The concept of “money” used to be simple: items of recognized value, initially in the form of shells, livestock, and then precious metals. At some point, someone decided to print currency on paper, but it was widely understood that it had to be backed by something real, like gold or silver. That history is oversimplified, but it illustrates this central truth: Money that is created at will, rather than grown in the field, mined from the earth, or otherwise subject to supply limitations, can be easily degraded. Nobody would want to own something that may or may not have value and purchasing power in the future. What, then, determines the value of money? The worldview and ethics of those in charge of the printing presses are obvious answers that are often overlooked. Another is the confidence (or inertia!) of the people who hold and trade the money, or claims denominated in money.
Fast forward to the modern era, which features central banks, so-called “fractional reserve banking,” leverage, and derivatives. Central banks allowed commercial banks to create money by making loans while keeping small amounts of reserves on hand or at the central banks. As money market funds, bank CDs, and other like instruments were created and then became a sizeable portion of the global financial system, things got even more complicated. An obvious clue that the very definition of money, to say nothing of the appropriate ways to analyze and adjust monetary policy, have departed from the understanding and control of monetary authorities can be found in the proliferation over time of acronyms to describe what used to be called simply “the money supply”: M1, M2, M2A, M3, MZM, and several others.
Add modern derivatives, which entered the scene in a significant way only some 30 years ago, and the picture becomes even murkier. To demonstrate this, in slow motion, consider the creation of a credit default swap (CDS), and then a mortgage collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Assume an investor wants to be long the credit of IBM. The investor offers to sell to a dealer a CDS on IBM. The dealer purchases the CDS and either keeps it or lays off the risk by booking an offsetting transaction with someone else. Actual securities issued by IBM are not part of these transactions – the CDS is just a contract between the investor and the dealer. As IBM’s credit quality is perceived to change, the price of the CDS will fluctuate and money will change hands between the investor and the dealer (based on the “mark to market”). This position is basically a borrowing by the investor who now “owns” a security referencing the credit of IBM, and who has put up only a small deposit – a tiny fraction of the notional credit exposure that the investor is long. It also represents a highly-leveraged loan by the dealer. Although the investor/borrower does not receive the full proceeds of this “loan,” he or she bears the full risk of loss on the underlying asset. It is as if the investor borrowed money from the dealer, added a small amount of his or her own money, and purchased an IBM security with the total amount of money. Interestingly, such borrowings also have the effect of impacting the price of the actual underlying assets (in this case, IBM credit) due to arbitrage pressures. In effect, these transactions by investors and non-bank dealers represent many of the characteristics of the creation and dissipation of money, but they are outside the traditional and commonly-understood mechanics of fractional reserve banking. Most economists would not consider these transactions in the context of money supply, but we think that they are being mechanistic and not seeing the actual effects of the basically unlimited ability of private derivatives transactions to have many of the same effects as are caused by the creation and destruction of “money.”
The ecosystem of mortgage securitizations has similar characteristics. It starts with the tranching of pools of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and then the referencing (via derivatives) of low-rated tranches to form new securities called synthetic CDOs. Based upon fanciful assumptions about diversity that prevailed pre-2008, the bulk of synthetic CDOs that referenced low-rated mortgage-pool tranches magically turned into AAA-rated securities. These instruments, even in subprime mortgage securitizations, were consequently treated by regulators as zero-risk-rated. Until the music stopped, these high-rated securities had many of the powerful multiplier effects of money. Furthermore, the institutions that packaged and sold the MBS, and those that put together the synthetic CDOs, performed many of the functions of banks (conjuring credit out of small reserves) even if they weren’t banks. Finally, the entire process caused demand for houses to increase and prices to rise.
The purpose of this part of the discussion about money is to show that things have gotten really complex and subtle in the modern banking and derivatives era, and that the old model of money as being solely or mainly the product of bank reserves and bank loans is woefully inadequate.
Now one more element should be added to this mix: quantitative easing, or QE. The government spends money on roads, bureaucrats’ salaries, entitlements, etc. To pay for such spending, Treasury sells a security to the public, and it has an obligation to repay the purchaser when the security matures. The security might be a Treasury Bill, a 30-year bond, or anything in between. The Federal Reserve (or the Fed, as it is commonly known) has the ability to set short-term interest rates, which has incentive/disincentive effects on bank lending and consumer spending. In a nutshell, that model has prevailed as the status quo since the Fed was created in 1913, up until 2008.
Since the crash of 2008, there has been an additional dynamic at work. Namely, the Fed is purchasing massive amounts of Treasury securities, either directly or on the open market. To be clear, the cash outlays by Treasury for government spending are the same as in the preceding paragraph. The difference is that post-crash, there are far fewer securities outstanding that the Treasury must pay off at maturity, because trillions of dollars of such securities are owned by another department of the federal government. We think this process is the effective equivalent of money-printing.
For those who think otherwise, we pose the following question: If QE did not have the effect of printing money, why would the Fed do it? We do not think that QE is merely a duration swap. If the government simply wanted shorter duration and cheaper borrowing costs, the easy course would be for the Fed to set interest rates at zero and for the Treasury to issue only 30-day Treasury Bills to pay for government spending. One possible outcome of such an approach would be that the price of long-term bonds would be uncontrolled, and could possibly fall precipitously, thereby driving up long-term interest rates. Instead, the government adopted a zero interest rate policy, or ZIRP, and Treasury’s borrowing rates dropped as the Fed purchased its bonds, elevating the prices of virtually all other securities. All of this contrivance is intended to be an indirect way of supporting economic activity, and perhaps it has done that to some degree. But it is causing massive distortions of risk-reward in stocks and bonds, as well as significant expansion of future risks of both inflation and severe losses in asset prices. These losses would be experienced by both the Fed and by investors.
The Fed’s explanations of these policies are delivered with equanimity and aplomb. However, in our view, the inventions of modern finance have “gotten away from them” and are not adequately understood by the money-printing overseers. A “smoking gun” is the complete failure of policymakers (and financial-institution executives) to predict or understand the circumstances surrounding the 2008 financial crisis – neither the inner workings/interconnectedness of the institutions involved nor the risks inherent in the system. Recently released minutes of Fed meetings in 2007 make it clear that they did not understand the modern financial system: its structure, the instruments that comprised it, the implications of the leverage and risk-taking afforded by untested derivative products, and the vulnerability and opacity of the major financial institutions. It does not mean that the Fed has no credibility when it acts or makes pronouncements today. But it certainly means that they should not have a great deal of presumptive credibility, especially about elements that are experimental and untested or that they got so wrong recently (like QE, and the risks of a system comprised of modern highly-leveraged financial institutions laden with derivatives positions, respectively).
It is critically important for investors to try to understand what global QE is actually doing, where it may lead, and what will happen when it slows, stops or shifts into reverse. What we urge most strongly is that the current atmosphere of calm and stability, and the lack of virulent inflation, must not be relied upon to continue forever. There are certain words and phrases in official communications that give some hint of the uncertainty that exists about key elements of central-bank policies: confidence, anchored inflationary expectations, and velocity are prime examples. Our takeaway is that when investors lose confidence in ZIRP-soaked, QE-ridden, faith-based paper money, the consequences could be abrupt and catastrophic to societal stability. We do not know exactly what to do about it, except to urge policymakers to STOP substituting QE for sound tax, regulatory, labor, environmental, and fiscal policies.
Due to the combination of the lagged nature of inflation in wages and consumer prices, the vital (if possibly more ephemeral than policymakers think) role of “confidence,” and the fact that each particular brand of paper money is competing with other currencies that are similarly mismanaged, the world is in a position today in which the major central banks see only the beneficial effects of QE and not the risks. Bonds that otherwise might be collapsing and repudiated are at sky-high prices with stingy yields. Reported consumer inflation is near historic lows. Consequently, central bankers think that what they got away with yesterday will also work today and next week. Investors either have not figured out that they are long seriously overpriced promises or think that they will all have the luck and perspicacity to reject such instruments before they plunge in price.
The reason we combined derivatives and QE in this discussion is that both are proud inventions of modern financial science, both have many of the characteristics of money-creation, and both are undertaken without any real understanding by public or private sector leaders of their nature, power, interconnectivity, and ultimate consequences. QE is exceptionally dangerous and way past its tipping point. We do not believe it can be unwound without serious consequences. Central bankers think (hope?) that it can be easily unwound at some future date, but they may not be right.
When the rejection of long-term bonds and paper money starts at some unpredictable future time, it may be fast and difficult to contain or reverse. History is replete with examples of societies whose downfalls were related to or caused by the destruction of money. The end of this phase of global financial history will likely erupt suddenly. It will take almost everyone by surprise, and then it may grind a great deal of capital and societal cohesion into dust and pain. We wish more global leaders understood the value of sound economic policy, the necessity of sound money, and the difference between governmental actions that enable growth and economic stability and those that risk abject ruin. Unfortunately, it appears that few leaders do.
MARKET OPTIMISM - January Shift in Perceptions - Reflected at Davos
In our modern world there exist certain institutions of power. Not government committees, alphabet agencies, corporate lobbies, or even standard military organizations; no, these are the mere “middle-men” of power. The errand boys. The well paid hitmen of the global mafia. They are not the strategists or the decision makers.
Instead, I speak of institutions which introduce the newest paradigms. Who write the propaganda. Who issue the orders from on high. I speak of the hubs of elitism which have initiated nearly every policy mechanism of our government for the past several decades. I am talking about the Council On Foreign Relations, the Tavistock Institute, the Heritage Foundation (a socialist organization posing as conservative), the Bilderberg Group, as well as the corporate foils that they use to enact globalization, such as Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, the Carlyle Group, etc.
Many of these organizations and corporations operate a revolving door within the U.S. government. Monsanto has champions, like Donald Rumsfeld who was on the board of directors of its Searle Pharmaceuticals branch, who later went on to help the company force numerous dangerous products including Aspartame through the FDA. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have a veritable merry-go-round of corrupt banking agents which are appointed to important White House and Treasury positions on a regular basis REGARDLESS of which party happens to be in office. Most prominent politicians are all members of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization which has openly admitted on multiple occasions that their goal is the destruction of U.S. sovereignty and the formation of a “one world government” or “supranational union” (their words, not mine).
However, one organization seems to rear its ugly head at the forefront of the most sweeping mass propaganda operations of our time, and has been linked to the creation of the most atrocious military methodologies, including the use of false flag events. I am of course referring to the Rand Corporation, a California based “think tank” whose influence reaches into nearly every sphere of our society, from politics, to war, to entertainment.
The Rand Corporation deals in what I would call “absolute gray”. The goal of the group from its very inception was to promote a social atmosphere of moral ambiguity in the name of personal and national priority. They did this first through the creation of “Rational Choice Theory”; a theory which prescribes that when making any choice, an individual (or government) must act as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at an action that maximizes personal advantage. Basically, the ends justify the means, and moral conscience is not a factor to be taken seriously if one wishes to be successful.
Hilariously, rational choice theory has been attacked in the past by pro-socialist (collectivist) critics as “extreme individualism”; a philosophy which gives us license to be as “self serving” as possible while feeling patriotic at the same time. In reality, the socialists should have been applauding Rand Corporation all along.
What Rand had done through its propaganda war against the American people was to infuse the exact culture of selfishness needed to push the U.S. towards the socialist ideal. At the onset of any communist or national socialist society (sorry socialists, but they do indeed come from the same collectivist mindset), the masses are first convinced to hand over ultimate power to the establishment in order to safeguard THEMSELVES, not others. That is to say, the common collectivist man chooses to hand over his freedoms and participate in totalitarianism not because he wants what is best for the world, but because he wants what is best for himself, and he believes servitude to the system will get him what he wants with as little private sacrifice as possible (you know, except for his soul…).
The psychologist Carl Jung notes in his observations of collectivism in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia that most citizens of those nations did not necessarily want the formation of a tyrannical oligarchy, but, they went along with it anyway because they feared for their own comfort and livelihoods. Many a German supported the Third Reich simply because they did not want to lose a cushy job, or a steady paycheck, or they liked that the “trains ran on time”. Socialism is by far the most selfish movement in history, despite the fact that they claim to do what they do “for the greater good of the greater number”.
Rand also used Rational Choice Theory as a means to remove questions of principle from the debate over social progress. Rational Choice propaganda commonly presents the target audience with a false conundrum. A perfect example would be the hardcore propaganda based television show ‘24’ starring Kiefer Sutherland, in which a government “anti-terrorism” agent is faced with a controlled choice scenario in nearly every episode. This choice almost always ends with the agent being forced to set aside his morals and conscience to torture, kill, and destroy without mercy, or, allow millions of innocents to die if he does not.
Of course, the real world does not work this way. Life is not a chess game. Avenues to resolution of any crisis are limited only by our imagination and intelligence, not to mention the immense number of choices that could be made to defuse a crisis before it develops. Yet, Rand would like you to believe that we (and those in government) are required to become monstrous in order to survive. That we should be willing to forgo conscience and justice now for the promise of peace and tranquility later.
This is the age old strategy of Centralization; to remove all choices within a system, by force or manipulation, until the masses think they have nothing left but the choices the elites give them. It is the bread and butter of elitist institutions like Rand Corporation, and is at the core of the push for globalization.
In my studies on the developing economic disaster (or economic recovery depending on who you talk to) I have come across a particular methodology many times which set off my analyst alarm (or spidey-sense, if you will). This latest methodology, called “Linchpin Theory”, revolves around the work of John Casti, a Ph.D. from USC, “complexity scientist” and “systems theorist”, a Futurist, and most notably, a former employee of Rand Corporation:
Casti introduces his idea of “Linchpin Theory” in his book “X-Events: The Collapse Of Everything”, and what I found most immediately striking about the idea of “Linchpin Events” was how they offered perfect scapegoat scenarios for catastrophes that are engineered by the establishment.
Linchpin Theory argues that overt social, political, and technological “complexity” is to blame for the most destructive events in modern human history, and it is indeed an enticing suggestion for those who are uneducated and unaware of the behind the scenes mechanics of world events. Casti would like you to believe that political and social tides are unguided and chaotic; that all is random, and disaster is a product of “chance” trigger events that occur at the height of a malfunctioning and over-complicated system.
What he fails to mention, and what he should well know being a member of Rand, is that global events do not evolve in a vacuum. There have always been those groups who see themselves as the “select”, and who aspire to mold the future to there personal vision of Utopia. It has been openly admitted in myriad official observations on historical events that such groups have had a direct hand in the advent of particular conflicts.
For instance, Casti would call the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria an “X-event”, or linchpin, leading to the outbreak of WWI, when historical fact recalls that particular crisis was carefully constructed with the specific mind to involve the U.S.
Norman Dodd, former director of the Committee to Investigate Tax Exempt Foundations of the U.S. House of Representatives, testified that the Committee was invited to study the minutes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as part of the Committee's investigation. The Committee stated:
"The trustees of the Foundation brought up a single question. If it is desirable to alter the life of an entire people, is there any means more efficient than war.... They discussed this question... for a year and came up with an answer: There are no known means more efficient than war, assuming the objective is altering the life of an entire people. That leads them to a question: How do we involve the United States in a war. This was in 1909."
So, long before the advent of Ferdinand’s assassination, plans were being set in motion by globalist interests to draw the U.S. into a large scale conflict in order to “alter the life, or thinking, of the entire culture”. When a group of people set out to direct thinking and opportunity towards a particular outcome, and the end result is a culmination of that outcome, it is obviously not coincidence, and it is definitely not providence. It can only be called subversive design.
In the economic arena, one might say that the collapse of Lehman Bros. was the “linchpin” that triggered the landslide in the derivatives market which is still going on to this day. However, the derivatives market bubble was a carefully constructed house of cards, deliberately created with the help of multiple agencies and institutions. The private Federal Reserve had to artificially lower interest rates and inject trillions upon trillions into the housing market, the international banks had to invest those trillions into mortgages that they KNEW were toxic and likely never to be repaid. The Federal Government had to allow those mortgages to then be chopped up into derivatives and resold on the open market. The ratings agencies had to examine those derivatives and obviously defunct mortgages and then stamp them AAA. The SEC had to ignore the massive fraud being done in broad daylight while sweeping thousands of formal complaints and whistle blowers under the rug.
This was not some “random” event caused by uncontrolled “complexity”. This was engineered complexity with a devious purpose. The creation of the derivatives collapse was done with foreknowledge, at least by some. Goldman Sachs was caught red handed betting against their OWN derivatives instruments! Meaning they knew exactly what was about to happen in the market they helped build! This is called Conspiracy…
One might attribute Casti’s idea to a sincere belief in chaos, and a lack of insight into the nature of globalism as a brand of religion. However, in his first and as far as I can tell only interview with Coast To Coast Radio, Casti promotes catastrophic “X-Events” as a “good thing” for humanity, right in line with the Rand Corporation ideology. Casti, being a futurist and elitist, sees the ideas of the past as obsolete when confronted with the technological advancements of the modern world, and so, describes X-event moments as a kind of evolutionary “kickstart”, knocking us out of our old and barbaric philosophies of living and forcing us, through trial by fire, to adapt to a more streamlined culture. The linchpin event is, to summarize Casti’s position, a culture’s way of “punishing itself” for settling too comfortably into its own heritage and traditions. In other words, WE will supposedly be to blame for the next great apocalypse, not the elites…
I might suggest that Casti's attitude seems to be one of general indifference to human suffering in the wake of his "X-Events", and that he would not necessarily be opposed to the deaths of millions if it caused the "advancement" of humanity towards a particular ideology. His concept of "advancement" and ours are likely very different, though. I suspect that he is well aware that X-Events are actually tools at the disposal of elitists to generate the "evolution" he so desires, and that evolution includes a collectivist result.
With almost every major economy on the globe on the verge of collapse and most now desperately inflating, taxing, or outright stealing in order to hide their situation, with multiple tinderbox environments being facilitated in the Pacific with China, North Korea, and Japan, and in the Middle East and Africa with Egypt, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, etc., there is no doubt that we are living in a linchpin-rich era. It is inevitable that one or more of these explosive tension points will erupt and cause a chain reaction around the planet. The linchpin and the chain reaction will become the focus of our epoch, rather than the men who made them possible in the first place.
Strangely, Casti’s theory was even recently featured in an episode of the ABC mystery/drama show “Castle”, called “Linchpin” (what else?), in which a writer turned detective uncovers a plot by a “shadow group” to use the research of the innocent Dr. Nelson Blakely (apparently based on Casti) to initiate a collapse of the U.S. economy by assassinating the ten-year-old daughter of a prominent Chinese businessman, triggering a dump of U.S. Treasuries by China and fomenting WWIII:
Now, I think anyone with any sense can see where this is going. Casti and Rand Corporation are giving us a glimpse into the future of propaganda. This is what will be written in our children’s history books if the globalists have their way. The fact that Linchpin Theory is featured in a primetime television show at all is a testament to Rand Corporation’s influence in the media. But, as for the wider picture, are the trigger points around us really just a product of complex coincidence?
Not a chance.
Each major global hot-spot today can easily be linked back to the designs of international corporate and banking interests and the puppet governments they use as messengers. Casti claims that “X-events” and “linchpins” cannot be accurately predicted, but it would seem that they can certainly be purposely instigated.
The globalists have stretched the whole of the world thin. They have removed almost every pillar of support from the edifice around us, and like a giant game of Jenga, are waiting for the final piece to be removed, causing the teetering structure to crumble. Once this calamity occurs, they will call it a random act of fate, or a mathematical inevitability of an overly complex system. They will say that they are not to blame. That we were in the midst of “recovery”. That they could not have seen it coming.
Their solution will be predictable. They will state that in order to avoid such future destruction, the global framework must be “simplified”, and what better way to simplify the world than to end national sovereignty, dissolve all borders, and centralize nation states under a single economic and political ideal?
Is it the Hegelian Dialectic all over again? Yes. Is it old hat feudalism and distraction? Yes. But, I have to hand it to Casti and Rand Corporation; they certainly have refined the argument for collectivism, centralization, technocracy, slavery, moral relativism, and false-flag dupery down to a near science…
MOST CRITICAL TIPPING POINT ARTICLES THIS WEEK - Jan 27th - Feb. 2nd, 2013
China has passed many reforms aimed at easing capital controls. But these are being rolled out slowly. A meager deposit interest rate has forced people to turn to wealth management products and other risky investments. And the recent credit crunch forced many into the unregulated shadow banking system.
China has created too much credit too quickly - The last big surge of credit came in 2009 when China unleashed 4 trillion yuan to help spur economic growth and employment. "Since that date, China’s economy has become a credit junkie, requiring increasing amounts of debt to generate the same unit of growth. Between 2007 and 2012, the ratio of credit to GDP climbed to more than 190%, an increase of 60 percentage points." In 2012, new credit to the non-financial sector totaled 15.5 trillion, that's equivalent to 33 percent of 2011 GDP.
China also has significantly more debt than its emerging market peers.
A lot of debt is sustained by real estate which is offered as collateral, and credit booms end when property bubbles burst. - A lot of China's debt is supported by real estate which is put up as collateral for the loans. Banks' official exposure to property is listed as 22 percent of the loan book. But that doesn't account for exposure to real estate through their loans to local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) and off-balance sheet credit instruments.
Moral hazard is a major issue in China's banks b ecause of heavy state controls.- Moral hazard is a real issue in China, since the state controls not just the biggest banks but also the recipients of credit, the state owned enterprises (SOEs). "These arrangements have encouraged crony lending practices and the concealment of non-performing loans." Moreover, since local governments can't borrow directly from banks for their own use, they have had to create local government financing vehicles (LGFVs). These LGFVs account for between 15 - 25 percent of outstanding loans and often offer land, marked above market value, as collateral. Other guarantees are also questionable since they depend on land sales which could leave local governments shy when real estate prices fall.
There has been a surge in shadow banking. - Shadow banking, which involves lending that is kept off the balance sheets has surged, in particular, the wealth management products. In Q4 2012, non-bank lending accounted for 60 percent of new credit. China's shadow banking system is reminiscent of what we witnessed in America before Lehman's fall. "Trust loans that finance cash-strapped property developers have a whiff of the subprime about them; wealth management products that bundle together a miscellany of loans, enabling the banks to generate fees while keeping loans off balance sheet, bear a passing resemblance to the structured investment vehicles and collateralized debt obligations of yesteryear; while thinly capitalized providers of credit guarantees are reminiscent of past sellers of credit default insurance.
Banks refused to lend to local government financing vehicles, so local governments turned to the corporate bond market.
Wealth management products (WMP) - An increasing number of bonds are being packaged and sold to banks' clients through risky wealth management products (WMP).
Because of higher returns people are also flocking to risk real estate trusts.
These trust products are the Chinese equivalent of subprime mortgage-backed securities. Chinese savers that are chasing yields and LGFV's are the dominant borrowers from trust companies. The Chinese trust industry has more than doubled in the past two years to about 6 trillion yuan by the end of September 2012. Trust operators are "highly leveraged" and because these trust products are low quality and have broad exposure to real estate, they are seen as the Chinese equivalent of subprime mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
WMPs have been the most popular investment for Chinese savers
Some argue that WMPs are ponzi schemes
The WMP's asset and liabilities have differing maturities (i.e. duration mismatch) which makes them much more risky.
China has an extensive credit guarantee system, but many of these are "thinly capitalized and poorly regulated".
Collateralized lending is extremely popular - Since Chinese banks aren't allowed to charge for risk, banks ask for collateral. More than 40 percent of all bank loans are collateralized. In China, commodities like steel and copper that were part of the residential housing bubble were often used as collateral. What's more? Often the steel or copper offered as collateral doesn't actually exist.
The banking sector is also vulnerable to capital flight.- Because of its trade surplus and capital inflows in the last decade China has had to print new yuan for every dollar entering the country and control the value of its currency. Naturally, capital inflows have seen a rise in lending and have helped fuel a credit boom. Moreover, the wealthiest Chinese control the equivalent of two-thirds of the country's foreign exchange reserves, and they have ample reason to move their money out of the country. "If the wealthiest Chinese were to move a significant portion of their money offshore, liquidity in the banking system would be drained.
China's credit expansion relative to GDP is much larger than the credit booms experienced by the U.S. ahead of the financial crisis and Japan in the late 1980s.
The Syrian military claims that early Wednesday Israeli warplanes bombed a military research center northwest of Damascus — not a convoy of trucks headed to Lebanon as previously reported.
Earlier reports of the airstrike indicated that the jets targeted a convoy of trucks carrying Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles near the Syria-Lebanon border.
Syrian state news agency SANA reports the strike destroyed a military research center "responsible for raising the levels of resistance and self-defense" in Damascus, killing two people were killed and wounding five others.
“The General Command of the Army and Armed Forces said ... Israeli warplanes snuck from the north of Al-Sheikh Mountain, flying at a low altitude and below radars, heading to Jamraya in Damascus Countryside ... and bombarded the location before sneaking away."
Earlier reports indicated that the strike occurred in Lebanon, but now the consensus said the attack occurred on the Syrian side. Now the big question is whether it was a convoy of trucks or a military research building that was bombed.
The Syrian military "stressed that the allegations of some media outlets that the Israeli warplanes targeted a convoy headed from Syria to Lebanon are baseless, with the General Command affirming that the Israeli warplane targeted a scientific research facility in blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty and airspace."
A Syrian rebel source told Reuters that the blast occurred on a mountain track about 3 miles south of where the main Damascus-Beirut highway crosses into Lebanon.
If the report from the Syrian Army Command is true, Israel's action would be a significant escalation fo the conflict as a top aide to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saturday that any "attack on Syria is considered (an) attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”
The New York Times notes that Avi Dichter, the minister for the home front, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that options to prevent Syria from using or transferring chemical or conventional weapons to Lebanon included deterrence and “attempts to hit the stockpiles.”
Netanyahu has drawn a line in the sand, only this time, it's for the U.S.
According to a Maariv report, when speaking to a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel was simply not strong enough to force a halt to Iran's nuclear enrichment program. In order to halt the program, Bibi said, the U.S. would have to strike, and they must do so this year.
"The sanctions are only likely to stop Iran if there is a credible (military) threat over their head ... and in order for it to be a credible threat, you need to mean it, meaning that if the sanctions don't work – and they haven't until now – you will use it," he said.
He followed this up by saying that 2013 would be the last year America could effectively put an end to Iran's nuclear program. If not, they would get their hands on enriched uranium and build a bomb in "a short time" according to Netanyahu.
Others seem to think a strike would be ineffective.
An AP article published late last year covered a report compiled by the nation's top national security experts and former military commanders. The report indicated that a "surgical strike" would only set back Iran's nuclear capability.
"You can't kill intellectual power," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center and former deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command who endorsed the report.
Going a step further, the analysis says what would be needed to truly reform Iran's nuclear aspirations would equate to full ground war — something the U.S. is unlikely to engage in.
Then there's the perception of attacking yet another Muslim country.
"Planners and pundits ought to consider that the riots and unrest following a Web entry about an obscure film are probably a fraction of what could happen following a strike – by the Israelis or U.S. – on Iran," retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, an endorser of the Iran report and a former operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview.
Since the report came out just days following Benghazi, it was largely missed by the world press. Nonetheless, Iran's nuclear aspirations worry the international community, regardless of what their stated purposes are.
Even if Netanyahu's apocalyptic nuclear Iran claims sound quite similar (actually, identical) to claims made in the early 2000s ... and the 90s ... and the 80s ... finding a solution to balancing Iran's pursuit of dual use technology with that of international security seems imperative — especially considering the achievement becomes more likely as technology in general advances.
That is, unless the world is okay with another long-term ground war.
That was well below expectations. So, the question is simple. What caused it? Was it
the fact that the payroll tax jumped, and people were reacting to their new, lower take-home pay? Or was it
about DC uncertainty?
While the cutoff date of the January survey was January 17, the political agreement on the fiscal cliff did not help consumer sentiment improve. Because we think that many households still have not fully realized the impact of the expiration of the payroll tax holiday as yet, there is the possibility that consumer confidence could decline further in the coming months. The Conference Board said “The increase in the payroll tax has undoubtedly dampened consumers’ spirits and it may take a while for confidence to rebound and consumers to recover from their initial paycheck shock.”
It would appear that the hike in taxes on 77% of Americans that was heralded as a success, has dented confidence just a little. As the efficient stock market moves to all-time nominal highs in many cases, Consumer Confidence just fell off a cliff. The conference board printed at the worst level in 13 months - so all those 2012 gains are gone - and fell month-over-month by the most since the August 2011 fiscal cliff debacle. For every income levels (except those earning under $15k) confidence plunged with the $35k-$50k bracket crashing the most. It would appear that the driver of 70% of the US economy is not buying the new normal being fed to us daily by any and every media outlet possible. No matter how much the market is held up by mysterious runs in FX markets or volatility compression, it would appear that - just as we have been noting - the underlying macro fundamentals will eventually be priced in, as this does not bode well for retail sales.
Worst print in 13 months, biggest drop in 17 months...
Perhaps it is time for some reality-reversion...
and the other reality...
22 - Public Sentiment & Confidence
MACRO News Items of Importance - This Week
GLOBAL MACRO REPORTS & ANALYSIS
US ECONOMIC REPORTS & ANALYSIS
CENTRAL BANKING MONETARY POLICIES, ACTIONS & ACTIVITIES
BANKING CONSOLIDATION - Assets versus Derivative Liabilities
As of this morning Tim Geithner is no longer Treasury Secretary. And while Tim Geithner's reign of clueless pandering to the banks has left the US will absolutely disastrous consequences, an outcome that will become clear in time, the most ruinous of his policies is making the banks which were too big to fail to begin with, so big they can neither fail nor be sued, as the recent fiasco surrounding the exit of Assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer showed. Just how big are these banks? Dallas Fed's Disk Fisher explains.
It is important to have an accurate view of the landscape of banking today in order to understand the impact of this proposal.
As of third quarter 2012, there were approximately 5,600 commercial banking organizations in the U.S. The bulk of these—roughly 5,500—were community banks with assets of less than $10 billion. These community-focused organizations accounted for 98.6 percent of all banks but only 12 percent of total industry assets. Another group numbering nearly 70 banking organizations—with assets of between $10 billion and $250 billion—accounted for 1.2 percent of banks, while controlling 19 percent of industry assets. The remaining group, the megabanks—with assets of between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion—was made up of a mere 12 institutions. These dozen behemoths accounted for roughly 0.2 percent of all banks, but they held 69 percent of industry assets.
What does this mean numerically?
As the most recent weekly H.8 statement shows, there was $11.25 trillion in total assets at domestically chartered commercial banks. Which means that just 12 banks now control some $7.76 trillion.
And that is Tim Geithner's true legacy: the "0.2%" now control 69% of everything.
But wait, this is just the asset side. What about the liabilities that these assets support, and especially the over the counter derivative side?
Well, according to the latest Q3 OCC report, the total amount of derivative exposure at just the Top 4 banks is now some $212 trillion, or 93.2% of the total $227 trillion in outstanding US derivatives.
To summarize: the top 12 banks control 69% of all financial assets, some $7.8 trillion yet just the top 4 are responsible for 93.2% of all derivative exposure.
A job well done, Mr Geithner.
And now, can you please head the Federal Reserve when Bernanke retires in one year to finish your job of completely dismantling these here United States and destroying the country's middle class?
TECHNICALS & MARKET ANALYTICS
DRIVER$ - Euro Appreciation
The euro is ripping higher after the results of a 3-month ECB long-term refinancing operation (LTRO) auction confirmed that euro area banks are decreasing their dependence on the central bank. The data reinforce the mood in Europe that monetary policy is beginning to tighten.
Well the big picture is that the ECB is the only central bank that's acting relatively "tight" right now. The Fed will be on hold for awhile. Japan is doing new easing. The Bank of England is likely to do more under Mark Carney. You get the picture.
The specific story today that's got people excited has to do with the ECB's LTRO operations.
Remember at the beginning of 2012, the ECB held a bank-saving operation, where they gave banks cheap loans for up to 3 years in order to smooth the crisis.
Well things have really calmed down, and now banks are repaying their LTRO loans, in part to show that they're strong and can stand on their own two feet.
About $137 billion of the LTRO loans is being paid back.
But today there was a 3-month LTRO operation, and the thinking was that maybe these banks who were paying back their 3 year loans early would roll into 3-month loans.
So those banks paying back their long-term loans aren't just rolling back into short-term loans. They're actually cutting their dependence on the ECB more generally, which is an excuse for euro bullishness.
The LTRO paydown will cause the ECB balance sheet to shrink (!) next week. A shrinking balance sheet is rare in this day and age, but as Roche Kelly notes this shouldn't really be characterized as a tightening, since the ECB's policy stance remains the same. If banks need money, it's no more expensive than it was before, so there shouldn't be any real-world economic constraint by this balance sheet shrinkage.
On to the chart, then, which can be understood thus: The USD 5s30s slope refers to the spread between yields on 30-year bonds and 5-year bonds. The spread should rise in response to a "risk-on" move as investors move out of long-term bonds and yields on those bonds go higher.
For their part, Yared and Konstam don't necessarily think a "1994 scenario" in which the bond market crashes is in the cards.
In a note to clients, the strategists write:
The market dynamics seems to be driven by an excessive focus on the benefits of central bank liquidity and reduced tail risk combined with a relative skepticism about the growth outlook. For instance, core curves appear dislocated relative to equities.
The question therefore is whether this divergence (the new abnormal) can persist for much longer. In our view, the market is probably placing too much emphasis on future central banks’ support and not enough on growth. If this is indeed the case, then some of the gap between core real rates and risky assets will need to close. Given our constructive view on the growth outlook, we would expect core rates to converge towards risky assets rather than the other way around.
January US consumer confidence from the Conference Board came in materially below consensus yesterday
Reuters: - Consumer confidence dropped in January to its lowest level in more than a year as Americans were more pessimistic about the economic outlook and their financial prospects, according to a private sector report released on Tuesday.
The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer attitudes fell to 58.6 from an upwardly revised 66.7 in December, falling short of economists' expectations for 64. It was the lowest level since November 2011..
At the same time US equity markets continue to march higher. In fact the divergence between consumer sentiment and the stock market has become quite pronounced and is unlikely to be sustainable over the longer term. Ultimately, weak sentiment will result in lower sales.
With the Fed no longer even pretending it is not all about the stock market, where some mysterious trickle down force is supposed to boost the economy the second the S&P hits new all time highs, and injecting billions into stocks via Primary Dealers courtesy of the daily now-unseterilized POMO (today's edition saw another $3.4 billion enter risk assets), there is apparently no reason to worry about anything. Sure enough, institutions don't need a second invitation to BTFD especially if they can do so on margin. According to the latest NYSE margin debt data, the December of margin debt used for various leveraging activities rose for the fifth consecutive month, reaching $331 billion - the highest since February 2008, when the market was declining, and back to the levels from May 2007 when the market was ramping ever higher to its all time highs which would be hit 3 short months later, and just as the subprime bubble popped.
Margin debt, or gross institutional leverage ex-shadow banking leverage via various repos, vs the stock market:
And just in case there is any confusion whether the shorts have thrown in the towel, here is a chart showing total NYSE short interest, which has declined in virtually a straight line since June. A mere 400mm shares covered lower, and short interest too will be at the lowest it has been in more than 5 years.
Coupled this with the epic monkeyhammering that the VIX is subjected to every single day and the only possible conclusion is that pretty much everyone is convinced that nothing can ever again go wrong.
It's been a great 2013 so far for risk-assets right? Wrong. Credit markets have hardly budged (spreads, as opposed to yields) as stocks have surged. We have seen this 'risk' disconnect a couple of times in the last few years and, well, it didn't end well for stocks... but this time is always different.
In 2009/10, stocks surged as credit stalled... then stocks collapsed...
In 2011/12, credit's highly correlated rally stalled and within a month the equity market had topped and rapidly fell back below the decorrelation level...
and now in 2013, HY and IG credit spreads have not partaken of this rally in risk at all...
It appears, as we have noted before, that credit anticipates and equity confirms. And just for clarity, this is credit spreads (not yields) and therefore does not represent a 'rotation' from bonds to stocks - these are apples to slightly different apples comparisons of two different markets' perspectives on market risk...
There are numerous myths flying around the screens we all remain glued to - from inflows suddenly becoming correlated with equity market performance to a 'real recovery' in housing. TrimTabs CEO Charles Biderman paid a brief but fact-full visit to CNBC's Rick Santelli and the two somewhat skeptical gentlemen expounded on four of the critical fallacies supporting hope in our markets currently.
First, the last time inflows were this big we saw dramatic reversals in stocks; and coincidentally,
Secondly, we also saw companies buying back less stock (in fact we saw float rising at those periods) and sure enough that is what Biderman notes is happening in January too.
Third, current 'economic' euphoria appears due to the drag forward of incomes into Q4 2012 due to tax concerns (which is being spent/saved now) - however that means Q1 2013 and on will be negatively impacted (even if we see a decent print in Q4 GDP) as that pull-forward reverts; and finally,
Fourth, interest rates are rising and simultaneously refinances have plunged - hurting the 'housing recovery' meme which has been the driver of a lot of euphoria (be careful what you wish for). It appears facts, once again, get in the way of a good story.
RISK OFF - Citigroup Economic Surprise Index has moved below Zero
However, his note to clients today strikes a different tone – at least in the short term.
In the note, titled "CESI below zero - taking some risk off the table - moving Cyclicals to UW," Lee writes, "It certainly feels that the bullish sentiment is overpowering, supported by the calls for an imminent asset allocation shift out of bonds/cash into stocks, as well as the recent run of strong macro indicators."
Lee says his clients are having trouble finding a "red flag" that could send the market lower – which is all the more reason for caution.
Lee highlights four reasons investors in stocks should consider "taking some risk off the table" here:
1) US [Citigroup Economic Surprise Index] has moved below zero. On the past 7 occasions when this happened the near-term equity upside was capped. The average maximum upside of 1% and average drawdown of 8% seen over the following 3 months demonstrate the asymmetric risk-reward in our view.
2) Q4 results are beating the conservative expectations. However, EPS upgrades are failing to materialize. Many more companies are cutting guidance than raising it. Third quarter was the first one in 4 years where global profit margins have fallen.
3) Equities had a very strong run over the past few months. Given that EPS revisions stayed in negative territory, the P/Es have rerated. The latest equal- weighted P/E multiple for MSCI Europe, at 13.2x, has just moved to an outright premium vs the last 10 year average.
4) A number of technical and sentiment indicators are starting to signal caution. Bullish sentiment has become completely consensus as seen in AAII Bull index which is now in the top 5% of the observed readings. The backtest shows that forward equity returns from this level of Bullishness are significantly below normalized. The Equity Skew is at 10-year lows and VIX near historic lows.
Lee joins others on Wall Street in suggesting the rally may be coming to an end, like BofA Merrill Lynch strategist Rich Cochinos.
As we recently noted, the US Macro picture is considerably less sanguine than every talking head would have you believe. Not only are earnings for Q4 coming in notably weak, but the top-down macro picture is its worst in almost five months - and turned negative this week. Of course, the fact that our 'market' is dislocated from any sense of reality will come as no surprise to anyone; but, the chart below provides some, perhaps useful, insight into how to trade this disconnect (and its inevitable convergence). To add a little more impetus to this decision, the past two weeks have seen the US macro picture drop at its fastest rate since June 2011 - right before the last debt-ceiling debate, which was followed by a quite notable decline in stocks.
While not perfect, the combination of the 20/100 DMA with the fact that US ECO has turned negative is a strong indication of a short-term correction in stocks
What could generate a correction now? We see the following near term concerns:
1. A complacent ECB. Whereas the Fed and BoJ are adding to asset purchases, and the BoE may do so soon judging by the King Speech Tuesday night, the ECB will likely (continue to) contract its balance sheet as LTROs are repaid and does not seem in the mood to cut rates either. This might present most problems via the currency. But if the ECB makes the same mistakes by tightening policy as under Trichet in mid 2011, European stocks could really suffer. Since our economists expect instead further cuts eventually, and OMT activation could generate balance sheet expansion, our base case is underperformance, not Armageddon, in European equities. But it is worth noting that a theme in meetings in 7 European financial capitals over the past couple of weeks has been: why shouldn’t European equities do better this year? This suggests that investors are already positioned for gains/ outperformance.
2. Another concern is Japan. Well before Elections in Japan on 16 December last year, aggressive investors built short JPY (and long NKY) positions anticipating pressure for easier monetary policy from Japan. While the Election outcome and subsequent BoJ decisions (more QE, higher CPI inflation target) have to a large degree validated these expectations, we think this move might have run its course for now. In part this reflects the slightly disappointing BoJ decision to postpone further balance sheet expansion to 2014. And in part recent official comments that JPY rapid depreciation may have downside risks. There may be pressure from trading partners if Japanese government spokesmen return to too explicit a policy of talking the JPY lower. The JPY/ NKY move may have another leg when the BoJ Governorship changes on 8 April but we have cut our tactical position to zero for now. If the market confuses JPY short term strength/ NKY weakness for a general risk off move, this could also cause near term volatility more generally.
3. Another investor focus is the recent softness of the data, particularly in the growth outperformers. In very recent days, better than expected European data have kept our G10 ESI from falling further though zero. But the US index remains soft and so does the EM overall index. On the US ESI, after 4.5 months in positive territory, the index has moved negative, partly because of the way it is designed to mean revert over time. Positive surprises last year decay out of the index over 3 months and at an accelerating rate. This may lead to some participants citing ESIs as a concern for risk assets. Our own Risk-On/ Risk-Off (RORO) rule for markets based on ESIs was triggered on 17 January - as seen above.
Of course, there is all the other usual stuff too such as the debt ceiling deadlines, politics in Europe and elsewhere, deleveraging etc. However, the three concerns listed are where we would see a more serious setback coming if it did.
COMMODITY CORNER - HARD ASSETS
2013 - STATISM
DHS - Now a "Brown Shirt' Quasi Military Organization
The hypocrisy of the government knows no bounds. I have said repeatedly, and continue to say, that I am against all gun control at the moment because our government is extremely violent and not only do I not expect it to protect the American people in general, I believe it is far more concerned with protecting the status quo from the people. It has become crystal clear that the political and financial oligarchs are quite intentionally attempting to disarm the populace while arming themselves to the teeth in anticipation of some horrible economic event they know is inevitable. From the Blaze:
The Department of Homeland Security is seeking to acquire 7,000 5.56x45mm NATO “personal defense weapons” (PDW) — also known as “assault weapons” when owned by civilians. The solicitation, originally posted on June 7, 2012, comes to light as the Obama administration is calling for a ban on semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines.
Citing a General Service Administration (GSA) request for proposal (RFP), Steve McGough of RadioViceOnline.com reports that DHS is asking for the 7,000 “select-fire” firearms because they are “suitable for personal defense use in close quarters.” The term select-fire means the weapon can be both semi-automatic and automatic. Civilians are prohibited from obtaining these kinds of weapons.
That being said, it is reasonable for the Department of Homeland Security to request these rifles as they are indeed effective personal defense weapons. The agency is tasked with keeping Americans safe from those who wish to do the country harm, and its officials should be equipped with all the tools they need to do so effectively.
See the meme being pushed here? These guys want the entire population completely domesticated. They want us to depend on the government for food. For healthcare. For self-defense. Two sets of laws. One for the “rulers” and one for the “ruled.” This is the opposite of how things function in a free society.
I am sorry, but unless you think the DHS is preparing for an invasion by Al Qaeda, it is quite clear these weapons are being bought for future use against the citizenry of the United States. The writing on the wall couldn’t be clearer.
"Why do we consider banks to be like holy churches?" is the rhetorical question that Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimson asks (and answers) in this truly epic three minutes of truthiness from the farce that is the World Economic Forum in Davos. Amid a week of back-slapping and self-congratulatory party-outdoing, as John Aziz notes, the Icelandic President explains why his nation is growing strongly, why unemployment is negligible, and how they moved from the world's poster-child for banking crisis 5 years ago to a thriving nation once again. Simply put, he says, "we didn't follow the prevailing orthodoxies of the last 30 years in the Western world." There are lessons here for everyone - as Grimson explains the process of creative destruction that remains much needed in Western economies - though we suspect his holographic pass for next year's Swiss fun will be reneged...
You know you’re no longer living in a free country when the government tells you what you can and cannot put in your body. Or when an unelected board of bureaucrats and corporate insiders can confiscate the assets of hardworking small business owners.
Yet these have become par for the course in the Land of the Free.
The latest bout involves a family-owned raw milk operation in Missouri that was decimated last week by the heavy hand of government, courtesy of the State Milk Board.
Of course, this isn’t even an actual government agency, but rather one of more than 200 such committees in Missouri which wield tsarist authority over their domains.
State Milk Board members include both state bureaucrats and corporate leaders from the milk industry. How convenient that a few big producers are given unelected, absolute authority to torpedo a raw milk competitor...
And so, last Friday, farm inspectors arrived to confiscate 18 tons of cheese that Morningland Dairy had produced from raw milk. They were met by a small crowd which had gathered to show support for the family… and to denounce these agents of government for carrying out an immoral act on innocent people.
It was all captured on video, including the police response.
You have to respect what these people were doing. They stood to face their enemies and peacefully demonstrate against abuse of power. They even tried to convince government agents to stop participating in the wholesale destruction of liberty.
It’s a noble thing indeed. But the uncomfortable reality is that their efforts were wasted.
The police, the bureaucrats... they are not the enemy. They are merely pawns of an entire system gone critically bad. In truth, there is no actual enemy. The enemy is an idea - a faceless government that is not embodied in a single individual or group.
Trying to ‘fight’ this enemy, this idea, is as futile as a government ‘declaring war’ on drugs or poverty. These are not enemy combatants. They’re nouns. Concepts.
As such, trying to ‘take back’ the country is a noble yet unfortunately misguided expenditure of precious resources. One would be more successful trying to train a potted plant how to juggle rather than trying to change the system.
As humans we have natural instincts to defend ourselves. Rationally, though, the best move we have is to simply refuse to play the game. That means leaving. Our most solemn obligations are to our families, ourselves, and our chosen loved ones. Not to a society that no longer shares our values. Not to a passport. Not to a politician. Not to a piece of dirt.
Just as our forefathers did, when the walls of the social contract start closing in, you go find a new piece of dirt. Or at least have a plan for it; the time to consider your escape options isn’t while you’re packing your bags.
Ecuador could be a possibility. It’s pleasant here. The economy is growing. It has plenty of modern conveniences. It’s easy to become a resident– in some cases you can even use the funds in your IRA to qualify.
Plus it’s cost-effective. You can still live reasonably well for under $1,000/month. And real estate can be extraordinarily cheap. I’ve just seen a spacious 2,000 square foot home on 10 acres for about $100,000 dollars; they’re effectively selling the home at construction cost and throwing in the land for free.
Now, I’m not trying to convince you to move to Ecuador. But rather point out that as the steady march into tyranny continues, the best solution may be to stop playing the game altogether. You won’t be worse off for at least reviewing your options and having a plan.
DAVOS - The Unregulated Shadow System for doing Deals and Networking
What were the main memories and insights they took away from this year's World Economic Forum?
Glass half full. The general mood was at its most upbeat since January 2008, when the financial system was as frozen as the Davos streets.
Relief that most experts judged the financial crisis to be over at last outweighed concern that economic growth and job creation seems likely to remain sub-par for the foreseeable future. (Christine Lagarde, boss of the International Monetary Fund, spoke of a "fragile and timid recovery".)
Angela Merkel was among several European leaders to express optimism about the continent's economic and political prospects. Even the finding of the Edelman Trust barometer that less than one in five people trust political and business leaders to tell the truth seems to have been shrugged off. Bankers instead took comfort in the finding that trust in banks has actually risen in the past year.
Leadership vacuum. There was hardly anyone from the Obama administration, though a few Republicans turned up, including Eric Cantor, the House majority whip. Bill Clinton, a Davos regular, also stayed home, apparently looking after Hillary.
The ongoing power transition in Beijing may have explained the light Chinese presence.
The Russians were out in force, making sure everyone knows they are leading the G20 this year. Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, showed up, but President Vladimir Putin stayed home.
French foreign legion. Business people from France were this year's tragic heroes, embraced and encouraged to persevere by their fellow capitalists from abroad, whilst their government's assault on wealth creators was widely condemned. Groups of French business men huddled together, sharing tales of adjusting to life in Belgium.
Stand up comedy. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, enhanced his reputation as the world's favourite comedy politician with his French bashing Franglais routine; catchphrase: "Donnez-Moi un break—as we used to say in Brussels.” He also called Davos a "cyclotron of egos". Mr Johnson generally overshadowed David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, who perhaps picked the wrong audience for his earnest lecture on the evils of tax evasion.
Happiest hedge funder. Dan Loeb, of Third Point, who in the past year has shaken up Yahoo! and defended Herbalife, was over the moon at he and his hedge fund brethren being described as a "stabilising force" in the world economy by Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England.
Young global leader. Whilst the official WEF Young Global Leaders were exiled to Klosters to contemplate our Schumpeter columnist's sage advice to be humble, the stage was left to 11 year old Pakistani, Khadia Niatzi, who explained how Massive Open Online Courses such as Udacity and Coursera could usher in world peace. She had got her degree in physics through online learning. When asked to leave the stage in order to make room for Bill Gates, she rightly seemed unimpressed.
Celebrity corner. No Bono. No Mick Jagger. No Brangelina. This year's top celebrity was Charlize Theron, a South African film star, who turned up to support the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Second, in absentia, was Justin Timberlake, who, it was widely noted, no longer looks anything like the now 30-something Sean Parker, famous Silicon Valley investor and co-founder of Napster, who did show up for a few headline-grabbing hours.
Party central. The official WEF theme this year was "dynamism and resilience". That was an apt description of the partygoing. Mr Parker allegedly blew $1m throwing an exclusive bash, co-hosted with Mark Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com, and Ian Osborne, a youthful British PR svengali.
A faded Davos night club was tarted up with stuffed animals sporting laser-beam eyes, drinks were free, and John Legend and Mark Ronson, a DJ, supplied the music. The party was billed as a celebration of "the future of philanthropy", presumably ironically. Elsewhere, Google not only lost Marissa Meyer to Yahoo!, where she is now chief executive; it let her steal its traditional Friday night party slot.
The McKinsey Party, with the same fabulous band for the umpteenth year, once again supplied the most reliable fun and packed, sweaty dance floor.
Shadow Davos. Over the years, a vast "fringe" of events and parties has grown up in Davos independent of the official WEF agenda. This "shadow Davos" was bigger than ever this year, with a growing number of people doing like Mr Parker and not even bothering with the official event and its huge fees.
As with the world of banking, at Davos increasingly the real action—from doing deals to having fun—is happening in the unregulated shadow system. The WEF seems in two minds about how to respond to this, with some hosts of unofficial events grumbling about WEF officials telling them to tone things down.
That is the instinct of the monopolist. Yet the WEF exists in an increasingly competitive marketplace for providing opportunities for the global movers and shakers to get together. A better strategy would be to deliver an even better official Davos in 2014.
CRONY CAPITLALISM - PPP within the Security-Surveillance Complex
National Security Agency Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland
As the US government depicts the Defense Department as shrinking due to budgetary constraints, the Washington Post this morning announces "a major expansion of [the Pentagon's] cybersecurity force over the next several years, increasing its size more than fivefold." Specifically, says the New York Times this morning, "the expansion would increase the Defense Department's Cyber Command by more than 4,000 people, up from the current 900." The Post describes this expansion as "part of an effort to turn an organization that has focused largely on defensive measures into the equivalent of an Internet-era fighting force." This Cyber Command Unit operates under the command of Gen. Keith Alexander, who also happens to be the head of the National Security Agency, the highly secretive government network that spies on the communications of foreign nationals - and American citizens.
The Pentagon's rhetorical justification for this expansion is deeply misleading. Beyond that, these activities pose a wide array of serious threats to internet freedom, privacy, and international law that, as usual, will be conducted with full-scale secrecy and with little to no oversight and accountability. And, as always, there is a small army of private-sector corporations who will benefit most from this expansion.
Disguising aggression as "defense"
Let's begin with the way this so-called "cyber-security" expansion has been marketed. It is part of a sustained campaign which, quite typically, relies on blatant fear-mongering.
In March, 2010, the Washington Post published an amazing Op-Ed by Adm. Michael McConnell, Bush's former Director of National Intelligence and a past and current executive with Booz Allen, a firm representing numerous corporate contractors which profit enormously each time the government expands its "cyber-security" activities. McConnell's career over the last two decades - both at Booz, Allen and inside the government - has been devoted to accelerating the merger between the government and private sector in all intelligence, surveillance and national security matters (it was he who led the successful campaign to retroactively immunize the telecom giants for their participation in the illegal NSA domestic spying program). Privatizing government cyber-spying and cyber-warfare is his primary focus now.
McConnell's Op-Ed was as alarmist and hysterical as possible. Claiming that "the United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing", it warned that "chaos would result" from an enemy cyber-attack on US financial systems and that "our power grids, air and ground transportation, telecommunications, and water-filtration systems are in jeopardy as well." Based on these threats, McConnell advocated that "we" - meaning "the government and the private sector" - "need to develop an early-warning system to monitor cyberspace" and that "we need to reengineer the Internet to make attribution, geolocation, intelligence analysis and impact assessment - who did it, from where, why and what was the result - more manageable." As Wired's Ryan Singel wrote: "He's talking about changing the internet to make everything anyone does on the net traceable and geo-located so the National Security Agency can pinpoint users and their computers for retaliation."
The same week the Post published McConnell's extraordinary Op-Ed, the Obama White House issued its own fear-mongering decree on cyber-threats, depicting the US as a vulnerable victim to cyber-aggression. It began with this sentence: "President Obama has identified cybersecurity as one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation, but one that we as a government or as a country are not adequately prepared to counter." It announced that "the Executive Branch was directed to work closely with all key players in US cybersecurity, including state and local governments and the private sector" and to "strengthen public/private partnerships", and specifically announced Obama's intent to "to implement the recommendations of the Cyberspace Policy Review built on the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) launched by President George W. Bush."
Since then, the fear-mongering rhetoric from government officials has relentlessly intensified, all devoted to scaring citizens into believing that the US is at serious risk of cataclysmic cyber-attacks from "aggressors". This all culminated when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, last October, warned of what he called a "cyber-Pearl Harbor". This "would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability." Identifying China, Iran, and terrorist groups, he outlined a parade of horribles scarier than anything since Condoleezza Rice's 2002 Iraqi "mushroom cloud":
"An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country."
As usual, though, reality is exactly the opposite. This massive new expenditure of money is not primarily devoted to defending against cyber-aggressors. The US itself is the world's leading cyber-aggressor. A major purpose of this expansion is to strengthen the US's ability to destroy other nations with cyber-attacks. Indeed, even the Post report notes that a major component of this new expansion is to "conduct offensive computer operations against foreign adversaries".
It is the US - not Iran, Russia or "terror" groups - which already is the first nation (in partnership with Israel) to aggressively deploy a highly sophisticated and extremely dangerous cyber-attack. Last June, the New York Times' David Sanger reported what most of the world had already suspected: "From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America's first sustained use of cyberweapons." In fact, Obama "decided to accelerate the attacks . . . even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran's Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet." According to the Sanger's report, Obama himself understood the significance of the US decision to be the first to use serious and aggressive cyber-warfare:
"Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons - even under the most careful and limited circumstances - could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks."
The US isn't the vulnerable victim of cyber-attacks. It's the leading perpetrator of those attacks. As Columbia Professor and cyber expert Misha Glenny wrote in the NYT last June: Obama's cyber-attack on Iran "marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet."
Indeed, exactly as Obama knew would happen, revelations that it was the US which became the first country to use cyber-warfare against a sovereign country - just as it was the first to use the atomic bomb and then drones - would make it impossible for it to claim with any credibility (except among its own media and foreign policy community) that it was in a defensive posture when it came to cyber-warfare. As Professor Glenny wrote: "by introducing such pernicious viruses as Stuxnet and Flame, America has severely undermined its moral and political credibility." That's why, as the Post reported yesterday, the DOJ is engaged in such a frantic and invasive effort to root out Sanger's source: because it reveals the obvious truth that the US is the leading aggressor in the world when it comes to cyber-weapons.
This significant expansion under the Orwellian rubric of "cyber-security" is thus a perfect microcosm of US military spending generally. It's all justified under by the claim that the US must defend itself from threats from Bad, Aggressive Actors, when the reality is the exact opposite: the new program is devoted to ensuring that the US remains the primary offensive threat to the rest of the world. It's the same way the US develops offensive biological weapons under the guise of developing defenses against such weapons (such as the 2001 anthrax that the US government itself says came from a US Army lab). It's how the US government generally convinces its citizens that it is a peaceful victim of aggression by others when the reality is that the US builds more weapons, sells more arms and bombs more countries than virtually the rest of the world combined.
Threats to privacy and internet freedom
Beyond the aggressive threat to other nations posed by the Pentagon's "cyber-security" programs, there is the profound threat to privacy, internet freedom, and the ability to communicate freely for US citizens and foreign nationals alike. The US government has long viewed these "cyber-security" programs as a means of monitoring and controlling the internet and disseminating propaganda. The fact that this is all being done under the auspices of the NSA and the Pentagon means, by definition, that there will be no transparency and no meaningful oversight.
Back in 2003, the Rumsfeld Pentagon prepared a secret report entitled "Information Operations (IO) Roadmap", which laid the foundation for this new cyber-warfare expansion. The Pentagon's self-described objective was "transforming IO into a core military competency on par with air, ground, maritime and special operations". In other words, its key objective was to ensure military control over internet-based communications:
It further identified superiority in cyber-attack capabilities as a vital military goal in PSYOPs (Psychological Operations) and "information-centric fights":
And it set forth the urgency of dominating the "IO battlespace" not only during wartime but also in peacetime:
As a 2006 BBC report on this Pentagon document noted: "Perhaps the most startling aspect of the roadmap is its acknowledgement that information put out as part of the military's psychological operations, or Psyops, is finding its way onto the computer and television screens of ordinary Americans." And while the report paid lip service to the need to create "boundaries" for these new IO military activities, "they don't seem to explain how." Regarding the report's plan to "provide maximum control of the entire electromagnetic spectrum", the BBC noted: "Consider that for a moment. The US military seeks the capability to knock out every telephone, every networked computer, every radar system on the planet."
Since then, there have been countless reports of the exploitation by the US national security state to destroy privacy and undermine internet freedom. In November, the LA Times described programs that "teach students how to spy in cyberspace, the latest frontier in espionage." They "also are taught to write computer viruses, hack digital networks, crack passwords, plant listening devices and mine data from broken cellphones and flash drives." The program, needless to say, "has funneled most of its graduates to the CIA and the Pentagon's National Security Agency, which conducts America's digital spying. Other graduates have taken positions with the FBI, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security."
In 2010, Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, gave a speech explicitly announcing that the US intends to abandon its policy of "leaving the Internet alone". Noting that this "has been the nation's Internet policy since the Internet was first commercialized in the mid-1990s", he decreed: "This was the right policy for the United States in the early stages of the Internet, and the right message to send to the rest of the world. But that was then and this is now."
The documented power of the US government to monitor and surveil internet communications is already unfathomably massive. Recall that the Washington Post's 2010 "Top Secret America" series noted that: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." And the Obama administration has formally demanded that it have access to any and all forms of internet communication.
It is hard to overstate the danger to privacy and internet freedom from a massive expansion of the National Security State's efforts to exploit and control the internet. As Wired's Singel wrote back in 2010:
"Make no mistake, the military industrial complex now has its eye on the internet. Generals want to train crack squads of hackers and have wet dreams of cyberwarfare. Never shy of extending its power, the military industrial complex wants to turn the internet into yet another venue for an arms race".
Wildly exaggerated cyber-threats are the pretext for this control, the "mushroom cloud" and the Tonkin Gulf fiction of cyber-warfare. As Singel aptly put it: "the only war going on is one for the soul of the internet." That's the vital context for understanding this massive expansion of Pentagon and NSA consolidated control over cyber programs.
Bonanza for private contractors
As always, it is not just political power but also private-sector profit driving this expansion. As military contracts for conventional war-fighting are modestly reduced, something needs to replace it, and these large-scale "cyber-security" contracts are more than adequate. Virtually every cyber-security program from the government is carried out in conjunction with its "private-sector partners", who receive large transfers of public funds for this work.
Two weeks ago, Business Week reported that "Lockheed Martin Corp., AT&T Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. are the first companies to sign up for a US program giving them classified information on cyber threats that they can package as security services for sale to other companies." This is part of a government effort "to create a market based on classified US information about cyber threats." In May, it was announced that "the Pentagon is expanding and making permanent a trial program that teams the government with Internet service providers to protect defense firms' computer networks against data theft by foreign adversaries" - all as "part of a larger effort to broaden the sharing of classified and unclassified cyberthreat data between the government and industry."
Indeed, there is a large organization of defense and intelligence contractors devoted to one goal: expanding the private-public merger for national security and intelligence functions. This organization - the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) - was formerly headed by Adm. McConnell, and describes itself as a "collaboration by leaders from throughout the US Intelligence Community" which "combines the experience of senior leaders from government, the private sector, and academia."
As I detailed back in 2010, one of its primary goals is to scare the nation about supposed cyber-threats in order to justify massive new expenditures for the private-sector intelligence industry on cyber-security measures and vastly expanded control over the internet. Indeed, in his 2010 Op-Ed, Adm. McConnell expressly acknowledged that the growing privatization of internet cyber-security programs "will muddy the waters between the traditional roles of the government and the private sector." At the very same time McConnell published this Op-Ed, the INSA website featured a report entitled "Addressing Cyber Security Through Public-Private Partnership." It featured a genuinely creepy graphic showing the inter-connectedness between government institutions (such as Congress and regulatory agencies), the Surveillance State, private intelligence corporations, and the Internet:
Private-sector profit is now inextricably linked with the fear-mongering campaign over cyber-threats. At one INSA conference in 2009 - entitled "Cyber Deterrence Conference" - government officials and intelligence industry executives gathered together to stress that "government and private sector actors should emphasize collaboration and partnership through the creation of a model that assigns specific roles and responsibilities."
As intelligence contractor expert Tim Shorrock told Democracy Now when McConnell - then at Booz Allen - was first nominated to be DNI:
Well, the NSA, the National Security Agency, is really sort of the lead agency in terms of outsourcing ... Booz Allen is one of about, you know, ten large corporations that play a very major role in American intelligence. Every time you hear about intelligence watching North Korea or tapping al-Qaeda phones, something like that, you can bet that corporations like these are very heavily involved. And Booz Allen is one of the largest of these contractors. I estimate that about 50% of our $45 billion intelligence budget goes to private sector contractors like Booz Allen.
This public-private merger for intelligence and surveillance functions not only vests these industries with large-scale profits at public expense, but also the accompanying power that was traditionally reserved for government. And unlike government agencies, which are at least subjected in theory to some minimal regulatory oversight, these private-sector actors have virtually none, even as their surveillance and intelligence functions rapidly increase.
What Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex has been feeding itself on fear campaigns since it was born. A never-ending carousel of Menacing Enemies - Communists, Terrorists, Latin American Tyrants, Saddam's chemical weapons, Iranian mullahs - has sustained it, and Cyber-Threats are but the latest.
Like all of these wildly exaggerated cartoon menaces, there is some degree of threat posed by cyber-attacks. But, as Singel described, all of this can be managed with greater security systems for public and private computer networks - just as some modest security measures are sufficient to deal with the terrorist threat.
This new massive expansion has little to do with any actual cyber-threat - just as the invasion of Iraq and global assassination program have little to do with actual terrorist threats. It is instead all about strengthening the US's offensive cyber-war capabilities, consolidating control over the internet, and ensuring further transfers of massive public wealth to private industry continue unabated. In other words, it perfectly follows the template used by the public-private US National Security State over the last six decades to entrench and enrich itself based on pure pretext.
The country's financial condition is deplorable and cannot continue much longer. So, too is virtually everything else the government has touched whether it be education, Amtrak, the post office, Social Security, Medicare, ad nauseum. Nothing government has done has not been a Ponzi scheme dependent upon additional theft from taxpayers to keep going.
The system is now broken. There is no one to blame for this other than government. Despite this obvious conclusion, government is still seen to be a savior by a large proportion of the country.
Freedom as a concept is praised, while government actions designed to reduce it for ordinary citizens continue.
Working longer and harder produces less wealth than was possible for your parents.
Living standards will be less for your children and grandchildren than they were for you.
Leisure (going on the dole) is now a choice unaccompanied by either shame or hardship.
Politicians have made dependency a tool to gain votes and power.
As freedom decreases, government becomes increasingly more violent in order to achieve the behavior it demands.
Laws are enforced selectively in favor of the political class and their cronies. No bigger rape of justice has ever been committed than the unwillingness to prosecute the banksters, regulators and legislators responsible for the looting of taxpayers.
Government lies with impunity with respect to the true condition of the country. This behavior is obvious with respect to economic statistics but also spills over into all other areas, like personnel decisions.
Cover-ups like "Fast and Furious" and Benghazi are ignored by a corrupt and compliant media. Lesser problems (Watergate) were cause for removing a president in simpler more honest times.
Government's insatiable spending has decimated the private sector economy. Capital and talent increasingly flee to other countries to avoid economic persecution.
Eventually this spending will cause much of the economy and all of the government to collapse. Massive debt defaults, impoverishment and social unrest lie ahead.
The phrase "government ethics" is little more than a comedian's tool for generating laughter.
The Mafia has far better ethics. It treats its customers better than government. The key word is "customer" which they must attract. Government does not have customers; it has "slaves." That is how government views private enterprice.
Compare the payouts on illegal gambling to those of government sanctioned lotteries for a simple comparison between the two methods of organized crime. You do much better dealing with the Mafia.
The frustration and anger is apparent in these comments. It should be. When one thinks about what has happened, it is difficult not to become angry.
STANDARD OF LIVING
WORKING POOR - Quarter of US Jobs Pay Below $23,050 Poverity Line
Over two years ago (and reiterated last year) Zero Hedge first wrote on what was and is an undisputed transition within the US labor force: a shift from full-time to temp, or part-time labor, with virtually no contractual or welfare benefits, and where workers are lucky to get minimum wage. This is because in the "New Normal" where copious amounts of structural slack are pervasive due precisely to the Fed's constant flawed micromanagement of the economy, the US has now become an "employers' market."
Furthermore, we were the first to make the critical distinction that it is absolutely not all about the quantity of jobs, but much more importantly, the quality of the new jobs being created. However, just like 99% of the general public, and all of the mainstream media, has an inborn genetic disorder preventing it from grasping the distinction between nominal and real, so these two critical aspects of the US jobs market languished unperturbed. Until now, two years later, when we are happy to see that the mainstream media has finally caught up with what our readers knew in December 2010.
Politicians across the political spectrum herald “job creation,” but frightfully few of them talk about what kinds of jobs are being created. Yet this clearly matters: According to the Census Bureau, one-third of adults who live in poverty are working but do not earn enough to support themselves and their families.
A quarter of jobs in America pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050). Not only are many jobs low-wage, they are also temporary and insecure. Over the last three years, the temp industry added more jobs in the United States than any other, according to the American Staffing Association, the trade group representing temp recruitment agencies, outsourcing specialists and the like.
Low-wage, temporary jobs have become so widespread that they threaten to become the norm. But for some reason this isn’t causing a scandal. At least in the business press, we are more likely to hear plaudits for “lean and mean” companies than angst about the changing nature of work for ordinary Americans.
The "some reason" is that absent from the occasional mention here and there, few if any are aware of what is truly going on beneath the surface of America's (part-time) jobs (non) recovery.
Sadly, while the NYT is accurate up to this point, from here on out they too lose the narrative:
How did we arrive at this state of affairs? Many argue that it was the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces — globalization, deindustrialization and technological change — beyond our political control. Yet employers had (and have) choices. Rather than squeezing workers, they could have invested in workers and boosted product quality, taking what economists call the high road toward more advanced manufacturing and skilled service work. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, American employers have generally taken the low road: lowering wages and cutting benefits, converting permanent employees into part-time and contingent workers, busting unions and subcontracting and outsourcing jobs. They have done so, in part, because of the extraordinary evangelizing of the temp industry, which rose from humble origins to become a global behemoth.
Actually, the primary reason for the surge in part-time jobs over the past 4 years has everything to do with the ongoing Depression, which few are willing to call it for what it is, and, you guessed it, the Fedeal Reserve. Why? We once again refer readers to an article posted nearly a year ago "How The Fed's Visible Hand Is Forcing Corporate Cash Mismanagement" in which we explained that since the advent of ZIRP culture, companies have proceed to
i) hoard cash as corporate management is well aware the current artificial economy is a temporary blip on an otherwise inevitable decline back into global economy purgatory and
ii) spend what little cash can be disposed off to generate immediate shareholder returns, in the form of stock buybacks, dividends, and when these are impossible, M&A.
Alas, the last thing corporations spend capital on is actual organic growth, so desperately needed if they are to be able to afford a viable employee base. Alas, as we showed two days ago, core capital spending has now been declining virtually non stop since posting a modest Y/Y rebound after the Lehman failure.
It is the chart above that shows in no uncertain terms what the corporate vote of confidence in the US economy is. With the consolidated CapEx trendline decidedly lower and to the right, one thing is certain: the part-time normal is here to stay, as more and more people make the minimum part-time wage their daily routine, all the while the BLS, and the administration both lie in broad daylight that the US economy is currently in a recovery.
And while the rest of the NYT piece is mostly fluff, the conclusion is relatively accurate:
The temp industry’s continued growth even in a boom economy was a testament to its success in helping to forge a new cultural consensus about work and workers. Its model of expendable labor became so entrenched, in fact, that it became “common sense,” leaching into nearly every sector of the economy and allowing the newly renamed “staffing industry” to become sought-after experts on employment and work force development. Outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring and many other hallmarks of the global economy (including the use of “adjuncts” in academia, my own corner of the world) owe no small debt to the ideas developed by the temp industry in the last half-century.
A growing number of people call for bringing outsourced jobs back to America. But if they return as shoddy, poverty-wage jobs — jobs designed for “Never-Never Girls” rather than valued employees — we won’t be better off for having them. If we want good jobs rather than just any jobs, we need to figure out how to preserve what is useful and innovative about temporary employment while jettisoning the anti-worker ideology that has come to accompany it.
And that means differentiating the US work force and making it highly specialized, and attuned to a new world in which increasingly more unskilled labor is being outsourced or outright replaced by conveyer automation and robotics. Alas, that means providing incentives for people to get off the couch, learn a skill, and specialize. And that, courtesy of that other central planning tenet, namely providing each and everyone with just the barely sustainable minimum of welfare entitlement to keep people satisfied and voting for the same person over and over, guarantees that more will fall into the trap of having no marketable skills, and be without even part-time opportunities.
At least, until the welfare funding runs out. Then things get really ugly
STANDARD OF LIVING
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