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Archive for May, 2008

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May 30 (Bloomberg) — Iceland’s lawmakers passed a bill allowing the central bank to sell as much as 500 billion kronur ($6.76 billion) of foreign-currency bonds, equivalent to more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product.

The bill was passed late yesterday, Thorsteinn Thorgeirsson, chief economist at the Finance Ministry in Reykjavik, said in a telephone interview. The move would allow the central bank to more than triple foreign reserves.

The bank needs to restore confidence in an economy whose currency slumped 20 percent against the euro this year on concern commercial banks may have expanded abroad too fast. The assets of Iceland’s three biggest banks were nine times the size of the economy last year. Kaupthing Bank hf, the biggest of the three, had 87 percent of its assets denominated in foreign currencies.

“This definitely helps to boost confidence in the economy,” said Bjarke Roed-Frederiksen, an economist at Nordea Bank AB in Copenhagen, the biggest Nordic lender. “But it’ll be an expensive loan, if they decide to act on it.”

The krona gained for the first day in four, rising 0.3 percent to trade at 115.4969 against the euro as of 12:16 p.m. in Reykjavik.

“The central bank will probably take advantage of the bill,” said Ingolfur Bender, head of economic research at Glitnir Bank hf in Reykjavik. “That’s what the government wants them to do and that’s what they will do.”

An official at the central bank, or Sedlabanki, declined to comment.

Currency Slump

The krona has tumbled this year on concern the global credit crunch may force some of the island’s banks, who rely on money- market funding to run their operations, to turn to the central bank for aid. Interest rates at a record high have failed to reverse the slump in the currency, which pushed the inflation rate to an 18-year high of 12.3 percent this month.

The central bank on May 22 kept the benchmark rate unchanged at a record 15.5 percent, indicating policy makers may prefer to boost foreign reserves to support the currency rather than raise rates further.

“I know the central bank is working quite hard on it right now; they’re on a roadshow talking to possible investors in London today and yesterday,” Bender said. “I definitely expect them to announce something within the next couple of weeks.”

The bank on May 16 entered an agreement with its Norwegian, Swedish and Danish counterparts to swap kronur for as much as 1.5 billion euros, allowing it to almost double its foreign reserves.

Reserves

“It’s clear that this move, and the swap agreement, are more significant at the moment than changes in the interest rate in supporting the krona,” Roed-Frederiksen said.

Currency reserves stood at 206.8 billion kronur at the end of April, the bank said on May 8. That compares with combined assets of 11.4 trillion kronur at Kaupthing, Landsbanki Islands hf and Glitnir Bank hf at the end of last year. Including the value of the swap agreement entered earlier this month and the debt sale approved today, reserves could rise as high as 880 billion kronur at today’s exchange rates.

Moody’s Investors Service cut Iceland’s credit rating on May 20 to Aa1 from Aaa citing concern that the government may have to cover liabilities at the nation’s banks.

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As noted here time and again, Iran has nothing to lose by waiting out the end of George Bush’s term.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said May 29 that Iran thinks U.S. voters want to change the foreign policies of President George W. Bush, and he said that the present U.S. presidential campaigns make that clear, The Associated Press reported. Mottaki, who would not endorse a candidate, said that foreign policy would play an important part in the election of the next U.S. president.

Iran could not have had a better March-May. A rumored Israeli Gaza offensive, against Iran’s proxy Hamas, failed to materialize. Hezbollah, staked by Iran, was forced to go all-in in Lebanon, won, and has returned to a defensive crouch.

Mottaki’s announcement is a signal to Ahmadinejad’s domestic foes that Iraq is worth waiting for for a little while longer. He happens to be right.

US econo-political analysis is divided into two camps. The “mainstream” camp sees US growth figures as credible, and takes at face value the idea that the US, by sheer economic vitality, has avoided a recession. This school views US inflation as temporary. It views 10/90 “right track/wrong track” numbers as merely a dubious poll, a product of stampeding pessimism, spawned by the media’s sensationalizing of US malaise. This group has faith in government and banking institutions, and little faith in consumers’ ability to assess or predict their own behavior. Curiously, this group is also disproportionately Republican and “free-market.” It does not see much potential for an economic- or inflation-driven political upheaval in November 2008.

The “cynics,” e.g., Bill Gross, Mish Shedlock, and John Williams, trust consumers’ perceptions over the government’s. Cynics argue that consumers are telling the truth when they say how pessimistic they are, and trace the dissonance between official and consumer perceptions to vagaries of BLS unemployment and inflation accounting–a story flogged to death here, and much more persuasively on other sites.

The cynics see much higher potential for political upheaval in November 2008.

Apparently, so does Iran.

Bush Administration policy vis-a-vis Iran/Iraq usually means dialing up tensions over Iranian nukes and weapons supplies into Iraq, bringing up aircraft carriers, launching large operations against Iran’s Mehdi Army Iraqi proxy, slapping sanctions on Iranian banks, using its own militias to incinerate strategic people inside Iran, etc.

After Hezbollah routed the US alliance in Lebanon (followed by an abrupt end to the US/Iraqi crackdown on Sadr in Baghdad) one would assume that the Bush Administration policy of “we’d like to talk, but we’re happy to pull the trigger too” attitude has lost credibility. Iran is quietly leveraging its gains by edging the US out of Iraq:

May 29, 2008 1419 GMT
Senior Iraqi official Sa’ad Javad Qandil told Alalam television May 29 that a draft of an agreement to extend U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2008 was problematic, especially any condition that would allow the U.S. to establish a military base there.

Predictably, Qandil is a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Teheran’s “mainstream” Iraq proxy (the Mehdi Army is, most of the time, its militant proxy). Hezbollah’s unanswered victory in Lebanon has ramifications across the entire region, not so much in the eyes of Americans as in the eyes of Arabs who were reminded, once again, that the personal bonds between Ahmadinejad and militia leaders can result in very quick and decisive action when Teheran’s interest are threatened.

Anyway, Iran hasn’t been deterred by US tough talk in the past, and there’s less reason than ever to think that louder tough talk will change Iran’s behavior at all. Lebanon has changed the game.

I would repeat my “sh*t or get off the pot” mantra about the US and Iran, but the US has backed down one too many times. I’m beginning to believe we should throw the Saudis the keys as soon as possible, to hedge against a probably adverse US election outcome while it’s still possible.

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Setser on the PBOC:

What cann’t go on still hasn’t slowed, let alone stopped (Chinese reserve growth)

… Back in 2004, it was considered rather stunning when China added close to $100 billion to its reserves ($95 billion) in a single quarter, bring its total reserves up to around $600 billion.. The dollar’s fall against the euro (and associated rise in the dollar value of China’s euros) explains around $15 billion of the rise. But at the time, $80 billion was considered a very large sum for China to have added to its reserves.

Now China has $1756 billion in reserves, after a $74.5 billion April increase. The dollar rose against the euro in April, so the underlying pace of increase – after adjusting for valuation changes – was more like $82 billion.

In a month.

And not just any month – in a month when oil topped $100 a barrel.

$82 billion a month, sustained over a year, is close to a trillion dollars. A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money. If a large share of China’s reserves is going into dollars, as seems likely, this year’s increase in China’s dollar holdings could be almost as large as the US current account deficit.

The fact that one country’s government – and in effect two institutions (SAFE and the CIC) – are providing such a large share of the financing the US needs to sustain large deficits (particularly in a world where Americans want to invest abroad as well as import far more than they export) is unprecedented.

The real surprise in some sense is that the increase in China’s April preserves isn’t that much of a surprise. At least not to those who have been watching China closely.

Wang Tao – now of UBS – estimated that China added $600 billion to its foreign assets in 2007, far more than the reported increase in China’s reserves. Logan Wright (as reported by Michael Pettis) and I concluded that Chinese foreign asset growth – counting funds shifted to the CIC – could have topped $200 billion in the first quarter.

China hasn’t disclosed how much it shifted to the CIC, let alone when it shifted funds over to the CIC. But it seems likely that the surprisingly low increase in China’s reserves in March stems from a large purchase of foreign exchange by the CIC. Indeed, the CIC’s March purchase may have used up all of the RMB 1.55 trillion the CIC initially raised.

As a result, all of the increase in the foreign assets of China’s government seems to have showed up at the PBoC in April. Or almost all. China raised its reserves requirement in April, and the banks may have been encouraged to meet that reserve requirement by holding foreign exchange.

China’s current account surplus – adding estimated interest income to its trade surplus – was no more than $25 billion in April. FDI inflows were around $7.5 billion. Sum it up and it is a lot closer to $30 billion than $40 billion. Non-FDI capital inflows – hot money – explain the majority of the increase.

No wonder Chinese policy makers were so focused on hot money this spring. Hot money flows seem to have contributed to their decision to stop the RMB’s appreciation in April. But interest rate differentials still favor China – so it isn’t clear that a slower pace of appreciation will stem the inflows.

It certainly though helps to sustain the underlying imbalance that has given rise to massive bets on China’s currency.

The scale of China’s reserve growth suggests that China’s government is no longer just lending the US what it needs to buy Chinese goods. And it is now lending the US – and indeed the world – far more than the world needs to buy Chinese goods. Vendor financing is a fair description for China’s reserve growth in 2003 or 2004, but not now.

China’s government is increasingly acting as an international as well as a domestic financial intermediary. It has long borrowed — whether through the sale of PBoC bills of Finance Ministry bonds to fund the CIC – rmb to buy dollars, effectively taking the foreign currency domestic Chinese savers do not want to take. Now though it is borrowing from the rest of the world to lend to the rest of the world.

Most intermediaries though make money. Or at least try to. By contrast, China’s government is almost sure to lose money on its external financial intermediation. Selling RMB cheap to buy expensive dollars and euros is not a good business model.

China cannot be entirely comfortable with all the money that is pouring into China. But it isn’t at all clear that Chinese policy makers are willing to take the steps needed to shift decisively toward a new set of policies. It is clear that the costs of China’s current policies are rising.

Remember, China looses [sic] money on its reserves. More isn’t better.

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“With Bold Steps, Fed Chief Quiets Some Criticism”:

[…]

“It has been a really head-spinning range of unprecedented and bold actions,” said Charles W. Calomiris, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, referring to the Fed’s lending activities. “That is exactly as it should be. But I’m not saying that it’s without some cost and without some risk.”

[As yours truly noted back in November, Charles Calomiris wrote a verbose and obtuse article for VoxEU which proclaimed that there was no credit crisis — a restatement of his August claim that there was no credit crisis. I guess that makes him almost as good a forecaster as Bernanke is. ]

Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and a close Bernanke ally, defines the Fed chief’s “doctrine” as the overpowering use of monetary policies and lending to avert an economic collapse. “Ben has, in very consequential ways, altered the framework for how central banks operate in crises,” he said. “Some will criticize it and some will praise it, and it will certainly be examined for decades.”

Mr. Bernanke’s actions have transformed his image as a self-effacing former economics professor.

“I am tempted to think of him as somewhat Buddha-like,” said Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. “He’s developed a serenity based on a growing understanding of the hardball ways the system actually works. You can see that it’s no longer an academic or theoretical exercise for him.”

Did he just say “Buddha-like”?

Within the Bush administration, Mr. Bernanke’s willingness to work with Democrats in Congress on measures to prevent mortgage foreclosures has stirred unease. “The fact that he, an appointee of George Bush, has come very close to advocating — though he hasn’t quite advocated it — a piece of legislation that George Bush threatened to veto is an illustration of his willingness to put his head on the chopping block,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton and friend of the Fed chief.

One reason Mr. Bernanke is sticking his neck out is that he believes the broader economy’s recovery depends on the housing sector, which remains in a serious slump. Plenty of new evidence surfaced on Tuesday that this year’s spring home-buying season will be dismal, with one report showing that prices fell 14.1 percent in March from a year earlier and another that new-home sales are down 42 percent over the last year.

Among Democrats, Mr. Bernanke, a Republican, had previously been criticized by such party luminaries as the two former Clinton administration Treasury secretaries, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence E. Summers, who worried that he was downplaying the dangers of a recession. But that view has changed.

“I think in the last few months they’ve handled themselves very sure-footedly,” Mr. Rubin said of the Fed. Many Democrats in Congress agree.

“They say that crisis makes the man,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “He’s made believers out of people who were just not sure about him before.”

To lessen the chances of a financial collapse, Mr. Bernanke engineered the takeover of one investment bank, Bear Stearns, and tossed credit lifelines to others with exotic new lending facilities — the Fed now has seven such lending windows, some of them for investment banks as well as commercial banks.

He also allowed the Fed to accept assets of debatable value — mortgage-backed securities, car loans and credit card debt — as collateral for some Fed loans. For the first time ever, he installed Fed regulators inside investment banks to inspect their books.

Much to the dismay of conservative economists, Mr. Bernanke has also presided over an extraordinarily aggressive series of interest rate cuts, lowering the fed funds rate seven times, to 2 percent from 5.75 percent, since last September, though it has signaled a pause in further rate-cutting barring a further crisis. …

Bernanke and Paulson are the worst thing that’s happened to capitalism since Arthur Burns and Richard Nixon. Carter would have been awful, but conditions were so bad by 1979 that he had to authorize significant deregulation and capital gains tax cuts (from 35% to 28%, from memory) kicking and screaming.

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MZM (NSA) v USD value v commercial lending

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Using figures compile [sic] by independent research house GFMS Ltd., the council says the consumption of 31.5 tons in the first quarter shows a steep increase of 110% year-on-year and accounting for 43% of the world’s net retail investment demand of 72.2 tons in the period.

Vietnam’s arrival into pole position in the retail investment sector ousts India from the top slot with 31 tons, a decline by half from the first quarter in 2007 as Indian purchasers withdrew from the market and waited for lower and more stable prices.

The report says the surge in Vietnam’s demand was partly a response to soaring inflation, which hit 11.6% in 2007 and prompted a rush to buy gold, reflecting its perceived qualities as a hedge against inflation.

Demand was also spurred by the performance of gold relative to other investments such as equities and real estate, which have declined in value over recent months while gold has strengthened.

Furthermore, gold investments have been increasingly marketed by Vietnamese banks. High interest rates enable local banks to offer an interest rate on gold deposits since they can profitably sell the gold for dong, lend the dong out at high interest rates and hedge their gold position by entering into a forward buying agreement with an international bank.

Many Vietnamese prefer to hold gold rather than dong and the fact that this gold can earn interest from commercial banks makes it still more appealing as for investment option, says the report.

Vietnam’s gold demand for jewellery in the first quarter was 5.3 tons, that is stable from the previous quarter but down by 18.9% on a year-on-year comparison and the high price of gold was the primary reason for the decline.

Gold demand is divided into three purposes, jewellery demand, industrial and dental demand, and identifiable investment, comprising net retail investment (primarily bars and coins) and investment in Exchange Traded Funds and similar products (ETFs), the latter not yet available in Vietnam.

The world’s total gold demand in the first quarter fell 16% from a year earlier to 701.3 tons. Of which, jewellery demand was 445.4 tons, down 21%, industrial and dental demand fell 5% to 110.3 tons, while investment in ETFs was double to 72.9 tons and net retail investment dropped 35% to 72.2 tons.

(Source: SGT)

In some parts of the world, gold consumption and CPI are apparently correlated. Who knew?!

Let’s hope the rest of Asia picks up on the trend.

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Cokeflation

Sometimes anecdotal evidence is the best evidence” …

For decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration has measured the price and purity of illicit drugs. Its methodology is cryptic, but the dea says it’s a reliable way to spot trends.

And it says it has spied one: The cost of pure coke rose 44 percent in the United States between January and September 2007. The dea credits its own efforts, of course, along with increased Mexican and Colombian cooperation, for the downturn in supply it says caused the price hike.

But the agency omits an important factor: the plummeting value of the dollar, especially as compared to the soaring euro. Even as the dea has made it more bothersome to bring coke into the United States, the sliding dollar has made importing it less profitable. Both the UN and dea note that a kilo of coke brings in two times as much in Europe as it does in America.

As with any commodity, producers look to maximize earnings by selling in markets with the strongest currencies. But unlike oil, for instance, the value of which is measured in dollars, the cocaine market is more fluid. “The euro has become the preferred currency for drug traffickers,” declared then-dea administrator Karen Tandy at an anti-drug conference last May. “We’re seeing a glut of euro notes throughout South America,” she said, adding that “9 of 10 travelers who carried the $1.7 billion euros that came into the United States during 2005 did not come from Europe…They came from Latin America.”

Europe has become attractive to traffickers not just because of its healthy economy, but also for its open borders, less stringent drug policies, and increasing demand. American officials estimate that just a few years ago U.S. consumers snorted several times more blow than their Old World counterparts. That gap has dramatically narrowed as Europe feeds a cocaine binge that has been compared to America’s in the ’80s.

This new European focus is changing global drug-supply routes. West African nations have become important staging areas for packages on the way from South America to Spain and Portugal, the region’s main points of entry. The UN estimates that cocaine seizures in Africa increased nearly sixfold between 2005 and 2007 and that more than 90 tons of coke were intercepted in Portugal and Spain in 2006, more than was seized in all of Europe in 2004.

So how does all this affect the end market here at home? “The guy from the suburbs may be paying a little more, but there are no crackheads going without crack,” says Dale Sutherland, a narcotics investigator with the Washington, D.C., police department. That’s likely because increased costs are passed on down to low-level slingers who are more inclined to cut their product with talcum powder than risk being undercut by competitors. Indeed, the dea reported that during the same period when prices rose, there was a 15 percent decline in the purity of coke that officers seized or bought on the street. As they say on The Wire, “All in the game, yo. All in the game.”

The Wire was great, although too many main characters were dead or put away by the end of the third season, and anyway I won’t have the time to watch 4 & 5 for some while. Plus, the gratuitous seediness-to-plot ratio had deteriorated significantly.

It seems like when the cable shows start the ratings slide, they really go all-out on the skin…

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During a somewhat heated argument with some Jewish friends over Israel’s recent backstabbing of the US, a national security hobbyist recommended the following article as a defense of recent Israeli policy. Phrases which jumped out at me are highlighted in bold.

Hizbollah’s Increased Strength: Risks and Opportunities for Israel, INSS Insight No. 57, May 26, 2008
Shalom, Zaki

One tangible aftermath of the Second Lebanon War and the agreement that concluded it is an increase in Hizbollah’s strength. [… …]

Since the end of the Second Lebanon War, Hizbollah has succeeded in rehabilitating its forces to a great extent. According to various reports, Hizbollah today has tens of thousands of missiles, some of them long range, and is capable of inflicting very serious damaged deep into Israel. Thus, the risks involved in Hizbollah taking control of Lebanon are quite apparent. Less apparent are the pluses that may emerge from this process.

[Hezbollah didn’t “rehabilitate” anything. Its victory in 2006 did not even require a full Hezbollah mobilization. 10,000 IDF soldiers were defeated by 3,000 Hezbollah fighters. At most 184 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the war — much less than the “at least 450” bandied about by Israeli propaganda.]

[…]

… For many years Lebanon has been ruled by moderate, pro-West leaders. This leadership views Hizbollah as a bitter and hostile rival, and it too is interested in clipping the organization’s wings. At the same time, Lebanese leaders are afraid of a confrontation, and in practice allow Hizbollah to operate against Israel in a “bloodletting” effort, while stressing their inability to restrain the organization. When Israel responds against Lebanon, the Lebanese leadership uses its good relations with Western countries, in particular the United States and the moderate Arab countries, to exert pressure on Israel not to harm it.

This phenomenon was evidenced in prominent fashion on July 12, 2006. In a Cabinet discussion held after the serious consequences of that day’s Hizbollah operation became clear, then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz proposed attacking infrastructure installations in Lebanon, including electric plants, oil refineries, and water sources. His suggestion was supported by a number of ministers. However, the senior political echelon, and in particular the prime minister, defense minister, and minister of foreign affairs, vetoed the idea. The reason: unequivocal clarifications received by Israel that very same day from senior levels in the American administration and the British government to the effect that Israel must refrain from damaging Lebanese targets [1] because this might undermine the stability of the pro-Western government headed by Fouad Siniora. Consequently, the proposal was shelved.

We lack adequate tools to assess whether that proposal, if implemented, would have generated an essentially different outcome from the events of July-August 2006. Nonetheless, it is clear that an American-British veto of this option stemmed from the fact that the official government in Lebanon was pro-Western and enjoyed the support of the United States. The fact that Israel was not able to exercise the option to attack Lebanon represents a significant constraint on Israel’s freedom to maneuver.

Should Hizbollah in fact take control of Lebanon, Israel’s options of maneuvering vis-à-vis Hizbollah are significantly increased. It will become clear to all sides that no international element will get involved to protect Hizbollah from Israeli attacks. Obviously, this does not mean that Israel would necessarily attack Lebanon’s infrastructure should Hizbollah cast down the gauntlet. Beyond international constraints, the Israeli leadership also has to contend with a set of legal and normative, value-based constraints and restrictions that would make it very difficult indeed for Israel to take steps against civilian infrastructure.[2] This has become clear in Israel’s refraining from damaging the electrical and fuel infrastructures of the Gaza Strip under Hamas control. At the same time, there is no doubt that Hizbollah’s taking control of Lebanon would expand Israel’s ability to maneuver vis-à-vis Lebanon in case of another armed conflict, at least from the international perspective.

From Israel’s own perspective, Hizbollah is first and foremost a body representing a military threat against Israel. However, Hizbollah is also a powerful body with economic and financial assets, and an organization with far-reaching political ambitions. Therefore, in any military confrontation with Israel, if Hizbollah holds the reins of leadership it would conclude that there is nothing stopping Israel from severely damaging its assets. The very awareness of this fact, i.e., that there would not be anyone trying to delimit Israel’s scope of action in terms of damaging Lebanon, may cause it to refrain from a confrontation with Israel.

Beyond this, one may speculate that Hizbollah’s taking control of Lebanon will bring about a new awareness on the part of various international elements of the “Iranian threat.” To date, the concerns of the international community regarding Iran have focused on its intention to develop nuclear capabilities. Hizbollah’s taking control of Lebanon would bring the danger inherent in Iran into sharper relief, not only regarding the nuclear question but also vis-à-vis the stability of other pro-Western regimes in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states. Such a development might very well match the interests of the State of Israel.

[1] Not only is this immaterial (for reasons which I will soon explain), but it’s also an audacious exaggeration.

Very few people know the exact phrasing of the back-channel US request/ demand/ recommendation/ “directive” on the scope of Israel’s operations. [Since when was Israel a shackled vassal to US/UK politics?] One would think that collateral damage to Lebanon was of secondary importance to winning the war.

More importantly, however, Lebanon 2006 was an Israeli tactical, strategic, intellectual and logistical catastrophe, from top to bottom. Had Hezbollah’s military bandwidth been stretched by the conflict, a Western “veto” of strikes on Hezbollah assets such as power generators, etc., could have borne culpability.

However, Hezbollah’s capabilities were not remotely stretched. Hezbollah didn’t even call up its own reserves!

The US Army has at least one detailed dissection of Israel’s Second Lebanon War, by Matt Matthews of the US Army Combined Arms Center. It could be that politics could have obscured the mention of retrospectively adverse US “directives” in an Army study. That isn’t consistent with Army practice, but I will concede it for the sake of argument.

[2] is long-hand for, “We base our policy on what others think of us, not on what we believe best for our country; and anyway, our culture just doesn’t let us win wars anymore.” “One may speculate” that Israel has completely lost its martial vigor as well as touch with reality. But Nasrallah’s and Ahmadinejad’s vindication is no matter of speculation.

Without further ado, here’s a representative US Army assessment of Lebanon 2006:

[p. 25-26]

… Brigadier General Shimon Naveh’s Systemic Operational Design (SOD) was a tool intended to help IDF commanders plan their campaigns. Naveh founded the IDF’s Operational Theory Research Institute (OTRI) in 1995. After years of work by Naveh and other intellectuals within the OTRI, SOD attempted to provide commanders with the aptitude necessary “to think critically, systemically and methodologically about 25 war fighting.” The design focused “on the concept of the ‘enemy’ and provides operational commanders with tools to conceptualize both their enemies and themselves for the purpose of designing suitable campaigns,” wrote a former OTRI member.38

Canadian Army officer L. Craig Dalton, who interviewed Naveh in 2006, described SOD as an “intellectual exercise that draws on the creative vision, experience, intuition, and judgment of commanders to provide a framework for the development of detailed operational plans.”39 For this new design, Naveh drew heavily on terminology from “post modern French philosophy, literary theory, architecture and psychology.” An IDF general explained SOD in the following way:

This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret the alley as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his trap. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. . . . This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls. . . . Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing.40

For the IDF, the major problem with SOD was the new terminology and methodology. Not every officer in the IDF had the time or the inclination to study postmodern French philosophy. It was questionable whether the majority of IDF officers would grasp a design that Naveh proclaimed was “not intended for ordinary mortals.”41 Many IDF officers thought the entire program elitist, while others could not understand why the old system of simple orders and terminology was being replaced by a design that few could understand.42

After several alterations and revisions, the new IDF doctrine was endorsed and signed by the new Chief of the IDF General Staff, Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, in April 2006. Halutz was the fi rst IAF officer ever appointed Chief of the IDF General Staff. On the first page of the document, Halutz wrote, “Familiarity with and use of the concept of operation are the key to our success in warfare, in which the only option available is victory. Therefore, the commanding offi cers of the IDF must understand, assimilate and implement what is written there when they call their forces into action and prepare them for their goal.”43 It is possible that not even Halutz understood the new doctrine he endorsed and signed. Naveh explained that the “core of this document is the theory of SOD.”

[p. 37]

Halutz convinced Olmert and Peretz that Israel should strike back against Hezbollah and the Lebanese central government with a substantial air campaign. The plan was not designed to directly or fully crush Hezbollah’s capabilities but to produce “effects” that would force Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon and cause them to disarm.14 Halutz proposed an immense air strike against “symbolic” Lebanese targets and Hezbollah’s military resources. The plan also called for targeted strikes against Hezbollah’s military and political leadership. “His idea,” Naveh stated, “was that . . . we hit all these targets [and] Hezbollah will collapse as a military organization. No one really believed that the Lebanese government was in position to really pressure Hezbollah. The idea was that Hezbollah would give up and then everybody would go home happy. Again, the idea was to change something in the equation; to change the conditions by forcing them to become political and abandon the military option.”15 Hezbollah, however, had prepared for an effects-based campaign, and the Lebanese government was too weak and incapable of challenging Hezbollah. There was simply no lever to pull that would cause Hezbollah to crumple.16

While some Israeli politicians and IDF officers were skeptical of Halutz’s campaign plan, he failed to effectively address or present their doubts to Olmert and Peretz. The Winograd Report maintains Halutz did not reveal substantial deficiencies in the ground forces that may well thwart the success of their mission. Furthermore, he did not adequately address the fact that the military’s own assessment indicated ground operations would most likely be warranted.17

The stage was now set to reveal to the world what one Israeli writer described as “a witches brew of high tech fantasies and basic unpreparedness.”18 …

[p. 45]

… A general on Hulutz’s staff told a reporter on 22 July that “The goal is not necessarily to eliminate every Hezbollah rocket. What we must do is disrupt the military logic of Hezbollah. I would say that this is still not a matter of days away.” Many ground commanders were stunned by the remark and questioned the true aims of the war.10

On the same day the IDF reserve forces were called to duty, Israel was forced to request an emergency resupply of precision-guided missiles from the United States. In 10 days, the IAF had used up most of its high-tech munitions, and yet, this huge expenditure of weaponry did little to change Hezbollah’s “military logic” or its fighting capability. Mossad was already gathering information to leak to the press on 28 July, indicating “Hezbollah had not suffered a significant degradation in its military capabilities, and that the organization might be able to carry on the conflict for several months.”11

… Hezbollah Secretary- Undeterred by the failure of the air campaign and stiff Hezbollah resistance, Halutz and his staff continued efforts to secure a “consciousness of victory” and to deliver to Hezbollah a “cognitive perception of defeat.” …General Nasrallah had delivered his well-known victory speech in Bint Jbeil after the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Halutz asserted that capturing the town would prove symbolic and “create a spectacle of victory.” This “spectacle of victory” was undoubtedly designed to effect the cognitive perception of Hezbollah. In the end, however, the battle for Bint Jbeil would have a great deal more effect on the Israeli public’s perception of the IDF’s professionalism and judgment.13 …

… Halutz ordered Adams to “conquer Bint Jbeil” with just one battalion. Adam was infuriated and quickly reminded his commander that “the casbah [old quarter] of Bint Jbail alone contained more than 5,000 houses. And you want me to send in one battalion?” …

[p. 50]

By 5 August, the IDF had approximately 10,000 soldiers in southern Lebanon. In three weeks of war, the ground forces managed to penetrate no farther than four miles. Remarkably, the border zone remained unsecured, as were the towns of Maroun al Ras and Bint Jbeil.34 Yet, the entire Hezbollah force south of the Litani consisted of only 3,000 fighters. Unlike the IDF, Hezbollah did not call on its sizable reserve forces and chose to fight the entire war south of the Litani with its original force of 3,000 men.35 For Israel and the IDF, there was still no “spectacle of victory” or any sign of Hezbollah’s impending defeat. …

… Knowing full well that the war would be over in days and the old border reestablished, Olmert and Peretz made the decision to expand the 52 war effort by ordering their divisions north to the Litani. It was perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes of the war. While the reasoning for the offensive maneuver remains clouded, the move was clearly not designed to annihilate Hezbollah. Ron Tira was certain that “at no point was an order given to systemically and comprehensively deal with the rockets or Hezbollah.”40 It would appear that the IDF was still following Halutz’s “raid” strategy, albeit this time with divisions instead of battalions and brigades.41 Senior IDF officers would later state that the operation was designed as a “Battle of Awareness against Hizbollah.” Others thought the operation was designed as “a kind of show designed to demonstrate to Hizbollah who is the Boss.”42

I’m guessing that my long-term readers have been driven to nausea from my endless ruminations on Lebanon. However, this will go a long way to explaining future US policy shifts away from Israel.

The INSS is presumably a respected and connected part of the Israeli nonprofit think-tank apparatus. While Dan “Derrida” Halutz may have been thrown on his sword, the intellectual arrogance exemplified by Halutz continues to rule Israeli strategy in Halutz’s stead. Not only that, but Israeli commentators (beyond this one) have the chutzpah to blame the United States for such dereliction!

In other news, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah today gave his blessing to “all the resistance fighters in Iraq.” Including, presumably, al Qaeda.

Here’s to Israel.

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Soros must be fuming that he dumped commodities and called a bottom in equities when he did.

Soros’s public pronouncements are consistently somewhat at odds with how he actually invests. (He couldn’t have made money any other way; the track record of his public pronouncements is awful.) This instance, presumably, is no exception.

Not that he has any other viable choice.

George Soros: rocketing oil price is a bubble

By Edmund Conway, Economics Editor

Last Updated: 12:53am BST 27/05/2008

Speculators are largely responsible for driving crude prices to their peaks in recent weeks and the record oil price now looks like a bubble, George Soros has warned.

The billionaire investor’s comments came only days after the oil price soared to a record high of $135 a barrel amid speculation that crude could soon be catapulted towards the $200 mark.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Soros said that although the weak dollar, ebbing Middle Eastern supply and record Chinese demand could explain some of the increase in energy prices, the crude oil market had been significantly affected by speculation.

“Speculation… is increasingly affecting the price,” he said. “The price has this parabolic shape which is characteristic of bubbles,” he said.

  • ‘We face the most serious recession of our lifetime’
  • The comments are significant, not only because Mr Soros is the world’s most prominent hedge fund investor but also because many experts have claimed speculation is only a minor factor affecting crude prices.

    Oil prices stalled on Friday after their biggest one-day jump since the first Gulf War earlier in the week.

    At just over $130 a barrel, the price has doubled in around a year, causing misery for motorists and businesses.

    However, Mr Soros warned that the oil bubble would not burst until both the US and Britain were in recession, after which prices could fall dramatically.

    “You can also anticipate that [the bubble] will eventually correct but that is unlikely to happen before the recession actually reduces the demand.

    “The rise in the price of oil and food is going to weigh and aggravate the recession.”

    The Bank of England recently warned that soaring energy and food costs would push inflation above its target range for most of the next 18 months, making it more unlikely that it will cut borrowing costs soon.

    Mr Soros warns Britain is facing its worst economic storm in living memory, dwarfing those of the 1970s and early 1990s, with a housing slump and serious recession.

    He said: “The dislocations will be greater [than in the 1970s] because you also have the implications of the house price decline, which you didn’t have in the 1970s.”

    The warning undermines predictions that Britain will suffer only a brief and relatively painless recession, unlike the precipitous dives of previous years.

    Mr Soros also warned that the Bank’s inflation report represents a “Faustian pact”, obliging it to keep interest rates high to control inflation, even as the economy is starting to slump.

    “You had the nice decade,” he said. “Now that is over and you are in a straitjacket.”

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    Hezbollah’s coup was formalized with Gen. Michel Suleiman’s election today as president of Lebanon. Suleiman directly disobeyed Fouad Siniora’s orders to put down the Hezbollah coup. Siniora and Hariri are finished politically. Druzes and Maronites associated with the pro-Western majority leaders of their factions face dhimmitude and gradual tribal exile.

    Western media may, for a time, parrot Jerusalem’s jaw-dropping chutzpah and insist that Hezbollah was weakened by this confrontation. Liberals, unfortunately, often invent ludicrous ex post facto justifications for refusing to stand up to hostile force.

    Didn’t kill enough looters in Iraq immediately after the occupation? “Well, the occupation would have been so much more dysfunctional otherwise!”

    Positive results of the surge? “That was because the mixed neighborhoods were already totally cleansed anyway, there was no more cleansing to be done!” [Uh. OK.]

    Bill Richardson’s hilarious Darfur negotiations broke down immediately after he left? “You don’t know that! He got them to promise a cease-fire–even you would admit that’s better than nothing, right?” [No, because it makes us look naively stupid, as well as impotent.]

    No progress on North Korean nukes? “Bush’s “appeasenik” North Korea policy was so much more successful than the Iraq quagmire!” [Actually, it was a combination of NK bluffing the whole way, combined with the threat of fatal Chinese sanctions for significant misbehavior, that are bringing in North Korea from the cold.]

    Iran runs the Middle East since we consistently backed down from confronting them? [“splutter… peace process … Palestinians … splutter splutter”]

    No doubt, liberals will issue similar pacifism-queered ex post propaganda convincing themselves that, really, Hezbollah lost the world by winning Lebanon. The 101st Appeaseniks must bridge the gap between their relentless egomania and the reality that their cult of peace has, once again, proven an embarrassing failure.

    However, a lot of us understand what happened. Israel shirked its near-term obligations for much more extinction a few years down the road. American warships were directly off the Lebanese coast, ready to provide electronic support to Israeli columns.

    Mainstream Israeli political coverage is no more predictive than American political coverage. It’s a long-running soap opera in which the best bet — at all times — is against the mainstream media consensus.

    The drama of Olmert’s latest trial apparently involves piddling amounts of money transferred between a US Jewish financier, Morris Talansky, and Olmert himself. Presumably this represents an attempted power grab by pro-Likud elements within the Israeli prosecutorial apparatus. More importantly, though, the trial doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

    It’s one thing for Americans, who are so far away from these tribal feuds, to be ignorant of foreign affairs. Israelis, however, seem no less, if not far more naive about prospects for peace than their American counterparts, judging by the popularity of Tzipi Livni’s born-again pacifism. It says a lot about how insulated many Israelis are from Israeli “crises” which inundate Western media.

    In any case, in the United States, money talks — more than ever. Israel has less of it than ever, the Arabs more. The neoconservatives lost public credibility years ago, but at this point, they’ve lost credibility with everyone. The Arabists will be running the show from here on out.

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    … underwritten by PIMCO’s Bill Gross.

    Just in time for the huge TIPS burp a couple of nights ago, when massive buying pushed the 5-year TIPS yield down to -.77.

    I’ve been a huge fan of the SS hypothesis for a long time, so it’s good to see the world’s biggest fixed income guru practically copy-paste from the Shadow Stats website for his latest letter.

    Without further ado:

    What this country needs is either a good 5¢ cigar or the reincarnation of an Illinois “rail-splitter” willing to tell the American people “what up” – “what really up.” We have for so long now been willing to be entertained rather than informed, that we more or less accept majority opinion, perpetually shaped by ratings obsessed media, at face value. After 12 months of an endless primary campaign barrage, for instance, most of us believe that a candidate’s preacher – Democrat or Republican – should be a significant factor in how we vote. We care more about who’s going to be eliminated from this week’s American Idol than the deteriorating quality of our healthcare system. Alternative energy discussion takes a bleacher’s seat to the latest foibles of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears and then we wonder why gas is four bucks a gallon. We care as much as we always have – we just care about the wrong things: entertainment, as opposed to informed choices; trivia vs. hardcore ideological debate.

    It’s Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum folks, and all good fun, but the hordes are crossing the Alps and headed for modern day Rome – better educated, harder working, and willing to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. Can it be any wonder that an estimated 1% of America’s wealth migrates into foreign hands every year? We, as a people, are overweight, poorly educated, overindulged, and imbued with such a sense of self importance on a geopolitical scale, that our allies are dropping like flies. “Yes we can?” Well, if so, then the “we” is the critical element, not the leader that will be chosen in November. Let’s get off the couch and shape up – physically, intellectually, and institutionally – and begin to make some informed choices about our future. Lincoln didn’t say it, but might have agreed, that the worst part about being fooled is fooling yourself, and as a nation, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that for a long time now.

    I’ll tell you another area where we’ve been foolin’ ourselves and that’s the belief that inflation is under control. I laid out the case three years ago in an Investment Outlook titled, “Haute Con Job.” I wasn’t an inflationary Paul Revere or anything, but I joined others in arguing that our CPI numbers were not reflecting reality at the checkout counter. In the ensuing four years, the debate has been joined by the press and astute authors such as Kevin Phillips whose recent Bad Money is as good a summer read detailing the state of the economy and how we got here as an “informed” American could make.

    Let me reacquaint you with the debate about the authenticity of U.S. inflation calculations by presenting two ten-year graphs – one showing the ups and downs of year-over-year price changes for 24 representative foreign countries, and the other, the same time period for the U.S. An observer’s immediate take is that there are glaring differences, first in terms of trend and second in the actual mean or average of the 2 calculations. These representative countries, chosen and graphed by Ed Hyman and ISI, have averaged nearly 7% inflation for the past decade, while the U.S. has measured 2.6%. The most recent 12 months produces that same 7% number for the world but a closer 4% in the U.S.

    This, dear reader, looks a mite suspicious. Sure, inflation was legitimately much higher in selected hot spots such as Brazil and Vietnam in the late 90s and the U.S. productivity “miracle” may have helped reduce ours a touch compared to some of the rest, but the U.S. dollar over the same period has declined by 30% against a currency basket of its major competitors which should have had an opposite effect, everything else being equal. I ask you: does it make sense that we have a 3% – 4% lower rate of inflation than the rest of the world? Can economists really explain this with their contorted Phillips curve, output gap, multifactor productivity theorizing in an increasingly globalized “one price fits all” commodity driven global economy? I suspect not. Somebody’s been foolin’, perhaps foolin’ themselves – I don’t know. This isn’t a conspiracy blog and there are too many statisticians and analysts at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Treasury with rapid turnover to even think of it. I’m just concerned that some of the people are being fooled all of the time and that as an investor, an accurate measure of inflation makes a huge difference.

    The U.S. seems to differ from the rest of the world in how it computes its inflation rate in three primary ways: 1) hedonic quality adjustments, 2) calculations of housing costs via owners’ equivalent rent, and 3) geometric weighting/product substitution. The changes in all three areas have favored lower U.S. inflation and have taken place over the past 25 years, the first occurring in 1983 with the BLS decision to modify the cost of housing. It was claimed that a measure based on what an owner might get for renting his house would more accurately reflect the real world – a dubious assumption belied by the experience of the past 10 years during which the average cost of homes has appreciated at 3x the annual pace of the substituted owners’ equivalent rent (OER), and which would have raised the total CPI by approximately 1% annually if the switch had not been made.

    In the 1990s the U.S. CPI was subjected to three additional changes that have not been adopted to the same degree (or at all) by other countries, each of which resulted in downward adjustments to our annual inflation rate. Product substitution and geometric weighting both presumed that more expensive goods and services would be used less and substituted with their less costly alternatives: more hamburger/less filet mignon when beef prices were rising, for example. In turn, hedonic quality adjustments accelerated in the late 1990s paving the way for huge price declines in the cost of computers and other durables. As your new model MAC or PC was going up in price by a hundred bucks or so, it was actually going down according to CPI calculations because it was twice as powerful. Hmmmmm? Bet your wallet didn’t really feel as good as the BLS did.

    In 2004, I claimed that these revised methodologies were understating CPI by perhaps 1% annually and therefore overstating real GDP growth by close to the same amount. Others have actually tracked the CPI that “would have been” based on the good old fashioned way of calculation. The results are not pretty, but are undisclosed here because I cannot verify them. Still, the differences in my 10-year history of global CPI charts are startling, aren’t they? This in spite of a decade of financed-based, securitized, reflationary policies in the U.S. led by the public and private sector and a declining dollar. Hmmmmm?

    In addition, Fed policy has for years focused on “core” as opposed to “headline” inflation, a concept actually initiated during the Nixon Administration to offset the sudden impact of OPEC and $12 a barrel oil prices! For a few decades the logic of inflation’s mean reversion drew a fairly tight fit between the two measures, but now in a chart shared frequently with PIMCO’s Investment Committee by Mohamed El-Erian, the divergence is beginning to raise questions as to whether “headline” will ever drop below “core” for a sufficiently long period of time to rebalance the two. Global commodity depletion and a tightening of excess labor as argued in El-Erian’s recent Secular Outlook summary suggest otherwise.

    The correct measure of inflation matters in a number of areas, not the least of which are social security payments and wage bargaining adjustments. There is no doubt that an artificially low number favors government and corporations as opposed to ordinary citizens. But the number is also critical in any estimation of bond yields, stock prices, and commercial real estate cap rates. If core inflation were really 3% instead of 2%, then nominal bond yields might logically be 1% higher than they are today, because bond investors would require more compensation. And although the Gordon model for the valuation of stocks and real estate would stress “real” as opposed to nominal inflation additive yields, today’s acceptance of an artificially low CPI in the calculation of nominal bond yields in effect means that real yields – including TIPS – are 1% lower than believed. If real yields move higher to compensate, with a constant equity risk premium, then U.S. P/E ratios would move lower. A readjustment of investor mentality in the valuation of all three of these investment categories – bonds, stocks, and real estate – would mean a downward adjustment of price of maybe 5% in bonds and perhaps 10% or more in U.S. stocks and commercial real estate.

    A skeptic would wonder whether the U.S. asset-based economy can afford an appropriate repricing or the BLS was ever willing to entertain serious argument on the validity of CPI changes that differed from the rest of the world during the heyday of market-based capitalism beginning in the early 1980s. It perhaps was better to be “entertained” with the notion of artificially low inflation than to be seriously “informed.” But just as many in the global economy are refusing to mimic the American-style fixation with superficialities in favor of hard work and legitimate disclosure, investors might suddenly awake to the notion that U.S. inflation should be and in fact is closer to worldwide levels than previously thought. Foreign holders of trillions of dollars of U.S. assets are increasingly becoming price makers not price takers and in this case the price may not be right. Hmmmmm?

    What are the investment ramifications? With global headline inflation now at 7% there is a need for new global investment solutions, a role that PIMCO is more than willing (and able) to provide. In this role we would suggest: 1) Treasury bonds are obviously not to be favored because of their negative (unreal) real yields. 2) U.S. TIPS, while affording headline CPI protection, risk the delusion of an artificially low inflation number as well. 3) On the other hand, commodity-based assets as well as foreign equities whose P/Es are better grounded with local CPI and nominal bond yield comparisons should be excellent candidates. 4) These assets should in turn be denominated in currencies that demonstrate authentic real growth and inflation rates, that while high, at least are credible. 5) Developing, BRIC-like economies are obvious choices for investment dollars.

    Investment success depends on an ability to anticipate the herd, ride with it for a substantial period of time, and then begin to reorient portfolios for a changing world. Today’s world, including its inflation rate, is changing. Being fooled some of the time is no sin, but being fooled all of the time is intolerable. Join me in lobbying for change in U.S. leadership, the attitude of its citizenry, and (to the point of this Outlook) the market’s assumption of low relative U.S. inflation in comparison to our global competitors.

    William H. Gross
    Managing Director

    The SS hypothesis extends to unemployment statistics, as well. In most European economies, anyone unemployed between 19 and 55 years of age is apparently counted as unemployed. The massive graduate education and “nonprofit” apparatus in the United States (Peace Corps, Teach for America, etc) means that many Americans who are effectively unemployed — and who often use such institutions to say that they “have something to do” — are not counted as such.

    When you add up all the American distortions, the US economy expressed in European metrics comes to approximately 7 percent inflation, 8 percent unemployment, and very low growth.

    Which begs the question of what European governments do to cook their own books, which is something I can’t know. Gold-buggery seems to be an overwhelmingly American phenomenon, and virtually all research into effective gold price support has come from Americans, which means that the CPI-skeptic worldview is very familiar with the nuances of American book-cooking, but not at all familiar with European equivalents.

    However, European bonds are not nearly the economic anchor that American fixed income and equities prices are.

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    Apparently luck had it that every single Chinese ADR, and more than a few others, trooped to the United States to make their pitches to US investors. I got to listen to more than a few of them over the past four days (one reason why the post count has run low).

    American institutional investors are quite concerned about the post-Olympic dampening effect, and are also concerned about inflation. The CFOs I talked to informed me that their internal inflation forecasts are running in the 12 to 15 percent range, basically dependent upon whether they think China’s price blowout (recently concentrated in food) is permanent or transitory.

    While the meteoric increase in food prices has abated somewhat, oil and metals have gotten worse. Chinese manufacturers, refiners, and banks are eating fierce losses. The distribution of said losses among the three groups is unclear, but the existence of enormous losses is a matter of fact.

    The CFOs I talked to generally represented IT companies, which are heavily insulated from raw materials inflation, if not wage inflation. I would imagine the outlook at more BTU-intensive companies is significantly worse.

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    Shortage fears push oil futures near $140

    By Carola Hoyos and Javier Blas in London

    Published: May 20 2008 19:06 | Last updated: May 21 2008 00:52

    Fears of a shortage within five years propelled long-term oil futures prices to almost $140 a barrel on Tuesday, further stoking inflationary pressures in the global economy.

    Investors rushed to buy oil futures contracts as far forward as December 2016, pushing their prices as high as $139.50 a barrel, up more than $9.50 on the day. The spot price hit a record $129.60 a barrel.

    Veteran traders said they had never seen such a jump and said investors were increasingly betting that oil production would soon peak because of geopolitical and geological constraints.

    Neil McMahon, of Sanford Bernstein, said: “Peak oil views – regardless of whether right or wrong – are seeping into the market and supporting high prices.”

    Anne-Louise Hittle, of Wood Mackenzie, added that investors were shifting their focus from the short-term to the medium-term, where supply fears played a bigger role. Since January, long-term futures oil contracts, such as those for delivery in 2016, have jumped almost 60 per cent, while near-term prices have gone up 35 per cent.

    That trend was exacerbated by T. Boone Pickens, the influential investor who believes world oil production is about to peak as aging fields run dry. He warned that oil prices would hit $150 a barrel by the end of the year.

    “Eighty-five million barrels of oil a day is all the world can produce, and the demand is 87m,” Mr Pickens told CNBC. “It’s just that simple.”

    Mr Pickens’s view is still in the minority in the oil industry. But concerns over future oil supplies are fast moving into the mainstream and influencing investors.

    Politicians have expressed concern that speculators are forcing prices higher and Joseph Lieberman, the influential senator, said he was considering legislation to limit big institutional investors in commodities markets.

    Some energy executives have warned that geopolitical supply constraints will mean production will not be able to match demand as early as 2012 to 2015.

    This comes as demand, especially from China, is set to continue to grow, while that of the US slows. Adam Sieminski, chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank, said: “The price is going to go up until governments that subsidise oil consumption in Asia and the Middle East can no longer afford it.”

    So far China is doing the opposite, having recently retrenched subsidies. Analysts say Chinese demand could surge further as the country faces shortages of coal and hydropower.

    Nervousness about Chinese energy demand was exacerbated on Tuesday when officials said 32 power plants had been forced to close because of coal shortages.

    PetroChina and Sinopec, the two biggest domestic oil groups, also have diverted fuel supplies to the quake-hit Sichuan region.

    Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Beijing

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    lolol…

    The brand spanking new Airbus 340-600, the largest passenger airplane ever built, sat in its hangar in Toulouse, France without a single hour of airtime.  Enter the Arab flight crew of Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies (ADAT) to conduct pre-delivery tests on the ground, such as engine runups, prior to delivery to Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi.  The date was November 15, 2007.

    The ADAT crew taxied the A340-600 to the run-up area. Then they took all four engines to takeoff power with a virtually empty aircraft.  Not having read the run-up manuals, they had no clue just how light an empty A340-600 really is.

    The takeoff warning horn was blaring away in the cockpit because they had all 4 engines at full power. The aircraft computers thought they were trying to takeoff but it had not been configured properly (flaps/slats, etc.) Then one of the ADAT crew decided to pull the circuit breaker on the Ground Proximity Sensor to silence the alarm.

    This fools the aircraft into thinking it is in the air.

    The computers automatically released all the brakes and set the aircraft rocketing forward. The ADAT crew had no idea that this is a safety feature so that pilots can’t land with the brakes on.

    Not one member of the seven-man Arab crew was smart enough to throttle back the engines from their max power setting, so the $80 million brand-new aircraft crashed into a blast barrier, totaling it.

    The extent of injuries to the crew is unknown, for there has been a news blackout in the major media in France and elsewhere.  Coverage of the story was deemed insulting to Moslem Arabs.  Finally, the photos are starting to leak out.

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    via

    Sunday night, May 11, the Israeli army was poised to strike Hizballah. The Shiite militia was winding up its takeover of West Beirut and battling pro-government forces in the North. When he opened the regular cabinet meeting Sunday, May 11, prime minister Ehud Olmert had already received the go-ahead from Washington for a military strike to halt the Hizballah advance. The message said that President George W. Bush would not call off his visit to Israel to attend its 60th anniversary celebrations and would arrive as planned Wednesday, May 14 – even if the Israeli army was still fighting in Lebanon and Hizballah struck back against Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport.

    American intelligence estimated that Hizballah was capable of retaliating against northern Israel at the rate of 600 missiles a day.

    Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Lvini, the only ministers in the picture, decided not to intervene in Lebanon’s civil conflict. Iran’s surrogate army consequently waltzed unchecked to its second victory in two years over the United States and Israel.

    DEBKAfile’s US and military sources disclose the arguments Washington marshaled to persuade Israel to go ahead: Hizballah, after its electronic trackers had learned from the Israel army’s communication and telephone networks that not a single troop or tank was on the move, took the calculated risk of transferring more than 5,000 armed men from the South to secure the capture of West Beirut.

    This presented a rare moment to take Hizballah by surprise, Washington maintained. The plan outlined in Washington was for the Israeli Air force to bombard Hizballah’s positions in the South, the West and southern Beirut. This would give the pro-government Christian, Sunni and Druze forces the opening for a counter-attack. Israeli tanks would simultaneously drive into the South and head towards Beirut in two columns.

    1. The western column would take the Tyre-Sidon-Damour-Beirut coastal highway.

    2. The eastern column would press north through Nabatiya, Jezzine, Ain Zchalta and Alei.

    Sunday night, Olmert called Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora and his allies, the Sunni majority leader Saad Hariri, head of the mainline Druze party Walid Jumblatt and Christian Phalanges chief Samir Geagea and informed them there would be no Israeli strike against Hizballah. Jerusalem would not come to their aid.

    According to American sources, the pro-Western front in Beirut collapsed then and there, leaving Hizballah a free path to victory. The recriminations from Washington sharpened day by day and peaked with President Bush’s arrival in Israel.

    Our sources report that, behind the protestations of undying American friendship and camaraderie shown in public by the US president, prime minister and Shimon Peres, Bush and his senior aides bitterly reprimanded Israel for its passivity in taking up the military challenge and crushing an avowed enemy in Lebanon.

    While the president was busy with ceremonies and speeches, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley took Israeli officials to task. Hadley in particular bluntly blamed Israel for the downfall of the pro-Western government bloc in Beirut and its surrender to the pro-Iranian, Pro-Syrian Hizballah. If Israeli forces had struck Hizballah gunmen wile on the move, he said, Hassan Nasrallah would not have seized Beirut and brought the pro-government militias to their knees.

    One US official said straight out to Olmert and Barak: For two years, you didn’t raise a finger when Hizballah took delivery of quantities of weapons, including missiles, from Iran and Syria. You did not interfere with Hizballah’s military buildup in southern Lebanon then or its capture of Beirut now.

    IDF generals who were present at these conversations reported they have never seen American officials so angry or outspoken. Israel’s original blunder, they said, was its intelligence misreading of Hizballah’s first belligerent moves on May 4. At that point, Israel’s government military heads decided not to interfere, after judging those moves to be unthreatening.

    The Americans similarly criticizes Israel for letting Hamas get away with its daily rocket and missile attacks on Israel civilians year after year. A blow to Hizballah would have deterred Hamas from exercising blackmail tactics for a ceasefire. In Sharm el-Sheikh Sunday, May 18, President Bush called on Middle East countries to confront Hamas and isolate terror-sponsors Iran and Syria.

    Familiar fecklessness, indeed. We now know what the “miscalculation” was — the pro-Western Lebanese banked on Israel to back them up. But no: Olmert has an election to win. If Lebanese Sunni and Druze, and American soldiers in Iraq, need to die because because Jewish boys are just too precious… well, that’s the problem of the goyim, not the Jews, right? This will not be forgotten.

    At least Rice doesn’t have her head as deep in the sand as I thought.

    Either Israel knifed us–big time–or the Israeli government’s corrosive dereliction, entitlement mentality , and serial incompetence have infected the core of their intelligence apparatus.

    Oh, yeah–it also shows whom Bush was really referring to in his “appeasement” speech last week. Definitely not Obama, probably not Carter, absolutely Olmert.

    I guess the Israeli media is too stupid and/or sycophantic to point out that “inconvenient truth.” A democracy at face value only, indeed.

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    The credit crisis has separated true libertarians from phony libertarians, and separated true liberals from phony liberals.

    The phony liberals have inadvertently mocked themselves throughout the entire credit crisis, manning the barricades to defend the greatest act of socialism for the rich in US history. Ditto for supposed “libertarians,” eg Robert Rubin, Bruce Kovner, and the vast majority of institutional Wall Street which found itself drowning in its own quagmire, and changed their tune faster than you can say “WTF.”

    Anyway, here’s the link.

    The editorial in question is by Robert J. Shiller, who is a professor of economics and finance and famous analyst of speculative bubbles. A specialist in behavioral economics, in the application of psychology to understanding financial markets. A co-founder of Case Shiller Weiss, that house price index we talk about a lot. His editorial, “The Scars of Losing a Home,” speaks not of lofty academic economic concepts but of human sympathy, of things that are “really important.” With references from famous academic psychologists. I haven’t taken this kind of a tiger by the tail since I went after Austan Goolsbee last year.

    Yes, it was only a year ago that the distinguished Dr. Goolsbee wrote this on the same editorial page:

    And do not forget that the vast majority of even subprime borrowers have been making their payments. Indeed, fewer than 15 percent of borrowers in this most risky group have even been delinquent on a payment, much less defaulted.

    When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.

    For be it ever so humble, there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.

    I actually think Goolsbee’s piece was the high-water-mark of the “subprime helps the poor” talking point. You certainly don’t hear much about that these days. Less than two months after Dr. Goolsbee’s earnest op-ed, we got an interview in the very same NYT with one Bill Dallas, CEO of the famously defunct Ownit Mortgage, effusively testifying to his own burning desire to help out the unfortunate in a way that finally put paid to the respectability of that line (“‘I am passionate about the normal person owning a home,’ said Mr. Dallas, who is also chairman of the Fox Sports Grill restaurant chain and manages the business interests of the Olsen twins. ‘I think owning a home solves all their problems.'”) Plus by now we’ve got some numbers on the 2007 mortgage vintage, the one that Dr. Goolsbee was afraid wasn’t going to ever materialize if we tightened up lending standards too much. A year ago we were looking at a 13% subprime ARM delinquency rate. Per Moody’s (no link) the Q4 07 subprime ARM delinquencies were running 20.02%. And that is not, you know, “just” another 7%. By now, those delinquent borrowers in Goolsbee’s 13% have probably mostly been foreclosed upon and are off the books. The 20% or so who are now delinquent were either part of the 87% that Goolsbee thought were “successful homeowners” last year, or else they’re those lucky duckies who bought homes after the publication date of Goolsbee’s plea that we not tighten standards too much.

    Of course Shiller wasn’t exactly spending his time a year ago defending the subprime mortgage industry on the grounds that it put poor and minority people into ever-so-humble homes with balloons attached. I seem to recall him mostly arguing that homebuyers were engaged in a speculative mania. In a June 2007 interview:

    Well, human thinking is built around stories, and the story that has sustained the housing boom is that homes are like stocks. Buy one anywhere and it’ll go up. It’s the easiest way to get rich.

    At the time, that kind of statement struck some of us, at least, as not possibly the entire story either, but in any event a useful corrective to the saccharine silliness of the “Ownership Society” and Bill Dallas solving everyone’s problems by letting them put Roots in a Community (for only five points in YSP).

    So I hope I can be just a tad startled by the New Shiller:

    Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.

    MAYBE that’s why President Bush’s “Ownership Society” theme had such resonance in his 2004 re-election campaign. People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it.

    So it’s no longer irrational exuberance or plain old speculating; it’s now an instinctive affirmation of some eternal verity of the human psyche? The ultimate patriotism: the definition of self so tied up in ownership of a slice of the motherland that to rent becomes not only psychologically dangerous–these people without selves can’t be up to anything good–but politically dangerous as well? Is it possible that Shiller can mean what he is writing here?

    If you just scanned the first few paragraphs of Shiller’s op-ed you might come away with the impression of a sincere but somewhat hackneyed plea for us all to have a bit of sympathy for the foreclosed among us, foreclosure not in anyone’s experience being a walk in the park. Fair enough. It being Sunday in America, I suspect millions of us are being treated to exhortations to take a kinder view of the unfortunate than we often do; we need those exhortations; we are often lacking in sympathy. Hands up all who disagree.

    But you keep reading and you find Shiller trying to explain the “trauma” of foreclosure. And that’s where this really gets weird:

    Now, let’s take the other perspective — and examine some arguments against the stern view. They have to do with the psychological effects of strict enforcement of a mortgage contract, and economists and people in business may need to be reminded of them. After all, too much attention to abstract economic statistics just might make us overlook what is really important.

    First, we have to consider that we cannot squarely place the blame for the current mortgage mess on the homeowner. It seems to be shared among mortgage brokers, mortgage originators, appraisers, regulatory agencies, securities ratings agencies, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the United States (who did not issue any warnings, but instead has consistently extolled the virtues of homeownership).

    Because homeowners facing foreclosure must bear the brunt of the pain, they naturally feel indignation when all of these other parties continue to lead comfortable, even affluent lives. Trying to enforce mortgage contracts may thus have a perverse effect: instead of teaching homeowners that they should respect the contracts they sign, it may incline them to take a cynical view of the whole mess.

    We need to modify mortgage contracts to keep homeowners from becoming cynical? That’s somehow more respectable an idea than the one saying we should throw them out on the street to “teach them a lesson”? If Shiller is serious that all those other parties are “to blame,” then why isn’t the obvious solution to throw them out on the street? There seems to be an assumption here that nothing can be done to punish those who are “really” to blame, so we’re left managing the psyches of those who can be punished. And that’s not cynical?

    This the point at which Shiller dredges up the most stunningly unfortunate quote from William effing James (1890) to define the “fundamental” psychology of homeownership:

    Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country. The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    Now, that’s breath-taking. Horses. Yachts. His wife and his children. Ancestors. The whole late-Victorian wealthy male WASP defining the “Self” (with a capital!) as the wealthy male WASP surveying his extensive possessions, an oddly-assorted list that ranks the family and friends somewhere after the clothes and the house. (Yes, James did that on purpose.) The kind of sentiment that was a caricature of the late-Victorian male even in 1890. And Shiller drags this out in aid of generating sympathy for homeowners? Really? You couldn’t find some psychological insight about the emotional relationship of people to their homes that doesn’t speak the language of the male ego surveying his domain, sizing himself up against all the other males to see where he ranks?

    (James on the psychological effect of losing one’s property: ” . . . although it is true that a part of our depression at the loss of possessions is due to our feeling that we must now go without certain goods that we expected the possessions to bring in their train, yet in every case there remains, over and above this, a sense of the shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness, which is a psychological phenomenon by itself. We are all at once assimilated to the tramps and poor devils whom we so despise, and at the same time removed farther than ever away from the happy sons of earth who lord it over land and sea and men in the full-blown lustihood that wealth and power can give, and before whom, stiffen ourselves as we will by appealing to anti-snobbish first principles, we cannot escape an emotion, open or sneaking, of respect and dread.”)

    I’m actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.

    It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin’ spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class “homeowner.” But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.

    It’s worse than odd–it’s downright reactionary–to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as “feel[ing] at one with [the] country.” This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller’s earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don’t get too “cynical.”

    I see that Yves at naked capitalism was just as disgusted by Shiller as I am:

    Now admittedly, this is not a validated instrument, but a widely used stress scoring test puts loss of spouse as 100 and divorce at 73. Foreclosure is 30, below sex difficulties (39), pregnancy (40), or personal injury (53). Change in residence is 20.

    Note that if we as a society were worried about psychological damage, being fired (47) is far worse than foreclosure (30), and if it leads to a change in financial status (38) and/or change to a different line of work (36) those are separate, additive stress factors. Yet policy-makers have no qualms about advocating more open trade even though it produces industry restructurings that produce unemployment that does more psychological damage than foreclosures. As a society, we’ll pursue efficiency that first cost blue collar jobs, and now that we’ve gotten inured to that, white collar ones as well (although Alan Blinder draws the line there).

    But efficiency arguments don’t apply to housing since we are sentimental about it. And it’s that sentimentality that bears examination, since it engendered policies that helped produce this mess.

    I would only add that we are about five years too far into a war that has not made a majority of us “feel at one with that country.” I think of another really important policy change we could be pursuing right now to shore up everyone’s psychological estrangement from their patriotic self-satisfaction. But “efficiency arguments” don’t apply to wars, either.

    My fellow bleeding heart liberals like Goolsbee found themselves defending the subprime industry in the name of increasing minority homeownership. Now we’re treated to the spectacle of Shiller arguing for homeowner bailout legislation in the same terms that Bush used to defend the “Ownership Society.” Housing policy, I gather, makes strange bedfellows. It certainly makes strange editorials.

    Shiller’s unwitting self-parody embodies the principle at the heart of the TAF and every other tentacle of the Wall Street bailout. Far more than “economist statistics which can cause us to lose sight of what’s really important,” what’s REALLY important is protection of those Selves which include “lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    You can *not* make this stuff up.

    Pardon my French, but our economy is being run by f*cking idiots.

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    Heh.

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    Iran has puzzled the global oil market by having 20 large tankers filled with crude oil. Why is Iran holding on to so much oil, given what a suppliers’ market oil is right now?

    Iranian oil is not just oil. It’s very “heavy”/ “dirty” oil. Iran could coagulate strategic parts of the Persian Gulf with massive dirty oil dumps, which would not only cripple mobility of American CBGs, but would also contaminate the Sunni sheikhdoms’ water desalinization facilities.

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    … [W]hen Bush was last in Riyadh in January, his appeals to the Saudi government to increase oil production were quickly, albeit politely, rebuffed, allowing his political opponents at home to criticize him and accuse him of “begging.”

    But this time around, a plan appears to have been in store between the Bush administration and the Saudi government. The Saudi announcement allows Bush to return home and claim that his influence worked in getting the Saudis to bend. In reality, however, an additional 300,000 bpd is unlikely to have much of a global impact on crude oil prices. …

    Moreover, Saudi Arabia took 300,000 bpd of its crude offline for maintenance back in April. This move was typical for the season, …. By mid-May, that cycle is complete, allowing major energy producers like Saudi Arabia to adjust their maintenance schedules accordingly. In all likelihood, Saudi Arabia has simply completed its own maintenance and was scheduled to bring 300,000 bpd back online anyway to meet the summer demand. …

    That would explain the announcement’s complete lack of impact on crude prices (I presume it was decided before close of markets today). Pure PR.

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    The entire economy of Iceland has come under massive speculative assault in the past several months, as the most ludicrous example of an overextended, overleveraged, underfunded European economy.

    As of December 2006, its rolling annual trade deficit was 26 percent of GDP. That has come down to “only” 15 percent as of January 2008.

    However, Iceland’s currency has bled 26 percent in the interim. Because Iceland is a tiny economy, adverse shifts in foreign exchange are telegraphed extremely rapidly to every corner of the economy.

    The central banks in Denmark, Norway and Sweden have offered a $2.3 billion loan to Iceland to bolster its faltering currency, the krona, which has lost some 26 percent of its value since January amid concerns that Iceland’s banks carry too much foreign debt, Bloomberg reported May 16. The currency rose 3.7 percent versus the euro on the news. Inflation in Iceland hit 11.8 percent in April, the highest level in nearly two decades, despite a key interest rate set at 15.5 percent.

    This is small-scale proof that currency implosion today equals consumption implosion tomorrow. The only variables are the relative size of the country’s economy (smaller economy = faster price realignment in line with forex fluctuations), the size of the country’s trade deficit as a percentage of GDP (larger deficit = sharper adjustment), and the absolute size of the country’s trade deficit relative to all other national trade deficits.

    Turning points in the global economic cycle usually hit the smaller, more vulnerable economies first. The big boys get hit last, but hardest.

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