Economy

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.

57% want him to stay

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How much value do we put in polls nowadays? A left leaning paper like The Guardian likely asked the question in the refectory of a university campus between sociology and philosophy lectures. Having said that the latest news on a Tony Abbott challenge to PM Malcolm Turnbull is spooking the media. Best crank up the “everyone hates you” and “”why don’t you just quit” rhetoric to try to pressure ministers and liberal back benchers to keep Turnbull there. Still the Guardian doesn’t report 57% want him to stay  43% want him to quit!

It is hard not to be amused (but appalled) at the recent gaffes. From Christopher Pyne’s cheap shot address saying the conservative left is in charge and gay marriage (this piece isn’t arguing the rights and wrongs) was going to happen quicker than everyone thinks (i.e. An election promise would be happily broken) to Turnbull saying he’d quit politics if ousted as leader. Turnbull was really trying to give Abbott a hint to return to a life outside politics at the same time threatening his flunkies to tow the line because a by-election in his seat would see the Libs lose the one seat majority they have. Treasurer Scott Morrison talks as if the public has no idea how cordial and united the party is under Turnbull when everyone knows better.

The main problem with the “Turnbull Coalition” (evidence enough it’s all about him) is that it is Labor Party lite. His backers could in reality serve in either party such is their ideological similarity. Turnbull could have joined the Labor Party but his Point Piper mansion and Goldman Sachs links make him unpalatable to the working class battler.

So now true conservatives have no real choice but to abandon a Coalition ship that no longer sails in their direction. Instead of minimalist government and laissez-faire policies of a true conservative party, the Turnbull Coalition wants more government and higher deficits. While a feral Senate makes passing austerity bills tough, Turnbull champions his achievements (what little there are) with no thought to the extra billions required to buy off  his elites.

Tony Abbott is a man who is sick of seeing the party he’s dedicated decades to be hijacked by the left. He wants the party to go back to its core principles. Would he win the next election as leader? Probably not but he’d save many more seats than Turnbull who boasts he’ll win the 2019 election. Sadly the damage done to the Libs is monumental. The party is divided and voters are sick of it.

A PM Bill Shorten is almost a guarantee, not so much because he is a popular choice to Turnbull (he isn’t) but the fact the Libs stench is too foul. Even at the local level, support (i.e. membership) for the Liberal Party is collapsing. Take Senator Cory Bernardi who split from the Libs to set up the Australian Conservatives – “In South Australia, we already have one half the number of members in the Liberal Party, which is pretty good after a month, and about two-thirds of what the Labor Party has, and that’s just in this state. So we are building from a very strong position.

What we do know is that Turnbull has turned out exactly as thought. He is the complete opposite of what he told us he would be when the coup took place and somehow polls don’t matter for him when they were the key reason to shoot Abbott. Abbott on the other hand cares for his party as much as he’s accused of being a wrecker he wants to provide a real alternative to Labor as the mass defections to One Nation and Australian Conservatives demonstrate. If I had to put money on a winner there will be none. On a who loses less basis, Tony Abbott has principle on his side and sadly Turnbull’s lack of judgement will see him put almost every foot wrong.

What people forget is that politicians are supposed to serve their constituents not themselves. Sadly Turnbull’s ambition to be PM was for his own ego but he will not to go down in history as one of the greatest leaders of our country. In fact I’m struggling to see who is worse – Turnbull or Gillard. In terms of party wrecking ball, Mr Turnbull takes the wooden spoon.

The sorry state of public pensions that are about to explode

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Perhaps the most disturbing fact that so many are choosing to overlook is the level of pension underfunding. Promises upon promises have been made and the nest eggs so many were expecting to retire on are likely to disappear or in the best case scenario be a mere fraction of what was originally thought. What a nightmare to wake up to. Decades of hard work gone up in smoke due to pension administrators sticking to unrealistic returns. Last year I wrote, ” US Pension Tracker assumes that public pension funds have a market based unfunded pension deficit of $4.833 trillion. The actuarial base (using a discount rate of 7.5%) of the pension deficit is approximately $1.041 trillion. This assumes an unfunded portion of $3.8 trillion. Using the 2016 20-year US Treasury bond yield of 1.71% the market based pension deficit explodes to over $8.8 trillion or a $7.5 trillion unfunded portion equating to around $74,000 per American household. For California alone this would push the pension debt per person above $135,000.”

Zero Hedge provides an interesting update on the coming crisis:

“We’ve written quite a bit over the past couple of months about the pending financial crisis in Illinois which will inevitability result in the state’s debt being downgraded to “junk” at some point in the near future (here is our latest from just this morning: “From Horrific To Catastrophic”: Court Ruling Sends Illinois Into Financial Abyss).

Unfortunately, the state of Illinois doesn’t have a monopoly on ignorant politicians…they’re everywhere. And, since the end of World War II, those ignorant politicians have been promising American Baby Boomers more and more entitlements while never collecting nearly enough money to cover them all…it’s all been a massive state-sponsored scam.

As we’ve noted frequently before, some of the largest of the many entitlement ‘scams’ in this country are America’s public pension funds. Up until now, these public pension have been covered by stealing money set aside for future generations to cover current claims…it’s a ponzi scheme of epic proportions…$5-$8 trillion to be exact.

Of course, the problem with ponzi schemes is that eventually you get to the point where the ponzi is so large that you can’t possibly steal enough money from new entrants to cover redemptions from those trying to exit…and, with a tidal wave of baby boomers about to pass into their retirement years, we suspect that America’s epic ponzi is on the verge of being exposed for the world to see.

And when the ponzi dominoes start to fall, Bloomberg has provided this helpful map to illustrate who will succumb first…”

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.

Yellen’s Fedtime stories

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US Fed Chair Janet Yellen uttered perhaps some of the most bizarre words to come out of a central banker. So much so that Alan Greenspan’s “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.” seems almost comprehensible by comparison. Yellen told an audience that she believes we won’t see another severe financial crisis in our lifetimes. Either Ms Yellen is not long for the world or denial is running deep within her veins. One of her own FOMC board members (James Bullard) wrote a piece on why the Fed needs to trim its balance sheet from $4.47tn to around $2.5 trillion) so they can prepare for the next horror that awaits.  Even Minnesota Fed Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari said the likelihood of another financial crisis is 2/3rds. We have a world with debt up to its eyeballs and global interest rate policies that have only led to the slowest post slowdown growth in history. The signs of a global slowdown are becoming ever more obvious even in the US. Slowing auto sales and rising delinquencies are but one signal. The imminent collapse of so many public pension funds another.

Had she not seen the European Commission’s decision to let Italy spend up to 17 billion euros to clean up the mess left by two failed banks? The news is not only another whack for Italian taxpayers but a setback for the euro zone’s banking union, and a backflip for the EU’s stance on non-standard bailouts. The Italian government wound down Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, two regional lenders struggling under the weight of non-performing loans which averages 20% across the nation and up to 50% in the south. Intesa Sanpaolo bought the banks’ good assets for one euro, and was promised another 4.8 billion euros in state aid to deal with restructuring costs and bolster its capital ratio. Italy’s taxpayers get to keep the bad loans, which could end up costing them another 12 billion euros. Even the Single Resolution Board — whose purpose is to take the politically difficult decision of whether to close a bank out of the hands of governments — chose not to intervene.

Last year four Italian banks were rescued and it seems that since Lehman collapsed in 2008 non performing loans (NPLs) have soared from 6% to almost 20%. Monte Dei Paschi De Siena, a bank steeped in 540 years of history has 31% NPLs and its shares are 99.9% below the peak in 2007. Even Portugal and Spain have lower levels of NPLs. The IMF suggested that in southern parts of Italy NPLs for corporates is closer to 50%!

Italy is the 3rd largest economy in Europe and 30% of corporate debt is held by SMEs who can’t even make enough money to repay the interest. The banks have been slow to write off loans on the basis it will eat up the banks’ dwindling capital. It feels so zombie lending a la Japan in the early 1990s but on an even worse scale.

Not to worry, the Italian Treasury tells us the ECB will buy this toxic stuff! But wait, the ECB is not allowed to buy ‘at risk’ stuff. So it will bundle all this near as makes no difference defaulted garbage (think CDO) in a bag and stamp it with a bogus credit rating such that the ECB can buy it. In full knowledge that most of the debt will never be repaid, the ECB still violates its own rules which state clearly that any debt they buy ‘cannot be in dispute’.

The Bank of Japan has no plans to cut back on the world’s largest central bank balance sheet. It continues to Hoover up 60% of new ETF issues at such an alarming pace it is the largest shareholder of over 100 corporates. Then there is the suggestion of buying all $10 trillion of outstanding JGBs and convert them into zero-rate (+miniscule annual service fee) perpetuals.

Australia’s banks are now the most loaded with mortgage debt globally at 60% of the total loan book.  Second is daylight and third Norway at 40%. Private sector debt to GDP is 185%. We have a government who can’t tighten its belt basing its budget on rosy scenarios that will be improbable. Aussie banks have been slapped with a new tax and with the backdrop of a rising US rate environment, the 40% wholesale funded Aussie banks will be forced to accept higher cost of funds. That will be passed straight onto consumers that are already being crushed under the weight of mortgages. One bank survey by ME Bank in Australia said that 1/3rd would struggle to pay a month’s mortgage if they lost their jobs.

Had Ms Yellen forgot to read the St Louis Fed’s survey which revealed that 45% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something? USA Today reported that 7 out of 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings to their name.

“Last year, GoBankingRates surveyed more than 5,000 Americans only to uncover that 62% of them had less than $1,000 in savings. Last month GoBankingRates again posed the question to Americans of how much they had in their savings account, only this time it asked 7,052 people. The result? Nearly seven in 10 Americans (69%) had less than $1,000 in their savings account…Breaking the survey data down a bit further, we find that 34% of Americans don’t have a dime in their savings account, while another 35% have less than $1,000. Of the remaining survey-takers, 11% have between $1,000 and $4,999, 4% have between $5,000 and $9,999, and 15% have more than $10,000.”

So Chair Yellen, we are not sure what dreamland you are living but to suggest that we won’t see another financial crisis in our lifetime almost guarantees it will happen. The Titanic was thought unsinkable until history proved otherwise. Money velocity is not rising and every dollar printed is having less and less impact. I thought it nigh on impossible to surpass the stupidity of Greenspan but alas you have managed it.

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.

 

Mulligan democracy?

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One disturbing development in politics is the promotion of mulligans. The idea of ‘that is the shot I would have played if I had another chance’. Sadly some people think that is fair game and even worse, democratic. The lead up to the Brexit referendum almost a year ago saw “leave” and “remain” go at it. Months of campaigning, panel discussions and other forums were largely irrelevant. Both sides accused each other of lying and spreading falsehoods but ask yourself in the history of politics – if you believed everything that came out of a politician’s mouth you’d be lying to yourself. To host a second referendum would basically say ignore democracy until you get the result you want. Maybe like a modern day prep school sports event – everyone is a winner at St. Barnabus’.

People were well aware of the issues of Brexit going in. The idea of people being too gullible is frankly condescending in the extreme. Many long standing Labour voters went for “Leave”. They weren’t voting Tory by stealth. They took a view. It wasn’t just about immigration. They were feeling pain in real time, the valid threat of their future economic security. The higher unemployment rates and withering opportunities aren’t scare stories from politicians but here and now. For example the people of the Midlands didn’t need stats, Farage or Boris to sway them. Just like those that voted Trump – they were feeling the pressure of harsh economic realities that weren’t reflected in rosy government stats that were waved in their face as a testament to their superior leadership skills.

While Remainers can whine about ‘fake’ figures of how much the EU takes every week from the UK, immigration or the number of regulations that affected Brits, financial markets proved over the 12 months since the vote that the ‘Leave’ outcome didn’t crash the economy or skewer asset prices. In fact the idea of a potential Corbyn Prime Ministership sent the pound and markets into panic. If he was to get in then Macron will get his wish of a financial center in Paris. Investment money would vanish out of the UK. It isn’t an idle threat but a reality. Capital is global.

Some argue that had the people who thought ‘remain’ would be a foregone conclusion bothered to vote then the UK would have stayed in the EU. Maybe. They were given a democratic opportunity to exercise a choice and they didn’t. Many of the 1,000,000 new voters who signed up since Theresa May called the snap election who didn’t do so before the referendum had a choice a year ago. Do we give them a free hit? How do we truly instill the realities of a true democracy if we have to attach L-plates to beginners? It doesn’t matter one jot if there were enough dormant or eligible voters to defeat the referendum if they don’t show up on game day. Is the Premier League football FA Cup given to the team that won the most games til the final but doesn’t show up because of their for and against stats?

It is an important question because the lesson should always be that people must take their vote seriously every time. Even John Cleese is understanding this. If they can’t be bothered when they have a chance to vote then  that is self inflicted and we should have no sympathy.

Theresa May gave voters a democratic chance to give her a mandate and she got thumped. There were two parts to this. Some young voters were surely lured by the offer of free education and a chance to reject Brexit by the back door. Theresa May was too arrogant to think the population would roll over and give her carte blanche to carry out her plans along with a biting austerity budget for good measure. A refusal to do a debate vs Corbyn, a slapdash manifesto and dreadful performances when she appeared sealed her fate. Corbyn came across as the warmer candidate and simply campaigned better. Still an election and a referendum are two different beasts. Just because more voted for Labour than expected doesn’t mean they want an end to Brexit. They did it to send a message to May.

Still the idea we propose a second referendum is a bad idea for democracy. Unlike elections, referendums are yes or no.

Don’t buy the argument that people were sold a pup. That the elderly are bigots, racists and have no concern for their kids or the youth. That the youth should have twice the vote of the elderly because they’re on the planet for longer or the elderly should have their voting rights cut. Saying people are stupid is not a valid answer. Why not have an IQ test for voters to determine voting rights??  If lessons aren’t learnt through bitter experience then why bother holding elections or referendums at all. If anything this election showed through the higher turnout (68.7%) that the lesson is being learnt and the electorate has told politicians they won’t be taken for mugs.

The referendum was held, Article 50 was passed as an Act of Parliament and our Dear John letter was handed to President Tusk. The UK would be a total laughing stock to divorce and then ask to remarry again. Corbyn will undoubtedly have a much stronger say in negotiations and has a vested interest to ruin what little legitimacy May has left. She is left with a divided party created by her unwillingness to listen. The Tories are toast with her at the helm and the DUP alliance smacks of desperation. A Diet Coke Brexit is pointless. We’re in or we’re out.

The Conservatives won the popular vote despite the shambolic display although Labour took 60% of the votes from UKIP. What we can say is that politics is not like it used to be. The electorate is fickle. Loyalty is no longer a given and abandoning core party principles will see politicians punished at the polls. May must step down for the sake of the Tories. as the HMS Tory takes on water under Captain May, more will seek to abandon ship until she walks the plank.

This miscalculation by May will go down as one of history’s biggest political failures. Do not be surprised if we do get a second referendum but be very worried about the precedent it sets for the future. Democracy is at stake and even arguing that it is in the interest of the people to take a mulligan on this issue is effectively saying their votes don’t matter. That referendums have no meaning. Of course the Remainers will cite opinion polls that give them the answer they want to hear but as we all know polls are useless these days. May had the biggest lead and highest popularity in living memory yet got this result.