Financial Markets

Houston we have a housing problem

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Yes, Australian banks are the most levered to the Home mortgage market. Over 61%. Daylight comes second followed by Norway and Canada. US banks are half the Aussies. Of course any snapshot will tell us that prices are supported by immigration and a robust economy. However when Aussie banks are c.40% exposed to wholesale markets for credit (Japanese banks are around 95% funded by domestic depositors) any turn around in global interest rates means Aussie banks will pay more and eventually be forced to pass it on to tapped out borrowers. The Reserve Bank of Australia kept interest rates flat while tacitly admitting its stuck

A study back in March showed that in Western Australia almost 50% of people with a home loan would be in stress/severe stress if rates jumped 3%. Victoria 42% and bubbly NSW at 38%. I can’t remember bubble Japan property (as dizzy as it got) experienced such stress. A recent ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46 per cent of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

The Weekend AFR reported that according to Digital Finance Analytics, “ there are around 650,000 households in Australia experiencing some form of mortgage stress. If rates were to rise 150 basis points the number of Australians in mortgage stress would rise to approximately 930,000 and if rates rose 300 basis points the number would rise to 1.1 million – or more than a third of all mortgages. A 300 basis point rise would take the cash rate to 4.5 per cent, still lower than the 4.75 per cent for most of 2011.”

The problem for Aussie banks is having so many mortgage loans on their books backed against lofty housing prices means that we could face a situation of zombie lending. The risk is that once the banks mark-to-market the real value of one house that is foreclosed upon the rest of the portfolio then starts to look shady and all of a sudden the loss ratios blow out to unsustainable levels. So for all the negative news flow the banks cop for laying off staff while making billions, note net interest margins continue to fall and when confidence falls out of the housing market, the wholesale finance market will require sizable jumps in risk premiums to compensate. Indulge yourself with the chart pack from the RBA on pages 29 & 30 where net margins are 50% lower than they were in 2000, profitability under pressure, non performing loans starting to rise back toward post GFC levels…call me pessimistic but housing prices to income is at 13x now vs only 7x when GFC bit, how is that safety net working for you?

Some may mock, but there is every chance we see a semi or total nationalization of the Aussie banks at some point in the future. Nobody will love the smell of napalm in the morning but then again when the Vic government is handing out interest free loans to the value of 25% of the house price for first home buyers you know you’re at the wrong point in the cycle. Maybe TARP is just short for tarpaulin.

Thoughts for the day – Group think, crypto and taxi drivers

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It is important to challenge convention. I have had countless questions from people on bitcoin and crypto lately. Sort of reminded me of the above. Perhaps the golden rule of investing doesn’t lie in complex models and sci-fi scenario analysis but the simple question of whenever an overwhelming majority think something is great, it is time to take the opposing view and vice versa. I haven’t been in a taxi yet to confirm Bitcoin is overdone. As I put it – gold needs to be dug out of the ground with effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’.

Think of why your Norton, Kaspersky or Trend Micro anti-virus software requires constant upgrading to prevent new threats trying to exploit new vulnerabilities in systems. We need only go back to the Stuxnet virus of 2010 which was installed inside computers controlling uranium centrifuges in Iran. The operators had no idea. The software told the brain of the centrifuges to spin at multiples faster than design spec could handle all the while the computer interface of the operators showed everything normal. After a while the machines melted down causing the complete destruction of the centrifuges which were controlled from a remote location.

So much in life is simple. Yet we have lawyers writing confusing sentences that carry on for pages and pages, politicians complicating simple tasks, oil companies trying to convince us their additives are superior to others and so on. The reality is we just have to ask ourselves that one question from Mark Twain,

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

$450m for a painting? Maybe but 5 of the top 10 traded artists are now all Chinese!

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While one of Leonardo DaVinci’s pictures might have gone under the hammer for a record $450m (50% more than the previous record) last week,  the TEFAF Art Market Report 2017 shows that Chinese artists occupied 5 of the top 10 traded artists. Zhang Daqian traded almost as much as Pablo Picasso. Admittedly Picasso sales were down 50%YoY but even still the art market has continued to surge in an asset bubble everywhere world.

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So even since the heady days leading into the GFC art related exports are 100% higher than the post Lehman collapse shock and almost 50% higher than the previous peak. Imports showed a similar trend.

Art is usually unique. One offs. Trading of such pieces is also very sporadic. It is rare that a Monet or Chagall gets flipped inside a few weeks.

Perhaps the art world report’s best picture was this one. The political stage and how it will impact the art world?

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Surely art’s crowing glories often come from tortured minds which sees artists lop off their ears, smear themselves in excrement or provide more excuses to take illicit substances to come out with the next masterpieces. Interesting how a US Presidency can impact US based art dealers. Although the data would show otherwise.

Then again as much as the total value is trading higher in the art world, according to Artnet, the average prices have been trending down since 2015. The overall picture is one of general prices having peaked during July 2015 and by the start of 2016, they were back to the level seen at the beginning of 2014. Over 2016 prices have fallen to the level they were at between 2014 and 2015, roughly 15% higher than the market trough in November 2012, and still 6.25% higher than ve-years ago.

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Recall when the Japanese were snapping up Van Gogh & Monet’s during the bubble period. Has the art world sent a subliminal message?

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A long report but one full of surprising trends.

The beauty of honesty

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The above quote is from quirky fund manager Dr Michael Burry MD towards the end of the movie, The Big Short. It says so much of today. One mate who is a very decent asset manager in Australia wrote to his clients, “I realise such may fly in the face of typical adviser recommendations (show me how someone is paid and I’ll show you how they will behave) however, I would rather lose a client than lose a client’s capital.

We share similar views on the state of the global capital markets. We joked about his long message to his investors sounding like Jerry Maguire burning the midnight oil writing the “fewer clients, less money” manifesto which got him sacked.

Now that our world is moving further and further toward automated everything including pre-emptive responses (which I scoffed out the other day about LinkedIn) it is truly refreshing to see this authentic honesty. The irony is that as much as machines are pushing us into ever tighter time windows, humans instinctively carry long term memory whether trauma or positive life events.

May your honesty be paid back in spades when those you saved a bundle recall your genuine gesture.

Tesla Semi to haul new scrip or incomplete Model 3s?

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Elon Musk is rallying the call on his new truck which he is presenting this evening, albeit delayed from the initial Oct 26 launch.  He tweeted, “Tesla Semi Truck unveil to be webcast live on Thursday at 8pm! This will blow your mind clear out of your skull and into an alternate dimension. Just need to find my portal gun …”  If Elon Musk said that Tesla was superseding lead balloons with Li-ion his devout followers would fall for it as a logical progression with cumulus and nimbus charging stations providing endless power top ups. He is the ultimate salesman. One can only imagine the Tesla Semi will haul (in reality) incompleted Model 3s to double up on the promo!

It is hard not to see it as a distraction to tee up the next capital raising by revving up the share price to minimise dilution. Of course we must give full credit to Musk for his ability to rev up excitement among his faithful followers. He can do no wrong in their eyes. Spend 5 minutes on a Tesla owners forum and they are all gushing at their purchase and quick to virtue signal even when seeking help for trouble shooting whether it be a wayward navigation system or quality defects. They are followers of the Tesla cult and see their leader cando no wrong.

Still the truck is fraught with risks as we wrote at the end of last month. First, truck regulations are extremely tough. Even in America, crossing state lines has legal ramifications. While there are overall weight restrictions, there are also weight restrictions over each axle (defer to the DoT’s schematic below). So even if Musk talks of driverless vehicles (a USP for sure), a battery laden truck will likely be heavier than its diesel cousin. Higher rig weight means the less that can be hauled. Think of the Tesla 100D which weighs in at 2,250kg some 22% heavier than a fully loaded M550ix BMW.

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Also truck haulage companies are hugely conservative. Risking the switch to EV trucks could put them out of business. If it takes 30 minutes to “fast charge” a Tesla car how long will it take to charge a stack likely to be at least 10 times larger (300 minutes?) in mass if it’s to have any chance of hauling 35 tonnes any sensible distance.

For the 2018 model series of the major Class 8 truck makers, most have achieved an extra 8% fuel economy gains for on highway performance to around 5.5mpg. Tyre pressure monitoring and new slipstreaming bodies also assist in the fuel savings. With a 150 gallon tank option, a driver can in theory do 1,300km. Battery-powered semi-tractors may be useful in low-speed, short-haul duty cycles, but long-haul makes little sense because of the batteries bulk, weight and expense.

The battery pack in a Tesla Model S passenger car weighs in at around 600kg. The diesel engine in a Freightliner Cascade Class-8 truck weighs around 1.2 tonnes. So if we assume that the basic Tesla Semi package (ex powertrain), is more or less the same as the Cascade will two sets of Tesla 85D battery packs suffice to give similar range? As we mentioned earlier, in order to give a similar 400km range in a truck having to haul 30+ tonnes it is easy to imagine battery packs being at least 10x the amount needed for an 85D car. So 6 tonnes of batteries replacing a 1.5 tonne engine transmission combination. That would mean 4.5 tonnes less carrying capacity for a start and even then can it be properly distributed over the axles to meet road regulations? Like the chap above, the average truckie probably cares about the environment as much as his waistline.

Tonight’s truck is only having to move around 10 miles to its event. I’m sure the list of its capabilities will be an envious list “on paper” of its potential. Sadly to CM it looks like a distraction for its struggling Model 3 production woes by selling a future that has many questions about commerciality. Cars are personal modes of transport. Trucks are a business. Trucking companies are hugely conservative and won’t risk replacing an entire fleet until it’s completed rigorous field tests. Yes Class 8 truck sales may have nearly tripled in the last month to over 35,000 units but the series is highly volatile. In the auto world Tesla is playing in a local pond of 17mn vehicles. In trucks that is more a 250-400,000 market. Unless Tesla can promise huge market share gains in a field it has little or no experience  (even though his Tesla Semi Guy was a former Freightliner Cascade head developer) in reaching any economies of scale and reaching out to 1000s of haulage companies will be a stretch.

However spectacular the Tesla Semi lunch will be expect the share price to be pumped on the news don’t be surprised if an equity capital raising is towed behind it. Remember that farside cartoon of Ralph Harrison, king of salespeople, standing on a boat waving to eskimos that he’s just sold refrigerators to? That is Musk. A magician who runs on the smell of an oily rag. Looking forward to seeing if the fanfare proves right.

Shift your investment from corporates that stick to IR to those that self promote through PR

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Fund managers will find it tougher in the new post MiFID2 world to discover new companies in Japan. The sell-side research houses are likely to focus less and less on the one part of the market that clients are likely to be interested in – smaller medium sized enterprises which have unique business models exploiting the slow to change direction super tanker large caps. As a result many corporations will stick to traditional investor relations (IR) behaviour. Producing quarterly results and annual reports will not be enough. As stockbrokers become disincentivized to promote the same corporations they used to go out of their way to support by hosting IR roadshows, the companies will have to take it upon themselves to fill the gap. To that end IR will become PR.

Instead of buy-side analysts running complex forecasting tools, perhaps they would be better off covering off which corporations are actively promoting themselves relative to others. Surely those companies proactively contacting investors and providing them with up to date and relative updates will gain much more mind-share than those that don’t. Do not think for one second that time poor investors and fund managers won’t make time for those companies that make time for them. It is tough enough trying to fight off the onslaught of ETFs internally so wherever a corporate makes decision making simpler and time efficient it is not unbelievable to think that those stocks (provided they follow through with the earnings) won’t trade at a relative premium to those that stay behind the comfort of their own desks, despite in their eyes providing the minimum requirement of information.

Meeting one successful internet database company in Japan recently, I questioned why a company that had seen its revenues grow 70% in 3 years had seen a share price drift 40% lower. The IR team were worried why they had seen such a drop off in client contact.  It wasn’t that it had poor results. It was that it was sticking to a stale script and a liquidity drifted below crucial levels, the stock was being dumped on that alone. The irony was that the smallest division that was growing the fastest was on the back page even though it was growing 5x faster than any other division and at twice group margins. For a simple tweak in its PR material, the stock would light up. Still the company intends to stick to convention (for now).

Crime in Japan – Yakuza, the Police and other crime

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CM – Crime in Japan – Yakuza Police Other Crime

Once again, due to numerous requests see the above link for the full report and the summary below.

In our Crime in Japan series parts 1 & 2  we covered the jump in crime resulting from seniors breaking into prison and the rapid breakdown in the nuclear family leading to a surge in domestic violence and child abuse. In this report we cast our focus on the resources of the police and whether the change in crime is impacting their ability to hunt down Yakuza (gangsters), thwart drug use and possession, prevent murder and stop the leap in financial crime where insurance fraud alone is up 2,000% in 6 years and suspicious transactions breaking new records.

The Japanese National Police Agency (JNPA) has been the victim of budget cutbacks. Some 80% of the ¥3.2 trillion budget is spoken for by staff salaries. There are approximately 295,000 staff (including administration) but actual officer numbers have remained relatively stagnant at around 258,000. With an aging police force, retirees are putting pressure on hiring new recruits. Japan does have a low level of crime on a global basis and 197 police per 100,000 citizens reflects that.

Japan has budgeted approximately ¥232 billion to run its jails in 2016. The cost of incarceration runs to around ¥3.8mn per inmate which is around double what one could get through the welfare system. The theft of a ¥500 sandwich could lead to a ¥8mn tax bill to provide for a 2 year sentence. Courts are dealing out harsher sentences however drug related offences generally range inside 2 years behind bars. Many Japanese have been in the media crossfire for repeated drug offences and the courts have had no choice but to incarcerate them when ‘good behaviour’ probation periods have failed. Prison capacity has grown 50% in the last decade to meet the coming crime wave.

Drugs in Japan are an interesting topic. Meth was originally synthesised from ephedrine in 1893 by a Japanese chemist Dr. Nagayoshi Nagai. 26 years later, a pharmacologist by the name of Akira Ogata managed to turn it into crystalline form i.e. crystal meth.

When World War II got under way Japanese soldiers (especially kamikaze pilots) were given crystal meth (branded Hiropon) which not only kept them ‘wired’ but reduced hunger. As the war ended, Japan was left with excess supplies of Hiropon. Food supplies were few and returning soldiers added to the shortage. However little was known of the side effects and the government had an epidemic on its hands in the late 1940s. Luckily there is a solution being developed by the Japanese biotech company MediciNova (4875) which is in late stage trials in the US with a formula that weans drug users from their addiction.

One of the surprising statistics has been the trend in gangster (Yakuza) incarceration in Japan. While police have seen a surge in consultations (aka complaints) surrounding gangster activity, arrest rates have fallen by 30%. Is it because the police are so tied down by the surge in stalking, domestic violence, child abuse and larcenous geriatrics?

People with mental disabilities committing crime are also rising sharply, up 62% in the last decade. Apart from schizophrenia or medically diagnosed mental health issues, addiction to alcohol or substance abuse can also get an offender classified as mentally disable if they break the law.

Financial crime is becoming far more prevalent. From petty scams to sophisticated insurance and bank fraud, such offences are surging. Reported fraud related to bank transfers has doubled between 2010 and 2014 to 13,400 cases with the amount of money transacted surging 5-fold to ¥56.5bn.

Murder rates in Japan have remained relatively mute. The homicide rate in 2014 was 938 down from 1362 in 2006. As a ratio, Japan has 0.7 murders for 100,000 people versus 91 for Honduras (the highest) or 4.7 in the US. However Japan has not been immune to home grown massacres.

Foreigners as a percentage of crime in Japan continues its long downward march. Much of the crime is related to petty theft and visa overstays. Chinese, Vietnamese and Brazilians make up 60% of foreigner arrests in Japan. Foreigners as a percentage of inmates has also dropped sharply from 8% of the prison population to 5.5%. Chinese, Brazilians and Iranians make up half of gaijin inmates.

The incidence of crime continues to rise in Japan. As discussed in our previous reports we can see that crime rates (e.g. shoplifting, theft, child abuse, domestic violence, assault, stalking etc.), while small on a global scale, are rising at such a speed it seems to be taxing a police force struggling with worsening manpower issues. It would seem to make sense that despite growing reports of suspicious activity by organised crime, arrest rates are falling. Furthermore retiring demographics in the police force suggest that ‘street knowledge’ gained through decades of leads (e.g. informants) may not so easily be transferred to the new recruits. Throw financial fraud increasingly perpetrated by cyber criminals on top, perhaps the Police need to invest in sophisticated systems rather than just hire more cops on the beat? The face of crime has changed.