Bonds

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.

CM on Sky

https://www.skynews.com.au/details/_6102427118001

CM appeared on Sky News to discuss the situation with our banks, the potential risks from the recommendations of the Hayne Royal Commission and the issue of mortgage stress.

Nothing to see here

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Chinese regional bank, Guangdong Nanyue Bank Co said it won’t exercise an early redemption on its 1.5 bn yuan (US$215 million) 6% tier-two bond in December.

According to Bloomberg,

Chinese banks reported 2.2 trillion yuan (US$315bn) of non-performing loans at the end of June, which, according to the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) is the highest level in over 15 years…Troubles facing Guangdong Nanyue’s biggest shareholders may also add to its woes. Neoglory Holding Group Co., which is going through a court-led bankruptcy restructuring after defaulting on its bonds, is the largest shareholder of Guangdong Nanyue with a 16.52% stake, followed by Gionee Communication Equipment Co., which is in liquidation, according to a report published by China Lianhe Credit Rating in June. The two hold a combined 25.4% stake in the lender.

Note in recent times, Baoshang Bank was taken over by the government in May and the Bank of Jinzhou was rescued in July.

We shouldn’t forget “special mention” loans which are not classified as NPLs but potentially at risk of becoming so (equivalent to being 90+ days in arrears), rose to 3.63 trillion yuan (US$521bn), accounting for 3.3% of the total loan volume for commercial banks according to the CBIRC.

Japanese consumer confidence waning as consumption tax hike starts tomorrow

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As the 10% consumption tax rate kicks in from October 1 in Japan from the current 8%, it is worth reflecting on the sorry state of consumer confidence. We are back below 2014 levels. While the sales of Japanese rugby jerseys and huge consumption of beer by gaijin at the Rugby World Cup may provide a brief respite, the trend remains distinctly negative.

Note that consumption tax has been the biggest portion of government revenue since 2014 and is on track to be 37% of the total in 2019, followed by individuals and the lazy corporate sector. Japan’s small-medium enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of employment, comprising 70% of the labour force and 97% of all corporations. Yet 70% of SMEs pay no tax at all.

From an individual level, the top 0.7% of earners in Japan pay 30% of the tax bill, up from 20% in 1974. The bottom 50% have seen their tax contribution fall from 10% to around 2.8%. The top 8% pay around three-quarters of the total.

With Japan running a ¥100 trillion (US$1tn) national budget, the Ministry of Finance needs to sell ¥40 trillion (US$400bn) every year to plug the budget deficit.  The hope is that the consumption tax will lower the dependence on having to debt finance to such extremes.

The Grim Repo

What a surprise to see markets show little reaction to the negative repo (repurchase agreements) market in the past week. So much nonchalance and complacency remain in financial markets. It is as if there is this false belief that the authorities can keep the ship afloat with magical modern monetary theory. Not a chance. The tipping points in the financial markets are quantum levels bigger than any that Sir David Attenborough could conjure up in his wildest pessimistic dreams. If we want to cut carbon emissions, the coming economic slump will take care of that.

On average there are $1 trillion of overnight repo transactions every day, collateralised with US Treasuries. Yet many missed that the repo market seized up late last week. Medium-term repos surged from the normal band of around 2.00~2.25% to around 5.25% on Monday. Some repo rates hit 10% on Tuesday.

Essentially what this said was that a bank must have seen that it was worth borrowing at an 8% premium overnight in return for pledging ‘risk-free’ US Treasuries at 2%. In any event, it allowed that particular bank to survive for another day. Banks use the repo market to fund the loans they issue and finance trades that are executed. It is like an institutional pawn shop.

Looking at it another way, why weren’t other banks willing to lend and take an 8% risk-free trade? A look at the global bank’s share price action would suggest that these bedrock financial institutions that grease the wheels of the economy are not in good shape. We just pretend they are. We look at the short term performance but ignore the deterioration in underlying balance sheets. The Aussie banks are future crash test dummies given the huge leverage to mortgages. As CM has been saying for years, the Big 4 risk whole or part nationalisation.

This recent repo action is reminiscent of that before the GFC. The Fed stepped in with $75bn liquidity per day to stabilise markets by bringing rates into the target range. The question is whether the repo action is a short-term aberration or the start of a longer-term quasi QE programme which turns into a full-blown QE programme.

The easiest way to look at the repo market action is to say the private markets are struggling to be self-funding, requiring central bank intervention. Bank of America believes the Fed may have to buy upwards of $400bn of securities to back the repo market this year alone.  This is another canary in the coal mine.

CM wrote a long piece back in July 2016 titled, “Dire Straits for Central Bankers.” In that report, we described how the velocity of money in the system was continuing to drift. As of now, central banks have printed the equivalent of $140 trillion since 2008 but have only managed to eke out $20 trillion in GDP growth. That is $7 of debt only generates $1 of GDP equivalent.

This is the problem. Companies are struggling to grow. US aggregate after-tax profits have gone sideways since 2012. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of aggressive share buyback programs that flatter EPS, despite the anaemic trend.

Despite the asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property, pension funds, especially public sector retirement schemes, are at risk of insolvency given the unrealistic return assumptions and nose bleed levels of unfunded liabilities in the trillions.

Also worthy of note is the daily turnover of the gold derivatives market which has hit $280bn in recent months, or 850x daily mine production. This will put a lot more pressure on the gold physical market and also to those ETFs that have promissory notes against gold, as opposed to having it properly allocated.

We live in a world of $300 trillion of debt, $1.5 quadrillion in derivatives – until this is expunged and we start again, the global economy will struggle. That will also require the “asset” values to be similarly wiped out. Equity markets will plunge 90-95% relative to gold. That suggests a 1929 style great depression. The debt bubble is too big. Central banks have lost control.

Buy Gold.

Ford downgraded to junk

This week, 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.

CM has long argued that the credit cycle would be the undoing of the economy. For too long, corporates binged on easy money, caring little for credit ratings because the interest spreads between AAA and BBB were so negligible. The market ignored risk and companies went hell for leather issuing new debt to fu buybacks to artificially prop up weak earnings to give the illusion of growth.

Sadly this problem is likely to cause widespread sell offs by companies/investors which must stick to products (as woefully yielding as they may be) with an investment grade, exacerbating the problem of refinancing debt close to maturity. The thinking during easy credit times was simple – refinancing could be done with low interest rates because there was no alternative.

This is problematic for three reasons:

1) under the Obama era, much of the newly issued debt was short term meaning $8.4 trillion arrives for refinancing in the next 2.5 years, crowding out the corporate market.

2) more than 50% of US corporates are one notch above junk status. Refinancing will not be a simple affair.

3) more and more investment grade debt will be driven to zero or even negative yields as a result further exacerbating the problems for insurance companies and pension funds dealing with massive unfunded liabilities.

Last year, in relation to unfunded liabilities at US public pension funds, CM wrote,

California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumed an aggressive 7.5% return. Dr. Joe Nation of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks unfunded liabilities have surged to $150bn from $93bn in the last two years. He suggested the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return last year. At that rate, CalPERS had a market based unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 2 years’ worth of California state revenue). At present Nation now thinks the number is just shy of $1 trillion using a 3.25% discount rate. He expects that the 2017 data for CalPERS will be out in a week or so which should give some interesting perspective as to how much deeper the pension hole is for Californian public servants.

N.B. California collects $232bn in state taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy).”

This is just California, which in the last 8 years has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

Unfunded liabilities per household. In California’s case, the 2017 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

Switching to Illinois, we have a case study on what happens when pension funds go pear shaped.The Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy.

Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following yearFund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

Therefore Ford’s downgrade to junk will have the effect of repricing over a decade of misplaced central bank policy across all markets. The dominos are only beginning to fall. The market can absorb Ford’s downgrade but not if it has to deal with the panic of dozens like it.

CM has long been warning of GE. Despite being the world’s largest stock in 2000, it is 1/5 the size today, trades in negative equity, wasted $45bn on share buybacks in 2015/16 and were it be classified as junk would increase the pile of junk by 10% on its own. Broadcom and American Tower are other monsters ready to be hurled onto the ratings scrap heap.

Buy Gold. The US Fed will likely embark on QE. It requires an act of Congress to approve the purchase of equities but don’t be surprised if this becomes a reality when markets plunge.

This will be the reset of asset prices which has been long overdue thanks to almost two decades of manipulation by authorities. It has 1929 written all over it. Not 2008.

Banker Buster?

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Before the GFC in 2008, bank shares across the globe were flying. Financial engineering promised a new paradigm of wealth creation and abundant profitability. They were unstoppable.

However 12 years later, many banks look mere shadows of their former selves. We are told by our political class to believe that our economies are robust and that a low-interest rate environment will keep things tickety-boo indefinitely. After all the wheels of the economy have always been greased by the financial sector.

If that were true, why does Europe’s largest economy have two of its major banks more than 90% off the peak? Commerz has shrunk so far that it has been thrown out of the DAX. Surely, Japan’s banks should be prospering under Abenomics so why are the shares between 65% and 80% below 2007 levels?

Ahh, but take a look at those Aussie beauties! How is it they have bucked the global trend? How can Commonwealth Bank be worth 6x Deutsche Bank?

Although we shouldn’t look at the Aussie banks with rose-tinted glasses they have mortgage debt up to the eyeballs. Mortgages to total loans exceed 62% in Australia. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at 40%. Japanese banks, before the bubble collapsed, were in the 40% range. CM wrote a comparo here. There is a real risk that these Aussie banks will require bailouts if the housing market craps out. It carries so many similarities to Japan and when anyone ever mentions stress tests – start running for the hills.

If you own Aussie banks in your superannuation portfolio, it is high time you dumped them. Franked dividends might be an ample reason to hold them, but things in finance turn on a dime and this time Australia doesn’t have a China to rescue us like it did in 2008-09. More details contained in the link in the paragraph above.

In closing, Milton Friedman said it best with respect to the ability of central banks to control outcomes,

“… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.