Corporate Governance

US airlines tell China to take a hike over Taiwan

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Despite the immediate and characteristic folding by in-your-face virtue signaling Qantas and other airlines to remove the word “Taiwan” from the airline in-flight magazines and websites, American airline leaders have decided to tell China to go take a jump saying it is a matter for governments, not airlines to discuss such foreign policy matters. Full credit to China for pushing the boundaries of how powerful the rest of the world thinks it is by the speed of which they roll over and play dead. It doesn’t take much to envisage when the Chinese authorities start to demand ‘real’ things. While leaders in Australia mock the activities of Xi in the Pacific or the Maldives by the irrelevance of the size of free trade agreements to China, they completely overlook the strategic importance of the naval ports China is linking together across the globe.

Of course trivial demands to change maps in inflight magazines on the surface is a backhanded way for the Chinese to prioritize landing slots but the action below the waves is clear. Start with tiny demands and ratchet up the volume and see where the breaking point is. Authoritarian rule at its finest. Where have we seen this before?

Sadly the principle lost on many is that those nations/airlines that “stand for nothing, fall for anything

Kindergarten level agenda behind Kinder Morgan buyout

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The Canadian Liberal government is paying $4.5bn for a 60yr old pipeline that was sold a decade ago to Kinder Morgan for $377m for an asset RBC values at $2.5bn. Another $7.5bn will be spent to “create jobs”. Apart from Canadian tax dollars going to fund a US company’s ability to expand and compete against Canadian suppliers, the real truth of Trudeau’s intentions probably don’t become any clearer when examining the sponsored summer jobs programme (where businesses could only get greenlighted if they shared “his” values). Yes, taxpayer dollars were approved by Trudeau to help activists protest a pipeline he’s just bought. This was an ad posted by Dogwood:

“As an organizing assistant through the Canada Summer Jobs program you will work directly with a Dogwood Provincial Organizer and the field organizing team to help our organizing network stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker project, as well as help us strengthen the public call for stronger, more accountable and transparent democracy.”

He has already been crashing in the polls. This will help to no end. So much for transparency.

GE’s Angolan Kwanza exposure

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Sell-side analysts rarely read through the fine print of an annual report. Hidden away in the prose, one can find some pretty eye-opening paragraphs. From GE’s 2017 Annual Report,

“As of December 31, 2017, we held the U.S. dollar equivalent of $0.6 billion of cash in Angolan kwanza. As there is no liquid derivatives market for this currency, we have used Angolan kwanza to purchase $0.4 billion equivalent bonds issued by the central bank in Angola (Banco Nacional de Angola) with various maturities through 2020 to mitigate the related currency devaluation exposure risk. The bonds are denominated in Angolan kwanza as U.S. dollar equivalents, so that, upon payment of periodic interest and principal upon maturity, payment is made in Angolan kwanza, equivalent to the respective U.S. dollars at the then-current exchange rate.”

On that basis the marked to market figure is actually another $250mn hole in 2017. One wonders what the exchange rate will be in 2020? Furthermore at what level will Travelex or Thomas Cook exchange that for? It would be safe to assume the ‘bid/offer’ spread will be horrendous. GE might find it more useful to run a Nigerian mail scam to hedge the expected losses. For a company as large as GE, potentially losing $850mn should look like a rounding error unless the company is bleeding as the monster is. GE took a pretax charge of $201mn on its Venezuela operations.

We shouldn’t forget that “GE provides implicit and explicit support to GE Capital through commitments, capital contributions and operating support. As previously discussed, GE debt assumed from GE Capital in connection with the merger of GE Capital into GE was $47.1 billion and GE guaranteed $44.0 billion of GE Capital debt at December 31, 2017. See Note 23 to the consolidated financial statements for additional information about the eliminations of intercompany transactions between GE and GE Capital.

As 13D Research noted, “GE spent roughly $45 billion on share buybacks over 2015 & 2016  despite the shares trading well above today’s levels all the while ignoring the $30 billion+ shortfall in its pensions. Management disclosed in a recent analyst meeting that it would have to borrow to fund a $6 billion contribution to its pension plans next year, as well as chopping capex by 26% in 2018.

As mentioned yesterday, there are some who have faith in the sustained turnaround in medical. Indeed it has seen some top line and margin improvement but management seems more concerned with focusing on cutting costs than pushing innovation. Efficiency drives should be part and parcel of all businesses but one must hope CEO John Flannery has far bigger hopes for its market share leading product line (which GE admits facing pricing pressure in some segments) than trimming the staff canteen cookie tin.

GE remains a risky investment. Flannery has it all to prove and to date his performances have been anything but inspiring. GE feels like a business suffering from the divine franchise syndrome synonymous with former CEO Jack Welch. That dog eat dog culture seems to be biting its own tail.

 

 

GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the 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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With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

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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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Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

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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 its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.

Tesla Elongates Fight against ‘unfair’ media

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CM totally sympathizes with clickbait media cycle. Tesla CEO Elon Musk railed at the negative coverage surrounding the company in recent times. The memories are clearly short. The media is generally effusive with praise of Tesla. How most newspapers and magazines fawn over Musk! Dan Primack made this point well:

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Edmunds has also written a damning review of the Model 3 announcing how many problems the car has faced since it was bought.

Some things from the Edmunds long term test were as follows:

The most annoying of those issues was a repeated, uncontrollable increase in stereo volume, sometimes when we weren’t even in the car. Basically, the stereo would suddenly go to full volume without explanation. This and other issues are cataloged from our notes below:

• Would not recognize keycard in or on the console and hence would not go into gear. It did, however, unlock the car. Workaround was to force quit the app and restart the app. Then it would allow the choice of Drive or Reverse.

• The backup camera screen did not appear when reversing.

• Nav screen going haywire: zooming, scrolling, pinching, pixelating all at once.

• Audio system turning on by itself at full volume.

• Audio display randomly moving up and down the screen without any command from a human.

• Audio system came on and went to full volume all by itself while the car was off, locked and unoccupied. I heard it from 100 yards away. “Who is that joker playing his stereo so loud I can hear it from here?” Oh, it’s Elon. I turned it down, but it kept wavering up and down as I started driving, working against my repeated attempts to dial it down. Then it blasted all the way to maximum. My ears are still ringing two hours later. Fixed after reboot. Not sure about hearing damage.

• Audio page leaping up and down rapidly like the up-caret button to expand the source menu was being played with by a kid who ate too much candy. Concurrent with the volume problem above. Same reboot.

• Icons on the map screen flickering.

• The passenger vanity mirror fell off completely. Installed and held on only by double-sided tape. Reinstalled by pressing really hard on the mirror.

• The screen went completely dark on startup, no music or operation. Restarted the car. The screen worked; the backup camera did not.

• The car will not shift into Drive or Reverse upon startup. “Vehicle Systems Are Powering Up. Shift Into D or R After Message Clears.” Have to wait for it to power up. A loud click comes from the rear of the car as if a drive shaft is engaging and the message on the screen goes away.

• The car displays a new message: “Cannot Maintain Vehicle Power. Car May Stop Driving or Shut Down.” No shutdowns yet, but keeping an eye out.

• With 170 miles of range, the car displays a “Regenerative Braking Limited” message. Plenty of available space to store regen power. Logged the issue, then reset the screen with a reboot. The message has not displayed since.

• While the car was parked, the passenger sun visor was left down and the mirror fell out. Pressed back into place. Hoping it won’t fall out again.

While no one should expect reliability to be at levels of mainstream manufacturers that have been at it for decades longer, quality remains a big issue for Tesla. For Musk to slam the media will only lead to responses as this.

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IOC, FIFA, Nobel Academy…#WETOO?

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The problem with private organizations such as the IOC, FIFA and Nobel is that they become so drugged by the power of the prestige they provide that they think rules don’t apply to them. FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and some other committee members were found guilty of money laundering and bribery. Blatter was given an 8 (later reduced to 6) year ban from FIFA after an independent ethic committee proposed it. In 2017 Blatter was accused of sexual harassing US soccer star, Hope Solo, at an awards ceremony in 2013. All class.

Now the Nobel Literature prize is being withheld over sexual harassment allegations made by 18 women against French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault who is married to a Nobel Academy member. He has also been accused of leaking the winners of the literature prize to the media.

One doesn’t have to dig too deep to find allegations made against the IOC ahead of Olympic bids. Imagine if audits were conducted by the cities that bid, breaking down specific payments to specific accounts.

Why are we surprised by these scandals? The opacity and often ‘untouchable nature’ only makes it easier to conduct nefarious activity. Perhaps governments should have whistleblower protection for people working in these committees bidding millions of taxpayer dollars for such events. Then again the governments are up to their own eyeballs in greed and prestige that turning a blind eye is easier.

If only Elon Musk could summon institutional questions

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Elon Musk has apparently terminated the question of a Bernstein analyst ((followed by the rest of the institutional queue) on the basis of it being “uncool”. He said, “We’re going to YouTube [for retail investors]. These questions are so dry. They’re killing me!” If only the Tesla CEO could summon the right type of questions that deflected criticism of the company as easily as maneuvering a parked Model S from a tight parking spot.

While he urged non-believers to sell the stock, there is little to be gained pushing a line of  opacity for a company with production issues, continuing losses and $10.6bn in debt. Earnings results are not about having fun but for investors/analysts to probe and qualify assumptions in the interest of making rational investment decisions.

CM has made constant reference to Musk’s amazing ability to sell. He is coming up to the pointy end of having to deliver. There are countless distractions which perculate below the surface – copyright infringement trial launched by Nikola Motor, the NTSB autopilot probe, countless resignations and recent calls to cut the staff canteen cookies. By blowing off the main investor pool that feeds him, the question of CEO capability becomes a bigger factor than the dreadful earnings themselves.

There is no better disinfectant than sunlight but Musk continues to deflect. Cash flow continues to decline  The production shutdown in April will thump Q2 earnings, not to mention the capex spend should rise plus the write off of equipment that has proven to be surplus to requirements. Here he is talking of 10,000 units a week down the line to fill the hearts of the faithful followers. Perhaps his comments about not needing to raise capital are best addressed by the fact he’s raised 7x since that statement.

Today’s results meeting is more telling in that snake oil salesman tactics of talking up the situation was replaced by silence and stonewalling. Telling.