Macro Links Nov 27th – The $100 Billion Man
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MACRO LINKS TABLE OF CONTENTS (Click or Scroll Down)
- BEZOS $100 BILLION
- RUSSIA PROBE, FLYNN, SESSIONS, PUTIN
- GOP TAX PLAN
- SAUDI ARABIA
- ZIMBABWE POST-MUGABE
- GERMAN COALITION TALKS
- EGYPT TERROR ATTACK
- RATES, LIQUIDITY, SYSTEMIC RISK, BALANCE SHEETS
- MACRO OP-EDS, INSIGHT, EVENTS AND TRENDS
- CENTRAL BANKS & MONETARY POLICY
- USA ECONOMY DATA, CITIES AND STATES
- GLOBAL ECONOMY DATA
- POSITIONING, INFLECTION, MARKET CALLS
- ENERGY CRUDE OIL, OIL SANDS, SHALE
- COMMODITIES PRECIOUS METALS
- FRONTIER MARKETS
- BREXIT, SCOXIT, LONDON, UK ECONOMY
- GEOPOLITICS, CRIME, TERRORISM
- PROPAGANDA, CORRUPTION, AUTHORITARIANISM
- TRUMP WORLD
- ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, DRONES, FUTURE TECH
- HEALTH, PRODUCTIVITY AND WELLNESS
BEZOS $100 BILLION
Bezos’s ascent is the first time anyone has crossed the $100 billion threshold since Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates earned it in 1999, according to Bloomberg, whose Billionaire’s Index follows the real-time net worth of the world’s 500 wealthiest people.
Bezos started 2017 as the fourth richest person in the world, and surpassed both Inditex founder Amancio Ortega and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet this year as well. Bezos’ climbing net worth is due in part to an exceptionally profitable year for Amazon, which saw the acquisition of Whole Foods.
As Bezos’s wealth flirts with new heights, there’s likely to be more questions about what he intends to do with it. Unlike Gates, who was the world’s richest person until Bezos passed him in October, or U.S. investor Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest person with $78.9 billion, Bezos has given relatively little of his fortune to charity.
RUSSIA PROBE, FLYNN, SESSIONS, PUTIN
The break-up with the president’s legal team suggests a turning point in the Russia investigation, especially if Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey.
From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.
GOP TAX PLAN
President Trump will meet with Senate Republicans at their weekly closed-doors lunch on Tuesday as the party prepares to vote next week on legislation overhauling the tax code.
The meeting will come during a weekly lunch Republicans hold as they go over their agenda. There are 52 Republicans in the 100-seat Senate, and the GOP needs a simple majority of votes to pass their version of the tax cut bill as soon as Thursday or Friday.
Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince called the Supreme Leader of Iran “the new Hitler of the Middle East” in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday, sharply escalating the war of words between the arch-rivals.
Saudi princes and businessmen rounded up in a corruption crackdown have begun handing over funds and assets to pay for their freedom, two people briefed on the process say. Several billions of dollars had already been handed over to the government, one of them said, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to recover at least $100bn through the crackdown.
Mr. Mnangagwa’s ascension to the post long held by Robert Mugabe will cap a military-led campaign that his allies have tried to coat with a veneer of legality.
GERMAN COALITION TALKS
The breakdown of the coalition talks last weekend has done more than dent Ms. Merkel’s seeming invulnerability and raise the prospect of new elections, analysts say. Although the Social Democrats agreed on Friday to meet with the chancellor’s party next week — raising hopes for, if not a coalition, then a tolerated minority government — the current situation may well signal the breakdown of Germany’s postwar tradition of consensus and the dawn of a messy and potentially unnerving politics.
Angela Merkel’s chances of avoiding new elections and returning for a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor were strengthened on Friday after her centre-left rival agreed to enter into coalition talks, reversing a long-held pledge not to rejoin a “grand coalition”.
EGYPT TERROR ATTACK
Militants detonated a bomb inside a crowded mosque in the Sinai Peninsula on Friday and then sprayed gunfire on panicked worshipers as they fled, killing at least 235 people and wounding at least 109 others. Officials called it the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which survivors described as a sophisticated, terrifying and unprecedented assault on a mosque that was frequented by Sufi Muslims: an attack planned, it appeared, to ensure that none of the worshipers survived.
The attackers drove up to the mosque in four off-road vehicles, detonated a bomb and then shot escaping worshippers, news agencies said. About 40 gunmen, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades, were involved in the attack, Reuters said.
RATES, LIQUIDITY, SYSTEMIC RISK, BALANCE SHEETS
S&P Global Ratings cut South Africa’s local-currency debt score to junk on Friday, while Moody’s Investors Service also threatened to slash its ranking, raising the risk of a selloff from global indexes.
With the U.S. stock market at a record high and daily stock gyrations near multi-decade lows, some investors have raised concerns about the lack of fear in the market, but U.S. equity options market data suggests investors are far from complacent.
Positioning in options on the S&P 500 index and CBOE Volatility Index shows investors have been gradually adding to hedges over the last few months. “We didn’t see it on our desk and no one seems to care much about hedging but somehow it’s happening,” said Jim Strugger, derivatives strategist at MKM Partners in New York.
The average German keeps more than €100 in their purse or wallet, shoppers in Malta and Greece prefer to pay for goods in cash while the French and Belgians still reach for their cheque books to settle the bill.
The findings are revealed in a European Central Bank study that is the first of its kind to dig deeply into the region’s purchasing habits. The ECB polled 65,000 people across the single currency area for 10 months to July 2016. It showed how people’s cash habits vary hugely across the region.
MACRO OP-EDS, INSIGHT, EVENTS AND TRENDS
Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down, shake the money out of their pockets and don’t stop shaking them until it’s all out!”
But guess what? This anticorruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by M.B.S. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979. That is, back to what M.B.S. described to a recent global investment conference here as a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
In another case of the “America First” president cutting off his nose to spite his face, Donald Trump is considering the appointment of someone with no background in statistics to run the US census. Running a shoddy survey, out of political opportunism or simple incompetence, would compromise one of the great advantages of the United States: Trusted data about who Americans are, how they work, and where they live.
A market truism for our time is that whenever a company touches anything related to blockchain — or claims to — its stock shoots up, sometimes even before it enters the industry. The latest example? Riot Blockchain Inc., formerly known as Bioptix Inc.
The reaction reflects huge investor interest for exposure to this year’s cryptocurrency rally, as bitcoin soars by more than 700 percent and a flurry of new digital tokens spring up, with the market ballooning to $260 billion in market capitalization from just $17 billion at the start of the year. Bitcoin derivatives have yet to start trading on a major exchange, exchange traded funds haven’t been approved and there’s only a handful of trusts and notes holding digital assets, so blockchain-related stocks provide an alternative for investors who want in on the boom but are wary of buying cryptocurrencies directly.
Another example is 360 Blockchain Inc., a private equity firm formerly known as 360 Capital Financial that changed its name last month, saying it plans to focus its investments on blockchain-related companies. That drove its stock up 300 percent.
And the list goes on.
With the siren-call of high returns, punters and celebrities are piling in. And this is what worries regulators. But whether they have the ability to do much depends on whether they apply rules, often decades in the making, to an innovation that is months old.
“It is a bit of a patchwork,” says Simon Toms of law firm Allen & Overy, contrasting the draconian approach of China, which banned ICOs in September, to the self-confessedly “permissive” regulations of the Isle of Man.
Vanguard’s trading floor is not a row of computers. The desks are occupied by people, albeit just a small number of them managing an astronomical amount of money. The space is compact – and quiet.
Vanguard’s equity index group, the people involved in actually running its stock index tracking funds, consists of 60 people: 35 portfolio managers, plus traders, analysts and those in leadership positions. Between them they run £1.9 trillion, spread across a few hundred portfolios. That equates to £32bn per person. There is no one set manager per portfolio, and responsibilities regularly rotate.
On the bond side, more people are required. In the fixed-income group there are 160 people managing £900bn. There are still only 45 portfolio managers, but more than 100 traders and research analysts are needed. These teams are spread across the company’s US, European and Australia-Pacific regions, surrounded by the thousands of other staff who make up the Vanguard machine.
The end investor is discussed frequently, but handling incomprehensibly large amounts of money is part of the day-to-day. One member of the foreign exchange team said she put through more than £100bn in currency orders last month.
“The U.S. will become the undisputed global oil and gas leader for decades to come,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said at a press conference in London. He said that the increase in absolute terms will dwarf even the ramp-ups delivered by Saudi Arabia and Russia in the post-war period. Between 2005 and 2030, total U.S. oil output will double from less than 15 million barrels of oil equivalent a day to over 31 million.
The transformation is set to give U.S. diplomacy considerably more clout, lessening the dependence on Middle Eastern oil and making the U.S. the answer to some developing nations’ most pressing needs. “The U.S. Secretary of State will be sitting more comfortably in his seat than the the Secretary of State of [today’s] energy exporting countries,” Birol said.
The IEA’s forecasts overlap largely with the Trump administration’s pursuit of what it calls “energy dominance”—a strategy that has been visible in its rollback of various Obama-era policies this year (above all in the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord), and in a big expansion of federal acreage offered for oil and gas prospecting.
But even such “dominance” won’t completely free the U.S. of dependence on potentially unreliable sources of foreign energy. U.S. refineries are mostly engineered to process foreign crude blends which are heavier and have a higher sulfur content, whereas most of the “tight oil” being exploited by shale companies and oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska is lighter and “sweeter.” That means that the U.S. will continue to import from places such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, while U.S. crude will be exported in ever-greater volumes, the IEA said.
For more than half a century, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister could move markets with a few choice words about what OPEC may decide at its next meeting, generating millions if not billions of dollars of profit for insiders.
Not anymore. While OPEC’s gatherings still influence prices, it’s not Saudi Arabia’s voice that matters most, but the voice of a non-member: Russia, specifically Vladimir Putin.
Since engineering Russia’s pact with the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries to curb supplies a year ago, Putin has emerged as the group’s most influential player. As one senior OPEC official put it on condition of anonymity, the Russian leader is now “calling all the shots.”
The Kremlin’s growing sway within the cartel reflects a foreign policy that’s designed to counter U.S. influence across the globe through a wide mix of economic, diplomatic, military and intelligence measures. That strategy, which is undergirded by Russia’s vast natural-resource wealth, appears to be working.
“Putin is now the world’s energy czar,” said Helima Croft, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who directs global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets LLC in New York.
Elon Musk touted ranges and charging times that don’t compute with the current physics and economics of batteries. Recent claims are so far beyond current industry standards for electric vehicles that they would require either advances in battery technology or a new understanding of how batteries are put to use, said Sam Jaffe, battery analyst for Cairn Energy Research in Boulder, Colorado. In some cases, experts suspect Tesla might be banking on technological improvements between now and the time when new vehicles are actually ready for delivery.
“I don’t think they’re lying,” Jaffe said. “I just think they left something out of the public reveal that would have explained how these numbers work.”
It seems increasingly likely that our society will one day view our infatuation with Twitter, Facebook, and the like as a passing, often destructive fad. Yes, it’s true that we’ve heard this all before—that people are abandoning social media, that the platforms are doomed. The New York Times has written variations on that story so many times over, it could have been a standing column in the business section of the paper. But I do believe that this time is different, the beginning of a massive shift, and I believe it’s the fault of these social networks.
One of the problems is that these platforms act, in many ways, like drugs. Facebook, and every other social-media outlet, knows that all too well. Your phone vibrates a dozen times an hour with alerts about likes and comments and retweets and faves. The combined effect is one of just trying to suck you back in, so their numbers look better for their next quarterly earnings report. Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s earliest investors and the company’s first president, came right out and said what we all know: the whole intention of Facebook is to act like a drug, by “[giving] you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” That, Parker said, was by design. These companies are “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya has echoed this, too. “Do I feel guilty?” he asked rhetorically on CNN about the role Facebook is playing in society. “Absolutely I feel guilt.”
Just a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis, suburbia’s future seemed perilous, with experts claiming that many suburban tracks were about to become “the next slums.” The head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development proclaimed that “sprawl” was now doomed, and people were “headed back to the city.”
This story reflected strong revivals of many core cities, and deep-seated pain in many suburban markets. Yet today, less than a decade later, as we argue in the new book that we co-edited, “Infinite Suburbia,” the periphery remains the dominant, and fastest growing, part of the American landscape.
This is not just occurring in the United States. In many other countries, as NYU’s Solly Angel has pointed out, growth inevitably means “spreading out” toward the periphery, with lower densities, where housing is often cheaper, and, in many cases, families find a better option than those presented by even the most dynamic core cities.
Forget the “resource curse”. Australia is blessed with the stuff. For more than a quarter of a century it has not had a recession, thanks largely to Chinese demand for its raw materials. It is only a few years since the end of one such China-led boom, in base metals such as iron ore. A new speculative flurry has started in minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel to feed another China-related craze—making batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).
CENTRAL BANKS & MONETARY POLICY
Colombia’s central bank extended the deepest series of interest rate cuts since the global financial crisis, and signaled that there may be more to come, as it tries to revive an economy that has been in the doldrums for two years.
USA ECONOMY DATA, CITIES AND STATES
Brick-and-mortar retailers did enough things right on Black Friday to consider the event a success, even if the crowds of past years haven’t returned. “People think retail is a nightmare, but it’s not,” said Tracy Ferschweiler, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. market manager who oversees seven stores around New York and New Jersey.
When the oil boom came to Williston, the western North Dakota city tried to use the influx of new wealth to transform itself from a hub for transient roughnecks into a stable and desirable place to live.
So it built new roads, a wastewater-treatment plant and a $70 million recreation center, complete with an indoor water park and four tennis courts. But as the oil boom has leveled off and North Dakota’s agricultural sector hit a rough patch, state funding has been stretched thin, stoking resistance to Williston’s plans.
Uber Technologies Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and Bloomin’ Brands Inc.’s Outback Steakhouse are among a growing group of employers giving workers near-instant access to their wages through payday apps.
New tools that allow people to spend the money they just earned have provided some workers an alternative to short-term, high-interest loans, say the technology startups offering the services. The payment plan also can boost employee attendance and tenure, managers say.
Employers across the retail, restaurant and service sectors are searching for inexpensive perks to attract and hold on to employees in the face of low unemployment. For workers, immediate access to cash can provide liquidity to cover emergency costs, but economists say it is unclear whether smaller, more frequent paychecks will help U.S. households under financial strain.
GLOBAL ECONOMY DATA
German companies are more confident than ever as they tap into the global economic upswing. A measure of the nation’s business confidence set a new record high in November. The Ifo institute’s index climbed to 117.5 from a revised 116.8, beating economists’ estimates for the gauge to remain unchanged.
Europe’s largest economy has soared this year as global trade picks up and the euro area’s revival becomes more broad-based. The Bundesbank predicts that German momentum will carry into the final quarter, and economists foresee the fastest expansion since 2011. There is also no danger of overheating just yet as inflation remains low, according to Fuest.
The country is finally emerging from a difficult recession, and the timing could not be better: President Vladimir V. Putin is running for re-election soon. Mr. Putin is widely expected to triumph in the March polls — there is no credible opposition, and he has levers of the state, from fiscal largess to official media outlets, at his disposal.
Figures discussed on Friday at Mr. Putin’s meeting with government and central bank officials showed strong consumer demand, a main driver of the growth. Retail sales for the month increased 3 percent compared with a year before, according to the state statistics service. The Finance Ministry projects the overall economy to grow 2.1 percent for the year. That would be Russia’s first full year of economic growth since a recession began in 2014.
Other economic indicators have been trending in the same direction. Inflation is expected to be about 4 percent for 2017, low by recent Russian standards. As recently as 2015, official figures showed consumer prices were rising more than 15 percent, and ordinary Russians were feeling the pinch. The cost of Russian staples was rising: The price of bread, an important product because of its mythologized status in the Soviet period as a symbol of well being, increased about 11 percent a year during the recession, according to the state statistics agency.
POSITIONING, INFLECTION, MARKET CALLS
When technology shares tumbled from sky-high valuations in 2000, Stanley Druckenmiller, then second-in-command to George Soros at his famed Quantum Fund, suffered the fate of having held on too long.
Nearly two decades on Mr Druckenmiller, who now runs his own family office but remains a closely-followed investor, holds vast amounts of his wealth in technology shares that have risen massively in value over the past year.
US regulatory filings released this month showed that in the third quarter Mr Druckenmiller’s Duquesne Family Office held 41 per cent of its long US equity holdings in just five technology shares — Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba and Alphabet, formerly known as Google.
ENERGY CRUDE OIL, OIL SANDS, SHALE
Betting on price swings in oil costs the least in three years before next week’s OPEC meeting. Implied volatility of options on second-month West Texas Intermediate futures sank to 20.94 percent Friday, the lowest level since October 2014, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Volatility has been sinking as futures move steadily higher, with prices reaching $59 a barrel for the first time in more than two years.
COMMODITIES PRECIOUS METALS
A gold industry obsessed with containing costs and minimizing risks will find itself at the edge of a cliff by 2020 as supply tightens, according to one of the most profitable producers.
Despite prices recovering from 2015 lows, the industry has been slow to reinvest in exploration or sustaining capital, Randgold Resources Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Mark Bristow said. Half of the gold coming out of the ground isn’t profitable to mine based on the true extraction costs, he said. “The one thing this industry does very well is mine gold at a loss,” Bristow told analysts at a breakfast meeting in Toronto on Friday.
KKR’s withdrawal illustrates the challenges facing large Western private-equity firms, which have tried to do business in Africa using their traditional buyout approach. This typically involves investing hundreds of millions of dollars at a time in companies to improve performance, with the expectation of selling them within five years for a higher price.
However, Africa has relatively few large companies to invest in, KKR said. “To invest our funds we need deal-flow of a certain size. It was especially the deal-size that wasn’t coming through,” Ludo Bammens, a spokesman for KKR, said about Africa. “There was enough deal-flow at a smaller level.”
BREXIT, SCOXIT, LONDON, UK ECONOMY
The U.K. Labour Party is consulting a hedge fund that is betting against Britain’s currency and says the economy may need an International Monetary Fund bailout.
“We’re not giving a political endorsement to a political party here, but as macro investors we actively engage in dialogue with policymakers across the spectrum,” said Mark Dowding, a senior portfolio manager at the firm. “There are elements of what Labour stands for that we find interesting and there may be elements that we disagree with.” He declined to comment on the meeting. Spokespeople for McDonnell also declined to comment.
European banks have cut their exposure to Britain since it voted to leave the EU, removing €350bn of UK-related assets from their balance sheets in just 12 months.
The 17 per cent reduction in UK-related assets shows that banks across the bloc are protecting themselves against the threat of potential losses if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal in 16 months’ time, triggering uncertainty over financial contracts.
Ireland’s political turmoil deepened on Friday, pushing the minority government in Dublin toward collapse just weeks before it is set to play a central role in negotiations over Britain’s planned departure from the European Union.
The government of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is able to remain in power in Ireland only with the support of the main opposition party that, on Friday, submitted a motion of no-confidence in his deputy prime minister — part an enduring dispute over her role in a policing scandal.
The move has consequences on two, interwoven fronts. First, it could lead to a snap election. And second, an election campaign would probably affect a European Union summit meeting in Brussels in mid-December, adding a further imponderable to the halting diplomacy over Brexit, as Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc is known.
GEOPOLITICS, CRIME, TERRORISM
The police said they received reports of gunfire, and responded as if to a terrorist incident, but found no sign of shooting. The station has reopened.
The conference, to be held in the Russian resort of Sochi, reflected Russia’s increased influence in shaping the outcome of the Syria war.
PROPAGANDA, CORRUPTION, AUTHORITARIANISM
The discovery, first flagged by investigative reporter Jake Bernstein on Friday afternoon, involves the purchase and subsequent sale of a condo at the newly constructed Trump Palace on the Upper East Side in the 1990s.
The deal involved a mysterious Panamanian company called Process Consultants, Inc., which bought a 16th floor condo at the Trump skyscraper in 1991. Process Consultants was owned through so-called bearer shares, which can be used to transfer assets with complete anonymity. Such shares are popular among money launderers.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, DRONES, FUTURE TECH
More than a decade after the improvised explosive device became the scourge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is battling another relatively rudimentary device that threatens to wreak havoc on American troops: the drone.
Largely a preoccupation of hobbyists and experimenting companies, the vehicles are beginning to become a menace on the battlefield, where their benign commercial capabilities have been transformed into lethal weapons and intelligence tools.
Instead of delivering packages, some have been configured to drop explosives. Instead of inspecting telecommunications towers, others train their cameras to monitor troops and pick targets. Instead of spraying crops, they could spread toxic gas, commanders worry. Military strategists envision the day when they will be deployed in robot armies capable of swarming defenses in kamikaze raids.
HEALTH, PRODUCTIVITY AND WELLNESS
In the 1960s, a debate began over the effect of sugar and fats on cardiovascular disease. Researchers say that the sugar industry, wanting to influence the discussion, funded research to look into sugar consumption.
And when it found data suggesting that sugar was harmful, the powerful industry pointed a finger at fats.
In an investigation published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers from the University of California at San Francisco claim that newly uncovered historical documents indicate the industry never disclosed the findings of its work and effectively misled the public to protect its economic interests.
One of the investigation’s authors, Stanton Glantz, told the New York Times that while the documents are several decades old, they are significant, as they show how long the sugar industry has spent de-emphasizing sugar’s effect on health.
“This is continuing to build the case that the sugar industry has a long history of manipulating science,” he said.
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