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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 - Protected Species

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW – 137 = 16,374
SPX -12 = 1872
NAS – 28 = 4096
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.51%
OIL + .87 = 102.98
GOLD + 1.70 = 1295.30
SILV + .05 = 19.49

Today is Tuesday and that means that General Motors has announced another recall; this time 2.6 million more cars. Last week, GM recalled 3 million vehicles. So far this year, GM has announced 29 recalls affecting more than 15 million cars globally. The list of recalled vehicles is long. It’s easier to list the vehicles that haven’t been recalled; they have recalled 58 versions of Chevrolet and GMC pickups.

Last week the Dow hit a record high; since then it has been floundering. For the fourth straight session, the Nasdaq Composite has posted more 52-week lows than 52-week highs; 55 lows versus 38 highs. The Russell 2000 Index of small and mid-cap stocks hit a high on March 4th and since then it has dropped almost 10%.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been moving steadily lower despite winding down of large scale asset purchases under the Fed’s quantitative easing, and the talk about raising interest rates at some point down the road. With yields on the 10-yr Treasury note dipping down around 2.5%, that means somebody is buying Treasuries, but if not the Fed, then who?

Well, it’s certainly not Russia. Putin sold off more than $100 billion in Treasuries in March; he was probably expecting Treasury prices to tumble, but that didn’t happen. The most likely buyer is Belgium; from November of last year through January 2014, Belgium bought approximately $142 billion in US Treasuries, which is quite a bit considering the Belgian GDP is about $480 billion; so their bond buys were equal to about 30% of GDP.

As a member of the Eurozone, Belgium can’t just print new money. So, something is rotten. Or maybe the Fed has opened up a branch office in Antwerp.

Anyway, Putin is in China today to talk up the virtues of Russian natural gas. Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a start of a two-day meeting on Asian security with leaders from Iran and Central Asia. Putin is hoping to extend his country's dealings with Asia and diversify markets for its gas, which now goes mostly to Europe. Russia has been negotiating for more than a decade on a proposed 30-year deal to supply gas to China. Officials said they hoped to complete work in time to sign a contract while Putin is in Shanghai, but they have not yet announced a signed agreement. Putin told Chinese reporters ahead of his visit that China-Russia cooperation had reached an all-time high.

Russia is worried about its European gas market, seeing lackluster European demand and political efforts, intensified since the Ukrainian crisis, to diversify away from Russian gas constraining future sales to the West. At the same time, the shale gas phenomenon, with possible US and Canadian liquid natural gas exports to come, has Moscow concerned about what prices it can hope to attain from the European market. Developing new, potentially lucrative markets in the east seems to be the answer to Russia’s European gas concerns.

China also feels a new impetus for a deal. Despite a slowing of the domestic economy, future demand for energy, the key to both growth and political stability, will be robust. Efforts to develop China’s domestic shale resources are promising, but are unlikely to produce consequential volumes until the next decade. Meanwhile, China has been meeting growing energy consumption with coal powered plants, and they are literally choking on that decision, as the air quality has been nearly destroyed.

Tomorrow we will get the minutes of the last Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. Today we had Fed heads giving speeches. William Dudley, the president of the New York Fed is saying the Fed will take its time raising interest rates.  Noting both market and Fed expectations that the first hike will come some time near the middle of 2015, Dudley said, “if the economy is stronger than expected, causing the excess slack in the labor market to be absorbed sooner and inflation to rise more quickly than forecasted, then lift-off is likely to be pulled forward in time. If, instead, economic growth disappoints, inflation stays unusually low and the labor market continues to exhibit evidence of considerable excess slack, then lift-off will likely be pushed back in time.”

As for the over $4 trillion worth of bonds on its balance sheet, Dudley expects them to be reduced via “automatic pilot”; in other words, as Treasury securities mature and mortgages are repaid. Dudley offered his two cents on why the housing sector’s contribution to the economy has “stalled out” over the past few quarters.  While he said some decline in activity was to be expected following the jump in mortgage rates last year, “the extent of the slowdown has surprised me given that the recent pace of housing starts, roughly 1 million per year, is far below what is consistent with the economy’s underlying demographics.”

Dudley said mortgage credit is still unavailable to borrowers with lower credit scores. Also, student debt has delayed the entry of new first-time home buyers; that could make it harder even for existing homeowners to sell their homes and trade up, slowing the traditional turnover of the housing market. Dudley said he expects the housing recovery to continue, “the pace will likely be slow, especially relative to past economic recoveries.”

The online real estate site, Zillow reports 18.8% of US homeowners with a mortgage, or 9.7 million households, were underwater on their mortgages at the end of the first quarter. That's an improvement from the end of last year when this figure was 19.4%, and it's a large improvement from a peak of 31.4% in 2012, but it shows that negative equity is still an issue in the housing market.

What's more, there is an additional 10 million households that have 20% or less equity in their homes. For those homeowners, it would be difficult to sell without coming up with some money to cover the broker fees, closing costs and the down payment for the next home.

European Union regulators have charged banks JPMorgan, HSBC and Credit Agricole with colluding to manipulate the price of financial products linked to interest rates.

The European Commission's regulator said the banks will now have a chance to respond to the preliminary findings. If the Commission ultimately concludes they have broken the law, it can impose a fine of up to 10% of their annual revenue. In December 2013, the Commission levied fines totaling $1.4 billion on Barclays, Deutsche Bank, RBS and Societe Generale as part of the same case, which covers financial derivatives linked to a benchmark interest rate called Euribor in the period 2005-2008. Barclays escaped fines for having notified the Commission of the existence of the cartel, and the others were granted a reduction in their fine for cooperating in a settlement.

Late yesterday, Credit Suisse entered a guilty plea for conspiring to help US customers evade taxes, the first such guilty plea by a major financial institution in years. Today Credit Suisse shares rose almost 1%. Apparently a felony conviction is a good thing. And why not? Top bank executives will get to keep their jobs, the bank can pin the whole thing on a handful of underlings, and it won't have to give up a list of client names to the government. Credit Suisse will have to let an independent monitor keep an eye on it, but that's a minor inconvenience at worst. The guilty plea could cost the bank some clients here and there, but investors and analysts are betting there won't be much impact. The most painful part of the deal, the $2.6 billion in fines, is manageable, less than one quarter's revenue.

For the most part, the mainstream media is dutifully accepting the spin of the Department of Justice, that this case is significant by virtue of being the first plea of this sort made by a bank in over two decades. The fact that those intervening years saw regulators generally take a very hands off approach to banks, and that we had a global financial crisis with no measures of this sort taken against the perps somehow escapes mention.

Let me return to one critical issue: why no individuals were prosecuted or even fined. This case, like so many we have discussed, seems ideally made for at least a civil action under Sarbanes Oxley against the CEO and CFO, since they must certify the adequacy of internal controls. The most charitable coloration you can put on what looks an awful lot like obstruction of justice (although Credit Suisse was not charged with that) was that it was a failure of internal controls. And Sarbanes Oxley is designed so that a civil action can easily tee up a criminal case on the same control deficiencies.

Credit Suisse was in many ways the perfect major financial institution from which to demand a guilty plea. Although its investment banking and wealth management operations are global, the commercial banking operation in the United States is largely confined to its New York branch. It does not own a subsidiary in this country providing bank services to local customers, so it really only had to negotiate with the New York authorities and the federal government to resolve the case. That meant the effort to mitigate potential collateral consequences of a guilty plea was confined to just a few agencies. So, if you think the Credit Suisse case will become the template to go after American banks, well, yeah, that’s not going to happen. The banking class remains a protected species.

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