It takes two to make a thing go right. It takes two to make it outta sight. But it takes seven and a half things to know what you need to know today. Here they are:
Thing One: Oil Gusher: Remember how, last year, everybody got excited about the economy, and the stock market soared, until a bunch of crazy stuff happened around the world that freaked everybody out and knocked the economy for a loop? Well, this year's top candidate to play the role of turd in the economic punchbowl is oil. Crude oil jumped to nearly $102 a barrel yesterday as tensions between Iran and most of the Western world reached a new pitch and Iran cut off oil exports to several struggling European nations. The embargo was nothing, really -- Saudi Arabia can make up the difference with spare oil it's got in its back pocket. But the very fact that temperatures are rising in the Middle East is enough to keep oil at a froth. And that is a real threat to the recovery, write Ben Casselman and Conor Dougherty in the Wall Street Journal. Gasoline prices are rising, topping $4 in some parts of the country. They write: "Pricier oil comes at a delicate time. The job market has begun showing signs of life, and other economic indicators are pointing toward stronger growth. But the recovery remains too halting to easily absorb the shock of sharply costlier oil."
Thing Two: GM's Comeback: General Motors could not get Clint Eastwood to read its quarterly earnings report this morning, as he is still under contract with Chrysler. But it did score Robert Duvall, on loan from the Grizzled Actors Guild, to report that it earned possibly $8 billion last year, its best annual profit on record. A remarkable comeback for a company on the brink of death in 2008, and another blow to Detroit's own Willard Mitt Romney, who once decided for some reason that it was a political winner to complain loudly and often that America's biggest car maker should have been taken out behind the barn and shot in the head. (Sort of. Depends on when you ask him, notes Bloomberg.) Not that all is perfectly well with GM! If the US government sold its stake now, it would take a $10 billion or so loss, the stock price has waffled lately, and Europe is a big drag on profits, Brendan Gilmartin at Seeking Alpha reminds us, in a pleasingly granular walk-up to the report. Update: Oops: GM's fourth-quarter results fell shy of expectations. The stock is down about 1.5% before hours.
Thing Three: Data Dump: Today is another massive day for economic data, starting with weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. ET. How many of us trudged down to the local unemployment office to start collecting benefits last week? Economists think it was about 365,000, up from 358,000 the week before. That sounds like a lot, and it is still too high. But there's always some level of churn in the job market. And claims are at least down from 650,000 or so at the peak of the recession. Also at 8:30 we get new-home construction numbers for January. Economists think housing starts jumped to an annualized pace of about 670,000 units, thanks maybe to the unusually warm weather that might have helped home-builders get a little happier lately. But new-home construction is way, way below its peak of about 2.2 million units at the height of the bubble. Not that we need any more houses right now! We're still struggling to sell the ones we do have.
Not enough economic data for you? Also at 8:30, we get wholesale price inflation for January. And at 10:00 we get the Philadelphia Fed's business sentiment survey for February. The Philly Fed number could be key -- it's another early peek at how businesses are feeling in February. The New York Fed's factory sentiment number on Monday was better than expected, though it also reported a slowdown in new orders that could be worth watching.
Thing Four: More Foreclosure Follies: We knew the mortgage foreclosure process was flawed. Heck, we just got a $25 billion settlement over the issue. What we did not know quite so much, but only maybe suspected, was that the foreclosure process might simply be riddled with fraud through and through. Gretchen Morgenson fronts The New York Times with a story about a new study of foreclosures in San Francisco that shows almost every single gosh-darn one of them involved either legal violations or sketchy documentation.
Thing Five: Stocks Rocked: European stocks, and US stock futures, are lower this morning. Rather than typing a 100-word opus about why, I'll just sum up with one word: Greece. OK, here's a few more words: Europe is still divided about bailing out Greece, with some key deadlines looming, the Washington Post notes. Also, Moody's Investors Service warned this morning it might soon downgrade a whole mess of global banks -- some, like Morgan Stanley, by as much as three notches, Reuters writes. This gloomy day comes just one day after the worst loss of the year for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It fell less than 100 points -- hardly traumatic. But the market so far this year has been like a small gentle lamb frolicking in soft clover on a sunny day, with nary a care in the world, so stubbing its wittle toe like it did yesterday feels nearly catastrophic.
Thing Six: App-alling: Your iPhone apps are all up in your address book, stealing your contacts. That's the fear, anyway, in a rapidly ballooning controversy about app privacy that has aroused the attention of even the US Congress. The Huffington Post's Jason Gilbert helpfully guides you through which apps might be doing what to your private personal information and what might happen next.
Thing Seven: World Bank Contenders: World Bank President Robert Zoellick is stepping down in June, and two of the top candidates to replace him are Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers, Bloomberg writes. Clinton has denied she wants the job, while Summers says, sure, he would take it. Clinton is the US government's first choice, because Larry Summers has all the people skills of a ferret doused in gasoline. But anyway, the rest of the world wonders, why is the "World Bank" always and forever being led by Americans?
Thing Seven And A Half: Colbert Watch: We usually like to end this with something fun, but the world needs to know that The Colbert Report has abruptly stopped production this week for unknown reasons, HuffPost Comedy writes. This is not good. OK, on a happier note, the Knicks won their 7th in a row last night. Jeremy Lin scored only 10 points, but got a career-high 13 assists.