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Mark's Market Blog

12-15-13: You can't handle the Truth!

By Mark Lawrence

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Wall street is all abuzz with reasons why the stock market is properly valued, the economy is doing great, corporate profits are excellent, and prices can and will only go up from here. I don't buy any of it. The economy has switched from a wheelchair to crutches, but this is not great - unemployment and marginal employment are still awful but being masked by constant redefinition of unemployment. Corporate profits have been excellent, but the history is clear, there's always a reversion to the mean and it comes fast and hard. And given that the Fed has pumped several trillion dollars into bank vaults, I claim no one has the slightest clue right now what the stock market would look like without Fed steroids. There will be tapering, where the Fed slows their purchases of bonds. This will cause a stock market correction - perhaps a small one, but I think it will be deeper and more frightening than that. And then at some point I expect the Fed guys to lose their nerve and turn on QE again. Washington refuses to deal with our out of control entitlements; states refuse to deal with out of control pensions; and the Fed refuses to let us walk on our own two feet. IMHO our various government people are starting to act like Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup.

S&P 500 June 24 2013 to December 13 2013

In Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck, under severe pressure from demonstrations by the opposition party, has dissolved parliament and promised new elections, "returning the power to the people." This was an easy move for her as her party remains very popular and she will almost certainly win such an election. The opposition democrat party responded that protests would continue and there should be an appointed "people's council" of "good people" to replace the government. Just as in the US, the party that claims to represent the "disadvantaged" masses is controlled at the top by billionaires - this is not about people power, this is about which fragment of the top 1% of society controls government policy and reaps the rewards. If there are elections, Yingluck will almost certainly win and the pressure on her from the opposition will only increase. If her government is overthrown, then her supporters will likely march on Bangkok. Either way, Thailand is unlikely to settle down anytime soon. I find this fascinating, as we're watching the logical progression of a democracy in action here: in a democracy the power goes to the people who breed the fastest, who are almost certainly the least economically successful and least educated. We've all been taught Churchill's quote, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried." Now in our over populated world, bifurcated clearly into educated and successful v. unwashed and hungry, we're going to explore the limits of this. Clearly democracy will win out in some places and be controlled or subverted in others. China doesn't even pretend to be a democracy; India is tied in knots by their form of democracy; and the US has the best government that money can buy. Most of Europe's democracies are being stressed by budget deficits for out of control welfare states and by some rather poor choices made in their immigration policies. Switzerland may be the only true democracy on the planet and they too are struggling with these issues as shown by their recent votes on guaranteed income for every citizen and executive pay limits. Certainly the greatest threat to democracy is highly unequal income distribution and poverty, just as we see playing out right now in Thailand. And the greatest threat to a country's economic success is uncontrolled breeding. Will we see a compromise? Required birth control in return for more equal wealth distribution? Perhaps in a few countries, but I think it more likely that these issues will be played out in a messier fashion across the globe over the next several decades. Meanwhile panem et circenses will continue, in the modern form: Obamaphones and disability + section 8 housing + food stamps + cable TV.

It must be noted that in evolution, success is defined by breeding. Those who breed the most are by definition the most successful. Of course it must also be noted that this assumes each is responsible for their own survival. Sheep cannot live without humans and sheep dogs, so although New Zealand has 3 million people and 60 million sheep, if the people disappeared the sheep mostly would too. One would not say the sheep were the big evolutionary winners in New Zealand, nor would one give the sheep the vote.

E15 gas is coming soon to a station near you. E15 means it's 15% ethanol. There is absolutely zero evidence that burning ethanol in your cars helps with pollution or lowers gasoline consumption - the best estimates show that the gas used to grow the corn, ferment it, and transport it to the refineries at least equals the gas saved by burning ethanol. Burning ethanol also raises food prices. And if it were really about pollution or gas imports, we would import Brazilian sugar cane ethanol which is half the cost of US corn ethanol - but there are import duties to prevent that. So, what's up? Well, the huge farm conglomerates love the guaranteed sales. The EPA passed a rule several years ago mandating that we burn a certain number of gallons of ethanol each year - you can see how Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto love that law - but meanwhile Americans are driving less and driving more efficient cars, burning less gas each year. So instead of lowering the ethanol requirement, the EPA mandated that many gas stations offer E15 gas - 15% ethanol instead of the "normal" E10 at 10%. E15 will most likely harm your engine and fuel system and cause early wear and expensive repairs if used over time. On many cars, using it will void your warranty. It will also lower your gas mileage by several percent. Just don't buy it. Let the EPA know you're not interested in being a stooge for Big Farming. Why do conservatives think government is evil? I dunno, maybe we're just stoopid.

Who's heading towards a fresh water crisis? N.Africa and the middle east, followed by Mexico, Chili, Peru, S.Africa.

How much of the Earth's resources are used by someone over the course of their life? Here's an estimate for the lifetime usage by a US infant.

Shop online? I do. A lot. Google search has a "shopping" button which I used to use a lot; I haven't used it much for several months as I found it suddenly was less useful. Now I know why: Google Product Search initially returned results based on the best price for consumers. It was monetized through AdWords advertising, like other Google services. However in May 2012, Google turned Product Search into a wholly commercial initiative called Google Shopping. Google Shopping is a paid-only model where merchants have to pay to list their products and the results are influenced by the amount they pay. Consumer Watchdog said that since merchants and retailers have to pay to have their products featured on Google Shopping, they have to raise their prices to consumers to cover the added cost, charging up to 67% more than the same product found with a different shopping engine. Consumer Watchdog conducted the test by entering 14 general product queries in the Google search bar and comparing those prices to results for the exact same item on Shopzilla, Pricegrabber, and Nextag.

Facebook is now a part of the S&P 500. I use Facebook pretty much every day, but I have no idea how this is a viable business, how they hope to ever make any money, how this company can be valued at $123 billion making it one of the 30 most valuable companies in the US. Facebook is bracketed by Pepsi, Disney and Intel above and Schlumberger, Cisco, Home Depot and Boeing below. Sorry, I'm an old-fashioned guy I guess, I really don't see how Facebook is more valuable than Home Depot or Boeing, companies that have actual paying customers, make actual products and make money. Especially because I think we all know that just as Facebook knocked off Myspace, someone will come around in the next few years and knock off Facebook.

You've heard that the Great Wall of China is the only human artifact visible from space. Well, even if that had been true, it's true no more. Now NASA has a photo of Chinese smog from space. The smog stretches continuously from Beijing to Shanghai. The picture was taken Dec.7 2013, a day that shall live in infamy. On this day the smog was roughly 20 times the levels considered safe by the World Health Organization. You can tell smog from clouds - the clouds have texture when seen from above, the smog is smooth and featureless. What's China doing about it? They just announced a new program where pilots landing in China must be certified to land in low visibility conditions. It's estimated that China's smog is causing 470,000 premature deaths per year, about half attributed to coal fired electricity plants, the other half due to internal combustion engines. No biggie, there's lots more where they came from. The Chinese government has made press releases where they claim smog is good because it makes China harder to attack.

There's a "grand budget deal" just negotiated that will prevent any government shutdowns this year. Of course - Obama's popularity is at an all time low, the last thing the republicans want heading into the mid term elections is any controversy that may reflect on them. One part of the deal is added security for Social Security's Dead Person Database. Currently this database of names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and dates of death is made available to over 450 state and federal agencies and is available to the public for $995, or $10 for a single name. It's widely used for SS and Medicare fraud. It's been estimated that 2.5 million dead people come back to life every year to get benefits.

Here's a picture from Grand Junction, Colorado. Get used to this, it's clear you're going to be seeing more and more of this. Obama did say in his campaign that he wanted a federal civilian police force as big and well armed as the army.

Nigeria is apparently missing $50b in oil revenue from the last two years. They should hire me: I would never lose track of $50b.

I reported last week that GM will no longer sell Chevys in Europe. Europe has a huge oversupply of cars because their governments won't let car companies shut plants or layoff workers. GM has lost $18 billion in Europe in the last decade. This week they announced they will close their Australian production facilities, called Holden. And they announced a new CEO, Mary Barra. Her new slogan, "No more crappy cars." Will it work? She's being promoted from head of development. Under her watch the Cadillac CTS was named Motor Trend Car of the Year and shortly after that the Corvette was named Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year. Consumer Reports called the new Chevrolet Impala the best sedan it had ever tested and the Chevrolet Silverado the best truck. I remember the GM 4-speed automatic transmission from the 80s that was well known for blowing up at 70,000 miles and was not improved over the course of 15 years of production. In my opinion, ending the GM culture of producing crap will be a career job for Ms.Barra.

Mary Barra's ascension to the top job at GM is sparking the usual soul-searching among feminists. In a recent survey of women in the age bracket of 20 to 40, it was found that half again more men than women aspire to top management jobs. Women consistently say they are more interested in finding a balance between work and family. Of course the media represents this as a problem that must be corrected by getting more women to value corporate success over family. The left won't be happy until all children are raised on state run assembly lines.

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