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Mark's Market Blog

1-6-12: And the New Year starts.

By Mark Lawrence

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Markets moved up about 1.5% in the first couple of trading hours this year, and have been more or less flat ever since on extremely low volume. Because of the low volume, I don't think we can read anything into the market performance.

S&P 500 July 19 2011 to January 6,2012

The US was quiet as all attention turned to taking down Christmas decorations, watching the NFL playoffs, and our yearly argument about how exactly to outlaw the BCS and punish the people who invented it. Here's how we choose our college football champion: a computer, programmed by some trolls that work from 3pm to 2am, live on twinkies and mountain dew, and think the Pillsbury Doughboy has a great tan, decides somehow miraculously who the top twenty teams are. The teams are shut down the first week of December, and the players sent home to watch the NFL and overeat. Then they are recalled at random in January to play one last game after a month off to determine the national championship. Many other bowl games are also played under identical circumstances, because you can sell a lot of beer and truck ads during bowl games. Later, after a few hundred million dollars has been divvied up between the networks and the universities, a couple college players will be thrown out of school for accepting free meals or tattoos or something. If that doesn't get their attention, then Ohio State and USC will be thrown out of the bowl system for a year.

Unemployment continues to, um, continue. Projecting the curve, we will be back to pre-recession levels of unemployment in almost exactly four more year, assuming, of course, that there are no new recessions, the Euro holds together, China creates and manages the world's first "soft landing" from a property bubble, and Iran decides to play nice. I'd give that dream about a 1% chance.

Unemployment to January, 2012

Arkansas, Georgia and Arizona are passing laws about who can be on their Presidential ballots in the coming November election. More states are likely to follow; so are federal lawsuits. Questions about the legal status of Obama persist.

Italian yields are up over 7% again. Spanish yields are earning 6% again. Spain and Italy must sell about $350 billion in bonds in the next three months to refinance their debt. It's entirely unclear how this will happen without the European Central Bank illegally intervening in the bond markets.

Hungary is in the process of implementing a new constitution and forming a new government, which is looking at this instant a lot like Russia's "democracy." Everyone outside of Hungary is very upset. The IMF and ECB are forecasting serious economic problems for Hungary if they continue on this path, perhaps including run-away inflation.

Iran threatens to close the Straights of Hormuz to all oil shipping if more pressure is put on their economy. They can probably do this for a few days, possibly a few weeks. This would cause oil to shoot instantly up into the $150 - $200 per barrel range. The US would certainly react to this as an act of war.

North Korea continues to mystify all watchers. Kim Jong Un had a birthday this week and turned, depending on who you believe, 28, 29, or 30. He is attempting to consolidate control over a 1.2 million man army that without question can level Seoul in a matter of hours. Threats of all out war and various other forms of propaganda are flowing freely out of N.Korea. China wants stability; they have enough of their own problems, and don't need several million refugees or US troops stationed right at their borders. S.Korea is upset, probably a third of their people and half their economy is in Seoul and could be wiped out in a day. Reunification would bankrupt S.Korea for a couple decades. And nothing political happening means N.Korea continues to build up missiles and nukes and starve millions of their citizens. Right now the average N.Korean is 3" shorter than the average S.Korean due to the poor diet. There really isn't a good solution here.

China has recently implemented a rule that the number of entertainment shows airing during prime time every week has been reduced to 38 from 126. According to an SARFT directive last October, each of the country's satellite channels would be limited to broadcasting two entertainment programs each week and a maximum of 90 minutes of content defined as entertainment every day during prime time -- 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. The directive also required channels to broadcast at least two hours of news programming. Between 6 pm and 11:30 pm they must each broadcast at least two 30-minute news programs. The restricted programs on the SARFT list include dating shows, talent contests, talk shows as well as emotional stories that were deemed 'excessive entertainment' and of 'low taste.' It said that the satellite channels have started to broadcast programs that promote traditional virtues and socialist core values. The newly-added programs among the satellites' revised broadcasting schedules are documentaries as well as cultural and educational programs, it added. The SARFT believes that the move to cut entertainment programming is crucial in improving cultural services for the public by offering high quality programming.

1% to 2% of all weight-loss, or bariatric, operations are on patients under 21, but studies are under way to gauge the outcomes of surgery on children as young as 12. Morbid obesity is becoming common among our high school students - indeed, one can forsee a time when more students are obese than get college qualified SAT scores. Judging strictly from such results, it seems our high schools are teaching junk food addiction and a sedentary lifestyle rather than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Obviously the parents hold neither responsibility nor blame here. Allergan, the maker of a surgically inserted silicone band that constricts the stomach to make the patient feel full quickly, is seeking permission from the Food and Drug Administration to market it to patients as young as 14, four years younger than is now allowed. Hospitals across the country have opened bariatric centers for adolescents in recent years. Unfortunately the long term effects of bariatric surgery are mixed: A Belgian study of adult patients found that nearly half had their bands removed within 12 years for various reasons: they did not lose much weight; they regained what they had lost; they had frequent heartburn or vomiting; or the band would slip or perforate the stomach.

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