Financial Review

Wednesday, June 04, 2014 – An Airtight Defense

An Airtight Defense
by Sinclair Noe


DOW + 15 = 16,737
SPX + 3 = 1927 (record close)
NAS + 17 = 4251
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.60%
OIL – .27 = 102.39
GOLD – 1.30 = 1244.60
SILV – .01 = 18.90


Eight times a year the Federal Reserve gathers economic updates from the 12 districts and publishes the information about two weeks before its FOMC meetings. The data is published in a beige folder, and that is why it is called the Beige Book, although it might actually refer to the writing style. Anyway, economic activity expanded all across the country, with most districts reporting moderate or modest growth. Consumer spending expanded across almost all districts. Tourism was another bright spot and manufacturing activity expanded across the country. Home sales were described as “mixed across the country” even as home prices continue to rise. Labor markets were described as steady. Inflation was tame, with a slight exception for higher food prices in some areas.


In other words, when the Fed meets in a couple of weeks, there won’t be any big changes in monetary policy.


The Institute for Supply Management said its services index rose to 56.3%, its highest level since August, from 55.2% in April. That’s the number and they’re sticking with it.


The US trade deficit grew to $47 billion in April, up from $44 billion in March. Exports slowed in April, down slightly to $193 billion. Imports, meanwhile, surged by nearly $3 billion to $237 billion, mainly driven by increased spending in consumer goods and cars.


A new survey from the MacArthur Foundation finds 70% of Americans still feel a housing crisis remains today and the worst is yet to come; that’s down from 77% a year ago, but still it doesn’t look like there’s much confidence in a housing recovery. Half the respondents think housing represents a good long term investment, while 43% says that’s not the case; two-thirds say it’s harder to build wealth through home ownership than 20 or 30 years ago. Over half of Americans, 52%, have had to make at least one major sacrifice in order to cover their rent or mortgage over the last three years.


In line with the survey on housing, a new poll from CNN and ORC International finds 59% of adults think the American Dream has become impossible for most to achieve, up from 54% in a poll conducted in 2006. What’s more, 63% of those surveyed believe most children in the US will grow up to be worse off than their parents. While most Americans say they’re better off than the prior generation, they also feel gains in living standards are grinding to a halt. One problem is that the survey didn’t define exactly what the American Dream is supposed to be.


ADP, the payroll processing firm, issues a monthly payroll report ahead of the Labor Department each month. The ADP report is not always an accurate predictor of the government report but it is still closely watched for any hints. ADP says the economy added 179,000 private sector jobs in May; that’s significantly below the consensus estimate of 200,000 to 215,000 jobs for the Friday jobs report.


According to the latest revisions from the Labor Department, productivity in the first quarter declined at a 3.2% annual rate, the worst in six years, as workers spent more time on the job producing fewer goods during an unusually stormy weather.


A new research study published today from the Economic Policy Institute shows a sharp disconnect in the late 1970s between the overall productivity of the US economy and wage gains for the average worker. Normally, when workers make more things during a work day, they get paid more for that day’s work. From 1948 to 1979, both hourly wages and productivity roughly doubled. But from 1979 to 2013, productivity rose 65% while average hourly compensation rose just 8%; those at the bottom and middle of the income ladder saw little of those gains.


Wages for everyone at or below the 30th percentile of the income distribution have essentially been flat, while wages for the poorest 10% of workers have fallen during that time period. At all income levels, women earn less on average than men do.  Most wage growth has flowed to the top 1% of earners, posting a 153% increase in wages. Since wages for the lowest income group have fallen while wages at the highest income group have grown, income inequality has also increased.  Piketty was right.


The S&P 500 index hit another record high close today, and even at that it’s just up about 5% year to date. The best performing market year to date is in Dubai; posting a 56% return since the start of the year and posting a 117% return for the past 12 months. The strongest S&P 500 subsectors this year include oil & gas equipment and services, which is up 17%; oil & gas exploration and production, up 15%; real estate investment trusts, up 15%; natural gas utilities, up 21%; and electric utilities, which have risen 14%, largely on the back of some big mergers.


The top performing stocks in the S&P year to date include: Forest Labs, up 60%, a takeover target; Nabors Industries, a contract oil driller based in Bermuda is up 54% year to date; Electronic Arts, the video game developer is up 51%; Keurig Green Mountain has returned 50% this year, this is the coffee company that makes those little single serve containers of coffee; Newfield Exploration, an oil and gas exploration and development company out of Texas is up 49% since the start of the year; Delta Airlines is up 47% after rejoining the S&P 500 index; and Pepco, the Washington DC based utility is up 47% YTD, after agreeing to be acquired by Exelon. Probably nobody picked those stocks as the top performers at the start of the year.


After the close of trade today, comes word that Sprint is nearing an agreement price to acquire T-Mobile for about $40 a share, or around $32 billion, a 17% premium to the closing price today. There will be regulators to deal with. An announcement and an actual deal are still down the road. If you are unhappy with the service and price you pay for your mobile phone, this won’t help.


A federal appeals court has overturned a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff to reject a federal settlement deal with Citigroup. Judge Rakoff had considered the Citigroup-SEC settlement to be little more than a slap on the wrist. The original case accused Citigroup of duping investors into buying tainted CDO’s, Collateralized Debt Obligations. The bank agreed to pay $285 million to settle the civil fraud case, without admitting wrongdoing.


Judge Rakoff called the fine “pocket change” for the bank and said the settlement deprived the public “of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance.” And now the court of appeals decision is going to rein in judicial discretion even more. The ruling essentially says that a judges job is not to search for the truth.  One small victory for Judge Rakoff: the SEC last year reversed its longstanding yet unofficial policy of allowing companies to neither “admit nor deny wrongdoing,” signaling that it would force admissions in particularly egregious cases.


If only the SEC had the backbone to pursue a particularly egregious case.


The G-7 or Group of 7 is meeting today and tomorrow; it used to be the G8 until Putin invaded Crimea, and so Russia was kicked out of the clubhouse. A draft of the G7 communique calls on Russia to “accelerate withdrawal of military forces from the eastern border with Ukraine” and “exercise its influence among armed separatists to lay down their weapons”.


More important is how Europe will deal with energy security as the continent relies on Russia for about a third of its oil and gas, a fact that gives Putin considerable leverage over the EU. The G7 draft communique says: “The use of energy supplies as a means of political coercion or as a threat to security is unacceptable.” Euro leaders say they are committed to diversifying energy sources away from Russia, but it won’t happen overnight. Complacency on the energy front seems like a really big mistake.


As the G7 meeting wraps up, the various leaders will head to France on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Putin will be there. No negotiations or diplomatic level talks are planned but it should make for some interesting photo ops.


And before the D-Day anniversary there will be an uncomfortable dinner between President Obama and French President Hollande, who will make the case that the French bank, BNP Paribas should not be fined $10 billion for money laundering. Naturally, this has BNP clients nervous about what all this means for business, and the upper echelons of BNP management nervous about how their employees might respond to questions about money laundering.


Once upon a time BNP thought they could beat the rap. BNP showed prosecutors a memo that the bank thought would explain and possibly mitigate the conduct. The memo, drafted around 2004 by an outside law firm, essentially authorized the bank to process certain transactions for Sudan, as long as BNP’s employees in New York were not involved in the arrangement. BNP argued that it lacked the intent to commit a crime, saying that it followed the law firm’s directive. That legal argument, known as the “advice of counsel” defense, prompted prosecutors to pore over the single-page memo and weigh the bank’s argument. Ultimately the prosecutors concluded that the memo alleviated only a small fraction of the wrongdoing. Apparently hiring lawyers to tell you that you can do whatever you want turns out to be a little bit less than an airtight legal strategy.


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