Republicans are trying to tar President Obama with gas prices that are creeping up on $4 a gallon and are shooting for an all-time high. The strategy is working. Obama’s approval rating on handling gas prices has plunged. In San Francisco, gas is already $4.50. Yet across the Bay are five oil refineries that together are the largest exporters of petroleum products in the nation.
Tokyo, May 1996. One of the newsstands at Takadanobaba station carries the Wall Street Journal Asia. Before 8 a.m., the wrinkled prewar archetype has two copies. By 8:45 a.m., he’s down to one. By 9 a.m., he’s out. And now that I live a few minutes away, I get there in time to grab the last copy. Surely, the same two guys have been buying them for years, and now I come along and muck up their system. I feel like a thief.
The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 a year ago and the nuclear catastrophe that followed are personal to me: my wife is from Tokyo, and my in-laws live there. To our immense relief, no one we know was hurt. But others weren’t that lucky: 15,854 died and 3,155 are still missing. This missive, written by my wife four days after the quake, depicts the chaos in Tokyo, the emotions, and the unique Japanese ways of coping with it.
“We owed it to our children and grandchildren to rid them of the burden of this debt,” said Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos about the bond swap that had just whacked private sector investors with a 74% loss. While everyone other than the bondholders was applauding, the drumbeat of Greece’s economic horror show continued in its relentless manner.
Two freaks—Greek bonds and bailout-queen Dexia—wormed their way into an earnings announcement today, this one by the French postal service. It has its share of strategic problems and government interference, much like the United States Postal Service. But it made a profit and will pay a dividend to the French government. Only the USPS is run by 535 clueless micromanagers in Washington.
Socialist François Hollande, frontrunner in the French presidential election, tried to score some points against President Sarkozy—criticized for his cozy relationship with the rich. “I don’t like the rich,” he said and followed up on TV with two new income-tax brackets for the rich: 45% and 75%. But now a hullaballoo broke out, not among his targets, the corporate chieftains, but in the world of ... soccer. And it’s killing the new tax.
Thousands of students from all over California snarled traffic during their march on the Capitol in Sacramento. Hundreds of them then flooded the Rotunda of the Capitol, a raucous affair. Eventually, the Highway Patrol cleared them out, and 60 were thrown in the hoosegow for trespassing and resisting arrest. Their problem: tuition increases—in a system that has become dysfunctional.
The conflict in the Eurozone has simmered for weeks. On one side: Chancellor Angela Merkel who is protecting her oeuvre. On the other: François Hollande who is running against President Sarkozy. But now, Merkel raised the stakes by roping in 3 powerful allies and lining them up against Hollande—a desperate and risky gamble to keep Sarkozy in power.
Kyoto, April 1996. We hike up the alleys to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. They’re lined with noodle shops, cafés, snack shops, and souvenir shops in wooden buildings, some with multilayered curved and pointy roofs and patinated copper gutters—when two geisha in flamboyant kimonos, theatrical makeup, and dramatic hairdos hobble arm in arm out of a side alley.
Japanese pension funds face a tricky situation. On one side is an investment environment of near-zero yields, declining real estate values, and a stock market that is down 75% from its peak in 1989. On the other side is a ballooning retirement-age population who enjoys the longest life expectancy in the world. So the one thing they don’t need is pension fund assets evaporating from an asset management firm.
In France, new vehicle registrations are plunging: -17.8% in December, -20.7% in January, -20.2% in February. French automakers suffered the most. PSA Peugeot Citroën -29.2% and Renault -28.5%. The German auto industry is still basking in last year’s glow of record worldwide sales and profits, and record bonuses for their beaming employees. But so far this year, they have been stagnating. And it’s just the beginning.
In Germany, the top personal income tax rate is 45%. People in religious organizations pay an additional "church tax." Other taxes are piled on top. And when the hapless taxpayer spends money, a 19% value added tax comes due. Hence, tax fraud is a national sport. Yet, 160 Ministry of Finance employees are supposed to fix the Greek tax collection system—which will endear the already reviled Germans even more to the Greeks.
Optimism has always been the hallmark of California—especially when it comes to tax-revenue projections. Now the independent Legislative Analyst's Office laments that Governor Jerry Brown's budget is another extravaganza of optimism, particularly the projections of how much moolah can be extracted from wealthy residents. Which the Governor expects to skyrocket, magically.
One of the hardest things to get in this world is a truthful, or at least a somewhat realistic, or at the very least a not totally fabricated unemployment number. Every country has its own bureaucratic madness in pursuing obfuscation. And Germany is no exception. Official unemployment dropped to a two-decade low in January, but a recreational dive into the Federal Labor Agency’s monthly report reveals another story.
Tokyo, April 1996. The problem is money. It dematerializes in multiples of 10,000-yen bills. There’s even a word for ten thousand: man. Anything less is change. You pay two man yen for dinner and drinks, plus one man yen for a love hotel, plus one man yen for breakfast, lunch, and miscellaneous expenses. You’ve blown four man yen, or about $400, without having done anything fancy.
After an endless stream of horrid reports on the tragedy of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, we’re ready for something ... lighter. This has been circulating in the Japanese internet community for months, has garnered countless comments, and a lot of nodding, agreement, and knowing smiles because it represents, in the eyes of many Japanese, a larger tongue-in-cheek truth.
In Greece, three-quarters of the independent doctors, lawyers, and engineers declare taxable income below the existential minimum. Tax fraud amounts to €20 billion per year (8.5% of GDP). And tax dodgers owe €63 billion in unpaid taxes (27% of GDP). The country is bankrupt and has been kept afloat by the Troika (EU, ECB, and IMF), of which Germany is by far the largest contributor. But there is a plan. And it's not an endless bailout.
The EU filed a laundry list of complaints against Chinese dumping, from shoes to fasteners. Take ceramics. Household ceramics got hit last week; in 2011, building ceramics; in 2010, ceramic tiles—led to a punitive tax of 69.7%. Now, it has another target: Chinese steel. But the industry is the bully on the block. And it flexed its pumped-up muscles—and put at stake the very manna that European officials have been praying for.
Bailout queen Dexia, the mega-bank that was bailed out twice in three years, turns into a nightmare for the tiny Kingdom of Belgium, which guaranteed a pile of debt, nationalized local subsidiaries, and bailed out the rest of the financial sector. Exposure: €162 billion—41% of GDP! And now Dexia announces monumental losses. But finally there is resistance.