Benchmarks

Central banks are climate change experts now. If only they possessed such skill in their core competency

Are these people for real? Does the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) truly believe that world’s central banks will become “climate rescuers of last resort”? Do we really want our central banks to be more proactive in pushing governments toward a greener economy by suggesting a carbon tax as “first-best solution“? The problem with central bankers is that every problem looks like a nail when they only have a hammer in the toolkit.

First, on what level do central banks have a clue about climate change? If they had even the foggiest notion about the science they would never have embarked on a set of reckless monetary policy measures that created the very conditions for excessive debt, mal-investment and over-consumption which they now seek to punish us for via the adoption of a carbon tax.

We should not forget the almost $300 trillion of global debt now racked up thanks to abnormally low interest rates. It is politically expedient to run budget deficits too because central banks are only too happy to keep (near) ZIRP or NIRP which makes servicing ballooning deficits appear almost perpetually affordable with short term focused politicians. It is but a figment of their imagination.

How easy it is to sound the alarm on climate change to mask the policy blunders of the last two decades. It would be nice if we could believe they possessed expertise in their mandated role before embarking into a field they have no sound base to work from. It is a dangerous distraction.

It is worth citing a few examples of the record of central banks around the world since GFC.

In 2018, the US Fed stopped reporting changes in the balance sheet. It did this to prevent spooking the markets over tapering. It reminds FNF Media of the day Bernanke’s Fed announced it would no longer report M3 money supply a year before the financial markets headed into the GFC. Why is there a need for a lack of transparency if it wishes to instill market confidence via its policy settings?

Has the Fed reflected on the fact that over half of listed corporates have a credit rating of BBB or below? Ford Motor Co’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s to junk. $84bn worth of debt now no longer investment grade. It will be the first of many Fortune 500s to fall foul to this reality. In 2008, there was around $800bn of BBB status credit. That number exceeds $3.186 trillion today. Brought to you courtesy of low interest rates.

The Bank of Japan (BoJ) is now responsible for 60% of all ETF market ownership. Latest reports confirm the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has now become a top 10 shareholder in almost 50% of listed stocks. In a sense, we have a trend which threatens to turn Japan’s largest businesses into quasi-state-owned enterprises (SoE) by the back door. The BoJ now owns $250bn of listed Japanese equities. It is the top shareholder in household Japanese brands such as Omron, Nidec and Fanuc. At current investment rates, the BoJ is set to own $400bn worth of the market by 2020-end.

The BoJ’s manipulation of the JGB market caused several of the major Japanese banks to hand back their trading licenses because they served no purpose anymore given the central bank’s manipulation.

The ECB has dropped the ball in Europe. Jonathan Rochford of Narrowroad Capital wrote,

Many European banks have failed to use the last decade to materially de-risk. The most obvious outworking of this is that European banks continue to receive taxpayer funded bailouts, with Germany’s NordLB and Italy’s Banca Popolare di Bari both receiving lifelines this monthOne final issue that lurks particularly amongst European banks is their gaming of capital ratios. European banks have become masters of finding assets that require little risk capital but can generate a decent margin. Government debt from Italy is one example, with pressure now being put on the ECB to allow for unlimited purchases of Greek government debt. This would substantially increase the already significant “doom loop” risk. This risk arises from the potential for a default on government debt to bankrupt the banks, and the converse situation where failing banks look for a taxpayer bailout and bankrupt the country.

The list goes on and on. Central banks are in no position to lecture the rest of us on anything given their command of their core competence remains so flawed.

Global money velocity has been declining for two decades. Every dollar printed creates an ever shrinking fraction of GDP impact. Yet all we did was double down on all the failed measures that led us into the GFC

What we do know is that the BIS has sought the advice of literature professors to come up with the phrase that climate change presented a “colossal and potentially irreversible risk of staggering complexity.”

Really?

It is easy for the BIS to shout that a “green swan” event could send us into the financial abyss. However the reality is that dreadful stewardship of monetary conditions has set us up for a huge fall. Not a bushfire, storm or flood. Perhaps we might view a green swan event as wishful thinking by central banks because it would allow them to absolve themselves of all responsibility in getting us into this mess in the first place. They want to see themselves as saviors, not culprits.

Rochford sums up central banks brilliantly with this comment,

When it comes to central banks, I would prefer to believe it is a combination of groupthink, an unwillingness to take career risk by speaking the truth and a willingness to either ignore or disregard counter evidence that has resulted in the detrimental decisions since the financial crisis. However, the increasing amount of evidence, often produced by central banks themselves, points to central banks being more culpable than gullible.

So given this condition why on earth are we paying any attention to their prescriptions on saving the planet? When they quit the excuses and fess up that the last two decades of monetary policy has failed to fix the excesses built in the system then we might lend an ear. Until then they join the list of government agencies who don’t want to be caught out not being in line with the settled politics. Truly sick.

Contrarian Marketplace rebranding

As some of you may have already realized, CM is being rebranded as Fact Not Fiction Media (FNFM).

New content will be forthcoming including a lot more video which will hopefully be more amenable to you, the audience.

As ever, feedback is welcomed on ways to improve the offering. Merchandise will also be a part of the mix. All in good time.

Thank you as ever for the encouragement to keep going.

Kind regards

Mike

Nativity scene in cages

A Claremont United Methodist church has decided to put the nativity scene inside cages to “consider the most well-known refugee family in the world.”

Bleeding liberal hearts don’t want to accept that if citizens don’t like particular laws, they should vote to change them. Simple. This follows on from a similar stunt in June 2019 where woke artists in NY protested kids in cages by using 24 mockups complete with audio being blasted through speakers of crying and wailing kids. pluck at those heartstrings.

While humanitarian crises are nothing to laugh about, for all of the accusations of heavy-handed, inhumane, jackboot wearing authoritarian ICE & CBP officials we hear so much about, how is it that in full knowledge of all of that, these illegal immigrants still choose to risk everything to come to America. They know that going through the legal process of filing for refugee status at an official border will likely be rejected, therefore choose to enter via the illegal route. 

It wasn’t so long ago that Trump suggested bussing illegal immigrants to predominantly Democrat-controlled sanctuary cities basing it on the idea that if they proclaim publicly how welcome they are there should be no issues. How these virtue-signalling politicians howled in protest.

The greater irony is that a growing number of illegal immigrants are choosing to move OUT of sanctuary cities. In 2007, 7.7mn (63.1%) lived in the 20 largest metros to 6.5mn (60.7%) in 2016 according to Pew. During that time 1.5m illegal immigrants were deported (12.2mn ->10.7mn).

Yet the media, too eager to bash Trump on any occasion with respect to his border policies were forced to issue retractions last month. Ouch.  Who could forget when Manfred Nowak, an expert from the U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, claimed that 100,000 migrant children were detained by the Trump administration. He also indicated that it was the “world’s highest rate” of detained children. How the mainstream media had to take a slice of humble pie the following day when Nowak acknowledged that the cited number was from 2015 — under President Obama.

No one with a heartbeat wants to see screaming kids locked in cages. Separated? Well, there is a good reason for that. When even the likes of left-leaning HuffPo admitted in December 2014 that 80% of women and girls are sexually assaulted while trying to make it across the border there is a good reason to question the proof of identity of the supposed parents. Even if 90% of parent/children pairs are legit, what of the 10% that aren’t? Do ICE risk it?

To emphasize the danger of lax screening, multiple kids were found dead after being abandoned once across the border as their usefulness as a golden ticket on compassionate grounds had expired. If that isn’t some of the worst forms of child abuse then what is? Moreover, these people are hardly the type that decent Americans would want to embrace with open arms! Come one, come all?

While there is no doubt a case to be made for illegals who could make wonderful contributions to society, perhaps some stats from ICE’s latest annual report should shed light on reality.

ICE’s 2018 annual report notes the following situation at the border:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) has continued to use resources as effectively and efficiently as possible to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

In FY2018, ERO arrested 158,581 aliens, 90% of whom had criminal convictions (66%), pending criminal charges (21%), or previously issued final orders (3%). The overall arrest figure represents an 11% increase over FY2017.

  • 2015: 101,800
  • 2016: 110,104
  • 2017: 143,470
  • 2018: 158,581

The number of individuals detained by ERO is driven by enforcement actions taken by ICE and apprehensions made by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In FY2018, 396,448 people were initially booked into an ICE detention facility, an increase of 22.5% over FY2017.  Book-ins to detention resulting from CBP arrests increased by 32% over the previous year, illustrating a surge in illegal border crossings.

  • 2015: 307,342
  • 2016: 352,882
  • 2017: 323,591
  • 2018: 396,448

In FY2018, ERO removed 256,086 illegal aliens, reflecting an increase of 13% over FY2017. The majority of removals (57%) were convicted criminals. Additionally, 5,914 of the removed illegal aliens were classified as either known or suspected gang members or terrorists, which is a 9% increase over FY2017.

  • 2015: 235,413
  • 2016: 240,255
  • 2017: 226,119
  • 2018: 256,086

Here are some of the reasons for arrest – both criminal convictions and charges – for 2017 (2018):

  • Driving under the influence : 80,547 (80,730)  
  • Dangerous drugs: 76,503 (76,585) 
  • Immigration violation:  62,517 (63,166)  
  • Assault: 48,454 (50,753) 
  • Larceny: 20,356 (20,340)  
  • Burglary: 12,836 (12,663)
  • Fraud: 12,398 (12,862)
  • Illegal weapon possession: 11,173 (11,766)
  • Sex offences: 6,664 (6,888)
  • Stolen Vehicles: 6,174 (6,261)
  • Forgery: 5,210 (5,158)
  • Homicide: 1,886 (2,028)
  • Kidnapping: 2,027 (2,085)
  • Prostitution racketeering: 1,572 (1,739)

Since the initial surge at the Southwest border (SWB) in FY2014, there has been a significant increase in the arrival of both family units (FMUAs) and unaccompanied alien children (UACs). In FY2018, approximately 50,000 UACs and 107,000 aliens processed as FMUAs were apprehended at the SWB by the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP). These numbers represent a marked increase from FY2017 when approximately 41,000 UACs and 75,000 FMUA were apprehended by USBP.

While USBP routinely turns FMUA apprehensions over to ICE for removal proceedings, ICE is severely limited by various laws and judicial actions from detaining family units through the completion of removal proceedings. For UAC apprehensions, DHS is responsible for the transfer of custody to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours, absent exceptional circumstances. HHS is similarly limited in their ability to detain UACs through the pendency of their removal proceedings. When these UACs are released by HHS or FMUA are released from DHS custody, they are placed onto the non-detained docket, which currently has more than 2,641,589 cases and results in decisions not being rendered for many years. Further, even when removal orders are issued, very few aliens from the non-detained docket comply with these orders and instead join an ever-growing list of 565,892 fugitive aliens.”

CM will quote Thomas Sowell again,

A passionate commitment to social justice is no substitute for knowing what the hell you’re talking about.

Add the Dutch to the $15.8tn pension shortfall

Negligence. No other word for it. Unrealistic assumptions coupled with a race to the bottom on interest products has meant the top 20 nations have a $15.8 trillion unfunded liability in pensions. CM wrote of the crisis awaiting US public pensions a while back.

It seems the Dutch are the latest bunch of pensioners to reach for the pitchforks at the prospect of having their retirement severely cut back. Shaktie Rambaran Mishre, chair of the Dutch pension federation (representing 197 pension funds and their members), said contributions might have to rise by up to 30% over the next few years to ward off the prospect of having to cut the pensions of 2 million retirees. That will go down a treat.

Zerohedge noted the lower Dutch risk-free rate is not low enough, and as a result about 70 employer-run pension funds with 12.1m members had funding ratios below the statutory minimum at the end of September, according to the Dutch central bank. And here lies the rub: if funds have ratios below the legal minimum for five consecutive years or have no prospect of recovering to a more healthy level, they must cut their payouts.

Can you imagine all of the Dutch who were looking forward to taking a round the world cruise to celebrate 40 years of hard work to face the reality that they’ll only be able to take a cruise down the Amsterdam canals.

This is an utter disgrace. You’d have to be asleep at the wheel as a regulator not to recognize expected returns on funds were so unrealistic as to beggar belief. Actuarial accounting lets you get away with it.

Yet the evil pensions funds will be the villains even though the supervisor left these children alone with a box of matches. Just watch them come home and act surprised that the house has burnt down.

We’re getting a taste of the remedy from the State of Illinois. It is issuing bonds specifically to help plug the gap. Rhode Island has gone the other way – take a 40% haircut or risk having nothing. Way to go!

It is worth factoring the longer term risk of the fall in consumption that this will ultimately have if even a slither or $16tn is no longer recycled into the economy.

This can only end in tears

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As Sweden’s economy slows to the worst economic growth rate in 5 years under a negative interest rate policy, one would think the Swedish Central Bank (Riksbank) would be seeking to prudently manage its asset book on the basis of appropriate risk/reward as opposed to lecturing Australia and Canada on their respective carbon footprints. What we are witnessing is yet another discrete move by authorities to manipulate markets based on fantasy rather than fact.  The hypocrisy is extreme as we shall discover.

While the Riksbank should have complete freedom in how it wishes to deploy capital, we should view this is a pathetic sop to the cabal at the European Central Bank (ECB). Since when did central bankers become experts on climate change? The RBA is no better. Deputy Governor, Guy Debelle, gave a speech in March 2019 on the risks posed by climate change which based prophecies on the data accident-prone IPCC and Bureau of Meteorology. Why not seek balance? Easier to fold to group think so as not to be outed as a pariah. Utterly gutless. Our own APRA is also pushing this ridiculous agenda on climate change reporting. It is willful negligence.

While it is true that on a per capita basis, Australia and Canada’s emissions are higher than the global average, why doesn’t the Riksbank give us credit for lowering that amount 11.4% since 2000? Even Canada has reduced its carbon emissions by 7.3% over the last 18 years. Admittedly Sweden’s emissions per capita have fallen 21.9% according to the IEA. Greta will be happy.

Why hasn’t the Riksbank taken China or India to task for their 169.9% or 94.7% growth in CO2 emissions respectively? There are plenty of oil-producing nations – Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman that have worse per capita outcomes than Australia or Canada. Do these countries get special dispensation from the wrath of the Riksbank? Clearly.

The US has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. If the US has marginally lower emissions per capita (15.74t/CO2-e) than Australia (16.45t/CO2-e), isn’t a double standard to write,

The conditions for active climate consideration are slightly better in our work with the foreign exchange reserves. To ensure that the foreign exchange reserves fulfil their purpose, they need to consist of assets that can be rapidly converted to money even when the markets are not functioning properly. Our assessment is that the foreign exchange reserves best correspond to this need if they consist of 75 per cent US government bonds, 20 per cent German and 5 per cent British, Danish and Norwegian government bonds.

Essentially Riksbank commitment to climate change is conditional. The US which is responsible for 13.8% of global emissions can be 75% of holdings. Australia at 1.3% can’t. No doubt sacrificing Queensland Treasury Corp, WA Treasury Corp and Albertan bonds from a Riksbank balance sheet perspective will have little impact on the total. In short, it looks to be pure tokenism. The Riksbank has invested around 8% of its foreign exchange reserves in Australian and Canadian central and federal government bonds. So perhaps at the moment, it is nothing but substitution from state to federal. Why not punish NSW TCorp for being part of a state that has 85%+ coal-fired power generation?

At the very least the Riksbank admits its own hypocrisy.

The Riksbank needs to develop its work on how to take climate change into consideration in asset management. For instance, we need a broader and deeper analysis of the issuers’ climate footprint. At the same time, one must remember that the foreign exchange reserves are unavoidably dominated by US and German government bonds. The Riksbank’s contribution to a better development of the climate will, therefore, remain small. This is entirely natural. The important decisions on how climate change should be counteracted in Sweden are political and should be taken by the government and the Riksdag (parliament).

Still, what hope have we got when Benoît Cœuré, member of the Executive Board of the ECB, lecturing those on “Scaling up Green Finance: The Role of Central Banks.” He noted,

2018 has seen one of the hottest summers in Europe since weather records began. Increasing weather extremes, rising sea levels and the Arctic melting are now clearly visible consequences of human-induced warming. Climate change is not a theory. It is a fact.

Reading more of this report only confirms the commitment of the ECB to follow the UN’s lead and deliberately look to misallocate capital based on unfounded claims of falling crop yields and rising prices (the opposite is occurring) and rising hurricane and drought activity (claims that even the IPCC has admitted there is little or no evidence by climate change). Sweden is merely being a well-behaved schoolboy.

Cœuré made the explicit claim, “The ECB, together with other national central banks of the Eurosystem, is actively supporting the European Commission’s sustainable finance agenda.

CM thinks the biggest problem with this “agenda” is that it risks even further misallocation of capital within global markets already drowning in poorly directed investment. It isn’t hard to see what is going on here. It is nothing short of deliberate market manipulation by trying to increase the cost of funding to conventional energy using farcical concocted “climate risks” to regulate them out of existence.

Cœuré made this clear in his speech,

once markets and credit risk agencies price climate risks properly, the amount of collateralised borrowing counterparties can obtain from the ECB will be adjusted accordingly.

What do you know? On cue, Seeking Alpha notes,

Cutting €2bn of yearly investments, the European Union will stop funding oil, natural gas and coal projects at the end of 2021 as it aims to become the first climate-neutral continent.

All CM will say is best of luck with this decision. Just watch how this kneeling at the altar of the pagan god of climate change will completely ruin the EU economy. The long term ramifications are already being felt. The EU can’t escape the fact that 118mn of its citizens (up from 78m in 2007) are below the poverty line. That is 22% of the population. So why then does Cœuré mention, in spite of such alarming poverty, that taking actions (that will likely increase unemployment) will be helped by “migration [which] has contributed to dampening wage growth…in recent years, thereby further complicating our efforts to bring inflation back to levels closer to 2%.

Closer to home, the National Australia Bank (NAB) has joined in the groupthink by looking to phase out lending to thermal coal companies by 2035. The $760 million exposure will be cut in half by 2028. If climate change is such a huge issue why not look to end it ASAP? This is terrible governance.

Why not assess thermal coal companies on the merits of the industry’s future rather than have the acting-CEO Philip Chronican make a limp-wristed excuse that it is merely getting in line with the government commitment to Paris? If lending to thermal coal is good for shareholders in 2036, who cares what our emissions targets are (which continue to fall per capita)? Maybe this is industry and regulator working hand-in-hand?

The market has always been the best weighing mechanism for risk. Unfortunately, for the last two decades, global central bank policy has gone out of its way to prevent the market from clearing. Now it seems that the authorities are taking actions that look like collusion to bully the ratings agencies into marking down legitimate businesses that are being punished for heresy.

This will ironically only make them even better investments down the track when reality dawns, just as CM pointed out with anti-ESG stocks. Just expect the entry points to these stocks to be exceedingly cheap. Buy what the market hates. It looks as though the bureaucrats are set to make fossil fuel companies penny stocks.

You want Aussie Banks in your retirement fund far less than their advisory services

This is while things are still supposedly good for our banks. CM has written on the pickle Aussie banks find themselves for a year or so. Their relative value compared to banks such as Deutsche, Commerz or RBS is astonishing. So many global banks are worth 90% less than in 2007 while ours keep whistling Dixie. Mean reversion will hit hard and the complacency still baked into these supertankers is immense. Aussie banks could well be worth 90% less by the time this is all over. Forget the stress tests – meaningless – as they need pretty much all stars to align to be remotely accurate and markets in times of panic seldom play to script. Don’t be surprised if these banks require a taxpayer bailout in time.

With more interest rate cuts planned and inevitable QE down the line from the RBA, think of it more as a time banks must make considerable efforts to deleverage. Should banks consider a benign central bank as a virtue, they should seriously think again. People and businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates are low. Further cuts won’t make a difference.

In short, sell the Aussie banks. The impacts from the Hayne RC will only have adverse outcomes for the banks at a time they need maximum flexibility in order to be able to right the ship. Sadly, such outcomes are highly unlikely. Governments tend to be the most accurate contrarian indicators when it comes to introducing business stifling policy measures at a time, the industry can least afford it.

Maybe former President Reagan had it right when he said, “If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” The government has already completed the first phase and in the midst of finishing up on the second…

Sell your Aussie banks. Headlines, like the above, will be regarded as extremely positive in the next 12 months.

Forget the return “ON” your money. Just look to the return “OF” it

CM knew a lot of passive indices existed but not to this crazy extent. Probably explains why there is so much stupid money tied up in me too commoditised investment products. 4 years ago CM wrote a piece on the dangers of ETFs (especially leveraged)  and passive products in a downturn. These products predominantly follow the market, not lead it. So if these products end up stampeding toward the exits in a market meltdown, the extent will be amplified, especially those levered funds potentially making market panic look worse than it really might otherwise be. Don’t be surprised to see the mainstream media sensationalise the size of any falls in the market.

According to Bloomberg, 770,000 benchmark indexes were scrapped globally in 2019…however  2.96 million indexes remain around the world, according to a new report from the Index Industry Association…There are an estimated 630,000 stocks that trade globally, including c.2,800 stocks on the NYSE and c. 3,330 on NASDAQ or 5x as many indices as there are securities globally.

CM wrote back in October 2015,

ETFs are hitting the market faster than the dim-sum trolley can circle the banquet hall. Charles Schwab, in the 12 months to July 2015, saw a 130-fold preference of ETF over mutual funds given their relative simplicity, cost and transparency….

…ETFs, despite increasing levels of sophistication, have brought about higher levels of market volatility. Studies have shown that a one standard deviation move of S&P500 ETF ownership as a percentage of total outstanding shares carries 21% excess intraday volatility. Regulators are also realising that limit up/down rules are exacerbating risk pricing and are seeking to revise as early as October 2015. In less liquid markets excess volatility has proved to be 54% higher with ETFs than the actual underlying indices. As more bearish market activity has arrived since August 2015 we investigate how ETFs may impact given a large part of recent existence has been under more favourable conditions…

CEO Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF creator, has made it clear that
leveraged ETFs (at present 1.2% of total ETF AUM) have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.” The argument is that the underlying assets that provide the leverage (which tend to have less liquidity) could cause losses very quickly in volatile markets. To put this in perspective we looked at the Direxion Daily Fin Bull 3x (FAS) 3x leverage of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index. As illustrated in the following chart FAS in volatile markets tends to overshoot aggressively

…The point Mr Fink is driving at is more obvious with the following chart which shows in volatile markets, the average daily return is closer to 10x (in both directions) than the 3x it is seeking to offer. This is post any market meltdown. On a daily basis, the minimum and maximum has ended up being -1756x to 1483x of the index return, albeit those extremes driven by the law of small numbers of the return of the underlying index. Which suggests that in a nasty downturn the ETF performance of the leveraged plays could be well outside the expectations of the holders.”

CM has said for many years, where CDOs and CDSs required the intelligence of a mystical hermit atop a mountain in the Himalayas to understand the complexities, ETFs are the complete opposite. Super easy to understand which inadvertently causes complacency. Unfortunately, as much as they might try to do as written on the tin, the reality could well turn out to be the exact opposite.

Hence CM continues to believe that stocks with low levels of corporate social responsibility (CSR) scores like tobacco companies such s Philip Morris, JT and Imperial Tobacco, as well as gold/silver bullion,  look the places to be invested. Cash won’t necessarily be king because the banks are already in a world of pain that hasn’t even truly started yet. Aussie banks look like screaming shorts at these levels. The easiest way for the plebs – without access to a prime broker – to do this is to buy put options on individual bank names. Out of the money options are dirt cheap.

Banks

Forget the return ONyour money. Just look to the returnOFit.

NB, none of this constitutes investment advice. It is a reflection of where CM is invested only.