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March 2010

US Housing and Confidence Review

March 30, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

Ho-hum figures in US house prices and consumer confidence showed continued stabilization, and revealed vulnerabilities to the US economic recovery. In this update we look at the S&P Case Shiller house prices index numbers for January, and the Conference Board Consumer Confidence numbers for March. Both stats showed very slight improvements for their respective reported periods, but showed little cause for excitement really.

The Case-Shiller 20 City Composite Index came in virtually flat at 145.34 on a seasonally adjusted basis, up 0.3% from December and down -0.7% from January 2009. On a city by city basis the picture was relatively mixed with the top 3 year on year gains in San Francisco (9%), San Diego (5.9%), Washington (3.5%); with the worst 3 falls in Las Vegas (-17.4%), Detroit (-7.4%), and Tampa (-7.4%).

The figure added to a picture of temporary improvement driven by a drop off in construction, low interest rates, and government incentives. However it is likely that this has just been window of improvement, and there is a chance that prices will - best case move sideways - or see further falls as interest rates inevitably start climbing again; foreclosures rise, and unemployment remains persistently high. Housing is still a key vulnerability for the US economic recovery.

Meanwhile consumer confidence recorded another month of "stabilisation" in March, coming in at 52.5, beating consensus of 51 and February's drop to 46. On components the Present Conditions Index improved to 26.0 from 21.7, and the Expectations Index climbed to 70.2 from 62.9 in the previous month. In a potential slight plus for Non-farm Payrolls on Friday, those saying jobs are "hard to get" fell to 45.8 from 47.3, and those saying jobs are "plentiful" crept up to 4.4 form 4.0.

Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center noted: "...despite this month’s increase, consumers continue to express concern about current business and labor market conditions. And, their outlook for the next six months is still rather pessimistic. Overall, consumer confidence levels have not changed significantly since last spring."

Basically Consumer Confidence is still treading water at levels well below pre-crisis. There will probably need to be a substantial improvement in employment before consumer confidence can recover (i.e. start making ground instead of stagnating around 50).

Overall the housing and confidence figures show a picture of continued stabilization and consolidation, and raise the question of "where to next?". Consumer confidence will likely eventually begin to pick up as the recovery continues through this year, but will depend to a large degree on the health of the labour market. One positive to take from Consumer Confidence is that the future expectations index is relatively strong. However when you consider housing, the picture is still quite mixed, and this one will be interesting to watch as the year unfolds. The temporary impulses that stopped the gains and helped see a short-term recovery have now started to wane, and the likely course from here is sideways or down. All said the numbers today are pretty ho-hum.

Econ Grapher Analytics
The Conference Board
Standard & Poor's

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Economic Calendar - 29 Mar 2010 US in the Spotlight this Week

March 27, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

Here's Economic Calendar for the week commencing 29 March 2010. This week there's a suite of data out of the US that will provide a very interesting and broad insight into the health or otherwise of the recovery. There's also confidence and PMI indicators from a few different countries due for release throughout the week; including China, UK, New Zealand, US, and Japan.


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New Zealand Economic Recovery Strengthens

March 25, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

The New Zealand economic recovery strengthened in the fourth quarter of 2009; growing 0.8% compared to the September quarter. The result matched consensus and beat the previous result of a revised 0.3%, marking the 3rd quarter of positive growth and placing GDP into positive territory on an year on year basis at 0.4%.

Industries that gained the most in the quarter were Manufacturing (0.5), Wholesale trade (0.2), Electricity, gas and water (0.1), Retail, accommodation and restaurants (0.1), and Government administration and defence (0.1). Industries that detracted were Personal and community services (-0.1), and Fishing, forestry and mining (-0.1).

On a sector basis, much of the growth came from change in inventories (2.3), followed by Private and Government final consumption expenditure, and residential building (respectively: 0.5, 0.2, 0.2). While sectors that detracted from growth were Imports (-1.7), Exports (-0.3), and other fixed asset capital formation (-0.4).

The outlook for the New Zealand economy is reasonably strong with largely balanced risks to the upside and downside. It's likely that the recovery will continue to strengthen but that growth will soon settle into a more subdued pace than previous years. There's also little sign that people are changing their ways i.e. no structural change, rather a cyclical recovery.

There are two key areas to watch for New Zealand in the medium term: Monetary policy, and Fiscal policy. In terms of monetary policy the RBNZ has given guidance to the market that it will raise the official cash rate from 2.5% in the middle of the year (i.e. June); the relatively strong GDP result will only add to the case.

On the Fiscal policy front, the budget is due for release on the 20th of May and will likely layout changes in tax e.g. increasing the GST sales tax to 15% from 12.5%, lowering personal and investment tax rates, and closing property investment loopholes. The government also has a range of initiatives stemming from a think tank (Capital Markets Development Taskforce) on capital market development that will support growth over the medium to long term.

Overall there is a lot of promise for the New Zealand economy over the medium to long term if the government gets it right on its strategy for growing capital markets and encouraging productive asset investment, and exports. Progress made will build on the strong foundation that the agriculture sector (and increasingly, the energy and resources sector) have provided.

Statistics New Zealand
Econ Grapher Analytics

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New Zealand Current Account Deficit Set to Widen

March 24, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

New Zealand's current account data surprised some with the current account deficit for the year through December 2009 coming in at -NZ$5.47 billion versus consensus estimates of -NZ$3.33 billion, and the September quarter figure of -NZ$5.9 billion. The comparable figure in December 2008 was -NZ$15.97 billion.

Seasonally adjusted the current account balance during the December quarter was -NZ$3.11 billion, versus the small positive of NZ$0.04 billion in the September quarter of 2009.

The Current account deficit as a percentage of GDP also improved in December 2009 to a 8 year low of -2.9%, compared to consensus estimates for -2% and September's -3.2%; and a marked reduction from -8.7% in December 2008.

However this improvement will only be short lived as it is entirely driven by cyclical forces and one-off events. The current account deficit will undoubtedly widen again through 2010 and will likely return to levels greater than -5% as a percentage of GDP by the end of 2010.

The positive balance in September was partially made possible by large one-off tax provisions by the banks after a couple of large Australian owned banks lost court cases brought by the New Zealand Inland Revenue Department over structured finance transactions and tax avoidance.

Cyclical forces also played a critical role; New Zealand has a net international investment position of -90% as a percentage of GDP, thus if company earnings fall then so to will current account outflows... this is a bad way to improve the current account deficit.

The current account balance was also influenced by the goods balance which saw a marked turnaround due to imports falling faster than exports. New Zealand generally tends to have fairly stable exports; dominated by agriculture i.e. the volumes are fairly stable, but what has the most influence is soft commodity prices. Thus this was driven mostly by falling demand for imports.

Already the balance on investment income (-NZ$3.39billion) has returned to levels seen prior to the crisis driven by performance of direct investment (e.g. company subsidiaries in New Zealand). Another interesting point in the release was that the amount reinvested by international investors in direct investments in New Zealand grew to a record NZ$1.5 billion.

So to sum up, the New Zealand current account deficit improved, but primarily due to cyclical forces; the deficit will widen again through 2010 as the New Zealand economy recovers. The only thing that will structurally improve it is: less spending on imports, more exports, and more saving (yes KiwiSaver will help) from both the private and public sectors.

Statistics New Zealand
Econ Grapher Analytics

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NZ Retail Sales Driven Up By Autos

March 13, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

New Zealand revealed stronger retail sales figures for the month of January. Headline retail sales rose 0.8% from December on a seasonally adjusted basis, beating consensus estimates for 0.5%, and better than a revised -0.4% in December. At NZ$5.54billion the result is up 3.6% year over year. Core retail sales (excluding vehicle related industries) was a little sluggish by comparison, up 0.3% month on month, and 1.6% year on year.

Drilling into the component industries, the top 3 performers were: Automotive fuel retailing 8%, Takeaway food retailing 9%, Motor vehicle retailing 10%. While the bottom 3 were: Personal and household goods hiring -14%, Liquor retailing -8%, and Fresh produce retailing -7%. As can be seen below, retail sales are dominated by the supermarkets category which tends to be relatively less cyclical due to purchases of necessities.

In terms of the absolute level of headline and core retail sales, the chart below shows the marked departure from the pre-recession trend, especially in the headline figures. Indeed this is reflective of the nature of the recovery that is underway in New Zealand; much improved, but subdued and sub-trend.

The outlook is for a continued pick up in retail sales as consumer confidence grows further and the unemployment rate starts to peak. Monetary policy and Fiscal policy conditions are also still relatively loose and stimulatory too, though the government has mentioned its intention to increase the goods and services sales tax. Yet the still weak figures did not give the RBNZ cause to lift the OCR from 2.50% on Thursday, but the numbers do support the general sentiment that a rate rise will come in June.

Statistics New Zealand Econ Grapher Analytics

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US Retail Sales Break the Ice in Feb

March 13, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

US Retail Sales surprised in February, beating concerns about the affects of the cold snap and icy weather and a poor labour market; coming in above consensus. In February 2010 retail sales climbed 0.3% month on month to US$355,546 million, against consensus estimates for a fall of -0.2% and January's growth rate of 0.5%.

Core retail sales (less autos) also beat consensus with 0.8% against an expected 0.0%. Headline and core retail sales were up 3.5% and 3.7% respectively. The winning categories were electronics & appliances stores, miscellaneous store retailers, food & beverages, and sporting goods, hobby, book & music stores.

But one must keep in mind that the base comparison period is much lower than in previous years. The chart below shows on the three major counts of retail sales that neither of them are near were they were prior to the crisis. So the message is recovery; yes, but certainly below trend. But there is momentum there with 4 positive annual growth rates in a row, and 2 positive monthly growth rates in a row.

The outlook for retail spending in the US is likely to be relatively subdued with plenty of upside and downside surprises as the recovery proceeds in a stop-start manner. As consumer lending and credit remains reasonably lackluster, and the deleveraging cycle continues to play through, the growth potential here will likely also be capped. But there are positive factors at play too, for example the hiring for the 2010 10-year census may provide some respite to the US consumer.

As previously noted though, we're still looking for the "new mix" or "new normal" to play out with consumer spending taking a backseat to savings, business investment, and net exports as drivers of a sustainable and structural recovery in the US.

US Census Bureau Econ Grapher Analytics

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China International Trade Review

March 10, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

China surprised to the upside again when it reported its trade figures on Wednesday. Exports were up 46% year over year to US$94.8 billion against consensus estimates for a 38% rise. Imports rose 45% year on year to US$87.2 billion against consensus forecasts, also for 38%.

As the chart below illustrates, the figures show a slight pull back in the strong bounce-back China had been seeing. However much of this pull back is related to the Chinese new year holidays (Chinese new year, or spring festival, fell on the 14th of February this year). It is likely that trade stats will show further improvement in the March numbers as the journey back to trend continues.

As noted, and as illustrated in the growth chart below with both monthly and yearly % changes, on a monthly basis trade growth is in negative territory. While the yearly figures are pushed up by the dual effect of: Chinese new year in January and February last year, and the nadir of the crisis/recession impacting to push comparator figures down to 4 year lows.

Another point about the recent data is that China's trade surplus has clearly been shrinking. The February figure was US$7.6 billion, compared to January's US$14.2 billion. Factors that have been putting the squeeze on the surplus include lower global demand for exports, (and therefore a need to) lower prices, partially an increase in commodity prices, demand pressures impacting on already tight margins, and the impact of stimulus related spending on import volumes.

Overall the February international trade figures for China, add to a picture of improving trade, in spite of the seasonal drop-off. What's also interesting to note is the relative strength of imports, and the associated impact on the trade surplus. This could be early signs of a "new mix" or "new normal" in international trade dynamics. But it's probably more likely to be symptomatic of a long and nonlinear long cycle recovery.

(All: Trading Economics - Bloomberg - China Customs - Econ Grapher Analytics -

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Top 5 Graphs of the Week - 6 March 2010

March 5, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

This week we look at Canadian GDP, Australian GDP, US ISM indices on manufacturing and non-manufacturing, and a wrap up of some of the monetary policy decisions announced this week; including the tightening decisions in Australia and Malaysia.

1. Canada GDP
Canada made further progress in its economic recovery in Q4 2009, recording 1.2% growth q/q (or if you insist on the questionable practice of annualizing results then it was 5%), against consensus forecasts of 1%. On an annual rate the decline improved to only -1.2%. The annualized rate of 5% was above the Bank of Canada's forecast for 3.3% growth, and this has lead some to speculate that the Bank of Canada may break its commitment to keep interest rates on hold at 0.25% until the end of the 2nd quarter of 2010. This remains to be seen, but there are also other measures being taken in Canada e.g. the government aspiring to be the first G7 country to break its fiscal deficit. All up, this is a reasonably healthy economy here...

2. Australia GDP
The Australian economy grew at consensus forecast pace of 0.90% q/q, improving on the previous quarter's 0.3%, and placing it up 2.7% year on year. Basically the Australian economy is going from strength to strength thanks to a fundamentally strong economy, strong export demand and resources sector, and stimulus measures. The Australian job market has already started to show this strength too with the unemployment rate clearly peaking thanks to jobs growth. The RBA even had to tighten again when it last met - but more on this later.

3. US ISM Manufacturing PMI
In a look at the ISM's surveys of both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors, first up is the manufacturing PMI. The main index figure came in at 56.5, below consensus of 57.9, and previous of 58.4. So a slight pull back, but still in expansionary territory. Some aspects were distorted by the severe weather conditions e.g. backlogs grew markedly, and new orders pulled back quite a bit too. Exports and imports continued to grow and the employment indicator was also up with reports of higher net hiring.

4. US ISM Non Manufacturing Index
On the non-manufactuing ISM index; the non-manufacturing index came in a bit better, the figure was 53.0 vs consensus forecasts for a slight improvement to 51.0 and the January figure of 50.5. The standouts were employment (+4), supplier deliveries (+3), business activity (+2.6) and on the downside, inventory sentiment (-4.5), inventories (-1.5). Overall the trend shows an improvement or bounce-back thanks to things like stimulus and inventory cycles, but it is promising to see both indexes in expansionary territory and on an upward trend, it bodes well for the potential for a self-reinforcing upward cycle, but risks remain.

5. Monetary Policy Update
The RBA increased its key rate by 25bps to 4%, and Bank Negara Malaysia increased its rate 25bs to 2.25%. While the European Central Bank (1%), Bank of England (0.5%), Bank of Canada (0.25%), and Bank of Indonesia (6.5%), all held rates steady. The story is by and large unchanged for the banks who didn't change, but for Australia it was back to tightening after a small pause in Feb, the RBA noted that with inflation near target and growth near trend that stimulatory conditions were no longer warranted. Likewise the recovering Malaysian economy prompted the Bank Negara Malaysia to commence returning conditions to neutral.

In reviewing the above charts we can make some generalisations, for example the Canadian and Australian economies are handling the recession relatively well. There are promising signs in both of these economies that the recovery is strengthening, and so too are the relevant authorities commencing or at least talking about exiting stimulus measures.

Meanwhile in the US there are some promising signs in the ISM PMI indices, on both manufacturing and non-manufacturing, that there is, at least in the short term, a recovery. New orders are growing reasonably well on both counts, while the employment indices are starting to show more improvement. The thing to note too is that both of the main indexes are in positive or expansionary territory. Of course in the short term this may be able to be explained away by stimulus measures and the inventory cycle, however it is promising for a potential upward spiral effect, but of course significant risks remain.

On Monetary policy the bias for most central banks, especially in developed economies, is to hold steady at record lows. Though there are modifications and cessations of some of the more extraordinary policy moves taken to stabilise financial markets. But there are some positive steps being taken in returning policy rates to neutral in economies where growth and inflation are starting to normalise and return to trend.

Even 3 of the BRIC economies; China, India, and Brazil have increased their bank required reserve ratios - moves read by most to herald interest rate increases. Ultimately to prevent excesses returning in general prices and asset markets monetary policy will need to move back to neutral - and in so far as this means a preventing of future crises then this is a potentially positive sign.

1. OECD Stats
2. Australian Bureau of Statistics
3. Institute for Supply Management
4. Institute for Supply Management
5. Reserve Bank of Australia

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Lending, Saving, Spending - The US Deleveraging Situation

March 4, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

Here's a brief update on where US bank lending is at. The theme of the day for this is basically deleveraging. Bank credit is on most counts still declining on a year on year % basis, a weekly net new loans basis, and on an absolute basis. It's still very much a story of no credit growth.

It's not a surprise either, lending conditions are still pretty harsh, there are still bank failures popping up, and consumers and businesses are still (but maybe to a lesser degree?) struggling - so finding it hard to obtain financing, or even service existing levels of financing.

To that end there's bound to be the influence of plain and simple write-offs. Bad loans = detractor to loan growth.

There's probably also an element of debt aversion in some cases, where people have been left underwater and truly stressed to the limit with asset price declines, employment loss and income pressures. IMF studies have even pointed to a period of higher savings rates following periods of high labour market and asset market volatility.

So it's also unsurprising and even positive to see that the US personal savings rate has recently spiked upwards (also included a chart on this below FYI). Positive because a sustained increase in the savings rate will support a more balanced and structural recovery - and due to wealth effects will see stronger future growth - but be ware it will also mean that in GDP growth numbers consumer spending will probably come through later in the process.

US Aggregate Lending
The below chart has total lending by US banks broken into C&I, real estate, Consumer, and other. The points to note are the previously mentioned declines in absolute values. It's also an interesting chart to look at in terms of the make up of total lending...

Commercial & Industrial
Business lending is still deeply in the negative, you can hardly even call the below stablising/bottoming out. But ultimately this is really the one you want to see turning up the most (given the previously touted thesis of the consumer-coming-last-recovery).

Real Estate
This one had been turning upward thanks to the impulse of the home buyer subsidies basically bringing a bit of demand forward and probably soaking up all the good credit risks. Now its back into declines (as are, coincidentally, house prices).

This is different from the much looked at consumer credit figures, this is consumer lending (higher frequency data from US Fed aggregate bank stats). This lines up to a T with the consumer deleveraging thesis...

US Personal Savings Rate
Thanks to "fred" we've got the US personal savings rate here showing a marked turnaround - we can really only hope that this trend continues for the US consumer. I mean really it's like the US consumer has collectively had a heart attack and survived - they've had the wake-up call and now they need to realise they have to change their habits. Like diet and exercise, a lift in the savings rate is just what the doctor ordered.

Live long and prosper US consumer, live long and prosper.


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Playing The Prediction Markets

March 4, 2010 by Econ Grapher   Comments (0)

This article provides an introduction to both utilising implicit predictions in binary options, as well as some pointers on trading. Prediction markets provide an interesting venue for gauging the probability of an event based on the trading of both informed and uninformed participants.

As an investor, trader or someone with a general interest in things like economics related events you can use predict markets to help get an idea of the probability of the event occurring. You can then take it a step further and take potentially profitable positions if your view on the probability contrasts with the markets’ view of the probability.

Prediction Markets and Binary Options
So what are prediction markets? Prediction markets generally involve the trading of binary options. You may know what options are (the right but not the obligation to purchase a given thing), and the benefits of using them (nonlinear payoff profile i.e. fixed premium/cost vs variable profit). But binary options work a little differently, the standard binary option pays $1 if a specified event occurs by or on a specified date – otherwise it pays $0.

For example ipredict has a contract on the US Fed increasing interest rates by November (here): “FED.INCR.NOV10”. This contract pays $1 if the Fed increases interest rates on or before the 4th of November 2010.

You can both sell and buy binary options. So using the previous example, if you believe the probability of the US Fed increasing rates on or before the 4th of November is greater than 0 then you would buy contracts (e.g. if you bought a contract at $0.50 and the Fed increased rates before expiry you would receive $1).

Likewise if you believed that there was no way the Fed would lift rates this year then you could sell short the contract. So for example if it were trading at $0.50 then you would sell a contract for $0.50 and on expiry if the event did not happen you would get to keep the $0.50. But of course the converse is true, if the event did occur then you would have to pay $1 to the holder of the contract, but this would be offset by the $0.50 you sold it for.

How to Read the Market Predictions
So by now you probably can already answer this question, you gauge probabilities based on the price. If the price is $0.50 then on average the market is pricing in a 50% chance of the outcome.

To look at an example, on ipredict there is a suite of contracts on the RBNZ (Reserve Bank of New Zealand) interest rate decision on the 11th of March. At the time of writing the approximate prices of the contracts were as follows:

OCR.NC.11MAR10 Price $0.9650 …therefore probability = 96.5%
OCR.25.11MAR10 Price $0.0300 …therefore probability = 3.0%
OCR.OTH.11MAR10 Price $0.0050 …therefore probability = 0.5%

So at the moment you can see the market is overwhelmingly expecting no change to the Official Cash Rate on the 11th of March. You can see how the probability aspect works with this suite too by noting that all outcomes (all mutually exclusive and exhaustive) add up to 100%.

How to Make Money Playing Prediction Markets
So now, down to business! I bet most of you have already started plotting how to make money, but this section sets out the basic strategies for making money by playing the prediction markets.

1. Positioning
The first way is what I call positioning. Basically you find contracts where you’ve got a strong opinion on the outcome and position yourself to profit from that view. For example with the Fed rate increase contract, if you believe there’s about a 70% chance of it happening then you would buy it all the way up to $0.70 (possibly higher).

The key things to think about are: a) risk and reward profile e.g. if the price is $0.70 then your profit if it happens is $0.30 ($1-$0.70=$0.30), but if it doesn’t happen you lose the $0.70 you paid to buy the contract. This is a sub-1 trade; the ratio of profit divided by loss is 0.43. When you play sub-1 trades you need to get it right to make money.

A 10+ (ratio) trade on the other hand gives you a higher margin for error, but at the same time is the result of the market ascribing the outcome a low probability. For example if the price is $0.05 the proftit-loss ratio is 20, so in trading for an expected breakeven you could afford to be wrong 19 times out of 20 if the position size is the same on all trades. But again, the probability according to the market is 5% so you need to study up and try and foresee what the market doesn’t.

2. Trading
Another way of making money is utilising the fact that prices are determined in a liquid market with at least some informed participants. So as new information is revealed the price will change. For example if the price of the US fed rate increase contract is like $0.20, and then an inflation report comes out showing a huge upside surprise then the price could rise to, just for example, $0.30. In that case you could close out your position at a $0.10 profit.

You can play these sort of trades quite speculatively around interest rate announcements e.g. if you have a tightening bias you could buy a later contract e.g. April, as a play on any hints for a sooner increase coming from a sooner interest rate announcement. Anyway there are all sorts of usual market trading strategies you can use for actively buying and selling binary options.

3. Arbitrage
Sometimes arbitrage opportunities will open up in suites of contracts or between similar contracts. There will be times when you get quasi-arbitrage from contracts that have very similar payoff profiles, but might be structured slightly differently.

Anyway the easy way to arbitrage between contracts where there is more than one out come and you have mutually exclusive and exhaustive contracts is as follows:
a) Bid side: add up the bids, if the total is greater than $1.00 then sell an equal amount of all of the contracts.
b) Ask side: add up all the asks, if the total is less than $1.00 then buy equal amounts of all contracts in the suite.

Example: a suite of 3 contracts has the “ask” as follows; $0.9005, $0.0890, $0.0075, the total of the “asks” is $0.9970, so you could buy all the contracts for $0.9970 and receive $1 at expiry/event date, thereby netting $0.0030 (or $0.30 for 10 contracts, or $3.00 for 100 contracts, etc – to illustrate).

So there you have it, you can use prediction markets (aka binary options) to get a reading on the views of a market of informed and uninformed participants of certain events happening. But more importantly you can use these markets and instruments to make profits by taking positions on certain outcomes you have knowledge about, or by actively trading in the market, or even through arbitrage.

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I have only used this provider: But I am aware that there are other providers out there, and a quick google search should reveal them. Also note this is not to be construed or relied upon as advice. I have no association with ipredict, but I do trade on the platform and from time to time I do take long and short positions in contracts that trade on that platform.

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