Double Standards

Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Corp Profit

While the Dow & S&P500 indices grind back higher thanks to the US Fed chickening out on a rate rise in because the economy can’t handle it, many people still overlook the fact that core US profitability has tracked sideways since 2012. 6 years of next to nada. Sure one can boost profits by adding back unrealistic  “inventory adjustments” but the reality is plain and simple. If you search for inventory adjusted earnings they’re still marginally growing but there in lies the point. Real profits aren’t.

Record buybacks fueled by cheap debt is the cause for ‘flattered’ earnings. No growth in E  just falls in S.  EPS growth can look spectacular if you ignore 50% of US corporates have BBB credit ratings or worse.

The latest lexicon is “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The idea that the central banks just manipulate markets in perpetuity. Austerity is no longer needed. Central banks print money and extinguish debts the same way. Seriously why bother with taxation? The question is if it is meant to be a sure winner, why aren’t we all living in 5 bedroom mansions with a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche in the driveway? Why not a helicopter?

Logically if central banks can buy our way out of this debt ridden hellhole, why is growth so anemic? Why is European GDP being cut back? Why is German industrial production at its worst level since 2009? Why does Salvini want to jail the Italian central bankers? Why does the Yellow Vest movement in France carry on for its 15th consecutive week? If MMT works why would the EU care if the UK leaves with No Deal? MMT can solve everything for unelected bureaucrats in theory. Even £39bn can be printed

Last year the US Fed announced it had stopped reporting its balance sheet activity. In 2006 it stopped reporting M3 money supply. Curious timing when inside 2 years the world was flung into the worst recession since 1929. Transparency is now a danger for authorities.

The question boils down to one of basic sanity. All assets are priced relative to others. It’s why an identical house with a view in a nice neighborhood trades at a relatively higher price than one in a outer suburban back lot. The market attributes extra value even if the actual dwelling is a carbon copy. It is why currencies in banana republics trade by appointment and inflation remains astronomical. Investors don’t trust their ability to repay debts unless given extremely favorable terms. Market forces at work.

To put the shoe on the other foot, if all countries adopted MMT why bother buying bonds for retirement? The interest is merely backed by a printing press. Best consume 100% and save zero. The government has moved beyond moral hazard and hopes no one will notice

Take a look at Japan. It has $10 trillion in outstanding debt which is 2x its economy. The Bank of Japan owns 60% of that paper bought through a printing press. The market for JGBs is so manipulated that several Japanese mega banks have handed back their trading licenses because it has become worthless to be on that exchange. The BoJ thinks it can make whatever prices it chooses. The ultimate aim is to convert all of the outstanding debt into a zero coupon perpetual bond with a minor ‘administration’ fee in order to assign some value to it. To the layman, a zero coupon perpetual means you get no interest on the money you lend and the borrower is technically never required to pay the borrowed amount back. Such loans are made by parents to their children, not central banks to politicians (although one could be forgiven to think their behaviour is child like).

Yet the backdrop remains the same. Consumers are tapped out in many countries. Lulled by a low interest rates forever mentality, even minute rises to stem inflation (real is different to reported) hurt. My credit card company constantly sends emails to offer to transfer balances at 9% as opposed to the 20% they can charge if I don’t pay in full.

APRA recently relented on interest only mortgages after demanding it be tightened to prevent a housing bubble getting bigger. Now mortgage holders hope the RBA cuts rates to ease their pain.

Like most new fads, MMT can’t remove the ultimate dilemma that Milton Friedman told us half a century ago. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. One can’t hope that putting money in the hands of everyone can be sustainable.

The one lesson that we should have learnt from GFC was that living at the expense of the future has rapidly diminishing returns. All we did was double down on that stupidity.

Do we think it normal that Sydney house prices  trade at levels the Japanese property bubble did in the late 1980s? Do we realize that we hold as much mortgage debt than Japanese banks did for a population 5x our size? Do we think that our banks are adequately stress tested? When an economy like ours has avoided recession for a quarter century, it builds complacency.

MMT is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. It preys on the idea that we won’t notice if we can’t see it. Unfortunately behind the scenes, the real economy can’t sustain the distortions. The French make the best modern day example of  a growing number of Main Streeters struggling  to make ends meet.

Central banks monkeying around with MMT smacks of all the same hubris of the past. It is experimental at best and reckless at worst. Markets can be manipulated for as long as confidence can be sustained. Lose the market’s trust and all of a sudden no amount of modern day jargon  can overcome what economists have known for millennia.

If you flood a global economy with cash at 5x the rate the economy can feasibly grow then it will ultimately require bigger and bigger hits to get the same bang before the jig is up. It’s a Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff got 120 years jail. Why not the central bankers?

So what is the best asset out there? Gold. It can’t be printed. It requires effort to discover it and dig it out of the ground. Of course the barbouros relic deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that were so Fort Knox might as well leave the gate open. The more it is hated only makes this contrarian investor want it more.

Why Ocasio-Cortez is the most powerful weapon in the Dem’s arsenal

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 5 minute “if I was a bad guy” routine in the House Oversight & Reform Committee went viral. 19m views. Such is the love of selective editing by the media that the video seemed to completely absolve her of the ridiculous Green New Deal plan which incidentally was pulled from her own website. She looked totally on message. However…

…Sadly, the unedited follow up saw the IFS Chairman Bradley A. Smith correct the record of the misleading questioning of AOC. She’s only 29 and on the fast track of learning the ugly world of politics.

The Democrats, as CM has said before, are missing a huge opportunity. She is a media darling. Instead of dragging her inside the tent and weaponizing her huge and growing following (especially millennials) with the pre-rehearsed party platform, Pelosi snubbed her from the Climate Change Panel and dismissed AOC’s manifesto as a “Green Dream.” Talk about eating your own kind. Better to have AOC on the panel to keep a leash on her media circle.

The longer they allow AOC to go off uncocked without the safety on, there will become a point where she passes the point of no return. The Democrats will lose probably their best asset. The longer she stays isolated, the more damage she will end up doing to the core of the party.

The Democrats need to show a united face in 2020. When lead candidate Kamala Harris endorses AOC’s plan without reading it, it only looks like a case of friendly fire. Is that what voters want to see? Expediency?

AOC is causing ructions. If the 70yo+ old guard party elites within the Democratic Party continue to treat her like a dotty 29yo, they’ll turn the weapon of their own making on themselves. That’s great news if you’re Republican.

If the Green New Deal bans air travel…

…CM looks forward to catching a train to Hawaii.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also intends to get every fossil fueled powered car off the road in a decade. The US has 270 million registered vehicles, the overwhelming majority being petrol powered. The US sells 16-17mn cars a year (sadly slowing). Therefore in the US, 16 years would be required to achieve that target. That’s before taking into account auto maker EV capacity.

Global EV sales were 2.1mn last year. So her plan would take 128 years. That’s unfair as capacity would grow. Let’s assume auto makers could conceivably increase capacity by 2m every 2 years (plants take 2 years to build and those poor Congolese child slave laborers will be run off their feet digging for cobalt to go in the batteries) then conceivably 30mn.cumulative EV units could be built over 10 years. That’s 11% of her goal. Let’s not forget the fossil fuels required to power auto factories to satiate this plan not to mention the steel that goes into the bodies.

Global auto production is c.80mn units. That assumes that the world’s auto makers will snub the ROW to meet her demands.

Socialist mathematics is never quite up to the task. Is Ocasio-Cortez was a true patriot she’d demand GM, Ford & Tesla be the sole products that consumers are allowed to buy to support domestic jobs. They’ll need them because she’ll be causing the lay offs of a shed load of Boeing line workers if planes are banned.

When she finally gets into the Oval Office we should look forward to her catching Ground Force One from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Station to travel the country and tell Americans how much better things have become.

A special place in hell

Ah, the EU. With comments like this from EU Co-President Donald Tusk it sure feels like a warm and embracing place to return to. Supposedly the 17.4 million Brits that voted to leave the EU are equally deserved of a reservation in hell too. His comments perfectly sum up the manner in which the EU thinks of sovereign democracy. It doesn’t. It proves yet again to the British as to why there is absolutely no need to be part of this unelected federation by the back door.

Leaving without a deal is the best outcome because it is the one which the EU least desires. It is the one which outwardly shows other sovereign nations within the EU that the grass is greener outside. Such a scenario puts massive pressure on Brussels to reform, which is what it should already be doing.

Project Fear continues to make the case for the dangers of No Deal. Even the Bank of England has brazenly promoted the idea that GDP would fall 8% in such a scenario. It is concerning that the central bank could credibly put its name to such shonky projections. Ironic that former BoE Governor Mervyn King believes the opposite.

Do we not question as to why PM Theresa May – who should have already resigned – heads back for the umpteenth time to the renegotiation table, the EU has flatly rejected within 5 seconds of an amendment proposal being floated? So much for open dialogue and discussion. Recall the first version of Brexit was signed off by the EU inside of 45 minutes.

Why would the Brits want to be part of a body that flatly refuses to yield any ground on anything? Anyone with common sense can see that locking the UK inside the customs union is not only a betrayal of democracy but a sure fire way to trade itself into a worse position than it began with. It’s like requesting the EU to lock them in prison, hand the keys over to the Brussels guards and believe they will be let out when they’re ready to go.

”We see the good in men”

The Egard watch company took the opposite view of the Gillette campaign. So much for equality!

Stemming the cycling casualty cycle

A cyclist colleague asked CM to look at the stats behind road fatalities of pedal power in Australia. The stats highlight some of the issues.

On the face of it, the authorities would look to the achievements of a reduction in cyclist fatalities and pat each other on the back. 35 cyclist deaths in 2018 is down on the 2013 peak of 50. On balance cyclists are around 2-4% of total road fatalities. Between 2005 and 2009 cyclist fatalities were 2.3% of total and 2010-2014 that rose to 3.2%. In bike friendly ACT, the figures were 2.5% and 7.4% respectively. Total road fatalities fell from 1,600 to around 1,200 over the same period.

A 2015 BITRE report showed that cyclists were 16% of hospitalizations from traffic accidents. The extent of non-fatal crashes is not reported. Note that “fatalities” are only statistically counted when the death occurs inside 30 days. Die in 30 or more days and the stat is not tallied as a road accident.

In 2005/6, 4,370 cyclists were hospitalized nationwide. In 2011 that rose to 5,393 (+23%).

Speed a factor? 45% of crashes according to BITRE happened sub 50km/h. 42% between 50-60 km/h. Of course cyclists aren’t allowed to use dual carriageway which would skew accidents to urban areas.

Cars are responsible for 96% of casualty crashes involving cyclists. 25% of accidents involving a bike and car happen at intersections. No surprises there.

One can get drowned in the analysis but the question is how do we cut the deaths of cyclists if there is a concerted effort to increase their use?

The ‘Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016’ aimed to double cyclist participation. In 2013, another national survey showed cycling numbers drifted down. So if the plan remains to increase usage, it makes sense to allow more shared off-road infrastructure and or dedicated bike lanes.

The question arises on how to tackle the casualty problem. As a motorcyclist it is not hard to be frustrated to see drivers with mobile phone in hand. Cyclists would concur. Whether texting while driving or failing to note a traffic light has changed to green. It is dangerous and frustrating for other road users. Can a social media reply wait 5 minutes? It is often impulsive to pick up the phone and tap away. The punishment for phone use while behind the wheel remains too soft. If drivers don’t focus 100% on conditions then is it any wonder that accidents occur?

ADAS or advanced driver assistance systems (lane guidance, auto braking or wing mirror warning devices) are helping drivers become more alert but at the same time some are becoming too reliant on these devices being failsafe. How often have we seen Tesla drivers crash when the systems don’t work properly? They’re there as a last resort, not a first. Look at the fools who take videos of their Tesla autopilot in action.

It is not to say that cyclists shouldn’t ride with due caution. There are no stats on rogue bikers chopping up cars. We’ve probably encountered an overzealous bike courier who gives the rest a bad reputation. It is fair for drivers to feel frustrated if a cyclist jams himself at speed into a tight gap. Yet it doesn’t justify some drivers whizzing past cyclists in close proximity through pure frustration. Many videos, including those of the late cycling advocate Cameron Frewer, show how selfish some drivers can behave.

Is lowering speed limits the only answer? Perhaps speedo gazers trying to avoid fines create a dangerous loop. Is there an argument to install mobile speed warnings signs that allow drivers to keep eyes glued to the road rather than the speedo needle? At what cost?

Or is it a case or enforcing all vehicles to install drive recorders? In the US more police are wearing body cams to help prove cases against them for excessive force. It wasn’t long ago that dashcam footage helped jail a motorist for 15 years for deliberately ramming a motorcycle. Drive recorders are cheap. Insurance companies would surely approve. Cyclists would do well to wear cameras too.

It ultimately comes down to mutual understanding. While drivers may limit injury through airbags and seatbelts, bikers don’t have that luxury if hit by negligent drivers.

That is not to make cyclists devoid of responsibility but simply having a “Safe System” approach which is a big picture idea of better roads, better conditions and more active/passive safety systems in cars won’t overcome inattentiveness and those keen to check Twitter while moving.

Before we rush to bash the bankers!

Bankers have worked hard to stay one rung above lawyers. Yet is anyone surprised? Before we embark on a “bash the banker” tirade, at what point do we cast aspersions on the regulators? If you leave a child unattended with a box of matches don’t be surprised if the house burns down.

None of this is new. Before the housing crisis engulfed America, a group of certified home appraisers raised the alarm in 2003 by signing a petition to present to Congress. They claimed many unqualified assessors were in cahoots with mortgage brokers to jack up property appraisals because of the higher fees that were attracted. What was done by the authorities? The square root of jack. So the $750,000 mortgage taken out was actually against a $500,000 property. $250,000 in negative equity before the new home owner moved in. Regulators could have clamped down but didn’t.

Charging dead people fees is of course a bit much and gouging advisory fees without actually offering service is poor form. However at what point does the customer bear some responsibility to accepting the status quo? Getting access to lower cost providers is/was always there but the opportunity costs were such that many just sucked it up. It wasn’t enough to devote time to when the half yearly check up came around.

CM was one of the ones that questioned the big bank superannuation advisor’s usury fees. So poor was the explanation that after minimal effort, a new advisor was found with fees cut in half and investment flexibility rising exponentially. We shouldn’t have been hanging out for a Royal Commission to whump the banks.

Indeed, should any laws have been broken then the perpetrators deserve to have the book thrown at them. If boards willingly accepted that certain divisions were deliberately acting in unethical ways then they deserve to be accountable.

Corporate governance is not helped by hiring a majority of independent directors. The US experience has shown that to be a failure. It is all about corporate culture. If boards have not been setting the highest standards why should we be surprised if the underlings follow suit. We only need look at the debacle that was Cricket Australia or the recent shenanigans at the ABC to see examples of a poorly run board leading to a culture beneath that ends up seeing staff “cheat” or making decisions that flagrantly contravene the charter.

Do we jail bankers for 25 years? Depending on the extent of actually “breaking the law” that maybe a deterrent. WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years based on nine counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and false regulatory filings to the tune of $11bn. Enron’s former CEO Jeffrey Skilling was convicted on 35 counts of fraud, insider trading and other crimes related to Enron and sentenced to 24 years prison and fined $45 million. Madoff 150 years, Stanford 110 years jail. This has not necessarily stopped corporate crime but it should throw a flag in the minds of those considering it. If the consequences are too soft then clearly the risks profile diminishes for the perpetrator.

Look at the advent of whistleblower laws in America. The SEC now encourages whistle-blowing by offering sizable monetary awards (10 to 30% of the monetary sanctions collected). Successful enforcement actions as a result of whistle- blowing has led to awards as high as US$30,000,000. As a result the SEC has seen a 10 fold increase in claims over the last few years. Would boards be more inclined to act ethically if whistleblowers were granted protections?

Plenty of ways to improve what has transpired but what the Royal Commission should make painfully clear is that consumers need to wise up and become more savvy about how they make choices. We can’t forever complain and wait for governments to rescue us when it is them in the first place not acting responsibly to ensure good behaviour.

The free market should be the first to benefit from filling this clear void. Tying up banks in more red tape and onerous regulation isn’t the way forward. All it will do is drive costs for compliance higher which will ultimately hit the consumer. The larger the institution, the easier such regulations will benefit their ability to squeeze the little guy!

Making the punishments for bad behaviour enforceable and putting the onus on boards to act ethically will make all winners.