Election Day 2014! We should all be very, very happy. Forget about red and blue, we can all count our blessings because the campaign ads on radio and TV are going away. There is one redeeming thing about this whole election. It will be over in a few hours. Say hallelujah!
Or you could say that it’s amazing that anyone bothers to vote given that our choices are between tweedle dumb and tweedle dumber. Still, I went to the polls today, early, and I cast my ballot. I was the only voter voting. In a few hours we’ll get the results. And the most likely result is that not much will change, despite the drama and despite hundreds of millions to persuade you. It takes a fortune for a politician to get beat these days, but most of the money isn’t real, it’s magic money that doesn’t belong to anybody, or at least nobody is willing to admit they spend money on politics. We’ve got the best politicians money can buy.
The present split Congress is the least-productive in US history. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the 114th Congress is unlikely to be any more productive than the 113th. Maybe that’s good news; when they do something is when they become dangerous. There are plenty of issues worthy of intelligent discussion and debate, however that never seemed important in this midterm election. That we have been burden with such an abundance of bull and still survived just shows we are a super nation.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Let’s look at the economic news.
Home prices were down slightly in September, according to Corelogic prices were down 0.1% for the month and that resulted in year to year growth of 5.6%, the slowest pace in 2 years. So, the rate of growth in home prices has clearly slowed. For Arizona, home prices are still down 30% from the peak.
New orders for US factory goods fell for the second straight month, down 0.6% in September. August’s orders were slightly revised to show a 10.0 percent fall instead of the previously reported 10.1 percent decline. The decline in orders was led by aircraft, machinery, capital goods and computers and electronic products.
Yesterday we reported that auto sales were up in the third quarter, but the car companies are calling them back faster than they can sell them. Toyota is recalling 5,850 vehicles because of a possible loss of steering control. Ford is looking at 5 recalls totaling 202,000 vehicles for a variety of issues, including an incorrect repair of a steering problem in a previous recall.
Oil futures dipped under $76 a barrel for a while today. If there was any doubt on which country Saudi Arabia was targeting with their price shattering oil production, there is not any doubt now. While Russia, Iran and Venezuela might turn out to be collateral damage in the Saudi oil production surge, the message that Saudi Arabia is trying to send is directed to the US shale producers. The Kingdom made no secret of their displeasure yesterday when they cut oil prices to US buyers while raising them for everyone else in the world. Saudi Aramco next month will sell its Arab Light to clients in Asia for 10 cents less than Middle East benchmarks, the November discount was $1.05 yet it lowered prices for all grades to the US.
The plan is to maintain market share in the US and bury the US energy producers. The Saudis fear predictions that US oil imports could fall to zero by 2037 as a reason they need to nip US oil producers in the bud. They are threatened by US oil production and they are acting to try to break the US producers back. That is one of the reasons todays balance of trade numbers weren’t much higher, even in the face of a strong dollar. The US not only has reduced oil imports but has become a major exporter of oil products.
The nation’s trade deficit increased 7.6% in September to the highest level since the late spring as exports to Europe, China and Japan all fell. In turn, this will likely lead to a lower revision of third quarter GDP; probably a drop from the 3.5% initial estimate, down to about 3%. In September, the trade gap climbed to a seasonally adjusted $43 billion from a slightly revised $40 billion in August. Yet if petroleum is excluded, the nation’s trade gap climbed to $47.2 billion in September to mark the highest level in seven years. Here’s the downside of a strong dollar: US exports of goods fell 3.2% with China, 6.5% with the European Union and 14.7% with Japan.
It’s not just a strong dollar but a combination of weak global economies. Today the European Commission said the Eurozone will need another year to reach even a modest level of economic growth. The new forecast calls for 0.8% growth across the Eurozone economy this year, and just 1.1% growth next year.
The Independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund issued a report that basically says the IMF did a poor job responding to the financial crisis; the IMF ignored its own research and pushed too early for richer countries to trim budgets. They admit the IMF was overly concerned about high debt levels and large fiscal deficits, and urged countries like Germany, the United States and Japan to pursue austerity in 2010-11 before their economies had fully recovered from the crisis. At the same time, the IMF advocated loose monetary policies to sustain growth and boost demand in advanced economies, initially ignoring the possible spillover risks of such policies for emerging market countries. In 2012, the IMF finally admitted that it had underestimated how much budget cuts could hurt growth and recommended a slower pace for austerity policies. But its auditor said the IMF’s own research showed this relationship even before the crisis.
The European Central Bank meets Thursday to try and figure out their next course of action.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
While every major economy in the world has followed essentially the same monetary policy since 2008, their fiscal policies have been very different and the divergence in outcomes, especially when we compare the United States and Europe, has been exactly the opposite to what was implied by the rhetoric of most politicians and central banks.
Countries that took emergency measures to reduce public borrowing have mostly suffered weaker growth, as in the case of Britain from 2010 to 2012, Japan this year and the United States after the 2013 “sequester” and fiscal cliff deal. In more extreme cases, such as Italy and Spain, fiscal tightening has plunged them back into deep recession and aggravated financial crises. Meanwhile countries that ignored their deficit problems, as in the United States for most of the post-crisis period, or where governments decided to downplay their fiscal tightening plans, as in Britain this year or Japan in 2013, have generally done better, both in terms of economics and finance.
When faced with private sector deleveraging, there are limits to the persuasive powers of low interest rates to revive private economic activity; low rates may help in an inflationary environment, but in a deflationary environment, spending is needed to stimulate demand. With interest rates at or near zero, private demand cannot be simulated with further rate cuts and this means that monetary easing can no longer offset fiscal tightening. As a result, any reduction in budget deficits becomes more and more deflationary. The flip side is that fiscal expansion could truly provide economic stimulus without the worry of interest rate increases. That doesn’t mean that we will see fiscal expansion to correct the problem, just because there is indisputable mathematics to support it.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
JPMorgan Chase has added $2.4 billion to its estimate of the amount of legal costs it may face. That figure was disclosed yesterday in a securities filing in which the bank also formally acknowledged that it was facing a criminal investigation by the Justice Department into the behavior of traders in the foreign exchange market. In the past few days, Citigroup, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, and Barclays all announced new reserves totaling more than $2.3 billion to deal with investigations into foreign exchange rate manipulation. Deutsche Bank added more than $1 billion to legal reserves for the expected cost of settlements. The cases involve collusion in the $5.3 trillion daily foreign exchange market to affect rates.
If it sounds familiar, well that is because we have seen settlements like this before. In 2012 Barclays and UBS entered deals to pay fines totaling almost $2 billion; a UBS subsidiary pleaded guilty to rigging Libor. The prosecutors and regulators probably thought the agreements would deter further bad behavior. The deals involved non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements. The agreements allow the Justice Department to reinstate charges if there is any future violation of the law. Most important, admissions by the bank as part of the settlement can be used against it as evidence later, essentially stripping the bank of any possible defenses if the case were to proceed further. There is little chance, then, that a bank could fight the charges, so it would have to agree to a new settlement with more onerous terms and a new penalty.
But it turns out that simply slapping the banks with more and bigger fines, does not deter future bad behavior. The government is not required to minimize the collateral consequences of a conviction, and individuals are usually required to fend for themselves if they are convicted of a crime. But the foreign exchange inquiry involves a number of leading global banks, each with thousands of employees worldwide. So federal prosecutors go for punishment that does not threaten the continued existence of one of the banks. In other words, punishment that doesn’t actually punish.
The government has imposed billions of dollars in fines over the past few years for corporate violations, part of an effort to show that no company is “too big to jail”, while steadfastly refusing to actually jail a bank or major bank executives for criminal violations.