Central Banks

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

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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

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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.

This can’t wait

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John Mauldin has written an informative piece entitled “this can’t wait” which sums up a lot of pieces I’ve written on the sickening state of public pension unfunded liabilities and the debt super cycle that is facing us. While Mauldin is trying to sell his investment services on the back of this, I wasn’t when I wrote mine. Public service announcement? Maybe but the stats of the black holes we face in pensions and central bank QE which has failed to boost money velocity will bite. Hard. There will be no “I told you so” glory because almost everyone will lose big.

Even if people want to criticize me for being a perma-bear there is no harm in being aware of what is likely coming.

“Bitcoin Bubble” the #1 searched item on Contrarian Marketplace – the Taxi Driver’s blog

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The only thing more dangerous than “Bitcoin Bubble” being the most searched item on this Contrarian Marketplace (CM) blog this month is whether I am tempted to buy it on the basis that in doing so I will call the top. Indeed Bit-coiners should be paying me (in gold please) I never make such a move.

Note in ZeroHedge today one Chinese official, Pan Gongsheng, a deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China predicts “that bitcoin will die of a grand theft, a hack into the blockchain technology behind the cryptocurrency or a collective ban by global governments.” This is consistent to what CM has been saying.

 

Houston we have a housing problem

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Yes, Australian banks are the most levered to the Home mortgage market. Over 61%. Daylight comes second followed by Norway and Canada. US banks are half the Aussies. Of course any snapshot will tell us that prices are supported by immigration and a robust economy. However when Aussie banks are c.40% exposed to wholesale markets for credit (Japanese banks are around 95% funded by domestic depositors) any turn around in global interest rates means Aussie banks will pay more and eventually be forced to pass it on to tapped out borrowers. The Reserve Bank of Australia kept interest rates flat while tacitly admitting its stuck

A study back in March showed that in Western Australia almost 50% of people with a home loan would be in stress/severe stress if rates jumped 3%. Victoria 42% and bubbly NSW at 38%. I can’t remember bubble Japan property (as dizzy as it got) experienced such stress. A recent ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46 per cent of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

The Weekend AFR reported that according to Digital Finance Analytics, “ there are around 650,000 households in Australia experiencing some form of mortgage stress. If rates were to rise 150 basis points the number of Australians in mortgage stress would rise to approximately 930,000 and if rates rose 300 basis points the number would rise to 1.1 million – or more than a third of all mortgages. A 300 basis point rise would take the cash rate to 4.5 per cent, still lower than the 4.75 per cent for most of 2011.”

The problem for Aussie banks is having so many mortgage loans on their books backed against lofty housing prices means that we could face a situation of zombie lending. The risk is that once the banks mark-to-market the real value of one house that is foreclosed upon the rest of the portfolio then starts to look shady and all of a sudden the loss ratios blow out to unsustainable levels. So for all the negative news flow the banks cop for laying off staff while making billions, note net interest margins continue to fall and when confidence falls out of the housing market, the wholesale finance market will require sizable jumps in risk premiums to compensate. Indulge yourself with the chart pack from the RBA on pages 29 & 30 where net margins are 50% lower than they were in 2000, profitability under pressure, non performing loans starting to rise back toward post GFC levels…call me pessimistic but housing prices to income is at 13x now vs only 7x when GFC bit, how is that safety net working for you?

Some may mock, but there is every chance we see a semi or total nationalization of the Aussie banks at some point in the future. Nobody will love the smell of napalm in the morning but then again when the Vic government is handing out interest free loans to the value of 25% of the house price for first home buyers you know you’re at the wrong point in the cycle. Maybe TARP is just short for tarpaulin.

The beauty of honesty

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The above quote is from quirky fund manager Dr Michael Burry MD towards the end of the movie, The Big Short. It says so much of today. One mate who is a very decent asset manager in Australia wrote to his clients, “I realise such may fly in the face of typical adviser recommendations (show me how someone is paid and I’ll show you how they will behave) however, I would rather lose a client than lose a client’s capital.

We share similar views on the state of the global capital markets. We joked about his long message to his investors sounding like Jerry Maguire burning the midnight oil writing the “fewer clients, less money” manifesto which got him sacked.

Now that our world is moving further and further toward automated everything including pre-emptive responses (which I scoffed out the other day about LinkedIn) it is truly refreshing to see this authentic honesty. The irony is that as much as machines are pushing us into ever tighter time windows, humans instinctively carry long term memory whether trauma or positive life events.

May your honesty be paid back in spades when those you saved a bundle recall your genuine gesture.

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (by country)

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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.

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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.

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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.