Automotive

The repeated folly of the 外人 boss in Japan

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Several weeks back a foreign private equity firm asked what was CM’s opinion on gaijin (foreign) bosses in Japan. The answer was along the lines that an overwhelming majority end up failing for two main reasons:

1) failure to speak the language/understand the culture to a sufficient level and

2) thinking what has worked overseas will automatically apply in the domestic market.

Carlos Ghosn of Nissan-Renault fame could probably go down as one of the few that got it right. In his case Nissan was out of ideas, options and was prepared to listen to its new masters. Michael Woodford of Olympus fame was the other stand out gaijin CEO whose fate was cut short by a board coup after the Englishman uncovered massive fraud.

Sony under Sir Howard Stringer was different. Sony was not a cash strapped basket case on life support like Nissan was so the internal feudal structures could comfortably survive. The urgency to implement drastic change was not deemed an imperative. Stringer had no real command of culture or language and as such the machine below him functioned more or less as it wished. It is no surprise to see the man under Stringer is now the CEO and one can be sure almost all of the staff hitched their trailers to Hirai.

A chat with one of the Japanese dealers of a European auto marque last week highlighted the problems of gaijin bosses without sufficient cultural cut through. The company is struggling to compete with rivals who are simply leaving it for dust. The OEM has had 4 sales heads in the space of 2 years, For a country that prides itself on long term service, promotions based on tenure and stability, it was not a surprise to see the local staff keep their heads down. Why bother engaging with the new boss on what problems exist. Best stay silent. With any luck he’ll be gone and the next person will arrive and we can restart the game.

Yet these foreign bosses ask, “why don’t the local staff engage?” To the locals it is a simple matter of surviving til the next gaijin boss lands. Many gaijin bosses wonder why the Japanese staff spend a lot of time in glass rooms without them. They’re formulating the group responses which they think the boss wants to hear. Many seek to buy time. It is collective rationing on a life-raft.

The Japanese staff invariably prefer security over risk taking, So there is little incentive to be risk takers, even if some staff are bilingual. It isn’t a criticism but an acknowledgment that they don’t trust gaijin bosses. It isn’t even a reflection on the gaijin boss per se. Culture matters. If a gaijin boss can’t converse in a tongue that shows a commitment to understand cultural norms the likelihood of the message being conveyed (not withstanding another layer of translation) is almost pointless.

Another dealer mentioned that it has had the dealer margins recently slashed in favour of volumetric targets before bigger incentives kick in. While such strategies may excite the hungry salespeople outside Japan, the local sales teams here openly admitted the strategy change has had the opposite impact in terms of motivation. One sales member said, “dame, dame, dame!” (Dame = bad). He said it will more than likely mean that they push for selling cheap, low-end, low-margin product just to eat.

The irony is that if the OEM raised the initial margins for the dealers they would feel a margin of safety which would be seen as a way to sell even more bikes because they like the idea of predictability. The added pressure sedates not seduces. The dealer will likely struggle to the point of bankruptcy before trying radical maneuvers. The problem for the OEM is that reversing the strategy will create even less trust between dealer and OEM because it will highlight the lack of understanding. Gaijin strategies don’t apply.

The CEO of one American auto brand here has been crushing it for almost a decade. A gaijin with a mastery of language, culture and an understanding of the marketplace. In a decade, sales have quintupled and likely go up another 20% this year. Why? The dealer relationships are rock solid. They are treated as family. There is dialogue and communication and there is a shared sense of responsibility. If times get a little tight, the HQ makes accommodations so both end up in a win-win situation. In short – Trust!

The aforementioned European make effectively says that “you better make space for all the new cars coming your way next month” The dealers feel there is no relationship. The OEM seems totally dismissive of dealer issues. No matter how tough the market the OEM has no sense of loyalty to the dealers. That makes them feel uncomfortable about leveraging up or taking risk. They balk at buying too much stock because there is little to no flexibility.

Many gaijin CEOs need to know that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Yet too many foreign bosses come in with the mentality they can swing the locals to their way of thinking. Usually that learning process occurs after realizing that hiring natives who speak their language doesn’t necessarily buy the skills they thought would help ram home the strategies that have worked in other countries.

While all the efficiency, profitability and success metrics make sense from a shareholders perspective, the local staff want security, longevity and shared accountability. The gaijin bosses that try to force Western norms before addressing the concerns of staff will find that both parties will have less of both desired outcomes.

A wise fund manager once said about Japan – “it isn’t capitalism with warts, but communism with beauty spots!” The sooner gaijin bosses understand that they will benefit from the collective strengths of the land of the rising sun.

Harley-Davidson needs a major overhaul

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Harley-Davidson (HOG) is the classic case of a divine franchise. While still the world’s largest maker of cruiser motorcycles, it is being swamped by new competition. HOG’s EBIT performance has slid for the last 4 years and is even below the level of 2012. BMW Motorrad, KTM AG, Ducati and Triumph are all growing unit sales and profits. HOG has a very defined product line whereas its competitors are flush with sports, adventure, cruiser, heritage, cafe racers, scooters, off road and much broader engine sizes.

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The further complication is that the Japanese are getting their act together. Honda is targeting over 20mn units in 2018 (mainly driven by emerging Asia). Honda has received rave reviews of its new CB1000R which should keep the fires burning. Several years ago, Yamaha introduced a budget cruiser called the Bolt but HOG responded with a competitively priced bike made in India which showed the desperation of a strategy where it doubted its brand power. Kawasaki has a 12 month waiting list on its Z900RS cafe racer which is a replica of the 1970s classic. Kawasaki has no interest playing in scooter markets and remains focused on its core larger bore segmentation.

Yamaha and Kawasaki have gone down the path of profitability than pure unit growth while Suzuki is the real laggard, lost in me too group think product. Honda has had a real resurgence in product which harks on its history. Honda now has 75% market share in Indonesia, 72% in Vietnam, 80% in Thailand and 82% in Brazil. Only 28% in India. Still, the market share, resale and brand power in Asia no maker will usurp them for decades. Put another way, the risks associated with dethroning Honda in Asia by a dealer channel push would be astronomically high. Yamaha has the other 10%.

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Profitability is starting to look much rosier for the Japanese too. Even Suzuki has managed to pull itself out of loss.

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Sadly for HOG, 1Q 2018 has shown even worse numbers. Global unit sales were 7.2% down on the previous year and 12% down at home.  Japan and Australia were soft. Looking at the strategy it looks like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it sticks. It looks like some consultant has rattled together some funky catchphrases.

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HOG’s problems are simple. It is not listening to customers. When grandson of the founder, Willie Davidson, took over the reins after the near bankruptcy under AMF stewardship in the 1980s, the company really consulted customers and worked out they wanted more reliability and capability. It delivered. Sadly HOG is hanging on by its fingernails on brand alone today. The Polaris-owned Indian brand is coming up with excellent product lines which have all of the cachet of HOG given it was its fiercest competitor in the 1930s.

HOG’s product line up is relatively stale in terms of real innovation. While the Milwaukee 8 engine is a very good start and the Fat Bob is a proper philosophy change, the rest of the line up needs major revamp. At the moment it seems the brand is stuck in an echo chamber.

In closing Harley’s are a cult. There aren’t many brands where customers are prepared tattoo it to their bodies. In all the bikes CM has owned, the Harley had 10x the number of people wanting to ride on the back vs the rest combined. Yet it goes to show that brand only goes so far. Product still matters.

 

Tesla Elongates Fight against ‘unfair’ media

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CM totally sympathizes with clickbait media cycle. Tesla CEO Elon Musk railed at the negative coverage surrounding the company in recent times. The memories are clearly short. The media is generally effusive with praise of Tesla. How most newspapers and magazines fawn over Musk! Dan Primack made this point well:

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Edmunds has also written a damning review of the Model 3 announcing how many problems the car has faced since it was bought.

Some things from the Edmunds long term test were as follows:

The most annoying of those issues was a repeated, uncontrollable increase in stereo volume, sometimes when we weren’t even in the car. Basically, the stereo would suddenly go to full volume without explanation. This and other issues are cataloged from our notes below:

• Would not recognize keycard in or on the console and hence would not go into gear. It did, however, unlock the car. Workaround was to force quit the app and restart the app. Then it would allow the choice of Drive or Reverse.

• The backup camera screen did not appear when reversing.

• Nav screen going haywire: zooming, scrolling, pinching, pixelating all at once.

• Audio system turning on by itself at full volume.

• Audio display randomly moving up and down the screen without any command from a human.

• Audio system came on and went to full volume all by itself while the car was off, locked and unoccupied. I heard it from 100 yards away. “Who is that joker playing his stereo so loud I can hear it from here?” Oh, it’s Elon. I turned it down, but it kept wavering up and down as I started driving, working against my repeated attempts to dial it down. Then it blasted all the way to maximum. My ears are still ringing two hours later. Fixed after reboot. Not sure about hearing damage.

• Audio page leaping up and down rapidly like the up-caret button to expand the source menu was being played with by a kid who ate too much candy. Concurrent with the volume problem above. Same reboot.

• Icons on the map screen flickering.

• The passenger vanity mirror fell off completely. Installed and held on only by double-sided tape. Reinstalled by pressing really hard on the mirror.

• The screen went completely dark on startup, no music or operation. Restarted the car. The screen worked; the backup camera did not.

• The car will not shift into Drive or Reverse upon startup. “Vehicle Systems Are Powering Up. Shift Into D or R After Message Clears.” Have to wait for it to power up. A loud click comes from the rear of the car as if a drive shaft is engaging and the message on the screen goes away.

• The car displays a new message: “Cannot Maintain Vehicle Power. Car May Stop Driving or Shut Down.” No shutdowns yet, but keeping an eye out.

• With 170 miles of range, the car displays a “Regenerative Braking Limited” message. Plenty of available space to store regen power. Logged the issue, then reset the screen with a reboot. The message has not displayed since.

• While the car was parked, the passenger sun visor was left down and the mirror fell out. Pressed back into place. Hoping it won’t fall out again.

While no one should expect reliability to be at levels of mainstream manufacturers that have been at it for decades longer, quality remains a big issue for Tesla. For Musk to slam the media will only lead to responses as this.

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If only Elon Musk could summon institutional questions

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Elon Musk has apparently terminated the question of a Bernstein analyst ((followed by the rest of the institutional queue) on the basis of it being “uncool”. He said, “We’re going to YouTube [for retail investors]. These questions are so dry. They’re killing me!” If only the Tesla CEO could summon the right type of questions that deflected criticism of the company as easily as maneuvering a parked Model S from a tight parking spot.

While he urged non-believers to sell the stock, there is little to be gained pushing a line of  opacity for a company with production issues, continuing losses and $10.6bn in debt. Earnings results are not about having fun but for investors/analysts to probe and qualify assumptions in the interest of making rational investment decisions.

CM has made constant reference to Musk’s amazing ability to sell. He is coming up to the pointy end of having to deliver. There are countless distractions which perculate below the surface – copyright infringement trial launched by Nikola Motor, the NTSB autopilot probe, countless resignations and recent calls to cut the staff canteen cookies. By blowing off the main investor pool that feeds him, the question of CEO capability becomes a bigger factor than the dreadful earnings themselves.

There is no better disinfectant than sunlight but Musk continues to deflect. Cash flow continues to decline  The production shutdown in April will thump Q2 earnings, not to mention the capex spend should rise plus the write off of equipment that has proven to be surplus to requirements. Here he is talking of 10,000 units a week down the line to fill the hearts of the faithful followers. Perhaps his comments about not needing to raise capital are best addressed by the fact he’s raised 7x since that statement.

Today’s results meeting is more telling in that snake oil salesman tactics of talking up the situation was replaced by silence and stonewalling. Telling.

Cutting back on the Tesla staff cookie tin

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Where have we heard this before? When companies look to tighten the belt, bosses often pat themselves on the back by cutting back on ‘unnecessary expenses’ like staff coffee room biscuits. That somehow over a 12 month period a company hemorrhaging millions has saved $832.67 on cookie cutting. Maybe $1,239.31 on fewer newspaper subscriptions. Well it seems Tesla’s Elon Musk is getting tough on approvals. Well he might especially after claims he doesn’t need a capital raise and made wise cracks about going bankrupt on April fool’s day.

Musk tweeted that his finance team were going to be out to trim back on any expense deemed not vital to the cause. All $1mn approvals must be solely signed off by the CEO himself. Suchnis the extent of ‘production hell’ he has moved to 24-7 shifts to hit his slated targets.

His email also bragged,

It is extremely rare for an automotive company to grow the production rate by over 100% from one year to the next. Moreover, there has simultaneously been a significant improvement in quality and build accuracy…

Indeed it is extremely rare to have auto companies doubling production year over year because most companies never plan to improvise their manufacturing  methods to start with. Toyota doesn’t meet a week before starting a new vehicle build and have a thought bubble. “Tanaka-san, did you get hold of Fanuc to see if they have any spare robots they can install by Friday?” Moreover the quality improvements are also a celebration of dreadful moving to mediocre. These aren’t achievements in any manufacturers book. They’re a candid admission of ‘amateur hour’

Musk continued,

Any Tesla department or supplier that is unable to do this will need to have a very good explanation why not, along with a plan for fixing the problem and present that to me directly. If anyone needs help achieving this, please let me know as soon as possible. We are going to find a way or make a way to get there.”

Seriously? It is a rather frightening prospect now that the CEO, whom took over the production floor several weeks ago, is sending a  crisis stations email to staff and suppliers.

His levels of lashing out of late seem somewhat concerning. Two weeks ago he accused the NTSB of lacking credibility by kicking off Tesla in the investigation panel into the recent death caused of a driver in California who had relied on autopilot Attaking the regulator is never a wise move. Worse, he blamed the driver in response to a lawsuit launched by the deceased’s family claiming he put too much faith in a system he champions as smarter than humans. Which is it?

Musk’s full letter to employees is here but perhaps he should take a lead out of the Riva Aquarama production line book. Carlo Riva built the Ferrari of yachts with excruciating attention to detail. All the different stages of production crew had different coloured jackets on. When looking out his window if he ever saw colours mingling he knew he had a problem.

Musk talks the confidence game but the pressure is bearing down on him. Senior departures, impending court actions and a production system that has been found wanting after such a short period of time that major changes need to be enacted because the original concept was so poorly thought out. So much for sensible factory capex allocation.

Elon Musk also made surprising remarks about the new found existence of sub suppliers. Musk can’t  lick his finger to find the direction of the wind forever. This is rookie level discovery. Frankly shareholders should be very concerned.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing trends in the US surging

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The Chapter 11 bankruptcy trends in the US have been picking up in the last 4 years. While well off the highs of the months and years of the GFC and years following it, the absolute numbers of filings has exceeded the levels leading up to the crisis in 2007/8.

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Here we put 2006/7/8 alongside 2016/17/18. The average monthly bankruptcy filings were around 355 in 2006 moving to 429 in 2007 and then 718 in 2008. If we looked at the data in the 12 months prior to the quarter leading into Lehman’s collapse, bankruptcies averaged 463/month. The ultimate carnage peaked out at 1,049 in 2009 (1,377 in Apr 2009). For 2016, 2017 and 2018 (annualized) we get 454, 480 and 521 respectively.

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Bankruptcy filings tend to be seasonal and often show peaks in April when tax season coincides with businesses.

However the %-age spike in bankruptcies in 2008 ahead of Lehman’s downfall was 46%. In the latest recorded month from the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) was 81%. This March 2018 spike is the second highest since the GFC hit. April figures will be interesting if we get another lift on that figure. Not even seasonality can explain away the differences. The trends seem clear.

Thinking logically, we are at the end of the generous credit cycle. Interest rates are heading north thanks to a less accommodating Fed. Naturally ‘weaker’ companies will have more trouble in refinancing under such environments. The lowering of corporate taxes would seem to be a boon, but with loss making businesses it becomes harder to exercise tax loss carry forwards.

We’ve already started to see GFC levels of credit card delinquency at the sub-prime end of town. Sub-prime auto loan makers seeking bankruptcy protection have surged too.

Fitch, which rates auto-loan ABS said the 60+ day delinquency rate of subprime auto loans has now risen to 5.8%, up from 5.2% a year ago, and up from 3.8% in February 2014 to the highest rate since Oct 1996, exceeding even GFC levels.

growing number of car loans in the US are being pushed further down the repayment line as much as 84 months. In the new car market the percentage of 73-84-month loans is 33.8%, triple the level of 2009. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84 month term loans. The US ended 2016 with c.$1.2 trillion in outstanding auto loan debt, up 9%YoY and 13% above the pre-crisis peak in 2005.

The irony here is that sub-prime auto loan makers expanded lending because new technology allowed these companies to to remotely shut down and repossess vehicles of owners who were late on payments. That game only lasts so long before it forms its own Ponzi scheme.

Throw skittish financial markets, geopolitical instability and the mother of all refinancings coming the US Treasury’s way it is not to hard to see bankruptcies pick up from here.

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!