Debt

Alitalia – what is it with airlines and government support?

40FB9DF4-5BE8-4ABE-9CA8-97CB5196038E

Last Friday Italy extended a bridge loan for Alitalia, which is in special administration as plans for it are determined by the state.  Italy’s cabinet has  passed an emergency decree to add a further 300 million euros on top of the 600 million euros it made to the ailing airline in May. It has extended the deadline for the repayment of the loan from November 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018.

Airlines are perhaps one of the worst industries as an investment one can find. High fixed costs, variable fuel prices, volatile economic cycles and intense competition. Yet with all of this, governments see them as national icons. Losing the flag carrier is viewed by some governments as a sign of economic impotence.

Several years ago, Japan Airlines went through a state-funded rehabilitation where the airline was able to overhaul its fleet while its legitimately profitable and unassisted competitor All Nippon Airways (ANA) got nothing. In the reverse poor old ANA was effectively taxed as its biggest rival got free kick after free kick from the government.

Qantas reported a $235 million loss in the last half of 2013 and cut 5000 employees to save the company $2 billion. The government was pressured to give state aid to prop up the airline but then PM Tony Abbott said, “because we do not want to be in the business of subsidising any single enterprise. It’s not sustainable in the long term”. So Qantas didn’t get help in 2014 and the airline has since rebounded and recently compensated its CEO Alan Joyce over $24mn as the shares have stormed 6x since the lows of 3 years ago. Most of the 5,000 let go have been recovered.

Which begs the question of state subsidies. When looking at Australia once again the state spent billions over decades to defend a bloated, inefficient and uncompetitive car industry. Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Toyota, GM Holden and Ford all closed local auto making opps. When businesses are subsidized, the necessity to reform is numbed. There is less need to get fit and look for efficiencies to get off the taxpayers’ teat. So even after 20 years and $12 billion spent to protect 45,000 jobs, all makers packed up and went home. Would have been better to write each worker a $250,000 cheque.

Of course some will argue that protecting jobs is a noble quest. Nobody likes seeing people unemployed. However if the rest of the world can make the same products cheaper and more efficiently why should consumers and taxpayers be forced to prop up those who won’t make the effort to reform.

Alitalia is yet another one of these businesses that is in the citizen’s pockets. If KLM and Air France can pair, Lufthansa and Swissair can join why shouldn’t Etihad back the initial investment it made in Italy’s national carrier. Another Loan is Time-warped, All Logic Is Abandoned.

3 maps which explain a lot

IMG_0743The chart above shows the average % change in housing prices in the US by county today vs that in 2000 according to a Harvard study. The following maps show the results of the 2008 and 2016 election by county. Could this be yet another basic concept showing why the US voted the way they did last election?

2008 – a hope for change

IMG_0744

2016 – the last 8 years didn’t help – time to vote for wholesale change

IMG_0745.PNG

Feel free to draw your own conclusions. These three maps to me voice the disgruntled who remain destitute after all this time.

From Sesame to Elm Street

IMG_0251.PNG

ETF markets continue to surge in popularity. With low fees and basic packaging of the ETF product even Big Bird can understand what The Count is going on about. No wonder investors are snapping up these products faster than the Cookie Monster. However there is something chilling about the ETF market. In the lead up to and eventual crash of Lehmans et al CDOs, CDSs and other synthetic products were seen as the root of all evil. They were so complex that even Fields Medal winners in mathematics couldn’t make head nor tail of them. The ETF became the opposite – being too simplistic – and with that the product has brought huge complacency. To that end Sesame Street could well switch to Elm Street.

Today assets invested in ETF/Ps comprise over $3 trillion globally. Put simply the new funds flowing into ETFs vs. traditional mutual funds is at a 100:1 ratio and in terms of AUM is on par with total hedge fund assets which have been in existence for 3 times as long.

However ETFs, despite increasing levels of sophistication, have brought about higher levels of market volatility. Studies have shown that a one standard deviation move of S&P500 ETF ownership carries 21% excess intraday volatility. Regulators are also realising that limit up/down rules are exacerbating risk pricing and are seeking to revise as early as October 2015. In less liquid markets excess volatility has proved to be 54% higher with ETFs than the actual underlying indices. A full report can be seen here.

With the continuation of asset bubbles in a TINA (there is no alternative) world, ETFs in my view will lead to massive disappointments down the line. Their downfall could well invite the revival of the research driven fund manager model again as robots show they’re not as infallible as first thought in managing the volatility. Don’t forget humans designed the algorithms.

There is also the added risk of whether some ETFs actually hold the physical of the indices or commodities they mimic. A gold ETF is a wonderfully good way to store wealth without resorting to one’s own bank vault but how many ETF owners have inspected the subterranean cage that supposedly holds the physical the ETF is backed by? Has it been lent out? Does it own a fraction of stated holdings? It could be any other commodity too. Of course the ETF providers bang on about the safety of the products but how many times have we gasped when fraud reared it’s ugly head right in front of us. Bernie Maddoff ring any bells?

Given the implied volatility on the downside we need to bear in mind the actions of central banks. The Bank of Japan (BoJ) is the proud owner of 60% of the ¥20 trillion+ domestic ETF market. While the BoJ says it isn’t finished expanding its world’s largest central bank balance sheet (now 100% of GDP), the US Fed is looking to reduce its balance sheet by over 40% in order to normalize. While one can applaud some level of common sense pervading sadly the consequences of defusing the timer on the bomb they created at a period when the US economy is showing signs of recession will only be an overhang on asset markets. Should the US market be put through the grinder, global markets will follow.

It is one thing for the Fed to be prudent. It is another for it to be trying to cover its tracks through higher interest rates in a market that looks optically pretty but hides serious life threatening illnesses. The Fed isn’t ahead of the curve at all. It is so far behind the 8-ball that its actions are more likely to accelerate rather than alleviate a crisis. Point to low unemployment or household asset appreciation as reasons to talk of a robust economy but things couldn’t be further from the truth. Wage growth is not the stuff of dreams and the faltering signs in auto, consumer and residential markets should give reason for concern.

Since GFC we have witnessed the worst global economic revival in history. The weakest growth despite record pump priming and balance sheet expansion. Money velocity is continually falling and the day Greenspan dispensed with M3 reporting one knew that things were bad and “nothing to see here” was the order of the day.

Record levels of debt (just shy of $220 trillion or 300% of GDP when adding private, corporate and government), slow growth, paltry interest rates and coordinated asset buying have not done anything other than blown more air into a bubble that should have been burst. GFC didn’t hit the reset button. Central banks just hit print to avoid the pain. We’ve doubled up on stupidity, forgot the idea of prudent and sensible growth through savings and just partied on. Ask any of your friends in finance what they “really” think and I can assure you that after a few drinks they’ll tell you they’re waiting for the exit trade. They know Armageddon is coming but just don’t know when

Whether we like it or not, the reset button will be hit. I often argue people should not worry about the return ON their money but the return OF it. Global markets can’t be bailed out again with massive cash infusion. That has been a recipe for disaster, only widening the gap between haves and have nots. Debt must be allowed to go bad, banks must be allowed to go bust and free markets must be freed from the shackles of state sponsored manipulation to set prices. It will be ugly but more of the same can kicking won’t work.

ETFs are a sign of the times. They represent the slapdash approach to life these days. Time saving apps if you will. However nothing beats hard nosed analysis to understand what awaits us. Poor old Big Bird will be the canary in the coal mine and Sesame Street will be renamed Elm Street as the Kruger’s move in to give us nightmares Janet Yellen assures us aren’t possible.

Perhaps that is the ultimate question. As you go to work each day do you honestly feel that things are peachy as the management town hall meetings would have you believe? Are your friends or colleagues all bulled up about the future? Perhaps that is easier to answer than an ETF.

Illinois Police Pension can’t protect or serve – it is going bust

IMG_0717.JPG

Sadly the Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy. Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, “At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following year…Fund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

The public pension black hole in America is an alarming issue.  In the piece, “The Public Pension Black Hole” it was plain to see the problems of unfunded state pensions is rife across America. Take California- “The US Federal Reserve (Fed) reported in 2013 that the State of California had an official unfunded pension liability status equivalent to 43% of state revenue. However, if marked-to- market with realistic discount rates we estimate that it is equivalent to 300% of state revenue or 7x greater. Going back to 2000, California had an unfunded liability less than 11% of tax collections. As a percent of GDP it has grown from 2% to 9.7% based on official figures. If our estimate is correct, the mark-to market reality is that California’s unfunded state pension (i.e. for public servants only) is around 18% of state GDP!”

The problem for Illinois is that a taxpayer funded bailout is all but impossible. The State of Illinois ranked worst in the Fed study on unfunded liabilities.  The unfunded pension liability is around 24% of state GDP. In 2000 the unfunded gap to state revenue was 30% and in 2013 was 124% in 2013. Chicago City Wire adds that the police fund isn’t the only one in trouble.

“Chicago’s Teachers Union Pension Fund is $10.1 billion in debt. Its two municipal worker funds owe $11.2 billion and its fire department fund owes $3.5 billion…All will require taxpayer bailouts if they are going to pay retirees going into the next decade…Put in perspective, the City of Chicago’s property tax levy was $1.36 billion in 2017…Paying for retirees “as we go,” which will prove the only option once funds run dry, will require almost quadrupling city property tax bills…Last year, it would have required more than $4 billion in revenue– including $1 billion for City of Chicago workers, $1.5 billion for teachers, and $1.5 billion for retired police officers and fire fighters.”

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavor. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

In order for states and local municipalities to overcome such gaps, they must reorganise the terms. It could be a simple task of telling retiree John Smith that his $75,000 annuity promised decades ago is now $25,000 as the alternative could be even worse if the terms are not accepted. Think of all the consumption knock on effects of this. I doubt many Americans will accept that hands down, leading to class actions and even more turmoil.

 

Repossession by remote

IMG_0175

A growing number of car loans in the US are being pushed further down the repayment line as much as 84 months. In the new car market the percentage of 73-84-month loans is 33.8%, triple the level of 2009. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84 month term loans. The US ended 2016 with c.$1.2 trillion in outstanding auto loan debt, up 9%YoY and 13% above the pre-crisis peak in 2005.

Why is this happening? Mortgage regulations tightened after 2008 to prevent financial lenders from writing predatory loans, especially sub prime. Auto lending attracts far less scrutiny. Hence the following table looks like it does with respect to outstanding accounts on loans

IMG_0176.PNG

Sub Prime auto loans, at all time records, make up 25% of the total. Devices installed in cars let collection agencies repossess vehicles by remote when the borrower falls behind on repayment. This lowers risk and allows these long dated loan products to thrive. Average subprime auto loans carry 10% p.a. interest rates. More than 6 million American consumers are at least 90 days late on their car loan repayments, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

While it is true that $1.2 trillion auto loan book pales into insignificance versus the $10 trillion in mortgage debt at the time of the GFC, a slowdown in auto sales (happening now) isn’t helpful. The auto industry directly and indirectly employs c. 10% of the workforce and slowing new and used car sales will just put more pressure on prices further lifting the risk of repossessions

It is worth reminding ourselves the following.

Last month the Fed published its 2016 update on household financial wellbeing. To sum up:

“44%. This is actually an improvement on the 2015 survey that said 47% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something. The consistency is the frightening part. The survey in 2013 showed 50% were under the $400 pressure line. Of the group that could not raise the cash, 45% said they would go further in debt and use a credit card to pay It off over time. while 25% would borrow from friends or family, 27% would forgo the emergency while the balance would turn to selling items or using a payday loan to get by. The report also noted just under a quarter of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full while 25% reported skipping medical treatments due to the high cost in the prior year. Additionally, 28% of adults who haven’t retired yet reported to being largely unprepared, indicating no retirement savings or pension whatsoever. Welcome to a gigantic problem ahead. Not to mention the massive unfunded liabilities in the public pension system which in certain cases has seen staff retire early so they can get a lump sum before it folds.”

If only this perpetual debt cycle could be stopped via remote. Someone else’s problem one would suggest.

Dick Turpin Turnbull will chase away foreign capital

IMG_9810.JPG

I was asked by a client this week on what I thought of Australia’s political climate. I said to him, “if you asked me 15-20 years ago I’d safely argue that it was the only country in the region which could boast incredibly stable government, sensible economic policy and a safe place to park your money. Today I can’t say with hand on heart that this is the Australia you are investing in today. What I will say is that you should keep your powder dry because it will become a ‘pound shop’ in the not too distant future with a weaker currency, higher rates and fire sale asset prices.”

He asked if I could elaborate. I replied “we have had 5 prime  ministers in almost as many years. Before that we never saw anything like that. Our political climate is vile and volatile. We now have a government that is seeking to put in place knowingly unsound policies to arrest poll declines rather than try to fix an out of control deficit. What they are failing to see is that bashing big banks (especially for a conservative Coalition government) out of the blue chases off investment (Alan Joyce and Don Argua are right about that). Foreign investors must wonder whether they may fall foul of knee-jerk regulations and decide the risk is not worth it. So in answer to your question the current climate is going to offer some fantastic opportunities down the line because all of the political turmoil will eventually force change and buying into the market leading into that will be your best bet.”

So with our Dick Turpin highwayman robber at the helm we invite unwelcome flight of capital. If you want to create jobs, growth, stability and invite foreign investment you do so by providing a platform that supports it. It isn’t won by bashing industry, cranking up public spending and hiking taxes. It is done by making yourself the safest place to invest and all the while that happens the risk falls meaning capital is not only cheaper but more abundant. This isn’t trickle down economics but sound policy. Sadly talking of net debt isn’t going to save this government and what is worse Opposition leader Bill Shorten wants to outspend a budget that makes the Sultan of Brunei’s giveaways look like Venezuelan austerity measures.

Are the Aussie major banks as greedy as made out?

IMG_0552

One would imagine that Turnbull and Morrison would consult the Treasury or the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to get a feel for the true state of bank greediness. Of course as a political point scorer it is an easy one because Aussie mortgage debt stress is so high and any relief that absolves their own accountability is a plus. Turnbull doesn’t worry about reality and given his supposed business acumen saw no need to consult the banks. Just Mug them in a back alley. Then wonder why they say in response to the proposed tax slug why employees, customers and shareholders will suffer in some way or another. Any conservative government knows that nearly all financial institutions operate for shareholders over customers. In a round about way customers can always choose to switch institutions if they find a better deal. Market forces keep some level of competition but the above chart shows that the return to shareholders for the evil major banks is at 24 yr lows. Profitability is well off the highs. So shareholders aren’t getting the spoils they are accused of. Of course low interest rate environments place extra pressure on net interest margins and they too are hovering at post GFC lows. Never mind. When trying to arrest disastrous polling Turnbull will happily put himself ahead of country. Even if it means dynamiting the tracks of the one sector that greases the wheels of the economy.