#USFed

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ford downgraded to junk

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

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

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

This is problematic for three reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The depression we have to have

Image result for milton friedman quotes

In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.

What we are witnessing today is not capitalism. While socialists around the world scream for equality and point to the evils of capitalism, the real truth is that they are shaking pitchforks at the political class who are experimenting with economic and monetary concoctions that absolutely defy the tenets of free markets. As my learned credit analyst and friend, Jonathan Rochford, rightly points out, central banks have applied “their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver.

Never has there been so much manipulation to keep this sinking global ship afloat. Manipulation is the complete antithesis to capitalism.  Yet our leaders and central banks think firing more cheap credit tranquillizers will somehow get us out of this mess. IT. WILL. NOT.

BONDS

As of August 15th, 2019, the sum of negative-yielding debt exceeds $16.4 trillion. That is to say, 30% of outstanding government debt sits in this category. Every single government bond issued by Germany, The Netherlands, Finland and Denmark are now negative-yielding. Germany just announced a 30-yr auction with a zero-interest coupon.

Unfortunately, insurance companies and pension funds are large scale buyers of bonds and negative interest rates don’t exactly serve their purposes. Therefore the hunt for positive yield (that ticks the right credit rating boxes) means the pickings continue to get slimmer.

Put simply to buy a bond with a negative yield, means that the cost of the bond held to maturity is more than the sum of all the coupons due and the receipt of face value combined. It also says clearly that controlling the extent of the loss of one’s money is preferable to sticking to strategies in other asset classes (e.g. property, equities) where TINA (there is no alternative) is the rule of thumb.

CM believes that there is a far bigger issue investors should focus on is the return “of” their money, not the return “on” it.

Rochford continues,

Central banks have hoped that extraordinary monetary policy would kick start economic growth, but they have instead only created asset price growth. In applying their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver they have created the preconditions for the next and possibly greater financial crisis. The outworkings of many years of malinvestment are now starting to show with increasing regularity.

Argentina’s heavily oversubscribed issuance of 100-year bonds in 2017 was considered insane by many debt market participants at the time. The crash to below 50% of face value this month and request for maturity extensions is no surprise for a country that has a long rap sheet of sovereign defaults. Greece’s ten-year bond yield below 2% is another example of sovereign debt insanity…

…There have been three regional bank failures in China in the last three months, likely an early warning of the bad debt crisis brewing in China’s banks and debt markets. Europe’s banks aren’t in much better shape, there’s still a cohort of weak banks in Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain that haven’t fixed their problems that first surfaced a decade ago. Deutsche Bank is both fundamentally weak and the world’s most systemically important bank, a highly dangerous combination.”

What about equity markets?

EQUITIES

We only need look at the number record number of IPOs in 2018 where over 80% launched with negative earnings, you know, just like what happened in 2000 when the tech bubble collapsed.

Have people paid attention to the fact that aggregate US after-tax corporate earnings have been FLAT since 2012? That is 7 long years of tracking sideways. Where is this economic miracle that is spoken of?

Average Corporate Profits After Tax.png

The only reason the markets have continued to remain excited is the generous share buyback regimes among many corporates which have flattered earnings per share (EPS). The “E” hasn’t grown. It is just that “S” has fallen. Credit spreads between AAA and BBB rated corporate paper has been so narrow that over 50% of US corporates now have a BBB or worse credit rating. Now credit spreads between top and bottom investment-grade bonds remain ridiculously tight. At some stage, investors will demand an appropriate spread to account for market “risk.”

Axios noted that for 2019, IT companies are again on pace to spend the most on stock buybacks this year, as the total looks set to pass 2018’s $1.085 trillion record total. Pretty easy to keep markets in the clouds with cheap credit fuelling expensive buybacks. Harley-Davidson is another household name which suffers from strategy decay yet deploys more cash to share buybacks instead of revitalising its core franchise. Harley delinquencies are at a 9-yr high.

Companies like GE embarked on a $45bn share buyback program despite a balance sheet which still reveals considerable negative equity. GE was the largest company in the world in 2000 and now trades at 20% of that value almost 20 years later.

Should we ignore Harry Markopolos, who discovered the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, when he points to the problems within GE? GE management can protest all they like but ultimately the company is not winning the argument if the share price is a barometer.

Valuations are at extreme levels. Beyond Meat trades at 100x revenues. Don’t get CM started on Tesla. A largely loss-making third rate automaker which is trading at outlandish premiums. The blind faith put in charge of a CEO that has lost over 100 senior management members.

Bank of America looked at 20 metrics to evaluate current market levels of the S&P500. 17 of them pointed to excess valuations relative to history including one metric that revealed S&P500 being 90% overvalued on a market cap to GDP ratio. Never mind.

Then witness the push for diversity nonsense inside corporate boardrooms. CM has always believed if a board is best suited to be run by all women based on background, skills and experience, then so be it. That is the best outcome for shareholders. However, to artificially set targets to morally preen will mean absolutely nothing if a sharp downturn exposes a soft underbelly of a lack of crisis management skills. Shareholders and retirees won’t be impressed.

It was laughable to hear superannuation funds ganging up on Harvey Norman last week for not having a diverse enough board. Even though Harvey Norman is thumping the competition which focuses too much on ESG/CSR, the shortcomings of our retirement managers are only too evident. Retirees want returns and their super managers should focus on that, rather than try to push companies to meet their ridiculous self-imposed investment restrictions. Retirees won’t be happy when their superannuation balances are decimated because fund managers wanted to appear socially acceptable at cocktail parties.

PROPERTY

It was only last month that Jyske Bank in Denmark started to offer negative interest mortgages. That is the bank pays interest to the mortgage holders. Of course, the bank is able to source credit below that rate to make a profit however net interest margins for the banks get squeezed globally. What next? Will people be able to sign up to a perpetual negative interest mortgage? Shall we expect a Japan-style multi-generational loan?

Net Interest Margins.png

The RBA’s latest chart pack shows net interest margins at the lowest levels for two decades. With the Hayne Banking Royal Commission likely to further crimp on lending growth, we are storing up huge pain in property markets despite the hope that August clearing rates signal a bottom in the short term. Yet more suckers lured in at the top of a shaky economy and financial sector.

Of course, central banks will dance to the tune that all is OK. Until it isn’t.

Don’t forget former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, said “our financial institutions are strong” right before plugging $700bn worth of TARP money to save many of them from bankruptcy in 2008.

CM has previously investigated the Big 4 Aussie banks who have equity levels that are chronically low levels. Our major banks have such high exposure to mortgages that a severe downturn could potentially lead to part or whole nationalisation. Of course, between signalling the importance of factoring climate change, APRA assures us the stress tests ensure our financial institutions are safe.

Back in 2007, Sydney house prices were 8x income. In 2017 Demographia stated average housing (excluding apartment) prices were in the 13-14x range. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 80% of people live in houses and 20% in apartments. Only Hong Kong at 19x beats Sydney for dizzy property prices. In 2019, expect that price/income rates remain at unsustainable levels.

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

At the height of the property bubble frenzy, Japanese real estate related lending comprised around 41.2% (A$2.5 trillion) of all loans outstanding. N.B. Australian bank mortgage loan books have swelled to 64% (A$1.8 trillion) of total loans.

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

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

The lessons are no less disturbing for Australia. As a percentage of total loans outstanding in Australia, mortgages make up 65%. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at around 40%. US banks have cut overall property exposures and Japanese banks are now in the early teens. Post GFC, US banks have ratcheted back mortgage exposure. They have diversified their earnings through investment banking and other areas. That doesn’t let them off the hook mind you.

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

Central banks need a mea culpa moment. We need to move away from manipulating interest rates to muddle through. It isn’t working. At all.

Rochford rightly points out,

Coming off the addiction to monetary policy is going to be painful, but it is the only sustainable course. It is likely that normalising monetary policy will result in a global recession, but this must be accepted as an unavoidable outcome given the disastrous policies of the past. Excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus has pulled consumption forward, the process of unwinding that obviously requires a level of consumption to be pushed backwards.”

Rochford is being conservative (no doubt due to his polite demeanour) in his assessment of a global recession. It is likely that this downturn will make the GFC of 2008 look like a picnic. CM thinks depression is the more apt term. 1929, not 2008. Central banks are rapidly losing what little confidence remains. If the RBA think QE will be a policy option, there is plenty of beta testing to show that it doesn’t work in the long run.

It is time to have the recession/depression we had to have to get the markets to clear. It will be excruciatingly painful but until we face facts, all the manipulation in the world will fail to keep capitalism from doing its job in the end. The longer we wait the worse it will get.

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble…..it is what you know to be sure that just ain’t so! – Mark Twain.

An ominous speech from the Philly Fed in 2013

A Limited Central Bank

Perhaps one of the most prophetic speeches made by the Fed. Unfortunately, central bankers continue to completely and totally ignore what he warned today.

Charles I. Plosser, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia who served from August 1, 2006, to March 1, 2015, said in the 100th anniversary of the Fed.

When establishing the longer-term goals and objectives for any organization, and particularly one that serves the public, it is important that the goals be achievable. Assigning unachievable goals to organizations is a recipe for failure. For the Fed, it could mean a loss of public confidence. I fear that the public has come to expect too much from its central bank and too much from monetary policy, in particular. We need to heed the words of another Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman. In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, he said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.6 In the 1970s, we saw the truth in Friedman’s earlier admonitions. I think that over the past 40 years, with the exception of the Paul Volcker era, we failed to heed this warning. We have assigned an ever-expanding role for monetary policy, and we expect our central bank to solve all manner of economic woes for which it is ill-suited to address. We need to better align the expectations of monetary policy with what it is actually capable of achieving.”

Plosser’s conclusions were:

The financial crisis and its aftermath have been challenging times for global economies and their institutions. The extraordinary actions taken by the Fed to combat the crisis and the ensuing recession and to support recovery have expanded the roles assigned to monetary policy. The public has come to expect too much from its central bank. To remedy this situation, I believe it would be appropriate to set four limits on the central bank:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective.
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities.
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach.
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension and ensure that it is conducted in a systematic fashion.

These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and, at the same time, they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions. These changes to the institution would strengthen the Fed for its next 100 years.”

Sadly we’re experiencing the opposite.

When President Trump bullies Jerome Powell to hurry up with rate cuts to “keep up with China“, he is only coercing the US Fed chairman to move even further away from these four guidelines. One has to wonder did any of the central bankers ever play with matches as a child?

Perhaps Friedman had it right when he said,

Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defence of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.

 

Parker Hannifin slowing (still) in 4Q

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Parker Hannifin (PH), the world’s industrial giant hardware store reported the following orders for the quarter ending June 30, 2019, compared with the same quarter a year ago:

  • Orders decreased 3% for total Parker (-4% in 3Q)
  • Orders decreased 4% in the Diversified Industrial North America businesses (-6% in 3Q)
  • Orders decreased 8% in the Diversified Industrial International businesses (-4% in 3Q)
  • Orders increased 10% in the Aerospace Systems Segment on a rolling 12-month average basis (+2% in 3Q)

PH is such a good read across on global activity. It supplies the likes of Caterpillar, Boeing, Cummins, Freightliner etc etc. in seals, pumps, hoses, connectors, filters, actuators etc etc. it supplies food companies with linear systems and pharmaceuticals with clean systems/pumps.

No wonder US Fed Governor Jerome Powell just cut rates. The world’s industrial powerhouses aren’t expanding and PH’s order book reflects the underlying weakness. No wonder Trump tweeted that Powell should make more cuts.

For the FY2020 outlook, PH is forecasting flat to down 3%. North American industrial flat to -2.8%, International Industrial -3.2% to -6.2% and Aerospace holding things up at +3.0% to +5.6%.

Typical US management bluster in the conference call. What else is new?

Drinking the UnKool-Aid

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It appears President Trump has been bullying the US Federal Reserve to drop rates by 1% and get them to reopen the spigots on QE. What he is failing to grasp is that businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates fall.

Trump tweeted,

China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go…up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!

This is a frightening proposal. Rates are at 2.25~2.50%. Although it masks a more important reality. Can Trump avoid a market calamity ahead of the next election? The real engine of the economy is slowing.

Despite the headline US GDP print of 3.2%, consumer spending and business investment slumped to the lowest levels under his presidency. Business investment spending was dominated by “intellectual capital” (soft) which is a pretty hard metric to put a reliable number next to. Equipment and structures (hard) contribution to business investment was near as makes no difference zero. Personal consumption of durable goods slumped to their lowest reading since 2011. Wholesale inventories (ex-autos/petroleum) surged ahead of sales.

Trump might argue China is adding stimulus. He is right. China’s Aggregate Financing (approximately system Credit growth less government borrowings) jumped 2.860 billion yuan, or $427 billion – during the 31 days of March ($13.8bn/day or $5.0 Trillion annualised (a Japanese GDP)). This was 55% above estimates and a full 80% ahead of March 2018. This pump priming added 8% to the Chinese stock indices but since then the market has been rolling off.

The world does not need more debt to be inflated away to get us out of the current mess we are in. A recession is inevitable. To put it into context, the world, since GFC, has added $140 trillion in debt for a grand total of $20 trillion in global GDP growth. That is right. $7 of debt only got us $1 of GDP. So if the Fed acquiesces President Trump he will probably get even worse metrics.

Then again perhaps we can take the words of a venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya, who said on CNBC that “central banks have created an environment where major downturns and expansions are almost impossible.” It is statements like this that almost guarantee that central banks have lost control. Central banks have one role – ensure that markets maintain “confidence”. Powell’s latest move to cut rates after such a shallow peak tells us that “confidence” is waning. 

Profligacy paid for by wishful thinking

Lots of promises. Lots of grand assumptions. To be honest, best just ignore the minutiae. It’s a complete waste of time. The biggest question is, if the global economy, by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s own admission, is slowing down (just look at government bond yields flattening/gone negative) how on earth is Australia going to grow receipts from $485.2bn in 2018/19 to $566.9b in 2021/22? A 17% growth in tax revenue. Expenses will rise from $487bn to $559.9bn respectively. Give aways +15%. Best hope the world economy doesn’t tank. Expenses are locked in. Tax revenues aren’t.

Worse, these projections have all been massaged higher than the 2018-19 budget. What has changed to our overall net position in the last 12 months to gain such confidence? Climate alarmists would blush at the extent of the upward massaging of numbers. Did Treasury sit down after consuming 3 bottles of Absinthe to come up with these revisions? Think about it. How can we get an extra $5.9bn in tax receipts in 2021-22 when conditions are sure to be worsening?

This is NOT an old school Coalition budget by any measure. This is a crossing fingers, closing the eyes and hoping we muddle through budget. If the proverbial hits the fan, a monster deficit is assured. Take it to the bank.

We are technically at full employment. Unless we embark on mass migration (which we’re looking to cut) how will flat wage enduring Aussies and corporates contribute to a 17% rise in the Canberra coffers? Wishful thinking. The government targets around 23.9% of GDP for tax receipts and pats itself on the back for “the government’s average real spending growth is expected to be the lowest of any Commonwealth government in over 50 years.” Although that claim is dispelled by their own tables contained here.

Cutting taxes can create more tax revenue. Poland sliced its corporate taxes in half in 2004 and doubled revenue. However that was more a grey money grab than pure unadulterated tax policy spurring public revenue growth.

Giving away more money to the middle class through tax cuts and hand outs in the hope they spend more seems wishful thinking. The problem is if global growth hits a wall, we don’t have a Howard/Costello surplus to buffer the storm. No $38bn backstop in the war chest.

China, the US and EU are struggling. Things are so bad in the US that the Federal Reserve had to chicken out of any more rate rises because it would tank the economy. Our growth will stall if the world slows. Forget 28 straight years of continuous growth in Australia. The knock on effects will see unemployment surge, consumption fall off a cliff, housing prices crash and tax revenues slump. Forget a $7.1bn surplus. Think $20bn deficit because the promises are too grand and the tax receipts blindingly optimistic.

Of note in the 2019-20 budget is the expansion of the ATO’s tax grab from evil multinationals and HNW individuals who’ve avoided paying their fair share. That will result in a $3.612bn extr over the next 4 years. That against the $5.74bn tax cut for middle class Aussies over the same period. Spending up everywhere. Just not sure why the Treasury hasn’t pointed to where the extra revenue is coming from.

Take the assumptions of 2.75% GDP growth flat to 2020/21. Unrealistic. Treasury assumes the same labour force participation rate with unemployment remaining to 5% and wage growth of 3.25% in 2020/21, up from 2.1%. All looks so simple. Yet inflation is expected to grow to 2.5% meaning real wages will be flat.

Aussies, saddled under 180% debt to GDP, shouldn’t take any sense of comfort from this budget. What Frydenberg presented tonight was nothing more than a hope that the most rosy scenarios play out when thunder clouds are so obviously rolling in. It’s utterly irresponsible. Yet that’s today’s political class – spineless. They’re unprepared to tell Aussies that they have to be prepared to live with much less. Instead of asking us to tighten our belts, a whole load of freebies that can’t be paid for end in our laps so they can hold on to power for a bit longer.

Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Corp Profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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