Financial Markets

A deadly problem: should we ban SUVs from our cities?

Activists, including one wearing a Angela Merkel mask, outside the Frankfurt International Auto, holding signs reading ‘gas guzzling vehicles off the road’ and ‘Stop petrol and diesel’.

More junk journalism from The Guardian. Why can’t the paper make sensible commentary on the auto industry? Essentially it pushes a narrative that we should ban SUVs, a long term growth market for automakers because they advertise the segment too much. Shame on trying to act in the interests of shareholders. The article encourages the movement to push for a ban of SUVs in cities. Why? The socialisation of transport!

The article makes the early assertion that passengers are 11% more likely to die in an SUV accident than a regular passenger car. Unfortunately, it cited an article written 15 years ago. In that time, SUVs have evolved leaps and bounds. A far greater proportion of SUVs are made using a monocoque chassis as opposed to the old ladder frames. Even those SUVs with ladder chassis hold 5-star safety NHTSA ratings in 2019:

2019 Jeep Grand Cherokee – 5 star (ladder) vs 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee – 3 star

2019 Ford Expedition – 5 star (ladder) – 2004 Ford Expedition – 5 star

2019 GMC Acadia – 5 star (ladder) – 2007 GMC Acadia – 4 star

2019 Toyota RAV4 – 5 star (monocoque) – 2004 Toyota RAV4 – 4 star

2019 Mazda CX-9 – 5 star (monocoque) – 2007 Mazda CX-9 – 4 star.

Some may recall in the early 2000s when the Ford Explorer/Firestone tyre rollover incident killed 261 people. Since then, carmakers have installed so many safety items – passive and active. Automatic braking, lane departure detection, forward collision warning, electronic brakeforce distribution (which prevents rollovers). SUVs are safer than ever, including pedestrian facing features.

Never mind the huge leap in safety. Let’s shame the automakers and buyers instead.

The Guardian noted, “In Germany, in 2018 they spent more on marketing SUVs than on any other segment; they actually spent as much as they spent on other segments together” says Stephan von Dassel, the district mayor of Berlin-Mitte. “This is not some accident that people suddenly are really into these cars, they are heavily pushed into the market.”

Wow, so carmakers actually made a sensible advertising budget allocations and convinced new buyers to voluntarily select their SUVs. Those wicked capitalists. They should be burnt at the stake for being in touch with their customers. Perhaps politicians could learn from the carmakers about being in touch with their constituents?

The Guardian then noted the following,

In Europe, sales of SUVs leapt from 7% of the market in 2009 to 36% in 2018. They are forecast to reach nearly 40% by 2021. While pedestrian deaths are falling across Europe, they are not falling as fast as deaths of those using other modes of transport.

So even though the sales of these vehicles have skyrocketed, pedestrian deaths are falling. Reading the paper published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, stated

“A total of 5,987 pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2016, accounting for 16 percent of all crash fatalities. The number of pedestrians killed each year has declined 20 percent since 1975…”

Surprisingly, The Guardian waits till the end to point the finger at the pet issue facing SUVs – emissions.

“Transport, primarily road transport, is responsible for 27% of Europe’s carbon emissions. A decade ago the EU passed a law with a target to reduce carbon emissions to 95g/km by 2021 but a recent report by campaign organisation Transport and Environment highlights what is calls it “pitiful progress”. “Sixteen months from before the target comes into force carmakers are less than halfway towards their goals,” the report adds. The car industry faces hefty fines in Europe of €34bn in a few months for failing to meet emissions targets.”

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How is it that diesel engines, the increasingly preferred powerplant in SUVs, have had emissions cut 97% over the last 25 years? That is monumental progress.

Yet why have legislators tried to ban petrol and diesel cars and looking to force adoption of dirtier EVs which have done 150,000km equivalent CO2 emissions before leaving the showroom? Because ideology distorts reality. Even Schaeffler AG, an auto supplier, admitted it is almost impossible for automakers to comply with the different demands of over 200 cities in Europe with EV rules. No common standards and the quest of woke city councils trying to outdo each other on being climate-friendly. Then governments need to consider the 5% of total tax revenue that fill the coffers they would be giving up, although already in the US, Illinois is looking to impose a $1,000 a year EV tax.

Shouldn’t the EU and other countries face the realities that consumers (taxpayers) like the utility these SUVs provide for their individual needs over and above saving the planet? Shouldn’t politicians realise that consumers make conscious decisions when making the second largest purchase for the household?

One can absolutely bet that if some maker came out with a Hummer sized EV, these cities that want to ban SUVs from driving in them would grant the monster truck an exemption and special parking zones.

Julia Poliscanova, director of clean vehicles and e-mobility at Transport and Environment, says regulators must step in to force car manufacturers to produce and sell zero-emission and suitably sized vehicles, for example, small and light cars in urban areas.”

What if consumers don’t want to buy small and light cars? Force car makers to produce cars their customers don’t want? That is a winning strategy. If carmakers must sell zero-emission vehicles, why on God’s earth are politicians with absolutely no engineering pedigree dictating technology to the experts? Why not let necessity be the mother of invention? If carmakers can get fossil fuel-powered vehicles to be zero-emission and keep their brand DNA at the same time, imagine the billions that could be saved on reckless waste rolling out often unreliable charging infrastructure? Maybe then carmakers could build cars its customers wanted and make money to literally fuel the economy. Politicians would still be able to virtue signal! Win-win.

Maybe the modus operandi is to socialise transport. Poliscanova said, “Smart urban policies are also key to drive consumers towards clean and safe modes…Mayors should reduce space and parking spots for private cars and reallocate it to people and shared clean mobility services.

That is the ticket – force everyone off the road. That is a sure vote winner!

Major climate scientific paper is withdrawn

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CM is shocked! Really? A major scientific paper, which claimed to have found rapid warming in the oceans as a result of manmade global warming, has been withdrawn after an amateur climate scientist found major errors in its statistical methodology. Who’d a thunk?

The authors sheepishly said,

Shortly after publication, arising from comments from Nicholas Lewis, we realized that our reported uncertainties were underestimated owing to our treatment of certain systematic errors as random errors. In addition, we became aware of several smaller issues in our analysis of uncertainty. Although correcting these issues did not substantially change the central estimate of ocean warming, it led to a roughly fourfold increase in uncertainties, significantly weakening implications for an upward revision of ocean warming and climate sensitivity. Because of these weaker implications, the Nature editors asked for a Retraction, which we accept.”

Clearly, some 4-folds are smaller than others.

Nicholas Lewis said after the retraction that,

“This is just the latest example of climate scientists letting themselves down by using incorrect statistics. The climate field needs to get professional statisticians involved up front if it is going to avoid this kind of embarrassment in future”.

Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Forum, said

Climatology is littered with examples of bad statistics, going back to the infamous Hockey Stick graph and beyond. Peer review is failing and it is falling to amateurs to find the errors. Scientists in the field should be embarrassed”.

The larger question from CM is, aren’t the data supposed to be the foundation against which billions of taxpayer dollars are being allocated to save the planet?

CM holds that the scientific community should be held to the same standards as bankers. When bankers commit fraud, individuals face millions and financial institutions billions in fines and jail terms. If scientists have absolutely no repercussions for making dud predictions based on manipulated or homogenised figures, is it any wonder the outcomes tend to be overwhelmingly overstate warming?

If climate scientists were offered an amnesty period of 6 months to come forward and retract bogus claims or face proper sanctions if caught for fiddling the numbers, imagine how much of the published works would be aggressively ratcheted down. Whistleblower laws in the US now incentivise the whistleblower in the millions. Surely there are many scientists in the climate change community who fear speaking out. For the scientists who claim their work is peer-reviewed and flawless, they have absolutely nothing to fear by such legal frameworks. Yet watch them howl at the moon at the mere entertainment of the prospect. That will tell us all we need to know.

Maybe a scientific/educational Royal Commission makes a lot of sense too. The horror stories would undoubtedly dwarf the banks given such loose governance.

Titanic shipbuilder manages to stay afloat

It seems that Titanic shipbuilder, Harland & Wolff, has been thrown a £6m lifeline after the Belfast based business looked to sink into receivership. The company has 79 staff, well down on the historic peak of 35,000. The trends are only too self-evident.

The OECD notes “As of March 2018, the global order book of registered ships totalling approximately 78 million CGT, thus continuing to remain at historically very low levels. In year-on-year (y-o-y) terms this represents a decline of around 10% and is almost 66% lower than the peak in September 2008.  The order book continuously declined after 2008 before stabilising in 2013 and staying above 120 million CGT throughout 2014. With deliveries stable and new contracting at record lows, the order book again decreased substantially in 2016, declining by around ¼ from January 2016 to January 2018. In the course of 2018, new ordering picked up again from its lows, but declined in the first quarter of 2018.

It wasn’t so many years ago that Korea’s largest container transporter Hanjin Shipping declared bankruptcy.  The above chart shows the daily shipping rates for the industry which remain tepid for the past decade. The problem with the shipping industry is the fleet. Ships are not built overnight. Surging order books and limited capacity meant that as the pre-GFC global trade boom was taking place, many shipping companies were paying over the odds without cost ceilings on major raw material inputs (like steel). This meant that ships were arriving at customer docks well after the cycle had peaked at prices that were 3x market prices because of the inflated materials.

H&W may live to see another day, but the consolidation in the shipping industry will be ongoing. P.22 of this report shows the slowing $ value of trade in recent months.

Japanese consumer confidence waning as consumption tax hike starts tomorrow

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As the 10% consumption tax rate kicks in from October 1 in Japan from the current 8%, it is worth reflecting on the sorry state of consumer confidence. We are back below 2014 levels. While the sales of Japanese rugby jerseys and huge consumption of beer by gaijin at the Rugby World Cup may provide a brief respite, the trend remains distinctly negative.

Note that consumption tax has been the biggest portion of government revenue since 2014 and is on track to be 37% of the total in 2019, followed by individuals and the lazy corporate sector. Japan’s small-medium enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of employment, comprising 70% of the labour force and 97% of all corporations. Yet 70% of SMEs pay no tax at all.

From an individual level, the top 0.7% of earners in Japan pay 30% of the tax bill, up from 20% in 1974. The bottom 50% have seen their tax contribution fall from 10% to around 2.8%. The top 8% pay around three-quarters of the total.

With Japan running a ¥100 trillion (US$1tn) national budget, the Ministry of Finance needs to sell ¥40 trillion (US$400bn) every year to plug the budget deficit.  The hope is that the consumption tax will lower the dependence on having to debt finance to such extremes.

RACGP alarmism should be driving the AMA not climate

AMA.pngThe Royal Australian College of General Practitioners logo

Now it all makes sense. The Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) latest push on climate change doesn’t appear to be about saving the planet but looking to safeguard its own survival. AMA’s main rival association, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) seems to be on the right prescription medication as far as membership growth and revenue goes. 

The AMA’s climate push seems to be a concerted effort to lock in future revenues by appealing to students. AMA ‘Associate Medical Student Members‘ have ballooned in the last two years from 8,664 to 15,311 to offset the (pardon the pun) flatline in regular members which have hovered a shade under 30,000 members since 2016. Previous AMA annual reports (AR) make no mention of hard membership numbers. The 2015 AR made reference to 30,000+ members which suggest it wasn’t 31,000+. Students, who now represent over 1/3rd of members, can join for free. Undoubtedly the strategy lies in the hope those students roll over to become fully paid members when they start to practice.

Last year, Dr Bill Coote, former Secretary-General of the AMA (1992-98) wrote in Medical Republic,

In 1962, more than 95% of doctors belonged to the AMA. By 1987 it was 50%. AHPRA reports that in 2016 there were 107,179 registered medical practitioners. The 2016 AMA annual report notes a membership of 29,425. That is 27% of doctors.

Since 2012, AMA annual membership collections have shown relatively anaemic growth from around $11m in 2012 to $12.4m in 2018 from its 29,659 full paying members. Revenues have shown similarly slow growth. Revenues (ex any asset sales) have grown from $20.29m in 2012 to $22.35m in 2018. 10% growth over 6 years.

What of the RACGP?

The RACGP has 35,385 full members and 5,493 student members. Moreover, the group collected $34.6m in membership fees in 2018, near as makes no difference three times the AMA.

Isn’t this just a classic case of customers appreciating what they pay for? Will those AMA student members work out – when forced to shell out hard dollars on membership – as they embark on their medical career that the RACGP is the go-to organisation? Any manner of conference cocktail parties will undoubtedly whisper the realities of membership benefits of both organisations. Surely the more seasoned doctors will make their preferences known. After all, students are more likely to pin their formative years to guru practitioners in the profession rather than lean on the musings of an association that provides cheaper hire car tariffs and frequent flyer club perks.

Revenues for the RACGP have more than doubled from $38.6m in 2012 to $83.1m in 2018.

Maybe Dr. Coote has found the problem when he wrote, ”

AMA members’ fees fund the Medical Journal of Australia. The MJA is uniquely positioned to promote serious commentary on the policy, regulatory and economic changes reshaping Australian medical practice, but now seems to prioritise the interests of academic doctors...The decline in AMA membership penetration from 95% to 50% to 27% of doctors is a significant historical trend.  A US management guru once suggested, organisations are at risk if they respond to a changing environment by redoubling their efforts to do things the way they have always done them…Let’s hope the AMA does not become the Kodak of Australian medical history.”

Climate change might seem to be a woke avenue to do things differently at the AMA, but surely it stands to learn a lot more by studying why the RACGP is surgically keeping it in the ICU rather than pursue fields it has no expertise in an attempt to revive itself. If the AMA board pursues such amputated strategies it is bound to find itself running out of bandages before its members realise that cauterizing membership cash flow is the only viable long term option.

More public pension roadkill ahead

CM has been writing about the public pensions crisis in the US for years. This chart only serves to highlight that the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better. It seems in Illinois, 200 of the 650 public pension funds out there have more beneficiaries than active workers contributing to the fund. By 2021 this is expected to be half of all public pension funds in Illinois.

ZeroHedge noted,

The value of all future pension promises to be paid out to public safety workers totalled just $320 million in 2005. By 2017, that number had jumped to nearly $600 million. That’s a jump of over 80% or more than three times the pace of inflation.

It’s the main reason why taxpayer contributions can’t keep up with pension costs. Pols are doing nothing to control the growth of promises to be paid, sticking taxpayers with ever-increasing costs and ratcheting up the likelihood the pension plans will fail…

… In 1987, municipalities owed a total of $2.6 billion in benefits earned to active and retired public safety workers across the state. Today, that number has jumped to more than $23 billion. That’s a jump of nearly nine times.”

Don’t forget what the Illinois Police Dept did several years back. IN June 2017 CM wrote,

“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) wroteAt 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.”

What have the police been doing? Retiring early and cashing in their pensions to avoid the inevitable.

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 firefighters.”

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 flavour. 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.

Did CM mention gold?

Joe Nation’s Pension Tracker is a really good website to look at the actuarial setting of pensions against the marked-to-market unfunded liabilities. Have a stiff drink handy before you open up.

You have a choice how to burn your superannuation

Signals like this make CM smile. In what is already a crowded trade, on what basis is it worth shoving more struggling retirement dollars into over valued virtue signaling companies with dim prospects in the coming cycle? Better off rolling tobacco in $5 bills and setting it alight.

As CM wrote last week, tobacco companies (amongst the least ethical) have chronically underperformed and in a market fighting with macro contagion risk, high-yielding stocks that are despised make a lot of sense when money comes looking for mean reversion.

British American Tobacco (BTI) is trading at $36.29 almost half the level of two years ago. Now at 1.02x book value and a 7.3% yield.

Philip Morris Int’l (PM) is at $71.20, down from $122.90 in 2017. A 6.4% dividend yield.

Imperial Brands (IMBBY) at $26.58 down from $55.55 in 2016. A 9.2% yield.

JT is less than half its 2016 number trading at $21.36. A 6.45% yield.

Philip Morris doesn’t have a vaping business but it appears with all these bans in NY etc that nicotine-addicted vapers will switch back to the old school.

No one will ever invite you to a decent dinner party again if you mention that you have a super fund that is up to the gunnels in woke corporations.

Buy tobacco.