Credit card delinquency in America – nothing to see here?


Waltzing through the treasure trove of data at the St Louis Fed, this chart intrigued. It shows delinquency rates on credit cards among the smaller banks. Presumably the smaller banks have to chase less credit worthy customers because they lack the ultimate battleship marketing cannons of the bigger financial instititutions. We’re back at times worse than the highest levels seen during GFC. Among all banks, we are still away off the $40bn of delinqient credit card debts we’re back at levels higher than those before Lehman’s brought financial markets to a grinding halt.


Add to that the step up in interest rates as well to levels we saw before the whole edifice of cards came crumbling down.


Then why worry when the number of financial institutions looking to tighten standards on consumer lending languishes at close to zero, the types of levels we saw ahead of the market collapse? Nothing to see here?


Meanwhile American household savings languish at 3%. Similar levels as just before GFC  melt down. Not much in the rainy day funds. So when Trump’s new economic policy advisor Larry Kudlow starts telling us to back a strong dollar and weak gold, you know exactly what to do.


Moral hazard was supposed to be contained at the private sector level. Looks as though this time around the government is joining the party.

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?


The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.


Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.


Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.


While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.


Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.


By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.


PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018


Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?


Truly sickening US Public Pensions data


Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.


Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.


Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.


This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

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 yearFund 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.”


To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

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.

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If everything is so great then why is our political scene so broken?


Queensland’s state election said it all. Both the incumbent parties lost massively even though the incumbent Labor Party looks like holding on to power. While Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party looks like it fared poorly in terms of seats it still got 13.8% of the vote from 1% in 2015. Forget the headline results but think of what the political turmoil In local, state and federal levels is telling us more broadly.

Think logically about it all. If the economy is booming, jobs are abundant and prosperity is on the march then there is little need for governments to be running deep deficits let alone facing hung parliaments and acts of desperation. Surely the incumbent governments of the day can laud their own achievements and their constituents would happily keep returning the status quo. The majority should continue to be happy. More by rights should be winners in such a world of record housing prices, steady wage growth, low unemployment and 25 years of economic growth as experienced in Australia.

Yet PM Turnbull turned on many of the traditional supporters of the conservative wing of his Liberal National Party (LNP) coalition who turned their back on him to hand Labor the victory in Queensland. Not so fast Prime Minister. They didn’t leave the party. The party under your incompetent stewardship left them. At all levels the LNP is divided. There are some quarters suggesting that the Nats may split from the Coalition in the next election in Queensland to leave the stench of the Liberal Party to themselves. This is when personal ambition trumps wish to serve a nation.

While the LNP was handed the most valuable and recent lesson of the disaster that was the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd internal factional knifing during their time in power, it completely buried its judgement and started following a left leaning press, weak poll numbers and copied Labor’s folly. Now we have a hung parliament (not withstanding the dual citizenship fiasco) with chronically weak and misguided leadership. One that tells voters that they have no clue rather than introspection that the party may indeed be the problem.

It used to be said that Australia enjoyed the most stable politics in the Asia Pacific region. That encouraged foreign investment and gave Australia low interest rates, a superior credit rating and a regulatory platform that ensured trust (important for corporations), the envy of many nations. Yet inside a decade we have had 5 (soon to be 6) prime ministers which has thrown that ‘reputation’ in the toilet. In a world where international capital is more mobile than ever and asset prices are peaking, instability in government eventually carries severe financial market penalties.

For Aussie banks, levered up to the gills with inflated mortgage books on their balance sheets, such things have negative implications for the 40% reliance on global wholesale credit markets to fund themselves in the face of a tightening US interest rate cycle. Do not underestimate the negative connotations of a federal government that has lost its way, no matter which major party is in power. Where the average Aussie can’t bear anymore on the mortgage, a third admitting they can’t pay the home loan if they lose their job for 3 months or more. Almost 1,000,000 Aussie households would be in severe mortgage stress if rates moved 150bps(1.5%). Think of the spill-over effects on consumption which would only lead to a recession and lay offs, exacerbating a cycle, all the while bashing the currency making international funding even more biting. If only we had a stable government that had a decent fiscal position to weather that storm. Oh, that is right we squandered that in 2008.

One Nation in Australia, AfD in Germany, Party for Freedom in The Netherlands, Front National in France, 5 -Star Movement in Italy, Fidesz in Hungary, FPO in Austria, the Sweden Democrats, Vlaams Belang in Belgium,  Progress Party in Norway, Trump, Brexit…these patterns aren’t random. It isn’t just populism but protest votes to establishment parties that aren’t delivering. While we are constantly told how great our lot is, sadly the gap between haves and have nots is widening globally. Politicians who are ditching political correctness and making waves on publicly uncomfortable issues are thriving. Why could that be?

Donkey (informal) votes in Australia have seen numbers soar from 2.2% in the 1950s to over 5.0% in the 2016 election. Some electorates in NSW saw as high as 14% informal votes. These are powerful messages in a country that has compulsory voting, which has slid to 90.9%.

The sad reality is that the electorate is making louder noises every election that things are not pointing in the right direction yet the muppets are still being returned to their box seats on a dwindling majority. Why? Because not enough voters are heeding the warning signs that are sounding in front of them. Of course politicians still continue to sell comforting lies backed by ever more unaffordable promises to keep themselves in power for as long as possible when we all need to be facing the unpleasant truths that will happen whether we like it or not.

Indeed those deplorables who voted One Nation might have spurned the LNP but not without good reason. In time, they will be viewed as the wiser ones. Not because they necessarily believe in Pauline Hanson’s platform but because they believe in Turnbull and Shorten’s even less. It all rings like a Premier League football coach making a litany of excuses for his team’s woeful performance that ignores the fact that the collection of individuals have absolutely no cohesion as a team. All the fans can do is bury their heads in their hands until the point they can’t bear to watch another game until the coach is sacked.

Tesla – terrible Q3


Tesla’s Q3 2017 results came out last night and were in a word terrible with a capital T. Tesla reported an adjusted, non-GAAP loss of $2.92 per share, far worse than the expected loss of $2.27, which was more than double the $1.33 loss in Q2. The chart above tabulates the cash flow progression from the CMR report published Monday. While Tesla claimsit has $3.5bn cash in the bank it has more than $3.9bn in accounts payable liabilities! Tesla continued to burn piles of cash on the factory floor. Q3 cashburn was a record $1.4 billion ($16 million per day): much higher than the $1.2bn forecast.

Im our report we said that production issues were the one area that will catch Tesla out. In the car game, production efficiency is everything- the promises to make 5,000 Model 3s every week by December is now a goal likely pushed out til March 2018 at the earliest as “production hell” bites.

Musk blamed suppliers for having to push back the delivery schedule again, He said,

to date, our primary production constraint has been in the battery module assembly line at Gigafactory 1, where cells are packaged into modules. Four modules are packaged into an aluminum case to form a Model 3 battery pack. The combined complexity of module design and its automated manufacturing process has taken this line longer to ramp than expected. The biggest challenge is that the first two zones of a four zone process, key elements of which were done by manufacturing systems suppliers, had to be taken over and significantly redesigned by Tesla.”

The amusing thing about this quote is that Tesla is somehow telling (presumably Panasonic) how to do mass manufacturing. That is telling in itself – the rookie telling the amateur.

Also in our report we noted that no single mainstream auto supplier is on Tesla’s deck which tells us how little faith they have in the company. Auto suppliers run on the smell of an oily rag and after so many bad experiences won’t accept dealing with auto makers who may jeopardize their own future. Recall how many auto suppliers almost went to the wall (many were in Chapter 11) after the tech bubble collapse at the turn of the century.

Tesla expects capex of $1 billion in Q4 which is mainly for milestone payments on Model 3 production equipment and Gigafactory 1. So cash burn continues.

Tesla promised to redirect “our best engineering talent to fine-tune the automated processes and related robotic programming…and we are confident that throughput will increase substantially in upcoming weeks and ultimately be capable of production rates significantly greater than the original specification.” What??? Why weren’t the engineers working on that before. The whole point of mass production is to stamp out the bugs before a conveyor belt is turned in anger. Tesla, true to rookie form is doing everything back to front.

Are investors starting to see through the charade? Shares were pounded 5% after market. Although some may draw comfort from better Tesla S & X production, Model 3 looks like a nightmare of Halloween. Maybe the next capital raising can be called “trick or treat”!

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (by country)


In an ever growing world of haves vs have nots, Elliman has released an interesting update on the statues of global wealth and where it is likely to head over the next decade. It suggests North America has 73,100 UNHWIs at an average of $100mn each or $7.31 trillion. To put that in perspective 73,100 North Americans have as much wealth as Japan & France’s annual output combined. Over the next decade they expect 22,700 to join the ranks.

Europe has 49,650 UHNWI also at the magical $100mn mark (presumably the cut off for UHNWI or the equivalent of Japan.

Asia is growing like mad with $4.84 trillion split up by 46,000 or $105mn average. In a decade there are forecast to be 88,000 UHNWIs in Asia.


I am not sure what the World Bank was smoking when coming up with the coming forecasts I’ve rthe next decade but the figures smel fishy.  Then it all comes down to this chart.


1) Political uncertainty? Everywhere you look – Trump, Brexit, Catalonia, Australia, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland etc etc

2) Potential fall in asset values – looks a very high chance of that. Current asset bubbles are almost everywhere – bonds, equities, real estate etc

3) Rising taxes – maybe not the US or Canada (if you follow the scrutiny over Finance Minister Morneau), but elsewhere taxes and or costs of living for the masses are rising

4) Capital controls – China, India etc

5) Rising interest rates – well the US tax cuts should by rights send interest rates creeping higher. A recent report showed 57% of Aussies couldn’t afford an extra $100/month in mortgage – a given if banks are forced to raise lending rates due to higher funding costs (40% is wholesale finance – the mere fact the US is raising rates will only knock on to Aus and other markets).

Surely asset prices at record levels and all of the other risk factors seemingly bumping into one another…

So while UHNWIs probably weather almost any storm, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that the $100mn threshold might get lowered to $50m. It reminds me of a global mega cap PM who just before GFC had resplendent on his header “nothing under $50bn market cap”. Post GFC that became $25bn then eventually $14bn…at which point I suggested he change the header entirely.

I had an amusing discourse on LinkedIn about crypto currencies. The opposing view was that this is a new paradigm (just like before GFC) and it would continue to rise ( I assume he owns bit coins). He suggested it was like a promissory note in an electronic form so has a long history dating back millennia. I suggested that gold needs to be dug out of the ground – there is no other way. Crypto has huge risk factors because it is ultimately mined in cyber space. State actors or hackers can ruin a crypto overnight. There have already been hacking incidents that undermine the safety factor. It does’t take a conspiracy theory to conjure that up. To which he then argued if it all goes pear shaped, bitcoin was a more flexible currency. Even food would be better than gold. To which I suggested that a border guard who is offering passage is probably already being fed and given food is a perishable item that gold would probably buy a ticket to freedom more readily as human nature can adapt hunger far more easily in the fight for survival. I haven’t heard his response yet.

In closing isn’t it ironic that Bitcoin is now split into two. The oxymornically named Bitcoin Gold is set to be mined by more people with less powerful machines, therefore decentralizing the network further and opening it up to a wider user base. Presumably less powerful machines means fewer safeguards too although it will be sold as impervious to outsiders. Of course the idea is to widen the adoption rate to broaden appeal. Everyone I know who owns Bitcoin can never admit to its short comings. Whenever anything feels to be good to be true, it generally is. Crypto has all the hallmarks of a fiat currency if I am not mistaken? While central banks can print furiously, they will never compete with a hacker who can digitally create units out of thin air. Fool’s Gold perhaps? I’ll stick to the real stuff. I’ll take 5,000 years of history over 10 years any day of the week.

Alitalia – what is it with airlines and government support?


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.