FICO

Musk to be investigated by SEC over tweets

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CM has always thought that Elon Musk is the ultimate salesman. CM has also wrote that the biggest risk to being a short seller was then”cult” status of the company. On any rational investment grounds the stock is ridiculously priced but as the old adage goes, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can remain solvent!

Tesla is a car company that is worth more than GM, Ford & FiatChrysler combined. One that trades at 5x Daimler in valuation terms, a luxury competitor that is in the sweet spot of its product line up and rudely profitable.

Back in June, Musk bought $35mn worth of shares in Tesla. The whole idea that someone is willing to fork out $75bn on a whim seems somewhat implausible. Is it safe to assume that all of 100s of lawyers, bankers and brokers would need a little bit of time to prepare the necessary documentation to cement such a ridiculous sum? Or is money now just so free and easy that a billionaire deploys a vault full of cash loaded full of Zero Halliburtons into a private jet after a few phone calls?

SEC enforcement attorneys had already been gathering general information about Tesla’s public statements on manufacturing goals and sales targets. Now SEC attorneys are investigating whether his tweets about securing funding were factual.

CM is not accusing Musk of insider trading albeit as a matter of course the SEC should investigate when he knew about his mega financier. One wonders how it is that we know so little about the buyer, the term sheet, the question of shareholder approval and how “secure” it is? Taking it private will remove the lens of quarterly reporting but it doesn’t remove the fact of how dreadfully the company is run or how amateur production is. Even if public scrutiny is removed, the problems of profitability don’t disappear and the need for funds, credit ratings etc if he taps public markets for debt capital remain.

If Musk pulls it all off and the company becomes a roaring success then CM will gladly eat a whole humble pie and openly admit it was wrong.

As to the SEC investigation let’s hope it has learnt the lessons of its bumbling incompetency over Bernie Madoff and doesn’t miss anything that might be bleeding obvious.

GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the 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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With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

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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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Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

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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 its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.

Worst Q2 start for S&P 500 since 1929

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ZeroHedge reported today that the S&P had its worst percentage 2nd quarter start since 1929 overnight. Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke below the 200 day moving average before an at the death rally to close above. Plunge Protection Team (PPT)? The broader S&P 500 failed to hold the 200 dma. All feels ominous. Awaiting the dead cat bounce. Short dated out of the money index put options continue to look ridiculously cheap relative to other asset classes. Gold also having a good day. Bitcoin showing its true value sliding below $7.000. Best to remember in a bear market the winner is the one who loses the least.

Some interesting reading

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John Mauldin has put together a few interesting pieces over the weekend. Some of the select quotes from Thoughts from the frontline:

Money Velocity (which CM wrote about in 2016):

velocity of money, which is continuing to fall, as it has for almost 20 years…So it is somewhat disturbing to see velocity now at its lowest point since 1949, and at levels associated with the Great Depression.”

Income Disparity:

Note that it is the 95th percentile of workers that has received the bulk of the increase in wages. The bottom 50% is either down or basically flat since 1979. Even the 70th percentile didn’t do all that well.

Budget Deficits:

Over the last half-century, higher deficits have been associated with recessions. After recessions end, the deficit shrinks, and occasionally we get a surplus. That’s not happening this time. Deficits are growing even without a recession…but in the next recession tax revenues will fall, and spending will increase enough to not only swell the annual deficit but also to add north of $2 trillion to the national debt each year. We’re using up our breathing room, and that will be a problem – sooner or later.

Monetary Policy:

Ominously, you can see from Grant’s labels (In the above chart) with arrows that peak yields tended to correspond with crises. If the current breakout persists, it is probably going to get its own label, and I bet we won’t like it.

Nothing to see here?

 

Credit card delinquency in America – nothing to see here?

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Waltzing through the treasure trove of data at the St Louis Fed, this chart intrigued. It shows delinquency rates on credit cards among the smaller banks. Presumably the smaller banks have to chase less credit worthy customers because they lack the ultimate battleship marketing cannons of the bigger financial instititutions. We’re back at times worse than the highest levels seen during GFC. Among all banks, we are still away off the $40bn of delinqient credit card debts we’re back at levels higher than those before Lehman’s brought financial markets to a grinding halt.

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Add to that the step up in interest rates as well to levels we saw before the whole edifice of cards came crumbling down.

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Then why worry when the number of financial institutions looking to tighten standards on consumer lending languishes at close to zero, the types of levels we saw ahead of the market collapse? Nothing to see here?

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Meanwhile American household savings languish at 3%. Similar levels as just before GFC  melt down. Not much in the rainy day funds. So when Trump’s new economic policy advisor Larry Kudlow starts telling us to back a strong dollar and weak gold, you know exactly what to do.

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Moral hazard was supposed to be contained at the private sector level. Looks as though this time around the government is joining the party.

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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Plunging credit quality more troubling than market rout

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The Dow plunged 1175 points (-4.6%) overnight. 4.6% is a lot and yes 4-digit drops optically look worse but off the higher base we get higher (record) point drops. One thing to contemplate in a rising bond yield market is corporate credit quality. Since 2006 the average credit ratings for US corporates issued by the big agencies have seen the number of top rated (to the left) fall while those with deteriorating grades (to the right) soar. That’s right, the 4 categories before “junk” have risen sharply. After many years of virtually free money many corporations have let the waistline grow. When refinancing comes around just how will credit ratings influence the new spreads of corporates who’ve shifted to the right?

The IMF highlighted in 2017  that US companies have added $7.8t in debt & other liabilities since 2010. The ability to cover interest payments is now at the weakest level since 2008 crisis.

This despite near full employment, record level equity markets and every other word of encouragement from our politicians.

However if this is the state of the corporate sector at arguably the sweet spot of the economic cycle CM shudders to think the state of potential bankruptcies that will come when the cycle truly takes a turn for the worse. This is a very bad sign.