GFC2

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?

Coronavirus will end up killing way more jobs than the people in them

GDANSK, POLAND - SEPTEMBER 3, 2018: Norwegian Air Shuttle airlines offers cheap flights. Airplane Boeing 737-800 takes off on from the International Lech Walesa Airport in Gdansk.; Shutterstock ID 1176630295; Purchase Order: -

None of this should be a surprise. 7,300 (out of 11,000) workers at Norwegian Air have been temporarily laid off as 85% of flights are cancelled.

This follows on from Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS) which has temporarily suspended 10,000 workers and cut 90% of flights to combat coronavirus.

In short, Coronavirus will likely kill way more jobs than the people in them. Sadly, there isn’t a robust economic cycle to be able to weather this storm.

Note that Boeing shares fell 20% overnight as markets finally come to grips with what we mentioned yesterday. Boeing was also put on credit watch negative by Fitch. GE is back at $6.

And Trump’s S&P500 index reading was 2,264 when he took office. It is at 2,474 or 9.3% above that. We always said what he proudly attributed to his leadership on the way up could end up making him hoisted by his own petard on the way down.

Buy Gold, not toilet paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You want Aussie Banks in your retirement fund far less than their advisory services

This is while things are still supposedly good for our banks. CM has written on the pickle Aussie banks find themselves for a year or so. Their relative value compared to banks such as Deutsche, Commerz or RBS is astonishing. So many global banks are worth 90% less than in 2007 while ours keep whistling Dixie. Mean reversion will hit hard and the complacency still baked into these supertankers is immense. Aussie banks could well be worth 90% less by the time this is all over. Forget the stress tests – meaningless – as they need pretty much all stars to align to be remotely accurate and markets in times of panic seldom play to script. Don’t be surprised if these banks require a taxpayer bailout in time.

With more interest rate cuts planned and inevitable QE down the line from the RBA, think of it more as a time banks must make considerable efforts to deleverage. Should banks consider a benign central bank as a virtue, they should seriously think again. People and businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates are low. Further cuts won’t make a difference.

In short, sell the Aussie banks. The impacts from the Hayne RC will only have adverse outcomes for the banks at a time they need maximum flexibility in order to be able to right the ship. Sadly, such outcomes are highly unlikely. Governments tend to be the most accurate contrarian indicators when it comes to introducing business stifling policy measures at a time, the industry can least afford it.

Maybe former President Reagan had it right when he said, “If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” The government has already completed the first phase and in the midst of finishing up on the second…

Sell your Aussie banks. Headlines, like the above, will be regarded as extremely positive in the next 12 months.

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.

Actually, vote on the political emergency

No surprise to see The Guardian parrot on about a climate emergency. The editorial completely misses out on the political emergency we face. The economic climate is a massive issue facing Australia. When Bill Shorten tells us that he “will change the nation forever” we shouldn’t view that positively. It is probably the honest thing he has said. Labor’s policy suite is the worst possible collection one could assemble to tackle what economic headwinds lie ahead. Our complacency is deeply disconcerting.

First let’s debunk the climate noise in The Guardian.

The math on the climate emergency is simple. Australia contributes 0.0000156% of global carbon emissions. No matter what we do our impact is zip. If we sell it as 560 million tonnes it sounds huge but the percentage term is all that is relevant. Even Dr Finkel, our climate science guru, agrees. What that number means is that Australia could emit 65,000x what it does now in order to get to a 1% global impact. So even if our emissions rise at a diminishing rate with the population, they remain minuscule.

Bill Shorten often tells us the cost of doing nothing on climate change is immeasurable. He’s right, only in that “it is too insignificant” should be the words he’s searching for.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Guardian editorial was to say that the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was gaining traction in the US. It has been such a catastrophic failure that she lost an unsolicited vote on the Senate floor 57-0 because Democrats were too embarrassed to show up and support it. Nancy Pelosi dismissed it as a “green dream.” At $97 trillion to implement, no wonder AOC says feelings are more important than facts.

With the 12-year time limit to act before we reach the moving feast known as the tipping point, it gets confusing for climate sceptics. Extinction Rebellion wants things done in only 6 years. The UK House of Commons still can’t get a Brexit deal done inside 3 years but can act instantaneously to call a “climate emergency” after meeting a brainwashed teenager from Sweden. It speaks volumes of the desperation and lack of execution to have to search for political distractions like this.

The ultimate irony in the recent celebration of no coal-fired power in the UK for one week was fossil fuel power substituted all of it – 93% to be exact. Despite the energy market operator telling Brits that zero carbon emissions were possible by 2025 (40% of the current generation capacity is fossil fuel), it forgot that 85% of British homes heat with gas. Presumably, they’d need to pop on down to Dixon’s or Curry’s to buy new electric heaters which would then rely on a grid which will junk 40% of its reliable power…good luck sorting that out without sending prices sky high. Why become beholden to other countries to provide the back-up? It is irrational.

Are people aware that the German electricity regulator noted that 330,000 households (not people) were living in energy poverty? At 2 people per household, that is 1% of the population having their electricity supply cut off because they can’t afford to pay it. That’s what expensive renewables do. If the 330,000 could elect cheap electricity to warm their homes or go without for the sake of the climate, which would they choose? 100% cheap, reliable power. Yet Shorten’s plan can only push more into climate poverty which currently stands at 42,000 homes. This is before the economy has started to tank!

If one looks across Europe, it is no surprise to see the countries with the highest level of fossil fuel power generation (Hungary, Lithuania & Bulgaria) have the lowest electricity prices. Those with more renewables (Denmark, Germany & Belgium), the highest. That is Australia’s experience too. South Australia and Victoria have already revealed their awful track record with going renewable. Why did Coca-Cola and other industries move out of SA after decades? They couldn’t make money with such an unreliable

Ahh, but we must protect our children and grandchildren’s futures. So low have the left’s tactics sunk that using kids as human shields in the fight for climate change wards off conservatives calling out the truth because it is not cool to bully brainwashed kids. We should close all our universities. As the father of two teenagers, CM knows they know everything already so there is little requirement for tertiary education!

The Guardian mentioned, “But in Australia, the Coalition appears deaf to the rising clamour from the electorate [on climate change].” Really?

CM has often held that human consumption patterns dictate true feelings about climate change. Climate alarmist Independent candidate Zali Steggall drives a large SUV and has no solar panels on her roof! Her battleground in the wealthy seat of Warringah is probably 70%+ SUV so slapping a Zali bumper sticker does nothing but add to the hypocrisy.

Why do we ignore IATA forecasts that project air travel will double by 2030? Qantas has the largest carbon offset program in the world yet only 2% elect to pay the self-imposed tax. Isn’t that telling? That is the problem. So many climate alarmists expect others to do the heavy lifting.

SUVs make up 43% of all new car sales in Australia. In 2007 it was 19%. Hardly the activity of a population fretting about rising sea levels. In Warringah, waterfront property sales remain buoyant and any bank that feared waves lapping the rooves of Burran Avenue would not take such portfolio risk, much less an insurance company.

Shorten’s EV plan is such a dud that there is a reason he can’t cost it. Following Norway is great in theory but the costs of installing EV infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. It will be NBN Mark II. Will we spend millions to trench 480V connectors along the Stuart Highway?

Norway state enterprise, Enova, said it would install fast chargers every 50km of 7,500km worth of main road/highway. Australia has 234,820km of highways/main roads. Fast chargers at every 50km like the Norwegians would require a minimum of 4,700 charging stations across Australia. Norway commits to a minimum of 2 fast chargers and 2 standard chargers per station.

The problem is our plan for 570,000 cars per annum is 10x the number of EVs sold in Norway, requiring 10x the infrastructure. That would cost closer to $14bn, or the equivalent of half the education budget.

The Guardian griped that “Scott Morrison’s dismissive response to a UN report finding that the world is sleepwalking towards an extinction crisis, and his parliamentary stunt of fondling a lump of coal”

Well, he might doubt the UN which has been embroiled in more scandals related to climate change than can be counted. Most won’t be aware that an internal UN survey revealed the dismay of unqualified people being asked for input for the sake of diversity and inclusion as opposed to choosing those with proper scientific qualifications. The UN has climbed down from most of its alarmist predictions, often citing no or little confidence of the original scare.

Yet this election is truly about the cost of living, not climate or immigration. The biggest emergency is to prepare for the numbers we can properly set policy against.

We have household debt at a record 180% of GDP. We have had 27 years of untrammelled economic growth. Unfortunately, we have traded ourselves into a position of too much complacency. Our major 4 banks are headed for a lot of trouble. Forget meaningless stress tests. APRA is too busy twiddling its thumbs over climate change compliance. While the Royal Commission may reign in loose lending, a slowing global economy with multiple asset bubbles including houses will come crumbling down. These banks rely 40% on wholesale markets to fund growth. A sharp slowdown will mean a weaker dollar which will only exacerbate the problem.

We have yet to see bond markets price risk correctly. Our banks are horribly exposed. They have too little equity and a mortgage debt problem that dwarfs Japan in the late 1980s. Part/whole nationalization is a reality. The leverage is worse than US banks at the time of the Lehman collapse.

We have yet to see 10% unemployment rates. We managed to escape GFC with a peak of 6% but this time we don’t have a buoyant China to rescue us. Consumers are tapped out and any upward pressure on rates (to account for risk) will pop the housing bubble. Not to worry, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen assures people not to panic if their home falls into negative equity! This is the level of economic nous on the catastrophe that awaits. It is insanely out of touch.

Are our politicians aware that the US has to refinance US$8.4 trillion in US Treasuries in the next 3 years? That amount of money will crowd out a corporate bond market which has more than 50% of companies rated BBB or less. This will be compounded by the sharp rise in inventories we are witnessing on top of the sharp slowdown in trade (that isn’t just related to the trade war) which is at GFC lows. The 3.2% US economic growth last quarter was dominated by “intellectual property”, not consumption or durable goods.

China car sales have been on a steep double-digit decline trajectory for the last 9 months. China smartphone shipments dwindle at 6 year lows. In just the first four months of 2019, Chinese companies defaulted on $5.8 billion of domestic bonds, c.3.4x the total for the same period of 2018. The pace is over triple that of 2016.

Europe is in the dumps. Germany has had some of the worst industrial production numbers since 2008. German GDP is set to hit 0.5% for 2019. France 1.25% and Italy 0.25%. Note that in 2007, there were 78mn Europeans living in poverty. In the following decade, it hit 118mn or 23.5% of the population.

Global bellwether Parker Hannifin, which is one of the best lead indicators of global industrial growth, reported weaker orders and a soft outlook which suggests the outlook for global growth is not promising.

This election on Saturday is a choice between the lesser of two evils. The LNP has hardly made a strong case for reelection given the shambolic leadership changes. Take it to the bank that neither will be able to achieve surpluses with the backdrop we are headed into. Yet when it comes to economic stewardship, it is clear Labor are out of their depth in this election. Costings are wildly inaccurate but they are based on optimistic growth scenarios that simply don’t exist. We cannot tax our way to prosperity when global growth dives.

Hiking taxes, robbing self-managed super fund retirees and slamming the property market might play well with the classes of envy but they will be the biggest victims of any slowdown. Australia has run out of runway to keep economic growth on a positive footing.

We will do well to learn from our arrogance which has spurned foreign investment like Adani. We miscalculate the damage done to the national brand. Adani has been 8 years in the making. We have tied the deal up in so much onerous red tape, that we have done nothing more than treating our foreign investors with contempt. Those memories will not be forgotten.

There will come a point in years to come where we end up begging for foreigners to invest at home but we will only have ourselves to blame.

The editorial closes with,

However you choose to exercise your democratic decision-making on Saturday, please consider your candidate’s position on climate and the rapidly shrinking timeframe for action. We have endured mindless scare campaigns and half-baked policy for too many decades. We don’t have three more years to waste.

This is the only sensible quote in the entire article. The time for action is rapidly shrinking. However, that only applies to the political and economic climate. One can be absolutely sure that when the slowdown hits, saving the planet will be furthest removed from Aussie voters’ minds.

Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Corp Profit

While the Dow & S&P500 indices grind back higher thanks to the US Fed chickening out on a rate rise in because the economy can’t handle it, many people still overlook the fact that core US profitability has tracked sideways since 2012. 6 years of next to nada. Sure one can boost profits by adding back unrealistic  “inventory adjustments” but the reality is plain and simple. If you search for inventory adjusted earnings they’re still marginally growing but there in lies the point. Real profits aren’t.

Record buybacks fueled by cheap debt is the cause for ‘flattered’ earnings. No growth in E  just falls in S.  EPS growth can look spectacular if you ignore 50% of US corporates have BBB credit ratings or worse.

The latest lexicon is “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The idea that the central banks just manipulate markets in perpetuity. Austerity is no longer needed. Central banks print money and extinguish debts the same way. Seriously why bother with taxation? The question is if it is meant to be a sure winner, why aren’t we all living in 5 bedroom mansions with a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche in the driveway? Why not a helicopter?

Logically if central banks can buy our way out of this debt ridden hellhole, why is growth so anemic? Why is European GDP being cut back? Why is German industrial production at its worst level since 2009? Why does Salvini want to jail the Italian central bankers? Why does the Yellow Vest movement in France carry on for its 15th consecutive week? If MMT works why would the EU care if the UK leaves with No Deal? MMT can solve everything for unelected bureaucrats in theory. Even £39bn can be printed

Last year the US Fed announced it had stopped reporting its balance sheet activity. In 2006 it stopped reporting M3 money supply. Curious timing when inside 2 years the world was flung into the worst recession since 1929. Transparency is now a danger for authorities.

The question boils down to one of basic sanity. All assets are priced relative to others. It’s why an identical house with a view in a nice neighborhood trades at a relatively higher price than one in a outer suburban back lot. The market attributes extra value even if the actual dwelling is a carbon copy. It is why currencies in banana republics trade by appointment and inflation remains astronomical. Investors don’t trust their ability to repay debts unless given extremely favorable terms. Market forces at work.

To put the shoe on the other foot, if all countries adopted MMT why bother buying bonds for retirement? The interest is merely backed by a printing press. Best consume 100% and save zero. The government has moved beyond moral hazard and hopes no one will notice

Take a look at Japan. It has $10 trillion in outstanding debt which is 2x its economy. The Bank of Japan owns 60% of that paper bought through a printing press. The market for JGBs is so manipulated that several Japanese mega banks have handed back their trading licenses because it has become worthless to be on that exchange. The BoJ thinks it can make whatever prices it chooses. The ultimate aim is to convert all of the outstanding debt into a zero coupon perpetual bond with a minor ‘administration’ fee in order to assign some value to it. To the layman, a zero coupon perpetual means you get no interest on the money you lend and the borrower is technically never required to pay the borrowed amount back. Such loans are made by parents to their children, not central banks to politicians (although one could be forgiven to think their behaviour is child like).

Yet the backdrop remains the same. Consumers are tapped out in many countries. Lulled by a low interest rates forever mentality, even minute rises to stem inflation (real is different to reported) hurt. My credit card company constantly sends emails to offer to transfer balances at 9% as opposed to the 20% they can charge if I don’t pay in full.

APRA recently relented on interest only mortgages after demanding it be tightened to prevent a housing bubble getting bigger. Now mortgage holders hope the RBA cuts rates to ease their pain.

Like most new fads, MMT can’t remove the ultimate dilemma that Milton Friedman told us half a century ago. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. One can’t hope that putting money in the hands of everyone can be sustainable.

The one lesson that we should have learnt from GFC was that living at the expense of the future has rapidly diminishing returns. All we did was double down on that stupidity.

Do we think it normal that Sydney house prices  trade at levels the Japanese property bubble did in the late 1980s? Do we realize that we hold as much mortgage debt than Japanese banks did for a population 5x our size? Do we think that our banks are adequately stress tested? When an economy like ours has avoided recession for a quarter century, it builds complacency.

MMT is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. It preys on the idea that we won’t notice if we can’t see it. Unfortunately behind the scenes, the real economy can’t sustain the distortions. The French make the best modern day example of  a growing number of Main Streeters struggling  to make ends meet.

Central banks monkeying around with MMT smacks of all the same hubris of the past. It is experimental at best and reckless at worst. Markets can be manipulated for as long as confidence can be sustained. Lose the market’s trust and all of a sudden no amount of modern day jargon  can overcome what economists have known for millennia.

If you flood a global economy with cash at 5x the rate the economy can feasibly grow then it will ultimately require bigger and bigger hits to get the same bang before the jig is up. It’s a Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff got 120 years jail. Why not the central bankers?

So what is the best asset out there? Gold. It can’t be printed. It requires effort to discover it and dig it out of the ground. Of course the barbouros relic deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that were so Fort Knox might as well leave the gate open. The more it is hated only makes this contrarian investor want it more.