Global Financial Crisis

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

7D64CCE2-71D0-4328-BE35-E0231F1E98F0.jpeg

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.

42F78A1B-1C49-4898-85B6-136B014F38A6.jpeg

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?

2A2AB2DA-D69A-4AC8-8ED9-3D003A1663A5.jpeg

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.

C70DBF38-F3E5-422D-8E48-B5A292F10C90.jpeg

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

330B333F-2A1C-4D1A-B100-964B0BAF6FDE.jpeg

A long report but one full of surprising trends.

Meth, Purity, Price & Financial Markets

Meth

CM – Meth, Purity and Drug Prices

When drug pushers become leading indicators of economic conditions.

The US Justice Department (DoJ) and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) latest report on the trends of methamphetamine prices and purity on the samples they buy from dealers shows some strong correlation. In the last 20 years, methamphetamine prices (US$/gram) have shown a 91% R-squared correlation (i.e. very high) to purity. See link above for fuller details.

Tesla – 30 reasons it will likely end up a bug on a windshield

Tesla 30.png

Contrarian Marketplace ー Tesla – 30 Reasons it will likely be a bug on a windshield

Contrarian Marketplace Research (CMR) provides 30 valid reasons to show Tesla (TSLA) is richly valued. Institutional investors have heard many of the financial arguments of its debt position, subsidies, cash burn and other conventional metrics. What CMR does is give Tesla all the benefits of the doubt. Even when extended every courtesy based on Tesla’s own 2020 production target of 1,000,000 vehicles and ascribing the margins of luxury makers BMW Group (BMW GR) & Daimler (DAI GR) the shares are worth 42% less than they are today. When stacked up against the lower margin volume manufacturers, the shares are worth 83% less. There is no fuzzy math involved. It is merely looking through a different lens. We do not deny Tesla’s projected growth rates are superior to BMW or DAI but the risks appear to be amplifying in a way that exposes the weak flank of the cult that defines the EV maker- ‘production hell’.

Follow social media feeds and Tesla’s fans bathe in the cognitive dissonance of ownership and their charismatic visionary, CEO Elon Musk. No-one can fault Musk’s entrepreneurial sales skills yet his business is at the pointy end of playing in the major leagues of mass production, which he himself admitted 18 months ago was a ‘new’ challenge. Let us not kid ourselves. This is a skill that even Toyota, the undisputed king of manufacturing, a company that has coined pretty much every industrial efficiency jargon (JIT, Kanban, Kaizen) has taken 70 years to hone. It might have escaped most investors’ attention but Lockheed Martin called on Toyota to help refine the manufacturing processes of the over budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If that is not a testament to the Japanese manufacturer’s brilliance Tesla is effectively Conor McGregor taking on Aichi’s version of Floyd Mayweather.

Yet Tesla’s stock has all the hallmarks of the pattern we have seen so many times – the hype and promise of disruptors like Ballard Power, GoPro and Blackberry which sadly ended up in the dustbin of history as reality dawned. Can investors honestly convince themselves that Tesla is worth 25x more than Fiat Chrysler (a company transformed) on a price to sales ratio? 10x Mercedes, which is in the sweet spot of its model cycle?

Conventional wisdom tells us this time is different for Tesla. Investors have been blinded by virtue signalling governments who are making bold claims about hard targets for EVs even though those making the promises are highly unlikely to even be in office by 2040. What has not dawned on many governments is that 4-5% of the tax revenue in most major economies comes from fuel excise. Fiscal budgets around the world make for far from pleasant viewing. Are they about to burn (no pun intended) such a constant tax source? Do investors forget how overly eager governments made such recklessly uncosted subsidies causing the private sector to over invest in renewable energy sending countless companies to the wall?

Let us not forget the subsidies directed at EVs. The irony of Tesla is that it is the EV of the well-heeled. So the taxes of the lawnmower man with a pick-up truck are going to pay for the Tesla owned by the client who pays his wages to cut the lawn. Then we need look no further than the hard evidence of virtue signalling owners who run the other way when the subsidies disappear.

To prove the theory of the recent thought bubbles made by policy makers, they are already getting urgent emails from energy suppliers on how the projections of EV sales will require huge investment in the grid. The UK electricity network is currently connected to systems in France, the Netherlands and Ireland through cables called interconnectors. The UK uses these to import or export electricity when it is most economical. Will this source be curtailed as nations are forced into self-imposed energy security?

So haphazard is the drive for EV legislation there are over 200 cities in Europe with different regulations. In the rush for cities to outdo one another this problem will only get worse. Getting two city councils to compromise is one thing but 200 or more across country lines? Without consistent regulations, it is hard to build EVs that can accommodate all the variance without boosting production costs. On top of that charging infrastructure is an issue. Japan is a good example. Its EV growth will be limited by elevator parking and in some suburban areas, where car lots are little more than a patch of dirt where owners are unlikely to install charging points. Charging and battery technology will keep improving but infrastructure harmonisation and ultimately who pays for the cost is far from decided. With governments making emotional rather than rational decisions, the only conclusion to be drawn is unchecked virtuous bingo which will end up having to be heavily compromised from the initial promises as always.

Then there are the auto makers. While they are all making politically correct statements about their commitments to go full EV, they do recognise that ultimately customers will decide their fate. A universal truth is that car makers do their best to promote their drivetrains as a performance differentiator to rivals. Moving to full EV removes that unique selling property. Volkswagen went out of its way to cheat the system which not only expressed their true feelings about man-made climate change but hidden within the $80bn investment is the 3 million EVs in 2042 would only be c.30% of VW’s total output today. Even Toyota said it would phase out internal combustion in the 2040s. Dec 31st, 2049 perhaps?

Speaking to the engineers of the auto suppliers at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, they do not share the fervour of policy makers either. It is not merely the roll out of infrastructure, sourcing battery materials from countries that have appalling human rights records (blood-cobalt?) but they know they must bet on the future. Signs are that the roll out will be way under baked.

While mean reversion is an obvious trade, the reality is that for all the auto makers kneeling at the altar of the EV gods, they are still atheists at heart. The best plays on the long side are those companies that happily play in either pond – EV or ICE. The best positioned makers are those who focus on cost effective weight reduction – the expansion of plastics replacing metal has already started and as autonomous vehicles take hold, the enhanced safety from that should drive its usage further. Daikyo Nishikawa (4246) and Toyoda Gosei (7282) are two plastics makers that should be best positioned to exploit those forking billions to outdo each other on tech widgets by providing low cost, effective solutions for OEMs. Amazing that for all of the high tech hits investors pray to discover, the dumb, analogue solution ends up being the true diamond in the rough!

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (by country)

18DF84E1-6082-4393-A53E-253A7CE084A0.jpeg

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.

62BE71DE-CC5E-4901-95EB-65519635491B.jpeg

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.

55BF667E-C186-45E2-80B8-ED9940588957.jpeg

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.

The sorry state of public pensions that are about to explode

IMG_0722.JPG

Perhaps the most disturbing fact that so many are choosing to overlook is the level of pension underfunding. Promises upon promises have been made and the nest eggs so many were expecting to retire on are likely to disappear or in the best case scenario be a mere fraction of what was originally thought. What a nightmare to wake up to. Decades of hard work gone up in smoke due to pension administrators sticking to unrealistic returns. Last year I wrote, ” US Pension Tracker assumes that public pension funds have a market based unfunded pension deficit of $4.833 trillion. The actuarial base (using a discount rate of 7.5%) of the pension deficit is approximately $1.041 trillion. This assumes an unfunded portion of $3.8 trillion. Using the 2016 20-year US Treasury bond yield of 1.71% the market based pension deficit explodes to over $8.8 trillion or a $7.5 trillion unfunded portion equating to around $74,000 per American household. For California alone this would push the pension debt per person above $135,000.”

Zero Hedge provides an interesting update on the coming crisis:

“We’ve written quite a bit over the past couple of months about the pending financial crisis in Illinois which will inevitability result in the state’s debt being downgraded to “junk” at some point in the near future (here is our latest from just this morning: “From Horrific To Catastrophic”: Court Ruling Sends Illinois Into Financial Abyss).

Unfortunately, the state of Illinois doesn’t have a monopoly on ignorant politicians…they’re everywhere. And, since the end of World War II, those ignorant politicians have been promising American Baby Boomers more and more entitlements while never collecting nearly enough money to cover them all…it’s all been a massive state-sponsored scam.

As we’ve noted frequently before, some of the largest of the many entitlement ‘scams’ in this country are America’s public pension funds. Up until now, these public pension have been covered by stealing money set aside for future generations to cover current claims…it’s a ponzi scheme of epic proportions…$5-$8 trillion to be exact.

Of course, the problem with ponzi schemes is that eventually you get to the point where the ponzi is so large that you can’t possibly steal enough money from new entrants to cover redemptions from those trying to exit…and, with a tidal wave of baby boomers about to pass into their retirement years, we suspect that America’s epic ponzi is on the verge of being exposed for the world to see.

And when the ponzi dominoes start to fall, Bloomberg has provided this helpful map to illustrate who will succumb first…”

From Sesame to Elm Street

IMG_0251.PNG

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.

Yellen’s Fedtime stories

IMG_0719.JPG

US Fed Chair Janet Yellen uttered perhaps some of the most bizarre words to come out of a central banker. So much so that Alan Greenspan’s “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.” seems almost comprehensible by comparison. Yellen told an audience that she believes we won’t see another severe financial crisis in our lifetimes. Either Ms Yellen is not long for the world or denial is running deep within her veins. One of her own FOMC board members (James Bullard) wrote a piece on why the Fed needs to trim its balance sheet from $4.47tn to around $2.5 trillion) so they can prepare for the next horror that awaits.  Even Minnesota Fed Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari said the likelihood of another financial crisis is 2/3rds. We have a world with debt up to its eyeballs and global interest rate policies that have only led to the slowest post slowdown growth in history. The signs of a global slowdown are becoming ever more obvious even in the US. Slowing auto sales and rising delinquencies are but one signal. The imminent collapse of so many public pension funds another.

Had she not seen the European Commission’s decision to let Italy spend up to 17 billion euros to clean up the mess left by two failed banks? The news is not only another whack for Italian taxpayers but a setback for the euro zone’s banking union, and a backflip for the EU’s stance on non-standard bailouts. The Italian government wound down Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, two regional lenders struggling under the weight of non-performing loans which averages 20% across the nation and up to 50% in the south. Intesa Sanpaolo bought the banks’ good assets for one euro, and was promised another 4.8 billion euros in state aid to deal with restructuring costs and bolster its capital ratio. Italy’s taxpayers get to keep the bad loans, which could end up costing them another 12 billion euros. Even the Single Resolution Board — whose purpose is to take the politically difficult decision of whether to close a bank out of the hands of governments — chose not to intervene.

Last year four Italian banks were rescued and it seems that since Lehman collapsed in 2008 non performing loans (NPLs) have soared from 6% to almost 20%. Monte Dei Paschi De Siena, a bank steeped in 540 years of history has 31% NPLs and its shares are 99.9% below the peak in 2007. Even Portugal and Spain have lower levels of NPLs. The IMF suggested that in southern parts of Italy NPLs for corporates is closer to 50%!

Italy is the 3rd largest economy in Europe and 30% of corporate debt is held by SMEs who can’t even make enough money to repay the interest. The banks have been slow to write off loans on the basis it will eat up the banks’ dwindling capital. It feels so zombie lending a la Japan in the early 1990s but on an even worse scale.

Not to worry, the Italian Treasury tells us the ECB will buy this toxic stuff! But wait, the ECB is not allowed to buy ‘at risk’ stuff. So it will bundle all this near as makes no difference defaulted garbage (think CDO) in a bag and stamp it with a bogus credit rating such that the ECB can buy it. In full knowledge that most of the debt will never be repaid, the ECB still violates its own rules which state clearly that any debt they buy ‘cannot be in dispute’.

The Bank of Japan has no plans to cut back on the world’s largest central bank balance sheet. It continues to Hoover up 60% of new ETF issues at such an alarming pace it is the largest shareholder of over 100 corporates. Then there is the suggestion of buying all $10 trillion of outstanding JGBs and convert them into zero-rate (+miniscule annual service fee) perpetuals.

Australia’s banks are now the most loaded with mortgage debt globally at 60% of the total loan book.  Second is daylight and third Norway at 40%. Private sector debt to GDP is 185%. We have a government who can’t tighten its belt basing its budget on rosy scenarios that will be improbable. Aussie banks have been slapped with a new tax and with the backdrop of a rising US rate environment, the 40% wholesale funded Aussie banks will be forced to accept higher cost of funds. That will be passed straight onto consumers that are already being crushed under the weight of mortgages. One bank survey by ME Bank in Australia said that 1/3rd would struggle to pay a month’s mortgage if they lost their jobs.

Had Ms Yellen forgot to read the St Louis Fed’s survey which revealed that 45% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something? USA Today reported that 7 out of 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings to their name.

“Last year, GoBankingRates surveyed more than 5,000 Americans only to uncover that 62% of them had less than $1,000 in savings. Last month GoBankingRates again posed the question to Americans of how much they had in their savings account, only this time it asked 7,052 people. The result? Nearly seven in 10 Americans (69%) had less than $1,000 in their savings account…Breaking the survey data down a bit further, we find that 34% of Americans don’t have a dime in their savings account, while another 35% have less than $1,000. Of the remaining survey-takers, 11% have between $1,000 and $4,999, 4% have between $5,000 and $9,999, and 15% have more than $10,000.”

So Chair Yellen, we are not sure what dreamland you are living but to suggest that we won’t see another financial crisis in our lifetime almost guarantees it will happen. The Titanic was thought unsinkable until history proved otherwise. Money velocity is not rising and every dollar printed is having less and less impact. I thought it nigh on impossible to surpass the stupidity of Greenspan but alas you have managed it.