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Wednesday, December 04, 2013 – The Defining Challenge

The Defining Challenge
by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 24 = 15,889
SPX – 2 = 1792
NAS +0.80 = 4038
10 YR YLD + .05 = 2.83%
OIL + 1.25 = 97.29
GOLD + 19.00 = 1244.30
SILV + .54 = 19.82
December can be a cold, cold month. At least that’s how the equity markets are starting the month; four losing sessions. Part of this might be the big institutional investors, the big hedge funds and money managers, looking around and realizing the market is up 30% or so, and that would be a good year, so why no lock in a few profits. No need to worry about the budget battle in Washington; no need to worry about the Federal Reserve surprising people with a premature taper; no need to worry about a strong jobs report on Friday. In this crazy market where good economic news gets traders worried about the Fed taking away the punch bowl, today we had some reasonably decent economic news and another drop in the markets.
Let’s start with the economic reports. ADP, the payroll processing firm, has a monthly report on private jobs; they issue the report just before the monthly official government report on jobs, the BLS non-farm payroll report. The ADP report is not great at predicting the government report, but its one of the better guidelines we have. Today, ADP reported companies added to their payrolls by a net 215,000 in November, and they revised the October number higher to 184,000.
Manufacturers, builders and other goods-producing industries increased headcount by 40,000, the most this year. Employment in construction climbed by 18,000. Factories also added 18,000 jobs, the biggest gain since February 2012. Trade, transportation and utility companies created 45,000 jobs last month. Companies employing 500 or more workers added 65,000 jobs. Medium-sized businesses, with 50 to 499 employees, took on 48,000 workers and small companies expanded payrolls by 102,000.
ADP typically underestimates the number of jobs added to the economy. The government jobs report is Friday morning; the average estimate is for 180,000 net new jobs in November.
In a separate report, contracts signed to buy newly built homes jumped 25% in October month to month. Now let’s dig into the numbers, because the numbers are a bit unusual. In September, contracts to buy new homes dropped 6% from August. So there was a big drop in September and an even bigger bounce up in October. A couple of theories behind the numbers. First, is the idea of pent-up demand; the government shutdown caused potential buyers to wait, and also interest rates have been climbing, pushing potential buyers to jump now rather than wait for higher rates later. The other theory is that there’s a large margin of error in this report and we’ll see the number revised next month.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Supply Management’s non-manufacturing index dropped to 53.9 in November from 55.4 in October. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the services sector of the economy, but clearly expanding a little slower. The ISM manufacturing index, released Monday, showed an increase to 57.3 from 56.4.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve released its Beige Book this afternoon. The Beige Book is a business survey, which contains anecdotal reports from the 12 Fed district banks, and it’s published two weeks before the officials meet to set monetary policy at the FOMC meeting. It’s called Beige Book because it has a beige cover, although I suspect it is also descriptive of the writing style.
Anyway, here’s the synopsis: consumer spending increased in most of the country, with retailers expressing optimism about holiday sales; hiring showed a modest increase or was unchanged; manufacturing activity continued to expand in most districts, with gains noted in the motor-vehicle and high-technology industries; demand for professional business services experienced stable to moderate growth, especially in computer technologies.
And the Commerce Department reported this morning that the October trade deficit decreased to $40 billion. Total October exports came in at $192 billion compared to imports of $233 billion, resulting in a deficit of $40 billion, down from $43 billion in September. Oil prices were just under $100 in October, down from $102 in September, and prices will likely be down even further in November. The petroleum deficit has generally been declining and is the major reason the overall deficit has declined since early 2012.
Meanwhile, remember the budget negotiations? That’s where each political party draws a line in the sand, and a bipartisan committee dances around the line and no later than December 13th, they are supposed to come up with a deal that nobody could love. There is broad agreement that a portion of the sequester should be replaced with targeted cuts to discretionary spending. But Democrats demand revenues in the mix and Republicans categorically reject new taxes. The dance of legislation is reportedly close to finding some syncopation, which would involve an agreement to set a spending level for the next fiscal year above the $967 billion in place under current law.
Also, it appears that both sides are getting closer to agreement on $80 billion in savings to replace the cuts from sequestration over the next 2 years; shared among defense and non-defense programs alike. Other items being considered to pay for it include selling off the broadband spectrum in auction (essentially a government yard sale), increasing TSA fees (in other words, it’ll cost more for an airline flight), plus changes in postal service and some reform to federal pensions but no structural changes to entitlement programs.
If the budget committee can’t reach a deal by the December 13 deadline, House Speaker John Boehner has said that he will push for a continuing resolution to fund the government past Jan. 15 at the $967 billion level. Apparently both sides realize that shutting down the government is not a popular idea, but short-term stopgap continuing resolutions are getting a bit stale as well.
Somewhere, in the vague and distant past, I remember hearing something about closing loopholes and reforming the tax code but that would require roll up your shirt sleeves, honest work, and we know that Congress has nasty aversion to that four letter word.
Some things never change.
Banks cheat. They get caught sometimes. They pay a fine. It’s the cost of doing business.
EU antitrust regulators have fined six financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, Citigroup, Societe Generale, JPMorgan and brokerage RP Martin a record total of $2.3 billion for rigging financial benchmarks. The penalty is the biggest yet to be handed down to banks for rigging the benchmarks used to determine the cost of lending; the benchmarks involved are the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, the Tokyo interbank offered rate and the euro area equivalents. They are used to price hundreds of trillions of dollars in assets ranging from mortgages to derivatives.
EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in a statement: “What is shocking about the Libor and Euribor scandals is not only the manipulation of benchmarks, which is being tackled by financial regulators worldwide, but also the collusion between banks who are supposed to be competing with each other.”
Yes, I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
Authorities around the world have so far handed down a total of $3.7 billion in fines to UBS, RBS, Barclays, Rabobank and ICAP for manipulating rates, while seven individuals face criminal charges.

UBS paid a record fine of $1.5 billion late last year to the US Department of Justice and the UK’s Financial Services Authority for rate-rigging. EU fines can reach up to 10 percent of a company’s global turnover. UBS blew the whistle on the Libor and Tibor cases and will not be fined as a result. Barclays will escape a fine in the Euribor case because it alerted the Commission to the offence.
The European Commission said it would continue to investigate Credit Agricole, HSBC, JPMorgan and brokerage ICAP for similar offenses.
And by the way, I don’t know how the regulators come up with the amount they decide to fine the banksters. I guess they pull a number out of the hat. I’ll check on that.
Moving on. Now that the government has fixed the healthcare.gov website and Obamacare is experiencing smooth sailing. Huh? What? Squirrel…
Anyway, President Obama turned his focus today to the pocketbook issues that Americans consistently rank as a top concern, arguing that the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down and the growing income gap is a “defining challenge of our time.”
“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” the president said in remarks at a nonprofit community center a short drive from the White House in one of Washington’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
The president vowed to focus the last three years of his presidency on addressing the discrepancy and a rapidly growing deficit of opportunity that he said is a bigger threat than the fiscal deficit. Obama said increasing income inequality is more pronounced in the United States than other countries. He said Americans should be offended that a child born into poverty has such a hard time escaping it, saying: “It should compel us to action. We’re a better country than this.” Obama did not propose any new policy initiatives in the speech.
The speech comes amid growing national and international attention to economic disparities — from the writings of Pope Francis to the protests of fast-food workers across the country. The president cited the pope’s question of how it isn’t news when an elderly homeless person dies from exposure, but news when stock market loses two points.

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