Just how far behind the curve is the Fed?

As the Fed raised its Fed Funds Rate to 1.5~1.75% overnight, one has to question just how far behind is it? 3M Libor rates have surged from 0.5% in 2016, c.1% at the start of 2017 to 2.27% today, the highest levels since 2008.  Normally Libor minus Overnight Index Swap (OIS) rates don’t diverge so much without causing a credit issue. The gap is effectively the market price over and above the risk free rate. At the time of the GFC, the Libor-OIS spread hit 3.5%, with 1% being the detonator level. While it is currently at 0.54% spread, it has risen consecutively for the last 32 sessions.


As Libor drives corporate credit recycling, with corporate debt piles approaching record highs and average credit ratings the worst they’ve been in over a decade (chart below depicts Top tier as AAA and bottom tier as BBB-) we could see the Libor-OIS spread keep expanding.


What could be causing this? If we think logically the US Treasury has to refinance $1.5 trillion over the next 12 months and $8.4 trillion over the next 4 years. Add to that a Fed looking at quantative tapering and a less eager Japan and China as buyers of US$ federal debt then the corporate will undoubtedly get crowded out. The demands for refinancing are not being met with the supply of funds.


Of note, the St Louis Fed reports the YoY increase in inflation reported by the CPI in the US in Feb 2018 was 2.3%. The 10yr breakeven inflation rate is around 2.08%. CPI ex food items is still at 1.9%. In any event the US remains in a negative real yield environment.


The Fed can bang on all it wants about healthy growth, full employment but the depth of problems stored up is getting worse. $9 trillion in unfunded public pension liabilities, $67 trillion in combined public, private and corporate debt…

…many are recently talking of the huge pent-up profit boost to banks which have had such compressed spreads for so long. Indeed that all makes absolute sense from a theoretical (and to date practical) reasoning but banks like those in Australia up to their gills in mortgage debt, rising spreads have far nastier implications for blowing up balance sheets than boosting P&L accounts.

In a sense it is almost futile to call central banks as being behind the curve. The failure to take the harsh medicine of almost two decades ago is gathering momentum in so far as there is not much can left to kick down the road.

Virtue signaling fails again at the ballot box


No matter how dreadful the Liberals under Turnbull are at a federal level, South Australians realized that the 16 years of Labor in SA led them to the slowest growth, highest unemployment and most expensive electricity prices in the nation thanks to the loony renewables policy of the Weatherill government.  He ran a platform to double down on the failed policy that led to multiple state wide black outs. Common sense prevailed and he was rightly booted.

No amount of blowing up coal fired power stations or smug smiles while shaking hands with Elon Musk to make out as if wasting $560mn more of taxpayers money was intentional, could sway the hearts of the electorate.

The Libs gained a majority on its own right with 25 seats. Labor set to lose 5 seats to 18. The Greens lost more ground in SA, slipping over 2% to 6.6%. No seats. At the sharp edge of the wedge, a growing number of constituents don’t need the virtue signaling. They want sustainable jobs, sensible stewardship of their tax dollars and reliable, affordable electricity.

Whether the Libs can actually deliver is another question but Premier Weatherill’s flagrant failure came home to roost. However Turnbull mustn’t take these state victories as an endorsement for the coalition at the federal level. He’s still badly burnt toast.

Fasten your seatbelts!


The “Fasten your seatbelts” edition (March 6, 2018) of the High-Tech Strategist by Fred Hickey is best read with antidepressants or a stiff drink. To be honest I hadn’t seen a copy of this research for at least 5 years. Today I’ve read it three times hoping I haven’t missed or misread anything. It is well reasoned and well argued. I would even admit to there being confirmation bias on my side but it is compelling. Usually confirmation bias is a worrying sign although prevailing sentiment or group think, it isn’t!

Perhaps the scariest claim in his report is a survey that showed 75% of asset managers have not experienced the tech bubble collapse in 2000. So their only reference point is one where central banks manipulated the outcome in 2007/8. S&P fell around 56% peak to trough. I often like to say that an optimist is a pessimist with experience. A lot of experienced punters have quit the industry post Lehman’s collapse, hollowing out a lot of talent. That is not to disparage many of the modern day punters but it does experience is a hard teacher because one gets the test first and the lesson afterwards.

Hickey cites an interview with Paul Tudor Jones who said that the new Fed Chairman Powell has a situation not unlike “General George Custer before the battle of the Little Bighorn” (aka Custer’s Last Stand). He spoke of $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries requiring refinancing this year. CM wrote that $8.4 trillion required refinancing in 4 years. In any event, with the Fed tapering (i.e. selling their bonds) couple with China and Japan feeling less willing to step up to the plate he conservatively sees 10yr rates hit 3.75% (now 2.8%) and 30 years rise above 4.5%. Now if we tally the $65 trillion public, private and corporate (worst average credit ratings in a decade) debt load in America and overlay that with a rising interest rate market things will get nasty. Not to mention the $9 trillion shortfall in public pensions.

Perhaps the best statistic was the surge in the number of articles which contained ‘buy-the-dip’ to an all time record. Such lexicon is often used to explain away bad news. It is almost as useless as saying there were more sellers than buyers to explain away a market sell off. In any event closing one’s eyes is a strategy.

Hickey runs through the steps leading up to and during the bear market that followed the tech bubble collapse. It was utter carnage. Bell wether blue chips like Cisco fell 88% from the peak. Oracle -83%. Intel -82%. Sun Microsystems fell 96%.

To cut a long story short, assets (bonds, equities and property) are overvalued. The Bitcoin bubble and consequent collapse have stark warnings that he saw in 2000. He recommends Gold, Gold stocks (which he claims are selling at deeper discounts than the bear market bottom) Silver, index and stock put options (Apple, Tesla, NVidia & Amazon) and cash. Can’t say CM’s portfolio is too dissimilar.

As Hickey says, “fasten your seatbelts

Italy votes – will it mimic the referendum?


Remember the 2016 Italian referendum which was to decide on  whether to grant more power to the incumbent party to accelerate decision making? Well it ended up being a vote on ousting then PM Renzi who put his resignation on the ballot if it failed. The split between the yes/no was largely decided by economic condition. The poorer southern regions were distinctly red while a smattering of wealthy areas voted green (yes).

It is kind of telling that the furthest province in the north (Bolzano/Bozen) had the highest YES vote (63.69%) in the country while the Province of Catania (south-east Sicily) had the highest NO vote at 74.56%. Bolzano/Bozen was diligent with a 67.41% turnout vs 57.41% in Catania. It is a rich/poor divide by the looks of things. If you wish to dig into the details look no further than this site for who voted how.

The last poll showed Beppo Grillo’s eurosceptic M5S party leading with 28%. Berlusconi’s centre right Forza Italia alliance with the anti-immigrant The League is expected to get around 29%. The incumbent PD is looking at around 20%.

Since the collapse of Lehman in 2008, Italy has added 3mn to poverty (now 18mn or 29.7% of the population; EU average is 25%) with the unemployment rate above 11%. Since Merkel’s open door policy 600,000 illegal immigrants have flocked to Italy from Libya.

Italy is the 3rd largest economy in Europe and 30% of corporate debt is held by SMEs who can’t even make enough money to repay the interest. The banks have been slow to write off loans on the basis it will eat up the banks’ dwindling capital. It feels so zombie lending a la Japan in the early 1990s but on an even worse scale.

Monte Dei Paschi De Siena, a bank steeped in 540 years of history has 31% NPLs and its shares are 99.9% below the peak in 2007. Even Portugal and Spain have lower levels of NPLs. The IMF suggested that in southern parts of Italy NPLs for corporates is closer to 50%!

However one views the rising wave of nationalism in Europe, Italy will likely follow the pattern of Austria, the UK, Germany, Holland, Poland, Hungary and France. A growing number of European citizens want to be first in line rather than feel they have an EU directed obligation to bow down to political correctness. How else do we explain the AfD’s surge past the SPD?

If the eurosceptic/anti-immigrant patties get up  we shouldn’t be the least surprised. More Europeans want their own countries to be made great again. The house of cards is crumbling.

$8.4 trillion of the $21 trillion in US debt matures in 4 years. What could possibly go wrong?

E0F20948-4A5A-48F1-B8AF-06FA92EBAC7AWith a US Fed openly stating it is looking to prune its bloated balance sheet by around $2 trillion, it seems that $8.4 trillion of that debt held by the public matures within the next 4 years according to the US Treasury. To that end, debt maturing in the next 10 years totals $12.233 trillion. It needs to be ‘rolled over’. The national debt pile has jumped $1 trillion in the last 6 months. After the GFC and an overly accommodative central bank, the Treasury took advantage of this free money. Under President Obama, the debt doubled. That’s right, debt in his 8 years equaled that of the previous 43 administrations combined. Most of it was short term meaning the mop up operation starts earlier.

While there is little doubt this $8.4 trillion will be recycled, the question is at what price. With rising rates and a Fed back-pedaling one would expect the interest bill can only lift. At the moment the US federal government pays around $457 billion p.a. in interest alone. Average interest rates rose for the first time since 2006. Were average rates to climb back to 2007 levels then the interest bill alone would surpass $1 trillion.


This global aversion to tightening belts continues. Many US corporations have taken the same approach to their balance sheets as the government as pointed out in the previous example on GE. Lever up and be damned with the credit rating as the spreads have been almost irrelevant to higher rated paper. It has been a financially credible decision to lower WACC and increase ROE provided one didn’t lose control and overdose on free money. However the relatively short duration on corporate debt is facing a similar refinancing cliff as the US government.

All this cumulative debt needing refinancing while credit ratings are on average the worst they’ve ever been in a rising interest rate environment coupled with a bubble in bonds while a growing number of these levered consumer and industrial stocks have negative equity. What could possibly go wrong?

Do we see the Fed reverse its decision and embark on more QE? Indeed to do such a thing would tank the dollar and send the yen back towards the 70s to the US$. Interesting times ahead. Throw on the $7 trillion shortfall in state public pension liabilities and watch the fire from the other side of the river. Finally some university think tank has come out saying that wiping out the $1.5 trillion in student debt would be ‘stimulatory’ to the economy adding 1.5 million jobs. What a world we live in when we get to walk away from responsibility and accountability.

GE’s Goodwill is Electric

Net Equity.png

It seems that GE’s woes are going from bad to worse. While the shares have been slayed as earnings have been restated and restructuring is underway pundits are wondering whether the horror is properly priced in. GE, in the days of CEO Jack Welch was a killer. A $500bn wrecking ball which claimed it had to be a Top 3 in everything it did or it wasn’t worth it. GE is now worth $122bn, the stock halving since the start of 2017. Goodwill on the balance sheet has exploded from $68bn to $83bn while shareholders equity has slid from $76bn to $64bn. So subtracting the Goodwill from shareholders equity gives us minus $18.7bn.

Goodwill refers to the amount paid, when acquiring a company, that is in excess of fair value of the firm’s net assets. Let’s say the fair value of Company A’s net assets are $8bn, and Company B purchases Company A for an amount which corresponds to $11bn. After the transaction, Company B will be left with $3bn worth of Goodwill on its balance sheet. The intangible value expressed by goodwill is what Company B believes will exist in the combined company down the line in things such as brand name. However Goodwill has the potential to inflate the perceived level of Shareholder’s Equity in a company. Let’s say Company B has $20B worth of assets, $19B worth of liabilities, and $1B worth of shareholder’s equity. As this $3bn goodwill amount is a non-cash asset, and furthermore unlikely to ever be converted into anything of value to the corporation, then the argument could be made that Company B actually has negative $2B worth of equity. In GE’s case, it has almost $19bn in negative equity.

Interesting to note that Parker Hannifin was also in negative equity at its FY2017 close. When looking at many Japanese industrials like Komatsu or Amada they are comfortably in positive equity. So when the stock market eventually lunches itself, the American industrials do not appear to have the same meat in the balance sheet as the Japanese. Which sort of tells us that GE, as much as investors seem to be wanting to catch that falling knife, may be well advised to wait much longer. The word “too big to fail” somehow resonates much less these days.

As we wrote several weeks ago, the ratings agencies have made it clear that the average quality of US corporate debt has deteriorated severely over the last decade. Much of it was thanks to leveraging up at such chronically low interest rates.  One could argue it was rational however it seems it became addictive, driving merciless M&A deals which loaded all this goodwill on the balance sheet in the quest to drive ROE. The corporate bond spreads between AA and BBB- is currently a paltry 75bps (0.75%). Please refer to page 21.

With the US Fed curtailing its balance sheet and $9 trillion of short term national debt funding needing recycling in the near term, that corporate bond interest rate differential is unlikely to stay so tight. This could turn pear shaped very quickly.

PM Turnbull enforces sex ban between ministers and staff


Talk about closing the gate after the horse has bolted. How out of touch can PM Turnbull be to think imposing a ban on consenting adults will achieve anything much less stop the rot in the polls? As CM wrote yesterday, the citizens of Australia would gladly trade off randy politicians if they applied the same energy they  do ‘on the job’ on the job! People want action on policy rather than the headmaster telling naughty schoolboys how to behave! What a farce. Voters are more angry at being taken for mugs by giving mistresses $200,000 taxpayer funded jobs rather than dismay at sexual antics inside parliament corridors.

Once again Turnbull shows complete error in judgment. Instead of showing a firm hand he only shows himself ever more impotent (no pun intended).