#GE

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.

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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.

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.

Let shareholders burn

We buy shares because we expect to gain a return. We all know there are risks attached. As we wrote yesterday on Boeing, it has embarked on reckless buybacks which have compromised the balance sheet. The company has drawn down all of its $13.8bn in credit lines from banks overnight. It is panic stations. It was completely avoidable.

How ironic that companies which are among those that splurged $4.5 trillion on share buybacks just to chase short term management incentives will be the first lining up for taxpayer support to save them from negligent governance.

We say shareholders should suffer the downside of that investment choice. They had the power to remove officers from the companies they entrusted management to. If a company goes belly up, let other players in the market pick up the spoils for fire sale prices.

The Wolf Street correctly noted,

The Trump administration is putting together a rumored $850-billion stimulus package that will include taxpayer funded bailouts of Corporate America, according to leaks cited widely by the media. Trump in the press conference today singled out $50 billion in bailout funds for US airlines alone. A bailout of this type is designed to bail out shareholders and unsecured creditors. That’s all it is. The alternative would be a US chapter 11 bankruptcy procedure which would allow the company to operate, while it is being handed to the creditors, with shareholders getting wiped out.”

All this Trump package will do is encourage the same bad behaviour. We think this is nothing more than trebling down on the problems that hit us in 2008. But hey, it’s an election year!! Reckless.

As usual, the SEC has been asleep at the wheel. Same as in the lead up to 2008. This is what happens when regulators hire clueless lawyers who don’t have a clue about how markets operate. Therefore they miss crucial events.

As for shareholders – you earned it.

The only upside to this market volatility is that no one has talked about climate change for weeks! Probably because when people are about to lose their livelihoods, all of a sudden virtue signaling is worthless. That goes for diversity and inclusion too. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Ford downgraded to junk

This week, Ford Motor Co’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s to junk. $84bn worth of debt now no longer investment grade. It will be the first of many Fortune 500s to fall foul to this reality. In 2008, there was around $800bn of BBB status credit. That number exceeds $3.186 trillion today.

CM has long argued that the credit cycle would be the undoing of the economy. For too long, corporates binged on easy money, caring little for credit ratings because the interest spreads between AAA and BBB were so negligible. The market ignored risk and companies went hell for leather issuing new debt to fu buybacks to artificially prop up weak earnings to give the illusion of growth.

Sadly this problem is likely to cause widespread sell offs by companies/investors which must stick to products (as woefully yielding as they may be) with an investment grade, exacerbating the problem of refinancing debt close to maturity. The thinking during easy credit times was simple – refinancing could be done with low interest rates because there was no alternative.

This is problematic for three reasons:

1) under the Obama era, much of the newly issued debt was short term meaning $8.4 trillion arrives for refinancing in the next 2.5 years, crowding out the corporate market.

2) more than 50% of US corporates are one notch above junk status. Refinancing will not be a simple affair.

3) more and more investment grade debt will be driven to zero or even negative yields as a result further exacerbating the problems for insurance companies and pension funds dealing with massive unfunded liabilities.

Last year, in relation to unfunded liabilities at US public pension funds, CM wrote,

California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumed an aggressive 7.5% return. Dr. Joe Nation of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks unfunded liabilities have surged to $150bn from $93bn in the last two years. He suggested the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return last year. At that rate, CalPERS had a market based unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 2 years’ worth of California state revenue). At present Nation now thinks the number is just shy of $1 trillion using a 3.25% discount rate. He expects that the 2017 data for CalPERS will be out in a week or so which should give some interesting perspective as to how much deeper the pension hole is for Californian public servants.

N.B. California collects $232bn in state taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy).”

This is just California, which in the last 8 years has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

Unfunded liabilities per household. In California’s case, the 2017 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

Switching to Illinois, we have a case study on what happens when pension funds go pear shaped.The Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy.

Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following yearFund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

Therefore Ford’s downgrade to junk will have the effect of repricing over a decade of misplaced central bank policy across all markets. The dominos are only beginning to fall. The market can absorb Ford’s downgrade but not if it has to deal with the panic of dozens like it.

CM has long been warning of GE. Despite being the world’s largest stock in 2000, it is 1/5 the size today, trades in negative equity, wasted $45bn on share buybacks in 2015/16 and were it be classified as junk would increase the pile of junk by 10% on its own. Broadcom and American Tower are other monsters ready to be hurled onto the ratings scrap heap.

Buy Gold. The US Fed will likely embark on QE. It requires an act of Congress to approve the purchase of equities but don’t be surprised if this becomes a reality when markets plunge.

This will be the reset of asset prices which has been long overdue thanks to almost two decades of manipulation by authorities. It has 1929 written all over it. Not 2008.

British Airways places order for 200 Boeing 737 MAX

Nothing like a confidence boosting 200 plane order for the highly criticized Boeing 737 MAX jet at the Paris Airshow. British Airways CEO Willie Walsh said,

We have every confidence in Boeing and expect that the aircraft will make a successful return to service in the coming months.

There is no doubt Boeing offered a competitive price to generate some positive news spin since the crisis erupted. As CM always contended,

Ultimately the market will decide on the 737MAX. The plane has a 4,000+ unit backlog. Even if airlines wanted to change to A320neos, the switching costs would be prohibitively expensive in terms of pilot certification, maintenance and joining the end of an equally long queue. The order book is unlikely to suffer widespread cancellations.”

The mainstream media proves again its proclivity for sensationalist journalism without understanding the industry dynamics or the facts.

Nippon Carbon – hidden black diamond

Nippon Carbon (5302) is a hidden gem. CM stumbled over this company in 2012. A decade prior to this, one of the commercial jet engine makers spoke of a new space age technology on the horizon. He mentioned there was a secret sauce that went in to make ceramic matrix composites (CMC). However, because of the secretive nature of R&D, the supplier wasn’t disclosed. So 12 years after that meeting and years of trying to hunt down this miracle ingredient, CM stumbled into meet Nippon Carbon to discuss its mainline graphite electrodes business. In the lobby, a dusty glass trophy cabinet revealed a mysterious cotton reel with black fibres wrapped around it (pic above).

Needless to say on application, the investor relations director told CM it was Hi-Nicalon which goes into CMC! Bingo. Forget the mainstay graphite electrodes! CM found the missing link. In the process, he told CM that the company had spent 40 (yes, forty) years developing it. Who does that? Only in Japan. What the material does is enable jet engines to burn hotter which means longer life, more efficiency with fewer emissions and lower weight. Win, win, win, win.

CFM International (GE/Safran JV) has 8,000 jets (16,000 engines) in the order book. Nippon Carbon’s JV to make Hi-Nicalon was lifted 10 fold in recent years to 10 tons (full capacity will be hit this year) and GE has licensed another 100% capacity increase from Nippon Carbon to produce locally in the US. It is black gold of another dimension.

What is often underestimated, is that passing new technology in commercial aerospace is way harder than seeking new drug approval in the pharmaceutical world. A new drug might have drowsiness as a side effect. A jet engine can’t have that level of failure risk. So now that this product is already flying in the B737 MAX and A320neo, the technology will be rolled out on all new commercial jets from this point. The next generation Boeing 777x will sport Hi-Nicalon in its GENx engines which will use about 5x the material than a B737. 340 orders for the B777x have already been placed by airlines. Deliveries begin in May 2020. GE will be the only engine choice on 777x.

Nippon Carbon is the sole CMC source ingredient producer for GE, the world’s largest jet-engine/turbine maker. The wonderful part about that is the fact that no substitutes will replace it. There are no competitors because in aerospace, quality of material matters. Only source suppliers get a look in. Nippon Carbon owns 50% of the NGS Advanced Fibers business where Hi Nicalon sits. GE & Safran own 25% each of the remainder. 

Ube Industries (4208) has Tyranno-fiber and is partnered with Rolls-Royce. Yet it is tiny part inside a business dominated by construction cement.

Nippon Carbon shares were hit hard the day before 1Q earnings on the back of a downward revision by competitor Tokai Carbon (5301). This is what happens when stocks have no official stockbroker coverage and get tarred by having “Carbon” in the name.

Nippon Carbon’s 1Q results came out after the close the following day, reporting a 46% increase in sales vs last year and a 168% increase in EPS. Full-year earnings were left unchanged.

Nippon Carbon mentioned tougher pricing position in graphite electrodes like Tokai Carbon, but the volume side appears healthier. It would not disclose customers but said demand was still healthy.

Sadly, disclosure is not a strong point of many Japanese companies and Nippon Carbon is no exception. Yet Japanese retail investors get hysterical over homegrown technology winding its way onto globally famous products. Toray (3402), the massive textile manufacturer, signed an exclusive supply contract with Boeing for the 787’s carbon fibre needs. The share price did the following. The slump came on the back of GFC.

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Toray’s stock trebled. Carbon fibre was only 12% of its earnings at the time. It is around 20% today. The rest of the Toray business was low margin textiles. Buying Toray to get exposure to 787 was like buying a fruitcake to get some raisins.

Osaka Titanium

Osaka Titanium Technologies (5726) had an even more bonkers reaction to the 787 which was loaded with titanium parts. Coupled with a global production shortage of titanium sponge and sharply higher contract prices, OTT shares jumped 28x! From relative obscurity, the stock became the most liquid stock in Japan. This is what happens when the small-cap retail lunatics are running the asylum.

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Based on Nippon Carbon’s FY2019 EPS forecast of ¥1,148 it trades on a 3.6x PE ratio. It trades below replacement cost and invested capital. CM thinks that if it manages to hit 20t of Hi-Nicalon by 2020 its EPS could approach ¥1353. That would put it on 3.05x.  Writing in an Armageddon scenario (literally nuking the core graphite electrode business) of ¥210 EPS the stock would be trading at a trough 19.6x. Normally industrials in a downturn would face losses or 50-100x multiples. 

To be honest its biggest problem is that the Nippon Carbon has such woeful marketing of itself. A visit to its Tokyo HQ reveals a 1950s lobby. It doesn’t spend a lick on itself which is also a relief. No frills. It is a proper engineering company. Unlike Toray and Osaka Titanium (at the time), Nippon Carbon has no official broker coverage meaning it remains in obscurity.

Hi-Nicalon is truly revolutionary. It is a once in half-a-century product. It will become the defacto standard jet engine material. At the moment it stands at around 5% of revenue and minimal profit as it ramps up but by next year it could be as high as 15-16% in a few years, which maybe conservative. Depending on the demand for aircraft, it may head higher. It is worth noting at the time of GFC, airlines many upgraded to more efficient aircraft to lower operating costs. Leasing companies obliged. That isn’t to say that Nippon Carbon is isolated by any means but the product itself is unique which provides relative stability.

Worth taking a long hard look at the story. This is a game changer material. We only need for the retail investor to cotton on to this story and let the Pride of Nippon push it to absurd valuations. We have the history of Toray and Osaka Titanium. At 3.6x it is already at absurd valuations (just at the opposite end).

GE still $15 billion in negative equity

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While GE might have rallied back above $10 on the back of its 1Q results released overnight, the company’s goodwill shrunk $5.5bn but the company remains deeply in negative equity to the tune of $14.7bn. Why do analysts perpetually focus on the revenue and profit, rather than look at the elephant in the room? Especially as we are at the top of an industrial cycle with warning signs that global growth is already slowing faster than originally anticipated. GE is heavily indebted.

Of the $53.2bn in goodwill and $ $17.1bn in intangible assets, GE shareholder’s equity (including non-controlling interests) is at $55.6bn. The gap is c. $14.7bn.

One of the interesting notes in the 10Q regarding the goodwill Oil & Gas accounts for 42% of the total. GE noted in point 8.

While the goodwill in our Grid reporting unit, Hydro reporting unit, and Oil & Gas reporting units is not currently impaired, the power and oil and gas markets continue to be challenging and there can be no assurances that goodwill will not be impaired in future periods as a result of sustained declines in BHGE share price or any future declines in macroeconomic or business conditions affecting these reporting units.

We can celebrate the short term but when an industrial stock, one which was the largest company by market capitalisation almost 20 years ago, has such an awful balance sheet (354% debt: equity) and blew $45bn in buybacks in recent years, one has to wonder how investors can look at GE as a paragon of value? Reminiscing on the halcyon days of a stock is not a method of sensible investing when staring at reality.

Complacency kills – the ticking time bomb for Aussie banks

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In the late 1980s at the peak of the property bubble, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth the equivalent to the entire state of California. Greater Tokyo was worth more than the whole United States. The Japanese used to joke that they had bought up so much of Hawaii that it had effectively become the 48th prefecture of Japan. Japanese nationwide property prices quadrupled in the space of a decade. At the height of the frenzy, Japanese real estate related lending comprised around 41.2% (A$2.5 trillion) of all loans outstanding. N.B. Australian bank mortgage loan books have swelled to 63% (A$1.7 trillion) of total loans.

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Sensing the bubble was getting out of control, the Bank of Japan went into a tightening rate cycle (from 2.5% to 6%) to contain it. Unfortunately it led to an implosion in asset markets, most notably housing. From the peak in 1991/2 prices over the next two decades fell 75-80%. Banks were decimated.

In the following two decades, 181 Japanese banks, trust banks and credit unions went bust and the rest were either injected with public funds, forced into mergers or nationalized. The unravelling of asset prices was swift and sudden but the process to deal with it took decades because banks were reluctant to repossess properties for fear of having to mark the other properties (assets) on their balance sheets to current market values. Paying mere fractions of the loan were enough to justify not calling the debt bad. If banks were forced to reflect the truth of their financial health rather than use accounting trickery to keep the loans valued at the inflated levels the loans were made against they would quickly become insolvent. By the end of the crisis, disposal of non-performing loans (NPLs) among all financial institutions exceeded 90 trillion yen (A$1.1 trillion), or 17% of Japanese GDP at the time.

The lessons are no less disturbing for Australia. Don’t be surprised to hear the authorities and local banks champion stress tests as validity that we are safe from any conceivable external shock. The November 2018 Reserve Bank of Australia minutes revealed that the next rate move is likely up but the board is happy to sit on its hands because housing is slowing even at 1.5% cash rates.

With US rates heading higher, our banks are already facing higher funding costs because of our reliance on overseas wholesale markets to fund mortgage lending. Japanese banks have 90%+ funding from domestic deposits. Australia is around 60-70%. Our banks need to go shopping in global markets to get access to capital. Conditions for that can change on a dime. External shocks can see funding costs hit nose bleed levels which are passed onto consumers. When you see the press get into a frenzy over banks passing on more than the rate rises doled out by the RBA, they aren’t just being greedy – a large part is absorbing these higher wholesale funding costs.

What about America? Who could forget former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson tell us how robust US financial institutions were right before plugging $700 billion to rescue the crumbling system? US banks such as Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America (BoA) have been reducing mortgage exposure relative to total loans outstanding. Yet each received $10s of billions in TARP (bail out funds) courtesy of the US taxpayer.

By 2009 the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had turned over 16% of Bank of America’s residential mortgage portfolio into either NPLs, mortgage payments over 90-day in arrears or impaired (largely from the shonky lending practices of Countrywide (which BoA bought in 2008). Countrywide’s $2.5bn acquisition price turned out to cost BoA shareholders a further $50bn by the end of the clean-up. Who is counting?

Oh no, but Australia is different. Residential property prices in Australia have had a far steadier rise over a longer period – a 5-fold jump over 25 years – meaning our local banks should be less vulnerable to external shocks. There is an element of truth to that, although it breeds complacency.

Property loans in Australia as at September 2018 total A$1.653 trillion. 82% of those loans are made by the Big 4 banks. Interest only loans are around $500 billion of that. As a percentage of total loans outstanding in Australia, mortgages make up 65%. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at around 40%. US banks have cut overall property exposures and Japanese banks are now in the early teens. Post GFC, US banks have ratcheted back mortgage exposure. They have diversified their earnings through investment banking and other areas. You can see this below.

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The advent of interest only loans has helped pushed property prices higher. NAB notes in its latest filing that 29% of its mortgage loan book is in interest-only form. The RBA expects $120 billion of interest only loans resetting to principal & interest (P&I) each year to 2020 which will hike monthly mortgage repayments to jump 30-40%. If investors were up to the gills in interest only mortgage repayments, adding one third to the bill will not be helpful. This is before we have even faced a bump in wholesale finance rates due to market instability. Look at the way that GE – once the world’s largest company in 2000 – is being trashed by the credit markets as they seek to reprice the risk attached to the $111bn in debt after a credit downgrade. This is a canary in the coalmine issue.

We also need to consider what constitutes a bubble in property. Sensibly, affordability makes the strongest argument. At the height of the bubble, the average central Tokyo property value was around 18.2x income. Broadening this out to greater Tokyo metropolitan area this was around 15x. This figure today is around 5x. Making arguments that ever higher levels of migration will keep property buoyant is not a sound argument as affordability affects them too.

Back in 2007, Sydney house prices were 8x income. In 2017 Demographia stated average housing (excluding apartment) prices are in the 13-14x range. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 80% of people live in houses and 20% on apartments. Only Hong Kong at 19x beats Sydney for dizzy property prices.

In 2018, Australia’s GDP is likely to be around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks is approximately $2.64 trillion which is 150% of GDP. At the height of the Japanese bubble, total bank lending as a whole only reached 106%. Mortgages alone in Australia are near as makes no difference 100% of GDP.

Balance sheets are but snapshots in time. If we look at our current bank exposure to mortgages, it is easy for analysts to paint rosy pictures. Banks’ shareholder equity has quadrupled in the past 16 years. Prosperity and record bank profits should give us comfort. Or should it? We need to understand that the underlying tenets of the Australian economy are completely different to that of a decade ago.

At the time of Global Financial Crisis (GFC) Australia’s economy was lucky to get away broadly unscathed. We carried no national government debt and were able to use a $50 billion surplus to prime the economy through that period of turmoil. Many countries were not so lucky. Our fiscal stewardship leading up to the crisis allowed economic growth to remain in positive territory soon after. Now we have $600 billion debt and charging the national credit card with all of the promises so aggressively that we should expect $1 trillion of debt in the not too distant future.

Australian banks are highly leveraged to the mortgage market. It should come as no surprise. In Westpac’s full year 2018 balance sheet, the company claims around A$710 billion in assets as “loans”. Of that amount, according to the latest APRA data, A$411 billion of lending is ‘real estate’ related. Total equity for the bank is A$64.6 billion. So equity as a percentage of property loans is just shy of 16%. If Australia had a nationwide property collapse (we have not had one for three decades) then it is possible that the banks would face significant headwinds.

What that basically says is if Westpac suffered a 16% decline in the value of its entire property loan book then it would at least on paper appear in negative equity, or liabilities would be larger than assets. Recall in 2009 that BoA had over 16% of its residential loan portfolio which went bad. It can happen. CommBank is at a similar level. ANZ and NAB are in the 20% range before such a hypothetical situation would be triggered. See the chart below. Note how the US banks stung by the GFC have bolstered balance sheets

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Of course the scenario of a housing collapse would imply that a growing number of borrowers would have to find themselves under mortgage stress and default on payments. It also depends on the portfolio of the properties and when those loans were written. If the majority of loans were made 10 years ago at 40% lower theoretical prices than today then there is lower risk to solvency for the bank if it foreclosed and dumped the property.

Although if we look at the growth in loans since 2009, the Australian banks have been making hay while the sun shines. As it stands, the likes of Westpac and CommBank each have extended mortgage loans to Aussies to nearly as much as BoA has to Americans. That said the American banks, so stung by the GFC, have become far more prudent in managing their affairs.

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It goes without saying that keeping one’s job is helpful in paying the mortgage. If you were a two income family and one of you lost your job, it is likely that dining out, taking fancy overseas holidays, buying new cars (which have been awful this year) and so on will go on the backburner. Should those actions swell to a wider number of mortgage holders, the economic slowdown will exacerbate in a downward spiral. Even your local coffee store may be forced to close because $4 is just cash you and others might not be able to spend. Boarded up High Streets were everywhere in America and Europe post GFC.

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The following chart shows the negative correlation between housing prices and unemployment rates. US unemployment doubled to 10% when Lehman collapsed. Housing prices took heavy hits as defaults jumped. It is not rocket science.

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On the other hand, Australia’s unemployment curve remained below 6% for around two decades. Even with GFC, jobless numbers never got out of hand. Our housing prices only suffered a mild dip.

We can argue that a sub-prime style mortgage crisis is highly unlikely. But it does not rule the risk out completely. To have that, mortgage holders would need to be in arrears on monthly payments, their houses would need to be in negative equity and banks would be required to take asset devaluations.

An ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46% of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

According to Digital Finance Analytics, “there are around 650,000 households in Australia experiencing some form of mortgage stress. If rates were to rise 150 basis points the number of Australians in mortgage stress would rise to approximately 930,000 and if rates rose 300 basis points the number would rise to 1.1 million – or more than a third of all mortgages. A 300 basis point rise would take the cash rate to 4.5 per cent, still lower than the 4.75 per cent for most of 2011.”

Do you know how many homes NAB has under repossession on its books at the latest filing? Around 277. Yes, Two hundred and seventy seven. Out of 100,000s. Recall BoA had 16% of its loan portfolio go bang in 2008?

If we think about it logically, examining the ratio of total assets to shareholder equity (i.e. leverage), the Aussie banks maintain higher levels than the US banks listed below did in 2008. Were total asset values to suddenly drop 7% or more ceteris paribus, Aussie banks would slide into a negative equity position and require injection.

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Human nature is conditioned to panic when crisis hits. Sadly many of our middle management class have never experienced recession. They are in for a rude shock. As for depositors note that you should be focused on the return “of” your money, not the return “on” it.

As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!

 

 

How many canaries in the coalmine do we need?

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CM has said for ages that President Trump risks being hoisted by his own petard if he continues to attribute the stock market to his leadership. It works both ways. Stock markets are suffering. Suck it up.

GM has announced it is pulling the plug on over 14,000 US workers (8,000 white collar, 3,300 blue-collar workers in Canada and another 2,600 in the US) and potentially closing  5 plants. Is this a surprise? The chart above shows the % year over year change of US car sales. It has been stepping down clearly since GFC. In September this year GM’s sales slumped 19% in before falling 5.5% in October. The brutal storm activity is unlikely to help November either.

This quote will live to haunt in the coming downturn – CEO Mary Barra said the company doesn’t predict an economic downturn any time soon and is making the cuts “to get in front of it while the company is strong and while the economy is strong,

50% of US corporations have a credit rating of BBB or less. We are at the sharp end of massive government sector recapitalization crowding out and companies with dodgy balance sheets (that have levered up to conduct massive buybacks to flatter EPS masking anemic earnings growth) won’t be given the same tight interest rate margin spreads come the next refinancing. Await the implosion.

Rising interest rates don’t help and credit markets wait like vultures over the likes of GE which is having a reality check over its $115bn of debt, negative equity and troubled restructuring. Credit rating downgrade have booted it from some funds so the stock is in the cross hairs. If it had any sense it would file for Chapter 11 to buy breathing space.

If you want to put some perspective on it, GE’s market cap in 2000 was $592bn and now is $65.8bn. Tesla is now worth $56bn.

GM is yet another canary in the coalmine

 

Perspective

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What have both these stocks have in common? Apple & GE have both held the title for world’s largest stock by market capitalisation at one point in time. GE was worth $594bn at its peak during the tech bubble. Apple has been valued at over $1 trillion this year but is at $921bn as of today. The irony of over the last 7 days Apple has lost more market cap than GE is worth, two times over. How the mighty have fallen.