Sunday, July 30, 2017

Koch Brothers Orchestrate Grassroots Effort to Lower Corporate Taxes, Documents Show

The billionaire Koch brothers are well-prepared for the upcoming debate over tax reform, with allies arranging to plant questions at town hall meetings and efforts to orchestrate a grassroots army to demand lower corporate taxes.

A detailed timeline for the Koch strategy was laid out in a recent document prepared by a public relations firm that services the broad network of conservative advocacy groups controlled by the billionaire brothers’ political network. The plan calls for action to take advantage of President Donald Trump’s pledges to reform the tax code. Trump has called for cutting the corporate tax rate by as much as 50 percent, and eliminating the estate tax on inherited wealth, creating a unique opportunity to propose legislation that would benefit business owners such as the Koch brothers.

“Comprehensive tax reform has been a long-standing priority for our network, and the election of Donald Trump, coupled with pro-freedom majorities in the House and Senate, offers us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore prosperity by enacting reforms,” the document, obtained by The Intercept, declares.

The strategy memo lays out a five-phase plan for passing a version of tax reform that is favorable to the Koch donor network. The Koch brothers make clear that their ideal tax reform legislation would exclude the idea of an import or carbon tax, while focusing on broad reductions in the corporate tax rate.

Although a portion of the strategy entails traditional lobbying and meetings with influential policymakers, along with paid advertising to pressure lawmakers, the memo also calls for substantial resources to be invested in grassroots advocacy.

During Phase 3 of the strategy, starting next month, the Koch network will use its grassroots advocacy arms, including Americans for Prosperity, to put pressure on members of Congress when they return home for town hall meetings during the August recess period. The Koch network will use constituent meetings to “drive the narrative” around the need for their tax reform ideas, the memo said.

Advancing Comprehensive Tax Reform document

The metadata of the document shows that it was created by Avery Boggs, a former vice president at Freedom Partners, the umbrella group that oversees the Koch political network. Boggs now works as a vice president at In Pursuit Of, a public relations firm spun off from the Koch network designed to provide marketing services to the various groups that receive funding from Freedom Partners.

The Koch network includes a range of political advocacy organizations, each designed to play a particular role in advancing causes and candidates backed by the billionaire energy tycoons and their allies. Americans for Prosperity, for instance, has about 500 paid staffers, and plays a leading role in organizing broad grassroots campaigns. Another group, Concerned Veterans for Americans, focuses on mobilizing veterans. The network includes i360, a campaign data company that developed intricate profiles of voters.

Last week, Politico reported that Americans for Prosperity plans to kick off tax reform efforts on August 2 at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a conservative leader in Congress, will speak at the event.

The Koch network, a major importer of Canadian tar sands oil, has lobbied aggressively to ensure that any tax reform package does not include the import tax once favored by Trump. Recent disclosures show they have attempted to influence the “House Republican Tax Reform Blueprint Draft.”

The tax reform memo was distributed around the time of a Koch network retreat, held to collaborate with like-minded conservative business leaders and investors, last month in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At the event, the brothers pledged to raise $300 million for their network over the next year.

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US economic "resilience" is highly exaggerated

Credit card debt is edging into record territory but not because of consumer confidence

By Danielle DiMartino Booth

Are US Federal Reserve stress tests leading economic indicators? That certainly seems to be the case.

Just ask Capital One Financial Corp.

As of the first quarter, credit card loss provisions at Capital One were above 5 per cent, a six-year high. The company recorded some improvement for the second quarter, yet Fed stress tests of the bank’s overall loan portfolio in a deep downturn show losses topping 12 per cent.

That explains Capital One’s “conditional” passing score, a black eye that prompted a reduced share buy-back plan and no increase in its dividend.

Most economists today applaud the resilience of the current recovery, which has stretched into its eighth year, the third-longest in postwar history. Resilience and rising household defaults, though, don’t tend to go hand in hand.

Pressures have been building in the background for some time. When adjusted for inflation, credit card usage has grown faster than incomes for 18 months. According to Fed data, that time frame coincides with the upturn in revolving credit, a proxy for credit card debt.

In November 2015, outstanding revolving credit crossed above the $900-billion threshold for the first time since December 2009. By May of this year, annual growth was clocking 8.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, credit card balances hit $1.02 trillion, the highest level in almost eight years.

Whether by choice or force, the aftermath of the financial crisis prompted households to ratchet back their usage of credit cards. As the recovery got underway, frugality prevailed, punctuated by an increase in debit card purchases.

It is thus notable that Bank of America data find debit card usage has weakened in recent years as households grew more comfortable rebuilding their credit card balances.

“Confidence” is the term most associated with the rising credit card debt. But it’s fair to ask why confident households would choose to pay so dearly for the privilege. At 15.83 per cent, the average rate on credit card balances is at a record high.

It is more likely that households are increasingly tapping their credit cards to cover the cost of necessities, that they are less confident and more anxious about their future finances.

The latest University of Michigan consumer confidence data suggest anxiety is indeed setting in. At 80.2, the expectations component is at the lowest since October and running below the 2016 average of 81.8.

According to the University of Michigan: “The data indicate that hopes for a prolonged period of 3 per cent GDP growth sparked by Trump’s victory have largely vanished, aside from a temporary snap back expected in Q2. The declines recorded are now consistent with just above 2 per cent GDP growth in 2017.”

The US retail sales report for June corroborates the forecast for continued muted economic growth. In constructing gross domestic product, statisticians net out auto, gasoline and building materials purchases from retail sales to arrive at a “control group”.

At 2.4 per cent, the annual growth rate of the control group has fallen to the lowest since January 2014.

The renewed weakness in consumption prompted the economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch to reduce their forecast for second-quarter GDP to 1.9 per cent. The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast is a bit higher, at 2.4 per cent, but that’s a far cry from the robust 4.3 per cent rate anticipated on May 1.

In her recent congressional testimony, Fed Chair Janet Yellen expressed continued optimism for a strong second-quarter rebound in GDP growth. If the Atlanta Fed’s forecast pans out, first-half growth will stumble in at a 1.9 per cent rate, hardly reflective of accelerating economic activity.

Even the ebullient home builders have begun to concede that there could be more than just a supply shortage at the root of the slowing housing market. Pending home sales have fallen for three straight months and are now 1.7 per cent below their year-ago level.

The National Association of Realtors acknowledged that “weaker financial and economic confidence could also be playing a role in the slowdown in contract activity.” The NAR added that they had “found that fewer renters think it’s a good time to buy a home, and respondents overall are less confident about the economy and their financial situation than earlier this year.”

With rental inflation running 3.9 per cent above its year ago rate and homes priced out of their budgets, renters are effectively trapped in a budgetary vice. Housing costs consume about a third of households’ average budgets and largely dictate consumers’ wherewithal to finance the discretionary purchases that make the consumption-driven US economy hum.

Suffice it to say, when the costs of other necessities such as health care, the food you put on the table, your car payment and mobile-phone bills are also running high, it’s difficult to make ends meet. In a survey conducted by Survata and released in late June, 49 per cent of households said they were living paycheck-to-paycheck; six in 10 reported that their rainy-day funds could not cover six months of living expenses.

What’s a household to do under such circumstances? It would appear they’ve had to rely on credit cards. The eventual price tag for the economy remains to be seen and won’t be known until the next recession has come and gone.

As for how high the bill will be in the end, its likely Capital One already has that answer.

— Bloomberg

Wall Street unprepared for even a 2.5% drop

 Wall Street isn’t ready for a 1,100-point tumble in the Dow industrials 

By Mark DeCambre

The U.S. stock market has been on such a parabolic march higher that Wall Street investors may have forgotten what a typical, sharp downturn feels like.

Indeed, much has been made about the lack of volatility. The CBOE Volatility Index VIX+1.78% otherwise known as the “fear gauge,” had been flirting with its lowest close on record, implying that market expectations for a sharp, sudden fall are near rock bottom, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA+0.15% S&P 500 index SPX-0.13% and the Nasdaq Composite Index COMP-0.12%  scale new heights. (The Dow notched a fresh record on Friday to end the week 1.2% higher.)

The recent level of complacency permeating the market has pundits talking about the lack of 5% falls in the market—an occurrence that isn’t unusual in a normal market environment. However, a 5% tumble, while normal, isn’t that common either. It has occurred at least 75 times over the course of the blue-chip index’s, according to WSJ Market Data Group, using data going back to 1901. The Dow, however, hasn’t experienced a 5% decline since 2011, and before that a 5% drop hadn’t happened since 2008, when there were 9 such drops (see chart below):

At this point, with the Dow just 200 points shy of 22,000, a 5% selloff would equate to a 1,100-point, one-day slide in the gauge. Is the market ready for that sort of sudden jolt lower, given the optics of a quadruple-digit downturn and how it might rattle investment psyche?

Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, doesn’t think so.

“I would say no because we’re out of practice. Your usual standard garden-variety volatility just hasn’t been around, and we haven’t seen it for 12 months,” Hogan told MarketWatch.

“Quiet markets have been the norm and not the exception and I think a major pullback is going to feel a whole lot larger for lack of experience and the numbers are larger,” he said.

Even a 2.5% drop in the Dow, adding up a 550-point decline, could be unsettling, market participants said. Those sorts of tumbles are far more frequent, with 564 such moves of that magnitude occurring in the Dow since 1901. The most recent slump of at least 2.5% was on June 24, 2016, when the Dow tumbled about 610 points, or 3.4%, a day after U.K. citizens voted to end the country’s membership in the European Union. There were 3 falls for the Dow of at least 2.5% in 2015.

Hogan said it is even hard to imagine what the landscape of the market would like in the face of a plunge of the same magnitude of the 1987 crash, when the Dow lost 22.6% of its value, or 508 points, in a single session.

“That’s why it is hard for investors to think about it intuitively. We have no muscle memory for it. It’s hard to harken back to 30 years ago. We have been lulled to sleep,” he said.

As for the S&P 500, going back to 1950, 61 of the past 67 years have had a 5% downdraft at least once, or 91% of all years, according to Ryan Detrick, senior market strategist, at LPL Financial.

“The inevitable 5% drop will be a shock to nearly everyone,” Detrick said. “We’ve been historically spoiled so far this year, but as the economic cycle ages, we fully expect more volatility the remainder of this year and the likely 5% correction to take place as well,” he said.

Market bears have offered no dearth of warnings that a slide is imminent, including citing rich valuations of the biggest names in technology, including Facebook Inc. FB+1.18% Apple Inc. AAPL-0.7% Google-parent Alphabet Inc. GOOG+0.8%  , GOOGL+0.61%  Netflix Inc. NFLX+0.74% and Inc. AMZN-2.48% which considers itself online retailer rather than a tech behemoth.

Billionaire investor Howard Marks, co-chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, said “this is time for caution,” pointing to a number of bad-market omens. Those include trailing 12-month price-to-earnings ratios, a measure of valuation, for S&P 500 stocks running at 25 times. He said another valuation metric, the Shiller Cyclically Adjusted PE Ratio, known as the Shiller CAPE, is at its highest level since only two other times in the market’s history: 1929 and 2000

On CNBC on Thursday, Robert Shiller himself described the low level of volatility in the market as concerning, saying he “lies awake worrying” about how this period of quietude will last before things unravel. Though he admits that it could run longer than academics, market pundits and bears might expect.

So far, investors have demonstrated a preternatural resilience, shaking off political worries associated with an expanding investigation into Russia’s ties to members of President Donald Trump’s administration, infighting within that same administration, and the unwind of easy-money policies around the world as the Federal Reserve attempts to navigate its own efforts to normalize interest-rate policy amid sluggish signs of wage growth, prices and inflation—key measures of economic health.

When, not if, things go pear-shaped, Detrick recommends that investors put the move into perspective:

“The important thing to remember is the Fed is still accommodative, earnings continue to improve globally, and inflation is contained—meaning any pullback could be a nice opportunity to add equity exposure. Although a 5% correction might feel like 1987 to some of us about now, pullbacks and volatility are perfectly normal parts of bull markets and are needed to flush out the weak hands.”