In the interest of lending some context to the nearing fiscal cliff deadline, a look at some of the benchmarks for disaster
Who’s afraid of the big, bad fiscal cliff? The obvious answer to that question is the White House, the Business Roundtable and the Federal Reserve – and really, not many others outside the Beltway.
Economists including Dean Baker and Paul Krugman say that going over the cliff will not be so bad, given that we have weeks, if not months, to repair any economic damage.
The Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of major US companies, counters that the fiscal cliff will hurt the meager economic progress we have made in the past year – and in fact, has hurt it already – and should be avoided at all costs.
In the middle of the debate are numerous numbers, statistics, benchmarks and calculations that have been hoisted in front of the public eye as proof – indubitable proof – that the fiscal cliff is destroying the economy.
It turns out, however, that many of those damning numbers that prove the evil of the fiscal cliff are not, actually, so damning. Don’t get us wrong: going over the fiscal cliff is not good, and there is strong consensus that damage is surely to come. There’s also no good reason for Congress’s theatrical refusal to end a fight that they themselves picked.
In the interest of playing devil’s advocates – and just plain old reality-checking – we look at a few benchmarks that are supposed to prove that the fiscal cliff is the worst thing that has ever happened to America. Still, truth is one thing and hysteria is another. Here is some context that the 10 Americans paying attention to the fiscal cliff might find handy.
The stock market and corporate America are suffering because of the fiscal cliff
The stock market, as measured by the S&P 500, is up 17% overall this year, according to Barclays. If that’s painful, there are plenty of investors willing to take more of it.
There is also the complaint that the S&P has been flat since the election. Many have blamed that on the fears of the fiscal cliff. David Kotok, with Cumberland Advisors, doesn’t buy it. He blames the flatness in the S&P on the drop in the value of Apple stock. Apple accounts for about 4.9% of the S&P 500 index. That was great when Apple stock was rocketing upwards to $700 a share in September, but now Apple has been steadily and steeply falling in value since, and now trades at $512 a share. Kotok believes Apple’s fall is what’s causing the dip in the S&P. He points other other S&P indexes that have risen since the election, and aren’t weighed down by Apple: the MidCap 400 Index, the S&P 600 SmallCap Index, and Guggenheim’s Equal Weight 500.
Another reason the stock market is not suffering (yet) is the strong impression that the market now expects Washington to be incompetent, and it certainly doesn’t expect any kind of answer to the fiscal cliff until the last possible minute, if that. As such, most fiscal cliff theatrics are being met with stock-market yawns. Peter Tchir, of TF Market Advisors, noted to his clients Wednesday: “Two weeks ago, news that the president was returning early to work on cliff deal would have sparked a 20-point move in the S&P 500. [Today] it didn’t.” The reason, in part? “Recent events have eroded what confidence was left in government, making any meaningful long term progress highly unlikely.”
Corporate earnings have not been so hot, it’s true. But that is unlikely to be a pure fiscal cliff issue; remember that the US is experiencing slow economic growth and not much demand. If you have to look to Washington, consider that for most of the year, a bitter election kept many companies on the sidelines, unsure of whether Obama or Romney would win.
Whatever uncertainty exists, it has not hurt the ability of companies to borrow money, which is important because would you lend money to anyone you suspect wouldn’t be able to pay it back? You would not. Investors who buy bonds think exactly the same way: they only like to buy bonds when they’re sure they’re going to get paid back. It’s significant that, even in the face of the fiscal cliff, investors are supporting US companies. Last week – in a slow week allegedly plagued by fiscal cliff fears – US companies sold $13bn of bonds and all are performing well, according to research by Jody Lurie of Janney Montgomery Scott. If investors were truly worried about the effect of the fiscal cliff on corporate earnings in the next few weeks, they would not be buying the bonds of big US companies.
Nor have shareholders suffered unduly. Barclays noted that companies in the S&P 500 paid shareholders big dividends; in fact, Barclays says, those S&P dividends are on pace for the highest year-over-year since the 1950s.
Holiday retail sales are suffering because of the fiscal cliff
A damning Associated Press headline announced “US holiday retail sales growth weakest since 2008.” That sure sounds recessionary. But a deeper dive into the story shows an omnibus of potential reasons: hurricane Sandy, the presidential election, the shootings in Newtown, and, of course, the fiscal cliff. There are a few problems with this satchel of excuses, not the least the idea that people stop shopping at times of distant school shootings. Most important, however, is this: when theories for an economic change are lined up like little soldiers, there is obvious ambiguity that the fiscal cliff is the most to blame.
In fact, the most likely reason for the drop in holiday retail sales is simply this: the Thanksgiving shopping week, including Black Friday and Cyber Monday, were huge. Black Friday sales were up both online and in retail stores, where millions more shoppers packed stores than they did in 2011; Comscore also said that Cyber Monday set a new record as the biggest online spending day in history, with consumers dropping $1.46bn on consumer goods. Consumers spent more than $1bn on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Consumer experts know that when you have a big Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the rest of the holiday spending tends to be soft. Consumers, after all, don’t have unlimited funds to keep spending for weeks and weeks on end. It’s also likely that much of the holiday shopping haul – paid for with credit cards – will take a while for consumers to pay down. Currently, consumers are buying themselves financial breathing room by delaying their debt payments, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper noted today that “US households spent 10.6% of their after-tax income on debt payments in the third quarter of the year, the lowest level since 1983.” New holiday shopping bills are likely to pile on top of old debts, indicating that consumers probably won’t spend much in any case for the next few months – fiscal cliff or not.
Also, let’s be clear: a minority of Americans even understand what the fiscal cliff is, and according to Gallup, only around a third of Americans are watching the negotiations very closely.
The fiscal cliff has already subtly wrecked the economy
This is one of the most compelling arguments against letting the US go over the fiscal cliff. It all hinges on “Because Ben Bernanke said so” – and indeed, the august chairman of the Federal Reserve did indeed say that not only is the fiscal cliff a big risk to the economy, but that we’re already suffering from it.
But the economy, in fact, is not doing so badly. Inflation is under control. Gas prices – which have an enormous impact on household finances – are actually dropping. Unemployment seems to be improving, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace. Manufacturing is solid, as is consumption and personal income. Housing is rebounding. Robert Johnson, an analyst with Morningstar, judged some of the economic data and concluded that not only is the fiscal cliff not hurting progress, but that the economic numbers “[look] almost a little too good to be true”.
Sentiment measures – especially among small businesses – are not so hot. Still, if you remember how few Americans understand the fiscal cliff, you’ll see why ignorance, in this case, has led to relative economic bliss.
Could we be growing faster? Perhaps. Still, there is no evidence that the economy has been backsliding; all the evidence so far indicates that the economy is getting back on its feet, no matter how incompetently Congress has handled this vote.
The only proper answer to the allegation that the fiscal cliff is “destroying” the economy is the baffled comment of Inigo Montoya, the vengeful Spaniard from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The fiscal cliff is the greatest looming threat to the US economy right now
Unfortunately, the fiscal cliff is just one of the major economic disasters we’re facing, and it’s a distant, distant third. By consensus, the effect of the fiscal cliff on the economy will be slow and agonizing. But other crises are facing the US with more immediate impact.
The biggest economic crisis America is likely to face soon is the threat of a strike by longshoremen, which could shut down America’s major ports. The last time that happened, it cost the US economy $1bn a day. A week ago, talks broke down between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the US Maritime Alliance Ltd. The ILA represents around 15,000 dockworkers and the Maritime Alliance represents the management at 14 of the biggest US ports, including Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, and Houston.
The longshoremen’s contract expires on Friday, and a strike would begin on Saturday. The issue is so major that the National Retail Federation joined 100 other associations – including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, American Apparel & Footwear Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Federation, Toy Industry Association and the US Chamber of Commerce – to send a letter to the president on Wednesday pleading for White House intervention.
A strike at those 14 ports would mean a widespread economic impact in the United States, since millions of jobs depend on what comes through the ports. Everything from agriculture to consumer goods could either be delayed or become more expensive as shippers look for different ways to get their goods into the US. The combined impact of a strike would be enormous; the University of Georgia has estimated that Georgia’s ports alone account for nearly $40bn in the state economy. A port strike would also hit employment very hard, as jobs would be lost – perhaps temporarily, perhaps not – for not only dockworkers, but also potentially every kind of worker who depends on shipped goods for their jobs.
The second biggest issue facing the economy in coming days is that of the debt ceiling. It is poised to be resurrected as a horrible sequel in the economic spotlight – sort of like Weekend at Bernie’s 2, in which two men use a corpse, revived by voodoo, to locate lost treasure; the plot involves magic, goats and sacrificial blood, which, in this case, could be a metaphor for the finances of taxpayers (the metaphors run deeper on further inspection, but would take us away from our primary mission).
In any case, savvy American readers will remember this pointless debt tussle from its first incarnation in the summer of 2011. Currently, the debt limit is set at $16.39tn; the Treasury has already borrowed $16.31tn; the Treasury estimates it will be less than 10 days before the US crashes into the debt ceiling again. The last time that happened, ratings firms issued the US its first-ever downgrade in its debt, which is akin to a consumer getting notched on his credit score. The effect the last time was minimal, because the US is still better at managing its money than, say, the eurozone; it’s dubious, however, whether the US can take strike two.
Government had hoped to scoop £290m from sale of Port of Dover to highest bidder – rumoured to be Calais
Dame Vera Lynn can relax. The white cliffs of Dover, the most famous symbol of Britain’s indomitable wartime spirit, have been saved from the prospect of falling under French control.
The Port of Dover, which has sat at the foot of the cliffs since 1606, will remain forever England after the government scrapped plans to sell it off to the highest bidder – rumoured to be the local authority of Calais.
On Thursday thetransport minister Simon Burns bowed to public pressure and withdrew Dover from the auction, saving Europe’s busiest passenger port – which handles 13 million passengers and 5m vehicles, including lorries carrying £50bn of goods a year – for the nation.
The port had been destined for sale as part of the government’s mass sell-off of trophy assets, including the UK’s air traffic control system, the student loans company and the Tote bookmaker, to help cut the nation’s record £1.1tn debt.
The government had been hoping the port would fetch up to £290m for the Treasury but Burns withdrew the privatisation plans after warning that the scale of local opposition could jeopardise the sale price.
“The secretary of state also noted the strength of local opposition to the proposed sale and that this might create uncertainty about a sale at this time,” Burns said in a letter explaining the decision. “It is uncertain what price would be achieved in the current climate.”
More than 770 people and organisations had made formal representations opposing the sale, and more than 6,500 had signed three separate petitions against the privatisation of one of Britain’s most well-known landmarks. It also noted that in a local parish vote that 97.5% of residents opposed the sale.
The letter said key concerns were “security, immigration and its historic significance”.
In order to avoid the port falling into foreign hands some of the local residents had clubbed together to propose buying it for the community.
More than 12,000 people have bought a £10 share in the People’s Port Trust, which it said would see Dover “owned by people who love our country”. The trust has a string of celebrity supporters – including Lynn, who made Dover famous with her second world war song The White Cliffs of Dover.
Neil Wiggins, chairman of the trust, said he was “very, very pleased” with the decision that would “ensure Dover remains forever England”.
He said: “If you don’t own it, you can’t control it or the border. Private equity foreign ownership is not good for the UK.
“If it is lost to private equity it can be bought and resold, and who will answer for the history? What will happen to the white cliffs in the nation’s psyche?”
Dover’s Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke, said the town’s “magnificent victory” saving the port for the nation was the “best Christmas present the people of Dover could have”.
He said: “The port of Dover is the gateway to our nation and should be forever England as much as Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace. The whole community is absolutely delighted that it won’t end up owned by the French or the Chinese or anyone else.
“Think of the port and the white cliffs and you think of freedom and victory over tyranny.”
However, the chief executive of the Port of Dover, Bob Goldfield, said local people would end up the biggest losers from the scrapping of the sale because it would have injected many millions of pounds into the community.
Goldfield said privatisation would have seen local people collect a £10m windfall, a guarantee of £1m a year for five years and £20m worth of shares in the port. The port, which has been owned by Dover Harbour Board since it was formed by royal charter in 1606 by James I, needed to be privatised to fund its development.
“We’re the busiest ferry port in Europe. At the end of the day we’ve got to be able to invest in infrastructure,” he said. “I’m surprised and disappointed, but life goes on.”
Goldfield said NM Rothschild, the investment bank the government appointed to advise it on the sale, had received “a lot of interest” from “a lot of international money” keen to buy it. Rumoured buyers included Pas-de-Calais, the French local authority that owns France’s biggest port, 21 miles away across the Channel, far and Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds and US and European private equity firms.
“I can’t name names, but it’s all academic now anyway,” Goldfield said.
The French might have lost out at Dover, but the commercial invasion has been successful in Ipswich, Glasgow and pockets of central London.
A host of British brands have fallen for that Gallic charm – or at least cash – the latest being Hamleys, which runs the world’s biggest toy shop in Regent Street, London.
Groupe Ludendo has just spent £60m buying the 250-year-old company, which has eight stores in the UK and outlets as far afield as Mumbai in India and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Other luxury brands in London, such as Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, maker of the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, are also at least half owned by the French – in their case the diversified conglomerate PPR.
Another Paris-based luxury goods group, LVMH, spent £300m chasing off competition from local rival, Pernod Ricard,to secure control of Glenmorangie, one of the best-known single malt scotch whisky producers.
And it is not just companies in the more glamorous parts of the economy that have opted to move ownership to the other side of the Channel. France Telecom, which already owned a stake in UK cable operator NTL, bought the UK mobile phone company Orange from Vodafone in 2000 for an eye-watering £25bn.
And the nuclear power generator British Energy, based in East Kilbride near Glasgow, was bought three years ago for £12.5bn and subsumed into EDF Energy. The combined Anglo-French firm is now the UK’s biggest producer of electricity and together the two companies provide power to a quarter of the country’s population.
Even more humble UK businesses, such as the East Anglia-based pharmaceutical maker, Fisons, have been acquired by the French, in this case Rhône-Poulenc.
Ipswich may have fallen, but Dover remains defiant – for now. Terry Macalister
Fortescue Metals Group Ltd has filed a Home Country News Release – Process to Sell Minority Interest in Port and Rail Assets To view the full release click here (link to PDF).
Read the original here: Fortescue Metals Group Ltd (FSUGY: OTC Link) | Home Country News Release – Process to Sell Minority Interest in Port and Rail Assets
A strike at the port of Los Angeles enters a seventh day, disrupting the busiest shipping complex in the US.
See the original post here: Los Angeles port hit by strike
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–(Marketwire – Nov. 23, 2012) - GONZAGA RESOURCES LTD.
(the “Company”) (TSX VENTURE:GN) provides an update on its exploration program at its Kennedy River Project (the “Property”) located near Port Alberni, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
See more here: Gonzaga Provides Exploration Program Update on Kennedy River Project