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For the week 2/12-2/16
[Posted 11:30 PM ET, Friday]
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What an awful week. The Parkland Massacre and the incredible incompetence of the FBI, which clearly cost lives. Formal confirmation that Vladimir Putin and his lackeys are indeed doing what we’ve long suspected; sowing chaos and discord across the country for the purposes of undermining our democracy. We are closer than ever to the Middle East erupting in full-scale war, the United States and Russia now at war themselves in Syria, whether we want to believe it or not. Russia and China continue to play us for chumps on other fronts. North Korea is still Mordor.
But, hey, the stock market recovered! And pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. I can’t begin to tell you how much I want the return of baseball so that every night I’m watching my Mets (painful as that may be) instead of freakin’ Tucker, Hannity and Laura.
So I guess there might be hope after all. In the meantime....
Russian Meddling: Special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations this afternoon with illegally using social media platforms to sow political discord, including actions that supported the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and disparaged his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The indictment represents the first charges by Mueller for meddling in the election – the fundamental crime he was assigned to investigate.
In a 37-page indictment, Mueller said the 13 individuals have conspired since 2014 to violate laws that prohibit foreigners from spending money to influence federal elections. The individuals posed as Americans, stole identities and engaged in fraud and deceit to influence the political process.
Rod J. Rosenstein, deputy attorney general overseeing Mueller’s inquiry, said Friday: “The nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists.”
All were charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. None are likely to face justice as there is no way Russia will extradite them.
The Internet Research Agency, a known troll farm operating out of St. Petersburg, was described as a hub for the operation designed to reach millions of Americans for the purpose of disrupting the political process; pure “information warfare against the United States,” the indictment alleges.
Some of the Russians posing as Americans “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and other political activists.”
Court papers show the individuals traveled to eight states, and worked with an unidentified American.
The indictment cites a series of political advertisements paid for by the Russians, all of them against Mrs. Clinton and in favor of Mr. Trump.
After the election, still attempting to sow discord, the individuals staged political rallies both for and against President-elect Trump, sometimes on the same day, Rosenstein said.
While the indictment does not directly accuse the Kremlin, American intelligence agencies have previously said President Vladimir Putin authorized a multipronged campaign to boost Trump’s political chances and damage Clinton.
Rosenstein repeatedly said the indictment does not allege that the Russian operation changed the outcome of the election. It also does not allege any Americans knowingly conspired with the Russian operation.
Trump tweeted after: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
Yup, it’s all about him. It doesn’t matter what Russia is really doing.
Separately, Steve Bannon was interrogated for 20 hours over two days this week as part of special counsel Mueller’s investigation, answering every question that was put to him, according to a source familiar with the process who told the Associated Press. That’s in contrast to a Thursday interview with the House Intelligence Committee, where Bannon declined to answer some lawmakers’ questions, despite a subpoena.
The White House, especially the president, should not be so relaxed after this week’s developments.
Congress, the White House and Immigration: In a stern rebuke to President Trump, the Senate on Thursday decisively rejected a White House rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws that would have bolstered border security, placed strict new limits on legal migration and resolved the fate of the so-called Dreamers.
The measure by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), was patterned after one that the White House proposed, but the 39-60 vote was 21 short of the 60 required for the Senate to clear a filibuster and consider it. [14 Republicans voted against.] The president threatened to veto any other approach, but three others also all failed in a flurry of votes on Thursday. A plan drafted by a broad group of centrists, as well as one written by Senators John McCain and Chris Coons, failed; the centrist one gaining 54 votes, McCain-Coons 52. [A fourth measure, focused on punishing “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts, also fell short of 60.]
The Grassley measure provided a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Many of these people could face deportation beginning in March as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is scaled back, though court rulings are complicating that matter.
It also included $25 billion for border security, tougher interior enforcement and new limits on legal immigration.
Trump in a tweet had urged senators to “strongly consider a system of merit based immigration.”
But the interior enforcement measures, limits to legal immigration and nixing of the Diversity Visa Lottery program were largely considered nonstarters for Democrats.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who backed all four proposals, said, “It looks like demagogues on the left and the right win again on immigration.”
Many Republican senators vowed to keep working on a solution prior to the March 5 deadline, with some suggesting a short-term extension.
The U.S. Supreme Court could intervene in the problem if they decide to take up President Trump’s appeal of a lower court decision blocking his order to end the DACA program, which if they accept to hear it, they would likely not issue a ruling until late June. If they refuse to hear it, the lower court ruling would stay in effect while litigation continues. That would give Congress more time to address the issue beyond the March 5 deadline set by Trump in September when he ordered an end to DACA.
The Parkland School Massacre: A former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, walked into the school and in a six-minute rampage, killed 17 students and adults, ages 14 to 49, wounding another 14, one still in critical condition, before blending in with fleeing students and leaving the scene. He was picked up a little over an hour later without incident in a neighboring town, Cruz having dropped his rifle and backpack in the school.
Cruz used an AR-15-style assault rifle in the third-deadliest shooting at a school in U.S. history next to the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and 2007’s Virginia Tech attack. He left warning signs on social media in the form of a comment on a YouTube video that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” That comment troubled the person whose video Cruz commented on, Mississippi bail bondsman Ben Bennight, who passed it on to the FBI.
“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time, location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky told reporters. Investigators were unable to find the commenter, he added.
But the guy’s name was posted with the comment and how many named Nikolas Cruz, with that spelling, are out there?
Then Friday, the FBI said that a tip it received about Cruz in early January should have caused him to be assessed as a threat, but proper protocols were not followed and the information was not sent to its Miami office for follow-up.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement: “I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter... It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly.”
Apparently calls to the FBI’s tip line are handled at the agency’s call center in West Virginia. Approximately 2,100 calls a day go to the center.
The caller indicated that Cruz had recently purchased firearms and had threatened a family member, an official told the Los Angeles Times, adding that the caller knew Cruz’s address and said he had been posting disturbing messages on social media accounts and that he had a desire to kill.
There was a back-and-forth conversation between the tipster and the FBI employee who took the call, the official said, noting the employee should have written a report and sent it to the Miami field office.
So this was a second time the FBI failed to follow up on Cruz! Florida Gov. Rick Scott is calling for Director Wray’s resignation.
President Trump, in brief remarks at the White House on Thursday, said: “It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.” Trump never uttered the word ‘gun’ in his remarks.
Editorial / New York Post
“President Trump plainly feels the nation’s grief and anger over young Nikolas Cruz’s shooting rampage...The question is: Will he seize the chance to do something about mass shootings?....
“Trump on Thursday spoke to ‘a nation in grief,’ promising ‘every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly’ that ‘we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do to ease your pain.’
“Citing the kids ‘who were stolen from us,’ lives of ‘unlimited potential’ lost, the president said, ‘No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning.’
“And: ‘We must actually make [a] difference.’
“Absolutely, sir. But, sorry, a meeting with governors and state attorneys general to make school safety a top priority isn’t remotely enough.
“No, you need to get behind some steps that can help rein in these endless nightmares. No, not end them altogether – but at least to limit the toll and reduce the frequency.
“Trump ran for president promising to protect the Second Amendment and warning of Hillary Clinton ‘coming for your guns’ if she won the White House. But just as a lifelong anti-Communist Richard Nixon went to China as president, Trump can use that credibility to push common-sense legislation and regulations that can have some effect:
“Reinstate the federal assault-weapons ban, or at least revive its key features... Critics argue that the ban did little good – but the fact is that the average toll from mass shootings has been growing. It’s surely worth trying to trim a casualty from the next killer’s total. Note, too, that the ban did no real harm. And it certainly didn’t lead the nation down the ‘slippery slope’ toward eliminating other weapons, let alone a repeal of the Second Amendment, as the NRA and other Washington lobbyists warned.
“Raise the age to buy firearms....Background checks are no good if you hardly have a background. Most states ban drinking under 21; there’s no reason not to similarly curb gun purchases....
“Target bump stocks. These let shooters turn semiautomatic weapons into ones that fire almost as rapidly as fully automatic ones, which are illegal. The idea of a ban got attention last year after the devices helped the Las Vegas shooter carry out his massacre – but soon died.....
“Kill the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. This bill would effectively impose some states’ loose gun-control laws on states with tighter ones; it’s arrogant and anti-federalist. It’s probably going nowhere – but the president can send a clear message by denouncing it....Nothing can be sure to prevent another Parkland or Las Vegas or Sandy Hook. But that’s a poor excuse not to act....
“Mr. President, this is your moment. You can keep your promises to the kids and the parents and honor your offer to do ‘whatever we can do.’
“Prove how much you truly want to curb the carnage – and refuse to play hostage to the extremists on either side of these issues.”
I totally concur with the above. I also agree with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel who said police must be allowed to take someone in that has made specific threats and may be a danger to the public and himself. Similarly, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Congress should remove restrictions it has imposed that prevent the federal government from studying mental health issues that lead to gun violence.
Goodlatte, who has announced he is retiring at the end of his current term, said it was time to end a 22-year restriction that forbids the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the links between mental health and gun violence.
“One of the aspects of gun control is the misuse of guns by people with mental illness. That seems to me to be something that could be discussed.”
--FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday contradicted the White House version of events surrounding the background check for a former top aide accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives, triggering more disarray around the controversy.
Wray, in testimony on Capitol Hill, said the agency in late July completed a background check for security clearance for former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, which conflicts with the White House assertion that the FBI and intelligence agencies had not completed investigations into Porter.
Wray said a partial report on Porter was issued in March and a completed report was submitted in late July. The FBI received a request for a follow-up inquiry, provided it in November and passed along additional information earlier this month.
The director said he couldn’t get into the content.
The House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the security clearance for Porter on Wednesday, as the issue evolved into what the White House knew about domestic violence allegations against the president’s senior aide.
Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) sent letters to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and FBI Director Wray, demanding answers about who in the White House knew of the accusations by two ex-wives.
Porter had been allowed to work on an interim security clearance until he resigned last week after the accusations came to light, with the ex-wives accusing him of physical abuse, while telling the FBI he could be susceptible to blackmail.
Gowdy pointed to conflicting accounts of the timeline of Porter’s clearance from Wray and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said the process was “ongoing” and “hadn’t been completed” when Porter left his job.
Meanwhile, it took President Trump a full week after the story first broke to condemn domestic violence in a public statement.
Maureen Callahan / New York Post
“Could the Rob Porter scandal do lasting damage to the Trump presidency? To follow mainstream media coverage: yes. To follow Trump’s Black Swan candidacy and victory: probably not.
“One would think disavowing an alleged wife-beater is a low bar to clear. That the president and his chief of staff, John Kelly, have not done so – have instead lamented Porter’s departure and praised his service – would, in this moment especially, seem a body blow.
“And yet never before have we seen a president to whom nothing, no matter how outrageous or disgusting, sticks. The myriad offenses that were predicted to end Trump have had the reverse effect. They’re so numerous that they’re actually easy to forget....
“A brief history:
“Race-baiting. ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best...They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
“Insisting that Sen. John McCain...isn’t a war hero. ‘I like people that weren’t captured, OK?’
“Implying presidential debate moderator Megyn Kelly was deranged due to menstruation. ‘You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her whatever.’
“Making his penis size a voter issue during a televised presidential debate. ‘[Marco Rubio] referred to my hands – ‘If they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you, there’s no problem. I guarantee.’
“Implying a Muslim gold-star mother didn’t speak at the DNC because her husband and religion forbade it. ‘If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.’
“The ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, released one month before the election. ‘This was locker room talk,’ Trump said.
“Defending neo-Nazis and the KKK after Charlottesville. ‘You also had some very fine people on both sides.’
“Endorsing alleged pedophile Roy Moore for Senate. ‘He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen.’
“Taunting Kim Jong-un with nuclear war in juvenile terms via Twitter. ‘Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’
“These are just a few of the comments predicted to end Trump’s candidacy or mortally wound his presidency – to say nothing of the reports that he doesn’t read, spends hours watching cable news and has had the highest staff turnover in modern political history....
“So what to make of the Rob Porter scandal in the #MeToo era? For the short term, it will probably follow a well-established pattern: outrage among his detractors, condemnation throughout much of the mainstream media, op-eds agitating against Trump and his administration, all hoping that this, finally, will be the scandal that sticks – and by next week, we’ll all have moved on to something else, a Tweet or a feud or the latest tell-all book by a Trump refugee.
“The long term, however, may be different, and Trump and his supporters shouldn’t feel too comfortable. One scandal may cause a dent in approval ratings, but the cumulative effect of his misogyny, personal and policy-wise, has taken a toll. The repercussions may not be felt until November’s midterms or even 2020, but the subterranean tremors are there....
“The latest polls show Trump losing support among white working-class women, a demographic that helped elect him. In December, the RNC issued a two-page memo warning Trump he was shedding female support after endorsing Moore: from 36 percent to 24 percent of all women, plus a 9 percent drop among Republican women and a 25 percent drop among independent women voters.
“Other recent polls show similar headwinds: Monmouth University has Dems up 13 percent among women; Marist has Dems ahead 21 percent, with both finding 6 in 10 women disapproving of Trump. The Atlantic pulled apart a recent Gallup poll and found Trump’s support among women in 13 battleground states, especially the Rust Belt, declining: since the election, he’s lost 18 percent of white working-class women in Ohio and 19 percent in Wisconsin.
“Ironically, Trump’s closest advisers are female: Kellyanne Conway. Hope Hicks, who was dating Porter until the scandal broke and considered family. Daughter Ivanka, who forced the issue by showing her father a photo of Porter’s ex-wife Colbie Holderness with a black eye. Trump, one source told Vanity Fair, ‘was f—king pissed.’
“The president would do well to beware: Increasingly, female voters – college-educated, working-class, urban and rural, the ones who helped put him in the White House – are pissed, too.”
Friday, White House Chief of Staff Kelly ordered an overhaul of how security clearances are handled, writing in a document: “We should – and in the future, must – do better.” Kelly, among other things, asked the FBI to inform the White House within 48 hours of discovering significant derogatory information about senior presidential staff.
--Porn star Stormy Daniels said she’s now ready to tell all about her tryst with Donald Trump after his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted he paid her $130,000 out of his own pocket a week before the 2016 presidential election.
“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen told the New York Times.
But Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, believes Cohen’s admission that he paid her amounts to a breach of their non-disclosure agreement (NDA) between the parties.
Cohen, it is believed, is shopping a book about the Trump campaign and presidency that is expected to cover his role in the “unfortunate saga” involving Daniels.
The NDA between Daniels and Cohen called for each side not to discuss the agreement, which her legal team says she has abided by, including during television appearances.
But wait...there’s more!
Ronan Farrow’s latest blockbuster report in the New Yorker concerns another extramarital affair that Donald Trump reportedly engaged in, this one with former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Karen McDougal, who recounts her consensual affair with Trump before he was elected.
Farrow obtained an eight-page, handwritten note from McDougal’s friend detailing their relationship and McDougal confirmed that it is her handwriting in the letter.
The media industry has been abuzz with speculation that Farrow’s latest investigation was on sexual misconduct among the powerful, Farrow, along with two New York Times reporters, helping uncover the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
The key to this new story isn’t the revelation that Trump had another affair before he was elected, but for its presentation of the details into how he kept such relationships quiet and how he attempted to buy the silence of the women with whom he interacted. Central to these efforts being the close relationship Trump maintained with American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer.
The Enquirer paid McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights to the story of her affair with Trump, but killed the piece.
Farrow claims the company approached McDougal about extending her agreement to stay silent after news broke that Stormy Daniels had been paid not to discuss her own alleged affair with the president.
“It took my rights away,” McDougal told Farrow. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble, because I don’t know what I’m allowed to talk about. I’m afraid to even mention his name.”
Reportedly Trump was obsessed with his accomplishments, sending McDougal favorable articles about his businesses and showering her with merchandise from his golf courses. The nine-month affair ended in April, 2007. As in the case of Stormy, Trump was married to Melania at the time.
Farrow’s story implies that the Enquirer functioned as a veritable protection racket for the president. Nothing on Trump was published without his approval.
--A New York Times story details just how the Trump inaugural committee spent the record $107 million it raised largely from wealthy donors and corporations, and $26 million went to an event planning firm started by an adviser to the first lady, Melania Trump. Also, despite chairman Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a longtime friend of Trump’s, pledging that the committee would be thrifty with its spending, and would donate leftover funds to charity, only $5 million of the $107 million was indeed donated, according to tax filings released Thursday.
Of the $5 million, $3 million had previously been publicized as going for hurricane relief.
$57 million went to four event-planning companies, including the $26 million to WIS Media Partners of Marina del Rey, Calif. The firm was created in December 2016, about six weeks before the inauguration, and the founder was Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a longtime friend of Mrs. Trump’s.
Ms. Winston Wolkoff made her name planning Manhattan society galas.
--Trump tweets: “4.2 million hard working Americans have already received a large Bonus and/or Pay Increase because of our recently Passed Tax Cut & Jobs Bill...and it will only get better! We are far ahead of schedule.”
“So many positive things going on for the U.S.A. and the Fake News Media just doesn’t want to go there. Same negative stories over and over again! No wonder the People no longer trust the media, whose approval ratings are correctly at their lowest levels in history! #MAGA”
--Follow-up: When I reported that the third-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rachel Brand, had resigned last time, I didn’t know she had taken a senior job at Wal-Mart, where I assume she’ll receive the employee discount.
After suffering through its first correction in two years, the Dow Jones and S&P 500 falling 10.3% and 10.1% in mere days, respectively, Nasdaq 9.7%, knocking off $2 trillion in equities, Wall Street suddenly obsessed with interest rates (while little-known Wall Street products focused on ‘volatility’ wreaked their own havoc)*, suddenly, the Street has a six-session winning streak (save for Nasdaq today), culminating in this week’s action that saw the Dow and S&P 500 rise 4.3% each and Nasdaq 5.3%, with the focus returning to fundamentals, the positive impacts from tax reform and deregulation, as well as synchronized global growth.
*The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (Finra) is looking into whether prices linked to the market’s widely watched “fear index” have been manipulated; the CBOE’s Volatility Index, known as the VIX, to be specific, and whether traders placed bets on S&P 500 options to influence prices for VIX futures, the people said. Finra is overseen by the SEC.
In terms of the economic data, this week had the release of key inflation data for January, with consumer prices up a stronger than expected 0.5%, 0.3% ex-food and energy, but year-over-year, the pace of 2.1%, 1.8% on core, was exactly the same as the prior month.
Producer prices also were up a more than expected, 0.4%, including on core, though the headline number is now 2.7% the last 12 months, up from 2.6%, while the core figure was 2.2%, down a tick from December.
January retail sales came in far less than expected, -0.3%, but still up 3.6% yoy. January industrial production was essentially flat, -0.1%, for a second straight month.
Finally, January housing starts came in far higher than forecast, 1.326 million annualized, the second best figure for the expansion.
The bond market took it all in stride. The yield on the 10-year did hit 2.92% at one point, but finished at 2.87%, largely unchanged. The two-year, however, hit its highest level since September 2008, 2.19%.
The week of Feb. 26, all eyes will be on new Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell and his first trip to Congress to give the traditional semi-annual update to both the House and Senate (Humphrey-Hawkins). The next Fed meeting of the Open Market Committee is March 20-21, at which point the first of three projected rate hikes for 2017 is expected.
Editorial / Wall Street Journal
“New Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell can thank predecessor Janet Yellen for another parting gift: rising prices. The Labor Department reported Wednesday that consumer inflation rose 0.5% in January, or 2.1% over the past year, a bigger spike than most economists predicted.
“The markets reacted better than expected with stocks rising after early losses. But the yield on the 30-year Treasury bond popped above 3.16% and is near its two previous peaks of the past three years. The yield on the 10-year also climbed above 2.9%. The cost of money is going up, which by itself isn’t alarming as economic growth accelerates.
“The bigger question is whether the Fed is repeating its mistake from the early 2000s when it kept interest rates too low for too long even as the economy surged after the 2003 tax cut. This fed the housing bubble, commodity price spikes and a general financial mania that ended in panic and crash.
“The January report is at least a warning. Core prices, which exclude food and energy, were more restrained, rising 0.3% for the month, or 1.82% over the past 12 months....
“The price trend of recent months should certainly rid the Fed of any residual deflation worries. That delusion drove the monetary mistakes of 2003-2005. Recall Ben Bernanke’s famous speech in late 2002 in which he warned of deflation even after the GOP midterm election victory and plans to cut taxes were developing. The current Fed has stuck to its accommodative policies because prices haven’t climbed above its 2% inflation target, and some on the Federal Open Market Committee have wanted to push even past 2%.
“The potential game-changer now is faster economic growth from the new policy mix of tax reform and deregulation. The Fed has been operating under the assumption of Obama-era ‘secular stagnation,’ in economist Larry Summers’ phrase, and even today it is assuming tax reform won’t help growth. New York Fed President William Dudley said recently that growth in 2018 will increase to 2.75% but tax reform will hurt the economy overall.
“But what if he’s wrong and growth does accelerate above 3%? Mr. Dudley and Ms. Yellen have left Mr. Powell to play the bad cop and raise rates faster to avoid a rerun of the Alan Greenspan-Ben Bernanke mid-2000s....
“Faster growth amid tight labor markets should lead to higher wages, but the Fed needs to make sure the gains aren’t stolen by higher prices. That’s what has happened in the United Kingdom, where inflation is above 3%. The Tories can tell you how that played in last year’s election. Ms. Yellen recently said she regretted not being reappointed to a second term as Fed Chair, but she is understanding the challenge she left Mr. Powell.”
As for President Trump’s budget, I was thinking when it was released, what is this all about? Isn’t it worthless? Yes, it is. Why?
Editorial / Wall Street Journal
“The White House released the President’s $4.4 trillion budget request for fiscal 2019 on Monday, and talk about an afterthought. Congress just passed a two-year budget outline that supersedes nearly everything Mr. Trump is proposing.”
Yes, Congress still must work out the details in spending bills, so maybe something from the Trump budget finds its way into the final product, but on items like Trump’s $200 billion proposal for infrastructure, you can kiss that goodbye. The GOP put $20 billion for public works for two years into the budget signed by the president and that’s all you’re going to see, with annual deficits already likely to exceed $1 trillion.
Europe and Asia
A flash reading on fourth quarter GDP for the eurozone (EA19) from Eurostat had it up 0.6% for the final three months of 2017, vs. Q3’s 0.7%. Year-over-year, GDP rose a strong 2.7%.
Germany’s economy grew at a 2.9% pace last year, France 2.4%, Spain 3.1%, Italy 1.6%, and the Netherlands 3.1%.
The U.K. was just 1.5%,while the U.S. came in at 2.5%.
As noted above consumer prices in the U.K. rose 3% in January, unchanged from December’s pace, according to the Office of National Statistics, which isn’t good, seeing as prices continue to outpace wages.
According to France’s officials statistics office, INSEE, the unemployment rate dropped below 9 percent for the first time since 2009, adding weight to efforts by President Emmanuel Macron to liberalize a rigid labor market.
Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel defended “painful” concessions she has made to the Social Democrats (SPD) to win a fourth term as chancellor and said criticism among her conservatives was not a sign her authority was waning. Merkel did say she wanted a younger generation of her Christian Democrats (CDU) to fill ministerial posts in a renewed coalition with the SPD. The CDU, and its Bavarian sister party ally, is most upset that the SPD is gaining the powerful finance ministry in the deal.
The SPD’s 464,000 members still must approve the coalition and are doing so in a mail ballot, results of which are to be announced March 4. While it is not expected, should the SPD reject the arrangement, Merkel said Germany would probably hold a new election.
The SPD had some chaos of its own when its leader, Martin Schulz, was named foreign minister, but then announced he was withdrawing his candidacy and would not serve in the government, as Schulz faced a revolt from party members incensed at his decision to take the post, despite pledging never to serve under Merkel. Schulz then said he was stepping down because he didn’t want to kill the entire deal.
Tuesday, SPD leaders unanimously backed Andrea Nahles, 47, as chairwoman, who said she would “lobby in favor of entering into a grand coalition.” Nahles is a plain-talking, former labor minister under Merkel, who hopes to shore up support among blue-collar members for another stint in government. Her party roots go back to when she was head of the youth arm in the 1990s.
Brexit: Little news this week on this front, with Prime Minister Theresa May announcing she would attempt to unite her feuding cabinet and convince a skeptical EU that Britain knows what it wants from Brexit in a series of speeches over the coming weeks. A BMG poll last weekend showed 74 percent of Britons were unclear about May’s strategy. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech on Wednesday labeled a ‘rallying cry’ to those on both sides of the Brexit debate, Johnson a fierce proponent of splitting from the EU.
Ireland: Mary Lou McDonald, 48, a Dublin-born politician from a middle class background, was confirmed as the new president of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, taking over from Gerry Adams in a handover the party hopes will advance its ambition of governing on both sides of the Irish border, McDonald having no direct involvement in the 30-year Northern Irish conflict.
There is little doubt McDonald can attract a different vote as there were those who never would have voted for Sinn Fein because of Adams and his past links.
Turning to Asia...nothing of note on China, the country in the midst of its annual Lunar New Year holiday, where it largely shuts down for two weeks, the markets for one (Wed. thru next Tues.).
But in Japan, the government reported GDP in the fourth quarter rose 0.1% quarter-over-quarter, 0.5% annualized, a little less than expected, though it was the eighth consecutive quarter of growth. For all of 2017, GDP came in at 1.6%, the fastest pace in 7 years.
Separately, the government announced that Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda has been reappointed for another term, while selecting an advocate of bolder monetary easing as one of his deputies, a sign the central bank will be in no rush to dial back its massive stimulus program. The selection of the new BOJ leadership comes at a crucial time for Japan and global markets, which have been rattled on expectations major central banks will whittle down their crisis-mode stimulus.
The BOJ has been conducting an ultra-easy stimulus for 10 years, in a futile attempt to stoke inflation, while other central banks around the world have begun to tighten in one form or another (including less bond buying, as is the case with the ECB).
--With the returns for the week as noted above, the Dow had its best week since Nov. 2016, but for the S&P it was its best since 2013. Nasdaq’s 5.3% gain was reportedly its best since 2011, though my own records show a 5.3% week in 2014 as well. That said, still pretty strong.
--U.S. Treasury Yields
6-mo. 1.82% 2-yr. 2.19% 10-yr. 2.87% 30-yr. 3.13%
--The International Energy Agency in its closely watched monthly report said U.S. shale production is growing faster this year than it did even during the boom years of $100 a barrel oil from 2011 to 2014, despite the fact oil prices are 40% lower.
The problem is the production could overwhelm global demand, forcing a reversal in prices that have recovered nicely from the lows.
The IEA said shale producers “cut costs dramatically” during the industry downturn, and then they took advantage of OPEC’s decision to curb production, which helped lead to the price rise from the low $40s. The shale producers are nimble, versus the likes of Russia.
U.S. production overall could top 11 million barrels a day by 2019, which would rival Russia, the world’s largest producer.
--Total U.S. household debt rose by $193 billion to an all-time high of $13.15 trillion at yearend 2017, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Mortgage debt balances rose to $8.88 trillion from the prior quarter, with annual household debt growth overall (including student, auto and credit card) rising a fifth consecutive year.
--Cisco announced a $25bn stock buyback as a result of tax reform, with the company having $71bn of cash held overseas at the end of January, the third largest pile of unrepatriated foreign earnings of any U.S. company, after Apple and Microsoft.
Separately, the company is calling for revenue growth of 3-5 percent in the current quarter, due to a strengthening global economy. CEO Chuck Robbins said, “There’s a great deal of confidence on a global basis, probably a lot more than we have seen for a very long time.”
Cisco’s earnings per share, ex-charges, beat the Street, ditto revenue, which was up 3 percent from a year before.
--Shares in Under Armour rose sharply after the company reported better-than-expected sales for the fourth quarter and issued an improved margin outlook for this year.
Revenues for the three months to December were 5 percent higher than a year earlier at $1.36bn, ahead of the $1.3bn analysts had forecast. The growth was led by international sales, up 45 percent in the Middle East and Africa, 55.7 percent in Asia-Pacific, and 36 percent in Latin America, which helped offset declines at the North American division, which generates about 76 percent of total group sales. There, revenues declined 4.5 percent.
The slowdown in North America had led the company last October to sharply reduce its full-year sales and profit guidance, and while the company is forecasting low single-digit revenue growth for 2018, within the North American division, sales are expected to fall again, with overseas up 25 percent.
--Credit Suisse Group AG CEO Tidjane Thiam said an exchange-traded note tied to volatility that lost most of its value last week and was one of the causes for the overall market slide was a tool created for hedge funds and professionals.
“This is a daily trading tool for very sophisticated investors, to help them manage their daily trading risks,” Thiam told Bloomberg, citing the note’s prospectus.
“You should not invest in it for any period of time superior to one day, because you risk losing all or a substantial portion of your investment.”
This is kind of comical. No doubt there were many not-so-sophisticated investors who lost everything. Credit Suisse said it was shutting down the product because there is no prospect of price recovery.
--PepsiCo’s sales topped Wall Street forecasts in the fourth quarter, thanks to higher demand at its snacks business (think Doritos and Cheetos) which made up for slowing sales of sugary drinks. The company also announced a stock buyback of up to $15 billion and a 15 percent increase in its dividend.
Revenues at the Frito-Lay division rose 5 percent in the quarter ended Dec. 30, while the North American beverages business that includes Mountain Dew and Gatorade fell 3 percent.
Total revenue rose slightly to $19.53 billion. Earnings topped estimates by a penny.
The company did announce it was increasing advertising behind the big brands, but that the campaign would take several quarters to fully bear fruit. For example, during the recent Super Bowl, PepsiCo ran adverts for Pepsi Cola, Doritos and Mountain Dew, while the year before it only ran a spot for LIFEWTR, the bottled water brand.
--Shares in Chipotle Mexican Grill, which have been hammered for some time, soared on word the company was naming Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol as its next chief executive, tapping a fast-food veteran to try to revive the struggling burrito chain.
Niccol has run Taco Bell for three years at a time the chain was the most successful in the portfolio of Yum Brands Inc., which includes KFC and Pizza Hut. Current Chipotle CEO Steve Ellis had previously announced he was stepping down to become executive chairman to allow an outsider to address the chain’s food-safety issues that have led to a decline in customer traffic.
Niccol helped revive Taco Bell after a serious of performance issues of its own, including a lawsuit claiming the taco mixture was more filler than beef. While the suit was withdrawn, the damage to the brand had been done. Niccol then repositioned the company as a youthful lifestyle brand, while introducing breakfast, mobile ordering and payment, and products like Doritos Locos Tacos.
--Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon.com Inc. was preparing to launch a delivery service for businesses and the shares of FedEx and UPS fell sharply. Dubbed “Shipping with Amazon,” the service is expected to start in Los Angeles, and expand over time.
But as the Journal’s Laura Stevens points out, “Amazon’s ability to one day haul and deliver packages for other retailers and consumers at a national scale would require tens of billions of dollars in investment, analysts say. It would also need thousands of trucks, hundreds of planes and to build thousands of sorting centers to handle millions of packages a day.”
To date, Amazon has leased 40 planes and has roughly 300 warehouses in the U.S., including fulfillment centers. Ergo, Amazon is “far away from having enough capacity to handle all of its own shipping,” as a Wolfe Research analyst put it, much less being in a position to truly compete with FedEx and UPS.
As with everything else involving Amazon, the initial response among potential competitors is to panic, but in this instance it does not seem warranted.
--Amazon’s Whole Foods Markets has been losing traction due to a policy it adopted prior to Amazon’s acquisition of it. A year ago, Whole Foods’ adopted a supply chain system called “order-to-shelf” inventory management that was designed to create more consistency in what is ordered, according to the chain, helping reduce or eliminate the time that goods are kept in a store’s stockroom before hitting the aisles, but instead it has led to major shortages, and it’s not confined to just perishables like meat and produce.
Part of the problem was demand soared on some items once Amazon came in and cut prices selectively.
--OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP said on Saturday it has cut its sales force in half and will stop promoting opioids to physicians, following harsh criticism of the ways that drugmakers market addictive painkillers.
The sales representatives will no longer discuss opioid products in their visits to physician offices and instead will focus on Symproic, a drug for treating opioid-induced constipation, and other potential non-opioid products, Purdue said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016
--Barnes & Noble Inc. had a lousy holiday season and now it’s laying off a significant number of workers, though the bookseller didn’t say exactly how many positions are being cut, though it’s talking $40 million in annual savings from the action.
For the nine-week holiday period ending Dec. 30, same-store sales fell 6.4% and online sales declined 4.5%.
Demos Parneros, who took over as CEO last April, said the chain will focus more on books with a narrowing of the rest of the product line.
B&N was already down to 26,000 employees at 633 stores as of April 2017, from 40,000 workers and 800 stores in 2008.
--Billionaire hedge fund investor Steve Cohen is looking to get back in the game after his ban from the securities industry expired in 2017, with his Point72 Asset Management expected to open as a full-fledged hedge fund sometime this year.
But a lawsuit from a female executive, Lauren Bonner, is casting a shadow on the firm as she describes a toxic environment for women.
For starters, just one of 125 portfolio managers is a woman, and women are often excluded from meetings. And then you have the executive who, according to the suit, had the word “pussy” written on his white board for several weeks last year.
Mr. Cohen is not accused of wrongdoing, and Point72 has denied the allegations.
--Campbell Soup Co. reported earnings that beat the Street, the maker of canned soup, Pepperidge Farm cookies and V8 juice posting revenue of $21.8 billion, also exceeding forecasts, but shares fell amid word Wal-Mart was cutting back on canned soup orders.
--Shares in Coca-Cola finished largely flat after the company reported adjusted earnings that were a penny ahead of the Street, with revenue also beating forecasts. Overall drink volumes were flat, though the company reported 2% increases in its tea and coffee division, as well as the water and sports-drinks unit.
--Billionaire investor Peter Thiel announced he was relocating his home and personal investment firms to Los Angeles from San Francisco and scaling back his involvement in Silicon Valley, marking a rupture between the tech industry and its most prominent conservative. Thiel has also been mulling dropping off the board of Facebook, where he has been a director since 2005.
--The wicked flu season has led to Americans drinking more orange juice. OJ sales rose 0.9% in the four weeks ended Jan. 20, the first year-over-year increase in nearly five years, according to Nielsen, though this trend isn’t expected to continue once flu season is over.
Greater public awareness of orange juice’s high sugar content has hurt its image as a healthy drink. Flavored water, smoothies and energy drinks such as Red Bull have dented sales of traditional fruit juices. Hurricane Irma and a crop-destroying disease called “citrus greening” have also pushed up the price of oranges, making OJ less competitive.
--Disneyland is raising prices, as much as 18% for annual pass holders. Daily tickets rose nearly 9%.
A one-day, one-park adult ticket for Disneyland or California Adventure remains $97 for low-demand days, such as weekdays in May. But a ticket for regular-demand days is $117, up from $110. The price of a ticket on peak-demand days is $135, up from $124.
As for annual passes, the least-expensive pass costs $729, up from $619. Good lord.
A $1 billion, 14-acre expansion called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – is not scheduled to open until 2019. It will feature two rides and a landscape inspired by the Star Wars franchise.
--CBS Corp. reported revenue rose 11% in the fourth quarter as the company pulled in more money from pay-TV distributors, content licensing and its own streaming services. Advertising revenue declined slightly from a year ago, partly due to 2016 being a presidential election year.
CBS’ two direct-to-consumer services – CBS All Access and Showtime OTT – have reached nearly five million customers.
CEO Leslie Moonves said 2018 would be “the greatest financial performance by far in our company’s history.”
--Viewership for the Olympics was down 7% the first week from the first week of the 2014 Games in Sochi, which NBC says isn’t that bad since it’s still head and shoulders above any other network programming. I didn’t watch much myself until last night, Thursday.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “Since 2014, the average prime-time audience for entertainment for NBC is down 5.6%, while CBS is off more than 12%, ABC has lost 16%, and Fox is down nearly 30%” (in case you wondered why they recently paid up for Thursday Night Football).
NBC, a unit of Comcast Corp., said it sold more than $900 million in national advertising for the Games.
--As noted the other day, the father of emerging markets investing, Mark Mobius, is retiring and he had an interview in the most recent issue of Barron’s.
Barron’s: What’s the biggest risk to emerging markets?
Mobius: A geopolitical accident in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. Take Saudi Arabia. You could go there and say the princes are in control – it’s OK. But underlying that is a society that feels very differently. Because of the internet and the unhappiness in segments of the population, that can lead to a big upset. We are seeing this in the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These are examples of the strife that can lead to a big blow-up in the market.
Barron’s: What were some of the most important lessons you learned from John Templeton?
Mobius: People who think they know all the answers probably don’t even know the questions. That was very astute. He also said the four most dangerous words were, “This time is different.” But the one that really has stuck with me is to buy when others are despondently selling and sell when others are greedily buying. That’s what it’s all about, but it’s the most difficult thing to do.
Syria: Last week I wrote:
“Washington and Moscow have been at odds all week, as U.S.-led air strikes hit forces allied with the Damascus regime in eastern Syria late Wednesday and early Thursday (2/7 and 2/8).
“U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the coalition acted in self-defense after pro-Damascus forces moved on an area under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. says at least 100 pro-regime fighters were killed.”
Well, we learned early this week that the strikes likely killed the greatest number of Russians since the end of the cold War – as many as 200 soldiers. But there will be no repercussions because the exact number of dead will never be known as the Russians were mercenaries, not regular troops, who were attempting to take over a refinery in the oil-rich province of Deir-Ez-Zor, which formerly provided most of ISIS’ oil wealth in Syria.
In a statement on the incident, the Russian Defense Ministry called them “Syrian militia members” conducting “an operation against an ISIS sleeper cell.”
Russia said on Thursday that only five of its citizens were killed in clashes with U.S.-led coalition forces, but they were not Russian military personnel.
Ralph Peters / New York Post
“It was inevitable. Russian ‘mercenaries’ attacked a forward base in Syria where they knew American advisors were stationed. It was a test. And our military passed.
“Let’s hope the administration passes, too.
“The most important thing about this attack on our troops is that it couldn’t have happened without Vladimir Putin’s personal approval. The core of the attacking force came from the Wagner Group, Russia’s version of the American thugs who worked for the company formerly known as Blackwater. But while the media refers to the Russians as mercenaries, the Wagner Group functions as an auxiliary of the Russian military – it previously gave command performances in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. It exists to give Moscow (barely) plausible deniability.
“It also allows the Kremlin to avoid reporting formal military casualties....
“But the bottom line is that these killers – primarily ethnic Russians, but also recruited regionally – work for Putin. Russian suggestions that this was a rogue operation are ludicrous: An armored task force including hundreds of Russian citizens doesn’t attack U.S. troops and blindside Putin. Doesn’t work that way, comrade....
“After butchering Syrian civilians with impunity, it must have shocked the Kremlin’s gangsters-in-uniform to face U.S. airpower, but the Iranians in Syria paid a still-higher price: The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) tore apart Assad’s air defenses and hit Iranian command-and-control nodes. We killed sergeants, the Israelis killed colonels.
“Iran wants Israel destroyed and all Jews dead. Putin wants the U.S. out of Syria, but doesn’t really mind if Israel weakens Iran’s grip at this point – leaving Assad more reliant on Russia. Lots of moving parts in this scenario.
“But what’s clear as vodka is that Putin was willing to risk a large number of his men in the hope they’d kill enough American advisers to make us flee Syria. It didn’t work, but Putin won’t give up. He’s paid a much higher price in Syria than he initially expected, and he wants a return on his investment. He’ll try other ways to drive us out, perhaps using terror attacks to kill Americans.
“The Russians are at war with us, and we’re at war with them, but both sides would find an admission inconvenient. So we’ll continue deconflicting flight paths and coordinating boundaries...while Putin’s henchmen calculate how best to wound us, from attacking our elections to killing Americans in uniform.
“We passed a test last week. But that was a pop quiz, not the final exam.”
Meanwhile, French President Macron has threatened to strike Syria if proof emerges that its government is using chemical weapons against civilians
There have been numerous reports of suspected chlorine attacks since early January, with the Syrian opposition claiming the government has been dropping the bombs.
Noah Feldman / Bloomberg
“It’s official: Syria has become a war of all against all. The latest proof is the report that U.S. planes killed somewhere between four and 200 Russian ‘mercenaries’ last week.
“A few days before that news broke, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that came from Syria and then attacked Iranian targets, losing an F-16 in the process. And just a few days before that, Turkey mounted an extensive war against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds – probably the same people who called in the airstrikes against the Russians.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Thomas Hobbes is in the house.
“It’s hard to overstate the consequences of Syria’s gradual descent into this stage of chaos. Resolving the Syrian civil war was never going to be easy. But once a country becomes the venue for broader international conflict, resolution can become downright impossible.
“Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the present poses a perfect example. As the scholar Barnett Rubin argued even before the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion, what made the Afghan conflict unresolvable was the involvement of so many outside actors. That war, seen in its truest terms, has been going on for almost 40 years, with no end in sight. The same fate may await Syria, which is only seven years into its conflict....
“But it is a big step from a civil war encouraged and supported by outsiders to a situation where Turkey, Iran and Israel have aircraft over Syrian airspace. And it is a bigger step still to the direct military involvement of global actors like the U.S. and Russia from air and ground.
“Each step along the way has made local sense. The U.S. wanted to fight Islamic State, which demanded air support for whoever would do the work on the ground. That turned out to be the Syrian Kurds, who became, in essence, allies for hire
“Russia cared less about fighting Islamic State than about taking the opportunity to save the Assad regime and re-establish itself as a significant Middle Eastern actor, which it had not been since the fall of the Soviet Union. Helping Assad prevail took a lot of air power. As it turned out, it also required some boots on the ground.
“Wanting to avoid the use of regular Russian soldiers, President Vladimir Putin took advantage of a tactic he had used effectively in Crimea and Ukraine. He deployed what have been called ‘little green men’” non-uniformed Russians who might be regular army without insignias or else private contractors.
“This trick shouldn’t altogether be unfamiliar to the Americans, who pioneered the use of private military contractors in Iraq. The aim then wasn’t to deny a U.S. ground presence, but to minimize the number of official troops on the ground without sacrificing leverage....
“Turkey’s intervention is driven by the desire to stop Syrian Kurds from creating an autonomous zone analogous to the one that Iraq’s Kurds have sustained for decades.
“Iran is flying drones over Syria to consolidate its military gains from Assad’s survival. Israel is next door, and it has been signaling that it cannot tolerate the very presence that Iran wants to establish....
“(These) crosscutting international interests won’t go away anytime soon.
“Putin needs to show that he got something concrete out of victory. That means staying present to make sure Assad doesn’t totter if the Russians withdraw.
“The Syrian Kurds aren’t going anywhere, because they have nowhere else to go. That assures Turkey’s involvement so long as the Kurds haven’t been defeated.
“Iran has a long-term interest in Syria. Israel has a long-term interest in resisting Iran so long as Iran continues to deny its right to exist.
“As for the U.S., it’s more likely to stop fighting than anyone else. But that won’t be easy if massacres multiply as the U.S. tries to step down its air support for the Kurds.”
De-escalation doesn’t seem to be in the cards. As Noah Feldman concludes: “The agony of the Syrian people isn’t close to being over.”
Israel: I wrote some of the following last Friday night, 2/10/18, in this space:
“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a rare visit to the occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday, peering across the nearby border into Syria and warning Israel’s enemies not to ‘test’ its resolve. Netanyahu has been cautioning against any attempt by Iran to deepen its military foothold in Syria or construct missile factories in neighboring Lebanon....
“Netanyahu said in remarks from the Golan: ‘We seek peace but are prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us.’....
“But the prime minister could be indicted this coming week....”
Hours later, this....
Ronen Bergman / New York Times
“In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Middle East was on the brink of yet another war.
“During the night, according to my high-ranking sources, Israel’s intelligence services had been tracking an Iranian drone that was launched by the Quds division of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the Tiyas air base in central Syria.
“A minute and a half after the drone entered Israeli airspace, an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter shot it out of the sky. Simultaneously, eight Israeli fighter jets fired missiles at the drone’s command and control center at Tiyas, blowing it up, along with the Iranians manning the center. (Iran denied that its drone was shot down or that its troops were killed.)
“The Syrian military, allied with Iran, responded by firing surface-to-air missiles at the Israeli jets. The missiles locked onto two Israeli aircraft. One of these managed to evade the rockets, but the other was hit by fragments of the exploding missile. The two-man crew ejected and landed in Israeli territory. One of them was gravely wounded.
“This was the first aircraft that Israel had lost in combat since 1982, and its air force, its reputation for invincibility injured, responded angrily by striking at the Syrian air defense system, knocking out five batteries, as well as destroying four Iranian communications facilities in Syria.
“The response to the downing of the Israeli jet was intended to be a lot more violent. Israel has long maintained contingency plans for a huge offensive operation in Syria. On Saturday, the generals took them out of the drawer. But the Iranians and the Syrians, along with their Lebanese ally Hezbollah, realized that something like that was in the offing, and let it be known that they would not let it happen without responding. The Israelis heard this, but were not deterred. The Israel Defense Forces went on to a war footing.
“It soon became clear, though, who is calling the shots. The Israeli bombardment of the air base had been dangerously close to Russian forces. A furious phone call on Saturday morning from President Vladimir Putin of Russia was enough to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel cancel the plans....
“War was averted – but only for now. All of the ingredients for an extremely violent eruption in the Middle East remain in place.”
Saturday, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement: “We strongly call on all sides involved to show restraint and avoid all acts that could lead to complicating the situation further.”
Separately, as expected the Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust as a result of two long-running corruption investigations, but even as it was expected, it still struck as a bombshell, leaving many Israeli commentators to say openly that Netanyahu’s 11 years in power are coming to an end. A defiant Netanyahu has vowed to continue to stay in office.
One case concerns the “gifts affair,” where it is alleged that Netanyahu improperly accepted expensive gifts from different businessmen.
In the other case, the “Yediot Aharonot affair,” Netanyahu allegedly negotiated with publisher Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes for favorable coverage of himself in Yediot Aharonot in exchange for support of a bill to weaken Israel Hayom, the largest circulation Hebrew-language paper and Yediot’s biggest competitor.
Netanyahu has rejected both allegations claiming that “it is not illegal to accept gifts from friends” and that “Nothing will happen because nothing happened.” [Jerusalem Post]
The recommendations made by the police are just that – recommendations. The final decision on whether or not to charge the prime minister will be made by Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu and previously served as his cabinet secretary. The AG could take some time before issuing his ruling. In the meantime, the prime minister is not required to resign, and must do so only after a peremptory Supreme Court verdict, where an appeal was submitted and rejected.
In his television address to the people, Netanyahu said: “I will continue to lead Israel responsibly and faithfully for as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you....
“Over the years, I have been the subject of at least 15 inquiries and investigations. Some have ended with thunderous police recommendations like those of tonight. All of those attempts resulted in nothing, and this time again they will come to nothing.” [BBC News]
Lebanon: Sec. of State Rex Tillerson was in Beirut on Thursday and warned Lebanon that Hezbollah’s growing arsenal and involvement in regional conflicts threatened Lebanon’s security. Speaking alongside Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Tillerson also said the U.S. was engaging with Lebanon and Israel to ensure their border remained calm.
But Israel has repeatedly struck Hezbollah in Syria, where it is fighting alongside Bashar Assad. And Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s complicated coalition government. Tillerson said, “The people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hezbollah’s actions and its growing arsenal bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon.”
Israel has accused of Iran of seeking to set up weapons factories in Lebanon, and the Israeli military said last month that the country had turned into one “large missile factory.”
Iraq: Baghdad’s allies on Wednesday pledged as much as $30 billion in aid, investments and loans towards the country’s reconstruction, a significant show of support that still fell far short of the amount needed to repair the damage caused by the war against ISIS. Instead the estimate is for more like $46 billion, and to get the seven provinces where most of the fighting took place really back on their feet, the World Bank and Iraqi government are estimating at around $88 billion, including upgrading the oil and gas infrastructure.
Rebuilding has massive implications for the Iraqi government and its attempts to keep the peace and prevent the likes of ISIS from re-emerging, while the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies are trying to contain Iran’s influence. Iran was present at the conference, which took place in Kuwait, but didn’t make any pledge of assistance.
The U.S., having led the fighting to take out Islamic State, doesn’t want to contribute direct aid, but instead wants the Gull states to step up. Washington also wants the private sector involved; major companies such as Halliburton, GE and Honeywell.
Russia: British officials blamed Russia for last June’s massive “Petya” cyberattack, which crippled computer networks at multinational firms such as FedEx, container-ship giant A.P. Moeller-Maersk, and Merck, as well as Ukraine, which bore the brunt of the attack. London’s reaction was the first time a major Western government has pinned blame on Moscow for the incident.
U.K. intelligence officials said late Wednesday that they concluded that Russia’s military was “almost certainly responsible” for the attack.
So Thursday, the White House weighed in and blamed Russia for the cyberattack as well. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement: “It was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict. This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyberattack that will be met with international consequences.”
The Kremlin then denied being behind the attack, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling the allegations part of a “Russophobic” campaign being conducted in some Western countries. [This was all before today’s pronouncement from Robert Mueller.]
Days earlier, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia and other adversaries will continue to engage in cyber warfare to “degrade our democratic values and weaken our alliances.”
“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Coats saying President Putin has been emboldened by Russia’s successful interference in the 2016 elections and is targeting the 2018 election cycle.
“There should be no doubt that (Putin) views the past effort as successful.”
Although President Trump has repeatedly wavered on Russia’s involvement, Coats and the nation’s five other top intelligence officials Tuesday each affirmed a 2016 assessment of the entire intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election and has not relented in a strategy to undermine future elections.
“This is not going to change or stop,” National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers said.
But from Moscow on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia has tangible evidence of “the destructive interference of some Western countries” in Russia’s domestic affairs ahead of the presidential election there next month. Zakharova said if such activity doesn’t stop, “we will have to take tough counter-measures.”
This is laughable, seeing as how on the same day, Thursday, Russian authorities blocked opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s website just weeks before the vote. Navalny said he had been warned Russian regulators would bar access to his site unless he removed material on it that alleges billionaire Oleg Deripaska met with Russia’s deputy prime minister on a yacht where the two discussed U.S.-Russian relations, per my bit in this column the other day. Deripaska accused Navalny of spreading lies about him and went to court to have the material removed.
On a totally different matter, investigators probing the crash of a Saratov Airlines jet that went down minutes after take-off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on Sunday believe the speed sensors that were iced over may have given the pilots the wrong speed data. All 71 people on board were killed. “More than 1,400 body parts” have been recovered from the site.
North Korea: Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said the United States is open to talks with the North, but that such talks would not equate to negotiations. Pence said in an interview with Axios the U.S. would continue to intensify diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea over its nuclear ambitions, but that sanctions would not be lifted until its nuclear program was abandoned.
Eli Lake / Bloomberg
“One could be forgiven for thinking the symbolism at the Olympics signaled a hard line from the Donald Trump administration on North Korea.
“Before the opening ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence met with North Korean dissidents. At the opening ceremonies, he sat with the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was imprisoned and injured so gravely during his detention that he died shortly after being flown back to the U.S. In Tokyo, Pence announced that new sanctions would be unveiled soon against North Korea.
“But the symbols masked an important concession. Pence on Sunday told the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin that the U.S. was willing to talk with Pyongyang even before the Hermit Kingdom takes any steps ratcheting down the crisis it has created.
“That concession averted a break with the South Korean government of Moon Jae-in, who wants to turn the Olympic thaw into more substantive negotiations with the Kim Jong Un regime.
“It was not a total collapse of the U.S. position either. Pence now says that while the U.S. is willing to talk about talks, the sanctions and other pressure will not abate until North Korea begins making nuclear concessions of its own.
“All of that said, most Korea experts concede there is no real chance that talks or financial penalties will persuade Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. The sanctions might be effective in starving the regime of resources to complete its work on a nuclear weapon (a nuclear warhead for its missiles that would survive re-entry into the atmosphere from space). But as a cudgel to get interim concessions, they are almost certainly futile.
“And this brings us back to Pence’s symbolic diplomacy last week. He thanked the dissidents last Friday for their bravery. He said he wanted to make sure the world heard the stories of men and women who suffered torture, amputation and deprivation to escape hell on earth. ‘The American people stand with you for freedom, and you represent the people of North Korea, millions of which long to be free as well,’ Pence said.
“It was an inspiring moment. But raising awareness is the work of journalists and activists. Statesmen have the power to do more. What does America’s broader approach to North Korea offer the people who must endure the Kim family’s rule?....
“U.S. pressure is designed to extract a nuclear pause and ultimately disarmament. Where is the strategy for a free North Korea?
“While it’s fashionable to say everything has been tried during the last 30 years of nuclear brinkmanship with the Kim family, the element that has been consistently lacking in U.S. policy has been any real effort to aid North Koreans who want to live with dignity....
“Pence’s focus on North Korean political prisoners is a good start. But that’s all it is. Until we see evidence of an American plan to end North Korean tyranny, the vice president’s good intentions are hollow, and the dissidents with whom he meets are props.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. director of national intelligence Dan Coats warned in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual hearing on “Worldwide Threats” that time was running out for the U.S. to act on the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
North Korea presents “a potentially existential” threat and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year, Coats said.
“Decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this. Our goal is a peaceful settlement. We are using maximum pressure on North Korea in various ways.”
Walter Russell Mead / Wall Street Journal
“The toughest event at this year’s Winter Olympics has turned out to be the diplomatic lunge. Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s ruthless dictator, emerged as the early favorite, dazzling her hosts and earning points for inviting South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. The media went into full fanboy mode, giving Ms. Kim the best publicity since Vogue magazine gushed in 2011 that Bashar al-Assad’s wife was “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies...a thin long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind.”
“In contrast, a dour Mike Pence not only avoided Ms. Kim during Friday’s opening ceremonies but did not stand when the ‘united’ Korean athletic team was introduced, which angered some South Koreans. The Trump administration has assiduously worked to isolate North Korea; is Ms. Kim’s charm offensive now driving a wedge between the U.S. and the South?
“The answer, at least for now, turns out to be no. In the past, South Korean presidents who jumped at North Korean offers of talks and exchanges ended up suffering political consequences when Pyongyang failed to follow up with real concessions. Moon Jae-in was too smart and too cautious to take the bait. Rather than accepting the invitation to Pyongyang, he urged the Kim regime to talk directly with the U.S.
“By the time the buzzer sounded, it was Mr. Moon who had won the diplomatic gold medal, while Ms. Kim went home empty-handed. Mr. Moon got a political boost from Ms. Kim’s visit and the appearance of a thaw between the Koreas, but he avoided the backlash from appearing naïve or overeager. He also reminded the Americans that South Korea cannot be taken for granted; without Seoul’s support, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is unsustainable.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Michael R. Gordon and Felicia Schwartz report:
“Trump administration officials have shifted their tactical approach to North Korea after internal deliberations in recent weeks, senior officials said, closing ranks with Seoul and signaling a readiness to hold preliminary talks with Pyongyang.
“The new emphasis on what some experts call ‘talks about talks’ is a change from last year, when the U.S. insisted North Korea commit itself to denuclearization before negotiations could commence.
“On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave one of the clearest indications yet of the evolution in U.S. thinking.
“ ‘We really need to have some discussions that precede any formal negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something meaningful,’ Mr. Tillerson said during a visit to Cairo.”
Following the Winter Games, we still have the Paralympics in PyeongChang, so it’s possible that Kim Jong Un won’t start testing his missiles again until that is over.
As for U.S.-South Korean relations, we’ll learn how strong the ties are, post-Games, by how quickly joint military exercises are held again, presumably in April, or sooner.
South Africa: President Jacob Zuma attempted to cling to power but finally resigned this week amid multiple allegations of corruption. The ruling African National Congress ordered Zuma to step down. Senior ANC members had openly said they wanted Zuma out to leave the party time to prepare for next year’s national elections to try and restore its image.
Zuma said in a nationally televised address Wednesday: “No life should be lost in my name and also the ANC should never be divided in my name.” But he disagreed with the decision of the party and said he has always been a “disciplined member of the ANC.”
Cyril Ramaphosa was then elected president by parliament, a process that took all of eight minutes. In brief comments after the vote, he said the problem of corruption is “on our radar screen.”
Last year, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to repay millions of dollars in public funds spent on refurbishing his private homestead. He also faces more than 783 allegations of corruption relating to a 1990s arms deal. Zuma denies all the corruption allegations against him.
Zimbabwe: Longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai died in a South African hospital at the age of 65. He had been in and out of the hospital since disclosing in June 2016 that he had colon cancer.
Since day one of StocksandNews I have touted Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, who had an election stolen from him by strongman Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party, which helped earn Mugabe multiple “Dirtball of the Year” awards.
In 2007, the world was shocked to see pictures of Tsvangirai’s injuries after he was beaten by police for taking part in a prayer meeting that authorities said was illegal.
Over the years, he was arrested repeatedly and accused of treason and plotting to assassinate Mugabe, but was never convicted.
When he and Mugabe formed a power-sharing government, with Tsvangirai as prime minister in 2009, days after being sworn in, Tsvangirai and his wife, Susan, were involved in a suspicious horrific car accident that claimed Susan’s life, but from which he walked away. This was a good man. RIP.
--Presidential tracking polls....
Gallup: 40% approval of President Trump’s performance, 57% disapproval [2/11/18]
Rasmussen: 47% approval, 52% disapproval
--New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand scored an interview with “60 Minutes” last Sunday, which billed her as one of the “most prominent political faces of the #MeToo movement,” much to the dismay of many other prominent Senate Democrats who are jockeying for potential White House runs.
--Mitt Romney formally announced he was running for the senate in Utah. Clear sailing for him.
--Investigators with the Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife during a European trip last summer that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $122,000, according to the VA’s inspector general.
Shulkin’s chief of staff made false representations to a VA ethics lawyer and altered an official email to secure approval for taxpayer funding of Shulkin’s wife’s flights, which cost more than $4,000.
Shulkin told ethics officials the Wimbledon tickets were provided by a personal friend who was an adviser for the Invictus Games, a sporting event for wounded warriors, but the IG concluded that was not the case.
The trip was also with three other VA executives and a six-member security detail ostensibly to attend meetings in Denmark and a summit on veterans’ affairs in London, but half the 10-day trip last July was spent sightseeing
IG Michael Missal wrote of Shulkin directing an aide beforehand to plan the leisure activities with his wife and the aide made “extensive use of official time” to make the arrangements, investigators found. [The aide resigned today.]
“This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife,” Missal wrote.
What a freakin’ dirtball! I don’t want to ever hear President Trump praise this guy again.
--Here in New Jersey, in a hotel room the other day in Voorhees Township, three people were found dead from apparent drug overdoses. Police were called to check after a concerned co-worker called, saying the three people had not shown up for work. The police officer working the case said he had never seen a triple fatal like this.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 2,056 people died of overdoses in New Jersey, or over five a day, which was a staggering increase from the 1,454 deaths reported in 2015.
--U.S. motor-vehicle deaths hit 40,100 last year, the second year in a row the 40,000 mark was surpassed, according to the National Safety Council. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will release its own data later this year.
--So you know the wives tale that it’s good for young children to play outside and get dirty because it can help develop their immune system?
Robert Lee Hotz / Wall Street Journal
“In a bag of backyard dirt, scientists have discovered a powerful new group of antibiotics they say can wipe out many infections in lab and animal tests, including some microbes that are resistant to most traditional antibiotics.
“Researchers at Rockefeller University in New York reported the discovery of the new antibiotics, called malacidins, on Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology.
“It is the latest in a series of promising antibiotics found through innovative genetic sequencing techniques that allow researchers to screen thousands of soil bacteria that previously could not be grown or studied in the laboratory.”
So far the new compounds being developed appear to be safe and effective in mice, but it will be some time before they are submitted for human testing.
It’s a critical topic, however, as 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year can be attributed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, worldwide, deaths due to untreatable infections are predicted to rise 10-fold by 2050.
But the article doesn’t mention kids and dirt, which it should, by god.
--Gary Abernathy / Washington Post
“Some of my favorite childhood memories involve gathering with family members on my aunt’s front porch in Lynchburg, Ohio, to watch the annual Memorial Day parade.
“Typical of small-town parades, the procession would include Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, horseback riders, local politicians tossing candy from their cars to scrambling children, the Lynchburg-Clay High School Marching Band, veterans of the armed forces – many from World War II and Korea – with some carrying rifles, and an honor guard proudly displaying the flag, which would be greeted by salutes or hands over hearts from the onlookers lining the sidewalks. The parade would wind its way a few blocks around town, ending up at the Lynchburg cemetery, where a speaker would offer remarks on sacrifice and patriotism, a prayer would be recited, and a rifle volley would crack the silence as a bugler played taps....
“Americans everywhere appreciate those who serve in the military, but in small towns – where tradition and logistics make parades and other patriotic ceremonies commonplace – such gratitude is perhaps more visibly demonstrated on a regular basis.
“Honoring our veterans and the freedoms they have protected on Memorial Day with modest parades in small towns or the humble services that are conducted in cemeteries in almost every town or big city across the nation are open displays of unabashed patriotism, but they are a far cry from the kind of ostentatious, muscle-flexing military review rumbling down Pennsylvania Avenue suggested by President Trump....
“Mr. President, you have honored our military by your insistence on funding its needs and by expressing your patriotism through your speeches and remarks. No nation on Earth doubts the military superiority of the United States. Our enemies should know that when they see our tanks, planes and soldiers on the march, it’s a rueful day for them, not a showy spectacle for us.”
--Steven Pinker / Wall Street Journal...Pinker a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
“For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the west. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.
“Such gloominess is decidedly un-American. The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress. This concept may feel naïve as we confront our biggest predicaments, but we can only understand where we are if we know how far we’ve come....
“Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.
“Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.
“Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440....
“The world is giving peace a chance. During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s....
“Deaths from terrorism, terrifying as they may be, amount to a rounding error.
“Life has been getting safer in every other way. Over the past century, Americans have become 96% less likely to be killed in an auto accident, 88% less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, 59% less likely to fall to their deaths, 92% less likely to die by fire, 90% less likely to drown, 92% less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95% less likely to be killed on the job. Life in other rich countries is even safer, and life in poorer countries will get safer as they get richer....
“At the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one (Vatican City). Laws that criminalize homosexuality continue to be stricken down, and attitudes toward minorities, women and gay people are becoming steadily more tolerant, particularly among the young, a portent of the world’s future. Violence against women, children and minorities is in long-term decline, as is the exploitation of children for their labor.
“As people are getting healthier, richer, safer and freer, they are also becoming more knowledgeable and smarter. Two centuries ago, 12% of the world could read and write; today 85% can. Literacy and education will soon be universal, for girls as well as for boys. The schooling, together with health and wealth, is literally making us smarter – by 30 IQ points, or two standard deviations above our ancestors....
“As societies become wealthier and better educated, they raise their sights to the entire planet. Since the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1970s, the world has emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer and may have peaked in its consumption of oil, farmland, timber, cars and perhaps even coal.
“To what do we owe this progress? Does the universe contain a historical dialectic or arc bending toward justice? The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing....
“The evidence for progress raises many questions.
“Isn’t it good to be pessimistic, many activists ask – to rake the muck, afflict the comfortable, speak truth to power? The answer is no: It’s good to be accurate. We must be aware of suffering and injustice where they occur, but we must also be aware of how they can be reduced. Indiscriminate pessimism can lead to fatalism: to wondering why we should throw time and money at a hopeless cause. And it can lead to radicalism: to calls to smash the machines, drain the swamp or empower a charismatic tyrant....
“(But) the advances of the past are no guarantee that progress will continue; they are a reminder of what we have to lose. Progress is a gift of the ideals of the Enlightenment and will continue to the extent that we rededicate ourselves to those ideals....
“Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on earth, and the favorite destinations of people who vote with their feet. And once you appreciate that the Enlightenment project of applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing can succeed, it’s hard to imagine anything more heroic and glorious.”
--Finally, this week marks 19 years of StocksandNews. As David Byrne sings in “Once In A Lifetime,” “My God!... what have I done?”
Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.
Pray for the victims and their families of Parkland.
God bless America.
Returns for the week 2/12/-2/16
Dow Jones +4.3% 
S&P 500 +4.3% 
S&P MidCap +4.4%
Russell 2000 +4.5%
Nasdaq +5.3% 
Returns for the period 1/1/18-2/16/18
Dow Jones +2.0%
S&P 500 +2.2%
S&P MidCap +0.03%
Russell 2000 +0.5%
Bulls 51.9...down from 66.0 two weeks earlier
Bears 14.4 [Source: Investors Intelligence]
Have a great week.