ETF

The irresponsibility of socially responsible investing

United Nations Sustainable Development Logo

Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) has been heavily pushed by members of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) for a while now. Apart from cynically cashing in on the generally higher fees generated by these “woke” funds, the returns have been nothing much to write home about. As Milton Friedman once said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.

If we look at YTD, 1 or 10-year performance all of the SRI portfolios as indicated by published performance (listed on their websites) of local ACSI members, they have “underperformed” the benchmark index. One outperformed in the 5-year category. Hardly anything to crow about. So as much as they might feel warm and fuzzy for turning these funds into virtue-signalling investment vehicles, the outcomes for the monies entrusted to them is far from ideal. While investors should bear ultimate responsibility for where they deploy retirement funds, do they realise how much money they are torching by believing in this nonsense?

So why do these funds try to bully top-performing companies to conform to their irrelevant ideals which on the face of it do not appear to be working? If one reads through the fine print, many superannuation administrators pat themselves on the back that they are aligning portfolios to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If one wants to champion best in class ethics, the UN is the last place anyone should look. Just look at the unethical scandal that occurred at UNAIDS. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what these SDGs are – eliminating hunger, wiping out poverty, promoting gender equality, good health, clean water and sanitation, affordable clean energy etc. All wonderful things in and of themselves, but surely if the market agrees with them,  shouldn’t share prices reflect that?

Friedman spoke of free-market economics, “Well, first of all, tell me: Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus [including the UN]. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worse off, worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.

In Australia,  it would seem that many high performing companies, that aren’t ‘compliant as they should be‘, are being pressured to increase diversity, women on boards and all manner of meaningless benchmarks preached by the ACSI and its members.

Take the 30% Club which pushes to have 30% women on boards. While this started in the UK in 2010, it has spread across multiple jurisdictions including Australia. The 30% Club emphatically quotes from a McKinsey study,  “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.” What this study doesn’t say is that the bottom quartile of companies maybe just poorly run, in spite of the genitalia of the board.

Don’t mistake the most important point to be made. If a board is best served by all women, you won’t hear a peep from investors if they can produce the best results. As soon as we start to try to enforce gender quotas, performance becomes predicated on chromosomes rather than capability. What next? Ensure fair representation of LGBT on boards? Religions? Races? Disabilities? Where does it stop when all that matters is ability that produces performance?

Take a look at the disaster that has befallen PG&E in recent times. In the interests of pandering to all these irrelevant SDGs, it can tell you the exact breakdown of the diversity of its workforce but can’t tell you the status of much of its infrastructure, some which have been directly responsible for the devastating wildfires in California. The company was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Did diversity help shareholders? If one’s house is on fire, do we worry about identity? Or who has the skillsets to put out the blaze the fastest? QED.

Yet our woke investors keep pushing these trends. IFM Investors waxes lyrical about its climate change, 30% Club and carbon disclosure project. Good for it. It has a choice. It should live by the sword and die by it. If that is what it wishes to focus on why not allow the free market to; a) decide whether superannuation holders want to deploy funds in such a manner and b) let corporates decide if SRI is good for their businesses.

Yet, the latest push by these socialist fund administrators is to ensure that companies conform to the ‘Modern Slavery Act.’ Are these people for real? Who are they to try to enforce federal law? Talk about self-imposed authority. It is a safe bet that 99%+ corporates listed on the ASX behave are compliant in this regard because if not the punitive outcomes will be severe.

Moreover, if some of these funds own stocks like Tesla in their international portfolios, perhaps they might consider such a hip and trendy investment has an indirect connection to child-slave labour in DR Congo where 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined to go into the Li-ion batteries.

There is one absolute truth in finance. In good times, any mug CEO can be successful. It is only when markets turn sour that the “quality” of decent management is truly appreciated in how they successfully manage to mitigate risk in an ugly downturn. In a difficult market climate, only the fittest survive and if companies have strayed off the reservation to appeal to investors, it will soon become self-evident in the results.

As we stare at the precipice of a potentially deep global recession, the previous paragraph will be all that matters. Because those corporates too busy hitting diversity targets, installing genderless bathrooms and ensuring they have double-checked all employees have complied with Earth Hour will be slaughtered when markets take a pounding.

These SDG focused funds will soon see that they are part of one giant herd and as performance starts to suffer in this crowded trade, the stampede toward the exit will reveal just how irresponsible the push to ram through such irrelevant metrics at the very companies who caved in was.

As a contrarian investor, the best investments will be in exactly those companies that shun(ned) this foolhardy exercise and forged a path in the spirit of Milton Friedman. Afterall they understood what it really means to be “free to choose.” So back up the truck in tobacco, mining and fossil fuel stocks on any pullback. After all, mean reversion will see these stocks outperform if nothing else.

Don’t forget Harvey Norman (HVN). How could it be that the company is worth 4x the combined value of Myer and David Jones, the latter two businesses focused on pleasing the United Nations rather than customers?  Hmmm.

Isn’t that the ultimate ready reckoner for these SDG funds? The market is always right. If the performance of the funds deployed isn’t making the grade, don’t attempt to force the best of breed to comply to your self imposed standards. Embrace companies that follow their lead. Not the other way around. It begs the question, what on earth are people who should believe in free markets doing to thwart it functioning efficiently?

Perhaps investors have the clearest indication of socialist activism by the very requirement to join the club. “ACSI drives strong ESG performance in companies in which our members invest because ESG creates long-term value…We use our collective impact to influence companies and financial markets in the interests of our members as long-term investors…Commitment to these beliefs is a pre-requisite for membership of ACSI.

Never has it been a more sound decision to set up an SMSF.

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. 

 

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.

Cate Faehrmann plays investor for a day

Investment managers have difficult jobs. They have to forecast a whole plethora of variables from global economic growth, currencies, commodity prices and micro level corporate industries. If governments can provide ironclad policy certainty, investment choices become relatively easier. Unfortunately, perfect information detracts from performance because things get priced almost instantaneously.

It might be nice that 415 funds all call for a ratification of Paris Climate Accord (which means nothing in practice as the US isn’t a signatory and its emissions have fallen while China is a signatory and emissions continue to rise) but truth be told,  it sounds what is commonly termed in financial circles as “talking one’s book.” NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann pretends to understand finance in her latest piece.

While these 415 firms might represent $32 trillion in assets under management (AUM), the truth is not all of those funds are spoken for in terms of climate-related investments. Investment advisors by their very nature have very diverse client bases. They cover basic low-risk pension (i.e. stable income) funds all the way to riskier return profiles for clients that want more exposure to certain themes or countries. If clients aren’t interested in buying climate funds, the asset managers don’t gather fees. Pretty simple.

Much of the fund industry has focused on ESG (environment, social responsibility & governance) since its inception in 2005. ESG represents around $20 trillion of global AUM, or 25% of total professionally managed funds. Therefore the other 75% of monies are deployed without this in mind. In reality, this is done because investment managers must hunt for the best returns, not those which sacrifice profitability for virtue. If NAB offered you a 10% 1-yr deposit and no solar panels on the HQ roof and Westpac offered a 1% 1-yr deposit because it did, would you invest in the latter based on its ecomentalism?

Let’s take the world’s largest public pension fund (2 million members), California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) which is a cosignatory to this demand for climate action. Apart from the fact that this $380bn fund has been so poorly managed (marked to market unfunded liabilities are c.US$1 trillion), its portfolio consists of widespread ownership of met coal, petroleum and other mining assets. It owns bonds in fossil-fuel producing nations such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as highly environmentally unfriendly aluminium smelters in the world’s biggest polluter, China. So there goes the rhetoric of “demanding” Paris is ratified, that we shift to a low carbon economy and we force companies to report their carbon commitments.

It is frightening that some members of our political class believe that investment managers which collaborate in groupthink are worthy of listening to. On the contrary, the performance of many must be sub par. It is a sad reality that 80% of large-cap fund managers fail to outperform the index on a regular basis. So praying for governments to backstop investments they deployed capital into shows more desperation than innovation.

Maybe we should think of Adani as a classic example of investment at work. While Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government is backflipping on the Adani Carmichael coal mine after the electoral drubbing handed out to federal colleagues, the voluntary infrastructure tax is a cynical way to try to make the project less financially viable. After 8 years of ridiculous and onerous environmental approvals, Adani probably think it only needs to wait til October 2020 when an election will wipe out Queensland Labor from government and the infrastructure tax will be repealed soon after.

CM has long held that the non-ESG names are the place to invest. Most of the auto-pilot, brain dead, virtue signalling group think money has been poured into ESG. All non-ESG companies care about is profitability, not focusing on all the soft cuddly things they do displayed on the corporate lobby TV screens on a loop. Sadly when markets inevitably implode, investors always seek safe havens to limit the damage. As so much money is collectively invested together, so the bigger the stampede to the relatively attractive values provided by the stocks that have been cast aside by “woke” investors.

GE still $15 billion in negative equity

GE.jpeg

While GE might have rallied back above $10 on the back of its 1Q results released overnight, the company’s goodwill shrunk $5.5bn but the company remains deeply in negative equity to the tune of $14.7bn. Why do analysts perpetually focus on the revenue and profit, rather than look at the elephant in the room? Especially as we are at the top of an industrial cycle with warning signs that global growth is already slowing faster than originally anticipated. GE is heavily indebted.

Of the $53.2bn in goodwill and $ $17.1bn in intangible assets, GE shareholder’s equity (including non-controlling interests) is at $55.6bn. The gap is c. $14.7bn.

One of the interesting notes in the 10Q regarding the goodwill Oil & Gas accounts for 42% of the total. GE noted in point 8.

While the goodwill in our Grid reporting unit, Hydro reporting unit, and Oil & Gas reporting units is not currently impaired, the power and oil and gas markets continue to be challenging and there can be no assurances that goodwill will not be impaired in future periods as a result of sustained declines in BHGE share price or any future declines in macroeconomic or business conditions affecting these reporting units.

We can celebrate the short term but when an industrial stock, one which was the largest company by market capitalisation almost 20 years ago, has such an awful balance sheet (354% debt: equity) and blew $45bn in buybacks in recent years, one has to wonder how investors can look at GE as a paragon of value? Reminiscing on the halcyon days of a stock is not a method of sensible investing when staring at reality.

Return of the State-Owned Enterprise

Image result for state owned enterprises

A new investor to Japan once asked CM how to categorise corporate behaviour in the land of the rising sun. CM replied, “Japan is not capitalism with warts, but socialism with beauty spots.

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 original reason for this move was to boost the ETF market and hope that Mrs Watanabe would pocket her winnings and splurge them at Mitsukoshi Department Store to increase consumption. Sadly all she has done is stuff it under the futon.

Although the government has been very public about the drive for good corporate governance, a stewardship code that drives to unwind cross-shareholdings, improve liquidity and lift returns, sadly the BoJ essentially reverses free-float and confounds the ability of companies to be attractive investments. What will happen if one day the BoJ announces it needs to pare its balance sheet back or that its holdings become too noticeable? These stocks will crater and Mrs Watanabe will become even more gun shy.

We shouldn’t forget that behind the walls of the BoJ, there is discussion to buy all $10 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Global markets won’t take nicely to wiping out 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press. Such a reckless experiment has yet to hit the Japanese Diet for discussion because such a move will require legislation to approve it. If it happens, the inflation the BoJ has now given up on will turn into a tsunami.

When the supervisor can’t follow the rules

Japan Exchange Group’s (owner of the Tokyo Stock Exchange) CEO Akira Kiyota has agreed to take a 30% pay cut for 3 months after admitting he’d broken internal rules on prohibited investment.

Surely as the supervisor of one of the largest stock exchanges in the world there would be sufficient systems in place to prevent such embarrassing events. A bit hypocritical to come down hard on listed corporates when the headmaster can’t follow his own rules.

As a former stockbroker, it was a sackable offense to make stock and bond investments without sign off from compliance and a manager to mitigate any risk of insider trading. It is a bit rich to suggest the JPX boss wasn’t aware of his internal rules and had he any doubt whatsoever it would have been an easy discussion had with the relevant department.

Corporate governance in Japan remains woefully inadequate. The JPX board has approved the ¥20mn (US$180k) profit made by the CEO on the initial ¥150mn (US$1.3mn) investment be given to the Japanese Red Cross. Will that be pre or post any capital gains tax? Why isn’t the board calling for him to resign? Why isn’t Kiyota resigning on principle to save the organization’s stained reputation as the vanguard of best practice?

Then again we should not be surprised. It took months for the JPX to remove/suspend Toshiba from the best in class corporate governance index (JPX Nikkei 400) after its accounting scandal became outed and there has been no investigation of Kobe Steel when blatant insider trading was visible to a novice. It leaked information about its fraudulent product specifications to customers three weeks before announcing to the market. All the tell-tale signs of heavy short selling positions on many multiples of average daily volume traded on the day of informing clients was evident. Yet nothing was even suspected, investigated or referred to the regulator.

Then take a look at the saga of Nissan. Documents have revealed former CEO Carlos Ghosn supposedly washed his multi-million dollar personal investment losses through the company as well as using Nissan money to buy several private properties in his name. That would still require the board to be willfully blind to sign off on such big ticket items or point to woeful internal controls. What governance structures could be in place when there is no board accountability over Ghosn’s actions? Being bullied by a dominant CEO is no excuse. The board should have tendered their resignations en masse.

Indeed there have been countless corporate governance lapses overseas – Parmalat, GSK, Stanford, Enron, Tyco etc- but in Japan there is little or no punishment for most executives who break laws (internal or external). Throwing the book at Ghosn will be an exception. Most C-level managers in Japan escape with little more than wounded pride.

Cutting salary for misdemeanors is woeful governance too. The biggest way to force compliance is to threaten a Japanese boss’ company car privileges. The highest status for a CEO is to be whisked around in a personal Toyota Century. Stripping it would literally force corporate leaders to do the walk of shame.