Category Archives: Finance

Border wall moves ahead; Mexican resistance stirs


Yep, the border wall is moving ahead.

From the Chicago Tribune:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Friday that it plans to start awarding contracts by mid-April for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, signaling that he is aggressively pursuing plans to erect “a great wall” along the 2,000-mile border.

The agency said it will request bids on or around March 6 and that companies would have to submit “concept papers” to design and build prototypes by March 10, according to FedBizOpps.gov, a website for federal contractors. The field of candidates will be narrowed by March 20, and finalists must submit offers with their proposed costs by March 24.

The president told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday that construction will start “very soon” and is “way, way, way ahead of schedule.”

The agency’s notice gave no details on where the wall would be built first and how many miles would be covered initially. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has sought employees’ opinions during border tours of California, Arizona and Texas.

Announcement comes a day after cross-border meeting

The wall wasn’t even mentioned when two cabinet members traveled south of the border the day before the announcement.

From NBC News:

There were promises of cooperation, of closer economic ties, and frequent odes to the enduring partnership between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. But there were no public mentions of that massive border wall or President Donald Trump’s plan to deport non-Mexicans to Mexico as top U.S. officials visited the Mexican capital.

Instead, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played it safe, acknowledging generally that the U.S. and Mexico are in a period of disagreement without putting any specific dispute under the microscope. It fell to their hosts, and especially Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, to thrust those issues into the spotlight.

“It is an evident fact that Mexicans feel concern and irritation over what are perceived as policies that may hurt Mexicans and the national interest of Mexicans here and abroad,” Videgaray said Thursday after meeting with Kelly and Tillerson.

The Americans focused instead on putting to rest some of the fears reverberating across Latin America – such as the notion that the U.S. military might be enlisted to deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally en masse. Not so, said Kelly. He said there would be “no mass deportations” and no U.S. military role.

Sure, Mexico can trust anything that comes out of an administration headed by a man who can’t even keep his own lies straight, then flies into a rage any time anyone dares point that out.

Trump may do the impossible for Peña

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been polling at all-time lows, earning an abysmal 12 percent approval rate in one recent survey., making Trump’s current 42 percent approval rating look like a rave review.

But Trump may prove a boost for the beleaguered Mexican President is Agent Orange continues with his self-serving racist rants, especially now that Peña’s administration is showing a little resistance.

From teleSUR English:

The U.S. wants to pressure Mexico into keeping migrants and refugees as they await trial, forcing Mexico to deport them instead. Mexico isn’t falling for it.

Mexico will reject the remaining funds of the Merida Plan if they’re used by the U.S. to coerce the country on immigration policy, said Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Friday.

The US$2.6 billion security assistance package on the drug war has been almost been entirely distributed since 2008, mostly on military equipment like helicopters and training for its security forces.

The plan has been widely criticized for worsening, rather than improving, violence and disappearances in the country and being partly responsible for the disappearance of the 43 student-teachers in Ayotzinapa. It already contains a proviso to withhold funds if Mexico doesn’t improve its rule of law or human rights abuses, though the U.S. has never enacted this demand.

Besides now taking into account U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall, the aid may be dependent on Mexico hosting undocumented immigrants from third countries as they are awaiting processing of their deportation trials in the U.S.

“They can’t leave them here on the border because we have to reject them. There is no chance they would be received by Mexico,” said Osorio Chong on Friday, speaking with Radio Formula after a cool reception of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who visited on Thursday.

Mexico already deports hundreds of thousands of Central Americans apprehended at its southern border, but cities like Mexico City are among the largest receptors of refugees deported from the U.S.

Mexico hints at a trade war

A not-so-veiled threat was issued Thursday at the same time Trump administration officials were meeting with their Mexican counterparts.

From Reuters:

Mexico’s economy minister said on Thursday that applying tariffs on U.S. goods is “plan B” for Mexico in trade talks with the United States if negotiations aimed at achieving a new mutually beneficial agreement fail.

Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told local broadcaster Televisa that he expected North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations with both the United States and Canada to begin this summer and conclude by the end of this year.

And promptly takes the first step

Guajardo’s warming was accompanied by action as well,

From teleSUR English:

Amid trade tensions with the United States, Mexico plans to send a delegation next month to visit Brazilian corn, beef, chicken and soy producers as an alterative to U.S. suppliers, its representative in Brazil said on Friday.

Mexican chargé d’affaires Eleazar Velasco said Brazil is uniquely positioned to expand agricultural commodity sales to Mexico if trade with the United States is disrupted because it is closer than other potential suppliers like Australia.

“The United States unilaterally wants to change the established rules of the game,” Velasco told Reuters. “This will evidently lead us to rebalance our trade relations.”

Mexican Agriculture Secretary Jose Calzada was due to visit Brazil last week but had to postpone his trip until March due to scheduling issues, Velasco said.

Calzada will bring Mexican food industry executives to do deals with Brazilian exporters, the diplomat said. The trip is part of a drive to lessen dependence on U.S. exports as President Donald Trump threatens to upend long-standing free trade between the two countries.

And Mexico acts on the financial front as well

The country has been engaged in a massive buttressing of its currency.

From CNNMoney:

Mexico’s currency, the peso, is one of the best performers in the world in February, up over 5%.

Before the U.S. election, the country’s central bank started implementing what its governor, Agustin Carstens, called a “contingency plan.” Carstens says Trump’s potential policies would hit Mexico’s economy like a “hurricane.”

For ordinary Mexicans, the peso’s momentum doesn’t mean much. Gas prices rose as much as 20% in January while economic growth and wages continue to be sluggish. Life is getting more expensive.

Still, it’s a swift turnaround for a country and currency facing an uncertain future with the U.S.

Since November, Mexico’s central bank has raised interest rates three times and sold U.S. dollars to international investors. Among other efforts, it’s all meant to buoy the peso that’s been weighed down by Trump’s threats.

Things are starting to get interesting. . .

Greek misery continues, no crash recovery yet


We begin with a dramatic graphic from Kathimerini, dramatic evidence that despite three rounds of bailout loans an ever-harsher austerity measures, the European economy hardest hit by the Great Recession is showing no signs of recovery as yet still more austerity is demanded:

blog-greece

The Greeks were left holding the string when the bubble popped, unable to pay loans to foreign banksters a lot of them in Germany. And the lenders wanted their money, even though the economy had crashed, unemployment skyrocketed, and the Greek industrial machine had ground to a halt.

To enable Greece pay the loans back, a Troika formed of the European Central Bank, th European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund imposed harsh austerity measures perfectly designed to ensure that the Greek people were reduced to serfs, sacrificing layoffs, pay, pension, and healthcare cuts for those lucky enough to keep their jobs.

Then there was the massive selloff of national assets, ranging from transit and power grids to ports and islands.

And still the troika wants more in exchange for another round of bailout loans.

From the London Telegraph:

Greece will need a fourth bailout as its debts remain utterly unsustainable despite years of austerity and attempted reforms, according to George Papaconstantinou, a former Greek finance minister.

A “radical liberalisation of the economy” is also necessary as the country needs to attract foreign investment because Greece lacks the domestic resources needed to grow its industries, he told an audience at the London School of Economics.

“Pretty much everyone agrees that Greek debt is not sustainable,” he said. “Is there a prospect of a fourth bailout? Yes. Even in the best case… I doubt that Greece will be able to stand on its own feet.”

Mr Papaconstantinou, who was Greece’s finance minister from 2009 to 2011, said that these measures have to be accompanied by serious economic reforms.

“Radical liberalization of the economy”?

Translate that as “more misery for the average Greek.”

The IMF lays down the law

Before taking the helm at the IMF, Lagarde served as Finance Minister for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In December a French court found her guilty of criminal negligence in her old job for arranging a payout of more than $400 million for businessman Bernard Tapie’s share of Addidas under questionable circumstances — though the court declined to impose either a jail sentence or a fine, rendering the guilt verdict moot.

The affair didn’t seem to bother either the French government or the IMF, so Lagarde kept her job.

More on her stance on the latest Greek bailout round from Bloomberg:

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde signaled that Greek debt restructuring can wait and the country should focus on overhauling its economy for the duration of its latest bailout, which expires in 2018.

Speaking in a German television interview after meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Lagarde said “the volume of restructuring will clearly depend on how much reform, how much progress, how strong the Greek economy is” when the aid program ends.

What will probably be needed is a “significant” extension of maturities on Greek bailout loans and a “significant interest rate capping,” Lagarde told ARD television on Wednesday. “That will have to be discussed in greater detail later on” and “implementation of the debt restructuring will have to take place at the end of the program.”

The Washington-based fund is demanding additional debt relief measures as a condition for participating in the Greek bailout. Its participation, in turn, is a condition set by Germany when it agreed to help underwrite the latest aid package in 2015.

So who benefits?

Therein lies the rub.

Because much of the money won’t go to the banks who lent it to Greece.

Any of those lenders sold off their delinquent funds at a deep discount to that unique breed of banksters called “vulture funds,” speculators who buy up sovereign debt, then set about collecting it using all the ruthless ploys they can martial.

From the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt:

The experience of the Greek debt restructuring of 2012 serves as a good example to show how vulture funds operate and the costs they can impose in a country and its population. The Greek case is quite interesting as not only involved the first major debt restructuring in Europe since 1953 but also it was the largest operation of its kind. The remarkable aspect of this episode is that the country decided to continue paying holdout creditors, and specifically vulture funds, in full. This was the case even though the process was organized with the support of the official creditors of the country. In this regard, it created yet another damaging precedent regarding the viability of the profits by litigation strategy followed by vulture funds.

>snip<

Just a month after the debt restructuring was completed, the government made an initial payment of 436 million Euros to a group of holdout investors led by Dart Management. This hedge fund, which had a long story of suing governments to get paid in full going back to the Brady plan in Latin America in the late 1980s, made a massive profit as it had bought the bonds on prices estimated between 60 to 70 cents on the Euro. By making that initial payment, the Greek government set a negative precedent as the rest of the holdouts were now able to use that decision to claim for equal treatment under a foreign court. The payments to holdouts continued uninterrupted afterwards parallel to the implementation of harsh austerity measures. For example, during 2013 the country paid a total of 1.7 billion Euros to holdout creditors. To date, most of the holdout claims have been paid in full by Greece. It is estimated that private investors currently have a total of 36 billion euros in government bonds that were either issued under the debt exchange of 2012 or in the debt issuance that took place in 2014.

As the Greek population continues to struggle under the imposition of harsh austerity measures and the debt burden of the country remains “highly unsustainable”, as the IMF characterizes it, it is evident that the decision to continue paying the holdouts was a mistake. It represented nothing short of rewarding dangerous speculators while transferring the costs of their actions on to the Greek people. Even more troublesome is the fact that the relationship between Greece and the vulture has not ended yet. In the aftermath of the debt restructuring of 2012, it is estimated that hedge funds have bought nearly 15 billion Euros in government bonds. As a new debt restructuring, or even unilateral default, is simply a matter of time is worth nothing that the country can still set a precedent against the actions of vulture funds. The country could begin by enacting a law, similar to that adopted in Belgium in 2015, to limit the actions of vulture funds. Furthermore, given the dire social situation in the country, it should declare the non-application of the 3rd memorandum and non-payment of all illegal, odious, illegitimate and unsustainable debts. After all it is never too late to state that sovereignty and the respect of human rights will always precede debt.

So the troika is really all about making sure predatory speculators collect their pound of flesh.

Greek crisis deepens; bad loan rate spikes


Greece, the nation hardest hit by the Great Recession, continues to stagger under the burdens imposed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund.

The Troika, operating as the European Stability Mechanism, has imposed onerous pay and pension cut, mandated layoffs, forced the sale of billions in national assets [including power grids, healthcare institutions, toll roads, railways, ports, and even islands], while Greeks continue to suffer from massive unemployment.

And now the crisis is getting worse.

From Kathimerini:

Nonperforming loans last month posted a major spike of almost 1 billion euros, reversing the downward course set in the last few months of 2016. This has generated major concerns among local lenders regarding the achievement of targets for reducing bad loans, as agreed with the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) of the European Central Bank for the first quarter of this year.

Bank sources say that after several months of stabilization and of a negative growth rate in new nonperforming exposure, the picture deteriorated rapidly in January, as new bad loans estimated at 800 million euros in total were created.

This increase in a period of just one month is considered particularly high, and is a trend that appears to be continuing this month as well. Bank officials attribute the phenomenon to uncertainty from the government’s inability to complete the second bailout review, fears for a rekindling of the crisis and mainly the expectations of borrowers for extrajudicial settlements of bad loans.

Senior bank officials note that a large number of borrowers will not cooperate with their lenders in reaching an agreement for the restructuring of their debts, in the hope that the introduction by the government of the extrajudicial compromise could lead to better terms and possibly even to a debt haircut.

Headlines of the day: More TrumpLandia™ Turmoil


We begin with the New York Times:

Republican Congress, Stuck at Starting Line, Jogs in Place

  • Republican lawmakers and President Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised.
  • Disagreements, a lack of clarity from the White House and a slow confirmation process have stymied their plans.

Two from the Washington Post, starting with this:

Flynn saga shifts balance of power between president, Congress

  • In the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser, Republican senators are vowing more aggressive oversight of the new administration, and Democrats are seizing an opportunity to ask pointed questions about President Trump’s ties to Russia.

And then this:

Trump looking at billionaire to lead review of U.S. spy agencies

  • Stephen A. Feinberg has been a major donor to Republican candidates and has served on Trump’s economic advisory council.

Next up, this from the Guardian:

Deutsche Bank examined Donald Trump’s account for Russia links

  • Bank looked for evidence of whether loans to president were underpinned by guarantees from Moscow, Guardian learns

Finally this inevitable TrumpTweetstorm™ subject-to-be from BBC News:

Israel-Palestinian conflict: UN warns Trump over two-state reversal

  • The UN chief has warned Donald Trump against abandoning the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying there is “no alternative”.
  • It comes after Mr Trump went against decades of US policy, saying he would back whatever formula led to peace.
  • Palestinians reacted with alarm to the possibility that the US could drop support for Palestinian statehood.

Panama Papers law firm founders arrested


Once in a while a single event provides a juncture between two ongoing stories we’ve been following.

First up, the legislative coup that ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent criminal indictments filed against the coup participants as the result of a massive bribery investigation.

The second story is the Panama Papers leaks, the documents proving the existence of and participants in a vast network of “black flag” operation concealing a great deal of the planet’s wealth.

From teleSUR English:

The two founders of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca were arrested on Saturday, the attorney general’s office said, after both were indicted on charges of money-laundering in a case allegedly tied to a wide-ranging corruption scandal in Brazil.

Firm founders Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca were detained because of the risk they might try to flee the country.

Attorney General Kenia Porcell told reporters on Saturday that the information collected so far “allegedly identifies the Panamanian firm as a criminal organization that is dedicated to hiding assets or money from suspicious origins.”

Mossack Fonseca is also at the center of a separate case known as the Panama Papers, which involved millions of documents stolen from the firm and leaked to the media in April 2016.

The fallout from the leaks provoked a global scandal after numerous documents detailed how the rich and powerful used offshore corporations to hide money and potentially evade taxes.

Fonseca, a former presidential adviser in Panama, has previously denied that the firm had any connection to Brazilian engineering company Odebrecht, which has admitted to bribing officials in Panama and other countries to obtain government contracts in the region between 2010 and 2014.

Austerians threaten more cutbacks in Greece


This is one of those good news/bad news stories.

Greece was the European nation hardest hit by the greed of Wall Street banksters who brought the world to its knees eight years ago, triggering a Great Recession which still hasn’t ended and threatens to worsen yet again, as the United Nations noted in a report last month:

Although a modest global recovery is projected for 2017-18, the world economy has not yet emerged from the period of slow growth, characterised by weak investment, dwindling trade and flagging productivity growth, according to the United Nations World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) 2017 report launched today.

The report states that the world economy expanded by just 2.2 per cent in 2016, the slowest rate of growth since the Great Recession of 2009. World gross product is projected to grow by 2.7 per cent in 2017 and 2.9 per cent in 2018, a slight downward revision from the forecasts made last May.

For Greece, that means an unparalleled crisis may be imminent as the nation and its citens are still reeling from the current crisis the onerous costs of the current bailout.

The bailout package from the troika — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission — has eased the impacts on Greece, though at a huge price. The nation’s ports, transportation infrastructure, and energy grid have already been sold off to multinationals, pay and pensions have been slashed repeatedly, healthcare benefits cut, and much, much more.

And employment, though improved, still reaches staggering levels, especially for young workers, as indicated in the latest numbers from the Hellenic Statistical Authority:

blog-greece

The current bailout isn’t done, and the troika is demanding still more cuts, though a deal may be near.

From Kathimerini:

Representatives of the country’s international creditors are expected to return to Athens this week for a resumption of bailout talks despite continuing tensions between Greece and its lenders, highlighted by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras over the weekend.

In a speech before SYRIZA’s central committee on Saturday, Tsipras lashed out at Greece’s creditors, calling on them to revise their “irrational demands” of Greece.

“We will not agree to demands that are not backed up by logic and numbers,” he said.

He called on the International Monetary Fund in particular to revise its recent assessments of Greece’s economic prospects so that stalled bailout negotiations can resume at the technical level.

Tsipras also called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rein in Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and his “constant hostility” towards Greeks, accusing him of trying to create a “two-speed eurozone” and comparing him to a “pyromaniac… playing with matches in a warehouse full of explosives.”

More from Deutsche Welle [emphasis added]:

The new agreement would release a new tranche from its 86 billion euro ($91.5 billion) bailout fund. That, in turn, would enable Greece to meet a major debt repayment of 7.2 billion euros that is due this summer.

EU and IMF lenders want Greece to make 1.8 billion euros — or 1 percent of gross domestic product — worth of new cuts by 2018 and another 1.8 billion euros after that on measures focused on broadening the tax base and on pension reductions.

New cuts — especially to pensions, which have already been reduced 11 times since the start of the crisis in 2010 — are difficult to sell to a public worn down by years of austerity.

>snip<

Breaking the deadlock in the coming weeks is considered paramount, with elections in the Netherlands on March 15 and in France in the spring threatening to make a resolution even more difficult.

But [Eurogroup chief Jeroen] Dijsselbloem warned that the next meeting of eurozone ministers on February 20, which is seen as an unofficial deadline ahead of the votes, would still be too early for a breakthrough.

The billionaire who gave Trump millions, Bannon


And so much more.

Two journalists look at Robert Mercer, a late-arriving big money donor to the Trump campaign, a billionaire who had bankrolled Ted “The Grand Inquisitor” Cruz before the convention, then came to Trump’s rescue just as things were falling apart, contributing both millions in cash and a cast of personnel, including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.

Mercer, who made his pile running a hedge fund, holds nightmarish beliefs and considerable cunning. And he’s succeeded in creating a powerful, covert institution designed to create a dystopian world, run by the best crew money can by.

In this report from The Real News Network, reporters Thomas Hedges of the Center for Study of Responsive Law, where his beat is the role of money in politics, and Carrie Levine, who covers the same beat for the Center for Public Integrity, take a close look at Mercer and his agenda:

The Bizarre Far-Right Billionaire Behind Bannon and Trump’s Presidency


From the transcript:

THOMAS HEDGES: The fuel behind Mercer’s influence are the absurd sums of money he approves at the investment company he runs, Renaissance Technologies, based on Long Island. Its famed Medallion Fund is one of the most successful hedge funds in investing history. Averaging 72% returns before fees, over more than 20 years. A statistic that baffles analysts, and outranks the profitability of other competing funds, like the ones George Soros and Warren Buffet run.

In 2015, Mercer had single-handedly catapulted Cruz to the front of the Republican field. Throwing more than $13 million into a super PAC he created for the now failed candidate. But with the Trump campaign faltering, and struggling for support, there’s a second chance for the Mercers to make a big bet.

The Trump campaign is well aware of this, in fact, sources within Mercer’s super PAC would later tell Bloomberg News that shortly after Cruz drops out of the race, Ivanka Trump and her wealthy developer husband Jared Kushner, approach the Mercers, asking if they’d be willing to shift their support behind Trump. The answer is an eventual, but resounding yes.

In the months leading up to Trump’s presidential win, the Mercers would prove a formidable force. Beginning after the disastrous Republican Convention in July, they would furnish the Trump campaign with millions of dollars, and new leadership, but they would also furnish it with something more — a vast network of non-profits, strategists, media companies, research institutions and super PACs that they themselves funded and largely controlled.

CARRIE LEVINE: I think what you’ve seen is a lot of these organizations in this network come out to play a role in the 2016 elections.

HEDGES: With the Mercer family in the picture, the post-convention shake-up starts to make sense. Take Steve Bannon. He and Robert Mercer have been close for years, and Mercer is a top investor at Breitbart News, where Bannon was Chief Editor.

Kellyanne Conway also comes out of this network. Before becoming co-manager of Trump’s campaign, she headed up operations for Robert Mercer’s super PAC when it was still supporting Ted Cruz. And as for Deputy Campaign Manager, David Bossie, he was president of Citizens United, an organization Mercer has heavily funded since at least 2010.

Cambridge Analytica, the mysterious data-mining firm that received grudging praise after predicting the race’s outcome more accurately than any other polling company, is also heavily funded by Robert Mercer, and was employed by the Cruz campaign before Mercer switched over to Trump. In fact, the Mercers’ political infrastructure is so entrenched, that Rebecca Mercer herself sits on the 16-person executive committee of Trump’s transition team.

Mercer’s foray into the White House may seem to have been born partly out of luck, especially with Trump, instead of Cruz, as a stalking horse. But his rise to power was systematic, and it was years in the making.

The web of connections Mercer’s built over the last decade is vast and complex. It includes efforts to dismantle tax law, and weaken the IRS.

It’s about funding quack scientists and conspiracy theorists, who blame the government for, among other things, playing a role in the San Bernardino Massacre. Or of colluding with the United Nations, and using climate change as an excuse to implement environmental laws meant to depopulate America’s Midwest. It’s about pouring money into the neo-conservative John Bolton super PAC, which props up candidates who ascribe to Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy.

But one of Mercer’s earliest activist ventures was financing a slew of fringe documentary projects that have helped raise the profiles of people like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and most notably, the director of those films, Steve Bannon.

Bannon, who was previously a naval officer and Goldman Sachs investment banker, made his first documentary in 2004 about Ronald Reagan. It retold his biography, using washed out black and white archival footage of the Hollywood actor. Painting him as a brave protector of Western democracy from the threat of Communism.