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Risks are rising for an oil price spike as tensions between the U.S. and Iran increase

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If not for the trade war, both oil and gasoline prices could be much higher than they are now on rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Analysts say oil could be more than 10% higher, but if there is a resolution of trade issues, and the situation in the Middle East intensifies, there are risks of price spikes that take oil to as high as $100 a barrel this summer.

“If you do get a trade war resolution, a better economy coupled with Iran sanctions, that’s a recipe for higher oil,” said Francisco Blanch, head of global commodities and derivatives at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Blanch said under that scenario, one incident could trigger a spike in Brent, the international benchmark, to $100 a barrel.

“I think the real risk is Iran misreads [President Donald] Trump and Trump misreads Iran. I do think the real risks are increasing for sure,” said Blanch. His forecast is for Brent to reach $82 per barrel during the summer.

West Texas Intermediate futures are flat this week at just around $62 per barrel and down 2.2% for the month so far, even though the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Gulf due to unspecified threats, which U.S. officials say are the work of Iran.

The U.S. Wednesday ordered all non-emergency diplomatic staff to leave Iraq, after two separate attacks in the region and as the U.S. responds to other nonspecific threats. This week, two Saudi tankers were among four ships attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and Houthi rebels, who have ties to Iran, claimed responsibility for a separate drone attack on a key Saudi Arabian pipeline.

While it’s not clear Iran was involved, analysts expect more such incidents.

“Senior Iranian officials have made veiled and not-so-veiled threats to obstruct the ability of its regional rivals to export oil and exponentially raise the economic costs of remaining on the current policy course. They have also warned of ‘planned accidents’ which could lead to direct confrontation,” notes Helima Croft, global head of commodities strategy at RBC.

The Houthi, operating from Yemen, have previously attempted attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Yemen. Iran also provides funding for Hezbollah, a Lebanon based group designated as terrorists by the U.S.

The Saudi Aramco oil pipeline was temporarily closed after the drone incident. It is a 1,200 mile oil artery the Saudis built to bypass the Straits of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war.

Croft said the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain would likely discourage Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz, though it could could use its proxies and stage one-off attacks on ships.

“It is important to note that these are not the only flash points in the region, and while an off-ramp may yet emerge, the hawks appear in ascendancy, which leaves oil’s risk premium set to take center stage,” she noted.

Croft said while the Trump administration has not blamed Iran in the attacks this week, they are “under a very heavy cloud of suspicion and there is growing concern that the region’s long simmering cold war may be poised to become a hot one.”

John Kilduff of Again Capital, said that scenario is one side of the tug of war on oil prices.

“The battle in the oil market is the geopolitical premium versus the slowing global economy, which is the fallout from the trade war,” said John Kilduff of Again Capital “WTI would be pressing $70, and Brent would probably push on $80 to $85.” Brent futures were just under $72 per barrel.

But those prices have not moved much higher in last few weeks, even as it became clear the U.S. would play hardball with Iran and pressure its oil sales to zero. It’s been a year since the U.S. dropped out of the agreement between Iran and six nations, which prohibited Iran from working on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. The U.S. is the only nation to break from the agreement.

Iran has threatened to restart elements of its nuclear program, unless the European signatories of the accord help allow it to make oil sales.

“Historically, with this kind of tension in the Gulf, there would definitely be a security premium in the price. We haven’t seen it this time—so far,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit. “The two big reasons are the trade war, and its potential effect on economic activity and the huge growth in U.S. supply.”

Yergin said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it clear when speaking to oil industry leaders that the boom in U.S. oil production has helped give the U.S. flexibility.

“This is a case study of how the growth in shale, and the change in the U.S. position affects perceptions about security,” said Yergin. In the past year, the U.S. has surged past Russia to be the world’s largest oil producer. Last week, U.S. oil production was at 12.1 million barrels a day, while exports surged to 3.3 million barrels a day.

“You have this firewall of U.S. output,” said Kilduff. “The Saudis can really turn the spigot on at will. There’s a lot of cushion as we go into this situation with Iran.” Saudi Arabia and OPEC, have been attempting to keep the oil market in balance under an agreement with Russia and other non-OPEC producers. The joint monitoring committee for that group meets this week.

“There was chatter in the market that this weekend, they could agree to raise the production cap to respond to the loss of Iranian crude,” he said. Analyst said Iran exports have already fallen below 1 million barrels a day and it could drop more, to as little as 200,000 barrels a day.

Analysts say the potential for more incidents in the Gulf is increasing, as Iran gets more desperate and its economy gets weaker under U.S. sanctions.

President Donald Trump this week denied reports that the U.S. was considering sending as many 120,000 troops to the Middle East to deal with Iran. But he added if troops were necessary, he’d send “a hell of a lot more.” Trump’s advisers, however, are seen as more hawkish than the president, and it was his national security adviser John Bolton, former U.N. Ambassador, who advised President George W. Bush in the war against Iraq.

“It’s a flammable situation and with lots of room for miscues and miscalculations,” said Yergin.

Blanch said Iran has several options, including dropping out of the nuclear agreement, but the most likely is that Iran will take indirect actions through proxies.

“There’s no sense they’re going to come back to the negotiating table,” said Blanch. “Iran could see being more proactive against U.S. aggression, for the home audience. At the end of the day, the loss of market share for Iran is a gain for the rest of the region. Other than letting others pocket money for the barrels you no longer can sell, you could target those barrels and maybe in the process push the price up and put some pressure on the Trump administration which doesn’t want to see higher gasoline prices. It’s a fine line to walk.”

Kilduff said the market is more on edge, even if prices aren’t rising.

“Because of the maximum pressure campaign the U.S. is putting on Iran, there’s little doubt the Iranians will try to act out through proxies in the areas. We’re tripping into conflict. That’s the sense in the market,” said Kilduff.



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Stocks won’t bottom until panic gets more extreme: BofA

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New charts from Bank of America-Merrill Lynch’s Stephen Suttmeier suggest two things must happen before the stock market bottoms: The S&P 500 needs to fall another 5% and panic needs to get more extreme.

His first chart shows the S&P 500‘s decline, and the key levels to watch.

“The correction is going to continue,” the firm’s chief equity technical strategist told CNBC’s “Futures Now ” on Thursday. “You take a measured move of this trading pattern — one leg down, one leg up. It’s gets you right down into that 2,750-2,740 range.”

Suttmeier estimates it’ll take weeks for stocks to find a floor, especially since the volatility is coming during the worst seasonal period of the year: August through October.

“We have plenty of resistance,” he said. “We continue to stall right around this 2,940 level on the S&P.”

Suttemeier’s second chart reflects fear in the market through the 25-day put/call ratio, which follows put volume relative to call volume. According to Suttmeier, panic isn’t widespread enough for stocks bottom.

“Once you get above one in the 25-day put/call ratio, you can see this S&P bottom. And, that happens probably sometime in September,” said Suttmeier. “We had fearful readings to start June. June was an up month, and we came into August very complacent.”

On Friday, the S&P 500 rallied 1.4% to close at 2,888.68 and is almost 5% away from its all-time high.



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There are now 175 online mattress companies—and you can’t tell them apart

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Samurai Messenger Service prepares to deliver a packaged mattress from the bed delivery company Casper in New York.

Yana Paskova | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Gone are the days of flopping onto mattress after mattress in a stuffy showroom floor.

Online mattress companies that ship to your front door say that finding the perfect bed might just take a few clicks. But experts warn that it’s important to look beneath the sheets. They say many mattresses being sold are actually very similar — despite how they’re marketed.

“The products that you’re buying — there are many similarities and only some minor differences,” said Seth Basham, an analyst at Wedbush Securities who covers the mattress industry. He said that the core of the mattresses at different companies often use the same foam. “The different layers — what goes on top of what, can differ. But the big difference is how they’re being sold and marketed.”

There are now around 175 bed-in-a-box companies in business, estimated Michael Magnuson, founder of mattress review site GoodBed.com. Their sales account for 12% of the $16.5 billion mattress industry, though only the top 10 companies make a significant dent, according to Basham. Among the major players are brands like Purple, Casper, Nectar, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle.

Mattress giants like Tempur Sealy and Serta Simmons should be nervous, said Peter Keith, an analyst at Piper Jaffray. Sales units on average at those companies have been down 5% over the past two years.

A survey by the International Sleep Products Association reported that 45% of mattresses purchased in last year were online, up from 35% for purchases in 2017.

Purple is the only public bed-in-a-box company, after it merged with a public investment shell company in 2018 at a valuation of $1.1 billion. Its stock has dropped 40% since the merger, and the company is currently valued at $355 million. Like many other bed-in-a-box companies, according to Basham, Purple has not yet seen a profit. In 2018, the company made $285 million in sales, and reported a net loss of $19.6 million.

Profit is hard to come by because the ease of forming an online mattress company makes the market competitive, according to Basham. “Barriers to entry are low, but barriers to profitability are high,” he said. “It doesn’t take that much to design a mattress, a marketing campaign, put up a website, and have one of these big companies like Carpenter do the fulfillment for you,” he said, referring to one of the key mattress manufacturing companies.

A rolled up Purple mattress on a doorstep.

Source: Purple Innovations

Manufacturing ease

The majority of bed-in-a-boxes outsource their manufacturing, according to Magnuson from GoodBed.com. “None of these guys, with a few rare exceptions, make their own mattresses,” he said. “They’re literally calling around to producers saying, ‘we need a finished product and here’s what we think it should look like.’ Sometimes, they don’t even know what they want it to look like.”

The companies that make their own mattresses include Brentwood Home, Brooklyn Bedding and Purple, Magnuson said. Many of the bigger bed-in-a-boxes do the research and development of the mattresses themselves, which differentiate how they feel. And companies like Tuft & Needle, Casper and Leesa have layers of foam with proprietary formulas, which means they’re not the same as others.

Most of the outsourcing is to just four major manufacturers, according to Dan Schecter, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Carpenter. He said his company makes mattresses for 40% of the mattress industry at 60 factories throughout the country. That includes including roughly 14 bed-in-a-box brands, along with all the traditional players like Tempur Sealy.

“The customer comes to us … they say they want a mattress that does these things against the body, and they would like to have these features and advantages as part of their marketing story. We then create the mattresses that dovetail with what their vision is,” he said.

Layla CEO Akrum Sheikh said companies that manufacture their own products are “at a disadvantage as they may find themselves being limited to the use of their own technologies and capabilities.”

“In order for Layla customers to truly benefit from the product, we believe in a business model that combines utilizing licensed technology and abilities from multiple manufactures combined with our own proprietary inventions bundled up into one superior product,” Sheikh said. “This model allows us to innovate and create without restrictions.”

Schecter said the mattresses produced by Carpenter do not have the same foam formulations, and that the company only agrees to design and manufacture mattresses that are backed by science.

Purple emphasizes the science behind its mattresses, especially its “Smart Comfort Grid” layer, which it says helps to relieve pressure on your body during sleep. Eight Sleep is another company that’s technology-oriented, and touts its mattresses’ dual temperature control and sleep tracking app.

Innovations like these are helping brands to differentiate themselves, according to Keith.

“For a while there were a lot of similarities, but you’re starting to see the bigger companies diversifying their offerings,” he said. For example, some brands are now selling luxury and cheaper versions, or hybrid models that include both foam and springs.

Marketing confusion

But all the different offerings might just overwhelm consumers, said David Srere, co-CEO of ad agency Siegel+Gale.

“It’s the amount of information. There’s just too much,” he said. “If you go online, not only do all of them look alike, but they’re all talking about their different products. If I tell you that my mattress is special because it’s infused with copper gel, does it mean anything to you?”

Layla, Sleep Science and Propel by Brooklyn Bedding all sell copper-infused mattresses. DreamCloud, Leesa, and Walmart-owned Allswell are just some of the brands offering hybrid mattresses.

Brentwood Home and Sleep Science were not immediately available for comment.

And the sameness between companies applies to their marketing and brand identities, too, according to Armin Vit, co-founder of graphic design firm UnderConsideration. He sees resemblances in the companies’ colors, fonts and advertising messages. “You can see a similar approach,” he said. “In my mind, Casper was the first, so I think they sort of set the tone. They did well, and others followed.”

Casper, which was founded in 2014, was among the first bed-in-a-box company to gain widespread recognition. Their logo, which is navy blue with a sans-serif font, has similarities with Leesa’s, launched in 2015, Nectar’s, which was founded in 2016, and Purple’s, also formed in 2016.

Vit said that the likeness of the logos and marketing might be intentional. “The goal is for something to look familiar,” he said, because there’s a chance consumers will mix up someone’s mattress recommendation with another company’s.

“It’s not ideal, it’s not the most creative or authentic thing to do, but it’s kind of like getting sales and getting customers with confusion in the marketplace.”

Each companies’ messaging isn’t much better. For example, Casper says its memory foam mattresses is for “those who want a ‘just right’ feel whether you sleep on your back, side or stomach,” while the Nectar’s mattress firmness is also “just right” and provides “optimal comfort and support — whether you sleep on your front, back, or side.”

Vit said, “There’s a certain comfort in doing what the successful company’s doing. Someone takes the lead and everyone else says, ‘Hey, that seems good, let’s go there.’ It’s not exciting, but it’s sort of smart.”



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British Airways’ New York-London and other high revenue airline routes

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British Airways airoplane Boeing B747-400 in the sky above clouds.

hady Khandan | ullstein bild | Getty Images

In case the suites and lobster at the front of the plane didn’t give it away, a new ranking shows how high-paying travelers rule the skies.

The routes that make the most money are those frequented by business travelers, where airlines have been scrambling to add high-end seats at both four- and sometimes five-digit prices.

British Airways’ nonstop flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport brought in nearly $1.2 billion in revenue in the 12 months ended in March 2019, far and away more than any other route in the world, according to data released this week by aviation statistics firm OAG.

Other high-revenue routes include the less than 90-minute hop on Qantas connection between Melbourne and Sydney, which made the largest Australian carrier $861 million over that period, and United Airlines service between San Francisco and Newark. That flight generated $689 million. Following that was American Airlines‘ Los Angeles-JFK route, which  brought in nearly $662 million.

In an industry with slim profit margins that scarcely leave the single digits, airlines pour resources into such high-revenue routes, adding new seating because they know they attract corporate accounts and other high spenders.

“Those airlines who have [those routes] will defend them at all costs,” said OAG executive vice president John Grant. “They’ll fight for those passengers and not cancel them.”

Airlines are also trying to get passengers to pay for premium seats, rather than give them away with free upgrades, and they’re getting much better at it.

Delta Air Lines last month said it is selling more than 60% of its first class seats, up from about 13% in 2011 — bad news for anyone expecting a free upgrade. The airline is also getting less than half of its revenue from the coach cabin, compared with about two-thirds six years ago, it said late last year.

JetBlue Airways plans to start service to London from New York and Boston in 2021, using its Mint class to court travelers away from entrenched rivals on the lucrative routes with cheaper premium-class lie-flat seats.

U.S. airlines have also taken a cue from their international competitors in adding a new class in between standard coach and business class known as premium economy, which for a higher fare gets travelers earlier boarding, a roomier seat, a larger entertainment screen and higher-end food, among other perks.

American Airlines earlier this month said it finished the installation of premium economy seats on its wide-body fleet. Prices vary but a premium economy seat can fetch almost three times more than a regular economy ticket. For example, a round trip between New York and London in early September on American was $704 while a premium economy ticket was $1,908.



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