#centralbanks

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.

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.

A gem on how to work our way out of the coming economic crisis

Image result for truck nitroglycerin movie

Jonathan Rochford of Narrow Road Capital has written a gem on the role of central banks in spawning this current crisis. An excerpt here:

The rapid and widespread sell-off over the last four weeks is a textbook systemic deleveraging. Whilst the culprits are many; hedge funds, risk parity strategies and investors using margin loans have all been caught out, the underlying cause is excessive leverage across the economy and particularly the financial system. The timing of the unwind and the economic damage from the Coronavirus wasn’t predictable, but such a highly leveraged system was like a truck loaded with nitroglycerin driving down a road dotted with landmines.

Frustratingly, this inevitable deleveraging was clearly predicted. Rather than act to reduce systemic risks central banks encouraged governments, businesses and investors to increase their risk tolerances and debt levels.

Naturally, it fits our own long-held view on central banks.

Jonathan adds some sensible actions which are contained in this link. The question remains whether governments will put principle ahead of expediency in the cleanup?

MSM relishes trade of economic depression via pandemic over Trump as POTUS w/ no virus

Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) knows no bounds. Yes, the mainstream media (MSM) is celebrating the milestone that the Dow is below the level when Donald Trump was inaugurated.

We have always said that if Trump continued to boast about market gains he would have to wear it on the downside too. Alas, he is being hoisted by his own petard.

Sadly, as much as CNN and others relish the though of Trump out of office, we sincerely doubt the vast majority of Americans would trade a pandemic with catastrophic unemployment over business as usual before the WuFlu with a Trump at the helm.

Markets are forward looking. They anticipate where corporate earnings are likely to be. This market rout has little to do with Trump’s policies in isolation.

We’ve said repeatedly that global central banks have created a debt bomb through reckless monetary policies over the last two decades. They have proved just how little impact cutting rates to zero or throwing $850bn in handouts has on markets. They’re out of ammunition. Confidence is shot. We’re in uncharted territory.

Boeing is the perfect canary in the coal mine. The 737MAX debacle which is imminently due to be on sale again to a market that has effectively vanished. Airlines are cutting routes and it will be up to the zombie lending cycles of aircraft leasing companies to renegotiate rates so they can keep the patient alive. Airlines will push out deliveries.

However before Boeing’s core business troubles, the management embarked on short term incentive chasing buybacks to the tune of $43bn since 2013. The company is trading negative equity and has drawn down ALL of its credit lines ($13.8bn) and now wants a handout.

All of this is the product of two decades of mindless expediency. Governments are just as culpable for allowing greed to override common sense. No lessons have been learnt since 2000 and especially 2008. Blue chips like Boeing and GE are now heading to record lows because of it. Ford Motor is rated junk. How long before Boeing and GE fall foul of the same problem?

We are particularly interested in the next set of results from Parker Hannifin. It is like the global industrial hardware store. All of the major manufacturers use Parker for parts – pumps, hydraulics, pneumatics, valves, hoses etc. When we see Parker’s upcoming report on order flows we can gauge how bad it is at the manufacturing coal face.

This time we are staring at a “global depression” and it would be nice to think the MSM would try to put some context around the ramifications of this virus and the raft of economy killing policies governments around the world are introducing instead of just blaming Trump. Yes, he’s been his normal self during this but is he responsible for the actions of other countries going into shutdowns? Seriously? Do the US Coronavirus stats stack up poorly vs countries like Italy on a relative or absolute basis? No. Moreover COVID-19 cases in the US are a mere fraction of H1N1 swine flu cases which the media made nowhere near the level of hysteria as now. It’s a disgrace how far the media will go for clickbait.

Had the world’s central banks behaved sensibly to stop excessive debt and allowed markets to function freely, this pandemic would have had far less effect than it is now because we would have had the ammunition to fight this war of attrition. Now all our governments and regulators are doing is moving phantom armies across maps trying to stop economic Armageddon.

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.

Central banks are climate change experts now. If only they possessed such skill in their core competency

Are these people for real? Does the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) truly believe that world’s central banks will become “climate rescuers of last resort”? Do we really want our central banks to be more proactive in pushing governments toward a greener economy by suggesting a carbon tax as “first-best solution“? The problem with central bankers is that every problem looks like a nail when they only have a hammer in the toolkit.

First, on what level do central banks have a clue about climate change? If they had even the foggiest notion about the science they would never have embarked on a set of reckless monetary policy measures that created the very conditions for excessive debt, mal-investment and over-consumption which they now seek to punish us for via the adoption of a carbon tax.

We should not forget the almost $300 trillion of global debt now racked up thanks to abnormally low interest rates. It is politically expedient to run budget deficits too because central banks are only too happy to keep (near) ZIRP or NIRP which makes servicing ballooning deficits appear almost perpetually affordable with short term focused politicians. It is but a figment of their imagination.

How easy it is to sound the alarm on climate change to mask the policy blunders of the last two decades. It would be nice if we could believe they possessed expertise in their mandated role before embarking into a field they have no sound base to work from. It is a dangerous distraction.

It is worth citing a few examples of the record of central banks around the world since GFC.

In 2018, the US Fed stopped reporting changes in the balance sheet. It did this to prevent spooking the markets over tapering. It reminds FNF Media of the day Bernanke’s Fed announced it would no longer report M3 money supply a year before the financial markets headed into the GFC. Why is there a need for a lack of transparency if it wishes to instill market confidence via its policy settings?

Has the Fed reflected on the fact that over half of listed corporates have a credit rating of BBB or below? Ford Motor Co’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s to junk. $84bn worth of debt now no longer investment grade. It will be the first of many Fortune 500s to fall foul to this reality. In 2008, there was around $800bn of BBB status credit. That number exceeds $3.186 trillion today. Brought to you courtesy of low interest rates.

The Bank of Japan (BoJ) is now responsible for 60% of all ETF market ownership. Latest reports confirm the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has now become a top 10 shareholder in almost 50% of listed stocks. In a sense, we have a trend which threatens to turn Japan’s largest businesses into quasi-state-owned enterprises (SoE) by the back door. The BoJ now owns $250bn of listed Japanese equities. It is the top shareholder in household Japanese brands such as Omron, Nidec and Fanuc. At current investment rates, the BoJ is set to own $400bn worth of the market by 2020-end.

The BoJ’s manipulation of the JGB market caused several of the major Japanese banks to hand back their trading licenses because they served no purpose anymore given the central bank’s manipulation.

The ECB has dropped the ball in Europe. Jonathan Rochford of Narrowroad Capital wrote,

Many European banks have failed to use the last decade to materially de-risk. The most obvious outworking of this is that European banks continue to receive taxpayer funded bailouts, with Germany’s NordLB and Italy’s Banca Popolare di Bari both receiving lifelines this monthOne final issue that lurks particularly amongst European banks is their gaming of capital ratios. European banks have become masters of finding assets that require little risk capital but can generate a decent margin. Government debt from Italy is one example, with pressure now being put on the ECB to allow for unlimited purchases of Greek government debt. This would substantially increase the already significant “doom loop” risk. This risk arises from the potential for a default on government debt to bankrupt the banks, and the converse situation where failing banks look for a taxpayer bailout and bankrupt the country.

The list goes on and on. Central banks are in no position to lecture the rest of us on anything given their command of their core competence remains so flawed.

Global money velocity has been declining for two decades. Every dollar printed creates an ever shrinking fraction of GDP impact. Yet all we did was double down on all the failed measures that led us into the GFC

What we do know is that the BIS has sought the advice of literature professors to come up with the phrase that climate change presented a “colossal and potentially irreversible risk of staggering complexity.”

Really?

It is easy for the BIS to shout that a “green swan” event could send us into the financial abyss. However the reality is that dreadful stewardship of monetary conditions has set us up for a huge fall. Not a bushfire, storm or flood. Perhaps we might view a green swan event as wishful thinking by central banks because it would allow them to absolve themselves of all responsibility in getting us into this mess in the first place. They want to see themselves as saviors, not culprits.

Rochford sums up central banks brilliantly with this comment,

When it comes to central banks, I would prefer to believe it is a combination of groupthink, an unwillingness to take career risk by speaking the truth and a willingness to either ignore or disregard counter evidence that has resulted in the detrimental decisions since the financial crisis. However, the increasing amount of evidence, often produced by central banks themselves, points to central banks being more culpable than gullible.

So given this condition why on earth are we paying any attention to their prescriptions on saving the planet? When they quit the excuses and fess up that the last two decades of monetary policy has failed to fix the excesses built in the system then we might lend an ear. Until then they join the list of government agencies who don’t want to be caught out not being in line with the settled politics. Truly sick.

Surely there must be some mistake?!

Has the World Economic Forum (WEF) taken leave of its senses? Not even we think President Trump is a “world-class speaker” despite his capacity to draw huge crowds and make us all sit up and listen. There is a touch of irony to see Trump included by the WEF in this category. Poor old Al Gore will speak but presumably dud predictions has put him on the B-list.

A brief study of the upcoming live sessions published by the WEF reveals it isn’t hard to work out what an utter waste of aviation fuel the summit will be. Woke causes feature broadly. See the following list of live streams available;

The 26th Annual Crystal Award Ceremony

Join us in honouring exceptional Cultural Leaders who are improving the state of the world through their outstanding contributions to inclusive and sustainable change.

Redesigning Democracy in the Digital Age

From data dignity to quadratic voting, join economist and best-selling author Glen Weyl for an exploration of radical solutions to societal decision-making in the wake of unprecedented technological change.

The Fight for Artistic Freedom

Join Wanuri Kahiu on her journey from filmmaker to unintentional leader for freedom of expression in Kenya after her film.

On Music and the Human Spirit

On the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, conductor Marin Alsop shares lessons on how music can help cultivate joy in the darkest of times.

The Reality of Racial Bias

From politics to the public sector and from housing to education, racial bias perpetuates a crushing structural disadvantage for people around the globe. Join Phillip Atiba Goff as he illustrates how data and evidence-based approaches can be used to turn racial bias into a solvable problem.

The Role of Faith for a Cohesive and Sustainable World

Eighty-four per cent of the global population identifies with a religious group. With eroding social cohesion and near climate breakdown, how can the power of faith foster a cohesive and sustainable world?

Musical Moments: Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 2008 Crystal Awardee and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Board of Trustees, performs Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 to inspire a conversation about how culture helps us to seek truth, build trust and act in service of one another.

Free to Be (LGBTI)

Fifty years after the Stonewall riots in New York and the birth of the gay liberation movement, LGBTI youth still face rejection and discrimination, resulting in high mental illness and suicide rates among LGBTI youth. How can schools and families contribute to safe and inclusive environments for all?

Seeing the Other

Join photojournalist Rena Effendi to learn about her mission to give a voice to the voiceless through her collection of portraits and places celebrating the strength of the human spirit. Rena Effendi is a Fellow of the New Narratives Lab, a mentorship programme dedicated to fostering a new and diverse generation of cultural leaders.

An Insight, An Idea with Jin Xing

A conversation with choreographer and 2020 Crystal Awardee Jin Xing on her journey from male army colonel to one of China’s most influential female TV personalities.

The Power of Youth

From the 2018 March for Our Lives fighting for gun control in the US to the Global Climate Strike in 2019, young people are mobilizing and increasingly influencing today’s most pressing political and environmental issues. How can these movements transform their will for change into action?

The Beauty of Inclusion

Join Thando Hopa, the first woman with albinism to appear on the cover of Vogue, on her journey to unearth the missing stories needed to achieve equality for all persons. Thando Hopa is a Fellow of the New Narratives Lab, a mentorship programme dedicated to fostering a new and diverse generation of Cultural Leaders.

A Conversation with will.i.am

Join a conversation with musician will.i.am and young activist Naomi Wadler on the fight to end gun violence, and how they are influencing policy change and inspiring the next generation.

Augmented Voices

Join vocalist and researcher Harry Yeff, also known as Reeps100, who reveals our true range of communication and the hidden potential of the human voice.

How to Turn Protest into Progress

Anti-government protests fuelled by anger about inequality, corruption and political repression are paralysing cities and nations. How can movements transition from protest to political change more effectively? This session was developed in partnership with Tortoise Media.

Power of Narratives

Powerful narratives, consisting of shared causal and principled beliefs, are the prerequisite for human collaboration, yet also lead nations to war and move markets. How might societies co-create powerful narratives for a cohesive and sustainable world?

Being Out and Equal

While openness about being LGBTI at work increases well-being and productivity, more than half of the community avoids being open about their sexual orientation and gender identity in professional settings for fear of negative consequences. What are best practices to create open and inclusive workplaces for all? Access the Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society on TopLink.

Although we shouldn’t be too critical of WEF. Economics does find its way into the subject matter.

Behind close doors, we note that Greta Thunberg will speak on a panel discussing “Averting a Climate Apocalypse“, Al Gore will speak on “What’s at stake: The Arctic” and Christina Figueres will speak on “Swapping subsidies for Green Incentives.” Precious little open-mindedness to be expected in those sessions.

Other topics will include the following;

After Brexit: Renewing Europe’s Growth

As the European Central Bank maintains interest rates at record lows, the economic forecast for the region remains weaker than desired. What will a new Commission and the eventual withdrawal of the United Kingdom mean for the European economy?

Shaping the Global Growth Agenda

In 2019, global debt levels soared to a record $250 trillion, alongside a “race to the bottom” for interest rates. What level of debt, inflation and interest rates are healthy for economies to grow?

Stakeholder Capitalism: Creating Common Standards for Social Excellence

From supply chain labour standards to operating in conflict-affected regions, navigating the social responsibilities of a company is a complex endeavour. What difficult decisions are chief executives facing in the pivot towards a broader social purpose?

In the face of all the dire predictions of climate doom to be reported by the media, we can be rest assured the assembled globalists will be telling our government officials that we minions stand the best chance of survival – economic, environmental and otherwise – if we submit to their superior intelligence.

Add the Dutch to the $15.8tn pension shortfall

Negligence. No other word for it. Unrealistic assumptions coupled with a race to the bottom on interest products has meant the top 20 nations have a $15.8 trillion unfunded liability in pensions. CM wrote of the crisis awaiting US public pensions a while back.

It seems the Dutch are the latest bunch of pensioners to reach for the pitchforks at the prospect of having their retirement severely cut back. Shaktie Rambaran Mishre, chair of the Dutch pension federation (representing 197 pension funds and their members), said contributions might have to rise by up to 30% over the next few years to ward off the prospect of having to cut the pensions of 2 million retirees. That will go down a treat.

Zerohedge noted the lower Dutch risk-free rate is not low enough, and as a result about 70 employer-run pension funds with 12.1m members had funding ratios below the statutory minimum at the end of September, according to the Dutch central bank. And here lies the rub: if funds have ratios below the legal minimum for five consecutive years or have no prospect of recovering to a more healthy level, they must cut their payouts.

Can you imagine all of the Dutch who were looking forward to taking a round the world cruise to celebrate 40 years of hard work to face the reality that they’ll only be able to take a cruise down the Amsterdam canals.

This is an utter disgrace. You’d have to be asleep at the wheel as a regulator not to recognize expected returns on funds were so unrealistic as to beggar belief. Actuarial accounting lets you get away with it.

Yet the evil pensions funds will be the villains even though the supervisor left these children alone with a box of matches. Just watch them come home and act surprised that the house has burnt down.

We’re getting a taste of the remedy from the State of Illinois. It is issuing bonds specifically to help plug the gap. Rhode Island has gone the other way – take a 40% haircut or risk having nothing. Way to go!

It is worth factoring the longer term risk of the fall in consumption that this will ultimately have if even a slither or $16tn is no longer recycled into the economy.

Westpac reported a 40% increase in home repossessions

Mortgages Westpac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banks.png

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

Complacency kills.