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Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday, June 27, 2014 - Biscuits on the Table

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 5 = 16,851
SPX + 3 = 1960
NAS + 18 = 4397
10 YR YLD  + .01 = 2.53%
OIL - .10 = 105.74
GOLD – 1.80 = 1316.10
SILV - .25 = 20.97

The major stock indices traded lower for most of the day, and only in the final minutes turned to positive territory. For the week, the Dow slipped 0.6 percent and the S&P 500 declined 0.1 percent, while the Nasdaq gained 0.7 percent. Volume spike today as the Russell Indices were reconstituted.

The Russell Indices are compiled by Russell Investments. The Russell 3000 is an index of the 3000 largest stocks in the US. The Russell 2000 is the 2000 smallest stocks in the Russell 3000. Once a year, the Russell indices are reconstituted, to reflect changes such as acquisitions, bankruptcies, or just changes in the size of the companies listed in the index. The reconstitution probably explains the increase in volume and the last minute increase in prices today.

Some things we need to know heading into the weekend; including Ukraine, Iraq, and Argentina. We’ll start with the situation in Ukraine. The European Union signed a free-trade pact with Ukraine today and warned it could impose more sanctions on Moscow unless pro-Russian rebels act to wind down the crisis in the east of the country by Monday. Georgia and Moldova signed similar deals, holding out the prospect of deep economic integration and unfettered access to the EU's 500 million citizens, but alarming Moscow which is concerned about losing influence over former Soviet republics.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels demanded that, by Monday, Ukrainian rebels agree to ceasefire verification arrangements, return border checkpoints to Kiev authorities, free hostages and launch serious talks on implementing Ukrainian president Poroshenko's peace plan.

EU leaders said they were ready to meet again at any time to adopt significant sanctions on Russia. Diplomats said they could target new people and companies with asset freezes as early as next week. More than 60 names are already on the list. Although it has drawn up a list of hard-hitting economic sanctions against Russia, the EU is still hesitating over deploying them because of fears among some member states of antagonizing their major energy supplier.

Meanwhile, leaders of the European Union's 28 member states voted on the next president of the European Commission, which serves as the EU's executive branch. The president sets the policy agenda, enforces rules and represents Europe abroad. They elected Jean Claude Junker on a 26-2 vote. The losing votes belonged to the United Kingdom and Hungary, and they really have a strong dislike for Junker; so much so that they may try to exit the EU. That probably won’t happen, but there is talk of an “in or out” referendum for the Brits.

A funny thing is happening in Iraq. The US is lining up support for Iraq from Iran and Syria. And the bombing has apparently started, but we’re still trying to figure out who is throwing the bombs. The first aerial bombing took place Monday or Tuesday, apparently carried out by the Syrian Air Force, acting at the behest of the Iranian government in support of the Iraqi government, which the US government supports, but only if the Iraqi’s purge the government of all the goofs who messed up over the past 10 years or so.

Which is to say, the war in Iraq is escalating. Already, the war involves Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, ISIS or ISIL if you prefer, Israel, Lebanon, and of course the US. The Pentagon denied reports of US drone strikes along the Iraq-Syria border after reports by BBC of drone bombings. The Murdoch Street Journal reports Syrian airstrikes. Unidentified bombers have reportedly launched an air strike on ISIS positions in northern Iraq. Iraqi television has claimed they are US planes, but the Pentagon has denied responsibility.

US planes were identified by Iraqi television, but the Saudi Al-Arabiya network claims that the raid was carried out by Syria. Meanwhile, Iranian Special Forces sent in to help protect Baghdad and a few select holy sites, along with surveillance drones. And Israel has bombed Syria in retaliation for an attack from Syria that killed Israeli civilians in the Golan Heights.

And so with all this going on, the Pentagon admitted yesterday that armed US drones are now flying over Iraq, equipped with Hellfire missiles, deployed from a base in Kuwait, in addition to unarmed surveillance flights by drones and manned aircraft, and supplemented by US military advisers on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon says the United States has opened a "joint operations center" in Baghdad, boosting the total number of US service members to 500. And the New York Times reports that Iraqi government officials are saying that the US is planning to send more than 1,000 private security guards to Iraq to protect US troops, which amounts to far more than the US government has previous acknowledged.

For years Iraq has been a major oil producer; it kept Saddam in business all those years; back then Iraq produced about 2.5 million barrels a day; recently output has increased to more than 3 million barrels, and it’s estimated that production could easily top 6 million barrels. In a country of about 30 million, there should be enough natural resources for profound prosperity, but that is not the case. In recent years, none of this oil wealth trickled down to the grassroots, especially in Sunni areas of the country where signs of reconstruction, economic development, restored services, or jobs were hard to find. Instead, the vast new revenues disappeared into the recesses of a corrupt government, and from there – who knows?

So here’s where Iraqi oil, or the lack of its revenues at least, comes into play. Communities across Iraq, especially in embittered Sunni areas, began demanding funding for reconstruction, often backed by local and provincial governments. In response, the Maliki government relentlessly refused to allocate any oil revenues for such projects, choosing instead to denounce such demands as efforts to divert funds from more urgent budgetary imperatives. That included tens of billions of dollars needed to purchase military supplies including, in 2011, 18 F-16 jets from the United States for $4 billion. In a rare moment of ironic insight, Time magazine concluded its coverage of the F-16 purchase with this comment: “The good news is the deal will likely keep Lockheed’s F-16 plant in Fort Worth running perhaps a year longer. The bad news is that only 70% of Iraqis have access to clean water, and only 25% have clean sanitation.”

My grandmother used say, as long as we’ve got biscuits on the table, nobody should go hungry. I guess they never heard that saying in Iraq.

Nothing in today's complex world has a single cause, but you have to think that a major reason for all this is the oil.

Argentina is in trouble. They have until Monday to pay a group of hedge fund managers over $1.3 billion on defaulted bonds. If they don’t pay, they risk default. If it goes into default, investors lose faith in Argentina’s capacity to pay, interest rates on its bonds surge, and the country is forced to print money to pay creditors, the economy could collapse.

Then again, if Argentina does pay this group of hedge fund managers over $1.3 billion worth of bonds by July 30, it opens itself up to lawsuits from other investors who also own those bonds, lawsuits that could cost the country up to $15 billion. That's over half the money it has in its central bank.

The story goes back to 2001, when Argentina was going through a financial crisis. Argentina issued bonds, and they defaulted on those bonds. After the default, hedge fund manager Paul Singer and some other hedge funds swooped in to buy the defaulted bonds for pennies on the peso. They knew they were buying defaulted bonds, but the idea was that things might improve or there might be a deal negotiated; that’s what usually happens, debt issuers restructure debt, and negotiate with creditors to pay less. Creditors usually take the deal because it is better to get something rather than nothing. Most of Argentina’s creditors have decided to accept 70 cents on the dollar.

But Paul Singer is demanding 100% face value of the bonds. And if he is not paid, there is a clause that says no other creditors can be paid. And if Argentina pays the full amount to Singer, the other creditors will likely not be satisfied with a 70% haircut. And the reason Argentina is in this jam is because Singer sued, and it went all the way to the US Supreme Court, and the Supremes sided with the hedge funds, and let stand a district court ruling.

The Supreme Court has been busy handing down decisions this week; and we will likely get a couple more decisions on Monday; I guess they don’t hand down decisions on Friday, and opt instead for an early happy hour. Anyway, the decisions of the past week were downright strange for one reason; several were unanimous. Wednesday, the court decided Riley v. California, which unanimously held that police cannot search the cellphones of people they arrest without a warrant. On Thursday, the court handed down two of its major opinions of this year: National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, about the president's recess appointment power and McCullen v. Coakley, about abortion clinic buffer zones.

You will recall that the court is split ideologically, with 5 justices leaning right and 4 justices leaning left, so it’s a little surprising to see the twain meet. Unanimity is rare; a fractured court is the norm, and yet, we had three unanimous decisions among people who are inclined to disagree; and at a time when the House of Representatives is suing the president and people from one side can’t have a civil conversation with someone from the other side. Maybe this is an example of the rule of law being more important than politics. Before we declare a victory for compromise, maybe there’s a little more to how the court arrived at unanimity.

Even when the court agrees on a ruling, it can divide over the reasoning and even how the rule should be applied. In other words they take very different paths to arrive at the same place. It is possible that a 5-4 decision is not an indication of a polarized court. You have to read the decisions behind the vote. And conversely, a unanimous decision can mask deep divisions that appear down the road.

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