ETF

Will financial planners bring out a Naomi Osaka ETF?

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Japanese investors can get star-struck with investments. In 2015, popular pop-idol band AKB-48 saw the stocks of companies it was sponsored by surge 136% relative to the market. Aggregate sales of those companies surged 46% and 30% over the following two years. Such is the ‘hayari‘ (boom) culture in Japan. Corporates know this.

Since the US Open win by tennis star Naomi Osaka, sponsors are lining up to sign her. Prior to the win, Nissin Foods, WOWOW & Yonex were already sponsors. Nissan has just signed her. Since the win, the Topix has risen a tad over 6% while Nissan, Nissan & WOWOW have risen 7.5% in aggregate. Yonex has jumped 12.2% Early days to be sure, but the likelihood is that if she is sponsored by some smaller less liquid stock names these stocks could well fly.

Forget fancy models and esoteric investment strategies. Find whatever Osaka will be sponsored by in Japan and outperform through popularity over underlying earnings performance.

Any financial firm that launched a Naomi Osaka basket would likely see massive inflows and be able to charge higher fees on the back of it. Will the marketing departments wake up?

Why discontinue?

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This is a chart of the change in the US Fed balance sheet, a series that has just been discontinued. Is this because the Fed is about to step up its activity and offering wider disclosure on tapering activity might spook markets? Given that 72% of the growth in S&P earnings has been driven by buybacks since 2012, it stands to reason the market is not exactly providing the type of confidence inducing organic lift the index reflects. Bank of America revealed that “net buying of Tech sector in the 1H was entirely buyback-driven.” 

Kind of reminds CM of the day Bernanke’s Fed announced it would no longer report M3 money supply a year before the financial markets headed into the GFC. CM estimated on p.4 of a report several years ago that M3 money supply by 2018 on constant long-term growth rates would turn into around $35 trillion from the $10 trillion at the time it was discontinued.

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Nothing to see here? Throw a deteriorating fixed income market with fewer buyers and corporates that have binged on cheap credit to fuel buybacks, it doesn’t look like the stuff dreams are made of. The chart below shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling since 2011. Earnings (E) are not doing so well. It is by the grace of falling number of traded shares (S) that makes the EPS look flattering.

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We took the liberty of comparing corporate profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper (but now hide the results of) its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the relative safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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Discontinuation of series always carries a sense of deep cynicism for its true intention. It is not an onerous data set to cull. Sure we can fossick around and try to find it hidden in the archives of the Fed website but the idea is that they probably don’t want to publicise how much more they intend to flog.

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “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.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!

Fasten your seatbelts!

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The “Fasten your seatbelts” edition (March 6, 2018) of the High-Tech Strategist by Fred Hickey is best read with antidepressants or a stiff drink. To be honest I hadn’t seen a copy of this research for at least 5 years. Today I’ve read it three times hoping I haven’t missed or misread anything. It is well reasoned and well argued. I would even admit to there being confirmation bias on my side but it is compelling. Usually confirmation bias is a worrying sign although prevailing sentiment or group think, it isn’t!

Perhaps the scariest claim in his report is a survey that showed 75% of asset managers have not experienced the tech bubble collapse in 2000. So their only reference point is one where central banks manipulated the outcome in 2007/8. S&P fell around 56% peak to trough. I often like to say that an optimist is a pessimist with experience. A lot of experienced punters have quit the industry post Lehman’s collapse, hollowing out a lot of talent. That is not to disparage many of the modern day punters but it does experience is a hard teacher because one gets the test first and the lesson afterwards.

Hickey cites an interview with Paul Tudor Jones who said that the new Fed Chairman Powell has a situation not unlike “General George Custer before the battle of the Little Bighorn” (aka Custer’s Last Stand). He spoke of $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries requiring refinancing this year. CM wrote that $8.4 trillion required refinancing in 4 years. In any event, with the Fed tapering (i.e. selling their bonds) couple with China and Japan feeling less willing to step up to the plate he conservatively sees 10yr rates hit 3.75% (now 2.8%) and 30 years rise above 4.5%. Now if we tally the $65 trillion public, private and corporate (worst average credit ratings in a decade) debt load in America and overlay that with a rising interest rate market things will get nasty. Not to mention the $9 trillion shortfall in public pensions.

Perhaps the best statistic was the surge in the number of articles which contained ‘buy-the-dip’ to an all time record. Such lexicon is often used to explain away bad news. It is almost as useless as saying there were more sellers than buyers to explain away a market sell off. In any event closing one’s eyes is a strategy.

Hickey runs through the steps leading up to and during the bear market that followed the tech bubble collapse. It was utter carnage. Bell wether blue chips like Cisco fell 88% from the peak. Oracle -83%. Intel -82%. Sun Microsystems fell 96%.

To cut a long story short, assets (bonds, equities and property) are overvalued. The Bitcoin bubble and consequent collapse have stark warnings that he saw in 2000. He recommends Gold, Gold stocks (which he claims are selling at deeper discounts than the bear market bottom) Silver, index and stock put options (Apple, Tesla, NVidia & Amazon) and cash. Can’t say CM’s portfolio is too dissimilar.

As Hickey says, “fasten your seatbelts

A reminder on the extra market downside risk created by ETFs

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As a reminder in markets selling off in recent days, please find a report which touches on the extra volatility created by ETFs on the downside that amplifies market sell offs.

An excerpt of the report is as follows;

CEO Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF creator, has made it clear that leveraged ETFs (at present 1.2% of total ETF AUM) have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.” The argument is that the underlying assets that provide the leverage (which tend to have less liquidity) could cause losses very quickly in volatile markets. To put this in perspective we looked at the Direxion Daily Fin Bull 3x (FAS) 3x leverage of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index…The point Mr Fink is driving at is…the average daily return is closer to 10x (in both directions) than the 3x it is seeking to offer. This is post any market meltdown. On a daily basis the minimum and maximum has ended up being -1756x to 1483x of the index return, albeit those extremes driven by the law of small numbers of the return of the underlying index. Which suggests that in a nasty downturn the ETF performance of the leveraged plays could be well outside the expectations of the holders.

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (by country)

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In an ever growing world of haves vs have nots, Elliman has released an interesting update on the statues of global wealth and where it is likely to head over the next decade. It suggests North America has 73,100 UNHWIs at an average of $100mn each or $7.31 trillion. To put that in perspective 73,100 North Americans have as much wealth as Japan & France’s annual output combined. Over the next decade they expect 22,700 to join the ranks.

Europe has 49,650 UHNWI also at the magical $100mn mark (presumably the cut off for UHNWI or the equivalent of Japan.

Asia is growing like mad with $4.84 trillion split up by 46,000 or $105mn average. In a decade there are forecast to be 88,000 UHNWIs in Asia.

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I am not sure what the World Bank was smoking when coming up with the coming forecasts I’ve rthe next decade but the figures smel fishy.  Then it all comes down to this chart.

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1) Political uncertainty? Everywhere you look – Trump, Brexit, Catalonia, Australia, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland etc etc

2) Potential fall in asset values – looks a very high chance of that. Current asset bubbles are almost everywhere – bonds, equities, real estate etc

3) Rising taxes – maybe not the US or Canada (if you follow the scrutiny over Finance Minister Morneau), but elsewhere taxes and or costs of living for the masses are rising

4) Capital controls – China, India etc

5) Rising interest rates – well the US tax cuts should by rights send interest rates creeping higher. A recent report showed 57% of Aussies couldn’t afford an extra $100/month in mortgage – a given if banks are forced to raise lending rates due to higher funding costs (40% is wholesale finance – the mere fact the US is raising rates will only knock on to Aus and other markets).

Surely asset prices at record levels and all of the other risk factors seemingly bumping into one another…

So while UHNWIs probably weather almost any storm, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that the $100mn threshold might get lowered to $50m. It reminds me of a global mega cap PM who just before GFC had resplendent on his header “nothing under $50bn market cap”. Post GFC that became $25bn then eventually $14bn…at which point I suggested he change the header entirely.

I had an amusing discourse on LinkedIn about crypto currencies. The opposing view was that this is a new paradigm (just like before GFC) and it would continue to rise ( I assume he owns bit coins). He suggested it was like a promissory note in an electronic form so has a long history dating back millennia. I suggested that gold needs to be dug out of the ground – there is no other way. Crypto has huge risk factors because it is ultimately mined in cyber space. State actors or hackers can ruin a crypto overnight. There have already been hacking incidents that undermine the safety factor. It does’t take a conspiracy theory to conjure that up. To which he then argued if it all goes pear shaped, bitcoin was a more flexible currency. Even food would be better than gold. To which I suggested that a border guard who is offering passage is probably already being fed and given food is a perishable item that gold would probably buy a ticket to freedom more readily as human nature can adapt hunger far more easily in the fight for survival. I haven’t heard his response yet.

In closing isn’t it ironic that Bitcoin is now split into two. The oxymornically named Bitcoin Gold is set to be mined by more people with less powerful machines, therefore decentralizing the network further and opening it up to a wider user base. Presumably less powerful machines means fewer safeguards too although it will be sold as impervious to outsiders. Of course the idea is to widen the adoption rate to broaden appeal. Everyone I know who owns Bitcoin can never admit to its short comings. Whenever anything feels to be good to be true, it generally is. Crypto has all the hallmarks of a fiat currency if I am not mistaken? While central banks can print furiously, they will never compete with a hacker who can digitally create units out of thin air. Fool’s Gold perhaps? I’ll stick to the real stuff. I’ll take 5,000 years of history over 10 years any day of the week.

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.