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Friday 01.23.2015

Saudi Arabia's 'reformer' King Abdullah die
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud has died, according to an announcement on Saudi state TV. He was 90. The next king will be Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, state television reported early Friday. The announcement of his death comes several weeks after the state-run Saudi Press Agency said Abdullah was suffering from pneumonia and had been admitted to the hospital. State television showed throngs of mourners gathered in Mecca. King Abdullah became king of the oil-rich nation, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, in August 2005. But he had been running Saudi Arabia since 1996, after his half-brother King Fahd's stroke. In the context of the kingdom's conservative circles, Abdullah was seen as reformer and often came up against the more hard-line clerics.

The ECB takes out the bazooka: It’ll buy over 1 trillion euros of bonds to save Europe’s economy
The European Central Bank announced it will begin buying government bonds with newly printed euros in its latest bid to reverse the continent's long, slow slide into economic stagnation. Specifically, the ECB will buy €60 billion, or $69 billion, of assets a month—including government, institutional and private sector bonds—and will do so until at least September 2016, or until there's a "sustained adjustment in the path of inflation" toward their close-to-but-below 2 percent goal. To give you an idea how far away that is, prices are actually falling in Europe—a seriously worrisome sign—with euro-zone inflation currently at -0.2 percent. It's no wonder that Europe's economy still has 11.5 percent unemployment and is growing so slowly that it's not clear whether it's even gotten out of its last recession.

Why These 5 Companies Are Laying Off Thousands of Workers
Here’s some explanation—note we used the word “explanation” not “justification”—for why a handful of companies are laying off large chunks of their workforces even as the economy is on the upswing and unemployment is falling month after month. eBay: 2,400 jobs. On Wednesday, eBay announced it would be cutting 2,400 jobs in the first quarter of 2015. The company says that the layoff figure includes positions that are unfilled, so the actual number of people losing their jobs will be less than 2,400. What’s more, eBay points out that the figure represents only 7% of the company’s total workforce. (Are we the only ones surprised to hear that eBay currently employs 34,600 people?) Among the factors influencing the layoff decision: “Weak holiday sales” and revenues that have been lower than analysts expected, as well as a company restructuring in anticipation of the spinoff of eBay’s online payment service PayPal.

MSNBC: 'It's Dangerous' for Obama to Continue 'Diminishing the Lingering Threat' in Middle East

Fannie Mae Expects Economy to ‘Drag’ Housing Toward Recovery in 2015
As Fannie Mae sees it, 2015 will be a good year for the housing market, even if residential real estate has to get dragged into the black. Fannie Mae's 2015 Economic Outlook, released Thursday, is less a picture of a purely positive housing market than an expectation of an economy so strong across several key growth sectors that it will propel the national housing market to greater heights than in 2014. Or, as Fannie Mae puts it, the economy is strong enough to drag housing behind it and create growth by default. "Our theme for the year, 'Economy Drags Housing Upward,' implies that both housing and the economy will pick up some speed in 2015, but that the economy will grow at a faster pace," said Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae. Fannie Mae expects strengthening private domestic demand to drive the economy up 3.1 percent...

Enough is enough: Key lawmaker says it’s time for another VA reform bill
After watching the Department of Veterans Affairs struggle for months to fire officials involved in the health care scandal, the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has proposed new legislation that would try once again to inject discipline into the broken VA. Congress passed legislation last year that gave the VA secretary new authority to quickly fire officials for inappropriate behavior. The bill was put forward after it became clear that VA centers around the country were scheming to delay health care services to thousands of veterans. But several months later, just two senior officials have been fired, and neither were formally fired for their role in the scandal. Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said it’s clear that Congress needs to step in again to bring accountability to the VA, which he said is “extremely scarce” right now.

JPMorgan's Dimon got no hike in 2014, was paid cash bonus
JPMorgan Chase & Co's Jamie Dimon's compensation in 2014 stayed unchanged at $20 million, but the chief executive officer got a cash bonus, something he was not awarded in 2013. Dimon's compensation in 2014 comprised a base salary of $1.5 million, $11.1 million in restricted stock and a $7.4 million cash incentive bonus, the company said in a regulatory filing. His package in 2013 was composed of a base salary of $1.5 million and $18.5 million in restricted stock units. JPMorgan is the biggest U.S. bank, with $2.6 trillion in assets. Dimon, 58, is the most outspoken of big bank CEOs and has recently bristled at public criticism that JPMorgan is too big and complex to manage safely and efficiently. JPMorgan did not explain its rationale for the compensation decisions.

Keiser Report: US vs China. Battle for Latin America

George Soros thinks the future of the European Union is at risk over Ukraine
Financier George Soros told guests at a private dinner in Davos tonight that the next few days were critical for the fate of Ukraine, and called on Europe to urgently provide more financial support for the country or risk allowing Russia to “divide and dominate.” Soros also announced that he has “finally” retired from managing money to devote himself to political philanthropy. He didn’t comment extensively on investing conditions, but said he was less bullish than other investors because of high uncertainty and volatility. “The current market conditions are difficult for hedge funds,” he said, voicing skepticism about the wisdom of big investors such as pension funds putting large amounts of money in hedge funds and expecting to achieve better-than-average returns. Taken together, hedge funds’ “performance tends to be equal to the market minus a 20% management fee.”

Family Dollar Shareholders Approve Takeover By Dollar Tree
The Great Recession hobbled the U.S. economy and crushed many businesses, but some companies thrived, including the so-called "dollar" stores. Shoppers flocked to them because you could buy a lot with not much money. And as the economy rebounds, people are still going to some. But one chain, Family Dollar, hasn't kept pace with its competitors. Shareholders of Family Dollar voted Thursday to sell to a rival chain, Dollar Tree, for $8.7 billion. In doing so, shareholders left a bigger offer from Dollar General on the table, citing antitrust fears. For those who haven't been to one of Family Dollar's 8,000 U.S. stores, they sell a variety of things such as paper towels, sodas and children's clothes. But these things don't actually cost a dollar. Inside a store in Charlotte, N.C., shelves have a range of prices.

Japan: No longer Asia's fastest-aging nation?
Taiwan is set to surpass Japan as Asia's fastest aging nation this decade, experts warn, as a dwindling labor force poses a structural challenge to economic growth. "An imminent issue Taiwan will face is population aging, it seems the aging trend is unfolding faster than forecasted," Societe Generale economist Claire Huang said in a recent note. Huang says the population of working-age residents, or those between 15 and 64 years of age, will shrink 7.3 percent by 2025, above the 7.2 percent contraction expected for Japan. While Taiwan's figure seems alarming, it comes as no surprise; Huang notes that growth was barely above zero in 2014 after hovering below 1 percent for most of the past decade. In a report last year, HSBC noted that the East Asian 'tigers' (South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) were expected to age at rates even quicker than that of Japan.

Gov. Scott Walker budget to bar drug users from getting food stamps and Medicaid
Setting up a likely fight in the federal courts, Gov. Scott Walker is proceeding with his plan to ensure that drug users aren't getting food stamp or jobless benefits. Fulfilling a campaign promise, the Republican governor committed Thursday to putting the proposal in his next budget bill expected on Feb. 3 but provided few new details on how he would pursue a plan that could run afoul of federal rules in food stamp and unemployment programs. For the first time, Walker committed to offering free treatment and job training for those testing positive for drugs, but he offered no details on how the state would cover the costs of that or the testing or whether he expected it to cost the state money overall or save tax dollars. The budget, he said in a statement, would also drop to four years from five the limit on how long a recipient could be in the Wisconsin Works program...

Wells Fargo, Chase To Pay $35.7M For Allowing Illegal Mortgage Kickbacks
Federal law prohibits giving or receiving kickbacks in exchange for a referral of business related to a real-estate-settlement service, but for four years a now-defunct title company in Maryland provide cash, marketing materials and consumer information in exchange for referrals. And now the banks have agreed to pay more than $35 million — including $11.1 million in redress to affected consumers — for their sins. Before going out of business in 2014, Genuine Title offered real-estate-closing services. To win over more business, Genuine crossed the legal line by exchanging cash and services with loan officers at various bank locations. In some cases, Genuine would do grunt work for the banks, creating and printing letters with the banks’ logos then actually stuffing them into envelopes and mailing them for the bank. The banks would then refer homebuyers to Genuine for their closing service needs.

Why Germany Isn't Happy About The ECB's New Stimulus Plan

Will you have to pay an Obamacare fine?
If you are self-employed, and/or have fewer than 100 employees, you will not have to provide your employees health insurance. But there is a key part of Obamacare that will likely impact your pocketbook: the individual mandate. This means that you must get qualified health insurance for your family or pay an annual penalty (the law calls this the “individual shared responsibility payment”). OK, what does it amount to? For the current year, the penalty is the greater of $95 per adult and $47.50 per child, limited to a family maximum of $285; or 1 percent of your household income above your tax filing threshold (this is the amount for determining if you must file a tax return). But the total penalty is capped at the national average for a bronze plan, which is roughly $2,448 per person with a maximum of $12,240 for a family with five or more members.

Bankers say big is beautiful, safe and economic
Europe's bankers defended the big bank model this week in Davos as the mounting cost of regulation puts a question mark over its future. Big complex banks must now hold far more capital than in the past because they are seen as posing higher economic risks and they have to be easier to dismantle if they hit trouble. That has hurt their profitability and held back share prices. JPMorgan , the biggest U.S. bank by assets, has faced growing pressure to consider a break-up, and similar questions are being put to less profitable European rivals such as Deutsche Bank , Barclays and Credit Suisse . JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon last week said splitting his bank would be bad for the financial prestige of the United States, and he won support from his peers at this week's World Economic Forum in Davos. "Is there a better model? Those of us who are large have always faced questions."

US unemployment claims at seven-month high, exceed 300,000-mark
The number of new applications filed by Americans for claiming unemployment benefits declined last week from a seven-month high, indicating toward the improving labor market conditions. The US Labor Department report, released on Thursday, showed that the initial jobless claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 307,000 for the week that ended on January 17. Last week’s figures for new jobless claims applications fell short of the expectations of many economists who had predicted a 300,000 reading. The economists had turned down the previous week’s surge as “noise” given that the jobless claims data is tough to adjust for seasonal variations in the holiday period. However, they were few who wondered that if some of the rise in unemployment benefits claims reflected layoffs in the oil sector in the wake of declining crude prices.

Doomsday approaching? Clock ticking closer to midnight
Citing unchecked climate change and the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons, scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight Thursday. "It is now three minutes to midnight," said Kennette Benedict, the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at a press conference in Washington, D.C. This is the closest to midnight the clock has been since 1984, during the Cold War. The clock is symbolic and has been maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947. The closer to a setting of midnight it gets, the closer it's estimated that a global disaster will occur. The closest the Doomsday Clock ever got to midnight -- two minutes -- was in 1953, when the hydrogen bomb was first tested.

Americans' Satisfaction With Federal Taxes on Low Side
Americans' satisfaction with the amount that Americans pay in federal income taxes roughly ties the lowest percentage Gallup has seen in the past 12 years. Thirty-two percent are now satisfied, down from 38% a year ago, but similar to the 33% found in 2003 and 2012. According to the Jan. 5-8 poll, 63% of Americans this year are dissatisfied with the amount Americans pay in taxes. In a follow-up question, most of this group -- equivalent to 46% of all Americans -- say they would like to see Americans pay less in taxes. Hardly any -- 4% -- would prefer they pay more. An additional 13% are dissatisfied with what Americans pay in taxes, but aren't specific about how it should change. The 46% who currently want taxes decreased is notably higher than what Gallup has found since 2012. It is only exceeded by the 51% recorded in mid-January 2003...

Obama talks middle class economics in Kansas

More Rumors That Google Is Buying Twitter
Renewed chatter that search engine giant Google Inc. is once again looking at acquiring Twitter Inc. pushed shares of the short-form messaging company to an intra-day high on Thursday. If memory serves, the first time this idea came up was nearly five years ago, before Twitter became a publicly traded company. At least once a year (it seems) the story gets another burst of energy before petering out. Could it be for real this time? At the end of the third quarter of 2014, Google was collecting about a third of the $140 billion digital advertising market. Meanwhile, Facebook Inc. had doubled its share to 8% in the prior two years. In the mobile advertising sector, Google claimed 44.6% global market share, compared with 20% for Facebook. But Google’s share was down slightly over the prior two years while Facebook’s had more than tripled.

ISIS Suffers Heaviest Defeat in Iraq in a Single Day
Over the last 24 hours, ISIS has been defeated in every front in Iraq in unprecedented way. From Mosul to the north to Anbar to the west and Diyala to the east, Iraqi government forces, Shiite militias, Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces were all victorious in battle. Since the start of the U.S.-led air campaign, ISIS has lost its momentum in Iraq and lost some of the cities and towns that it captured in June 2014. It still controls the provincial capitals Mosul and Tikrit as well as the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, and many other small towns throughout. Liberating Mosul is crucial – it’s Iraq’s second-largest city, and the largest city controlled by ISIS, located in Nineveh province. Ever since the fall of the city in June, ISIS became the leading global terror organization. It surpassed al-Qaeda central by inspiring tens of thousands to join its ranks and many more to commit acts of terrorism on their own.

What now for oil after Saudi king's death?
The oil market reacted swiftly to the death of the king of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of petroleum. Crude oil was 2% higher immediately after the news broke, trading just above $47 a barrel. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud's health had been deteriorating in recent weeks, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. He was king of Saudi Arabia since 2005 and celebrated his 90th birthday in August. His half-brother Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud was expected to assume the throne. Saudi Arabia has 16% of the world's oil reserves, and in 2013 was the world's largest exporter of total petroleum liquids, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The country is widely seen as the leader of OPEC. Oil has fallen over 50% since the summer. Crude oil traded over $100 as recently as July. It now trades below $50.

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