#greatdepression

Unemployment map by US state

Pew Research has put together an interactive map showing the level of unemployment in the US by state. It is eye opening especially as we pointed out that 99.8% or people aren’t infected and 99.99% of people haven’t died from coronavirus in the US.

Michigan currently has a quarter of the workforce unemployed. We can understand why Governor Gretchen Whitmer has 1.2 million angry natives.

Pennsylvania also has 25% unemployment to deal with. Relative infection rates in the state are marginally higher than the national average but death rates are 30% lower.

Nevada has 23% unemployment. Should we be surprised when the Mayor of Las Vegas wants to open the economy up? Nevada has a COVID 19 death rate of 1/3rd the national average.

California has 18% unemployment or an estimated 3.6 million. Once again, quelle surprise that Governor Newsom is copping flak.

New York, the epicenter of infections/deaths has 16% unemployment or 1.5 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, South Dakota is faring best at 8% unemployment. It has infection rates around 25% lower than the national average but death rates 1/10th the national average.

Flipping the data the other way, Montana has a death rate 18x less than the national average but suffers from 17% jobless.

Calculated risk taking is a must to avoid further economic damage. America’s culture is founded on risk taking not bailouts. The natives are restless and demanding their governors wake up. The risk/reward balance has tipped.

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.

IMG_0523.PNG

The financial community has merely taken advantage of all of this short-termism. Where were the financial analysts doing forensic work on companies? All of this balance sheet deterioration was plain to see.  Why couldn’t they see the obvious long term deterioration in cash conversion cycles? How could they miss that aggregate corporate after-tax profitability has been trending sideways since 2012? Where were the biopsies? We will be witness to plenty of autopsies that were preventable.

Corp Profits After Tax

For Australia’s part, 28 years of unfettered economic growth has bred untold complacency. Only now will we realise the conceited arrogance of government and industry alike. One day we will realise that all of the onerous regulations dripping in ideology (e.g. climate/environment) to confound foreign investment will blow up in our faces. They will not have forgotten that Australia is an unfriendly place to conduct business.

Australia has behaved like a bloated drunk bishop looking down upon his destitute disciples climbing the stairs on hands and knees putting what is left of their pitiful savings into the collection tin. From now, the roles will be reversed at prices that will be highly unfavourable such will be our desperation. Not to mention our currency could well depreciate to a degree which makes us even more vulnerable to foreign predators. Setting our FIRB at $0 will be irrelevant if we fold to the whims of the first suitor that shows interest. The show will be on the other foot.

In press conference after press conference, we continue to be told that hibernating companies will spring back to life and it will all be a case of ‘keep calm and carry on!’We hate to sound negative here.

However, we believe that we are merely being realistic about what is to unfold. The coming depression will force us to become truly appreciative about just how well we have had it while governments have distorted our markets. Had we truly reflected on decades of prosperity instead of wailing about how life has never been worse, things might have turned out differently. We are about to get a true taste of the latter.

On reflection, some positives will come out of this tragedy because we will focus on things that matter rather than getting enmeshed in the theatre of the absurd – identity politics and the cancel culture.

Coronavirus might be a black swan event to the global economy but we have been complicit by allowing our lawmakers and regulators to play slalom with the icebergs. We all knew our overloaded ship was in danger of listing before we left the safe harbour but it was simpler to be suckered into the weather forecasts that predicted endless sunshine and eternal millponds. The engines have now stalled because the tanks are empty. We find ourselves in the middle of a pitch-black, stormy night with howling gale-force winds and a 40-foot swell. Some continue to cling on to the blind hope that the incumbent crew can bail fast enough to avoid the economy capsizing.

It will be all in vain because the ship’s crew left a tape recorder playing on a loop over the tannoy promising passengers to stay in their cabins while they secretly slipped away in the early hours on the only lifeboats available.

Central banks had one mission – create confidence. They have been complicit in the failure. They doubled down on all of the same policies that got them in trouble in the lead up to GFC. They had a simple task of telling governments to embark on structural and tax reform. Instead, they appeased their masters by endlessly cutting rates.

Never again must central banks be allowed to use QE to rescue the economy in a downturn. Central bank balance sheets should be forced to unwind all QE assets. Interest rates must be allowed to set at normalised rates which allow positive returns but avoid reckless borrowing.

While a lot of this piece might sound pessimistic we simply view it as being a realist with experience.

Trillion Dollar Baby?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasmania 27,000 setting taxpayers back $2.7 billion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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

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

Brace yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO’s official 2017 pandemic playbook says it all

WHOTWO

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has bungled its response during the coronavirus crisis. Politics always seems to trump principle. This cartoon is particularly blunt.

In mid-January, WHO happily parroted Chinese propaganda which said, “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.” This, instead of independent verification by WHO.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s “transparency” despite whistleblower doctors being silenced by the propaganda machine. Several have sadly ended up dying.

Ghebreyesus even took potshots at governments looking to close borders to quarantine themselves on the basis of “unnecessarily interfering with international travel and trade” and “increasing fear and stigma.”

The interesting thing is that Director-General was reading straight from WHO’s very own 2017 playbook, ‘Pandemic Influenza Risk Management [PIRM]- A WHO guide to inform and harmonize national and international pandemic preparedness and response‘.

On travel, the report noted,

The International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) seeks to limit the public health measures taken in response to disease spread to those “that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.” This aligned with China’s rhetoric.

On member state cooperation,

Under the Framework, Member States are responsible for (1) ensuring the timely sharing of influenza viruses with human pandemic potential with Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS); (2) contributing to the pandemic influenza benefit-sharing system, including by working with relevant public and private institutions, organizations and entities so they make appropriate contributions to this system; and (3) continuing to support GISRS.” p.16

China covered up the extent of the problem by destroying lab samples taken in December causing the unexplained viral infections in Hubei province. Imagine what might have happened if China had been open and honest at the offset? How lucky to have a WHO that pushed China’s narrative that the spread of COVID-19 was slow?

Indeed it is the chief of WHO that calls the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and for declaring a pandemic. The PIRM report stated,

The responsibility of determining a PHEIC lies with the WHO Director-General under Article 12 of the IHR (2005). The determination of a PHEIC leads to the communication of temporary recommendations…During the period of spread of human influenza caused by a new subtype, based on risk assessment and appropriate to the situation, the WHO Director-General may make a declaration of a pandemic.”  p.14

Why did it take till March 10 for the Director-General to declare a pandemic? 64 days after the start. 118,000 people had caught COVID-19 by then. Now the number stands at 351,000.

At least there is a get out of jail free clause in WHO’s 2017 PIRM report,

Ethics do not provide a prescribed set of policies; rather, ethical considerations will be shaped by the local context and cultural values.” p.18

We guess it must be ok in WHO’s mind that China’s ethics are shaped by the culture of the Communist Party.

As to the question of the effectiveness of social distancing? WHO concluded with this vague paragraph,

Nevertheless, measures that have been associated with containment such as social distancing, hand/respiratory hygiene and judicious use of antiviral drugs may be effective in mitigating the impact of outbreaks of a new influenza subtype in individual countries. These measures are most likely to be successful and are better supported by data demonstrating effectiveness when implemented in specific local (smaller scale) circumstances, e.g. households and closed or semi-closed institutions. Although there is no evidence of any wider population-level containment effect, these measures may reduce the spread and overall impact of the pandemic and could be considered as part of a country’s national preparedness plan, depending on available resources.” p.62

Has there been an overreaction on social distancing which is likely to produce catastrophic economic side effects? If hygiene and antiviral drugs are effective, does social distancing have any impact at all? If not, aren’t governments submitting companies and employees to unnecessary hardship?

Assuming one self-isolates for 14 days, if one catches COVID-19 the first day out of quarantine was there any point to the first 14?

In Japan, peak hour trains to work remain as crowded as normal yet the country isn’t registering a severe outbreak of the disease. Close quarter drinking parties below the cherry blossoms are in full swing, yet no real signs of mass contagion. Japanese are meticulous with hygiene. Is it a factor? Japan has 1,046 cases and 44 deaths so far.

South Korea’s success would seemingly be driven by the sheer number of tests conducted on its population (270,000) which has made controlling out who needs to be isolated easier, as opposed to social distancing and hoping for the best. South Korea has tested 5,200 people per million population vs America at 74, according to the Centre for Disease Control. We don’t profess to hold any expertise in virus containment, but the data seems to bear out highly inconsistent results.

Yet it doesn’t escape the immutable fact that UN bodies, in general, have terrible track records. Why do so many countries want to entrust sovereign laws to UN groups that can’t keep their own houses in order?

In the last audited set of accounts (Dec 2018), WHO operates on a $2.9bn budget of which $931.22 million is paid in salaries across 8,153 staff or an average of $118,000 each. Although in the FY2018 financial year, expenditures totalled $2.5 billion, leaving a $442 million surplus after financial revenue. 

WHO spent $191.7 million on travel, $178 million on operating expenses and $177 million on medical supplies and materials. Medical supplies and materials are mainly purchased and distributed by WHO including vaccines, medicines, medical supplies, hospital running costs, fuel, as well as related shipping costs.

Contracted services look an interesting line item at $781 million. Medical research activities and security expenses are also included in contractual services. 

Despite Ebola in 2014, MERS in 2012, H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009 and SARS in 2002 it is hard to ignore the fact that with over 8,150 well-paid staff members WHO can’t construct a better policy prescription in limiting the spread other than provide sketchy anecdotal data on what methods seemed effective in containing the spread? Perhaps China can loan some propaganda ministry staff to better shape the responses. That’s right, they already have.

Let’s not forget that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus proposed former Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO ambassador in 2017. It is not hard to see where the lack of judgment comes from.

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?

Macron invites moral hazard

President Macron of France wants to suspend all utility and rent payments for 30 days. So what if Coronavirus lasts 6-9 months? Will landlords get special treatment from the banks to suspend loan payments on those properties forced into providing free rent?What about banks who have to pay for staff with reduced income because loan payments are frozen? Who pays? The very people the government is trying to help.

How long can a country subsidize employers and employees? What will happen when those French citizens who end up 6mths in arrears on rent? Should we expect that they have prudently set aside those payments to hand over as a lump sum to their generous landlords? Will the tenants claim that they had to spend it on other things and ask for the government to pay on their behalf? Of course they will.

These are the first steps to guaranteeing moral hazard. This misguided altruism will backfire big time. The vicious circle will mean the people he tried to help will end up in a worse place after it. Higher taxes, fewer jobs and more handouts with money that has been borrowed or printed.

What next? Bail out restaurants, bars and cafes that are affected by shutdowns?

We are staring at a Great Depression. No one likes to talk about it but we can’t just expect economies to shutdown for 2 months or more and then go back to business as usual once the whole pandemic has been defeated like nothing ever happened.

Take the example of a cafe. Most coffee shops buy in muffins and pastries. So if the coffee shop must cease trading for a while, it will tell its bakery to halt deliveries. Same for the coffee bean makers. And the coffee cup suppliers. They’ll tell their raw materials providers to stop until further notice. And so on and so on. The cafe will temporarily lay off staff. As will the baker, bean supplier and others.

Some staff or owners may have mortgages. Many won’t be able to meet monthly payments. They could default. Their homes could be repossessed by the banks which will then be faced with marking to market the value of the property on their loan books which could technically wipe out all their thin equity. Then the banks will be forced to ask for a bail out. Housing prices implode. Australia, are you listening?

Then home owners struggling to make payments cut back on non essentials. Out go gym memberships and cable TV subscriptions. Buying a latte becomes a luxury.

We are all going to have to realize we will have little choice but to click the big fat RESET button if the economy is to recover properly and soundly. It will be painful and bring out the worst in people but experience is a hard teacher. We’ll get the test first and the lesson afterwards.

And for Australia, which has experienced 28 years of non stop growth, the shock will be exacerbated because of so much complacency.

In a nutshell we all need to relearn the word “personal responsibility“. Governments are only doing everything in their power to remove us having to be accountable for anything.

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.

Forget the return “ON” your money. Just look to the return “OF” it

CM knew a lot of passive indices existed but not to this crazy extent. Probably explains why there is so much stupid money tied up in me too commoditised investment products. 4 years ago CM wrote a piece on the dangers of ETFs (especially leveraged)  and passive products in a downturn. These products predominantly follow the market, not lead it. So if these products end up stampeding toward the exits in a market meltdown, the extent will be amplified, especially those levered funds potentially making market panic look worse than it really might otherwise be. Don’t be surprised to see the mainstream media sensationalise the size of any falls in the market.

According to Bloomberg, 770,000 benchmark indexes were scrapped globally in 2019…however  2.96 million indexes remain around the world, according to a new report from the Index Industry Association…There are an estimated 630,000 stocks that trade globally, including c.2,800 stocks on the NYSE and c. 3,330 on NASDAQ or 5x as many indices as there are securities globally.

CM wrote back in October 2015,

ETFs are hitting the market faster than the dim-sum trolley can circle the banquet hall. Charles Schwab, in the 12 months to July 2015, saw a 130-fold preference of ETF over mutual funds given their relative simplicity, cost and transparency….

…ETFs, despite increasing levels of sophistication, have brought about higher levels of market volatility. Studies have shown that a one standard deviation move of S&P500 ETF ownership as a percentage of total outstanding shares carries 21% excess intraday volatility. Regulators are also realising that limit up/down rules are exacerbating risk pricing and are seeking to revise as early as October 2015. In less liquid markets excess volatility has proved to be 54% higher with ETFs than the actual underlying indices. As more bearish market activity has arrived since August 2015 we investigate how ETFs may impact given a large part of recent existence has been under more favourable conditions…

CEO Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF creator, has made it clear that
leveraged ETFs (at present 1.2% of total ETF AUM) have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.” The argument is that the underlying assets that provide the leverage (which tend to have less liquidity) could cause losses very quickly in volatile markets. To put this in perspective we looked at the Direxion Daily Fin Bull 3x (FAS) 3x leverage of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index. As illustrated in the following chart FAS in volatile markets tends to overshoot aggressively

…The point Mr Fink is driving at is more obvious with the following chart which shows in volatile markets, the average daily return is closer to 10x (in both directions) than the 3x it is seeking to offer. This is post any market meltdown. On a daily basis, the minimum and maximum has ended up being -1756x to 1483x of the index return, albeit those extremes driven by the law of small numbers of the return of the underlying index. Which suggests that in a nasty downturn the ETF performance of the leveraged plays could be well outside the expectations of the holders.”

CM has said for many years, where CDOs and CDSs required the intelligence of a mystical hermit atop a mountain in the Himalayas to understand the complexities, ETFs are the complete opposite. Super easy to understand which inadvertently causes complacency. Unfortunately, as much as they might try to do as written on the tin, the reality could well turn out to be the exact opposite.

Hence CM continues to believe that stocks with low levels of corporate social responsibility (CSR) scores like tobacco companies such s Philip Morris, JT and Imperial Tobacco, as well as gold/silver bullion,  look the places to be invested. Cash won’t necessarily be king because the banks are already in a world of pain that hasn’t even truly started yet. Aussie banks look like screaming shorts at these levels. The easiest way for the plebs – without access to a prime broker – to do this is to buy put options on individual bank names. Out of the money options are dirt cheap.

Banks

Forget the return ONyour money. Just look to the returnOFit.

NB, none of this constitutes investment advice. It is a reflection of where CM is invested only. 

 

The Grim Repo

What a surprise to see markets show little reaction to the negative repo (repurchase agreements) market in the past week. So much nonchalance and complacency remain in financial markets. It is as if there is this false belief that the authorities can keep the ship afloat with magical modern monetary theory. Not a chance. The tipping points in the financial markets are quantum levels bigger than any that Sir David Attenborough could conjure up in his wildest pessimistic dreams. If we want to cut carbon emissions, the coming economic slump will take care of that.

On average there are $1 trillion of overnight repo transactions every day, collateralised with US Treasuries. Yet many missed that the repo market seized up late last week. Medium-term repos surged from the normal band of around 2.00~2.25% to around 5.25% on Monday. Some repo rates hit 10% on Tuesday.

Essentially what this said was that a bank must have seen that it was worth borrowing at an 8% premium overnight in return for pledging ‘risk-free’ US Treasuries at 2%. In any event, it allowed that particular bank to survive for another day. Banks use the repo market to fund the loans they issue and finance trades that are executed. It is like an institutional pawn shop.

Looking at it another way, why weren’t other banks willing to lend and take an 8% risk-free trade? A look at the global bank’s share price action would suggest that these bedrock financial institutions that grease the wheels of the economy are not in good shape. We just pretend they are. We look at the short term performance but ignore the deterioration in underlying balance sheets. The Aussie banks are future crash test dummies given the huge leverage to mortgages. As CM has been saying for years, the Big 4 risk whole or part nationalisation.

This recent repo action is reminiscent of that before the GFC. The Fed stepped in with $75bn liquidity per day to stabilise markets by bringing rates into the target range. The question is whether the repo action is a short-term aberration or the start of a longer-term quasi QE programme which turns into a full-blown QE programme.

The easiest way to look at the repo market action is to say the private markets are struggling to be self-funding, requiring central bank intervention. Bank of America believes the Fed may have to buy upwards of $400bn of securities to back the repo market this year alone.  This is another canary in the coal mine.

CM wrote a long piece back in July 2016 titled, “Dire Straits for Central Bankers.” In that report, we described how the velocity of money in the system was continuing to drift. As of now, central banks have printed the equivalent of $140 trillion since 2008 but have only managed to eke out $20 trillion in GDP growth. That is $7 of debt only generates $1 of GDP equivalent.

This is the problem. Companies are struggling to grow. US aggregate after-tax profits have gone sideways since 2012. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of aggressive share buyback programs that flatter EPS, despite the anaemic trend.

Despite the asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property, pension funds, especially public sector retirement schemes, are at risk of insolvency given the unrealistic return assumptions and nose bleed levels of unfunded liabilities in the trillions.

Also worthy of note is the daily turnover of the gold derivatives market which has hit $280bn in recent months, or 850x daily mine production. This will put a lot more pressure on the gold physical market and also to those ETFs that have promissory notes against gold, as opposed to having it properly allocated.

We live in a world of $300 trillion of debt, $1.5 quadrillion in derivatives – until this is expunged and we start again, the global economy will struggle. That will also require the “asset” values to be similarly wiped out. Equity markets will plunge 90-95% relative to gold. That suggests a 1929 style great depression. The debt bubble is too big. Central banks have lost control.

Buy Gold.