Saturday, January 3, 2015

"The Month That Was - December 2014"

                Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                            January 3, 2015
The Month That Was
December 2014

In drear-nighted December,
   Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
   Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
   From budding at the prime.
                                                                                                                In drear-nighted December
                                                                                                                John Keats (1795 – 1821)

Hope springs eternal, as Keats suggests in this winter poem; for the end of December sees the old year out and January 1st marks the beginning of the new one. However, for all the complaints we have, the situation in the U.S. is not bad. The U.S. economy rebounded in the second and third quarters, after a dismal first quarter. Unemployment is gradually declining and wages are finally rising. Oil prices fell 50% from their June-July highs. The stock market provided a Santa Claus rally to nullify even the most desperate Grinch. In the six days proceeding Christmas, the Dow Jones Averages tacked on 961.34 points, or 5.6 percent! And, Republicans took over the Senate and increased their majorities in the House and in state capitals. While President Obama has not been gelded, he is, at least, on a shorter leash. However, we must remember: past is not prelude.

Apart from markets and the economy, December was busy. Much that happened was reported as negative, but upon consideration and exposure turned out to be of gladder tidings. Some examples: Sony’s decision to not release “The Interview,” because of threats from North Korea, prompted an outcry led by President Obama that Americans are not to be intimidated, particularly by some tin-horn dictator who has kept his people impoverished and ignorant. Sony relented and the movie opened in a couple of hundred theaters and was streamlined into homes, becoming the most popular video on Google Play and You Tube Movies during Christmas week.

The anti-police demonstrations (i.e., “Hands up, don’t shoot”), largely manufactured by professional dissidents like Reverend Al Sharpton, obviously  played a role in the assassination of two New York police officers, and showed Mayor Bill de Blasio, when he blamed the media for his troubles, to be the hypocrite many have long suspected he is. His attempts to become a “friend” of the police have been met with deserved contempt, except by his apologists in the liberal media. They have not caused him to distance himself from Mr. Sharpton, America’s pre-eminent tax dodger who makes his income by stirring cauldrons of hatred. The situation has placed New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton in a difficult spot – fealty to the mayor versus loyalty to the men and women in blue he represents.

The UVA “rape” case, reported by Rolling Stone, turned out to be fraudulent, thereby exposing the fabricator of the charge, and making a mockery of the reporter and the magazine’s editors – another example of the Left forming conclusions before evidence is compiled.

Last October, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) executive director Ian Smith claimed that the Ebola outbreak is “the most severe, acute health emergency in modern times.” He predicted, at the time, that Ebola could reach 10,000 cases a week by the first of December. Instead, the WHO reported 529 cases for that week. After spending the spring downplaying the effects of Ebola, the WHO ramped up its rhetoric. The disease remains serious, though – more than 7,800 people have died – but it does not appear to be the pandemic once feared.

“So,” as Victor Davis Hanson asked in a recent op-ed, “does lying for a supposed good cause bring with it immunity?” It did so for Elizabeth Warren, so why not for others?

No one at this point can predict the consequences of President Obama’s intent to establish normal relations with Cuba. But the timing seems odd, as Cuba’s two patrons – Russia and Venezuela – are under pressure because of lower oil prices. Cuba receives the imprimatur that comes with having diplomatic relations with the U.S. We get nothing, other than the ability to sell goods to an impoverished people. Worse, there is no hint that the people of Cuba will realize any more freedoms. One surmises that more favorable terms to the U.S. could have been negotiated.

Nor can anyone say for sure whether Jeb Bush’s decision to leave his corporate and not-for-profit boards and establish a committee to consider whether he should run for President will, in fact, result in his doing so, or cause him to make an early exit. (Personally, I hope he doesn’t run. I think he is a good man and qualified, but I don’t believe America should be about dynasties, whether the name is Kennedy, Clinton or Bush.)

The loss of Air Asia flight 8501 on December 26 into the Java Sea, killing all 162 aboard, recalled the still missing Malaysian Air flight 390, which disappeared on March 8 somewhere in the South Indian Ocean. It also brought back memories of Malaysian Air flight 17, shot down by Russian-trained Ukrainian partisans on July 17.

Elsewhere around the world, the Russian Ruble continued its descent toward Earth. It has lost about 45% of its value since last summer – a consequence of falling oil prices, the imposition of sanctions and an economy on life support. (The Ruble lost ten percent during two days in December!) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was re-elected in a specially-called election. The Shanghai Index was up 20% in the month of December. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee finally got it right when they split the reward between Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India. The Palestinians, still dominated by the terrorist organization Hamas, have said they will go to the UN to get satisfaction they claim they are not getting from the US.

Peace, however, was far from the minds of the Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram, which kidnapped another two hundred girls and promptly killed thirty of them. When will western governments realize the wisdom of Gertrude Stein, when she wrote, in “Sacred Emily,” “a rose is a rose is a rose?” Islamic terrorism, by whatever name one calls it – Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban (the UN lists over one hundred such organizations) – is Islamic terrorism. They are not going away. The Pakistan branch of the Taliban killed 132 children in a military school in Peshawar and a “loan wolf” Islamist left three dead in Sydney, Australia.

Back at home, Diane Feinstein released her politically motivated “torture” report, which maligns the people who put their lives on the line that we may live safely. The partisan report diminishes the reputation Ms. Feinstein earned over twenty-two years in the U.S. Senate. Gas prices, which have been, ironically, in decline since the summer driving season, fell another ten cents in December. Republicans picked up one more Senate seat when Bill Cassidy defeated incumbent Mary Landrieu in Louisiana’s runoff election. Jonathon Gruber appeared before Congress and proved to be the sanctimonious jerk that videos showed him to be. His former political allies scattered like horses from a rattlesnake. Stupid is as stupid speaks.

The U.S. domestic economy continues to gain strength, with GDP rising 5.0% for the third quarter, following a 4.6% gain in the second quarter. Domestic employment continues to gain, though total employment, minus Texas, is below where it was when the recession began. But November data showed wages finally beginning to rise. The Financial Times reported that global merger activity rose to $3.3 trillion – pre-crisis levels. The Dow Jones traded over 18,000 for four days near month’s end, but closed under that level. Stocks were essentially flat for the month, but the S&P 500 was up 11.4% for the year. When dividends are included, the total return for the year bested long term annual returns by about 700 basis points. The VIX, a measure of volatility, rose 44% during the month. The Dollar was up 2.0% for the month against a basket of currencies, and up 12.5% for the year. Versus a basket of currencies, the Dollar is now above where it was in February 2009. Despite strong equity markets, spreads between High-yield bonds and investment-grade corporates, along with spreads between investment-grade corporates and the Ten-year, are at their highest level in two years. With “risk on,” the yield on the Ten-year Treasury declined another five basis points in December.

Like all months, December had its share of oddities: A guy jumped the White House fence and made it inside before he was nabbed. A Naked man was photographed on a New York subway. A Stuyvesant High School student was reported by a gullible reporter as having made $73 million trading stocks. The state of Montana instituted a dress code for legislators. Bill Cosby, once an American icon, was accused of sexually molesting dozens of women. And hunters in the suburban state of New Jersey killed 267 black bears during the six-day hunting season ending December 13th! America is still America.

Like most, I welcome the New Year – of course, we have no choice – and pray that common sense will come to Washington and peace to the World. I have, though, little expectation of either. When they are not doing harm, which unfortunately is most of the time, politicians at least provide a constant source of sick humor. As for the World, Cyber attacks may well be the new threat. North Korea was accused of hacking Sony. There is a strong possibility that it was the U.S., in retaliation, that shut down North Korea’s internet for ten hours.

Our daily lives – everything from the food we buy, the banking we do, to the energy we consume to power our cars and heat and cool our homes – depend upon the sanctity of computers. We are dependent on microchips and on the ability for our banks, electric grids and military to have impenetrable security systems. None, however, seem totally immune. It won’t necessarily take a plane used as a weapon, or a dirty bomb, to bring our civilization down. It could be done by a hacker working in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, Moscow, Havana, or even a disgruntled American operating from anywhere. It is sobering to be so vulnerable.

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