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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - What is Really Plausible

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 162 = 16,424
SPX + 19 = 1862
NAS + 52 = 4086
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.63%
OIL + .05 = 103.81
GOLD - .20 = 1303.20
SILV + .07 = 19.73

Let’s start with some earnings news and then we’ll move over to economic data.

Google posted $3.4 billion in net income, or $5.04 per share, in the three months ended March 31, compared to $3.3 billion, or $4.97 per share, in the year-ago period. Revenue rose 19% to $15.4 billion, but analysts had estimated $15.5 billion, and the shares were getting clobbered in late trades.

IBM reported its lowest quarterly revenue in five years; IBM reported revenue of $21.7 billion for the quarter, but that marks the eighth consecutive decline in quarterly revenue. The company has been restructuring its business by cutting jobs and selling its low-end server business. This is not what you would call a growth model.

Also, from the faulty business model file: Bank of America posted a $276 million loss for the most recent quarter. The financial results included a pre-tax expense of $6 billion, or approximately 40 cents a share after tax, to cover litigation costs as the bank moved to resolve mortgage-related litigation fallout from the financial crisis that began in 2007 and other issues; far worse than the $3.7 billion investors had braced for. The bank today agreed to a $584 million settlement of litigation over nine residential mortgage-backed securitizations insured by the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company. The FGIC said the securitizations were sponsored by Countrywide, which Bank of America bought in 2008.

Since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Bank of America has logged some $50 billion of expenses for settlements of lawsuits and related legal costs, before taxes. Without those charges, its income before taxes would have been about three times higher. When does it end? How do you factor this when you try to value shares of a company? The simple answers: it ain’t over yet, and don’t even try.

In economic news: China reported that its economy grew at its slowest pace in 18 months at the start of 2014, but the increase was better than expected and showed some improvement in March.

From the Census Bureau: privately owned housing starts in March increased 2.8% from February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000; single family housing starts increased 6% from the month before at an annual rate of 635,000. Building permits authorized were down 2.4% from February at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 990,000, but it’s still 11.2% higher than March of last year.

The Federal Reserve reports industrial production increased 0.7% in March, following a 1.2% advance in February; for the first quarter industrial production moved up at a 4.4% pace. The increase in industrial production, which beat economists' expectations for a 0.5% gain, reflected in part a 0.5% rise in manufacturing output. There were also hefty increases in production at mines and utilities.

The Federal Reserve has just released its April Beige Book, a collection of anecdotes on economic conditions from business contacts across each of the 12 Fed districts. Economic growth increased and consumer spending rose, at least for people who weren’t completely snowed in. The Fed seemed quite fascinated with the weather, mentioning it more than 100 times; it’s like they had never seen snow before, and they seemed amazed that it makes actual work difficult for some people.  

Transportation, manufacturing, financial services, and auto sales all improved, though the reports on residential housing markets were “varied.” The Beige Book also talks of delays to crop plantings and shipments of commodities, as well as a pig virus that hurt hog farming. Labor market conditions continued to slowly improve with minimal wage pressure, and prices were generally stable or slightly higher.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen delivered a speech to the Economic Club in New York. She said the economy is improving, it will continue to improve, and by 2016 it will be normal, and then it will all be good. Yellen said: “I find this baseline outlook quite plausible.”

Yellen laid out 3 questions that will guide the Fed policymakers: Is there still significant “slack” in the labor market? Is inflation moving back toward 2 percent? What factors may push the recovery off track?

Is there still significant “slack” in the labor market? Why yes, yes there is. The unemployment rate is at 6.7% and Yellen would prefer to see it closer to 5.2% or 5.6% and she thinks it will take about 2 more years to get there. Further slack exists in the share of the workforce working part time and the long term unemployed and the low level of participation in the workforce. Toss in almost no wage pressure.

Is inflation moving back toward 2 percent? Yellen said inflation significantly persisting below 2% was more likely than inflation moving substantially above 2%. At the moment, the Fed’s favorite measure of inflation is less than 1%, well below the Fed’s annual inflation target of 2%.Inflation is likely to gradually move back toward the central bank’s target. Yellen said that to some extent, the low rate of inflation seems to be due to factors that are likely to be temporary, including lower consumer energy prices and a drop in import prices.

What factors may push the recovery off track?  Yellen says there can be a lot of ‘twists and turns’ in the economy” and the central bank has no “fixed idea” about what will come to pass. The Fed will try to set the course and Yellen said the central bank’s new forward guidance can serve as an “automatic stabilizer” that helps investors from overreacting to “twists and turns” the economy may take.

She cited the ongoing fiscal drag on the economy. This is a recurring theme; we heard Bernanke talking about this for a long time. Allow me to translate from Fedspeak to plain language. The Federal Reserve is responsible for monetary policy; Congress handles fiscal policy. So fiscal drag means that the policies laid out by Congress have hurt the economy. The Fed has tried to stimulate the economy, much like stepping on the accelerator while the Congress has been applying the brakes. That’s a bit simplistic because there are other factors at work. The Fed is stepping on the gas, the Congress is stepping on the brakes, and we’ve got rotten, ill-behaved bratty children in the back seat, reaching over and grabbing the steering wheel and threatening to drive into a brick wall; in this example, the bratty kids in the back seat are the banksters.

Just a little reminder of a story from the Summer of 2013; when we learned that Goldman Sachs was in the aluminum business. Goldman had 27 industrial warehouses in the Detroit area, where they stored aluminum. Goldman also had an interest in the financial markets for aluminum; they bet on price movement in the commodity; and they exploited pricing regulations set up by an overseas commodities exchange, which essentially allowed them to keep aluminum in storage longer than allowed, which keeps it off the market and out of production, which jacks up prices, based upon simple supply-demand, and then they bet on those higher prices. They literally had trucks moving aluminum from one warehouse to another, all around Detroit, but they wouldn’t ship it out for production. The move cost consumers more than $5 billion over the last 3 years.

The inflated aluminum pricing is just one way that Wall Street is flexing its financial muscle and capitalizing on loosened federal regulations to sway a variety of commodities markets. The maneuvering in markets for oil, wheat, cotton, coffee and more have brought billions in profits to investment banks like Goldman, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, while forcing consumers to pay more every time they fill up a gas tank, flick on a light switch, open a beer or buy a cellphone. Federal regulators were also looking at JPMorgan and 3 other banks for rigging electricity prices.

Using special exemptions granted by the Federal Reserve and relaxed regulations approved by Congress, the banks have bought huge swaths of infrastructure used to store commodities and deliver them to consumers. After hearing of all the abuses by the banks, some people thought it might be good to rethink these policies. And about 9 months have passed, and finally 2 senators, Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, have sent a letter to the Fed, suggesting that "As a general matter, [big banks] should be prohibited from owning physical assets like warehouses, pipelines, and tankers."

Aluminum prices have continued to rise not necessarily because the commodity has become more valuable or scarce, but simply because the wait times for physical delivery have steadily grown longer. In some cases, the wait has lasted more than a year. Meanwhile, commodity traders have come up with a unique solution to banks hold physical commodities in warehouses to manipulate prices. The London Metals Exchange will give traders the ability to hedge aluminum prices, as the commodity continues to rise due to lengthy delivery times that have thrown a wrench in a number of supply chains.

Here are a few facts for your consideration: roughly one-third of everything we buy goes to interest; the interest goes to private banks; at the height of the financial crisis over 40% of US corporate profits went to the financial industry, up from 7% in 1980. The simple reality is that I we could just get those crazy banksters under control, we would have at minimum a couple of trillion extra dollars floating through the economy, and we wouldn’t have to worry (as much)  about the Fed and Congress and monetary policy versus fiscal drag, and we would all be talking about the phenomenal economic recovery. And that is not only plausible, but that’s a fact.

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