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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - A Heckuva Business Model

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 10 = 16,543
SPX + 4 = 1892
NAS + 22 = 4154
10 YR YLD + .02 = 2.55%
OIL - .31 = 103.76
GOLD + 1.80 = 1294.70
SILV + .10 = 19.59

Yesterday we told you Russia and China had signed a 30 year, $400 billion dollar deal for Russia to deliver natural gas to China. Today, both countries vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution seeking to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes. In the short-term, the Russia-China gas deal won’t have a big impact. The deal will not be in place until 2018 and even then will only see Russia selling a fraction of its gas exports to China every year, exports to the EU could still well be two to four times the size.

The economic links between Russia and Europe will continue to be significant and they will continue to be reliant on each other when it comes to energy; the former to sell the latter to buy, but this link gives an advantage to Russia, especially when the weather turns cold. At least symbolically the deal highlights Russia’s desire to move away from links with Europe. Combine this with Europe’s desire to increase energy security and the relations between the two sides could become increasingly cold and distant. Although, some countries due to geographical proximity, such as Bulgaria or Hungary; or due to long standing economic links, such as Germany - will surely continue to have good relationships with Russia. The entire Ukraine crisis has brought the return of a Cold War, and the gas deal sets up an East and West Economic Bloc.

It also raises questions over future tie ups between Russia and China. Areas such as payments systems, broader financial markets, transportation and machinery have all been touted as sectors for potential cooperation between the two countries. Again while a long term issue, such ties up may concern the West since Russia and China are currently reliant on their exports in many of these areas. Both the EU and US will need to figure a clearer policy for how to deal with such changes.

Unrest continues in Ukraine. BBC reports at least 11 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during an attack on a government checkpoint in eastern Ukraine. The attackers were described as heavily armed terrorists. Russia has claimed that it was pulling back troops from the Ukrainian border, but that has not been confirmed by satellite photos.

Thailand’s army chief went on television today to announce a military coup, after two attempts to negotiate an end to political impasse failed. The country’s Constitution was “temporarily suspended,” and the military said it terminated the caretaker government but said it expected the nation’s Senate, courts and independent organizations to function normally. The military imposed a nationwide curfew, and ordered all street protesters to leave their rallying sites.

In economic news, the National Association of Realtors reports existing home sales increased 1.3% to an annual rate of 4.65 million units, marking only the second gain in sales in nine months. Sales remain down 15% from a peak of 5.38 million units hit in July. Compared to April last year, sales fell 6.8%.The inventory of unsold homes on the market increased 6.5% from a year-ago to 2.29 million in April. That was the highest level since August 2012. The median home price rose 5.2%, the slowest pace since March 2012.

In this cycle we’ve had enormous price increases before we had the demand, which was a function of institutional buying of homes, which pushed prices higher. One thing we should have learned about housing is that when prices start rising, there is a herd mentality that kicks in. It wasn’t just institutional buying, it was a combination of events that swirled around institutional buying. The institutional buyer bought up distressed properties, resulting in fewer distressed inventory, add in people who were locked into their homes by negative equity or low equity;  and for many would-be buyers, it’s just tough to get a decent mortgage, or any mortgage at all.

This doesn’t mean banks aren’t lending – they are; it turns out that banks are ready, willing, and able to lend to small businesses, but you might not like the deal. Typical interest rates are about 125%.  Subprime business lending, the industry prefers to be called “alternative”, has swelled to more than $3 billion a year; that’s twice the volume of small loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. Wall Street banks are helping the industry expand by lending originators money. They’re starting to package the loans into securities that can be sold to investors, just as they did for subprime-mortgage lenders. It’s a heckuva business model.

Manufacturing activity picked up in May; Markit's "flash" US manufacturing purchasing managers index rose to 56.2 from 55.4 in April.

New applications for unemployment benefits rose sharply in mid-May, reversing a big drop earlier in the month that put initial claims at a seven-year low. The number of people who applied for new benefits climbed by 28,000 to 326,000 in the week ended May 17. That number might grow in the coming weeks thanks to HP.

Hewlett Packard announced earnings after the close, sales fell, revenue fell, but profits were higher, and they will cut an additional 11,000 jobs, bringing the total for outstanding job cuts to 16,000.  It’s a heckuva business model.

Yesterday, William Dudley, the president of the New York Fed gave a speech to the Regional Economic Press Briefing in New York, and he said: “There have been significant and long-lasting changes to the nature of work. As a result, many middle-skilled workers displaced during the recession are likely to find that their old jobs will never come back. Furthermore, workers are increasingly facing higher skill requirements in order to land a good job. These dynamics in the labor market present a host of challenges for the region to address. However one thing is clear: workers will need more education, training and skills to take full advantage of the types of job opportunities being created in our region, as well as across the nation.”

No doubt education is important. More education and skills will not stop your fall but it might slow it down. And a point that Mr. Dudley failed to grasp, or at least communicate is that a significant percentage of corporate profits have relied upon the widespread loss of worker economic share over the past few decades.

If you have bought or sold on eBay in the past few months, change your password and monitor your financial information. The company says hackers attacked between late February and early March with login credentials obtained from "a small number" of employees. They then accessed a database containing all user records and copied "a large part" of those credentials.

The hackers stole email addresses, encrypted passwords, birth dates, mailing addresses and other information, though no financial data, nor PayPal databases were compromised. The eBay breach would be larger than the one Target Corp disclosed in December, which included some 40 million payment card numbers and another 70 million customer records. Why are we just hearing about the eBay hack now? That is a very good question and so far eBay hasn’t provided a good answer.

We’ve noted many times that bankers have a get out of jail card. This week, Credit Suisse entered a criminal guilty plea in New York for its role in an ongoing tax evasion scheme, but that was a corporate entity, and no actual human bankers went to jail; in fact, the CEO and Chairman get to keep their jobs; but today we note that the handcuffs have been slapped on a banker, the former head of investment banking for JPMorgan Chase, in China.

You may recall the recent allegations against JPMorgan in China. Jamie Dimon had a clever little business development strategy to hire the children of Chinese politicians, to win support for JPMorgan banking activities in China; it’s a heckuva business model, except apparently the SEC’s antibribery unit thinks this might be bribery and thus a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; except the SEC was not behind today’s arrest, and we all know that US law enforcement and regulators would never actually arrest a banker. However, finding jobs for the children of China’s elite in exchange for bank underwriting is apparently illegal in China, too.  And in China they have this strange custom of arresting people who break the law, even if work for JPMorgan.

In case you missed it, this week’s criminal settlement with Credit Suisse marked a turning point for law enforcement in dealing with the big banks. The Department of Justice says it proves they will go after the big banks and slap them with felonies convictions, even though they get misdemeanor punishment. Well, the proof is in the putting.

And now we have a new case that will show whether there is really any crackdown on wrongdoing, specifically money laundering; regulators are investigating Charles Schwab Corp and Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch brokerage over whether the brokerages missed red flags that could indicate attempts to move money illicitly or to feed proceeds from illegal activities into the financial system. The SEC is probing Schwab and Merrill Lynch for violations of anti-money laundering rules that require the brokerages to know their customers.

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen began urging regulators two years ago to make sure financial institutions are identifying the true beneficial owners of their accounts. Cohen's exhortations came amid concerns that bad actors, such as drug cartel members and terrorists, are growing more creative in their attempts to secretly transfer tainted funds.

The SEC's investigation so far has found Charles Schwab and Merrill did not pay close enough attention to their clients' true identities, and accepted shell companies and individuals with fake addresses as clients. In both cases, some of the accounts, whose ownership the brokerages did not adequately investigate, were eventually linked to drug cartels. The investigation is not yet complete, and the only thing we know with certainty is that it’s a heckuva business model.

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