"Economists are pessimists: they've predicted 8 of the last 3 depressions."
--Barry Asmus

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What's Happening In The World?

There really isn't a whole lot of economic data coming out (unless you count the 164 companies releasing their earnings announcements for today). We do have the ICSC-Goldman Store Sales figures. If you recall from last week, those showed a 1.0% decrease for the week ending 1/29, and a 1.6% increase year over year. Things have gotten a little better for the week ending 2/5. For the week major retail chain store sales are up 2.2%, and this has boosted the year over year sales to a 2.5% increase.
Mostly, though, the market is going to be driven by news today. And the news that will be driving the market will be largely coming out of China where, in celebration of the end of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, the People's Bank of China has increased the benchmark one-year deposit rate by 25 basis points to 3% and the one-year lending rate by 25 basis points to 6.06%. The move is largely designed to fight inflation (which was at 4.6% as of December, but is expected to rise substantially as food prices skyrocket), and this increase is not expected to be the last one for the year. On concerns that this will dampen demand, most commodity prices have already dropped.
Here in the US, the eyes of the financial sector will be on the FDIC's proposal to limit bonuses paid to executives at financial companies with $50 billion or more in assets. The plan requires 50% of the executive's bonuses to be deferred, and then how much of that deferred bonus they actually receive will be based on the performance of the company. Also, since these bonuses are typically paid out as stock or stock options, the FDIC is contemplating not allowing hedging strategies on the deferred bonuses. The idea is that, if the executives aren't allowed to protect themselves from a downturn in the stock, they might actually make good long term decisions[1].
Speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce yesterday, President Obama discussed the possibility of tax reform. "Another barrier government can remove is a burdensome corporate tax code with one of the highest rates in the world," he said[2]. There was a lot of conciliatory language in the speech, largely because the President was speaking to what can charitably be described as a hostile audience. But still, we now have the President at least talking about corporate tax reform, so the markets might like that.
And, in Middle Eastern news, Egypt has announced that it has a plan and a timetable for the peaceful transfer of power. There are no details about what those plans are, other than it is said that there are plans, and there is a timetable. Also, the government has promised no reprisals against the protesters. Other than killing some 300 of them. And using the military and police in plain clothes as agents provocateur. And arresting individuals suspected of being leaders of the protesters and keeping them blindfolded in prison for weeks. And possibly having a lot of them rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured as soon as the West gets distracted by the next big news story. But other than that, no reprisals[4].
[1] It's a great theory. Actual historical data suggests that the executives are far more likely to put effort into changing the regulations, though.
[2] It's up in the air as to how accurate this is. Checking Wikipedia, we find that the US has a progressive corporate tax rate that can run anywhere from 0% to 35%. While there are only 10 other nations listed on the Wikipedia chart that have a rate at 35% or higher, there are two things that make me question his statement. First, only 3 of those nations have a progressive corporate tax rate. The other 7 are flat taxes. Second, according to the GAO, the average US effective tax rate on the domestic income of large corporations is only 25.2%, with 37.5% having an effective tax rate of 10% or less (and, in all fairness, 25.6% of large corporate taxpayers having an effective tax rate in excess of 50%)[3]. So the actual situation is, obviously, far more complicated than a single sentence soundbyte from a speech to a hostile audience would let on.
[3] Here's how that can work, quoting from the GAO report: "A corporation’s average effective tax rate can exceed the statutory rate because of differences between financial and tax reporting. For example, depreciation for tax purposes follows the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System, which results in depreciation at an accelerated pace compared to depreciation for financial purposes. Firms that are no longer investing may show financial income lower than tax income in years where they have exhausted depreciation for tax purposes but continue to deduct depreciation for financial purposes. Similarly, items that cause a greater amount of income in the current period for tax purposes than they do for book purposes could result in average effective tax rates above the statutory rate. For example, bad debt expense is deducted when estimated for financial purposes but is not deductible for tax purposes until the debt has actually gone bad."
[4] And if you can't trust the word of a brutal and repressive head of a dictatorship, whose word can you trust?

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