Financial Markets

6.3 trillion reasons Blackrock isn’t worried

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Student activist, David Hogg, has added to his seemingly never ending list of firms to boycott. Yet again, the impetuousness of youth made him misunderstand the very nature of the business he is attacking. Yes, some Blackrock funds hold gun makers for the sake of index tracking. Some ESG related funds don’t. Clients of Blackrock and other funds get to choose what products they wish to invest in.

Paraphrasing what Blackrock’s Larry Fink said to CNBC on the matter, “we are just custodians of our client’s money. They decide what they wish to invest into and they can select from products that don’t hold gun manufacturers.

Fink said the feedback from clients was a 95/5 ratio in favour of what Blackrock is doing with respect to investment offerings. As a $6.3 trillion AUM asset manager one wonders how much impact this boycott will have. If history is a guide then Blackrock and other funds will no doubt see a boost to assets under management thanks to Hogg’s boycott.

Or perhaps Fink should offer him an internship to learn about ESG.

Wizard of Lies

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Another film that shoots the lights out. HBO casts DeNiro as Bernie Madoff who plays the role brilliantly. It is a tragic tale. Not just to those that lost $65bn (although one would think if those that made $100s of millions one might expect they’d be a bit better at risk management) to a fraudster but more importantly the suicide of his eldest son and the death from cancer of his younger son before he passed. While one doesn’t feel any sympathy for Madoff it is a well portrayed rendition of how he created his Ponzi scheme and duped the regulators for so long. Madoff turns 80 on April 29.

Shipping industry needs to save ITSELF before it has any chance of saving the PLANET

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Yet more eco-mentalism being celebrated by the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with little thought to the very economics that has crippled shipping companies for so long. Shipping companies need to save themselves before bothering to save the planet.  Although the back slapping for the supposed “watershed agreement” (their words) will be achieved by 2050. The most pressing global issue of our times and these metal hulks which burn the ugliest, dirtiest and cheapest fuel (bunker) available have 32 years to get there. Perhaps the irony is that bankruptcy might take half the ships out of service meaning the emissions target could be hit decades earlier. A brief look at history.

It wasn’t so long 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.

The pricing market was looking grim in 2016. CM wrote, “These are the latest prices in 2016 vs the 5 year average by type. New LNG, grain and oil carriers etc are holding up but the used market is being slaughtered. Ships are generally bought with a 25-yr service span at the very least. Global seaborne trade growth has shrunk from 6%+ growth in 2011 to less than 2% now.”

Ship Prixces

According to Weber’s Week 4 report, VLCC rates for the route from the Arabian Gulf to China dropped to $10,925 per day on January 26 from $18,389 per day on January 19, which represents a 40% fall week-over-week. The average rate for all VLCC routes dropped to $13,179 per day from $19,974 per day on January 19. The current rates are 67% lower year-over-year.

Clarkson’s note 2010 build Capesize rates have fallen from $20,000/day 6 months ago to less than $3,900/day as of April 2018. 84K CBM LPG carriers have fallen from over $800,000/mth in April 2016 to $542,000/mth today.

Take a look at the financials of global leader Maersk. It recorded $US27.1bn of revenue in 2012 but only $24bn in 2017. Yet profitability slumped from $2.1bn to a paltry $25mn. Maersk carries around $34 billion in deferred tax loss carry forwards. That is the extent of the ‘financial baggage’ it still carries. The three major Japanese shipping companies have had a hell of a hit to profitability in recent years. See below.

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If the volume of goods transported by sea increases 3% every year, the volume in 40 years will be 3.3 times today’s volume. To cut total CO2 emissions in half by 2050, CO2 emissions per ton-mile need to fall by 85%. NYK is looking at the following ship that will cut emissions by 69% in 2030.

If the shipping industry is not fixed through market forces it will be difficult to repair the profitability and balance sheets that would allow the companies to invest in more eco friendly vessels. Bankruptcies are mergers are needed to streamline the sector.

According to Clarksons, the global fleet of all types of commercial shipping is 50% larger than it was before the GFC despite the World Trade Organization saying growth in global trade has crept up from $14.3 trillion in 2007 to $15.46tn in 2016 (+8%). Scrapping rates have fallen 40% since 2012 but since 2017 have risen moderately, appealing to owners with too much tonnage on their hands.

The International Chamber for Shipping’s secretary general Peter Hinchliffe said, “This is a ground-breaking agreement — a Paris agreement for shipping — that sets a very high level of ambition for the future reduction of carbon dioxide emissions…We are confident this will give the shipping industry the clear signal it needs to get on with the job of developing zero carbon dioxide fuels so that the entire sector will be in a position to decarbonise completely.”

What a wonderfully naive plan. At least the IMO can feel warm and fuzzy despite so many headwinds ahead of an industry still in structural distress.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing trends in the US surging

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The Chapter 11 bankruptcy trends in the US have been picking up in the last 4 years. While well off the highs of the months and years of the GFC and years following it, the absolute numbers of filings has exceeded the levels leading up to the crisis in 2007/8.

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Here we put 2006/7/8 alongside 2016/17/18. The average monthly bankruptcy filings were around 355 in 2006 moving to 429 in 2007 and then 718 in 2008. If we looked at the data in the 12 months prior to the quarter leading into Lehman’s collapse, bankruptcies averaged 463/month. The ultimate carnage peaked out at 1,049 in 2009 (1,377 in Apr 2009). For 2016, 2017 and 2018 (annualized) we get 454, 480 and 521 respectively.

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Bankruptcy filings tend to be seasonal and often show peaks in April when tax season coincides with businesses.

However the %-age spike in bankruptcies in 2008 ahead of Lehman’s downfall was 46%. In the latest recorded month from the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) was 81%. This March 2018 spike is the second highest since the GFC hit. April figures will be interesting if we get another lift on that figure. Not even seasonality can explain away the differences. The trends seem clear.

Thinking logically, we are at the end of the generous credit cycle. Interest rates are heading north thanks to a less accommodating Fed. Naturally ‘weaker’ companies will have more trouble in refinancing under such environments. The lowering of corporate taxes would seem to be a boon, but with loss making businesses it becomes harder to exercise tax loss carry forwards.

We’ve already started to see GFC levels of credit card delinquency at the sub-prime end of town. Sub-prime auto loan makers seeking bankruptcy protection have surged too.

Fitch, which rates auto-loan ABS said the 60+ day delinquency rate of subprime auto loans has now risen to 5.8%, up from 5.2% a year ago, and up from 3.8% in February 2014 to the highest rate since Oct 1996, exceeding even GFC levels.

growing number of car loans in the US are being pushed further down the repayment line as much as 84 months. In the new car market the percentage of 73-84-month loans is 33.8%, triple the level of 2009. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84 month term loans. The US ended 2016 with c.$1.2 trillion in outstanding auto loan debt, up 9%YoY and 13% above the pre-crisis peak in 2005.

The irony here is that sub-prime auto loan makers expanded lending because new technology allowed these companies to to remotely shut down and repossess vehicles of owners who were late on payments. That game only lasts so long before it forms its own Ponzi scheme.

Throw skittish financial markets, geopolitical instability and the mother of all refinancings coming the US Treasury’s way it is not to hard to see bankruptcies pick up from here.

World on the brink of WW3? Press on the blink more like it

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When you read a title like “world on the brink” it is easy to be misled to thinking this is a Trump/Putin related incident. The fact is the Iranian backed Houthi in Yemen have been lobbing ballistic missiles at Riyadh and staging border skirmishes for years. The Americans have been advising Saudi Arabia where to strike the Houthi in Yemen. This is a decades old fight and since the death (assassination) of former President Saleh last year the Houthi have become even more emboldened than they were during the Arab Spring 8 years ago.

Yet it is so easy to draw conclusions. Did the mainstream media report the sinking of a Saudi naval frigate in the Bab-al-Mandeb strait in Jan 2017 which took the lives of 176 sailors? Has the Israeli shekel collapsed since Trump and Putin exchanged verbal salvos? No. The Tel Aviv indices? No. Surely a relatively liquid financial barometer in a country that has been warned not to intervene by Putin too. Would quickly price in any fears.

The situation over Syria may be tense but if you look at what Putin is really trying to do he is weighing the size of Trump’s guts to call his bluff. We shouldn’t forget when Russia first intervened in Syria several years ago, Putin told Obama that US forces had two hours to get out of harm’s way. That is the warning one would give the Luxembourg armed forces, not the most powerful military in the world. Obama heeded Putin. Putin had carte blanche. That’s why nothing happened with the Ukraine. Sanctions were put in place but no one made any attempt to ‘change behviours.’

It is worth nothing that Syria is Rosoboronexport’s (Russia’s military export wing) 2nd largest customer after Iran. Putin is sick of having the West try to remove his clients. Assad is key to Russia’s foothold in the Middle East. With an essentially pro-Iran Iraqi government and Syria as well as Hezbollah Putin has a geopolitical doormat from the troubled separatist states to Russia’s south to Lebanon.

The problem Putin faces is if Trump yanks his chain, does he shoot US missiles down as threatened? He said they’ll attack launch sites which effectively equals sinking US naval vessels as that is how they are launched. This is perhaps the easiest way to escalate a skirmish out of Putin’s control. If Putin doesn’t do anything, Trump holds one over him. So Putin is hoping by the use of very strong language that Trump backs down. It is not exactly the best way to handle on either side but this is the first time in almost a decade where the US has a leader that won’t be pushed around. Unpredictablity is a strength not a weakness

Looking at history. The NVA was supplied by the Russians during the Vietnam War and the Afghans were supplied by the Americans in the war with Russia. Nothing new. The Russians returned the favour when the “Coalition” deposed Saddam and entered Afghanistan. Proxy wars have been fought for over 50 years.

The US is dispatching a carrier battle group to the Mediterranean. Theresa May is sending a UK submarine. The Russians are conducting military exercises with 11 warships in the same area. Of course scare stories are amock and clickbait media will report how we’re two seconds from a thermonuclear exchange.

It begs the question had Obama suggested to Putin he was bombing Syria, he would be praised for level headed genius. If Trump managed to bomb Syria with no Russian response then would we see the media have a mea culpa moment? Not a chance. It would be palmed off as a lucky break. If we go back in history, we can see good nations that did nothing let tyrants get away with murder. Have a look at Russia and China in the last decade. Man made military bases in territorial waters of other nations, early warning systems on the contested  Spratly’s and agreements in Vanuatu and Sri Lanka which provides naval ports for China. Putin is getting the old ‘union’ back together and there are plenty of willing despots happy to ride his coattails.

Putin is livid at the outcome of the nerve agent scandal seeing the expulsion of so many diplomats. He is not one that likes criticism as many an oligarch has found out the hard way. The question for those that fear what Trump might do should worry more about what will happen if he doesn’t. The downside is that the media likes Putin more than Trump. For a president with a glass jaw, his moves will be far more heavily scrutinized than Putin’s. He’s damned whichever way he turns. Putin on the other hand  willl be excused for being a dictator, whatever he chooses to do. The media will hope it dies down as they turn a blind eye and pillory their own governments for not taking in enough refugees.

Appeasement is an ever widening feature of governments in the West today. There are Neville Chamberlains everywhere. Who will stand up to Putin if Trump doesn’t? Whether Syria is the right battleground is beside the point. Because if it isn’t Syria it will end up being somewhere else.  The problem is only Trump “can” credibly shirt-front the former KGB officer.

 

Zucker feasted on your consent to be a sucker

Whatever the outcome of this hearing, much of the data collected was willingly offered by Facebook users. It was they who told people where they took vacation, the restaurant they ate or birthday they celebrated. It was they who adorned their avatar with a transparent French or rainbow flag as a back drop after another terrorist attack or to show support for same sex marriage. It was they who clicked the check box to agree to the “terms and conditions” immediately without reading it. Is that Zuckerberg’s fault? Questions however must be asked with respect to the ability to access microphones and cameras unbeknownst to users. How flagrantly was privacy law violated beyond that agreed by users?

For as much as Zuckerberg might look an evil violator of privacy laws (he may yet be proved to be so), if one wants real anonymity, social media is the last place to find it. It is doubtful anyone posts happy snaps on social media as a pure storage back up device. Many people crave attention and more than ever their self-actualisation stage in the ‘hierarchy of needs’ is driven by likes and shares rather than the Abraham Maslow’s original theorem of 75 years ago. The higher the ratio of “selfies” would probably be highly correlated to attention deficit disorder. Protesting the use of the data provided is a grossly naive assumption if not borderline negligent. Tucked away in the fine print of the words and conditions would surely have FB gaining their complete consent.

Ted Cruz took it to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on whether the social media giant ‘censors conservative’ news. He replied, “Silicon Valley is an extremely left-leaning place.While denying that he knows the political affiliations of the 15~20,000 staff who police content he said the group does its best to remove things that are considered hateful (e.g.hate speech, terrorism), hurtful or distasteful (e.g. nudity). It was brought to Zuckerberg’s attention that black conservatives (and Trump supporters) Diamond & Silk had their page blocked with 1.2 million followers on grounds of  “being unsafe to the community”. In any event, Zuckerberg deflected many of the questions in his testimony on grounds of the size of the organization but admitted not enough was done to police itself. Power corrupts…? Absolutely…?

Which brings the whole argument surrounding ‘free speech’ and social media sites exercising subjective political bias. It was only several years back that openly gay shock-jock Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for causing ‘offence’ to a Ghostbusters actress. Yet what is offence? Where is the line drawn? What offends one might not offend another. However the censor would seemingly be able to use his or her subjective opinions, values and biases which makes it pretty clear what the outcome will be. President Trump learned that when a disgruntled Twitter employee temporarily suspended his account. Do not be surprised when we’re simply told to “get with the times” and accept the party line. Resistance is futile. It is the simplest way to shut down sensible debate.

Anyone active on social media is well aware of the risks of being targeted, trolled or attacked for expressing differing views. However do users require, much less want to submit to the machinations of the thought police? Shouldn’t they be free to choose what they view or pages they subscribe to? Indeed hate speech (not to be confused with difference of opinion) has no place but the majority of users are likely to be able to make that assessment without it having been arbitrarily made for them.

Then again, surely as a publicly listed corporation Facebook can decide what it wants to do with its site and let participants in the free market (who use it for no charge) decide for themselves that the obvious bias forces them to seek social media platforms elsewhere. Twitter share price was badly thumped for its blocking of certain groups and its share price is around 1/3rd the peak. It’s overall followers have fluctuated in the 316-330mn range since Q4 2016. The market works. It is taking Facebook’s shareprice to task on the grounds it will suffer for treating its users as mugs. Perhaps a look at activity post the hearings will show just how many mugs are still as active as before despite the threats to abandon the evil Zuck. The share price will respond accordingly.

It begs the question as to why a more conservative outfit hasn’t decided to make a Facebook equivalent which does not censor outside of clear violations of hate speech. Surely offering a replicated platform that didn’t censor free speech would be a massive winner. Users would also sign up to a simple (and SHORT) legal agreement that there is a risk of being offended and to commit to accepting it. Where clear violations of hate speech (e.g. threats of murder, terrorism etc.) are found such things can be reported to the authorities (with terms and conditions EXPLICITLY warning of such repucussions for violating easy to understand rules). Then again maybe Zuckerberg is right. Silicon Valley is indeed an extremely left-leaning [alt-left?] place! So this is why conservatives are behind the 8-ball on a free speech social media platform.

The sad reality is that social media is policed by the left and authorities seem keen to exploit the powers that provides. The examples are too many. Controversial conservatives have been blocked, banned and restricted for the most spurious of reasons. Diamond & Silk are hardly a danger to society. It is almost comical to think that.  Yet aren’t the subscription rates/followers of particular sites indicative of the ‘moods’ of people? Could it be that black, conservative and Trump supporter must be mutually exclusive terms in the eyes of the left’s identikit forcing the Facebook apparatchiks to enforce a subjective shutdown? If a public explanation was provided it would probably just say, “trust our objectivity’. Whaaaat?

At some stage if enough people feel they are being played around with they will choose of their own volition to leave and seek their social media thrills on other platforms. Or will they? It maybe too late. Blatant exploitation of social media by governments looks like an obvious trend. If we are only too willing to give up our data and cede any visibility of the inner circle’s terms of use of it we are on a slippery slope of our own making. Think about how your mobile device allows you to be tracked whenever and however. It can turn your camera or microphone on. It can triangulate your whereabouts anywhere across the world. What you’ve read, listened to and watched. Where are the privacy laws surrounding this? Is your local rep fighting in your corner? Probably not.

Could private conversations with a lawyer (client-attorney privilege) be bugged and used as evidence? Don’t laugh. As an aerospace analyst many moons ago, teams of specialists with anti-bugging devices trawled through the suites of the aircraft manufacturers’ chalets to ensure the opposition didn’t get wind of negotiations with airlines they were both competing to win large orders from. Illegal in the extreme but seemingly exercised by all parties. It was an unwritten rule.

However social media censorship hides deeper problems. It is also increasingly a tool to shut down debate and people like London Mayor Sadiq Khan has met with social media execs to collude on cracking down on ‘hate speech’. Surely policing spurious claims of hate speech is a lesser issue to the immediate threat faced by a capitol which saw its murder rate surpass that of New York. Not so. This is the dangerous turn in social media. Not whether our data is used for targeted advertising for cheap flights but used to pillory, interrogate and shut down innocents. After all social media has a half-life of infinity.

Take the controversial figure Tommy Robinson in England. The UK authorities and media wish us to believe he is an unhinged far right wing bigoted racist thug. Yet despite all of the times he has been jailed (for mostly trumped up charges), silenced and muzzled for publicising what he sees as a major problem in his community (i.e. radical Islam), the growth in followers continues to rise on his Facebook page (706,000). Maybe the authorities should keep tabs on them? Arrest them on suspicion of potentially causing hate crimes. Surely they are cut from the same cloth as Tommy? Afterall it is better to arrest a comedian for teaching a dog to do a Nazi salute to annoy his partner as it is less controversial to the state than tackling real issues. Perhaps authorities should pay attention to why Robinson’s following is so large? It is irrelevant whether one finds his viewpoints offensive or not, a majority of over half a million clearly don’t. He is no saint and would be the first to admit it. Still the authorities are trying everything to shut him down. Social media is being used as a watchdog.

Robinson has two best selling books –  ‘Enemy of the State’ and ‘Mohammad’s Koran: Why Muslims kill for Islam’. Is that not evidence that there are more people than the authorities would care to admit to that actually concur with his assessment? Maybe some want to read it out of curiosity? However when many of those same people see an undercover scoop done by the left leaning publicly funded Channel 4 on the inner workings of one of England’s most conservative mosques, praised by politicians as they true face of a peaceful religion. Even though the mosque had promised to clamp down on radical imams, the documentary revealed that despite assurances to government authorities, teachers still encourage students to believe that the only remedy for gays and apostates is to be killed. So maybe Robinson’s followers aren’t as fringe or minor in number as we would be made to believe? With the widespread outing of child grooming gangs across the UK, maybe Brits have had enough of the political hand wringing over politically correct discourse. The more the movement is pushed underground the harder it will be to stop vigilantism. We’ve already seen signs of it emerging. Think of the Guardian Angels in NY during the crime waves in the 1979.

What the Zuckerberg testimony brings to the surface is yet another example made clear to the public of the two tier dispensing of free speech. What worries the public more is that justice seems to be operating under the exact same framework. What the Channel 4 programme exposed with respect to blatant hate speech is incontrovertible. Yet will authorities arrest, charge and jail them as they would a Tommy Robinson? Not a chance. To encourage the murder of people that aren’t part of an ideology can’t be viewed as anything other than a willful threat.  Will the judiciary demand that scholars have their pages scrubbed from social media?

The shoes are on the wrong foot. Earlier this year, Austrian conservative Martin Sellner and his girlfriend Brittany Pettibone were arrested on arrival in the UK, detained and deported. Sellner for wanting to deliver a speech at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park (later delivered by Robinson) and Pettibone for wanting to interview Tommy Robinson (which he later conducted in Vienna). Neither look in the least bit dangerous. In this case, social media backfired on the state. In both cases, the public once again saw the double standards and the pervasive political posturing to beat the ‘controllable’ element into submission. Just as it is easier for the police to fine speeding motorists than actively pursue solid leads on catching grooming gangs the public rightly grows increasingly livid. Social media is being used more widely as a policing tool, with negative connotations. It isn’t just being used to foil terror plots but stomp on the rights of the average citizen.

Still there is some sympathy for Zuckerberg in that many people volunteered their information. If it was used in ways that violated ethical and more importantly legal rights it only goes to prove that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To that end, can we really expect lawmakers to cramp their own style when Zuckerberg has only highlighted how powerful the information he possesses can be used to sucker us more than they already do. That is the real crime we are seemingly becoming powerless to stop. Talk about the real Big Brother!

Manhattan property in a gully

Manhattan property seems to be in a gully according to Elliman R/E in Q1 2018. While a slightly better QoQ performance, average prices fell 8.4%YoY, price per square foot fell 18.5%YoY and the number of sales transactions fell 24.6%YoY. This was the lowest quarter total in 5 years and the biggest annual decline in 9 years. Absorption rates hit 8.4 months in Q1, +38%YoY. New federal tax laws, higher interest rates and the end of legacy pipeline contracts were factors. At the luxury end of town average price per sqft fell 20.6%YoY with absorption up 50%YoY to over 20 months. As the real estate agent and stripper said in The Big Short, “it is just a gully we are experiencing right now.