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Monthly Archives: February 2021

News in Cartoons

World’s Top 15 Defence Budgets in 2020 (US$bn)

See large image . . . . . .

Source : IISS

Where Have the U.S. Houses for Sales Gone?

Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui wrote . . . . . . . . .

Much of the housing market has gone missing. On suburban streets and in many urban neighborhoods, across large and midsize metro areas, many homes that would have typically come up for sale over the past year never did. Even in cities with a pandemic glut of empty apartments and falling rents, it has become incredibly hard to buy a home.

Today, if you’re looking for one, you’re likely to see only about half as many homes for sale as were available last winter, according to data from Altos Research, a firm that tracks the market nationwide. That’s a record-shattering decline in inventory, following years of steady erosion.

And it’s one flashing sign that the housing market — which can defy basic laws of economics even in normal times — is acting very, very strangely.

This picture is a product of the pandemic, but also of the years leading up to it. And if half of what is happening in the for-sale market now seems straightforward — historically low interest rates and a pandemic desire for more space are driving demand — the other half is more complicated.

“The supply side is really tricky,” said Benjamin Keys, an economist at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Who wants to sell a house in the middle of a pandemic? That’s what I keep coming back to. Is this a time you want to open your house up to people walking through it? No, of course not.”

A majority of homeowners in America are baby boomers — a group at heightened risk from the coronavirus. If many of them have been reluctant to move out and downsize over the past year, that makes it hard for other families behind them to move in and upgrade.

There are lots of steps along the “property ladder,” as Professor Keys put it, that are hard to imagine people taking mid-pandemic: Who would move into an assisted living facility or nursing home right now (freeing up a longtime family home)? Who would commit to a “forever home” (freeing up their starter house) when it’s unclear what remote work will look like in six months?

This reluctance can take on a life of its own in a tight market, said Ralph McLaughlin, the chief economist at Haus, a housing finance start-up. When there aren’t a lot of options out there to buy, would-be sellers get skittish about finding their own next home and back out of the market themselves.

“Every additional home that gets pulled off the market incentivizes someone else to not sell their house,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “That’s a self-reinforcing cycle.”

There is another factor particular to the pandemic: At the peak, more than four million homeowners with government-backed loans were in mortgage forbearance during the pandemic (about 2.6 million still are). While that government policy, recently extended through June, has been a lifeline for many families who’ve lost income, it has also meant that some homes that most likely would have come on the market over the past year, either through foreclosure or a forced sale, did not.

Add all of this up, and for every tale of someone who ran off and bought in the suburbs or paid all-cash sight unseen in some far-flung town, the larger story of the pandemic is this: Americans have been staying put.

That reality has collided with other forces that have been building since the housing crash. Even before the pandemic, real estate agents and economists were fretting about a shortage of inventory, which had been trending downward since the housing bust.

For more than a decade, less housing has been built relative to historical averages. The housing crash decimated the home building industry and pushed many construction workers into other jobs. Local building restrictions and neighbor objections have slowed new construction. President Trump’s strict immigration policies further restricted the labor supply in the industry, and his tariffs pushed up the price of building materials.

But newly built homes are just what a tight housing market needs.

“This is the reason why home building is so critical,” said Lawrence Yun, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. When a brand-new home comes on the market, no one has to move out (and elsewhere) to free it up. “Home building is an empty home. They’re just bringing empty homes to the market.”

The last decade has also been a period of relatively low interest rates. That incentivized many homeowners to stay in their homes longer than they would have in the past, clinging to cheap mortgages. The low rates also encouraged many homeowners who bought a new home not to sell their previous one, but to treat it as an investment property instead.

“Right now it’s a screaming good deal to have two properties: When my mortgage rate is 2.7 percent, why not have two of them?” said Michael Simonsen, the C.E.O. of Altos Research. “It took a long time, I think, to realize that that’s what was going on.”

Over the past decade, he points out, the number of single-family homes in the rental market grew by more than seven million. And the vast majority of those are owned by individuals, not big institutional investors. Other opportunities to make revenue off investment properties have also boomed with the rise of companies like Airbnb.

“We’re all looking for a unified field theory for what’s going on,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “We have all these disparate pieces of information. Everyone’s got their own telescope looking up into the sky, measuring different things. It’s hard to put it all together.”

But the overall effect is clear: It’s as if the market were mucked up with a lot of sand and mud, Mr. Zandi said. And that produces all kinds of other strange behaviors and patterns. The number of people buying homes sight unseen has soared. Median sales prices in some metros are up 15 percent or more in a single year. In other places, the trajectory of the for-sale market has become entirely detached from what’s happening in the rental market.

Normally, economists expect rents and home prices to move together in a given community. That’s because both respond to the same underlying conditions — a strong labor market, popular amenities, proximity to the ocean. When rents and home prices start to diverge, that’s usually a sign of something amiss, like a housing bubble inflating.

Right now, in a number of metro areas, home prices and rents aren’t just drifting apart; they’re moving in opposite directions. Prices are rising while rents are falling.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a housing market quite like this one,” said Jenny Schuetz, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. “And other recessions looked a little bit different, so that makes it hard to know what’s going on.”

In the run-up to the housing crash, home prices rose far faster than rents, meaning many homes were selling for prices that owners couldn’t support if they had to rent them out. Then after the bust, home prices fell in some markets as rents rose, with newly foreclosed owners flooding into the rental market.

Today, rents have fallen for reasons largely inseparable from the pandemic. Laid-off workers have had to double up with family or friends. College students who normally rent near campus have been at home instead. Some renters enticed by low interest rates have successfully bought a home. And the normal influx of new renters into cities — recent college graduates, immigrants, workers who’ve just landed a new job — has dwindled during the pandemic.

Recent research by Arpit Gupta at N.Y.U. and colleagues suggests that rents have fallen the most in close-in urban neighborhoods. These are also the places where it simply hasn’t made sense in a pandemic to pay a premium in rent to be near restaurants, bars, museums and downtown offices. This has followed another unusual pattern: Single-family rentals are behaving a lot more like owner-occupied houses (in strong demand), while condos look more like rentals (with weak appeal).

These unusual circumstances in the rental market make it all the harder to grapple with what’s happening on the home-owning side. The ratio of home prices to rents in many metros is now as high as it has been since the housing bubble — but it has spiked during the pandemic in part because rents have fallen, not solely because prices have soared.

Mr. Zandi, at Moody’s, said he wasn’t yet anxious about a looming disaster like the last housing bubble. But he says it is already worrisome that rising prices have boxed out many first-time and moderate-income home buyers, who for years to come may lose out on the benefits of locking in interest rates below 3 percent.

“I don’t think it’s red flares; I think it’s yellow flares,” Mr. Zandi said. “But if we have another year like we had in the past year, we’re going to have a lot of red flares going up.”

For now, it’s not clear what can shake loose more inventory. Building more would help, but it will take years to catch up to the supply a healthy housing market needs. The pausing of payments through mortgage forbearance relief will end at some point after June, and that could perversely create more inventory through things like foreclosures. Baby boomers will get vaccinated and may decide to make a move.

It’s also possible that some of the millions of single-family homes that were converted to rentals over the past decade could be put back on the market now, as their owners see steep profits to be made from selling them.

The pandemic will also eventually subside, and people will gain more certainty about remote work, and more confidence about having strangers in their homes. But for anyone waiting for the typical spring surge in inventory, these reasons for optimism may not materialize in time.

In normal years, inventory hits its annual low point around now in February and then starts to trend up.

“We haven’t hit the trough yet,” Mr. Simonsen said. “I’m frankly worried that it doesn’t climb from here.”

Source : The New York Times

China Has 600 Million People With Monthly Income Less Than US$141. Is That True?

Wan Haiyuan and Meng Fanqiang wrote . . . . . . . . .

There are still some 600 million people whose monthly income is barely 1,000 yuan (US$141) in China, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in May, 2020 at a press conference following the annual session of the country’s top legislature.

Li’s remarks sparked heated discussion, with many doubting whether China really has so many people living on such low incomes.

The premier’s words are true. After analyzing a random sample of 70,000 families collected by the National Bureau of Statistics, our team at the China Institute for Income Distribution at Beijing Normal University found that nearly 42.9% of the people in the sample had a household monthly income per person of no more than 1,090 yuan in 2019.

If that statistic holds true nationwide, it would account for more than 599.9 million people.

Although China’s rapid economic growth in recent decades has propelled many people into high-income brackets, we mustn’t ignore the fact that the majority of the population fall into the low- or middle-income groups.

Many of them are still living on or near the bread line. They mostly remain out of sight and have few channels to make their voices heard. In that sense, they are society’s silent majority.

The income we talk about here is disposable income, not average salaries. Disposable income is the money left over after paying income tax, social insurance premiums and other essential fees. It reflects real individual and household livelihoods, and so is globally seen as one of the most important figures to judge a country’s development.

Who are the 600 million people Li spoke of? The survey showed that 75.6% of them live in rural areas, while 36.2% and 34.8% live in less-developed central or western China, respectively. They generally receive an average of about nine years of schooling — enough to finish middle school, but not to progress beyond that.

Low-income families support more elderly relatives and children than higher-income families. Nearly 39% of the 600 million are either older than 60 or younger than 16, a higher proportion than the equivalent for higher-income groups.

Some foreign politicians have claimed that China is no longer a developing country and should be treated as a developed nation. Their words confound some people’s minds in China, who make a misjudgement that China has become a high-income country or will become one soon.

China had an annual disposable income per capita of 30,733 yuan last year. Americans, meanwhile, earned more than 10 times that figure.

That gap shows that China is still a typical developing country dominated by a low-income population. The pattern of income distribution in China is still far away from the classic olive shape, which has a large middle class and a short gap between rich and poor.

We have to remain clear-headed about how much Chinese people really earn and where China stands globally. Our status as the world’s largest developing country will not change for now.

Source : Caixing Global

The U.S. Economy Expanded an Annualized 4.1% in Q4 2020

In 2020, the American GDP contracted 3.5%, the worst performance since 1946.

GDP contracted 2.40 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020 over the same quarter of the previous year.

Source : Trading Economics

In Pictures: 1982 Lamborghini Countach LP400 S Series II

Source : Bring A Trailer

Video: Hyundai’s Uncrewed Ultimate Mobility Vehicle (UMV) Concept

The Decline of the West: American Education Surrenders to ‘Equity’

Philip Giraldi wrote . . . . . . . . .

It will be difficult or even impossible to go back to a system where learning is actually a discipline that requires hard work and dedication.

Public education in the United States, if measured by results, has been producing graduates that are less competent in language skills and dramatically less well taught in the sciences and mathematics since 1964, when Scholastic Aptitude Test scores peaked. The decline in science and math skills has accelerated in the past decade according to rankings of American students compared to their peers overseas. A recent assessment, from 2015, placed the U.S. at 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD), the United States came in at 30th in math and 19th in science. Those poor results must be placed in a context of American taxpayers spending more money per student than any other country in the world, so the availability of resources is not necessarily a factor in most school districts.

Much of the decline is due to technical advances that level the playing field for teachers worldwide, but one must also consider changing perceptions of the role of education in a social context. In the United States in particular, political and cultural unrest certainly have been relevant factors. But all of that said and considered, the U.S. is now confronting a reassessment of values that will likely alter forever traditional education and will also make American students even more non-competitive with their foreign peers.

Many schools in the United States have ceased issuing grades that have any meaning, or they have dropped grading altogether, which means there is no way to judge progress or achievement. National test scores for evaluating possible college entry are on the way out almost everywhere as they are increasingly being condemned as “racist” in terms of how they assess learning based solely on the fact that blacks do less well on them than Asians and whites. This has all been part of an agenda that is being pushed that will search for and eliminate any taint of racism in the public space. It has also meant the destruction or removal of numerous historic monuments and an avoidance of any honest discussion of American history. San Francisco schools are, for example, notoriously spending more than $1 million to change the names of 44 schools that honor individuals who have been examined under the “racism and oppression” microscope and found wanting. They include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Revere.

The new world order for education is built around the concept of “equity,” sometimes described as using the public education system to “ensure equitable outcomes.” But the concept itself is deeply flawed as the pursuit of equity means treating all American unequally to guarantee that everyone that comes out of the schools is the same and has learned the same things. That is, of course, ridiculous and it penalizes the good student to make sure that the bad student is somehow pushed through the system and winds up with the same piece of paper.

And the quality overall of public education will sharply decline. One might reasonably observe that imposition of a totalitarian style “equity” regime based on race will inevitably drive many of the academically better prepared students out of the system. Many of the better teachers will also move to the private academies that will spring up due to parental and student demand. Others will stop teaching altogether when confronted by political correctness at a level that prior to 2020 would have seemed unimaginable. The actual quality of education will suffer for everyone involved

All of that has been bad enough, but the clincher is that his transformation is taking place all over the United States with the encouragement of federal, state and local governments and once the new regime is established it will be difficult or even impossible to go back to a system where learning is actually a discipline that sometimes requires hard work and dedication. In many school districts, the actual process of change is also being put on the back of the taxpayer. In one Virginia county the local school board spent $422,500 on a consultant to apply so-called Critical Race Theory (CRT) to a new program of instruction that will be mandatory for all employees and will serve as the framework for teaching the students. When schools eventually reopen, all kindergarteners, for example, will be taught “social justice” in a course designed by the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center and “diversity training” will be integrated in all other grade levels. Teaching reading, writing and arithmetic will take a back seat of “social justice.”

Critical Race Theory, which is being promoted as the framework for reorganizing the schools along lines of racial preferences, has been fairly criticized as it pretends to be an antidote to systemic racism but is itself racist in nature as it opposes a race neutral system that equally benefits everyone. It proposes that all of America’s governmental bodies and infrastructures are racist and supportive of “white supremacy” and must be deconstructed. It requires everything to be examined through a value system determined by identity politics and race and it views both whites and their institutions as hopelessly corrupted, if not evil.

Fortunately, some pushback to the Jacobins of political correctness is developing. Parents in many school districts are starting to attend school board meetings to register their opposition and even some school board members and teachers are refusing to cooperate. The teachers do so at risk of losing their jobs. At the elite Dalton private school in New York City parents have sent a letter to the Head of School Jim Best complaining how the newly introduced “anti-racist” curriculum has been gravely distorted by Critical Race Theory and the pursuit of “equity” to such an extent that it has included “a pessimistic and age-inappropriate litany of grievances in EVERY class. We have confused a progressive pedagogical model with progressive politics. Even for people who are sympathetic to that political viewpoint, the role of a school is not to indoctrinate politically. It’s to open the minds of children to the wonders of the world and learning. The Dalton we love, that has changed our lives, is nowhere to be found. And that is a huge loss.”

The letter also stated that “Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity, ‘racist cop’ reenactments in science, ‘decentering whiteness’ in art class, learning about white supremacy and sexuality in health class. Wildly age-inappropriate, many of these classes feel more akin to a Zoom corporate sensitivity training than to Dalton’s intellectually engaging curriculum.”

Ironically, much of the new curriculum is being driven by a core of radicalized Dalton faculty members, who in December signed on to an “anti-racism manifesto” which demanded that the school “hire 12 full-time diversity officers, abolish high-level academic courses if Black students’ performance isn’t on par with White students’, and require anti-racism ‘statements’ from all members of the staff.”

Inevitably what is going on at Dalton and elsewhere is also playing out at many of America’s top universities, so the rot will persist into the next generation when today’s college students themselves become teachers. A black Princeton professor of classics is calling for all classics departments to be done away with because they promote “racism, slavery and white supremacy.” America’s education system, once upon a time, benefited the nation and its people, but we are now watching it in its death throes. And please don’t expect the Joe Biden administration to do anything to save it. They are on the side of the wreckers.

Source : Strategic Culture Foundation

German Study: Laboratory Accident Most Likely Cause of Coronavirus Pandemic

Professor Dr. Roland Wiesendanger, a leading German nanotechnology expert and three-time recipient of the prestigious European Research Council Advanced Grant, has completed a one-year, hundred-page study on the origin of the novel coronavirus, Sars-Cov-2. Professor Wiesendanger concludes that “both the number and quality of the circumstantial evidence point to a laboratory accident at the virological institute in the city of Wuhan as the cause of the current pandemic.”

In the following, SPR provides an English translation of the official German press release of the University of Hamburg.

SPR would like to add the following information: The two most recent global pandemics were the 1977 ‘Russian flu’ and the 2009 ‘swine flu’. In both of these cases, modern genetic research indicates that a lab escape was the most likely origin of the pandemic virus. Yet in both cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) initially excluded this possibility. Moreover, the original SARS virus escaped repeatedly from labs in China, Taiwan and Singapore.

Study on the origin of the coronavirus pandemic published

Professor Dr. Roland Wiesendanger, University of Hamburg

For more than a year, the coronavirus has been causing a worldwide crisis. In a study, nanoscientist Prof. Dr. Roland Wiesendanger has now shed light on the origin of the virus. He concludes that both the number and quality of the circumstantial evidence point to a laboratory accident at the virological institute in the city of Wuhan as the cause of the current pandemic.

The study was conducted between January 2020 and December 2020. It is based on an interdisciplinary scientific approach and extensive research using a wide variety of information sources. These include scientific literature, articles in print and online media, and personal communication with international colleagues. It does not provide strictly scientific evidence, but it does provide ample and serious circumstantial evidence:

  • Unlike previous coronavirus-related epidemics such as SARS and MERS, to date, well over a year after the outbreak of the current pandemic, no intermediate host animal has been identified that could have facilitated the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 pathogens from bats to humans. Therefore, the zoonotic theory as a possible explanation for the pandemic has no sound scientific basis.
  • The SARS-CoV-2 viruses are surprisingly good at coupling to human cell receptors and penetrating human cells. This is made possible by special cell receptor binding domains combined with a special (furin) cleavage site of the coronavirus spike protein. Both properties together were previously unknown in coronaviruses and indicate a non-natural origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen.
  • Bats were not offered at the suspected fish market in the center of Wuhan city. However, the Wuhan City Virological Institute has one of the world’s largest collections of bat pathogens, which originated from distant caves in southern Chinese provinces. It is extremely unlikely that bats from this distance of nearly 2,000 km would have naturally made their way to Wuhan, only to cause a global pandemic in close proximity to this virological institute.
  • A research group at the Wuhan City Virological Institute has been genetically manipulating coronaviruses for many years with the goal of making them more contagious, dangerous and deadly to humans. This has been documented in the scientific literature by numerous publications.
  • Significant safety deficiencies existed at the Wuhan City Virological Institute even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which have been documented.
  • There are numerous direct references to a laboratory origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. For example, a young female scientist at the virology institute in Wuhan is believed to have been the first to become infected. There are also numerous indications that as early as October 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen spread from the virological institute to the city of Wuhan and beyond. Furthermore, there are indications that the virological institute was investigated by the Chinese authorities in the first half of October 2019.

“The current coronavirus pandemic is not only dominating the current headlines, but will be with us for many years to come – not least because of the social and economic impact. For months, dealing with and managing the corona crisis has understandably been at the forefront of issues in politics and the media. However, the critical science-based examination of the question of the origin of the current pandemic is already of great importance today, because only on the basis of this knowledge can adequate precautions be taken to minimize the probability of similar pandemics occurring in the future,” says Prof. Dr. Roland Wiesendanger.

The study was completed in January 2021 and initially distributed and discussed in scientific circles. The publication is now intended to stimulate a broad discussion, particularly with regard to the ethical aspects of so-called “gain-of-function” research, which makes pathogens more infectious, dangerous and deadly for humans. “This can no longer remain a matter for a small group of scientists, but must urgently become the subject of a public debate,” says the study’s author.

Source : Swiss Policy Research

Chart of the Day: The Consequences of the UK’s Brexit Strategy

UK is now firmly on the sidelines

Source : Statista