Elections

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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PM Turnbull enforces sex ban between ministers and staff

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Talk about closing the gate after the horse has bolted. How out of touch can PM Turnbull be to think imposing a ban on consenting adults will achieve anything much less stop the rot in the polls? As CM wrote yesterday, the citizens of Australia would gladly trade off randy politicians if they applied the same energy they  do ‘on the job’ on the job! People want action on policy rather than the headmaster telling naughty schoolboys how to behave! What a farce. Voters are more angry at being taken for mugs by giving mistresses $200,000 taxpayer funded jobs rather than dismay at sexual antics inside parliament corridors.

Once again Turnbull shows complete error in judgment. Instead of showing a firm hand he only shows himself ever more impotent (no pun intended).

If only politicians put as much energy into policy as they do in the bedroom

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Everywhere we turn, social media is tagging another politician who can’t keep “it” behind closed zippers. It is nothing new. While not condoning extra-marital affairs, the media seems more intent on reporting infidelity in nauseating  detail than things that actually matter on the policy front. Growing deficits, unsustainable household debt, eye-popping unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities should be front and centre but the mainstream media (feeding junkies on social media) thinks it gets more mileage by pointing out bedroom antics. Who needs steamy soap operas with expensive stars? Politicians literally offer the best “bang” for the buck going for networks and media outlets. It is endless clickbait. We are also to blame for feeding this nonsense.

Perhaps that is what is meant by “moving with the times?” While we’re all told on one hand how we must behave and talk without causing offense in the new world, the thirst for reporting/sharing secrets from the bedroom seems to tell the real story of the sorry state of journalism. Our level of “being out of touch” has never been higher. We’d be well advised to wake up to the warning signs ahead. Sadly it will be too late when reality finally dawns. Watch social justice issues like climate change and identity politics slide to the very bottom as people realize prioritizing such nonsense doesn’t pay the mortgage or feed a family.

In recent times, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been in the spotlight for getting a staffer pregnant. How he chooses to conduct his private life is his (and her) business alone. Indeed another dysfunctional family is born. The main problem seems more about giving high paying jobs  on the taxpayers’ purse to his lover with the tacit approval of the PM. If the timeline is true then the actions by the Deputy PM were unethical to be sure and no amount of song and dance to defend it will find a comforting ear. Allegations of expense abuse only adds to the growing list of reasons to ditch mainstream parties.

Consenting adults should bear personal responsibility. It is not a question of Joyce’s infidelity but politicians (not limited to himself) taking taxpayers for mugs is an issue. Joyce only recently won back his seat of New England in an expensive by-election. At the time he must have been hoping his lover’s bun could stay in the oven.

If anything the manner in which our political class is handling this scandal only re-enforces the abysmal level of moral authority our government has. Even before Joyce’s issues came to light.

Prior to this fiasco we voted in a near as makes no difference hung parliament with a feral Senate. In recent times we’ve had by-elections over dual citizenship (still it did violate the constitution although PM Turnbull preempting the High Court’s ruling was daft), the Dastyari scandal with respect to leaking secrets to China or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop frittering away multi millions in aid dollars without any due diligence on the back of pop-star Rihanna’s Twitter account.

We are being run by clowns (not limited to Australia mind you) who clearly put their own survival above all else. Despite the polls showing a clear and present danger of the incumbent government being turfed out at the next election there seems to be a level of complacency within the Coalition’s ranks that believes that being less worse than the opposition is somehow virtuous and believing a self created myth that disenchanted voters will somehow reelect them again.

Infidelity doesn’t reflect well for politicians preaching family values. However  it would be fair to say that many voters would turn a blind eye to these indiscretions if those same bureaucrats would exercise the same amount of vigor in putting through sensible policy (that betters their constituents) as they do between the sheets.

Perhaps the media should be doing more biopsies on things that truly matter. That way there will be fewer autopsies. As it stands delving into the privacy of others seems far more important to ratings.

Apparently this is newsworthy

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Apparently the mainstream media think this is newsworthy. A 70yo man who happens to be president has bald patches. Who knew? Guess that means that one should take their other media commentary about affairs of the nation – foreign and domestic – far more seriously with Pulitzer Prize winning journalism like this. One would be forgiven for thinking America had never had a balding POTUS – Gerald Ford, LBJ, Richard Nixon to name three. Yawn. How insensitive and offensive such an article is to the hirsute!

Playing down a mass suicide note

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With the release of the Nunes memo, do top Democrats honestly believe that such collusion by the DNC with the nation’s judiciary and intelligence services doesn’t expose the hypocrisy of a party which proclaims its platform is all about equality and liberal ideals? Does it not expose that these politicians are only in it for themselves? Is it any wonder the Democrats are proclaiming this memo is ‘misleading’ or worse that Americans are too stupid to understand the memo? On reflection they probably had wished they’d stood and applauded during the SOTU address instead of childish frowns of bitterness and playing Candy Crush on their smartphones.

While many Americans probably suspected corruption (so brilliantly conveyed in ‘House of Cards’) for decades, they have had it transparently confirmed.  The DNC hope was that the illegal and doctored FISA application would sink Trump as a candidate and lock in a Clinton White House. By then the scam could be lost as easily as 33,000 emails. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Who could forget Bill Clinton’s chance meeting on a Phoenix tarmac with Attorney General Loretta Lynch the day before her testimony on Hillary’s email scandal? Did anyone honestly believe they just talked about grand children? Lynch downplayed the severity of the private server as ‘careless’. Conservative watchdog Judicial Watch has found 30 pages related to the encounter at the FBI, after being caught for hiding them in another lawsuit.

Obama was front and centre of the Clinton campaign. Hillary caught the jump seat on Air Force One numerous times. Are we to believe that this dossier was never discussed on board? That Obama, so obsessed with protecting his legacy,was in no way complicit in making sure Trump wouldn’t get in the Oval Office?

If we go back to mid 2006, news broke that the NSA was tracking the calls and emails of tens of millions of Americans to create  the “largest and most comprehensive database ever assembled in the world.” In the summer of 2007, the Bush administration pushed FISA amendments known as the “Protect America Act” through Congress which authorized the surveillance of any phone call or email by any American suspected of ‘suspicious dealings’ with ‘foreigners’.

As a presidential candidate in the 2008 election, Senator Barack Obama pledged that there would be “no more illegal wiretapping of Americans”. Post the election win, Obama reversed his position and continued the Bush-era surveillance via FISA. Obama’s Department of Justice aggressively defended court challenges from anyone who suspected their phone calls or emails had been illegally traced.

In his last days as president, Obama authorized the NSA to share its volumous databank on Americans with other federal agencies, opening a can of worms for politicians to dig up dirt. Talk about muddying waters in an already dirty swamp. This seems like a move that could badly backfire if a cleaning house of the FBI and DOJ is undertaken. What option has the president but to do it? What better way to talk of transparency to the American people than lop heads of such duplicitous people.

Therein lies the problem. When the state’s own intelligence services are working so closely hand-in-hand with political parties to keep dynasties alive one has to question democracy. Despite Wasserman-Schulz stabbing Sanders in the back, a mainstream media overwhelmingly behind Clinton, a p*ssy grabbing opponent, we now learn that not even a dossier paid for by the DNC in cahoots with the FBI and DOJ to cheat FISA got Democrats across the line – what a hatchet job.

Even Turkish President Erdogan would blush at the level of ‘duplicity’ of this scandal. This is abuse of power on an industrial scale.  One wonders whether the often made claim that the ‘Obama administration was one without scandal’ maybe tarnished with one of the worst. We haven’t heard the last of this.

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.