Economy

Houston we have a housing problem

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Yes, Australian banks are the most levered to the Home mortgage market. Over 61%. Daylight comes second followed by Norway and Canada. US banks are half the Aussies. Of course any snapshot will tell us that prices are supported by immigration and a robust economy. However when Aussie banks are c.40% exposed to wholesale markets for credit (Japanese banks are around 95% funded by domestic depositors) any turn around in global interest rates means Aussie banks will pay more and eventually be forced to pass it on to tapped out borrowers. The Reserve Bank of Australia kept interest rates flat while tacitly admitting its stuck

A study back in March showed that in Western Australia almost 50% of people with a home loan would be in stress/severe stress if rates jumped 3%. Victoria 42% and bubbly NSW at 38%. I can’t remember bubble Japan property (as dizzy as it got) experienced such stress. A recent ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46 per cent of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

The Weekend AFR reported that according to Digital Finance Analytics, “ there are around 650,000 households in Australia experiencing some form of mortgage stress. If rates were to rise 150 basis points the number of Australians in mortgage stress would rise to approximately 930,000 and if rates rose 300 basis points the number would rise to 1.1 million – or more than a third of all mortgages. A 300 basis point rise would take the cash rate to 4.5 per cent, still lower than the 4.75 per cent for most of 2011.”

The problem for Aussie banks is having so many mortgage loans on their books backed against lofty housing prices means that we could face a situation of zombie lending. The risk is that once the banks mark-to-market the real value of one house that is foreclosed upon the rest of the portfolio then starts to look shady and all of a sudden the loss ratios blow out to unsustainable levels. So for all the negative news flow the banks cop for laying off staff while making billions, note net interest margins continue to fall and when confidence falls out of the housing market, the wholesale finance market will require sizable jumps in risk premiums to compensate. Indulge yourself with the chart pack from the RBA on pages 29 & 30 where net margins are 50% lower than they were in 2000, profitability under pressure, non performing loans starting to rise back toward post GFC levels…call me pessimistic but housing prices to income is at 13x now vs only 7x when GFC bit, how is that safety net working for you?

Some may mock, but there is every chance we see a semi or total nationalization of the Aussie banks at some point in the future. Nobody will love the smell of napalm in the morning but then again when the Vic government is handing out interest free loans to the value of 25% of the house price for first home buyers you know you’re at the wrong point in the cycle. Maybe TARP is just short for tarpaulin.

Thoughts for the day – Group think, crypto and taxi drivers

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It is important to challenge convention. I have had countless questions from people on bitcoin and crypto lately. Sort of reminded me of the above. Perhaps the golden rule of investing doesn’t lie in complex models and sci-fi scenario analysis but the simple question of whenever an overwhelming majority think something is great, it is time to take the opposing view and vice versa. I haven’t been in a taxi yet to confirm Bitcoin is overdone. As I put it – gold needs to be dug out of the ground with effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’.

Think of why your Norton, Kaspersky or Trend Micro anti-virus software requires constant upgrading to prevent new threats trying to exploit new vulnerabilities in systems. We need only go back to the Stuxnet virus of 2010 which was installed inside computers controlling uranium centrifuges in Iran. The operators had no idea. The software told the brain of the centrifuges to spin at multiples faster than design spec could handle all the while the computer interface of the operators showed everything normal. After a while the machines melted down causing the complete destruction of the centrifuges which were controlled from a remote location.

So much in life is simple. Yet we have lawyers writing confusing sentences that carry on for pages and pages, politicians complicating simple tasks, oil companies trying to convince us their additives are superior to others and so on. The reality is we just have to ask ourselves that one question from Mark Twain,

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Tesla HK sales in July-Aug just 2 (yes, just two)

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Here we can see the progression of Tesla sales in HK after the subsidies were removed. Of course the 3,697 number is front loaded but the poor Tesla dealer must be twiddling his thumbs dreaming of a sports car that can do 1.9 second 0-100km/h times in heavy HK traffic. 2 sales in the July-August period. Indeed the incentives were generous but just goes to show that the true virtue signaling power of those living in HK is dictated by displaying the wise use of capital than frittering it away trying to save the planet.

Shift your investment from corporates that stick to IR to those that self promote through PR

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Fund managers will find it tougher in the new post MiFID2 world to discover new companies in Japan. The sell-side research houses are likely to focus less and less on the one part of the market that clients are likely to be interested in – smaller medium sized enterprises which have unique business models exploiting the slow to change direction super tanker large caps. As a result many corporations will stick to traditional investor relations (IR) behaviour. Producing quarterly results and annual reports will not be enough. As stockbrokers become disincentivized to promote the same corporations they used to go out of their way to support by hosting IR roadshows, the companies will have to take it upon themselves to fill the gap. To that end IR will become PR.

Instead of buy-side analysts running complex forecasting tools, perhaps they would be better off covering off which corporations are actively promoting themselves relative to others. Surely those companies proactively contacting investors and providing them with up to date and relative updates will gain much more mind-share than those that don’t. Do not think for one second that time poor investors and fund managers won’t make time for those companies that make time for them. It is tough enough trying to fight off the onslaught of ETFs internally so wherever a corporate makes decision making simpler and time efficient it is not unbelievable to think that those stocks (provided they follow through with the earnings) won’t trade at a relative premium to those that stay behind the comfort of their own desks, despite in their eyes providing the minimum requirement of information.

Meeting one successful internet database company in Japan recently, I questioned why a company that had seen its revenues grow 70% in 3 years had seen a share price drift 40% lower. The IR team were worried why they had seen such a drop off in client contact.  It wasn’t that it had poor results. It was that it was sticking to a stale script and a liquidity drifted below crucial levels, the stock was being dumped on that alone. The irony was that the smallest division that was growing the fastest was on the back page even though it was growing 5x faster than any other division and at twice group margins. For a simple tweak in its PR material, the stock would light up. Still the company intends to stick to convention (for now).

Meth, Purity, Price & Financial Markets

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CM – Meth, Purity and Drug Prices

When drug pushers become leading indicators of economic conditions.

The US Justice Department (DoJ) and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) latest report on the trends of methamphetamine prices and purity on the samples they buy from dealers shows some strong correlation. In the last 20 years, methamphetamine prices (US$/gram) have shown a 91% R-squared correlation (i.e. very high) to purity. See link above for fuller details.

Crime in Japan – Breakdown of the Nuclear Family

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CM – Crime in Japan – Breakdown of the Nuclear Family

Following on from pensioner crime in Japan, this eye-opening report on the breakdown of traditional families points to a future unlike what many may not fathom. The link above contains the full report with a short summary can be found below.

Did you know that 25% of all marriages in Japan are couples that marry due to unplanned pregnancies? In Okinawa that rate is 42.4% Did you also know that 25% of all households with children in Japan are single-parent? The perception of the dutiful wife getting up at 4am to make breakfast for her samurai salaryman husband are virtually non-existent and half of divorces happen in age groups 55 years old and above. 25% of divorces occur in the 65yo+ cohort. The government changed the law in 2007 entitling wives to up to half of their ex-husband’s pension. Still the trend was rising sharply even before its introduction. Mrs Watanabe has had enough of her salaryman and wants out.

Domestic violence (DV) is seeing a very sharp upturn in Japan. Between 2010 and 2014, victims of DV have soared 60.6% against women and 650.1% against men. Most cases (over 60%) of DV were marital related. Recognizing the growing problem, The police have even developed a new category of DV which defines a divorced couple who are living under the same roof. Economic conditions for some families has become so tight that the stress of living with someone they do not want to be with now gets its own category, scoring over 6,000 cases alone in 2014.

Between 2010 and 2014, total reported stalking cases surged 36.6% to 24,837. 50% of stalking incidents recorded were related to partners (including former partners).

The Ministry for Health, Labor & Welfare (MHLW) has 208 child consultation centres which fielded over 88,000 cases in 2014, a 20.5%YoY increase or 22x the level of 20 years ago. Despite a 2.4x jump in social workers inside these child consultation centres over the last two decades they can’t keep up with the demand. The Japan National Police Agency (JNPA) statistics show a sharp jump in arrests for child abuse, 80% being due to physical violence causing injury. In 2013, 36 abused children died with 16 of them under 1 year old. Police note that child abuse is being driven by the breakdown in traditional family, unemployment and poverty, stats which we showed earlier to be rising steadily.

Crime in Japan is a problem that will not simply disappear with the evolving mix of aging demographics, poverty, unemployment, underemployment and economic stagnation. We note that the previous jump in Japanese crime started in 1997 and ran to a peak in 2003. Unemployment was a factor. In the crime boom of 2010-2016, we note that the unemployment rate has fallen but it masks disturbing trends in lower paid part-time work which is putting families under financial stress.

There is the smell of fear in the workplace. In the period 2002 to 2013, labour disputes almost trebled. Bullying and harassment (which are obviously less palatable for companies to have floating in the public domain) as a percent of total disputes has ballooned from 5.8% to almost 20% over the same period.

Another dilemma in the data is the employment referrals by government unemployment agencies for middle or advanced aged staff (45yo+) which shows that around 25% of them end up with work in a fixed term capacity of more than 4 months.

Ironically active retraining of inmates to help them find new careers after release occurs in prison. Why isn’t more being spent on finding ways to redeploy those out of prison? The idea that any job will do is a recipe for failure and cannot be relied upon as a sustainable program. Most vocational training by Hello Work, the government unemployment insurance agency, is broad and non-specific. Any specific job training will be ‘paid for’ which ultimately is limited to an unemployed person’s financial status and confidence a job will be attainable at the end of it.

An eerily potent lesson for today

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In 2011 then Polish Central Bank Head Marek Belka spoke about why Eastern Europe understood austerity better than the West ever will. As our governments bloat budget deficits to avoid taking much needed reform and belt tightening he said of Western Europe….

“Because the people here still aren’t used to prosperity. Let me give you an example from my days at the International Monetary Fund. It was at a time when the Latvians had to implement a drastic austerity program, which caused consumer spending to drop by 25 percent in a year. I asked a Latvia negotiator how his country expected to survive this dramatic crisis. He said: What crisis? We had a crisis when the Soviets were sending us to Siberia. Here in Eastern Europe, many still remember why they were once poor, and they’re not afraid of reasonable reforms that are painful in the short term.”

Experience is a great teacher. It gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. Maybe time we prepare to be Latvians.