Poverty, poverty on the wall, the French aren’t even the worst of all

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Why are we surprised at the yellow vest uprising across France? Poverty/risk of social exclusion across Europe has continued to spiral upwards since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). There were 78mn living below the poverty line in 2007. At last count, Eurostat notes that number was 118mn  (23.5% of the European population). In the Europe 2020 strategy, the plan is to reduce that by 20 million.  37.5mn (7.5%) are living in severe material deprivation (SMD) , up from 32mn in 2007.

The SMD rate represents the proportion of people who cannot afford at least four of the nine following items:

  • having arrears on mortgage or rent payments, utility bills, hire purchase installments or other loan payments;
  • being able to afford one week’s annual holiday away from home;
  • being able to afford a meal with meat, chicken, fish (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day;
  • being able to face unexpected financial expenses;
  • being able to buy a telephone (including mobile phone);
  • being able to buy a colour television;
  • being able to buy a washing machine;
  • being able to buy a car;
  • being able to afford heating to keep the house warm.

The French are merely venting what is happening across the EU. The EU could argue that at 18% poverty, the French should be happy compared to other nation states. Europeans aren’t racist to want a halt to mass economic migration when they are the ones financially struggling as it is. Making economic or compassionate arguments aren’t resonating as they feel the problems first hand.

Is it a surprise that the UK, at 22.2% poverty, wanted out of the EU project to take back sovereign control? Project Fear might be forecasting Armageddon for a No Deal Brexit but being inside the EU has hardly helped lift Brits from under a rock. Why would anyone wish to push for a worse deal that turns the UK into a colony?

Why is anyone surprised that there has been a sustainable shift toward populist political parties across Europe? Austria, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Germany…the list goes on. Even France should not forget that Front National’s Marine LePen got 35% of the vote, twice the level ever achieved. Is is a shock to see her polling above Macron?

The success and growth of EU-skeptic parties across Europe will only get bigger. The mob is unhappy. Macron may have won on a wave of euphoria as a fresh face but he has failed to deliver. He may have suspended the fuel tax hikes, but the people are still on the street in greater numbers. He has merely stirred the hornet’s nest. Perhaps UK PM Theresa May should take a look at the table above and realise that her deal will only cause the UK to rise up. At the moment sanity prevails, and when it comes in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn that is perhaps a sign in itself.

COP24 – checking cash, corruption and cars

It should come as no surprise that the COP24 summit is a time to put the money where the mouth is. Look at the numbers of the delegates from Africa to stake their claim of the wealth redistribution. Guinea has sent the biggest delegation of 406 people. In 2016 the country received over $10.7mn in climate grants. DR Congo’s 237 delegates garnered $45 mn in aid for climate mitigation projects according to the OECD. The Ivory Coast received $114 million in 2016 for environmental aid. Indonesia got $250 million in climate related aid in the same year.  Poland can be forgiven being the host nation to be 3rd place. It receives zip, much like the US and Australia. The COP summits are nothing more than networking events to collect cash from virtue signaling Western governments.

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Putting that in context of the representation amongst all delegates to their representative population, Guinea is at 15.5x. America at 0.1x. Guinea is 86 people lighter than in 2017. The Ivory Coast had halved its delegates on the previous summit.

COP24delegates

One has to question how efficiently these millions given away get to be spent on the intent. Take a look at Transparency International’s global 2017 corruption index. 180 is the worst. 1 is the best. Note the correlation of delegates attending COP24 to those countries with a higher prevalence of corruption?

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There is a touch of irony that the transport recommendations to/from Katowice airport made by the UNFCCC are all diesel vehicles. Not an EV in sight. Surely there was an opportunity to team up with an EV maker to co–sponsor the event? Did the 7,331 observers going to the summit pick up on this? Why didn’t they take advantage of the virtual attendance technology that was available? Better to be there and enjoy the banquets and political graft.

Polandchauffeur

Live free and negotiate

Complacency kills – the ticking time bomb for Aussie banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REEx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Spotting holiday destinations from 38,000ft

These places look amazing for off the beaten track travel away from tourist traps…

Palu, South East Sulawesi, Indonesia

Bahubulu Island & Labengke Island, South East Sulawesi, Indonesia

Tanjung Sampara, SouthEast Sulawesi, Indonesia

…alas travel advisories warn of the recent 7.5 magnitude quake, aftershocks and tsunami in Central Sulawesi on 28 Sept 2018. Communications and transport infrastructure damaged in Palu. Central Sulawesi seems to be home to more political unrest and terrorism.

Lonely Planet suggests,

 

Sir David’s 22,000 disciples won’t be able to sustain frequent flyer mile status

Yes Sir David Attenborough, we’re doomed if we look at history of the very people in place to save us. Not withstanding the 22,000 climate change disciples who have flown to Katowice, Poland to pay homage at the altar of the UNIPCC to cling on to each other hearing about their inevitable extinction. What a shame that instead of embracing technology and live-streaming COP24 to help us mitigate impending disaster, government funded frequent flyer mile status of climate apparatchiks takes precedence to saving us from all of these dangerous CO2 emissions.

Apart from the 100% certainty of me being screened for explosives at Sydney Airport (yet again today), the other is that the growth in air travel suggests that more and more people are happy to save the planet, provided that someone else offsets on their behalf. CM has long argued this position. Our consumption patterns dictate the “true” state of care of the environment. It hasn’t stopped SUV sales dead in their tracks and last year the IATA forecast that the number of airline passengers is set to DOUBLE by 2030.  Hardly the actions of those frightened by climate change.

Oh but you can offset your carbon footprint! In its 2017 Annual Report, Qantas boasts,

We have the world’s largest airline offset program and have now been carbon offsetting for over 10 years. In 2016/17, we reached three million tonnes offset.”

Carbon calculators tend to work on the assumption of 0.158kg CO2/passenger kilometre.

In the last 10 years Qantas has flown around 1 trillion revenue passenger kilometres. While the literature in the annual report denotes one passenger offsets every 53 seconds, the mathematical reality is simple – 2% of miles are carbon offset. So that means that 98% of people couldn’t care less. Would dispensing with frequent flyer programs cut emissions? These loyalty programs by their very nature encourage more travel. The more you fly the more you can fly for free!  Surely the IPCC should scream for a ban here. Dispense with first, business and premium economy to maximise passenger loads each flight. Apologies for the preamble.

While the US is not a signatory to Paris, 19 of the G20 are. The irony is that the non-signatory nation has seen its total emissions fall while many of the others have not. What value the ink on a pledge? No sooner had President Macron thrown stones at America, that he’s backed down and postponed a fuel tax hike for 6 months to save his city from burning down. There it is in a nutshell. We’re told if we don’t act now we’re doomed. So 6 months is a long time in “immediate” speak. What we do know this is classic smoke and mirrors by Macron. In 6 months the fuel tax will be all but forgotten. Virtue signaling Exhibit A scrapped. Why doesn’t anyone in the media pick on China? It has promised to increase emissions out to 2030 and is a signatory.

Sir David should get cold chills lifting a rock on the recent saga surrounding the NATO signatories where we can learn how worthless pen strokes can be. In 2006, NATO Defence Ministers agreed to commit a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defence spending. This guideline, according to NATO,  “principally serves as an indicator of a country’s political will to contribute to the Alliance’s common defence efforts.” In 2017, only 5 of the 28 members outside the US have met the 2% threshold – Greece, Estonia, UK, Romania & Poland in that order. Despite Greece’s economic problems elsewhere, it manages to honour the deal. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “the majority [not all] of allies now have plans to do so by 2024.” 3 more are expected to hit the target in 2018. So for all the good will in the world, is POTUS wrong to call the other 19 members slackers that ride off the US taxpayer when so many of them are only likely to hit the target 18 years after ‘committing’ to it?

Alas, who doesn’t want to breathe clean air? The question is once all of the hysteria of 100m sea rises, forest fires (sharply down from 70 years ago & 90% caused by arson or accidents), hurricanes (nothing extraordinary in the data to show increases in ferocity) or sinking islands (sorry 80% of Pacific atolls/islands are stable or rising) are properly analysed what is the most efficient way to get there? Even Turkey wants to be downgraded to a developing nation in order to benefit from wealth redistribution on climate.

What a masterstroke if signatories to Paris are prepared to take on America’s share of saving the planet. American taxpayers can feel happy in the knowledge that other nations are paying for their NATO commitments by rebating them with tax credits on climate, all the while ruining their domestic competitiveness along the way.  Why does Trump need to Make America Great Again, when the majority of nations are prepared to do it for him? Economist Paul Krugman shouldn’t be calling climate skeptics “sinners” but “saints”

Flames-Elysées

Oh the irony. The mainstream media’s pin-up poster boy of globalization and its merits has slumped to a 26% popularity rating and rules a capitol in flames. Yet another dud prediction from those know-it-all scribes!

While journalists rarely miss a chance to embrace French President Macron for eviscerating Trump (47% popularity rating (NB Obama was 46% at the same point in his presidency)) for his refusal to sign the Paris Climate Accord, where is the admission that large swathes of French natives seem to agree with the elder statesman?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Setting fire to priceless art galleries, torching police cars and destroying national monuments like the Arc de Triomphe are hardly petty crime issues to be left to a moustache twiddling local police officer on a stroll though the neighborhood twirling a baton.

The press gladly slams Trump as a fool for his stance on global warming. Yet doesn’t Macron look the stupid one if his constituents are lashing out like this over his poorly thought out green schemes?

The irony is that total US emissions fell in 2017 and expected to be broadly flat for 2018. This despite not being tied to a global compact engineered by the biggest pack of self- serving, unelected demagogues on the planet – the U.N. Why are we listening to its environmental body, the IPCC, when it has been exposed numerous times for fraudulent misrepresentation of data and facts such that it has been forced to publicly retract such hysteria. Better to ask for forgiveness or hope the faithful will forget those hiccups, eh?

Why smash the US when those willing to be part of the Paris agreement – China and India – will crank up emissions to 2030 and beyond at much higher levels? The media stays deathly silent. Who are the real villains? Where is the outrage?

Embarrassing for Macron, even several of his first responders are also showing gross displeasure. A group of firefighters being honoured by a Macron official walked off parade in protest to the embarrassment of their captain. Some police removed riot helmets and lowered shields in front of the yellow vests. When a president loses control of state run security forces that is pretty grim.

When will the press admit they got Macron completely wrong? Popularity can only get one so far. Trudeau of Canada shows the same flaws. Utterly out of his depth. Virtue signaling works wonders for the press gallery but less for those that must bear the brunt of what bad policies ultimately create.

In summary, if the most hated political figure on the planet garners 90%+ negative news feeds, how is it a media darling can’t nudge much more than half his popularity? Who is the imbecile?