Author Archives: Yves Smith

Chicago Public Schools’ $100 Million Swaps Debacle Demonstrates High Cost of High Finance

I’ve been late to write up an important series published by the Chicago Tribune earlier this month on a costly swaps misadventure by the Chicago Public Schools. Like all too many state and local government entities, the Chicago Public Schools were persuaded to obtain $1 billion of needed ten-year financing not through the time-and-tested route of a simple ten year bond sale but the supposedly cost-saving mechanism of issuing a floating-rate bond and swapping it into a fixed rate. An impressive, expert-vetted analysis of the deal by the Chicago Tribune estimated that the school authority has in fact incurred $100 million in present-value losses on that $1 billion bond issue.

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Oil Tanks After OPEC Fails to Cut Production; US Shale Gas Targeted?

After a testy meeting, OPEC agreed to maintain current production targets. The failure to support oil prices via reducing production led to a sharp fall in prices on Thursday, with West Texas Intermediate crude dropping by over 6% and Brent plunging over 8% before rebounding to finish the day 6.7% lower, at $72.55 a barrel. Many analysts believe that oil could continue its slide to $60 a barrel.

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Bill Black: The New York Times Thinks Jailing Banksters Would Cause a “Bind”

Yves here. Bill Black continues to heap well-deserved scorn on efforts to defend New York Fed president William Dudley’s revealing performance in Senate testimony last week. In its efforts to pretend that the New York Fed can’t possibly be expected to regulate, the Grey Lady goes beyond the usual hoary canard that jailing banksters is just too hard (as in trying to say that what they perpetrated didn’t break any laws, when plenty of writers, such as Charles Ferguson, long form in Predator Nation, and yours truly, among plenty of others, have cited both legal theories and fact sets that show the reverse). The additional bogus claim is….drumroll…that keeping banks out of criminal and improper conduct is somehow inconsistent with making sure they “operate successfully”. In other words, the Times is effectively saying that banks have become so dependent on criminal and near-criminal conduct as profit sources that regulators dare not deprive them of that out of fear of weakening their financial performance.

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Germany and the European Commission’s €315 Billion Infrastructure “New Deal” is Yet More Smoke and Mirrors

I have to confess I had not taken the announcement of a €315 billion infrastructure spending program by the European Commission all that seriously, despite the fact that this on the surface represented a very serious departure from the Troika’s antipathy for anything resembling fiscal spending. It was so out of character that something had to be wrong with the picture, particularly given the absence of any evidence of Pauline conversions from the Germans. And that’s before you get to the fact that while €315 billion sounds impressive, given that the spending is likely to be spread out over time, the size of the shot, even if it worked as advertised, is less impressive than it might seem.

In fact, the history of post-crisis interventions in the Eurozone has been that of sleight-of-hand over substance, except as far as austerity program are concerned. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard peels away the dissimulation in the latest effort at confidence building, with emphasis on the con.

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“I Hate That Oil’s Dropping”: Why Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant Wants High Oil Prices for Fracking

Yves here. We posted yesterday on how, despite falling oil prices having a ricochet effect across the entire energy complex, so far shale oil well shutdowns didn’t appear to be proceeding at the expected pace. John Dizard of the Financial Times attributed continuing cash-flow-negative exploration and development to continued access to super-cheap funding. He also noted that even when fracking operators were cut off from their money pipeline, a new wave of speculators was likely to sweep in and try bottom-fishing among distressed companies. That meant that normal market discipline would be circumvented, meaning production levels could remain at uneconomically high levels, keeping prices low.

A second danger for the aspiring fracking-industrial complex is that prevailing production forecasts show the US having production well in excess of its domestic consumption levels in a few years. Production of needed export infrastructure would need to ramp up rapidly for so much shale output to be moved overseas. But not only are there “will the transport systems be in place” doubts, there’s also a reason to question whether this investment will pay off. On current trajectories, fracking output peaks in 2020 and falls gradually over the next decade, and declines more rapidly after that. 12 to 15 years of decent utilization is very short for specialized facilities.

Third, some readers, presented with the scenario above, said, basically, “No problem, production will focus on the lowest-cost areas like Marcellus.” As the article below points out, there are parts of the country that have gotten a nice boost from the energy boomlet and will suffer if they aren’t in the most competitive areas cost-wise. And their lenders are also at risk.

Finally, current cost forecasts don’t allow for the possibility of production delays or additions expenditures due to local protests and/or higher environmental standards put in place. Before you pooh-pooh the idea that anything might stand in the way of energy barons, consider the industry they are damaging: real estate, which is another powerful and politically connected industry. If fracking water contamination or fracking-induced earthquakes start affecting higher population density areas (suburbs, cities), we may have a Godzilla versus Mothra battle between competing elites in our future.

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A Truce In The Holy Oil War?

Yves here. This development, of Qatar potentially falling in line with Saudi Arabia, would represent a meaningful shift in Middle Eastern dynamics. But whether this is the beginning of the end of ISIS, or of the “holy oil war,” is another matter. ISIS started out as Prince Bandar’s private army, and it is not hard to imagine that the Saudis wield considerable influence. Among other things, the Saudis remain mighty unhappy over the fact that the US did not escalate in Syria in 2013, and has refused (in a rare show of wisdom) to attack Iran.

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Who Will Wind Up Holding the Bag in the Shale Gas Bubble?

We’ve been writing off and on about how the sudden fall in gas prices has been expected to put a lot of shale gas development on hold. In fact, quite a few analysts believe that one of the big Saudi aims in refusing to support oil prices was to dent the prospects for competitive energy sources, not just renewables like wind and hydro power, but shale gas.

Even though OilPrice reported that US rig count had indeed fallen as oil prices plunged, John Dizard at the Financial Times (hat tip Scott) gives a more intriguing piece of the puzzle: the degree to which production is still chugging along despite it being uneconomical. The oil majors have been criticized for levering up to continue developing when it is cash-flow negative; they are presumably betting that prices will be much higher in short order.

But the same thing is happening further down the food chain, among players that don’t begin to have the deep pockets of the industry behemoths: many of them are still in “drill baby, drill” mode.

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Paul Martin, A Regulator Who Said No to Banks

Paul Martin, who was Canada’s finance minister before he became prime minister, is widely seen as implementing the policies that led Canada to get through the crisis virtually unscathed. This is the summary of Martin’s key actions as finance minister from INET: In general, Martin has received justifiable plaudits but often for the wrong thing. […]

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Wolf Richter: Global Business Outlook “Darkest Picture Since Financial Crisis”

Yves here. Wolf like to paint in bright colors, but the points he makes are consistent with business and financial press reporting, if you cut through the hype. Europe is still teetering on the verge of recession. Growth in Japan has gone negative. China is slowing down, to a degree that led the authorities to give it a monetary shot in the arm. And the US simply is not getting to liftoff. Even with official unemployment falling, consumers are cautious about purchases, with most planning to spend less on Christmas than last year. Corporate capital expenditures in the US are increasing, but so far, this is in the “a robin does not mean it’s spring” category. So with the US as the one possible engine for world expansion, and that one not firing robustly, it’s not hard to see the reason for global business leaders getting more nervous.

And to add a wild card into the mix: contrary to current conventional wisdom, bond maven Jeff Gundlach thinks the Fed will raise rates next year. That seems plausible, given that ZIRP gives the Fed no policy room if anything bad happens to the financial system and that the central bank is also coming under more political heat for its continuing extreme monetary policies. Crisis junkies may recall that the Fed went from 25 basis point interest rate cuts to 75 basis points (“75 is the new 25″), when it wasn’t clear that reductions that large were necessary (ie, signaling that the Fed was on the case and taking matters seriously was probably sufficient). The magnitude of the cuts brought the central bank deeper into super-lowe interest rate terrain. I recall thinking when the Fed cut the Fed funds rate below 2% that they would come to regret that decision.

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Why Congress Should Not Get Out of the Way of the Postal Service

Yves here. One of the slow-motion looting projects underway is effort to shut down the Postal Service or shrink it into uncompetitiveness. This post gives an update on the state of play in Congress as a particularly vocal Republican opponent, Ron Johnson, is set to become head of the Congressional committee responsible for Postal Service oversight.

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Five Bedrock Washington Assumptions That Perpetuate Our Middle East Policy Train Wreck

Yves here. As much as I consider myself to be reasonably jaded, I was nevertheless gobsmacked to read Andrew Bacevich’s list of “Washington assumptions” that underlie US policy-making in the Middle East. They aren’t just detached from reality, they are so wildly at odds with reality as to look deranged. I’d really like to believe that Bacevich is simply describing the all-too-common syndrome of coming to believe your own PR. But as he tells it, these “Washington assumptions” aren’t simply the undergirding talking points for key domestic and foreign constituencies; they really are policy drivers.

This thinking underlying these “Washington assumptions” is not just arrogant but has a rigidity that is almost religious in nature. The neocon vision, that the US has the right to remake the world, combined with how confidence in US virtue and exceptionalism seems to be rising even as our policy initiatives looks more and more mendacious and destructive even to our close allies (well, save the UK).

You can see another set of Washington assumptions at work in the TransPacific Partnership negotiations: that no prospective treaty member will ever question the benefits of free trade (as in they’ll never look at the fine print of what the deal is really about), that they will also want to ally themselves with the US as the better hegemon than China (if nothing else, the US is willing to act as the consumer of the last resort, a role China is not keen to assume, since that is tantamount to exporting jobs).

So this post also serves to demonstrate why Kissinger in his recent public pronouncements looks vastly more responsible than the crew in charge of our foreign affairs. As much as the deservedly-derided doctor was far too willing to team up with unsavory types to achieve what he considered to be American ends, his notion of “realpolitik” explicitly took morality out of the picture. Watching the US manage to devise even worse policies out of a warped, ideologically-driven notion of virtue is both perverse and chilling, like watching someone with a mental illness play out their delusions. And although mad leaders are sadly common in history, it’s another matter completely to see a technocratic class taking that role.

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Big Investors Rebelling Against Private Equity Fees

In a remarkable and long-overdue change in attitude, institutional investors are starting to tell private equity titans that they think they don’t earn their outsized pay. And that’s before you get to all the grifting they’ve been exposed to be doing on top of that.

The Wall Street Journal described a confrontation at a conference in Paris, with a pension fund manager responsible overseeing private equity investments calling out the unjustifiable level of private equity fees.

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