Economy

Dame Emma jets in to join Extinction Rebellion climate protests

Dame Emma Thompson has joined the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in London. Sadly she just needed to jet in from Los Angeles to do so. Hollywood hypocrisy comes in all shapes and sizes. Surely she could have YouTubed her support from her gated mansion to do her bit!

For a group that demands we must be carbon neutral by 2025, there are always exceptions when it comes to themselves. Take the stacked coffee cups in the picture above.

Do these Einsteins realize that the majority of take away wax-lined coffee cups aren’t recycled even though they can feel good about themselves when disposing of it in the right bin? How many people elect to have their brew poured into a ceramic cup? Certainly not this lot.

The cost to recycle the 500 billion (and rising) coffee cups consumed annually is so astronomical (it is hard to separate the wax that stops the cup disintegrating because of the energy intensity involved to do so) that over 90% end up in landfill. No one talks about that 300 million tons of virgin paper used to make these cups! How many of us give it one thought when we need a shot of caffeine? Right?! Although Starbucks is trialing a 5p latte levy for those that elect to use a paper cup.

We pointed out the glaring mistakes made on the XR website earlier in the week. If only they did their homework. No doubt their proposal for citizen assemblies will be stacked with people with little knowledge of the subject matter. Perhaps they can sip on Starbucks lattes as they seek ecological justice.

While XR might claim they didn’t ask for a police presence, sadly public safety requires the Met commit already thin resources. 570 arrests have been made. Lying on the ground, according to XR, stretches the police even thinner as it requires 4 officers to carry them away.

Let’s say they win government support and hit 2025 carbon neutrality. Many industries would need to shut up shop to meet the demands of the protestors. Has XR built that into the manifesto? Of course not. Any price is worth paying when no one has bothered to work out the cost.

Return of the State-Owned Enterprise

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A new investor to Japan once asked CM how to categorise corporate behaviour in the land of the rising sun. CM replied, “Japan is not capitalism with warts, but socialism with beauty spots.

Latest reports confirm the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has now become a top 10 shareholder in almost 50% of listed stocks. In a sense, we have a trend which threatens to turn Japan’s largest businesses into quasi-state-owned enterprises (SoE) by the back door. The BoJ now owns $250bn of listed Japanese equities. It is the top shareholder in household Japanese brands such as Omron, Nidec and Fanuc. At current investment rates, the BoJ is set to own $400bn worth of the market by 2020-end.

The original reason for this move was to boost the ETF market and hope that Mrs Watanabe would pocket her winnings and splurge them at Mitsukoshi Department Store to increase consumption. Sadly all she has done is stuff it under the futon.

Although the government has been very public about the drive for good corporate governance, a stewardship code that drives to unwind cross-shareholdings, improve liquidity and lift returns, sadly the BoJ essentially reverses free-float and confounds the ability of companies to be attractive investments. What will happen if one day the BoJ announces it needs to pare its balance sheet back or that its holdings become too noticeable? These stocks will crater and Mrs Watanabe will become even more gun shy.

We shouldn’t forget that behind the walls of the BoJ, there is discussion to buy all $10 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Global markets won’t take nicely to wiping out 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press. Such a reckless experiment has yet to hit the Japanese Diet for discussion because such a move will require legislation to approve it. If it happens, the inflation the BoJ has now given up on will turn into a tsunami.

That sinking feeling?

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We are often told how robust the world economy is. Global trade tends to be a good indicator. Looking at the latest Clarkson’s December 2018 annual review, we can see that the number of shipyards that make the vessels (20,000dwt+) that look after global trade has slid from a peak of 306 in 2009 to 127. Newbuild orders have slid from 2,909 vessels to 708. Wärtsilä is anticipating a gradual recovery in contract new builds as high as 1,200 ships by 2022. Wishful thinking?

According to Clarksons, the global fleet of all types of commercial shipping is 50% larger than it was before the GFC despite the World Trade Organization saying growth in global trade for 2019 is expected to fall 2.9%. The WTO has fingers crossed for 2020. The charts in this WTO report show the sharp slowdown in freight in Q4 2018 and Jan 2019.

Germany’s five leading ship financiers reported outstanding ship-related loans of 59 billion euros at the end of 2016 with an average problem loan ratio of 37%. In recent years they have been busy reducing or selling off shipping portfolios. HSH Nordbank required a 10 billion euro bailout by its 85% owners, federal states Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein. It ended up being swallowed by private equity and renamed Hamburg Commercial Bank. Nord LB was looking to bail in Bremer LB beyond the 54.8% it already owns. Bremer LB had to write off  €400m of its shipping portfolio.

China has been aggressive, filling the void left by the Germans with high leverage financing to support the longer-term objectives of the Belt & Road Initiative. One wonders whether China plans to spoil the market by squeezing a damaged sector further. It wasn’t so long ago that South Korea’s  Hanjin Shipping went bust.

BTIG reported that ship scrapping in Q1 2019 was up 35% to 107,000dwt. Ship owners tend to scrap ships if the cost of idling or operating them exceeds this. Note Capesize shipping rates have fallen to around $9,000/day well below the $25,000 breakeven rate. The bellwether Baltic Dry Index is 27% down year on year and 85% below the peak levels seen in 2009.

The shipping industry has been sick for a decade. The majors have been busy merging, cutting debt and right sizing. Unfortunately it is  still in a pickle. A global slowdown will only exacerbate the issues in the industry.

The one area that looks interesting is the scrubber makers (eg Alfa Laval, Valmet, Fuji Electric). There has been a sharp uptick in growth for retro-fitting pollution equipment to existing ships instead of buying new equipment. Sometimes the best investments come when industries that require massive consolidation hit breaking point.

German car makers in trouble with the EC environmental regulator

While governments around the world champion the idea that auto makers are “all aboard” when it comes to climate change mitigating tech, it appears the VW Group (incl Porsche & Audi), BMW and Daimler have been raked over the coals by European Commission (EC) officials for deliberately withholding it.

Why doesn’t the EC understand that advanced pollution cutting technology costs more the tougher the emissions regulations get? That cost gets passed onto consumers.

If auto makers met all the appropriate legislative hurdles at the time, why should they be punished? The law didn’t mandate it. Furthermore consumers put safety and utility at a premium to exhaust fumes.

The EC might complain these auto makers colluded but even if they hadn’t met in secret the outcome would have been exactly the same. Focus on shareholders wouldn’t change. Why can’t we accept it is a 100% reflection of the car makers’ true feelings about the environment. They don’t care! VW even cheated the tests.

What more evidence do we need? Automakers push narratives that they’re big on saving the planet so as to not catch the wrath of the activists. Actions tell the real story.

Perhaps we should question the regulator for not introducing tougher standards earlier rather than beat manufacturers over the head for their inability to provide adequate oversight?

To infinity and beyond?

Several days before Enron went belly up, Goldman Sachs released a research report on the company titled, “As good as it gets“. Grandiose statements are often precursors to calamity.

When Barrons publishes articles with “The bull market has no expiration date” start running for the hills. Sounds like Barrons has channeled Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story who said, “to infinity and beyond.”

What happened to Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance“?

Remember his godlike status was such that markets would hang on his every word forcing him to eventually utter,

I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant!”

Maybe Barrons forgot that Buzz also said, “this isn’t flying! It’s falling with style.” Unfortunately there will be no grace when this bubble pops.

Thanks to SM007 for the flag.

$14bn shock for Shorten. Not $100m

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Let’s face it, pre-election budget boasting is a beauty contest we can do without. Fanciful promises guarantee we will not end up in surplus. Shorten’s speech was loaded with mistakes. Let’s cut through some numbers.

The Coalition put forward the following on Tuesday.

What escaped many in the Frydenberg budget of Tuesday is that to fund the 16.8% jump in tax receipts on 2018/19, individual taxpayers will still see their pockets hit +18.4% in aggregate even after including the ‘generous’ rebates. Superannuation tax collections will jump 43% in 4 years time.

NDIS spending is targeted to be 92% higher by 2022/23 than last year. Medicare +24%, public hospital assistance to the states +21%, aged care services +27%. For all the celebrations of lowering pharmaceutical rebates for one wonder drug from $120,000 to $6.50, the reality is spending in this segment will fall 18.4% in total. The family tax benefit will squeak 4% higher in the next 4 years.

As written on Tuesday, the revenue projections of the government are unrealistic as we stare at a slowing world economy. German industrial production in March cratered to 44.1 and China’s auto sales continued a 7-month double-digit slump in February.

Analyzing the Labor response

Shorten claimed NDIS was cut A$1.6bn to get a surplus. Under Frydenberg’s budget, NDIS for 2019/20 will rise A$4.5bn. Out to 2022/23, it rises to over A$24bn.

The Opposition Leader also made reference to A$14bn in cuts to public schools. Note the funding to public schools on 2013/14 was A$4.8bn. In 2018/19 it was $7.7bn and projected in 2022/23 to be A$10.4bn. 

$200mn to renovate nursing campuses in Australia won’t achieve much. The John Curtin Medical Research School at the ANU cost $130mn alone.

Shorten made reference to bushfires being caused by climate change. Fire & Rescue NSW notes that 90% of fires are either deliberately or accidentally set. A Royal Commission after the horrible Black Saturday bushfires showed that policies which restricted backburning reduction targets were to blame for the larger spread of fires, not climate change. In 2013, Tasmania learned none of the lessons with similar policy restrictions preventing the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service to complete more than 4% of all the 2.6m hectares it manages. The reef is not being damaged by climate change and floods and drought are no more frequent or severe than a century ago.

While climate alarmists will relish the prospect of 50% electric vehicles (EV) and cut emissions 45% by 2030 to save the planet, a few truths need to be considered:

1) our own Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, has admitted that no matter what Australia does to mitigate global warming our impact will be zero. Naught. Nada. Putting emotion to one side, is there any point in spending $10s of billions to drive electricity prices?

2) South Australia and Victoria have already beta tested what having a higher percentage of renewable energy does or rather doesn’t do for sustainable and reliable baseload power. Both states have not only the highest energy prices in Australia but the world. These stats are backed up in Europe. The EU member states with a higher percentage of renewables have steeper electricity prices than those with less. These are facts.

3) Consumption patterns matterLast year Aussies bought only 2,200 EVs. In 2008, SUVs made up 19% of the new car sales mix. Today they make up 43%.
In 2008, c.50m total passengers were carried on Australian domestic flights to over 61m today. The IATA expects passengers flown will double over the current level by 2030. These are hardly the actions of people panicked about cataclysmic climate change. Or if they are, they expect others to economize on their behalf.

Qantas boasts having the largest carbon offset program in place yet only 2% of miles are paid for, meaning 98% aren’t. 

4) Global EV production capacity is around 2.1m units. While rising, it is still a minor blip on 79 million cars sold worldwide. Add to that, auto parts suppliers and car makers are reluctant to expand capacity too fast in a global auto market that is slowing rapidly.

Car sales in China have fallen for 7 straight months. In Feb 2019, sales fell 13.8% on the back of January’s -15% print.  Dec 2018 (-13%), Nov 2018 (-13.9%) & Oct 2018 (-11.7%) according to the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM). The US and Australian car markets are under pressure too. 

5) So haphazard is the drive for EV legislation that there are over 200 cities in Europe with different regulations. In the rush for cities to outdo one another this problem will only get worse. Getting two city councils to compromise is one thing but 200 or more across country lines?

Without consistent regulations, it is hard for makers to build EVs that can accommodate all the variance in laws without sharply boosting production costs. 

6) Fuel excise tax – at the moment, 5% of our tax revenue comes from the bowser. $25bn! Will Mr. Shorten happily give this up or do we expect when we’ve been forced to buy EVs that we will be stung with an electricity tax on our cars?

7) Norway is a poor example to benchmark against. It is 5% of our land mass, 1/5th our population and new car sales around 12% of Australia. According to BITRE, Australia has 877,561km of road network which is 9x larger than Norway.

Norway has around 8,000 chargers countrywide. Installation of fast chargers runs around A$60,000 per unit on top of the $100,000 preparation of each station for the high load 480V transformer setup to cope with the increased loads.

Norway state enterprise, Enova, said it would install fast chargers every 50km of 7,500km worth of main road/highway.

Australia has 234,820km of highways/main roads. Fast chargers at every 50km like the Norwegians would require a minimum of 4,700 charging stations across Australia. Norway commits to a minimum of 2 fast chargers and 2 standard chargers per station.

The problem is our plan for 570,000 cars per annum is 10x the number of EVs sold in Norway, requiring 10x the infrastructure.

While it is safe to assume that Norway’s stock of electric cars grows, our cumulative sales on Shorten’s plan would require far greater numbers. So let’s do the maths (note this doesn’t take into account the infrastructure issues of rural areas):

14,700 stations x $100,000 per station to = $1,470,000,000

4,700 stations x 20 fast chargers @ A$60,000 = $5,640,000,000 (rural)

4,700 stations x 20 slow chargers @ A$9,000 = $846,000,000 (rural)

10,000 stations x 5 fast chargers @ A$60,000 = $3,000,000,000 (urban)

570,000 home charging stations @ $5,500 per set = $3,135,000,000 (this is just for 2030)

Grand Total: A$14,091,000,000

Note that Shorten pledged $100m to EV charging stations around Australia to meet his goals. Even if he was to skimp on 2 fast and 2 slow chargers per stand, Aussies taxpayers will need to shell out $6.5bn. At least he could technically cover that with repealing $6bn in franking credits.

Norway’s privately run charging companies bill users at NOK2.50 (A$0.42c) per minute for fast charging. Norway’s electricity prices are around NOK 0.55 (A$0.05c) per kWh to households.  In South Australia, that price is 43c/kWh. So will Shorten subsidize an EV owner charging in Adelaide at the mark up a private retailer might charge? 

What about subsidies to EV buyers? If we go off Shorten’s assumptions of $3,400 per EV at 570,000 EVs per annum, the tax payer will fork out $1.94bn a year.

Will there be a cash-for-clunkers scheme?  If the plan is to drive internal combustion powertrains off the road, existing owners may not be emboldened with the decimation in the value of their existing cars. Let’s assume buyers are irrational and accept $3,000 per car (Gillard offered $2,000 back in 2010) trade-in under the scheme. That would amount to $1.73bn.

8) Making our own batteries! While it is true Australia is home to all of the relevant resources, sadly we do not have enough cobalt to make enough of them.

Australia is home to only 4% (5,100t) of the world’s cobalt. 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from DR Congo which has less than satisfactory labour laws surrounding children. If we want cheap EVs, we have to bear that cross of sacrificing children to save the planet. It can’t be done any other way.

Li-ion batteries consume around 42% of the globe’s cobalt supplies. Cars are 40% of that. The rest being computers, mobile phones, etc.

9) Automakers have set up their own battery capacity to supply internal production. Given our terrible history in automotives, we should not expect them to line up to buy our batteries.

Nissan spent around A$770m on a battery plant in Sunderland. Panasonic plowed $2.8bn into the battery plant that supplies Tesla.

10) Australia has no real homegrown industrial scale EV battery technology. If we bought in a technical license, that will only make our production costs prohibitive on a global scale. Our high wage costs would add to the improbability of it being a sensible venture.

All in, Shorten’s EV plans could cost Australians well over $20bn with c.$4bn in subsidies ongoing.

11) Green jobs – according to the ABS, jobs in the renewable sector have fallen from the peak of 19,000 in 2011/12 to 14,920 in 2016/17. The upshot is that green jobs in the renewable sector are not sustainable.

In short, Mr. Shorten’s budget reply was extremely thin on detail. Especially with respect to climate change. The LNP has plenty of ammunition to prosecute the case on his wild costing inaccuracies (as outlined above) yet will they have the gumption to fight on those lines. Saving the planet is one thing.

Loading a stretched grid with EVs and increasing the proportion of less reliable power sources looks like a recipe for disaster. We need only look at consumption patterns to get a true sense of how ‘woke’ people when it comes to global warming. South Australians and Victorians are already living the nightmare of renewables.

This election is about one thing – individual pocketbooks. The electorate needs working solutions, not electric dreams.

Profligacy paid for by wishful thinking

Lots of promises. Lots of grand assumptions. To be honest, best just ignore the minutiae. It’s a complete waste of time. The biggest question is, if the global economy, by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s own admission, is slowing down (just look at government bond yields flattening/gone negative) how on earth is Australia going to grow receipts from $485.2bn in 2018/19 to $566.9b in 2021/22? A 17% growth in tax revenue. Expenses will rise from $487bn to $559.9bn respectively. Give aways +15%. Best hope the world economy doesn’t tank. Expenses are locked in. Tax revenues aren’t.

Worse, these projections have all been massaged higher than the 2018-19 budget. What has changed to our overall net position in the last 12 months to gain such confidence? Climate alarmists would blush at the extent of the upward massaging of numbers. Did Treasury sit down after consuming 3 bottles of Absinthe to come up with these revisions? Think about it. How can we get an extra $5.9bn in tax receipts in 2021-22 when conditions are sure to be worsening?

This is NOT an old school Coalition budget by any measure. This is a crossing fingers, closing the eyes and hoping we muddle through budget. If the proverbial hits the fan, a monster deficit is assured. Take it to the bank.

We are technically at full employment. Unless we embark on mass migration (which we’re looking to cut) how will flat wage enduring Aussies and corporates contribute to a 17% rise in the Canberra coffers? Wishful thinking. The government targets around 23.9% of GDP for tax receipts and pats itself on the back for “the government’s average real spending growth is expected to be the lowest of any Commonwealth government in over 50 years.” Although that claim is dispelled by their own tables contained here.

Cutting taxes can create more tax revenue. Poland sliced its corporate taxes in half in 2004 and doubled revenue. However that was more a grey money grab than pure unadulterated tax policy spurring public revenue growth.

Giving away more money to the middle class through tax cuts and hand outs in the hope they spend more seems wishful thinking. The problem is if global growth hits a wall, we don’t have a Howard/Costello surplus to buffer the storm. No $38bn backstop in the war chest.

China, the US and EU are struggling. Things are so bad in the US that the Federal Reserve had to chicken out of any more rate rises because it would tank the economy. Our growth will stall if the world slows. Forget 28 straight years of continuous growth in Australia. The knock on effects will see unemployment surge, consumption fall off a cliff, housing prices crash and tax revenues slump. Forget a $7.1bn surplus. Think $20bn deficit because the promises are too grand and the tax receipts blindingly optimistic.

Of note in the 2019-20 budget is the expansion of the ATO’s tax grab from evil multinationals and HNW individuals who’ve avoided paying their fair share. That will result in a $3.612bn extr over the next 4 years. That against the $5.74bn tax cut for middle class Aussies over the same period. Spending up everywhere. Just not sure why the Treasury hasn’t pointed to where the extra revenue is coming from.

Take the assumptions of 2.75% GDP growth flat to 2020/21. Unrealistic. Treasury assumes the same labour force participation rate with unemployment remaining to 5% and wage growth of 3.25% in 2020/21, up from 2.1%. All looks so simple. Yet inflation is expected to grow to 2.5% meaning real wages will be flat.

Aussies, saddled under 180% debt to GDP, shouldn’t take any sense of comfort from this budget. What Frydenberg presented tonight was nothing more than a hope that the most rosy scenarios play out when thunder clouds are so obviously rolling in. It’s utterly irresponsible. Yet that’s today’s political class – spineless. They’re unprepared to tell Aussies that they have to be prepared to live with much less. Instead of asking us to tighten our belts, a whole load of freebies that can’t be paid for end in our laps so they can hold on to power for a bit longer.