CM appeared on Sky News to discuss the situation with our banks, the potential risks from the recommendations of the Hayne Royal Commission and the issue of mortgage stress.
Don’t get CM wrong – this is still the law of small numbers. Westpac reported this week that it repossessed another 162 properties in the latest fiscal year. That is a 40% increase. While it is but a dribble compared to the 100,000s of total loans outstanding it is none-the-less a harbinger of things to come. Westpac made clear, “the main driver of the increase has been the softening economic conditions and low wages growth.”
The current status of 90-day+ delinquencies has been rising over time. As have 30-day +. While nothing alarming, the current economic backdrop should give absolutely no confidence that an improvement in conditions is around the corner. We are not at the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning.
Former President Ronald Reagan once said of the three phases of government, “if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” How is that relevant to the banks?
We have already had the government fold and attach a special bank tax on the Big 4. Phase 1 done. Now we are in the middle of phase 2 which is where knee-jerk responses to the Hayne Banking Royal Commission (HBRC) where banks will be on the hook for the loans they make. That is a recipe for disaster that could bring on phase 3 – bailouts.
Sound extreme? How is a bank supposed to make a proper risk assessment of a customer’s employability in years to come? Can they predict with any degree of accuracy on the stability of candidates who come for loans? The only outcome is to cut the loan amount to such conservative levels that the underlying purpose gets diluted in the process and prospective home buyers have to lower expectations. Not many banks will look positively at taking several loans on the same property with different institutions. That won’t work. SO loan growth will shrink, putting pressure on the property market.
What is the flip side? Given property prices in Sydney hover at 13x income (by the way, Tokyo Metro was 15x income at the peak of its property bubble), restrictions on further lending against loan books that are on average 63% stuffed with mortgages (Japan was 41.2% at the peak) won’t be helpful. A property slowdown is the last thing mortgage holders and banks need.
While equity continues to rise at Aussie banks, the equity to outstanding mortgages has gone down since 2007 i.e. leverage is up. If banks saw their average property portfolios drop by more than 20% many would be staring at a negative equity scenario. Yet, it won’t be just mortgage owners that we need to worry about. Business loans could well go pear-shaped as the onset of higher unemployment could see a sharp increase in delinquencies through a business slowdown. A concertina effect occurs. More people lose their job and a vicious circle ensues. It isn’t rocket science.
Of course, Australia possesses the ‘boy who cried wolf‘ mentality over the housing market. Yet it is exactly this type of complacency that paves a dangerous path to poor policy prescriptions.
In Japan’s property bubble aftermath, 40% of the value of loans went bang. 17% of GDP. $1.1 trillion went up in smoke. It took more than 10 years to clean up the mess and the aftershocks remain. Accounting trickery around the real value of loans on the balance sheet can hide the problems for a period but revenue tends to unravel such tales. 181 banks and building societies went bust. The rest were forced into mergers, received bailouts or were nationalised. Now the Japanese government is a perpetual debt slave, having to raise $400bn per annum in debt just to fill the portion of the $1 trillion budget that tax collections can’t fill.
The problem Japan’s banks faced was simple. If a neighbour’s $2m home was repossessed through mortgage stress and the bank fire sold it for $1.4m, the bank needed to mark to market the value of the loan portfolio for that area by similar amounts. In doing so, a once healthy balance sheet started to look anything but. Extrapolate that across multiple suburbs and things look nauseating quickly.
This is where Aussie banks are headed. This time there is no China to save us like in 2009. Unemployment rates in Australia never went above 6% after the GFC in 2008/9, unlike the US which went to 10%. We weathered that storm thanks to a monster surplus left by the Howard government, which we no longer have.
Sadly China has had 18 months of consecutive double-digit car sales decline. Two regional Chinese banks have folded in the last 3-4 months. China isn’t a saviour.
Nor is the US. While the S&P500 might celebrate new highs, aggregate corporate profitability hasn’t risen since 2012. The market has been fuelled by debt-driven buybacks. We now have 50% of US corporates rated BBB because of the distortions created by crazed central bank monetary policy, up from 30%. Parker Hannifin’s latest order book shows that customer activity is falling at a faster pace.
Nor is Europe. German industrial production is at 10-year lows. The prospects for any EU recovery is looking glib. Risk mispricing is insane with Greek bond spreads only 1.8% higher than German bunds.
What this means is that 28 years of unfettered economic growth in Australia is coming to an end and the excesses built in an economy that believes its own BS is going to leave a lot of people naked when the tide goes out.
The Australian government needs to focus on more deregulation, tax and structural reforms. Our record-high energy prices, ridiculous labour costs and overbearing red-tape are absolutely none of the ingredients that will help us in a downturn. We need to be competitive and we simply aren’t. Virtue signalling won’t help voters when the whole edifice crumbles.
All a low-interest rate environment has done is pull forward consumption. It seems the RBA only possesses a hammer in the tool kit which is why it treats everything as a nail. It is time to come to terms with the fact that further cuts to the official cash rate and the prospect of QE will do nothing to ward off the inevitable.
Pain is coming, but the prospects of an orderly exit are so far off the mark they are in another postcode. Roll your eyes at the stress tests. Stress tests are put together on the presumption that all of the stars align. Sadly, in times of panic, human nature causes knee-jerk responses which put even more pressure.
The Aussie banks have passed their best period. While short term news flow, such as a China trade deal, might give a short term boost, the structural time bomb sits on the balance sheet and while we may not get a carbon copy of the Japanese crisis, our Big 4 should start to look far more like the rest of the global banks – truly sick. The HBRC will see that it becomes way worse than it ever needed to be.
This is while things are still supposedly good for our banks. CM has written on the pickle Aussie banks find themselves for a year or so. Their relative value compared to banks such as Deutsche, Commerz or RBS is astonishing. So many global banks are worth 90% less than in 2007 while ours keep whistling Dixie. Mean reversion will hit hard and the complacency still baked into these supertankers is immense. Aussie banks could well be worth 90% less by the time this is all over. Forget the stress tests – meaningless – as they need pretty much all stars to align to be remotely accurate and markets in times of panic seldom play to script. Don’t be surprised if these banks require a taxpayer bailout in time.
With more interest rate cuts planned and inevitable QE down the line from the RBA, think of it more as a time banks must make considerable efforts to deleverage. Should banks consider a benign central bank as a virtue, they should seriously think again. People and businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates are low. Further cuts won’t make a difference.
In short, sell the Aussie banks. The impacts from the Hayne RC will only have adverse outcomes for the banks at a time they need maximum flexibility in order to be able to right the ship. Sadly, such outcomes are highly unlikely. Governments tend to be the most accurate contrarian indicators when it comes to introducing business stifling policy measures at a time, the industry can least afford it.
Maybe former President Reagan had it right when he said, “If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” The government has already completed the first phase and in the midst of finishing up on the second…
Sell your Aussie banks. Headlines, like the above, will be regarded as extremely positive in the next 12 months.
Take a nerdy 5 minutes to see how gold is made. This was at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, Victoria. The same 3kg bar has been smelted 90,000 times. No changes to purity whatsoever. Maybe that’s why it has long been regarded as hard currency for over 5,000 years.
CM knew a lot of passive indices existed but not to this crazy extent. Probably explains why there is so much stupid money tied up in me too commoditised investment products. 4 years ago CM wrote a piece on the dangers of ETFs (especially leveraged) and passive products in a downturn. These products predominantly follow the market, not lead it. So if these products end up stampeding toward the exits in a market meltdown, the extent will be amplified, especially those levered funds potentially making market panic look worse than it really might otherwise be. Don’t be surprised to see the mainstream media sensationalise the size of any falls in the market.
According to Bloomberg, 770,000 benchmark indexes were scrapped globally in 2019…however 2.96 million indexes remain around the world, according to a new report from the Index Industry Association…There are an estimated 630,000 stocks that trade globally, including c.2,800 stocks on the NYSE and c. 3,330 on NASDAQ or 5x as many indices as there are securities globally.
CM wrote back in October 2015,
“ETFs are hitting the market faster than the dim-sum trolley can circle the banquet hall. Charles Schwab, in the 12 months to July 2015, saw a 130-fold preference of ETF over mutual funds given their relative simplicity, cost and transparency….
…ETFs, despite increasing levels of sophistication, have brought about higher levels of market volatility. Studies have shown that a one standard deviation move of S&P500 ETF ownership as a percentage of total outstanding shares carries 21% excess intraday volatility. Regulators are also realising that limit up/down rules are exacerbating risk pricing and are seeking to revise as early as October 2015. In less liquid markets excess volatility has proved to be 54% higher with ETFs than the actual underlying indices. As more bearish market activity has arrived since August 2015 we investigate how ETFs may impact given a large part of recent existence has been under more favourable conditions…
…CEO Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF creator, has made it clear that
leveraged ETFs (at present 1.2% of total ETF AUM) have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.” The argument is that the underlying assets that provide the leverage (which tend to have less liquidity) could cause losses very quickly in volatile markets. To put this in perspective we looked at the Direxion Daily Fin Bull 3x (FAS) 3x leverage of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index. As illustrated in the following chart FAS in volatile markets tends to overshoot aggressively…
…The point Mr Fink is driving at is more obvious with the following chart which shows in volatile markets, the average daily return is closer to 10x (in both directions) than the 3x it is seeking to offer. This is post any market meltdown. On a daily basis, the minimum and maximum has ended up being -1756x to 1483x of the index return, albeit those extremes driven by the law of small numbers of the return of the underlying index. Which suggests that in a nasty downturn the ETF performance of the leveraged plays could be well outside the expectations of the holders.”
CM has said for many years, where CDOs and CDSs required the intelligence of a mystical hermit atop a mountain in the Himalayas to understand the complexities, ETFs are the complete opposite. Super easy to understand which inadvertently causes complacency. Unfortunately, as much as they might try to do as written on the tin, the reality could well turn out to be the exact opposite.
Hence CM continues to believe that stocks with low levels of corporate social responsibility (CSR) scores like tobacco companies such s Philip Morris, JT and Imperial Tobacco, as well as gold/silver bullion, look the places to be invested. Cash won’t necessarily be king because the banks are already in a world of pain that hasn’t even truly started yet. Aussie banks look like screaming shorts at these levels. The easiest way for the plebs – without access to a prime broker – to do this is to buy put options on individual bank names. Out of the money options are dirt cheap.
Forget the return “ON” your money. Just look to the return “OF” it.
NB, none of this constitutes investment advice. It is a reflection of where CM is invested only.
What is it with the US auto market that throws up so many canaries in the coal mine? Several years back CM wrote about the growth in sub-prime auto loans. What triggered this boom? Easier access to finance? That was one reason. As it happens the largest factor was driven by the ability for finance companies to shut down a vehicle by remote and repossess the vehicle should the buyer be unable to afford the monthly payments. This lowered risk and allows these long-dated loan products to thrive. Average subprime auto loans carry 10% p.a. interest rates. More than 6 million American consumers are at least 90 days late on their car loan repayments, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
About a 1/3rd of all US auto loans issued today are stretched out to seven years and beyond, according to the WSJ. A decade ago, the seven-year loan only made up about 10% of all loans. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84-month term loans.
After the tech bubble collapsed at the turn of the century do you remember the ‘Keep America Rolling’ programme, which was all about free financing for five years? While sales were helped along nicely, the reality was it stored up pain. As new car sales became harder to achieve, new financial products offered sweeter upfront incentives and buyback guarantees (because cheap finance was everywhere and not a differentiator) helped keep the fire stoked.
However, as front end incentives kept getting juicier, the cars on guaranteed buybacks were starting to return to the market at prices well below the ‘guarantee’ leaving automotive finance arms in a whole world of hurt and huge losses. Goldberg & Hegde’s Residual Value Risk and Insurance study in 2009 suggested on average 92% of cars returned to leasing companies recorded losses on return of up to 12%. Any company can guarantee the price of its used product, in theory, the question is whether used car buyers will be willing to pay for it.
In the last decade, auto loans have ballooned from $740bn to $1.3 trillion. Auto dealers are now making a majority of their money on the finance deal as opposed to the sale of the actual car. Even worse, the US car market is experiencing a third of trade-ins in negative equity meaning the gap is being added to the price of the new car, hence the push out of the loan period to keep a lid on the size of monthly payments. This was 17% in 2008.
CM is sure there is nothing to worry about. It is consistent with nearly everything else that has occurred in finance since the GFC. Just double down, spend more, close your eyes and hope nothing bad happens. Ultimately it will be someone else’s problem.
Serious auto-loan delinquencies – 90 days or more past due – in 2Q 2019, jumped 47 basis points year-over-year to 4.64% of all outstanding auto loans and leases, according to New York Fed. This is equivalent to the delinquency rate in Q3 2009, just months after GM and Chrysler had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The 47-basis-point jump in the delinquency rate was the largest year-over-year jump since Q1 2010. Actual outstanding delinquent 90 day + delinquencies stand at $60bn in 2Q 2019, almost double the amount of 4Q 2010.
Did CM mention gold?
As is the case with nearly every rate cut, the media stirs up the fact that most of the major Aussie banks haven’t passed on the full 0.25% rate cut. As one can see from the RBA chart above, net interest margins are at the lowest level in 20 years. The banks, as much money as they might be making, are doing it very tough. What people often overlook is the fact that Aussie banks are 40% funded by the wholesale markets, meaning they need the benevolence of foreign and domestic institutions to buy their paper to lend. With a softening Aussie dollar that puts added pressure on funding margins.
We’ve written about this in previous dispatches. Aussie banks are in a far more precarious situation than we are often told. Global banks have already felt it. We are getting to the stage where we follow them into the morass.
As much as bashing banks has become a sport after the Royal Commission, bullying them into cutting rates by the full extent is actually making their position even weaker. The last thing Australia needs, on top of the ridiculous regulation set to follow the RC, is to force them to operate to the rule of the mob. Personal responsibility is what governments should be drumming home, not saddling the banks with more hoops. If people don’t like their bank that lent them millions for a home loan, switch banks! It is your choice.