Benchmarks

GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.

ABC goes bananas but slips up on cold truths that split the narrative

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On March 18,  CM wrote about the gross inefficiencies at the ABC, which have rapidly deteriorated over time. We said,

Since 2008, the average salary of ABC’s staff has risen 25% from $86,908 to $108,408. Total staff numbers have risen from 4499 to 4769. Therefore salaries as a percentage of the ABC revenues have risen from 37.1% of the budget to 50%. The ABC’s ability to generate sales from content has fallen from A$140mn to A$70mn last year. The multicultural SBS has seen its budget grow from A$259mn in 2008 to A$412mn in 2017. SBS staff numbers have grown from 844 to 1,466 over the same period with average salaries rising from A$82,689 to A$88,267 or 7.2%. Which begs the question why is the SBS able to operate at 31% of the budget in salaries while the ABC is at 50%? Surely the ABC’s economies of scale should work in its favour? Clearly not.

According to The Australian, in response to the budget cuts coming over the following three years,  the ABC responded today with,

The ABC says there is “no more fat to cut” following the federal government’s announcement to slash $84 million in funding from the public broadcaster…News director Gaven Morris has hit back at the three-year funding freeze announced in Tuesday’s federal budget, which maintains more than $1 billion a year for the broadcaster.

“Make no mistake, there is no more fat to cut at the ABC. Any more cuts to the ABC cut into the muscle of the organisation…We’re as efficient as we’ve ever been…We’re the most minutely scrutinised media organisation in Australia…$84 million over three years, there is simply no way we can achieve that without looking at content creation and certainly looking at jobs within the organisation.”

Well perhaps if the ABC stop airing radical feminists who demand that parents seek approval from their babies when changing nappies or called conservative politicians who served in the military as “c*nts” perhaps it might justify for more budget.

It is a pretty simple. Online media pretty much allows such a wide array of choice that we do not need a taxpayer funded media (which readily breaches its code of conduct with regards to political bias) to provide so much content.

We have multiple ABC TV & radio stations plus multiple websites. One could argue for one each. We certainly do not need to give the ABC more money to expand its platforms to make up for a shortfall in quality content to arrest declining market shares.

Who will get the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Korean War – Kim, Moon & Xi or Trump?

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Will President Donald Trump be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for getting Kim & Moon to the peace table? It is unlikely in so far as the Norwegian Nobel Committee would fear the full weight of international opinion (aka mainstream media) for doing so. Surely they wouldn’t risk making a mockery of such a coveted award? Then again a one Barack Obama was handed one less than 9 months into his first term on the stated basis of a noble quest for the Holy Grail of world peace rather than anything actually achieved. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs on enemies. Not bad for a serial appeaser. A Nobel prize has even been awarded to a multi billion dollar embezzling terrorist of a self appointed authority, so Kim Jong-un is in with a shot.

Will Trump receive any credit (even without a Nobel) for pushing ‘Rocketman/The Fat Kid’ to the negotiating table? Probably not. How come no other administrations were able to achieve something that was relatively easier when the state of the North’s arsenal was considerably less lethal? Kim threatened Guam less than half a year ago. Trump didn’t back down and the North Korean dictator clearly realized from Twitter that the most powerful man in the world wasn’t all bluster. President Xi may well have played a solid hand in pushing Kim to sue for peace negotiations. In the interests of President-for-life Xi, his foe Trump has a maximum 7 years left to meddle. If Korea gets a peace deal, Xi can play hardball on the peninsula if a softer President enters the White House thereafter. Then he can take a stab at Taiwan. Xi can afford to wait.

We should not forget that Kim Jong-Un travelled to China on his first ‘overseas’ visit earlier this year. Best get the approval of a real dictator before progressing. Kim was there to get Beijing’s blessing to ensure North Korean sovereignty come what may so as to maintain the desired geographical buffer to pro-US nations.

Noone said peace isn’t desirable. The question is what price must one pay to get it? There are too many incidents in the past where signing peace treaties with dictatorial regimes have ended in disaster. Hitler/Chamberlain (Munich Agreement), Hitler/Stalin (Pact of Steel), Putin/Merkel/Macron (suggestion of UN in Ukraine), Le Duc Tho/Kissinger (Paris Peace Accords over Vietnam), Xerxes II/Leonidas (Greece) etc.

Will part of the denuclearization ‘deal’ call upon a withdrawal of US Forces from the Korean Peninsula? Would the US go for that? Highly unlikely. Would Moon be so gullible as to suggest a (slow) withdrawal? Of course he has the right to demand a foreign garrison pack up and go home. Trump may have pushed China and NK to act but he’d prefer the status quo than to roll over and vacate the premises. China wins in either scenario. America certainly doesn’t want to pay for the same real estate twice. Some quarters in South Korea must surely want the US military to stay as an insurance policy. Afterall how can one trust someone who comes from a dynasty that kills its own people and assassinates family members? Worryingly Moon looks to have a certain ring of Chamberlain about him.

It was clear that North Korea was dictating the moves at the Winter Olympics. It was South Korea who funded the $3mn in travel costs for the cheer squad. Anything that looked to mock the North Koreans was swiftly dealt with. It spoke volumes about which Korea was calling the shots. Anyone impersonating any other world leader could do so with reckless aplomb. Anything resembling Kim Jong-un  was quickly removed from sight. Tyrannies rarely do humour and sadly not enough democracies defend it. Still it is hardly an encouraging sign for even handed peace talks when one side looks to appease in this way.

Kim Jong-un is smart enough to realize at such a youthful stage in his life that he probably has another 40-50 years left in him. Reunification only works if he is given sanctuary. Idi Amin saw the beauty of a life in exile in Saudi Arabia. If Kim Jong-un can relax in Sichuan Province it maybe a dignified way out. One can bet his ‘some are more equal than others’ inner sanctum would rather the two stay separated. They would stand to lose way more than Kim.  It would be ridiculous to assume that Kim could be a major cog driving a reunification process with such an abysmal human rights record. Name a despot who would willing cede authoritarian rule much less without a deal which would exonerate him from any international criminal court that he would be held accountable for under a functioning democracy?

The South Koreans have had a think tank in Berlin researching the effect of reunification in Germany. The former West is still heavily subsidizing the former East. Depopulation (-15% between 1989 & 2013), unemployment rates (higher today that 1989) and inferior GDP per capita (27% less) are all a feature of the former communist state vs the federal republic over the last three decades.

How easily could South Korea absorb the North? West Germany had a population of 63mn in 1989 vs 16mn in East Germany or 4:1. South Korea has 53mn vs North Korea’s 24mn or 2:1. West Germany had a 2.3x GDP/capita ratio to the East in 1989. South Korea has a 52x GDP/capita ratio to the North. Reunification for Korea isn’t an apples to apples comparison with Germany. While Samsung might relish the prospects of tapping a cheap labour pool to build washing machines, the South would likely face far higher integration costs than the Germans. Even 30 years ago East Germany had a GDP/capita 17x that of North Korea.

In any event the only sure outcome of peace on the Korea Peninsula is that President Trump will get next to zero credit in the media. Wailing about the reckless diplomacy of an unhinged dictator will be the main with a few conceding it was at best a fluke.

Disrespecting the dead then preaching one’s subjective value to society

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Should we be surprised at yet another unhinged lefty taking pot shots at the dead and gloating about it? It was hard to top Canadian freelance journalist Nora Loreto who tweeted at the whiteness of Humbolt hockey players who died in a bus crash but Randa Jarrar has managed to one up her.

Fresno State University Professor Randa Jarrar tweeted that former First Lady Mrs. Barbara Bush was a

generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal… “F**k outta here with your nice words….all the hate I’m getting ALMOST made me forget how happy I am that George W Bush…I’m happy the witch is dead…”

She then defended her rant to someone that clearly found her words unnecessary by saying,

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Her college President Joseph Castro had a slightly more balanced view of her behaviour,

On behalf of Fresno State, I extend my deepest condolences to the Bush family on the loss of our former First Lady, Barbara Bush. We share the deep concerns by others over the personal comments made today by Professor Randa Jarrar, a professor in the English Department at Fresno State. Her statements were made as a private citizen, not as a representative of Fresno State. Professor Jarrar’s expressed personal views and commentary are obviously contrary to the core values of our University, which include respect and empathy for individuals with divergent points of view, and a sincere commitment to mutual understanding and progress.

Provost (Vice Chancellor) Lynnette Zelezny of Fresno State spoke afterwards at a news conference confirming a question to her that the disrespectful professor could be fired.

One doubts there will be many that shed a tear at this self inflicted stupidity. Makes one wonder what standards she holds her class to. If history is any guide she will no doubt drag up her lack of white privilege as justification enough to mock a woman who served her country with dignity.

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.

Manhattan property in a gully

Manhattan property seems to be in a gully according to Elliman R/E in Q1 2018. While a slightly better QoQ performance, average prices fell 8.4%YoY, price per square foot fell 18.5%YoY and the number of sales transactions fell 24.6%YoY. This was the lowest quarter total in 5 years and the biggest annual decline in 9 years. Absorption rates hit 8.4 months in Q1, +38%YoY. New federal tax laws, higher interest rates and the end of legacy pipeline contracts were factors. At the luxury end of town average price per sqft fell 20.6%YoY with absorption up 50%YoY to over 20 months. As the real estate agent and stripper said in The Big Short, “it is just a gully we are experiencing right now.

Racial bias in US school discipline? Some shocking correlations

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The GAO has published a 98 page report on discipline in US schools. In a perhaps somewhat irresponsible manner of formatting, it suggests that teachers seem to pick on particular races and disabilities for those reasons alone. It is as if teachers are pushing kids with wheelchairs uncontrollably down ramps. Yet, ‘disability’ of course includes mental problems which could range from anxiety to depression. 11.7% of students are classified with a disability. Yet delving deeply within the stats, of the 56 million K-12 students, 5.7% have been in detention, only 0.4% of the total have been referred to law enforcement, 0.3% have been expelled, 0.2% received corporal punishment and less than 0.1% have been arrested. In short, 99.6% of students stay out of ‘big’ trouble and 94.3% stay out of detention. Single parent households and poverty levels are highly correlated to discipline. Reporting the headlines of the GAO makes for shock and awe but had they reported the 0.X% stats it would deflate the rhetoric.

The NY Times article implied there must be some sort of unconscious bias as teachers were being bigoted bullies. Doesn’t the mainstream media defend the very same people as the last bastions of educational excellence against the tyranny of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 80% of teachers are white. Although this has been on a long term decline.

If white students (K-12) represent 50.3% of the total is it fair to assume that they should hold an equal % of disciplinary actions? Do crime stats and incarceration rates reflect race based demographics anywhere in the world? In America, 24.7% of students are Hispanic and 15.5% are black. When it comes to higher levels of poverty, Hispanics are way under-represented in the disciplinary stats despite being higher proportions of the students. Whites are punished more or less in line with their population in that bracket.

In the interests of gender equality, why are girls, at 49% of all students punished at half the rate of boys? Unconscious bias or is it through our own experiences, women are far less likely to bring the wrath of teachers in class? A reasonably safe assumption to make.

Nearly half of all public school students went to schools where 50% or more of the students were low-income, and about a quarter went to schools where 75% or more of the students were low-income. Of the 11.5mn students in 75-100% low income backgrounds, 1 million spent time in out of school detention. Of the 9.9 million students in 0-25% low income schools, 217,000 spent time in out of school detention. 128,500 of those were white. Whites make up 78% of 0-25% low income school populations and only 16% of 75-100% low income schools. Therefore it stands to reason statistically that if students in less poverty stricken schools trigger fewer disciplinary issues, then the stats would naturally bear out such differences rather than it being pure racial profiling.

So it would appear that low income would impact the rates of delinquency. Referring to number of kids living with both parents/step-parent (according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study) in America we find:

Asian: 82%

White: 71%

Hispanic: 55%

Black: 31%

The GAO stats make clear that Asian kids get caught up in the least amount of disciplinary action both by absolute and percentage wise. Blacks the most, Hispanics second and whites 3rd. Could it be an inverse correlation? Psychological studies have shown boys seem to be more impacted by the lack of a father in the house than do girls. Children (especially boys) raised by single mothers are more likely to fare worse on a number of dimensions, including their school achievement, their social and emotional development, their health and their success in the labor market. They are at greater risk of parental abuse and neglect (especially from live-in boyfriends who are not their biological fathers), more likely to become teen parents and less likely to graduate from high school or college.

survey taken by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the US back in January of 1993 revealed poverty, alcoholism, student apathy and absenteeism were cited as big problems in secondary public schools. Lack of a parent was also high on the agenda.

The American Psychological Association, “poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income (top 20 percent of all family incomes) students…Family poverty is associated with a number of adverse conditions — high mobility and homelessness; hunger and food insecurity; parents who are in jail or absent; domestic violence; drug abuse and other problems — known as “toxic stressors” because they are severe, sustained and not buffered by supportive relationships…Community poverty also matters. Some neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of African-Americans, are communities of concentrated disadvantage with extremely high levels of joblessness, family instability, poor health, substance abuse, poverty, welfare dependency and crime

Broken homes and poverty are undoubtedly a big issue. The report said, “Besides lack of parent involvement, the school problems viewed as serious by at least 10 percent of public school teachers included student apathy, poverty, student absenteeism, student disrespect for teachers, parental alcoholism and/or drug abuse, and student tardiness. Behaviors and attitudes of students were more likely to be seen as problematic by teachers at the secondary level than by teachers at the elementary level. Parent alcoholism, on the other hand, was described as “serious” as often by elementary teachers as by secondary teachers and poverty was described as “serious” more often by elementary teachers.”

85% of kids likely to go to college or higher levels of education came from stable family backgrounds. 61% of kids likely to drop out before graduating high school are from broken homes. Sixty One Percent!

So before reading into it that teachers must be subconsciously racially profiling students in handing out punishment, perhaps the overwhelming weight of societal evidence points to far bigger problems that need addressing. Poverty, single parent households and a whole raft of issues need dealing before the government watchdog should report back racial bias at a top down level. According to the logic, perhaps teachers should be forced into student discipline quotas. That way (un)conscious bias won’t afflict teachers and whites can be punished in line with their demographically representation.

Let’s not forget that financial institutions have often been targeted for charging black customers higher interest rates on loans than whites. What they always fail to mention is that Asians pay even lower rates than both. That is the problem with selectivity in data without meaningfully looking at the broader picture. Just like the recent Florida school shooting where a look at what is going on in terms of school security over decades paints a different picture to what the mainstream narrative would want us to believe.