#ASIC

APRA priorities are frightening

We wrote a while back that the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) had taken its finger OFF the pulse when assessing the risks facing our financial institutions. That was before COVID19. We think our banks are heavily leveraged and have little equity to offset a collapse in the property bubble.

Despite being faced with the prospect of a property meltdown thanks to an employment destroying pandemic, APRA thinks hiring a “Head of Climate Risk” is the way forward.

Why does APRA bother pursuing a field it has no expertise in much less look to create new green tape to extend its oversight?

It is not alone. The Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) is now seeking more oversight on corporates reporting on climate change.

ASIC’s own study found that fewer and fewer companies were reporting on climate change over the past decade. Shouldn’t we take that as corporates having a better pulse on the impact that climate change will have on their industries than a bunch of bureaucrats wanting to legislate an ideology?

With the COVID19 driven seismic economic shifts to come, it is frightening to see our government departments pursuing irrelevant regulation that companies are even less concerned about.

APRA should be focused on ensuring the coming property market implosion doesn’t cripple our banks. Instead of using the time to fine tune a wide variety of scenarios and stress tests to combat the troubling future, it is only proving it should have power taken away not granted.

Trillion Dollar Baby?

What will it take to wake the media up to the fact that the way our government is spending it won’t be long before we are a $1 trillion net debt baby?.

Our current federal liabilities (p.121) stand at $1.002 trillion (which is pre COVID19). Have the media bothered to look at the state of the budget accounts? Or are they too busy lavishing praise on rescue packages which have a finite lifespan.

We pointed out yesterday that the “revenue” line could be decimated by the disruption – huge cuts should be anticipated in the collection of GST, income, company and excise taxes. Not to mention huge rebates to be paid to now unemployed workers. On an annualized basis the revenue line could get thumped 30-40% if this continues for 6 months.

So on the back of an envelope, it is not very hard to work out that with a current $511 billion revenue line looking to fall towards the early to mid $300 billion mark against a projected expense bill of $503 billion a deficit of $150bn will open up. Throw on c$150bn of COVID19 stimuli arriving by June 30th and we get a $300 billion budget deficit. Our net financial worth would grow from minus $518 billion to negative $818 billion.

Rolling into next year, it is ludicrous to think that hibernated businesses will have resumed as normal. This means that the following year’s tax revenue line will look as sick as the previous period. The government will be torn shredding the expense line as unemployment shoots higher so assuming minimal budget cuts, it could face another $200 billion deficit taking it north of $1 trillion net liabilities in a jiffy.

Let’s not forget what the states may face. Severely lower handouts from the federal government via GST receipts which will balloon deficits, a trend we’re already seeing.

The states currently rely on around 37-62% of their revenue from the federal government by way of grants. The balance comes through land/property taxes, motor vehicle registration, gambling and betting fees as well as insurance and environmental levies.

All of those revenues lines can dry up pretty quickly. 40% of state budgets are usually spent on staff. Take a look at these eye watering numbers.

NSW spends $34 billion on salaries across 327,000 employees.

Victoria spends $27 billion across 239,000 public servants.

Queensland uses 224,000 staff which costs $25 billion per annum.

WA’s state workforce is 143,000, costing $12.6 billion.

SA has 90,000 FT employees costing $8.5 billion.

Tasmania 27,000 setting taxpayers back $2.7 billion.

Just the states alone employ over 1.05 million people at a cost of $110 billion pa!! The territories will be relative rounding errors.

A lot of the states have healthy asset lines which are usually full of schools, hospitals, roads and land). These are highly illiquid.

Unfortunately, one of the golden rules often forgotten in accounting is that liabilities often remain immovable objects when asset values get crucified in economic downturns. When markets become illiquid, the value of government assets won’t come at prices marked in the books.

How well will flogging a few public hospitals go down politically to financially stressed constituents?? This is why gross debt is important.

The states have a combined $202 billion outstanding gross debt including leases.

Throw on another $150 billion for unfunded superannuation liabilities. Good luck hitting the “zero by 2035” targets some state have amidst imploding asset markets. It simply won’t happen. If only these liabilities were marked to market rather than suppressed by actuarial accounting. The WA budget paper (p.42) notes the 0.4% bump to the discount rate to lower the pension deficit figure. To be fair, they are far less outrageous than US state pension deficits.

How must the State Gov’t of Queensland be praying that Adani keeps plowing ahead? How Greyhound must regret terminating a contract to ferry construction workers to the mine? We doubt the incumbent government will have a climate change bent in the upcoming Oct 31 state election. See ya.

The trillion dollar federal debt ceiling seems like a formality especially as the chain reaction created by the states puts on more pressure for the federal government to inject rescue packages to prop up their reversal of fortune budgets. It is that trillion with a T headline that will get people’s attention.

In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Only one you can’t stop crashing at your place during COVID19 is the economy

Warning Signs Investors Ignored Before the 1929 Stock Market Crash ...

Brace yourself.

COVID19 will be defeated but the cure is turning out to be way worse than the disease.

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that at the rate governments are tightening legislation to keep us in shut down mode, we are day-by-day staring at a great depression.

While some will praise governments for throwing the kitchen sink at the economy with all manner of stimulus packages, the relief will be temporary because all of the ammunition for a sustainable recovery had been depleted years earlier. It is like supplying an alcoholic on rehab with an all-you-can-drink open bar.

Our feckless RBA has just embarked on QE, a mission that has failed every other central bank that has tried it. The velocity of money has been falling for decades. Who will be given access to borrowing at zero interest rates when the economy is in freefall? Which banks will lend against properties that will likely implode in value? 50% down? To think of all the reckless “first home buyer” schemes that loaded young people at the top of the property market. The RBA has been complicit. Not wanting to put pressure on the government to reform, it just kept cutting rates to keep housing afloat. It was totally negligent in its duty even though it will signal its role as a rescuer of last resort.

When will banks be forced to mark to book the value of mortgages on their balance sheet? Equity is thin as it is. 15-20% equity buffer to mortgages is pretty wafer-thin. They need to do this immediately so we can properly assess risk. Forget stress tests by APRA. They’re meaningless. Our housing market will collapse with higher unemployment. 50% falls from here are possible. Remember there will be hardly any buyers. Prices fell up to 90% in Japan after its property bubble popped.

Worse our regulators have been asleep at the wheel chasing financial institutions on their commitment to climate change, the absolute least relevant metric to save them from here. It shows how complacent they became.

Australia has made some interesting crisis policy choices. For instance, PM Scott Morrison is trying to pass rent moratoriums where landlords suspend payments from tenants until things return to normalcy. It is not enshrined in law yet. In principle that is a nice gesture even if the government is subsidizing the banks for forgone interest due to short term loan repayment moratoriums. Let’s assume this continues for 6 months. Apart from the astronomical size of the subsidy, who will ultimately end up sacrificing the 6 months? Landlords? It won’t be the tenants.

Shouldn’t landlords be free to choose whether they are prepared to forgo rent or not as a purely rational business proposition? Shouldn’t a landlord be free to enforce a rental agreement? Will contracts matter anymore?

At some stage, the free market must be allowed to function and the government will hit a tipping point of weighing stopping economic armageddon by allowing businesses to function and the marginal risk of infections. The people will be crying for this if shutdowns remain.

Landlords may be labelled un-Australian or worse but in 6 months time, if unemployment has surged to nose bleed levels well above the 6% we saw during GFC at what point will disposable income be able to support a daily coffee at a cafe?

A cafe might soldier on for a further 3 months on skeleton staff before realising that they can’t cover costs. A landlord would be well within reason to demand that early cancellation clauses and fees are enforced.

Then what of all the invoices to coffee suppliers, bakeries who provide muffins and croissants and utilities? Who misses out? What about the invoices of the coffee supplier? Will the bakery get called on by its flour supplier to pay upfront for future deliveries when it has no operating cash flow, instead of the long-standing 60-90 day terms? That happens overnight. It isn’t a managed outcome. Cash is king.

The question is why hasn’t the government taken advice from the banks on business lending so it can better assess the risks involved from those that deal every day with small companies?

We can’t just shut an economy down for 6 months and expect a return to normal when it is all over. Unemployment rates are likely to surge well above 10%.

As we wrote in an earlier piece, there are 13.1 million Australians employed as of February 2020. Full-time employment amounted to 8,885,600 persons and part-time employment to 4,124,500 persons. Retail trade jobs come in at a shade over 1.2 million jobs. Construction at 1.15 million. Education 1.1 million. Accommodation/restaurants /bars etc at 900,000. Manufacturing another 900,000. Noticing a trend in our employment gearing?

We can fudge the unemployment figures however we like. We can pay $1,500 a fortnight for 6,000,000 workers to pretend they still have a job. That is $18bn a month. The PM can talk about how this will help us bounce on the other side. If it continues for just over 6-months can the budgeted $130 billion will be spent. This is separate to NewStart payments too.

Yet, will people lavishly spend or pay down debt and economise as best they can? We think the latter unless moral hazard has truly sunk in.

What people need to understand is that our Treasury expects to raise $472.8 billion in taxes for FY2019-20. Throw in sales of services, interest and dividend income and that climbs to a total of $511 billion. Expenses are forecast at $503 billion. In the following three years Treasury anticipates $490.0 billion,  $514.4 billion and $528.9 billion in taxes. Expect those totals to be cut significantly.

So if ScoMo’s JobKeeper rescue package for workers goes beyond 6 months, that is equivalent to 27% of annual tax revenues. That doesn’t take into account the slug to tax collections of lower GST and vastly lower income tax for individuals and corporates. That is just at the federal level.

Note, states such as NSW have recently waived payroll taxes for small businesses in a  $2.3bn stimulus package. We shouldn’t forget that the NSW Government is the largest employer in the Southern Hemisphere at 327,000 staff.

We remind readers that according to the RBA small businesses employ 47% of the workforce. Medium enterprises employ 23%. That is 70% of the entire workforce who are most at risk from a slowdown.

In 2019-20 income tax collections will make up $220 billion. Company tax was forecast to generate $99.8 billion. GST $67.2 billion. Excise taxes (petrol, diesel, tobacco etc) $44.7 billion. This data can be found on page 21 here.

Local cafes are reporting a 60~80% fall in revenue. Pretty much all casuals have been let go. It is a bit hard to survive on coffee when a lot of stores aren’t stocking pastries for fear of spoilage.

It is not hard to assume a scenario where government income taxes fall to $160 billion (-28%) due to mass layoffs. One assumes many people will be able to get a tax rebate come June 30th. So this number may end up being conservative on an annualised basis.

Company tax could plunge to $40 billion annualised due to the drastic fall in revenues as customers change the manner of contracts and reign in their own spending. Anyone that thinks that business will resume as normal is crazy. The ripple effects will be huge.

Excise taxes may drift to $35 billion as people cut back on drink (currently $7bn in tax revenue), are limited in places to drive negating the need to fill up (currently $18bn in total tax take). The $17 billion in tobacco excise may weather the storm better than most.

GST could fall to $50 billion. People just aren’t spending much outside of food. Massive retail discounts will not make much difference. GST will be the best indicator of how much the economy has slowed. Even if we start to see a massaging of the GDP numbers, GST won’t lie. It will be the safest indicator.

If our assumed tax revenue sums to $285 billion annualised from the budgeted $472 billion that equates to a 40% haircut.

Trim the ‘other revenue’ column to $30 billion from $39 billion and we have $315bn. Will the government then chop away at the $503 billion in expenses? All of the stimuli doesn’t arrive at once but a lot of it in relatively short order. Surely a $300~400 billion deficit is a fait accompli?

We should also anticipate forward year tax revenues be cut c.30% for several years after. The question is when does the government realise that it must cut the public service and scrap wasteful projects like French submarines and other nice-to-have quangos? We won’t see a budget surplus for decades.

We must careful not to fall into the trap Japan finds itself in. It has a US$1 trillion budget funded by US$600bn in taxes and US$400bn in JGB issuance. Every. Single. Year.

Nothing short of drastic tax and structural reform will do. Instead of behaving more prudently by cutting budgets when we had the chance, instant gratification created by governments desperate to stay in power has only weakened our relative position. Since 2013, the Coalition has been responsible for 46% of the total amount of all debt issued since 1854.

States should quickly realise that the $118 billion in federal grants going forward will also be curtailed. NSW will likely fare the worst because its financial position is by far the best.

If the government had a proper plan, it would be looking to what essential industries have been given up to the likes of China that we need to onshore. Medical equipment, masks or sanitiser. For cricketer Shane Warne to be converting his Seven Zero Eight gin factory to produce hand sanitiser shows how much of a joke our local manufacturing has become.

We must never forget that a Chinese government-owned company displayed the Communist Party’s mercenary credentials by (legally) buying 3,000,000 surgical masks, 500,000 pairs of gloves and bulk supplies of sanitiser and wipes. So not only was it responsible for covering up the truth surrounding the virus in the early stages of the pandemic, we openly let it compromise our ability to combat the virus when it hit our shores.

China has shown it doesn’t give a hoot for ordinary Australians. So why should we continue to fold to its whims and cowardly surrender our industries for fear it’ll stop dealing with us? It is nonsense. We have some of the highest quality mineral resources which it depends on. We can bargain. We have chosen to appease a bully.

Our Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) needs to be far more vigilant to prevent takeovers by Chinese businesses. We should openly accept the way China conducts business practices and recognise that it is often incompatible with ours when national security is at stake. Surely this crisis has highlighted the true colours of the political system in Beijing.

That leads us to Japanese companies. Many are seriously cashed up, have a favourable exchange rate and have a long-standing history of partnering with local businesses. We should be prioritising our relationship with Japan and look to have them invest in our inevitable capital works programs – specifically high-speed rail. It is the type of project that has meaning for the future and a long enough timeline to turn an economy around.

People need to be prepared for the reckoning. There is no point softening the blow. The brutal truth will eventually arrive and we will have only put ourselves in an even weaker position with the policy suite enacted so far. Time to be rational about risk/reward. Whether we like it or not, the minimum wage will need to be cut substantially in order to get the jobs market alive again. Don’t worry, unemployment will be so high that people will demand minimum wages are cut because it is far superior to the alternative!

(Time to ditch your industry super and start shovelling your superannuation into gold)

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.

When climate alarmists start trusting bankers

If global warming alarmists ever wanted to pick an industry as steeped in unreliable forecasts as climate scientists, one would find it hard to beat investment banking. Having been in that industry for two decades, the list of woefully misguided and poorly researched puff pieces is endless. There is a reason global banks are trading at fractions of their former peaks. They don’t add much value and most never picked the GFC of 2008. If they were smarter, greed wouldn’t require recessions.

Never mind. When JP Morgan economists are portending climate doom, why not hitch them to your global warming wagon? There is a kind of conflict of interest. Evil, greedy fat bonus paying tax avoiding corporates preaching virtue on climate.

By the way, you won’t find a research analyst who believes they don’t deserve air travel at the pointy end and luxury limousine transfers to and from the airport.

Yet they are aligned with the hypocrites at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) which told us at the 1500 private jet junket at Davos that it’s central bank members are “climate rescuers of last resort.” This despite their monetary policies having played a major part in fueling overconsumption via the debt bubble. Ultra low interest rates will ultimately have a profound effect on carbon emissions – a global economic crisis of epic proportions which won’t require one wind turbine or solar farm to achieve. They’ll save the climate by destroying the wellbeing of so many in the process.

On the one hand, JP Morgan can now claim some kudos for allowing such free thinking which isn’t at the behest of the investment banking team.

Maybe it’s worth pointing out that most banks keep meticulous (but useless) data on the readership of such reports. Much like the media chasing advertising dollars through clickbait, research analysts strive for internal point scoring to boost their year end review chances to push for bigger bonuses to their excel spreadsheet obsessed line managers who look at quantity, not quality. So if a warmest piece can create noise, irrespective of the quality of the content, then that serves a purpose for internal bosses.

Such has been the hollowing out of investment banking research teams, the last remaining life jackets are in short supply. It was only last year that Deutsche Bank closed its entire global equity platform. While regulation is part of the problem, there is simply very little value add to convince clients to pay for.

While the report supposedly chastised the bank’s lending of $75bn to the fossil fuel industry, in a world of ESG, which puts ideology ahead of risk assessment, JP Morgan can now claim it has seen the light so it can hopefully fool green tech companies in need of cash that they are worthy environmentally friendly financiers. This will also give the public relations team a welcome talking piece to the media and ESG retirement fund managers that they practice social responsibility.

Back to the report. On what pretense do the JP Morgan analysts have for the climate crisis threatening the human race? Citing the IPCC (where scientists have slammed the processes which prioritize gender and ethnicity over ability and qualification) and the IMF (which couldn’t pick economic growth it it tried) are hardly the sort of data one would gladly source as gospel to compile a report.

It seems everyone is an expert on climate change nowadays. Central banks, ASIC, APRA, RBA, the Australian Medical Association and now investment banks. As we pointed out earlier in the week, where were the scientists who made a b-line to speak at the National Climate Emergency summit in Melbourne? That’s right 2/3rds were activists, lobbyists, left-wing media and academics with no scientific background.

You know when alarmists are channeling bankers, that they are running out of credible evidence. Even worse, most banks have an uncanny ability to act as contrarian indicators.

We can be sure that a whole lot of malinvestment will continue thanks to governments trying to declare emergencies to justify infrastructure spending to replace sensible business friendly structural reforms that would have a far better chance of keeping them in power for longer.

In closing, it seems even the media has lost faith in investment bank research, choosing to channel NY Mets baseball pitchers for commentary on stocks instead.

ASIC climate change amateurs dictating terms to professionals

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The Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) is now seeking more oversight on corporates reporting on climate change. Since when did ASIC hold any sufficient expertise in climate science? Wouldn’t it be nice if ASIC placed more faith in capital markets to self-determine those risks instead of forcing ideologies into boardrooms via new regulations?

Don’t laugh. It is already happening. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and ASIC  are “getting closer” to the action in boardrooms and the workplace. Already, boards have had visits from an organisational psychologist and company employees have received random calls from ASIC officers for “off-the-record” chats seeking “inside information” on the behaviour of their colleagues. APRA even want to sit in on board meetings to ensure governance oversight!

Climate change reporting is the next big thing ASIC is going after. Despite having no expertise in the field, ASIC wants to dictate terms. By its own admission, it has conducted studies with simplistic approaches which probably accurately assesses its amateur credentials.

Back in September 2018, ASIC released a report where it stated the following,

We undertook a high-level review of the prevalence of climate risk and climate-change-related content in annual reports for all listed companies for the calendar years 2011 to 2017 (inclusive). We searched approximately 15,000 reports and analysed the aggregated results across listed companies over time and by market capitalisation. We defined ‘climate change content’ as a reference to any of the following key terms: climate change, global warming, carbon emission, greenhouse gas, climate risk or carbon riskThis is a relatively simplistic approach which did not involve assessing the context within which our key terms were used. Our analysis was not designed to produce qualitative conclusions but rather to provide high-level insight into the prevalence of express disclosure on climate-change related topics in listed company annual reports.”

The unfortunate result for ASIC was the chart above. It fell from 22% to 14% over 5 years, during a time alarmists warned things were getting worse. Non-ASX300 companies reporting climate change fell from 18% to 10% of the total. How could that be? Maybe 90% of the ASX knows better than ASIC about the effects of climate change on their businesses?

Easier for ASIC to lean on a KPMG study that said 48% of CEOs surveyed saw climate change as a risk despite 58% being more worried about technological disruption and 54% concerned about territorialism. Or in other words, 52% of CEOs don’t see climate change is an issue and a whole band in the 48% that did probably felt pressured by their internal PR departments to comply with ESG malarkey, save getting caught out straying from the corporate realpolitik.

Will we see companies feel pressured to hire Chief Climate Change Officers (CCCOs) approved by the Climate Council run by Tim Flannery to appease ASIC? Will they determine the strategic direction of Harvey Norman? Or will shareholders prefer Gerry Harvey and Katie Page to lead that charge?

What constitutes compliance? How will ASIC aggregate the corporate climate change related information it garners in a way that produces qualitative results? Will the positioning of three new potplants in the boardroom be counted as sufficient reporting in climate abatement disclosure as affixing solar panels to the factory roof or switching the CEO’s car to an electric vehicle? Will the mere mentioning of the word “climate change” in an annual report suffice? Will ASIC get a warm fuzzy feeling if it conducts another 15,000 ‘CTRL F’ searches for words where 100% of corporates measure it? Job done? Will “name & shame” tables be produced to bash a mining company for having higher emissions than a tech start up?

It was only last week we were told that banks, insurers and super funds would be put through tough new climate change “stress tests” to be run by the  (APRA). We weren’t aware that APRA’s expertise extended to climate change either.

APRA should look at the 29% growth in assets within the 600,000 self-managed super funds (SMSF) which invest as much money as the very industry funds who lobby it to change the rules to force such disclosures as a guide. It probably says that more Aussies want to manage their own affairs instead of having nanny state rules that limit the scope of what they can invest in. Shouldn’t investors have a right to invest in tobacco, mining or gambling stocks if they see compelling value which assists the ultimate aim of putting more savings into retirement?

We pointed out that the industry funds collect the highest fees from those socially responsible (SRI) portfolios, even though they chronically underperform the market. 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 Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) members, they have “underperformed” the benchmark index.

ACSI is behind this push for SRI. It even extends to pushing companies to have gender quotas, despite over half the members of ACSI failing to meet their own requirements. You can’t make this stuff up.

ASIC should promote free markets. It should rightly punish those companies that break laws. However, it should be up to shareholders to correctly assess risks. If climate change is a big deal then they can ask for their monies to be deposited into ACSI members’ SRI funds. The future growth of SMSFs will be a telling factor.  It will reveal those individuals looking to escape the grasp of limited investment options provided by rent-seeking industry funds looking to push their members into higher fee-paying products on the notion of saving the planet. Isn’t that just the type of red-flag the regulators should be looking to crack down on? Or does climate change grant get out of jail free cards? We all know the answer to that.

It is a disgrace. Amateurs dictating terms to professionals!

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.

Trust in Japan? Strangled by sontaku 忖度

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Trust and Japan used to go hand in hand. It was a hard earned reputation.  A mining executive once told me that “when you sign a contract with the Japanese, that is the contract. When you sign a contract with the Chinese that is the beginning of the negotiations.” Hardly a subtle difference. Yet here we are in the last few years where a plethora of scandals from Japanese companies have come to light. Houeshold names too – Olympus, Toshiba, Kobe Steel, Subaru, Toray, Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Takata, Mitsubishi Materials, Asahi Kasei, Obayashi, JR Central, Nomura etc etc. It is almost as if there is a coming-out of sorts so the crimes are somewhat diluted in the midst of others. Syndicated scandals? Expect more to come out. Perhaps the worst part about it is the limp wristed approach by the regulators. ‘Sontaku’ (忖度) in Japanese is a word meaning ‘glossing over’ which is exactly what the regulator is doing over scandals involving household names. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

In October I was invited to give a lecture to 70 bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance’s attack dogs – the Financial Services Agency (FSA) and the Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission (SESC) on foreign perceptions of Japan’s handling of corporate  crime. In the interests of objectivity the first slide pointed to how no corporate governance system is perfect citing the minefield of foreign corporations caught up in bad behaviour – VW, Petrobras, Parmalat, HealthSouth, Lehman Brothers etc etc. I also highlighted the sentencing of executives who commit crimes – many received lengthy jail sentences, personal fines while the corporates faced eye-watering penalties.

Ironically much of the crime committed by corporates here is at a relatively pithy level. Instead of billions being massaged into or from the books, Japanese corporates tend to commit the equivalent of falsely submitting a $20 taxi receipt to your boss as a business related expense. One almost could conjure up a scenario that if Toshiba was ever able to make back the money to cover the accounting fraud they’d have broken into corporate HQ in the dead of night to put it back in the safe.

I touched on Kobe Steel which conveniently broke the news that it had falsified the true contents of its products to customers. While pointing out such behaviour was regrettable a chart which showed a heavy shorting of the stock on the day it announced it to its duped clients displayed the bigger problem. A question was asked directly to the regulator – “do you intend to investigate the heavy short selling of Kobe Steel stock 3 weeks before the company announced this to market?” No answer.  The following slide showed that a person that was able to short the stock 3 weeks before the announcement would have cleaned up a tidy 60% profit. Again no plans to investigate the insider trading. Why bother having the FSA if it is a toothless tiger?

The following slide showed the types of fines dealt to both the broker (Nomura was a regular feature in the leaks) and the investor (at the time Chuo Mitsui Asset). The fines were the equivalent of $500 and no suspension of license was pursued by the regulator, When the following slide that compared it to the types of fines meted out to foreign banks – lengthy jail terms, lifetime suspensions and monster fines in the the millions and billions jaws didn’t so much drop but celebrate the idea “thank God we live in Japan”. Truth be told the FSA did punish one dying asset manager $150mn but that is an exception. That is the problem. It is too conditional where convenient.

Rolling onto the next slide the discussion looked at how ‘sontaku’ was a problem. Whereas the FSA & SESC heavily pushed for license revocation of foreign investment companies that it found to break rules, it let off all the domestic companies that had ‘brand names’ to protect. What message is the regulator sending if local corporations know they can pretty much get away with anything. In what way is that a fair system? If foreigners will be turfed on a whim then why do the locals get special protection?

When looking at agency funding, the FSA was put up against the US SEC and Australia’s ASIC equivalents. The US was there for illustrative purposes. Yet Australia was the market that made the point clearest. Despite having a total market cap 5x the size of Australia and 30% more listed companies, Japan spends 20% less than the antoipodeans. Even worse it had fewer numbers of staff and its budget was shrinking.

When analyzing market surveillance, in 2014 the Aussie market issued 36,000 speeding tickets (alerts to potentially suspicious trading). The sophisticated systems are designed to catch any wrong doing. The Japanese issued around 180 speeding tickets. I suggested the FSA go cap in hand to ASIC and the ASX and ask if they can buy the software off the shelf. Safe markets attract capital because all actors feel adequate protections are in place to prevent crime. Higher liquidity attracts more liquidity. It is a win win.

Several years ago the fanfare of the Corporate Governance Code was thrust into the faces of the intenational investment community that Japan Inc was changing. After visiting multiple staff inside the FSA and the TSE there is absolutely no pulse of proactively to be seen anywhere. Even my slight nudge to get the FSA to tap the shoulder of the TSE to suggest listed corporates provide English language materials to encourage more transparency for foreign investment met with the response, “it might help if you spoke directly to the Deputy PM & Minister of Finance Taro Aso.”Not a word of a lie.

How can the Japanese authorities look to appropriately handle a slew of corporate scandals if the encouragement of English language documents requires someone (a gaijin no less) outside the agency to ask the Deputy PM to suggest it back down to them. It is an embarrassment.

In closing perhaps we can look to these corporate scandals breaking out as endemic of a greater underlying problem. While the knowledge that the regulator is likely to do next to nothing provides mild comfort, the reality is that Japanese companies have been strangling themselves for decades. The corporate fabric is fraying. The world is far more competitive than it was. For Japan to assert its ‘quality and/or engineering gap’ dominance now means profits likely suffer. In order to  get around that hurdle it seems that to maintain profit margins, corporates now lie about specifications hoping a history of ‘trust’ and ‘time honoured’ traditions can keep the bluff going. As mentioned earlier the scale of the ‘cheating’ is pitiful yet the shame it brings is multiples larger.

Japan’s cultural rigidities are on full display. Unfortunately they couldn’t arrive at a worse time. Clumps of companies confessing crimes to soften the collective blow is only the start of many more. I suggested in my speech that the authorities introduce a 3 month amnesty period for companies to fess up to any wrong doing. That way they can clear the decks and make it clear that any wrong doing after that date will be met with harsh repercussions. Of course it won’t happen but expect the list of companies above to have many join them at the table of shame.