Monthly Archives: March 2014

I’ve Been Blogging For 10 years Now

…And I’m Sure As Hell Neither Rich Nor Famous For It

Well, 10years is a long time. It’s been across 3 blogs.

I’m thinking maybe I should consolidate everything into 1 big blog and slap it full of google ads. Let me know what you think.

MLB Opened 2014 In Sydney

I got asked for an opinion about the MLB staging their season opener at the Sydney Cricket Ground last weekend by Pleiades. I do have a bit to say about it but it’s all tangential to what happened. What happened was that the LA Dodgers rolled into town with what we now know to be the highest payroll in baseball and beat Team Australia 4-2 in an exhibition warmup, then the Arizona Diamondbacks twice to open their season 2-0. Also in the fray was the game Team Australia won 5-0 against the D-Backs.

Some impressions of the Dodgers… Jeez they’re a bunch of freeswingers. Apart from Adrian Gonzales and Scott Van Slyke, nobody really seemed to work the count at all. And they still won. So I guess that’s talent. They did leave it to the very end when they were losing 0-2 to Team Australia before they broke open for a 4 run top of the 8th. They kept hacking at the first pitch and were  being 1-hit by that time. Of course they went on to essentially beat the D-backs swinging that way so who’s to say they’re wrong? Maybe talent doesn’t need strategem?

Team Australia acquitted themselves well. This was surprising. The 5-0 win over the D-Backs was really surprising. Until of course the D-Backs proceeded to get rolled by the Dodgers in the first two official games. This prompted great commentary from the ESPN commentators saying that more scouts will come to Australia looking for talent. John Smotlz in particular seemed incredibly keen on the idea.

The arrival of MLB, even for a glimpse should represent a threat to the cricket fraternity. If the awareness of baseball goes up, the kind o talent that goes into cricket might opt to go to baseball. The money and opportunities are certainly weighted that way. This isn’t a discussion about which sport is better. Baseball has more money than cricket right now. When you combine other markets where it is played apart form North America,  it’s clear there’s a lot of money out there.

Here’s a comparison. Once-in-a-generation wicket keeper and batsman Adam Gilchrist probably earned about AUD$10million-15million in his career, an that’s being generous. Roughly overlapping his carer was once-in-a-generation hitting catcher Mike Piazza whose lifetime earnings would be closer to US$100million. They most likely have never heard of each other, which reflects how far apart the worlds have been. Adam Gilchrist had what cricket commentators might call a ‘tidy’ career. Mike Piazza had a resplendent one. Yes, “there’s money in them thar hills”, as they say.

Of course it’s s not all about the money. Lots of Australian kids have a knee-jerk reaction of hating on” Yank sports” so it might take a while.  A very long while even; but eventually the money and interest from America is going to make its presence felt. So yeah, money does talk and bullshit does walk. It’s making me think that the whole Kerry Packer World Series cricket thing was an attempt to stave off baseball from eating his favourite game of cricket. it probably worked in the 1970s. I doubt the numbers are there today and going forward.

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Filed under Baseball, General

China’s Looking Scary

Bubble? What Bubble?

It’s been a strange year in the world of market-watching. There are as usual, quite a number of ructions that make you wonder about the health of markets or in fact there is any sanity prevailing in markets. Crimea has grabbed headlines and so Australian stocks have followed the lead of the world, up and down, with the news cycle surrounding Ukraine and its coup. Ukraine of course is a basket case waiting to blow up, but it’s not like it’s even in the top 30 economies of the world. Even if there was a full economic meltdown in the guise of a default, there wouldn’t really be too much of a problem short of a shooting war breaking out.

China on the other hand is the world’s second largest economy, warts and all. And there are a lot of warts and other nasty lesions that mark the Chinese economy, one of which is the size of the debt it has created since the GFC. If you tally it up, it is larger than the combined debt of the USA, the Euro zone and Japan combined. The criticism has been that much of this debt has been pumped into general construction companies that have built ghost cities of luxury apartments while other parts have gone into a shadow banking system that has blown this easy credit on god-only-knows-what. Of course, this being China, the debts were collateralised with commodities such as copper, rubber, nickel, iron ore silver and of course gold. Which is all well and good if the commodities are going up, but they have instead been falling in value for some months now. This, has logically led to loans being called in, bank runs on minor banks and a general drying up of liquidity.

As I mentioned last week, the Chinese market has experienced a number of defaults this month – something unheard of prior to this leadership group coming to power – and all of a sudden things are turning a little hairy over there.

In that light I’d like to share a few links so you can have think about what this might mean. The first link is here:

After Hong Kong, the UK takes the lead by far. (As a note, banks in several countries, particularly in emerging markets like Russia or Latin America, aren’t listed, because they don’t report to the Bank for International Settlements):


Total-loans-to-Chinese-companies-US-billions_chartbuilder
Some UK banks’ long historical ties with China—HSBC and Standard Chartered, in particular, have roots in Hong Kong—mean they have been lending there for decades, though in recent years, loans to Chinese companies and banks have also grown steadily. Neither will be a good thing if analysts’ worst fears about China come to pass.

Right. Of course Australia is on that list with US$28.7billion which is about AUD$ 30bn right now.

Keep that in mind as we have a quick look at what the AFR is saying about Australian banks, courtesy of Pleiades who gave me the heads up as I was telling him about whats reported as going on in China.

A study by funds management giant AMP Capital presented to the ­superannuation funds at an industry conference this week, showed that a typical fund has more than 12 per cent of total assets invested in the banks, but banks accounted for a quarter of their investment risk.

Industry averages suggest a fund’s value shouldn’t move by more than 8 per cent in a given year. However, more than a quarter of that volatility risk in Australian funds is driven by the banking sector, demonstrating just how sensitive our retirement savings are in the continued health of the big lenders.

“The system is quite exposed to these four banks. From an equity point of view, the weight in financials in ­Australia is at a peak,” AMP Capital’s head of credit markets Jeff Brunton told an audience at the CMSF conference in Queensland this week.

At 30 per cent, Australian’s index exposure to the banks is the highest its ever been – doubling since 1993.

Worryingly, in United States, Japan, Germany and United Kingdom, the weighting of banks had fallen sharply from their peaks.

Yes. That means, it’s a bit like we’ve put all our eggs into the property basket twice. Once through taking out huge mortgages in a property Bubble, but also through our superannuation accounts that own dirty big lots of banking shares which are exposed to real estate., and are also over-priced The scary bit is over here:

AMP also presented controversial findings about the ability of banks to withstand stress. The banks and ­the prudential regulator had conducted stress tests – based on a 40 per cent fall in property values and 4 per cent ­foreclosure costs – which AMP ­replicated. “We get the same number – $17 billion of losses,” Mr Brunton said.

“That’s nothing. That’s why the banks and APRA say our system is safe.

“But the insight we put on the table is that the remaining mortgages, those who haven’t defaulted, will actually be at a very different loan-to-value point than when they took out their ­mortgages. More than half of ­Australians will be in negative equity and a lot of us in significant ­negative equity.

So it seems there’s AUD $17bn sitting there on the ledger as potential losses that’s separate to the AUD $30billion mentioned above, but linked together by the health of the Chinese economy. All this robust property valuations and auction prices and what have you are sitting on a bubble that is the Chinese economy. When the music stops, there are going to be tears.

Just how exactly is China doing? Here’s a glimpse:

Over the past month, we have explained in detail not only how the Chinese credit collapse and massive carry unwind will look like in theory, but shown various instances how, in practice, the world’s greatest debt bubble is starting to burst, resulting not only in the first ever corporate default but also in the bursting of the associated biggest ever housing bubble. One thing we have not commented on was how actual trade pathways – far more critical to offshore counterparts than merely credit tremors within the mainland – would be impacted once the nascent liquidity crisis spread.

Today, we find the answer courtesy of the WSJ which reports that for the first time in the current Chinese liquidity crunch, Chinese importers, for now just those of soybeans and rubber but soon most other products, “are backing out of deals, adding to a wide range of evidence showing rising financial stress in the world’s second-biggest economy.”

While apologists of China’s collapse have been quick to point out that China’s credit collapse would be largely a domestic issue, with little foreign creditor exposure at either the public debt, or private – corporate – debt levels, one thing nobody can deny is that if and when Chinese trade routes grind to a halt, the downstream impacts would be devastating, and spread like wildfire as the offshore supply chain is Ice 9’ed.

The fact is, it’s just starting. The way it’s going is that the importers of commodities have run out of liquidity so they’re cancelling and tearing up contracts.  The unsold glut of commodities is leading to the collapse in the price of commodities. Because the shadow banking system uses commodities as collateral, a lot of loans are going to get called in as result of this collapse. it’s pretty much as people have predicted the collapse of the Chinese credit bubble. When this collapse moves on to property, there’s going to be knock on effects to Australia and suddenly that $47bn problem is going to come home to roost. If that doesn’t scare you, its probably because you don’t have a mortgage and you don’t own bank shares.

Just watching the share price movements this week, it appears that twice this week, people bought in hoping for a stimulus package to be announced by the communist party bosses. Except they have made it explicit that they won’t be doing any more stimulus packages because it only kicks the can down the road. That means China will test a market downturn and all the people buying up shares this week were exercising what can only be described as irrational exuberance.

That’s really not great news.

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 19/Mar/2014

Scandal-A-Day Government

Arthur Sinodinos has been forced to step down from his cabinet role thanks to having his name linked in the ICAC surrounding more of Morbid Obeidity. Turns out Eddie Obeid was making ‘political contributions’ (read: Bribes) to the Liberals as well as to strategically placed Labor Party people. In that sense Eddie Obeid was colour-blind. This reminds us of Kakuei Tanaka and his penchant for bribing everybody who was running for office, regardless of party, affiliation or faction  because “in the end they’re all people and people need a little help sometimes.”

While Sinodinos has not been accused of a crime, what’s become clear is that the company for which he was a director, Australian Water Holdings, was charging Sydney Water money, and then was using that money to make political contributions to the Liberal Party, where Sinodinos was also treasurer. This has meant that although circuitous, the tax payer was making contributions to the Liberal Party. What’s breathtaking is the massive conflict of interest of being the both the company director for Australian Water Holdings and being the Liberal Party treasurer at the same time. One can only guess at the sums of money involved but you can be assured it wasn’t exactly nickels and dimes because Sydney Water wanted to know why they were being charged these special fees and all their attempts to find out hit a brick wall. We can be pretty sure it was much more than the sum Craig Thomson racked up with hookers on the HSU credit card.

What Other People Are Saying

Walk-Off-HBP sent me this link about the people who marched the other day.

If Tony Abbott hadn’t cut the ribbon on the floodgates of senseless ridicule in Australian politics, maybe my sign could be considered distasteful. If the Liberal party had renounced rather than adopted mockery in Australian politics, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

In the garbage dump you’re trying to help turn Australian politics into, I obviously feel it was appropriate to call the Prime Minister a dickhead. I can’t speak for everyone who dislikes the Prime Minister, but I think he needs to know how strongly that sentiment is felt. You can’t just sell off parcels of our country without being told you’re a dickhead. You can’t dredge our reefs, chop down our world heritage listed forests and kill our animals without being told you’re a dickhead. You can’t abolish our important scientific and social institutions, oppress minorities or defund education, health and welfare without being told you’re a dickhead.

I think it’s fair to call him a dickhead. I hope that it sticks, and that for the rest of his life, Tony Abbott is known as Tony Abbott the Dickhead PM. I hope people who meet his daughters say “Oh, your dad is the famous dickhead!”, and I hope his Wikipedia page ends up with an entire chapter dedicated to the dickhead aptronym. I hope it stains his life in such a way that it makes every Australian politician worry about what they’ll be called.

I thought it was worth sharing just to say, “so you thought I was being mean yesterday!”

Clusterfuck Of Doxa

I have to say I don’t really know Lena Dunham and her work. From what I understand, she makes TV shows about young women having a devil of a time in the dating scene. As such it surprises me none that she wants to come out swinging on behalf of Dylan Farrow who dredged up her old accusations against Woody Allen. Lena Dunham says she’s nauseated by Woody Allen. I’d normally walk by these kinds of puff pieces but it caught my attention that Dunham makes an explicit demarcation between the man and his art.

“In the latest Woody Allen debate I’m decidedly pro-Dylan Farrow and decidedly disgusted with Woody Allen’s behavior. But for me, when people go through his work and comb through it for references to child molestation, that’s not the f*cking point.”

“I’m not gonna indict the work … I think that you can decide that you don’t want to support the work of somebody who has molested a child. That’s a completely appropriate choice. But going through it and saying, ‘Look, he’s told us in 57 ways that he rapes kids.’ That’s not the thing. The thing is to look at the actual evidence that exists in the world, which I think strongly suggests that Woody Allen is in the wrong. But for me the point is not to go through his one-act plays looking for references to child molestation. Because I’m not comfortable living in a world where art is part of how we convict people of crimes.””

Now, that’s the right conclusion to come to at the end there. It’s interesting she gets there because she’s a public person creating works that are out in the public sphere; so presumably this is laying down a line to protect herself from being seen through the prism of her won work – even though she created exactly such a space where Lena Dunham actor and creator are all rolled up in her show. It seems more than a little self-serving to be arguing that line.

Be that as it may, a free kick at the venerable director still is a cheap shot. The man took a polygraph at the time of the accusations and came out clean. Something Mia Farrow refused to do when asked if she was coaching her kid to accuse Woody Allen. Colour me unimpressed when it comes to this business of Dylan Farrow’s open letter. But I’m always surprised at the people who “yes but” me with “we have to believe the victims” or “but she really believes it, so there must be some basis in reality”. I have to say this kind of cavalier attitude towards facts that have already been verified just as vexing as Dunham’s nausea from the man himself.  If you’re going to throw out polygraphs because they can be unreliable, what good reason is there to hold on to the testimony of somebody who might have been coached as an infant to believe what she says she believes?

Anyway. I figure it’s worth grumbling about. I understand people not liking Woody Allen as a result of all this; I’d have to say I wouldn’t want to particularly meet the man. I just don’t see how you can be pro-Dylan Farrow given the reports. Oh, and by the way I thought Cate Blanchett handled all this really well by not talking about it, when asked about it.

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Filed under Cinema, Film, General, Movies

Liberal Rule Blues

A Bolt Out Of The Poo

Rightwing nutjob columnist Andrew Bolt was in the news today complaining that he was insulted by being lablled a racist by people on ‘Q&A’, and when the ABC issued an apology, he found it to benot good enough. At which point I think I rolled my eyes. We all know this man; he’s the one who got into that court case where he claimed a woman was somehow gaming the system by pretending to be an Aborigine despite the fact she had white skin – and promptly lost that court case. Since then it’s metastasised into a cause celebre for the right, with George Brandis vowing to repeal section 18C of the Anti-Descrimination act. George Brandis thinks that somehow a great impeditment to freedomeof expression in this country (the very same George Brandis who is threatening to withdraw Australia Council funding from artists who boycott the Sydney Biennale! Scum and Villainy!).

Anyway, it strikes me as somewhat odd that there is a group a of white men who really want to repeal the bit of the Anti-Descrimination Act which is written so you can’t belittle people for their race. But it turns out these people have skin as thin, if not more, than the groups of people who do not want it repealed. Indeed, the various ‘wogs’, ‘chinks’, ‘gooks’, ‘kikes’, ‘spics’ ‘abbos’ and ‘boongs’ of Australia have asked through their community groups and organisations not to repeal 18C.  If they do repeal it, I’ll be the first to congratulate these honky-cracker-skippies by calling them one. But you do get the feeling they just don’t quite get it.

It’s one thing for 18C to be repealed by a bunch of white men of the dominant mainstream who are taking away the sense of protection from people who aren’t anywhere near mainstream in their representation in Australia. It’s entirely another thing to see a white man who has a dominant position in the mainstream through his presence in the mass media complains that he is somehow done wrong by being accurately described as a racist. If you talk about people in generalities based on their perceived race and make a pile of judgment calls based on that (faulty) perception, then you deserve to be branded a racist. They’re the damn rules, Andrew Bolt, you dolt!

Brain Damage

Apropos of the Ian Roberts concussion thing I’ve been thinking about our Dear Leader Tony Abbott, who in his youth was a pugilist. We know from reports of the time that his style was ‘raging bullshit’ and not much skill, just flailing away hard hoping to connect with the other guy. Mike Tyson he was not – and you’d think that as such he must have taken quite a few blows to the head, boxing that way. And you wonder what sort of brain damage he must have sustained, and perhaps that is maybe why he is the way he is. Combined with the fact that the brain of a conservative is already misshapen towards needless fear and paranoia, you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this country is being led by a severely deficient human being.

But then again, the total irrationality of his policy agenda would have alerted you to this fact. The real corker question is what’s the rest of the Liberals doing following this madman about?

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 17/Mar/2014

Why So Quiet?

Oh boy. I’ve just spent a week in snot hell and cough purgatory. This series of ‘flus I’ve been hit with one after another has just flayed me and slain me. it sucks to be laid out like this. The number of days one loses to this sort of thing makes one a little more than cranky.

Anyway, I’m slowly on the mend and I am merely in cough purgatory right now.

I Crane, You Crane, We All Crane Our Necks For Ukraine

All that rubber necking and neck-craning is about Ukraine and Crimea this week. It’s a weird story in that none of the participants are attractive and all of them could be accused of having ugly agendas. Underneath all of the rhetorical flourishes is a country that’s basically going backward with neglect and I do have a few things to say about this because like the Baltic states, Ukraine is probably owed something a bit more from the West than mere lip service. I won’t go into the horrible history of collectivisation in Ukraine under Stalin, which preceded the horrors of the German invasion, followed by the USSR sitting on the country like so much exploitative deadweight, and this was followed by the post-Soviet disintegration of what little economy existed in the place. Oh, and let’s not forget Chernobyl which also sits somewhere in that time line. For a nation of 50-odd million folks, it’s hardly had the sort of self-determination that other nations have had. It has arguably had much less than Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary – and we know how those states fared under the Soviets.

And so this nation is cleft into two. The Ukrainians desperately want to join the West. The ethnic Russians want to stay close to Mother Russia. But the economy of Ukraine is a basket case. It is going to run out of its foreign reserves at some point this year and when it does it’s going to default. So the West would prefer not to have to let Ukraine into its club at the EU, having struggled through the issues of staving off Greece and the rest of the PIIGS defaulting on their bonds. Germany has been particularly conciliatory towards Russia because it buys gas from Russia as well as a fairly obvious desire not to have to bail out an impending financial crisis in Ukraine. After all, why adopt a stray dog with rabies?

Still, from the Ukrainian point of view, you can understand that they want to join the West, join NATO, rid themselves of Russian influence. The youth protesting in Kiev clearly want to join the EU so they can leave Ukraine and go live in Paris or London with an EU passport. And can one really blame them? And you can just hear them asking, why won’t the Americans come rescue us?

Just why won’t the Americans come and rescue them? The truth, is always historic. The Baltic States hoped beyond hope that the West would come rescue them from the yoke of the Soviets and that never happened during the Cold War for obvious nuclear reasons. The eastern marches beyond Poland are really distant places. It’s no place to be sending armies and every field rests upon the legacies of Napoleon and Hitler’s marches deep into Russia. You wouldn’t try it if you’ve war-gamed it, and if you’ve war-gamed it, you’ll know how hard that distance gets. So the Baltic States and Ukraine sit just outside the embrace of Europe, a sort of grey zone that fades from a civilised, cultured Europe into something more blunt, crude and Rus.

Naturally, the Obama Administration has threatened Putin with harsh language (much like Hans Blix in Team America threatens to do) and it’s had about as much effect as you can imagine. The Americans have no stomach for a war, they certainly have no stomach for a nuclear exchange with Russia and so they keep wagging their index finger on the grand stage. A Lithuanian tells me this is appeasement and the best thing Obama can do is to just nuke Crimea.

“Just nuke it!” he said.

“What about Mutually Assured Destruction?” I asked.

“What you don’t understand is that this isn’t the 1960s any more. All those Russian missiles are rusted in their silos. They can’t fly. The Americans can just blow them up and they won’t come back with anything!”

I share this, just so you know how the people from the Grey zone of the Eastern marches feel about all this. It’s very simple. To them, only a nuked Russian is a good Russian.

Obama might look like he’s losing this diplomatic stoush, but that’s the point. There’s no winning on the Eastern Marches against the Russians and at least this way, American casualties are limited. Shame about all those Ukrainians.

4K TV – Not Enough Content, Too Much Detail

Somewhere along the way I forgot to post this, but while we’re on the subject of Russians I thought of this.The gab this week is that 4k TV is too soon and not likely to reward Australian consumers because there’s simply no 4k content around. they would be correct. Nobody is broadcasting 4k (it’s hard enough getting1080p content regularly) and Blu-Ray isn’t coming out on 4k until later this year. You can’t download 4k content for the sheer size of the files and so 4k TV is just not well-endowed right now.

But there are unlikely things about the 4kTV format that’s quite surprising.

I was watching a 4kTV broadcast a little while ago in a shop. It was during Wimbledon and they were showing women’s tennis. Now, I’ve watched a lot of tennis in my lifetime so I can tell you if I’m seeing more or not. On screen at the Sony store, I was watching Maria Sharapova return serve, crouched, racquet at the ready, bouncing around on the balls of her feet, and white panties peeping from under the short skirt, which is the classic pervy shot you get in women’s tennis.

And here’s the thing. 4k TV is so good I could see her dimpled cellulite on the back of her thighs.

And I thought to myself, do I really need this much detail?

One Of Our Submarines

Without a doubt the weirdest sequence of news this week was the disappearance of flight MH370. It went from a straight up, “plane is missing, must have crashed” narrative to a convoluted narrative of mobile phone calls and engine pings to satellites to radar readings, hours after the plane went off view. they still don’t know what happened or where the plane is, and if it crashed somewhere int he South Indian Ocean, it might never be found because the depths there can go down to 7000m.

It’s all a little creepy because all kinds of scenarios have been tossed around including 2 stolen passports and a possible politically motivated hijacking, but the bottom line is that plane has gone missing with a big load of people, and nobody can explain it well.  In the absence of any kind of solid explanation all kinds of theories have flourished and they have been perversely interesting if only because the Malaysian Authorities have looked totally hapless in their search for this plane.

One thing is for sure. From here on in, this story is only going to get weirder and weirder.

Protesting Abbott

The March in March thing came and went and lots of people went and marched against the misgovernment of Tony Abbott. Being sick as a dog I missed it entirely, which is a bit of pattern with me. I think the last time there was a big protest thing against APEC, I was sick in bed and watched the whole thing from the couch. Anyway, I’m actually not a good protester type. I’m liable to do something crazy and who knows where that would land me? So it’s good to watch it far away from where the adrenaline could drive me to lunacy. 🙂

Jokes aside, it seems the placards presented at the marches have offended a number of people saying they’re much worse than ‘Ditch the Witch’ levelled at Julia Gillard. There are several thing that need to be said about that.

1. Not a single Federal ALP member was photographed making speeches next to a sign like this. It’s not so much that the sign said ‘Ditch the Witch’, it’s that Tony Abbott was willing to be photographed with such a sign, lending it credibility with his office of Opposition Leader.

2. It’s hard to take serious the offense taken by people who are looking to take offence. I mean, really. Those complainers are being wowsers, and nobody respects a wowser.

3. Yes, Tony is copping worse insults than than did Julia but that’s because he’s doing worse than Julia – That’s why the sobriquets are worse. Live with it. Tony does.

Ian Roberts, Champion Of Causes

Ian Roberts has been a remarkable man. Having competed at the top level in his sport – a very macho sport at that – he came out as gay. He then turned to acting, and he’s gone to NIDA and pushed ahead bravely with that. This month, he’s basically come out and said he is brain damaged, and that this damage was a result of all the concussions he suffered as a Rugby League player.

Even Matty “Bring-back-the-biff” Johns has recanted his denial of the concussion issue. In the face of the frank, unapologetic moral authority of Ian Roberts’ admission, what else can any sensible man do but put down the gauntlets and arms? It’s a landmark moment in a sport that’s been in denial about concussions for the last three years, if not the last 3 decades. Not only has Roberts forced the sport once to confront gender issues, he has now forced it to confront the occupational hazard of playing Rugby League.

He has to be one of the bravest people around. I am in awe.

China, Defaults, 2014

This week a solar company called Chaori defaulted on its bonds in Shanghai. The remarkable bit might have been that the Chinese government let it happen, because up until now, they’ve defended all these dodgy-bond moments by swooping in and making sure the bonds were paid out. This time, they simply let the company default. Ouch.

Get ready, there are going to be a whole bunch of these. The Chinese Communist Party narrative is that they’re going to let some of these companies default so that it sends a bit of realism back to the investors. If you think such a process can be controlled, then good luck. I think we’re beginning to see where China’s over-reach is going to bring down markets. This could get ugly folks.

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Movie Doubles – ‘Gravity’ & ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

It’s Oscar Season

I watched ‘Blue Jasmine’ recently. The brouhaha that erupted from Dylan Farrow’s open letter put me off doing an entry on it but I have to say it was typical fare from Woody Allen. Cate Blanchett is in top form playing a hysteric and deluded person but these kinds of characters aren’t that rare in the Woody Allen oeuvre so…

Anyway, the Oscars have come and gone and that’s meant a bit of binge viewing the nominees. I may as well try and see if there’s something to be said in mashing up these two films. ‘Gravity’ of course has been the highly praised hard sci-fi movie of the year that even the toughest there’s-no-sound-in-space crowd can embrace happily. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is the adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s book about brokers who sold penny stocks to the rich. They’re both very interesting films – much more so than ‘Blue Jasmine’ – so here they are.

Spoiler warning!

Victory of Verisimilitude Part 101

Much of the praise and criticism of ‘Gravity’ has centered around whether the experience of space and space walking and surviving in high orbit is anything like what is presented. The praise comes from people who are sick of Star Wars and Star Trek characters exploring space without ever going EVA in heavy spacesuits to brave the non-elements of no atmosphere, no perceivable gravity. The critic s of the film have pointed out how unlikely it is to venture to the ISS from the shuttle orbit, that it would take considerably more energy to get there than what is left in the propulsion of the  suit. Still, you have to marvel at how naturalistic the portrayal of ‘null-grav’ and the constraints of working with spacesuits. Is it really like this? Some have suggested it is not as dexrously possible in real suits with real gloves.  Even so I think this is the first space movie where I’ve felt the fear of heights staring down to the planet surface from on high.

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ similarly goes in hard for brute realism. The language, the deals, the anxiety and the adrenaline of selling the market to itself comes over like a tidal wave. The film takes particular delight in explaining the ins and out of the various drugs consumed and the sexual adventures attempted. The film actually give flesh to the Talking Heads song ‘Wild Wild Life’. Interestingly enough, Matthew McConnaughy’s performance in his cameo appearance as the elder stockbroker invokes ‘American Psycho’ so perhaps this film can be seen as the continuing narrative of the 1980s Wall Street onto the 1990s. Just as it is hard to gauge just how close to the reality it gets with ‘Gravity’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ has a good deal of sense of reality.

Maybe this kind of obsession over verisimilitude comes from Oliver Stone and his movie where he brings in consultants for every little detail he needs knowledge – and of course Oliver Stone directed ‘Wall Street’. Both films are like triumphs of production design and props departments. The eye to details that come and go in both films are astonishing. In ‘Gravity’, the international Space Station looks exactly like the modules are supposed to with even the Kibou  science module done exactly as it looks. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is like a time capsule for a catalogue of luxury goods. Even the lingerie frills look period-accurate. It’s simply astonishing how far both films go. The sheer weight of detail forms the compelling picture of verisimilitude.

Space Age Gender, Wall Street Sex

‘Gravity’ has something in common with ‘Alien’. Of course ‘Alien’ hardly had ‘artificial gravity’ in the Nostromo so the amount of floaty ‘null-grav’ shots in ‘Gravity’ tell us how far filming techniques have come. The way ‘Alien’ would have been written with artificial gravity would have been to save what would have been astronomical costs and simply get on with the drama. The elegant camera-choreographed movements of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Stone, floating through the chambers of the ISS and then the Chinese satellite are a tour de force of contemporary shooting technique. the fact that she does it in tight, minimal underwear is evocative of Ripley’s underwear moment in ‘Alien’.

All the same, ‘Gravity’ can be summed up as an update of ‘man versus nature’ narrative, except that it’s more like ‘woman versus environment’. Amy Pohler made the gag at the Golden Globes that the film shows George Clooney would rather drift off in to deep space than form a meaningful working relationship with a mature woman, and it’s sad to say there’s some truth to it. Not so much as applying to George Clooney, but to the fact that it’s the film about the moment a woman has to get up and do the work and survival routine in space all on her ownsome.

Is this a big deal? Who knows. There may well be an astronaut of the future who says she was inspired by Sandra Bullock in this movie. That story is yet to be written – but it does seem like this film gets rid of  the guy to put the woman on the spot, and the guy gets sent flying off into deep space because it’s the greatest complication for the female character. It hardly seems like a big moment except when you look at the unreconstructed, unedited abject sexism of the Wall Street culture in ‘the Wolf of wall Street’ where not only are women objectified, they compete hard to be the most desirable object because there are no other stakes. The breakdown of prices of prostitutes and what you get for your money is so brutal you come to realise we live in some kind of two-zoned society.

There’s one zone of society that works towards equality and emancipation and egalitarianism, and there’s a whole other zone where everything is so reified by money that social structures and ethics and morals and culture just don’t mean a thing. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ loudly proclaims everybody can be bought, and in that narrative universe it is mostly true. The people who cannot be bought – like FBI agents and the government officials seem to be highly anomalous aliens who are deeply dishonest to their own needs. In fact, it’s is very strange to try and reconcile these two zones while desires can be met through money. It’s even arguable that the government and its agents are a kind of hypocrites that functions through being incredibly dishonest (or simply repressed) about their transaction to do with desire, pleasure and money.  Stripped of moral meaning, we’re led to view the human circus in ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’ as a tableau of indecency.

When you watch the two films together, you really wonder if society has come a long way; or perhaps not. Perhaps there are two zones to this world and only the deft can inhabit both with a straight face. Maybe that’s why there’s so much drugs in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.

Gangs Of Wall Street

I’ve been thinking if there was a director better suited to handling this material than Martin Scorsese. The reason it surfaced as question for me was because I kept seeing echoes of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Gangs of New York’ in this film. (If Robert DeNiro were still in his prime in his 30s, he would have been magnificent in ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’). The film even follows on from the concerns of ‘Casino’ which closed with the lament that Las Vegas was now owned by the bankers.

This film occupies a spot in Scorsese’s filmography that documents life in New York City often as a crime-infested mirror to Woody Allen’s ouevre  of comedies. The pertinent question to be asked is perhaps is that what is to say the gangsters and psychopaths often portrayed in Scorsese’s films aren’t more prevalent than we think, and that perhaps a good deal of the world’s problems could be sheeted home to these psychopaths with gangster culture running so much of American capitalism.

The other observation to be made is that it is good to see Scorsese has a lot of energy for making very energetic movies. He’s certainly not slowing down to make things more comfortable.

Space Shuttle, Wherefore Art Thou

In the olden days, best and brightest minds would go to MIT and then find jobs with NASA. This changed around the time of the Reagan administration and more and more of the smartest graduates would go work in banks writing algorithms for making money. This of course led to the creation of things like mortgage bonds and futures derivatives, and these things in turn led to the GFC. Had they gone to NASA instead of Wall Street we might have lost a few more shuttles but we might not have created such disparity in wealth in the world.

NASA  of course has ceased to fly the Space Shuttles because of safety concerns. It’s quite strange to watch ‘Gravity’ where the film opens with the demise of a shuttle due to orbital debris. NASA is charged with doing something, but its current mission is really unclear, so the film seems to be a metaphor for the way NASA stands at the moment – that is to say, the Shuttle is dead, the ISS is something just to hang on and the Chinese space program is the only one doing anything. I’m personally not encouraged by the Chinese space program. Especially after the Jade Rabbit probe packed it in on the moon on the third day, living down to the reputation of  ‘Made in China’.

In some ways ‘Gravity’ seems to point at a time in history – now – where NASA has been reduced to a distant patter on the radio, and when the situation is really critical, somehow recedes into the darkness.

American Progress

Because NASA have indeed receded so far from the front line of mounting manned missions, ‘Gravity’ makes you wonder about technological progress. It appears American technology is far more adept at creating the illusion of space exploration than actually doing. it. It would be because so much money has been spent on the technology of special effects, it is probably easier to make a person look like they’re doing space exploration realistically than actually sending somebody into space to do indeterminate ‘research work’.

The irony of this is tremendous. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street takes great pains to explain that stock prices and money are virtual things compared to cash. The ephemeral nature of a deal being expanded to having its own transactional value independent of the deal has essentially created today’s world.

Similarly, American capitalism is at such a point that there is so much money to be made trading derivatives than equities or bonds. Indeed, high-speed trading and dark pools combined can be seen as American capitalism racing off into a dark world with very little transparency. The US governments of the last 30+years have a lot to answer for in how things have worked out.

The Allure of Pennystocks

It’s only mentioned ever so briefly but the main instrument through which the characters of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ enrich themselves is pennystocks and their volatility. Much like Milliken and the junk bond trade, there is some serious money to be made in the volatility of cheaper stocks. The problem with all of them is that you never know if the volatility represents an actual market or a couple of other speculator spinning the wheel. It’s an inspired move to shove pennystocks towards the wealthy because the potential returns on junkbonds and small caps  have been shown to be more than a portfolio of bluechip stocks. But the trick is always going to be which pennystock is going to represent the future and figuring out which ones are going to stay dogs and playthings of the speculators. That takes a lot of time and research – and these things are not available to the average Joe Schmoe and Mrs Schmoe.

Naturally, there is an information war going on between the broker and investor. The more and better the information one has, the better one has a chance of making sound decisions. Jordan Belfort and hi company essentially wade into their clients head with a bunch of bamboozling sales pitch and ambush them into buying stocks they might have never opted to buy on their own cognisance.  If stockbroking is a dodgy business to begin with, you sort of wonder how the SEC let this practice flourish for as long as it did.

Watching the film, it occurred to me that if Jordan Belfort and company had stayed with selling their pennystocks to ordinary mom and dad investors instead of the rich, they might have never brought down the SEC and FBI on their backs. It is suggested very strongly in the film that it is complaints from the rich and powerful who inadvertently lost money to ‘Stratton and Oakmont’. it might have gone for much much longer if the victims were just ordinary moms and dads, and therein lies the very scary thing about American capitalism and its lax regulation. It really is a everything goes until you step on the powerful toes.

 

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Quick Shots 02/Mar/2014

I have been watching some bits and bobs while I’ve been snowed under with this script. The problem with a lot of movies is that they hover between 2 and 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a good problem to have in the sense that you’re assuredly not making 1 out of 5 movies, but it’s rare that you catch something you can mull over and have a good think.  I live in fear of being jaded because really, that’s what happens to reviewers – they lose perspective on what’s on offer.

Well, this is what’s been on offer.

‘Don Jon’

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s take on what’s wrong with internet porn. Moments of moralising are off-set by the ironic confessions made to an unseen priest which ultimately begs the question, “how did you come to that number?” Scarlett Johansson plays a New Jersey slag heap of a cow. Julianne Moore plays a tragic character. It’s a mixed bag.

For all our denunciation of porn there always seems to be an army of new girls wanting to flaunt it. It’s like the world is split into two worlds – where feminism calls the shot, and where money calls the shots – and ne’er the two shall meet.

The film reminded me of an old saying from Latin America that masturbation takes 3 times the mental effort as normal sex, but 5 times the effort if you do it without porn. I think this is what the film really wants to tell women as a way of explanation. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. It’ hard to speak for the world’s male population.

‘Season of the Witch’

This one’s a few years old. I caught up with it because it draws on ‘The Seventh Seal’ heavily. As a remake, it’s not really that compelling, although it goes to great lengths to preserve the plot points from Ingmar Bergman’s great film. The casting of Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman in the guise of a re-imagined Sir Anotnius Bloch and Jons is interesting but they both carry too much weight in their careers to have the impact Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand have on screen.

Nonetheless the film is fun to watch as you tick off the little references to Ingmar Bergman’s classic. the fact that it has been re-imagined as a cheesy little action flick is neither here nor there. Some of the medieval paranoia makes for great viewing.  I imagine Ingmar Bergman might have really enjoyed this one.

‘Red 2’

This is much better than the first movie. It’s just a better script and as a star ensemble vehicle, everybody gets to shine. That being said it’s not exactly excellent, merely competently good. It has its good moments and then the boring ‘process’ moments where you’re waiting for them to just get a move on and shoot somebody.

I’ve already ‘fessed up to being a Mary-Louise Parker fan so, no more on that here. Bruce Willis is his usual self but John “Being” Malkovich has got the zany gear wound up to eleven, as does guest star Anthony Hopkins who plays a cross between the absent minded nuclear physicist and Hannibal lector without the cannibalism. Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren – turning in one of those stiff-upper-lip matriarchs.

‘Rush’

The 1970s is always a good setting for a period piece. An interesting flashback to the time Niki Lauda had that horrific accident and then came back to race within weeks. Chris Hemsworth shows a better range playing English playboy racer James Hunt but it’s Daniel Bruhl as Lauda that really steals the show. The car action is great while some of the wide shots don’t work so well.

The ins and outs of Formula racing cars, back in the 1970s is very interesting. Seeing the names Stirling Moss, Enzo Ferrari and Mario Andretti made my heart skip a beat. The guy who played Clay Regazzoni is a dead ringer for Todd Phillips but he’s not Todd Phillips.

It’s a good film and serves more than a 2 paragraph write up but I guess that’s the way it’s got to be for now.

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