Bankruptcy

Regime overthrow in Iran? Don’t get too excited (yet)

888AB232-C873-4B54-BF59-1168F021535A.jpeg

The US State Department seems to be openly welcoming the outbreak of spontaneous demonstrations in Iran selling it as the early steps of regime change. In fact it is more likely to help President Rouhani force economic changes he has been prevented from making due to deep seated corruption within the regime itself. Rouhani has tried to make economic changes for years to boost the economy but the regime has kept monopoly power over multiple industries which has impeded his ability to do it.

The Iranian banking system holds 10s of billions of dollars in non-performing loans which is weighing down the economy and undermining the potential for private-sector-led recovery. Given the increasing vulnerability of Iran’s financial system, the government urgently needs to restructure and recapitalize the banks. Iranian banks were weakened by a sluggish economy caused by the sanctions, state interference in lending decisions and lax regulations causing excessive competition with unlicensed financial institutions.

The country’s recovery could well slow since Trump has raised the possibility that sanctions could be reimposed or new sanctions introduced. It should come as no surprise that this has deterred many banks and other foreign companies from operating in Iran.

The Iranian government directly owns and operates hundreds of state-owned enterprises (SoE) and indirectly controls many companies in the private sector. Inflation (9%), price controls (e.g. milk, energy) designed to tame it and rising unemployment (12.4%) are really behind the protests than a direct call to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Still don’t rule out the US State Department rubbing its hands with glee to try to throw a spanner in the works. Easier done by crushing its economy by redeploying sanctions given the financial system is in such a precarious position.

We shouldn’t ignore the timing of the assasination of former Yemeni President Saleh in the last month. His death now gives Saudi Arabia more will to take heavier action against the Iran backed Houthi in Yemen. Now that Saudi Arabia has recently cleaned house with the arrests of royal family members to tighten the inner circle, it almost seems the stars are aligning for the ante to be upped on Iran.

While much has escaped the mainstream media, at the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, multiple US, Saudi and Emirati warships have been attacked by Houthi rebel forces. In January 2017 a Saudi al-Madinah frigate was sunk in the strait. An Emirati HSV-2 swift naval craft was also put out of action in late 2015. Cargo ships (10% of global trade) make their way up the Red Sea via the Bab al-Mandeb Strait to the Suez Canal, could suffer if tensions rise here.

While many are distracted by the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face’ action, most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran. It is only 7 months ago that the Saudis pushed to expel Qatar from the GCC for keeping cosy relations with Iran and supporting Hamas and the Houthi in Yemen. The South Pars/North Dome Gas Condensate field – the world’s largest natural gas field –  is jointly owned by Iran and Qatar which means divided loyalties between the GCC and Tehran.

Get ready for lots of fake news. Something tells CM that there is something more sinister at play.

Madoff wasn’t so long ago

89DCC612-C930-4241-97C5-13C9C2D0535E.jpeg

It was just over 9 years ago that Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to a Ponzi scheme that cost investors over $65bn. While many happily point fingers at greedy banksters we tend to forget that despite Harry Markopolos, handing the SEC (the US regulator) the details of the case in 1999 on a platter it failed to act. His testimony points directly to the kind of problem that exists with government regulators – no track record in the fields they legislate. In the 9 years prior to Madoff pleading guilty, Markopolos caught him at the $6bn stage. The SEC after multiple investigations turned nothing even with a treasure map provided by Markopolos that someone with markets experience would have discovered in 30 minutes. Throw on all the other scandals (ratings agencies etc) that the SEC failed to capture and it cost taxpayers $700bn.

Willful negligence? I gave a speech at the Japanese financial regulator (FSA) on fraud and insider trading  at the time of the Kobe Steel data scandal. When presented with comparable data with other exchanges the blind eye is no less scandalous. So before hanging the financiers out to dry perhaps people ought to question the regulators whose incompetence and inaction is at fault. If you give a child a box of matches unsupervised then don’t be surprised if the whole house burns down.

NFL – seat prices at the back of the discount rack

8D973892-43C7-4648-80CC-152DB9BEBB65.jpeg

NFL has been off the main headlines recently. Interesting to see that seats for certain games are selling for as little as $3 each. Of course better games starring more popular teams show firmer (albeit deeply discounted) pricing but one can’t help but think this is a continuation of the backlash against the kneeling saga. Regardless of the views of the players, their employers (aka the fans) are evaluating them by their wallets. Seems like the message hasn’t got through. If they wish to continue to kneel deep discounts which incorporate the social cost to the fan have to be provided until the ultimate financial impact to the players is reached.

Healthcare in America – more hospitals going bankrupt

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is often lauded by some as noble legislation. Yet according to bankruptcy lawyers, Polsinelli, the changes made to reimbursements that used to help cover hospitals who treated uninsured patients were pulled under ACA and have sent many hospitals to the bankruptcy A&E ward. The law firm said in its report,

The Health Care Services Distress Research Index was 223.33 for the third quarter of 2017. The Health Care Distress Index increased 15 points from last quarter. The index has experienced record or near-record highs in 5 of the last 6 quarters. Compared with the same period one year ago, which was a record high at that time, the index has increased 60 points. Compared with the benchmark period of the fourth quarter of 2010, the index is up over 123 percent…Unlike the public markets, the Polsinelli/TrBK Distress Indices include both public and private companies, creating a broader economic view and one which may show developing trends on Main Street before they appear on Wall Street….Health care distress is high and it seems to be getting worse…

…The business of health care is unlike other industries, such as manufacturing, real estate, or retail. Health care faces all the traditional business challenges, such as competition, the impact of technology on services, and increasing wages. But more, the health care industry is needing to adapt to increasing regulations, changes in reimbursement rates from government or private payors, and a shift from traditional fee-for-service to value-based models that impact profitability…There is unprecedented pressure of major systemic changes to the existing health care system, particularly the implementation of the Affordable Care Act over the last several years and the current status of the program, which is alternately being repealed, repealed and replaced, phased out, or simply defunded…The administration’s recent decision to terminate cost sharing reduction payments will also directly impact the health care market. Insurance companies may continue to provide insurance at a higher premium or decide to exit the markets. Eliminating these payments and the resulting premium increases may increase the cost to the government through premium subsidies.”

In short many Americans saw a doubling of premiums (an average increase of 113%) under Obamacare inside of 4 years causing many to forgo the insurance. The reimbursements under the old system (which helped compensate hospitals administering emergency treatment for the uninsured) that were stopped on the proviso people would take up ACA plans backfired. Not enough people signed up and more hospitals running on a days cashflow have been forced to close because the reimbursements designed to protect them against uninsured patients disappeared. When Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare, testified to Congress he candidly said,

The Affordable Healthcare bill was written in a tortured way to make sure the (Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes…If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies, OK? Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage … call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever … that was really, really critical to get the thing to pass … I wish … we could make it transparent, but I’d rather have the law than not.”

Thoughts for the day – Group think, crypto and taxi drivers

6FE1E60D-D240-464D-AB5A-E4305B63F7E6

It is important to challenge convention. I have had countless questions from people on bitcoin and crypto lately. Sort of reminded me of the above. Perhaps the golden rule of investing doesn’t lie in complex models and sci-fi scenario analysis but the simple question of whenever an overwhelming majority think something is great, it is time to take the opposing view and vice versa. I haven’t been in a taxi yet to confirm Bitcoin is overdone. As I put it – gold needs to be dug out of the ground with effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’.

Think of why your Norton, Kaspersky or Trend Micro anti-virus software requires constant upgrading to prevent new threats trying to exploit new vulnerabilities in systems. We need only go back to the Stuxnet virus of 2010 which was installed inside computers controlling uranium centrifuges in Iran. The operators had no idea. The software told the brain of the centrifuges to spin at multiples faster than design spec could handle all the while the computer interface of the operators showed everything normal. After a while the machines melted down causing the complete destruction of the centrifuges which were controlled from a remote location.

So much in life is simple. Yet we have lawyers writing confusing sentences that carry on for pages and pages, politicians complicating simple tasks, oil companies trying to convince us their additives are superior to others and so on. The reality is we just have to ask ourselves that one question from Mark Twain,

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.

Tesla – to err is human. To blame on somebody else is even more human in a dog eat dog industry

This video sums up Tesla’s Q3. Elon Musk (on the left) blaming his supplier on the right. We shouldn’t discount that Tesla maybe pushing the boat out on payables ($3.9bn). As mentioned in the big Tesla report published on Monday, the fact Tesla doesn’t have beefy mainstream suppliers serving it is telling. US suppliers have been bitten too many times to take on high risk projects which won’t provide any better margin. It is a fact that suppliers need stable production just as much if not more than the manufacturer. If a car maker has 20 models and only one stinks and that is the one you’re supplying to then losses are going to result. So blaming suppliers is hardly going to win over the more seasoned players to change their mind on Tesla. Dobbing in your suppliers shows poor management period. Who ate the cookie?

 

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (by country)

18DF84E1-6082-4393-A53E-253A7CE084A0.jpeg

In an ever growing world of haves vs have nots, Elliman has released an interesting update on the statues of global wealth and where it is likely to head over the next decade. It suggests North America has 73,100 UNHWIs at an average of $100mn each or $7.31 trillion. To put that in perspective 73,100 North Americans have as much wealth as Japan & France’s annual output combined. Over the next decade they expect 22,700 to join the ranks.

Europe has 49,650 UHNWI also at the magical $100mn mark (presumably the cut off for UHNWI or the equivalent of Japan.

Asia is growing like mad with $4.84 trillion split up by 46,000 or $105mn average. In a decade there are forecast to be 88,000 UHNWIs in Asia.

62BE71DE-CC5E-4901-95EB-65519635491B.jpeg

I am not sure what the World Bank was smoking when coming up with the coming forecasts I’ve rthe next decade but the figures smel fishy.  Then it all comes down to this chart.

55BF667E-C186-45E2-80B8-ED9940588957.jpeg

1) Political uncertainty? Everywhere you look – Trump, Brexit, Catalonia, Australia, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland etc etc

2) Potential fall in asset values – looks a very high chance of that. Current asset bubbles are almost everywhere – bonds, equities, real estate etc

3) Rising taxes – maybe not the US or Canada (if you follow the scrutiny over Finance Minister Morneau), but elsewhere taxes and or costs of living for the masses are rising

4) Capital controls – China, India etc

5) Rising interest rates – well the US tax cuts should by rights send interest rates creeping higher. A recent report showed 57% of Aussies couldn’t afford an extra $100/month in mortgage – a given if banks are forced to raise lending rates due to higher funding costs (40% is wholesale finance – the mere fact the US is raising rates will only knock on to Aus and other markets).

Surely asset prices at record levels and all of the other risk factors seemingly bumping into one another…

So while UHNWIs probably weather almost any storm, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that the $100mn threshold might get lowered to $50m. It reminds me of a global mega cap PM who just before GFC had resplendent on his header “nothing under $50bn market cap”. Post GFC that became $25bn then eventually $14bn…at which point I suggested he change the header entirely.

I had an amusing discourse on LinkedIn about crypto currencies. The opposing view was that this is a new paradigm (just like before GFC) and it would continue to rise ( I assume he owns bit coins). He suggested it was like a promissory note in an electronic form so has a long history dating back millennia. I suggested that gold needs to be dug out of the ground – there is no other way. Crypto has huge risk factors because it is ultimately mined in cyber space. State actors or hackers can ruin a crypto overnight. There have already been hacking incidents that undermine the safety factor. It does’t take a conspiracy theory to conjure that up. To which he then argued if it all goes pear shaped, bitcoin was a more flexible currency. Even food would be better than gold. To which I suggested that a border guard who is offering passage is probably already being fed and given food is a perishable item that gold would probably buy a ticket to freedom more readily as human nature can adapt hunger far more easily in the fight for survival. I haven’t heard his response yet.

In closing isn’t it ironic that Bitcoin is now split into two. The oxymornically named Bitcoin Gold is set to be mined by more people with less powerful machines, therefore decentralizing the network further and opening it up to a wider user base. Presumably less powerful machines means fewer safeguards too although it will be sold as impervious to outsiders. Of course the idea is to widen the adoption rate to broaden appeal. Everyone I know who owns Bitcoin can never admit to its short comings. Whenever anything feels to be good to be true, it generally is. Crypto has all the hallmarks of a fiat currency if I am not mistaken? While central banks can print furiously, they will never compete with a hacker who can digitally create units out of thin air. Fool’s Gold perhaps? I’ll stick to the real stuff. I’ll take 5,000 years of history over 10 years any day of the week.