While Congress remains on winter recess, President Obama hoodwinked his Senate Republican rivals of the newly-minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by naming former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray the nation’s chief consumer watchdog, sidestepping the Senate confirmation process. Mr. Cordray boarded Marine One on Wednesday for a brief flight to Andrews Air Force Base, where he joined the President in his hometown of Cleveland for a formal announcement.

With a director now in place, the agency will have the power to establish new regulations over financial institutions, including mortgage companies, debt collectors, payday lenders, and other entities often charged with contributing to the financial crisis. Moreover, the bureau will now be able to monitor mortgage originators and servicers, which were instrumental in the financial crisis by providing subprime mortgages to individuals and families who were not able to afford them.

"There is an army of lobbyists and lawyers right now working to water down the protections and the reforms that we passed," the President said in July when he nominated Cordray to head the bureau. "They've already spent tens of millions of dollars this year to try to weaken the laws that are designed to protect consumers. And they've got allies in Congress who are trying to undo the progress that we've made."

German airline carrier Lufthansa warned passengers on Monday that the European Union’s (EU) new carbon tax on airlines will translate into higher fares, as the carrier plans to avoid shouldering new costs generated from an EU carbon trading scheme. Analysts say Lufthansa is among the airlines most influenced by the measure, along with rival carriers British Airways, United Continental (the two have merged), Air France, and Singapore Airlines.

Beginning January 1, 2012, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) requires airlines to hold emission rights in the form of CO2 certificates for all flights traveling in and out of Europe. Under a directive intended to tackle alleged climate change, airlines flying in and out of the 27-nation European Union and three neighboring countries will be subjected to CO2 regulations as part of an expansion of the world’s largest carbon market. Any emissions beyond selected allowances must be paid for, while airlines are allowed to trade permits among themselves.

India, China, and a handful of other nations including the United States have protested the measure, as the Obama administration, the aviation industry, and various free market groups have expressed firm discontent. A legal challenge against the ETS, triggered by a handful of U.S. airlines, failed in December when the European Court of Justice shot it down. Some opposing countries have taken actions to combat the initiative:

What human motivation gets the most wonderful things done? It's really a silly question, because the answer is so simple. It turns out that it's human greed that gets the most wonderful things done. When I say greed, I am not talking about fraud, theft, dishonesty, lobbying for special privileges from government or other forms of despicable behavior. I'm talking about people trying to get as much as they can for themselves. Let's look at it.

This winter, Texas ranchers may have to fight the cold of night, perhaps blizzards, to run down, feed and care for stray cattle. They make the personal sacrifice of caring for their animals to ensure that New Yorkers can enjoy beef. Last summer, Idaho potato farmers toiled in blazing sun, in dust and dirt, and maybe being bitten by insects to ensure that New Yorkers had potatoes to go with their beef.

Here's my question: Do you think that Texas ranchers and Idaho potato farmers make these personal sacrifices because they love or care about the well-being of New Yorkers? The fact is whether they like New Yorkers or not, they make sure that New Yorkers are supplied with beef and potatoes every day of the week. Why? It's because ranchers and farmers want more for themselves. In a free market system, in order for one to get more for himself, he must serve his fellow man.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul noted on Tuesday that efforts to rein in government spending appeared to be in vain, due to an agreement reached with the White House during the recent debt ceiling negotiations. Congress would have to pass a joint resolution to oppose any extension of the debt ceiling, which President Obama is free to veto. Said Paul: “A default is becoming more mathematically unavoidable with ... every debt ceiling increase.”

Not only is the word “default” becoming commonplace but also the words “economic collapse.” A study conducted by Leflein Associates and published by EcoHealth Alliance showed that of the 1003 individuals interviewed for the survey, 63 percent — or more than six out of ten of them — feared an “economic collapse” more than a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or a global outbreak of disease. This study was picked up by Michael, the author of his Economic Collapse Blog, who piled on by adding a long list of reasons why concerned citizens should be afraid of such an event:

In kicking off the New Year, Washington has become the first state with a minimum wage of more than $9 an hour, as it joined seven other states in similar measures that index their minimum wage rates to inflation. Including workers in all industries, Washington’s minimum wage increased 37 cents to a record high of $9.04 an hour (the rate for workers who are 14 or 15 years old is $7.68), which went into effect the first day of the New Year.

According to data from the Census Bureau, more than a million low-wage U.S. workers will see their hourly wages rise, including workers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Based on a typical 2,000-hour work year, the wage hike will generate annual salaries for minimum-wage workers of between $15,280 and $18,080, depending on the state.

A total of 10 states currently tie their minimum wage to inflation, eight of which made adjustments for an effective date of January 1; Missouri opted to wait on a rate change and Nevada plans to make adjustments later this year. The increases per state range from $0.28 an hour in Colorado to $0.37 in Washington, and new minimum wages in the eight states now range between $7.65 and $9.04 an hour.
 

In her article on Monday, financial journalist Jessica Mortimer said that the euro had just set a new record low against the Japanese yen: Its value is now the lowest it’s been in 10 years. The irony wasn’t lost on her as she also noted that it was just 10 years ago that the euro was first denominated in coins and currency, three years after being introduced electronically among the member states.

And she sees further weakness in the euro, now trading below $1.30 versus the dollar, and likely to move ever lower into the New Year: “In the absence of a comprehensive European policy response to the debt crisis, the euro could test its 2010 low of $1.18.” This would imply at least another nine-percent loss in value in less than a year.

She touched on only one of the few remaining options open to keep the euro from blowing up altogether: more austerity on the backs of the citizens of the member states who took excessive advantage of lower-than-market interest rates to load up on debt that they can't pay back. She noted the survey that came out over the weekend indicating that a key European manufacturing index remains persistently below recovery levels, with further declines into a full-blown recession in Europe likely. Additional austerity measures would simply hasten that recession. Kathleen Brooks, director of research at FOREX.com, told her clients: “We remain a sell on rallies (with the euro) as we tend to think the euro zone crisis will actually get worse before it gets better.”

One of the ways that Whirlpool Corporation celebrated its 100th anniversary last year was to file petitions against two of its main South Korean competitors for “dumping” washing machines onto the market on Black Friday. Whirlpool claimed that Samsung was selling their 3.7 cubic-foot top-loading washing machines at a wholesale price of $363.18, way below the $751.46 Whirlpool says it would cost them to make the same product. Consequently, Samsung and LG Electronics sold thousands of their washers over the Black Friday weekend, taking substantial market share away from Whirlpool.

In its complaint, Whirlpool demanded an investigation into their rivals’ practice of “dumping” washers at prices that Whirlpool couldn’t match, and then demanded sanctions — tariffs — against the offending competitors and their products.

It’s worked before. Last March Whirlpool filed a similar petition about their competitors dumping high-end refrigerators and the Commerce Department agreed, applying a 37-percent duty on those refrigerators as well as forcing those competitors to post bonds if they didn’t raise their prices to “fair value.”

The lawmakers promoting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) insist that in the long term it will improve the economy by protecting the intellectual property market and the associated industries and jobs. That would increase revenue and would guard American Internet ventures against economic harm perpetrated by foreign websites.

It does seem odd that given the safeguards supposedly established by SOPA, so many online organizations — Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Reddit, and YouTube — have aligned themselves against the measure and are actively working to prevent its passage.

Perhaps these information-age giants are onto something. Perhaps they understand that by granting the government the power to pull the plug on any one of these websites at any time without warning, SOPA is a persuasive disincentive to investment and thus to corporate growth and survival.
 
SOPA, H.R. 3261, was introduced into the House of Representatives on October 26, 2011 by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) along with 12 co-sponsors (as of December 16, 2011, there are 31 co-sponsors signed onto the bill). The bill, which endows the federal government with a broad array of powers over Internet content and activity, is now before the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

The spate of good news about the economy, headed up by the National Association of Realtors (NAR)’s report that pending home sales increased by 7.3 percent in November from October, has resulted in improved outlooks by many observers, along with warnings from others not to get overly confident.

Even Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, was cautious in his announcement, perhaps chastened by NAR’s admission last week that they had overstated sales for the past five years: “Housing affordability conditions are at a record high and there is a pent-up demand from buyers who’ve been on the sidelines, but contract failures have been running unusually high.” And to avoid making the same mistake twice, Yun said that some of the increase in pending home sales may be people who couldn’t qualify before who are attempting to make another purchase now.

The pending home sales index hit 100.1, the first time it has been over 100 since April of 2010 when sales were goosed by the expiration of the government’s homeowner tax credit. Actual home sales were up in November as well, hitting a seven-month high, according to the Commerce Department.

JBS CEO Art Thompson's weekly video news update for January 2-8, 2012.

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