Thursday, July 27, 2017

Venezuela On The Brink, Anti-Semitic Incidents On The Rise, Is This The Bubble?

Venezuela on the Brink

Venezuela is at the breaking point. Its failed socialist system is imploding. Venezuela’s economy is in a free fall, a classic example of how top-down centralized government control ends up making conditions worse for virtually everyone except the autocrats running the show. Venezuela’s embattled president, Nicolas Maduro, is facing a determined opposition that is conducting a general strike and a mass protest this week.

Tensions have been building for months, but the country is approaching a critical juncture as Maduro plans to go ahead with a sham “election” on Sunday to choose 545 members for a body known as the Constituent Assembly. This new body would be empowered to rewrite the country’s constitution, which the opposition sees as a way for Maduro to consolidate his autocratic powers even further.  The sham "election" of the Constituent Assembly members is procedurally stacked in such a way that Maduro will almost certainly get a pliant assembly to do his bidding. This move has not only angered the opposition, which has called for a boycott of Sunday’s election, but it has split Maduro’s own ranks. On July 4, 2017, Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a so-called Chavista, strongly denounced Maduro’s plan for a re-write of the constitution.

The opposition controls the National Assembly, which is trying to choose judges for Venezuela’s Supreme Court who are not Maduro loyalists. The Supreme Court back in March had announced that it was taking over the powers of the National Assembly in a blatant bid to suppress the opposition politically. While the Supreme Court reversed its decision a few days later, the move increased distrust in Maduro’s government. Maduro exacerbated the distrust when his intelligence forces began arresting judges appointed by the opposition. He has threatened to arrest more.

“As a direct result of Maduro’s power grab,” The Diplomat has reported, “more than 100 people have been killed, 1,000 injured, and nearly 3,000 arrested in the recent wave of violence and protests.”

Rather than confront Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis head on and work with the opposition collaboratively to resolve it, President Maduro is lashing out at scapegoats. He has alleged a conspiracy between the opposition and the United States to bring his regime down.  "The US right wing thinks it can give orders in Venezuela, but the only one who gives orders in Venezuela is the people," Maduro said on his weekly broadcast.

If the people of Venezuela are truly the ones giving orders, Maduro is obviously not listening. According to Datanalisis’s June 2017 poll, 69% of Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly maneuver that he is shoving down the throats of the Venezuelan people.  An even larger majority (including a majority of the so-called Chavistas) prefer that the current constitution be enforced. Maduro insists that a new constitution is needed in order to stave off "coup-plotters." Maduro is the real coup-plotter.

The Trump administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that more U.S. action will be forthcoming if Maduro does not change course. “The United States will keep all options on the table, including sanctioning anyone who joins the Constituent Assembly, and will look into additional measures to hold the Maduro regime accountable,” Ambassador Haley said. “We will also continue to have the backs of the Venezuelan people as they fight to save their once prosperous democracy – even in the face of violence, intimidation, and denial of services by their own government.”

Socialist ideology imposed by brute force is not only morally bankrupt. As proven time and time again, it is self-destructive. Venezuela is but the latest example as it descends into chaos and human misery.

The Jewish community of the United Kingdom recorded 767 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2017 — the highest figure recorded within a six-month period since monitoring began in 1984.

The total number of incidents recorded from January 1 to July 1 by the Community Security Trust, British Jewry’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, constitute an increase of 30 percent from the 589 incidents from the same time period of 2016, CST wrote in a report published Thursday. The number last year had been an increase of 18% from the 501 incidents recorded during the first half of 2015.

CST recorded 80 violent assaults in 2017, a 78% rise from the 45 over the first six months of 2016 and the highest number CST has ever recorded for the January to July period.

The increase in recorded attacks overall in Britain owed partly to a dramatic rise in documented incidents in the Manchester area — 84%, to 145 cases from 79 in 2016. As a comparison, the number of attacks in London rose by 10%, to 425 incidents from 387.

In February, the CST reported a record 1,309 incidents in 2016, constituting a 36% increase over the 2015 tally.

Would the new bill that the Senate has quietly passed actually remove executive powers from the President and start a war with Russia?
A bill called “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017” is, unsurprisingly, inaccurately named. (Aren’t all of the most powerful bills? I mean, the Patriot Act was anything but patriotic.)

80% of the bill has absolutely nothing to do with Iran, but instead, focuses on Russia. It removes many executive powers from the President and gives them to Congress. In effect, it ties Trump’s hands with regard to foreign policy by forcing him to abide by Executive Orders signed by Obama. If enacted, this would completely destroy our relationship with Russia.

The bill would enforce sanctions on Russia from executive orders that were signed by President Obama in 2017.

It is the sense of Congress that the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State should continue to implement Executive Order 13382 (50 U.S.C. 1701 note; relating to blocking property of weapons of mass destruction delivery system proliferators and their supporters). (source)

Also see Section 211 for all of the details of the sanctions this bill (remember, this is all about Iran) would impose on Russia, including the mandatory imposition of a number of President Obama’s Executive orders (section 222), cybersanctions against Russia cannot be waived by the President without permission from Congress (section 224c), and sanctions against anyone who supplies goods, services, technology, or information that benefits the Russian infrastructure (sections 232-233). These sanctions would destroy Russia’s railways, oil, and mining sectors and cause economic havoc within the country. They’d destroy any company in the world that supported Russia’s state-owned energy interests in any way.

The bill was passed in the Senate by a vote of 98-2Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I- VT) were the only dissenting votes.
Do you honestly think Russian President Vladimir Putin will just sit there and watch the economic destruction of his country without retaliation?

Many of our members of Congress have been adamant about war with Russia, despite the fact that Trump and Putin have worked affably with one another thus far.  As I wrote shortly after the election:

Several politicians have voiced their strong disapproval of the improved relations between Trump and Putin, vowing to “rein in” the potential for an agreement. If Trump continues on this current peaceful route, Congress seems to be indicating they’ll act on their own.
Unbelievable, right? Here are a few choice quotes from an article on The Hill. Note that they came from both Democrats and Republicans.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) …We cannot sit on the sidelines as a party and let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our case for the moment.”
…Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):  “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
…Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.): “I am deeply concerned about his [Michael Flynn’s] views on Russia, which over the last 12 months have demonstrated the same fondness for the autocratic and belligerent Kremlin which animate President-elect Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.): “There are Democrats and Republicans that are, I think most members of Congress, that are very concerned about Russia’s activities and how we try to reconcile that with statements that Donald Trump made during the course of his campaign.”

The key there? “If Trump continues on this current peaceful route, Congress seems to be indicating they’ll act on their own.”

It looks like they’re acting on their own.

As a portfolio manager, I start each morning by consuming copious amounts of a heavily caffeinated beverage and a data feed from a litany of web and blog sites. Over the last few days, as asset prices have set new records, there have been numerous articles on whether the market is currently in a bubble. Here are a few I grabbed from a Google search:
Well, you get the idea. First, like a “watched pot never boils,” bubbles occur when no one is looking for them. Bubbles are a function of greed running rampant combined with a mass hypnotic state the current ride will never end.The shear fact that multitudes of articles are being written about “market bubbles” is a sign that we are likely not there…just yet.

In late October of 2007, I gave a seminar to about 300 investors discussing why I believed that we were rapidly approaching the end of the bull market and that 2008 would likely be bad…really bad. Part of that discussion focused on market bubbles and what caused them. The following two slides are from that presentation:

Every major market peak, and subsequent devastating mean reverting correction, has ever been the result of the exact ingredients seen previously. Only the ignorance of its existence has been a common theme.
The reason that investors ALWAYS fail to recognize the major turning points in the markets is because they allow emotional “greed” to keep them looking backward rather than forward.
Of course, the media foster’s much of this “willful” blindness by dismissing, and chastising, opposing views generally until it is too late for their acknowledgement to be of any real use.

At the peak of each one of these markets, there was no one claiming that a crash was imminent. It was always the contrary with market pundits waging war against those nagging naysayers of the bullish mantra that “stocks have reached a permanently high plateau” or “this is a new secular bull market.”  (Here is why it isn’t.)
Yet, in the end, it was something that was unexpected, unknown or simply dismissed that yanked the proverbial rug from beneath investors.
What will spark the next mean reverting event? No one knows for sure, but the catalysts are present from:
  • Excess leverage (Margin debt at new record levels)
  • IPO’s of negligible companies (Blue Apron, Snap Chat)
  • Companies using cheap debt to complete stock buybacks and pay dividends, and;
  • High levels of investor complacency.

Either individually, or in combination, these issues are all inert. Much like pouring gasoline on a pile of wood, the fire will not start without a proper catalyst. What we do know is that an event WILL occur, it is only a function of “when.” 
The discussion of why “this time is not like the last time” is largely irrelevant. Whatever gains that investors garner in the between now and the next correction by chasing the “bullish thesis” will be wiped away in a swift and brutal downdraft. Of course, this is the sad history of individual investors in the financial markets as they are always “told to buy” but never “when to sell.”

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