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Journal Archives

New-Home Sales Tick up In December as Housing Market Ekes out A Tiny Gain for 2018

Published: Mar 5, 2019 10:37 a.m. ET

The numbers: New-home sales ran at a seasonally adjusted annual 621,000 rate in December, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. That was 2.4% lower than a year ago.

What happened: Sales of newly-constructed homes were 3.7% higher than in November.

The December figures beat the MarketWatch consensus for a 600,000 rate, but there were sizable downward revisions to the previous three months.

The median sales price in December was $318,600, 7% lower than a year ago. At the current pace of selling, it would take 6.6 months to exhaust available supply, a bit more inventory than is generally considered a marker of a balanced market.

The government’s reports on the new-construction housing market are based on small samples, and are thus prone to big revisions. This winter, they have also been badly delayed by the government shutdown. On Friday, the Commerce Department will release January housing starts figures, which will help give a sense of the pace of building activity during that month. New-home sales for January are set for release next week.

Big picture: Through the noise, it’s clear that 2018 was a tough year for the new construction industry. Sales were just 1.5% higher than in 2017. The big question for the housing market is whether this is a downshift, or the beginning of the end of the cycle.


Speedier Growth in Service Side of Economy Might Be Sign of Spring Thaw, ISM Indicates

Published: Mar 5, 2019 11:15 a.m. ET

The service side of the U.S. economy perked up in February in a good sign.
The numbers: Companies on the service side of the economy that employ the vast majority of American workers grew in February at the fastest pace in three months, the first sign that U.S. growth might be picking up after an early-year lull.

The Institute for Supply Management’s survey of senior executives at banks, retailers, restaurants and the like rose to 59.7% last month from 56.7% in January. The increase easily exceeded Wall Street’s forecast.

Numbers over 50% are viewed as positive for the economy, and anything over 55% is considered exceptional.

The strength on the service side of the economy stood in contrast to softer growth in manufacturing. ISM’s manufacturing survey fell in February to the lowest level since Donald Trump was elected in November 2016.

Services play a much bigger part in the U.S. economy, however.

What happened: The index for production and new orders both rose sharply to finish around 65 — exceptionally strong readings that were the highest in 14 years.


Russia Comes to Maduros Rescue After U.S. Sanctions Hit

• Rosneft sends two vessels loaded with product key to industry
• Shipments will help Maduro regime continue producing oil

By Lucia Kassai and Fabiola Zerpa
March 4, 2019, 5:46 PM EST Updated on March 5, 2019, 6:00 AM EST

Just as Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA was running out of an obscure product needed to thin out its crude and keep exports flowing in the wake of U.S. sanctions, Russia is coming to the rescue.

Rosneft Oil Co. PJSC, the Moscow-based company controlled by Vladimir Putin’s government, is sending the first cargoes of heavy naphtha to Venezuela since the U.S. imposed harsher sanctions on PDVSA at the end of January, according to shipping reports and a person with knowledge of the situation. The compound is used to thin the sludgy Venezuelan crude so it can move through pipelines to the coast. Without it, crude gets stuck in the fields, unable to be upgraded into refinery-ready oil.

For Venezuela’s embattled leader Nicolas Maduro, a long-time Putin ally, the shipments are critical. They’ll help him stave off -- at least temporarily -- further declines in oil production, which in turn will bolster his attempt to fend off a push by the opposition to topple his autocratic regime. Oil output has already plunged by two-thirds after years of mismanagement and under-investment. The little that’s left -- about 1 million barrels a day -- funds the food-handout programs that provide sustenance to a population that’s been thrust into deep poverty under Maduro. Without the cash for those programs, hunger will grow, and with it, so too could pressure to drive him out.

While more than 50 countries, including the U.S., have recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, Russia sided with the regime of Nicolas Maduro. Russia pledges to help Venezuela to avoid outside military intervention, Parliament Speaker Valentina Matvienko told Vice President Delcy Rodriguez over the weekend. Russia along with China has been a major backer of Maduro, with ties dating back to 1999 when his predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power. PDVSA is moving its European office from Lisbon to Moscow, Rodriguez said Friday.

Two Rosneft tankers, Serengeti and Abliani, will deliver a combined 1 million barrels of heavy naphtha from Europe to Venezuela in coming weeks, ending a month-long gap of supply. The volumes will bring relief but are far from solving the problem. Before the new sanctions were imposed in January, Venezuela was importing between 2 million and 3 million barrels of heavy naphtha every month.


Buchanan: Mike Pompeos War Warning to China

Could America sustain such a commitment? More important, why should we? Has the White House thought through the implications of what the Pompeo threat may bring?

March 4, 2019 by Patrick J. Buchanan
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As President Trump flew home from his Hanoi summit with Kim Jong Un, Mike Pompeo peeled off and flew to Manila. And there the Secretary of State made a startling declaration.

Any armed attack by China on a Philippine ship or plane in the South China Sea, he told the Philippine government, will be treated as an attack on an American ship or plane, bringing a U.S. military response.

“China’s island building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and, therefore, economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States,” said Pompeo. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”

Article 4 requires the U.S. and the Philippines to come to the defense of the other if one is attacked. The treaty dates back to August 1951. There are Americans on Social Security who were not born when this Cold War treaty was signed.

Pompeo’s declaration amounts to a U.S. war guarantee.

Why would we make such a commitment? Why take such a risk?

Is Trump aware of what Pompeo’s promise could entail?

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For years, Beijing has claimed as national territory virtually the entire South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines all reject China’s claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands within that sea. But Beijing has occupied and expanded half a dozen islets; landed planes and troops; and fortified them as military and naval bases.

Beijing is not going to give them up, and Manila is too weak to take them back. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says a Philippine attempt to build on a disputed islet in the Spratly chain brought a flotilla of nearly 100 Chinese ships to halt Philippine construction.

Why did Pompeo issue this war guarantee?

Because Duterte and members of his Cabinet are unsure the U.S. would come to the defense of the Philippines in such a clash, and they believe their best course may be to appease Beijing, the rising power in Asia and the western Pacific.

Since the end of the Cold War, when Manila ordered us to vacate the Subic Bay Naval Base — only to invite us back when Manila grew nervous about her neighbors — and we were forced to abandon the Clark Air Base, the U.S. has not faced the fundamental question here.

Do we have a vital interest, justifying a war with China, in defending Manila’s claim to the Spratly Islands that China also claims, holds and defends as sovereign territory?

If so, how do we plan to get the Chinese off these islands, short of a naval and air war that could escalate? Is the Philippines capable of holding these islands if we help to retake them? Or would Manila rely on U.S. naval and air power in perpetuity to keep them?

Could America sustain such a commitment? More important, why should we? Has the White House thought through the implications of what the Pompeo threat may bring?

If the Chinese politely inform President Duterte that any attempt to take a Chinese-claimed island by force will be met by superior force, what do we do? Tell Duterte it is still his call, even if it means our war?

Is it wise for a great power to cede to a weak ally the ability to drag it into a great war? Ask the late Kaiser Wilhelm II.

When a Chinese fighter crashed into a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in 2001, then-President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell apologized for the death of the Chinese pilot — to retrieve the crew China had interned on Hainan Island.

We were unprepared to confront China over an act of aggression over international waters. Yet we are now prepared to fight China over who owns and occupies Mischief Reef or Scarborough Shoal?

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal article “The U.S. Is Ceding the Pacific to China,” writer Mark Helprin says America must “alter the correlation of military forces in the Western Pacific … so that it no longer moves rapidly and inevitably in China’s favor.”

He urges a massive buildup of U.S. ships, planes, missiles, troops and Marines all across the Asia-Pacific theater. And if we do not?

“Frankly, if we do not, the Pacific Coast of the United States will eventually look out upon a Chinese lake,” says Helprin.

Today, the U.S., $22 trillion in debt, has treaty commitments dating to the early Cold War to defend Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, all thousands of miles of ocean away from the USA.

If Trump cannot cut back these war guarantees, who will?

Pentagon Threatens Turkey With Grave Consequences For Buying Russian S-400

Published time: 5 Mar, 2019 05:35

The US has threatened Turkey with “grave consequences” unless it cancels the purchase of S-400 systems from Russia, with a Pentagon spokesman advising Ankara to seek “better solutions” and warning of “broader implications.”

“Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system will have grave consequences for the US defense relationship with Turkey,” Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon told Ahval news on Monday.

The US ally’s plan to buy the S-400 has been a major concern for the entire NATO alliance, with Washington claiming that its deployment alongside US-made weaponry, such as the F-35 stealth jets, undermines the alliance’s ‘interoperability’ and could reveal ‘secrets’ to Russians. Amid persistent pressure and threats of sanctions, the Trump administration last month temporarily halted the transfer of 100 F-35 jets to Turkey.

Talks on Patriot missiles get rocky, no step back from deal with Russia – Erdogan

Turkey for its part refused to bow to US pressure, insisting that diversifying military spending was crucial to national security. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week expressed his hope that Washington would “change its mind.” Yet the US continues its consultations with Ankara to help it “find better solutions,” and inform it of the “broader implications of purchasing Russian S-400s,” Pahon stressed.


Don't you just have visions of Bolton twirling his comical mustache?

Kremlin Confirms Plans For Kim Jong Un To Visit Russia

March 04, 2019 - 05:09 PM EST

Moscow confirmed plans Monday for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit Russia for a meeting, the details of which are still unclear.

"There is no clarity now. The contacts have been ongoing through diplomatic channels. ndeed, this visit is on the agenda and there was an invitation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to Russian news agency TASS. "We hope that in the near future the exact date and venue will be agreed on through diplomatic channels."

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier that Kim had been invited to Russia, although he has not given details on what the leaders planned to discuss, according to TASS.


US Consulate in Jerusalem that served Palestinians closed, says it's not signal of policy change

The United States Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as a de facto embassy for Palestinians, officially closed its doors in Jerusalem on Monday and will be merged into the U.S. Embassy to Israel, officials said.

The announcement from the State Department came early Monday in Jerusalem, the merger effective that day. Now, outreach for Palestinians will be handled by a Palestinian affairs unit at the embassy.

"This decision was driven by our global efforts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our diplomatic engagements and operations," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement. "It does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip."


And the "apartheid train" keeps right on chugging along... Chooo-chooo!!!

Trump To Terminate India Trade Benefits, Demands Equitable & Reasonable Access To Its Markets

US President Donald Trump has announced his intention to end preferential trade treatment for India, accusing New Delhi of failing to convince Washington it will provide “equitable and reasonable” access to its markets.

“I am providing notice of my intent to terminate the designation of India as a beneficiary developing country under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program,” Trump said in a letter to Congress on Monday.

I am taking this step because, after intensive engagement between the United States and the Government of India, I have determined that India has not assured the United States that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to the markets of India.

The move to end India's participation in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program is not surprising. For months, Trump has accused New Delhi of taking advantage of the arrangement, under which it enjoys zero tariffs on $5.6 billion of exports to the United States.


US Didn't Expect Resilience From Maduro: Spains FM Warns Against 'Military-Imposed Democracy'

Those who organized the chaos in Venezuela likely underestimated President Nicolas Maduro, Spanish FM Josep Borrell said, apparently referring to the US as he lambasted military interventions, saying they have “never worked.”

“Perhaps, when this process began, someone behind it did not think that Maduro would be able to show resistance,” Borrell said in an interview on Spanish TV network LaSexta.

Despite international pressure by Washington and its allies, economic turmoil and violence at the border, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has managed to hold onto power. As the crisis continues with no end in sight, opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Guaido has emphasized the need to “keep all options open” in order to overthrow Maduro’s government, appealing directly to the White House which has been openly mulling military intervention.

Guaido returns to Venezuela to the welcome of foreign ‘bodyguard’ envoys

Although Borrell was quick to recognize Guaido’s claim to the presidency following Maduro’s contested re-election, he has since been a stark opponent of resorting to military options.


Salisbury Poisoning: One Year On, Still No Evidence Of Novichok Nerve Agent Use Disclosed To Public

Published time: 4 Mar, 2019 08:51
Edited time: 4 Mar, 2019 15:47

On March 4, 2018, former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were ‘poisoned by a nerve agent’ in Salisbury, UK. Many details do not match up and what happened in reality remains a mystery (though we all know the villain, thanks).

It was on March 4, 2018 that the Skripals were admitted to a hospital in Salisbury. Within days, British Prime Minister Theresa May would claim they had been poisoned by a nerve agent called “novichok” and that it was “highly likely” the Russian government was behind the hit.

A war of words, sanctions and diplomatic expulsions followed, with relations between London and Moscow at their worst since the Cold War, and maybe worse than that. There has been no shortage of often fanciful theories emanating from UK officialdom and NATO-backed “open-source detectives” such as Bellingcat, but none have taken the world closer to knowing what actually happened.

Right from the start, the UK government, friendly media, and its NATO allies starting with the US, latched onto the alleged (more on that shortly) poisoning as the work of Russian intelligence. The “novichok” nerve agent, they said, was only made by Russia. No one else could have possibly done it. By September, the official narrative was that two military intelligence (GRU) officers had flown in directly from Moscow, allegedly left traces of the poison in their hotel room, and were caught on CCTV cameras in Salisbury on March 4. They supposedly poisoned the Skripals by smearing the nerve agent on the doorknob of their home.

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