It’s snowing in New York; this is a really, really big blizzard and it could dump up to 3 feet of snow across the northeast, with winds up to 60 miles per hour. The storm has already caused more than 1,800 flight cancellations, roads are closed in New York City except for emergency vehicles, rail traffic is also shut down, and schools are closed, and expect power outages across the Northeast. The Super Bowl will be this weekend in Glendale, and temperatures are expected to be mid-70’s. The folks at the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce are doing their happy dance.
This week’s economic calendar is packed, plus we are in earnings reporting season and some big names will post results this week. Microsoft reported after the close today, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. Apple reports tomorrow. Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, reports results on Thursday; it could be an early indicator of the damage being done to company earnings by lower oil prices. Ford Motor, the nation’s second-largest automaker, reports fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Fed will end its two-day policy meeting with a statement but without the usual news conference, so investors don’t expect any big changes; they like to match that with the news conference; instead we’ll be digging through the written statement for any subtle change in wording. The FOMC meeting will probably be the biggest non-event of the week, unless they pull a Swiss National Bank on us.
On Friday, the Commerce Department releases its first estimate of economic growth in the fourth quarter of 2014. The consensus view is that the economy expanded at an annual rate of about 3% in October, November and December, down from the blockbuster 5% rate in the third quarter, but still a healthy pace. There are a few things that might skew the GDP number up or down; a slumping global economy appears to have done little to slow down the US economy, but it doesn’t mean we are completely insulated. We’ve seen good job growth (nearly 3 million net new jobs last year) but wage growth has lagged. Lower oil prices have been disinflationary but every time we go to the gas station it’s like we get to stuff a few extra dollars back into our wallets. The flip side is that means less investment in the energy sector. Oil services firm Baker Hughes published data on Friday that showed the number of US oil rigs fell for a seventh straight week to 1,317, the fewest since January 2013.
Meanwhile, government spending is down. The federal government will run a budget deficit of $468 billion for 2015, according to a new estimate released today by the Congressional Budget Office; that represents 2.6% of gross domestic product. A big surge in military spending was a significant contributor to that 5% GDP growth in the third quarter.
After the close, Microsoft reported revenue rose to $26.5 billion from $26.3 billion but earnings per share came in at 71 cents, down 9% from a year ago. Last year, Microsoft got a boost from the end of Windows XP support for enterprises, which essentially forced many companies to upgrade operating systems. Microsoft still gets a big chunk of revenue from commercial licensing of software and services, resulting in $10.7 billion in revenue for the quarter. But Microsoft isn’t just software. They generated $1.1 billion in revenue from sales of the Surface tablet, and $2.3 billion from the sale of 10 million phones. That’s a lot of phones, but it puts the sales price at $230, compared to about $600 for an Apple iPhone. Microsoft was down about 2% in after-hours trading.
Today was a merger mania Monday. We have a few deals to talk about. Energy Transfer Partners agreed to buy fellow pipeline owner Regency Energy Partners LP for about $18 billion including debt, making it the second-largest master-limited partnership. The cash-and-stock deal values Regency at $26.89 a unit based on the Jan. 23 closing price.
PartnerRe and Axis Capital merge in $11 Billion Deal. PartnerRe and Axis, both of which are based in Bermuda, have agreed to merge to create a new reinsurer with a combined market capitalization of nearly $11 billion. Together, the two companies will have more than $7 billion in combined gross premiums written and over $14 billion in capital, and will also have a specialty insurance arm with $2.5 billion in gross premiums.
Two big makers of packaging materials, Rock-Tenn and MeadWestvaco, agreed to merge, creating a $16 billion manufacturer of cardboard cartons and other types of boxes. Together, the two will create a stronger competitor to International Paper, with $15.7 billion in combined net revenue and $2.9 billion in adjusted earnings. The transaction comes after an activist shareholder campaign at MeadWestvaco by the hedge fund Starboard Value, which pushed the company to spin off its chemicals business.
Aer Lingus is considering an improved €1.3 billion takeover proposal from International Consolidated Airlines Group, the third attempt by the owner of British Airways and Iberia to buy its Irish rival.
AT&T has agreed to buy Nextel Mexico for nearly $1.9 billion. It’s the second AT&T acquisition in wireless in Mexico since November.
Not only is Google preparing a new cellphone service that will dial up pressure on the wireless industry’s business model, Cablevision is also prepping one. Google’s new package will hunt through cellular connections provided by Sprint and T-Mobile and WiFi “hot spots,” picking whichever offers the best signal to route calls, texts and data. Meanwhile, Cablevision will start offering Freewheel next month, a WiFi-only mobile-phone service. And while we’re talking about mobile phones, there are reports that Samsung Electronics will be the main supplier of processors powering Apple’s next handset model. Samsung will likely supply 75% of the chip production for the iPhone 7. Samsung was the company behind the A7 that powered the iPhone 5S, although it was ditched in favor of TSMC for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
Next we go to Europe, where Syriza won the Greek election yesterday. They captured 149 of the 300 seats in parliament, and then allied with a far-right fringe party to secure a majority. Syriza campaigned on an anti—austerity platform. Today, the reaction in the markets was muted. The euro fell, then recovered. Greek stocks fell about 3%. Greek bonds were down just slightly. Together with last week’s decision by the ECB to pump billions of euros into the euro zone’s flagging economy, Syriza’s victory marks a turning point in the long Eurozone crisis; what remains to be seen is how hard the turn will be. Likely the Euro Union will just deal with Greece, and come up with some sort of deal that is less hard line austerity, which the Germans have been preaching since the inception of the euro.
Syriza and the new Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras have said they would like to essentially default on Greek debt, and they don’t want to follow a bailout plan laid down by the Troika. IMF head Christine Lagarde said the Fund would continue supporting Greece, and they wanted to work with the new government. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said there could be some room for a deal to adjust debt maturities and cut interest rates rather than writing the debt off. In an interview, Finland’s prime minister said he would give a “resounding no” to any move to forgive Greece’s debts and warned that a new government in Athens would have to stick to the terms of the existing bailout. Tsipras pledged to end budget cuts and heavy tax rises that have helped send the jobless rate over 25 percent and pushed millions into poverty. Standard and Poor’s sent an early warning shot to Greece’s new government, saying it could downgrade its credit rating even before its next planned review in mid-March if things go badly.
Tsipras can expect strong resistance to his demands from Germany in particular and a series of European policymakers urged Syriza not to renege on previous governments’ commitments. The current Greek bailout expires at the end of February. Greece has €10 billion of debt repayments due over the summer and has €7 billion of aid that is on hold unless and until it negotiates a new bailout deal. The Germans and also the Finns are convinced that the periphery countries are lazy, immoral beggars who deserve to have their economies crushed if they cannot or will not pay their debts. Eurozone officials are convinced that the EU holds all the trump cards in the coming clash with Greece’s new anti-austerity government, including the nuclear option of letting Greek banks collapse. They believe Mr. Tsipras knows his weakness. The hardline approach will be sugared with offers of flexibility on the detail of austerity measures, and a move to allow Greece more time to meet an end of February deadline for renewal of key EU loans that are keeping the country’s economy afloat. A more hardline EU stance might just force a more hardline Greek response. And the more unreasonable the demands of Greece and the Syriza party are, the more likely they will be able to force change.
And so, in a symbolic move, Tsipras’ first action as prime minister was to commemorate Greek resistance fighters with red roses at a memorial in Athens to those executed by Nazis. This is going to be interesting.
Meanwhile, S&P cut Russia’s sovereign credit rating to junk status today, bringing it below investment grade for the first time in a decade. The Russian ruble dropped 6% against the dollar. Russia’s economy is expected to slide into recession this year as low oil prices depress export revenues, and the sanctions over Ukraine cut some of its biggest companies off from Western funding. Pro-Moscow rebels, backed by what NATO says is the open participation of Russian troops, pressed on with their offensive on Sunday after restarting the war in eastern Ukraine. The EU has called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers, and is considering tightening sanctions against Russia.