Confidence

World on the brink of WW3? Press on the blink more like it

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When you read a title like “world on the brink” it is easy to be misled to thinking this is a Trump/Putin related incident. The fact is the Iranian backed Houthi in Yemen have been lobbing ballistic missiles at Riyadh and staging border skirmishes for years. The Americans have been advising Saudi Arabia where to strike the Houthi in Yemen. This is a decades old fight and since the death (assassination) of former President Saleh last year the Houthi have become even more emboldened than they were during the Arab Spring 8 years ago.

Yet it is so easy to draw conclusions. Did the mainstream media report the sinking of a Saudi naval frigate in the Bab-al-Mandeb strait in Jan 2017 which took the lives of 176 sailors? Has the Israeli shekel collapsed since Trump and Putin exchanged verbal salvos? No. The Tel Aviv indices? No. Surely a relatively liquid financial barometer in a country that has been warned not to intervene by Putin too. Would quickly price in any fears.

The situation over Syria may be tense but if you look at what Putin is really trying to do he is weighing the size of Trump’s guts to call his bluff. We shouldn’t forget when Russia first intervened in Syria several years ago, Putin told Obama that US forces had two hours to get out of harm’s way. That is the warning one would give the Luxembourg armed forces, not the most powerful military in the world. Obama heeded Putin. Putin had carte blanche. That’s why nothing happened with the Ukraine. Sanctions were put in place but no one made any attempt to ‘change behviours.’

It is worth nothing that Syria is Rosoboronexport’s (Russia’s military export wing) 2nd largest customer after Iran. Putin is sick of having the West try to remove his clients. Assad is key to Russia’s foothold in the Middle East. With an essentially pro-Iran Iraqi government and Syria as well as Hezbollah Putin has a geopolitical doormat from the troubled separatist states to Russia’s south to Lebanon.

The problem Putin faces is if Trump yanks his chain, does he shoot US missiles down as threatened? He said they’ll attack launch sites which effectively equals sinking US naval vessels as that is how they are launched. This is perhaps the easiest way to escalate a skirmish out of Putin’s control. If Putin doesn’t do anything, Trump holds one over him. So Putin is hoping by the use of very strong language that Trump backs down. It is not exactly the best way to handle on either side but this is the first time in almost a decade where the US has a leader that won’t be pushed around. Unpredictablity is a strength not a weakness

Looking at history. The NVA was supplied by the Russians during the Vietnam War and the Afghans were supplied by the Americans in the war with Russia. Nothing new. The Russians returned the favour when the “Coalition” deposed Saddam and entered Afghanistan. Proxy wars have been fought for over 50 years.

The US is dispatching a carrier battle group to the Mediterranean. Theresa May is sending a UK submarine. The Russians are conducting military exercises with 11 warships in the same area. Of course scare stories are amock and clickbait media will report how we’re two seconds from a thermonuclear exchange.

It begs the question had Obama suggested to Putin he was bombing Syria, he would be praised for level headed genius. If Trump managed to bomb Syria with no Russian response then would we see the media have a mea culpa moment? Not a chance. It would be palmed off as a lucky break. If we go back in history, we can see good nations that did nothing let tyrants get away with murder. Have a look at Russia and China in the last decade. Man made military bases in territorial waters of other nations, early warning systems on the contested  Spratly’s and agreements in Vanuatu and Sri Lanka which provides naval ports for China. Putin is getting the old ‘union’ back together and there are plenty of willing despots happy to ride his coattails.

Putin is livid at the outcome of the nerve agent scandal seeing the expulsion of so many diplomats. He is not one that likes criticism as many an oligarch has found out the hard way. The question for those that fear what Trump might do should worry more about what will happen if he doesn’t. The downside is that the media likes Putin more than Trump. For a president with a glass jaw, his moves will be far more heavily scrutinized than Putin’s. He’s damned whichever way he turns. Putin on the other hand  willl be excused for being a dictator, whatever he chooses to do. The media will hope it dies down as they turn a blind eye and pillory their own governments for not taking in enough refugees.

Appeasement is an ever widening feature of governments in the West today. There are Neville Chamberlains everywhere. Who will stand up to Putin if Trump doesn’t? Whether Syria is the right battleground is beside the point. Because if it isn’t Syria it will end up being somewhere else.  The problem is only Trump “can” credibly shirt-front the former KGB officer.

 

Manhattan property in a gully

Manhattan property seems to be in a gully according to Elliman R/E in Q1 2018. While a slightly better QoQ performance, average prices fell 8.4%YoY, price per square foot fell 18.5%YoY and the number of sales transactions fell 24.6%YoY. This was the lowest quarter total in 5 years and the biggest annual decline in 9 years. Absorption rates hit 8.4 months in Q1, +38%YoY. New federal tax laws, higher interest rates and the end of legacy pipeline contracts were factors. At the luxury end of town average price per sqft fell 20.6%YoY with absorption up 50%YoY to over 20 months. As the real estate agent and stripper said in The Big Short, “it is just a gully we are experiencing right now.

Multiple Job Holders in the US hits a record in Feb-18

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Since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been keeping score, Americans with more than one job soared in Feb 2018 to the highest level seen in that month for a quarter century. March 2017 was also a record for that month in 24 years. One would expect when the economy is in the groove that people do not need to hold down multiple jobs to get by. On a percentage of the total labour force basis, multiple job holders in Feb 2018 have exceeded the level set in 2007 ahead of the GFC, or 5%.

However since the shake out of GFC, people holding down multiple jobs has continued to rise every year for the last 9. The previous record was only 5 years. Trends in disability payments and food stamps shows eerily similar trends since 2002.

SNAP (food stamp) recipients numbered as follows (working disability recipients in brackets, with cost outlays per annum)

1994: 27.47 million ( 6.381mn, cost $2.621bn)

1997: 22.58 million (6.998mn, cost $3.253bn)

2002: 19.10 million (8.109mn, cost $4.621bn)

2007: 26.32 million (9.858mn, cost $7.127bn)

2013: 47.67 million (12.156mn, cost $10.25bn)

2017: 42.20 million (Dec 2016 fig, 11.832mn, cost $10.316bn)

The Social Security Administration (SSA) highlights that back pain and musculoskeletal problems are 32.3% of disability claims, followed by mental illness at 26.3% (up from 19.2% in 2011) in 2016. 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 2016 figure.

Disabled beneficiaries aged 18–64 in current-payment status accounted for 4.7% of the population aged 18–64 in the United States. The states with the highest rates of disabled beneficiaries – 7%+ -were Alabama (SNAP benefits 17% of population), Arkansas (13%), Kentucky (15%), Maine (14%), Mississippi (18%), and West Virginia (19%). All above the national SNAP average of 13% and only Maine that voted Democrat in the 2016 election. Coincidence?

Could it be that more Americans are sick of living off more and more handouts? Seems plausible that Trump’s delivery to the White House was driven by these immutable trends – they want change to a system which they know can’t sustainably deliver forever like this. That is why tax breaks resonate. Why tariffs strike a chord. None-the-less maybe the uptick in multiple jobs is highlighting that things aren’t moving quickly enough.

Trump’s approval hits 50%

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A new Rasmussen Reports poll finds President Trump has cracked the 50% approval rating among likely voters, putting him ahead of where Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency. On the same day in Obama’s administration – April 2, 2010 – Rasmussen found 46% approved of the 44th president’s performance. Suggests that people are more interested in their daily personal issues than the media’s obsession in trying to find out whether Trump humped a porn star over a decade ago.

The fact is that Trump is polling well ahead of the most recent approval ratings for Macron, Trudeau, Merkel, Theresa May, Turnbull, Shinzo Abe or Pena Nieto. When Obama was in Japan last week he spoke of wantiong to create “a million young Barack Obamas” to take on the baton of “human progress”. No thanks.

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!

Worst Q2 start for S&P 500 since 1929

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ZeroHedge reported today that the S&P had its worst percentage 2nd quarter start since 1929 overnight. Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke below the 200 day moving average before an at the death rally to close above. Plunge Protection Team (PPT)? The broader S&P 500 failed to hold the 200 dma. All feels ominous. Awaiting the dead cat bounce. Short dated out of the money index put options continue to look ridiculously cheap relative to other asset classes. Gold also having a good day. Bitcoin showing its true value sliding below $7.000. Best to remember in a bear market the winner is the one who loses the least.

Tesla’s Autopilot beta testing means customers are crash test dummies

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Back in April 2016, we wrote about the dangerous legal ramifications facing Tesla due to its overzealous promotion of the auto-pilot function. What people tend to forget is the issues surrounding liability. An insurance company often covers a driver with respect to accidents – wet road, poor visibility or being hit by another driver. The insurer covers that type of damage. Yet the death of a Tesla driver in California last week was found to have had the auto pilot function on. Why should an insurer pay for damages that result from willful negligence promoted by the manufacturer itself? This is a design fault. Moreover how could Elon Musk’s legal team not suggest that he refrain from such promotion? Accidents as a result of Tesla’s auto pilot are becoming so numerous that it is hard to fathom why people put so much faith in the system, as this video highlights. They are willingly becoming crash test dummies.

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Tesla’s own website notes, “Build upon Enhanced Autopilot and order Full Self-Driving Capability on your Tesla. This doubles the number of active cameras from four to eight, enabling full self-driving in almost all circumstances, at what we believe will be a probability of safety at least twice as good as the average human driver. The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat.”

The video on the autopilot webpage highlighting the autopilot function on the makes no reference to ensure drivers pay attention to the road even when the system is in use. Sounds to me like the ambulance chasers have plenty of ammunition to launch a class action. It only cost Toyota $1.2bn for the runaway accelerator issue. For a company deeply in debt with such heavy losses, rising interest rates, falling credit rating and senior departures, Tesla should be careful not to get carried away with signaling the virtues of systems that are clearly flawed.

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