Central Banks

Return of the State-Owned Enterprise

Image result for state owned enterprises

A new investor to Japan once asked CM how to categorise corporate behaviour in the land of the rising sun. CM replied, “Japan is not capitalism with warts, but socialism with beauty spots.

Latest reports confirm the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has now become a top 10 shareholder in almost 50% of listed stocks. In a sense, we have a trend which threatens to turn Japan’s largest businesses into quasi-state-owned enterprises (SoE) by the back door. The BoJ now owns $250bn of listed Japanese equities. It is the top shareholder in household Japanese brands such as Omron, Nidec and Fanuc. At current investment rates, the BoJ is set to own $400bn worth of the market by 2020-end.

The original reason for this move was to boost the ETF market and hope that Mrs Watanabe would pocket her winnings and splurge them at Mitsukoshi Department Store to increase consumption. Sadly all she has done is stuff it under the futon.

Although the government has been very public about the drive for good corporate governance, a stewardship code that drives to unwind cross-shareholdings, improve liquidity and lift returns, sadly the BoJ essentially reverses free-float and confounds the ability of companies to be attractive investments. What will happen if one day the BoJ announces it needs to pare its balance sheet back or that its holdings become too noticeable? These stocks will crater and Mrs Watanabe will become even more gun shy.

We shouldn’t forget that behind the walls of the BoJ, there is discussion to buy all $10 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Global markets won’t take nicely to wiping out 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press. Such a reckless experiment has yet to hit the Japanese Diet for discussion because such a move will require legislation to approve it. If it happens, the inflation the BoJ has now given up on will turn into a tsunami.

To infinity and beyond?

Several days before Enron went belly up, Goldman Sachs released a research report on the company titled, “As good as it gets“. Grandiose statements are often precursors to calamity.

When Barrons publishes articles with “The bull market has no expiration date” start running for the hills. Sounds like Barrons has channeled Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story who said, “to infinity and beyond.”

What happened to Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance“?

Remember his godlike status was such that markets would hang on his every word forcing him to eventually utter,

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!”

Maybe Barrons forgot that Buzz also said, “this isn’t flying! It’s falling with style.” Unfortunately there will be no grace when this bubble pops.

Thanks to SM007 for the flag.

RBA is the new axe on climate change.

EC2469EB-3AC1-4DD3-AFED-C0D36EE97B67.jpeg

The RBA can barely manage interest rates so where does it get off babbling on about how climate change is going to maim the economy? Stay in your lane!  Even worse the speech based its assertions on the prophecies of the IPCC and BOM, two of many organizations which have been caught red handed manipulating climate data. CM thought the science was settled? If so, what is the point of so many climate bodies fiddling the figures? Why can’t the RBA open its ‘assess all risk’ lens? Wouldn’t data malfeasance constitute a red flag in the RBA’s internal analysis? Clearly not.

While the RBA is there to manage risk, why doesn’t it try evidence based research? Perhaps try look at the debate on both sides of the argument rather than follow an ideology because it feels the need to virtue signal by joining the herd.

Well if the economy collapses under its watch they can blame a drought, a flood and a bushfire rather than poor stewardship of monetary policy. Maybe the RBA might look at the perilous financial state our main banks find themselves in. Maybe the bank managements being attacked in the Royal Commission can blame climate change for the sudden hot blooded mistakes they made.

What a farce.

Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Corp Profit

While the Dow & S&P500 indices grind back higher thanks to the US Fed chickening out on a rate rise in because the economy can’t handle it, many people still overlook the fact that core US profitability has tracked sideways since 2012. 6 years of next to nada. Sure one can boost profits by adding back unrealistic  “inventory adjustments” but the reality is plain and simple. If you search for inventory adjusted earnings they’re still marginally growing but there in lies the point. Real profits aren’t.

Record buybacks fueled by cheap debt is the cause for ‘flattered’ earnings. No growth in E  just falls in S.  EPS growth can look spectacular if you ignore 50% of US corporates have BBB credit ratings or worse.

The latest lexicon is “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The idea that the central banks just manipulate markets in perpetuity. Austerity is no longer needed. Central banks print money and extinguish debts the same way. Seriously why bother with taxation? The question is if it is meant to be a sure winner, why aren’t we all living in 5 bedroom mansions with a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche in the driveway? Why not a helicopter?

Logically if central banks can buy our way out of this debt ridden hellhole, why is growth so anemic? Why is European GDP being cut back? Why is German industrial production at its worst level since 2009? Why does Salvini want to jail the Italian central bankers? Why does the Yellow Vest movement in France carry on for its 15th consecutive week? If MMT works why would the EU care if the UK leaves with No Deal? MMT can solve everything for unelected bureaucrats in theory. Even £39bn can be printed

Last year the US Fed announced it had stopped reporting its balance sheet activity. In 2006 it stopped reporting M3 money supply. Curious timing when inside 2 years the world was flung into the worst recession since 1929. Transparency is now a danger for authorities.

The question boils down to one of basic sanity. All assets are priced relative to others. It’s why an identical house with a view in a nice neighborhood trades at a relatively higher price than one in a outer suburban back lot. The market attributes extra value even if the actual dwelling is a carbon copy. It is why currencies in banana republics trade by appointment and inflation remains astronomical. Investors don’t trust their ability to repay debts unless given extremely favorable terms. Market forces at work.

To put the shoe on the other foot, if all countries adopted MMT why bother buying bonds for retirement? The interest is merely backed by a printing press. Best consume 100% and save zero. The government has moved beyond moral hazard and hopes no one will notice

Take a look at Japan. It has $10 trillion in outstanding debt which is 2x its economy. The Bank of Japan owns 60% of that paper bought through a printing press. The market for JGBs is so manipulated that several Japanese mega banks have handed back their trading licenses because it has become worthless to be on that exchange. The BoJ thinks it can make whatever prices it chooses. The ultimate aim is to convert all of the outstanding debt into a zero coupon perpetual bond with a minor ‘administration’ fee in order to assign some value to it. To the layman, a zero coupon perpetual means you get no interest on the money you lend and the borrower is technically never required to pay the borrowed amount back. Such loans are made by parents to their children, not central banks to politicians (although one could be forgiven to think their behaviour is child like).

Yet the backdrop remains the same. Consumers are tapped out in many countries. Lulled by a low interest rates forever mentality, even minute rises to stem inflation (real is different to reported) hurt. My credit card company constantly sends emails to offer to transfer balances at 9% as opposed to the 20% they can charge if I don’t pay in full.

APRA recently relented on interest only mortgages after demanding it be tightened to prevent a housing bubble getting bigger. Now mortgage holders hope the RBA cuts rates to ease their pain.

Like most new fads, MMT can’t remove the ultimate dilemma that Milton Friedman told us half a century ago. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. One can’t hope that putting money in the hands of everyone can be sustainable.

The one lesson that we should have learnt from GFC was that living at the expense of the future has rapidly diminishing returns. All we did was double down on that stupidity.

Do we think it normal that Sydney house prices  trade at levels the Japanese property bubble did in the late 1980s? Do we realize that we hold as much mortgage debt than Japanese banks did for a population 5x our size? Do we think that our banks are adequately stress tested? When an economy like ours has avoided recession for a quarter century, it builds complacency.

MMT is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. It preys on the idea that we won’t notice if we can’t see it. Unfortunately behind the scenes, the real economy can’t sustain the distortions. The French make the best modern day example of  a growing number of Main Streeters struggling  to make ends meet.

Central banks monkeying around with MMT smacks of all the same hubris of the past. It is experimental at best and reckless at worst. Markets can be manipulated for as long as confidence can be sustained. Lose the market’s trust and all of a sudden no amount of modern day jargon  can overcome what economists have known for millennia.

If you flood a global economy with cash at 5x the rate the economy can feasibly grow then it will ultimately require bigger and bigger hits to get the same bang before the jig is up. It’s a Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff got 120 years jail. Why not the central bankers?

So what is the best asset out there? Gold. It can’t be printed. It requires effort to discover it and dig it out of the ground. Of course the barbouros relic deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that were so Fort Knox might as well leave the gate open. The more it is hated only makes this contrarian investor want it more.

Before we rush to bash the bankers!

Bankers have worked hard to stay one rung above lawyers. Yet is anyone surprised? Before we embark on a “bash the banker” tirade, at what point do we cast aspersions on the regulators? If you leave a child unattended with a box of matches don’t be surprised if the house burns down.

None of this is new. Before the housing crisis engulfed America, a group of certified home appraisers raised the alarm in 2003 by signing a petition to present to Congress. They claimed many unqualified assessors were in cahoots with mortgage brokers to jack up property appraisals because of the higher fees that were attracted. What was done by the authorities? The square root of jack. So the $750,000 mortgage taken out was actually against a $500,000 property. $250,000 in negative equity before the new home owner moved in. Regulators could have clamped down but didn’t.

Charging dead people fees is of course a bit much and gouging advisory fees without actually offering service is poor form. However at what point does the customer bear some responsibility to accepting the status quo? Getting access to lower cost providers is/was always there but the opportunity costs were such that many just sucked it up. It wasn’t enough to devote time to when the half yearly check up came around.

CM was one of the ones that questioned the big bank superannuation advisor’s usury fees. So poor was the explanation that after minimal effort, a new advisor was found with fees cut in half and investment flexibility rising exponentially. We shouldn’t have been hanging out for a Royal Commission to whump the banks.

Indeed, should any laws have been broken then the perpetrators deserve to have the book thrown at them. If boards willingly accepted that certain divisions were deliberately acting in unethical ways then they deserve to be accountable.

Corporate governance is not helped by hiring a majority of independent directors. The US experience has shown that to be a failure. It is all about corporate culture. If boards have not been setting the highest standards why should we be surprised if the underlings follow suit. We only need look at the debacle that was Cricket Australia or the recent shenanigans at the ABC to see examples of a poorly run board leading to a culture beneath that ends up seeing staff “cheat” or making decisions that flagrantly contravene the charter.

Do we jail bankers for 25 years? Depending on the extent of actually “breaking the law” that maybe a deterrent. WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years based on nine counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and false regulatory filings to the tune of $11bn. Enron’s former CEO Jeffrey Skilling was convicted on 35 counts of fraud, insider trading and other crimes related to Enron and sentenced to 24 years prison and fined $45 million. Madoff 150 years, Stanford 110 years jail. This has not necessarily stopped corporate crime but it should throw a flag in the minds of those considering it. If the consequences are too soft then clearly the risks profile diminishes for the perpetrator.

Look at the advent of whistleblower laws in America. The SEC now encourages whistle-blowing by offering sizable monetary awards (10 to 30% of the monetary sanctions collected). Successful enforcement actions as a result of whistle- blowing has led to awards as high as US$30,000,000. As a result the SEC has seen a 10 fold increase in claims over the last few years. Would boards be more inclined to act ethically if whistleblowers were granted protections?

Plenty of ways to improve what has transpired but what the Royal Commission should make painfully clear is that consumers need to wise up and become more savvy about how they make choices. We can’t forever complain and wait for governments to rescue us when it is them in the first place not acting responsibly to ensure good behaviour.

The free market should be the first to benefit from filling this clear void. Tying up banks in more red tape and onerous regulation isn’t the way forward. All it will do is drive costs for compliance higher which will ultimately hit the consumer. The larger the institution, the easier such regulations will benefit their ability to squeeze the little guy!

Making the punishments for bad behaviour enforceable and putting the onus on boards to act ethically will make all winners.

Down and out in Davos

Davos is likely to be unlike any gone before it. Lucky for the globalist elitists who like to rug up in mink collar lined Moncler down jackets, Trump won’t be there to verbal them over their blatant double standards. Ironically the fact he isn’t going is more evidence of their inability to self reflect rather than the other way around. Trump is hardly an eloquent mouthpiece at the best of times but his words and stance around nationalism resonate far wider than the €200 Chateau Briande chewing wealthy will be prepared to admit at Davos.

France. As the Gilets Jaune (Yellow Vest) movement rolls into week 9, where has the media been reporting it? Macron would normally attend the Davos mob as “the poster child” but he can’t because of the domestic situation. Should he show up to hug his globalist chums, the chaos at home would exacerbate. This is no small matter for the proponents of world government. We shouldn’t forget Marine LePen is polling higher than Macron. Nor should we overlook the fact she won 35% of the 2nd round vote, twice the level ever seen in the anti-EU Front National’s history.

Germany isn’t much better. Although Frau Merkel will be in Davos. Despite stepping down from the rotting carcass her policies have turned her party into, she’ll be fawned over at the matriarch. Deutschland, the paragon of the EU’s economic chest beating, saw industrial production plunge 4.7% in November, its worst showing since the GFC. The fastest rising party in Germany, the anti-immigrant AfD, whose chairman was bashed to within an inch of his life, plans to be far more open about jettisoning the EU going forward. Yet more anti-globalist forces at the gate.

Italy has felt the wrath of EU meddling in ratifying its latest budget. Despite 60% of the country voting in eurosceptic parties last year, the EU is still pushing its weight around via the ECB. Italians are far from pleased with Brussels. Many of her banks in the south are carrying nose bleed territory bad debts which make them technically insolvent. Italians want out.

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have openly rejected globalism and any shaming from the Bullies from Brussels has only led to bigger majorities handed to them by their citizens.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has made it clear that illegal immigration is not for them, no matter how much UN global compacts or EU directives want to encourage it. Why else would he appoint a member of the anti-immigrant FPO as the minister for that portfolio?

PM Rutte of The Netherlands lost seats in the last election, mainly to Geert Wilders’ anti immigrant PVV. The socialist parties were all but annihilated.

UK PM Theresa May is looking on shaky ground to pass her version of Brexit through the Commons. Even Jaguar’s woes in China are supposedly the fault of Brexit. Even the iconic brand’s UK sales are up 76% since 2013. Surely it’s macroeconomic headwinds not leaving the EU that is driving this. Despite all the scare stories from the BoE, the people aren’t buying it. The UK has its highest ever petition signed to get parliament to vote for “No Deal”. So much for the expert’s advice!?

There is a groundswell movement the establishment continues to ignore. Famous economists giving fire side chats to out of touch journalists don’t convince the people who aren’t living these utopian dreams espoused from Davos.

Davos seems a bit like an Oscars gathering. The audience they are appealing to are increasingly looking the other way and tuning out. It matters not whether some believe we need to show more compassion and embrace global cooperation. The people in charge of selling it could not muck up the messaging and execution of said plans if they had a mandate to do so.

Davos 2019 may well see its proclamations become little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We’ve been so overdue an economic correction and the little bigoted people increasingly trying to protect their own interests are already telling us they’re knee deep in recession already. At the same time they’re sick of their leaders legislating against them for supposed intolerance.

Maybe France is the globalist canary in the coal mine. Macron’s police force is already being asked to step it up a notch against the protestors. He need be wary of the police switching sides which would be a cataclysmic blow for globalism. Bring it on.

A worm has turned on Apple

Apple guided Q1 revenue around $84bn vs earlier guidance of $89-93bn. Consensus unsurprisingly pegged itself to the middle of the initial estimate. How original and staying ahead of the curve? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that pulling disclosure of handset sales was the precursor. It wasn’t so long ago that the US Federal Reserve ended disclosure of its balance sheet movements. Ahead of the GFC, Ben Bernanke pulled reporting of M3 money supply right before the GFC.

Apple has lost the entire GDP of Singapore in market cap terms since last September. How many funds are up to the eyeballs in this stock that they believed had endless growth. How soon before it loses another Singapore?

No doubt the iPhone 14S XR limited edition run of 100 million units won’t turn this around.

It is usually around this time in a decayed product cycle that companies launch into random areas they have no expertise in. Watch for M&A deals at silly prices to buy bolt on businesses that bring hopes of growth in a global economy that has maxed out! Cue the goodwill write downs in year 1.