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Monday, June 23, 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014 - Calm Before the Storm

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW – 9 = 16,937
SPX – 0.26 = 1962
NAS + 0.64 = 4368
10 YR YLD un = 2.62%
OIL  - .13 = 106.04
GOLD + 3.60 = 1319.30
SILV + .02 = 21.00

The economic data today from the National Association of Realtors shows existing home sales picked up in May. Total sales rose 4.9% to 4.89 million units from an upwardly revised 4.66 million in April. While that marks a month to month increase, sales are down from the 5.15 million level of May one year ago.  Total housing inventory increased 2.2% in May. Unsold inventory is 6% higher than a year ago.

Meanwhile, Markit's US Flash manufacturing PMI report for June, increased to 57.5 from 56.4 in May.

The stock market has drifted slightly higher over the past couple of months. Yes we hit record highs last week, but the movement has been very slow, volume has been light, and volatility is almost non-existent. Volume is down about 50% since 2008. The VIX, or volatility index, sometimes known as the fear index, is down below 12, which means that the only people in the options market are all maxxed out on Ambien, or Valium. The S&P 500 hasn’t had a daily move of 1% in more than 2 months. Russia invades Ukraine – wake me when it’s over. Radical militants threaten to tear apart Iraq – we’ve seen this story before. The US economy is weak right now but growth is right around the corner – rinse, lather, repeat. The US plays Portugal in the World Cup and it’s a tie, of course.

The Federal Reserve looked at monetary policy and cranked up the old Xerox to publish their statement. Maybe this is the result of all that Federal Reserve fiddling; maybe they have created the boring stock market, which lulls everyone into a false sense of complacency. Of course, that’s not how markets work, no matter how much central bank finesse is applied. Markets are risky, always have been, always will be. I think it’s safe to say this is the calm before the storm, because there is always a storm in the markets.

There was some merger activity today. General Electric struck a deal to acquire France-based Alstom's power business for $16.9 billion after a lengthy pursuit. There was another utility deal, Wisconsin Energy announced a deal to acquire Integrys Energy for $9.1 billion. Oracle also announced a deal to acquire MICROS Systems for $4.6 billion.

The price of oil has been one of the few markets to show movement, which is not good news for drivers. Rising oil prices translate to rising gasoline prices, but there is lag of several weeks. Given the recent jump in oil prices, gasoline prices are poised to increase in coming weeks. Higher prices at the pump serve as a tax on consumers, whose purchasing power is still questionable. It’s estimated that an increase of $10 a barrel subtracts 0.4% from real GDP growth. Of course, for that to apply, the price increase has to stick.

The Supreme Court is in session and today they ruled on limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate facilities that emit carbon dioxide. The decision would reduce the number of carbon-emitting facilities the EPA can regulate, but it is a limited ruling, and even Justice Scalia said: "It bears mention that EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case."

Meanwhile a statement from the EPA claims victory, "The Supreme Court’s decision is a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources." Industry groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute, also claimed victory. The group said in a statement that the decision was a "stark reminder that the EPA's power is not unlimited."

The decision won't have a huge impact on US climate policy, as the decision only modestly changed the number of large facilities subject to certain permitting requirements. It also won't affect the Obama administration’s proposal to reduce emissions from power plants, which is a separate program.

When the EPA classifies something (like carbon dioxide) as a harmful pollutant, it triggers a number of legal requirements under the Clean Air Act. One of them, known as a "prevention of significant deterioration" (PSD) rule, requires factories, power plants, and other large facilities to get the EPA's approval before they make changes that would lead to higher pollution. These facilities also must use the "best available control technology" to reduce the effects of pollution they emit. Another provision requires any facility that is a "major source" of pollution to get a permit from the EPA.

Under the Clean Air Act, facilities become subject to these regulations if they emit more than 250 tons (or in some cases as little as 100 tons) of pollution per year. Traditional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide or lead can be harmful even if they are only emitted in trace amounts, so a relatively low threshold makes sense. Only large factories and power plants emit that much of these conventional pollutants.

But carbon dioxide is different. Factories produce vastly more carbon dioxide than other pollutants regulated by the EPA. Under existing rules, about 15,000 facilities are required to get permits under the Clean Air Act based on their emissions of non-carbon pollutants. If the EPA had used the same 250-ton threshold for carbon dioxide emissions, 6.1 million facilities would suddenly have needed permits. The agency estimated it would cost $21 billion per year just to process all that paperwork.

So the agency effectively re-wrote the law, exempting facilities that emitted less than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide from getting a permit. Several states and business groups challenged this decision, arguing that the EPA had no authority to unilaterally re-write the law.

Almost everyone agrees that a literal reading of the Clean Air Act would lead to madness. The EPA has warned that "decade-long delays in issuing permits would become common, causing construction projects to grind to a halt nationwide." The Supreme Court didn't want that to happen.

But a majority of the court, led by Justice Scalia, also didn't like the EPA's approach. The court said that if Congress set a threshold of 250 tons, the EPA can't just unilaterally change it to 100,000 tons. Instead, the court's majority held that the term "air pollutant" can have different meanings in different parts of the Clean Air Act. While the "Act-wide definition" of air pollutant includes carbon dioxide, Scalia wrote, "EPA has routinely given it a narrower, context-appropriate meaning" in certain parts of the Clean Air Act. Scalia used the same trick to avoid subjecting millions of facilities to burdensome permitting requirements. He held that the definition of "air pollutant" didn't include carbon dioxide in sections of the Clean Air Act where including it would lead to a vast expansion in regulation.

The court's four liberals, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, preferred a different approach. Rather than selectively interpreting "any air pollutant" to exclude carbon dioxide, Breyer would instead have interpreted another phrase in the same section of the law, "any source" to exclude power plants that produce only modest amounts of carbon dioxide.

Two of the court's conservatives, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, wrote a separate opinion arguing that the Supreme Court had been wrong to push the EPA into regulating carbon dioxide in the first place in 2007.

While the EPA can't impose regulations on new power plants based on their carbon dioxide emissions, the court ruled that the courts can regulate the carbon dioxide emissions of facilities that are already subject to regulations based on their emissions of conventional pollutants. So the EPA will still do what the EPA does; it’s estimated that 83% of greenhouse gas emissions that could potentially be regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency's interpretation of the law would still be covered as a result of the ruling, compared with the 86% of emissions that the EPA says it wants to regulate.

What today’s ruling really shows is that Congress has been out of touch and dysfunctional in dealing with pollution and climate change; rather than deal with issues, they stick their heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away, but it doesn’t; it simply shifts to another part of government that may or may not manage to resolve the problem, but in either case, is not held accountable to the voters; and then finally, if the problem persists, it goes to the courts. It’s a bad way to make and enforce laws.

A couple of other cases today: in Loughrin v. US; the court declined to reduce the scope of a federal criminal law against bank fraud, ruling that prosecutors do not need to prove that defendants intended to defraud a bank. The decision came in an appeal brought by Kevin Loughrin, who was convicted of six counts of bank fraud for stealing checks that he then altered so he could buy merchandise at Target stores.

Loughrin told police he meant to buy the items using the checks, then return the items for cash refunds. He was charged with using altered checks totaling $1,184.  Loughrin appealed his conviction. He argued that the bank fraud statute required prosecutors to prove that he intended to defraud the banks on which the checks were drawn. He said his intent was only to deceive Target. In other words, this was run of the mill fraud, and the use of a check was incidental. Loughrin did not appeal his related convictions for identity theft and possession of stolen mail. Between 2006 and 2010, the government sought to prosecute nearly 3,000 cases using the statute. Meanwhile, no major bankers have gone to jail for the crimes associated with the financial crisis; I’m just saying.

One more decision today: New Jersey wanted to institute legalized gambling on football, passing a law that the NFL and other sports leagues quickly fought in court.  The NFL won (as it often seems to do in court) at the federal appellate level, forcing New Jersey to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Supremes declined to review the case, so if you are in New Jersey, or any other state except Nevada, you’ll have to continue to call your bookie, or you can play fantasy football in a league set up through the NFL’s website.

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