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For the week 11/20-11/24
[Posted 11:00 PM ET]
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In polling conducted by Hart Research Associates and provided to USA TODAY, albeit Hart has a Democratic slant, voters in Maine, Arizona and Tennessee disapprove of the tax plan.
In Maine, 53% said they disapproved of the current plan, while only 22% approved.
In Arizona, 44% disapproved, 26% approved.
In Tennessee, 47% disapproved, 37% approved.
According to Hart Research, the voters who opposed the legislation in each state came to roughly the same conclusion: The plan favors the wealthy and didn’t reduce their own taxes.
The House passed a tax overhaul that dramatically cuts the top corporate rate and lowers rates for individuals and families, but takes away deductions and credits, while the Senate version that Republicans are working on would include a repeal of the ObamaCare mandate requiring everyone have health insurance, with the Senate bringing its legislation to the floor apparently in the next 10 days, after which the House and Senate need to conference and come up with one bill, preferably before Christmas. Trump meets with Republican leaders on Tuesday.
--Monday, in an interview on the Fox News Channel, senior adviser Kellyanne Conway sent the signal on how President Trump felt about the Alabama Senate race between Republican Roy Moore, accused by at least eight women of sexual misconduct, and Democrat Doug Jones.
Conway railed against Jones. Asked if she was favoring a vote for Moore, Conway said: “We want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill.” A week earlier, Conway had told Fox: “There’s no Senate seat that’s worth more than a child.”
So knowing Conway had cleared her comments beforehand with the president, Trump the next day said in remarks to the press before taking off for Mar-a-Lago that Moore had denied the allegations against him, the president adding he did not want a Democrat to win the Alabama Senate seat.
“He denies it,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “He says it didn’t happen and you have to listen to him, also.”
Trump then criticized Doug Jones as being “terrible on crime, terrible on the borders.”
“We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,” Trump added. He also said he would make a decision next week whether or not to actively campaign for Moore ahead of the Dec. 12 special election to fill the seat of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
As for the first woman to come forward, Leigh Corfman, she told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday that Moore “basically laid out some blankets on the floor of his living room and proceeded to seduce me, I guess you would say” on her second visit to his home when she was 14 and he was 32.
In a poll conducted for Raycom News Network, Moore nipped Jones 47-45 percent, five percent undecided. Further, the poll of 3,000 voters showed that 45 percent believe some or all of the allegations against Moore, while 34 percent said they don’t believe any of them. 21 percent say they believe some or all of the allegations, but that it won’t change their vote. [A week earlier, a Fox News poll had Jones ahead 50% to 42% among likely voters.]
--Lawyers for Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, have advised the legal team representing Trump that they can no longer share information about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference, according to multiple media reports, a sign, potentially, that Flynn is now cooperating with the investigation and/or negotiating a deal for himself. Of course if the latter were true, it could always fall apart.
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.’s names keep surfacing in various reports, including over correspondence they had with WikiLeaks.
And Russia’s former ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, told a Russian late-night television host that he couldn’t name all of his contacts with people tied to President Trump because “the list is so long.”
“First, I’m never going to do that,” Kislyak joked on Russia-1 when asked to name his Trump contacts, according to a translation by CNBC. “And second, the list is so long that I’m not going to be able to go through it in 20 minutes.”
Michael Flynn’s failure to be upfront about contacts with the former ambassador was largely the reason he was fired after just a few weeks.
--A former Fox News employee and correspondent, Jessica Goloher, told a gathering of U.K. lawmakers looking into the 21st Century Fox purchase of Britain’s Sky Plc that she was blocked from going to Moscow to investigate President Trump’s links with Russia. “Fox didn’t let me go to Moscow to dig into Trump’s Russia connections, even when I offered to pay my own way.... “Fox is just buying what the White House is selling,” she told a meeting of the Competition & Markets Authority, which is investigating the proposed $15.5 billion Sky merger on grounds of media plurality and whether Fox has a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards.
Back in May, a Fox statement said: “Her allegations of discrimination and retaliation are baseless.” Gollohor is one of 27 current and former Fox employees in a range of harassment and discrimination lawsuits against the company.
--The Trump administration issued a directive Monday to expel nearly 60,000 Haitians who have lived legally in the United States since a massive earthquake devastated their homeland in 2010. They have until July 22, 2019 before the order becomes effective.
Editorial / Washington Post
“A country with few jobs and little opportunity, (Haiti) suffers from chronic corruption and inept economic management. In the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, Haiti ranks 181st of 190 countries.
“Under those circumstances, the administration’s decision to rescind the humanitarian status that allowed so many Haitians to live in the United States amounts to an act of cruelty. It is a beggar-thy-neighbor policy unworthy of a great power and unsuited to a nation with a tradition of compassion.”
--The Men Behaving Badly Club added Democratic Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to its membership, following allegations he sexually harassed female staff and reached a settlement with an aide who claimed she was fired for rejecting his advances.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for a formal ethics investigation.
“As Members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives and to ensure a climate of dignity and respect, with zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse,” Pelosi said in a statement.
--The number of people signing up for ObamaCare has surged in the first few weeks of open enrollment this year, contrary to dire predictions. Through the first 18 days, nearly 2.3 million people have signed up for insurance coverage through ObamaCare exchanges, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a number that has outpaced the same period under President Obama.
But there are a lot fewer days in the open enrollment period, so it’s tough to know just how strong these numbers are. In the past you had different surges, including one around Jan. 31, at the very end of open enrollment.
President Trump signed an executive order slashing the time allowed to sign up, while reducing advertising and outreach dollars by 90 percent.
--Whitefish Energy Holdings said late Monday it was halting work to help restore power in Puerto Rico because it hadn’t been paid by the territory’s government. The Montana-based company said in a statement that invoices for work done in October are outstanding and that it can no longer keep working. CEO Andy Techmanski says Puerto Rico owes Whitefish more than $83 million.
Now you might be thinking, ‘But I thought the controversial Whitefish contract had been cancelled last month.’ It had, but both sides agreed Whitefish would complete its current projects and remain on the island until Nov. 30.
Today, more than 20 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities remain in the dark, two months after Hurricane Maria, and overall power generation stands below 50 percent.
--Maureen Dowd / New York Times
“Here is my holiday list of Things That Do Not Bother Me:
“Trump’s daily activity: I do not follow every move he makes. I counsel my Democratic friends to do the same, but they cannot help themselves.
“Trump’s minor battles: The NFL players were disrespecting the American flag and were not called out by their gutless commissioner in a timely fashion. LaVar Ball is a publicity whore who cannot grasp that his son (and meal ticket) would have gone to jail without the president’s intervention.
“Trump’s interaction with dictators: If President Obama had done it, he would have been given the Nobel Peace Prize. (That already happened?)
“Robert Mueller’s investigation: So far, no direct connection with Trump himself on the Russia collusion. But it did find collusion with Hillary and the D.N.C. on the dossier. Luckily, she has several donors on Mueller’s staff ready to offer legal advice.
“Trump pressuring the Department of Justice: If Jeff Sessions cannot find prosecutable evidence against James Comey, Loretta Lynch and Hillary, he should go back to the Senate.
“Nepotism: Ivanka and Jared? Surely you jest. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think they have any effect on anything. If this were a movie, they wouldn’t even be in the credits.”
--President Trump, tweeting to LaVar Ball, Wednesday: “It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence – IT WAS ME. Too bad! LaVar is just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair. Just think...LaVar you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!”
Thursday... “HAPPY THANKSGIVING, your Country is starting to do really well. Jobs coming back, highest Stock Market EVER, Military getting really strong, we will build the WALL, V.A. taking care of our Vets, great Supreme Court Justice, RECORD CUT IN REGS, lowest unemployment in 17 years...! ...And it will get better with Tax Cuts!”
Ah yes, the holiday shopping season. Virtually all are forecasting solid U.S. retail sales growth of about 4% over last year, when they were up 3.8%, according to industry analysts. Consumer confidence is strong and unemployment just above 4%. President Trump can take a bow. [I don’t want to be singled out for not thanking him. But he always conveniently ignores the impact of GLOBAL GROWTH! We aren’t the only ones doing well these days.]
In a first look at actual holiday numbers, Adobe Digital Insights said online shopping sales increased 18% year-on-year on both Thanksgiving and Friday.
But there are concerns that aside from Apple’s new phones, there isn’t a must-have item that would normally help draw shoppers to the mall, where they would then make other purchases. Foot traffic, while not as bad as it was early in the year, is still down.
As for the Federal Reserve, with the release of the minutes from the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 gathering, there seems little doubt the Fed is hiking interest rates again next month, Dec. 12-13, though divisions remain on the policy committee over the path forward with tepid inflation.
“Many participants thought that another increase in the target range for the federal funds rate was likely to be warranted in the near term if incoming information left the medium-term outlook broadly unchanged.”
Officials have been projecting three rate increases in 2018, but it’s all data dependent. Inflation has been averaging just 1.6% this year after stripping out food and energy. Goldman Sachs, as part of a bullish forecast for 2018, is forecasting the Fed will have to raise rates four times next year.
Goldman sees the U.S. economy growing at 2.5% in 2018, with unemployment falling to 3.7% by the end of the year, thus Goldman sees a tighter labor market and more normal inflation requiring the Fed to adjust.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which monitors 35 countries in the developed world, reported economic output in the club was 0.6% higher in the third quarter than the second, which was down from the 0.8% growth recorded in the second.
But, OECD output was up 2.6% from the third quarter of 2016, up from 2.4% year-to-year growth for Q2.
There were just two economic items of note this holiday-shortened week. October existing home sales came in basically in line at 5.48 million (ann.), while October durable goods fell unexpectedly, 1.2%, though ex-transportation was up 0.4% and that’s the more telling number.
Europe and Asia
Minutes from the European Central Bank’s October 25-26 meeting show officials rallied around the idea of extending the asset purchase program for a fourth year, but at half the current rate; there being “broad agreement” that an ample degree of monetary stimulus was still required for inflation to reach the ECB’s target of “below, but close to, 2 percent.”
Asset purchases are being cut from 60bn euro to 30bn at the start of 2018, with the aim of maintaining the new target through at least September.
There is hope that rising wages will lead to a higher inflation rate. The euro area rate of inflation is just 1.5 percent, lower than the 1.7 percent average since 1999.
IHS Markit released its flash readings on manufacturing and services in the eurozone for the month of November and the Composite index was at 57.5 vs. 56.0 in October, a 79-month high (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), with manufacturing at 60.0, a 211-month high! Services came in at 56.2 vs. 55.0 in October. Not too shabby either.
The flash readings only break out Germany and France, individually, and the manufacturing PMI for Germany was 62.5 (60.6 in October), an 81-month high, with the services reading at 54.9 (54.7 October). In France, manufacturing for this month was at a 57.5 level, a 79-month high, while services were running at a 60.2 clip, a 78-month high.
Chris Williamson, Chief Economist at IHS Markit:
“The message from the latest Eurozone PMI is clear: business is booming. Growth kicked higher in November to put the region on course for its best quarter since the start of 2011. The PMI is so far running at a level signaling a 0.8% increase in GDP in the final quarter of 2017....
“Jobs are being created at the fastest pace since the dot-com boom....backlogs of uncompleted work are growing at the fastest rate for over a decade, often resulting in a seller’s market as customers struggle to source goods and services. Prices are consequently rising at an increased rate.
“Manufacturing is leading the upturn, with business conditions improving at a rate only beaten once in the survey’s two-decade history amid record export and jobs growth.”
Brexit: Today, European Council President Donald Tusk warned British Prime Minister Theresa May at an EU meeting in Brussels that the U.K. has just 10 days left to deliver on all three areas of its divorce terms with the EU if London wants to progress to talks on a transition period and a future trade relationship.
“We need to see progress from the U.K. within 10 days on all issues, including on Ireland,” the other two areas being the divorce bill and citizens’ rights. “Sufficient progress in Brexit talks at the December council is possible but still a huge challenge,” Tusk said on Twitter.
Earlier, Mrs. May won support from members of her Cabinet to double Britain’s exit payment offer to the European Union to 40 billion pounds ($53 billion), according to ITV News, and the Brexit sub-committee was also reported to have agreed to allow the European Court of Justice a say in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the U.K. post-Brexit.
The EU is pushing for the U.K. to pay at least 60bn euros ($71 billion) to cover future budgetary commitments and pension liabilities for EU civil servants. May has only formally said she will make 20bn euros of budget payments thus far. Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has said that Britain is “on the brink of making some serious movement forward” and starting to break the “logjam” in talks.
A potential major fly in the ointment, though, ahead of the critical EU summit on Dec. 14-15, is a looming snap Irish election, precipitated after opposition party Fianna Fail (bitter center-right rival to center-right Fine Gael, now in power) submitted a motion of no confidence in the deputy prime minister, which the ruling party (Fine Gael) considers a breach of a three-year agreement to support Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government. It’s possible the government collapses, with Varadkar saying if the opposition’s motion isn’t withdrawn by Tuesday, he would be forced to hold an election before Christmas.
Seeing as Varadkar is a major player in Brexit negotiations because of the border issue, talk about potentially destabilizing for more than just Ireland.
Varadkar said today that he would not throw a good woman, deputy Frances Fitzgerald, “under the bus to save myself and my own government.” The issue is Fitzgerald’s handling of a legal case involving a police whistleblower.
Back to Britain, Prime Minister May committed $4 billion to prepare for Brexit as part of a new budget, amid a deteriorating economic outlook, the funds largely earmarked for making housing more affordable for the young. The budget abolishes the tax on home purchases for first-time buyers up to a certain level, while smoothing access to welfare benefits.
Philip Hammond said growth will now undershoot 2% every year through 2021. Growth is pegged at 1.4% this year, which is at odds with much of the rest of Europe, the U.S. and Asia.
Separately, Prime Minister May warned EU leaders to be wary of “hostile states like Russia,” while pledging the U.K. will stay committed to European security after Brexit. May said it was necessary to work together to “protect our shared values and ideals.”
“From agriculture in Ukraine to the tech sector in Belarus – there is a huge amount of potential in the Eastern neighborhood that we should nurture and develop.
“But we must also be open-eyed to the actions of hostile states like Russia which threaten this potential and attempt to tear our collective strength apart....
“The U.K. may be leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe, and we are unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security.”
Germany: What a week. Last Sunday, the Free Democrats (FDP) suddenly exited from three-party coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (along with the Bavarian sister party) and the Green Party, throwing the government in turmoil and a potential new election.
The pro-business FDP walked out over migration policy (as well as EU burden-sharing), according to party officials, and suddenly Merkel’s 12-year run seemed to be close to an end. FDP leader Christian Lindner, all of 38, who does not get along with Merkel (the two can’t stand each other) said, “It is better not to rule than to rule falsely. Goodbye!”
There is little appetite for another vote, with the main parties fearing it would only benefit the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), though Merkel later said she preferred new elections to governing without a majority.
But this Friday, under intense pressure, the Social Democrats, who had vowed not to be part of any new Merkel government, but who have been her coalition partner until the recent vote in September, agreed to hold talks with Merkel on renewing their outgoing coalition.
So the center-left SPD could help avert a disruptive repeat poll, after SPD leader Martin Schulz told reporters that party leadership had reached the decision out of a sense of responsibility to Europe and Germany following the collapse of talks Sunday.
Schulz said, “There is nothing automatic about the direction we are moving in. If a discussion results in us deciding to participate, in any form whatsoever, in the formation of a government, we will put it to a vote of party members.”
Backing for a new government could take many forms, including the existing arrangement, or a formal agreement not to obstruct a Merkel-led minority government.
A leading CDU party member told Reuters: “I think opinion is moving in the direction of there being a grand coalition with Merkel as chancellor... We are open to conversations when the SPD comes out with their proposals, but there will be a Chancellor Merkel and we won’t budge from that.”
The problem for the Social Democrats is that the party that has been in coalition with Merkel over her 12 years in power is normally rewarded with terrible results in the succeeding election, as was the case with the SPD, who suffered their worst result in this last vote since World War II.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the figurehead who at times like these becomes a key player, will host a meeting with Schulz, Merkel and Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s arch-conservative Bavarian sister party, next Thursday.
Steinmeier was until recently SPD foreign minister and he was the one urging his former party to go back on its pledge to go into opposition, having made clear that he saw fresh elections as a last resort (Steinmeier being the one who would call a new vote).
It was because the SPD had fared so badly in the election that they wanted no part of the latest iteration of a Merkel coalition, thus forcing her to turn to the FDP and Greens.
--Nothing new to report on the Catalonia crisis, the snap elections still set for Dec. 21, and deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont still in Brussels – from where he is contesting Spain’s request to extradite him.
But Spain’s attorney general, Jose Manuel Maza, died suddenly last weekend in Argentina, where he was attending a conference. He was just 66. He reportedly was taken to an intensive care unit with a kidney infection.
It was Maza who called for charges to be brought against Catalan leaders, following a banned independence referendum in the region. He has been heavily involved in the constitutional crisis from day one, though his death is not likely to change legal policy towards the deposed politicians.
--Greece expects to overshoot its budget surplus targets for a third consecutive year in 2018, a good thing, which could allow the government to ease some of the austerity burdens imposed on the population as a result of its bailouts. The primary surplus – the fiscal surplus excluding debt repayments – is forecast to be about 2.5% this year, and more than 3.7% next year, which means some funds could be redirected to target the population hit hardest by austerity.
Authorities also now forecast GDP growth of 1.6% this year, but expanding to 2.5% in 2018.
Separately, tourism revenues spiked 10.3% for the first nine months of the year, according to data from the Bank of Greece.
Greece’s third bailout of 86 billion euros, brokered in mid-2015, is expected to expire in August 2018. At that point, Greece is hoping to be able to finance itself in financial markets, though some bailout cash will be put aside and remain in the bank.
--Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, a key figure in the political life of Ireland for almost 50 years, said last weekend he would step down as party leader and complete a generational shift in the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Reviled by many as the face of the IRA during “The Troubles,” Adams reinvented himself as a peacemaker and then as a populist opposition parliamentarian in the Irish Republic.
Adams’ replacement is expected to be Mary Lou McDonald, an English literature graduate from Trinity College who has been at the forefront of a new breed of Sinn Fein politicians. Her counterpart on the other side of the border is Michelle O’Neill, who succeeded Martin McGuinness as leader in Northern Ireland shortly before the former IRA commander’s death in March.
But Sinn Fein, the third-largest party in Ireland, now could suddenly be a key factor in a snap election.
Turning to Asia, stocks fell sharply Wednesday in China as the Shanghai Composite sank 2.3% to its lowest level in two months following reports the government is looking to rein in online lending firms as part of its efforts to curb a credit bubble.
China is also moving to cut import tariffs on some consumer products from the start of December, the finance ministry announced on Friday, amid longstanding complaints from nations including the United States about China’s trade surplus with many of its trading partners.
Tariffs on products such as food, health supplements, pharmaceuticals, clothing and recreational products will be reduced to an average of 7.7 percent from 17.3 percent, the ministry said.
Tariffs on some types of baby milk powder will be reduced to zero.
“This round of cuts concentrates on products in short supply domestically and will provide more choice for domestic consumers and guide the upgrade of domestic supplies.”
Chinese consumers have always gravitated towards foreign goods, if available, because they are deemed to be of higher quality (which they are!)
You have to think back to 2008 when there were scores of young children who died as a result of contaminated milk that led to a huge increase in mainland Chinese buying baby milk powder from overseas, particularly in Hong Kong.
Separately, average new home prices in October rose 0.3% month on month, 5.4% vs. year ago levels in the 70-city index put out by the National Bureau of Statistics. But booming Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, saw its home prices fall 3.3% year-on-year for October.
In Japan, a flash reading on manufacturing for November from Markit came in at a solid 53.8 vs. 52.8 in October, led by a big increase in new orders, with new export orders expanding at the fastest pace in almost four years.
Speaking of Japanese exports (underpinned by a weak yen) they rose 14% year-over-year in October, according to the Ministry of Finance, the 11th consecutive month of growth, with gains to North America, 6.9%; Asia, 18.9%; and China, up 26% yoy. Imports rose 18.9%.
One other...Taiwan’s stock market hit a 27-year high this week, largely because of its key tech sector and global growth.
--The Dow Jones and S&P 500 snapped their two-week losing streaks, up 0.4% for the Dow to 23557, while the S&P rose 0.7% to a record 2602. Nasdaq also closed at a record, up 2.2% to 6889, and 28% on the year. As Ronald Reagan would have said, ‘Not bad, not bad at all.’
There was a piece in USA TODAY by Adam Shell that noted that just 21 stocks, “the 21 Club,” were responsible for more than half (50.7%) of the S&P 500’s “total return” (including dividends) gains this year, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices data through Nov. 14. Among the 21 are Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Alphabet (Google); these five being the biggest percentage contributors (Johnson & Johnson and Visa being six and seven).
--U.S. Treasury Yields
6-mo. 1.44% 2-yr. 1.74% 10-yr. 2.34% 30-yr. 2.76%
Some analysts are focusing on the narrowing of the yield curve as perhaps foretelling an end to the growth cycle, with the difference between the two- and 30-year Treasury yields falling below 100 basis points for the first time since November 2007 earlier this week, before finishing at 102 bps.
The yield curve tends to flatten as the Federal Reserve is raising short-term interest rates, though investors’ views of the future economic outlook dims, which spurs them to buy longer-dated paper, pushing yields at the back end down.
Separately, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said she would resign as a member of the Fed’s board of governors once Jerome Powell, her successor as chairman, has been sworn in. Yellen’s four-year term as chairwoman ends Feb. 3. This means President Trump will have four vacancies to fill.
--On Friday, Russia said it is ready to support extending a deal among oil producers on cutting output, less than a week before OPEC holds a key meeting in Vienna to discuss policy, though Russia didn’t say how long the extension should last beyond its currently slated March expiration.
It’s clear Russia, OPEC and other major producers, in cutting production by about 1.8 million barrels per day since January, have been successful in slowly rebalancing the market; reducing bloated inventories, which has resulted in rising prices for crude.
Russia is ever worried about another collapse in prices, the state budget being pegged to $40 oil, with Moscow having had to deal with economic and social fallout from the collapses in price in 2008-09 and since 2014.
Meanwhile, hurting OPEC and Russia’s goals is booming U.S. oil production, now at a record 9.66 million bpd, up 15 percent since mid-2016. Higher output here undermines the impact of cutbacks elsewhere.
But put it all together and at least for this week, oil closed at $58.97 (West Texas Intermediate), the highest level since June 2015.
--The Justice Department decision to bring a lawsuit to block AT&T from merging with Time Warner, a vertical merger involving two companies that aren’t direct competitors, is outrageous, let alone a major shift in antitrust policy from previous administrations. And since CNN is owned by Time Warner, this has President Trump’s finger prints all over it given his long-running feud with the network.
“Frankly, I don’t know” if the White House interfered in the merger review, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in a press conference on Monday. “But nobody should be surprised that the question keeps coming up.”
Overall, David R. McAtee II, AT&T’s general counsel said: “Today’s DOJ lawsuit is a radical and inexplicable departure from decades of antitrust precedent. Vertical mergers like this one are routinely approved because they benefit consumers without removing any competitor from the market. We see no legitimate reason for our merger to be treated differently.”
The proposed tie-up is of two different kinds of companies – a telecom with a media and entertainment firm.
Stephenson said at the Monday news conference after the suit was filed: “The government contends that AT&T with 25 million TV customers and Turner with a single-digit share of all media watched will have unlawful market power. This defies logic, and it’s unprecedented.”
Stephenson has argued that AT&T needs media content in order to compete against internet giants like Google and Facebook (and their billions of unique visitors) for digital advertising dollars. And with a larger stock of content, it would be better able to compete with the likes of Comcast and Verizon, who also own content.
Makan Delrahim, DOJ’s antitrust chief, counters: “This merger would greatly harm American consumers. It would mean higher monthly television bills and fewer of the new, emerging innovative options that consumers are beginning to enjoy.”
And it’s true that back in 2011, AT&T fought Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, a similar type of deal involving a content company and a content distributor; AT&T then arguing the merger would give it “the incentive and ability to use [its programming] as a weapon to hinder competition.”
AT&T will fight this one tooth and nail and during the discovery process, they will be seeking evidence the White House was involved in the decision, though it’s not sure how any such discoveries would aid the company, as a judge would be more interested in the regulators’ claims that a merger will hurt competitors and consumers.
More importantly, AT&T will be arguing there is no recent precedent for blocking a vertical deal.
There are consumer groups, though, that argue the merger will allow the two to jack up prices for networks like HBO, TNT and TBS – all Time Warner subsidiaries. Others say AT&T’s control of Time Warner’s programming would hurt rival content distributors, but AT&T argues it has no incentive to withhold programming from rivals and that it wants as wide a distribution as possible.
The Justice Department said it remained open to negotiating a settlement, but this would involve selling off some of their assets, which AT&T has vowed it would not do.
Government officials also told the New York Times that AT&T, despite its claims to the contrary, had offered to sell CNN. But by the end of the day’s talks, Stephenson put out a statement saying he had never offered to sell it.
President Trump remains the elephant in the room, going back to October 2016, when in a campaign speech he said mergers such as that of AT&T and Time Warner “destroy democracy.”
“As an example of the power structure I’m fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” Trump said in Gettysburg, Pa.
Wednesday, before leaving for Mar-a-Lago, Trump told reporters, “Personally, I’ve always felt that was a deal that’s not good for the country.”
Back in July, the New York Times reported the White House was discussing how to use the AT&T merger as leverage over the news outlet.
Editorial / Wall Street Journal
“The Justice Department asserts that ‘vertically integrating’ AT&T’s distribution network with Time Warner’s content would make the merged company too powerful. The combined firm could raise the prices that AT&T’s competitors pay to carry Time Warner content on their networks. Or it could altogether withhold popular Time Warner programming, like CNN or HBO. Both of these claims miss the mark.
“Withholding Time Warner content from competitors would make no financial sense. AT&T has agreed to pay $85 billion for Time Warner. More than half of Time Warner’s revenues, $6 billion last year, comes from fees that distributors pay to carry its content. Because fewer than 15% of home-video subscriptions are on networks owned by AT&T (DirecTV, U-verse, and DirecTV Now), the bulk of that revenue comes from other providers.
“In other words: Calculated using expected revenue, AT&T is paying $36 billion for the portion of Time Warner’s business that comes from AT&T’s competitors. The theory seems to be that the merged company would simply forgo this revenue in a speculative hope that withholding Time Warner content from distributors would induce masses of viewers to switch to AT&T – and maybe, one day, put competitors out of business. That this strategy would actually work is unfathomable. ‘Game of Thrones’ is good, but it isn’t that good.
“Worth noting, too, is that Time Warner itself is already vertically integrated: It both produces content (such as Warner Bros. films) and distributes it through channels such as HBO, the CW and TBS. Still, some of Time Warner’s most valuable shows are available through unaffiliated distributors including Showtime, Netflix, Amazon and Fox. In fact, one of the highest-grossing film franchises in history, the Warner Bros. ‘Harry Potter’ series, is available on cable exclusively on Disney’s Freeform channel. Next year a new deal will take effect and ‘Harry Potter’ will be exclusive to NBCUniversal channels. This hardly seems anticompetitive.
“AT&T is even less likely to withhold content that isn’t considered ‘must have’ – like
CNN, for starters. Sure, CNN is popular, but news sources abound....
“Moreover, the Justice Department is also disingenuous when it acts as if killing the merger is the only way to ensure that Time Warner content is available to competing cable providers. Although the Government’s lawsuit fails to mention it, the Federal Communications Commission already polices cable distribution deals and expressly prohibits providers from ‘unfairly’ refusing to make their content available to rivals when doing so would impede a competitive service.
“The Justice Department’s assertion that consumers would be harmed if AT&T controlled what amounts to a fraction of the content in a wildly competitive market – a market full of aggressive (and vertically integrated) competitors like Netflix, Comcast-NBCUniversal, Disney, Viacom and Amazon – is at odds with economic reality.”
In a separate Journal editorial today:
“So why is Justice rolling out dubious antitrust theories? Our guess is the populist politics on the left and right. Conservatives hate CNN, which Time Warner owns, and liberals hate big business in general. Mr. Trump, in his shoot-from-the-lip fashion, said in October 2016 when the deal was proposed that he’d try to block it. Thirteen Democratic Senators including Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Bernie Sanders in January wrote a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes fretting about the ‘consolidation in the telecommunications and media industries.’....
“Mr. Trump said again on Tuesday that ‘I’ve always felt that was a deal that’s not good for the country,’ adding that ‘I’m not going to get involved. It’s litigation.’ Yet uttering his opinion feeds inferences of political interference and a willingness to bend antitrust law in ways that undermine business confidence.
“The good news is that AT&T plans to defend the merger in court, and a trial should be expedited given Justice’s drawn-out investigation. Justice will have to demonstrate that AT&T’s market power exceeds that of its various competitors and that it would use its clout to harmful effect. That’s a high bar that Justice can’t meet on all the available evidence.
“A government defeat could set a healthy precedent that reduces Justice’s leverage and latitude to restrict mergers using market theories that respond to populist politics rather than the rule of law.”
--The Federal Communications Commission formally released a draft of its plan to kill net-neutrality rules, which equalized access to the internet and prevented broadband providers from favoring their own apps and services.
So the FCC’s move would allow companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to charge internet companies for speedier access to consumers and to block outside services they don’t like. The change, expected to be approved, also axes a host of consumer protections, including privacy requirements and rules barring price gouging and unfair practices.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the plan eliminates unnecessary regulation, while opponents of his move worry that his proposal will stifle small tech firms and leave ordinary citizens at the mercy of cable and wireless companies.
The big firms have argued that the rules kept them from developing innovative new business models to compete with the likes of Facebook and Google by reducing their incentives to invest and improve service. The result, they say, will be worse service for everyone in the long run.
The brand-name internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix will easily be able to pay the higher rent, though it might hurt profits a bit.
But for start-up companies, higher prices can be cost prohibitive.
The decision will be put to a vote at the agency’s Dec. 14 meeting in Washington. It is expected to pass because Republicans control three of the commission’s five seats.
--Troubled Uber Technologies Inc. admitted it concealed a massive breach for more than a year, as this week the ride-hailing company ousted Joe Sullivan, chief security officer, and one of his deputies for their roles in keeping the hack under wraps; the theft of the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers from Uber, with the company paying the hackers $100,000 to delete the data and keep the breach quiet.
Compromised data from the October 2016 attack included names, email addresses and phone numbers of 50 million Uber riders around the world. The personal information of 7 million drivers was also accessed, including some 600,000 U.S. driver’s license numbers. No Social Security numbers or credit card details were taken, though the company is expecting us to believe them on this.
Uber said it believes the information was never used but declined to disclose the identities of the attackers.
New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who just took over in September, said in an emailed statement: “None of this should have happened, and I will not make excuses for it.” But he learned of the breach two weeks after taking the helm in Sept. 5, and about three weeks ago, Uber disclosed the investigation into the attack to SoftBank Group Corp., which is considering a multibillion-dollar investment in the company...yet Uber only notified customers and drivers on Tuesday.
What’s alarming is the extreme measures Uber took to hide the attack, the latest scandal that Khosrowshahi inherited from his predecessor, Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and now former CEO. Kalanick apparently learned of the attack a month after it occurred, in November 2016, and at the time, Uber had just settled a lawsuit with the New York attorney general over data security disclosures and was in the process of negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission over the handling of consumer data. It was Joe Sullivan who spearheaded the response to the hack.
Meanwhile, EU authorities will decide next week whether to coordinate their own investigations into Uber as a result of the hack attack revelation. Last I saw, at least five countries had either launched probes or were about to (U.K., Italy, Netherlands, Austria and Poland). What is called the Article 29 working party group, which polices the implementation of data protection law in the bloc, will decide at a monthly meeting whether the countries should investigate Uber together. Uber bases its European operations in the Netherlands.
--Nebraska regulators voted to approve TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline route through the state, lifting the last big regulatory obstacle for the long-delayed project that President Trump wanted built.
The 3-2 decision by the Nebraska Public Service Commission clears the way for the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline linking Canada’s Alberta oil sands to U.S. refineries, though a court challenge is still likely by opponents saying it poses an environmental risk.
--Meg Whitman, one of Silicon Valley’s most experienced chief executives and one of the most prominent women in American business, announced she will step down as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. next year.
Whitman took over the helm of H-P, the predecessor of HPE, six years ago, and she said the time was right for her to move on after overhauling the troubled hardware maker and splitting it into four divisions.
“I’ve been working nonstop for 35 years, so I’ll definitely take some time downtime to recharge.”
Whitman, a Republican, said she was not running for office again after a failed attempt for governor of California in 2010, but would consider a role in government, though last year she supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
There are few remaining women leading tech companies, with Ginni Rometty running IBM and Safra Catz co-CEO of Oracle Corp.
Women command 26 of the S&P 500 companies, according to research group Catalyst, including Ms. Whitman.
--Home-improvement chain Lowe’s enjoyed a boost in sales from the hurricanes and shoppers’ efforts to clean up and rebuild. Net earnings were $872 million for the three months ending Oct. 28, compared with $379 million in the same period a year ago, with sales up 6.5% year-on-year to $16.8bn, while comp sales rose a strong 5.7%, ahead of Wall Street’s forecasts. Lowe’s said hurricane-related sales came in around $200 million.
--Shares in Deere & Co. surged on fiscal fourth-quarter sales and earnings results that exceeded expectations, while Deere guided higher for fiscal 2018.
--Dollar Tree Inc. posted third-quarter results that topped estimates on both earnings and sales, with management raising its outlook for fiscal 2017 and the fourth quarter. Sales rose 6.3% in the quarter to $5.316 billion. Comp store sales rose 3.2%, solid. [5% at Dollar Tree and 1.5% at its Family Dollar stores, which are still being integrated into the overall operation.]
My only complaint with my local Dollar Tree is it’s been a long time since it stocked horseradish sauce (a periodic problem), but you can get some good Campbell’s Soup buys there (plus dishwashing liquid...your editor refusing to use the dishwasher). And it’s Dollar Tree for toothpaste, soap, Uncle Ben’s rice, envelopes and scrub brushes.
I’m still awaiting my endorsement opportunity from corporate HQ.
--Speaking of Campbell’s, shares in Campbell Soup slumped anew amid sluggish demand for one of its best-known products, soup. [Campbell is also the maker of Pepperidge Farm cookies and Goldfish crackers, among other items.] For the three-month period ending Oct. 29, the company reported a whopping 9% decline in U.S. soup sales. Overall revenue for the company was $2.17 billion, shy of the Street’s expectations.
Hell, I continue to buy Campbell’s soups, a major winter staple for moi.
--Shares in Salesforce.com Inc. fell a bit on its current quarter earnings guidance, slightly below expectations, though the just completed Q3 results were better-than-expected.
--According to Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos’ net worth crossed the $100 billion mark today as Amazon.com’s shares jumped more than 2 percent with the optimism over Black Friday online sales. Bezos, 53, is thus the first billionaire to build a 12-figure net worth since 1999, when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates hit the mark.
--Mexico’s economy contracted more than previously thought in the third quarter, due to the impact from storms and quakes on the oil and tourism industries, amidst stalled NAFTA talks. Third-quarter GDP shrank 0.3 percent compared with the previous quarter, though it grew 1.5 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, still the slowest pace of growth since the fourth quarter of 2013.
--The price of Bitcoin surged to over $8,300 intraday this week before closing at $8,267 today, up more than 700% this year.
But even as the bubble expands, Wall Street’s big players are now piling in, including the CME, the world biggest exchange, which will start offering futures trading on bitcoin next month, while senior executives at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan have said they are researching cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underlies them (the latter really of most interest).
--Speaking of bubbles, Elon Musk’s Tesla, according to a Bloomberg investigation and analysis of the data, has been burning cash at a rate of about $8,000 a minute (or $480,000 an hour. At this pace, the company is on track to exhaust its cash pile, as currently constituted, on Monday, Aug. 6.
Now, of course, this is subject to change, and the company still swears it will successfully ramp up production of its all-important Model 3, which would bring lots of cash in the door, but there remains a constant need to raise funds.
For example, two weeks ago, Musk introduced a new sports car that could go from zero to 60 in 1.9 seconds, and which will cost $250,000. In the past Tesla might ask for a substantial down payment. For the Founders Series Roadster, though, it’s $250,000 down, even though it’s not coming for two years (which in Tesla real time is 16 years). Orders of the Roadster are capped at 1,000, so that means this would generate $250 million. [There is a smaller deposit for a regular Roadster.] And Tesla’s new electric Semi trucks require a $5,000 deposit, though they don’t go into production until 2019 (read 2035).
Here’s what we know in the immediate term. Tesla needs to produce 5,000 Model 3 sedans by the end of March.
--The head of Pixar is yet another alleged dirtball for making an “unwanted advance” on actress Rashida Jones, as well as having a history of kissing and touching females. Oscar winner John Lasseter (director of “Toy Story” and “Cars”) has taken a leave of absence “to start taking better care of myself, to recharge and be inspired, and ultimately return with the insight and perspective I need to be the leader you deserve.”
What a crock of [Crisco].
--Fox News is strengthening its conservative lineup. After adding talk-radio personality Laura Ingraham to the Trump-friendly lineup of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, this week the network announced it would add hardline conservative Mark Levin to a weekly Sunday show starting in February.
Levin is an influential figure in conservative circles, with his radio program syndicated on more than 300 stations, rivaling talk-radio hosts Hannity and Ingraham in audience size.
--The Broadway League, a trade group that tracks Broadway ticket sales, reported sales are up 18% for the 2017-18 season, vs. a year ago.
Two shows in particular are responsible for the big pickup, ‘Hello, Dolly!” and Bruce Springsteen’s show, “Springsteen on Broadway.”
It does help overall receipts when “Springsteen” has a top ticket price of $850, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s Charles Passy, which is a fraction of the asking price on the resale market.
But these prices aren’t necessarily good, despite the gross dollars coming in. Broadway’s average paid admission reached nearly $126, an increase of 19% over a year ago, according to the Broadway League. Not exactly affordable for a lot of folks.
Syria: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday a “new stage” had been reached in the Syria crisis but achieving a political solution would require compromises from all sides, including the Syrian government. At Putin’s side in Sochi was Turkish President Erdogan and Iranian President Rouhani. A day before he met with Syrian President Bashar Assad there.
Putin said the Russian army had “saved Syria as a state.”
In a statement after he talked to Putin, Assad said: “It is in our interest to advance the political process...we don’t want to look back and we are ready for dialogue with all those who want to come up with a political settlement.”
Putin said: “As for our joint work in the fight against terrorism in Syria, this military operation is coming to an end.”
Russia, Turkey and Iran have helped Syria maintain stability and avoid being taken over by international terrorists, which would have been a “humanitarian catastrophe,” Putin said in comments carried by state media.
Today, forces loyal to Assad control more than half the country, including almost all major cities.
Putin then spoke with President Trump on Tuesday to update him on his talks.
President Trump spoke with Turkish President Erdogan today, having tweeted prior to the call:
“Will be speaking to President Erdogan....this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East. I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!”
Heretofore, Erdogan, while showing some flexibility, is unlikely to officially accept the prospect of President Assad remaining in power.
President Trump and the United States are total non-factors in the peace process. We have zero say in the terms being negotiated. We are abandoning the opposition.
In Riyadh on Thursday, the main Syrian opposition said they rejected any role for President Assad at the start of a U.N.-sponsored interim period leading to a political transition, according to the communique.
“The participants stressed that this [the transition] cannot happen without the departure of Bashar [Assad] and his clique at the start of the interim period,” the communique said.
The aim of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee is to reach consensus on a strategy for talks in Geneva, which will focus on a new constitution for Syria and fresh elections.
Turkey, Ankara and Moscow have supported the so-called Astana process, peace negotiations held in the Kazakh capital of Astana that have led to the creation of “de-escalation” zones in parts of Syria.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the Sochi meeting carries echoes of the February 1945 Yalta Conference, which helped shape the post-World War II order.
“The similarity lies in Russia and its current allies having achieved a military victory and setting about organizing peace where there used to be a battlefield. The dissimilarity is that Russia and its allies are nowhere near the total victory which was de facto theirs in February 1945.”
Lebanon: Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon Tuesday night and then on Wednesday said he was suspending his decision to resign as prime minister at the request of Lebanese President Michel Aoun to allow for dialogue, easing a major political crisis.
Hariri had been gone since Nov. 4 and his shocking resignation statement broadcast from Saudi Arabia.
Wednesday, he said all Lebanese parties needed to commit to keeping Lebanon out of regional conflicts, a reference to Iranian-backed Hizbullah, the prime concern of Saudi Arabia.
“I presented today my resignation to President Aoun and he urged me to wait before offering it and to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and political background, and I showed responsiveness,” Hariri said in a televised statement.
Reportedly, Hariri’s decision to delay his resignation is linked to an initiative of French President Macron and Egyptian President Sisi to prevent a government vacuum in Lebanon and to keep Hariri in his post.
Hariri had held talks with Sisi in Cairo on Tuesday before a quick trip to Cyprus, which has offered its services in diffusing the political crisis.
Last weekend, Hariri met in Paris with Macron, who is trying to mediate in the Middle East to avoid a proxy war in Lebanon between Iranian-backed and Saudi-backed camps.
Macron’s office said he had talked to both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Iranian President Rouhani separately, telling them both that Lebanon had to be disassociated from regional crises. Hariri’s return to Lebanon was clearly a result of Macron’s intervention, too.
Thursday, in an interview with the New York Times, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said Hariri will no longer provide Hizbullah political cover, though as reported by Thomas L. Friedman, Prince Mohammad wouldn’t be drawn into details of Hariri’s resignation from Riyadh. However, Friedman said the “bottom line of the whole affair is that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is not going to continue providing political cover for a Lebanese government that is essentially controlled by...Hizbullah, which is essentially controlled by Tehran.”
[Hizbullah maintained that the forced resignation of Hariri was an act of war engineered by Saudi authorities.]
Mohammad also called Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East,” a sharp escalation of the war of words between the arch-rivals.
It’s the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Araba versus Shiite Iran. And Prince Mohammad suggested Iran’s expansion under Khamenei needed to be confronted.
“But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East,” the Times quoted him as saying.
Regarding the 2 ½-year-old war in Yemen, in which the Saudis are backing forces fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, Salman told the Times the Saudis and its allies controlled 85 percent of Yemen’s territory, though the Houthis still retain the main population centers, and if you watched “60 Minutes” last Sunday, you saw how the humanitarian crisis created by the war, and Saudi blockades of aid and relief supplies, could result in the deaths of millions.
Egypt: A staggering 235+ were reported killed in a bombing and gun attack on a mosque during Friday prayers in Egypt’s northern Sinai. Suspected ISIS-allied militants were targeting supporters of the security forces attending prayers there. Unbelievably some, if not all, of the attackers (save for a suicide bomber) got away. It appears to have been incredibly well planned, with the ambulances first rushing to the scene being ambushed, necessitating Egyptian security forces secure the site before ambulances could be deployed; the time spent doing this allowing the militants to escape.
Israel: The American threat to shut down the Palestinian mission in Washington, D.C. shows that the U.S. is losing its status as a fair mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last Saturday.
The administration notified the Palestinian Authority that unless it enters serious peace negotiations with Israel, the U.S. could shut down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. within the next few months.
But the Abbas spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the threat relayed by the State Department to the PA “is a puzzling position of the administration. The Palestinian side has not received any document or idea from the United States for many months, despite the fact that many meetings had taken place with the administration.”
North Korea: President Trump put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism on Monday, a designation that allows the U.S. to impose more sanctions, but risks inflaming tensions. The designation allows the U.S. to cut off foreign assistance, weapons sales, commercial exports and financial transactions with Pyongyang, which is already heavily sanctioned by the U.S. government.
A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said after that the U.S. designation only made North Korea more committed to retaining its nuclear arsenal
Pyongyang denounced Trump’s decision to relist it as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling it a “serious provocation and violent infringement,” as reported by state media.
Russia blasted the White House’s decision as a “PR move” that could result in a global “catastrophe,” according to Agence France-Press, quoting a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova.
She told reporters in Moscow: “These sorts of actions push the situation to the extreme. This can end with a big catastrophe not only of a regional but also of global scale.”
Separately, China’s trade with North Korea fell to $335 million in October, its lowest since February as imports sank to their weakest in years, data showed Thursday, a solid sign that new sanctions did cut business between the two.
The total is down almost 20 percent from September and compares with $525 million a year ago, according to customs data. The newest U.N. penalties went into effect on September 5, which banned Pyongyang from selling coal, iron ore, lead, and seafood abroad.
Imports from North Korea were $90.75 million in October, down from $146 million in September, while exports were $244.2 million, the weakest since February, compared with $286.9 million a year earlier. [South China Morning Post]
Of course these figures come from China’s General Administration of Customs, so you can take them with a grain of salt. More important is actual intelligence on things such as visual sightings of ships in the harbors and whether that traffic is truly lighter.
That said the above is encouraging in terms of Chinese cooperation.
Lastly, aren’t you startled by how little talk there has been of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea? With the terror threat from North Korea looming, last I saw there were “mountains of unsold tickets.”
It’s not just North Korea, though, but also a lack of the “nationalism” that was seen at the Seoul 1988 Summer Games and the 2002 World Cup. It didn’t help that the country was hit by a national scandal that sparked the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, amid allegations her advisor, Choi Soon-sil, had benefited from Olympic-related contracts.
There are also reports the government simply hasn’t been promoting the Games as yet, so it is still possible things will pick up significantly as they draw near (and if Kim Jong-un behaves in the interim).
China: Australia called on the United States to build a strong presence in Asia and bolster ties with “like-minded” partners while warning against China’s rising influence. A more insular U.S. would be detrimental to the liberal nature of the world’s “rules-based order,” the government said in a 115-page foreign policy white paper.
“Australia believes that international challenges can only be tackled effectively when the world’s wealthiest, most innovative and most powerful country is engaged in solving them,” the government said.
“Strong and sustained U.S. engagement in the international system remains fundamental to international stability and prosperity. Without such engagement, the effectiveness and liberal character of the international order would erode.”
In the paper, Australia warned of a shift in the balance of power. While it recognizes the economic benefits from China’s rise, it was also trying to “wish China away,” said Jane Golley, deputy director at the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University. “To actually drop the word ‘Asia’ from Asia-Pacific’ undoes three decades of diplomatic effort,” Golley said, referring to the use of the phrase “Indo-Pacific” which came up 120 times in the paper. “Asia-Pacific” was not used once.
Relations between Australia and China reached a low point this year after Australia rejected high-profile Chinese investments, citing “national interests.” Australia has also shown little enthusiasm for China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which aims to connect China to Europe and beyond with infrastructure projects. [Swati Pandey / Reuters]
Russia: Moscow is denying a nuclear accident occurred in the Ural Mountains, despite “extremely high” traces of a radioactive isotope being found. Russia’s weather service acknowledged it had measured pollution of ruthenium-106 at 1,000 times normal levels in the Urals, but it said there was no health risk.
France’s nuclear safety institute had first detected a cloud of radioactive pollution over Europe, going back to November 9, adding at the time it could have been the result of an accident at a facility in either Russia or Kazakhstan. But both countries have denied anything untoward happened at their plants.
Zimbabwe: President Robert Mugabe stepped down after 37 years of authoritarian rule that destroyed his country’s economy, forced to resign following a power struggle in which Emmerson Mnangawa was initially sacked as vice president to pave the way for then-first lady Grace Mugabe to take up the presidency.
Friday, new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, having returned from exile, took the oath of office, saying he felt “deeply humbled” to take the role.
And he said he was “not oblivious to the many Zimbabweans from across the political and racial divide who have helped make this day.”
Mnangagwa paid tribute to Mugabe – calling him “a father, mentor, comrade-in-arms and my leader.”
“The task at hand is that of rebuilding our country,” Mnangagwa said. “I am required to serve our country as the president of all citizens regardless of color, creed, religion, tribe, totem or political affiliation.”
But Mnangagwa, aka “the Crocodile,” is associated with some of the worst atrocities committed under the ruling Zanu-PF party since gaining independence in 1980.
Zimbabwe as a country deserves credit thus far, read the military, for orchestrating Mugabe’s removal without bloodshed. It’s just some of us wonder what has truly changed with Mnangagwa’s elevation. It was his supporters in the security forces who intervened on his behalf after Mugabe sacked him as vice president for being too open with his ambitions as “heir apparent.”
We’ll know a ton in just a month or two, like in observing how the opposition is handled and any human rights abuses. Mnangagwa’s fearsome reputation was made during the civil war that broke out in the 1980s between Mugabe’s Zanu party and the Zapu party of Joshua Nkomo. Mnangagwa was National Security Minister in charge of the intelligence apparatus, with thousands of innocent civilians, mainly Zapu supporters, killed before the two parties merged to form Zanu-PF.
Back to Mugabe, he was granted immunity from prosecution and was assured that his safety would be protected in his home country as part of a deal that led to his resignation.
Somalia: The U.S. military claimed it conducted an airstrike here that killed more than 100 militants liked to al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab. The operation took place on Tuesday, following large-scale attacks in the capital Mogadishu over the past month that had killed more than 320 people.
Nigeria: A suicide bomber killed at least 50 at a mosque in northeastern Nigeria on Tuesday, the biggest mass killing this year in a region facing an insurgency by Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Boko Haram had been pushed out of the area where the bombing took place in 2015.
Argentine: What a national tragedy, the loss of 44 sailors on an Argentine submarine that by all accounts should not have been in the water because of maintenance and other concerns. A massive search was launched the day the vessel vanished, Nov. 15. Friday, numerous countries involved in the search confirmed that a sound picked up from the suspected location of the submarine was indeed an explosion, around the time of the captain’s report of a power issue involving the battery system.
--Presidential tracking polls....
Gallup: 38% approval for President Trump, 55% disapproval
Rasmussen: 44% approval, 54% disapproval
I forgot to note last time that a Quinnipiac poll from Nov. 14 had Trump’s job approval at 35%, 58% disapproval (the low in this one being 33% approval, 61% disapproval August 2).
But I wanted to mention it because I have been keeping track of Independents in the Quinnipiac surveys and the Nov. 14 poll had them approving of Trump 31% / 63%. On April 19 it was a 38 / 56 split. Aug. 23, 33% / 59%. To me, this continues to be a critical metric when looking ahead to the midterms.
--The U.N. Criminal Tribunal in The Hague convicted ex-Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic of genocide and crimes against humanity for massacres of Bosnian Muslims and ethnic cleansing campaigns to forge a “Greater Serbia,” jailing the 74-year-old for life. Mladic was hustled out of the court minutes before the verdict for shouting “this is all lies, you are all liars.” The U.N. Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Mladic guilty of 10 of 11 charges, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 civilians were killed by shelling, mortar and sniper fire.
Srebrenica was the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II. Presiding Judge Alphonos Orie said in reading out a summary of the judgment: “The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind, and include genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity. Many of these men and boys were cursed, insulted, threatened, forced to sing Serb songs and beaten while awaiting their execution,” he said.
Mladic, the “Butcher of Bosnia,” denied all charges and his legal team said they would appeal.
The ICTY is closing its doors soon after sentencing 83 Balkan war criminals since opening in 1993.
--Charlie Rose became the latest in the media world to be accused of sexual harassment. He was fired after eight women came forward accusing the veteran TV journalist of sexual harassment. PBS and Bloomberg television then fired him as well.
New allegations are coming out at a furious pace, as news organizations, who may have turned a blind eye in the past to such rumors, now pursue and publish allegations from women who feel emboldened to tell their stories. But this is opening the media to charges of hypocrisy as it covers assault allegations from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.
Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, told The Hill:
“Further complicating the media’s image in all of this is the sanctimonious manner in which the media has covered sexual harassment in other corners of society. It is difficult for the news media to parade around as haughty overseers of right and wrong in broader contexts of society when they clearly have in-house confusion about first principles of decency.”
CBS acknowledged in a statement that its reputation is on the line.
“CBS News has reported on extraordinary revelations at other media companies this last year,” the network said. “Our credibility in that reporting requires managing basic standards of behavior. That is why we have taken these actions.”
For his part, Rose said in a statement: “It is essential that these women know I hear them and that I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior....
“I have learned a great deal as a result of these events, and I hope others will too. All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.”
What a freakin’ jerk.
Former colleague on CBS’s “This Morning,” Gayle King, said of Rose: “Charlie does not get a pass here. He doesn’t get a pass from anyone in this room. We are all deeply affected, we are all rocked by this.”
--Maureen Dowd / New York Times
“Would the war against preying on women be blazing so fiercely had Hillary Clinton been elected?
“When I interviewed women in Hollywood about the ugly Harvey Weinstein revelations in The Times and The New Yorker, they told me that feelings of frustration and disgust at having an accused predator in the White House instead of the first woman president had helped give the story velocity....
“It is also interesting to speculate: If Hillary were in the Oval, would some women have failed to summon the courage to tell their Weinstein horror stories because the producer was also a power behind the Clinton throne? As Janice Min, the former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, told me, when Barack Obama stepped off a stage and into Weinstein’s arms for a big hug after giving a $400,000 speech as an ex-president in the spring, it sent a signal that the ogre was in a protected magic circle.
“And, finally, would Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and other liberals still be saying in the past few days that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency over his own sexual misdeeds if he now occupied the first lady’s quarters and reigned over a potent Clinton political machine?
“Or would feminists and liberals make the same Faustian bargain they made in 1998: protect Bill on his retrogressive behavior toward women because the Clintons have progressive policies toward women? So what if a few women are collateral damage, they might ask – again. Wouldn’t you rather have Bill and Bill’s enabler, Hillary, than Donald?
“You may wonder why in the year 2017, after so many graphic and scalding national seminars on sexual predation over the last 26 years, we are still trying to come to terms with it.
“Perhaps because in those earlier traumatic sagas, both the left and the right rushed in to twist them for their own ideological ends. The stench of hypocrisy overpowered the perfume of justice....
“Once more, politics is clouding the issue of sexual harassment. But hopefully this public trial, which is bringing to the dock men on both sides of the aisle, is too momentous to be diminished by politics.
“As Senator Franken’s accuser, Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio newscaster, told CNN’s Jake Tapper: ‘When you’re sexually assaulted, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. ...The affiliation doesn’t matter, right?’
“ ‘That’s not,’ she correctly concluded, ‘the point here.’”
--The Navy suspended its search for three missing sailors just days after their plane went down off the coast of Japan. The C-2A Greyhound crashed on Wednesday with eight of 11 servicemen on board rescued and said to be in good shape, but the other three now presumed dead. This continues a terrible streak of accidents involving the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, five this year, with 20 killed.
--Back in August 1969, on two successive nights in Los Angeles, seven people were slaughtered at two affluent locations, orchestrated by cult leader Charles Manson. It was the sheer incomprehensibility of his followers’ acts – mutilation and ritual stabbings, among the victims rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant and married to movie director Roman Polanski – that left the public fearful and police investigators stumped for months.
Eventually, Manson and four of his followers were convicted in 1971, all sentenced to California’s gas chamber, but the sentences were reduced to life when the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.
Vincent Bugliosi, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Manson, described the Manson name as “a metaphor for evil.”
--According to David Cassidy’s daughter, Katie, the 1970s heartthrob’s last words were “So much wasted time.” Rather profound.
--Next time you feel cold, I was reading of a town in Russia’s northeastern Sakha republic, Oymyakon, nicknamed the “Cold Pole,” where the other day temperatures hovered around minus-50 Celsius (-58F.)....2 degrees above the threshold to cancel classes, so I read. It’s windy there, too, but no word on the wind chill. According to Wikipedia, the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth is -128.6F (-89.2 Celsius) at a Soviet station in Antarctica back in 1983. I assume the children didn’t have to go to school that day.
--But in Southern California, Thanksgiving saw record high temperatures, such as in downtown Los Angeles, where it hit 92 (the previous record being 84), making it the hottest Thanksgiving ever since record-keeping began in 1877, the National Weather Service reported. It hit 93 in Burbank, which had me reminiscing about how Johnny Carson would have treated this. “It was so hot....” “How hot was it?” “It was so hot that Donald Trump’s hair.....”
Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.
God bless America.
Returns for the week 11/20-11/24
Dow Jones +0.4% 
S&P 500 +0.7% 
S&P MidCap +1.2%
Russell 2000 +2.2%
Nasdaq +1.4% 
Returns for the period 1/1/17-11/24/17
Dow Jones +19.2%
S&P 500 +16.2%
S&P MidCap +12.0%
Russell 2000 +11.9%
Bears 15.4 [Source: Investors Intelligence]
Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.