Greater Depression

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.

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.

Westpac reported a 40% increase in home repossessions

Mortgages Westpac

Don’t get CM wrong – this is still the law of small numbers.  Westpac reported this week that it repossessed another 162 properties in the latest fiscal year.  That is a 40% increase. While it is but a dribble compared to the 100,000s of total loans outstanding it is none-the-less a harbinger of things to come. Westpac made clear, “the main driver of the increase has been the softening economic conditions and low wages growth.”

The current status of 90-day+ delinquencies has been rising over time. As have 30-day +. While nothing alarming, the current economic backdrop should give absolutely no confidence that an improvement in conditions is around the corner. We are not at the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning.

Former President Ronald Reagan once said of the three phases of government, “if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” How is that relevant to the banks?

We have already had the government fold and attach a special bank tax on the Big 4. Phase 1 done. Now we are in the middle of phase 2 which is where knee-jerk responses to the Hayne Banking Royal Commission (HBRC) where banks will be on the hook for the loans they make. That is a recipe for disaster that could bring on phase 3 – bailouts.

Sound extreme? How is a bank supposed to make a proper risk assessment of a customer’s employability in years to come? Can they predict with any degree of accuracy on the stability of candidates who come for loans? The only outcome is to cut the loan amount to such conservative levels that the underlying purpose gets diluted in the process and prospective home buyers have to lower expectations. Not many banks will look positively at taking several loans on the same property with different institutions. That won’t work. SO loan growth will shrink, putting pressure on the property market.

What is the flip side? Given property prices in Sydney hover at 13x income (by the way, Tokyo Metro was 15x income at the peak of its property bubble), restrictions on further lending against loan books that are on average 63% stuffed with mortgages (Japan was 41.2% at the peak) won’t be helpful. A property slowdown is the last thing mortgage holders and banks need.

While equity continues to rise at Aussie banks, the equity to outstanding mortgages has gone down since 2007 i.e. leverage is up. If banks saw their average property portfolios drop by more than 20% many would be staring at a negative equity scenario. Yet, it won’t be just mortgage owners that we need to worry about. Business loans could well go pear-shaped as the onset of higher unemployment could see a sharp increase in delinquencies through a business slowdown. A concertina effect occurs. More people lose their job and a vicious circle ensues. It isn’t rocket science.

Of course, Australia possesses the ‘boy who cried wolf‘ mentality over the housing market. Yet it is exactly this type of complacency that paves a dangerous path to poor policy prescriptions.

In Japan’s property bubble aftermath, 40% of the value of loans went bang. 17% of GDP. $1.1 trillion went up in smoke. It took more than 10 years to clean up the mess and the aftershocks remain. Accounting trickery around the real value of loans on the balance sheet can hide the problems for a period but revenue tends to unravel such tales. 181 banks and building societies went bust. The rest were forced into mergers, received bailouts or were nationalised. Now the Japanese government is a perpetual debt slave, having to raise $400bn per annum in debt just to fill the portion of the $1 trillion budget that tax collections can’t fill.

The problem  Japan’s banks faced was simple.  If a neighbour’s $2m home was repossessed through mortgage stress and the bank fire sold it for $1.4m, the bank needed to mark to market the value of the loan portfolio for that area by similar amounts. In doing so, a once healthy balance sheet started to look anything but. Extrapolate that across multiple suburbs and things look nauseating quickly.

This is where Aussie banks are headed. This time there is no China to save us like in 2009. Unemployment rates in Australia never went above 6% after the GFC in 2008/9, unlike the US which went to 10%. We weathered that storm thanks to a monster surplus left by the Howard government, which we no longer have.

Sadly China has had 18 months of consecutive double-digit car sales decline. Two regional Chinese banks have folded in the last 3-4 months. China isn’t a saviour.

Nor is the US. While the S&P500 might celebrate new highs, aggregate corporate profitability hasn’t risen since 2012. The market has been fuelled by debt-driven buybacks. We now have 50% of US corporates rated BBB because of the distortions created by crazed central bank monetary policy, up from 30%. Parker Hannifin’s latest order book shows that customer activity is falling at a faster pace.

Nor is Europe. German industrial production is at 10-year lows. The prospects for any EU recovery is looking glib. Risk mispricing is insane with Greek bond spreads only 1.8% higher than German bunds.

What this means is that 28 years of unfettered economic growth in Australia is coming to an end and the excesses built in an economy that believes its own BS is going to leave a lot of people naked when the tide goes out.

The Australian government needs to focus on more deregulation, tax and structural reforms. Our record-high energy prices, ridiculous labour costs and overbearing red-tape are absolutely none of the ingredients that will help us in a downturn. We need to be competitive and we simply aren’t. Virtue signalling won’t help voters when the whole edifice crumbles.

All a low-interest rate environment has done is pull forward consumption. It seems the RBA only possesses a hammer in the tool kit which is why it treats everything as a nail. It is time to come to terms with the fact that further cuts to the official cash rate and the prospect of QE will do nothing to ward off the inevitable.

Pain is coming, but the prospects of an orderly exit are so far off the mark they are in another postcode. Roll your eyes at the stress tests. Stress tests are put together on the presumption that all of the stars align. Sadly, in times of panic, human nature causes knee-jerk responses which put even more pressure.

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The Aussie banks have passed their best period. While short term news flow, such as a China trade deal, might give a short term boost, the structural time bomb sits on the balance sheet and while we may not get a carbon copy of the Japanese crisis, our Big 4 should start to look far more like the rest of the global banks – truly sick. The HBRC will see that it becomes way worse than it ever needed to be.

Complacency kills.

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. 

 

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.