Economy

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.

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Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.

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Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.

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While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

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Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.

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By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.

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PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018

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Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?

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Valentine’s Day according to Google Trends

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Gender stereotypes? Google Trends just threw a spanner in the works in a study on Valentine’s Day gift searches for a loved one. It seeems like women are far more proactive and engaged in searching for gift ideas than their boyfriends appear to be. What could explain it?

Could it be that men simply are too hard wired/unimaginative? Many women could attest to their men sticking with boring flowers, chocolates, and dinner reservations through experience or a sense of duty.

Tales out of school. At my old firm I used to buy 120 individually wrapped cakes for my female clients on Valentine’s Day and spend all morning delivering them personally. Never did I receive more sincere thank you’s for thinking more creatively than dropping off boring chocolates. So a note to the lazy men out there – women seem more likely to praise the “effort” over the “result” – hopefully ladies can confirm this so we can get “equality” back into Valentine’s search engines.

Could it be that males are harder to shop for causing women to have to search harder? Could it be that women are kinder and more thoughtful souls than men?

Most women get that men probably don’t want flowers or chocolates, but what will he like? Season tickets to watch his favourite team? A sports magazine? Golf balls (dangerous territory if he’s a keen golfer), motorcycle parts (extremely high risk)? A tie? Socks? iPhone goods? Underwear? Don’t laugh. Studies show that women are behind 80% of the purchases of men’s undies. Indeed it may well be that men are pickier (or lazier) about gifts causing women to search 2-3x more.

If we look at the above chart it seems that women searching for gifts for their boyfriends keeps making higher highs as the deadline approaches. Men too albeit at a flatter trajectory.

Maybe the devil in the data is what Google could really do for men and women. Instead of judging a partner’s devotion by the scale of money dished out on such a grossly commercial day, perhaps Google could let one know how much they meant to their significant other by the timeline on when the Valentine’s Day search began and to avoid gaming the system informing hours spent online during the process.

There are millions of factors which trigger Valentine’s decisions but isn’t that what diversity is all about – freedom of choice.

Truly sickening US Public Pensions data

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Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.

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Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.

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Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

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This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

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 yearFund 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.”

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To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

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.

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Gutter press or smutter press?

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Gutter press. No other word for it. One would expect better from The NY Times. Still why not make a baseless claim for the heck of it should it help paint a narrative? Indeed the Stormy Daniels $130,000 shut-up money story would have legs if she produced the ‘deposit slip’ and the contract which any media outlet would  pay “any price” to insure against any litigation for her breach of it.

Think of the $100s of millions media outlets have spent on tying to take the President down. Whether Russiagate which CNN’s own Van Jones called a “nothing burger” for ratings or MSNBC’’s Rachel Maddow who made that  embarrassing “we got his tax returns!” gaffe. Every celebrity event (Grammy’s, Oscars or Golden Globes) has become more about blasting Trump than blowing wind up the back sides of their own Hollywood hypocrites who blatantly turned a blind eye to all of the sexual misconduct that has gone on for decades in their own industry. Where is the outrage over that? Even career feminist Germaine Greer said that if one opened their legs for a movie role they “consented”.

Indeed if Trump frolicked with Stormy Daniels it appears it was consensual on the basis of the rumours. It is not condoning it but look at all the petty behaviour of Clinton post the election still crying to her elitist buddies in sympathy for losing to a man, who less than a week after the grab p*ssygate scandal, stared down the barrel of a camera to 100s of millions of viewers in the second debate to say “no one respects women more than I do” If indeed it was an election issue, voters overlooked it to boot the establishment. Case closed

Still the one-eyed NY Times has to make baseless read acrosses on Melania’s actions being about her acting in a huff over her husband’s supposed infidelity. Make no mistake had she cheated on her husband the mainstream media would celebrate it and chalk it down for a win for their side. They’d get panels of feminists talking about how his behaviour brought it on and how he deserved it for being a chauvinist pig.

However we shouldn’t point fingers at just the NYT.

Last week The Guardian wrote of Melania Trump: “Seldom seen and even more seldom heard, the former model may not be as popular as her predecessor Michelle Obama, but she is far more popular than her husband. Unfortunately for his Republican administration, she seems to have little interest in using that popularity to do anything of substance with the post.

Well had Tbe Guardian bothered to check, the left has made it clear of how they see her in the public eye. When she went to donate Dr Seuss books for children’s education, the recipient librarian at Cambridgeport School refused to accept the gift, criticizing the Trump administration’s education policies further writing that Seuss’s illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” Never did I know as a child that reading about the Cat in a Hat was some conspiracy by my parents to turn me into a hateful bigot. Now it’s all so clear!

The Daily Mail had to settle a $2.9mn lawsuit and issue a full public apology for libel against the First Lady for suggesting she gave more than “modeling services.” What awful slander! Could it be that the press is hardly lining up to champion anything she might host which is of social good? Is trying to be a good mother by not dislocating her son’s education in the early days a crime?

All the jokes from the left thanking immigrants for marrying Trump because Americans wouldn’t do it flies in the face of the very stereotypes they get so easily triggered over. Indeed the racist president married a Slav. Never mind the contradiction.

While the press can speculate over what FLOTUS might be thinking perhaps they should give her advice on the ways they wish her to behave. Should we anticipate Melania Trump’s hashtags on social media championing flaccid and impotent US foreign policy to terrorist groups like Michelle Obama? Mrs Obama is indeed a highly educated person but that doesn’t automatically exclude Mrs Trump from serving the office gracefully and proudly. The Trumps are a power couple

Yes, her husband leaves much to be desired in the manner in which he serves his country. However the scoreboard suggests many of the things he is doing are working. Such is the bias in the press about how world leaders hate him, CBS painfully admitted almost everyone of them lined up for a selfie with POTUS at Davos.

If we look at the last State of the Union address he blew the left out of the water. Even Van Jones admitted he’s going to do 8 years with talk like that. Now he has far more achievements to crow about. So yes, Melania will be there looking a million bucks and her face will speak of how she feels about Stormy Daniels. Storm in a teacup mode like it.

Usually a mutually exclusive headline in WaPo

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Surprising to see such an opinion piece in WaPo. Usually mutually exclusive subject matter with such a title. Admittedly the author said she had incredibly low expectations.

Girther movement outweighs 38bn Apples adding to his bottom line

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Oh how the liberal feeds have lit up about Trump’s health diagnosis. The girther movement. No noise about Apple’s 22,000 new jobs plan and repatriation of $38 billion of oveseas cash to hand to the US Treasury. Virtue signaling works both ways. Just like the tax cuts had corporations promoting that they were rolling out their $1,000 bonuses for 200,000 staff etc one after another expect a conga line of tax dollars rolling into the coffers.

That’s right, US corporates will be eager to show their good citizenship status to get great publicity for doing so. Don’t wanna miss that train. Not even billions of advertising dollars would get the same reach. None of it would have happened without tax incentives to do it. What shareholder wants his/her company fritting away tax dollars to the tax man if it can be avoided? Yet the liberal media will whine about Trump pandering to evil corporates. Well evil corporates have even more sinister tax accountants who find “legal” loopholes. This time paying tax has strangely positive outcomes. Obama could have done it but he was too busy doubling debt and the numbers on food stamps!

Apple will certainly not be the last company to do it. Still better to focus on a septuagenerian’s waistline than the country’s bottom line. In typical liberal logic fashion they should be encouraging his poor dietary habits to hopefully force a medical issue  which sees him out of office earlier. Roll on the 8 year term…

NB Estimates Show 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. A $1,000 bonus is not trivial in the slightest. For so many Americans that have been destitute since Lehman Brothers folded, don’t underestimate the power of improved economic fortunes to push partisan politics to the back of the bus. Why would people seek risking their wallets thinning just so they can feel morally good about themselves on Facebook?

Where money talks

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If there was one thing that could be transplanted into Japanese business culture it would be the Chinese practice of “there is a price for everything”. So often do we see sensible deals slip thru the cracks involving  Japanese corporates based on petty rigidities which serve no other purpose but to scuttle their own long term fortunes. Just 6 hours in HK and already it smells of business opportunity. Clear skies too.