It is no secret that in addition to the well-known phenomenon of "foreclosure stuffing", one of the primary drivers of the artificial housing "recovery" has been the surge of hedge funds and asset managers into purchases of rental units courtesy of near-zero cost REO-to-rent federal lending facilities, which have taken out distressed inventory from the market in hopes of converting it into rental. This has manifested in a surge in multi-family starts which have been the primary driver behind the rise of housing starts in the past several years, even with single-family units barely moving higher. All this despite Och Ziff making the case loud and clear late last year, that the days of profitability of this strategy have come and gone. Today we got the first confirmation that other asset managers may have finally given up on the rental conversion strategy, following the observed collapse in multi-family housing starts which crashed from 376K to 234K in April (the lowest since last summer), a drop of 142K and the worst monthly drop since 2006 when the housing market had once again peaked and was about to undergo a very serious correction.
We didn't really need a confirmation that the economy was deteriorating and completely disconnected from the "market", but we got it nonetheless. First, Initial Claims coming at 360K, on expectations of 330K, the worst print and worst miss in six weeks, confirming that weekly data is largely noise and that there is no sustainable downward trend. The May 11 weekly print adjusted and unadjusted were 360K and 318K respectively, virtually unchanged from a year ago at 373K and 325K, showing that in one year there has been essentially no progress, and that weekly initial claims of 350K is the new normal. Of course, the last week's print was also revised higher from 323K to 328K, while initial claims also missed expectations of a round 3MM print, instead printing at 3009K.
Obviously with Buffett a major shareholder of Moody's, the only place where a downgrade of Berkshire could come from was S&P. Moments ago, the rating agency that dared to downgrade the US for which it is being targeted by Eric Holder's Department of "Justice", did just that.
Two weeks ago, when we reported on the news of yet another aerial assault by Israel on Syria, we said that "while speculation a US-led escalation is ripe, the lack of any US naval support (as shown by Stratfor's naval update map from May 2) off the coast of Syria likely makes any immediate war is hardly likely, or that Israel will be on its own for at least the foreseeable future." Today this is no longer the case, following news that the US amphibious assult ship, LHD 3 and its cargo of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, have arrived in Eilat, Israel for a "reguarly scheduled post visit." Amusingly, the US Navy was very quick to point out that "This visit is not associated with, nor a reaction to, any world events." Just purely accidental then.
- As scandals mount, White House springs into damage control (Reuters)
- Glencore Xstrata chairman ousted in surprise coup (Reuters), former BP CEO Tony Hayward appointed as interim chairman (WSJ)
- JPMorgan Chase asks Bloomberg for data records (Telegraph)
- Platts Retains Energy Trader Confidence Amid Price-Fix Probe (BBG)
- Syrian Internet service comes back online (PCWorld)
- Japan Q1 growth hits 3.5% on Abe impact although fall in business investment clouds optimism for recovery (FT)
- Soros Joins Gold-Stake Cuts Before Bear Market Drop (BBG)
- Factory Ceiling Collapses in Cambodia (WSJ)
- Sony’s $100 Billion Lost Decade Supports Loeb Breakup (BBG)
- Snags await favourite for Federal Reserve job (FT)
- James Bond’s Pinewood Turned Down on $300 Million Plan (BBG)
Remember when several months ago Wal-Mart leaked just how weak the economy was and that sales had been a "total disaster" (a piece of truthiness that promptly led to the termination of the leak source)? Guess what: they were not lying. Moments ago WMT reported Q1 results, which at the easily fudged bottom line were just in line with expectations, ot $1.14 driven by $2.2 billion in stock repurchases (30 million shares). However, it was sales, as warned, that came in well weaker than expected, posting at $114.2 billion on expectations of $116.1 - just as the guy warned. It gets worse:
- Q2 EPS expected in the range $1.22-$1.27, on expectations of $1.29
- Q1 comps ex-fuel -1.2% vs Exp. 0.4%
- Sam's Club implements first fee increase since 2006: raises membership fee to $45 nationwide
- During the 13-week period, the Walmart U.S. comp was negatively impacted by a delay in tax refund checks, challenging weather conditions, less grocery inflation than expected and the payroll tax increase. Comp traffic was down 1.8 percent, while average ticket increased 0.4 percent.
From the CFO, Charles Holley: "Although we believe our company will leverage expenses for the year, the second quarter will be challenging, given expense pressures in International and our corporate area.
In a world in which fundamentals no longer drive risk prices (that task is left to central banks, and HFT stop hunts and momentum ignition patterns) or anything for that matter, it only makes sense that the day on which Japan posted a better than expected annualized, adjusted Q1 GDP of 3.5% compared to the expected 2.7% that the Nikkei would be down, following days of relentless surges higher. Of course, Japan's GDP wasn't really the stellar result many portrayed it to be, with the sequential rise coming in at 0.9%, just modestly higher than the 0.7% expected, although when reporting actual, nominal figures, it was up by just 0.4%, or below the 0.5% expected, meaning the entire annualized beat came from the gratuitous fudging of the deflator which was far lower than the -0.9% expected at -1.2%: so higher than expected deflation leading to an adjustment which implies more inflation - a perfect Keynesian mess. In other words, yet another largely made up number designed exclusively to stimulate "confidence" in the economy and to get the Japanese population to spend, even with wages stagnant and hardly rising in line with the "adjusted" growth. And since none of the above matters with risk levels set entirely by FX rates, in this case the USDJPY, the early strength in the Yen is what caused the Japanese stock market to close red.
Elizabeth Warren is one of the few Senators out there pushing to understand why the federal government has created an untouchable class of criminals in America that can do whatever they want whenever they want and, not only get away with it, but also get bailed out when they make mistakes. Now she has written a letter to Ben Bernanke, Eric Holder and Mary Jo White. My favorite line is: “If large financial institutions can break the law and accumulate millions in profits and, if they get caught, settle by paying out of those profits, they do not have much incentive to follow the law.” Indeed, which is why they don’t. Full letter embedded below.
After the Libor rigging scandal in 2012, authorities have sharpened their act, deeply scrutinizing company financial records, and implementing stricter regulations. This has led to a new investigation which has led European authorities to raid the offices of Shell, BP, and Statoil, in what is suspected to be one of the largest international actions since Libor. The Commission has "concerns that the companies may have colluded in reporting distorted prices to a price reporting agency to manipulate the published prices for a number of oil and biofuel products."
In Chapter 12 of David Stockman's new book The Great Deformation, the outspoken truth-sayer discusses the realities of the end of the gold standard - from the the Bank of England's 'default' in 1931 to the 1960 London Gold panic (a shot across the Keynesian bow) and on to Nixon and Bretton Woods, Stockman explains how we are constantly deferring the day of reckoning... "...worse still, severing the link to gold paved the way for the T-bill standard and a vast multi-decade spree of central bank debt monetization and money printing. Since a régime of floating-rate paper money had never been tried before on a global basis, the Keynesian professors and their Friedmanite collaborators can perhaps be excused for not foreseeing its destructive consequence. The record of the next several decades, however, eliminated all doubt."
It’s amazing what people can trick themselves into believing and even shout about when you tell them exactly what they want to hear. It was disappointing to see Brad DeLong’s latest defense of Fed policy, which was published this past weekend and trumpeted far and wide by like-minded bloggers. If you take DeLong’s word for it, you would think that the only policy risk that concerns hedge fund managers is a return to full employment. He suggests that these managers criticize existing policy only because they’ve made bad bets that are losing money, while they naively expect the Fed’s “political masters” to bail them out. Well, every one of these claims is blatantly false. DeLong’s story is irresponsible and arrogant, really. And since he flouts the truth in his worst articles and ignores half the picture in much of the rest, we’ll take a stab here at a more balanced summary of the pros and cons of the Fed’s current policies. We’ll try to capture the discussion that’s occurring within the investment community that DeLong ridicules. Firstly, the benefits of existing policies are well understood. Monetary stimulus has certainly contributed to the meager growth of recent years. And jobs that are preserved in the near-term have helped to mitigate the rise in long-term unemployment, which can weigh on the economy for years to come. These are the primary benefits of monetary stimulus, and we don’t recall any hedge fund managers disputing them. But the ultimate success or failure of today’s policies won’t be determined by these benefits alone – there are many delayed effects and unintended consequences. Here are seven long-term risks that aren’t mentioned in DeLong’s article...
Despite (or in fact 'due to' in this alice-through-the-looking-glass market) terrible data overnight in Europe and weak data this morning in the US, equities went from strength to strength thanks to a pre-European POMO vertical liftathon that pulled equities 1% higher on nothing (nothing at all). This faded but was helped into the close by a JPY-driven spurt to hold above 1650 in the S&P 500 at another all-time high (intraday) and close. Behind the scenes it was a mess though. Treasuries rallied (after recoupling with stocks) and did not play in the final hour frolicking. VIX ended the day higher (and notably divergent). High-yield credit closed weaker and credit markets are significantly divergent now as releveraging begins to bite. The USD pushed on to new highs intraday (highest since July 2010) which we are sure will help earnings. While the market has done its best to pressure the oil markets lower, today saw WTI gush higher back over $94 once again. The big story is in gold and silver which were jerked lower at around the US open (ending the day down 3.8% and 5.6% respectively on the week). As a reminder for those calling for the death of gold - AAPL is down over 8% in the last 3 days (the death of AAPL?).
The debate over what actions actually constitute “terrorism,” we believe, will become one of the defining ideological battles of our era. Terrorism is not a word often used by common people to describe aberrant behaviors or dastardly deeds; however, it is used by governments around the world to label and marginalize political enemies. That is to say, it is the government that normally decides who is a “terrorist” and who is a mere “criminal,” the assertion being that one is clearly far worse than the other. The more naïve subsections of our society will accept unConstitutional methods against the “radicalized” out of fear and conditioning, without realizing that the machinations of bureaucracy being used against those they hate could just as easily be used against them in the future.
When the Fed extended its guidance for extremely low rates to 2014 and later, none of the Chinese government's measures to deter property speculation could deter 'homebuyers' from bidding up prices. However, as the chart below shows, the disconnect between home prices (extreme highs) and home sales (near lows) has never been greater and with the Chinese looking to further control speculation at the same time as a Fed that is increasingly jawboning a slowing to its easy money policy, the prices of Hong Kong property has begun to drop in recent weeks. As Bloomberg notes, prices have fallen 4.2% from a record reached in mid-March, compared with a 77% contraction in sales from their post-global financial crisis peak in 2010. The prices of property is explicitly deterring the 'urban dream' that we explained here, but any sustained drop in property prices (given the shadow lending and collateralization this bubble represents) leaves China once again between a bubble-pricking rock and an inflationary (social unrest harboring) hard place.
As we first noted here (regulation) and here (supervision), the US government has been gradually encroaching on the independence and freedom of the virtual currency. This week, as The Washington Post reports, the government escalated. The feds took action against Mt. Gox, the world’s leading Bitcoin exchange. Many people use Dwolla, a PayPal-like payment network, to send dollars to their Mt. Gox accounts. They then use those dollars to buy Bitcoins. On Tuesday, Dwolla announced that it had frozen Mt. Gox’s account at the request of federal investigators. It’s the first federal action against the currency. Considering the great antipathy the central planners have toward such legacy money as gold and silver, is it any surprise that they would move aggressively and rapidly to halt the emergence of yet another alternative to fiat, especially one which the ECB made it very clear will not be tolerated in an insolvent world. Because all is fair in preserving the FIATH...