Central Banks

Banker Buster?

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Before the GFC in 2008, bank shares across the globe were flying. Financial engineering promised a new paradigm of wealth creation and abundant profitability. They were unstoppable.

However 12 years later, many banks look mere shadows of their former selves. We are told by our political class to believe that our economies are robust and that a low-interest rate environment will keep things tickety-boo indefinitely. After all the wheels of the economy have always been greased by the financial sector.

If that were true, why does Europe’s largest economy have two of its major banks more than 90% off the peak? Commerz has shrunk so far that it has been thrown out of the DAX. Surely, Japan’s banks should be prospering under Abenomics so why are the shares between 65% and 80% below 2007 levels?

Ahh, but take a look at those Aussie beauties! How is it they have bucked the global trend? How can Commonwealth Bank be worth 6x Deutsche Bank?

Although we shouldn’t look at the Aussie banks with rose-tinted glasses they have mortgage debt up to the eyeballs. Mortgages to total loans exceed 62% in Australia. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at 40%. Japanese banks, before the bubble collapsed, were in the 40% range. CM wrote a comparo here. There is a real risk that these Aussie banks will require bailouts if the housing market craps out. It carries so many similarities to Japan and when anyone ever mentions stress tests – start running for the hills.

If you own Aussie banks in your superannuation portfolio, it is high time you dumped them. Franked dividends might be an ample reason to hold them, but things in finance turn on a dime and this time Australia doesn’t have a China to rescue us like it did in 2008-09. More details contained in the link in the paragraph above.

In closing, Milton Friedman said it best with respect to the ability of central banks to control outcomes,

“… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.

 

The depression we have to have

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In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.

What we are witnessing today is not capitalism. While socialists around the world scream for equality and point to the evils of capitalism, the real truth is that they are shaking pitchforks at the political class who are experimenting with economic and monetary concoctions that absolutely defy the tenets of free markets. As my learned credit analyst and friend, Jonathan Rochford, rightly points out, central banks have applied “their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver.

Never has there been so much manipulation to keep this sinking global ship afloat. Manipulation is the complete antithesis to capitalism.  Yet our leaders and central banks think firing more cheap credit tranquillizers will somehow get us out of this mess. IT. WILL. NOT.

BONDS

As of August 15th, 2019, the sum of negative-yielding debt exceeds $16.4 trillion. That is to say, 30% of outstanding government debt sits in this category. Every single government bond issued by Germany, The Netherlands, Finland and Denmark are now negative-yielding. Germany just announced a 30-yr auction with a zero-interest coupon.

Unfortunately, insurance companies and pension funds are large scale buyers of bonds and negative interest rates don’t exactly serve their purposes. Therefore the hunt for positive yield (that ticks the right credit rating boxes) means the pickings continue to get slimmer.

Put simply to buy a bond with a negative yield, means that the cost of the bond held to maturity is more than the sum of all the coupons due and the receipt of face value combined. It also says clearly that controlling the extent of the loss of one’s money is preferable to sticking to strategies in other asset classes (e.g. property, equities) where TINA (there is no alternative) is the rule of thumb.

CM believes that there is a far bigger issue investors should focus on is the return “of” their money, not the return “on” it.

Rochford continues,

Central banks have hoped that extraordinary monetary policy would kick start economic growth, but they have instead only created asset price growth. In applying their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver they have created the preconditions for the next and possibly greater financial crisis. The outworkings of many years of malinvestment are now starting to show with increasing regularity.

Argentina’s heavily oversubscribed issuance of 100-year bonds in 2017 was considered insane by many debt market participants at the time. The crash to below 50% of face value this month and request for maturity extensions is no surprise for a country that has a long rap sheet of sovereign defaults. Greece’s ten-year bond yield below 2% is another example of sovereign debt insanity…

…There have been three regional bank failures in China in the last three months, likely an early warning of the bad debt crisis brewing in China’s banks and debt markets. Europe’s banks aren’t in much better shape, there’s still a cohort of weak banks in Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain that haven’t fixed their problems that first surfaced a decade ago. Deutsche Bank is both fundamentally weak and the world’s most systemically important bank, a highly dangerous combination.”

What about equity markets?

EQUITIES

We only need look at the number record number of IPOs in 2018 where over 80% launched with negative earnings, you know, just like what happened in 2000 when the tech bubble collapsed.

Have people paid attention to the fact that aggregate US after-tax corporate earnings have been FLAT since 2012? That is 7 long years of tracking sideways. Where is this economic miracle that is spoken of?

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The only reason the markets have continued to remain excited is the generous share buyback regimes among many corporates which have flattered earnings per share (EPS). The “E” hasn’t grown. It is just that “S” has fallen. Credit spreads between AAA and BBB rated corporate paper has been so narrow that over 50% of US corporates now have a BBB or worse credit rating. Now credit spreads between top and bottom investment-grade bonds remain ridiculously tight. At some stage, investors will demand an appropriate spread to account for market “risk.”

Axios noted that for 2019, IT companies are again on pace to spend the most on stock buybacks this year, as the total looks set to pass 2018’s $1.085 trillion record total. Pretty easy to keep markets in the clouds with cheap credit fuelling expensive buybacks. Harley-Davidson is another household name which suffers from strategy decay yet deploys more cash to share buybacks instead of revitalising its core franchise. Harley delinquencies are at a 9-yr high.

Companies like GE embarked on a $45bn share buyback program despite a balance sheet which still reveals considerable negative equity. GE was the largest company in the world in 2000 and now trades at 20% of that value almost 20 years later.

Should we ignore Harry Markopolos, who discovered the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, when he points to the problems within GE? GE management can protest all they like but ultimately the company is not winning the argument if the share price is a barometer.

Valuations are at extreme levels. Beyond Meat trades at 100x revenues. Don’t get CM started on Tesla. A largely loss-making third rate automaker which is trading at outlandish premiums. The blind faith put in charge of a CEO that has lost over 100 senior management members.

Bank of America looked at 20 metrics to evaluate current market levels of the S&P500. 17 of them pointed to excess valuations relative to history including one metric that revealed S&P500 being 90% overvalued on a market cap to GDP ratio. Never mind.

Then witness the push for diversity nonsense inside corporate boardrooms. CM has always believed if a board is best suited to be run by all women based on background, skills and experience, then so be it. That is the best outcome for shareholders. However, to artificially set targets to morally preen will mean absolutely nothing if a sharp downturn exposes a soft underbelly of a lack of crisis management skills. Shareholders and retirees won’t be impressed.

It was laughable to hear superannuation funds ganging up on Harvey Norman last week for not having a diverse enough board. Even though Harvey Norman is thumping the competition which focuses too much on ESG/CSR, the shortcomings of our retirement managers are only too evident. Retirees want returns and their super managers should focus on that, rather than try to push companies to meet their ridiculous self-imposed investment restrictions. Retirees won’t be happy when their superannuation balances are decimated because fund managers wanted to appear socially acceptable at cocktail parties.

PROPERTY

It was only last month that Jyske Bank in Denmark started to offer negative interest mortgages. That is the bank pays interest to the mortgage holders. Of course, the bank is able to source credit below that rate to make a profit however net interest margins for the banks get squeezed globally. What next? Will people be able to sign up to a perpetual negative interest mortgage? Shall we expect a Japan-style multi-generational loan?

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The RBA’s latest chart pack shows net interest margins at the lowest levels for two decades. With the Hayne Banking Royal Commission likely to further crimp on lending growth, we are storing up huge pain in property markets despite the hope that August clearing rates signal a bottom in the short term. Yet more suckers lured in at the top of a shaky economy and financial sector.

Of course, central banks will dance to the tune that all is OK. Until it isn’t.

Don’t forget former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, said “our financial institutions are strong” right before plugging $700bn worth of TARP money to save many of them from bankruptcy in 2008.

CM has previously investigated the Big 4 Aussie banks who have equity levels that are chronically low levels. Our major banks have such high exposure to mortgages that a severe downturn could potentially lead to part or whole nationalisation. Of course, between signalling the importance of factoring climate change, APRA assures us the stress tests ensure our financial institutions are safe.

Back in 2007, Sydney house prices were 8x income. In 2017 Demographia stated average housing (excluding apartment) prices were in the 13-14x range. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 80% of people live in houses and 20% in apartments. Only Hong Kong at 19x beats Sydney for dizzy property prices. In 2019, expect that price/income rates remain at unsustainable levels.

In 2018, Australia’s GDP was around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks was approximately $2.64 trillion which is 150% of GDP. At the height of the Japanese bubble, total bank lending as a whole only reached 106%. Mortgages alone in Australia are near as makes no difference 100% of GDP. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

At the height of the property bubble frenzy, Japanese real estate related lending comprised around 41.2% (A$2.5 trillion) of all loans outstanding. N.B. Australian bank mortgage loan books have swelled to 64% (A$1.8 trillion) of total loans.

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Sensing the bubble was getting out of control, the Bank of Japan went into a tightening rate cycle (from 2.5% to 6%) to contain it. Unfortunately, it led to an implosion in asset markets, most notably housing. From the peak in 1991/2 prices over the next two decades fell 75-80%. Banks were decimated.

In the following two decades, 181 Japanese banks, trust banks and credit unions went bust and the rest were either injected with public funds, forced into mergers or nationalized. The unravelling of asset prices was swift and sudden but the process to deal with it took decades because banks were reluctant to repossess properties for fear of having to mark the other properties (assets) on their balance sheets to current market values. Paying mere fractions of the loan were enough to justify not calling the debt bad. If banks were forced to reflect the truth of their financial health rather than use accounting trickery to keep the loans valued at the inflated levels the loans were made against they would quickly become insolvent. By the end of the crisis, disposal of non-performing loans (NPLs) among all financial institutions exceeded 90 trillion yen (A$1.1 trillion), or 17% of Japanese GDP at the time.

The lessons are no less disturbing for Australia. As a percentage of total loans outstanding in Australia, mortgages make up 65%. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at around 40%. US banks have cut overall property exposures and Japanese banks are now in the early teens. Post GFC, US banks have ratcheted back mortgage exposure. They have diversified their earnings through investment banking and other areas. That doesn’t let them off the hook mind you.

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Japanese banks have 90%+ funding from domestic deposits. Australia is around 60-70%. Our banks need to go shopping in global markets to get access to capital. Conditions for that can change on a dime. External shocks can see funding costs hit nose bleed levels which are passed onto consumers. When you see the press get into a frenzy over banks passing on more than the rate rises doled out by the RBA, they aren’t just being greedy – a large part is absorbing these higher wholesale funding costs.

Central banks need a mea culpa moment. We need to move away from manipulating interest rates to muddle through. It isn’t working. At all.

Rochford rightly points out,

Coming off the addiction to monetary policy is going to be painful, but it is the only sustainable course. It is likely that normalising monetary policy will result in a global recession, but this must be accepted as an unavoidable outcome given the disastrous policies of the past. Excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus has pulled consumption forward, the process of unwinding that obviously requires a level of consumption to be pushed backwards.”

Rochford is being conservative (no doubt due to his polite demeanour) in his assessment of a global recession. It is likely that this downturn will make the GFC of 2008 look like a picnic. CM thinks depression is the more apt term. 1929 not 2008. Central banks are rapidly losing what little confidence remains. If the RBA think QE will be a policy option, there is plenty of beta testing to show that it doesn’t work in the long run.

It is time to have the recession/depression we had to have to get the markets to clear. It will be excruciatingly painful but until we face facts, all the manipulation in the world will fail to keep capitalism from doing its job in the end. The longer we wait the worse it will get.

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble…..it is what you know to be sure that just ain’t so! – Mark Twain.

An ominous speech from the Philly Fed in 2013

A Limited Central Bank

Perhaps one of the most prophetic speeches made by the Fed. Unfortunately, central bankers continue to completely and totally ignore what he warned today.

Charles I. Plosser, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia who served from August 1, 2006, to March 1, 2015, said in the 100th anniversary of the Fed.

When establishing the longer-term goals and objectives for any organization, and particularly one that serves the public, it is important that the goals be achievable. Assigning unachievable goals to organizations is a recipe for failure. For the Fed, it could mean a loss of public confidence. I fear that the public has come to expect too much from its central bank and too much from monetary policy, in particular. We need to heed the words of another Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman. In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, he said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.6 In the 1970s, we saw the truth in Friedman’s earlier admonitions. I think that over the past 40 years, with the exception of the Paul Volcker era, we failed to heed this warning. We have assigned an ever-expanding role for monetary policy, and we expect our central bank to solve all manner of economic woes for which it is ill-suited to address. We need to better align the expectations of monetary policy with what it is actually capable of achieving.”

Plosser’s conclusions were:

The financial crisis and its aftermath have been challenging times for global economies and their institutions. The extraordinary actions taken by the Fed to combat the crisis and the ensuing recession and to support recovery have expanded the roles assigned to monetary policy. The public has come to expect too much from its central bank. To remedy this situation, I believe it would be appropriate to set four limits on the central bank:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective.
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities.
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach.
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension and ensure that it is conducted in a systematic fashion.

These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and, at the same time, they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions. These changes to the institution would strengthen the Fed for its next 100 years.”

Sadly we’re experiencing the opposite.

When President Trump bullies Jerome Powell to hurry up with rate cuts to “keep up with China“, he is only coercing the US Fed chairman to move even further away from these four guidelines. One has to wonder did any of the central bankers ever play with matches as a child?

Perhaps Friedman had it right when he said,

Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defence of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.

 

RBA should expect a dead cat bounce from the rate cut

The RBA has cut rates to a record low 1.25%. The irony here is people and businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates are low. Lowering rates will do little to spur investment, especially as the global economy cools.

Post the Hayne Royal Commission, the banks will likely pass on the full amount which will only impact margins and weaken them given the high reliance on wholesale funding.

The other problem the RBA faces is that banks have become so reluctant to lend post the RC that the net impacts of the rate cut will be negated by the unwillingness to lend at levels we have seen in the past given the penalties associated with it.

CM still contends that the Aussie banks tread a perilous path given their leveraged balance sheets. CM thinks part nationalization or worse is a real prospect if the slowdown is severe enough. The equity buffers are tiny relative to the real estate portfolio. All contained in the above link.

The rate cut is unlikely to boost confidence other than loosen the noose around stretched borrowers’ necks.

No, ScoMo!

For a Conservative party to push a subsidy of up to 20% of the value of a property for first time home buyers shows how bereft of policy it is. When Vic Premier Daniel Andrews raised a similar plan in March 2017 CM trashed it.

Think about it. Home prices have started to fall in major capitals because of a lack of demand thanks to astronomical prices and tapped out borrowers. This is before the Royal Commission puts the brakes on lending.

Why provide a subsidy to first home buyers toward the top of a bubble? It is not the role of the taxpayer to subsidize nor insure the downside risk in the event of the owner going into negative equity. What happened to free market economics?

What will this 20% subsidy do? If a couple go house hunting with a budget of $800,000, they will be able to shoot for a $1mn property. It might end up being the same property, pushed up by the desperate buyer thanks to the subsidy creating a false sense of security. So the reality is the taxpayer and the homeowner may end up in the red the day they move in. What a policy!!

Has ScoMo just called the top of the property market?

Will the counterfeit notes be spelt correctly?

Australia’s latest ultra-high security $50 bank note has fallen foul of a misspelled word “responsibility.” One assumes all counterfeit notes will carry the correct spelling. Apparently 46mn notes, or $2.3bn worth of the misspelled currency are in circulation.