#RBA

Credit is normalising, but… excellent commentary from Narrow Road Capital

If you haven’t done so already, we strongly encourage people to sign up to Narrow Road Capital’s insights on high yield and distressed credit markets. Even better it is free. Jonathan really puts together his thoughts in a very digestible format.

Jonathan has penned this excellent summary of the state of debt markets and cautions us not to get too excited. We have highlighted the things that stood out for us.

Credit is Normalising, But…

Credit securities, both in Australia and globally are getting back on their feet. The bookbuilds this week of $1 billion of corporate debt by Woolworths, $1.25 billion of RMBS by La Trobe and the $500 million of hybrids by Macquarie are all positive signs. However, secondary trading in many debt sectors is light and a few sectors remain moribund. Whilst the signs are generally encouraging, three dark clouds on the horizon point to the possibility of worsening conditions.

The leverage fuelled, panic driven sell-off started on February 24 and ran until March 23 . The circuit breaker was the Federal Reserve’s announcement of “unlimited quantitative easing”. At that time, there were widespread reports of global investors struggling to sell even the highest quality government bonds. Given how dire it was, it has been a relatively quick journey back from the abyss.

In Australia, major bank senior bonds recovered first and are now trading at similar spreads to three months ago. Corporate and securitisation debt has had a far slower recovery with trading remaining patchy. The large issuance this week by Woolworths and La Trobe, as well as a smaller issue by Liberty showed that buyers were willing to return. But unlike major bank bonds, spreads on corporate and securitisation debt have been reset at much higher levels.

At the same time as credit markets are improving, the economic outlook is also brightening in some ways with the gradual easing of restrictions on business. There is a growing view that the worst of Covid-19 has past and that a vaccine or drug treatment might not be far away. The optimism of the human spirit seems boundless with some investors seeing the pandemic as just another opportunity to buy the dip.

Where many investors are seeing mostly positives, I’m seeing mostly negatives. Australia has gone nearly 30 years without a recession leaving our economy fat and lazy. Asset prices (notably housing) have been propped up by population growth, credit growth and interest rates cuts, all factors unlikely to repeat. We’ve had over a decade of Federal Government deficits, destroying the legacy of Peter Costello’s decade of fiscal discipline. The economic buffers we had before the last crisis have been frittered away, leaving Australia poorly placed to withstand and rebound from the current economic and financial crisis. Given this backdrop, there are three standout risks for investors to factor in.

Remember 2007 – Fundamentals Matter

The bounce back in the last two months reminds me a great deal of 2007. In July 2007 credit markets slammed into a brick wall with credit default swaps and CDOs taking substantial damage. Bank bonds sold off as the riskier European banks started to have their solvency questioned. Yet after an initial shock, some of the markdowns turned around offering a window to get out with limited losses.

At first, equities and property continued on their merry way oblivious to the damage in credit markets. Australian equities peaked in October 2007 but held near record levels until January 2008. In December 2007, the property sector was slammed as Centro disclosed it couldn’t roll over its debt. Both at the time and in hindsight, the second half of 2007 was a bizarre period where fundamentals and market prices were so divergent. Given the medium term outlook for Australia includes significant unemployment and business failures, it is hard not to conclude that most investors are ignoring the fundamentals, just like they did in 2007.

Quantitative Easing

If the global debt markets are likened to plumbing, then quantitative easing is the duct tape used to cover the cracks. Central bank buying of government debt has delivered liquidity to debt markets at a time when governments and corporates are going on record borrowing sprees. If investors weren’t able to sell assets to governments via quantitative easing programs, they wouldn’t have capacity to buy the new issuance and bond yields would soar. Quantitative easing is beating back the bond vigilantes temporarily.

Australia has been a late entrant to this charade but is making up for lost time with the RBA hoovering up 7% of Australian government bonds in two months. At this rate, they will own the entire government bond market by the end of 2022. Whilst the RBA buying government bonds is the main game, there’s also been cheap funding for banks and the securitisation market. It’s no longer a case of merely providing liquidity against super safe assets, the recent purchases of sub-investment grade securitisation tranches come with the meaningful possibility of capital losses.

Whilst quantitative easing has yet to hit its unknown limits in developed economies, emerging markets have shown what happens when citizens and investors lose confidence in a fiat currency. The widespread use of US dollars in Argentina, Ecuador, Lebanon, Venezuela and Zimbabwe is the practical outworking of a country adopting funny money practices. At some point, the duct tape stops working and the value of the currency goes down the drain.

Global High Yield and Emerging Market Debt

Whilst most credit sectors are recovering well, corporate high yield debt and emerging market debt are on life support. The US high debt market has recovered around half of the losses that occurred since mid-February. However, this has been a quality driven rally with BB rated companies able to issue whilst B- and CCC rated companies are stuck in the doghouse. Several failed transactions have been a clear warning that lenders have little appetite for companies that can’t demonstrate their solvency in the medium term. The weaker airlines, energy companies and tourism associated businesses are looking at their cash positions and making calls about when to enter bankruptcy.

It’s a similar outlook for the weaker sovereign borrowers, particularly in emerging markets. The years leading up to this crisis saw an explosion in lending to the lowest rated sovereigns. Many of these countries are now turning to the IMF for bailouts; at last count roughly half of the world’s countries had put their hands up for help. There’s a global wave of jobs that will be lost as the weakest companies and countries are forced to reign in their spending. Whilst investors are pricing in a solid probability of defaults, they are ignoring the wider economic impacts of defaulting borrowers on the global economy.

Written by Jonathan Rochford for Narrow Road Capital on 16 May 2020. Comments and criticisms are welcomed and can be sent to info@narrowroadcapital.com

Disclosure

This article has been prepared for educational purposes and is in no way meant to be a substitute for professional and tailored financial advice. It contains information derived and sourced from a broad list of third parties and has been prepared on the basis that this third party information is accurate. This article expresses the views of the author at a point in time, and such views may change in the future with no obligation on Narrow Road Capital or the author to publicly update these views. Narrow Road Capital advises on and invests in a wide range of securities, including securities linked to the performance of various companies and financial institutions.

Sheepishly downloading the COVIDSafe app is a warning for all of us

NSA raises significant concern to Government abattoir proposal ...

We have no problem with people individually choosing to sign up to the COVIDSafe application launched yesterday. After all, it is voluntary and we believe in personal freedom. However, we are perplexed why so many people feel compelled to post their newfound compliance on social media feeds. It is this blind obedience that worries us.

It is hard to see such self-promotion on social media as anything more than the same virtue-signalling mindset of those who drape their social media avatars with the flag of the country where innocent people were slain by terrorists. Comments such as “I’m doing my bit” reign supreme. Why do people so sheepishly comply to sign up to this when the data is seriously unconvincing to warrant its introduction? Should we report our friends who haven’t publicly declared their status? Admitting one has signed up to COVIDSafe is borderline accepting to become a slave.

The most important point people need to consider is that there is absolutely zero downside for the government during and after this crisis. Remember that number – ZERO. If the economy goes into a prolonged recession or depression, our politicians can simply play the “we did it to save lives” card and tell us it was all for our own good. They can claim they couldn’t have done anything else. Unfortunately, we bear all the risk no matter what the outcome. That is a bad equation in any language. Why would anyone willingly sign up to it?

Indeed, saving lives should be congratulated, not censured. Still, at what point will we realise that the draconian measures put in place are leaving a disproportionate drag on the economy? As we wrote yesterday, if we take the JobKeeper support package alone, it presently costs $1.5 billion per death. Or $19.5 million per infection. The $130bn JobKeeper program is almost as much as the annual federal expenditure on education, healthcare and defence spend combined, three of the four largest budget items. Is this sustainable? If we stay in lockdown beyond the date of the package, this universal income will undoubtedly be extended.

There is a snowball’s chance in hell that we will have a V-shaped recovery. Our central bank might send us comforting lies to maintain the illusion that they are competent but it simply won’t happen.

Our authorities have suggested that the domestic economy comprises 75% of GDP which will provide a great cushion but on what planet do they believe that a crushed export sector which employs so many can be airbrushed to give us a V? Double-digit unemployment, at levels double or treble the present figures will all but guarantee a slower recovery. With household debt exceeding 180% of GDP, any future spending will be directed at rebuilding the balance sheet, not consumption. We’ll be lucky to get an L!!

There will be no normality after COVID19 abates. So much of our domestic future will be driven by the rest of the world’s approach to their own economies. Our neighbours will undoubtedly pursue more nationalist policies which prioritise domestic production. They will also need to contend with the likely aggressive reset of their own relative risk weighting, currency and fiscal positions. For anyone to believe that the magic pixie dust sprinkled by Canberra will avoid any calamity is dangerously naive.

Australia faces a $1 trillion deficit. Await the raft of new taxes on housing, inheritance and income to pay for it. We will absolutely hate what is coming. The sad thing is that we could have taken the pain over a decade ago yet we put short term expediency ahead of rational principle and now await the consequences. We are reaping what we sowed.

Much of the reasoning given by Aussies to sign up has been this belief that it will accelerate the government’s ability to reopen the economy sooner. If the government requires this sort of overlaying safeguard on top of the 99.98% of Australians that don’t knowingly carry the coronavirus or the 99.9997% who haven’t died from it, we should worry about our lawmakers’ ability to manage risk. Seriously.

Why are governments using future hard dates to consider reopening the economy? If today is the best day to do so, why wait till May 30th? Our own experience is that people are broadly respecting the social distancing guidelines. Sure, some might hang out in a park to break the monotony of staying indoors, but we are falling for the taglines from the government to #StayHome a bit too literally. The government should be rebuilding confidence. It isn’t. This app is unlikely to do much given the law of already minuscule numbers. It is all a feel-good measure.

With more than one million COVIDSafe app downloads in the first hour, many have proven that we are willing to conform to guidelines at a moments notice without considering the underlying facts. We saw this during the bushfire season. People blindly donated millions to the rural fire services when we proved their administrative skills were so severely lacking that these monies would unlikely be spent wisely.

In closing, many citizens have sent a wonderful signal to the government that they can easily strip more freedoms away by using panic as a tool to achieve it. The longer the economy is left to rot, the easier it will be to drown obedient plebs in even more regulations and restrictions because we failed to stand up and question the methodology. We will continue to do so. After all, former US President Ronald Reagan once said,

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

The one fatal flaw experts forget when seeking to mimic #Abenomics style endurance

Pain

Over three decades ago, the Japanese introduced a TV programme titled, ‘Za Gaman‘ which stood for ‘endurance‘. It gathered a whole bunch of male university students who were challenged with barbaric events which tested their ability to endure pain because the producer thought these kids were too soft and self-entitled. Games included being chained to a truck and dragged along a gravel road with only one’s bare buttocks. Another was to be suspended upside down in an Egyptian desert where men with magnifying glasses trained the sun’s beam on their nipples while burning hot sand was tossed on them. The winner was the one who could last the longest.

Since the Japanese bubble collapsed in the early 1990s, a plethora of think tanks and central banks have run scenario analyses on how to avoid the pitfalls of a protracted period of deflation and low growth that plagued Japan’s lost decades. They think they could do far better. We disagree.

There is one absolutely fatal flaw with all arguments made by the West. The Japanese are conditioned in shared suffering. Of course, it comes with a large slice of reluctance but when presented with the alternatives the government knew ‘gaman’ would be accepted by the nation. It was right.

We like to think of Japan, not as capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots. Having lived there for twenty years we have to commend such commitment to social adhesion. It is a large part of the fabric of Japanese culture which is steeped in mutual respect. If the West had one lesson to learn from Japan it would be this. Unfortunately, greed, individualism and self-entitlement will be our Achilles’ heels.

It is worth noting that even Japan has its limits. At a grassroots level, we are witnessing the accelerated fraying of that social kimono. Here are 10 facts taken from our ‘Crime in Japan‘ series – ‘Geriatric Jailbirds‘, ‘Breakup of the Nuclear Family‘ and the ‘Fraud, Drugs, Murders, Yakuza and the Police‘ which point to that old adage that ‘all is not what it seems!

  1. Those aged over 65yo comprise 40% of all shoplifting in Japan and represent the highest cohort in Japanese prisons.
  2. 40% of the elderly in prison have committed the same crime 6x or more. They are breaking into prison to get adequate shelter, food and healthcare.
  3. Such has been the influx in elderly felons that the Ministry of Justice has expanded prison capacity 50% and directed more healthcare resources to cope with the surge in ageing inmates.
  4. To make way for more elderly inmates more yakuza gangsters have been released early.
  5. 25% of all weddings in Japan are shotgun.
  6. Child abuse cases in Japan have skyrocketed 25x in the last 20 years.
  7. Single-parent households comprise 25% of the total up from 15% in 1990.
  8. Domestic violence claims have quadrupled since 2005. The police have had to introduce a new category of DV that is for divorced couples living under the same roof (due to economic circumstances).
  9. The tenet of lifetime employment is breaking down leading to a trebling of labour disputes being recorded as bullying or harassment.
  10. In 2007, the government changed the law entitling wives to up to half of their husband’s pension leading to a surge in divorces.

These pressures were occurring well before the introduction of Abenomics – the three arrow strategy of PM Shinzo Abe – 1) aggressive monetary policy, 2) fiscal consolidation and 3) structural reform.

Since 2013, Abenomics seemed to be working. Economic growth picked up nicely and even inflation seemed like it might hit a sustainable trajectory. Luckily, Japan had the benefit of a debt-fueled global economy to tow it along. This is something the West and Japan will not have the luxury of when the coronavirus economic shutdown ends.

However, Japan’s ageing society is having an impact on the social contract, especially in the regional areas. We wrote a piece in February 2017, titled ‘Make Japan Great Again‘ where we analysed the mass exodus from the regions to the big cities in order to escape the rapidly deteriorating economic prospects in the countryside.

Almost 25 years ago, the Japanese government embarked on a program known as
‘shichosongappei’ (市町村合併)which loosely translates as mergers of cities and towns. The total number of towns halved in that period so local governments could consolidate services, schools and local hospitals. Not dissimilar to a business downsizing during a recession.

While the population growth of some Western economies might look promising versus Japan, we are kidding ourselves to think we can copy and paste what Nippon accomplished when we have relatively little social cohesion. What worked for them won’t necessarily apply with our more mercenary approach to economic systems, financial risk and social values.

Sure, we can embark on a path that racks up huge debts. We can buy up distressed debt and repackage it as investment grade but there is a terminal velocity with this approach.

The Bank of Japan is a canary in the coalmine. It has bought 58% of all ETFs outstanding which makes up 25% of the market. This is unsustainable. The BoJ is now a top 10 shareholder of over half of all listed stocks on the index. At what point will investors be able to adequately price risk when the BoJ sits like a lead balloon on the shareholder registry of Mitsui Bussan or Panasonic?

Will Boeing investors start to question their investment when the US Fed (we think it eventually gets approval to buy stocks) becomes the largest shareholder via the back door? Is the cradle of capitalism prepared to accept quasi state-owned enterprises? Are we to blindly sit back and just accept this fate despite this reduction in liquidity?

This is what 7 years of Abenomics has brought us. The BoJ already has in excess of 100% of GDP in assets on its balance sheet, up from c.20% when the first arrow was fired. We shouldn’t forget that there have been discussions to buy all ¥1,000 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Will global markets take nicely to erasing 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press?

Who will determine the value of those assets when the BoJ or any other central bank for that matter is both the buyer and seller. If the private sector was caught in this scale of market manipulation they’d be fined billions and the perpetrators would end up serving long jail sentences.

Can we honestly accept continual debt financing of our own budget deficit? Japan has a ¥100 trillion national budget. ¥60 trillion is funded by taxes. The remainder of ¥40 trillion (US$400 billion) is debt-financed every single year. Can we accept the RBA printing off whatever we need every year to close the deficit for decade upon decade?

In a nutshell, we can be assured that central banks and treasuries around the world will be dusting off the old reports of how to escape the malaise we are in. Our view is that they will fail.

What will start off as a promising execution of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), rational economics will dictate that the gap between the haves and the have nots will grow even wider. Someone will miss out. Governments will act like novice plate spinners with all of the expected consequences.

In our opinion, the world will change in ways most are not prepared for. We think the power of populism has only started. National interests will be all that matters. Political correctness will cease. Identity politics will die. All the average punter will care about is whether they can feed their family. Nothing else will matter. Climate change will be a footnote in history as evidenced by the apparition that was Greta Thunberg who had to tell the world she caught COVID19 even though she was never tested.

Moving forward, our political class will no longer be able to duck and weave. Only those that are prepared to tell it like it is will survive going forward. The constituents won’t settle for anything else. Treat them as mugs and face the consequences, just like we saw with Boris Johnson’s landslide to push through Brexit.

The upcoming 2020 presidential election will shake America to its foundations. Do voters want to go back to the safety of a known quantity that didn’t deliver for decades under previous administrations and elect Biden or still chance Project Molotov Cocktail with Trump?

What we know for sure is that Trump would never have seen the light of day had decades of previous administrations competently managed the economy. COVID19 may ultimately work in Trump’s favour because his record, as we fact-checked at the time of SOTU, was making a considerable difference.

Whatever the result, prepare to gaman!

 

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)

A reminder of where Aussies are employed

Graph 7: This graph shows the proportions of forms of employment, by industry. Construction has the highest proportion of independent contractors while agriculture has the highest proportion of other business operators

It is worth reflecting on which industries the bulk of Aussie jobs sit. This schematic is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

We have the heaviest tilt toward healthcare and social assistance at over 1.7 million jobs. Retail trade comes 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 900k.

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.

That means in the six aforementioned sectors, 53% of Australians in the workforce are employed.

Note that since 1978, Australia has had a 1.74x increase on Full-Time employment and a 4.6x jump in Part-Time in that time. That means the ratio of FT jobs has fallen from 84.9% to 68.3% and PT rose from 15.1% to 31.7% over the same period.

PT employment for men has surged by 6.9x to 1.31 million and female PT jobs have grown 3.9x to 2.8 million.

FT employment for men has increased 1.5x for men to 5.53 million jobs and for women, it has grown 2.8x to 3.35 million.

There are also 708,000 workers aged 40-64 who have multiple jobs. This is up from 646,000 in 2011/12. Total people working in multiple jobs has increased from 1.85 million in 2011/12 to 2.105 million in 2016/17.

We don’t think that the RBA’s latest 0.25% + QE, nor federal/state spending in the current climate can see off mass unemployment. We have written about this in previous posts. We wrote a larger tome on the dire straits facing central banks here.

Surely lightning can’t strike twice, RBA?

The video posted here is of then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson who steered the US financial system through the GFC. He is speaking to the Financial Services Committee in 2009. Perhaps the most important quote was the one that world central banks failed to heed –

Our next task is to address the problems in the financial system through a reform program that fixes our outdated financial regulatory structure and that provides strong measures to address other flaws and excesses.

Central banks across the globe honestly believe in fairytales to think they have learnt the lessons of 2008 or 2000 for that matter. Sadly they continue to use the only tool they possess – a hammer – which would be great if every problem they encountered was actually a nail.

When will people realise that had central banks practised prudent monetary policy over the past 20 years, they would possess the ammunition to be able to effectively steer the economy through Coronavirus? Everything the RBA and government are deploying is too little and too late. They never ran proper crisis scenarios and are now scrambling to cobble together an ill-contrived strategy wasting $10s of billions in the process all at our expense.

Central banks only have one role – to support markets with consistently sound monetary policy that creates confidence in the marketplace. Not run around like headless chooks and make knee-jerk responses and follow other central banks off a cliff like lemmings to disguise their own incompetency. The willful negligence displayed by our monetary authorities needs to be recognised. The RBA has got the economy trapped in a housing bubble of their own creation.

So when the RBA talks about, “Australia’s financial system is resilient and it is well placed to deal with the effects of the coronavirus” it couldn’t be further from the truth.

While it is true to say that Australia is relatively more healthy than other economies in terms of the percentage of GDP in national debt, the problem is we rely on the health of our foreign neighbours. 37.5% of our exports go to China. What is the first thing that will happen when our trading partners suffer economic weakness at home? Nations that exercise common sense will look to push domestic production and supply so as to boost their local economies. It is a natural process.

Sadly the RBA, APRA and ASIC have been too busy convincing us that climate change was a priority rather than getting businesses to focus on sensible commercially viable shareholder-friendly strategies. Some groups like the AMA have been encouraged to parade their climate alarmist virtues on breakfast TV.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on fireproofing our establishments from ruthless cutthroat overseas competitors, our businesses and commerce chambers waste time on chasing equality and diversity targets instead of striving to just be the “best in class”.

Sure, we may have certain raw materials (that the lunatic Greens and Extinction Rebellion protestors will do their best to shut down) that China or other nations will rely on, our service sector weighted economy will be crushed. Almost $250bn, a fifth of our GDP, derives from exports.

Just look at Australian business investment as a % of GDP dwindle at 1994 lows. Mining, engineering, machinery and even building investment are nowhere.

That means our ridiculously high level of personal debt will become a problem. It stands at 180% of GDP as recorded by the RBA on p.7 of its Chart Pack. Most of this debt is linked to housing. Housing prices should crater should coronavirus not be solved in short order. Delinquencies will surge. Families that are funding a mortgage with two incomes may end up being forced to do in with one. Then we cut our gym memberships, Foxtel and stop buying coffee from our local cafe. It is the chain reaction we need to be wary of.

That will work wonders for banks with 60-70% mortgage exposure and precious little equity to offset any ructions in housing prices. If you thought Japan was bad after its bubble collapsed – you ain’t seen nothing yet. By the time this is over we could well see Australian banks begging for bailouts. Note that cutting interest rates further kills interest rate spreads and smacks the dollar which hikes the cost of wholesale funding which these banks heavily rely on.

Yet our RBA knows that it must choose the lesser of two evils. It needs to keep the bubble inflated at all costs because the blood that would come from bank failure is just not worth contemplating. Maybe if they had listened to Hank Paulson they might have been able to hold their heads high rather than showing off, the fool’s version of glory.

Milton Friedman once said,

The power to determine the quantity of money… is too important, too pervasive, to be exercised by a few people, however public-spirited, if there is any feasible alternative. There is no need for such arbitrary power… Any system which gives so much power and so much discretion to a few men, [so] that mistakes – excusable or not – can have such far-reaching effects, is a bad system. It is a bad system to believers in freedom just because it gives a few men such power without any effective check by the body politic – this is the key political argument against an independent central bank.

How right he was. When the economy tanks, await the RBA and government pointing fingers at each other when both failed to avert the coming crisis which had been so bleeding obvious for so long.

Batten down your hatches.

Central banks use coronavirus as a convenient cover-up

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Where would we be without central banks? The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has trimmed another 25bps of the cash rate to 0.5%, an all-time low and the fourth cut in 9 months.  It is amazing how central banks can shape-shift from climate scientists to doctors.

Given the recent three rate cuts were unrelated to coronavirus and have failed to stimulate the economy as hoped, the pandemic has allowed the RBA to continue its limited ammunition under the context of rescuing us.

We aren’t supporters of ever more rate cuts, truth be told. Yet if central banks want to keep the disco ball spinning, why bother with a sissy 0.25%? If the RBA wants to jolt the economy back to life it would have been better to go straight to zero. Show the markets they are serious rather than drip-feed to the inevitable.

No doubt we will get the usual song and dance from politicians goading banks into passing on the full rate cut to customers. This time banks will probably fold on the back of the Hayne Royal Commission even though the truth is their funding costs won’t fall by the full amount meaning profit will be forgone for the sake of keeping up appearances.

Think through the logic. Last month, China PMI plunged to 35.7 from 50 in January, the lowest reading since January 2005  38.8 during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Australia’s next economic print will be awful. Pushing through a miserly 0.25% won’t put a spring in people’s step unless they see a cycle. Personal credit growth is negative and at levels not seen since the GFC. Housing and business credit growth are at 6-yr lows. Money velocity is slowing. Business investment is at 1994 lows. Nothing to see here.

The economy needs proper industrial, structural and tax reform. After 28 years of untrammelled growth, Australia needs to realise that the complacency bred over that period will come back to haunt if we don’t wake up from the sleep walk.

As Jonathan Rochford of Narrowroad Capital said,

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

Don’t believe the hype. Coronavirus has given another excuse to cover up failed central bank policy alongside climate change green swans.

When climate alarmists start trusting bankers

If global warming alarmists ever wanted to pick an industry as steeped in unreliable forecasts as climate scientists, one would find it hard to beat investment banking. Having been in that industry for two decades, the list of woefully misguided and poorly researched puff pieces is endless. There is a reason global banks are trading at fractions of their former peaks. They don’t add much value and most never picked the GFC of 2008. If they were smarter, greed wouldn’t require recessions.

Never mind. When JP Morgan economists are portending climate doom, why not hitch them to your global warming wagon? There is a kind of conflict of interest. Evil, greedy fat bonus paying tax avoiding corporates preaching virtue on climate.

By the way, you won’t find a research analyst who believes they don’t deserve air travel at the pointy end and luxury limousine transfers to and from the airport.

Yet they are aligned with the hypocrites at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) which told us at the 1500 private jet junket at Davos that it’s central bank members are “climate rescuers of last resort.” This despite their monetary policies having played a major part in fueling overconsumption via the debt bubble. Ultra low interest rates will ultimately have a profound effect on carbon emissions – a global economic crisis of epic proportions which won’t require one wind turbine or solar farm to achieve. They’ll save the climate by destroying the wellbeing of so many in the process.

On the one hand, JP Morgan can now claim some kudos for allowing such free thinking which isn’t at the behest of the investment banking team.

Maybe it’s worth pointing out that most banks keep meticulous (but useless) data on the readership of such reports. Much like the media chasing advertising dollars through clickbait, research analysts strive for internal point scoring to boost their year end review chances to push for bigger bonuses to their excel spreadsheet obsessed line managers who look at quantity, not quality. So if a warmest piece can create noise, irrespective of the quality of the content, then that serves a purpose for internal bosses.

Such has been the hollowing out of investment banking research teams, the last remaining life jackets are in short supply. It was only last year that Deutsche Bank closed its entire global equity platform. While regulation is part of the problem, there is simply very little value add to convince clients to pay for.

While the report supposedly chastised the bank’s lending of $75bn to the fossil fuel industry, in a world of ESG, which puts ideology ahead of risk assessment, JP Morgan can now claim it has seen the light so it can hopefully fool green tech companies in need of cash that they are worthy environmentally friendly financiers. This will also give the public relations team a welcome talking piece to the media and ESG retirement fund managers that they practice social responsibility.

Back to the report. On what pretense do the JP Morgan analysts have for the climate crisis threatening the human race? Citing the IPCC (where scientists have slammed the processes which prioritize gender and ethnicity over ability and qualification) and the IMF (which couldn’t pick economic growth it it tried) are hardly the sort of data one would gladly source as gospel to compile a report.

It seems everyone is an expert on climate change nowadays. Central banks, ASIC, APRA, RBA, the Australian Medical Association and now investment banks. As we pointed out earlier in the week, where were the scientists who made a b-line to speak at the National Climate Emergency summit in Melbourne? That’s right 2/3rds were activists, lobbyists, left-wing media and academics with no scientific background.

You know when alarmists are channeling bankers, that they are running out of credible evidence. Even worse, most banks have an uncanny ability to act as contrarian indicators.

We can be sure that a whole lot of malinvestment will continue thanks to governments trying to declare emergencies to justify infrastructure spending to replace sensible business friendly structural reforms that would have a far better chance of keeping them in power for longer.

In closing, it seems even the media has lost faith in investment bank research, choosing to channel NY Mets baseball pitchers for commentary on stocks instead.

Which government racked up the most debt in Australia?

Irresponsible! How conservatives used to hammer the Rudd/Gillard/Swan Labor government for squandering the massive surplus left by the Coalition under Howard/Costello. Yes, it was huge, but our current Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Coalition is supposedly responsible for over half of the total of all gross debt since 1854 according to the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM). Is this true?

A question posed from a subscriber to FNF Media was, “what has driven the Australian debt since 2013?

First, a preamble.

We’ve seen this picture before. The Obama Administration almost ran up more national debt than all 43 previous administrations combined. From $10.699 trillion to $19.976 trillion. Federal debt as a % of GDP expanded from 64.4% to 105.2%. The latest count under Trump is $22.7 trillion, or 105.4%, virtually unchanged.

It is not an uncommon trend in other countries either. EU central government debt has grown from 52.6% in 2007 to 89.3% today. Japan has jumped from 134% to 196.4% respectively.

RBA-cash-rate-changes

The RBA starts off with an interesting chart (above) which explains how the steady lowering of cash rates triggered the explosion of federal debt. From the post-2000 peak of 7.25% (2008), interest rates are now at 0.75%. Since Sep 2013, we have been sub 2.5%.

Bonds

Note the Abbott Coalition took power in September 2013. According to the AOFM, at that time, Australia had $301.8bn in outstanding federal government debt. AOFM also reports the Dec 2019 outstanding figure was $556.6bn. Mathematically, if we assume that all previous administrations to Sept 2013 summed to $301.8bn that would mean the most recent Coalition would be responsible for 46% of the total amount of all debt issued since 1854.

If we look at it from a % of GDP perspective, gross debt in Australia has risen from 30.5% to 41.4% of the total between 2013 and 2019. Note that in 2007, Australia’s gross debt was only 9.7% of GDP.

What ultimately matters is “net debt.” Although even that is predicated on the value of assets being fairly treated at a particular point in time. In a sharp economic downturn, assets values can implode, while liabilities remain as they are. Net liabilities can move on a dime.

The Howard Coalition lost office in November 2007. At that time, the net surplus was +A$22.1bn. When Labor lost in September 2013, net debt was $174.6bn. Therefore the net increase under Labor was $196.7bn. Since that time, December 2019 net debt now sits at $403.0bn. Inflation-adjusted, it is probably on a par with the Coalition’s scorecard.

If we calculate the net deficits between 2012-13 and 2018-19, it sums to $184.1bn. So versus the $202.6bn in debt issuance, it is largely consistent with the first chart.

Net interest payments on interest-bearing liabilities according to the Department of Finance were $14.008bn on $306.228bn of debt or 4.57% average interest rate in September 2013. The projected interest bill for the FY2019/20 recorded in December 2019 was $18.215bn on $642.5bn or 2.83% average interest rate on that debt. So double the debt with only 28% more in interest costs.

Easy money has allowed lazy deficits. Although we could just blindly believe our government that the net debt will be wiped out by 2029/30…too easy…then again this is the dream world government departments live in.

Don’t forget we’ve been told by the BIS that central banks will be the “climate rescuers of last resort” despite reckless monetary policy where, in 2019 alone, we’ve had 71 rate cuts conducted by 49 central banks, laying the foundations for over-consumption and racking up excessive debt levels. You can read more about that here.

Net Debt

Now our authorities can use the half-truth of bushfires and the Coronavirus to explain away any weakness in the current quarter. Never mind, a bit of debt-fuelled government spending will be turned on again to save us and the budget papers, which so few people read, will see the the ‘net-debt’ projection pushed out another decade in the hope we won’t notice.

Australia remains in ‘relatively’ good shape but the trend is hardly one to take comfort from if the Australian government’s thinking remains that low-interest rates can let it kick the can down the road indefinitely.

Image result for kick the can"