Good News, Bad News, Deux!


For all you wandering billionaires looking for a place the crash, the brilliant (tall) cudgel-shaped concrete tower at 432 Park Avenue in Midtown, Manhattan has just been topped out! With the Brooklyn Bridge (temporarily) off the market, this is your second- best opportunity to own a piece of the Big Apple, (Curbed):

Today, the concrete for the Rafael Vinoly-designed tower’s highest floor will be poured, which means that it has reached its superlative 1,396-foot height, making it not only the tallest residential building in New York City, but also the entire western hemisphere. But one could argue that it’s the tallest building in the city. That title official belongs to the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center, thanks to its 408-foot-tall spire, but the roof of One World Trade Center is actually 28 feet below that of 432 Park Avenue. The tower will open next year, and more than half of its 104 condos have already sold, including the $95 million penthouse.

432 Park Avenue, NYC

The best architecture too-much money can buy turns out to be a blunt, square-ish concrete post set to bludgeon the New York skyline … how appropriate to our new age of ‘inverted totalitarianism’, perpetual war and capital constraints. Look to the right-foreground next to the ‘White Stripe’ building and pick out the graceful Sherry-Netherland Hotel from 1927, with its copper clad spire and Italian Renaissance terra-cotta/brick facades. The 38-story hotel is a large building but is dainty compared to the neo-fascist stalagmites erupting all over Midtown.

The Great Real Estate Orgy of the ‘oughts and the deflating panic of ’08- ’09 have been overtaken by an even less-restrained speculation madness. New York City has been blitzed by the international uber-rich; as a consequence, New Yorkers cannot afford to live in their own home town. At the same time, even fewer parts of the city are off-limits to developers seeking to build high-end versions of Third Reich flak towers. As in China, the bulk of the uber-apartments are to remain vacant; 432 Park is a poker chip with elevators. Apartments are to be ‘flipped’ to greater fool-billionaires in the future; there is no point to actually ‘living’ in the apartments, (Curbed):

Onto the numbers: census data from 2012 shows that “from East 56th Street to East 59th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, 57 percent, or 285 of 496 apartments, including co-ops and condos, are vacant at least 10 months a year.” A swath that’s a bit north of that, from East 59th to East 63rd, shows that “628 of 1,261 homes, or almost 50 percent” are pied-a-terres. All those dark windows? Not your imagination. The place is deserted but for the tourists packed into the Apple Store’s glowing cube.

A reason for emptiness: the dark windows cannot be opened, there is no way for the tycoons to empty cauldrons of boiling lead upon the masses below. Another reason is what amounts to a New York City tax subsidy: non-residents avoid city income taxes; the property rates for non-primary residences in the city are stupefyingly low:

Property taxes here are based on a complex equation related to rental values and can be very low. At One57, for example, a unit that sold for nearly $3.6 million is estimated by the city to have a market value of just $430,000 when calculating its property tax.

432 is one of a number of super-tall, super-needle towers set to rise in Midtown, all are destined to sit vacant: 157 West 57th Street, (One57), 220 Central Park South, 111 West 57th Street, the Nordstrom Tower and 53 West 53rd Street, at the Museum of Modern Art.

It isn’t just ‘dwellings’ where billionaires can squander their fortunes, (Bloomberg):

One Percenters Drop Six Figures at Long Island Mall

Carol Hymowitz

Americana Manhasset, about 30 minutes from Manhattan, is one of several American malls that have figured out how to thrive by catering to One Percenters. Some customers spend more than $100,000 a year. Frank Castagna, owner of the mall on Long Island’s North Shore, and Danielle Merollo, manager of personal shopping, talk with Bloomberg’s Carol Hymowitz about the luxury center. (Source: Bloomberg)

At Americana Manhasset, the salespeople know your closet better than you do. They call designers in Paris or Milan to find the perfect little black dress. They deliver soup when you’re ill.

Situated on Long Island’s Gold Coast, about 30 minutes from Manhattan, the open-air shopping center is one of several American malls that have figured out how to thrive by catering to One Percenters.

Americana Manhasset’s 60 shops sell the priciest status brands — Dior, Gucci, Hermes, Cartier, Prada. Some customers spend more than $100,000 a year and five times that if they’re planning a wedding or buying fine jewelry. Danielle Merollo, the mall’s personal shopper, recently accompanied a client to a private Prada show in New York to buy a bespoke fur cape.

… what is good for billionaires is good for America. If you are wealthy enough, your life is a floating dream of vacant apartments in the stratosphere and Prada capes that are better than all the others. The non-wealthy are muppets … who must pay for everything and do so by borrowing.

Good news! The USA is to be spared the worst ravages of something or other … (Bloomberg):

U.S. Gains From Good Deflation as Europe Faces the Bad Kind

Rich Miller, Simon Kennedy

When it comes to deflation there’s the good — and there’s the bad and ugly.

Europe faces the risk of the latter as it teeters on the edge of a recession that could trigger a debilitating dive in prices and wages. The U.S., meanwhile, may end up with the more benign version as surging oil and gas supplies push energy costs down and the economy ahead.

“Bad deflation weakens growth,” Nancy Lazar, co-founder and a partner at Cornerstone Macro LP in New York, wrote in a report to clients this month. “Good deflation lifts growth.” Lazar also co-founded International Strategy & Investment Group LLC more than 20 years ago.

The Trouble With Falling Prices

That’s welcome news for U.S. investors. Billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, one of the most successful hedge-fund managers, said on Oct. 20 that U.S. stocks will outperform other equity markets for the rest of the year, according to two people who heard him speak at the closed-door Robin Hood Investors conference in New York.

Hedge fund manager David Tepper, who runs the $20 billion Appaloosa Management LP, told the same conference the following day that investors should bet against the euro, two people familiar with his remarks said.

For a country that is as indebted as the US, deflation or even diminished inflation is fatal. Deflation exists when assets (capes, vacant apartments) are worth less than the debt taken on to gain them. At the same time the (borrowed) funds needed to retire the debts are worth more and increasingly difficult to find (the muppets cannot borrow). A ‘scarcity premium’ is added to the funds in real terms; this premium increases faster than debts can be reduced.

Debt repayment removes funds from circulation: this drives up the scarcity premium in a vicious cycle; the more you repay the more you owe in real terms! At some point the only way to reduce debts fast enough to keep up with the increasing scarcity premium is for lenders to fail and for debts to be repudiated! This is definitely not good news …

Fuel prices have declined because fuel customers are bankrupt … not due to any ‘glut’. Those enlisted in the repayment endeavor are the masses scurrying around the bases of the billionaires’ massive towers. If the billionaires are required to repay their own debts they obviously won’t be billionaires any more, nor will there be funds available for others to repay. The bad news is that billionaires and their personal shoppers refuse to understand how the economy works. If they did they would not borrow more than what the non-billionaires can repay by way of their labor. Excess borrowing = illusion of wealth = inevitable insolvency.

In our interconnected world with giant forex- and dollar bond markets, deflation respects no borders, its effects are not confined to one country. China deflation ships out to South America and Australia, it punctures mortgage debt bubble in Canada which in turn cuts funds needed by tar sands operators. Ultimately, deflation results in illiquid markets and credit freezes.

Good News! Petroleum prices have declined, now what?

Fuel price action reflects markets that are actually functioning as they should rather than manipulated one-way markets as with equities. Customers are making a choice between purchasing fuel or purchasing alternative goods. Even as fuel price declines spare customers at the pump/ticket counter, the drop in price reflects a loss of worker income along with an increase of unserviceable worker debt: always customers = workers. The resulting shortage of funds ricochets though retail, consumer producer- and China export sectors.

 
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Figure 1: Americans are burning less fuel, prices are steadily declining, supply-and-demand does work, chart by Doug Short, (click on for big).

Declining energy prices reflects both consumer choice and declining worker purchasing power. Customers adapt by not bidding for fuel. At some point customers choose to hold off purchases looking for still lower prices in the future; as funds in circulation decline the consumers are left with no choice, they cannot afford any fuel at any price no matter how low: this is ‘energy deflation’.

Customers are only able to afford big-ticket items such as cars by taking on excessive leverage. In addition to the high costs for fuel there are the increased costs for healthcare, government/military and higher education … also costs incurred by way of deteriorated infrastructure. All of these cost must be met by more customer borrowing.

Today’s customer cannot borrow enough to meet his systemic obligations. There is nothing he can afford to buy that he can borrow against, he cannot afford an apartment in a tower in Manhattan.

Lower petroleum prices aim to undermine oil driller balance sheets, (Energy Policy Information Center- EPIC):

Report Warns of Capex Crisis for Oil Majors

Crude oil prices tumbled this month on the heels of historically high U.S. oil production and a downwardly revised global energy demand outlook. The conventional economic wisdom is that the market requires high oil prices for international oil companies to break-even. High prices, after all, boost the profitability of expensive, unconventional ventures. A new report finds that, in addition, high prices impact long-term investments in unconventional projects and heighten the oil majors’ risk of stranded assets.

Kepler Cheuvreux, a research organization, contends that market conditions evolve to shift supply from more expensive energy sources to less expensive ones. Over time, they say, high oil prices encourage investment in alternative energy research and development, and lead to a decline in the cost of those sources over the long term. For oil majors, this means that capital-intensive unconventional projects, like the Canadian oil sands, or deepwater and Arctic drilling, may lose profitability, and actually become financial risks.

From the Wall Street Journal, (WSJ):

Fracking Firms Get Tested by Oil’s Price Drop

Russell Gold, Erin Ailworth

Tumbling oil prices are starting to frighten energy companies around the globe, especially drillers in North America, where crude is expensive to pump.

Global oil prices have fallen about 8% in the past four weeks. The European oil benchmark closed Thursday at $90.05 a barrel, its lowest point in 29 months. The price of a barrel in the U.S. closed at $85.77, its lowest since December 2012.

Weakening oil prices could put a crimp in the U.S. energy boom. At $90 a barrel and below, many hydraulic-fracturing projects start to become uneconomic, according to a recent report by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. While fracking costs run the gamut, producers often break even around $80 to $85.

“There could be an immense amount of pain,” said energy economist Phil Verleger. “As prices fall, you will see companies slow down dramatically.”

Paul Sankey, an energy analyst with Wolfe Research LLC, said the first drillers to react to declining crude prices would be some in the least productive fringes of North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. “We’re not quite there yet,” he said, but a further drop of $4 or $5 a barrel will force companies to begin trimming their capital budgets.

The real problems are on the consumption side. Because drillers are firms, they have access to credit that is unavailable to customers who are individuals. The cost of credit scales inversely to potential borrowing capacity. A firm can borrow at less unit- cost than can a human, a government can borrow at even more cheaply. Between drillers and their customers, affordable funds are available to the drillers that cannot be had by customers. The consequence is customers are starved for funds even as they need more to meet both fuel- and non-fuel costs:

 
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Figure 2: How low a price? Price of historical Brent Crude illuminating longer-term downtrend since 2008, (Zero-Hedge):

Scale buys time (now) but there is a time cost to fuel; customers must retire the drillers’ loans, they must do so by borrowing because ‘using’ (destroying) the fuel does not offer any returns. When drillers purchase time they add to customers’ loan burdens. When customers are unable to borrow the drillers fail … along with both parties’ lenders!

Customers are being gutted, (Wolf Richter):

What NCR just Said about the American Retail Quagmire

An epidemic of store closings, restructurings, bankruptcies… as the American consumer runs out of options …

When NCR announced its preliminary and disappointing third quarter results today, it lowered its guidance for the rest of 2014. Its stock got knocked into a breathtaking 21% plunge. While at it, NCR revealed to just what extent brick-and-mortar retailers were sinking into a quagmire …

NCR, a thermometer into (the butt of) the retail industry beyond the latest sales statistics, has noticed that brick-and-mortar retailers are cutting back. And they’re not just cutting back buying point-of-sale devices; they’re cutting back, period. “Ongoing retail consolidation,” Nuti called it. And some are using bankruptcy courts to do it.

More carnage, more Wolf Richter:

What Unilever just Said About Consumers Around the World: “It’s Really Tough out There”

Over the last few days, one after the other reported what are more or less unvarnished quarterly revenue and earnings debacles.

At McDonald’s, global revenues fell 5% and net income plunged 30%. At Coca-Cola, international volume was up a measly 1%, but in the US, volume declined 1%. Revenues were down fractionally for the quarter and 2% year-to-date. Net income in the quarter dropped 14%. Revenues at third largest beer-giant Heineken, which brews its stuff in 70 countries, dropped 1.7%. People are scratching their heads: are consumers actually cutting back on beer? Other companies too have reported disappointing results.

On Thursday it was Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch giant maker of shampoos, deodorants, laundry detergents, ice cream… that warned in its quarterly report about what it looks like “out there,” not in the stock market, but in the real economy around the world.

“It is really tough out there,” said CFO Jean-Marc Huët. “We have been at pains to say that for a long period of time.” Consumers are in trouble and are cutting back across key markets, leaving the company with price pressures and crummy sales.

Still more carnage, (Retail Industry About dot com):

Retail chains, large and small, have announced a veritable epidemic of store closings in 2014. Here are the “Top 20″ announcements of store closings. For these 20 chains, the total number of stores to be closed exceeds 4,200!
400 Office Depot/Max (by 2016)
370 Family Dollar
365 Coldwater Creek
360 Dots
300 Blockbuster
300 Sears
225 Staples (through 2015)
223 Barnes & Noble (through 2023)
200 Radio Shack (through 2017)
180 Abercrombie & Fitch (by 2015)
175 Aeropostale (“over the next several years”)
170 Jones Group (by mid-2014)
155 Sbarro
150 American Eagle Outfitters (through 2017)
150 Rent-A-Center
145 Brown Shoes / Famous Footwear
128 GameStop
125 Children’s Place
125 P.S. from Aeropostale
100 Advance Auto

Online retailer Amazon makes up its ballooning losses with volume (and borrowed investor dollars); it is a Ponzi scheme, (Wall Street Journal):

 


 

Figure 3: chart of Amazon expenses, revenue, share price and operating earnings. No doubt, some online retailer somewhere is making money selling atonal apples and amplified heat to broke people.

Retailers are on the front lines, not just within the US; look to the lenders who are underwater, (Guardian):

Twenty-four European banks fail financial stress tests

European Banking Authority finds €25bn black hole in finances with nine banks in Italy failing the tests

Jill Treanor

One in five European banks have failed crucial tests of their financial strength, leaving a €25bn (£19.6bn) capital hole in the continent’s banking system at a time of renewed fears that the five-year long eurozone crisis may be flaring up again.

European banking regulators published the test results on Sunday. The findings put particular focus on Italian banks – nine of which failed and contributed €9.4bn to the overall shortfall.

The tests by the EBA were imposed on 123 banks, including the UK’s bailed-out Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland. They were intended to draw a line under concerns about the health of Europe’s banking system by showing if banks had enough capital to withstand a series of economic shocks, such as a rise in unemployment, a sharp fall in house prices or declining economic growth. Twenty-four banks failed the examination.

The gain the needed ‘capital’ (investment funds) the tycoon owners of the banks will borrow more and spend on freshly-issued bank shares, adding to the burdens of the customers, etc … Upward and ever upward … Those looking to the success of tycoons have to feel pretty good about our economy, those looking at the cohort charged with paying for it all as well as their lenders … they are filled with despair.

The original ‘Good News, Bad News’ article was published in January of this year.