Commentaries

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Where the job seekers aren’t

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Even in weak employment markets, the United States has typically had a trump card to play. The nation’s workers are legendary for their willingness to travel across the country for new opportunities.

The result has been a speedier recovery of job growth than in Europe and possibly a higher productivity rate, since skilled workers are better matched to openings.

With the August employment report on Friday expected to show little improvement in the job market, America has never needed this flexibility more. Yet, at the risk of adding to the gloom, this advantage appears to be fading fast. The good news is that the United States still boasts one of the most dynamic labor markets of any rich nation. OECD rankings of its 30 wealthy member nations put the U.S. far
ahead of other large countries. (It comes second only to Denmark, which has unmatched programs to help the unemployed back to work.)

On average, around a quarter of American workers change jobs each year, compared with 15 percent in Italy and 13 percent in Greece, says Stefano Scarpetta, head of employment research at the OECD. slide1

Bon chance getting this deal done, Alcatel-Lucent

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It beggars belief that humbled telecom equipment supplier Alcatel-Lucent could be scooped up by a Chinese rival with nothing better to do. Huawei or ZTE seem credible candidates. The question is, why would they ever bother?

PLA soldiers perform during a rehearsal of a musical drama in Beijing

That didn’t stop shares of Alcatel-Lucent from rocketing up as much as 21 percent on Wednesday on rumors of an unnamed suitor. Momentum was helped by a rating upgrade on the depressed stock by French broker Natixis. The shares later settled back somewhat to trade at 2.75 euros, up 12 percent on the day in Paris.

Bracing for a glut of leisure time

The United States has been labeled “no vacation nation.” Americans are notoriously diligent compared with citizens of other rich nations — putting in long hours and often not even using the skimpy vacations to which they are entitled.

Now more Americans are being forced to take it easy. Even for those who are keeping their jobs, many companies are cutting hours and imposing “shotgun” vacations in an effort to economize.

GM negotiator slams Opel bidder’s Russian connection

The GM blogger is at it again. John Smith, General Motors’ group vice-president and chief negotiator for the sale of its stake in Opel/Vauxhall, lays into the bid by Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna – especially the Russian Connection – in his latest update on the state of the talks.

He also pours cold water on happy talk from German politicians of an early decision in favour of Magna, backed by the German authorities, rather than rival Belgium-based financial investor RHJ International, which clearly still has GM’s preference.

The case for GDP bonds

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Around the world, governments are struggling to drum up buyers for the mountain of bonds they need to sell. And that’s especially true for big deficit, low savings countries like Britain and the United States.

The returns they are offering on conventional government bonds are low and there’s the risk of inflation eating away at their value. Perhaps it is time for a different approach.

Can good numbers be bad news?

Barring any unexpected stumbles, and revisions aside, today will be the last time this year that Americans are told their economy is shrinking.

Indeed, the modest one percent decline in second-quarter gross domestic product could be followed by growth rates as high as three percent in the final six months of the year.

GM blog lifts hood on power struggle over Opel

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cfcd208495d565ef66e7dff9f98764da.jpgIt’s not often you get to lift the hood and watch a power struggle going on in the engine room of General Motors. But the vice-president of GM Europe, John Smith, has just provided tantilising details of the arguments over the rival bids for Opel/Vauxhall, the main European arm of the fallen U.S. auto giant. Smith is the chief negotiator on the sale of Opel.

In a blog apparently intended to reassure Opel staff, but accessible to the public, he insisted GM had not specified a preferred bidder. But he made clear his own preference for the bid from Belgian financial investor RHJ International, which is loosely related to U.S. private equity fund Ripplewood, over the offer by Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna and its Kremlin-backed Russian partner Sberbank.

Back into the mists of time with the CFTC

  This is not the first time that the CFTC has considered the issue of “excessive speculation” and position limits. 
   In the wake of the Hunt Brothers silver scandal, Congress directed the Commission to submit a report on the events in the silver market (see timeline below, reproduced from the CFTC website). 
   The CFTC also considered the broader question of whether “unchecked speculation” could pose a danger to markets.  On that occassion the Commission concluded: 
 
“It appears that the capacity of any contract market to absorb the establishment and liquidation of large speculative positions in an orderly manner is related to the relative size of such positions, i.e., the capacity of the market is not unlimited. Recent events in the silver market would support a finding that the capacity of a liquid futures market to absorb large speculative positions is not unlimited, notwithstanding mitigating characteristics of the underlying cash market.” 

“Establishment of Speculative Position Limits,” 46 Fed Reg. 50938, 509040 (October 16, 1981).
 
  So the Commission has considered these questions before.  Last time, it concluded that position limits were necessary to safeguard the effective functioning and price discovery mechanism of the market. 
  What seems to have happened since then is that the Commission was (gradually) persuaded to change its view as part of the broad thrust away from government regulation and towards “self-regulation” that dominated policymaking in the 1980s and 1990s.  Seeing little point in the position limits themselves, the CFTC was comfortable granting an increasing number of exemptions to them. 
  Now the pendulum is swinging back.  For a full discussion of the issues now before the Commission, most people could do worse than go find the relevant entries in the Federal Register for 1980-81. 
  History most definitely rhymes, even if it does not quite repeat exactly. 

CFTC review process – thinking about the eventual outcome

Several people have asked what I think will be the eventual outcome of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)’s review of position limits and hedging exemptions in energy futures markets.  My guess is that the review will result in only fairly minor changes.

The most likely changes to emerge from it are probably: 

(a)  CFTC rather than exchanges will set position limits and be responsible for granting exemptions. 
(b)  Position limits will apply on an aggregate basis that will cover an entity’s positions across all exchanges and OTC.  To enforce this system, CFTC will demand data on OTC positions and on positions that are “near to” those on markets it regulates (ie Significant Price Discovery Contracts). 
(c)  Position limits on contracts close to expiry may be “hardened” to become fully binding (with few or no exemptions other than for physical hedgers intending to make or take delivery). 
(d)  Position accountability levels on contracts further away from delivery may be hardened somewhat but unlikely to become absolutely binding.  CFTC will almost certainly demand more documentation and proof to back up claims that they being held for “bona fide hedging” purposes. 
(e)  CFTC may revisit the classification of traders as commercial/non-commercial.  For firms with both hedging and trading operations, it may require the two to be separated out for reporting and regulating purposes.  The system would then regulate positions rather than entities. 

CFTC lifts lid on large commodity positions

   By John Kemp
   LONDON, July 29 (Reuters) – Data presented to yesterday’s public hearing on energy markets show the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and exchanges have granted so many exemptions from hard position limits and soft position accountability levels that the traditional position-limiting system has become meaningless.
   CFTC chairman Gary Gensler noted that exemptions have become so numerous they risk “swallowing the rule”. There’s no danger, the rule has disappeared without trace. The scale and frequency it has been broken has seen to that.
   It’s clear from the figures that traders’ positions can be big enough to raise the risk of distorting prices which set fuel costs across the globe.
   Gensler’s slide presentation provided the first comprehensive insight into how exemptions have been used — giving detailed data on the number of times limits have been exceeded since mid-2008 for the Big Four energy contracts on NYMEX (crude oil, natural gas, heating oil and RBOB gasoline). 
    Last week (July 21) there were 37 exemptions in force in the crude contract for an average of almost 5,700 lots (5.7 million barrels of crude oil), and 43 exemptions in force for natural gas for an average of 2,930 lots (29.3 trillion BTUs or 28.5 billion cubic feet).
   These were exemptions from spot-month limits (contracts approaching expiry and therefore most vulnerable to squeezes or settlement failure). They take no account of exemptions in force for contracts further out along the curve.
   For the 12 months between July 2008 and June 2009, 43 traders received dispensations from the single-month limit on the NYMEX crude contract, exceeding the notional limit by an average of 10,000 contracts (10 million barrels) and with excursions lasting an average of 87 days. In other words, it was routine practice to run positions in a single month at twice the notional “accountability level” set by the exchange.
   For natural gas, 26 traders received dispensations from the combined all-months limit, and exceeded it by an average of 32,000 lots (311 billion cubic feet) (four times the usual limit) with excursions lasting an average of 80 days at a time.
   Positions on this scale utterly defeat the objective of setting limits.
   As Gensler noted, the CFTC’s avowed aim has always been “to ensure that markets were made up of a broad group of diverse participants with a diversity of views. The intent was to avoid the concentration of positions of any single party”.
   “In 1980, the CFTC reiterated its goal to prevent market concentration. In its rulemaking, the Commission stated that ‘a trader’s net position has a continued effect on price, and if sufficiently large can become a perceptible market factor’”.
   “Speculative position limits serve to decrease the potential for positions to influence the general price level”.
   But massive exemptions have produced the opposite effect. For NYMEX natural gas, the CFTC data shows 13 traders had positions amounting to more than 10 percent of the open interest in a single month at some point over the last year, 4 traders had positions over 20 percent, and 3 traders had positions over 30 percent. With this much concentration, price setting is hardly the result of a “diversity” of views.
   For the CFTC, the policy question is whether to make minimal changes to the process for setting limits and granting exemptions to restore public confidence in the system’s integrity, or be more aggressive and try to use tighter limits and more narrowly drawn exemptions to reduce the average position size and cut concentration levels.
   (Editing by David Evans)

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