#cashconversioncycle

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.

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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.

Boeing’s negative equity & prospect of zombie lending

We should have seen this earlier. One sign of trouble in industrial businesses can be seen through the lens of the cash conversion cycle (CCC). A CCC that is positive essentially means that payables are being executed way before receivables are being banked. Rising CCC is never a good thing. Amazon is at the other end of the spectrum with negative CCC which means they receive payment before delivery.

Note Boeing has seen its CCC blow out from around 124 days in Dec-2010 quarter to 344 days in Dec-2019. Effectively Boeing is sucking up a year of net receivables before collecting them. What escaped us is that the company is trading in negative equity at present and it will be a hard balancing act to let such CCC get much larger to a group that is so under the fiscal pump.

We recall the difficulties the supply chain had under the delayed 787 program in the early 2000s. Parts suppliers were bleeding because they’d invested and prepared for an expected ramp-up that ended up arriving 3.5yrs later than anticipated. All that high fixed capital formation and inventory that needed to be paid for by a client that couldn’t take delivery. Boeing tried to muddle through but was ultimately forced to rescue suppliers to keep them alive after some faced the brink. Boeing bought some suppliers in house.

One imagines the 737MAX delays will exacerbate the CCC again although Boeing contends it is in cash conservation mode. Coronavirus can only add to the misery of airlines reluctant to add to fleets where capacity is being slashed aggressively. Just look at the self-isolation bans being put in place in recent days. Who wants to holiday abroad if told they’ll spend two weeks in their hotel room feasting on room service? Airlines get the efficiency of new aircraft helping operating performance but at the same time running any planes at 20% capacity won’t help.

This is only going to get worse. For all of the pain of a much higher unit volume plane yet to be approved for flight, Boeing cash flows are being tortured. It is incredible that the shares had held on so well during the MAX crisis.

It is interesting to note that Boeing is trading in a state of negative equity. Liabilities are greater than assets. Where is the press on reporting this? It is hardly trivial for a business that hasn’t even faced the worst of its struggles.

Just like we wrote two years ago about GE, Boeing went straight down the line of monster share buybacks. $43bn to be exact since 2013. Over half of the buyback has been conducted at share prices above the current level. The goodwill and intangibles on Boeing’s balance sheet total $11.398bn. Equity at minus $8.3bn. So negative $20bn.

bA

We did the following infographic some 3 years ago but the trend has deteriorated further. As we can see AAA-rated (top) stocks in the US have dwindled while BBB+ and below has surged. It is estimated that over 50% of US corporates have a rating below BBB. That is the result of artificially low-interest rates which have lured companies to borrow big and splurge on buybacks. Our biggest worry is if the market starts to reprice corporate debt accordingly, such as what happened to Ford when it was dropped to junk.

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So the question remains how does Boeing manage to get out of this pickle? Even if MAX gets certified, airline cash flow is being crippled. How big will discounts need to be in order for airlines to take on new planes? At the moment one imagines many airlines are deferring deliveries (787, 777 etc) until they get a clearer picture.

Boeing has delivered 30 aircraft in the first two months of 2020. At the same time last year, Boeing had delivered 95 planes. A lot of MAX impact but we imagine March will be even worse.

Airbus delivered 86 aircraft so far in 2020. At the same time last year, Airbus delivered 88 planes.

Think of the major gateway that is Hong Kong International Airport. It’s passenger flow for February 2020 – minus 68%! 6 months of this type of crippling volume would be catastrophic for airlines. 9-11 was a watershed moment for the aviation industry where the confidence to get back on a plane turned quickly after the terror attacks. Now we have a situation where passengers would be more than willing to fly again but governments simply aren’t letting them. The problem is whether they will be in the same financial position to fly if the virus isn’t contained rapidly

One sweet spot for Boeing is that it is a major defence contractor which means that government bailouts are a given. Sadly, shareholders shouldn’t think this current share price collapse has finished. Boeing feels a lot like mimicking GE when it sunk to $6 from over $30.

It is probably worth referencing AerCap Holdings which owns International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC) one of the big two commercial aircraft leasing companies. Its share price has cratered from a high of $64.79 to $24.50. Moody’s affirmed the “Baa3” ILFC this month.


AerCap

The company has 3.1x leverage. $36bn of property (mostly planes) on its books. The shares are trading at 0.35x tangible book value presumably because the market is forecasting the value of the tin is going to fall through the floor if leased planes return from airlines that have been forced to cut costs or go bankrupt.

The only crux is the future appetite of investors to support AerCap in the debt markets. It has $17.5bn in unsecured notes and $9.8bn in secured debt with a further $2.3bn in subordinated, mostly via a 2079 maturity bond issue. The maturity profile is still comfortably beyond 2028. No problems just yet but times are only just starting to get challenging.

Of note, AerCap is paying $1.295bn in interest charges on $29.5bn of debt. Leasing rents from its airline customers total $4.281bn. It all comes down to the assumption that its multiple airline customers can keep honouring those payments or whether the leasing companies are forced to renegotiate their deals in order to keep the customer alive. The last thing a leasing company needs is a flood of aircraft to return because customers go belly up. Fingers crossed there is no zombie lending to avoid having to mark-to-market the value of the fleet (assets) which would flip the ratings and refinancing prospects considerably. The balance sheet would be slammed.

With so many financial excesses built into the global economy, a prolonged spell of coronavirus containment will come at the expense of a crippling economic armageddon which will undo so much of the disastrous can-kicking we’ve become accustomed to. You can’t quarantine the world for 6 months and expect a tiny ripple.

CLies IT

It is not the disease we need to worry about per se. It is government and central bank incompetence over the last 20 years which has created a situation where we are out of ammunition to rescue the situation because expediency is so much easier for voters – comforting lies are easier to take than inconvenient truths.

Be sure to reference our thoughts on

Aussie banks,

Aussie government debt,

central banks and the

pension crisis ahead.

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