but the bank basically got off with punishment fitting a civil suit. Still, it sent a message.
The Treasury Department announced that more than 77,000 foreign banks from 70 countries have agreed to share information about US account holders as part of a crackdown on offshore tax evasion. Participating countries include all the world’s financial giants, as well as many places where Americans have traditionally hid assets, including Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. Under the law, foreign banks that do not agree to share information with the IRS face steep penalties when doing business in the US. The law requires American banks to withhold 30% of certain payments to foreign banks that don’t participate in the program. And if the US banks fail to withhold the tax, they would be liable for it themselves.

 

Next on the list is BNP Paribas; the Justice Department is looking into claims the French bank broke trade sanctions against Sudan, Iran, and Cuba between 2002 and 2009; essentially, international money laundering. BNP Paribas is facing possible criminal charges and possible penalties of $10 billion. In December 2012, HSBC faced similar charges that it breached US sanctions and laws against money laundering; HSBC agreed to pay $1.9 billion in civil penalties.

 

Now, US authorities are seeking criminal charges and a stiffer fine, the equivalent of a year’s profit for the French bank. The precise amount of the fines and the conditions attached to them is still a matter of speculation and probably negotiation. The crimes of BNP are probably no more egregious than the wrongdoing of HSBC, but for a long time BNP refused to admit wrongdoing. If you’ve ever watched a cop show on TV, you know how that works; cooperate and the punishment will be more lenient.

 

President Obama is traveling to France on Thursday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the landing at Normandy. And while the visit is supposed to be a celebration of the liberation of France by its allies, relations between France and the US are a bit rocky. Many in France are concerned that America lets its own banks off rather lightly and cracks down on foreign banks instead to appease voters’ hatred of the banksters. American rules sometimes differ from European rules, and criminalize behavior that might be legal in the banks’ home country. And two more French banks, Societe Generale and Credit Agricole, are also thought to be in the crosshairs of American authorities for allegedly breaking sanctions and money laundering.

 

The French are getting nervous. The French foreign minister says the fine against BNP would be unfair and it would hit BNP Paribas’ funds and result in fewer loans for French businesses. They claim the US is using its position as the leading global financial market to bully their banks. So on Thursday, Presidents Obama and Hollande will get together for D-Day festivities and dinner and conversation. The banking fines will be a major topic, but there are other acrimonious subjects; France seems determined to continue military hardware sales to Russia, which might not violate the recently imposed sanctions but certainly violates the spirit of the sanctions.

 

The US has embarked on a new way of fighting, and it involves sanctions and economic weapons; it is certainly preferable to the battles waged 70 years ago in Europe, but it won’t work if the banksters put their greed ahead of other priorities. The French politicians might whine about the hardships, but they need to get their banks in order, and for that matter so does the US.

 

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