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Destroying Iraq's Cultural Heritage

The fundamentalist retro-gang that has conquered Northern Iraq has decided it needs to go Taliban on cultural monuments it disapproves of. One of the most recent outrages was the destruction of the tomb of Yunus, better known in the West as the prophet Jonah (yes, the biblical one who spent some time in the belly of a whale). Jonah is one of the prophets revered by both Christians and Muslims, so the motivation is not entirely clear. However, this is by far not the only ancient religious site ISIS has destroyed in the vicinity of Mosul. Reportedly the group has by now destroyed some 30 ancient shrines, churches, mosques and Hussainiyas in the area of Mosul alone. Oddly, this included at least four Sunni mosques, so there appears to be a certain degree of arbitrariness to these actions. Yazidi monuments are of course also on the list of things ISIS destroys whenever an occasion presents itself.

In short, the group is not only killing people that don't conform to its harsh version of Islam, it is also trying to erase all traces of their history and culture. It cares not one whit how old or unique these buildings and monuments are. For instance, the mosque of Yunus was built on an archeological site the oldest parts of which date back to the 8th century BC. In short, there are buildings in Iraq that have survived 2,800 years of upheaval and strife, but they haven't survived the coming of ISIS. Apparently ISIS considers all the shrines and mosques it destroys “places of apostasy”. In the course of its rampage it has also burned the books of the Diyala province's library, so reading is apparently a no-no for ISIS as well.

 

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A Preliminary Assessment – From the OSCE Mission

Mish recently posted about the German aviation expert Peter Haisenko, who claimed that the photographic evidence from the cockpit parts of flight MH 17 suggested that the plane must have been downed by air-to-air fire, not a surface-to-air missile.

The photographic evidence consisted inter alia of this high resolution picture of what was left of the cockpit. The decisive point according to Haisenko was the shape of the holes (round) and the fact that the metal was bent outward in several places (according to Haisenko, evidence of high caliber bullets entering the cockpit on one side,  traversing it and exiting on the other side). Haisenko argued that missile shrapnel would leave different marks.

Mish reasonably concluded that non-experts cannot really confirm whether these claims have merit. However, a very interesting recent interview with someone from the OSCE mission examining the crash site has recently turned up in this context. 

To our knowledge this interview went unreported in the Western mainstream media so far (which never fail to report claims made by the Kiev government, no matter how dubious they are – see this article by William Boardman who inter alia dissects a poorly sourced article in the WSJ – see also below).

We find the fact that this went unreported in the Western mainstream press almost more interesting than what the man is saying. He is seemingly confirming Haisenko's claims, while allowing that a final expert assessment remains to be awaited – so this is not yet definitive.

One thing is absolutely certain though: this version of events would fly in the face of everything Kiev and Washington have so far claimed about the incident – the storyline also promoted in the mainstream press with few or no questions asked. Given that multiple sources seem to confirm that Ukrainian war planes were actually shadowing MH 17, this would certainly be a piquant development, to put it mildly:

 

OSCE monitor notes there is evidence of machine gun fire in MH 17's fuselage, but “no evidence of a missile strike”. Oops.

 

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A Brutal Bunch

ISIS is by all accounts is so utterly brutal that its arrival in a location probably does feel like Allah's wrath is descending like a ton of bricks on the heads of those who haven't fled in time. 

Al Qaeda, which terrorism experts refer to as a 'brand that has great weight' in radical fundamentalist circles, has officially disassociated itself from the group, fearing it might damage Al Qaeda's image due to its unvarnished brutality.  The background to this is reportedly a long-running dispute between the late Osama Bin Laden and the equally late (or even later, if you will) Abu Musab al Zarquawi, the Jordanian street thug who founded al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which eventually became known as 'Al Qaeda in Iraq', the group that has in the meantime mutated into ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, resp. the Levant).

Rumor has it (letters exchanged between OBL and Zarqawi have apparently been found) that OBL disapproved of Zarqawi's harsh tactics, rightly fearing they would alienate Sunnis in Iraq. AQI was indeed almost defeated when Iraq's Sunni tribes turned against it.

The movement regrouped in Syria, evidently got its hands on a great many weapons and was joined by jihadists from around the world. However, it continued with its brutal ways, imposing harsh sharia laws wherever it took over. Videos of beheadings and other gruesome executions perpetrated by ISIS fighters have flooded the internet. Undoubtedly ISIS' reputation was a great help in getting Iraqi soldiers to flee their posts when the group recently swept across Northern Iraq.

Al Qaeda, under its new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri finally completely disowned the group, with the disavowal being made official in early February of this year. As one observer remarked, Al-Qaeda seemed to have concluded that “not all press is good press”.

Ironically though, ISIS is farthest along the goal of actually establishing an Islamic Caliphate, a long term plan of Al Qaeda. And the break seems not to have  slowed its momentum one bit. It also appears it has changed its approach in Iraq, so as not to repeat Zarqawi's strategic mistakes.

Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister Maliki has made a grave mistake as well – he has failed to promote unity among Iraq's religious sects. The Sunni tribes in the North are disaffected and are therefore giving ISIS a chance – their help was probably a crucial element in the group's successful conquest of cities in the area.

 

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Barclays Caught Red Handed Manipulating Gold

It was all over the news last week, both mainstream and gold sites. Barclays was caught manipulating the gold price. They were fined £26M, and forced to pay a client who was damaged by their action. The trader who worked for Barclays, Daniel Plunkett, was also fined and banned from working in the financial sector. Here is a link to an article at the Financial Times.

This story is a big deal to the gold community.

It is commonly held that the gold price should be much higher than it is today. For example, many think the proper gold price is the money supply divided by the gold held by the US government. The monetary base is currently about $4T. The US Treasury owns about 261M ounces of gold. Simple math gives us $15,300 per ounce. If we use a broader measure of the money supply, the gold price should be even higher.

Also, there is the argument from common sense. Since 2008, the Fed has been “printing” trillions of dollars. Its balance sheet ballooned from just over $800B to just under $4.4T today. With all this fresh, new money flooding into the markets, why isn’t the gold price reacting as it should?

There are other theoretical arguments why the gold price should be skyrocketing. Instead, the fact is that it’s been dropping since 2011.

It must be that someone is pushing the gold price down. How else can we explain why the price is $1,300 and falling? They are keeping it thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, below the level where it ought to be.

And now, we have the Barclays scandal. It seems to offer the smoking gun, incontrovertible proof that the gold market is indeed manipulated.

Not quite.

Consider this analogy. Suppose a teenager stands accused of setting fire to several homes in his neighborhood. Despite investigations by the town police, sheriff, state police, and the FBI, they cannot find the sort of evidence that would convict him in court. Then, a breakthrough occurs. The kid is caught red-handed stealing candy at the corner store. Can the district attorney bring him to trial for multiple counts of arson now?

 

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The Dead of Odessa

Pro- and anti-Kiev protesters clashed in Odessa late last week, a confrontation which ended with numerous of the separatists being burned to death in the trade union building which they had fled into.

 

 

 

It kicked off after marchers calling for Ukrainian national unity, which the Kyiv Post claims was largely comprised of supporters of the local soccer team, encountered a rival pro-Russian group. Barricades were set up and buildings set aflame. Initial reports suggest that dozens were wounded, with at least three people shot dead,according to police. Then, police said at least 31 people were dead after pro-Kiev demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails into a building where a pro-Russia contingent was holding out.

 

This is according to the Washington Post, which was partly relying on live tweets by Journalist Howard Amos. Amos inter alia noted the strange passivity of the Odessa police force when it came to extending protection to the pro-Russian faction (at one point he tweeted 'pro-Russian guys appear surrounded from three sides, riot police nowhere to be seen').

That's all OK though, since the people demanding more autonomy for the predominantly Russian-speaking regions are all 'terrorists'. Here is a video our democratic friends united under the 'Euromaidan' banner posted on you-tube, seemingly reveling in the death of at least 39 people by fire  (the number of dead has been revised upward to 39, while some local news organizations even speak of 43 dead people):

 

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A Quick Overview

Below we briefly review updates of two charts we have employed in our recent market updates. The first one is a quick glance at several major indexes: the NDX, the SPX, the Russell 2000 and the DJIA. There have been multiple divergences between these indexes at their recent peaks, but there is also a divergence visible now that a rebound has begun – which is a direct result of the recent underperformance of momentum stocks. Note that we have taken this chart snapshot during the trading day, so it doesn't incorporate Wednesday's close yet.

The market has begun to bounce from a natural support level: lateral support in the NDX (as well as the Nasdaq Composite and the RUT) that has served as a support and resistance level on several previous occasions.

As you will see further below, although momentum and growth names are outperforming 'safe' stocks in Wednesday's trading, the trend toward safety is not undermined yet by this short term counter-trend move. There have been several short term pullbacks in the XLU-QQQ ratio since this new trend emerged in November, but the trend has continued all the same. On Tuesday, the ratio actually reached a new high for the move and is probably overdue for a pullback.

The Rydex sentiment measures we are keeping an eye on show practically no change since our last update. The only measure that is not firmly in cloud-cuckoo land just yet are total assets in bull and sector funds. However, relative to assets in money market funds and bear funds, they are near the peak levels recorded in early 2000. Bear fund assets and money market fund assets are at 17 year lows.

 

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The First $3 Billion of a Ukraine Bailout Immediately Go to Russia

This is really too funny. Apparently, the Ukraine owes $3 billion to Russia in bonds that have been issued under UK law. One of the stipulations of the bonds is that if the Ukraine's debt-to-GDP ratio should exceed 60%, the bonds will become immediately callable.

Once the Ukraine gets funding from the IMF,  this is of course going to happen right away – its debt-to-GDP ratio will then most definitely exceed 60%, so the first $3 billion of any aid the Ukraine receives in the form of loans will right away flow into Russia's coffers.

Of course there may be litigation first, but as Greek bondholders have found out, all those who held bonds issued under UK law were actually paid in full, while everybody else had to accept the 'PSI' and could basically go pound sand.

Of course it was all 'voluntary', but funny enough, the holders of Greek bonds issued under UK law didn't turn out to be as altruistic as all the other ones. At least we have not heard of any 'voluntary' contributions made by them. It seems rather doubtful that Mr. Putin will be eager to become a voluntary contributor to bailing out a government which he deems illegitimate. Instead he's going to take his money and run – or alternatively, make as-of-yet unspecified demands.

According to NBC:

 

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What the Economy Needs

We want to briefly comment on the suggestions that the Ukraine – this is to say the government of the Ukraine – allegedly needs to “borrow at least $35 billion”. This has been reported in terms such as these:

 

“The political crisis has cost Ukraine economically as the country is facing a possible debt default. Ukraine needs approximately $35 billion in aid to improve its economy, according to the country’s finance ministry.”

 

The last thing a country needs to “improve its economy” is a giant loan to its government. Government equals waste, even if it isn't prone to stealing, which we suspect the new administration in Kiev definitely is. Why should it be any different from the previous 'Orange Revolution' government? It's the same people, only fortified by a bunch of extreme right-wing nationalists this time, who incidentally hold a number of important portfolios, including everything relating to police, defense, national security and even the post of prosecutor general. Germany's news magazine Der Spiegel, which is largely sympathetic to the new government, reports this most recent tidbit from Kiev:

 

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Ukrainian Government Issues Arrest Warrant for Aksyonov

The latest in a series of futile gestures surrounding the situation in the Crimea is a warrant for the arrest of the Crimea's new prime minister, issued by the central government in Kiev:

 

 

 

 

 

“A court in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev has issued arrest warrants for the prime minister and parliament speaker of the country's autonomous republic of Crimea, the Prosecutor General's office said Wednesday.

Criminal charges had been brought against them and some other politicians in Crimea, said Ukraine's acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnytsky.

Last Thursday, the regional parliament of Crimea appointed Aksyonov, leader of the Russian Unity party, as prime minister in a closed session and announced that a referendum would be held over the future status of the territory on March 30.

Aksyonov said Saturday that he had asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to help ensure peace in the pro-Russian region. Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Alexandr Turchynov, who is also the country's acting president, later signed a decree to reject Aksyonov's new capacity.

 

(emphasis added)

Our guess is that Aksyonov's resolve has just been strengthened immeasurably. If they really mean it, then he has henceforth nothing left to lose. Just as Kiev thinks his government is illegitimate, so he believes the Kiev government to be illegitimate. The irony is that both governments were proclaimed by the same methods: First, protesters took over government buildings and thereafter, the respective parliamentarians appointed a new government. Both were slightly dubious affairs from a legal standpoint.

 

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Russian Troops in the Crimea

John Kerry is appropriately aghast at the “incredible act of aggression” by Russia in the Ukraine:

 

“You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text," Kerry told the CBS program "Face the Nation."

 

This new-found respect for the sovereignty of foreign nations represents a laudable 180 degree change in US foreign policy. You just don't do that in the 21st century! Like e.g. invading Iraq by making up tall stories about “weapons of mass destruction” hidden there. It's just not done. As an aside to this: in February, the civil war currently raging in Iraq has cost yet another 1,705 lives, with 2,045 wounded. The death toll is a considerable increase from January's 1,284 dead and 2,088 wounded. Perhaps you weren't aware there is a civil war raging in Iraq? If so, that is no surprise. The Western media have fallen almost completely silent on the topic. Yet, this is what the famous 'mission' has actually 'accomplished'.

As Jason Ditz reports regarding the recent escalation in the Crimea:

 

“While US politicians have also ratcheted up the rhetoric, US officials concede that Russia’s troops in Crimea are setting up defensive positions and are in a “self-defense posture only.”

Reports from Crimea’s government say they’ve got Russian troops helping them protect government buildings in anticipation of the referendum, and with a sense that will easily back secession and re-accession into the Russian federation, it seems that Russia doesn’t need to “invade” at all, but simply needs to keep the interim government at bay until Crimean voters affirm the switch.”

 

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War Games Enlarged

Russia has put some 150,000 troops on alert according to media reports, enlarging 'previously planned' war games near the border with the Ukraine. Russian politicians naturally continue to complain about the situation in the Ukraine, and their tone of voice has become quite a bit more strident over the past two days.

Part of Russia's Black Sea fleet is actually stationed in the Crimea, so it is easily conceivable that a pretext for a military intervention could be concocted. However, we tend to think these recent developments are just old-fashioned saber rattling, in spite of the strong interest Russia has in what happens in the Ukraine. Obviously, betting on Yanukovich was a big mistake – he was simply too corrupt and too big of a gangster. Still, markets were slightly rattled early on Wednesday and the Ukrainian hryvnia continued its free-fall. Interestingly though, Ukrainian stocks concurrently kept rising (adjusted for the fall in the hryvnia, the rally is of course not worth mentioning).

According to Reuters:

 

“Ukraine's protest leaders named the ministers they want to form a new government following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich, as an angry Russia put 150,000 troops on high alert in a show of strength.

President Vladimir Putin's order on Wednesday for soldiers to be ready for war games near Ukraine was the Kremlin's boldest gesture yet after days of sabre rattling since its ally Yanukovich was ousted at the weekend.

Moscow denied that the previously unannounced drill in its western military district was linked to events in its neighbor but it came amid a series of increasingly strident statements about the fate of Russian citizens and interests. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Moscow that "any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge – a grave mistake".

With the political turmoil hammering Ukraine's economy, the central bank said it would no longer intervene to shield the hryvnia currency, which tumbled 4 percent on Wednesday and is now down a fifth since January 1. Wednesday's abrupt abandonment of Ukraine's currency peg sent ripples to Russia where the rouble fell to five-year lows and bank shares fell.”

[…]

Russia has repeatedly expressed concern for the safety of Russian citizens in Ukraine, using language similar to statements that preceded its invasion of Georgia in 2008.

"In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 (1000 GMT) today," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.

Shoigu also said Russia was also "carefully watching what is happening in Crimea" and taking "measures to guarantee the safety of facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet," in remarks reported by state news agency RIA.”

 

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Vaporization in Bitcoin-Land

It is still not quite clear what exactly happened at Mt. Gox in Tokyo, the formerly biggest bitcoin exchange in the world. According to the exchange, the so-called 'transaction malleability' problem allowed hackers to initiate countless bogus transactions, stealing some 744,000 bitcoins. Even at the recently somewhat lower price of $600 per bitcoin (at non-Mt. Gox exchanges), this sounds like a lot of money. In fact, it sounds as if the exchange has essentially been bankrupted/vaporized, and no amount of 'trying to fix the problem' can actually, well, fix it. Mind, this is just a hunch on our part based on the fact that about $450 m. are said to have disappeared.

In spite of no longer allowing withdrawals (whether of bitcoin or any other forms of currency) since February 7, trading actually continued at Mt. Gox until February 25. During that time, bitcoin prices crashed on the exchange, and a two-tier price system developed. There have always been slight price differences between the various bitcoin exchanges, but our impression was that arbitrage transactions kept prices at most exchanges for the most part quite closely aligned. However, after it became clear that withdrawals from Mt. Gox were no longer possible, the price of bitcoin traded there decoupled rather noticeably. While the currency weakened at other exchanges as well, it did so to a far smaller extent.

This week, trading at Mt. Gox finally stopped and the site became inaccessible shortly thereafter. Access has been restored in the meantime, but all the site does at present is display the terse message that can be seen on the chart below:

 

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Protests Flare Up Again in Turkey

We had to laugh when reading the headline Growing authoritarianism in Turkey faces minor repercussions abroad” – this is precisely what we mentioned in our recent update on emerging markets. Our words with regard to the increasingly draconian and authoritarian legislation implemented in Turkey were:

 

“The vaunted 'defenders of freedom' in the West probably aren't going to object for even a millisecond.”

 

(emphasis added)

Obviously that was a case of 'right the first time'.

 

While the Turkish government is turning into a more authoritarian regime by limiting freedom of expression, controlling the judiciary, tightening its grip on power and controlling the media, it appears that Turkey is managing to maintain a “business as usual” relationship with the US and European countries without any repercussions, as long as Turkey protects the interests of Western powers in the region.

Diplomatic sources and experts who closely follow Turkish-American relations and Turkey's accession process to the European Union agree that recent important steps by the Turkish government, such as satisfying Western powers on the Cyprus issue and normalizing ties with Israel, are helping to keep potential criticisms from the US government and other Western countries at bay regarding problematic issues on democracy and freedom in Turkey.”

 

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Yanukovich Sulking in Hideout

Over the past several days, more and more of his political supporters have deserted Ukraine's president Yanukovich in light of the bloody confrontations between police and protesters in Kiev. In the end, all of them decided they would be better off without him. The final straw seems to have been news that Moscow wouldn't send any money after all until calm was restored in the Ukraine and a political solution to the conflict was found (we imagine the Russians were concerned their money might end up getting stolen, not an entirely unreasonable fear). Yanukovich thereupon apparently decided that he would be best served by disappearing in the presidential helicopter and was last seen heading toward an unknown retirement hideout by air. However, from there he immediately resumed complaining:

 

“Yanukovych was removed in a 328-0 vote in the 450-seat chamber. As protesters took control of central Kiev and flooded into his luxury estate, Yanukovych said in a speech from an undisclosed location that attempts to remove him from power were a “coup d’etat.”

The peace agreement, signed on Feb. 21 after all-night talks in Kiev with EU foreign ministers, envisioned a national-unity government within 10 days. Lawmakers approved a return to the 2004 constitution, curbing presidential powers.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who helped negotiate the EU deal signed by Yanukovych and the opposition, said there was “no coup in Kiev,” and that parliament is acting legally. Yanukovych had said in a statement published on his presidential website that he wouldn’t resign and deemed all of the new acts illegal.”

 

(emphasis added)

In spite of this rather feeble last-ditch show of defiance, Yanukovich can probably be safely regarded as history. It was an interesting development that Russia decided to ditch him by refusing to send the financial aid it had only promised to release a few days earlier. We would point to this interesting little news item in this context:

 

“U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov agreed on the importance of promoting economic and financial stability in Ukraine and the need for reforms that could be supported by an IMF program, according to the Treasury Department. “There needs to be stability in the Ukraine,” Lew told reporters in Sydney yesterday, adding he’d had a “very good conversation” with Siluanov.

Lew spoke with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of ex-Premier Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, and encouraged Ukraine to begin discussions with the IMF as quickly as possible, the Treasury Department said.”

 

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The Crisis Worsens

We previously discussed Puerto Rico in these pages in October of last year (see “Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis – Another Domino Keels Over”). At the time, the public debt crisis looked increasingly worrisome – in fact, it seemed as though Puerto Rico would eventually have to apply for a federal bail-out, and if it failed to get one, it might have to restructure its debt (it actually cannot do that, see further below). Several months have now passed and the situation apparently hasn't gotten better. Before we continue, allow us to point out though that noted contrarian Jeff Gundlach thinks that Puerto Rico will eventually be rescued – he believes that too many politicians have a vested interest in not letting anything bad happen:

 

“Municipal bonds are slightly overvalued, he said. Investors who are willing to tolerate volatility will get rewarded for the risk in Puerto Rico’s bonds. Too many politicians rely on votes tied to the stability of Puerto Rico to allow a crisis there, according to Gundlach. “Puerto Rico’s bonds are going to make it to the other side of the valley,” he said.”

 

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