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Week in Review

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09/21/2019

For the week 9/16-9/20

[Posted 1:00 AM local, Sat., Shannon, Ireland]

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Special thanks to Steve G. for his ongoing support.

Edition 1,067

I had a lousy flight over here Thursday night, owing to Hurricane Humberto, or whatever is left of it, and I thank those who were responsible for the rivets on the wings, because it was kind of hairy.

I did catch up on some reading,  printing out stuff ahead for such a time, and I finally got around to the Gen. Mattis piece in The Atlantic, and another on the executive powers at Donald J. Trump’s disposal come Nov. 2020.

And while I don’t like to talk about stories without the facts, which is why I’m the ‘wait 24 hours’ guy, I was disturbed to read the Washington Post story on the possible reason for the whistleblower  case that came up this week.

I talk about this below, and the potential scenario, but suffice it to say, I’m hoping more and more people will have the guts to stand up to our leader in the White House.   Even Gen. Mattis said that while there are certain areas of discussion he won’t go as long as his former boss is in charge, he won’t stay silent forever.

It’s just that our leader refuses to call out Vladimir Putin, never talks about human rights, whether in Hong Kong or over the plight of the Uighurs, and why does the average American sit back and tolerate this?

But the average American is also severely lacking in an awareness of the world around them, so it’s up to the rest of us, because being ignorant is still covered under the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the sophistication of the drone attacks on the Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurias, as well as the inability of Saudi air defenses (read U.S. hardware) to take them out is scary as hell.  The technology to inflict catastrophic damage on such a scale is only getting better.

Yet after an initial shock on Monday in the oil markets, the price slid Tuesday and Wednesday as the Saudis tried to reassure consumers of crude that it would quickly restore full production, saying the Kingdom would deliver supplies to customers to their level before the attacks by drawing from its inventories.  Later, they appeared more confident on the length of time needed to make critical repairs.

Meanwhile, President Trump tweeted Wednesday: “I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!”  But then he told reporters he’d discuss the details later.  [It ended up being on the central bank of Iran.]  And the fact is, as Sen. Lindsey Graham has observed numerous times, the sanctions have had zero impact on Iranian behavior.

The president also tweeted that the United States is “locked and loaded depending on verification” of Iranian involvement, “But are  waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was (behind) this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

A few days later he warned that there was “plenty of time to do some dastardly things.”

“It’s very easy to start,” he said about military action.  “If we have to do something, we’ll do it without hesitation,” adding that “the ultimate option” was still on the table.

“There are many options…. There’s the ultimate option and there are options a lot less than that.  We’ll see.  We’re in a very powerful position.  Right now we’re in a very, very powerful position,” he continued.

Asked if the “ultimate option” was war, the commander-in-chief backtracked, saying he did mean war but wasn’t considering that option as of now.

“No, I’m not talking about that ultimate option, no,” he said.

Oh brother.

We did have another rather important story of a local nature this week.  Since virtually day one of “Week in Review,” I have warned of Hezbollah sleeper cells in the United States and Latin America.  It’s just a fact, hard as it is for some to fathom.

So a New Jersey man was arrested, Alexei Saab, 42, of Morristown, a town ten minutes from me.  Thursday he was charged in a nine-count federal indictment for offenses related to his support for Hezbollah, with whom he has spent the past 22 years training with and scouting terror-attack locations for the group, including providing intelligence on the Port Authority, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Stock Exchange and the city’s two airports, according to the document.

Saab surveyed dozens more locations in New York City and around the U.S.  The detailed information was recovered from his computers.

Saab joined Hezbollah in 1996 and his earliest activities including spying in Lebanon and intelligence-gathering in Istanbul, the indictment alleges.  He trained in the use of firearms, and in 2000 he received extensive training in military tactics, including how to construct bombs and other explosive devices.

In 2000, Saab lawfully entered the United States using a Lebanese passport and he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008.

That’s what I’ve been talking about all these years, folks.  Thankfully, we’ll never know when, or if, he was to be activated, obviously depending on events overseas, such as in any renewed major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

You can imagine the intelligence effort taking place today to find out everything about his contacts in the United States, and for this we are thankful to our intelligence community that President Trump so often disparages.

Trump World

--A story broke on a whistleblower complaint about President Trump and his actions on a call with a foreign leader and a “promise” made, which was so alarming to a U.S. intelligence official that he went to the inspector general of the intel community.  Then in the last 24 hours we’ve learned the incident centered on Ukraine, according to the Washington Post, and now confirmed by others.  Prior to this last bit, the president tweeted:

Another Fake News story out there – It never ends! Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself.  No problem!

“...Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.  I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!

“Presidential Harassment!”

But the story is Trump talked with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and it apparently was about whether Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping Trump’s re-election campaign.

Then Thursday night, in a CNN interview with Chris Cuomo, Giuliani ranted about media bias and defended Trump amid the whistleblower report.

Cuomo: “So did you ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?”

Giuliani: “Of course I did.”

It was  all about  the Trump team’s claim that Biden pressured Ukraine to drop its top prosecutor, who was investigating son Hunter and a natural gas company, where Hunter was on the board.

Meanwhile, $250 million in U.S. military assistance for Ukraine was being held up by the White House this summer, and a long-mooted visit for President Zelensky to Washington has still not materialized.

So was Zelensky being punished for not playing ball?  [The money was finally released this month.]

This afternoon, in an appearance at the White House, Trump told reporters it was “totally appropriate” and “it doesn’t matter what I discussed.”

Then the president reiterated his call for an investigation into Biden’s effort as vice president to oust Ukraine’s prosecutor general.

“Somebody ought to look into that,” he told reporters.

And so as I go to post, that’s where we stand, with the Wall Street Journal reporting President Trump pressured Ukraine constantly on Biden.  If true, yeah, I’d blow the whistle.

--President Trump named Robert O’Brien to succeed John Bolton as his national security adviser.  As he tweeted, O’Brien is “currently serving as the very successful Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department...I have worked long & hard with Robert.  He will do a great job.”

For his part, John Bolton on Wednesday ripped President Trump’s aborted plan to invite the Taliban to Camp David, saying the move sent a “terrible signal” and was “disrespectful” to the victims of 9/11 because the Taliban had harbored al Qaeda.

Bolton, speaking at a private luncheon, also said that negotiations with North Korea and Iran were “doomed to failure” on the president’s watch, two people who were there told Politico.

All Pyongyang and Tehran want is relief from sanctions to support their economies, Bolton told guests at the event hosted by a conservative think tank.

Bolton also said more than once that Trump’s failure to respond to the Iranian attack on an American drone earlier this summer set the stage for the Islamic Republic’s aggression in recent months – including Saturday’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry.

--President Trump said Wednesday that he is taking away California’s power to set its own vehicle tailpipe emissions standards, escalating an environmental dispute that has trapped automakers in the middle.

Trump tweets:

“The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER.  This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety....

“....advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars. There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be....

“....far safer and much less expensive.  Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

California’s top elected officials said the president was serving the interests of big oil companies and vowed to challenge the administration in court.  There is also zero truth to his ongoing claim cars will be safer and much less expensive.

Federal regulators are working on new federal tailpipe-emission rules that could ease requirements set under the Obama administration in 2012.    California has long had the authority to set its own rules on limiting air pollutants from cars.  Recently, Ford Motor Co. and several other major automakers agreed to tougher emission requirement than those set by the administration.  The automakers just want certainty and now the expected legal battle between Trump and California is unlikely to be resolved before the presidential election.

If the administration loses in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which normally handles issues under the Clean Air Act, then it would likely go to the Supreme Court.

According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last Friday, 66 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards rather than enforce the Obama administration’s targets for 2025.  A nearly identical 67 percent say they support state governments setting stricter fuel efficiency targets than the federal government.

Among Californians, 61 percent support the state’s stricter standards.

--More Trump tweets:

“So nice that our Country is now Energy Independent. The USA is in better shape than ever before.  Strongest Military by far, biggest Economy (no longer even close), number one in Energy!  MAGA = KAG!”

“ ‘The measured response by President @realDonaldTrump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.’ [Sen. Lindsey Graham]

Trump response: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand! Donald J. Trump added.”

Separately: “The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No conditions.’  That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).”

It was a totally correct statement, Mr. President.  You said it numerous times yourself, as did your representatives.  It’s all on freakin’ tape!

Wall Street and the Trade War

After a roaring three-week rally that brought the major averages to within spitting distance of their all-time highs, stocks took a breather.

On the data front, August industrial production rose a stronger than expected 0.6%, while we had two good readings on the rebounding housing sector.

August housing starts came in far better than forecast at a 1.364 million annualized pace, the highest level since June 2007, up 12.3%.  August existing home sales also exceeded expectations at 5.49m annualized, up 4.7% year-over-year.  The median price of $278,200 represented the 90th straight month of year-over-year gains.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer for the third quarter, however, is still at just 1.9%, after the economy grew at a 2% clip in Q2.

But the big news was the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point on Wednesday, its second cut since late July, and suggested it was prepared to move aggressively if the U.S. economy showed additional signs of weakening, the Fed meeting again in October and December before year end.

But there was division within the Fed’s Open Market Committee, the policy setting group, with three dissenting (one voting for a bigger cut, two voting for no cut) so there’s no telling what Chairman Jay Powell and Co. will do the balance of the year.

Powell said at his news conference after that the economy remained strong and unemployment low, but that “there are risks to this positive outlook.”  If the economy weakens, he said, a “more extensive sequence” of rate cuts could be appropriate.

“Our eyes are wide open, we’re watching the situation,” Powell said.

“There may come a time when the economy weakens and we would then have to cut more aggressively,” he continued.  “We don’t know.  We’re going to be watching things carefully, the incoming data and the evolving situation.”

Needless to say, another quarter-point wasn’t enough for President Trump.

“Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve Fail Again,” Trump said in a tweet shortly after the announcement.  “No ‘guts,’ no sense, no vision!   A terrible communicator!”

On the trade front, U.S. and Chinese deputy trade negotiators met in Washington to resume face-to-face talks for the first time in nearly two months on Thursday, with the negotiations aimed at laying the groundwork for high-level talks in early October that will determine whether the two countries are working toward a solution or headed for new and higher tariffs on each other’s goods.

The rather large Chinese delegation, however, was to meet with farmers in the Midwest early next week, with the sessions Thursday and Friday focused on agriculture, but then late today came word the delegation was going home and canceling visits to Nebraska and Montana, hardly a good sign.  When Trump was asked by reporters this afternoon if he felt pressured to come up with some kind of deal ahead of the 2020 presidential election, he said, “We’re looking for a complete deal.  I’m not looking for a partial deal.”

Europe and Asia

Just another inflation data point for the eurozone (EA19).  Per Eurostat, August inflation was 1.0%, same as July, while a year ago it was 2.1%.  The European Central Bank’s easy monetary policy will continue with this figure long into the future.

Germany 1.0%, France 1.3%, Italy 0.5%, Spain 0.4%.

Brexit: Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, addressed members of the European Parliament on Wednesday and threw doubt on the possibility of the EU striking a Brexit deal with the UK, warning that time is tight for an agreement as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to spell out his demands on the Irish backstop.  Juncker said he is “not sure we will get there” with a final agreement.  “Very little time is remaining.”  [Like six weeks until the Oct. 31 deadline, with a critical EU summit  two weeks before that.]

Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, had lunch with Johnson in Luxembourg on Monday, at which time the prime minister failed to provide any new ideas on how the government wanted to replace an Irish backstop.

Johnson continues to demand the full removal of a backstop arrangement that would keep the UK inside the customs union and aligned to EU rules to prevent a hard border in the absence of a free trade agreement.

As I noted last time, Johnson suggested allowing Northern Ireland to stick to EU rules on food and livestock.  But the EU has said this would not prevent a hard border for all other types of goods.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, said of the backstop, “There has not been one legally feasible alternative put on the table by the UK government.”

And an influential business association in Germany, BDI, has voiced “extreme concern” over the lack of preparation on the UK side for a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

“We cannot see a plan by the British government to avoid a no-deal Brexit.  On the contrary, the actions of the British government are unsettling,” said Joachim Lang, BDI director-general.

Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland whose 10 members of parliament support Prime Minister Johnson, said the DUP wants to help secure an orderly Brexit but that the region must remain “master” of the rules governing its economy.  The DUP is not in favor of Britain leaving the EU without a deal, nor is it willing to accept any new barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

So late today there were stories that the EU and Britain had exchanged technical papers on new proposals from the UK concerning the backstop, but as I go to post there are stories the EU is preparing to knock them down.

Italy: Former prime minister Matteo Renzi is set to break away from the ruling Democratic Party (PD) and set up a new centrist force in an effort to claim the middle ground of Italian politics.

But the center-left PD has just forged a new coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, so Renzi’s move would shake up Italian politics all over again and make it difficult for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to keep his government in office.

Renzi led a PD government from 2014-2016, but he had a rocky relationship with the PD after he resigned as PM in 2016 and he has long been rumored to be angling to set up a new party, taking with him disaffected PD MPs.

Renzi said he talk about his plans at a gathering of supporters next month.

Should Renzi make his move, his new group would still be part of the coalition, but it would mean Prime Minister Conte would have to meet another set of political demands to keep his government afloat.

EU-South America Trade: A draft agreement between the European Union and South America’s economic bloc, Mercosur, has been in the works for 20 years, but members of parliament in Austria may have dealt it a huge blow by demanding a government veto on the deal, unless Brazil does more to tackle environmental issues.

Mercosur includes four South American economies – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.  A fifth member, Venezuela, is currently suspended.

Without backing from every government in the EU, the Mercosur deal cannot go through.

France and Ireland have already warned they will reject the deal if Brazil does not do more to curb fires in the Amazon rainforest.

Turning to Asia, a few tidbits….

In China, the National Bureau of Statistics released further gloomy data, as industrial production for August was up just 4.4% year-over-year, the lowest since 2002! 

Retail sales rose 7.5%, yoy, while fixed asset investment (big-ticket projects like rails, roads and airports) were up just 5.5% the first eight months of the year, both also less than forecast.

China’s 70-city major home price index rose 8.8% in August vs. a year ago, but this was less than July’s 9.7% pace.

In Japan, trade tensions helped lead to a poor reading on exports for August, down 8.2% from a year ago, and down a ninth straight month, according to the Ministry of Finance.  Exports to the U.S. fell 4.4%, and were down 10.9% to Asia.

Street Bytes

--As noted above stocks fell for the first time in four weeks, largely on continued trade uncertainty, especially Friday’s news that China’s delegation was headed home early.  The Dow Jones fell 1.1% to 26935, while the S&P 500 declined 0.5% and Nasdaq 0.7%.

Funds that track broad U.S. equity indexes hit $4.27 trillion in assets as of Aug. 31, according to research firm Morningstar Inc., giving them more than active managers for the first-ever monthly reporting period.  Funds that are trying to beat the market had $4.25 trillion as of that date.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, in the past decade, nearly $1.36 trillion in net flows were added to U.S. equity mutual funds and exchange-traded fund that mimic market indexes while some $1.32 trillion fled higher-costing actively managed counterparts.

Indexing giants Vanguard, BlackRock and State Street now wield considerable power over Corporate America with their large voting blocs.

The above three also hold about 20% of the S&P 500 through funds they manage, according to FactSet.  Big indexers were key votes in a landmark shareholder victory in 2017 that pushed Exxon Mobil Corp. to explain the impact of climate-change rules.

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 1.90%   2-yr. 1.68%  10-yr. 1.72%  30-yr. 2.16%

Treasuries staged a big rally to recover some of their massive losses from the week before.  Yields in Europe fell again as well (save for Italy, though its 10-year still yields just 0.92%)

On Tuesday, Federal Reserve traders were forced to jump into U.S. money markets to inject cash, attempting to drive down key short-term rates that had spiked to as high as 10%, which threatened to muck up everything from Treasury bond trading to lending to corporations and consumers.

But the Fed’s effort didn’t last long and Wednesday and Thursday they were back in the market to offer another $75 billion of cash to the market.

So what did it all mean?  That there are deep structural problems in U.S. money markets, as in not enough cash on hand at major Wall Street firms to meet the funding demands of a market trying to absorb record Treasury bond sales needed to cover U.S. budget deficits.

The repo (repurchase) market is over $2 trillion in size and normally there are bouts of volatility at quarter- or year-end when liquidity can become an issue, but not at mid-month like we had this week.  Most experts seem to agree that there’s not enough reserves – or excess money that banks park at the Fed – in the banking system.  Current reserves total more than $1 trillion, so will the Fed have to start up with another round of quantitative easing, or debt purchases that create fresh reserves?

The real bottom line to this layman, however, is that the U.S. government is making things more volatile by adding a record amount of new debt which is only going to increase as the deficit swells past $1 trillion for years and years to come.

In his regular post-meeting press conference, however, Fed Chair Powell played down the significance of the spike in the cost of borrowing cash short-term and said the Fed is tinkering with its “open market operations.”

During the financial crisis, the repo market played a central role when it froze up as investors questioned the safety of the securities being lent and trust in the large banks evaporated. 

But then post-2008 regulations have made it more expensive for banks to get involved in repo and other short-term arenas. So the big banks have shifted to more stable sources of funding and actually lend more than they borrow in repurchase agreements, so they can make more money from higher rates.

Chairman Powell said the Fed is in the process of studying the market comprehensively and may make some policy changes at its next meeting, or by year end.

--As alluded to above, the price of oil rocketed up Monday after the attack on the Saudi refineries, then largely fell over  the balance of the week amid reassurances there would be no long-term disruption, while at the same time, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported crude stockpiles rose last week when a sizable decrease was expected.

--A nationwide strike was called at General Motors Co. starting Monday morning, impacting 46,000 full-time workers at GM’s U.S. factories as the automaker and the United Auto Workers try to reach a new four-year labor agreement that the union hopes to use as a template for talks with Ford and Fiat Chrysler.  It’s the UAW’s first such walkout since 2007.

The union is pushing GM to improve wages, reopen idled plants, add jobs at others and close or narrow the difference between pay rates for new hires and veteran workers.  GM wants employees to pay a greater portion of their healthcare costs, and to increase worker productivity and flexibility in factories.

According to Bloomberg, as GM was nearing the expiration of the labor contract with the union last week, the automaker sought to have hourly workers pay 15% of their healthcare costs, but by the time the company presented the union with a deadline offer, GM walked back the proposal and called for keeping contributions steady at about 4%.

While this wasn’t enough to stave off a walkout by nearly 50,000 workers, it’s a bad omen for Fiat Chrysler and Ford Motor, since the UAW typically tries to pattern contracts reached with the Big Three after one another.  Ford, Bloomberg has previously reported, is expecting its insurance bill covering its 56,000 hourly workers to exceed $1 billion for the first time next year.

Workers see their healthcare plans as hard-won benefits that help make up for the wage concessions and jobs given up more than a decade ago when GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and Ford went through a wrenching restructuring.

According to an October 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the three automakers’ hourly employees contribute between 3% and 4% to their coverage, compared with 29% for the average American worker.

But, all the above aside, within 36 hours of the strike, GM announced a decision to shift worker health care payments to the union immediately – a strategy that risks dragging out the strike, labor negotiators say.

Another big issue is that of temporary workers, with the Big Three looking to increase the number of lower-cost temps at their plants so they have more flexibility to dial back output if demand falls.  Relying more on such workers is one way the car companies hope to keep rising labor costs in check without affecting the pay and benefits of full-time workers.

Of course the union wants the car companies to restrict their use of temp hires, which currently account for about 7% of GM’s factory workforce, versus more than 20% for the foreign-owned car plants, according to industry data.

Lastly, it is estimated that the walkout could hit GM’s profit by between $50 million and $100 million daily.

--Shares in FedEx Corp. cratered 13% on Wednesday after the company reported profit fell 11% in its first fiscal quarter, as the package delivery company was hit by slower economic growth and the loss of business from Amazon. 

The results fell short of Wall Street’s expectations, and FedEx lowered its earnings forecast through next spring.

The company said it would cut costs, including scaling back capacity in its express air-delivery network after the peak holiday season.

And FedEx said it is raising prices, with rates on express, ground and home deliveries going up by an average of 4.9% starting Jan. 6, with freight rates rising 5.9%.

Quarterly profit of $745 million was down from $835 million a year earlier.  Ex- special items including expenses to fold European business TNT into its own, FedEx said it would have earned $3.05 per share, with the Street’s analysts at $3.17.

Revenue was flat at $17.05 billion, also below forecasts.

And the company sharply lowered its full-year earnings forecast.

CEO Frederick Smith said, “Our performance continues to be negatively impacted by a weakening global macro environment driven by increasing trade tensions and policy uncertainty.”

--Office-sharing startup WeWork postponed its IPO, walking away from preparations to launch it this month after a lackluster response from investors to its plans.

The company has been under pressure to proceed with the flotation to secure funding for its operations, but owner The We Company has faced concerns about its corporate governance standards, as well as the sustainability of its business model, which relies on a mix of long-term liabilities (leases) and short-term revenue, and how such a model would weather an economic downturn.

[WeWork rents space, renovates it, then divides it up and subleases it.]

Last January, the company was valued in its latest round of funding at $47 billion, yet the valuation on the IPO had plummeted to a range of $10 billion to $12 billion, according to some analysts.  WeWork seems to be willing to accept a valuation of between $15bn and $20bn.

WeWork’s largest outside shareholder, SoftBank, had priced the company at $47 billion.  At the same time, SoftBank, together with its Saudi Arabia-backed Vision Fund, has been looking to raise $108bn for a second Vision Fund, which would prove difficult given disappointment in the first fund with this WeWork fiasco.

--The war over content is in full swing, with Netflix acquiring five years of global streaming rights to “Seinfeld,” a move that comes months after Netflix confirmed it would lose fan-favorites “Friends” and “The Office” in coming years.  While the terms of the deal weren’t released, the Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed sources, described the price as “far more” than the $500 million NBCUniversal paid for “The Office.”  Netflix will start streaming “Seinfeld” episodes in 2021.

While Netflix and its competitors are pouring $billions into new shows, “The Office” and “Friends” (which is moving to AT&T’s WarnerMedia in 2020) were the top two most-watched shows on Netflix last year, according to Nielsen.

In the second quarter, Netflix lost roughly 130,000 subscribers, which isn’t significant vs. its global paid user base of over 150 million, but it’s disconcerting given all the new competition.

At $12.99 a month, Netflix is pricy vs. the alternatives coming on stream.  Disney+ is going to be $6.99 when it begins in November.

“Seinfeld,” by the way, which will still be available on local TV stations and cable channel TBS (WarnerMedia), has already made  more than $3 billion in global rerun deals, according to the Wall Street Journal and an executive close to the show.

Needless to say, creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David can pay for lunch if you’re ever in their company.

--OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday night, succumbing to pressure from more than 2,600 lawsuits alleging the company helped fuel the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic.

Purdue, which had long been expected to file for Chapter 11 protection, reached a tentative deal to resolve lawsuits with 24 states and five U.S. territories, as well as lead lawyers for more than 2,000 cities, counties and other plaintiffs, the company said.

Purdue and the controlling Sackler family have denied allegations that company and family aggressively marketed prescription painkillers while misleading doctors and patients about their addiction and overdose risks.

The Sacklers, who would cede control of Purdue in the proposed settlement, have offered $3 billion in cash and an additional $1.5 billion or more through the eventual sales of another company they own, called Mundipharma.  The Sacklers have said this is their final offer.

--India’s government announced a sweeping ban on e-cigarettes Wednesday, citing potential health risks.  Government ministers said the ordinance was inspired by the deaths of seven people in the United States due to vaping-related illnesses.  Dozens of Indian states have also taken action to ban the sale of e-cigarettes.

--Microsoft Corp. announced it would repurchase as much as $40 billion worth of shares in a new buyback program and boosted its dividend by 5 cents to 51 cents a share.

Microsoft’s shares are up in excess of 35% this year and its market capitalization exceeds $1 trillion.  Its previous buyback plan, unveiled in September 2016, was also for $40 billion.

--Boeing’s 737 MAX, grounded since March after two fatal crashes, might have to be flown by Federal Aviation Administration chief Steven Dickson before returning to service.

Dickson, who is certified to pilot the plane, told NBC News he will not sign off on the aircraft returning to service until he personally flies one of them.

According to CNBC, however, Dickson is not a certified test pilot, so he wouldn’t be in the cockpit during an official MAX recertification flight.  He would have to pilot it later.

--As a follow-up to something I wrote last week, British Airways pilots called off a strike due next Friday, which would have followed a two-day strike Sept. 9 and 10.  The union said it hoped BA would negotiate seriously with a view to ending the long-running pay dispute.

But the airline had already cancelled thousands of passengers’ flights next week and it’s unclear how much of the normal schedule the airline will operate.

--According to an annual report on China’s top brands, Apple Inc. has fallen from No. 11 a year ago to No. 24.  Back in 2017, before the trade war started, Apple was fifth in this ranking.  Apple’s biggest local rival, Huawei Technologies Co., climbed two spots and came in second, behind only Chinese payment service Alipay.

No surprise here that Chinese consumers are cooling towards some American brands.  The survey is conducted by San Francisco-based consultancy Prophet, which surveyed 13,500 Chinese consumers who evaluated brands they used or were considering using, looking at their relevance to the lives of consumers based on qualities such as innovation, usefulness and dependability.

Chinese interpreted the arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, last year in Canada at the behest of the U.S. government, “as an attack,” said Jay Milliken of Prophet.

Only two American names in the top ten this year – Android at No. 3 and Intel at No. 9 – compared to five in the 2017 survey.  Unlike Apple, Android and Intel don’t have to worry about consumers switching allegiances to local competitors, Milliken said, and that explains why they manage to remain highly ranked.  [Bruce Einhorn / Bloomberg]

--We had a successful IPO on Thursday, that being Manhattan-based cloud-monitoring company Datadog Inc. (great name) priced well above its initial estimated range of $19 to $22, coming public at $27 and closing the first day at $37.  This is a company that actually produced a profit last year, as opposed to WeWork’s humongous losses (ditto Lyft and Uber).

Good boy, Datadog...good boy.

Foreign Affairs

Iran / Saudi Arabia: Iran dismissed accusation by the United States that it was behind attacks on the Saudi oil plant and warned Sunday that  U.S. bases and aircraft carriers in the region were in range of its missiles.  And while over the weekend, Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the assault was the work of Iran.

Saying there was zero evidence the attack came from Yemen, where the Arab coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and rival Iran, the secretary said, “Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi, speaking on state TV, dismissed the U.S. allegations as “pointless.”  A senior Revolutionary Guard commander warned that the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day, at a time when Aramco is trying to ready itself for what is expected to be the world’s largest share sale.

Well, early in the week as I noted above, the Saudis offered reassurances but there is no doubt in the long run that the image of invulnerability is no longer.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted:

“The Iranian regime is not interested in peace – they’re pursuing nuclear weapons and regional dominance.

“It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment.

“Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back.”

Wednesday, the Saudi Defense Ministry displayed drone and missile debris it said was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression.  The United States wants to build a coalition of European and Arab partners to deter Iran after the attack on Saudi Arabia that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described on Wednesday as “an act of war.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic has tested U.S. resolve with military escalation across the Middle East.  Likely Iranian involvement in attacks on Saudi oil production over the weekend marks a new phase in this destabilizing campaign, and it’s no coincidence this happened as Mr. Trump is considering a softer approach to Tehran.

“The attack continues what is already a hot proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally.  The extent of the damage raised doubts about how well the Saudis can defend against future drone assaults.  Saudi intelligence and air defenses don’t seem up to the job.  Saudi revenues would be hurt by a reduction in oil output, and uncertainty will complicate an initial public offering of the country’s national oil company, Aramco….

“The Saudis are far from ideal allies, but U.S. Senators who want to end U.S. support for Riyadh should consider the alternative of Iranian regional dominance….

“The Iranians are probing Mr. Trump as much as the Saudis.  They are testing his resolve to carry out his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, and they sense weakness.  Iran shot down an American drone this summer, and Mr. Trump rejected advice for a military response.  Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s overseas Quds Force, has historically interpreted such restraint as a signal that he’s winning and can safely escalate.

“Mr. Trump is also eager for direct talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Mr. Pompeo floated a handshake meeting between the two at the coming United Nations General Assembly.  Mr. Trump has even contemplated support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of paying the mullah’s a $15 billion bribe for better behavior.  The weekend attack is Iran’s return handshake….

“Mr. Trump might also apologize to John Bolton, who warned repeatedly that Iran would take advantage of perceived weakness in the White House.  Mr. Bolton resigned last week over policy differences, notably on Iran.  The weekend’s events proved the former adviser right.  The Trump Administration’s pressure campaign has been working, and abandoning it now would encourage Tehran to take more military risks.”

Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told CNN that Iran “won’t blink” if it has to defend itself against any U.S. or Saudi military strike, which he said would lead to “all-out war.”  He also said Sec. Pompeo was part of a so-called “B-team,” which Tehran says includes Saudi Arabia’s crown prince (MBS) and is trying to dupe Trump into opting for war.

Israel: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in an election  where he highlighted his close ties with President Trump while campaigning.  Netanyahu canceled his annual speech at the UN General Assembly next week that would have provided the two an opportunity to meet.  For his part, Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he has not spoken with Netanyahu.

It was almost laughable, as Trump said on Saturday ahead of Tuesday’s vote that he had spoken with the prime minister about a possible mutual defense treaty between the two nations, a blatant move intended to bolster Netanyahu’s re-election bid and show his close ties to the president who is popular in Israel.

Previously Trump had bolstered Bibi’s candidacy when he recognized Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights ahead of earlier elections.

Trump tweeted:

“I had a call today with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of moving forward with a Mutual Defense Treaty, between the United States and Israel, that would further anchor the tremendous alliance….

“….between our two countries.  I look forward to continuing those discussions after the Israeli Elections when we meet at the United Nations later this month!”

Not quite.  While the results of the vote showed that neither Netanyahu nor the former army chief Benny Gantz, a centrist, had enough support to form a majority coalition, Gantz’s Blue and White party came out ahead of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, giving a small third party led by onetime Netanyahu deputy Avigdor Lieberman the role of kingmaker.

Netanyahu ran an awful, flat-out racist campaign in the closing weeks, and flouted Election Day bans on campaign propaganda to spur his supporters into action.

I mean this is a guy who faces looming indictments in three corruption cases, so his future is in grave danger.  Under Israeli law, however, he could stay in his post as prime minister even if indicted, and he could press his coalition to grant him immunity from prosecution.  But as a lesser minister or ordinary lawmaker, he would have to resign.  So he’s a cornered rat.

And after the vote, on Thursday, Netanyahu called on Gantz to join him in a broad, governing coalition.

“During the election campaign, I called for the establishment of a right-wing government but to my regret, the election results show that this is impossible,” Netanyahu said.

“Benny, we must set up a broad unity government, as soon as today. The nation expects us, both of us, to demonstrate responsibility and that we pursue cooperation.”

Gantz previously said he hoped for a “good, desirable unity government,” but ruled out forming one with a Netanyahu-led Likud, citing the corruption charges.

The process of forming a coalition could take weeks.  In the 120-member  parliament (Knesset), Likud won a provisional 31 seats and Blue and White 33.  Netanyahu’s right-wing cluster of parties stands at 55 seats, Gantz’s center-left bloc has 57, and doesn’t want to sit with the religious parties. Which leaves Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and its eight seats as kingmaker.  After the election he reiterated his support for a unity government, so we’ll see.

Israel’s president selects the candidate he feels can best put together a coalition and that person then has 42 days to form a government.  Last time, following April’s indecisive election, Netanyahu failed to do so, thus necessitating Tuesday’s indecisive vote.

Here’s hoping Netanyahu is sent packing…and possibly to prison (though it’s more likely a deal would be cut where he would avoid such a fate).

As I go to post, though, Lieberman said he wouldn’t form a government with Gantz, but this does not necessarily give the edge to Netanyahu, as Lieberman still wants a unity government of some kind.

President Trump has said nothing.  He doesn’t want to be associated with a loser.

Afghanistan:  At the start of the week, President Trump repeated his claim that a single Taliban attack had scuttled his peace talk efforts at Camp David by tweeting:

“The Taliban has never been hit harder than it is being hit right now.  Killing 12 people, including one great American soldier, was not a good idea.  There are much better ways to set up a negotiation.  The Taliban knows they made a big mistake, and they have no idea how to recover!”

So with peace talks dead, the Taliban just kept bombing away ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday.

A suicide bomb at an election rally killed at least 26 people in Parwan province, north of Kabul.  President Ashraf Ghani was due to speak at it.

Another blast in central Kabul, near the U.S. embassy, killed at least three.

These were both on Tuesday.  Thursday morning a suicide truck bomb devastated a hospital in the southern province of Zabul, killing over 20 and wounding 100.  Think of it.  Residents were at the hospital to see sick family members, and then the massive explosion destroyed half of the facility, as the same family members carried out the wounded.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for all of the attacks.

But then there was a report that on Thursday, a U.S. drone strike, intended to hit an Islamic State hideout, instead killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields, nut farm workers, three Afghan officials told Reuters.  Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry and a senior U.S. official in Kabul then confirmed the strike, but did not share details of civilian casualties.

Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said, “U.S. forces conducted a drone strike against Da’esh (IS) terrorists in Nangarhar.  We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants  and are working with local officials to determine the facts.”

A survivor of the attack told Reuters that there were about 200 laborers sleeping in five tents pitched near the farm when the attack happened.

This can’t happen!

Syria: A car bomb exploded near a hospital in the Syrian town of al-Rai, on the border of Turkey on Sunday, killing 12, as well as damaging the hospital, that attack coming in an area under the control of Turkey-backed rebels. So the chaos in this critical region continues despite efforts at a ceasefire.

China: Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said on Saturday he was seeking the support of U.S. lawmakers for the demands of his fellow protesters who had led months of street demonstrations, including a call for free elections.

Wong then appeared  before a congressional commission led by Sen. Marco Rubio, asking for support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, adding such a clause should be part of any U.S.-China trade negotiations.

Having Wong and fellow activist Denise Ho in Washington no doubt infuriated Beijing, which wants the focus on its upcoming 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.  Wong told Congress it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Beijing will call in the army to quell the protests prior to that date.

On another front, Taiwan accused China on Monday of trying to influence its presidential and legislative elections after the Solomon Islands cut off ties with Taipei.  The Solomon Islands was the sixth country to switch allegiance to China since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taiwan in 2016.  Its decision on Monday dealt her a new blow in her struggle to secure re-election in January amid criticism of her handling of Beijing and rising tension with China.

Self-ruled Taiwan now has formal relations with just 16 countries, most of them small, less developed nations in Central America and the Pacific.   China claims Taiwan as its territory and says it has no right to formal ties with any nation.  Of course China is just buying the ‘remainers’ off, one at a time.

“Over the past few years, China has continually used financial and political pressure to suppress Taiwan’s international space,” Tsai said, calling the Chinese move “a brazen challenge and detriment to the international order.”

Stand strong, Madame President!

Separately, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse warned of a doomsday scenario in which China wipes out U.S. satellites to cripple the military’s GPS and communications systems in a cyber war that takes place in outer space.

“China has envisioned a lot of game theory that has them sort of blowing up everything in the near-space early in a conflict, which would take away lots of things like GPS,” the Nebraska lawmaker told John Catsimatidis on his Sunday radio show.  “It would be absolutely disastrous.”

Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the newly created Cyber Commission, said the country isn’t doing “nearly enough” to protect Americans from “emerging cyber threats from Russia, from North Korea, from Iran, but especially from China.”

“While we still lead China and Russia, our qualitative military edge is shrinking.  And the amount of money China is investing in particular should keep all American policymakers up at night,” he said.

North Korea: A South Korean newspaper reported Sunday that Kim Jong Un sent a letter to President Trump in August detailing his willingness to meet for yet another summit, but curiously, the president has said little about this one.

Russia: Garry Kasparov / Washington Post

“When Russian local elections didn’t go Vladimir Putin’s way on Sept. 8, he didn’t take it well.  Despite the usual techniques of banning and jailing opposition candidates, beating peaceful protesters and putting the full weight of state-controlled media behind favored candidates, Putin’s United Russia party lost seats across the country, especially in Moscow.

“Four days later, Putin launched the largest security operation of his 20-year reign.  Raids took place in 43 cities across Russia, with police breaking into the offices and homes of opposition groups and activists, confiscating documents, computers and even coffee machines.

“The supposed show of strength was evidence that Putin’s grip on Russia isn’t as tight as he pretends.  He has switched from propaganda to a campaign of violence, first against the protesters and then with raids intended to produce terror, not arrests.  Bystanders can be arrested and sentenced to years in prison for assaulting a member of the state security forces – a statute used against me in my own arrest seven years ago.

“Putin’s popularity was already sinking as Russians struggle with economic stagnation – stagnation that has been exacerbated by Western sanctions prompted by his war against Ukraine.  The crackdown is almost certain to further damage his support….

“Yet even as Putin’s position grows more precarious, he has been thrown a lifeline by two supposed leaders of the free world, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.  Trump’s inexplicable sycophancy toward Putin is well-documented.  France has increased trade with Russia despite sanctions, and Macron recently echoed Trump in expressing support for Russia’s return to the group of leading industrialized economies. The idea is baffling, given that Russia was ejected from the Group of Eight in 2014 for invading and annexing Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that remains under Russian domination….

“I was honored to speak last Thursday at the Black Ribbon Day Conference in Toronto, devoted to the 80th anniversary of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin that paved the way for World War II.  The gathering had two main themes: reminding the world that Stalin was Hitler’s murderous partner for nearly two years and sounding an alarm about Putin’s project to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation.

“Lithuanian political scientist Marius Laurinavicius spoke powerfully at the event.  He noted that in democracies, it’s inexcusable for citizens to blame elected officials for the paths their nations take. Responsibility lies elsewhere: ‘It’s you,’ he said, ‘it’s all of us.’  Unlike the people of Russia, citizens of the free world can hold their politicians accountable, and it is long past time to do so.”

South Korea/Japan: The two continue to ratchet up their trade dispute, with this week Seoul approving plans to drop Tokyo from its “white list” of countries with fast track trade status, responding with a tit-for-tat move that intensifies the growing diplomatic and trade tensions.

Relations have deteriorated since a ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court last year that Japanese companies should compensate South Koreans who were conscripted as forced laborers during World War II.  Japan removed Seoul’s fast-export status in late August after imposing tighter controls on exports of three materials to South Korea used in computer chips and display industries.

Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in a heap of trouble less than five weeks before an election that was already going to be a tough fight.  Trudeau was forced to apologize on Wednesday for wearing brown face make-up in 2001 in an embarrassing photo that emerged.

The image of a 29-year-old Trudeau with his face in dark make-up is a major challenge for a leader who often speaks about the need to fight racial discrimination and who has three prominent ministers of Indian descent in his cabinet.

“I should have known better then, but I didn’t and I did it and I’m deeply sorry,” Trudeau, 47, told reporters on his campaign plane after Time magazine published the image.

Trudeau, in comments carried live on Canadian television, said, “I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put make-up on.  I shouldn’t have done it.”

“This picture runs completely contrary to the image of tolerance the prime minister has so scrupulously cultivated.  It can’t be good for him or his party,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs.

According to Statistics Canada, the nation has an official policy of multiculturalism and about one in five Canadians was born overseas.

When questioned by reporters, Trudeau had to admit he had also dressed up in make-up when at high school and performed “Day O,” a traditional Jamaican song about people loading bananas onto boats.

Trudeau is locked in a battle with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer ahead of the Oct. 21 federal election.

Scheer told reporters: “Wearing brown face is an act of open mockery and racism. What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.”

Trudeau, who once had sky-high popularity ratings, has been hurt by a series of missteps, including a ruling last month by a top watchdog that he breached ethics rules by pressuring the former justice minister to ensure a major construction firm avoid a corruption trial.

Trudeau blew off suggestions he might quit.

“I am going to be asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did...it was a dumb thing to do.  I’m disappointed in myself.  I’m pissed off with myself for having done it,” he said.

Thursday, in a more formal press conference, he voiced similar sentiments, adding that his privilege as the white son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau had come with a “blind spot.”

“I come from a place of privilege and I have endeavored in my life to put the advantages and opportunities  I’ve been given to serve this country, to fight for people’s rights,” he said.  “I have to recognize that I’ve let a lot of people down with that choice (to wear blackface) and I stand here today to reflect on that and to ask forgiveness.”

Is this good enough?  Doesn’t this reek of hypocrisy?  The Canadian people will decide.

Random Musings:

--Presidential tracking polls....

Gallup: 43% approval of Trump’s job performance, 54% disapproval (up from 39-57 last survey); 91% Republicans, 38% independents (Sept. 3-15).
Rasmussen: 52% approve, 47% disapprove (Sept. 19).

--In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have gained support since the summer in their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Biden was the top choice of 31% of Democratic primary voters, while Warren was favored by 25%, which was conducted after the third primary debate in Houston last week.  Bernie Sanders was the only other candidate with double-digit support, at 14%.

[Pete Buttigieg 7%, Kamala Harris 5%, Andrew Yang 4%.]

As Republican pollster Bill McInturff (who conducted the survey with Democrat Jeff Horwitt) put it, “The race isn’t getting broader.  There aren’t more people in the mix.  There are fewer people.” 

But another Democratic pollster who worked on the survey, Peter Hart, said, “What we see in September isn’t what we see in December.”  The Iowa caucuses are held in February.

Enthusiasm for Warren has been rising, with 70% of Democratic primary voters saying they were enthusiastic about or comfortable with her compared with 57% who said so in March.

By contrast, enthusiasm for Biden has declined from 73% in March to 64% today.

In a July WSJ/NBC poll, Biden was at 26%, Warren 19%, Sanders 13%, and Harris 13%.

So you can see the trends.

Separately, Barack Obama is overwhelmingly popular among Democrats with 90% having a positive view of the former president.  This compares with 64% who have a positive view of former President Bill Clinton.

--I agree with Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, the three seeking the Republican presidential nomination, that it is a disgrace that four states, thus far, have canceled Republican primaries because President Trump would win in a landslide and therefore it is a waste of money.

The three wrote a joint op-ed in the Washington Post that read in part:

“A president always defines his or her party, and today the Republican Party has taken a wrong turn, led by a serial self-promoter who has abandoned the bedrock principles of the GOP.  In the Trump era, personal responsibility, fiscal sanity and rule of law have been overtaken by a preference for alienating our allies while embracing terrorists and dictators, attacking the free press and pitting everyday Americans against one another.

“No surprise, then, that the latest disgrace, courtesy of Team Trump, is an effort to eliminate any threats to the president’s political power in 2020.  Republicans have long held primaries and caucuses to bring out the best our party has to offer.... But now, the Republican parties of four states – Arizona, Kansas, Nevada and South Carolina – have canceled their nominating contests.  By this design, the incumbent will be crowned winner of these states’ primary delegates.  There is little confusion about who has been pushing for this outcome....

“Do Republicans really want to be the party with a nominating process that more resembles Russia or China than our American tradition?  Under this president, the federal deficit has topped the $1 trillion mark. Do we as Republicans accept all this as inevitable? Are we to leave it to the Democrats to make the case for principles and values that, a few years ago, every Republican would have agreed formed the foundations of our party?....

“In the United States, citizens choose their leaders. The primary nomination process is the only opportunity for Republicans to have a voice in deciding who will represent our party.  Let those voices be heard.”

--The Boston Globe is reporting that Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, the last member of the Democratic dynasty serving in Washington, plans to formally announce Saturday that he is launching a primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey, “an audacious political move that could open fissures within the Democratic Party and reshape the Massachusetts political landscape,” as the Globe put it.  Sure seems audacious to me...as in why?

--We note the passing of pioneering journalist Cokie Roberts, 75.  Over her decadeslong career at ABC News and NPR, Roberts became one of the most prominent political broadcasters of her era and a champion for younger generations of women in the media.

Roberts was the daughter of Louisiana politicians...her father, Hale Boggs, a former Democratic House majority leader, and Lindy Boggs, who succeeded her husband in Congress.

Roberts started in local news and CBS News before joining NPR to cover Congress in 1978.  She then joined ABC a decade later, retaining a role at NPR.

From 1996 to 2002, she co-anchored ABC’s “This Week” on Sundays with Sam Donaldson.

Barack Obama said Roberts was a role model for women at a time the journalism profession was still dominated by men, while George W. Bush called Roberts a talented, tough and fair reporter.

President Trump, who didn’t offer a tweet on Roberts’ death, told reporters aboard Air Force One that he respected her professionalism, but, “I never met her. She never treated me nicely.  But I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals.”

Cokie Roberts had been battling breast cancer on and off since 2002, but worked right up to the end, including last month on “This Week.”

--According to an extensive story in the New York Times, the fire that engulfed Notre-Dame cathedral back in April contaminated the site with clouds of toxic dust and exposed nearby schools, day care centers, public parks and other parts of Paris to alarming levels of lead.

“The lead came from the cathedral’s incinerated roof and spire, and it created a public health threat that stirred increasing anxiety in Paris throughout the summer.

“Five months after the fire, the French authorities have refused to fully disclose the results of their testing for lead contamination, sowing public confusion, while issuing reassuring statements intended to play down the risks.”

President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to complete the reconstruction of Notre-Dame in five years, which is opening authorities up to accusations they are putting this ahead of the health of thousands of people.

French officials had indications that lead exposure could be a grave problem within 48 hours of the fire, “But it took a month before city officials conducted the first lead tests at a school close to Notre-Dame.”

In dozens of public spaces near the site, “authorities found lead levels up to 60 times over the safety standard.”

--From the New York Post editorial board:

“Enough, already: The city needs to find a way to clear all the Elmos, Batmen, Minnie Mice and all the rest out of Times Square. They’re a public nuisance verging on a menace, and merit absolutely no special First Amendment protection.

“The Times Square Alliance study released last week is just the latest sign of the problem. The day after one Elmo’s arrest for allegedly groping a 14-year-old girl as she posed for a photo with her family, the alliance reported that the masked buskers molest an average of 24 passerby per hour during peak traffic.

“Even when the costumed cretins aren’t being illegally grabby or physically threatening, their behavior is outrageous – bullying tourists for ‘tips’ for ‘services’ most never wanted....

“Free speech!  Shout the civil libertarians.  Sorry: First Amendment rights have limits, like every other kind.  These characters aren’t engaged in political or artistic speech; at best they might qualify for commercial-speech protections – and the courts let the government limit billboards, telemarketers and the like pretty freely....

“Ironically, many tourists will tell you they hit Times Square to see the ‘real New York.’  But on street level the square today isn’t much New York at all – it’s avoided by every New Yorker who can.

“Leave the TKTS booth and the stairs; give Father Duffy his space.  But tear up the rest of the plazas, let the cars back in (you can even hand some space to bike lanes) – and take Times Square back from the Elmo invaders.”

--I was watching the European coverage today of the global climate change protests and it truly is amazing that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden has been a huge player in the recent debate and activism.  Her performance on Capitol Hill this week, ditto Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong, was also was in sharp contrast to that of Corey Lewandowski, I can’t help but note. 

---

Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.  We lost another American soldier in Afghanistan this week, the 17th this year.

God bless America.

---

Gold $1524
Oil $58.09

Returns for the week 9/16-9/20

Dow Jones  -1.1%  [26935]
S&P 500  -0.5%  [2992]
S&P MidCap  -0.9%
Russell 2000  -1.2%
Nasdaq  -0.7%  [8117]

Returns for the period 1/1/19-9/20/19

Dow Jones  +15.5%
S&P 500  +19.4%
S&P MidCap  +16.9%
Russell 2000  +15.7%
Nasdaq  +22.3%

Bulls 53.8
Bears
17.0

For just the second time in the history of this column (first since 2002), I am taking the coming week off.  But I will post market data by Monday, Sept. 30.

Brian Trumbore

 



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Week in Review

09/21/2019

For the week 9/16-9/20

[Posted 1:00 AM local, Sat., Shannon, Ireland]

Note: StocksandNews has significant ongoing costs and your support is greatly appreciated.  Please click on the gofundme link, or send a check to PO Box 990, New Providence, NJ 07974.

Special thanks to Steve G. for his ongoing support.

Edition 1,067

I had a lousy flight over here Thursday night, owing to Hurricane Humberto, or whatever is left of it, and I thank those who were responsible for the rivets on the wings, because it was kind of hairy.

I did catch up on some reading,  printing out stuff ahead for such a time, and I finally got around to the Gen. Mattis piece in The Atlantic, and another on the executive powers at Donald J. Trump’s disposal come Nov. 2020.

And while I don’t like to talk about stories without the facts, which is why I’m the ‘wait 24 hours’ guy, I was disturbed to read the Washington Post story on the possible reason for the whistleblower  case that came up this week.

I talk about this below, and the potential scenario, but suffice it to say, I’m hoping more and more people will have the guts to stand up to our leader in the White House.   Even Gen. Mattis said that while there are certain areas of discussion he won’t go as long as his former boss is in charge, he won’t stay silent forever.

It’s just that our leader refuses to call out Vladimir Putin, never talks about human rights, whether in Hong Kong or over the plight of the Uighurs, and why does the average American sit back and tolerate this?

But the average American is also severely lacking in an awareness of the world around them, so it’s up to the rest of us, because being ignorant is still covered under the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the sophistication of the drone attacks on the Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurias, as well as the inability of Saudi air defenses (read U.S. hardware) to take them out is scary as hell.  The technology to inflict catastrophic damage on such a scale is only getting better.

Yet after an initial shock on Monday in the oil markets, the price slid Tuesday and Wednesday as the Saudis tried to reassure consumers of crude that it would quickly restore full production, saying the Kingdom would deliver supplies to customers to their level before the attacks by drawing from its inventories.  Later, they appeared more confident on the length of time needed to make critical repairs.

Meanwhile, President Trump tweeted Wednesday: “I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!”  But then he told reporters he’d discuss the details later.  [It ended up being on the central bank of Iran.]  And the fact is, as Sen. Lindsey Graham has observed numerous times, the sanctions have had zero impact on Iranian behavior.

The president also tweeted that the United States is “locked and loaded depending on verification” of Iranian involvement, “But are  waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was (behind) this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

A few days later he warned that there was “plenty of time to do some dastardly things.”

“It’s very easy to start,” he said about military action.  “If we have to do something, we’ll do it without hesitation,” adding that “the ultimate option” was still on the table.

“There are many options…. There’s the ultimate option and there are options a lot less than that.  We’ll see.  We’re in a very powerful position.  Right now we’re in a very, very powerful position,” he continued.

Asked if the “ultimate option” was war, the commander-in-chief backtracked, saying he did mean war but wasn’t considering that option as of now.

“No, I’m not talking about that ultimate option, no,” he said.

Oh brother.

We did have another rather important story of a local nature this week.  Since virtually day one of “Week in Review,” I have warned of Hezbollah sleeper cells in the United States and Latin America.  It’s just a fact, hard as it is for some to fathom.

So a New Jersey man was arrested, Alexei Saab, 42, of Morristown, a town ten minutes from me.  Thursday he was charged in a nine-count federal indictment for offenses related to his support for Hezbollah, with whom he has spent the past 22 years training with and scouting terror-attack locations for the group, including providing intelligence on the Port Authority, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Stock Exchange and the city’s two airports, according to the document.

Saab surveyed dozens more locations in New York City and around the U.S.  The detailed information was recovered from his computers.

Saab joined Hezbollah in 1996 and his earliest activities including spying in Lebanon and intelligence-gathering in Istanbul, the indictment alleges.  He trained in the use of firearms, and in 2000 he received extensive training in military tactics, including how to construct bombs and other explosive devices.

In 2000, Saab lawfully entered the United States using a Lebanese passport and he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008.

That’s what I’ve been talking about all these years, folks.  Thankfully, we’ll never know when, or if, he was to be activated, obviously depending on events overseas, such as in any renewed major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

You can imagine the intelligence effort taking place today to find out everything about his contacts in the United States, and for this we are thankful to our intelligence community that President Trump so often disparages.

Trump World

--A story broke on a whistleblower complaint about President Trump and his actions on a call with a foreign leader and a “promise” made, which was so alarming to a U.S. intelligence official that he went to the inspector general of the intel community.  Then in the last 24 hours we’ve learned the incident centered on Ukraine, according to the Washington Post, and now confirmed by others.  Prior to this last bit, the president tweeted:

Another Fake News story out there – It never ends! Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself.  No problem!

“...Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.  I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!

“Presidential Harassment!”

But the story is Trump talked with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and it apparently was about whether Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping Trump’s re-election campaign.

Then Thursday night, in a CNN interview with Chris Cuomo, Giuliani ranted about media bias and defended Trump amid the whistleblower report.

Cuomo: “So did you ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?”

Giuliani: “Of course I did.”

It was  all about  the Trump team’s claim that Biden pressured Ukraine to drop its top prosecutor, who was investigating son Hunter and a natural gas company, where Hunter was on the board.

Meanwhile, $250 million in U.S. military assistance for Ukraine was being held up by the White House this summer, and a long-mooted visit for President Zelensky to Washington has still not materialized.

So was Zelensky being punished for not playing ball?  [The money was finally released this month.]

This afternoon, in an appearance at the White House, Trump told reporters it was “totally appropriate” and “it doesn’t matter what I discussed.”

Then the president reiterated his call for an investigation into Biden’s effort as vice president to oust Ukraine’s prosecutor general.

“Somebody ought to look into that,” he told reporters.

And so as I go to post, that’s where we stand, with the Wall Street Journal reporting President Trump pressured Ukraine constantly on Biden.  If true, yeah, I’d blow the whistle.

--President Trump named Robert O’Brien to succeed John Bolton as his national security adviser.  As he tweeted, O’Brien is “currently serving as the very successful Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department...I have worked long & hard with Robert.  He will do a great job.”

For his part, John Bolton on Wednesday ripped President Trump’s aborted plan to invite the Taliban to Camp David, saying the move sent a “terrible signal” and was “disrespectful” to the victims of 9/11 because the Taliban had harbored al Qaeda.

Bolton, speaking at a private luncheon, also said that negotiations with North Korea and Iran were “doomed to failure” on the president’s watch, two people who were there told Politico.

All Pyongyang and Tehran want is relief from sanctions to support their economies, Bolton told guests at the event hosted by a conservative think tank.

Bolton also said more than once that Trump’s failure to respond to the Iranian attack on an American drone earlier this summer set the stage for the Islamic Republic’s aggression in recent months – including Saturday’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry.

--President Trump said Wednesday that he is taking away California’s power to set its own vehicle tailpipe emissions standards, escalating an environmental dispute that has trapped automakers in the middle.

Trump tweets:

“The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER.  This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety....

“....advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars. There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be....

“....far safer and much less expensive.  Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

California’s top elected officials said the president was serving the interests of big oil companies and vowed to challenge the administration in court.  There is also zero truth to his ongoing claim cars will be safer and much less expensive.

Federal regulators are working on new federal tailpipe-emission rules that could ease requirements set under the Obama administration in 2012.    California has long had the authority to set its own rules on limiting air pollutants from cars.  Recently, Ford Motor Co. and several other major automakers agreed to tougher emission requirement than those set by the administration.  The automakers just want certainty and now the expected legal battle between Trump and California is unlikely to be resolved before the presidential election.

If the administration loses in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which normally handles issues under the Clean Air Act, then it would likely go to the Supreme Court.

According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last Friday, 66 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards rather than enforce the Obama administration’s targets for 2025.  A nearly identical 67 percent say they support state governments setting stricter fuel efficiency targets than the federal government.

Among Californians, 61 percent support the state’s stricter standards.

--More Trump tweets:

“So nice that our Country is now Energy Independent. The USA is in better shape than ever before.  Strongest Military by far, biggest Economy (no longer even close), number one in Energy!  MAGA = KAG!”

“ ‘The measured response by President @realDonaldTrump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.’ [Sen. Lindsey Graham]

Trump response: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand! Donald J. Trump added.”

Separately: “The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No conditions.’  That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).”

It was a totally correct statement, Mr. President.  You said it numerous times yourself, as did your representatives.  It’s all on freakin’ tape!

Wall Street and the Trade War

After a roaring three-week rally that brought the major averages to within spitting distance of their all-time highs, stocks took a breather.

On the data front, August industrial production rose a stronger than expected 0.6%, while we had two good readings on the rebounding housing sector.

August housing starts came in far better than forecast at a 1.364 million annualized pace, the highest level since June 2007, up 12.3%.  August existing home sales also exceeded expectations at 5.49m annualized, up 4.7% year-over-year.  The median price of $278,200 represented the 90th straight month of year-over-year gains.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer for the third quarter, however, is still at just 1.9%, after the economy grew at a 2% clip in Q2.

But the big news was the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point on Wednesday, its second cut since late July, and suggested it was prepared to move aggressively if the U.S. economy showed additional signs of weakening, the Fed meeting again in October and December before year end.

But there was division within the Fed’s Open Market Committee, the policy setting group, with three dissenting (one voting for a bigger cut, two voting for no cut) so there’s no telling what Chairman Jay Powell and Co. will do the balance of the year.

Powell said at his news conference after that the economy remained strong and unemployment low, but that “there are risks to this positive outlook.”  If the economy weakens, he said, a “more extensive sequence” of rate cuts could be appropriate.

“Our eyes are wide open, we’re watching the situation,” Powell said.

“There may come a time when the economy weakens and we would then have to cut more aggressively,” he continued.  “We don’t know.  We’re going to be watching things carefully, the incoming data and the evolving situation.”

Needless to say, another quarter-point wasn’t enough for President Trump.

“Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve Fail Again,” Trump said in a tweet shortly after the announcement.  “No ‘guts,’ no sense, no vision!   A terrible communicator!”

On the trade front, U.S. and Chinese deputy trade negotiators met in Washington to resume face-to-face talks for the first time in nearly two months on Thursday, with the negotiations aimed at laying the groundwork for high-level talks in early October that will determine whether the two countries are working toward a solution or headed for new and higher tariffs on each other’s goods.

The rather large Chinese delegation, however, was to meet with farmers in the Midwest early next week, with the sessions Thursday and Friday focused on agriculture, but then late today came word the delegation was going home and canceling visits to Nebraska and Montana, hardly a good sign.  When Trump was asked by reporters this afternoon if he felt pressured to come up with some kind of deal ahead of the 2020 presidential election, he said, “We’re looking for a complete deal.  I’m not looking for a partial deal.”

Europe and Asia

Just another inflation data point for the eurozone (EA19).  Per Eurostat, August inflation was 1.0%, same as July, while a year ago it was 2.1%.  The European Central Bank’s easy monetary policy will continue with this figure long into the future.

Germany 1.0%, France 1.3%, Italy 0.5%, Spain 0.4%.

Brexit: Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, addressed members of the European Parliament on Wednesday and threw doubt on the possibility of the EU striking a Brexit deal with the UK, warning that time is tight for an agreement as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to spell out his demands on the Irish backstop.  Juncker said he is “not sure we will get there” with a final agreement.  “Very little time is remaining.”  [Like six weeks until the Oct. 31 deadline, with a critical EU summit  two weeks before that.]

Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, had lunch with Johnson in Luxembourg on Monday, at which time the prime minister failed to provide any new ideas on how the government wanted to replace an Irish backstop.

Johnson continues to demand the full removal of a backstop arrangement that would keep the UK inside the customs union and aligned to EU rules to prevent a hard border in the absence of a free trade agreement.

As I noted last time, Johnson suggested allowing Northern Ireland to stick to EU rules on food and livestock.  But the EU has said this would not prevent a hard border for all other types of goods.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, said of the backstop, “There has not been one legally feasible alternative put on the table by the UK government.”

And an influential business association in Germany, BDI, has voiced “extreme concern” over the lack of preparation on the UK side for a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

“We cannot see a plan by the British government to avoid a no-deal Brexit.  On the contrary, the actions of the British government are unsettling,” said Joachim Lang, BDI director-general.

Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland whose 10 members of parliament support Prime Minister Johnson, said the DUP wants to help secure an orderly Brexit but that the region must remain “master” of the rules governing its economy.  The DUP is not in favor of Britain leaving the EU without a deal, nor is it willing to accept any new barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

So late today there were stories that the EU and Britain had exchanged technical papers on new proposals from the UK concerning the backstop, but as I go to post there are stories the EU is preparing to knock them down.

Italy: Former prime minister Matteo Renzi is set to break away from the ruling Democratic Party (PD) and set up a new centrist force in an effort to claim the middle ground of Italian politics.

But the center-left PD has just forged a new coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, so Renzi’s move would shake up Italian politics all over again and make it difficult for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to keep his government in office.

Renzi led a PD government from 2014-2016, but he had a rocky relationship with the PD after he resigned as PM in 2016 and he has long been rumored to be angling to set up a new party, taking with him disaffected PD MPs.

Renzi said he talk about his plans at a gathering of supporters next month.

Should Renzi make his move, his new group would still be part of the coalition, but it would mean Prime Minister Conte would have to meet another set of political demands to keep his government afloat.

EU-South America Trade: A draft agreement between the European Union and South America’s economic bloc, Mercosur, has been in the works for 20 years, but members of parliament in Austria may have dealt it a huge blow by demanding a government veto on the deal, unless Brazil does more to tackle environmental issues.

Mercosur includes four South American economies – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.  A fifth member, Venezuela, is currently suspended.

Without backing from every government in the EU, the Mercosur deal cannot go through.

France and Ireland have already warned they will reject the deal if Brazil does not do more to curb fires in the Amazon rainforest.

Turning to Asia, a few tidbits….

In China, the National Bureau of Statistics released further gloomy data, as industrial production for August was up just 4.4% year-over-year, the lowest since 2002! 

Retail sales rose 7.5%, yoy, while fixed asset investment (big-ticket projects like rails, roads and airports) were up just 5.5% the first eight months of the year, both also less than forecast.

China’s 70-city major home price index rose 8.8% in August vs. a year ago, but this was less than July’s 9.7% pace.

In Japan, trade tensions helped lead to a poor reading on exports for August, down 8.2% from a year ago, and down a ninth straight month, according to the Ministry of Finance.  Exports to the U.S. fell 4.4%, and were down 10.9% to Asia.

Street Bytes

--As noted above stocks fell for the first time in four weeks, largely on continued trade uncertainty, especially Friday’s news that China’s delegation was headed home early.  The Dow Jones fell 1.1% to 26935, while the S&P 500 declined 0.5% and Nasdaq 0.7%.

Funds that track broad U.S. equity indexes hit $4.27 trillion in assets as of Aug. 31, according to research firm Morningstar Inc., giving them more than active managers for the first-ever monthly reporting period.  Funds that are trying to beat the market had $4.25 trillion as of that date.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, in the past decade, nearly $1.36 trillion in net flows were added to U.S. equity mutual funds and exchange-traded fund that mimic market indexes while some $1.32 trillion fled higher-costing actively managed counterparts.

Indexing giants Vanguard, BlackRock and State Street now wield considerable power over Corporate America with their large voting blocs.

The above three also hold about 20% of the S&P 500 through funds they manage, according to FactSet.  Big indexers were key votes in a landmark shareholder victory in 2017 that pushed Exxon Mobil Corp. to explain the impact of climate-change rules.

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 1.90%   2-yr. 1.68%  10-yr. 1.72%  30-yr. 2.16%

Treasuries staged a big rally to recover some of their massive losses from the week before.  Yields in Europe fell again as well (save for Italy, though its 10-year still yields just 0.92%)

On Tuesday, Federal Reserve traders were forced to jump into U.S. money markets to inject cash, attempting to drive down key short-term rates that had spiked to as high as 10%, which threatened to muck up everything from Treasury bond trading to lending to corporations and consumers.

But the Fed’s effort didn’t last long and Wednesday and Thursday they were back in the market to offer another $75 billion of cash to the market.

So what did it all mean?  That there are deep structural problems in U.S. money markets, as in not enough cash on hand at major Wall Street firms to meet the funding demands of a market trying to absorb record Treasury bond sales needed to cover U.S. budget deficits.

The repo (repurchase) market is over $2 trillion in size and normally there are bouts of volatility at quarter- or year-end when liquidity can become an issue, but not at mid-month like we had this week.  Most experts seem to agree that there’s not enough reserves – or excess money that banks park at the Fed – in the banking system.  Current reserves total more than $1 trillion, so will the Fed have to start up with another round of quantitative easing, or debt purchases that create fresh reserves?

The real bottom line to this layman, however, is that the U.S. government is making things more volatile by adding a record amount of new debt which is only going to increase as the deficit swells past $1 trillion for years and years to come.

In his regular post-meeting press conference, however, Fed Chair Powell played down the significance of the spike in the cost of borrowing cash short-term and said the Fed is tinkering with its “open market operations.”

During the financial crisis, the repo market played a central role when it froze up as investors questioned the safety of the securities being lent and trust in the large banks evaporated. 

But then post-2008 regulations have made it more expensive for banks to get involved in repo and other short-term arenas. So the big banks have shifted to more stable sources of funding and actually lend more than they borrow in repurchase agreements, so they can make more money from higher rates.

Chairman Powell said the Fed is in the process of studying the market comprehensively and may make some policy changes at its next meeting, or by year end.

--As alluded to above, the price of oil rocketed up Monday after the attack on the Saudi refineries, then largely fell over  the balance of the week amid reassurances there would be no long-term disruption, while at the same time, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported crude stockpiles rose last week when a sizable decrease was expected.

--A nationwide strike was called at General Motors Co. starting Monday morning, impacting 46,000 full-time workers at GM’s U.S. factories as the automaker and the United Auto Workers try to reach a new four-year labor agreement that the union hopes to use as a template for talks with Ford and Fiat Chrysler.  It’s the UAW’s first such walkout since 2007.

The union is pushing GM to improve wages, reopen idled plants, add jobs at others and close or narrow the difference between pay rates for new hires and veteran workers.  GM wants employees to pay a greater portion of their healthcare costs, and to increase worker productivity and flexibility in factories.

According to Bloomberg, as GM was nearing the expiration of the labor contract with the union last week, the automaker sought to have hourly workers pay 15% of their healthcare costs, but by the time the company presented the union with a deadline offer, GM walked back the proposal and called for keeping contributions steady at about 4%.

While this wasn’t enough to stave off a walkout by nearly 50,000 workers, it’s a bad omen for Fiat Chrysler and Ford Motor, since the UAW typically tries to pattern contracts reached with the Big Three after one another.  Ford, Bloomberg has previously reported, is expecting its insurance bill covering its 56,000 hourly workers to exceed $1 billion for the first time next year.

Workers see their healthcare plans as hard-won benefits that help make up for the wage concessions and jobs given up more than a decade ago when GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and Ford went through a wrenching restructuring.

According to an October 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the three automakers’ hourly employees contribute between 3% and 4% to their coverage, compared with 29% for the average American worker.

But, all the above aside, within 36 hours of the strike, GM announced a decision to shift worker health care payments to the union immediately – a strategy that risks dragging out the strike, labor negotiators say.

Another big issue is that of temporary workers, with the Big Three looking to increase the number of lower-cost temps at their plants so they have more flexibility to dial back output if demand falls.  Relying more on such workers is one way the car companies hope to keep rising labor costs in check without affecting the pay and benefits of full-time workers.

Of course the union wants the car companies to restrict their use of temp hires, which currently account for about 7% of GM’s factory workforce, versus more than 20% for the foreign-owned car plants, according to industry data.

Lastly, it is estimated that the walkout could hit GM’s profit by between $50 million and $100 million daily.

--Shares in FedEx Corp. cratered 13% on Wednesday after the company reported profit fell 11% in its first fiscal quarter, as the package delivery company was hit by slower economic growth and the loss of business from Amazon. 

The results fell short of Wall Street’s expectations, and FedEx lowered its earnings forecast through next spring.

The company said it would cut costs, including scaling back capacity in its express air-delivery network after the peak holiday season.

And FedEx said it is raising prices, with rates on express, ground and home deliveries going up by an average of 4.9% starting Jan. 6, with freight rates rising 5.9%.

Quarterly profit of $745 million was down from $835 million a year earlier.  Ex- special items including expenses to fold European business TNT into its own, FedEx said it would have earned $3.05 per share, with the Street’s analysts at $3.17.

Revenue was flat at $17.05 billion, also below forecasts.

And the company sharply lowered its full-year earnings forecast.

CEO Frederick Smith said, “Our performance continues to be negatively impacted by a weakening global macro environment driven by increasing trade tensions and policy uncertainty.”

--Office-sharing startup WeWork postponed its IPO, walking away from preparations to launch it this month after a lackluster response from investors to its plans.

The company has been under pressure to proceed with the flotation to secure funding for its operations, but owner The We Company has faced concerns about its corporate governance standards, as well as the sustainability of its business model, which relies on a mix of long-term liabilities (leases) and short-term revenue, and how such a model would weather an economic downturn.

[WeWork rents space, renovates it, then divides it up and subleases it.]

Last January, the company was valued in its latest round of funding at $47 billion, yet the valuation on the IPO had plummeted to a range of $10 billion to $12 billion, according to some analysts.  WeWork seems to be willing to accept a valuation of between $15bn and $20bn.

WeWork’s largest outside shareholder, SoftBank, had priced the company at $47 billion.  At the same time, SoftBank, together with its Saudi Arabia-backed Vision Fund, has been looking to raise $108bn for a second Vision Fund, which would prove difficult given disappointment in the first fund with this WeWork fiasco.

--The war over content is in full swing, with Netflix acquiring five years of global streaming rights to “Seinfeld,” a move that comes months after Netflix confirmed it would lose fan-favorites “Friends” and “The Office” in coming years.  While the terms of the deal weren’t released, the Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed sources, described the price as “far more” than the $500 million NBCUniversal paid for “The Office.”  Netflix will start streaming “Seinfeld” episodes in 2021.

While Netflix and its competitors are pouring $billions into new shows, “The Office” and “Friends” (which is moving to AT&T’s WarnerMedia in 2020) were the top two most-watched shows on Netflix last year, according to Nielsen.

In the second quarter, Netflix lost roughly 130,000 subscribers, which isn’t significant vs. its global paid user base of over 150 million, but it’s disconcerting given all the new competition.

At $12.99 a month, Netflix is pricy vs. the alternatives coming on stream.  Disney+ is going to be $6.99 when it begins in November.

“Seinfeld,” by the way, which will still be available on local TV stations and cable channel TBS (WarnerMedia), has already made  more than $3 billion in global rerun deals, according to the Wall Street Journal and an executive close to the show.

Needless to say, creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David can pay for lunch if you’re ever in their company.

--OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday night, succumbing to pressure from more than 2,600 lawsuits alleging the company helped fuel the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic.

Purdue, which had long been expected to file for Chapter 11 protection, reached a tentative deal to resolve lawsuits with 24 states and five U.S. territories, as well as lead lawyers for more than 2,000 cities, counties and other plaintiffs, the company said.

Purdue and the controlling Sackler family have denied allegations that company and family aggressively marketed prescription painkillers while misleading doctors and patients about their addiction and overdose risks.

The Sacklers, who would cede control of Purdue in the proposed settlement, have offered $3 billion in cash and an additional $1.5 billion or more through the eventual sales of another company they own, called Mundipharma.  The Sacklers have said this is their final offer.

--India’s government announced a sweeping ban on e-cigarettes Wednesday, citing potential health risks.  Government ministers said the ordinance was inspired by the deaths of seven people in the United States due to vaping-related illnesses.  Dozens of Indian states have also taken action to ban the sale of e-cigarettes.

--Microsoft Corp. announced it would repurchase as much as $40 billion worth of shares in a new buyback program and boosted its dividend by 5 cents to 51 cents a share.

Microsoft’s shares are up in excess of 35% this year and its market capitalization exceeds $1 trillion.  Its previous buyback plan, unveiled in September 2016, was also for $40 billion.

--Boeing’s 737 MAX, grounded since March after two fatal crashes, might have to be flown by Federal Aviation Administration chief Steven Dickson before returning to service.

Dickson, who is certified to pilot the plane, told NBC News he will not sign off on the aircraft returning to service until he personally flies one of them.

According to CNBC, however, Dickson is not a certified test pilot, so he wouldn’t be in the cockpit during an official MAX recertification flight.  He would have to pilot it later.

--As a follow-up to something I wrote last week, British Airways pilots called off a strike due next Friday, which would have followed a two-day strike Sept. 9 and 10.  The union said it hoped BA would negotiate seriously with a view to ending the long-running pay dispute.

But the airline had already cancelled thousands of passengers’ flights next week and it’s unclear how much of the normal schedule the airline will operate.

--According to an annual report on China’s top brands, Apple Inc. has fallen from No. 11 a year ago to No. 24.  Back in 2017, before the trade war started, Apple was fifth in this ranking.  Apple’s biggest local rival, Huawei Technologies Co., climbed two spots and came in second, behind only Chinese payment service Alipay.

No surprise here that Chinese consumers are cooling towards some American brands.  The survey is conducted by San Francisco-based consultancy Prophet, which surveyed 13,500 Chinese consumers who evaluated brands they used or were considering using, looking at their relevance to the lives of consumers based on qualities such as innovation, usefulness and dependability.

Chinese interpreted the arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, last year in Canada at the behest of the U.S. government, “as an attack,” said Jay Milliken of Prophet.

Only two American names in the top ten this year – Android at No. 3 and Intel at No. 9 – compared to five in the 2017 survey.  Unlike Apple, Android and Intel don’t have to worry about consumers switching allegiances to local competitors, Milliken said, and that explains why they manage to remain highly ranked.  [Bruce Einhorn / Bloomberg]

--We had a successful IPO on Thursday, that being Manhattan-based cloud-monitoring company Datadog Inc. (great name) priced well above its initial estimated range of $19 to $22, coming public at $27 and closing the first day at $37.  This is a company that actually produced a profit last year, as opposed to WeWork’s humongous losses (ditto Lyft and Uber).

Good boy, Datadog...good boy.

Foreign Affairs

Iran / Saudi Arabia: Iran dismissed accusation by the United States that it was behind attacks on the Saudi oil plant and warned Sunday that  U.S. bases and aircraft carriers in the region were in range of its missiles.  And while over the weekend, Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the assault was the work of Iran.

Saying there was zero evidence the attack came from Yemen, where the Arab coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and rival Iran, the secretary said, “Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi, speaking on state TV, dismissed the U.S. allegations as “pointless.”  A senior Revolutionary Guard commander warned that the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day, at a time when Aramco is trying to ready itself for what is expected to be the world’s largest share sale.

Well, early in the week as I noted above, the Saudis offered reassurances but there is no doubt in the long run that the image of invulnerability is no longer.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted:

“The Iranian regime is not interested in peace – they’re pursuing nuclear weapons and regional dominance.

“It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment.

“Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back.”

Wednesday, the Saudi Defense Ministry displayed drone and missile debris it said was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression.  The United States wants to build a coalition of European and Arab partners to deter Iran after the attack on Saudi Arabia that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described on Wednesday as “an act of war.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic has tested U.S. resolve with military escalation across the Middle East.  Likely Iranian involvement in attacks on Saudi oil production over the weekend marks a new phase in this destabilizing campaign, and it’s no coincidence this happened as Mr. Trump is considering a softer approach to Tehran.

“The attack continues what is already a hot proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally.  The extent of the damage raised doubts about how well the Saudis can defend against future drone assaults.  Saudi intelligence and air defenses don’t seem up to the job.  Saudi revenues would be hurt by a reduction in oil output, and uncertainty will complicate an initial public offering of the country’s national oil company, Aramco….

“The Saudis are far from ideal allies, but U.S. Senators who want to end U.S. support for Riyadh should consider the alternative of Iranian regional dominance….

“The Iranians are probing Mr. Trump as much as the Saudis.  They are testing his resolve to carry out his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, and they sense weakness.  Iran shot down an American drone this summer, and Mr. Trump rejected advice for a military response.  Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s overseas Quds Force, has historically interpreted such restraint as a signal that he’s winning and can safely escalate.

“Mr. Trump is also eager for direct talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Mr. Pompeo floated a handshake meeting between the two at the coming United Nations General Assembly.  Mr. Trump has even contemplated support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of paying the mullah’s a $15 billion bribe for better behavior.  The weekend attack is Iran’s return handshake….

“Mr. Trump might also apologize to John Bolton, who warned repeatedly that Iran would take advantage of perceived weakness in the White House.  Mr. Bolton resigned last week over policy differences, notably on Iran.  The weekend’s events proved the former adviser right.  The Trump Administration’s pressure campaign has been working, and abandoning it now would encourage Tehran to take more military risks.”

Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told CNN that Iran “won’t blink” if it has to defend itself against any U.S. or Saudi military strike, which he said would lead to “all-out war.”  He also said Sec. Pompeo was part of a so-called “B-team,” which Tehran says includes Saudi Arabia’s crown prince (MBS) and is trying to dupe Trump into opting for war.

Israel: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in an election  where he highlighted his close ties with President Trump while campaigning.  Netanyahu canceled his annual speech at the UN General Assembly next week that would have provided the two an opportunity to meet.  For his part, Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he has not spoken with Netanyahu.

It was almost laughable, as Trump said on Saturday ahead of Tuesday’s vote that he had spoken with the prime minister about a possible mutual defense treaty between the two nations, a blatant move intended to bolster Netanyahu’s re-election bid and show his close ties to the president who is popular in Israel.

Previously Trump had bolstered Bibi’s candidacy when he recognized Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights ahead of earlier elections.

Trump tweeted:

“I had a call today with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of moving forward with a Mutual Defense Treaty, between the United States and Israel, that would further anchor the tremendous alliance….

“….between our two countries.  I look forward to continuing those discussions after the Israeli Elections when we meet at the United Nations later this month!”

Not quite.  While the results of the vote showed that neither Netanyahu nor the former army chief Benny Gantz, a centrist, had enough support to form a majority coalition, Gantz’s Blue and White party came out ahead of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, giving a small third party led by onetime Netanyahu deputy Avigdor Lieberman the role of kingmaker.

Netanyahu ran an awful, flat-out racist campaign in the closing weeks, and flouted Election Day bans on campaign propaganda to spur his supporters into action.

I mean this is a guy who faces looming indictments in three corruption cases, so his future is in grave danger.  Under Israeli law, however, he could stay in his post as prime minister even if indicted, and he could press his coalition to grant him immunity from prosecution.  But as a lesser minister or ordinary lawmaker, he would have to resign.  So he’s a cornered rat.

And after the vote, on Thursday, Netanyahu called on Gantz to join him in a broad, governing coalition.

“During the election campaign, I called for the establishment of a right-wing government but to my regret, the election results show that this is impossible,” Netanyahu said.

“Benny, we must set up a broad unity government, as soon as today. The nation expects us, both of us, to demonstrate responsibility and that we pursue cooperation.”

Gantz previously said he hoped for a “good, desirable unity government,” but ruled out forming one with a Netanyahu-led Likud, citing the corruption charges.

The process of forming a coalition could take weeks.  In the 120-member  parliament (Knesset), Likud won a provisional 31 seats and Blue and White 33.  Netanyahu’s right-wing cluster of parties stands at 55 seats, Gantz’s center-left bloc has 57, and doesn’t want to sit with the religious parties. Which leaves Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and its eight seats as kingmaker.  After the election he reiterated his support for a unity government, so we’ll see.

Israel’s president selects the candidate he feels can best put together a coalition and that person then has 42 days to form a government.  Last time, following April’s indecisive election, Netanyahu failed to do so, thus necessitating Tuesday’s indecisive vote.

Here’s hoping Netanyahu is sent packing…and possibly to prison (though it’s more likely a deal would be cut where he would avoid such a fate).

As I go to post, though, Lieberman said he wouldn’t form a government with Gantz, but this does not necessarily give the edge to Netanyahu, as Lieberman still wants a unity government of some kind.

President Trump has said nothing.  He doesn’t want to be associated with a loser.

Afghanistan:  At the start of the week, President Trump repeated his claim that a single Taliban attack had scuttled his peace talk efforts at Camp David by tweeting:

“The Taliban has never been hit harder than it is being hit right now.  Killing 12 people, including one great American soldier, was not a good idea.  There are much better ways to set up a negotiation.  The Taliban knows they made a big mistake, and they have no idea how to recover!”

So with peace talks dead, the Taliban just kept bombing away ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday.

A suicide bomb at an election rally killed at least 26 people in Parwan province, north of Kabul.  President Ashraf Ghani was due to speak at it.

Another blast in central Kabul, near the U.S. embassy, killed at least three.

These were both on Tuesday.  Thursday morning a suicide truck bomb devastated a hospital in the southern province of Zabul, killing over 20 and wounding 100.  Think of it.  Residents were at the hospital to see sick family members, and then the massive explosion destroyed half of the facility, as the same family members carried out the wounded.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for all of the attacks.

But then there was a report that on Thursday, a U.S. drone strike, intended to hit an Islamic State hideout, instead killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields, nut farm workers, three Afghan officials told Reuters.  Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry and a senior U.S. official in Kabul then confirmed the strike, but did not share details of civilian casualties.

Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said, “U.S. forces conducted a drone strike against Da’esh (IS) terrorists in Nangarhar.  We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants  and are working with local officials to determine the facts.”

A survivor of the attack told Reuters that there were about 200 laborers sleeping in five tents pitched near the farm when the attack happened.

This can’t happen!

Syria: A car bomb exploded near a hospital in the Syrian town of al-Rai, on the border of Turkey on Sunday, killing 12, as well as damaging the hospital, that attack coming in an area under the control of Turkey-backed rebels. So the chaos in this critical region continues despite efforts at a ceasefire.

China: Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said on Saturday he was seeking the support of U.S. lawmakers for the demands of his fellow protesters who had led months of street demonstrations, including a call for free elections.

Wong then appeared  before a congressional commission led by Sen. Marco Rubio, asking for support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, adding such a clause should be part of any U.S.-China trade negotiations.

Having Wong and fellow activist Denise Ho in Washington no doubt infuriated Beijing, which wants the focus on its upcoming 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.  Wong told Congress it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Beijing will call in the army to quell the protests prior to that date.

On another front, Taiwan accused China on Monday of trying to influence its presidential and legislative elections after the Solomon Islands cut off ties with Taipei.  The Solomon Islands was the sixth country to switch allegiance to China since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taiwan in 2016.  Its decision on Monday dealt her a new blow in her struggle to secure re-election in January amid criticism of her handling of Beijing and rising tension with China.

Self-ruled Taiwan now has formal relations with just 16 countries, most of them small, less developed nations in Central America and the Pacific.   China claims Taiwan as its territory and says it has no right to formal ties with any nation.  Of course China is just buying the ‘remainers’ off, one at a time.

“Over the past few years, China has continually used financial and political pressure to suppress Taiwan’s international space,” Tsai said, calling the Chinese move “a brazen challenge and detriment to the international order.”

Stand strong, Madame President!

Separately, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse warned of a doomsday scenario in which China wipes out U.S. satellites to cripple the military’s GPS and communications systems in a cyber war that takes place in outer space.

“China has envisioned a lot of game theory that has them sort of blowing up everything in the near-space early in a conflict, which would take away lots of things like GPS,” the Nebraska lawmaker told John Catsimatidis on his Sunday radio show.  “It would be absolutely disastrous.”

Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the newly created Cyber Commission, said the country isn’t doing “nearly enough” to protect Americans from “emerging cyber threats from Russia, from North Korea, from Iran, but especially from China.”

“While we still lead China and Russia, our qualitative military edge is shrinking.  And the amount of money China is investing in particular should keep all American policymakers up at night,” he said.

North Korea: A South Korean newspaper reported Sunday that Kim Jong Un sent a letter to President Trump in August detailing his willingness to meet for yet another summit, but curiously, the president has said little about this one.

Russia: Garry Kasparov / Washington Post

“When Russian local elections didn’t go Vladimir Putin’s way on Sept. 8, he didn’t take it well.  Despite the usual techniques of banning and jailing opposition candidates, beating peaceful protesters and putting the full weight of state-controlled media behind favored candidates, Putin’s United Russia party lost seats across the country, especially in Moscow.

“Four days later, Putin launched the largest security operation of his 20-year reign.  Raids took place in 43 cities across Russia, with police breaking into the offices and homes of opposition groups and activists, confiscating documents, computers and even coffee machines.

“The supposed show of strength was evidence that Putin’s grip on Russia isn’t as tight as he pretends.  He has switched from propaganda to a campaign of violence, first against the protesters and then with raids intended to produce terror, not arrests.  Bystanders can be arrested and sentenced to years in prison for assaulting a member of the state security forces – a statute used against me in my own arrest seven years ago.

“Putin’s popularity was already sinking as Russians struggle with economic stagnation – stagnation that has been exacerbated by Western sanctions prompted by his war against Ukraine.  The crackdown is almost certain to further damage his support….

“Yet even as Putin’s position grows more precarious, he has been thrown a lifeline by two supposed leaders of the free world, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.  Trump’s inexplicable sycophancy toward Putin is well-documented.  France has increased trade with Russia despite sanctions, and Macron recently echoed Trump in expressing support for Russia’s return to the group of leading industrialized economies. The idea is baffling, given that Russia was ejected from the Group of Eight in 2014 for invading and annexing Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that remains under Russian domination….

“I was honored to speak last Thursday at the Black Ribbon Day Conference in Toronto, devoted to the 80th anniversary of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin that paved the way for World War II.  The gathering had two main themes: reminding the world that Stalin was Hitler’s murderous partner for nearly two years and sounding an alarm about Putin’s project to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation.

“Lithuanian political scientist Marius Laurinavicius spoke powerfully at the event.  He noted that in democracies, it’s inexcusable for citizens to blame elected officials for the paths their nations take. Responsibility lies elsewhere: ‘It’s you,’ he said, ‘it’s all of us.’  Unlike the people of Russia, citizens of the free world can hold their politicians accountable, and it is long past time to do so.”

South Korea/Japan: The two continue to ratchet up their trade dispute, with this week Seoul approving plans to drop Tokyo from its “white list” of countries with fast track trade status, responding with a tit-for-tat move that intensifies the growing diplomatic and trade tensions.

Relations have deteriorated since a ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court last year that Japanese companies should compensate South Koreans who were conscripted as forced laborers during World War II.  Japan removed Seoul’s fast-export status in late August after imposing tighter controls on exports of three materials to South Korea used in computer chips and display industries.

Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in a heap of trouble less than five weeks before an election that was already going to be a tough fight.  Trudeau was forced to apologize on Wednesday for wearing brown face make-up in 2001 in an embarrassing photo that emerged.

The image of a 29-year-old Trudeau with his face in dark make-up is a major challenge for a leader who often speaks about the need to fight racial discrimination and who has three prominent ministers of Indian descent in his cabinet.

“I should have known better then, but I didn’t and I did it and I’m deeply sorry,” Trudeau, 47, told reporters on his campaign plane after Time magazine published the image.

Trudeau, in comments carried live on Canadian television, said, “I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put make-up on.  I shouldn’t have done it.”

“This picture runs completely contrary to the image of tolerance the prime minister has so scrupulously cultivated.  It can’t be good for him or his party,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs.

According to Statistics Canada, the nation has an official policy of multiculturalism and about one in five Canadians was born overseas.

When questioned by reporters, Trudeau had to admit he had also dressed up in make-up when at high school and performed “Day O,” a traditional Jamaican song about people loading bananas onto boats.

Trudeau is locked in a battle with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer ahead of the Oct. 21 federal election.

Scheer told reporters: “Wearing brown face is an act of open mockery and racism. What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.”

Trudeau, who once had sky-high popularity ratings, has been hurt by a series of missteps, including a ruling last month by a top watchdog that he breached ethics rules by pressuring the former justice minister to ensure a major construction firm avoid a corruption trial.

Trudeau blew off suggestions he might quit.

“I am going to be asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did...it was a dumb thing to do.  I’m disappointed in myself.  I’m pissed off with myself for having done it,” he said.

Thursday, in a more formal press conference, he voiced similar sentiments, adding that his privilege as the white son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau had come with a “blind spot.”

“I come from a place of privilege and I have endeavored in my life to put the advantages and opportunities  I’ve been given to serve this country, to fight for people’s rights,” he said.  “I have to recognize that I’ve let a lot of people down with that choice (to wear blackface) and I stand here today to reflect on that and to ask forgiveness.”

Is this good enough?  Doesn’t this reek of hypocrisy?  The Canadian people will decide.

Random Musings:

--Presidential tracking polls....

Gallup: 43% approval of Trump’s job performance, 54% disapproval (up from 39-57 last survey); 91% Republicans, 38% independents (Sept. 3-15).
Rasmussen: 52% approve, 47% disapprove (Sept. 19).

--In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have gained support since the summer in their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Biden was the top choice of 31% of Democratic primary voters, while Warren was favored by 25%, which was conducted after the third primary debate in Houston last week.  Bernie Sanders was the only other candidate with double-digit support, at 14%.

[Pete Buttigieg 7%, Kamala Harris 5%, Andrew Yang 4%.]

As Republican pollster Bill McInturff (who conducted the survey with Democrat Jeff Horwitt) put it, “The race isn’t getting broader.  There aren’t more people in the mix.  There are fewer people.” 

But another Democratic pollster who worked on the survey, Peter Hart, said, “What we see in September isn’t what we see in December.”  The Iowa caucuses are held in February.

Enthusiasm for Warren has been rising, with 70% of Democratic primary voters saying they were enthusiastic about or comfortable with her compared with 57% who said so in March.

By contrast, enthusiasm for Biden has declined from 73% in March to 64% today.

In a July WSJ/NBC poll, Biden was at 26%, Warren 19%, Sanders 13%, and Harris 13%.

So you can see the trends.

Separately, Barack Obama is overwhelmingly popular among Democrats with 90% having a positive view of the former president.  This compares with 64% who have a positive view of former President Bill Clinton.

--I agree with Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, the three seeking the Republican presidential nomination, that it is a disgrace that four states, thus far, have canceled Republican primaries because President Trump would win in a landslide and therefore it is a waste of money.

The three wrote a joint op-ed in the Washington Post that read in part:

“A president always defines his or her party, and today the Republican Party has taken a wrong turn, led by a serial self-promoter who has abandoned the bedrock principles of the GOP.  In the Trump era, personal responsibility, fiscal sanity and rule of law have been overtaken by a preference for alienating our allies while embracing terrorists and dictators, attacking the free press and pitting everyday Americans against one another.

“No surprise, then, that the latest disgrace, courtesy of Team Trump, is an effort to eliminate any threats to the president’s political power in 2020.  Republicans have long held primaries and caucuses to bring out the best our party has to offer.... But now, the Republican parties of four states – Arizona, Kansas, Nevada and South Carolina – have canceled their nominating contests.  By this design, the incumbent will be crowned winner of these states’ primary delegates.  There is little confusion about who has been pushing for this outcome....

“Do Republicans really want to be the party with a nominating process that more resembles Russia or China than our American tradition?  Under this president, the federal deficit has topped the $1 trillion mark. Do we as Republicans accept all this as inevitable? Are we to leave it to the Democrats to make the case for principles and values that, a few years ago, every Republican would have agreed formed the foundations of our party?....

“In the United States, citizens choose their leaders. The primary nomination process is the only opportunity for Republicans to have a voice in deciding who will represent our party.  Let those voices be heard.”

--The Boston Globe is reporting that Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, the last member of the Democratic dynasty serving in Washington, plans to formally announce Saturday that he is launching a primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey, “an audacious political move that could open fissures within the Democratic Party and reshape the Massachusetts political landscape,” as the Globe put it.  Sure seems audacious to me...as in why?

--We note the passing of pioneering journalist Cokie Roberts, 75.  Over her decadeslong career at ABC News and NPR, Roberts became one of the most prominent political broadcasters of her era and a champion for younger generations of women in the media.

Roberts was the daughter of Louisiana politicians...her father, Hale Boggs, a former Democratic House majority leader, and Lindy Boggs, who succeeded her husband in Congress.

Roberts started in local news and CBS News before joining NPR to cover Congress in 1978.  She then joined ABC a decade later, retaining a role at NPR.

From 1996 to 2002, she co-anchored ABC’s “This Week” on Sundays with Sam Donaldson.

Barack Obama said Roberts was a role model for women at a time the journalism profession was still dominated by men, while George W. Bush called Roberts a talented, tough and fair reporter.

President Trump, who didn’t offer a tweet on Roberts’ death, told reporters aboard Air Force One that he respected her professionalism, but, “I never met her. She never treated me nicely.  But I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals.”

Cokie Roberts had been battling breast cancer on and off since 2002, but worked right up to the end, including last month on “This Week.”

--According to an extensive story in the New York Times, the fire that engulfed Notre-Dame cathedral back in April contaminated the site with clouds of toxic dust and exposed nearby schools, day care centers, public parks and other parts of Paris to alarming levels of lead.

“The lead came from the cathedral’s incinerated roof and spire, and it created a public health threat that stirred increasing anxiety in Paris throughout the summer.

“Five months after the fire, the French authorities have refused to fully disclose the results of their testing for lead contamination, sowing public confusion, while issuing reassuring statements intended to play down the risks.”

President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to complete the reconstruction of Notre-Dame in five years, which is opening authorities up to accusations they are putting this ahead of the health of thousands of people.

French officials had indications that lead exposure could be a grave problem within 48 hours of the fire, “But it took a month before city officials conducted the first lead tests at a school close to Notre-Dame.”

In dozens of public spaces near the site, “authorities found lead levels up to 60 times over the safety standard.”

--From the New York Post editorial board:

“Enough, already: The city needs to find a way to clear all the Elmos, Batmen, Minnie Mice and all the rest out of Times Square. They’re a public nuisance verging on a menace, and merit absolutely no special First Amendment protection.

“The Times Square Alliance study released last week is just the latest sign of the problem. The day after one Elmo’s arrest for allegedly groping a 14-year-old girl as she posed for a photo with her family, the alliance reported that the masked buskers molest an average of 24 passerby per hour during peak traffic.

“Even when the costumed cretins aren’t being illegally grabby or physically threatening, their behavior is outrageous – bullying tourists for ‘tips’ for ‘services’ most never wanted....

“Free speech!  Shout the civil libertarians.  Sorry: First Amendment rights have limits, like every other kind.  These characters aren’t engaged in political or artistic speech; at best they might qualify for commercial-speech protections – and the courts let the government limit billboards, telemarketers and the like pretty freely....

“Ironically, many tourists will tell you they hit Times Square to see the ‘real New York.’  But on street level the square today isn’t much New York at all – it’s avoided by every New Yorker who can.

“Leave the TKTS booth and the stairs; give Father Duffy his space.  But tear up the rest of the plazas, let the cars back in (you can even hand some space to bike lanes) – and take Times Square back from the Elmo invaders.”

--I was watching the European coverage today of the global climate change protests and it truly is amazing that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden has been a huge player in the recent debate and activism.  Her performance on Capitol Hill this week, ditto Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong, was also was in sharp contrast to that of Corey Lewandowski, I can’t help but note. 

---

Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.  We lost another American soldier in Afghanistan this week, the 17th this year.

God bless America.

---

Gold $1524
Oil $58.09

Returns for the week 9/16-9/20

Dow Jones  -1.1%  [26935]
S&P 500  -0.5%  [2992]
S&P MidCap  -0.9%
Russell 2000  -1.2%
Nasdaq  -0.7%  [8117]

Returns for the period 1/1/19-9/20/19

Dow Jones  +15.5%
S&P 500  +19.4%
S&P MidCap  +16.9%
Russell 2000  +15.7%
Nasdaq  +22.3%

Bulls 53.8
Bears
17.0

For just the second time in the history of this column (first since 2002), I am taking the coming week off.  But I will post market data by Monday, Sept. 30.

Brian Trumbore