US Federal Reserve

Credit is normalising, but… excellent commentary from Narrow Road Capital

If you haven’t done so already, we strongly encourage people to sign up to Narrow Road Capital’s insights on high yield and distressed credit markets. Even better it is free. Jonathan really puts together his thoughts in a very digestible format.

Jonathan has penned this excellent summary of the state of debt markets and cautions us not to get too excited. We have highlighted the things that stood out for us.

Credit is Normalising, But…

Credit securities, both in Australia and globally are getting back on their feet. The bookbuilds this week of $1 billion of corporate debt by Woolworths, $1.25 billion of RMBS by La Trobe and the $500 million of hybrids by Macquarie are all positive signs. However, secondary trading in many debt sectors is light and a few sectors remain moribund. Whilst the signs are generally encouraging, three dark clouds on the horizon point to the possibility of worsening conditions.

The leverage fuelled, panic driven sell-off started on February 24 and ran until March 23 . The circuit breaker was the Federal Reserve’s announcement of “unlimited quantitative easing”. At that time, there were widespread reports of global investors struggling to sell even the highest quality government bonds. Given how dire it was, it has been a relatively quick journey back from the abyss.

In Australia, major bank senior bonds recovered first and are now trading at similar spreads to three months ago. Corporate and securitisation debt has had a far slower recovery with trading remaining patchy. The large issuance this week by Woolworths and La Trobe, as well as a smaller issue by Liberty showed that buyers were willing to return. But unlike major bank bonds, spreads on corporate and securitisation debt have been reset at much higher levels.

At the same time as credit markets are improving, the economic outlook is also brightening in some ways with the gradual easing of restrictions on business. There is a growing view that the worst of Covid-19 has past and that a vaccine or drug treatment might not be far away. The optimism of the human spirit seems boundless with some investors seeing the pandemic as just another opportunity to buy the dip.

Where many investors are seeing mostly positives, I’m seeing mostly negatives. Australia has gone nearly 30 years without a recession leaving our economy fat and lazy. Asset prices (notably housing) have been propped up by population growth, credit growth and interest rates cuts, all factors unlikely to repeat. We’ve had over a decade of Federal Government deficits, destroying the legacy of Peter Costello’s decade of fiscal discipline. The economic buffers we had before the last crisis have been frittered away, leaving Australia poorly placed to withstand and rebound from the current economic and financial crisis. Given this backdrop, there are three standout risks for investors to factor in.

Remember 2007 – Fundamentals Matter

The bounce back in the last two months reminds me a great deal of 2007. In July 2007 credit markets slammed into a brick wall with credit default swaps and CDOs taking substantial damage. Bank bonds sold off as the riskier European banks started to have their solvency questioned. Yet after an initial shock, some of the markdowns turned around offering a window to get out with limited losses.

At first, equities and property continued on their merry way oblivious to the damage in credit markets. Australian equities peaked in October 2007 but held near record levels until January 2008. In December 2007, the property sector was slammed as Centro disclosed it couldn’t roll over its debt. Both at the time and in hindsight, the second half of 2007 was a bizarre period where fundamentals and market prices were so divergent. Given the medium term outlook for Australia includes significant unemployment and business failures, it is hard not to conclude that most investors are ignoring the fundamentals, just like they did in 2007.

Quantitative Easing

If the global debt markets are likened to plumbing, then quantitative easing is the duct tape used to cover the cracks. Central bank buying of government debt has delivered liquidity to debt markets at a time when governments and corporates are going on record borrowing sprees. If investors weren’t able to sell assets to governments via quantitative easing programs, they wouldn’t have capacity to buy the new issuance and bond yields would soar. Quantitative easing is beating back the bond vigilantes temporarily.

Australia has been a late entrant to this charade but is making up for lost time with the RBA hoovering up 7% of Australian government bonds in two months. At this rate, they will own the entire government bond market by the end of 2022. Whilst the RBA buying government bonds is the main game, there’s also been cheap funding for banks and the securitisation market. It’s no longer a case of merely providing liquidity against super safe assets, the recent purchases of sub-investment grade securitisation tranches come with the meaningful possibility of capital losses.

Whilst quantitative easing has yet to hit its unknown limits in developed economies, emerging markets have shown what happens when citizens and investors lose confidence in a fiat currency. The widespread use of US dollars in Argentina, Ecuador, Lebanon, Venezuela and Zimbabwe is the practical outworking of a country adopting funny money practices. At some point, the duct tape stops working and the value of the currency goes down the drain.

Global High Yield and Emerging Market Debt

Whilst most credit sectors are recovering well, corporate high yield debt and emerging market debt are on life support. The US high debt market has recovered around half of the losses that occurred since mid-February. However, this has been a quality driven rally with BB rated companies able to issue whilst B- and CCC rated companies are stuck in the doghouse. Several failed transactions have been a clear warning that lenders have little appetite for companies that can’t demonstrate their solvency in the medium term. The weaker airlines, energy companies and tourism associated businesses are looking at their cash positions and making calls about when to enter bankruptcy.

It’s a similar outlook for the weaker sovereign borrowers, particularly in emerging markets. The years leading up to this crisis saw an explosion in lending to the lowest rated sovereigns. Many of these countries are now turning to the IMF for bailouts; at last count roughly half of the world’s countries had put their hands up for help. There’s a global wave of jobs that will be lost as the weakest companies and countries are forced to reign in their spending. Whilst investors are pricing in a solid probability of defaults, they are ignoring the wider economic impacts of defaulting borrowers on the global economy.

Written by Jonathan Rochford for Narrow Road Capital on 16 May 2020. Comments and criticisms are welcomed and can be sent to info@narrowroadcapital.com

Disclosure

This article has been prepared for educational purposes and is in no way meant to be a substitute for professional and tailored financial advice. It contains information derived and sourced from a broad list of third parties and has been prepared on the basis that this third party information is accurate. This article expresses the views of the author at a point in time, and such views may change in the future with no obligation on Narrow Road Capital or the author to publicly update these views. Narrow Road Capital advises on and invests in a wide range of securities, including securities linked to the performance of various companies and financial institutions.

Unemployment map by US state

Pew Research has put together an interactive map showing the level of unemployment in the US by state. It is eye opening especially as we pointed out that 99.8% or people aren’t infected and 99.99% of people haven’t died from coronavirus in the US.

Michigan currently has a quarter of the workforce unemployed. We can understand why Governor Gretchen Whitmer has 1.2 million angry natives.

Pennsylvania also has 25% unemployment to deal with. Relative infection rates in the state are marginally higher than the national average but death rates are 30% lower.

Nevada has 23% unemployment. Should we be surprised when the Mayor of Las Vegas wants to open the economy up? Nevada has a COVID 19 death rate of 1/3rd the national average.

California has 18% unemployment or an estimated 3.6 million. Once again, quelle surprise that Governor Newsom is copping flak.

New York, the epicenter of infections/deaths has 16% unemployment or 1.5 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, South Dakota is faring best at 8% unemployment. It has infection rates around 25% lower than the national average but death rates 1/10th the national average.

Flipping the data the other way, Montana has a death rate 18x less than the national average but suffers from 17% jobless.

Calculated risk taking is a must to avoid further economic damage. America’s culture is founded on risk taking not bailouts. The natives are restless and demanding their governors wake up. The risk/reward balance has tipped.

The one fatal flaw experts forget when seeking to mimic #Abenomics style endurance

Pain

Over three decades ago, the Japanese introduced a TV programme titled, ‘Za Gaman‘ which stood for ‘endurance‘. It gathered a whole bunch of male university students who were challenged with barbaric events which tested their ability to endure pain because the producer thought these kids were too soft and self-entitled. Games included being chained to a truck and dragged along a gravel road with only one’s bare buttocks. Another was to be suspended upside down in an Egyptian desert where men with magnifying glasses trained the sun’s beam on their nipples while burning hot sand was tossed on them. The winner was the one who could last the longest.

Since the Japanese bubble collapsed in the early 1990s, a plethora of think tanks and central banks have run scenario analyses on how to avoid the pitfalls of a protracted period of deflation and low growth that plagued Japan’s lost decades. They think they could do far better. We disagree.

There is one absolutely fatal flaw with all arguments made by the West. The Japanese are conditioned in shared suffering. Of course, it comes with a large slice of reluctance but when presented with the alternatives the government knew ‘gaman’ would be accepted by the nation. It was right.

We like to think of Japan, not as capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots. Having lived there for twenty years we have to commend such commitment to social adhesion. It is a large part of the fabric of Japanese culture which is steeped in mutual respect. If the West had one lesson to learn from Japan it would be this. Unfortunately, greed, individualism and self-entitlement will be our Achilles’ heels.

It is worth noting that even Japan has its limits. At a grassroots level, we are witnessing the accelerated fraying of that social kimono. Here are 10 facts taken from our ‘Crime in Japan‘ series – ‘Geriatric Jailbirds‘, ‘Breakup of the Nuclear Family‘ and the ‘Fraud, Drugs, Murders, Yakuza and the Police‘ which point to that old adage that ‘all is not what it seems!

  1. Those aged over 65yo comprise 40% of all shoplifting in Japan and represent the highest cohort in Japanese prisons.
  2. 40% of the elderly in prison have committed the same crime 6x or more. They are breaking into prison to get adequate shelter, food and healthcare.
  3. Such has been the influx in elderly felons that the Ministry of Justice has expanded prison capacity 50% and directed more healthcare resources to cope with the surge in ageing inmates.
  4. To make way for more elderly inmates more yakuza gangsters have been released early.
  5. 25% of all weddings in Japan are shotgun.
  6. Child abuse cases in Japan have skyrocketed 25x in the last 20 years.
  7. Single-parent households comprise 25% of the total up from 15% in 1990.
  8. Domestic violence claims have quadrupled since 2005. The police have had to introduce a new category of DV that is for divorced couples living under the same roof (due to economic circumstances).
  9. The tenet of lifetime employment is breaking down leading to a trebling of labour disputes being recorded as bullying or harassment.
  10. In 2007, the government changed the law entitling wives to up to half of their husband’s pension leading to a surge in divorces.

These pressures were occurring well before the introduction of Abenomics – the three arrow strategy of PM Shinzo Abe – 1) aggressive monetary policy, 2) fiscal consolidation and 3) structural reform.

Since 2013, Abenomics seemed to be working. Economic growth picked up nicely and even inflation seemed like it might hit a sustainable trajectory. Luckily, Japan had the benefit of a debt-fueled global economy to tow it along. This is something the West and Japan will not have the luxury of when the coronavirus economic shutdown ends.

However, Japan’s ageing society is having an impact on the social contract, especially in the regional areas. We wrote a piece in February 2017, titled ‘Make Japan Great Again‘ where we analysed the mass exodus from the regions to the big cities in order to escape the rapidly deteriorating economic prospects in the countryside.

Almost 25 years ago, the Japanese government embarked on a program known as
‘shichosongappei’ (市町村合併)which loosely translates as mergers of cities and towns. The total number of towns halved in that period so local governments could consolidate services, schools and local hospitals. Not dissimilar to a business downsizing during a recession.

While the population growth of some Western economies might look promising versus Japan, we are kidding ourselves to think we can copy and paste what Nippon accomplished when we have relatively little social cohesion. What worked for them won’t necessarily apply with our more mercenary approach to economic systems, financial risk and social values.

Sure, we can embark on a path that racks up huge debts. We can buy up distressed debt and repackage it as investment grade but there is a terminal velocity with this approach.

The Bank of Japan is a canary in the coalmine. It has bought 58% of all ETFs outstanding which makes up 25% of the market. This is unsustainable. The BoJ is now a top 10 shareholder of over half of all listed stocks on the index. At what point will investors be able to adequately price risk when the BoJ sits like a lead balloon on the shareholder registry of Mitsui Bussan or Panasonic?

Will Boeing investors start to question their investment when the US Fed (we think it eventually gets approval to buy stocks) becomes the largest shareholder via the back door? Is the cradle of capitalism prepared to accept quasi state-owned enterprises? Are we to blindly sit back and just accept this fate despite this reduction in liquidity?

This is what 7 years of Abenomics has brought us. The BoJ already has in excess of 100% of GDP in assets on its balance sheet, up from c.20% when the first arrow was fired. We shouldn’t forget that there have been discussions to buy all ¥1,000 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Will global markets take nicely to erasing 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press?

Who will determine the value of those assets when the BoJ or any other central bank for that matter is both the buyer and seller. If the private sector was caught in this scale of market manipulation they’d be fined billions and the perpetrators would end up serving long jail sentences.

Can we honestly accept continual debt financing of our own budget deficit? Japan has a ¥100 trillion national budget. ¥60 trillion is funded by taxes. The remainder of ¥40 trillion (US$400 billion) is debt-financed every single year. Can we accept the RBA printing off whatever we need every year to close the deficit for decade upon decade?

In a nutshell, we can be assured that central banks and treasuries around the world will be dusting off the old reports of how to escape the malaise we are in. Our view is that they will fail.

What will start off as a promising execution of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), rational economics will dictate that the gap between the haves and the have nots will grow even wider. Someone will miss out. Governments will act like novice plate spinners with all of the expected consequences.

In our opinion, the world will change in ways most are not prepared for. We think the power of populism has only started. National interests will be all that matters. Political correctness will cease. Identity politics will die. All the average punter will care about is whether they can feed their family. Nothing else will matter. Climate change will be a footnote in history as evidenced by the apparition that was Greta Thunberg who had to tell the world she caught COVID19 even though she was never tested.

Moving forward, our political class will no longer be able to duck and weave. Only those that are prepared to tell it like it is will survive going forward. The constituents won’t settle for anything else. Treat them as mugs and face the consequences, just like we saw with Boris Johnson’s landslide to push through Brexit.

The upcoming 2020 presidential election will shake America to its foundations. Do voters want to go back to the safety of a known quantity that didn’t deliver for decades under previous administrations and elect Biden or still chance Project Molotov Cocktail with Trump?

What we know for sure is that Trump would never have seen the light of day had decades of previous administrations competently managed the economy. COVID19 may ultimately work in Trump’s favour because his record, as we fact-checked at the time of SOTU, was making a considerable difference.

Whatever the result, prepare to gaman!

 

Who the hell is Leeroy Jenkins?

One of the more uniques ways of describing the behaviour of the US Fed. Zerohedge noted that the Fed has gone full Leeroy Jenkins. Who the hell is Leeroy Jenkins?

As you will see in the video clip, the team gamers are discussing a coordinated strategy to defeat the monsters waiting in the next stage of the game. Unfortunately one of the gamers, Leeroy Johnson takes matters into his own hands.

Since 2001, we have continuously said that easy credit would become so addictive. The resulting complacency would turn destructive.

We said that the then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan would go down as the most hated central banker in history. Despite being heckled, laughed at and mocked, we never waivered from the key tenet that his actions and those of the subsequent Fed chairs would ultimately end up in tears.

We should have had that cathartic moment to reset back in 2008/09 (and 2000 for that matter). Instead, we merely doubled down on the very same mistakes that got us into trouble in the first place.

If the Fed moves to support the junk bond market, undeserving companies run by irresponsible boards will be kept on life support instead of the free market being able to set clearing prices and potentially terminate them. Why not let market forces determine whether anything of value remains inside their entrails?

The Fed doesn’t have the power to buy equities yet but surely that is a coming attraction. We have seen how dismally it has worked in Japan.

The Head of Japan’s stock exchange admitted that  Japan’s central bank now owns around 60% of all Japanese Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) which is almost a quarter of the broader market. By stealth, the Bank of Japan has 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. At what point does it stop? When is enough?

We must accept a new reality where bankruptcy is openly accepted as a cure to weeding out excesses in the economy. Should there be demand, more efficient players can pick up the spoils.

We need this to make people realise that moral hazard isn’t going to be tolerated and personal responsibility is the order of the day. Anyone who is more than happy to have a winner-take-all mentality on the upside must be prepared to accept that the loser has to take all as well. Why should Main St bailout people who poorly assessed personal risk because our authorities provided a platform that encouraged the behaviour?

Let us not kid ourselves. There are no excuses in the game of greed. Lessons need to be taught to avoid such calamities in the future.

Sadly, our authorities will reject that advice and continue to fool around using the same reckless tools tried making us pay an ultimately higher price.

Buy Gold.

The Fed firemen are also the arsonists

Jim Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer has a great article pointing out the irresponsibility of the US Fed. It criticises the very conditions that made the outcomes of coronavirus way worse than had they administered sensible monetary policies decades ago. FNF Media has been saying this for years. Now we are facing long overdue nemesis. It is true of the overwhelming majority of unimaginative MMT ‘me too’ central banks.

Grant wrote,

It took a viral invasion to unmask the weakness of American finance. Distortion in the cost of credit is the not-so-remote cause of the raging fires at which the Federal Reserve continues to train its gushing liquidity hoses…But the firemen are also the arsonists. It was the Fed’s suppression of borrowing costs, and its predictable willingness to cut short Wall Street’s occasional selling squalls, that compromised the U.S. economy’s financial integrity.

FNF Media keeps on hearing tales about the failure of evil capitalism. When the actions of central banks stifle the free market from achieving price discovery, distorted capitalism will inevitably backfire.

From hereon, sharp pain will be the only effective – and quickest – way to resolve this mess. Governments need to ensure bad companies go bankrupt by rejecting bailout money to zombie companies that will just be a drag on the economy.

Instead of doling out tax dollars, the government should take equity in any business that receives money. Taxpayers deserve a return and by this methodology, it will enforce a mindset that always rejects propping up companies with failed business models. Instead of the government calling the shots, the expertise of commercial lenders should be tapped, a valid point made by Jonathan Rochford.

Unfortunately, this will cause huge short-term disruption and impact large swathes of the community but it will allow markets to clear and provide a platform for risk to be priced appropriately. It is like yanking off a Band-Aid. It stings at first but the recovery becomes far more sound, based on rational economics. Failure to do so will just lead to a protracted Frankenstein economy which will frustrate the majority.

The sad reality will be that Western governments will try to emulate Japan’s lost two decades by crawling on our belly making marginal inches forward. This is somehow seen as superior to hitting the giant “reset” button.

The only major difference being that the Japanese monoculture is experienced and better suited than any other nation to share grief. Western cultures are not remotely close to being able to tolerate such conformity. Japan is not capitalism with warts. It is socialism with beauty spots. It will pay to remember this. In the West, we will demand that others atone for our mistakes. Moral hazard will be the order of the day. This mentality must be stopped dead in its tracks.

Grant reinforced our long-held view on distorting capital markets with this,

The Fed commandeered investment values into the government’s service. It seeded bull markets in the public interest…But investment valuations don’t exist to serve a public-policy agenda. Their purpose is to allocate capital. Distort those values and you waste not only money but also timeLike a shark, credit must keep moving. Loans fall due and must be repaid or rolled over (or, in extremis, defaulted on). When the economy stops, as the world has effectively done, lenders are likely to demand the cash that not every borrower can produce.

We must not forget that post-GFC authorities have been asleep at the wheel even after the introduction of poorly thought out red tape designed to protect us.

Right before the regulators’ eyes, so many blue-chip corporations (e.g. Boeing, GE) binged on ultra-cheap debt to buy back their own shares just to chase short term performance incentives. In recent years, companies like Boeing and GE spent around $45 billion each aggressively buying back their own stock despite being in the midst of severe balance sheet deterioration. Both are trading in a state of negative equity today.

Ford Motor has a junk credit rating. GE & Boeing won’t be far behind them. Over 50% of US corporates are trading one-two notches above junk.

IMG_0523.PNG

The financial community has merely taken advantage of all of this short-termism. Where were the financial analysts doing forensic work on companies? All of this balance sheet deterioration was plain to see.  Why couldn’t they see the obvious long term deterioration in cash conversion cycles? How could they miss that aggregate corporate after-tax profitability has been trending sideways since 2012? Where were the biopsies? We will be witness to plenty of autopsies that were preventable.

Corp Profits After Tax

For Australia’s part, 28 years of unfettered economic growth has bred untold complacency. Only now will we realise the conceited arrogance of government and industry alike. One day we will realise that all of the onerous regulations dripping in ideology (e.g. climate/environment) to confound foreign investment will blow up in our faces. They will not have forgotten that Australia is an unfriendly place to conduct business.

Australia has behaved like a bloated drunk bishop looking down upon his destitute disciples climbing the stairs on hands and knees putting what is left of their pitiful savings into the collection tin. From now, the roles will be reversed at prices that will be highly unfavourable such will be our desperation. Not to mention our currency could well depreciate to a degree which makes us even more vulnerable to foreign predators. Setting our FIRB at $0 will be irrelevant if we fold to the whims of the first suitor that shows interest. The show will be on the other foot.

In press conference after press conference, we continue to be told that hibernating companies will spring back to life and it will all be a case of ‘keep calm and carry on!’We hate to sound negative here.

However, we believe that we are merely being realistic about what is to unfold. The coming depression will force us to become truly appreciative about just how well we have had it while governments have distorted our markets. Had we truly reflected on decades of prosperity instead of wailing about how life has never been worse, things might have turned out differently. We are about to get a true taste of the latter.

On reflection, some positives will come out of this tragedy because we will focus on things that matter rather than getting enmeshed in the theatre of the absurd – identity politics and the cancel culture.

Coronavirus might be a black swan event to the global economy but we have been complicit by allowing our lawmakers and regulators to play slalom with the icebergs. We all knew our overloaded ship was in danger of listing before we left the safe harbour but it was simpler to be suckered into the weather forecasts that predicted endless sunshine and eternal millponds. The engines have now stalled because the tanks are empty. We find ourselves in the middle of a pitch-black, stormy night with howling gale-force winds and a 40-foot swell. Some continue to cling on to the blind hope that the incumbent crew can bail fast enough to avoid the economy capsizing.

It will be all in vain because the ship’s crew left a tape recorder playing on a loop over the tannoy promising passengers to stay in their cabins while they secretly slipped away in the early hours on the only lifeboats available.

Central banks had one mission – create confidence. They have been complicit in the failure. They doubled down on all of the same policies that got them in trouble in the lead up to GFC. They had a simple task of telling governments to embark on structural and tax reform. Instead, they appeased their masters by endlessly cutting rates.

Never again must central banks be allowed to use QE to rescue the economy in a downturn. Central bank balance sheets should be forced to unwind all QE assets. Interest rates must be allowed to set at normalised rates which allow positive returns but avoid reckless borrowing.

While a lot of this piece might sound pessimistic we simply view it as being a realist with experience.

Nothing to see here

We will get the US Auto sales figures out tonight for March. They will be dreadful. The US has run a 17m seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) for some time now. March will probably be in the 11-12m SAAR category. Post GFC car sales were in the 9-10m SAAR area.

The market will expect a smacking. It is just a case of whether it beats/misses expectations.

Note China’s car sales fell 79%YoY in February. The highest number on record. China’s car sales have been sliding for the last 2 years so the relative fall is meaningful.

Should Main St bailout a Wall St that squandered cash on equity buybacks through excessive debt issuance?

Image result for boeing

Boeing was lopped two notches from A- to BBB (two notches above junk) by Standard & Poors overnight.  The diagnosis was:

“Cash flow and credit ratios will likely be much weaker than we had expected for the next two years. We now expect free cash flow to be an outflow of $11 billion-$12 billion in 2020 and an inflow of $13 billion-$14 billion in 2021. This compares to our previous expectation of positive $2 billion in 2020 and $22 billion in 2021.

The significant difference is due to an absence of MAX predelivery payments (PDP) into 2021, higher and more front-loaded cash compensation to airlines, additional cash costs related to the production halt (including supplier support), and lower MAX production rates and deliveries than previously expected.

We are also now expecting weaker cash flow from the rest of the business due to cuts to 787 production (including lower PDPs), delays to the first 777-9 delivery, and lower cash flows at the defense and aftermarket segments.

This results in higher debt levels in 2020 (with balance sheet debt peaking at more than $46 billion, including the debt from the Embraer joint venture) and a weaker improvement in 2021, with funds from operations (FFO) to debt in 2020 now likely to be only about 5% (previous expectation was 29%) and about 30% in 2021 (previous expectation was 75%). This forecast remains highly uncertain with the potential for increased downside from the coronavirus.”

As we pointed out earlier this week, Boeing is trading in a negative equity position. The question is should Main St be responsible for bailing out Wall St for blowing its dough on $10s of billions on buybacks. It appears Boeing is seeking a short term plug from the government after drawing down $9.5bn of committed credit lines from the banks. Of course, it is sold as saving jobs during coronavirus but this is just incompetence.

Oh, don’t get me started on Tesla. A frozen economy against a debt monster that just started to scrape some profits together.

“Simplicity of ETFs” doesn’t always equate to more safety vs “Complexity of CDOs”

Remember how we were told how CDOs and synthetic CDOs were so mathematically complex that only a mythical hermit in the Himalayas could decode them?

Thank god we saw an explosion “as it says on the tin” exchange-traded-funds (ETFs) thrust upon us. So simple. Pick a basket of stocks, indices or commodities and one could get access to a whole range of products under that banner. One might feel that the S&P500 will go up so will look to buy a leveraged product of 2x or 3x to maximise returns. Even better the ETFs were far cheaper fees wise too.

Unfortunately, to hedge the risk of doubling exposure requires liquidity in the derivatives market. When markets panic and start sinking, the ability to keep the product true to its promises becomes quantum leaps harder. The explosion in the spreads on derivatives pricing (delta bleed) of the hedged products puts more downward pressure on the market.

Looking to ETF activity in the market, for the first week of March they comprised 34% of total activity up from 24% in February.

This is why ETF volatility on the downside is so much worse. By its design, an ETF ‘replicates’ the cash index it tracks. If the S&P500 falls by 2%, the S&P500 ETF product is designed to copy it. So it is always lagging, not leading.

Therefore if the market is having a coronavirus based sell-off, what might have been a 4% decline (big but not diabolical) turns into a 7% correction, especially when the leveraged products chime in. They might be small at 2% of the traded ETF market but the additional pressure starts to compound in the non-leveraged product too.

Because the media is so conditioned to compare apples with oranges with these recent declines to those we saw in 1987, 2000 or 2008, periods where relatively tiny levels of ETFs drove volatility, the cash market equity investors can get spooked by the optics of the sell-off which is merely the ETFs/levered ETFs playing catch up. So it can trigger more selling which exacerbates panic under, some might say, false pretences. It starts a chain reaction.

If you wish to learn more about the dynamics of ETF sell-offs please refer to the link here. The CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF provider infamously said,

leveraged ETFs have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.

We are starting to see the evidence emerge. The VIX Index is a calculation designed to produce a measure of constant, 30-day expected volatility of the U.S. stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility.

It is back toward 2008 highs. The spikes are effectively marking the “delta bleed”. This is why we need to keep an eye on the levels of activity in the ETF market potentially accelerating the extent of the market gyrations. Don’t be fooled into thinking ETFs are safe as houses products.

VIX

Surely lightning can’t strike twice, RBA?

The video posted here is of then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson who steered the US financial system through the GFC. He is speaking to the Financial Services Committee in 2009. Perhaps the most important quote was the one that world central banks failed to heed –

Our next task is to address the problems in the financial system through a reform program that fixes our outdated financial regulatory structure and that provides strong measures to address other flaws and excesses.

Central banks across the globe honestly believe in fairytales to think they have learnt the lessons of 2008 or 2000 for that matter. Sadly they continue to use the only tool they possess – a hammer – which would be great if every problem they encountered was actually a nail.

When will people realise that had central banks practised prudent monetary policy over the past 20 years, they would possess the ammunition to be able to effectively steer the economy through Coronavirus? Everything the RBA and government are deploying is too little and too late. They never ran proper crisis scenarios and are now scrambling to cobble together an ill-contrived strategy wasting $10s of billions in the process all at our expense.

Central banks only have one role – to support markets with consistently sound monetary policy that creates confidence in the marketplace. Not run around like headless chooks and make knee-jerk responses and follow other central banks off a cliff like lemmings to disguise their own incompetency. The willful negligence displayed by our monetary authorities needs to be recognised. The RBA has got the economy trapped in a housing bubble of their own creation.

So when the RBA talks about, “Australia’s financial system is resilient and it is well placed to deal with the effects of the coronavirus” it couldn’t be further from the truth.

While it is true to say that Australia is relatively more healthy than other economies in terms of the percentage of GDP in national debt, the problem is we rely on the health of our foreign neighbours. 37.5% of our exports go to China. What is the first thing that will happen when our trading partners suffer economic weakness at home? Nations that exercise common sense will look to push domestic production and supply so as to boost their local economies. It is a natural process.

Sadly the RBA, APRA and ASIC have been too busy convincing us that climate change was a priority rather than getting businesses to focus on sensible commercially viable shareholder-friendly strategies. Some groups like the AMA have been encouraged to parade their climate alarmist virtues on breakfast TV.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on fireproofing our establishments from ruthless cutthroat overseas competitors, our businesses and commerce chambers waste time on chasing equality and diversity targets instead of striving to just be the “best in class”.

Sure, we may have certain raw materials (that the lunatic Greens and Extinction Rebellion protestors will do their best to shut down) that China or other nations will rely on, our service sector weighted economy will be crushed. Almost $250bn, a fifth of our GDP, derives from exports.

Just look at Australian business investment as a % of GDP dwindle at 1994 lows. Mining, engineering, machinery and even building investment are nowhere.

That means our ridiculously high level of personal debt will become a problem. It stands at 180% of GDP as recorded by the RBA on p.7 of its Chart Pack. Most of this debt is linked to housing. Housing prices should crater should coronavirus not be solved in short order. Delinquencies will surge. Families that are funding a mortgage with two incomes may end up being forced to do in with one. Then we cut our gym memberships, Foxtel and stop buying coffee from our local cafe. It is the chain reaction we need to be wary of.

That will work wonders for banks with 60-70% mortgage exposure and precious little equity to offset any ructions in housing prices. If you thought Japan was bad after its bubble collapsed – you ain’t seen nothing yet. By the time this is over we could well see Australian banks begging for bailouts. Note that cutting interest rates further kills interest rate spreads and smacks the dollar which hikes the cost of wholesale funding which these banks heavily rely on.

Yet our RBA knows that it must choose the lesser of two evils. It needs to keep the bubble inflated at all costs because the blood that would come from bank failure is just not worth contemplating. Maybe if they had listened to Hank Paulson they might have been able to hold their heads high rather than showing off, the fool’s version of glory.

Milton Friedman once said,

The power to determine the quantity of money… is too important, too pervasive, to be exercised by a few people, however public-spirited, if there is any feasible alternative. There is no need for such arbitrary power… Any system which gives so much power and so much discretion to a few men, [so] that mistakes – excusable or not – can have such far-reaching effects, is a bad system. It is a bad system to believers in freedom just because it gives a few men such power without any effective check by the body politic – this is the key political argument against an independent central bank.

How right he was. When the economy tanks, await the RBA and government pointing fingers at each other when both failed to avert the coming crisis which had been so bleeding obvious for so long.

Batten down your hatches.

Trebling down on failed central bank policy. RBA will copy and start QE soon

So the US Fed has slashed rates 1% just now to 0-0.25%. $700bn in asset purchases has been allowed. Jolts like this have far more short term optical impact than mere drip feed cuts. However the two takeaways are:

1) economic impacts are unsurprisingly crippling the economy, hence the need to cut so hard. While the size of the cut is shock and awe, markets can still panic as to why such bold action was necessary. $700bn in asset purchases will try to contain that. Forget Fed tapering, QE is on its way. This is but the beginning of asset purchases. Congress needs to approve the purchase of equities but that may well come. Has worked wonders for the Bank of Japan – not.

2) cutting interest rates don’t necessarily end up doing much because people/companies invest because they see a cycle and the one ahead looks highly uncertain. So refinancing existing debt or easing the monthly burden will not lead to a powered up plan to consume especially if people are being told to self isolate.

There is little option (because of the poor policies to date) left but to double down again like a drunk at a casino table. Gold is one of the few safe havens left. Silver (poor man’s gold) will play catch up. We own both.

And for those that want to lash out at the failures of capitalism for its evils, note this is not anything remotely representing it. When the government and monetary authorities are blatantly interfering and preventing free and open trade to set market clearing prices, that is what creates the distortions and misallocation of capital that leads to economic disasters.

Take advantage of any pops to reduce exposures. We ain’t seen nothing yet. GFC2 will make the crash of 1929 look like a picnic. It won’t be long before the RBA starts to follow suit with zero rates and the journey of QE.