Cold Winter For Plants On the East Coast

Winter of 2015 is proving to be an especially difficult season for growers of trees and shrubs on the east coast.  A chilling winter with below average temperatures means it could be a light spring for many varieties of plants at local nurseries.  We spoke with a representative from The Tree Center, an online retailer of smaller plant material.  “We have had a tough time sourcing plant material this winter because many of the local growers have a lot of larger plant material but aren’t willing to take the risk on the smaller stuff.  These plants are essentially babies and don’t do well under these harsh conditions.”

Meanwhile, on the west coast large growers such as JRT Nursery in Oregon are supplying many east coast operations with plants this year.  “At the moment it’s quite nice out in Oregon and we are ready to ship.” states JRT.  “Most of our east coast nurseries don’t wan’t the plant material because it’s simply too cold for them to care for it unless they want to pay to heat their greenhouses.”

cedar-tree

As a lover of plants myself I am curious to see what my local nursery has this season.

More News From Israel

It’s not been an easy year for Israel, the USA’s closest ally in the Middle East; constant attacks from the terrorist organization Hamas, as well as the ongoing threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, mean that security has been the top priority for the Israeli government. Unfortunately a new worry has to be added to that – the Obama administration.
It’s no secret that Obama has always been hostile and dismissive of Prime Minister Netanyahu, but while his behavior has been rude at times that isn’t a problem in itself. Countries can be close and reliable allies even if their leaders don’t personally get along. President Reagan’s loathing of premier Menachem Begin was no secret, for example, but that didn’t change the fact that the USA stood firmly as the guarantor of Israeli security. What’s worrying is that Obama’s dislike of Netanyahu looks to be just part of a wider antipathy towards Israel itself, and his influence is now spreading through the State Department.

Flag Of Israel
Journalist Micah Zenko recently carried out a text analysis of the State Department’s website, searching for country names paired with the word “unacceptable”, and generated a list of Foggy Bottom’s top ten unacceptable countries based on the number of hits he got. That list had some fairly predictable names on it; Russia, for example, which has attracted a lot of condemnation for its invasion of Crimea earlier this year. But, alarmingly, Israel didn’t just make the list – it reached fourth place, above Pakistan and just behind rogue state North Korea.
Defenders of the administration point to how US military support for Israel remains at the same level as under the last administration, but skip over the fact that this is only because Congress make sure it stays that way. The fact is that Obama knows he can’t get blatantly anti-Israeli legislation past the House and Senate, so he’s now using liberal European governments as proxies. While some European states have worked closely with Israel in the past – Germany donated most of the IDF’s submarine fleet, for example – the EU has always been cooler, and now it’s turning actively hostile with the full backing of the White House. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Jerusalem, and even the liberal press in Israel is commenting on how Obama is egging Brussels on to tighten the screw. The latest news is that the EU is about to remove Hamas from its list of proscribed terrorist groups, which legitimizes their doctrine of destroying the Jewish state. Obama can’t get a similar step past the American people, which is why he’s now working more closely with Europe’s governments than his own.
Israel isn’t the only US ally in the Middle East, but with the rise of ISIS some of the others, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, aren’t looking all that reliable. The fact is ISIS are just practicing a more violent version of what most Saudis believe – even long-time enemy Iran is closer to the US position than most of the so-called “friendly” Arab states. That makes our alliance with Israel more vital than ever, so it’s worrying that Obama has chosen this moment to throw them under the bus.

Oil Price Crash

If there’s one resource that makes the modern world go round it’s oil. Pick a major financial crisis or military conflict of the past 60 years and there’s a pretty good chance oil was involved in it somewhere. It’s not just the fuel that drives our cars, trucks, ships, airplanes and a lot of our power stations; it’s also an essential raw material for the plastics and chemical industries. When oil supplies are threatened we see panic buying of fuel, rocketing prices, sometimes even public disorder. Even routine cuts or caps on OPEC output can have a dramatic effect, pushing prices up and placing a brake on the whole economy as everything costs more to power, manufacture and transport. A large part of the USA’s foreign policy since 1945 has been aimed at ensuring a reliable, affordable supply of oil.

But what happens when the usual oil shocks are reversed? What if the market is glutted with cheap oil as supply outstrips demand? Right now we’re finding out. In June a barrel of standard crude cost over $100. The lighter, sweeter Brent and West Texas Intermediate – both in high demand for making gasoline, kerosene and diesel – were selling for more than $125. That was good news for the economies of the Middle East and Russia, the axis of the world energy market. But it also opened up options for the USA. New domestic oil sources like shale have a higher extraction cost than traditional drilling, but at $100 a barrel it was still profitable to extract it. That helped power the boom in production that’s made the USA almost independent of foreign oil for the first time in decades.

Then, in late summer and fall, it started to change. The increase in supply had a downward pressure on prices anyway but not enough to cause any real difficulties. Then a deliberate fall was arranged to hurt the Russian economy; Putin’s budget plans depended on prices of at least $100 a barrel and the break-even point is around $80. With the price dropping through that price in early November Russia has now been losing money for six weeks and struggling since late summer. The idea was to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, but it has potential to backfire.

Usually when oil gets cheap OPEC restricts supply to drive the price back up again. This time they haven’t. Obviously that helps keep Russia poor but the Saudis and their Emirati allies look like they’re aiming more at the USA. The growth of shale oil has threatened their profits, with US demand for imports slumping and the still-recovering economies of Europe and Asia not ready to take up the slack. Now, with prices already low, the Saudis are taking a shot at restoring the balance. Shale oil, with its higher extraction cost, is more vulnerable than Gulf crude; by holding supply up, and prices down, they’re hoping to run the US industry at a loss for long enough that production falls. If they can do that OPEC will regain some of their lost bargaining power – and right now, with the situation in the Middle East, that’s not a good thing.

Ironically, while Russia’s definitely struggling and their economy has shrunk by around 8 percent, they might be better placed to survive. Their actual production costs are among the world’s lowest and that gives them a bit more slack. US shale runs on much smaller margins though, and it’s already making a loss. Higher oil prices bump up costs right across the economy, but right now that might be a price worth paying to ensure energy independence. But with the Saudis now saying they’re prepared to let it fall to $20 a barrel it could be a while before we manage that.

Same Sex Marriage

Concerned citizens and ministers gathered again at Alabama’s state capitol last week, expressing their opposition to same-sex marriage and asking the governor to resist any attempts by activist judges to introduce it. Capital Hill Independent Baptist Ministries, the organizer of the event, told reporters he wants the state’s ban on the practice to stay in place and called for peaceful civil disobedience if any judge tried to overturn it. The protest went off well and attracted bigger crowds than an earlier one in the same location, but advocates of traditional family values could now be coming under attack on a new front.

Missouri is one of the states that so far has resisted pressure from homosexual lifestyle advocates and maintained its stance on marriage, but now its courts are facing a complicated challenge from a gay couple. Two St. Louis men, known only as M.S. and D.S., have a certificate issued in Iowa that proclaims them married. Nine months later their relationship collapsed, as many gay ones do, and now they’re looking for a divorce.

One of the men filed a divorce petition in St. Louis this January, citing irreconcilable differences. On the face of it the petition looked reasonable but the family court judge turned it down, citing the fact both petitioner and respondent were male. The court’s position is that it can’t grant a divorce for people who under Missouri law aren’t actually married, which is both reasonable and in the spirit of the state constitution. Unfortunately activists are now pushing to overturn this decision and, in the process, threatening traditional marriage in Missouri.

Lawyers for the men are arguing that Missouri’s ban on gay marriage is no obstacle to granting a divorce and that the step wouldn’t amount to a recognition of the practice. Attorney Drey A. Cooley argues that to dissolve the marriage Missouri doesn’t have to recognize it, just acknowledge that another state has. This looks reasonable on the surface and has precedent to back it up. In 2011 the supreme court in Wyoming, which also bans gay marriage, divorced a same-sex couple who had been married in Canada; the court argued that recognizing the marriage to the extent needed to end it didn’t affect Wyoming’s own policies.

Even limited recognition is a slippery slope though. By granting the divorce Missouri would open itself to claims that it had recognized gay marriage as a legitimate concept, and that might encourage activists to accuse the legislature of denying homosexuals a right that the state accepted and granted to normal couples. Cooley himself says that while the court could grant his client’s divorce on a narrow ruling he hopes they will take a “broader approach” – by which he means forcing gay marriage into Missouri law.

Proponents of gay marriage have gained a lot of experience in recent years, and are skilled in exploiting loopholes and creating precedents. Defenders of traditional marriage need to be increasingly vigilant to ensure that issues like this aren’t used to circumvent the law-making process.

The Missouri Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case within the next few weeks.

Ferguson Protests

When the world looked at US news last week the coverage was dominated by events in Missouri. For the second time this year the press flooded the airwaves with scenes of chaos and destruction in Ferguson, plus the spillover of protest and violence into other cities. The grand jury decision that found Officer Darren Wilson had acted correctly threw a spotlight on race relations in the USA and prompted a flood of outrage about racist cops and the way black Americans are denied justice.
At least that’s the party line. In reality things are a bit different. From the way the case has been reported you’d think Wilson singled out Michael Brown just because he was black, then staged a public execution for the fun of it. Look at the facts, though – facts that nobody has disputed. Brown and a friend were walking away from the scene of a robbery they’d just committed, stealing a box of cigars from a local store. For reasons unknown they decided to walk down the middle of the road, deliberately disrupting traffic. When Wilson saw them he told them to get on the sidewalk; they refused. Then he realized Brown’s description matched the robbery suspect and spotted the cigars. When he challenged them again events spun out of control, and this is where eyewitness testimony – always the most unreliable kind – gets confused. Wilson says Brown punched him through the car window then tried to grab his handgun. Some witnesses dispute this. However the evidence is clear: Wilson suffered facial injuries, and forensics proves that when the first shot was fired the gun was inside the car and Brown had his hand on it.
So far from a brutal cop singling out an innocent youth going about his business, it turns out Wilson was doing his job – keeping the peace and trying to apprehend criminals. Of course there are bad apples in law enforcement, and of course cops sometimes make a bad decision, but this doesn’t look like one of those times.
Despite the racial conflict stoked up by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and even Barack Obama, plenty of black Americans recognize that the police have a difficult job to do and mostly only use violence when it’s necessary and justified. The latest to come out in support of Wilson is former NBA star Charles Barkley, who made a strong statement Wednesday condemning those who used the grand jury decision as an excuse for vandalism and pillaging. Calling the rioters “scumbags” Barkley confirmed that he agrees with the verdict, then went on to praise the police for the job they do in maintaining peace.
It’s true that racism still exists in America, but we shouldn’t go looking for it every time an incident like this happens. It’s always a tragedy when a young person is killed but that doesn’t make the deceased blameless. Officer Wilson found himself in a difficult and frightening situation, and exercised his right to defend himself. Going by how many people didn’t feel the need to go out and burn local businesses, most Americans of every race understand that.

New Debt Danger

Earlier this year it looked as if we’d got past the worst of the 2008 debt crisis, but recently fears have been rising again. The main driver has been the issues in the Eurozone, where a version of quantitative easing is being hotly debated. In favor are the president of the European Central Bank and the struggling Mediterranean and Francophone economies; Germany, who would end up paying most of the cost, is opposed. With even the German economy slowing down there’s a strong possibility of renewed debt issues on the continent – but now there’s another issue that could be even worse.
Right now the world’s economic miracle is China. From a mostly agricultural society in the 1960s it’s grown to be a top-rank manufacturer and is steadily diversifying from high volume cheap goods into higher quality products. Growth has been explosive, but now it’s slowing down. And that has implications for the huge industrial sector’s ability to repay its loans.
The scale of loans to growing Chinese companies is immense and rising rapidly; the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements, the global lending watchdog, says dollar-denominated credit is rising at 47 percent per year. What’s really worrying analysts is that much of the lending in China is camouflaged as inter-department financing within companies. This has been done before, in 1920s Germany, and the reason then was to disguise the state of their balance sheets as the 1929 crash approached. The concern is that a lot of Chinese firms are much more exposed than they’re letting on, and if an economy that size starts to unravel the impact on global markets will be catastrophic.
Now, on top of these worries, the Federal Reserve is starting to tighten up the easy credit that’s been fueling the US recovery. With this year’s growth and jobs figures looking pretty healthy the Fed is winding down its quantitative easing program, and while it’s justified in domestic terms it runs the risk of a credit shock abroad. China and the other East Asian economies are most at risk there but there are also immense dollar loans to other emerging economies – Brazil and Mexico have borrowed eleven-figure sums and Russia’s debts exceed $700 billion. In total cross-border lending in dollars has tripled since 2005 with the full figure now estimated at $9 trillion, mostly outside the US regulatory sphere.
What’s worrying observers is that for the bulk of this debt there’s no lender of last resort. China’s central bank could manage a bailout – it has huge reserves of greenbacks – but the other borrowers probably couldn’t. A crash in any one of them could start a chain reaction through the whole offshore dollar market.
Fund managers are talking up their prospects right now, but the markets are volatile. The BIS believes there’s an underestimated level of fragility beneath the optimistic picture and many of the conditions for a new crisis are already in place. Leveraged loans exceed what they were before the crash at an unprecedented 55 percent of all collateralized debt obligations. Meanwhile the dollar is rising strongly against most other major currencies.
If there are dangers hidden in the current situation there are opportunities too. Commodities are at a bargain price right now but will probably rise in the event of a slowdown. It’s definitely a good time to be making plans for a potential crisis.