U.S. Economy

Senate Hearing on Covered Bonds Highlights Wall Street's Resistance to Transparency

The Senate Banking Committee held a hearing Wednesday to further examine the uses and regulatory issues associated with covered bonds, to decide if they are a viable alternative to stimulate the U.S. economy and contribute to sustained growth.

Money Morning Contributing Editor Shah Gilani explained the benefits of a U.S. covered bond market in a story Wednesday.  Covered bonds are debt securities backed by the cash flows from public-sector loans or from real-estate mortgages. They resemble other asset-backed securities (ABS) created through the process known as "securitization," but have one big difference: Covered-bond assets must remain on the issuer's consolidated balance sheet.

"A robust covered bond market offers many solutions to the problems that currently ail the U.S. economy, as well as its underlying financial system," said Gilani. "A covered bond market would jump-start needed lending by creating a healthy, transparent and "honest" securitization market. It would also enable the United States to regain its title as the financing center for the global economy."

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Record Breaking Contango Suggests Higher Oil Prices for 2011

ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) is paying $41,000 a day to keep a storage tanker capable of holding 3 million barrels of oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico, according to international ship- and offshore broking firm RS Platou. And the TI Europe is just one of hundreds of oil tankers sitting idle in waters around the world, as energy companies and investment banks await higher prices for crude.

Oil prices have fallen precipitously since the spring, as optimism about "green shoots" of economic growth gave way to fears of a double-dip recession. Prices have fallen more than 12% to $75.81 a barrel, from a high of $86.54 a barrel in April.

Indeed, with the U.S. economy stuck in the mire, the global outlook for oil demand has diminished - at least in the near-term. Longer-term, however, traders expect prices to surge higher next year as growth solidifies. That's why contracts for crude set to be delivered six months from now are worth more than crude at its current prices - an anomaly known as "contango."

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August's Insider Trading Augurs Well for Stocks

The stock market as a whole just turned in its worst August performance since 2001, with the major indexes posting losses ranging from 4% to 6%. Yet despite those negative numbers, there was one group that didn't act bearish at all - corporate insiders.

Insiders - the officers, board members and major shareholders of America's corporations - are required by law to almost immediately report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) any time they buy or sell the shares of their own companies. As such, insider transactions are tracked by a number of organizations and Wall Street analysts as a gauge of current market sentiment and future prospects for stock prices.

The theory underlying this practice is simple. As the people with the most intimate knowledge of what corporations are actually doing to grow their businesses, as well as the results those strategies are producing, insiders are in the best position to judge whether the fortunes of their companies are looking bright - or dismal. When they like what they see, they buy their company's shares - and when they don't, they sell.

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July's Narrowing Trade Gap Lifts Hope for U.S. Economic Recovery

The United States in July posted the biggest drop in its trade deficit in 17 months, as imports plunged and exports shot higher, according to a government report that could lift hopes for the economic recovery.

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed by 14% to $42.78 billion from a downwardly revised $49.76 billion the month before, the Commerce Department reported yesterday (Thursday).

U.S. exports expanded 1.8% to $153.33 billion - the highest level since August 2008 - from $150.57 billion in June. Imports registered their biggest decline since February of last year, falling 2.1% to $196.11 billion from $200.33 billion in June.

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Obama Floats $350 Billion Stimulus Package to Re-Ignite Economy

Faced with pre-election polls showing strong Republican support leading up to the mid-term elections in November, President Barack Obama is floating a $350 billion stimulus package designed to assuage the fears of troubled homeowners and create jobs.

In another move aimed at stabilizing a shaky economic recovery, the president today (Wednesday) will officially unveil a new $200 billion tax cut that gives businesses across the country incentives to buy new equipment, an anonymous administration official told CNN.

The proposal would be in addition to a $100 billion permanent extension of the business tax credit for research and development, as well as a $50 billion six-year program to fix roads, railways and runways and modernize the air-traffic control system.

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Stock Market's Rally A Salute to Slow Growth

The markets staged a relief rally last week that reflects Wall Street's attitude about the overall economy. Simply put, investors are saying they can live with slow growth, so long as the U.S. can avoid a double-dip recession.

Stocks leapt around the world last week like jets of water shooting out of a fountain that had been closed down for weeks. The major U.S. indexes rose 3%, the NASDAQ rose 4%, non-U.S. foreign big-caps rose 3.6% and small-caps rose 4.6%.

Many of our plays on growth overseas rose even more: iShares MSCI Thailand Index Fund (NYSE: THD) jumped 4.9% and iShares MSCI Chile Investable Market Index Fund (NYSE: ECH) rose 4.4%, while iShares MSCI Singapore Index Fund (NYSE: EWS) rose 3.2% and iShares MSCI Turkey Index Fund (NYSE: TUR) rose 3.5%. Once again, as we have seen all year, the response in iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index ETF (NYSE: FXI) was more muted, up 2.4%.

Read on to see where the next turning point for the market will come...

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Question of the Week Responses: The U.S. Bond Market Has Lost Its Luster With Investors

Ongoing stock market worries and a string of discouraging economic reports have imbued the U.S. bond market with "safe-haven" status. The upshot: Investors have poured record amounts of money into bond funds.

Bond funds for the past two years have seen inflows almost as high as stock funds did during the Internet bubble, according to the Investment Company Institute (ICI). From January 2008 through June 2010, outflows from equity funds totaled $232 billion, while inflows to bond funds hit a staggering $559 billion.

Investors are spending billions in the bond market even as yields reach record lows. Investment-grade U.S. corporate debt yields hit a low of 3.79% last week and two-year U.S. Treasury yields fell to less than 0.5%.

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We Want to Hear From You: Should the U.S. Government Offer More Incentives to Help the Housing Market?

Experts fear that the already-battered U.S. housing market is getting ready to stall again, leaving the Obama administration to decide what - if anything - it should do next.

Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller Home Price Indices yesterday (Tuesday) reported that home prices rose 3.6% in the second quarter from a year earlier - but the boost came from the homebuyer tax credit that expired in April. And that doesn't bode well for the housing market's near-term outlook.

"The numbers were inflated by the homebuyer tax credit," David Sloan, a senior economist at 4Cast Inc. in New York, told Bloomberg. "The numbers will be going down in the coming months. We could see some significant declines."

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Little Hope for the Housing Market

Just when you thought the housing market couldn't get worse, it did.

New single-family home sales slumped 12.4% in July to a record-low annual rate of 276,000 units, as homebuyers shunned their realtors in the absence of government support. The consensus expectation was for a slight up-tick to a 333,000 unit annual rate, so I suppose it's time to throw out the models. Sales over the prior three months were also revised lower by 9,000 units.

No section of the country was spared, though the West led the parade with a 25.4% plunge. On a year-over-year basis, sales were down 32.4%, the fastest decline since April 2009.

New home inventories held steady at 210,000 units, the lowest level in 42 years, according to Ned Davis Research analysts. Low-to-medium-priced homes were in the most demand. Only properties in the $150,000 - $300,000 price range rose as a share of total sales. So median prices fell to the lowest level since 2003.

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Let's Make a Deal: How the Mergers-and-Acquisitions Boom Will Hurt the U.S. Economy

With its $39 billion hostile bid for Canada's Potash Corp. (NYSE: POT), mining giant BHP Billiton Ltd. (NYSE ADR: BHP) capped an active August in the mergers-and-acquisitions market.

With the moribund growth prospects of the U.S. economy, there would seem to be no great urgency for companies to go on an M&A spree, yet the total value of announced buyout deals for August alone has topped $175 billion.

Cynics are reaching only one conclusion: With interest rates so low and corporations so cash-rich, it seems that company management teams would rather do anything with that cash than to give it back to shareholders via stock buybacks or boosted dividends.

And those deals signal additional trouble ahead for the U.S. economy.

To understand the problems that this rampant dealmaking figures to cause, please read on...

Can the Obama Administration's New Stimulus Plan Revive the Housing Market?

Worries about the sorry state of the U.S. economy have officials from the Obama administration digging deep into their bag of tricks to stop the skid before it slips into a double-dip recession.

Their latest move was announced Sunday when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said the White House plans in the next few weeks to set up an emergency loan program for the unemployed and a government mortgage refinancing effort.

Despite all the monetary and fiscal firepower the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Treasury have deployed, economic growth has slowed to an agonizing pace. The slowdown has hit the housing market particularly hard, as evidenced by home sales that dropped to record lows in July.

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There's Reason to be Pessimistic about the U.S. Economy, but Never Panic

Pessimism increased again among investors last week, as a slew of economic data stoked fears of a double-dip recession.

Indeed, housing and unemployment continue to weigh on the U.S. economy. But don't panic. Remember that the prospects for a full economic recovery are much better outside the United States, and that it's often good to be greedy when others are fearful.

To find out more about the precarious state of the U.S. economy read on...

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Two Ways to Tell if the U.S. Economy is Ready to Get Back on its Feet

The U.S. economy has been crippled by the financial crisis. And regardless of what policymakers try to do to spur growth, it will hobble along lamely until two major economic pillars are rectified.

Simply put, there's no chance that stock investors will see a healthy, long-term bull market until credit again begins to flow freely and home prices start rising.

Unfortunately, neither the credit market nor the housing market is yet ready to lead a sustainable economic rebound. But knowing that these are the two legs on which our economy stands, we can effectively gauge their condition, and thus be better able to predict a stock market rally.

Let me explain.

To find out how you can effectively diagnose the economic recovery read on...

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Is the Bond Bubble About to Burst?

Bonds have provided a welcome safe-haven for investors seeking shelter from the financial maelstrom of the past two years. But now many analysts fear bonds have entered bubble territory and pose a rising threat to their holders.

The amount of money flowing into bonds is "probably not sustainable on a consistent basis" Joel Levington, managing director of corporate credit at Brookfield Investment Management Inc., told Bloomberg News. "Eventually it won't be sustainable. Whether that means five years from now or five weeks is a little difficult to tell."

Bond funds have attracted more investment than stock funds for 31 straight months, which matches the record streak that ran from 1984 - 1987. Bond funds attracted $559 billion in the 30 months through June, according to the Investment Company Institute (ICI). Meanwhile, investors withdrew $209.4 billion from U.S. stock funds and $24.4 billion from funds that buy foreign stocks.

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