Crisis

NFL – seat prices at the back of the discount rack

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NFL has been off the main headlines recently. Interesting to see that seats for certain games are selling for as little as $3 each. Of course better games starring more popular teams show firmer (albeit deeply discounted) pricing but one can’t help but think this is a continuation of the backlash against the kneeling saga. Regardless of the views of the players, their employers (aka the fans) are evaluating them by their wallets. Seems like the message hasn’t got through. If they wish to continue to kneel deep discounts which incorporate the social cost to the fan have to be provided until the ultimate financial impact to the players is reached.

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 Exchange looks to litigation to shut critics up

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As Bitcoin surged through $16,000 it’s largest exchange Bitfinex has declared it will take legal action against critics. Sounds like it is run by millennials to have to threaten those who disagree with them. In the following article Bitfinex attorneys said,

To date, every claim made by these bad actors has been patently false and made simply to agitate the cryptocurrency ecosystem. As a result, Bitfinex has decided to assert all of its legal rights and remedies against this agitator and his associates.

However it seems an independent audit over the USD reserve status of Tether, which Bitfinex is involved with has not been conducted as promised. Seems a pretty binary question. So threatening to sue a blogger before facts have been laid bare does seem rather strange. Indeed wouldn’t an audit put to bed fears of a rigged system?

Indeed if an exchange goes down and people wanted the cash equivalent for their coins then wouldn’t the Ponzi scheme be revealed?

As Bitcoin soared past $16,000 overnight it is hard not to feel bewildered but at least there is comfort in knowing dissenting voices will be sued.

Just as a side note. As a business if I accepted bitcoin from a client for $16,000 equivalent services bill yet all my $$12,000 of outgoings for staff, office space, utilities, mobile phone etc were in dollars what would happen if my bitcoin halved in value? All of a sudden my $4000 profit has turned into $4000 loss. Would businesses want to carry the risks of bitcoin in trade unless the landlord, staff,  utilities and cellphone companies all agreed to accept it as payment? Torn asunder the tax man only accepts dollars as far as I know.

Yemen – Saleh’s death is the dangerous slice in the Iran & Saudi sandwich

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Even before the Arab Spring, CM (in a previous life) wrote that Yemen was a trouble spot. It’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Sunni) has died of natural causes – he was assassinated in a spate of tribal violence in the capital Sana’a yesterday. No stranger to being an oppressive tyrant during his rule, after being ousted in the Arab Spring he was in recent years working with the Houthi tribe (Shi’ite) to regain power before switching back to a US backed Saudi-friendly deal maker. He proved that power is more important than religious sect. However the Houthi weren’t prepared to suffer a turncoat who betrayed them so Saleh was duly dealt with.

Why is Saleh’s death important? What it now does is give Saudi Arabia more will to take more decisive action against the Iran backed Houthi. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia has cleaned house with the arrests of  royal family members to tighten the inner circle. It smells like the early stages of broader tit-for-tat skirmishes before all out conflict ensues. Yemen is often argued as a proxy war between the two.

While many are distracted by the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face” action, it is a very firm line in the sand to where the US cards already lie. No big surprises. For now most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran.

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At the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, cargo ships make their way up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, could become a major choke point. This year 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.

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Safe access to the strait is crucial at present because of Egypt’s reliance on imported LNG to maintain stable electricity supply. One LNG tanker heads to Egypt each weeknight through the canal. Just under 10% of global trade goes through it as well. Any blockage or restricted access would force ships to sail the long way around the Horn of Africa adding another 40% to the journey. This would have significant impacts on shipping and trade. Markets aren’t factoring anything at this stage.

The problem with naval conflict is that Yemen is backed by Iran which in turn is one of Russia’s best clients. Iran possesses the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile which is a supersonic anti-ship missile which even the US has no answer for. In recent years this has been upgraded to the Super Sunburn (P-270) which is even more lethal. It is a ramjet which travels at Mach-3 meaning if fired inside a 100km range then the target is likely to be toast (video here). It can be launched from a ship, submarine or land.

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Iran could blame a whole host of tribes (Sunni or Shia) sick of being under the jackboot of effective Saudi control/influence for an attack.

On December 2, Israeli jets bombed an Iranian military weapons base in Syria. Israel has warned Iran it won’t tolerate any military presence on Syrian soil. We shouldn’t forget that China has also deployed its special forces to Syria to help Assad. Clearly the Chinese see a good opportunity to clean up some of the spoils in the region. China is always happy to help out nations that are under sanction. It adds more mess into the geopolitical sphere.

While the GCC has stepped up its air attacks on Yemen post the death of Saleh, he was the only one that has been able to unite the country. Indeed it is possible that the secession of the south becomes an issue. At the time of reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 many in the south felt their northern neighbors were pillaging too much of their oil reserve wealth. Even their private land was appropriated and spread among the Sana’a elite. Now that Saleh has gone, and Yemen fragmented again, we may see old scores settled. The Southern Movement (loyal to exiled President Hadi) in Yemen wants to take back what was stolen from them. So Saleh’s death may open a vacuum of more instability.

Iran would relish the opportunity of a fractured Yemen to further build its influence. Bab al-Mandeb may become a flashpoint to fight the proxy war. It is extremely messy, creates proper disruption and pushes Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to conflict.

Which ever way you cut it, diplomacy in the Middle East (what little there is) looks set to worsen. In a sense we are dealing with two large clients of Russia (Iran) and America (SA). Now China is siding with Russian interests by using it as a test run of its military muscle. China isn’t committing anything major but it wants to be at the negotiating table when it all goes pear shaped.

It smells very similar to the lead up to the Arab Spring. More turmoil and complacent markets which are not quite absorbing the realities of “local problems” spreading to another neighborhood. Sure we’ve seen many leaders overthrown in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so on in the last uprising but the pressure on Saudi is mounting hence the recent crackdown internally.

The other dark horse is Erdogan in Turkey. He is facing a corruption probe over money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions and he seems keen to externalise his problems so he can shut down the local threat. He is threatening to cut off ties with Israel if the US relocates the embassy but for a man with clear ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire that fell less than 100 years ago that is a mere formality in the future.

The flashpoint remains Yemen. It has the perfect storm of a pawn in a global game of chess. While it whiffs of local tribes seeking revenge there are too many willing to help them achieve their aims which only plays to the broader ructions throughout the rest of the Middle East. Last week Houthi rebels launched a missile attack against the UAE nuclear power plant under construction. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Mitsubishi Jet facing cancellations

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In 2009 CM argued (in a former life) that the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) was doomed to failure. It was answering a question that no one was asking. It seems that one of its customers, Eastern Airlines, which originally placed 40 orders found itself in receivership and its new owners do not seem to have any intention honouring Eastern’s order book. With a total order book (including options) of 447 MRJ aircraft, this would be a big dent. The plane has been beset with delays, material changes (it was to have carbon composite wings but it was deemed too expensive so switched back to alloys, increasing weight hence hurting economics) and the realities of the industry.

1. Demand – Both Boeing & Airbus publish detailed long range fleet forecasts every year. They are both in agreement that regional jets (50-100 seats) have little future forecasting they’ll represent a total of 3,000 orders in the next two decades. Around 8 years ago that forecast was 5,000.

2. Incumbents – Embraer and Bombardier dominate the regional jet market with some 80% share. Mitsubishi is looking to beat the door down in an industry where risk is not wanted. The Chinese are entering the market with the C-919 and the Russians with the Sukhoi Superjet. Mitsubishi wanted a 20% share. Of 5,000 units that’s 1000 units they banked on. At 3,000 that’s only 600 units their share target would hit. Boeing and Airbus are offering slightly smaller versions of the 737 and A320 series to cater to the market that would normally buy an RJ.

3. Pilots – well most pilots are certified to fly only one type of commercial plane at any given time so Mitsubishi needs to make sure it’s planes can have a supply of pilots to fly them and airlines need to take a bet on expansion. Same goes for ground crew training.

4. Existing fleet – if a regional airline wanted to expand, if they used Embraer ERJ-145s it is better to get more of the same as the economics are well understood. Also the pool of pilots is likely more accessible. Route gaps need to be filed as soon as possible so waiting 12 months to get an MRJ may not work for an airline.

5. Residual values – when airlines get into financial turbulence, sometimes fleets need to be trimmed. Having a ‘liquid’ fleet which is easily placed at another airline helps balance sheet (relatively speaking). The best example was the GE engined 747 (60% of market) which sold at a premium to the Rolls-Royce engined 747 (15% of  market) in the used market because very few airlines used RR. A fleet of MRJs may have few homes to go if airlines need to part with them quickly. Airlines know this so it is likely that Mitsubishi is providing such residual value guarantees to bank in the orders.

However if Mitsubishi keep losing orders then the airlines that intend to use them may switch away on the basis that the risks down the line are too great. Regional airline budgets are thin. Risks are avoided at all costs.

The MRJ will likely fall foul of the Mitsubishi YS-11 of the 1970s. Great concept but poor execution on the basis of not having a big enough grasp of the industry dynamics. JAL and ANA will likely he asked to do national service on top of the initial tour of duty to support the plane.

The ground’s the limit.

Bitcoin Bubble explained in one picture

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First look at the price when the question is asked and then the percentage of responders thinking it’s a bubble. Reverse logic or Tulip Mania? Sort of reminds me when the Dutch traders in the 1600s were selling silver to the Japanese who valued it more than gold. How much silver can we safely carry they must have thought!

Credit: Stu

The “bigger” point about the FANG sell off

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While the press is waxing lyrical about the unprecedented loss caused by a sell off in FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix & Google) we should note that it overlooks one factor. Before getting to that, to start with the sell off in gross dollar terms it is unsurprising given the already highly inflated value of the base stocks. So if A $500bn market cap Facebook loses 4% it is equivalent to $20bn. On one day FB lost a Fiat Chrysler. It’s math. Let’s not forget that Bitcoin is now worth $165bn but let’s not let that bubble spoil the party.

The problem that faces financial markets is the advent of ETFs. While stupefyingly simple to understand as an investor it is that same simplicity that breeds complacency. ETFs are simple products that enable investors to pay much lower fund management fees to buy easy to understand baskets- whether coal, gold, oil or FANGs. There are 106 ETF products that own Facebook as a Top 15 holding with that averaging between 5% and 10% of the entire fund.

Yet on the way up things are rosy. It is what happens on the downside that has yet to be fully tested. Around two years ago, CM wrote a report which warned of the risk of ETFs on the downside, especially levered ETFs (i.e. you buy a 2x levered FANG fund which means if FANG stocks go up 5% you theoretically get 2x the return for any given move up or down.

However in times of uncertainty (i.e. heightened risk) the options markets that price risk move magnitudes on the downside vs the upside. Meaning for an ETF to replicate what it proclaims on the brochure becomes much more difficult meaning the fund may under or overshoot the promises. Also in certain markets (e.g. US & Japan) where stocks on the exchange have limit up/down rules on the physical stock, should a market crash ensue, the ETF prices on the theoretical values of stocks that may not have opened for trading. What that means is that the ETF may reflect a market that is 10-15% below where it actually eventually opens. Meaning poor ETF buyers get gouged. However the computer algorithms in the ETF end up chasing, not leading the market which in and of itself creates more panic selling further reducing market confidence. Where a market might have traditionally fallen  3% on a given piece of bad news, ETFs tend to react in ways that might cause a market to retreat 6%. Indeed market volatility is amplified by ETFs.

At the moment market behavior is exceedingly complacent about risk. Before GFC highly complex products like CDOs and CDSs were the rage. 99% had next to no clue how they operated but they found their way into the local government investment portfolios of even small country towns in Australia.

ETFs on the other hand are strikingly simple to grasp but that also means we pay far less attention to the risk that goes with them. That is the bigger worry. People complacently thinking their portfolios are safe as houses may wake up one morning wondering why some flash crash has caused Joe and Joanne Public’s retirement nest egg to get decimated.