Strait of Hormuz

The Latest Obama Outrage: the Family's $100 Million Vacation

Flip flops Q

How much do you spend on your summer vacation? American households usually spend about $1,200 per person on summer vacations, according to a recent American Express survey.

Presidents spend more on their vacations than you or I. They have to. Air Force One and security does cost more than loading the Honda and heading to the beach.

Here's how much some recent presidents spent our tax dollars on vacation.

Ronald Reagan spent most of his free time at his California ranch. Taxpayers covered the cost of approximately $8 million for presidential travel during Reagan's first six years in office, according to the Los Angeles Times. That amounts to $1.3 million a year.

For George Bush the cost of flying Air Force One to his Texas ranch was approximately $56,800 per trip, for each of the 180 trips according to Media Matters. President Bush spent Christmas during his two terms at the White House so his staff and secret service could spend the holiday with their family, according to Conservative Byte.

Now Obama plans to blow away all previous presidents' leisure travel costs on our dime with a better than Disney World extravaganza trip to Africa.

However Obama had to cancel the safari because of the need to fill the surrounding jungle with snipers to guard the president from wild animals!

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Why The Fiscal Cliff "Deal" is Spelled P-O-R-K

Savings piggy bank

Behind the scenes of the Fiscal Cliff debate, there was plenty of f-bombing, poison pilling, and grandstanding leading up to the deal - and that was before the members of Congress and the Senate actually got serious with their usual ultimatums, followed by earnest- looking sound bites and posturing. But what gets me really riled up is the amount of "pork" contained in the bill...

Why Japan's "Lost Decades" Are Headed to America in 2016

It's only been a little more than a week since Shinzo Abe won election as Japan's latest Prime Minister in a landslide-election victory and the pundits are already lining up telling investors to "buy Japan" because it's "dirt cheap."

The hope is that Abe's promises of fresh stimulus, unlimited spending and placing a priority on domestic infrastructure will be the elixir that restores Japan's global muscle.

As a veteran global trader who actually lives in Japan part time each year, and who has for the last 20+ years, let me make a counterpoint with particular force - don't fall for it.

I've heard this mantra eight times since Japan's market collapsed in 1990 - each time a new stimulus plan was launched - and six times since 2006 as each of the six former "newly elected" Prime Ministers came to power.

The bottom line: The Nikkei is still down 73.89% from its December 29, 1989 peak. That means it's going to have to rebound a staggering 283% just to break even.

Now here's the thing. What's happening in Japan is not "someone else's" problem. Nor is it something you should gloss over.

In fact, the pain Japan continues to suffer should scare the hell out of you.

And here's why ...

The so-called "Lost Decade" that's now more than 20 years long in Japan is a portrait of precisely what's to come for us here in the United States.

Perhaps not for a few years yet, but it will happen just as we have already followed in Japan's footsteps with a "lost decade" of our own.

The parallels are staggering.

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Gas Prices Spike: Ease the Pain of $5.00 Gas with UGA, USO, COP, XLE

February is typically a month when gas prices recede - but not this year.

Average gas prices currently are about $3.69 according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. That's higher than the average for the whole of 2011, which was the priciest year ever for gasoline.

The average price for U.S. gas has climbed more than 10% in just the past two months. This suggests a trajectory that could produce a spike of 60 cents a gallon or more by May.

"I actually believe that prices will be moving higher than 60 cents a gallon on average," Money Morning energy expert Dr. Kent Moors recently told Executive Editor William Patalon III. "By mid-summer, in fact, we could see $5 a gallon being reached in certain regions of the U.S. market."

Here's why we could be facing the most painful year at the pump - and how you can offset record-breaking gasoline costs.

What's Driving U.S. Gas Prices to $5 a Gallon

Usually, higher gas prices result from low supply and high demand, but that's not the case this year. Even with consumption growing in emerging markets like China and India, the current surge in gas prices isn't based on increased demand for crude oil.

In fact, according to Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), demand for oil is at its lowest point since April 1997.

Instead, there are a new set of factors pushing U.S. gas prices higher, including:



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Iran is Now a Full-Blown Crisis, Stage Set for $200 Oil

Just when it looked like we could take a breather from the Strait of Hormuz, all attention is back on Iran.

There are three reasons for this - all happening within the last week:

  1. First was Tehran's successful launch of a satellite, viewed by all in the region as being for military intelligence.
  2. Second, in his toughest talk to date, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voiced defiance to Western sanctions and pledged open retaliation if they are instituted.
  3. Finally, last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed concern that, if matters continue, Israel could attempt an air-strike takeout of Iranian nuclear facilities within a month. Iran has been frantically moving essential components of its nuclear program underground to withstand such an attack.
All of this is, once again, leading to a rise in crude oil prices.

What's more, the EU decision to stop importing Iranian crude starting July 1 will cripple any chance Tehran has to combat escalating economic and political turmoil at home.

Yet Khamenei's defiant tone during his Friday prayer meeting speech indicates that Iran's religious leadership will not wait for the system to unravel.

And that is what makes this both a full-blown and an intensifying crisis.

Brinksmanship in the Straits of Hormuz

So what's being done?

Washington has little - leverage, save its ability to temper an immediate escalation by Israel (leverage the U.S. can still apply, at least for the moment). It also has some indirect influence on what the E.U. does.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also is a wild card. It will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.

And yes, there are ample indications that American and Israeli intelligence have concluded Iran will achieve the ability to develop nuclear weapons in the next 18 to 24 months.

Some elements of that process will be available earlier, but remember: A weapon is of little value unless it can be controlled and delivered. The logistical and infrastructure considerations need to be in place first.

Yet with such an inevitable conclusion staring them in the face, the West has decided to embark on a risky path...

The target here is not the nuclear project at all (over which there is less and less outside control). Instead, it has become about creating massive domestic instability to bring down a regime.

Now, this is not about ending the theocracy. With or without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president or Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, Iran will remain a Shiite-dominated country. Religion decisively controls politics, and the clergy oversees the society.

The West is seeking a more moderate application of what will remain the Iranian cultural reality.

However, as the brinksmanship intensifies, so will the price of crude oil. Tehran, in this dangerous game of international chicken, really only has one card to play - the Strait of Hormuz.

There has been much misinformation circulated about the strait. Here are the facts.

On any given day, 18% to 20% of the world's crude oil passes through it.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the Strait's narrowest point is 21 miles wide; however, the width of the shipping lane in either direction is just two miles, cushioned by another two-mile buffer zone.

Of greater significance, though, is the fact that most of the world's current excess capacity is Saudi. (This is the oil that can be brought to market quickly to offset unusual demand spikes or cuts in supply elsewhere.) And, unfortunately, Saudi volume must find its way through the same little strait.

If we're unable to access the Saudi excess, that loss guarantees the global market will be out of balance. That will intensify the price upsurge - an upsurge that is already happening.

Now for the question I'm being asked several times a day in media interviews...

Just how bad can it get?



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Should We Be Worried About Iran?

If the Iranian government makes good on its recent threats to stop oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, oil prices would shoot up $20 to $30 a barrel within hours and the price of gasoline in the United States would rise by $1 a gallon.

Such a steep spike in crude oil prices would plunge the United States and Europe back into recession, said Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors.

Iran just concluded a 10-day military exercise intended to prove to the West that it can choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil whenever it wants.

The world's fourth-biggest oil producer is unhappy with fresh U.S. financial sanctions that will make it harder to sell its oil, which accounts for half of the government's revenue.

"Tehran is making a renewed political point here. The message is - we can close this anytime we want to," said Moors, who has studied Iran for more than a decade. "The oil markets are essentially ignoring the likelihood at the moment, but any increase in tensions will increase risk assessment and thereby pricing."

One reason the markets haven't reacted much to Iran's latest rhetoric is that although it has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz many times over the past 20 years, it has never followed through on the threat.

But a fresh wave of Western sanctions could hurt Iran's economy enough to make Tehran much less cautious.

The latest sanctions, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday, will make it far more difficult for refiners to buy crude oil from Iran. And looming on the horizon is further action by the European Union (EU), which next month will consider an embargo of Iranian oil.

"The present United Nations, U.S. and EU sanctions have already had a significant toll," said Moors. "They have effectively prevented Iranian access to main international banking networks. Iran now has to use inefficient exchange mechanisms."

Because international oil trade is conducted in U.S. dollars, Moors said, Iran must have a convenient way to convert U.S. dollars into its home currency or other currencies it needs, such as euros.

Pushed to the Brink

The impact of the sanctions combined with internal political instability has driven Iran to turn up the volume on its rhetoric.

"Tehran has limited options remaining," Moors said, noting Iran has historically used verbal attacks on the West to distract its population from the country's problems. "The Iranian economy is seriously weakening, the political division among the ayatollahs is increasing, and unrest is rising."

Analysts worry an Iranian government that feels cornered would be more prone to dangerous risk-taking in its dealings with the West. So while totally shutting down the Strait of Hormuz isn't likely, Iran could still escalate a confrontation beyond mere talk.



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How to Fix the U.S. Housing Market

If this week's economic reports showed us anything, it's the fact that two years into what's supposed to be an economic recovery, the U.S. housing market remains on life support.

But here's what those reports didn't tell you: If the housing market isn't fixed soon, it's going to drag the rest of the economy down into a hellish bottom that will take years, if not decades, to crawl out of.

The housing market is our single-most important generator of gross domestic product (GDP) and, ultimately, national wealth.

It's time we fixed what's broken and implemented new financing and tax strategies to stabilize prices.

Contrary to the naysayers - and in spite of political pandering and procrastination - we can almost immediately execute a simple two-pronged plan to fix mortgage financing and stabilize U.S. housing prices.

I call it a not-so-modest proposal.

The Worst Since the Great Depression

The facts are frightening: We are in a bad place. The plunge in housing prices we've seen during the current downturn is on par with the horrific freefall the U.S. housing market experienced during the Great Depression.

And without an effective plan to arrest the double-dip in housing, there's no bottom in sight.

Hope Now, an alliance of lenders, investors and non-profits formed at the behest of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, counts 3.45 million homes being foreclosed from 2007 through 2010. Current estimates of pending and potential foreclosures range from another 4 million to as many as 14 million.

According to RealtyTrac, a real-estate data provider, the country's biggest banks and mortgage lenders are sitting on 872,000 repossessed homes. If you add in the rest of the nation's banks, lenders and mortgage-servicers, the true number of these REO (real-estate owned) homes is closer to 1.9 million.

These shocking statistics illustrate just how large the current overhang of bank-owned properties actually is (at current sales levels, REO properties would take three years to unload). And they help us to understand how the staggering number of yet to-be-foreclosed, repossessed, and sold homes will depress U.S. housing market prices for years to come.



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Special Report: How the Government is Setting Us Up for a Second Subprime Crisis

[Editor's Note: Shah Gilani, a retired hedge fund manager and noted expert on the global credit crisis, predicted this developing FHA debacle in a July 2008 Money Morning essay.] Is the government creating another subprime-mortgage bubble? The first time around, the three-headed federal serpent – the Bush administration, the Treasury Department and the U.S. Federal […]

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The Slow Death of General Motors

By Martin Hutchinson Contributing Editor Money Morning U.S. President Barack Obama's firing of General Motors Corp. (GM) Chief Executive Officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr. may be the beginning of the final act of a long and sad drama – the slow death of GM. The company nameplate may soldier on in some form, but it […]

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