Greater Depression

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.

An eerily potent lesson for today

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In 2011 then Polish Central Bank Head Marek Belka spoke about why Eastern Europe understood austerity better than the West ever will. As our governments bloat budget deficits to avoid taking much needed reform and belt tightening he said of Western Europe….

“Because the people here still aren’t used to prosperity. Let me give you an example from my days at the International Monetary Fund. It was at a time when the Latvians had to implement a drastic austerity program, which caused consumer spending to drop by 25 percent in a year. I asked a Latvia negotiator how his country expected to survive this dramatic crisis. He said: What crisis? We had a crisis when the Soviets were sending us to Siberia. Here in Eastern Europe, many still remember why they were once poor, and they’re not afraid of reasonable reforms that are painful in the short term.”

Experience is a great teacher. It gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. Maybe time we prepare to be Latvians.

 

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

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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!

When the “best” of today is far worse than the worst of the worst in 70 years

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The St Louis Fed records that in the last 70 years, the average time one is in a state of unemployment (i.e. duration) in America is now 25 weeks (6 months). Assuming that we are in the sweet spot of a tight labour market we can see clearly that this  post-GFC ‘recovery’ at its best is 25% worse than the worst we have seen over seven decades of post recession recoveries which has barely nudged over 20 weeks. Looking at CEO Bullard’s remarks in a presentation back in April 2016, titled ‘Slow normalization or no normalization?’ that these are extraordinary times.

3 maps which explain a lot

IMG_0743The chart above shows the average % change in housing prices in the US by county today vs that in 2000 according to a Harvard study. The following maps show the results of the 2008 and 2016 election by county. Could this be yet another basic concept showing why the US voted the way they did last election?

2008 – a hope for change

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2016 – the last 8 years didn’t help – time to vote for wholesale change

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Feel free to draw your own conclusions. These three maps to me voice the disgruntled who remain destitute after all this time.

The sorry state of public pensions that are about to explode

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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

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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.