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 Whistleblowers Need Protection



January 21, 2010

Lost in all the hullaballoo about the Republican Senate win in Massachsetts is that the fact that the health care reform bill need not be dead. For the Senate has passed a bill, imperfect as it may be, and if Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Cal) could entice, cajole, bribe or otherwise convince enough of her Democratic caucus to pass the Senate bill as is, it could still be a done deal. But we just had the blue moon three weeks ago.

Be that as it may, it is remarkable that the Democratic candidate was able to squander the 20 point lead in the polls she had less than a month ago (a lead wide enough that her loss could not be attributed to bad polling). This is a wake-up call for Obama : for the second time he threw his support very publicly behind a candidate only to have his head handed to him. American voters are in a sour mood : they voted for him since he presented himself as a 21st century man & now they voted against him because, once in the White House, he allowed himself to become captive to a system that is obsolete in 21st century terms.

Last week’s edition mentioned that Profs. Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff had found that the average rate of growth when the national debt was < 60% of GDP was significantly higher than when it was > 90% (when it often was negative). Since then the IMF opined the US national debt is on track to rise to 93+% of GDP from 62% in 2007. Draw your own conclusions & always question those who say “This time things are different.”

Last Monday’s Special Edition generated two interesting feedbacks. One on my comment that “Tony Boeckh founded Montreal-based Bank Credit Analyst”. It pointed out that it actually had been founded by Hamilton Bolton (in 1949) & that Tony hadn’t joined the firm until 20 years later. Mea Culpa; I should have checked my facts, rather than depend on my memory (by the way, Bolton’s founding philosophy may be particularly relevant to the present, namely that “national economies and their capital markets are led by shifts in financial liquidity, money supply and credit”).

The other came from a younger reader who represents a lower consumption, hopefully more sustainable future-oriented cohort and who, to the best to my knowledge & to his credit, is trying to live in accordance with that idea to a greater extent to many North Americans. He questioned why I seem to imply that growth is good, & raises the question of whether growth is even ‘good’ at all. This is an issue whose time is coming in North America, even if most Americans don’t know that yet. But he may not have read Gleanings over time as carefgully as he might have; thus part of Monday’s Special Edition read in part as follows : “the US financial sector had doubled its share of GDP to 8% (all of it involving changes of ownership of existing assets,& the syphoning off of corporate cash into private pockets, rather than economy-building’”) - my comment explicitly questioned the real contribution such financial activity makes to the common good.

Another example. A few years ago I mentioned in Gleanings, & since have referred to it in passing, that a State of Florida agency had compared 47 varieties of fruits & vegetables currently widely grown commercially in the state with those in common usage fifty years earlier, & had found that on average their nutrient content was 40% less today than it had been then. If my memory serves me right (while maybe now I should be doubly careful doing so, I have never yet figured out how to retrieve information from the 2,500 or so pages of Gleanings now on my computer), my comment at the time was something like “great for GDP growth but doing little or nothing for productivity” - all fifty years of plant research & breeding seems to have achieved is to create a need for, among others, more fertilizer, pesticides & herbicides to be produced & used, more trucks to haul produce hither & dither, and more handling all the way up the supply chain to get the same nutrient value on store shelves.

History is full of examples of economic activity that boost GDP growth but do nothing for a society’s real wellbeing but are marketed as “progress”. In his (in)famous speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, Nikita Krushev mentioned as one example of the poor use of resources that one ministry had tug- & barge fleets going loaded downstream the river Volga & ‘deadheading’ back upriver while another had fleets going loaded upstream & deadheading downstream. About the same time in Holland, to get around a wage freeze, construction firms in The Hague only hired workers in Rotterdam who were picked up at, or near, their homes, punched their time clocks upon getting on the bus & spent the next 45 minutes riding the bus & getting paid for it, before starting a shorter work day, while their Rotterdam counterparts did all their hiring in the Hague & followed the same practice in reverse (with at night both repeating the whole process in reverse order). It was a boon to GDP growth, creating more jobs for construction workers & bus drivers, adding to the gasoline consumption & increasing bus usage, but adding nothing to real output. Another wonderful example of more recent vintage is the Calgary Airport : located wonderfully close to the city, its terminal buildings are on the side of the airport furthest away from the city : great for the taxi business but nonsensical from a purely economic efficiency perspective. And look what we have done, & and are continuing to do, with our cities’ infamous ‘urban sprawl’ (which, however, may be starting to reverse itself)

While he raises a good point, there is nothing inherently wrong with growth provided the real marginal benefit thereof outweighs the real marginal cost (& much of our post WW II “growth” was based on cost-benefit analyses that were deeply flawed because they were not holistic. Globally growth will remain inevitable as long as there are billions of people with standards of living that are unacceptable in absolute terms. But is growth, as traditionally defined, really necessary in the First World in general, & North America in particular? May our traditional deification of GDP growth not now be obsolete even if it were sustainable? How much of the “stuff” that North Americans buy (& often discard long before its useful life is ended) really adds to their quality of life? (But there may be hope in this respect if Monday’s observation is correct that “today’s young people’s status symbols appear to have shifted from cars to electronic gadgets, and there are 20% fewer teenagers with drivers’ licenses now than there were 30 years ago when the population was 25% smaller”). Do Americans & the rest of the First World really think that 16% of the world’s people can continue to consume ad infinitum 75% of the world’s resources? Ought we not be ashamed when the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, home to fewer people than the developed world has Ph.Ds, may be setting an example for the world in general, & the West in particular, in how to define economic & social wellbeing in a new, more sustainable, and possibly more edifying & satisfying, way than merely counting who “ends up with the most marbles”? Why, if having ‘stuff’ is good & having more ‘stuff’ is better, is unhappiness, depression & mental illness such a common occurrence among North Americans? How many two-income couples are working more for the tax man than for themselves and/or to buy stuff that doesn’t really add to their quality of life? ? The list is endless & the answer always the same : we have been led astray by marketing pied pipers.


    · The Secretariat of the Davos-based World Economic Forum each year, ahead of its  five day meeting (this year from January 27th -31st) issues a Global Risk Report on the greatest risks facing the global economy. Introducing it on January 14th, its Managing Director & Chief Business Officer said the financial crisis & economic recession had created “a more vulnerable environment where unaddressed risks may become tomorrow’s crises” & in a discussion of the economic side of the global risk situation Daniel M. Hofman, Group Chief Economist of Zurich Financial Services, was critical of “unsustainable” country debt levels since “when a country’s debt level exceeds 90% of GDP, it reduces growth by one percent”. 

This year’s 2,500 attendees will include 900 corporate CEOs & 30 presidents/prime ministers; the latter will include many peripheral leaders, incl. those of Brazil, Canada, France, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Spain, South Africa & South Korea but none of the heavyweights, those of the US & China, nor those of Afghanistan, Israel & Russia.



    · Managing Director Dominique Strass-Kahn suggested on January 18th the IMF will raise its forecast of global economic growth for 2010 from October’s estimate of 3.1% as Asian economies are returning to their pre-crisis growth even as the advanced economies remain “sluggish”, but warned the money rushing into emerging markets could cause asset bubbles 

Forecasts of quarterly growth rates for China this year range as high as 16-17% & those for the US as high as 5+% - both look optimistic, the latter more so than the former.  


    · It expects it to rise 1.4% to 86.3MM bbld. due to faster growth in the emerging economies. 

Its impact on oil prices may be limited, given Saudi Arabia’s level of shut-in capacity & its policy of adjusting output to ensure the development of alternate energy sources isn’t unduly encouraged. 


    · London-based GFMS expects the price of gold in the First Half of 2010 to average US$1,050, vs. last year’s $972, with Chairman Philip Klapwijk saying “what we see in 2010 is that there is a fair chance that investors will temporarily drive prices above US$1,300 an ounce” (vs. a December 2009 high of US$1,226.10 & US$1,228 on January 13th). 

Demand for jewelry is “weak” as the strong Yuan-lessened demand in China more than offsets growth in the India & the Middle East markets. And while there will continue to be central bank buying, the US$ gold price will likely be largely a function of the dollar’s strength or weakness.



    · Despite the US$1.42TR US deficit for the year ended last September 30th (& a forecast US$1.5TR deficit for this fiscal year), in November foreigners were net buyers to the tune of US$128.6BN, the most in two years, although China was a US$9.3BN net seller. 

Monthly numbers be damned; it’s the trend, & the confidence in the US dollar’s intrinsic value that matters & there the news is less positive (Russia since announced it was buying Canadian dollars).  


    · Fed policy makers are divided over the possible impact on mortgage rates when it quits buying MBS (mortgage-backed securities) as scheduled on March 31st. While Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren told the Hartford Courant newspaper it would boost them 0.25% to 0.75%, most private sector economists expect (hope?) it will be at the low end of that range, as do other Fed officials (apparently incl. Chairman Bernanke), many of whom want to keep the option open to buy more such securities if the rate were to spike.  

Such programs are easy to launch but sometimes hellishly hard  to extricate from.     


    · Bond issuance in the first six business days of the new year exceeded US$75BN. While much involved financial institutions seeking to repair their balance sheets, concerns interest rates are about to jump are prompting an attitude of ‘let’s get our money while it is still cheap even if we hadn’t planned to come until later in the year”. And fears abound of market turbulence when the authorities start unwinding last year’s emergency liquidity injections & real estate companies must start rolling over their maturing loans. 

None of this suggests the presence of high levels of confidence. 


    · He maintains, & told Congress, that the Fed’s post-2000 low interest policy wasn’t to blame for the housing boom & bust, instead blaming it on exotic mortgages, foreign  money coming in and a failure of regulators & industry supervisors to do their job. But 42 of Wall Street & business economists surveyed by Bloomberg said it was at least partly to blame, vs. 12 who agreed with him (although 27 academic economists were evenly split, 13 to 14). 

A partial truth, repeated often & loudly enough, eventually will gain the status of the whole truth. 


    · American families’ inflation-adjusted incomes declined 1.6% in 2009, the most since 1990, as the CPI rose 2.7%, the most in over 50 years (i.e. since the aftermath of the Korean War), after declining 0.1% in 2008.  

A year ago oil prices were plummeting but since have almost doubled & food prices are now rising. Despite weak retail sales, the market too seems to be pricing in higher inflationary expectations. 


    · Building permit applications were up 11% in December to an annual rate of 653,000, more than expected & the highest number since October 2008, while housing units under construction were off 4% to a 557,000 annual rate, which undershot forecasts. Builders worry about the unemployment situation & the number of foreclosures flooding the market & find credit harder to come by than 18 months ago. 

Any rise in mortgage rates ain’t going help things any.  


    · It was up 0.2% in December, a fraction of November’s 1.8%, as 1.4% higher food prices, up for the second month in a row, more than offset 0.4% lower energy prices. This brought the rise in wholesale prices for 2009 as a whole to 4.4%, 5x 2008's 0.9%, the very reverse of ‘core’ wholesale prices that were up 0.9% in 2009, one-fifths of 2008's 4.5%. 

You can’t eat, & warm/cool yourself with, the core basket of goods (& while many of the latter involve goods the purchase of which can be delayed, this isn’t true for food & energy). 


    · They were up 36,000 to 482,000, rather than declining by 4,000, as expected. 

Part of this may have been the result of a “processing backlog due to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays” (which doesn’t give one nice, warm feelings about quality of this data series). 


    · In November US highway travel was up 1.4% YoY, as more Americans who stayed home last year for Thanksgiving this year went somewhere. YTD highway travel was up 0.3%. 

Either people are feeling better about themselves or they had just plain, old-fashioned cabin fever. But the jury will be out on the trend, or lack thereof, until gasoline prices start rising again. 


    · India’s outsourcing sector gets 60% of its global sales from the US. And US corporations, are sending more work offshore to cut costs.  So India’s top three outsourcing firms (Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys & Wipro) in the Fourth Quarter expanded their global work forces by an average 5.1%. 

It won’t to help the US recovery when government entities are among those doing the outsourcing. 


    · Prof. Peter Morici of the University of Maryland, College Park says he just needs to warn the big banks (without a need for Congressional approval) that those paying undue bonuses risk losing their highly-profitable “primary dealer” status and/or access to the Fed’s discount window (Prof. Raghavendra Rau of the University of California, Berkeley found that during the period 1994-2006 companies that overpaid had lower RoIs than those that didn’t).  

Blindingly simple & unquestionably 100% effective. And hence doomed to ‘non-starter’ status! 


    · The global outlook is getting better, Canada’s job market stabilizing, real estate rocking & the stock market doing well. So why did the Bank of Canada on January 19th keep its benchmark rate at 0.25% & said it expects to maintain that until at least July?  Because “embedded in the accompanying statement is [a] note of caution ... that there remains a huge question on what happens when the steroids (i.e. the stimulus) are taken away.”  

A spectre haunts central bankers, that of Japan post-1989 now being seen as having nipped several incipient recoveries in the bud by prematurely yanking the cookie jar off the table. 


(G&M, Nathan Vanderklippe) 

    · Alberta’s new Energy Minister, Ron Liepert, told a press conference ‘there is a need to examine ways to moderate oil sands development to ensure that future oilsands development does not again overstretch the capacity of the province’s infrastructure’. 

If genuine, this would be a long-overdue departure from Alberta governments’ traditional ‘let-her-rip’ & ‘planning = socialism’ attitude that he himself alluded to just two months ago when, as Minister of Health, he was asked why there had been no prioritizing of who should get H1N1 shots first. 


    · After Turkish TV carried a program offensive to Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Avalon on January 11th summoned the Turkish ambassador to his office, seated him on a uncomfortable low couch, invited the media in & then, after pointing out he hadn’t shaken hands with him, launched into a diatribe in Hebrew the ambassador couldn’t understand. Even though the next day he conceded his behaviour had been inappropriate, Turkey threatened to recall its ambassador. So on January 14th Israel sent a formal letter of apology which Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan told the press was “the expected, desired answer” (even though Netanyahu’s office called Avalon’s action ‘correct, just badly handled’) but added “Israel ... must be more and more on the side of peace in the region”. 

Asked what he would have done if he had understood what Avalon was saying, the ambassador answered : “I would have walked out.” Israel for years sought closer ties with Turkey, and had succeeded to the point where it had become a key ally for it in the Middle East & the two had joint military exercises. But in recent years it became concerned Erdogan was getting too cosy with Iran & their relationship really soured when he publicly criticized Israel last year over its attack on Gaza. 


    · On January 20th Mahmoud Abbas proposed that, due to the two parties’ irreconcilable positions on the settlements, the Obama Administration should negotiate the final borders of the Palestinian state with Israel (on the basis of those of 1967 with the possibility of an exchange of up to 3% thereof). Later that day Netanyahu  said that Israel must continue to have a presence on the West Bank, even after a peace agreement is achieved, to prevent rockets from being brought in from the outside, for “We are surrounded by an ever-growing arsenal of rockets in the Iranian-supported enclaves to the north and to the south”, conceding the anti-rocket defense system Israel is planning is “prohibitively expensive.” 

First it was an all but total demilitarization with a third party military supervisory presence to ensure that no weapons would be brought in from the outside. Now even that apparently isn’t good enough any more. This is Israel’s interpretation of coming to the negotiating table ”without pre-conditions”?  


    · A parliamentary committee has publicly blamed Saaed Mortazavi, Tehran’s prosecutor-general, a hardline fundamentalist & ally of President Ahmadinejad, for the death of three prisoners at a detention centre. Throwing him, for a decade the public face of the regime’s repression, to the wolves is deemed an attempt  by senior ‘moderate’ supporters of the regime to reconcile with the opposition Green Movement. While Ahmadinejad immediately countered by naming Mortazavi to head the regime’s anti-drug & anti-smuggling unit, state television did begin to show debates between radical & moderate supporters of the regime in which the President was blamed for causing the crisis situation since the June election. This move towards reconciliation came after similar moves by leading opposition figures : Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the runner-up in the presidential election, refrained in his latest public statement from calling for the overthrow of the government & Mohammed Khatami, a former reformist president, condemned radicalism on both sides & distanced himself from calls for the establishment of a secular state by saying “The radicals should not be allowed to reign and we should all defend the Islamic republic.”  

The clerics & moderate leaders have one thing in common, self-preservation. They are all “old” in a country with a young, increasingly well-educated population (one in 20 Iranians is currently attending one of Iran’s 54 universities & 42 medical schools, vs. is one in 25 in the US - & the latter number is swollen by the recession). Since 1979 university enrolment has grown six-fold but the population only two-fold, but the annual ‘brain drain’ of 150,000 of Iran’s ‘best & the brightest’ indicates the regime isn’t meeting their needs. It is interesting in thisw context that in both authorized-, & unauthorized cell phone-, videos on TV, the pro-regime crowds are predominantly in the 35+ year-, & the crowds of protesters largely in the under 35 year-, age bracket.        


    · It reported on January 11th that, despite the problematic global car market,  it had delivered 6.29MM vehicles in 2009,vs. 6.23MM in 2008, with strong sales in its home market (1,24MM vehicles delivered, up 17.5% YoY), China (1.4MM, up 36.7%) & Brazil (688,300, up 8.7%) 

Especially in bad markets it helps to have the right product at the right price.



    · He said in Moscow on January 14th that after January 19th Russia must find alternate sources of poultry imports if the US cannot meet its new food safety regulations that Washington has complained will have a ”devastating effect” on the U.S. poultry industry. 

Easier said than done : commercial-scale animal husbandry practices are similar everywhere.  


    · His hopes for a recovery from last year’s deep recession are being jeopardized by low water behind the Guri hydroelectric dam, the source of 75% of Venezuela’s power, due to last year’s lowest rainfall in decades. This has caused power outages that, among others, will affect output in the local steel & aluminum industries that are the source of most of its non-oil exports (& his domestic situation will be worsened by the January 8th devaluation of the bolivar, by refueling inflation just as it had started to fall marginally to 25%).  

While Chavez blames el Niño, his critics blame insufficient new investment & spending on maintenance, and an erstwhile deputy minister for electricity a level of corruption that has less than one-third of the funds earmarked for power projects actually being used for the purpose intended.

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