Confidence

Why discontinue?

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This is a chart of the change in the US Fed balance sheet, a series that has just been discontinued. Is this because the Fed is about to step up its activity and offering wider disclosure on tapering activity might spook markets? Given that 72% of the growth in S&P earnings has been driven by buybacks since 2012, it stands to reason the market is not exactly providing the type of confidence inducing organic lift the index reflects. Bank of America revealed that “net buying of Tech sector in the 1H was entirely buyback-driven.” 

Kind of reminds CM of the day Bernanke’s Fed announced it would no longer report M3 money supply a year before the financial markets headed into the GFC. CM estimated on p.4 of a report several years ago that M3 money supply by 2018 on constant long-term growth rates would turn into around $35 trillion from the $10 trillion at the time it was discontinued.

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Nothing to see here? Throw a deteriorating fixed income market with fewer buyers and corporates that have binged on cheap credit to fuel buybacks, it doesn’t look like the stuff dreams are made of. The chart below shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling since 2011. Earnings (E) are not doing so well. It is by the grace of falling number of traded shares (S) that makes the EPS look flattering.

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We took the liberty of comparing corporate profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper (but now hide the results of) its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the relative safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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Discontinuation of series always carries a sense of deep cynicism for its true intention. It is not an onerous data set to cull. Sure we can fossick around and try to find it hidden in the archives of the Fed website but the idea is that they probably don’t want to publicise how much more they intend to flog.

Staring at the dictator – redux

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In Feb 2017, CM wrote a piece titled ‘Staring at the Dictator’ which highlighted that winning hearts and minds comes from sensible and reasonable dialogue. Not from widespread activism where the sole purpose is to shut down debate. Hasn’t the left learnt that physically and verbally bullying people senseless and mocking them for their supposed ignorance doesn’t work? Yet they still keep screaming the same hypo-ventilated bile, as Robert Reich has below. Nothing would make CM happier if democracy does its job in any country. If we believe he speaks for the majority, he has absolutely nothing to fear. No need for protests of any kind. Yet he shouldn’t blame the constituents for overthrowing bad governments who believe in divine incumbency. Blame bad policy.

If Democrats hadn’t treated the last election as a coronation then perhaps Hillary Clinton may have got her wish. Things had obviously become so bad at the grass roots level that the establishment was rejected. Even after all of the p*ssy grabbing allegations had been brought to light, Trump still won. His vulgarity was on the ballot. His “no one respects women more than I do” lie after this revelation in the 2nd debate was broadcast to 100s of millions. It was also on the ticket. Despite his supposed racist demagoguery, he got a higher proportion of black and Hispanic voters than either McCain or Romney. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. These are facts, as much as we may not like what they portend.

The #whitelash arguments don’t rub either because the same people voted a black man in twice. Clinton didn’t lose because she was a woman. She lost in part because she ran on the basis she was a woman. Surveys may show that Republican voters don’t want a female president however should Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley run in 2024 she would win their support on the basis of her strength, not her gender or her Native American/Sikh heritage. Ability should be all that matters. Clinton’s constant griping 18 months after her loss shows just how poor a president she would have made. It is so bad even Rasmussen reports that a majority of Democrats don’t think she would have been any better than Trump. Take that!

If Trump loses legitimately (assuming he runs) in 2020 then so be it. In the last 1.5 years in office, American citizens have had plenty of time to weigh him in their own minds, regardless of the media’s relentless onslaught of over-the-top sensationalist click-baiting. If citizens feel he has delivered in areas that affected them on a personal level, they’re probably on balance willing to vote for the same again unless the alternative offers something better. At the same time they have had plenty of time to weigh the Democrats. They’ve seen first hand the bitterness at the State of the Union plastered on the faces of Pelosi et al. They’ve heard Maxine Waters call to her supporters to gang up on the staff in the current administration. They’ve seen countless Hollywood celebrities chant vile hate from celebrating the decapitation of the President, calling Ivanka a “feckless c*nt” to hoping 12yo Barron is ripped from Melania’s arms and caged with pedophiles. Democrat supporters have gone so far as to shoot GOP politicians. CM is quite sure that however horrid the President may be, these are hardly the types of antics that will sway opinion of the swing voters to join the self-appointed ‘righteous’ like Reich. And no, not all Democrats think like this much like many Republicans don’t endorse stupidity from their own. It lets down both sides.

Republicans or swing voters do not respond well to being called intolerant, cruel, racist, misogynist, xenophobic or climate sceptics without fact or basis. Since when does one consciously vote for others over their own needs? It isn’t selfish. If one is buried under onerous tax legislation, red tape or financial destitution do they vote to put the interests of others above their own? No. As a long term Liberal Party (aka conservatives) voter in Australia, the current party has ‘left’ me. I didn’t leave them. They did not win my vote last election. It must be earned. They don’t represent my values. It didn’t take tribal beltings to force me to a conclusion. Nor negative media to discover it. Yet somehow the activists believe that constant bleating will cause me to change my mind.

What would be nice is to see properly supported factual (not subjective rhetorical) evidence that 63mn Trump supporters are as one when it comes to all the claims they make. I would love to see the arguments in all their gore should they exist. Not a one off event. Happy to see where my own arguments hold deep flaws.  Many Trump voters detest him on a moralistic level yet are happy to champion his achievements if they feel they get a direct benefit from them. So often claims are made to undermine his followers. Every time (and often) these assertions prove to be baseless, the journey to sway the other side to see reason gets thwarted even further. Time magazine issuing a confession over the photo-shopped cover of last week ended up at the bottom of a long article. It just shows just how unapologetic they are. Kathy Griffin was sorry until she wasn’t again. Talk about self serving.

To the comments made by Robert Reich today:

“My friends, this is a dark hour. Intolerance, cruelty, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and environmental destruction have been let loose across the land.

Trump controls the Republican Party, the Republican Party controls the House and Senate, and the Senate and Trump will soon control the Supreme Court.

Republicans also control both chambers in 32 states (33 if you count Nebraska) and 33 governorships. And in many of these states they are entrenching their power by gerrymandering and arranging to suppress votes.

Yet only 27 percent of Americans are Republican, and the vast majority of Americans disapprove of Trump. The GOP itself is now little more than Trump, Fox News, a handful of billionaire funders, and evangelicals who oppose a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, and the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

So what are we – the majority — to do?

First and most importantly, do not give up. That’s what they want us to do. Then they’d have no opposition at all.

Second, in the short term, if you are represented by a Republican senator, do whatever you can to get him or her to reject Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, or, at the least, postpone consideration until after the midterm elections. Urge others to join with you. 202-224-3121

Third, make a ruckus. Demonstrate. Engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Fight lies with truth. Join the resistance. Participate in http://www.indivisible.org and https://swingleft.org.

Fourth, vote this November 6 for people who will stand up to all this outrage. Mobilize and organize others to do so. Contact friends and relations in “red” states, and urge them to do the same.

Fifth, help lay the groundwork for the 2020 presidential election, so that even if Trump survives Mueller and impeachment he will not be reelected.

Finally, know that this fight will be long and hard. It will require our patience, our courage, and our resolve. The stakes could not be higher.”

Perhaps what Reich fails to get is that he is almost backhanding his own supporters in his rant. It is more than likely that a majority of Republican (and no doubt many centrist Democrat) voters want the liberal left to give up because it has become nothing but white noise. The more they protest the more tuned out they become. Control of the Supreme Court? I encourage you to read the cake shop transcript where Associate Justice Sotomayor shows without a doubt she is a political activist, not a judge. It is embarrassingly obvious. The Supreme Court is only supposed to apply impartiality around current laws (or those at the time of the legal action), not make a song and dance about wish lists and try to piece a verdict around how nice it would be if things were different. She was trying to argue 2018 laws around a 2012 issue. One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to work that one out.

To the assertion that a handful of billionaire funders lean the GOPs way, he should reflect that most of the billionaires in America reside in blue states. In today’s world, the big corporations win more by backing Democrats because more onerous regulation benefits their ability to squeeze out the smaller competition thanks to red tape. Laissez faire? You’ve got to be kidding.

Perhaps in closing, the most compelling argument Reich makes is the one which stands out above all others – “we, the majority.” If he wants to stop Trump, he just needs the majority to vote on the shared basis of his beliefs – case closed. No need for protests. After all he says that Trump’s base is so small. If almost 3 years of negative spin on the sitting POTUS has failed to convince the majority, nothing will. Screaming in public may seem therapeutic to the masses but should the GOP win the mid-terms then Reich will prove just as out of touch as he was prior to the election.

Silence is golden. Let democracy take its course. Let us see whether the Russians consolidate their pick in the mid-terms…Putin has even more reason to ensure America sees more “red.”

One man’s path to cut the rate of veteran suicides

This video is a wonderful testament to the selfless sacrifice and idea of one man, Jason Zaideman, in order to help US military veterans avoid an all too common fate of suicide due to PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Jason has set up a charitable centre called Operation Combat Bikesaver (OCB) in Indiana (which has one of the highest veteran suicide rates among 50 states). OCB proclaims,

We believe that breathing new life into tarnished motorcycles by honing in on learned skill sets will relinquish the deafening grasp PTSD / TBI / Depression has on Veterans and First Responders. By creating distinctive works of art, those candidates can give back to others suffering in a brotherhood of unity, targeting relief to the chaos of one’s own mind…They will be introduced to building, fabricating, welding and painting to resurrect something that was once damaged and forgotten into something new and truly unique while rebuilding themselves at the same time…We have lost way too many to PTSD / TBI and Depression. All of us here at Operation Combat Bikesaver have lost someone to the after effects of defending their country and community. We would love nothing more than to help our Heroes return to feeling normal again.

Before we get into the sad details of veteran suicides in the US, OCB has raised a paltry $20,000 through crowd funding.  To put that in context we have all seen the viral photo-shopped Time magazine picture of a little girl crying at a defiant Trump. It was used with great effect by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) to raise $20mn via crowdfunding! $20 million!!

Even after it was revealed that the child – stolen from her father – was never separated from the mother (who left her other 3 kids behind) and paid a smuggler to get to the border, RAICES still shamelessly uses the picture to boost its funding target to $25mn. Despite poor veterans committing suicide at a rate of 20/day some citizens seemingly attain higher virtue by pouring 1,000x more into an organisation with highly questionable ethics. So much for thanking those that served one’s country.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) writes it “has worked tirelessly to develop suicide prevention resources for every Veteran who is experiencing a mental health crisis, whether or not that Veteran is enrolled in the VA Health Care System. In fact, of about 21.6 million Veterans across the country —including almost 2 million women — just over 8.5 million are enrolled for care from a VA provider.  VA is committed to identifying and reaching all Veterans who may be at risk for suicide and continues to enhance programs designed to reduce risk among those who receive services from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). As highlighted in a recent VA-led Call to Action to Prevent Veteran Suicide, eliminating the burden of suicide among Veterans will require participation from a broad group of federal government and community partners.”

Key findings from this year’s report include:

▪ In 2014, an average of 20 Veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were recent users of VHA services in 2013 or 2014.
▪ In 2014, Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults and constituted 8.5% of the U.S. adult population (ages 18 and older).
▪ The burden of suicide resulting from firearm injuries remains high. In 2014, about 67% of all Veteran deaths by suicide were the result of firearm injuries.
▪ There is continued evidence of a high burden of suicide among middle-aged and older Veterans. In 2014, about 65% of all Veterans who died by suicide were ages 50 and older.
▪ After adjusting for differences in age and sex, risk for suicide was 22% higher among Veterans compared with U.S. civilian adults. (2014)
▪ After adjusting for differences in age, risk for suicide was 19% higher among male Veterans compared with U.S. civilian adult men. (2014)
▪ After adjusting for differences in age, risk for suicide was 2.5 times higher among female Veterans compared with U.S. civilian adult women. (2014)
▪ In 2014, rates of suicide were highest among younger Veterans (ages 18–29) and lowest among older Veterans (ages 60 and older).

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Since 2001, the proportion of VHA users with mental health conditions or substance use disorders (SUD) has increased from 27% in 2001 to 41% in 2014.

Risk for suicide following separation from active duty service remains a concern among Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn (OEF/OIF/OND). 18-24yo suicides in those three categories has surged from 27/100,000 in 2003 to 124 per 100,000 in 2014.

OCB is a truly worthy cause. Sadly in today’s world, too many seek to signal their virtue on social media rather than get their hands dirty and properly do something productive like Zaideman to fix causes. Truly inspirational. $20 million to support a cause based on a fake photo or $20 million to support people who have lost limbs, buddies and in many cases hope? After reading about the gore of war from my own grandfather’s letters from WW2 it is not hard to see what a gross misallocation of money and morals this is.

EU tariffs the least of Harley’s worries

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Two weeks ago CM wrote, “Harley-Davidson (HOG) is the classic case of a divine franchise. While still the world’s largest maker of cruiser motorcycles, it is being swamped by new competition. HOG’s EBIT performance has slid for the last 4 years and is even below the level of 2012…Sadly for HOG, 1Q 2018 has revealed even worse numbers. Global unit sales were 7.2% down on the previous year and 12% down at home.  Japan and Australia were soft. Looking at the strategy it looks like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it sticks.

There is a touch of irony in that Harley was starting to do better in EMEA markets in Q1 2018 (+6.8%). Now EU tariffs are likely to sting the maker some $2,200 a unit average on motorcycles sold there. The company is seeking to bypass this in the short term by sucking up the cost of the tariff to help dealers before arranging (one imagines) for final knock down kit assembly outside the USA. A downturn in EMEA is a nightmare that exacerbates the weakness elsewhere around the globe. H-D Japan shifted 16,000 units at the peak. It will be lucky to do 9,500 this year. The business has lost its compass.

At the moment it seems the brand is stuck in an echo chamber. Harley announced at the start of the year it was closing a Kansas City plant for a net loss of 350 jobs. The rot has been in since before the tariffs. Trump lambasted Harley Davidson on Twitter for waving the white flag too soon but it is probably more evidence of the scatterbrain negative spiral approach to dealing with the predicament it finds itself in. Harley may want half of sales to come from overseas markets but it may not come through growth outside of America, rather a decline from within.

In closing Harley’s are a cult. There aren’t many brands where customers are prepared tattoo it to their bodies. Sadly this mentality means that Harley is still committed to conduct $700mn in buybacks which smacks of denial for a company seeing EBIT dwindle at 40% below peak. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised when buybacks have made up 72% of all S&P500 earnings growth since 2012!! A recent survey that showed 75% of asset managers have not experienced the tech bubble collapse in 2000. Sure it is nothing to be worried about! Experience is a hard teacher. You get the test first and the lesson afterwards!

The Plane Truth

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The plain (plane?) truth is that commercuial airlines face a growing risk of cyber attacks. It is a frightening prospect. Airline safety has never been better from an aeronautics perspective. Yet more pilots are switching to iPads to access airport information including runway approaches. No more need for heavy paper flight maps. Cockpits are digital. Air to ground links open up vulnerabilities which could allow nefarious actors to place an aircraft at the wrong height, even if the display tells otherwise.

Think of how politicians or high value targets could be assassinated this way. Hackers could dump the fuel, while sending normal consumption data to the pilots. The black box would record all the conflicting data. Who needs to take a bomb onboard? It could be made to look like an accident. The cockpit voice recorder could be switched off by remote leaving the investigators precious little to go on. The Israeli National Cyber Directive views this as a growing risk.

After a week of visiting Israel’s best cyber companies, many staffed with former members and leaders of the elite military cyber unit 8200, solutions will be found but the game is growing riskier by the day. The lack of adequate protection is evident. The live hacks (from low level amateurs to state sponsored) we were witness to show just how naked so many businesses and government agencies are. The access points to hack are also exposed by the fact less than 1% of people have security on the hand held devices they make so many decisions from.

Slovenia slaps the EU too

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Slovenia has joined the list of populist movements. In 2000, there were 4 countries in the EU that had populist coalitions/majorities (Lithuania, Latvia, Switzerland & Austria). Scroll forward to today we have 15 (the previous 4 countries + Poland, Norway, Czech Rep, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Crete, Bulgaria, Romania). Neighboring Bosnia and Serbia are also populist led. We shouldn’t forget the in the populist/nationalist party surges in The Netherlands, Germany and France . Perhaps more amazing is that the EU still isn’t getting the message, most highlighted by the push to get the President of Italy to put in charge a non-eurosceptic former IMF employee as PM. That’ll work.

So to Slovenia’s election. The Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) topped Sunday’s election on 25%, handing the anti-immigrant party 25 seats in the parliament. Center-left LMŠ, led by comedian and political satirist Marjan Šarec, came in second on 12.7% (13 seats), and the Social Democrats third on just under 10% (10 seats). SDS leader Janez Janša acknowledged forming a governing coalition will be difficult.

Juncker typified all of the arrogance that has propelled so many anti-establishment parties to power. He said, “Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work, less corruption, seriousness.” Stereotyping rarely helps. Juncker also made clear that Italy’s problems are not the EU’s fault.

Time and time again, when studying poverty within the EU, the overwhelming number of countries inside the bloc remain worse off than in 2008. Growth rates remain anemic. If you were to look at a map of the floodgates of illegal immigration (which Deutsche Bank published) it isn’t a surprise that the local populations are voting for those governments that will seek to look after the citizens first. So before casting aspersions on a growing number of EU citizens’ assessment of the human rights of asylum seekers, the reality is that the socialists within the EU are clearly utterly dreadful at messaging and even poorer in execution. Then again Baroness Thatcher warned them of that in 1990.

Does Trump have a right to brag about unemployment?

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The Trump vs Obama camps are lighting up over who was responsible for the drop unemployment rates. Looking at the long term decline one could argue that Obama was a key part of the decline and the incremental drops in the rate are Trumps. Here are the raw figures.

In Jan 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Obama had 115.818m people full time employed. In December of 2012 that number was 115.791m. (-270,000). There were 8.046m and 7.943m part time jobs over the same period. Minus 103,000. At the end of his 8 years, there were 124.3m FT jobs and 5.554m PT jobs. All told his FT workforce went up 8.48mn and PT fell 2.492m. So gross employment increased 5.98m.

Trump started at 124.3mn FT and as of May 2018 there are 128.657m FT jobs and 4.948m PT jobs. So he’s increased FT 4.347m and cost PT 606k. Net increase of 3.741mn jobs. So even if you ran the narrative that Obama’s second term was enough to put the “Great Recession to bed”, Trump has achieved 63% of Obama’s employment legacy in only 30% of his first term as president.

The number of people working two or more jobs surged to over 8mn (a record) under BHO as did food stamps (doubled to c.48m before coming down to 43m by his term end). SNAP stands at 40m now. 3mn fewer.

30 million people claim disability and welfare in the US. The Social Security Administration (SSA) highlighted that back pain and musculoskeletal problems are 33.8% of claims for disabled workers, followed by mental illness at 19.2% in 2013. This compares to 8.3% and 9.6% respectively in 1961. Half of claims in the 1960s came from heart attack/stroke and ‘other’ categories which made up only 17% of the 2013 figure.

Yet the truth is that if Americans wanted more of Obama’s successful policies, Hillary was Obama 2.0. No change in policies. Sensible to keep if they wanted the status quo. Ironic that 19 out of 25 states that voted for Trump had poverty levels exceeding the national average. Which means that had the “marry the state” policies of the Obama admin resonated with the poor it would have been a coronation for Hillary. This is a perfect example as to why a hollowed out middle America want to live the American dream rather than queue up for more welfare. God Bless America?