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For the week 3/30-4/3
The Iran Talks...and the framework for a final deal
Iran and the P5+1, the permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany, reached agreement on a framework for a final accord on Iran’s nuclear program after 18 months of negotiations. Details now need to be hammered out by June 30.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran’s chief negotiator, spoke first after the last session wrapped up in Lausanne, Switzerland, saying all sanctions would be lifted after the final agreement is signed, and that “none of (the) measures require closing any of our facilities,” something he said the “proud people” of Iran would never allow. Zarif emphasized centrifuges would be allowed in the underground Fordow facility, but that no enrichment of uranium would take place there.
He added: “We have serious differences with the United States. What I hope is that through courageous implementation of this...some of this distrust can be remedied.”
“After many months of tough principled diplomacy, we have achieved the framework for (a) deal, and it is a good deal,” he said from the White House. “It is our best option by far.”
“Iran will never be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon.” If the Islamic Republic follows through on its promises “we will be able to resolve one of the greatest threats to our security.”
The deal “would cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon,” added the president. “This deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.”
“I am convinced that if this framework leads to a final, comprehensive deal, it will make our country, our allies, and our world safer. This has been a long time coming.”
But, “Our work is not yet done. The deal has not been signed. And success is not guaranteed,” Obama said.
Obama also warned: “If Congress kills this deal – not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative – then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy. International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen.”
Philip Hammond, U.K. foreign secretary: “This is well beyond what many of us thought possible even 18 months ago and a good basis for what I believe could be a very good deal. But there is still more work to do.... The fine detail of any deal will be very important, in particular specifics of oversight measures and mechanisms for handling UN Security Council resolutions.”
For a period of 10 years, Iran will reduce the number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 5,060 and cut its stockpile of enriched uranium from 8.5 tons to 300 kilos (17,600 pounds to 660) by exporting its stocks or diluting them. Last summer, supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran ultimately needed 190,000 centrifuges.
Iran is not to be permitted to deploy newer centrifuges that could enrich uranium more quickly.
No enrichment is to take place at the underground Fordow facility. Iran’s nuclear research and development at Fordow is to be limited, as in no R&D associated with uranium enrichment for 15 years. Two-thirds of Fordow’s centrifuges and infrastructure is to be removed.
Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium to a level above 3.67% for 15 years, significantly lower than the 90% purity required for weapons grade material.
Enrichment of uranium would only take place at the Natanz facility.
Arak, a heavy water reactor, will be converted so it no longer produces weapons-grade plutonium.
And inspections are to be intrusive. All centrifuges and related infrastructure is to be placed under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Breakout time,” the period to produce enough fissile material to fuel one bomb, is to be 12 months.
The deal is to last 10 years, with restraints on the program gradually lifted in years 11 to 15.
Some sanctions will be lifted quickly, but which ones and when is to be resolved.
As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said a deal based on the framework would “threaten the survival” of his country.
“It would increase the risks of nuclear proliferation and the risks of a horrific war,” he said. “Such a deal would not block Iran’s path to the bomb. It would pave it,” Netanyahu said in a series of tweets.
“This deal would legitimize Iran’s nuclear program, bolster Iran’s economy & increase Iran’s aggression & terror.”
Netanyahu noted that, “Just 2 days ago, Iran said ‘the destruction of Israel is non-negotiable.’”
On Friday, he demanded Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist be written into the deal.
Netanyahu added, in a veiled swipe at Obama: “Some say that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s not true. There is a third alternative – standing firm, increasing the pressure on Iran until a good deal is achieved.”
Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz: “The smiles in Lausanne are detached from the wretched reality in which Iran refuses to make any concessions on the nuclear issue and continues to threaten Israel and all other countries in the Middle East.
“At a time when the representatives of the world powers were shaking hands with the Iranians in Lausanne, Iran continues its campaign of occupation and terror in Yemen and throughout the Middle East. We will continue in our efforts to explain and convince the world in the hopes of preventing a bad deal, or at least introducing changes and improvements.”
Israeli economy minister, Naftali Bennett: “Deal or no deal, Israel will do what is needed to protect itself and its citizens. The world’s most radical Islamic terror regime received today an official kosher stamp for its illicit nuclear program.”
Israeli opposition leader, Yair Lapid: “On the Iranian nuclear issue there is no opposition and coalition. We are all concerned that the Iranians will circumvent the deal and Israel must protect its own security interests.”
Saudi Arabia has said it will match any of the nuclear technologies Iran maintains as part of a final deal. In the past the Saudis have also said they could seek assistance from Pakistan in countering Iran. The Saudis could buy a few nukes from Pakistan, for starters. Fears of a regional arms race are not diminished by the framework with Tehran.
Congress is currently in recess so criticism is likely to be somewhat muted the next few days compared to the volume of discussion had Congress been in session. But on April 14, the Senate is due to vote on legislation that would give lawmakers final approval of a deal. The White House has threatened to veto that bill, as well as any legislation adding further sanctions if negotiators don’t reach an agreement by June 30.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll this week had 59% of Americans supporting an agreement in which the United States and its negotiating partners lifted economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, while 31% opposed a deal. Of course how many Americans really have a clue when it comes to this topic?
Opinion...from all sides...
“There is plenty of gamesmanship here, and the Iranians have a deserved reputation as skillful and unforgiving negotiators. But the details matter. The international community has to be persuaded that Iran is intent on narrowing its nuclear operations and that, were the regime to change its mind, the world would be given due warning (in practice, a year) of any attempt to produce a weapon. It should be as expensive as possible for Tehran to renege on the deal.
“Iran has its own politics, ugly as they often are. They rotate around what its own diplomats call sovereignty and respect, and what outsiders sometimes identify as the paranoia born of isolation. U.S. President George W. Bush’s axis of evil speech did not help. A regime that can still refer to the U.S. as the Great Satan feels it must demonstrate to its constituency that it has not buckled under American pressure. After 35 years of not talking to each other, the level of mutual trust between Washington and Tehran unsurprisingly is close to zero.
“Important as they are, the best that can be hoped of the specific obligations imposed by such an accord is that they shift the political calculus in Tehran. For the great powers sitting opposite Iran at the talks – and for anyone who believes that nuclear non-proliferation remains a vital pillar of international order – the nagging question will remain: ‘Do the Iranians really mean it?’ The answer this time is that it is impossible to tell. The odds are that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to make up his mind whether to turn a breakout capability into a bomb.
“A few years ago there was talk of a grand bargain that could see Iran’s return to the community of nations and the West renounce any idea of regime change. American officials floated such ideas in clandestine contacts with Tehran via Swiss intermediaries. The moment came and went. The American order in the Middle East has now all but collapsed. Iran has decided to project itself more aggressively as a regional power. Sanctions may have crippled it economically, but the hand of Tehran is in evidence wherever you see a trouble spot – in Lebanon and Syria, Iraq and Yemen....
“The only solid guarantee against an Iranian nuclear weapon is a decision by the regime in Tehran that its own interests and that of the country are better served by not crossing the line. This does not mean the West should acquiesce in any attempts to cheat the non-proliferation system or its efforts to expand its military reach. The U.S. regains a balancing role in the Middle East. The great powers have a chance – no more than that – to rein back Tehran’s nuclear program. They should take it. There are no foolproof answers in today’s disordered world.”
“Here’s one fast way to judge the new sketch of an Iran nuclear deal:
“President Obama on Thursday allowed as how the Iranians are two to three months from building nukes – then proclaimed that the deadline for a deal he hopes will stop them is in...three months.
“He’s fallen for the same line North Korea handed his two predecessors – and which led to a nuclear arsenal for Pyongyang.
“North Korea from the start cheated on the Clinton administration’s ‘historic’ 1994 accord that ended economic sanctions in return for the North’s promises to end its nuclear program.
“Now Secretary of State John Kerry has a ‘framework’ that Obama says will ‘cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.’ Fool me once...
“Like North Korea, Iran is a rogue regime, a state sponsor of terror. And Iran’s worse: It’s working to become top dog in its region, with pawns already in control of several nations. Nothing in Kerry’s framework will change that.”
“Any course the United States might have chosen for reining in Iran’s nuclear weapons program was sure to require a gamble of historic scale, and the agreement reached Thursday in Switzerland certainly qualified.
“It is, at the least, promising – a surprisingly detailed framework that undermines the arguments of skeptics who insisted no such deal was possible....
“(But) once Iran complies, it would be freed from the crippling economic sanctions that brought it to the table, filling the Islamic Republic’s coffers with funds that would surely be used to further destabilize the Middle East.
“That trade-off – never part of negotiations that were confined to nuclear diplomacy – helps explain why opposition to the agreement has been so fierce and will remain so....
“It will never be an easy deal to accept. But perfection is not one of the choices. Either the deal will be completed, or hard-liners on one side or the other will get the confrontation they seek.
“The consequences will be historic, but before setting a course for war, it’s usually best to at least give peace a chance, particularly since all other options will remain open if the agreement fails.”
“If the ‘understanding’ that Iran and the major world powers announced Thursday is turned into a final deal as envisioned, Iran will undergo an immediate economic boom. It will develop new commercial alliances, and its international standing will grow considerably. The deal will strengthen Iran quickly, significantly and irreversibly.
“In return for this massive boost in its standing, Iran has offered the West only temporary and reversible concessions. Take, for example, the hardened site at Fordow, a bunker built under a mountain near Qom. President Obama originally called for shuttering the facility entirely, but the proposed deal keeps it open.
“The major concession that Iran made with respect to the site was to agree not to introduce uranium into its centrifuges. Thus a fully-functional hardened facility remains available when, on the day of its choosing, Iran decides to make a dash for a nuclear bomb.
“America’s closest allies in the region regard it as inevitable that such a day will come. They believe that the deal, as President Obama has structured it, gives the supreme leader an incentive to play nice for a short period of time, in order to pocket the early windfall profits from the deal. Afterward, however, he can break the terms of the deal, from a position of greater strength than ever, and the United States will have no effective recourse.”
“The preliminary agreement between Iran and the major powers is a significant achievement that makes it more likely Iran will never be a nuclear threat. President Obama said it would ‘cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.’....
“Yet in today’s poisonous political climate, Mr. Obama’s critics have gone to extraordinary lengths to undercut him and any deal. Their belligerent behavior is completely out of step with the American public, which overwhelmingly favors a negotiated solution with Iran, unquestionably the best approach.
“Sunni Arab nations and Israel are deeply opposed to any deal, fearing that it would strengthen Iran’s power in the region. This agreement addresses the nuclear program, the most urgent threat, and does not begin to tackle Iran’s disruptive role in Syria and elsewhere. Iran is widely seen as a threat; whether it can get beyond that will depend on whether its leaders choose to be less hostile to its neighbors, including Israel.”
“The most compelling argument President Obama made Thursday for the nuclear framework deal with Iran was also the simplest one: The pact, once concluded, would be preferable to any realistic alternative....
“What’s worrisome is that this deal still isn’t done: There’s no final handshake. All the late-night sessions and threats to break off the talks weren’t enough to get Iran to commit formally to the terms the United States laid out in a meticulous, four-page list of ‘parameters’ for a binding ‘joint comprehensive plan.’ The Iranians instead postponed that sign-off to another day, after the final, final negotiations....
“A troubling aspect of the deal, in terms of leverage, is that once initial Iranian compliance is verified, all U.S. and U.N. economic and financial sanctions related to the nuclear issue would be lifted, and a new U.N. resolution would be drafted to guide future Iranian compliance. Yes, there’s a so-called ‘snap-back’ provision that would allow sanctions to be reimposed if Iran were found to be violating the agreement. But that’s a formula for a potential U.N. nightmare.
“The United States had hoped for something more stringent: A calibrated reduction in sanctions, in which Iran would have to earn each additional concession. That was seen as a constraint on Iranian behavior, and it was repeatedly stressed by Kerry to the Iranians. It’s hard to be sure, because information is still fragmentary, but the United States seems to have softened its terms on this key issue. That’s worrisome.”
“The ‘key parameters’ for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program released Thursday fall well short of the goals originally set by the Obama administration. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities – including the Fordow center buried under a mountain – will be closed. Not one of the country’s 19,000 centrifuges will be dismantled. Tehran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium will be ‘reduced’ but not necessarily shipped out of the country. In effect, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, though some of it will be mothballed for 10 years. When the accord lapses, the Islamic republic will instantly become a threshold nuclear state.
“That’s a long way from the standard set by President Obama in 2012 when he declared that ‘the deal we’ll accept’ with Iran ‘is that they end their nuclear program’ and ‘abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place.’ Those resolutions call for Iran to suspend the enrichment of uranium. Instead, under the agreement announced Thursday, enrichment will continue with 5,000 centrifuges for a decade, and all restraints on it will end in 15 years....
“We hope that, as (the) debate goes forward, the president and his aides will respond substantively to legitimate questions, rather than claim, as Mr. Obama did, that the ‘inevitable critics’ who ‘sound off’ prefer ‘the risk of another war in the Middle East.’
“The proposed accord will provide Iran a huge economic boost that will allow it to wage more aggressively the wars it is already fighting or sponsoring across the region. Whether that concession is worthwhile will depend in part on details that have yet to be agreed upon, or at least publicly explained....
“The agreement is based on a theoretical benchmark: that Iran would need at least a year to produce fissile material sufficient for a weapon, compared with two months or less now. It remains to be seen whether the limits on enrichment and Iran’s stockpile will be judged by independent experts as sufficient to meet that standard....
“(In the coming months), the administration will have much other work to do: It must convince Mideast allies that Iran is not being empowered to become the region’s hegemon, and it must accommodate Congress’ legitimate prerogative to review the accord. We hope Mr. Obama will make as much effort to engage in good faith with skeptical allies and domestic critics as he has with the Iranian regime.”
“For Richard Nixon it was China and for Reagan it was Reykjavik. Could Lausanne be Barack Obama’s historic moment? It will take years, possibly a decade, to get a clear answer. That is the nature of the Iran agreement. Thursday’s deal might even be scuttled before the final deadline in June. Iran could disown what it has agreed to when it comes to nailing down the gritty details. The U.S. Congress could pass a bill that would make it easier for Iran to walk away. America’s allies in the Middle East might try to sabotage the talks. Lots of things might happen. But the idea is far from preposterous. For the time being, the smart money should be on Obama.
“The reason is simple. Mr. Obama heads a strong coalition – the so-called P5+1 is a formidable group that includes Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It took years, and several false starts, to achieve a deal in Lausanne. It will take years more for the deal to bear fruit. But the range of countries that wants it to succeed outweighs the Israel-Saudi coalition that opposes it. Mr. Obama’s critics in the U.S., including every Republican presidential hopeful, portray him as an isolated naif chasing a quixotic peace. But the opposite is nearer the truth. Mr. Obama has the backing of Europe, Russia, China, India and others. If a final deal is reached, it would be reckless for an incoming president in 2017 to scrap it.
“Second, by its own definition, the Iran deal’s success is eminently achievable. Iran must reduce its centrifuges, turn over one of its two uranium enrichment sites to research, close its plutonium facility and submit to intrusive round-the-clock inspections. In return, the nuclear-related sanctions will gradually be lifted. Nothing in the deal requires Iran to stop supporting Hizbullah, Bashar al-Assad’s regime or the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. In other words, Iran could become a responsible civil nuclear state – at least for the next decade – while remaining a rogue actor in other spheres. By that measure, the deal will still have worked. If Mr. Obama’s wildest hopes were realized, the benefits would gradually push Iran to become a force for stability in the Middle East and an increasingly democratic country at home.”
“The general outline of the accord includes some useful limits on Iran, if it chooses to abide by them. Tehran will be allowed to operate a little more than 5,000 of its first-generation centrifuges at its Natanz facility, and only there. It will not enrich uranium above civilian-grade levels for at least 15 years, though it will retain some of its unnecessary current stockpile.
“Even better, the reactor at Arak will be retooled to render it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The underground nuclear facility at Fordow will remain open but be converted into a ‘nuclear, physics, technology, research center,’ with no fissile material present and centrifuges under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“All this would be somewhat reassuring if the U.S. were negotiating a nuclear deal with Holland or Costa Rica – that is, a law-abiding state with no history of cheating on nuclear agreements. But that’s not Iran....
“The framework lacks (the) crucial ‘anywhere, anytime’ provision (for inspections), even as Mr. Obama calls its inspections the most intrusive ever. Instead it says the ‘IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.’ Does that mean inspectors have to schedule an appointment? With how much notice? The obvious way to evade inspections is to start a new and secret facility that isn’t part of the accord. This is exactly what Iran did with the operation at Fordow.
“Another giant asterisk concerns the lifting of sanctions, which is the main reason Iran agreed to negotiate. The framework suggests, without being explicit, that the toughest sanctions will be lifted immediately when a final deal is struck. Mr. Obama made much of a ‘snap-back’ provision that would reimpose sanctions if Iran is caught cheating. But that too is vague. Would Russia and China be able to veto that at the United Nations?
“And what if Iran is suspected of cheating? The framework says that ‘a dispute resolution process will be specified,’ which would allow any of the deal’s signatories ‘to seek to resolve disagreements.’ That sounds suspiciously like a U.N. committee, perhaps of Iran’s peers or protectors. And this is before sanctions could be ‘snapped back.’...
“The framework has other asterisk, all of which will provide ample room for Congress to examine. And on that score it was dispiriting to hear Mr. Obama resort to his usual false dilemma gambit that Americans have only two choices – his agreement or war. He claimed to ‘welcome a robust debate’ while all but declaring a difference of opinion to be illegitimate....
“The truth, contrary to the President, is that the critics of his Iran framework do not want war. But they also don’t want a phony peace to lead to a nuclear Middle East that leads to a far more horrific war a decade from now. That’s why this agreement needs a thorough vetting and genuine debate.”
As for the Iranian position, the following is from the Tehran Times:
“In the framework of the agreement, none of Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as the previous activities will be stopped, shut down or suspended and Iran’s nuclear activities in all its nuclear facilities including Natanz, Fordow, Isfahan and Arak will continue.
“These comprehensive solutions will guarantee the continued enrichment program inside the Iranian territory and according to this, Iran will be allowed to go on with industrial production of nuclear fuel which is meant for running its nuclear power plants.”
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Then there is this on the removal of sanctions.
“Following the implementation of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action, all the UN Security Council sanctions as well as all economic and financial embargos by the U.S. and the European Union, including bans on banks, insurance, investment, and all other related services in different fields, including petrochemical, oil, gas and automobile industries will be lifted. (Also), all nuclear-related sanctions against real and legal entities, state and private organizations and institutions, including those sanctions imposed against the Central Bank of Iran, other financial and banking institutions, SWIFT system, and the country’s shipping and aviation sectors, and Iran’s tanker company will be immediately lifted all at once. Moreover, the P5+1 countries are committed to avoid imposing any new nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.”
That’s how you sell a product to your countrymen, folks. What a great deal! No new sanctions, ever! I’m guessing some in Congress are already picking this editorial apart, fodder for Josh Earnest’s press briefings for starters.
Washington and Wall Street
It was last Friday, in a speech I only touched on briefly in my last review due to time constraints, that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the Fed would be lifting short-term interest rates later in the year, but that the central bank wouldn’t be lifting them much and whatever increases there were would be in small steps. At its last Open Market Committee meeting, after all, the Fed had lowered its yearend target funds rate to just 0.625% from a previous forecast of 1.125%.
“If conditions do evolve in the manner that most of my [Fed] colleagues and I anticipate, I would expect the level of the federal funds rate to be normalized only gradually, reflecting the gradual diminution of headwinds from the financial crisis and the balance of risks I have enumerated of moving either too slowly or too quickly....
“I would be uncomfortable raising the federal funds rate if readings on wage growth, core consumer prices, and other indicators of underlying inflation pressures were to weaken, if market-based measures of inflation compensation were to fall appreciably further, or if survey-based measures were to begin to decline noticeably.” [Wall Street Journal]
So that was March 27 and after today’s jobs report for the month it is highly unlikely the Fed is making its first move off zero in June as some had been forecasting. I have pegged June, too, but the number of jobs created was just 126,000, basically half the number forecast and the first time in 13 months below 200,000. The unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.5%.
Including downward revisions for January and February of 69,000, the average monthly gain in the first quarter was 197,000, down from 324,000 in the fourth quarter.
But the 197,000, clearly weather impacted, was virtually identical to the 193,000 monthly average in the first quarter of 2014, which was another brutal winter for large parts of the country.
There was some good news in the March data, though. Average hourly earnings rose 0.3%, but are still at just a 2.1% annualized pace the last 12 months, which happens to be the same pace for the past half-decade (2.0%). U6, the figure for underemployment (including those looking for full-time work but stuck with part-time) fell to 10.9%, the lowest since August 2008.
But the labor participation rate ticked down to 62.7%, matching the lowest since 1978.
So here’s the bottom line, perhaps best illustrated by the Atlanta Fed, which issued its own forecast of 1.9% GDP growth in the first quarter of this year, doing so two months ago, but this week revised it down to zero. Virtually every other economist on the Street has a Q1 GDP of below 2%.
What the Atlanta Fed (who issued their latest forecast before Friday’s jobs report) and everyone else have been focused on is the fact the economic data this first quarter has been flat out lousy. Retail sales are down, manufacturing has been trending down, and housing has been mixed.
Yes, the weather in the Northeast and Midwest has had a negative impact. Regarding the latter, the Chicago Purchasing Managers’ report for March came in at 46.3 when 51.4 was expected, the second-straight month below the 50 dividing line between growth and contraction. That’s at least partly weather, but, disconcertingly, not the sole reason.
The national ISM number on manufacturing was a disappointing 51.5, the fifth consecutive drop.
February construction spending was down 0.1%, February factory orders were up 0.2%; both largely in line with expectations.
About the only good news on the week was personal income for the month of February rose a stronger than expected 0.4%, but consumption was less, just 0.1%.
One more...the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index rose 4.6% in January over Jan. 2014 as the dearth of supply helped drive prices faster than incomes, which isn’t good.
[Some representative year over year figures...Miami up 8.3%, Dallas up 8.0%, New York City up 2.1%, Las Vegas up 5.9%, Phoenix up 2.6%, Los Angeles up 5.7%, D.C. up 1.3% and San Francisco up 7.8%.]
So you add it all up, and throw in the fact that equity valuations are far from cheap and by some measurements, such as price to sales, overvalued, and you get what is going to be a very interesting earnings period coming to a theatre near you.
Europe and Asia
The Greece issue is going to have to be resolved one way or another this coming week.
Meanwhile, the news across the rest of the eurozone largely continues to improve. Markit released its final manufacturing PMI data for March and the euro-19 came in at 52.2 vs. 51.0 in February, a 10-month high.
Germany was 52.8, an 11-mo. high; Spain was 54.3; Italy came it at 53.3, an 11-mo. high; the Netherlands 52.5; and Ireland 56.8.
But France was just 48.8, though this was better than February’s 47.6, while Austria hit a 4-mo. low of 47.7.
Then Eurostats released its employment data for February and the eurozone unemployment rate was 11.3% vs. 11.4% in January and a decline of just 0.5% from Feb. 2014’s 11.8%. Contrast this with, say, the United States, which had a Feb. rate of 5.5%, an improvement of 1.2% year over year.
Germany’s unemployment rate was just 4.8% (the government officially pegs it at 6.4%, but both are record lows); but you still have Greece at 26.0% (Dec.), Spain 23.2% (though down yoy from 25.2%) and Italy at 12.7% (up from 12.5% yoy).
The youth unemployment picture has improved just marginally, if at all. Spain is at 50.7% vs. 54.0% yoy; Greece is at 51.2% (Dec.); Italy ticked up to 42.6% from 42.5% yoy; Portugal is still at 35.0%; and France is up to 24.7% from 23.7% Feb. 2014.
By contrast, Germany’s youth unemployment rate is just 7.2%.
Yes, the Germans are rockin’ and rollin’. February retail sales surged 3.6%, consumer confidence is at record highs and business confidence is also rising.
Another doing well is non-euro Britain, which had a manufacturing PMI of 54.4 in March vs. 54.0 in February. The government also revised 2014 GDP up to 2.8% from 2.6%, the best since 2006.
But despite this strong performance, Prime Minister David Cameron is in a mighty tussle to save his job come elections on May 7. No one can tell you how this is going to shake out. Should Cameron’s Tories be able to form another ruling coalition, for example, waiting in the wings to take him out in a coup is London Mayor Boris Johnson. It could happen. But first things first for Cameron.
One other euro economic item...the flash estimate on inflation for March is -0.1%, which is an improvement over the -0.3% annualized pace in February and -0.6% in January.
“Producers are benefitting from the weaker euro, which has had the dual effect of boosting competitiveness in export markets as well as making competing imports more expensive in the home markets.
“New orders are consequently showing the best growth for nearly a year, and the fact that manufacturers are boosting their payroll numbers at the fastest rate for 3 ½ years indicates optimism that the upturn will be sustained in coming months....
“This is still a fledgling recovery, however, and the overall rate of expansion remains only modest. Importantly, manufacturing is still in decline in France, Greece and Austria, acting as drags on the region’s revival.”
Did someone say Greece? Its manufacturing PMI for March was 48.9, by the way, but of far more import these days is its attempt to get further bailout funding so it can pay its bills and buy more time for a true turnaround.
Simply put, Greece and its new government have thus far failed to convince the rest of its eurozone compatriots and creditors that it has a serious plan to reform the economy and collect more revenues. The revised plans, like the third attempt since Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party took control, are lacking in detail and euro politicians and their people are running out of patience.
The government has said it paid salaries and pensions at month’s end, but now it’s not known if it will repay the IMF money owed on April 9.
One eurozone official described Greece’s latest proposals as “piecemeal, vague and the Greek colleagues could not explain technically what some of them actually implied.”
The proposals have focused on tax collection and fighting corruption, but the eurozone is concerned about the pension system, labor market reforms and the sale of state assets, which heretofore, including under the prior government, has been a mess.
Tsipras was elected Jan. 25, he then won an agreement on Feb. 20 to extend the nation’s bailout until the end of June, but it was contingent on him coming up with a viable economic game plan.
But instead of being humble, he says things to his parliament like Greece will never “capitulate,” which is stupid. You are in no position to dictate terms, Mr. Tsipras.
I mean picture how Greek officials go to their euro counterparts and say things like ‘we’re going to raise between 250 million euros and 400 million in proceeds from “combating illegal trade on oil, tobacco and alcohol,” as their document reads, and then when asked how, the officials respond, “Ahhhh...ahhh....”
At least the pace of money flowing out of Greek banks has slowed, apparently to 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) in March, bringing total outflows since October to almost 28 billion.
The former president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, told the BBC the Greek government made “completely unrealistic promises” to voters that it cannot now fulfil. The demands were “completely unacceptable to other countries,” he said.
The latest Greek plans, while cracking down on tax evasion, also call for extra spending, including increased pension payments and a rise in the minimum wage. That stuff just isn’t flying with the creditors.
Greece also continues to talk of debt write-offs, and as Barroso points out, there are poorer countries lending money to Greece who would never go along with this.
Barroso added: “It was not Germany or any other member of the EU that created the problems in Greece – the problems in Greece are structural: low productivity and previous governments.”
Other governments such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain bounced back from the brink, Barroso notes. It’s up to Greece to do the same.
Well, at week’s end the tone of the discussion has been better according to reports. But the next meeting of eurozone finance ministers isn’t until April 24 in Riga and there’s this issue of an IMF debt payment of 450 million euro on April 9. Greece says it can figure out a way to make it. We’ll see.
Turning to Asia, the Shanghai Composite hit a new 7-year high on Friday as the news on the economy was slightly better, while the central bank has been taking steps to promote growth. The government’s official manufacturing PMI for March was 50.1 vs. 49.9 in February, while the services reading was 53.7 vs. 53.9. HSBC’s March PMI came in at 49.6 vs. 50.7 the prior month, while the reading on the service sector rose to 52.3 vs. 52.0. All in all, the market clearly focused on the positives.
At the annual Boao Forum for Asia this week, President Xi Jinping reassured the world that China’s economy remained strong, vowing his initiative to boost ties with Asian and European countries would provide trade and investment opportunities to “all nations.”
Xi has been promoting his “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which seeks to improve regional connectivity in a project inspired by the ancient Silk Road, linking China to the Gulf and Mediterranean through Central Asia and West Asia, while the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road would stretch from China to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China to the South Pacific in the other. [South China Morning Post]
I can tell you from personal experience involving an investment in Kyrgyzstan the Chinese are nothing but bandits. [Think that recent “60 Minutes” piece on rare earth minerals and how the Chinese have been out to monopolize this precious resource.]
Back to Xi, he said at the Forum: “When looking at China’s economy, one should not focus only on the growth rate. We will focus on improving quality and efficiency, and give even greater priority to shifting the growth model and adjusting the structure of development.
“This new normal of the Chinese economy will continue to bring more opportunities for trade growth and development for the countries of Asia and beyond,” Xi said. [SCMP]
Heck...with improved computer hacking and the stealing of trade secrets and plans, let alone strong-arm tactics, one can do anything, right boys and girls?!
Sorry for the extreme cynicism when it comes to this country. One of these days I’ll talk about a topic some of you have heard about that has the United States a little leery...the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a China-led development bank that is meant to be a competitor of Washington and the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. China’s new AIIB is also tied to its ‘one belt, one road initiative.’
Meanwhile, in Japan, its manufacturing PMI for March was down to 50.3 from 51.6 in February, and the services reading was a putrid 48.4, down a third consecutive month. Neither is good. Industrial production in February also fell 3.4% from January, worse than expected.
Lastly, I’ll throw in the manufacturing PMIs for Taiwan, 51.0 in March, and South Korea, just 49.2.
--Stocks were mixed for the holiday-shortened week with the Dow Jones and S&P adding 0.3% while Nasdaq declined 0.1%. The markets should exhibit some weakness on the open, Monday, as they haven’t had a chance to react to the putrid jobs report. We’ve entered a period where bad news is, indeed, bad news.
--Oil traders are wondering what the impact will be with the draft deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Since sanctions were put in place on Iranian oil in 2012, exports of crude have fallen by more than a million barrels a day.
But with the world awash in oil, with a daily excess of about two million barrels, another million would obviously pressure prices. However, there are no details on which sanctions are lifted first and nothing is happening until the United States and its allies are convinced Iran is living up to its agreements.
Plus, you can’t just turn the spigot back on as some of Iran’s fields have been neglected.
Iran does have the world’s fourth-largest proven reserves after Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Canada. China, India and Japan remain its largest buyers. [Clifford Krauss / New York Times]
--The number of planned layoffs in the oil industry are approaching 100,000 in the past four months, according to Moody’s Analytics.
Continental Resources, an Oklahoma City-based oil producer, said about 91,000 energy-related jobs have been announced since early December.
North Dakota lost its place as the state with the lowest jobless rate for the first month since October 2008, as unemployment ticked up to 2.9% from 2.8%, while Nebraska is at 2.7%. [Paul Davidson / USA TODAY]
“U.S. drivers consumed the most petrol for the month of January in seven years, showing how lower fuel prices and a rebounding economy have encouraged them back out on to the nation’s highways.
“The Energy Information Administration said on Monday that petrol consumption totaled 8.7m barrels a day in January, up 6.2 percent from the same month a year earlier and the highest for any January since 2008. The figure is about 9.5 percent of estimated world liquid fuels consumption for the month.”
Nationwide, January’s weather wasn’t that bad until month’s end.
--I’ve been writing about the dire situation with the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains and this week it was quantified to the extent we now know this has been the worst snow season on record, the worst in a century, as well as the fourth drought year in a row. The Lake Tahoe Basin snowpack Tuesday was only 3% of normal and the Truckee River Basin’s was measured at 14%, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is awful news. At the Lake Tahoe sites, it’s all melted out already.
In response to the snowpack news, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory water restrictions in California history.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “We have to act differently.” Water usage is to be reduced by 25%, while golf courses and other large landscaped spaces must reduce consumption. Drought-tolerant landscaping is to be introduced statewide.
--From James Kynge and Jonathan Wheatley / Financial Times:
“Foreign currency reserves in emerging markets fell last year for the first time in two decades, as developing economies found themselves beset by waning competitiveness, capital outflows and concerns over U.S. monetary policy.
“Nine out of 10 emerging market economists polled by the Financial Times said emerging markets had passed a period of ‘peak reserves’ and might continue to see their stashes of foreign currency shrink for months....
“The rise in emerging market reserves from $1.7tn at the end of 2004 has been a foundation stone in the global economy for a decade. Much of the capital that emerging markets absorbed from trade surpluses, portfolio inflows and direct investments was recycled into U.S. and European debt markets, helping to finance debt-fuelled growth in developed economies.
“This dynamic may now be going into reverse, economist said. ‘This all points to something more worrying. If emerging markets are no longer accumulating forex reserves, the world’s savings glut may be more apparent than real,’ said Frederic Neumann, economist at HSBC. The world will ‘sorely miss’ the recycling of emerging market reserves when the west’s easy monetary policy turns tighter, he added.”
--Australia’s manufacturing sector shrunk a fourth straight month, with the PMI at just 46.3 in March. Australia is suffering from a still declining mining sector, closure of domestic auto production, and sluggish housing, even as the lower Aussie dollar continues to boost exports in general.
--Australia’s largest investment bank, Macquarie Group Limited, is cutting back, laying off 100 after Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered announced similar moves. Asia just isn’t a place for traditional investment banking business.
--Tesla Motors Inc. said it delivered 10,030 cars in the first quarter, a 55% increase over the same period a year ago. In 2014, Tesla delivered 32,733 vehicles. The automaker set a target of 55,000 for 2015 so it better start ramping up, sports fans!
--Ford Motor Co. and its Chinese partner are investing over $1 billion to upgrade a factory in Harbin as China struggles with an oversupply of domestic vehicles that are seen by the public to be inferior to foreign brands. The Harbin operation will produce Ford-branded passenger cars beginning in the second half of 2016.
Ford’s joint partner, Hafei, sold only 2,000 vehicles in 2014, down from about 16,000 in 2013 and 45,000 in 2012. Yeah, I’d say the story got out the cars sucked.
--GitHub, which supplies social coding tools for developers and calls itself the world’s largest code host, has been under constant cyberattack from China, according to the Wall Street Journal. The denial of service attacks are coming from Chinese search engine Baidu Inc., “targeting two GitHub pages that linked to copies of sites banned in China.” [Reuters]
Both the Chinese government and Baidu denied they are the source of the attacks. I’m biting my tongue.
--Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV was ordered to pay a judgment of $149 million to the family of a 4-year-old who died in a crash after a jury found the automaker recklessly designed the gas tank for the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. This verdict comes in the first trial over fires related to several older Jeep models when struck from behind. Some 75 deaths in the late 1990s were attributed to the design.
The verdict in this 2012 death is renewing demand for a massive recall of older Jeep models, where the gas tank is 11 inches from the back of the vehicle.
--Lynn Tilton, the billionaire and self-described “turnaround queen” of distressed debt, has been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly hiding the poor performance of loan funds her firm managed, thus scarfing up $200 million in fees it didn’t deserve.
Admittedly, I have never looked at Ms. Tilton’s holdings in her Patriarch Partners’ funds that own numerous companies from MD Helicopters to Rand McNally maps.
But I do understand the seriousness of the charges that relate to her valuation methods for some assets in three collateralized loan obligation funds, that, according to the SEC, helped Patriarch avoid reducing management fees vs. what they may have received had these used accepted valuation standards.
Often, the valuation of an asset was based on Tilton’s “subjective assessment of the company’s future,” the SEC said.
--McDonald’s announced on Wednesday that it would raise wages by at least $1 over the local legal minimum wage, to an average of $9.90 an hour, by July 1 for some 90,000 workers in stores under direct corporate control. McDonald’s will also offer benefits such as paid time off for employees who have worked in company restaurants more than a year.
But the decision does not affect the 750,000 employees who work for the more than 3,100 franchisees who operate the more than 12,500 McDonald’s restaurants across the country.
McDonald’s also said it is testing all-day breakfast in select locations, in yet another bold move by new CEO Steven J. Easterbrook. Other chains are expanding their breakfast menus as it’s the area with the biggest growth potential.
Dunkin’ Donuts said 10% of all eggs used in its breakfast sandwiches in the U.S. would be cage-free by the end of next year.
Some of you know I have a Dunkin’ Donuts in my building. It’s really irritating to have chickens running free in my hallway, but I get some fresh eggs out of it.
--Former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke wrote on his blog Monday that he didn’t screw senior citizens with his interest rate policy.
“When I was chairman, more than one legislator accused me and my colleagues of ‘throwing seniors under the bus’ (to use the words of one senator) by keeping interest rates low. I was concerned about those seniors as well.”
I’ve written for years of how seniors were screwed by zero interest rates and as the New York Post’s John Crudele adds: “What’s the problem with Bernanke’s view of history? Bernanke never mentions quantitative easing (QE), the radical extension of Fed policy that caused rates to be as low as they are now and did screw seniors relying on interest income.”
--Ebola is not over in West Africa. There were 82 new cases for the week ended March 29 in Guinea and Sierra Leone, with Guinea closing its border with Sierra Leone this week. The latest are in a small coastal area where workers are facing the same issues they did a year ago, with suspicious locals driving them away, while some are caring for the sick in careless fashion.
--The judge overseeing RadioShack Corp.’s bankruptcy said he will approve the sale of about 1,700 stores to the chain’s biggest shareholder.
This move saves the chain for now, as well as thousands of jobs (recall what I wrote last week on this front) and as previously reported Standard General is planning to run the business in a co-branding arrangement with Sprint Corp.
Spring Mobile, a unit of GameStop Corp., the video-game chain, won a previous auction for 160 RadioShack stores and it has two months to decide which locations it wants to keep.
--Shares in domain name registration company GoDaddy went public this week at $20 a share on Wednesday and closed the week at $26.50. The company has reported losses for the last three years, though revenue rose 27% in 2014 over 2013.
--Redemptions slowed a third straight month at PIMCO’s Total Return Fund in March, with investors pulling $7.3 billion, down from $8.6 billion in February and $11.6 billion in January, according to the firm. At the end of the month, assets were $117.4 billion, so by about $1 billion it remains the world’s largest bond fund, edging out Vanguard Total Bond Fund.
PIMCO has suffered withdrawals of $107 billion since Bill Gross left on Sept. 26.
Vanguard, overall, took in a record $83.9 billion in the first quarter, including $27.6 billion in March.
--Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman received a 25 percent pay raise for a total of $22.5 million in cash and prizes last year. Shares in Morgan Stanley climbed 24 percent in 2014, outpacing the 13 percent increase in the S&P 500 Financials Sector Index. Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, received about $24 million last year.
Our hidden microphone caught Mrs. Blankfein, once again at the Four Seasons, having lunch with her friends as news on the Gorman pay package hit her iPhone.
“My Lloyd at least earned more than Gorman!” Her friends nodded in approval as they chowed down on the roasted cod.
--According to a report from SITA, a Geneva-based airline technology company, the rate of lost and damaged baggage has plunged 60% worldwide over the past seven years, owing to modernized luggage technologies. [L.A. Times]
--“The Daily Show” is Comedy Central’s biggest moneymaker and less than a day after announcing Jon Stewart would be replaced by an unknown South African comedian, Trevor Noah, the network faced the wrath of social media as past statements were dug up that were perceived to be anti-Semitic and sexist.
My only comment is Noah’s tweets weren’t in the least bit funny. I don’t know what Comedy Central was thinking in the hire, and I forget who said this, but if “The Daily Show” is supposed to skewer America and its politics, how does this work with a non-American hosting?
Mr. Noah’s attempts at an apology were also stupid.
--We note the passing of Gary Dahl, 78. It was in the 1970s that he created the Pet Rock fad, which was wildly popular for a spell. He sold about 1.5 million of them at roughly $4 each by the time it fizzled out. These were smooth stones packed in a cardboard box with tongue-in-cheek instructions for “care and feeding.”
In 2000, Dahl was a grand prize winner in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for dreadful prose. His winning entry: “The heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a crowded pub, hunched precariously over the moors, their rocky elbows slipping off land’s end, their bulbous, craggy noses thrust into the thick foam of the North Sea like bearded old men falling asleep in their pints.” [AP / USA TODAY]
Iraq / Syria / ISIS: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory for his forces in the city of Tikrit, aided by U.S.-led airstrikes on the provincial capital. Abadi said ISIS had been pushed out of the city center. While the result hasn’t been fully confirmed, if so it’s a significant one for IS.
However, the issue now, as has been the case in the past, is can Iraqi forces hold onto Tikrit.
For Abadi, he is trying to regain some control from Iranian-backed Shia militias, who human rights groups have said are as bad as ISIS. Reporters on the ground said some of the militias, after taking Tikrit, held severed heads, which seems to be all the rage these days in the region.
Meanwhile, according to a UN report, more than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The number increased 71% between the middle of 2014 and March 2015. 22,000 of the 25,000 are in Syria and Iraq.
A high number of the fighters have come from Tunisia, Morocco, France and Russia. Strangely, there has been an increase from Finland.
In Syria, a rebel force led by Islamist factions including Al Nusra Front and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, has taken control of a major northwestern city, Idlib, after five days of heavy clashes with government forces. Idlib was where some of the first anti-Assad protests sprung up more than four years ago.
Yemen: The Saudi-led bombing campaign against Iran-linked Houthi rebels has seen many of the locals change their support to the Houthis from the Saudis due to mounting civilian casualties and vital economic infrastructure being destroyed. Of course with so few reporters in the field in Yemen, separating fact from fiction is doubly hard.
The UN nonetheless put the toll from a week of airstrikes at 93 dead and 364 wounded, while an official at Yemen’s health ministry said at least 164 civilians had been killed.
What’s clear is that the Houthis pushed into central Aden, the main foothold of fighters loyal to ousted Western-backed President Manour Hadi, so the Saudi bombing has had zero effect on the Houthis’ offensive.
The Houthis ransacked the empty Russian Consulate in Aden, thereby shining a light on Russia’s problem in terms of its relations in the Middle East. It is supporting Assad in Syria at the time of rapprochement with Iran – two countries led by Shia-aligned Muslims – which has damaged the Kremlin’s relations with the Sunni-adherent states that constitute an overwhelming majority in the Middle East.
Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center told the Moscow Times: “The difficulty is that the more Russia supports Shia Iran, the more difficult it is to have good relations with the Saudis and the Sunni world. It is in Russia’s interest to stay above the divisions and have influence among all parties,” he said.
Meanwhile, the ouster of U.S. Special Forces in Yemen that had been targeting al-Qaeda has allowed the latter to run free. Thursday, al-Qaeda militants stormed a prison in the southeast of the country and freed 270 prisoners, including senior members of the group. The militants also looted the central bank in the city of Mukalla where the prison was, meeting little resistance from security forces.
Israel: A senior Defense Ministry official involved in preparing Israeli air defenses told the Jerusalem Post that Iran is placing guided warheads on its rockets and smuggling them to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Col. Aviram Hasson described Iran as a “train engine that is not stopping for a moment. It is manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters.”
Hizbullah, he continued, “is in a very different place compared to the Second Lebanon War in 2006.”
Speaking of Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah launched a fierce tirade against Saudi Arabia last weekend, saying its offensive in Yemen was doomed to fail and vowing that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels would emerge victorious from the “Saudi-U.S. aggression.”
“We call on the people of governments joining the coalition to consider that the blood of their armies are spilling in Yemen for the sole purpose of helping Saudi royalty reclaim control over Yemen....The Saudis must not be happy with some air raids. All military schools know that aerial bombing will not make victory.”
Nasrallah also came to Iran’s defense. “Where is the evidence that Yemen is occupied by Iran? Where are the Iranian armies in Yemen? Are there Iranian bases in Yemen? These are lies,” he said.
Nasrallah accused the Saudis of creating ISIS, adding, in addressing Saudi Arabia, that Iran had expanded its influence in the region because “you are lazy losers and you don’t take responsibility.” [Daily Star]
Finally, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted on Monday of fraud and breach of trust in a retrial involving an American businessman, Morris Talansky, who transferred a total of $600,000 to Olmert; most of it earmarked for election campaigns but some that was also for personal expenses. About a year ago, Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison in a separate bribery case, with the start of that sentence postponed pending an appeal.
So Mr. Olmert has been a very busy man; a dirty, busy man.
Russia / Ukraine: The nuclear threats continue, with The Times of London reporting that in a meeting between Russian generals and U.S. officials, the Russians said if NATO moved more forces into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Moscow would have a “spectrum of responses from nuclear to non-military.”
The Russians also said any attempt to return Crimea to Ukraine would be met “forcefully including through the use of nuclear force.”
According to notes taken at the meeting in Germany, Moscow would avoid “injections of troops and heavy weapons in favor of other tools.”
But later in the week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said reports Russia would provoke a nuclear showdown with the West over Crimea should “not be taken seriously.”
As for Ukraine, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander, who recently visited Ukrainian commanders and forces, told a Washington think tank, the Atlantic Council, on Monday, that after Easter Sunday, he suspects Russian-backed forces will begin a spring offensive lasting until V-E Day, or May 9.
Clark notes that after each campaign in Urkaine, such as the taking of Debaltseve that led to the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, they need time to reorganize.
“Pro-Russian separatist forces essentially gamed the entire ceasefire, according to Clark. First, under the auspices of the agreement they convinced the Ukrainians to pull equipment back from the front line while separatists kept heavy artillery close to the battle zone but concealed. How did they pull it off? The monitoring organization charged with policing the ceasefire agreement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, has fallen down on the job and can’t provide unbiased monitoring, according to Clark.
“ ‘More than half of OSCE are Russian military,’ Clark said. The Russian monitors were ‘on the honor code’ not to pass information on Ukrainian positions back to separatist military forces.
“ ‘The Ukrainians have pulled back their heavy weapons systems. They’re already at a disadvantage because if an attack were to occur they have to first put their weapons into position and move them forward to be able to engage, whereas the separatist equipment is there. Russian equipment is regularly coming over. Russian units are regularly coming over,’ said Clark.”
Newsweek reported on Monday that 22 Russian tanks rolled into the region.
Ret. Gen. Clark said the next Russian move will go far beyond Mariupol.
“The far-right Azov battalion, whose symbol resembles a black swastika on a yellow background, is preparing to defend the port city of Mariupol against a widely expected attack by pro-Russian separatists.
“The 1,000 strong ultra-nationalist militia has a reputation as a fierce pro-government fighting force in the almost year-old conflict...and is disdainful of peace efforts.”
Remind me not to go to Mariupol for my beer runs the next few months.
[There are concerns the Azov battalion could pose a threat to President Petro Poroshenko down the road or threaten the wider public security.]
On an entirely different note, Russians were reeling with the death of 56 fishermen, another 13 missing, after the sinking of a trawler off the Kamchatka Peninsula that was carrying a crew of 132. One possible explanation was an overloaded dragnet as the ship went down quickly, according to survivors.
One more item...the independent Levada Center’s latest polling on Russian attitudes towards Stalin shows 39% now evaluate him positively, while 25% view him negatively.
China: The former security chief, Zhou Yongkang, has been formally charged with corruption, abuse of power and intentionally leaking state secrets, state media reported.
Zhou has been accused of taking large bribes during his tenures as the vice general manager of state-run China National Petroleum Corp., provincial Communist Party chief in Sichuan, head of the Ministry of Public Security and as chief of Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, according to reports.
Hey, at least the guy’s consistent. Zhou was once a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the elite group that runs China, and oversaw the state’s security system, including the police and courts.
But wait...there’s more! Xinhua said the allegations against Zhou also included “exchanging power and money for sex”!
Separately, the country’s first big dust storm sent air pollution levels in Beijing off the charts. In fact it was so severe, the South China Morning Post noted the equipment failed.
“The problem occurs when at least one type of pollutant exceeds the maximum amount that can be used in the (Air Quality Index) calculation.”
But people said the sand smelled better than the smog.
Kenya: In yet another horrific terror attack, al-Shabab militants stormed dormitories at a university in eastern Kenya early Thursday, killing 148 in the worst terror attack on Kenyan soil in nearly two decades.
The attack on Garissa University College occurred at about 5:30 a.m., with four gunmen shooting the victims, execution style, and taking others hostage. When the terrorists were shot by police, they exploded “like bombs,” said Kenya’s Interior Minister.
Christians were targeted, but it also sounds like some of the shooting was indiscriminate, according to a few students who managed to escape. Some victims were forced to place phone calls to their parents with the message that the gunmen’s aim was to force Kenyan troops out of Somalia, a government source told The Telegraph of London.
In 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, killing 224. An attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013 left 67 dead, victims of al-Shabab. That attack was also a team of four.
Also last week, al-Shabab militants seized control of a hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least 20.
On the broader issue of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, the Wall Street Journal opined:
“More than a hundred years ago, Christians made up about 20% of the Middle East’s population. Today it’s about 5%.
“Before the Syrian civil war began, there were an estimated 1.1 million Christians who lived there. Some 700,000 have fled, largely because the most radical Islamic fighters were singling them out for punishment or death. Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from nearly 1.5 million to under 300,000....
“It is a hard lesson to accept in the Easter season. But the reality is that only coalitions of the willing, from within and beyond this troubled region, will stop the elimination of Christians and other minorities like those who died in Kenya this Holy Week merely for what they believed.”
Separately, Tamara Audi, in an op-ed for the Journal:
“The world’s Islamic population is growing so rapidly that by 2050, the number of Muslims will be nearly equal to the number of Christians across the planet – possibly for the first time in history.
“The new forecast is part of a sweeping religious-population study released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center that projects significant demographic shifts across the global religious landscape...
“The U.S. will remain a majority Christian nation, though the number of people identifying themselves as Christian is expected to decline from more than three-quarters of the population to two-thirds, the study says.
“The number of Christians in Europe is expected to decrease by about 100 million people to 454 million....
“Muslims have an average of 3.1 children per woman – the highest rate of all religious groups, the study’s demographer said. Christians are second, with 2.7 children per woman. Hindus have 2.4 children and Jews average 2.3 per woman....
“By 2050, Muslims will make up 30% of the global population, with 2.8 billion adherents, while Christians will comprise 31%, with 2.9 billion followers.”
Frankly, if some of this concerns you, don’t waste your time. An asteroid is going to take us all out in the next 12 years, if a nuclear war doesn’t do the same thing beforehand.
Nigeria: Muhammadu Buhari took 51.7% of the vote in Nigeria’s presidential election, handily defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan who received 44.4%. Gotta admit, this was impressive and ‘only’ about 40 were killed in election day violence. It was good to see Buhari praise Jonathan as a “worthy opponent” who peacefully relinquished power. For his part, Jonathan said in a statement: “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.”
“Nigeria has passed the most critical political stress test it has faced in decades. Last weekend, Africa’s most populous nation held its most competitive race ever for president. Shrugging off a six-week postponement, fears of widespread political violence, ongoing terrorism by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram and doubts about the readiness of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Nigerians staged a credible and generally peaceful contest that has set the stage for a democratic change of power. With numerous critical elections set to occur over the next year and a half across Africa, the outcome offers an important and positive example of a working democracy.
“For the first time since Nigeria’s return to civilian democracy in 1999, an opposition candidate for president unseated the incumbent. The electoral commission declared Wednesday that retired Maj.Gen. Muhammadu Buhari defeated President Goodluck Jonathan by a decisive margin.”
Buhari has massive challenges; first and foremost being Boko Haram. But...
“For now, this is a moment to salute the Nigerian people, many of whom patiently waited for hours to register and cast ballots.... It is now up to leaders in both parties to ensure that Nigeria has a smooth transition worthy of its voters.”
France: In the second round of local elections last weekend, Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party scored further gains, strengthening his chances for a comeback in the presidential race of 2017. Marine Le Pen’s Front National gained a large number of council seats (cantons) but fell short in capturing one or two districts (departements or counties) for the first time.
President Francois Hollande’s Socialists lost about half of the 61 departements they had controlled. Sarkozy’s UMP appears to have won* 60 of 98 in mainland France.
*It has been difficult for moi to get accurate poll data out of the local elections the last two weeks. If you’re checking my numbers, remember some totals are just for the mainland.
Prime Minister Manual Valls admitted it was “incontestable” that the Socialist Party got its butt kicked.
“The French have declared...their anger at a daily life that is too difficult,” he said, vowing to redouble efforts to boost the economy, saying his focus was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity has fallen to its lowest level in more than four years. A CNI-Ibope poll showed the percentage of voters ranking the president’s government as good or excellent has plunged from 40 percent in December to only 12 percent. Aside from the corruption allegations spinning out of the Petrobras scandal, the people are rebelling against Rousseff’s austerity program, led by the new hawkish finance minister, Joaquim Levy. [Financial Times]
Bangladesh: A second blogger in five weeks was hacked to death in the capital of Dhaka. The victim was a secular blogger, killed by young religious students.
--As expected, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez became just the 12th U.S. senator to be indicted. Menendez said he would temporarily step aside as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though he told Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid he would reclaim the top spot “upon the successful resolution of the allegations before me.”
This is a huge deal given Menendez’ opposition to President Obama’s Iran strategy (as well as restoring relations with Cuba) and the timing of the indictment is more than a bit curious.
As for the allegations, Menendez is “accused of using the influence of his office to advance the business interests of a longtime friend and political supporter in exchange for luxury gifts, lavish vacations and more than $750,000 in campaign donations.” [Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig / Washington Post]
The 14-count indictment addresses the relationship between Menendez and Florida-based eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, the two sharing a long personal and political friendship. Menendez went to bat for Melgen in various business disputes, while Melgen plied the senator and his wife with lavish gifts, including 19 private jet flights, luxury hotels, and the aforementioned campaign donations.
On Wednesday, following the indictment, Menendez proclaimed before supporters, “I’m angry and ready to fight.”
Eight of the counts are for bribery and each one carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Any trial phase of this case will last at least months and more than likely years. “I’m not going anywhere,” said the senator. His term doesn’t end until Jan. 2019. If he was convicted or expelled, then Republican Gov. Chris Christie would be able to make a temporary appointment but as of today, Christie is making no calls for Menendez to resign, though the editorial boards of the two largest newspapers in the state called for the senator to set down.
I must say a reading of the indictment is rather damning. But as I’ve said since the allegations first surfaced in 2012, all New Jerseyans have known Menendez is hopelessly dirty, but, personally, I’ve been conflicted because I admire that he is as good a mind on the foreign policy front as we have in all of Congress.
--Indiana Governor Mike Pence vowed to “fix” a state bill that has drawn nationwide criticism for seemingly allowing businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian patrons.
Pence said: “I have come to the conclusion it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that the religious freedom bill does not give the right for businesses to deny service to anyone.”
Which the governor and the legislature did on Thursday, though some still say it doesn’t go far enough.
Separately, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas called on state lawmakers to recall or amend legislation similar to Indiana’s. “This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “But these are not ordinary times,” pointing out his own son had asked him to veto the bill.
“Excited protests against Indiana’s recently passed religious freedom law have highlighted both America’s growing support for same-sex marriage and our apparent incapacity to entertain more than one idea at a time.
“The law in question is a version of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which was signed by President Bill Clinton. Nineteen states, including Indiana, have versions of the law, and another 11 have interpreted their state constitutions as already providing these protections. Without diving into the weeds, the law aims to protect religious freedom against government action that abridges deeply held convictions.
“Indiana’s law isn’t exactly the same as the federal version – or of some other state laws – and it isn’t clear whether these distinctions constitute a difference justifying the current level of outrage. They include extending protection to corporations as well as individuals; expanding protections against government actions that are ‘likely’ to be substantially burdensome; and, perhaps most problematic, allowing claims of religious-freedom infringement even if the government isn’t involved.
“Nevertheless, after a difficult week of criticism and protests aimed at Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence announced Tuesday that he would push his state’s assembly to pass legislation stating that the new law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone.
“This may be exactly so, but it wouldn’t necessarily preclude individuals or corporations from denying services to same-sex couples and then defending themselves on religious principle.
“Based on what Pence said, it would merely make clear that the state doesn’t authorize or condone such refusal of services or any other discriminatory action.
“But discrimination remains a personal choice, which can be defended in individual cases under RFRA. Does anyone object to this option? Isn’t it fair to allow religious people a framework for seeking recourse through the courts?
“Refusing services because of a religious belief doesn’t lend solace to those who are seeking complete equality without exception....
“The most familiar recent case involved a baker who didn’t want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The question is whether the baker has the right, owing to religious beliefs, to refuse to bake the cake. If you think this is silly, consider that RFRA first came about to protect the rights of Native Americans to consume peyote in religious ceremonies....
“If even a few Christians, Jews or Muslims understand marriage to be the sacred union of man and woman in the eyes of God, activists seeking a fresh definition shouldn’t expect an immediate surrender. This doesn’t justify the refusal of a wedding cake, the baking of which hardly qualified as an endorsement, but nor does it justify charges of bigotry, as is often said of religious people struggling with profound social restructuring.
“This isn’t an excuse for what is, in fact, discrimination by any other name. It is an attempt at compassion sorely missing from most discussions of this and other laws that try to carve out a tiny space for people whose religious beliefs are being put asunder.”
“The claim (of Indiana’s version of the RFRA) is that this would empower, say, florists or wedding photographers to refuse to work a gay wedding on religious grounds. But under the RFRA test, such a commercial vendor would still have to prove that his religious convictions were substantially burdened.
“And he would also come up against the reality that most courts have found that the government has a compelling interest in enforcing antidiscrimination laws. In all these states for two decades, no court we’re aware of has granted such a religious accommodation to an antidiscrimination law. Restaurants and hotels that refused to host gay marriage parties would have a particularly high burden in overcoming public accommodation laws.
“In any event, such disputes are rare to nonexistent, a tribute to the increasing tolerance of American society toward gays, lesbians, the transgendered, you name it.
“The paradox is that even as America has become more tolerant of gays, many activists and liberals have become ever-more intolerant of anyone who might hold more traditional cultural or religious views. Thus a CEO was run out of Mozilla after it turned out that he had donated money to a California referendum opposing same-sex marriage.
“Part of the new liberal intolerance is rooted in the identity politics that dominates today’s Democratic Party. That’s the only way to explain the born-again opportunism of Hillary Clinton, who tweeted: ‘Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love.’
“By that standard, Mrs. Clinton discriminated against gays because she opposed gay marriage until March 2013. But now she wants to be seen as leading the new culture war against the intolerant right whose views she recently held.”
“If the opponents of (RFRA) were arguing that the Indiana statute tightens the federal standards a notch too far, that would be compelling. But that’s not the argument the opponents are making.
“Instead, the argument seems to be that the federal act’s concrete case-by-case approach is wrong. The opponents seem to be saying there is no valid tension between religious pluralism and equality. Claims of religious liberty are covers for anti-gay bigotry.
“This deviation seems unwise both as a matter of pragmatics and as a matter of principle. In the first place, if there is no attempt to balance religious liberty and civil rights, the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation. Some people have lost their jobs for expressing opposition to gay marriage. There are too many stories like the Oregon bakery that may have to pay a $150,000 fine because it preferred not to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. A movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side of a government that compels a photographer who is an evangelical Christian to shoot a same-sex wedding that he would rather avoid....
“As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage.
“Morality is a politeness of the soul. Deep politeness means we make accommodations. Certain basic truths are inalienable. Discrimination is always wrong. In cases of actual bigotry, the hammer comes down. But as neighbors in a pluralistic society we try to turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems in which different people are given space to have different lanes to lead lives. In cases where people with different values disagree, we seek a creative accommodation...
“The movement to champion gay rights is now in a position where it can afford to offer this respect, at a point where steady pressure works better than compulsion.
“It’s always easier to take an absolutist position. But, in a clash of values like the one between religious pluralism and equality, that absolutism is neither pragmatic, virtuous nor true.”
Actually, my solution is for Americans to compromise on the figurines that go atop all wedding cakes in the future...Gumby and Pokey.
Or to paraphrase Linus, “Weddings are not only getting too commercial, they’re getting too dangerous.”
--In a Quinnipiac survey of swing states, Hillary Clinton trails Jeb Bush in Florida 45-42; she leads Rand Paul in Ohio 46-41; and Paul leads her in Pennsylvania 45-44.
The Swing State Poll focuses on these three states because since 1960 no candidate has won the presidential race without taking at least two of the three.
Clinton’s favorability rating is down in each state. For example, by a 50-41 margin, Florida voters say she is not honest and trustworthy. Pennsylvania voters have it at 49-44, while Ohio voters are divided with 47 percent saying she is trustworthy and honest, 46% saying no.
Bottom line, her margin in these three has been coming down since a Feb. 3 Quinnipiac poll. For example, she leads Mike Huckabee in Florida 48-40, but the lead had been 51-34 in February. Her lead over Rand Paul in Ohio, 46-41, is down from 48-36.
A CBS News poll asked Republicans if they would consider voting for various candidates for the Republican nomination.
In February, 49% said they would consider voting for Jeb Bush vs. 26% who said no. Now it’s 51-27, zero statistical change. Mike Huckabee has fallen from 46% yes in February to 42% yes today. Rand Paul has jumped from 30% yes to 39% yes, with those saying no falling from 19% to 14%.
Ted Cruz went from 23% yes to 37% yes after he made his formal announcement.
Chris Christie is virtually unchanged at only 27% yes, 42% no.
On the other side, 81% of Democrats said they would consider voting for Hillary, same as the month before. Joe Biden is virtually unchanged at 48% yes. Few know who Martin O’Malley is yet.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll of 2,809 Americans asked to rate how much of a threat a list of countries, organizations and individuals posed to the United States on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being no threat and 5 being an imminent threat:
34 percent of Republicans ranked Obama as an imminent threat, ahead of Putin (25 percent), and Bashar Assad (23 percent).
Islamic State was rated an imminent threat by 58 percent of respondents, and al-Qaeda by 43 percent.
Cyberattacks were viewed as an imminent threat by 39 percent.
--Michael S. Schmidt / New York Times: “An examination of the server that housed the personal email account that Hillary Rodham Clinton used exclusively when she was secretary of state showed that there are no copies of any emails she sent during her time in office, her lawyer told a congressional committee on Friday (March 27).
“After her representatives determined which emails were government-related and which were private, a setting on the account was changed to retain only emails sent in the previous 60 days, her lawyer, David Kendall, said. He said the setting was altered after she gave the records to the government.”
“If the House panel investigating Benghazi really wants to get a look at Hillary Clinton’s emails, perhaps it should subpoena the Chinese military. Beijing – which may have hacked the private server she used to send official email as secretary of state – is likely to be more cooperative than are Mrs. Clinton and her stonewall specialists now reprising their roles from the 1990s.
“On Friday Mrs. Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, disclosed that he couldn’t cooperate with the Benghazi committee’s request that she turn over her private server to an independent third party for examination. Why not? Well, the former first diplomat had already wiped the computer clean.
“The timing of the deletions isn’t entirely clear. Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy says they appear to have been deleted after Oct. 28, 2014, when State asked Mrs. Clinton to return her public records to the department. That could qualify as obstruction of Congress...
“The deletions certainly violate Mrs. Clinton’s promise to Congress on Oct. 2, 2012, when the Benghazi probe was getting under way. ‘We look forward to working with the Congress and your Committee as you proceed with your own review,’ she told the Oversight Committee. ‘We are committed to a process that is as transparent as possible, respecting the needs and integrity of the investigations underway. We will move as quickly as we can without forsaking accuracy.’....
“Mrs. Clinton’s real message to Congress: You’ll see those emails over my dead body.
“Mrs. Clinton is a student of history. In the 1970s she served as a lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee that investigated Watergate.... It appears she absorbed the lesson that Nixon should have burned, err, wiped clean, the tapes....
“The question now is what Congress can do, if anything, to retrieve those ‘wiped’ emails. In theory, the House could subpoena Mrs. Clinton’s emails and take her to court. But Mr. Gowdy concedes that going this route would take ‘years and years.’ Meantime, Mrs. Clinton would make Lois Lerner of IRS infamy look like a model of cooperation....
“Democrats could provide one check on her stonewalling if anyone runs against her in the presidential primaries. Then her Nixonian character would become an issue. But so far the only Democrats who might run are second-stringers who are bidding to be Vice President and so wouldn’t want to speak truth to Mrs. Clinton’s power. Thus her Democratic coronation proceeds apace. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the voters are as eager as Democrats to be government again by Clinton-Nixon mores.”
Meanwhile, we learned this week that Hillary Clinton not only used a BlackBerry to email her staff, she also used an iPad. At the United Nations in March, Clinton said she chose a personal account over a government one out of convenience.
“Looking back, it would have been probably, you know, smarter to have used two devices,” Clinton said at the time. That day her office released a statement saying she “wanted the simplicity of using one device.”
--Lufthansa was forced to admit that as far back as 2009, they knew of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’ depression. In a statement, the airline said Lubitz had conveyed the information when he sought to rejoin Lufthansa’s flight school after a months-long pause in his studies.
Lubitz had been searching the Internet in the days leading up to the crash for information about how to commit suicide and the security measures for cockpit doors, prosecutors announced on Thursday.
And we learned on Friday from the recently discovered flight data recorder that Lubitz accelerated the plane near the end.
--Researchers at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. have been working on a cure for MRSA, Staphylococcus aureus, and they may have stumbled on one. Cow’s bile...garlic, onion or leek, copper, wine and oxgall.
“The oxgall remedy, billed as an eye salve, was found in a manuscript written in Old English from the 10th century called ‘Bald’s Leechbook’ – a sort of pre-Magna Carta physician’s desk reference. Garlic and copper are commonly thought to have antibiotic or antimicrobial properties, but seeing such ingredients in a home remedy at Whole Foods is a far cry from researchers killing a superbug with it.” [Justin Wm. Moyer / Washington Post]
“We were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was,” Freya Harrison of the Univ. of Nottingham told the BBC.
The research will be presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology in Birmingham. The cure may sound “yucky” as the Washington Post put it, but MRSA kills more than 5,000 people a year in the U.S.
Researchers are poring through “Bald’s Leechbook” for other potential cures.
--We note the passing of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, 88. Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, into a colossal success, an upbeat, modern vision of Christianity. I know back in the day I watched his weekly “Hour of Power” fairly frequently (as I did Jimmy Swaggert, to be honest). His buildings on the 40-acre church campus earned him the American Institute of Architects first lifetime achievement award in 2001. [Philip Johnson designed the main cathedral.]
Schuller’s creation was one of the first megachurches in America and his approach influenced the likes of Rick Warren. In 1970, Schuller became the first pastor to televise his weekly services.
But then it all came crashing down after his retirement amid family disputes over the finances and a successor eventually led to bankruptcy. The Crystal Cathedral and surrounding property was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County in 2012. The “Hour of Power” remains on the air today, featuring Schuller’s grandson Bobby.
--Finally, in his homily during Palm Sunday Mass, Pope Francis paid tribute to those killed for their faith, such as those at the hands of ISIS; the Kenya school attack taking place later.
“We think too of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted because they are Christians, the martyrs of our own time. There are many of them. They refuse to deny Jesus and they endure insult and injury with dignity,” he said.
Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.
Gold closed at $1200...unchanged
Returns for the week 3/30-4/3
Dow Jones +0.3% 
S&P 500 +0.3% 
S&P MidCap +1.0%
Russell 2000 +1.2%
Nasdaq -0.1% 
Returns for the period 1/1/15-4/3/15
Dow Jones -0.3%
S&P 500 +0.4%
S&P MidCap +4.9%
Russell 2000 +4.2%
Bears 14.2 [Source: Investors Intelligence]
*Dr. Bortrum posted a new column...lots of space stuff.
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