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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - The Color of the Day is Beige

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 77 = 17,138
SPX + 8 = 1981
NAS + 9 = 4425
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.53%
OIL + 1.38 = 101.34
GOLD + 6.20 = 1300.80
SILV + .07 = 20.89

A record high close for the Dow; the 15th record high close of the year for the Dow. The S&P 500 did not take out the old high from July 3rd. We have a few economic reports to cover, plus Fed Chair Yellen continued testimony on Capitol Hill, and lots more.

Industrial production increased 0.2% in June to 103.9. This is 24.1% above the recession low, and 3.1% above the pre-recession peak. For the second quarter, industrial production advanced at an annual rate of 5.5%; so the quarter was good but the month of June was less than expected.

The Commerce Department reports producer prices increased by a seasonally adjusted 0.4% last month, above forecasts for a 0.2% gain, after falling 0.2% in May. Year-over-year, the producer price index rose at an annualized rate of 1.9% in June. The core rate, stripping out food and energy prices, was up 0.2%.

This afternoon, the Federal Reserve released its Beige Book, a collection of reports from the 12 Fed districts. The general consensus is that economic growth was moderate to modest. Most Districts were optimistic about the outlook for growth. Consumer spending increased in every district. Retail sales grew modestly in most districts. Auto sales, which have been on the upswing for more than a year, continued to stand out as particularly brisk support for the economy, but broader retail sales were more subdued. Labor market conditions continue to improve with all districts reporting slight to moderate employment growth. Several districts reported "some difficulty" finding staff for skilled positions, however there doesn’t seem to be any pressure on wages. Here’s a hint, if you can’t find skilled workers, try offering higher wages. The report gave a mixed appraisal of the US housing market. Conditions "varied" across the country, with some regions suffering from weak demand.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen returned to Capitol Hill to deliver her second day of Humphrey Hawkins testimony. The prepared remarks were the same as yesterday, then they open up for a Q&A. Some of the key points from today’s hearing:

Yellen said she is optimistic about the economy, “We had a very surprising negative growth in the first quarter, which is a number that in a way doesn't seem consistent with the underlining momentum in the economy and many indicators of spending and production. And I do think the economy is recovering and that growth is picking up and that we have sufficient growth to support continued improvement in the labor market."

Yellen said threats to financial stability are moderate “and not a very high level.” She again weighed in on valuations, saying: "Some things may be on the high side and there may be some pockets where we see valuations becoming very stretched but not generally. The use of leverage is not broad-based, it hasn't increased, and credit growth is not at alarming levels by any means."

Yellen did not single out specific sectors today. Yesterday she said biotech and social media looked a bit over-valued. That had some talking heads complaining; the funniest rant came from Jim Cramer, who said: “Next time, Fed Chief Yellen, it might pay to point out that there are plenty of cheap stocks out there, too. At least that way you can help us make money, not just lose it.” Maybe someone can tell Cramer the Fed is not in business to help him make stock picks, no matter how much help he needs. The Fed has been incredibly accommodative to Wall Street, and Cramer still complains. The Fed doesn’t issue a price target on Twitter. But if you read between the lines, Yellen was likely saying that there are no plans to raise the margin requirements on brokers.

There were some questions about a bill in the House that would require the Fed to follow a mathematical rule for when to raise or lower interest rates. Yellen didn’t like that idea; she said there is no magic formula for raising rates. Yellen again expressed confidence the Fed can exit when the time comes. The Fed has a variety of tools it can use to raise interest rates. In the distant future, the Fed’s balance sheet will shrink in size.

The best line from the Fed did not come from Yellen; Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher was speaking today at the University of Southern California. Fisher said ending asset purchases this fall isn’t enough; the Fed should start to taper the reinvestment of maturing securities in October. Fisher said: "Monetary policy is a bit like duck hunting. If you want to bag a mallard, you don't aim where the bird is at present, you aim ahead of its flight pattern. To me, the flight pattern of the economy is clearly toward increasing employment and inflation that will sooner than expected pierce through the tolerance level of 2%."

Meanwhile, it’s earnings reporting season. Bank of America said profit declined 43% as it spent $4 billion to cover litigation costs, including a mortgage settlement with AIG. There seems to be a trend developing in banks’ earnings reports; they are making money on investment banking and some other areas, but results are weak for mortgage originations, and they are setting aside big chunks of earnings to pay for legal settlements.

Bank of America and the Department of Justice are reportedly negotiating a mortgage securities settlement, which could cost the bank around $13 billion.

Intel was up more than 9% after a very strong earnings report after the close yesterday. Yahoo fell today following weaker than expected earnings. EBay posted lower than expected 2Q results and even though sales were up this month, EBay cut its outlook for the third quarter.

Merger and acquisition activity has been wild lately. Today’s M&A stories revolved around Rupert Murdoch’s plan to buy Time Warner for $85 a share, or about $75 billion. Time Warner says it isn’t interested in exploring a sale, but if they sell, there are other potential suitors. General Electric is in talks to sell its household appliances business; that’s a part of the company that’s been around since 1905, when they invented the electric toaster. Yesterday, the number 2 tobacco company, Reynolds American agreed to buy the number 3 tobacco company, Lorillard for $25 billion.

One of the motivating factors behind mergers lately has been something called inversion, basically merging with an overseas company to avoid corporate taxes in the US. Members of the House and Senate have made proposals to curb the inversion trend in recent months, and the president included a provision in the budget he presented to Congress this year that would have effectively banned the move. But none of these efforts have yet gained traction. Today, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew called on Congress to enact legislation to halt inversion, effective immediately and retroactive to May.  Making any new legislation retroactive through May could disrupt several megadeals that have already been struck, such as the Medtronics deal.

Global M&A volume in the first half was the highest since 2007. One of the side effects of the M&A frenzy back in 2007-2008 was the frenzy of pink slips that followed. Deals are sold to investors on the basis of “creating value” with terms like “efficiencies” and “synergies”; code words for cost cutting and mass-layoffs. Acquisitions, layoffs, and cost-cutting are the simplest things to do for a CEO, as opposed to inventing things and boosting sales organically, which is hard. Analysts love M&A, investors too, and of course the investment bankers promote it as the best thing since sliced bread, or maybe electric toasters.

Last year, Microsoft acquired Nokia’s mobile phone business and promised $600 million in cost saving and efficiencies and synergies. Now, Microsoft employees are bracing for up to 12,000 layoffs, the biggest ever for Microsoft. The layoff news will come before the company holds its post-earnings conference call after the market closes July 22.

Leaders of the five BRICS nations agreed on the structure of a $50 billion development bank by granting China its headquarters and India its first rotating presidency. The leaders also formalized the creation of a $100 billion currency exchange reserve, which member states can tap in case of balance of payment crises. Both initiatives, which require legislative approval, are designed to provide an alternative to financing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where BRICS countries have been seeking more say.

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