Debt

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

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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

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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

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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

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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

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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.