Automotive

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.

WeWorked

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WeWork has delayed the IPO. According to Zerohedge, the initial appraisal value of $47 billion appears to be entering the realm of $10 billion. This has ‘canary in the coalmine‘ written all over it. The kaleidoscope of razzle-dazzle in the free money world looks to have stopped spinning.

The company looks toxic. Most people point fingers at the co-founder Adam Neumann,  who, according to WSJ,  reportedly sold $700 million in a mixed debt and equity transaction. CM may be a contrarian, but even he sees the pre-IPO sale as somewhat suspicious. Selling part of your stock as part of an IPO is one thing. Doing it prior doesn’t pass the pub test.

How can IWG plc (better known as Regus) make profits (albeit sideways) with the same concept? 2018 IWG revenue and profit after tax increased 51% over 2014 levels. Revenue increased 13.5% since 2016, but post-tax profit slumped 24%.

WeWork seems like the Tesla of the office space world. Huge promises but the numbers are struggling to stack up. Maybe WeWPresumably, due to a combination of intensifying shared office competition, start-ups spoilt for choice or simply failing to grow.ork should leap into insurance as a way to generate cash flow like Tesla has started to do?

Long Way Up for Harley

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Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman are apparently planning to ride electric Harley-Davidson Livewire motorcycles from South America to Los Angeles. CM loved the first two series – even bought a BMW R1200GS Adventure in the knowledge of what the bike could do. CM rode to every prefecture in Japan on that bike which to date has been one of the fondest memories of living there 20 years. Experiencing different cultures and places that contrast the crowded cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

The duo is looking to replicate the successful formula of ‘Long Way Round‘ (riding from London to NY) and its sequel ‘Long Way Down‘ (riding from John O’Groats to Cape Town). Unfortunately, the latest offering is unlikely to whip up the same cult status of the originals. Why?

The first two chapters focused on serious hardcore off-roading through the likes of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Siberia and Africa with all manner of struggles, mishaps and adventures along the way. BMW’s GS series motorcycles did a roaring trade off the back of the success of this trip. It was beta tested to the extreme. It remains BMW’s best selling motorcycle even today.

Unfortunately, given the diabolical long term decline trend in unit sales at Harley-Davidson, it is unlikely that an electric bike with a limited range and next to no luggage carrying capability will make sense in resurrecting the former glories of Milwaukee’s divine franchise. Although it is in line with the rudderless board at H-D which CM has made reference to multiple times.

Harley is planning to launch an adventure bike to compete with the BMW GS, so why hasn’t it chosen that so the brand can promote capabilities which would bring far more attention to the brand’s new capabilities? Will it camp or just check into 5-star hotels with wall sockets?

Sorry, but a bulk of Harley owners want to be seen as leather-clad rebels, not soy latte sipping trendies. Harley-Davidson is probably one of the very few brands that customers are willing to tattoo to their bodies. That is brand power! Furthermore, the whole point of owning a Harley was to enable owners to hide in their mancaves looking and tinker for hours to get peace and quiet from the trouble and strife. Plugging in the Livewire to a wall socket is not the game-changer product Harley needs and will only force husbands to discuss for hours whether ivory or off-beige would be the best tile colour for the bathroom. It will be the worst decision of his life and force a trade-in to fossil-fuel power. 

Harley would be better off buying a scooter maker if it wants to go down the electric route. If Harley analysed its own history it would recall it tried to patent its distinctive sound. How soon it forgets.

The Long Way Up move looks like a massive marketing exercise whereby Ewan and Charley are getting a small fortune to promote a bike that won’t transform Harley in the slightest. CM understands Harley needs to totally revamp its approach to markets but electricity is as far removed from its core brand proposition as to beggar belief.

CM has always said that Harley needs to get back in touch and listen to its core customer base, the very thing Willie Davidson did in the dark days when Harley nearly went bust in the 1980s. That seminal but simple strategy by the founder’s grandson saved Harley.

Often the most sensible business strategies focus not around trying to be something they’re not but celebrating and embracing exactly what they are. Brands have spent a lifetime emulating Harley. Why channel a wonky Taiwanese white goods maker who dabbles in Uber Eats carrying commuter junk?

Buhahahahaha

In 1999, CM was told by the pro-EV lobby that electric cars would be 10% or the market by 2010. In 2019 EVs are struggling to nudge 1.3%. If EV’s have managed to achieve much more than 10-12% by 2035 it will be a miracle.

10 reasons it will be highly unlikely:

1) Australia sold just over 1.15m cars in 2018. In 2008, SUVs comprised 19% of total sales. Today 43%. So much for the unbridled panic about catastrophic climate change if consumption patterns are a guide.

2) Australian fuel excise generates 5% of total tax revenue. It is forecast to grow from $19bn today to $24bn by 2021. If government plans to subsidize then it’ll likely to add to the deficit, especially if it lobs $5,000 per car subsidies on 577,000 cars (50% of 2018 unit sales in Australia).

CM has always argued that governments will eventually realize that moving to full EV policy will mean losing juicy ‘fuel excise’. Point 16 on page 19 for those interested.

Cash strapped Illinois has proposed the introduction of a $1,000 annual registration fee (up from $17.50) to account for the fact EVs don’t pay such fuel taxes. Note Illinois has the lowest investment grade among any other American state and has to allocate 40% of its budget just to pay outstanding bills. It is also home to one of the largest state pension unfunded deficits per capita in the country.

3) cash for clunkers? If the idea is to phase out fossil fueled powered cars, surely the resale/trade in values will plummet to such a degree that trading it on a new EV makes no sense at all. False economy trade where fossil fuel owners will hold onto existing cars for longer.

4) Global EV production is 2.1m units. Looking at existing production plans by 2030, it is likely to be around 12mn tops on a conservative basis. Australia would need want 5% of world EV supply when were only 1.2% of global car sales. Many auto makers are committed to selling 50% of EV capacity into China. So Shorten will be fighting for the remaining pie. No car makers will export 10% of all EV production to Australia without substantial incentives to do so.

Don’t forget Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also intends to get every fossil fueled powered car off the road in a decade. The US has 270 million registered vehicles, the overwhelming majority being petrol powered. The US sells 16-17mn cars a year (sadly slowing). Therefore in the US, 16 years would be required to achieve that target.

5) Ethics of EVs. To save the planet, the majority of cobalt to go into making the batteries comes from African mines which use child slave laborers. There is a moral scruple to keep a virtue signaling activist awake at night!

Not to worry, Glencore has just announced last week it is closing its cobalt capacity in DR Congo which will flip the market from surplus to deficit (at 1.2% global market share). Oops.

6) EV makers aren’t happy. In Europe there are over 200 cities with EV programs but none are alike. In the quest to outdo each other on the virtue signaling front, car makers are struggling to meet such diverse requirements meaning roll outs will be slow because there is no movement to standardize.

7) EV suppliers aren’t convinced. Because of the above, many EV suppliers are reluctant to go too hard in committing to new capacity because global car markets are slowing in China, US, Europe and Australia. High fixed cost businesses hate slowdowns. Writing down the existing capacity would be punitive to say the least. New capacity takes a minimum of 2 years to come on line from conception.

8) The grid! In the UK, National Grid stated that to hit the UK targets for EVs by 2030, an entirely new 8GW nuclear plant would be required to meet the demands of EV charging. Australia can barely meet its energy needs with the current policies and doubling down on the same failed renewables strategy that has already proved to fall well short of current demand ex any EVs added to the grid.

9) in 1999 automotive experts hailed that EVs would make up 10% of all vehicle sales by 2010. In 2019 EVs make up around 2.5%. So 9 extra years and 75% below the target. The capacity isn’t there much less consumers aren’t fully convinced as range anxiety is a big problem.

10) charging infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Await another taxpayer dollar waste-fest. Think NBN Mark II on rolling EV chargers out nationwide. The question then becomes one of fast charger units which cost 5x more than slower systems. If the base-load power capacity is already at breaking point across many states (Vic & SA the worst) throwing more EVs onto a grid will compound the problem and drive prices up and potentially force rationing although people look to Norway.

Norway is a poor example to benchmark against. It is 5% of our land mass, 1/5th our population and new car sales around 12% of Australia. According to BITRE, Australia has 877,561km of road network which is 9x larger than Norway.

Norway has around 8,000 chargers countrywide. Installation of fast chargers runs around A$60,000 per unit on top of the $100,000 preparation of each station for the high load 480V transformer setup to cope with the increased loads.

Norway state enterprise, Enova, said it would install fast chargers every 50km of 7,500km worth of main road/highway.

Australia has 234,820km of highways/main roads. Fast chargers at every 50km like the Norwegians would require a minimum of 4,700 charging stations across Australia. Norway commits to a minimum of 2 fast chargers and 2 standard chargers per station.

The problem is our plan for 570,000 cars per annum is 10x the number of EVs sold in Norway, requiring 10x the infrastructure.

While it is safe to assume that Norway’s stock of electric cars grows, our cumulative sales on achieving plan would require far greater numbers. So let’s do the maths (note this doesn’t take into account the infrastructure issues of rural areas):

14,700 stations x $100,000 per station to = $1,470,000,000

4,700 stations x 20 fast chargers @ A$60,000 = $5,640,000,000 (rural)

4,700 stations x 20 slow chargers @ A$9,000 = $846,000,000 (rural)

10,000 stations x 5 fast chargers @ A$60,000 = $3,000,000,000 (urban)

570,000 home charging stations @ $5,500 per set = $3,135,000,000 (this is just for 2035)

Grand Total: A$14,091,000,000

Uh Oh! Tesla’s next big problem

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Glencore reported on p33 of its half-yearly results that it is suspending its cobalt mining in the DR Congo. It noted that, “Mutanda’s economic viability has deteriorated since the update provided at the 2018 Results presentation in February 2019

Note that Mutanda provided 25kt of cobalt, a vital ingredient in making batteries for electric vehicles (EV). In Darton Commodities ‘2018-2019 Cobalt Market Review,’ it forecast total global cobalt supply of 140kt in 2020 vs. total global demand of 132kt. Knocking out Mutanda will push the market into 19kt deficit.

For a company like Tesla that is trying to ramp volumes at lower/discounted prices, higher raw input prices will only make life harder in making sustainable profits.

How lucky we are that Bill Shorten never got his 50% EV sales by 2030 plan into effect.

Woke Vic Police should have called the LAPD before selecting EVs

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Victoria Police is renowned for its commitment to inclusion and diversity. Who could forget the push for segregated sessions in the recruitment drive? Stands to reason the coppers have introduced the Tesla Model X to the fleet to show “green” credentials. The point of a police car is instant dispatch when required to attend to a crisis situation, from thwarting a terrorist in the Melbourne CBD or rushing to a domestic dispute. It won’t look good when the police have to wait for the fast charger at the base to provide enough juice to make it the scene of the crime. Now that Hazelwood coal-fired power plant has been closed, good luck waiting on renewable energy to charge these cars for practical police use. Don’t be surprised when the shortcomings force a rethink.

What will they tell Victorians? “Sorry, in our quest to save the planet you’ll have to wait another 3 hours before we can attend to your domestic violence dispute. Bear with us. The car is on the charger!

In 2016, the LAPD bought $10m worth of BMW i3s to show its commitment to climate abatement. Sadly, the cars went largely unused as they were unsuited for police work.

CBS reported,

LAPD Deputy Chief Jorge Villegas said of the purchase, Money well worth itIt’s all a part of saving the Earth, going green … quite frankly, to try and save money for the community and the taxpayers.”

But sources say some personnel are reluctant to use the electric cars because they can only go 80-100 miles on a charge. And the mileage logs we obtained seem to back that up.

From April 2016 when the project started through August 2017, we found most of the electric cars have only been used for a few thousand miles…And a handful are sitting in the garage with only a few hundred on them.

Like this one in service since May 27, 2016, with just 400 miles on it!

That’s an average use of 6 miles a week!

With the monthly lease payment of a little more than $418, this one costs taxpayers over $15 a mile to use!… It just doesn’t make any sense!”

CM one posted this question to someone from the NSW St Johns Ambulance with respect to discussions about EV ambulances. He said unequivocally,

We have Webasto heaters in our cars in the colder areas. Running off the diesel they can operate 24/7 if needed. If we don’t have them some of our equipment doesn’t work like our tympanic thermometers, the blood glucose reader and then there is the problem of having cold fluids in the car. This is a problem if we are giving these IV because we can make a patient hypothermic if it’s cold. Then there’s just the general environment inside the cab. It needs to be warm in winter.

That is the point. Emergency services need to be able to operate on call. 5 minutes to fill up with gasoline or diesel means that efficient utilisation and dispatch is guaranteed for at least 500km+.

If end users have to weigh having their lives saved or rescue the planet, it is a no brainer which they will choose. We already know that Tesla P100Ds have done 167,000km in CO2 before they’ve left the factory. “To Protect after Charging” should be emblazoned on the doors.

More auto marriages have ended in divorce

Auto mergers were once thought of as the best things since sliced bread. Massive operating capacity leverage, shared platforms to reduce cost and a reduction of R&D spend per vehicle. The word “synergy” gets bandied about more than Casanova whispers “I love you“on Valentines Day! Yet why is the auto industry littered with divorces from these romances?

Lets list them.

Daimler bought Chrysler in 1998. Divorced in 2007.

Daimler alliance with Mitsubishi Motors founded in 2000. Divorce in 2005.

Daimler alliance with Hyundai founded in 2000. Divorce in 2004.

Honda – Rover JV. Started 1980. Divorced 1994

BMW – Rover – Started 1994. Deceased 2000.

Nissan – Renault – Started 1999. Currently providing real headaches due to Carlos Ghosn saga. Nissan wants full independence

Ford forms Premier Automotive Group (PAG) comprising Land Rover, Aston Martin, Volvo, Lincoln and Jaguar. Set up in 1999.

Ford sells Aston Martin in 2007.

Ford sells Land Rover & Jaguar to Tata in 2008

Ford sells Volvo to Geely in 2010.

Fiat Chrysler (FCA) formed in 2014 – including Fiat, Abarth, Chrysler, Jeep, RAM, Dodge, Lancia, Maserati & Ferrari brands.

FCA spins Ferrari off in 2016.

This isn’t an exhaustive list but one can be guaranteed that more money has been lost in auto mergers in aggregate than made. Daimler paid $45bn for Chrysler. Almost all of the Mercedes profits plugged the losses of Chrysler. Mercedes quality suffered through cost cutting sending it down toward the bottom of surveys. Daimler’s shares lost over $80bn in market cap as this disaster unfolded.

FCA and Nissan/Renault have been amongst the more successful marriages but global markets have turned many a honeymoon period into separation with fights over custody.

Forming a merger at the top of a cycle seems fraught with risks. Global auto sales are slowing. Renault and Fiat bring a lot of overlap in product lines. Nissan is such an unclear part of the puzzle.

One can argue that synergies which will lower the costs of future production have merit. Investing in battery technology does make sense across multiple product lines.

The biggest problem for the auto industry is that should a slowdown hit mid-merger, which brand suffers the hits? Which marketing team gets culled? Which R&D projects get scuppered? Too many cooks spoil the broth is the end result. There is no way a merger can be locked down in a short timeframe unless one of the parties is facing bankruptcy and has no choice but to comply. That is why Nissan-Renault worked.

Renault-FCA would be better conceived after markets have imploded. Marriages built on tough times stand a far bigger chance of survival than those that are built when things are the rosiest. Shareholders will be the biggest losers if conceived now.